Sunday, 29 June 2008

Things I didn't know a year ago

In no particular order...

  • I didn't know that this past year wouldn't be my last with UCCF.
  • I didn't know that there would be so many encouragements at the University of Cumbria.
  • I didn't know that CUs could be included in fayres as part of a 'well being week'.
  • I didn't know how fun it could be hanging out with 16- and 17-year olds at Myerscough College.
  • And I didn't know that you could study motorsport engineering there.
  • I didn't know what it felt like to sing Mis-teeq in public.
  • I didn't know what it felt like to be in a motorway service station at 4am.
  • I didn't know that refereeing a football match would have such consequences.
  • I didn't know that knowing an aggressive atheist as a friend can be mightily rewarding.
  • I didn't know that studying church history could be so good for the soul.
  • I didn't know that an evangelistic event in Lancaster would lead to someone hundreds of miles away becoming a Christian.
  • I didn't know how welcoming students can be to people that are nothing like them.
  • I didn't know that we were not going to be able to exhibit at the NUS conference.
  • I didn't know how messed-up this world really is.
  • I didn't know the extent to which you can rely on God as the God of all comfort.
  • I didn't know how difficult it was re-affirming the gospel of grace to a lapsed Christian when you've been hurt by the actions of their lapse.
  • I didn't know the extent to which the death of loved ones so profoundly affects people.
  • I didn't know that Christians could divide over such petty issues.
  • I didn't know that I'd love my wife more now than the day I married her.
  • I didn't know that I'd learn to like the book of Proverbs.
  • I didn't know that it was possible to make so many analogies to Blackburn Rovers to illustrate spiritual points in Bible studies (cheers Nick).
  • I didn't know the extent of the height and depth and breadth and width of the love of Christ (it's something I'm still learning...)

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

June, oh June

I have a love-hate relationship with the month of June.

On the plus side, there's normally great sport: Wimbledon, and biannually the World Cup or European Championships. I love the smell of barbeques, and I love the greater opportunity to just hang around with people, especially students who've finished exams.

But it's also a month of goodbyes. And I'm not really a fan of saying goodbye.

Last night was the last meeting of the year for Lancaster CU. There are about 30 students that have been CU regulars that are leaving. Some of them - including Shaun, Holly, Emily and Rob - have become Christians through CU in recent years. Others have been close friends and those that I've been privileged to see more of Jesus formed in - I was particularly gutted to say goodbye to some. I'll miss Mike, who I did a 1-1 Bible study with for nearly two years. I'll miss Andy, who's been a friend for four years. And the goodbyes go on: at lunchtime, the final meeting of Myerscough CU of the year; tomorrow, the final Relay Supervision of the year with my colleagues and friends, Sarah and Nick. Many of those I'm saying goodbye to, I will see again - but in the short term, it will be far less frequently.

It's sometimes tempting to want to somehow 'pause the moment'; to hold onto what we have at any given period in time. Yet I know that history is heading towards the new creation which - as the hymn puts it - is the place of 'solid joys and lasting pleasures'. Sometimes our danger is to get nostalgic about things as they are. Far better to commit my friends to Jesus, then to have my focus fixed on that which is unseen but permanent, living in the light of eternity with God.

Monday, 23 June 2008

"Dear Laodicean Church: You make me nauseous" (Revelation 3:14-22)

Here's my talk for Lancaster CU tomorrow. I owe quite a bit to writings by John Piper and John Stott. Any thoughts very much appreciated.

When the book of Revelation was first put together, it’s likely that a messenger would have carried the scroll that it was written on to the seven churches, starting with Ephesus. We’ve seen that the previous six churches were quite a cross-section of the state of the early Church. Ephesus: so zealous for theological purity and yet growing coldly indifferent to Jesus and to one another. Smyrna: wracked with poverty as a result of persecution and suffering, yet standing firm. Pergamum: so full of love and compassion but in danger of theological and moral compromise. Thyatira: a growing church, but overly tolerant of false teaching. Sardis: known throughout the world for life and love, but in reality spiritual decay was rampant. And Philadelphia: so small, so seemingly insignificant, yet so diligent and patient in the face of a hostile world. The messenger might have thought he’d seen it all – until arriving at Laodicea. Laodicea was in a completely different category to the previous churches. All of the others had some form of commendation. To the Laodicean church, there is no commendation. What Jesus says in effect is this: “Dear Laodicean Church: you make me sick.”

What we’re going to read tonight is perhaps amongst the saddest of all of Jesus’ words in the whole of Scripture. It’s a letter which, perhaps the greatest Christian teacher and leader of the 20th Century, John Stott, once said is the most important for contemporary hearing. So with that in mind, let’s dig into these words.

As normal, Jesus starts his letter by describing himself – the description comes in verse 14. Here Jesus describes himself as ‘the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation’. In describing himself as the Amen, Jesus takes a title given in Isaiah 65:16 used of God Almighty and uses it of himself. Jesus is speaking as God. And in particular, he is speaking as ‘the Amen’ or ‘the absolute truth’. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the truth.” Jesus is underlining the fact that what he’s about to say really is how things are, regardless of how themselves and others might perceive them. He’s saying: “You might have some views on what you’re life – I’m going to tell you the absolute truth, how things really are.”

And this is important because, clearly, the church has one view of themselves and of reality and Jesus has another. And Jesus discerns two things – firstly, a nauseating lukewarmness (described in verses 15-16); and secondly, a proud form of self-sufficiency (described in verse 17). We’ll tackle each of these symptoms in turn.

Firstly, the nauseating lukewarmness of the Laodicean church. Let’s re-read verses 15-16: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’

What is the problem of the Laodicean church? They are lukewarm. There’s some discussion about exactly what this lukewarmness is, but a helpful glance at verse 19 shows that this is the correction Jesus gives for their lukewarmness. He exhorts them to be earnest – or, better, ‘zealous’ – and to repent. And so that shows that the lukewarmness that Jesus has is mind is that the Laodicean church are not zealous and not particularly repentant. In other words, they are apathetic and indifferent about being Christians. They are just not very bothered about belonging to Jesus.

One of the key things that strikes me as I read the New Testament is the emotional intensity of so many of the Bible writers, which I often think sadly stands against much of contemporary British Christianity. Sometimes I think that in guarding against emotionalism – that form of spirituality which relies on emotional manipulation – we’re scared to show any emotion at all. Yet a quick look at church history shows that many Christian writers cannot comprehend a form of authentic Christianity in which the affections and emotions are not moved. Throughout his writings, Paul says that the default position of the Christian heart should be set to ‘joy’: a disposition that is deeper than the emotions, given that it is built on truth, but which must regularly touch the emotions. And Christian writers down the ages from the puritan Jonathan Edwards to the contemporary writer and speaker John Piper make the same point. The great Welsh preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones put it like this:

‘Can a man look into hell without emotion? Can a man listen to the thunderings of the Law and feel nothing? Or conversely, can a man really contemplate the love of God in Christ Jesus and feel no emotion? The whole position is utterly ridiculous. I fear that many people today in their reaction against excesses and emotionalism put themselves into a position in which, in the end, they are virtually denying the Truth. The gospel of Jesus Christ takes up the whole man, and if what purports to be the gospel does not do so it is not the gospel. The gospel is meant to do that, and it does that.’

Amen, amen and amen! There is no way that a person can truly be seized by the gospel and remain unmoved in spirit. I’m not saying that everyone has to jump up and down and wave their arms about – we’re all wired differently. But think about that thing which makes you most passionate – in the football stadium, listening to an incredible piece of music, looking at a sunset. If the intensity of emotion you express there is not regularly expressed toward the gospel, then beware. You may have become lukewarm.

And so here is the first diagnosis by Christ, the absolute truth, the Amen: he looks at the indifference of the Laodicean church: perhaps not very bothered about the fate of the lost, not moved by the sheer grace and love shown at the cross, never feeling safe in the eternal security of Christ’s sacrifice. And the fact they are so indifferent shows how far away from their hearts the gospel message has drifted.

Some of you will know that local topography makes this picture even more graphic. Laodicea lay six miles south of Hierapolis and eleven miles west of Colossae. Laodicea itself lacked a natural water supply and was dependent on water from Hierapolis. Hierapolis contained a hot spring of mineral water, famous for its medicinal use. People would come from far and wide to bathe in the waters – apparently, Cleopatra came all of the way from Egypt to bathe there.

Now to this day you can visit ancient Hierapolis, and if you go there you’ll see something that today is called ‘Pamukkale’ (pictured above). Pamukkale is an incredible snow-like deposit of calcium bicarbonate on the natural landscape, deposited by the mineral-rich spring water as it flows down the valley south from Hierapolis. A few miles later, it reaches Laodicea, neither hot nor cold and not drinkable, so putrefied the water has become. The water starts hot in Hierapolis, yet as it cascades down the valley all of the goodness of the water is taken away over time by the environment through which it flows. The water was just like the church in Laodicea, which had presumably once been hot - but which had lost its white-hot fervour for the gospel, distracted by other things, now without eternal focus and left putrefied and lukewarm.

And Jesus’ response is that he is about to spit them out of his mouth – literally, he is about to vomit the Laodicean church, so unpalatable and disgusting have they become. Using hyperbolic language, Jesus saying that he’d rather that they weren’t even claiming to be Christians, so discrediting are they on authentic hot, joyful Christianity.

The second symptom is that the Laodicean church are proud and self-sufficient. Let’s re-read verse 17: ‘You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.’

What is the source of the Laodicean’s lukewarmness? Well, this verse shows that it is probably the fruit of a proud and self-sufficient attitude. The church boasts that it is healthy and prosperous – perhaps, at a first glance, it was. But look carefully at verse 17: what are the Laodiceans saying? “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” Not only did the church boast in their supposed spiritual well-being – but they boasted that they had acquired this wealth by their own effort. As so often happens, in the Laodicean church spiritual complacency is accompanied by pride.

You see, when I slip into thinking that it’s at least partly through my actions that I’m made acceptable to God, I’m going to have the tendency to fall into spiritual complacency and pride. I’m going to get complacent, because to think that I can make myself right before God, I’ve got to airbrush out vast swathes of the Bible that speak about God’s sheer holiness and my sheer depravity. I’m going to get proud when I compare myself to others that I consider worse than me, because it’s been through my own good morality that I think I’ve made myself right with God. And this will show itself in my life in lukewarmness: I’m not going to get very bothered about Jesus’ death on the cross, because deep down I think I’m a pretty good person that God should be happy to welcome into heaven. I’m not going to be very bothered about living a sacrificial Christian life because I’m not particularly astounded by God’s love for me – I just think I’m getting what I deserve from him. When I lose focus on God’s grace – the blazing and holy God reaching out to me in my sin and helplessness and taking my sin and punishment upon himself so that I can live with him forever – when I lose focus on the depth of God’s grace, I’m going to become lukewarm. As John Piper puts it, “The essence of lukewarmness is the statement, ‘I don’t really need anything.’”

In all of the recent political controversy about the 42-day detention, I’ve got to say that I’ve been pretty lukewarm about it all. Not because I’m unconcerned about civil liberties – intellectually speaking, I’m convinced that there are certain civil liberties that all people deserve as those living in this country. But it just doesn’t seem very real to me. I don’t know any terrorists and the law doesn’t seem like it will affect me. But just imagine that – somehow – the use of this law is to hold evangelical Christians in police custody for 42 days. In fact, they start holding Christians from down the road in Preston. All of sudden, I’m not able to stay lukewarm about this law, because it affects me.

Similarly, while we’re merely intellectually convinced of the need for the cross but not daily experiencing the implications that flow from it, we’ll end up lukewarm. Yet Jesus says that Christians should have such a deep understanding of our wretchedness and pity and poverty and blindness and nakedness, and the fact that we bring nothing, and feel so amazed by the depth of love and grace shown to us by the God who gives generously that there is no way that we can be lukewarm. In fact, in this context, to be lukewarm shows that we’re functionally denying the truth of the gospel in our lives. And that is something that makes Jesus want to vomit. If you wanted to shock a lukewarm Christian, you could hardly think of a more horrible image: Jesus Christ putting the cup to his lips in the hope of tasting a pleasing drink, then spitting it out on the ground.

Well – it’s perhaps amazing at all that Jesus still wants to speak to these Christians who have shunned him and walked all over his sacrifice – yet, it is testimony to the God of grace that the letter continues. In verses 18-20, Jesus speaks of the response that the Laodicean church should make.

Jesus starts by saying that they should receive from him those things that only can give them. The Laodiceans think that they are healthy and wealthy, yet Jesus has reminded them of their own poverty: before the blazing light of God’s holiness, lost in sin and facing an eternity of judgement. And now, Jesus likens himself to a merchant who visits the city to sell his wares and competes with other salesmen. “I advise you,” he says, “to trade with me. Only I can give you what you need.”

So he says, "Buy from me gold refined in the fire!" But how do you buy gold when you are broke? Jesus knows we're broke. He just said so in verse 17. And not just broke, but blind – it’s not even as if we can work. And not just blind, but shamefully naked – we can't even leave the house. So how do you buy gold and garments and salve when you are poor and blind and naked? The question posed by the image is this: how do you get the wealth of Christ’s death and resurrection, the power to be clothed with obedience, and the wisdom to see things like God does – how do you get these things you so desperately need for the eternal life you were created for with God when your house is empty, you have nothing to offer, and you are too frightened and ashamed to venture out?

Jesus gives the answer in verse 20: here’s the surprise: you don't go out; you invite Jesus in. You don't work for it – you can’t work for it; you receive from the one who comes to your door; from the only one who can give you what you require. "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." This verse is often applied to non-Christians, but that is not its purpose here. Remember, this verse is addressed to lukewarm Christians who have slipped into functionally thinking that they have need of nothing more of Jesus; to churchgoers and CU members who do not enjoy the riches of Christ or the clothes of Christ or the medicine of Christ because they keep the door shut to the inner room of their lives; to those who as Piper puts it, those for whom “all the dealings they have with Christ are businesslike lukewarm dealings with a salesman on the porch.”

And to these, Jesus says open your eyes. Recognise your own wretchedness, pity, poverty, blindness and nakedness – recognise how helpless you are: like a poor and blind beggar with no clothing in desperate need for material for existence but with no chance of leaving the house. That is what you are like before God. You have nothing, you can offer nothing except your sin and the judgement that you rightly face. But then Jesus says: “Through my death on the cross, I offer you everything – my righteousness, my sinlessness, my very position before the Father – it’s all won for you through my death on the cross. I have everything you need – and I will bring it to your door.” And that’s an offer which, surely, can’t leave us feeling lukewarm.

John Stott puts it like this: “Here is welcome news for naked, blind beggars! They are poor; but Christ has gold. They are naked; but Christ has clothes. They are blind; but Christ has eyesalve. Let them no longer trust in themsleves. Let them come to Him! He can enrich their poverty, clothe their nakedness and heal their blindness. He can open their eyes to perceive a spiritual world of which they have never dreamed. He can cover their sin and shame and make them fit to partake of the inheritance of the saints in light. He can enrich them with life and life abundant.”

The point is this: Jesus did not die to save a group of people who would be lukewarm. Jesus died for an eternal and full relationship to be enjoyed forever. Jesus didn’t die to save people so that they would leave him in the porch whilst they watched television in the lounge – in fact the very prospect that people could think that leaves Jesus wanting to vomit. Jesus’ will for Christians is that we open the door to him – indeed, that we open all the doors of our lives. He wants to join you in the dining room, spread a meal out for you, and eat with you and talk with you. That, of course, is what we were created for: a relationship with Christ, the likes of which is the only thing that offers us true satisfaction. And the opposite of lukewarmness is the fervour and zeal you experience when you enjoy a candlelit dinner with Jesus Christ in the innermost room of your heart, experiencing the relationship you were created for with him as Lord and Treasure. And just like you can’t have a dry and lukewarm romantic meal with someone that you really love, so you can’t have an authentic relationship with the living saviour and fount of all life, our living Lord Jesus, when he is in his rightful place.

And so I just want you to notice the antidote to lukewarmness. Often we think it’s to somehow try and whip ourselves up into a frenzy. I remember chatting to a mate of mine a few months ago who felt lukewarm who was trying to take just this course of action – to kind of just make himself feel passionate. Jesus commands something very different to the church in Laodicea - not 'make yourself passionate', but – verse 19 – to repent. Re It is re-experiencing the gospel in repentance, putting the living God back where he deserves in our life, that makes us aware of our true position and bankrupt sinners, as in repentance we are most aware of our complete reliance on Christ for everything; for gold, for clothing, for medicine. And it's when we are most aware of our need and the way in which Christ offers us everything for eternity that we become 'hot' for the gospel. We stay hot as we repent and keep repenting, as we keep asking God to put Jesus where he belongs.

So how do you become hot? The same way that you buy gold when you’re broke. You pray in repentance to Christ, and trust the promise: "I will come in and eat with you, and you with me." The God of grace still offers a relationship with us, even when we’ve left him out in the porch, even when we’ve grown lukewarm and tired and apathetic to him.

And so our passage closes with a promise to those who overcome. Verse 21: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne." Christ overcame sin and Satan and death by never veering from the path of serving others in humility and submitted to the Father. In the end, it cost him his life, but he gained the world. And now Jesus himself writes to the Laodicean church – and speaks to Lancaster CU tonight – he writes to offer us a share in his eternal universal rule if we will overcome the menace of lukewarmness and spiritual pride and self-satisfaction. Lukewarmness is perhaps the biggest threat that some of us will face in our Christians lives – like carbon monoxide it can slowly and invisibly poisons us until all of our spiritual life has been sucked away. So how will we overcome lukewarmness? How will we keep going over the summer or as we graduate and move away from Lancaster? There is only one way to get that kind of victory; namely, by taking all the locks off the door and asking the living Christ to come in and eat with you, asking him to come into every room in the house.

I would think it very likely that there are lukewarm people here tonight. You’ve not been moved by the gospel for weeks or months. It’s all pretty boring or superficial. Well – tonight – take time, once again, to repent – and keep repenting. Keep putting Jesus back where he belongs. Rediscover what it means to have nothing yet experience everything from Christ. Ask God to restore to you the joy of your salvation. For those graduating or going home to a situation over the summer where you know there’s a danger of growing lukewarm: why not ask people to pray for you and keep you accountable to repenting and keeping Jesus as Saviour and Lord in his rightful place? Let’s pray that none of us poisoned by lukewarmess and drift away from the gospel of grace.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Coldplay on death, judgement and the meaning of life

One of the other major themes that emerges through Coldplay's latest offer, Viva la Vida, is that of death and judgement. Fascinatingly, it's a subject that Chris Martin recently spoke on in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine.

In the interview Martin reveals that, although he continues to believe in God, he has apparently rejected the idea of hell existing. He reveals that, in particular, as he grew up as a teenager, he hated the idea that his own sexual morality might affect or determine his eternal fate.

The album track, Yes, seems to be a reflection on this sort of subject, told by someone who is struggling alone in sexual temptation and guilt: 'Yeah we were dying of frustration / Saying "Lord lead me not into temptation" / But it's not easy when she turns you on / If you'll only, if you'll only say yes / Whether you will's anybody's guess / God, only God knows I'm trying my best / But I'm so tired of this loneliness.'

I can't help feeling sad when I read these lyrics - because I can't help feeling that Martin has missed the heart of the Christian message. There's nothing about God's goodness - even in giving us a blueprint for sexuality - and nothing about grace. It's awful to think that any person can feel that they've blown it forever with God.

That Chris Martin longs for more - indeed, that he longs for something beyond death - is clear. The song 42 may, I think, be a reference to 'the meaning of life' in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and asks deep existential questions about death and what it means to be alive: 'Those who are dead are not dead / They’re just living my head / And since I fell for that spell I am living there as well / Time is so short and I’m sure / There must be something more.' To airbrush out the existence of death and whatever comes after is foolish, yet Martin adds to be preoccupied with death and whatever comes after is to miss the point of living now. The track reminded me of Paul's teaching in 2 Corinthians 4: that life now only makes sense - and that we only truly live radically now - once we are convinced that Jesus' blood has bought us a place with God forever, in the place of solid joys and lasting pleasures.

The final track, Death and All His Friends, dreamily reflects on the brevity of life. It shows a desire to make the most of our time now, yet also seems to convey how we feel that like is too short. As Ecclesiastes puts it, we sometimes feel that eternity has been set in our hearts. Death feels like a disruption.

And for all of his dislike of institutional religion and the violence done in the name of Christianity, the song Reign of Love seems to reflect a longing for a kingdom of pure goodness - possibly even a reference to what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, where God's rule is perfectly manifest. Perhaps that's what Chris Martin hopes for above all: in all of the messiness, he hopes for redemption. As a powerful lyric from Lovers in Japan puts it, 'But I have no doubt / One day the sun will come out '

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Coldplay: Viva la vida on religious violence

Coldplay's latest offering, 'Viva La Vida' Or 'Death And All His Friends', to give the album its full title is, by most people's opinions, quite a departure from recent albums.

Not only is the sound quite different (no doubt at least partly due to the influence of Brian Eno), but so is the intensity of the lyrics. Gone, it would seem, are the days of arbitrary and semantic nonsense of songs like Yellow. And Chris Martin's lower pitch and the balance of the songs in this album draws more attention to the songs' lyrics.

Over a couple of posts, I plan to look at some of the lyrical themes.

One of the key motifs is that of religious violence. The first track with words on the album, Cemeteries of London, provides a case in point. It is a song about the drowning of witches. Chris Martin spoke of the song recently saying this: 'I was interested about that period in London where people were supposedly drowned for being a witch. And that’s where that song came from. About being accused of something you didn’t do.' The accusers are clearly religious ones. One of the lyrics puts it like this: 'Through the dark streets they go searching to see God in their own way.'

Light and darkness is a key theme that runs throughout the album. And so the song concludes suitably depressingly in its judgement: 'There’s no light over London today.'

The two singles from the album, Viva la Vida and Violet Hill, also concern religious violence. In Viva la Vida, the narrator appears to be an army commander who legitimates his actions by appealing to the authority of God. Mention of the city of Jerusalem may allude to the Crusades, although it could refer more widely. Either way, it’s clear that Christianity is very much in mind where one hears the lyric: ‘For some reason I can't explain / I know Saint Peter will call my name / Never an honest word / But that was when I ruled the world.’ The mention of Peter, who holds ‘the keys of the church’, brings heaven into mind. It’s not clear whether the story-teller regrets the lies that went with his campaign.

Violet Hill is told from the point of view of a (possibly dead) foot soldier. Again, the link between religious violence and Christianity is made very clear: ‘Priests clutched onto Bibles / And went out to fit their rifles / And the Cross was held aloft.’ If, as is my hunch, the song is told from the point of view of someone that died in battle, the refrain and final lyric becomes particularly poignant, referring to a relationship prematurely ended in an unnecessary death in the name of Christ.

These songs could refer historically to the many occasions when Christians have appeared to endorse violence. It would seem very likely to me that there’s at least some critical reference to the Religious Right’s endorsement of the American violent invasion of Iraq and the many deaths that have occurred there. If so, Coldplay’s lyrics reflect a wide suspicion that, at best, Christianity can often be misused or, at worst, it induces violence – just as it did during the trial of witches and during the Crusades.

That sort of violence is far from condoned in the teaching of Jesus – indeed, it is criticised. Authentic Christianity would never condone the Crusades or the freedom of thought. Yet Coldplay’s lyrics show that many are still suspicious – and angry – of power play in the name of Christ around the world in history and even today.

Spot the difference

A thought that came to me again as I studied chapter 3 of Habakkuk (perhaps my favourite minor prophet) with my Relay Workers yesterday...

Habakkuk 1: Habakkuk sees God's character through the lens of his circumstances.
Habakkuk 3: Habakkuk sees his circumstances through the lens of God's character.

For a more in depth thought, see an earlier post I wrote here (re-reading this is a reminder of how quickly we forget those things we think we have learned!)

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

If you were born in the Middle East, you'd be a Muslim...

This is one of the questions I find most difficult to answer - and one that was posed to me at Lancaster University CU's Grill-a-Christian panel last night by some members of the Atheist and Agnostic Society (yes, it really does exist!).

I've been mulling over this question a bit today, and found Paul Copan's article here helpful. I quite like this line: 'The same line of reasoning applies to the pluralist himself. If the pluralist grew up in Madagascar or medieval France, he would not have been a pluralist!'

This is a start of an answer. Another would be that just because investigation of Christianity is more easy in 'Christian' countries like Britain doesn't necessarily invalidate its truth. Another would be that Christianity has been accepted as truth across many cultures, geographically and historically diverse.

Anyone else got any further ideas?

On another note, I was reading a review of the Grill-a-Christian by one of the aforementioned atheists / agnostics and I was described as 'clearly intelligent and well read, but very, very lost' - there we go!

Monday, 16 June 2008

Blackpool School of Art and Design CU

Today I met with Sam, a Christian at Blackpool School of Art and Design, who is planning to set up a CU there in September.

I found this meeting exciting for a whole number of reasons. One of them is that until a couple of weeks ago, I never even realised that there was a degree-level Art College there. Another is the timing: if I'd received a request to help support a CU there before this year there's no way I could have done it. But with the arrival of Adam as Cumbria staff worker, there's now extra time to help. Sam's own story of coming to faith and God's work in his since was exciting. And, perhaps most excitingly of all, he was really keen to be part of the FREE Gospel Project, and even reckons that there's a good chance that all 400 students at his college could be offered a copy of Mark's Gospel. All in all, I came away really celebrating God's sovereignty.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Peace, perfect peace

In the latest edition of Leadership Journal, Tim Keller critiques the idea 'the simple gospel'. Can we still really speak of one simple gospel? And how do the individual and corporate/cosmic elements of the gospel interact?

Keller's emphasis is, I think, helpful and well worth reading and thinking upon. Too often I meet Christians who are under the impression that they have been saved, that the planet will one day be destroyed, and so in the meantime they just kind of whistle waiting for Jesus' return when they will 'go to heaven'. Their gospel is individualistic and merely spiritual. And, in response, many non-believers are unsatisfied with the mere ethereal spiritualisation that they perceive Christianity to be offering.

The Bible seems to pay much more attention to a wider 'peace' than we often do. It's true that the gospel brings our justification and peace with God (Romans 5:1). Wonderfully, we can now approach God as father rather than our enemy, truly reconciled as we are. But this is only the start of the 'peace' in Christ which the Bible writers seem to envisage. Individuals receive the wholeness that they were created for when they are brought back as creatures to the Creator. Not only this, but humanity is restored to be at peace with each other, reconciled as we to each other are through the cross. We have a taste of this now through the church (note the diversity in Acts 13:1 and the theology of Ephesians 2:11-22), and look forward to the fulfilment of this reconciliation in the new creation. The great crowd of Revelation 7 will not be split upon any social distinction, completely reconciled as we are through the cross.

I think there's a wider 'peace' still. The point of God's covenant with Noah in Genesis 8-9 seems to me to demonstrate that God's final will is for peace and harmony in an ideal new creation. Again, there's an eschatological dimension to this: it's Christ's victory on the cross dealing with human sin, the very thing which led to the corruption of the present creation, that gives us hope for its redemption (see Colossians 1:20 and so on), but implications of this future 'environmental shalom' seem to be almost entirely overlooked in most of our gospelling. Perhaps in guarding ourselves against falling into an over-realised eschatology, we miss presenting something of the gospel's fullness. Yet this fullness is something which many unbelievers crave.

As someone involved in regular evangelism, I've found presenting this technicolor gospel difficult. It's difficult to speak present the societal and environmental implications of the gospel evangelistically within their correct eschatological framework, and demonstrating them clearly through the lens of the cross. Keller's hints on preaching at the end of his article are helpful. Krish Kandiah's book Destiny is perhaps the most helpful evangelistic book I've found that links these themes together. Does anyone else have any other ideas?

Friday, 13 June 2008

Keswick Team Days

Just got back from time spent with some of my favourite in one of my favourite places....

The view from the bottom of the valley where we stayed

UCCF North West 2007-8:
Back row: Me, Sarah D, Sarah B, Linda, Zac
Front Row: Ruth C, Rachel, Nick, Ruth P, Lesley, Cathy

I love this song, which has been in my head over the past days as we've spent time in the wonderful Lakes:

You shaped the heavens and the mighty oceans
You set the stars out in the skies
The streams and rivers, fields, trees and mountains
Were formed by Your almighty hand
Creation sings a song of praise
Declaring the wonders of Your ways

With all of creation we're joining our voices
And singing Your praises
We worship, we bow down
Awesome Creator, glorious Maker of all

You made the seasons, gave night and day their orders
You cause the sun and moon to shine
Winter and summer, the changing shades of autumn
All display Your sovereignty
Creation sings a song of praise
Declaring the wonders of Your ways

Eoghan Heaslip (c) 2003, Vertical Worship Songs

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Lessons from Gideon on pride

This week, I had the final study of the academic year with the small group leaders at Lancaster University CU. It was our sixth study in the book of Judges.

For the past three weeks, we've been looking at the Gideon narrative in chapters 6-8. Chapters 6 and 7 were more familiar to me - the theme of grace screams loud. The LORD appears to a cowering Gideon and commands him to lead Israel into battle. Although Gideon is weak, the LORD promises to be with him - and God plus one is a majority. In the battle itself, famously Gideon's army is shrunk until it is 1/400th the size of the Midianite army - yet he still wins. Plenty of evidence, then, to show both Gideon and the Israelite nation that it's the LORD that delivers them, then?

Erm, no. As chapter 8 unfolds, the Israelite nation start a form of hero worship of Gideon (offering him to be the first king in a hereditary monarchy). Although Gideon declines, he shows himself to be proud. Perhaps he even started believing himself that his own efforts had led Israel to victory. And so he makes himself a golden ephod (at the best, over-stepping the authority he had a judge; at worst, condoning the hero worship) and, despite rejecting the kingship, starts living a kingly lifestyle. He assembles a harem and has plenty of children - a form of displaying affluence in the ancient world. Even worse, he calls one of his sons Abimelech - or 'my father is the king'. Despite having a form of godliness, Gideon confuses the LORD's power with his own. He takes the credit for the LORD's victory, even though he had so much evidence of his own weakness.

It appears that there's a big lesson to those in any form of Christian ministry. Our theological conviction might be that, without Christ, we can do nothing. Yet it's very easy to look at the fruits of our ministry and start patting ourselves on the back. Like Gideon, we forget our weakness and the reliance on God we once felt, and we become proud. The LORD, who has provided the transforming power, is forgotten. We're tempted to think we're worthy of a big golden ephod.

I remember one evangelistic talk that I gave a couple of years ago. I felt awful throughout the whole of the day I was due to give it, having not slept very well the night before. Prayer alone kept me going that night I think. Half way through the talk, I remember thinking that I should give up, so convinced was I that my efforts were in vain. I was weak and I knew it.

God used that talk to save people there that night. At the time, I was literally dumbfounded. God's strength was made perfect in my obvious weakness. Yet, two years later, I know that my heart is sometimes tempted to feel proud of my efforts that night. It's so easy to forget that which Gideon forgot: the LORD's power graciously given to weak people. At worst, my heart sometimes longs to be able to assemble a big golden ephod.

The lesson of Gideon is a sad one. He started well, yet ended badly and miserably. The ephod became a snare to Gideon and his family. In addition, Gideon's sin had prolonged effort - as we read in Judges 9 and the account of Abimelech. Much better to prayerfully realise that God alone saves and transforms. Much better to ascribe to him the power and the glory, and to be amazed that God uses individuals just like us. I've found Piper's APTAT acronym helpful to prevent my heart from getting proud. Let us not become like Gideon, but learn the lesson.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

New Word Alive 2009

Exciting to see the New Word Alive 2009 Promotional Video. Even more exciting to see that two of its stars are Andrea and Penny from the University of Cumbria CU!

How to be free: the idle idol

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been reading How to be Free, by editor of The Idler, Tom Hodgkinson.

Coming from an existentialist viewpoint (whereby there is no ultimate meaning and we construct our own way of living and meaning), Hodgkinson tackles a series of common things in society that he says enslave us and prevent us from experiencing our freedom. These handcuffs include forms of government, capitalism and what he calls 'mind-forg'd manacles' (a term borrowed from a poem by William Blake), certain ways of thinking and seeing life that prevent us from feeling free. What emerges, then, is a 'radical manifesto' for living. Hodgkinson would, for example, have us quit jobs that we find boring, realise that careerism often makes promises that it can't keep, refuse to vote in elections, abandon supermarket consumerism, ditch our watches and mobile phones and move to the countryside, amongst other recommendations.

What's appealing and quite fresh about this book is the way in which it identifies several of what I would call 'middle class idols': common ways of orientating one's life that ultimately make one end up feeling miserable. Chapter subjects include dealing with debt (which so often imprisons those who take it on), rejecting career and all its empty promises and even stopping moaning (all things which promise much but deliver little). What the book also positively captures is the way in which it seems many people have just forgotten how to have fun, so busy are they with so many other things. I was reminded again of such how good it is to laugh. In a positive way, Hodgkinson also implores readers not to always continually be so set on making things better for the future in some way that they fail to live in the present moment.

Overall, however, I found this book frustrating. Too often Hodgkinson seemed to have an unrealistically positive view of both human nature and pre-industrial Medieval life. This is combined with an ongoing rant against the effects of the Reformation and what he calls 'Puritanism'. Nearly all 'mind-forg'd manacles' are pinned onto the historical influence of Protestant theology. In actual fact, I suspect that much of the individualism and corresponding death of the corporate mindset has more to do with the French Revolution and the arisal of democracy than the rediscovery of the doctrines of justification by faith alone through grace alone.

Some of the chapters advocate downright selfishness. Although at one point Hodgkinson admits that freedom can be experienced in serving others, the overwhelming burden of the book advocates living for oneself rather than being burdened by the needs of others. In one bizarre chapter, Hodgkinson seems to say that the feeling of guilt that we might feel for hurting others is merely culturally constructed:

'A sign that guilt is not an innate emotion but something culturally produced can be found in the example of infidelity. A man who is unfaithful to his girlfriend may feel pangs of guilt. But when he has split up with that girlfriend, the guilt over the infidelity vanishes and, indeed, he may feel the opposite emotion - he might feel quite pleased with himself. It is obvious too that small children do not feel the burden of guilt. Guilt is something we learn to feel.'

Not surprisingly, then, Hodgkinson advocates that we merely insulate ourselves from feelings of guilt and learn to desensitise ourselves to them.

Perhaps, though, my major gripe with the book is that of the central premise: that of freedom. There's no doubt that Hodgkinson puts his finger on many aspects of contemporary society that cause anxiety and unnecessary stress. Yet, for Hodgkinson, to be 'free' is to 'do what we like all day long; do nothing all day long; muck about all day long'. To be free is to be 'idle' - to be able to maximise time where a person can do what they might choose to do. According to Hodgkinson, the Adam and Eve narrative illustrates a pre-industrial idyll, where humans neither work nor consume. He seems to think that the world's problems would shrink if only everyone did what they would if they had free choice. (In passing, he can only deal with the problem of suffering by saying 'tough luck' and exhorting readers to 'embrace melancholy'. One chapter is flatly entitled, 'Stop moaning; be merry' - not, perhaps, the most sensitive way of addressing a suffering person). And it's worth noting that even if many of the 'evils' mentioned are done away with - mortgage, boredom, career and so on - we'd still not feel free.

Whilst, then, there is much in the book that is positive and even corroborates with Biblical thinking (like not building one's life around one's career, and the responsible use of the environment), it jars with Biblical thought when it just sets up another idol in the place of others: that of idleness. Ultimately the 'freedom' that Hodgkinson envisages is too limited. Biblical freedom is not found in doing nothing, but it embraces every part of human life as part of the worship of the Creator for which we were made and renews us to our created purpose. Indeed, Scripture warns against every person doing as they choose (see Judges 21:25 for starters). Hodgkinson seems unaware of the consequences that might follow if people really did life by his philosophy. Instead, we experience freedom as we willingly and joyfully submit all parts of our lives to Christ. Ironically, then, it's in serving others in love that we experience the freedom for which we all - Tom Hodgkinson included - crave.

Ted Turnau resources

One of the things I really benefitted from at the European Leadership Forum was Ted Turnau's sessions on using films for discussion, understanding worldviews and in evangelism.

His session, Screening Worldviews: how to watch (and discuss) movies as a Christian is available here, and strongly recommended. Ted also has his own website here, and includes fantastic resources on hosting a film discussion night and a list of recommended films to use. The sort of film discussion nights that he proposes might be suitably used by churches, plus also by CU small groups for outreach events.