Friday, 31 October 2008

Like a ship in the night

Sorry for the chronic lack of recent updates. I've had a busy couple of weeks - plenty of highlights but little opportunity to blog.

One particular highlight was a UCCF 'think tank' on Wednesday involving CU leaders from 'new universities' on how to reach them with the gospel. I'll maybe write further on this next week. Another highlight was spending last weekend with Cumbria CU and getting our hearts warmed again by grace as Steve Casey opened Mark's Gospel for us.

I'm just on my way out now to spend with weekend with Northumbria CU. I'm speaking at their houseparty this weekend on Hosea, and then I'll be joining them for their mission in March. It's been both a joy and something of a brain-stretch to have spent so much time in Hosea this past week. I'll blog further about this brilliant little book next week all being well. Your prayers would be appreciated for the weekend.

Happy Reformation Day!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Questions to help read and respond a film from a Christian perspective

Today the Relays and I went to watch City of Ember as part of their ongoing discipleship programme (we have a 'culture day' once a term in Relay supervision time). It was the first time that any of them had been encouraged to 'think Christianly' about a film.

We based our discussion afterwards on some of Ted Turnau's suggested questions. I think they're really useful:

1. What was your immediate reaction to the film at its close?
2. What's the story?
3. What sort of 'world' has the film-maker asked me to enter?

(a) What counts as good or bad or beautiful or evil or unacceptable in this world? What makes relationships in this world work or fail?
(b) How has the film-maker built up this world?

  • How does the movie's first shot introduce the world? How does the last shot leave us with a lasting impression?
  • What were the recurring images or visual motifs?
  • What patterns were there in the dialogue? How did characters interact? Were there words or phrases that were repeated?
  • How does the film use music to guide you to know how to respond?
  • How do characters grow and learn and change? (this is known as a 'character arc' and is a good pointer towards the message that the film maker is seeking to make)
4. What’s true, good and beautiful in this film? Because the film is made by people in God’s image, there will be moments when the truth shines, where beauty is unveiled (what Turnau calls ‘the footprints of God’). What elements of God’s grace do we see?
5. What’s false, ugly and perverse? Where does the movie lie? Film worlds are a mixture of grace and manipulation, truth and lies. A film's lies will betray where its root idolatry is. (Often there is a direct relationship between where common grace is strongest and idolatry e.g. a chick flick celebrates romance, but often presents it as the one thing to live for).
6. How does the gospel apply (or give an answer)? (the gospel provides real answers to desires).

As it goes, we had a great discussion about City of Ember. It's an enjoyable film that has much truth in it: it speaks of how political power can corrupt, and of how religion, banality and busyness can often prevent communities from tackling their problems. Free thinking away from the control of governmental institutions is commended, and there is a real desire for humans to truly engage with the problems around them.

However, we found the solution that City of Ember commends somewhat shortcoming. Essentially human achievement is elevated, and the film implies that youthful people untainted by indoctrination would succeed in building a perfect community, if it were possible to start again on the earth. (Interestingly, the film ends in a kind of 'new creation', with the sun rising and a chance to start from scratch).

Jesus was much more radical in his diagnosis of the human condition. He knew that even if children were placed in a perfect new world, that without being born again, it would be soon ruined. The root problem - the problem of our hearts - needs to be dealt with. That is the promise of the Christian gospel: not that we refuse to engage with the problems around us (like the quasi-religious characters in the film), but that we turn to Jesus as the only one who can give us new hearts. We long for a new creation and a fresh start - but one where 'the former things have passed away'.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Burn after reading: a story of idiocy and incompetence

The Coen Brothers' new film Burn After Reading is now on general release. It's a black comedy that captures how, despite more technological development than ever, human stupidity can throw a spanner into the works of even the best-oiled machine.

A cast full of Hollywood's best known names portrays an unlikely story, where the loss of a CD of a former CIA worker's memoirs has a disastrous domino effect. Whilst many have inevitably compared the film to No Country For Old Men (and many have found this latest offering to fall somewhat short), I thought that the main roles were played well and intelligently, and the film was beautifully shot.

In that respect, it's a wry critique of 21st Century industrialised countries. Contrary to TV programmes like 24 that want to portray US government agencies as smooth-operating automatons, Burn After Reading seeks to be more realistic. Technology isn't always as helpful as we'd like to think, and an accurate view of human nature should make us cautious: human idiocy and eccentricity can destroy even the best made plans. Perhaps this should make us think twice when institutions make big claims for themselves?

Amazing grace in one life

Whilst tidying up, I recently stumbled across a letter written by a friend of mine, John from Colombia, at the end of the week in August 2005 when he'd first started professing as a Christian. Some readers will know that the circumstances through which John became a Christian whilst learning English in Bournemouth were miraculous.

My heart brims with thankfulness to God each time I read this letter for the grace he's shown (and continues to show) John. I've reproduced the letter uncorrected:

Hi dear Peter, I have been thinking about all this experience and this travel, that I am going to take, and I know that it won't be easy, but I will be a soldier and my God (our God) is going to walk behind of me; he won't leave me alone.

I want to share with all the people in your church, and also I want to learn more of the Bible.

In this letter is wrote my deal, my compromise that I have with God, to be by him side and to become his friend.

Thank to much to teach me about beautiful and fantastic things about Jesus and the thing and to remember me that life can be better.

I take the oath about my faith in God.


Sunday, 19 October 2008

Ronald Kernaghan on Mark 13

I've been working through Mark's Gospel in my own personal Bible study over the past couple of months. Mark 13 is a difficult chapter (although I think it's easier when you consider that essentially its describing something of the nature of Jesus' kingdom), but I think Ronald Kernaghan's commentary has helped me to unpick it.

Here's a fascinating thing the commentary showed me, unpacking these verses:

Mark 13:26-27: 'At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels [or 'messengers'] and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.'
Mark 14:61-62: 'Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you [i.e. the Sanhedrin] will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."'

Here's Kernaghan's commentary:

'Mark 14:62 extends the imagery of 13:26 so that the members of the Sanhedrin are told not only that they would see the Son of Man coming with the clouds, but also that they would see him seated at the right hand of God. The picture of Jesus' sitting at God's right hand recalls the concluding condemnation of the leaders of Jerusalem (12:35-37) in which Jesus quoted from Psalm 110:1: 'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."' That image of judgement and condemnation does not appear explicitly in Mark 13, but it is consistent with the central theme of this prophecy - the destruction of the temple. Indeed, since Jesus entered Jerusalem in 11:11 his condemnation of the temple has been the catalyst for every other event. The best answer then to the question of what they would see is the destruction of the temple. That event would be the corollary of the Son of Man's exaltation. The exaltation of the Son of Man to heaven would be an event that the chief priests, elders and scribes could not actually see because it would take place before the throne of God. The exaltation of the Son of Man, however, would also mean the destruction of the temple. In its destruction, they would see the vindication of the Son of Man.'
I find this very helpful. It sheds real light on the nature of Jesus' kingdom. Jesus has been demonstrating throughout Mark's Gospel that his kingdom isn't what the disciples were expecting. It comes partially, as the word is proclaimed, rather than at once (see Mark 4). Now Jesus shows that, following judgement on Jerusalem, and as he takes his seat before the Ancient of Days (which doesn't refer to this second coming - see Daniel 7:13), his kingdom still does not come immediately in its fullness. The preaching of the gospel to the whole world will be accomplished, not through temple activity but through the Son of Man's own agents in the world. There is a period where his angels (or messengers) gather the elect before his return. His kingdom continues to grow today (even through the distribution of copies of Mark's Gospel in the FREE Gospel Project), before its consummation at his return.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Playing the long game

Today in Lancaster we had autumn term's CU leaders' day for Lancashire CU leaders. It's strange thinking that this will be the last of these particular days that I'll have organised as CU Staff Worker here.

It's made today strangely nostalgic. This is the third of these annual gatherings (there's also been another set in summer term), and so I guess it's natural to look back two years to how things were then. The situations in the CUs I work with have changed almost beyond recognition in the past two years, and almost all of the students have changed since then too. Two years ago, the CUs considered themselves to have almost nothing in common. Now they see themselves increasingly as partners in the gospel.

Perhaps it's this longer-term-ism that dictated a conversation that Linda and I had over dinner with my former Relay Worker, Nick, and Adam, my colleague in Carlisle. They were both down to help out at the leaders' day. It was great to chat about a whole load of different subjects. One of the things we talked about were the difficulties that we've found in forming deeper long-term relationships with non-believers in Lancaster.

Linda and I both know plenty of non-believers here, but it's been difficult making these relationships very deep. Now as we think about the fact that we now have less than a year left in Lancaster, we're feeling tinged with sadness thinking that some of these relationships will never get as deep as we'd maybe hoped that they would. Perhaps our expectations were too high. (For both of us, Lancaster was the first move away from Bristol, where we'd been students - and student life makes it very easy to form deep relationships quickly). Perhaps we've not spent enough time with other people engaging in hobbies and passions that we really care about. (I've done a couple of evening courses, but these have never really in subjects I've been particularly bothered about, and so perhaps that's prevented me from forming genuine deep relationships. I kind of feel that sharing a passion automatically deepens a friendship).

I think that we've certainly learnt lessons that we'd like to carry into wherever we live next. In all likelihood, we'll be in our next location for many years. We'd love to bed into the local community and form relationships that matter.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

"There are many paths to what you call God" - are all religions the same?

Here are some thoughts for a lunchbar I'm giving this week at Lancaster University. It tackles the sort of new age pluralist belief that 'right action' is the most important thing.

I was given a quote by the American television host Oprah Winfrey, “There are many paths to what you call God”, and then given the subtitle, “Are all religions the same?” Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find the context where this quote was made. It was made by Oprah in her television programme a few years ago:

Oprah's worldview

1. Humans can experience true humanity through feeling certain things through making certain choices of action. Oprah suggests that people can choose to get to the same point through showing love, kindness and generosity. For her, that’s what it means to be human. In fact, she suggests that what some call knowing ‘God’ is merely one of millions of possible ways of experiencing our true humanity, broadly given the description of living in ‘the light’. God is not a personal being, but a name some give to a feeling of fulfilment. Humans can waste their lives through choosing not to show love to ourselves and others. Whilst Oprah would surely admit that there are differences in teaching between religions, for her the similarity between them is that all of them help their adherents to express what it means to live in ‘the light’.

2. Certain religious believers who hold what are called ‘exclusivist’ beliefs are arrogant and intolerant because they insist upon thinking the ‘right things’ about God. What’s important is living the right way, living in the light, and thereby being enlightened to the experiences of what it means to be human. Teaching and doctrine just get in way of doing that, causing unnecessary arguments and intolerance.

In a 2008 web seminar on her religious views, Oprah clarified her own position on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to other religions, saying:

“Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness, Jesus came to show us the way of the heart, Jesus came to say, ‘Look, I’m going to live in the body, in the human body and I’m going to show you how it’s done. Here are some principles and some laws that you can use to live by to know that way.’ ... I don’t believe that Jesus came to start Christianity. What Jesus said has a depth to it. So there’s no conflict between his teaching, which is purely spiritual, and any other religion.”

Pluralism, then, is shown to be what Oprah holds most highly. To insist upon there being only ‘one way’ is uncool, arrogant and intolerant. Christians, for example, that claim that Jesus is the only way to God have misunderstood Jesus and the ‘depth’ of his teaching. Holding exclusivist views is to be unenlightened about what it means to live and truly experience life as a human.

3. There can’t possibly be only one way to God. Oprah charges the Christians in the audience, apparently incredulous at their small mindedness, and angry at how Christians render God. If there were a God, and there are people who are trying their best to live like Jesus, how can God possibly deny them entry into heaven? Again we see that living the right way and experiencing the light comes before believing.

Overall, Oprah advocates a position very similar to the religious pluralist John Hick:

‘Around the different ways of conceiving, experiencing and responding to the Real there have grown up the various religious traditions of the world with their myths and symbols, their philosophies and theologies, their liturgies and arts, their ethics and lifestyles. Within all of them basically the same salvific process is taking place, namely the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness. Each of the great traditions thus constitutes a valid context of salvation / liberation; each may be able to gain a larger understanding of the Real by attending to the reports and the conceptualities of the others.” (Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985)

Engaging with Oprah's worldview: two questions

1. How do we know anything about God at all and what he is like?

Oprah asserts that ‘God’ is an impersonal experiential feeling that comes from doing good. She brings her own definition of who God is and what God is like into the discussion (which, in practice, runs against the concept of God that nearly every world religion would hold).

Each of us is liable to form a God of our imagination, because we don’t instinctively know what God is like. We need him to reveal himself. Otherwise, we just bring our own definitions of what we think God should be like – without any evidence – and then assert these ideas on others.

The God of Christianity is a personal, revealing God. For that reason, he has made himself known, supremely in the person of Jesus.

So what about the claim that there’s no conflict between Jesus' teaching, which is 'purely spiritual', and any other religion? We'd have to refute it. The plain reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus to be God, not someone whose primary aim was to encourage others to search for a hidden existential philosophy (like Oprah suggests). And if the God of the Bible really is God, he is well able to represent himself in ways that are plainly intelligible to us.

2. How do we experience what it means to be truly human?

I think Oprah rightly wants to live an authentic human life – and for her, that’s to be kind, generous and loving to all. For her, acting rightly now and doing the right thing is the supreme end of being a human.

Our consciences testify that Oprah's way of living is good and right. But here’s the problem: by ourselves, we can’t live this way. In fact, we’re incapable to just choose to live this way. We’re not free to live in the way we know we ought to be living.

In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus describes why it’s impossible for us to live this way: it comes from a disease at our very core. Jesus described in it this way: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts come evil thoughts: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.” The source of this disease, this evil, is wanting to live life without God.

In the name of freedom, we’ve walked out of the relationship with God for which we were created. We live instead as we were never meant to live. And so, although what God made was very good, what we have made is evil. Everything God made has been caught up in it. Everything is broken. But we can’t just saunter back to God. We’re trapped in this way of living.

According to Jesus, that leaves us with two problems:

(a) the judgement of God’s verdict upon our lives: our past condemns us;
(b)there’s no prospect of change: none of us can just change.

In short, we need a miracle. What Oprah longs for is good. She longs to be generous and kind and loving. But this is only possible if, somehow, we can be miraculously changed from the inside out to live as the way we were created to live, for God. But that requires us to be brought back to him. The Bible teaches us that this happens through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Those who trust in Jesus are made completely new from the inside out (this is what Oprah craves) . Christians are washed clean, and then God himself – through the help of his Holy Spirit – helps Christians to live for God, the way that we were created to live. God’s help makes kindness and generosity and love a possibility where they were impossible to show consistently before. It’s a slow process, but God is miraculously at work and promises that, when we die and receive new bodies, this work will be complete. And the process of being made more like Jesus is a beautiful thing to see in the lives of others.


Oprah says, “there are many paths to what you call God.” But for all of her good intentions, Oprah is wrong here on two counts:

  • ‘God’ is not a way of living, he is a person who longs to be known.
  • And we can’t live the way that God wants us to live without being brought back to him. That happens through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Encouragement for the weary Christian (Hebrews 4:14-5:10)

After the long opening section about the supremacy of Jesus' revelation of God, the writer to the Hebrews turns to the supremacy of Jesus' high priesthood.

Studying this passage yesterday with the Relay Workers, I was struck by how much pastoral important the writer attaches to Jesus' high priesthood.

The context provided within the book shows that the Hebrews were under pressure to revert to orthodox Judaism, particularly to revert to making atonement sacrifices. The book shows that, at that time, it was a lonely thing being a Hebrew Christian.

This section of Hebrews, then, speaking of Jesus as high priest, is full of encouragement for the weary Christian. The writer draws attention to Jesus' humanity. He was fully human, and experienced the full range of temptations (including those the Hebrew Christians were at that time facing). Yet, even when faced by the greatest pinnacle of temptation possible in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus proved his commitment to the Father's will by submitting to him even then. Holding these two truths together, then, we see that Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted, and he has also proven his commitment (even under extreme pressure) to submitting to God's will. We might say that Jesus has shown that he's absolutely committed to joyful submission to God - in his own life and, by implication, in the lives of those he calls 'brothers'.

The full pastoral implications of this are understood when we realise now that Jesus has passed through the heavens and, through his sacrifice, brings us right into the very throne room of God. What does this mean? It means that Jesus knows what it's like to be under the very same pressures we face, he knows the spiritual grace and mercy we need to keep submitting to the Father's will, he longs us to keep submitting to the Father, and he has made access to these resources possible through bringing us into the heavenly throne room. He is able to help weary believers in a way that the high priests of the Old Testament never could.

This, then, should encourage Christians to pray for help. That's certainly what the writer to the Hebrews had in mind. As he writes in 4:16: 'Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.'

Yesterday evening I met a struggling Christian. She feels almost overwhelmed by the difficulties she is facing at the moment. What an encouragement it is to be able to share that Christ knows for himself the difficulties she is facing, that he longs for her to remain faithful to God in her struggles, and that he has made the mercy and grace that we need available. What an incentive for her to pray, and what an incentive for me to pray for her.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Falling apart and being made new

Nathan I have just returned from a CU meeting at Blackpool School of Art & Design, the CU which was only started earlier this year.

Blackpool is quite a place. It's struggling not to live on bygone glory, and it's quite hard to see how the run-down parts of the city will improve in the near future. A lot of what's left in Blackpool is either quite-run down or aiming to appeal at the budget market. We were quite tickled by the GR8 Hotel (pictured), across from which we parked earlier (Nathan accurately put it that this was just the kind of name for a hotel that your 12 year old sister might come up with!).

It was quite a contrast to look at Mark 1-2 with the fledgling CU there: Sam, Dave, Jamie & Tom. Whilst the whole of creation is in bondage to decay (including our own bodies, and the bodies of the leper and the paralysed man), we worship a saviour who has dealt with the root cause of that decay - our sin - and look forward to a day when he makes everything new.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Making CU small groups work - part 2: think relationship

In part 1 of this mini series, I highlighted that I consider mission to be an integral part of making CU small groups work. Without a focus on being explicitly outward looking, CU small groups run the risk of becoming social groups or otherwise merely replicating that which could be done in church small groups. An all-round mission focus, like the one I suggested, is necessary.

Think relationship

An equally important emphasis needs to be placed on relationships, and to let small groups be as strategic as they can as small groups. As a rough rule of thumb, I think that a small group that has more than about twelve regular attendees in it should be split. Getting much larger than this takes away all of those things that makes the small group format work. One of the larger college groups in Lancaster splits into two groups for some of their small group time. Two Bible studies are run concurrently, allowing all members of the group to discover and engage with Bible passages for themselves. This is particularly helpful for those who are non-auditory learners.

It's not only Bible study that benefits from a 'smaller' small group. CU members can support each other more adequately too. Of course, primary pastoral support for small group members should come through their own local church. However, the Bible does envisage that all Christians should care for each other (as shown in the 'one another’s'). Rather, support amongst CU small group members should fall into two categories:

  • Small group members care for each other and encourage each other to radically live and speak for Jesus through prayer and friendship;
  • Small group members are on the lookout for any deeper problems that cannot be handled by ‘one-anothering’, humbly leading people struggling with these problems to those in local churches who can help.

I've seen trust amongst small group members develop as they loved each other in these ways. This has an amazing effect on wanting to witness together. As I mentioned last time, evangelism can be transformed from the activity of an individual to a group activity through regular small group outreach. It's been really pleasing here to see one small group in particular take this to heart. They're not only friends with each other, but also friends with each other's non-Christian friends.

I would say that the other important relationship in making CU small groups work is the relationship between the small group leaders and their Staff Worker. Ideally, small group leaders need to commit to attending weekly training. This acts as a kind of 'team time' for small group leaders. Ideally, this acts as a safe time when leaders can ask questions, grow, develop godly practice and get trained. Weekly meetings help small group leaders bond on a corporate journey as they grow, and also allow the staff worker to ensure that small group leaders aren't getting overburdened, or playing the role of church leaders.

Part 3: coming soon - think grace

Monday, 6 October 2008

Making CU small groups work - evangelistic events

In a recent post, I said that if CU small groups are to be evangelistically effective, then evangelism needs to be written into each small group gathering.

In the CUs I work with, we use a system called 1-2-3-Go! (or at the University of Cumbria 1-2-3-Connect4). Having an evangelistic event every four weeks is a good way of keeping small groups outward looking. However, small group events will normally fail if the fourth week is just seen as an 'interruption' to normal service. Small group leaders need to be encouraged to weave outreach and personal evangelism into every small group gathering.

Below is a table we use at Lancaster University helping small group leaders to do just that:

Thursday, 2 October 2008


A brief note just to say that I've been less able to scribble my notes in recent weeks because of lots of busyness with Freshers across the region.

There's been loads of exciting developments, particularly at Lancaster University and the University of Central Lancashire. Amazingly, at Lancaster, red tape and being unable to book rooms has opened loads of new opportunities. God is good!

I'm still planning to write more about making CU small groups work and I'll do it in due course.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The word of God is living and active...

So along with, I guess, many people, until yesterday I'd thought that Hebrews 4:12-13 were a couple of verses I could add to my systematic theology on the nature of Scripture.

The verses are these:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Many of us will probably have sat in Christian meetings when these verses were quoted about Scripture; maybe positively, pointing to the incredible power of Scripture when sharpened by the Spirit. And that, of course, is true. But it is unfair to the context of Hebrews 1-4.

What the writer has been demonstrating is that Jesus is the supreme revelation of God (superseding the Old Testament, as I wrote about here). At the beginning of chapter 3, the writer began to apply this. Jesus is like Moses (in that through both clear revelations of God were made), but Jesus' revelation is qualitatively greater than that of Moses. He isn't just a servant of God - he is God himself. Therefore, to ignore Jesus is to ignore God himself.

Ignoring Jesus comes at great cost. If, as chapter 3 puts it, ignoring God's revelation coming through Moses brought with it death in the desert, ignoring God's even clearer revelation through his Son is a fearful thing. Ignoring God's word - supremely the living Word - is very dangerous. It is to ignore God himself. To do so is to reject the opportunity of entering what Hebrews calls God's 'rest' (very similar to 'life' in John's Gospel), life as it was created to be.

How we respond to God's word, then - in particular, how we respond to God's Word, Jesus, is crucial. All this reminds me of what God the Father says at the Transfiguration. Peter wants to ignore Jesus when he says he must suffer and die, but God the Father says, "No! This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" To listen to Jesus, supremely, is to listen to his diagnosis on our hearts and to trust that only his cross can bring us to God.

And that is what Hebrews 4:12-13 is about. Rejecting God's word has always carried death. And so Hebrews 4:12-13 is only about listening to the written word, Scripture, in as far as it is saying that we should listen to the living Word, Jesus. We ignore him at our peril. We cannot ignore Christ and simultaneously think that we are treating God rightly. In that respect, God's word carries life and death, as our response to Jesus carries life and death consequences.