Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The 'one anothers'

I've spent some time doing a word study on 'one another' of the New Testament. Most of these 'one anothers' appear to be those things we do in community with other Christians, regardless of whether they are in our own church family (although they will often find expression primarily in our local church family). It's quite a list... and a great reminder that whilst following Jesus is a personal allegiance, it's never merely private.

  • Love one another (John 13:34, John 13:35, Romans 13:8, 1 Peter 4:8, 1 John 3:11, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 4:7, 1 John 4:11, 1 John 4:12)
  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love (Romans 12:10, Hebrews 13:1)
  • Honour one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10)
  • Living in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16, 1 Peter 3:8)
  • Stop passing judgement on one another (Romans 14:3)
  • Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
  • Instruct one another (Romans 15:14)
  • Greet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16)
  • Agree with one another (1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 4:2)
  • When you come together to eat, wait for one other (1 Corinthians 11:33)
  • Serve one another (Galatians 5:13, also by implication in John 13:14)
  • Don't become conceited, provoking and envying one other (Galatians 5:26)
  • Carry one other's burdens (Galatians 6:2)
  • Bear with one another in love (Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:13)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32, 1 Thessalonians 5:15)
  • Forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13)
  • Sing to one another (Ephesians 5:19)
  • Submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21, Colossians 3:16)
  • Do not lie to one another (Colossians 3:9)
  • Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, Hebrews 3:13, Hebrews 10:25)
  • Build one another up (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
  • Live at peace with one another (1 Thessalonians 5:13)
  • Consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24)
  • Do not slander one another (James 4:11)
  • Do not grumble towards one another (James 5:9)
  • Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)
  • Pray for one another (James 5:16)
  • Offer hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Clothe yourself with humility toward one another (1 Peter 5:5, see also Philippians 2:4)

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Ed Clowney on meeting Jesus

I read this gem of a quote from Ed Clowney yesterday:

The word of the Lord constantly presents the Lord of the word. Coming to the word is coming to the Lord. This central truth cuts both ways. We cannot detach the word from the Lord and, like the scribes and the Pharisees, profess to cling to the Scriptures while refusing the Lord. On the other hand, neither can we profess obedience to the Lord while rejecting his word. To separate a living Lord from a 'dead' book or a divine Lord from a merely human book is to reject the apostolic gospel....

Those who read the word of God, and surely those who teach it, must never forget why the word is given and whom it reveals. The word shows us that the Lord is good; his words are sweeter than honey to our taste because in them the Lord gives himself to us.

-- The Message of 1 Peter: The way of the cross, pages 79-81

It is a sad situation in UK evangelicalism that people often divide themselves into either 'Bible people' or 'experience people'. What Clowney says is helpful. Being a Christian is all about experience, because it is all about relating to the living Lord Jesus. But the Bible - when properly handled, and with the Spirit's help - brings us to the Lord Jesus himself, so that readers experience him, and taste and see that the Lord Jesus himself is good.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Jack Miller: Preaching Christ by Faith

Here's an extended quote that I read yesterday from one of my heroes, Jack Miller, on preaching. I considered that it was worth sharing. It has brought me to repentance in my attitude to preaching:

Preaching ought to have the best wit, wisdom, clarity and logical order that a preacher can give it. But these qualities by themselves will not add up to preaching Christ by faith. Something more is called for. That something more is aiming the message at people with the purpose of bringing them to Christ. The goal is to change them by the power of the gospel.

If we as preachers have another goal, we will have short-circuited the whole process and confirmed ourselves and the congregation in our spiritual introversion. I think that we preachers must admit that we often are captured by other goals. Sometimes we make an eloquent message our primary goal. We become intent on producing a work of art or a scholarly composition. The sermon can become the end instead of a means toward an end. Phillips Brooks wrote in his Lectures on Preaching that this the cause of the failure of so 'many of the ineffective sermons that are made.' The prevailing intention of the heart of the preacher is to 'produce something which shall be a work of art' rather than a message 'aimed at the men,' with a view to their transformation into Christlikeness.

The preacher can hardly expect the Spirit of Christ to breathe through an art object that exists for its own sake.... The preacher should instead see preaching much more as a declaration of war, a conflict in which well-disciplined words march as to war to bring the hearers to surrender to Jesus Christ. We need to use the pulpit as a battle station.
- C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, pages 123-124

Friday, 30 October 2009

Engaging with Foucault: can we believe in truth any more?

I spoke earlier in the week at Sheffield CU's lunchbar, engaging with issues of truth. As a social scientist, it's great to be engaging with writers like Michel Foucault. (I've written before on whether Foucault is correct in thinking power must always be used in a way that invariably restricts freedoms). I owe part of my thinking here to Tim Keller. Here's a summary of what I said:

20th Century philosophies of truth: your perspective informs what you understand the truth to be. When we look at the world around us, each of us sees it from within the horizons of our own world, whether those horizons are linguistic, emotional, social, artistic or whatever. Actually our perception of things is, at best, a limited or partial view of the truth.

Foucault's bit: he added to the above by claiming that truth claims are invariably power plays (as they limit the freedoms of others to chose to live as they like).

This leads us to a kind of paralysis. The big questions are unanswerable. And when we do decide to land on one answer as opposed to another, we can get accused of trying to get power over someone else. We long for truth - but instead all we have is lots of information, a whole load of 'partial truths' at best.

Jesus on Foucault: Jesus agreed that truth can be used as a power play (e.g. in the way that he confronts the teachers of the Law in Luke 11).

We’ve all experienced times when people have spoken genuine truth to us but they have not spoken it to us in love. Instead they’ve told it to us to hurt us, to wound us, to injure us. Yes, we can step back and say, 'What you’ve said is true, but the way you said it; well, you are intending to hurt me, not to help me.' And Jesus would say: "Listen, it’s not the claim to truth that does this – that hurts people. It’s what’s in the truth claim and its intent that matters."

Let's look at Jesus by these criteria...

1. Jesus claimed to speak as someone not limited by his humanity. Jesus was a Jewish man in the 1st Century. But he claimed to speak as God in human form: that he had a God’s-eye view of the Universe. And so he claimed not just to be having a good guess about how things are, but to reveal and embody the truth.

2. Jesus' mission (in his own words) was to bring freedom. While most religions and belief systems present God as static and making demands upon us, Christianity trusts in the God who has served us, in coming to us and dying for us. And so for Christians, true freedom is found in relationship with God. When we realize all that Jesus has done to serve us and give himself for us, this speaks to our fears of giving up our independence, finding true freedom in him.

3. The intent behind Jesus' truth claims. Jesus claimed that he isn’t out to control people like us, rather he’s out to free us and to bring us into the relationship with God we’re made for. In fact Jesus was so committed to us that it ultimately led to his voluntary death in our place. So as you consider Jesus’ truth claims, test the person of Jesus: does he seem out to coerce or control?

A person is transformed when they encounter undeserved sacrifice. Once you’ve encountered someone who sacrifices on your behalf and you know you don’t deserve it, you’re aware you can never be the same. It requires transformation. That is what drives Christians. Out of love for Christ and love for others, they long to see others entering into that relationship of life with Jesus. And so Christians are committed to loving their friends (and their enemies) and pointing them to Jesus, building strong relationships based on truth. That is the natural outcome of Jesus’ teaching and intent.

So, as a Christian, can you believe in truth any more?

This was a question I used to wrestle through as I did my Masters which embraced lots of continental philosophy. Can I believe in truth any more as a Christian? Yes, because truth has made itself known in the person of Jesus; because truth diagnoses me as I really am, then offers an antidote; and because truth shows itself when lived out fully in beautiful others-centred relationships that do not hurt others but build them up.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Seven steps towards building outreach into CU small groups

I've been thinking a bit recently about how to make CU small groups in all sorts of different university contexts more effective in outreach.

Here are seven steps I've come up with that can build a more of a missional edge in CU small groups:

1. Work hard to show your small group members how all components of small group time are inter-related. CU small group outreach tends to fail if outreach is seen as an unnatural intrusion to small group life. Outreach becomes more effective and natural when, for instance, Bible study is presented as something which energises the group's mission; as group members grow in trust and relationship with each other, they gain a sense of community in witness, and so on. Prayer topics in CU small groups should be wide-ranging (and it’s important to make space for the real needs that small group members have), but there should be an ongoing eye on outreach.

I made some practical suggestions on how to do this in a post a while back.

2. Ask questions that encourage discussion in the small group about how the gospel really is news that is good for people today. For instance, in a Bible study on 1 Peter 2:9, you could ask:

  • What are Christ’s deeds?
  • Why are they wonderful?
  • What kind of darkness previously surrounded you?
  • What is your present experience of God’s light?

(This is based on an approach I read in the book Good Things Come in Small Groups, which I believe is now out of print). Questions like these help small group members grapple with the specifics of God’s love, encourage them to appreciate the grace of the gospel, and help them begin to personalise and talk about it.

3. Set the perspective from the beginning that outreach is both necessary and natural. If your small group is less confident in evangelism, start initially in forms of non-threatening outreach, in which group members confident. As gospel confidence increases in your group, you can step up into more stretching forms of outreach.

4. Ask for help. If you need help in your outreach, don't let this stop you! Speak to your CU's small group coordinator or your CU Staff Worker for help.

5. Press for group ownership in outreach. Work towards small group members seeing your small group as a think tank. Work together to reach consensus on what specific task God has for you. Group ownership enables everyone in the small group to work as a team: this is much more fun, more effective and you'll find small group members are more committed.

6. Plan time for planning. To reduce undesirable last-minute panic, start the planning process far enough in advance. Factor in small group time to make these plans. Make sure too that you've thought about how you'll follow up those people who show interest in the gospel.

7. Surround all outreach in prayer. As we ask God to intervene in lives and events, we learn to rely on his strength rather than ours. While God commands us to be stewards of our gifts, energy and resources, it is not our job to change hearts. The Holy Spirit alone can do that. Our role is to serve as signposts pointing to Jesus.

It’s great when small group members keep a list of 3-5 friends, praying that they get opportunities to share the gospel and that their friends hearts would be open to the gospel. Set aside time regularly for prayer for these friends who are without the knowledge and experience of Christ's love.

When you have an event, ask for prayer wherever you can - at your church, in CU central meetings - and, of course, spend good time praying together in your small group too.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Lord of the dance

I was listening recently to Pixie Lott's Boys and Girls on the radio. It got me thinking: why are there so many pop songs about dancing?

I guess at one level there's an easy answer to this question: because a lot of the songs that are popular are played in pubs and clubs where people go to dance. But why is dancing championed in so many songs?

Of course, dancing is fun ('it sure feels good, feels good, yeah, we're gonna lose control'). But there's more too it. Again, as Pixie puts it, 'when the beat kicks in you feel it in your bones.' It's interesting to think that many people feel at their most 'free' and their most 'natural' when they're abandoned from their cares and concerns in dance (at least at the points when they're not worried about what people think of their dancing).

Perhaps we love dancing so much because we yearn to be away from our troubles and be in perfect sync with our surroundings.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Reaching university subcultures

One of the things I am passionate about is encouraging CU students to be strategic and to reach students in those subcultures who appear to be the very 'hardest' reach with the gospel in their local settings.

When I say this, I'm not saying that CU students should just ignore the pre-existing opportunities that they have in evangelism already; rather, that they should think carefully about how they can best serve the church through engaging with those only realistically reached through CU outreach.

Sometimes some churches in student towns can put on a 'guest service' that will attract a certain type of student - most often those who have come from a Christian or religious background; whether that is lapsed Christians, nominal Christians, those who have attended chapel at school - and so on. Of course, the Holy Spirit blows where he wants as his word is proclaimed, but - without partnership with the CU - church-based student evangelism is often relatively ineffective at reaching others.

I have taken to asking CU leaders to identify those groups or subcultures on campus that they consider that only the CU can realistically reach, with their privileges of contact, access and student-run evangelism. I've been asking Christian students to isolate those groups who wouldn't even consider or have the opportunity to enter the doors of a local church without prior CU contact. It's been quite eye-opening: at many universities it's Muslims, hard-core clubbers and those in private halls of residence. Chatting to a fourth year Durham student yesterday, he identified members of the Conservative club and non-Christian theology students.

I love it when CUs think strategically about reaching their campuses. I love it when local churches encourage their students to think this way, and set them free to be 'missionaries' within the university.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

An update

I'm beginning to get into the swing of things now as Team Leader with UCCF in the North East.

This past week was a week of building gospel partnerships. There have been a number of meetings with other Christians: I met with representatives of eleven different mission agencies earlier in the week. These mission agencies come together to think, along with UCCF, how world mission can be better profiled and promoted amongst CU students. I came away with a lot of thinking to do - lots of exciting prospects ahead.

I've also met with a number of church leaders this week. Perhaps the highlight of the week was meeting the Yorkshire gathering of Newfrontiers ministers. I love the heart for Jesus and his gospel these folks have, and how that transfers itself in strong relationships and a commitment to church planting. It was exciting to hear about two plants that will happen in the next few months. I was also really encouraged by how many there wanted to develop stronger partnerships with CUs.

These were two very different gatherings, but I've spent the week reflecting on the second half of Galatians 2 having studied it with Hamish in Durham. How wonderful it is when Christians recognise that - above all, and through all of the differences - we have our justification in Christ in common.

Next week I'm heading back down again to Quinta in Shropshire; this time to speak at Durham CU's 'Freshers' Getaway'. There will be about 70 students coming away, 40 of them new Freshers. I'm really amazed at how this whole venture has come together and really excited by the thought of encouraging these Freshers to thrive as Christians during their time at university before they even start. To that end, I'll be teaching from the book of Daniel. Do pray that as I speak the Spirit will speak and reveal more of Jesus.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Now but not yet

I've been enjoying Alec Motyer's brilliant little book Journey which is a devotional guide to the psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134). These were the songs that pilgrims sang as they wound their way to Jerusalem for the three feasts each year.

One of the things that Motyer notes is that, throughout the psalms, the psalmists note that - even at the height of the Davidic covenant, at the height of Jerusalem's security and fame, and when the Temple is fully inaugurated - there must be more to come. Psalm 122, for instance, celebrates the throngs gathered for worship in Zion (verses 1-5), yet the need to pray for the future peace and prosperity of Jerusalem remains (verses 6-9). There is more to come. New Testament readers know that this is the new Jerusalem of Hebrews 12 and Revelation 21-22.

Reading Psalm 27 today with my boss Tim, we noticed something that is perhaps similar. David longs to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life - yet, this is something that as a member of the tribe of Judah (and therefore not a Levite or a priest) was not accessible to him. Yet David longs to seek the face of the LORD. Is this perhaps another occasion where the psalmists point beyond themselves, prophetically knowing that there is more to come?

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Is God merely a psychological crutch for the weak?

I've been giving some thinking over recent months to the above question. My post on Robbie Williams' latest song, Bodies, shows that the question regarding whether or not God is a psychological crutch is alive and well. Here are a few of my thoughts:

The presupposition behind the question: that there is widespread internal desire for the spiritual. This is true. A 2005 worldwide survey placed belief in the spiritual realm at 90%. Popular culture also attests to this fact. Sam Sparro's 2008 grammy nominated song Black and Gold, for instance, is about the seemingly innate longing for God.

The charge: God is merely a psychological crutch. People like Sam Sparro – and perhaps you – so desire ‘something bigger than them’ that they project these desires onto a big screen and call it ‘God’. Theorists from Marx to Freud have argued that, in some way, God is merely a figment of the imagination, a kind of wish-fulfilment.

The psychological crutch is a well-documented phenomenon, in academia and in popular culture. The Tom Hanks film Castaway depicts psychological crutches that help Hanks' character Noland to survive under extreme pressure: the most famous being Wilson, the volleyball that Noland turns into his confidante and friend. Richard Dawkins, when examining the Pacific cargo cults - a religious system very obviously rooting from psychological need - claims that all religious belief evolves in this manner. We desire certain things, and so we conjure up spiritual entities – God or gods – in whom we place hope in to bring us what we need.

Taking on the argument

1. The charge that belief in God is a product of wish-fulfilment for believers can be countered by the charge that unbelief might be a product of wish-fulfilment for unbelievers. Arguments that don’t rest upon objective evidence can cut both ways. If one group attributes the other’s view to emotion or sociology or psychological need, then the other only needs to reply in kind. Non-belief in God could, itself, be a form of wish-fulfilment.

For example, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hypothesised that belief in the existence of God as "merely a projection of a childish wish for the protection of the father.” But this statement can be turned around. As the psychologist Philip Witz has recently written, Freud had a very bad relationship with his own father. Whereas religious belief might be rendered merely a childish need for a father figure, the non-belief of others such Freud could be characterised as a form of adolescent rebellion against the father-figure of God.

Moreover, CS Lewis showed that there is a psychological dynamic of ‘fear fulfillment’: in other words, that people have reasons to wish God non-existence as well as his existence. According to Freud’s own theory of universal subconsciousness, a person would seem to have at least as plausible a psychological basis for wanting to do away with a Father in heaven as wanting to believe in him.

2. Not all forms of belief in God or gods can be lumped together. Richard Dawkins writes: ‘I am not attacking the particular qualities of Yahweh, or Jesus, or Allah, or any other specific god such as Baal, Zeus or Wotan. Instead, I shall define the God Hypothesis as this: there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us. This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual human evolution’. It sounds fair enough – that Dawkins wants to somehow remain politically correct and attack everyone’s gods!

But there's a flaw in this argument: just because some belief in God can be shown to be psychological doesn’t mean that all belief in God is psychological. No doubt some forms of religious belief are merely psychological, but it is logically fallacious to say that therefore all belief in God is merely psychology. Dawkins’ view assumes (without any argument) that all religions have the same basic core components, which can all be explained as projections of psychological crutches. All gods, and hence all religions, are simply projections of human desires. But there are differences between religions – crucially including how God is made known and is knowable.

3. Christian belief in God is not primarily founded in human experience, but in God's own revelation of himself. The Christian writer Gresham Machen wrote, 'The only God about whom I feel concerned is one who has objective existence, an existence independent of man. But if there be such a really and independently existent Being, it seems extremely unlikely that there can be any knowledge of Him unless He chooses to reveal Himself.' This is where Christianity differs to every other religion and philosophy. Whereas, for whatever reason – psychological factors or an inbuilt desire to want to know God – other religions are about humanity trying to find God, Christianity is about God coming to find humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. This means that the way of knowing what God is like is not internal, but based upon revelation in human space and time.

An alternative perspective on spiritual desire

The Bible endorses the idea that each of us has a desire for God, and with it a primal longer for fulfilment and significance. We feel that without God we’re incomplete. But, according to the Bible, this feeling of incompleteness is no crutch or hope for an imaginary friend. Rather, it teaches is that humans are not accidents, but that we were created in the image and the likeness of God. As relational creatures made in the likeness of a relational Creator, it’s not at all surprising that we want to relate to God. We long for God because we have been created to relate to him. As one Bible verse puts it, ‘God has set eternity in the hearts of men.’

CS Lewis put it like this: “A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, then; is such a thing as water. People feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” Lewis is saying that our universal instinct for purpose and meaning is a strong evidence that God exists. It’s as if there is an inbuilt honing device in each of us that draws us beyond the physical.

God has designed us to want to know him, and we can only understand our creatureliness when we understand the Creator. In fact, we are truly human – we live as we were created to live – when we live in relationship with the God that made us. It’s something that Jesus won for us through his death on the cross, that we might be reconciled to God, start a relationship with him and therefore experience true humanity.

Please don’t dismiss this out of hand – dismissing it like that could be a psychological crutch – a fear fulfilment. Will you look into the evidence objectively for yourself?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New universities and the need for community

One of the passions that has grown within me over recent years is the desire to see the 'new universities' of Britain reached with the gospel. The main stimulant of this desire was working with the Christian Union at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

I was often humbled by the Christian students in Preston, who continued to plug away with gospel proclamation and witness on campus, even though the odds were very much against them. CU numbers never really went over 70 in Preston, what is a university with a massive undergraduate presence.

No doubt there were other Christians on campus. One of the characteristics of new universities is that a large percentage of students commute in from nearby towns, and so never live permanently in their place of study. This makes it difficult to even grow a viable 'mission team' of any size.

There were other things that can make ministry hard and, for many, frustrating in new universities. Firstly, the subjects studied there are often more practical or vocational, making 'traditional' methods of apologetics and evangelistic proclamation less effective. In addition, my experience suggests that generally students at new universities are 'further back' in their appreciation for the gospel - particularly, there is the widespread assumption that becoming a Christian means you stop having fun (not the sort of objection that might be tackled effectively in an apologetic talk).

On top of all this, there are often no large halls of residence, a lack of emphasis across the university for involvement in extra-curricular activities and, perhaps above all, a lack of public meeting space. Certainly in Preston, students spent much of their time in their rooms, or out together in pubs and clubs. There was little sense of community.

A colleague yesterday was talking about another CU at a different new university. His observation of this group was that it was 'just a community' - that CU students had a tendency to sometimes huddle in a group. The evangelism that this group has tended to do has favoured first contact evangelism - this isn't surprising: as a relatively small group in a university of tens of thousands, it's tempting to think that first contact evangelism is the only way that it might be possible to make an evangelistic 'dent' in the university. The fact is, however, that such a large percentage of students on these campuses see Christianity as so functionally irrelevant, first contact is fairly ineffective. The students on these campuses need to see Christianity lived - to taste and see that the gospel is good - more even than students at traditional universities, who might be persuaded more easily to investigate Christianity through being convinced of its ring of truth. In fact, all of the people I know that have become Christians in Preston (and most of those who have shown any serious interest in Christianity) first became interested because they saw the gospel lived out in a friend or friends.

All this has got me thinking. I wonder if the need for friendship and community, that was so obvious in Preston, and which caused the CU my colleague was talking about yesterday to huddle, should be part of the outreach and evangelistic strategies at new university campuses. Obviously Christian huddling is a long way from the pattern of Biblical gospel ministry - but could CUs at these universities seek to meet the need for community to many around them with an outward emphasis? Sacrifical, outward-looking community, where everyone is accepted as they are, is - after all - a massive implication of authentic gospel living.

Imagine - building on solid gospel convictions, it's the CU at new universities including the lonely international students in dinner plans; it's the CU that runs a football team; it's CU members that offer their front rooms for other university meetings to take place. Imagine the way in which this would place gospel transformation on view, and the way in which this would require CU members to give a reason for the different hope they obviously have. Because CUs are currently very small at these universities, we're not going to talk about massive numbers coming into contact with CU members. But I wonder if the quality of contact might make CU evangelism in these tough mission fields more effective?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Bearing with others on disputible issues

An excellent post on gospel unity from Marcus which ties in with some of the ideas I've mentioned on this blog in recent weeks. Here's a taste:

Here is the principle: forebear with others in matters of indifference. Participate with them. Be friends with them. Encourage them.

But one more thing needs to be said: we need to be careful to distinguish what are matters of indifference and what aren't. I think ther are twin dangers: elevating to primary importance things that aren't - like style of meetings - and thereby refusing to have fellowship with people we should; or, demoting things that are of first importance - like core doctrines - to secondaries for the sake of wanting to be friends with everybody.

Friday, 11 September 2009


There is real benefit in reading through a book of the Bible all in one sitting. When reading Galatians recently, I noticed the repetition of the world 'cursed' in chapter 1 and chapter 3 (all quotes from TNIV):

Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God's curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God's curse! (Galatians 1:8-9)

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because "the righteous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, "Whoever does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole." (Galatians 3:10-13)
I think that maybe this explains why Paul explodes with such emotional intensity in the way that he does at the beginning of the letter. Paul explains that Christ 'gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.' To walk away from Christ is to place oneself under curse, because only he can deliver anyone from that curse. To wilfully teach others, then, in a way that draws away from trust in Christ is not only to place oneself under curse - but others under curse too. Christ alone is able to deliver anyone from their curse; we can turn to no other.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

District 9

District 9 is the much-hyped movie on current release; the current Number 1 in the UK box office, and reckoned to be pushing Star Trek as the premier science fiction movie of 2009.

One of the strengths of the film is the way in which it immediately engages the watcher. Like other recent films, the use of hand-held cameras and footage apparently CCTV cameras breathlessly grabs the audience's attention. About 30 minutes into the film I found myself surprised at the way in which I was so bothered about the welfare of a group of prawn-shaped aliens!

I had a love-hate relationship with the technical sides of the film. Sharlto Copley, in what I believe is his first, role as Wikus van de Merwe (an official charged with overseeing the forced evacuation from District 9 to the purpose-made District 10) is excellent. The scenes amongst the slums of District 9 have been excellently shot, and the special effects and costumes meant that I sometimes had to remind myself I was watching a science-fiction film. On the downside, the swearing in the film felt gratuitous (adding nothing to either plot or characterisation), Wikus' relationship with his wife wasn't developed enough and there was more gore than was probably necessary. Of the group that I saw the film with, some liked it, others didn't.

I once heard one of my heroes, the film critic Mark Kermode, saying that the best science fiction points beyond itself, where aliens are allegories or metaphors of people. And that's clearly in the mind of the film and script writers. The questions that the film poses are obvious: To whom should 'human rights' apply? Is it ever right to ignore a person's human rights? And what are the dangers when a population are treated as second-class citizens? There are also questions posed regarding the philanthropic intentions of multinational companies.

Above all, the fact that District 9 is set in Johannesburg and that it opens with the re-location of aliens from one township to another means that the movie watcher cannot help but associate the aliens with the black population of South Africa under apartheid. (Interestingly, the film opens in the early 1980s, when the aliens arrive over South Africa when, of course, apartheid was still in full force). Yet the politics of the film is far from a direct allegory of apartheid: there are other scenes that seem to echo the Nazi experiments on Jews during the Second World War, as well as the treatment of African-American slaves whilst away from home.

District 9 is an interesting piece. I, for one, hope that a sequel isn't made. An interesting discussion point with friends might be how they would imagine the loose ends of the film might be tied up, and to then discuss what is said about human nature.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Robbie Williams: Bodies

Robbie Williams makes his long-awaited comeback later this year with an album released in November and his latest song, Bodies, regularly on the radio.

I'm not a massive fan of Robbie's music but there's no doubting that he's something of a cultural icon. His forthcoming album Reality Killed the Video Star is dominating the charts on future release charts. And to his credit, Bodies, his comeback single isn't safe: not a ballad, but a sound that will appeal to a slightly more adult audience.

There's no doubt that spirituality plays an important part in the track. It opens with Gregorian chant and ends with a gospel choir. And whilst the lyrics sometimes feel somewhat forced, there's some interesting mileage in considering their message.

One of the lyrics at the end of the track is 'Jesus didn't die for you / What do you want?' I happened to hear an interview with Robbie on the radio over the weekend and there's no doubt that in part this is an effort to attract headlines through shock. But I wonder if there's more going on in the song.

There are masses of spiritual references: not only to Jesus, but also to the Bodhi tree (where the Buddha apparently received his revelations). In the interview I heard, Robbie confessed that although he'd been raised a Roman Catholic, he no longer knew who to pray to. He joked that the previous night he'd prayed to the Archangel Michael because he liked the look of his muscles, and also intimated that he enjoyed reading atheist writings by Richard Dawkins.

And I wonder if that brings the hearer to the crux of the song. Robbie sings about 'bodies' ('Bodies in the Bodhi tree / bodies making chemistry / bodies on my family...). Yet the song seems to point to a conviction that humans are more than just bodies finding themselves in space and time at a particular point ('Praying for the rapture / Cause it's strange, getting stranger'). Perhaps above all, though, the song represents a fear that the need for Jesus is merely a psychological need that we all have: possibly the need to be accepted as we are ('All we've ever wanted is to look good naked / That someone can take it / God save me rejection from my rejection / I want perfection').

And so the song closes, with Robbie singing that 'Jesus didn't really die for you', whilst a gospel choir sings 'Jesus really died for you'. I wonder: is this an argument that is going on in Robbie's head? Is Jesus merely a projection of our needs?

For more on Jesus being a psychological crutch or wish-fulfilment, click here, or see my post Is God merely a psychological crutch for the weak?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Pastures new

It's been a while since I last wrote anything on this blog - a combination of a holiday and moving house has meant that my Internet access has been minimal.

In the mean time, I've started a new job: I'm still working with UCCF but I'm now Team Leader in the North East region. That means I'll be responsible for leading the team of Staff and Relay Workers across the area as they seek to resource and inspire students to live and speak for Jesus during their time at university. I'm somewhat daunted but also excited about the months and years ahead. Linda is also seeing her career change: she's retraining and doing a PGCE at Sheffield Hallam University nearby.

We've settled into South Doncaster Community Church, and have been blown away by the reception we have received. It's so nice enjoying time with a church family, having the conviction that even when we don't know each other well yet, we have so much in common. Our new church family have welcomed us well, supporting us and seeking to meet our practical needs. Our new pastor, Alistair Gooderham, has a blog worth scanning sometime.

I've had some more thoughts on unity and a range of other issues and will seek to record them here in the coming days.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Cultivation of God-centred worship enhances horizontal unity

A.W. Tozer memorably stated how a deliberate focus away from self and onto Christ is fuel for Christian unity:

Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become ‘unity’ conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.
[The Pursuit of God, page 97]

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Stott: disunity often caused by proud prejudices

As we've seen already, a crucial part of maintaining Christian unity is doggedly holding to the key parts of the gospel. However, as this quote from John Stott shows, Biblical unity also requires a humility and realisation of ones own presuppositions and prejudices when it comes to 'secondary' doctrines:

We must come to the biblical text with a recognition of our cultural prejudices and with a willingness to have them challenged and changed. If we come to Scripture with the proud presupposition that all our inherited beliefs and practices are correct, then of course we shall find in the Bible only what we want to find, namely the comfortable confirmation of the status quo. As a result, we shall also find ourselves in sharp disagreement with people who come to Scripture from different backgrounds and with different convictions, and find these confirmed. There is probably no commoner source of discord than this. It is only when we are brave and humble enough to allow the Spirit of God through the Word of God radically to call in question our most cherished opinions, that we are likely to find fresh unity through fresh understanding.
[You Can Trust the Bible, page 50].
I experienced a case in point of this a number of years ago when I was a Relay Worker. I was meeting to study the Bible with another Christian from a very different background to my own. For nearly six months, this felt like a chore as both of us wanted to impose 'our' Christianity upon the other. Then I believe the Lord showed both of us - suddenly, and at the same time - the futility of what we were doing. This made us both much better listeners, and we actually found out that we both had a whole lot more in common with each other than both of us had previously thought. We still don't see eye to eye over every issue. But I would count him one of my good friends and a tenacious partner in the gospel.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Two models of CU unity

I'll carry on drawing together some thoughts from others on unity in future posts, but here's something that's been buzzing around my head for a wee while on unity. What does it look like in practice to maintain unity in an interdenominational setting like a CU?

It occurs to me that there are two models.

The first model is a kind of 'lowest common denominator' approach. Speakers in this model are instructed to only present Biblical teaching that all members present can agree with (i.e. from within the Doctrinal Basis). If a speaker presents an issue outside of this band of core teaching (and if particularly they teach on a 'secondary' issue that falls outside of the Doctrinal Basis) they might be reprimanded or encouraged next time to focus on core issues (depending on the amount of graciousness shown by CU members). In the model, 'tolerance' is defined by limiting what might cause offence or discomfort. In practice I think this model often leads to the domination of whatever the most popular church background in the CU is.

It seems to me that a better approach would be a second model. In this model, speakers are encouraged to pitch their material bearing in mind that the CU is a short-term interdenominational mission team. However, when they believe that the passage or issue that they have been asked to speak upon requires teaching on a 'secondary issue', they feel free to teach it (albeit humbly bearing in mind that other evangelicals can also have Scripturally-driven positions that are different to their own). CU members bear in mind that within the CU setting, they agree to agree upon the core doctrines of the gospel (as summarised in the Doctrinal Basis) but agree to disagree upon secondary issues. Therefore, so long as the speaker is led by Scripture in their teaching of a secondary issue, they are willing to receive such teaching (even if it is very different from the position they themselves hold). In this model, 'tolerance' is defined by loving somebody as a brother or sister for whom Christ died, even when they hold a position of theology that is very different from your own. It is looking somebody in the eye and saying that you are glad they are part of a gospel-focused mission team with you (and saying this even if you might never join their church).

It seems to me that the second model is stronger than the first model, and closer to the Biblical model of unity than the first. It is harder to achieve, because it is requires a strong understanding of what CUs are about, and a thorough focus upon grace. But I think it is worth striving for.

I once remember a colleague speaking of how, ideally, each CU member should come away from a CU central gathering feeling slightly frustrated, because not everything was done in a way that matched their own preferences and positions of secondary doctrine. However, he said, in this sense of general dissatisfaction, there is great satisfaction - modelling together great unity in the gospel, and being more effective on campus as a group than a whole host of smaller groups ever could be by themselves.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Lloyd-Jones: what is schism?

Martin Lloyd-Jones answers the question: what is a schism?

The best definition you will ever find of schism is in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, especially in chapter 12 perhaps but it is also there in other places. Schism as it is defined by the great apostle is this: it is men and women who are agreed about the centralities of the faith disagreeing about things which are not essential; it is a tearing of the body. The only man who can be guilty of schism, therefore, is a man who believes the truth, the essential truth, but denies other things that are not essential.
[What is an Evangelical?]
The observation that came to me here is that Biblical unity does not just consist of attending a meeting together. Presumably the church in Corinth was still meeting together, and yet it is the only church which is explicitly criticised for being schismatic.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Packer: Biblical unity is not unity at any price

Continuing with my thoughts on Christian unity, here's a quote by the great JI Packer on when visible unity is not the thing to prize above all. He looks back to the Reformation as a time where it was right to break fellowship:

Where the gospel is, faith is, and where faith is, there the Church us, whatever institutions may be lacking; but no group or organisation can be acknowledged as the Church while it lacks the gospel. The Church becomes visible and identifiable, not by flaunting some historical pedigree of ministerial succession, but by professing and proclaiming the apostolic gospel by word and by sacrament.

On this basis the Reformers held, first, that their separation from Rome was no sin since Rome had effectively unchurched herself by corrupting the gospel; second, their separation was no breach of the Church's unity, since neither papal government and order, nor any other particular form, was essential to that unity; third, by recovering their own church-character through their renewed confession of the gospel the Reformed churches had actually recovered unity, and were now waiting for Rome itself to join their new-found fellowship.

[...] To separate for truth's sake, at the summons of a biblically enlightened conscience, is not sin. When, without failure of love or respect, men dissociate themselves from their previous church connections in order to be free to obey God, this is not, and never was, schism. It may be their duty - as the Reformers thought it their duty to break with Rome over the gospel, and as the Baptist and Independent dissenters of 1662 thought it their duty to stand apart from the re-established Church of England and gather churches according to what they held to be the biblical model.

For such separations the word 'schism' is a pejorative misnomer... It can only engender a false sense of guilt about divisions which are rooted in the cleavage of principle, and encourage an ungodly attitude of 'union at any price'. Union between separated churches in the same area is certainly to be sought ... but it may not be bought at the cost of truth, or the compromise of conviction.'

[The Doctrine and Expression of Christian Unity]
I guess it will come as no great surprise to many readers here that I believe along with Prof. Packer that there are times to break fellowship where the gospel is at stake. But what about in other situations? Are there other times in which it is right to break a form of fellowship? And how does this work in an inter-church partnership (or 'parachurch') situation like the ministry I am involved in? These are the questions I plan to turn to over coming days, with the help of other believers that have gone before us.

In his comment on my previous post, Chris highlights a more up-to-date expression of Prof. Packer's theology here, which considers questions of the contemporary 'Anglican realignment.'

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Schaeffer: showing love to Christians with whom we disagree

Over the next few days I want to gather together some quotes and thoughts on Christian unity. It's been a subject that I've been thinking about in recent weeks, both in theology and in practice.

Here's a quote to start the series from Francis Schaeffer, whose starting point for this discussion is John 13:33-35:

Not all differences amongst Christians are equal. There are some that are very minor. Others are overwhelmingly important.

The more serious the wrongness, the more important it is to exhibit the holiness of God, to speak out concerning what is wrong. At the same time, the more serious the differences become, the more important it is that we look to the Holy Spirit to enable us to show love to the true Christians with whom we must differ. If it is only a minor difference, showing love does not take much conscious consideration. But where the difference becomes really important, it becomes proportionately more important to speak for God's holiness. And it becomes increasingly important to show the world that we love each other.

Humanly we function in exactly the opposite direction: in the less important differences we show more love toward true Christians, but as the difference gets into more important areas, we tend to show less love. The reverse must be the case. As the differences amongst true Christians get greater, we must consciously love and show a love which has some manifestation the world may see.

So let us consider this: is my difference with my brother in Christ really crucially important? If so, it is doubly important that I spend time upon my knees asking the Holy Spirit, asking Christ, to do his work through me and my group, that I and we might show love even in this larger difference that we have come to with a brother in Christ or with another group of true Christians.
[The Mark of the Christian, pages 46-47]
I'm challenged as I read this passage, especially the final paragraph. As I enter into a new job with UCCF, I am only too aware of the need for visible Christian unity and love with other true believers with whom I (and maybe UCCF) disagree - in theology, in methodology and so on. What will it look like to love these brothers and sisters? Schaeffer is right: the work of prayer is vital.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Inside Out: Forum film discussion

I'm hosting a short film discussion at UCCF's Forum conference in September on the track designed to showcase to students how they can use the arts in CU events.

The film I've chosen to show is Inside Out, directed by Tom and Charles Guard.

Here are a first draft of some questions I've come up with for the discussion afterwards. They've been written so that they can be fairly easily transferred to a discussion after pretty much any film:

1. What was your initial reaction to the film? What was it that prompted this reaction?
2. What impressed you most about the film? (e.g. plot, script or screenplay, an acting performance, film making technique, cinematography, soundtrack etc.)
3. Did any part of the film stand out to you as particularly meaningful or powerful in any way? Why?
4. What is the message of the film, or view of life and the world that is presented in the story as it unfolds? (Try to state this in a sentence). How did the film-maker’s technique seek to make this message plausible or compelling?
5. To what extent do you agree with the message of the film?

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on my questions... or on the film for that matter!

Inside Out is availableto buy on the excellent Cinema16 collection of short British films.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Ten important things I learned in Moldova: part 2

Following on from this post...

6. 'Do not forget to entertain strangers' - One of the unique things about the Moldova summer team is that, after the camp, we go home for a short stay with a Moldovan. I wrote about this experience last year. This time, I went home with a non-believing guy called Valentin to his home in a village called Cojuşna. Once again, I was reminded of the poverty that exists even in Europe. The different this year was that Valentin's grasp of English and my grasp of Romanian were on a par (i.e. very low). However, I was blown away by Valetin's hospitality and discovered that it's actually possible to communicate a large amount, even when verbal communication is very limited (although I am hugely grateful for a Romanian phrase book I had, and an ancient Russian-English phrasebook that Valentin owned!).

7. 'I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want' - Last Sunday the team split into three groups and attended three different evangelical churches in Chişinau. I had the opportunity to attend Christos Pentru Moldova, a Pentecostal church in the city centre. It was a really interesting experience. Perhaps the thing that will stand with me longest was the sermon, on trusting in Christ in financial difficulty. Moldova is Europe's poorest country and the pressures of lack of money are very real. It's tempting to think that something other than the gospel is needed when there is severe financial pressure. Of course it's right to aim to alleviate these problems, but the sermon reminded me that Christ is sufficient even in times of great lack.

8. 'But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us' - My friend Cathy Midmer, who'd co-led two previous trips with me, used to always say that being in Moldova makes a British person feel their weakness. It's true. Everyday activities that would normally come very easily all of a sudden become things that are risky and hard. Add the inevitable bout of illness to the mix and you're made to feel very weak. But with the difficulties we faced this time, it was more obvious than ever that the British team were frail and, like everyone, possessing their own honest shortcomings. One of the CSC staff workers commented that she'd always secretly thought that the British teams in Moldova were somehow super-human. This year she'd realised that we struggled like everyone else. But I think this led to greater glory to Christ. It was Christ that kept us going, and when we were whittled away he remained, just as Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 4.

9. 'We live by faith, not by sight' - As I mentioned in the previous post, we spent early morning team times on camp studying 2 Corinthians 1-6. I'd looked at this letter a number of times before, but it came alive as we moved through it methodically. The 'gospel' and 'ministry' of the super-apostles impacted me like never before: a gospel of glory and ministry that celebrated present comfort, the seen and the special. I was convicted by how easy I find it to slip into super-apostle thinking, where I am bothered most about what I see, and lose confidence in the Spirit's gospel transformation being what really matters. Even on the camp, it was easy to get most excited by external things rather trusting the Lord's work in people's hearts. And so the experiences of difficulty were helpful, refocusing me (and the team) onto what really matters: the eternal, internal work of gospel transformation, when the heart is God's true target. As well as some Moldovan non-believers, members of our team were moved to real openness, honesty and repentance regarding a wide range of areas of their lives. When Christians are honest about their lives, it can be tempting to despair at all the messiness. But we live by faith and not by sight. And so it is much more wonderful when hearts are changed than when Christians live a false life that outwardly looks sorted.

10. 'And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit' - Perhaps the thing above all that I will remember from Moldova 2009 was the deep work of transformation that the Lord did through his Word and by his Spirit. Nearly every member of our team experienced deep spiritual renewal as they were shown their weakness and sin and driven back to the cross. Several members of the team came face to face with sin and with situations that they had buried for years. The Lord granted some of our team members deep forgiveness. At the same time, at least four Moldovan students professed faith for the first time on the camp, and several others left the camp counting the cost of following Jesus. I have returned reminded once more of the powerful transformation of the gospel and the life that it brings.

Perhaps the three weeks in Moldova this time were three of the most intense weeks of my life. It's difficult to find words to describe some of the things that went on. But please join me in praying that this summer team might prove to have the long-term fruitfulness that I think it might have had, both in Christians and in non-Christians. Pray that the Moldova 2009 summer team might prove of tremendous value for the kingdom.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Ten important things I learned in Moldova

Yesterday evening the UCCF Moldova summer team arrived back in Luton after 15 hours of travelling. It was the last stage of an incredible three weeks.

I'd rarely - perhaps never - previously had the opportunity to see the gospel at work so powerfully in the way that it was during our time away. To be honest I'm still finding it a bit difficult to process everything that went on. But here are ten things I'll remember:

1. 'He who began a good work in you will carry it on to the day of completion' - It was so encouraging to see ongoing growth in many of the students I'd met in previous years. Ştefan (a room mate on camp three weeks ago) now works as an accountant and is active in his local church - I was so grateful to God for letting me bump into him again. Another former roommate, Artur is about to start as a volunteer with CSC (the Moldovan equivalent of UCCF) on a programme a bit like UCCF's Relay; Victor (who became a Christian on the camp two years ago) is to start training as a priest in the Orthodox Church, looking to apply what he's learned and serve the saviour he loves there; Tanea (who became a Christian on the camp last year) is going strong as a believer. It was also amazing to see how several friends from last year have softened to the gospel over the past twelve months. There are other stories just like this. It's brilliant to see that our ministry is not 'hit and run' and makes a real difference in the long term.

2. 'I urge that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for those in authority' - Until this trip I guess I'd had quite a romantic view of the former Soviet regime. But over the course of the trip this time it became evident how in Moldova - a former Soviet country with an elected Communist government - this sort of governance plays out. It's a strange time in Moldova. The upcoming elections are the most important in the country's history. Meanwhile, the government seem paranoid about 'destabilising influences'. As Westerners working with students - perhaps those amongst the more politically active in Moldova - we were viewed suspiciously. Roll on endless bureaucracy given to our Moldovan hosts. The whole system works on fear: a real fear of negative consequences if you don't do as you are told. Having had just a taste of this, I've realised how difficult it is to be in this sort of system (especially to be a Christian). Pray for the upcoming elections, especially for the Christians standing to reform the system.

3. 'Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn' - Due to the culture of fear that I described above, our team ended up having an ultimately unnecessary brush with the authorities. What followed was really invasive and painful for some of the members of our team. One of the things that I'll remember, though, was the way in which our team pulled together. I've never really been part of a group of Christians that has modelled all suffering when one part suffers in the same way. Deep love for each other and deep love for Jesus was behind the deep emotional response that the group showed.

4. 'We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the hardships we suffered in the Republic of Moldova. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure... But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God' - I felt out of my depth for nearly all of our time away. Day to day different situations emerged where things just seemed to be spinning out of control. I know that several other individuals experienced this too, especially in the situation I sketched above. There were a whole series of pressures that I'd never experienced in leading other summer teams. On the mornings of the camp, the British team studied 2 Corinthians together. It was very appropriate. Together we realised the great blessing of being made to cast ourselves once more upon Christ and his Spirit. In our time of debrief, several people shared that they had experienced the joy and freedom of this, even in situations of pain and pressure.

5. 'I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh' - In the evangelistic Bible studies on the camp this year, we used an adapted version of The World We All Want course. In my opinion, one of the real strengths of the course is the way in which it emphasises that real change is impossible without the Holy Spirit, but with the Spirit change of heart and desires is possible and realistic. As this truth penetrated people's hearts, we saw amazing things happen. In our orientation, the British team were convicted of deep sin as we went through these studies - especially regarding trust in works, rules and law to change oneself, rather than the Spirit. On the camp, many Moldovan non-believers camp to crave this indwelling of the Spirit, realising their helplessness to see real heart change without his special work. One girl, just before she trusted Christ, asked a member of the group how many times she needed to pray to receive the Spirit's indwelling. She was amazed to hear that, if the prayer was genuine, she needed to turn to Jesus only once to be forgiven and receive his Spirit. What a privilege it was to bring this good news!

Part 2 follows in due course...

Friday, 26 June 2009

Moldova 2009

On Monday, I'm heading out for the third and final time with a team of students to Moldova to partner with the IFES movement there, CSC.

I'm a swirl of emotions as I prepare to return to Moldova. It's been a hard period of sad goodbyes to friends in Lancashire, and the past few weeks have been quite demanding. The whole setup in Moldova means that you are made to feel weak. I'm already feeling weak and so I'm somewhat nervous about how I might cope this year.

At the same time, I'm aware of how amazing an opportunity we have in Moldova. The main part of the camp is resourcing an 'English and Bible Camp' where there will be about 60 Moldovan students (including 40 non-believers) who come to practice conversational English and study the Bible. We're using The World We All Want evangelistic Bible overview and I'm excited to see the impact this makes in the Moldovan context.

Please pray for us. We're a big team with an extraordinary amount of diversity. Pray that this acts to underline the truth of the gospel that we are proclaiming, rather than act as something that undermines team unity. Pray that we're not ashamed of the gospel, that the British team grow in their knowledge and love of Jesus, and that God draws people to himself.

I'll try to update from Moldova, but this might not be possible.


  • 29th June: team meets in Luton
  • 30th June: early morning flight from Luton to Bucharest, then travel by coach to Chisinau
  • 1st July: arrive early morning in Chisinau; team orientation lasts until 6th July
  • 6th-15th July: on the English and Bible camp
  • 15th-16th July: team members stay with Moldovan hosts
  • 17th-19th July: team debrief in Chisinau
  • 19th July: travel to Bucharest
  • 20th July: flight back from Bucharest to Luton
Sarah has some more detailed daily prayer requests here.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Evangelism-driven legalism

I've been thinking a bit recently about a subtle form of legalism which I think seems to be common in many evangelical churches.

The argument runs a bit like this:

  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore make an effort to impress non-believers by your behaviour - this might take various forms: be outgoing, be generous at work, arrive early at church to chat to newcomers... and so on.
It's certainly true that lifestyle commends the gospel. But I feel uneasy when I hear this sort of teaching. Here's why:

1. It seems to forget or sideline the place of grace. Titus 2, for instance, speaks of how different groups can commend the gospel through the way that they live - older men, older women, younger men and slaves. But the whole chapter is bound up with a theology of grace: Titus 2:11-14. The gospel of Christ (and the redemption in full from sin that he has achieved) gives a Christian a whole new perspective and teaches them to say no to ungodliness. The chapter is bound up with Jesus and his grace, not merely with exhortation.
2. For this reason, the implication of the above exhortation without grace is that Christians should try hard to be something that they are not really e.g. friendly, outgoing, generous. These actions are stripped away from the salvation we have received in Christ.
3. This effectively relegates godliness to a place where it is not much more than a piece of bait that can be dangled before non-believers to win conversations.
4. It also is likely to promote self-righteousness and/or despair amongst believers as they seek to strive towards these outward forms of behaviour. This behaviour is not coming from believers' hearts, and it ignores the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
5. This emphasis means that believers consider that if they show non-believers their sin, they've blown it forever.

There is a missing stage to the above teaching...
  • Jesus' gospel of grace has freed you and empowers you to live a life of love.
  • Unbelievers will have the gospel commended to them by Christian behaviour, and so will want to ask questions of Christians.
  • Therefore, be what you are called to be - loving Christ above all, and therefore radically seeking to meet the needs of others, trusting that all your needs will be supplied by Jesus. Be confident in the transforming power of Jesus to commend itself, even in someone as sinful and broken as you.
Dave makes a helpful addition to this post.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Looking for Eric: sketch of a maverick genius

Looking for Eric is an unlikely but enjoyable collaboration between footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona and director Ken Loach.

The story centres around Eric Bishop, a postman whose life has spun out of control. Failed marriages, teenage stepsons that he can't control and other complex family relationships drive Eric to the point of breakdown. Desperate for comfort and escapism, he turns to smoking his son's marujuana, and soon starts receiving visions of his hero, Eric Cantona.

The film oscillates between some light humour and a very gritty depiction of life in Manchester's social underclass. John Henshaw is brilliant as Meatballs, the leader of Eric Bishop's friendship group of postal workers. There's some real wit and brilliantly observed banter, especially between the this crowd of friends. (Two scenes stand out in particular: the session reading Paul McKenna's self help manual in Eric Bishop's lounge, and the scene of Manchester United related banter in a pub, where some knowledge of the Malcolm Glazer takeover helps).

I'll now add a spoiler alert - if you're going to see the film, stop reading now. After saying that the person with most charisma and charm he admires is Cantona, Eric Bishop's visions of Cantona lead him to act as Cantona apparently would in each situation he faces. As Eric Bishop learns to see his circumstances through the lens of the character of Eric Cantona, his choices change. The vision of Cantona encourages Eric Bishop to be spontaneous, to be passionate, to take risks, to trust in team-mates and never to give up when knocked down. There's a couple of sideways references to Cantona's mysterious pseudo-philosophy. The final scenes, in particular, represent Cantona (acting through Eric Bishop) as a big-hearted maverick rather than a crazed individual (as he was often portrayed in the media, especially after the infamous kung-fu kick).

The audience is forced to ask the question: what would Eric Cantona have been like in any other sphere of life, other than a professional footballer? Looking for Eric is a biography, yes - but a biography with a difference. It is a celebration of a unique kind of genius and, in that respect, a celebration of the diversity of personalities and gifts there are amongst members of humanity.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Playing the enemy: common grace and wisdom

A few weeks ago I read John Carlin's excellent book Playing the Enemy. It tells the story of Nelson Mandela's project of nation building in post-apartheid South Africa, climaxing with the 1995 Rugby World Cup final.

It's rare that a retelling of events in recent history that are in my own living memory can evoke as much emotion as they did at the time. John Carlin's book almost moved me to tears as I was led to appreciate the great significance of the events that formed the Rainbow Nation. I understand the book is to be made into a film, and I should imagine that it will transfer across media very well.

The book is really a biography of Mandela himself. He is represented as a political genius - using his charm and charisma pragmatically to achieve what he wanted, and being very aware of his surroundings. Mandela is quite a hero of mine, and whilst the book sometimes overstates his saintlike qualities, I felt I understood him further after this sketch.

One of the things that I've found myself responding to time after time is Mandela's strategy to always expect the very best to come out of a conversation, even those in situations of confrontation. Time and again, Mandela seems to go beyond reasonable expectation in giving his opponents the benefit of the doubt. He seems to assume that people are generally good - undoubtably corrupted by other influences - but good nonetheless. Here's a case in point of Mandela at work, responding on radio to one far-right opponent Eddie von Maltitz:

For a full three minutes he [von Maltitz] ranted and raved at Mandela - communism that, terrorists the other, the destruction of our culture, civilised standard, and norms. He ended with a brutally direct threat. "This country will be embroiled in a bloodbath if you carry on walking with the Communist thugs."
After a tense pause, Mandela replied, "Well, Eddie, I regard you asa worthy South African and I have no doubt that if we were to sit down and exchange views I will come closer to you and you will come closer to me. Let's talk, Eddie."
"Uh... Right, okay, Mr. Mandela," Eddie muttered in confusion. "Thank you," and he hung up.
[page 151]
I've been made to return to Mandela's strategy on several occasions in recent days. I wonder if often tense meetings would be made easier if we gave our opponents the benefit of the doubt as Mandela did. Mandela's theology seems to imply universal goodness and evil systems. A closer Biblical theology is of universal depravity of all human hearts. But I wonder whether our understanding of this true theological diagnosis of the heart sometimes causes us to put limits on the common grace he has placed into the hearts of all humans, and leads us into unnecessary confrontation and arguments when they might be diffused.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


I have been struggling for days with feelings of anticlimax. I've found these feelings highly disconcerting and pretty exhausting.

This isn't the first time that I think I've struggled with anticlimax. About five years ago, the week after a CU mission I had been highly involved in organising was perhaps the week in which I struggled most as a Christian and was my sharpest period of doubt so far.

This time round I've found myself not doubting the gospel as much as being self-obsessed. I think this is linked to being in a period of flux and change - finishing as a Staff Worker in Lancashire, preparing to move eastwards as Team Leader with UCCF, having to say a whole suite of goodbyes and preaching on some emotionally-demanding passages. The way in which this self-obsession has shown itself has been constantly comparing where things are with how I imagined them to be, and comparing where I imagined things would be relationally with a whole number of individuals with where they actually are. I've scared myself with how God-less these thought patterns have been, and the pride and despair that I've found myself being sucked into. All of this has been tiring, and I've really felt the devil on my back.

Like all periods, over recent days I've had to preach the gospel to myself. I've been blessed by the Lord's kindness in helping me. Singing songs about the cross on Tuesday night helped me lift my eyes from myself and back to Jesus. A conversation with a minister friend this morning spoke truths back into my life. And I was encouraged to a more helpful and God-centred viewpoint of my circumstances by Psalm 29 in my own Bible time this morning.

Anticlimax isn't something we often talk about or think about. But it is powerful. And I think, like grief, anticlimax is an important period through which we adjust to changes in our surroundings. Like grief, though, it's important to ensure that our emotions are ultimately surrendered to Jesus' Lordship and to his gospel. Just as we don't mourn as the pagans mourn, so it seems to me that disciples of Jesus shouldn't suffer anticlimax like others around us.

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
[Psalm 29:10-11]

Embarking on the adventure

I've been reflecting recently on how certainty is often considered uncool at best and arrogant at worst when talking about spiritual issues. The Bible speaks of confidence, of certainty and of being sure - yet to many people, this appears to be a boring turn-off.

Many people are suspicious of confidence. They're suspicious partly because it sounds as though it could be dull. We are surrounded by seemingly heroic people who are on a spiritual quest into the unknown – and Christians say, “We know.” And it sounds like if you become a Christian you’ll never going to go on an adventure again; it sounds like you’re just going to close down your mind and resign yourself to a cosy future with cardigans and slippers and just a small little world.

Actually, it is not knowing that is paralysing. The present economic climate is a great example of this. Whilst there is so much financial insecurity, it's very difficult to make long term plans. It's difficult to embark on an adventure when it feels there's nothing solid to build upon.

Similarly, as long as we are not sure about God, there is a kind of paralysis. We never live lives which are completely hung on the gospel, because we're not sure. We’re not quite sure we want to put all our eggs in his one basket. We feel as those we need to keep our options open; so we live a bit for Christ and a bit for other things as well. And when this is the situation, the Christian life seems very average.

In contrast, when the Bible writers say 'be sure' (and, as I've shown before, the Bible writers want us to be sure), we need to realise that being sure is not the end of adventure, but rather being sure is the beginning of adventure, where the Christian life can really take off! Life knowing the God that made you and redeemed you can really take off in all its richness and joy, because you know you can hang your life on Jesus and your death on Jesus. Hanging your life on Jesus means that you will serve and sacrifice and find joy in a whole range of unexpected places. The adventure really begins.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Nehemiah 8: Word Alive

Here is the text of the last message I gave at Lancaster CU. The table on law and gospel is taken from World Harvest Mission's Sonship course:

As we’ve seen, the book of Nehemiah is all about the work and worship of God’s people, serving in his strength. In the chapters prior to Nehemiah 8 we’ve seen Nehemiah lead his people – the ancient Israelites – in rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem.

Why was Nehemiah so bothered about repairing these walls? Well, it’s because Jerusalem was no ordinary city. Promise after promise in the Old Testament speaks of how Jerusalem is to be the climax and centre-point of all that God does to the nations through Israel. Jerusalem was to be the focal-point of Israel’s worship, where they could model to the world what a relationship with the LORD looked like. And so for the walls to be in a state of disrepair was dishonouring to God and meant that God’s model of blessing the nations – which in turn pointed forward to Jesus and his ingathering of the nations – was broken.

Now, by the time we get to Nehemiah 8 we see that wall has been finished. Miraculously, in just 52 days, this mile of wall around Jerusalem was erected. The Jews had made their witness to the nations. God’s model of heaven on earth had been restored. God has finished repairing the walls; in Nehemiah 8 – which is perhaps the climax of the book – God starts the process of reviving and repairing his broken people. And the way in which God repairs his broken people is through feeding them from his word.

Verse 1 tells us that all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate on the first day of the seventh month – the Jewish festival month. In today’s calendar, the date would have been 8th October 444BC. We read in verse 2 that the people comprised of the men, the women and all those who could understand (so presumably that means the children who were old enough). In total, there were probably around thirty thousand people, gathered together.

And if you’d been in backstreet Jerusalem that day, I guess you might well have asked, ‘What’s going on? Thirty thousand people! Is it a football match? A rock concert? What would draw thirty thousand people to gather as one man?’

Well, a guy called Ezra comes out onto a stage specially built for the occasion. And he has an entourage next to him – verse 4 – not backing vocalists, but other priests. It’s as if Ezra is showing that he is not going to do anything on his own authority, he doesn’t want the glory here. The whole thing is set up for a spectacular occasion. But the crowd are not there for a gig or a football match, they are there to hear the Book of Moses read – the first five books of the Bible: Genesis and Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They’re there to hear them read and explained.

Well in verse 1 the crowd began chanting for Ezra to get cracking (Imagine: ‘Ezra! Ezra! Ezra!’). Ezra 7:10 describes the man in this way: ‘Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.’ Ezra is the Bible teacher, Ezra is the one that the people know they need to expound God’s Word. And it’s just worth noting that, at this point, Nehemiah is happy not to be centre stage. As I was preparing this message, I was wondering if I would have been as humble as Nehemiah. After all, Nehemiah has been the main man up until this point. But, gifted as he is, Nehemiah knows that his gifting is in leadership and in administration. Ezra’s gifting is in teaching Scripture. Nehemiah knows that God has distributed different gifts to different individuals in his people: up to this point, primarily Nehemiah has been serving Ezra through leading the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Now Nehemiah turns to Ezra, knowing his gift, and says, “Serve me and the rest of God’s people through feeding me with God’s Word.”

What makes this hunger for God’s Word particularly noteworthy is the context. Remember, the people of Judah have been in exile for many years. Not only that, but the society was an oral one – most people would neither have been able to read or have ever heard the Law of Moses read in any venue. And now, in the safety of the completed walls of the city of Jerusalem, the people gather expectantly to hear from God.

And look at the depth of hunger for God’s Word that the Lord has instilled in his people. Look at verse 5: ‘Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground.’

Look at the passion that emanates from the hearts of the people. The LORD has placed into their hearts a thirst to hear from him. The apostle Peter wrote in the New Testament to churches saying that they should crave pure spiritual milk like newborn babies’. And that’s what the people are doing here. The people stand up as Ezra opens the book – it’s like a sign of respect; they’re waiting to hear what Scripture says. Then as Ezra prays, the people lift their hands. Lifting hands in the Old Testament is a physical way of saying to God, ‘I am completely submitted to you. I am humbly dependent on you. Let nothing get in the way of you speaking to me and my right response to you.’ It’s one of the reasons that some Christians raise their hands now. And then as the prayer ends, the people shout, ‘Amen! Amen!’ They are shouting, ‘Yes, Lord! I agree!’ to Ezra’s prayer that God would speak to them. As Scripture is opened, the people are not passionless or looking to intellectually assent to what they are hearing. They are arriving expecting to hear from the living God, expecting to meet with him through his Word. These guys have arrived to hear the Word of God, with energetic and conscientious listening. They are not texting each other as Ezra speaks, they are not preoccupied with other things. And verse tells us that for six hours they absorbed everything that Ezra has to say.

Can you imagine a six hour sermon? You have to love the Bible to stand reverently and attentively for six hours, no toilet breaks, no coffee breaks. Just standing and listening to God speak. But these Israelites were pleased to do it. The lure of the football on TV couldn’t keep them away.

Their attitude to the Bible is very much like that which is described in the Law of Moses which Ezra was reading to them. In Deuteronomy 8:3 Moses declares: “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God.” It’s a very good description of the scene in Nehemiah. It’s the picture of hungry beggars waiting for crumbs that are dropping from the King’s table. And every single word that falls from the mouth of God is food for these people. They are feasting on God’s word. Nehemiah 8 is about thirty thousand people who crave to hear God speak to them more than any earthly thing. They longed to know God.

Too often we take the Bible for granted. Just think of it. In the Bible, the God of the Universe is offering himself to you. The God of the Universe has commissioned a self-portrait called the Bible. The Father has asked the Holy Spirit to write, through the Bible writers, a rendered biography of his Son Jesus Christ, the exact image of his Father. So the Father has given this Spirit-inspired account of His Son, and he’s done it because he wants to be known. He wants to speak into your life – to introduce you to his wonderful Son and so to realize the wonder of his love.

How will God speak into your life? God speaks as the Bible is read and proclaimed. Do you see that in verse 8? Whereas in verse 1, it was called the Book of the Law of Moses – in verse 8, Nehemiah is absolutely clear that it is also ‘the book of the Law of God.’ Moses might have been the human writer – but God, by his Spirit, is the ultimate author. And just as he used Moses to write the Bible – so he uses people to communicate the meaning of the Bible. We see in verse 7 there were many who were employed in the task of making God’s voice heard and understood – preachers or small group leaders if you like. In verse 8, ‘they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.’

The Bible should not simply be read; it should be proclaimed and understood. And this is a wonderful thing. The Father does not simply send down the Bible like a textbook and expect us to study it on our own. So often people complain that they can’t get a handle on the Bible and they need help. And I want to say – yes you do need help – we all need help, and God gives us help. He gives us help through the Holy Spirit, the co-author or the Bible, and he gives us help through giving us the church: preachers and small group leaders and others around us to help us understand God’s word for ourselves.

Well what is the effect of hearing God speak in this way? Look at verse 9 with me: “All the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.”

The Bible had exposed them in their rebellion against the Living God. The Law thundered and convicted the people of their sin – of how they had turned to other things and placed them at the centre of their lives. It convicted them of how they couldn’t saunter into a relationship with God, because they had neglected him that had given them such goodness. They understood this not just individually but corporately: that for so many years the people of Judah had been under a curse because they had refused to hear the LORD’s voice. The Bible brought all this home – and it made them weep.

But Nehemiah says that this reaction to what Ezra had just taught is inappropriate. Look again at verses 9-11:

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Nehemiah twice says that crying is inappropriate because ‘this day is holy to our Lord’, and the
Levites agree. “It’s inappropriate to be weeping on a day like today,” says Nehemiah. And what was the day? Remember – it’s the Feast of Trumpets, which marked the beginning of seventh month in the Jewish calendar. And you can read in Numbers 29 of the seventh month was the festival month – it was the highlight of the Jewish calendar, jam-packed with festivals and celebrations that spoke of how the LORD rescues and forgives his people.

And so when Nehemiah says that in the light of the people’s conviction of sin that they should rejoice and not grieve, he’s not saying that the people’s sin doesn’t matter. Nor is he saying that times of grief and mourning about sin are wrong. Rebellion against God does matter: it breaks relationship with him. And sorrowful confession of sin is part of how we ensure that our hearts remain truly penitent and God centred. No, what Nehemiah is saying is that to see sin against God – to see the Law – as the end of the story to have a wrong view of the big picture. In the New Testament, it’s quite obvious that the Law isn’t the end of the story. But it’s also there in the Old Testament too. And part of this was the institution of various holidays where, in spite of their sin, God encourages the people to rejoice at their relationship with him. It’s a pointer that, one day, he will deal with sin once and for all. The law leads people to Jesus.

And so back outside the Water Gate in Jerusalem, Nehemiah says to the assembled throng: ‘Guys – it’s the Feast of Trumpets. It’s the celebration of the beginning of the seventh month – the month which speaks of how sin isn’t the last word. So stop grieving and start celebrating!’
It would be a bit like meeting someone on Easter Sunday that is gloomy and miserable. You ask them why, and they say, “Because of my sin, Jesus ended up on the cross.” And whilst that’s right and true, you’d want to say, “But it’s Easter Sunday! Today we’re remembering our wonderful Saviour and Redeemer who took our judgement and beat death. Mourning sin today isn’t appropriate.” Law isn’t the end of the story; sin isn’t the end of the story. And where sin abounds, God’s grace shown to us in Christ abounds all the more.

But so often today we can slip into thinking the Law is the end of the story, constantly making its demands. And when do so is miserable. We give the Law a place it should never have had. Have a look at this table:

Law is good because it...

Law is powerless because it can never...

Shows us how our faith should express itself

Maintain our relationship with God and others

Shows us what Jesus is like

Give us righteousness

Reveals the character of God

Justify those who break it

Brings sanity, wisdom and direction

Free us from bondage, guilt and corruption

Drives us to Christ and his Spirit

Give us power

Restrains wickedness

Give us life

Convicts of sin

Provide us with a substitute

Is written on our hearts

Give us the gift of the Spirit

Is part of love

Can cleanse our conscience

And what Nehemiah is doing, in a manner of speaking, is showing the people around him this table, or flipping open his copy of God’s Big Picture. He’s encouraging the people to see the broader picture of the Bible. And so Nehemiah pronounces an order to rejoice. “Do not grieve” he says “for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” In spite of your rebellion – there is forgiveness in the LORD, therefore rejoice. Go! Enjoy a barbecue, and make sure there’s plenty of food for the poor around – the God of the universe knows what you’re like and he loves you anyway. If that’s not cause for a generous celebration, I don’t know what is. And these Israelites went out rejoicing in the LORD. The Bible had taken them to weeping and mourning and then to rejoicing and celebrating. God is repairing his broken people.

It is the pattern of every great adventure story. All adventure stories follow the same sort of pattern. You know: there are some ordinary people living ordinary lives and they are plucked out of their ordinary circumstances and transported to another land, another kingdom, another world, another planet, where they are caught up in a cosmic battle of good and evil. And there are dangerous baddies and there are wonderful heroes and at the end there is a decisive battle fought and the good guys snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And at the end of the book the heroes are placed back in their ordinary lives, but now they are changed. They are stronger, braver, more caring, more centred, more joyful. Why? Because they had been caught up in something more grand and important than they had ever experienced before. Now their everyday lives take on a new perspective.

It’s the same as we come to the pages of Scripture. As we read the Holy Spirit’s history of the world, it is a cosmic tale of good and evil and victory in the Lord Jesus Christ. And the believer in Jesus is caught up in the events of the Bible. We were in the enemy camp – waging war against Jesus and deserving eternal death – but Jesus in His mercy has come and died in our place and scooped us up in the resurrection and brought us into the family of God to worship him as King and sing his praises forever. What a story!

This is something that God’s people at the time of Nehemiah tasted as his word was taught, because they now had caught sight of God’s purposes. Or as verse 12 puts it, ‘they understood the words that had been made known to them.’ And how does this show itself? It shows itself through a hunger for God’s word that sees them returning day after day so that Ezra can continue to feed them. And – beautifully and ironically – the chapter ends with the people making temporary shelters, as required in the Law for the Feast of Tabernacles. This was a festival to remind the Israelites that they are strangers and aliens in the world. The people are home, at last, in Jerusalem – but, as God’s word feeds them, they are reminded that they are not truly home. As Hebrews 11 puts it, they were being reminded that they could look forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. They were in the earthly Jerusalem, but God was reminding them of his rescue that meant they could look forward to the heavenly Jerusalem forever. That is where history is heading. That is the big story.

But I have to ask you: are you immersing yourself in this story? Are you daily reminding yourself of reality? Are you daily making room for God to feed you and speak into your life? Are you placing yourself regularly under God’s word? Will you, over the summer and upon graduation? If you’re not, then the gaps you’re leaving in your life won’t be left empty – they’ll be filled by other things. And you’ll find that although you nibble on snacks to satisfy the hunger in your life, your appetite for the truly satisfying meat that only God offers will diminish. It is a dangerous thing to neglect the word of God. But it’s also a stupid thing. Look at verse 10. Don’t you want verse 10 to be a reality in your life? “The joy of the LORD is your strength”? The highway to a joyless existence is one cut off from God’s gracious word to us. If we refuse to listen to God’s word, we’re like the sullen child who pokes his fingers in his ears while his parents try to tell him of a wonderful holiday.

The Word of God brings life and salvation. Through it, the Holy Spirit declares that all our sins can be forgiven in Jesus, if only we will cast ourselves on him and believe in him. If we would unblock our ears and listen there would be tremendous joy. The minute we think life is about striking out on our own we enter a very joyless and peaceless existence, which is profoundly dishonouring to God and miserable for us. And the minute we think life is about our approach to God (rather than his approach to us) we lead the unhappy life of the one under the Law. But when we understand that the Bible declares to us Jesus Christ’s approach to us, to bring light and life, then the joy of the LORD will be our strength. And we will find strength to live for him, whatever the cost.

Putting the Bible at the centre of our lives is crucial to understanding the wonderful grace of God. The Bible is where the Holy Spirit gives to us Jesus Christ and in him all the goodness and grace which the Father longs to grant his creation. If we want to be people of enduring and God-glorifying joy – a quality of joy that demonstrates that only God offers what humans like us need – then we must constantly hear the Spirit speak God’s good news to us through his Word. We must constantly allow ourselves to be repaired and transformed as the Spirit’s sword frees us and makes wounded people like us whole, as it made the wounded and broken people at the time of Nehemiah both free and whole.

This is my final message at Lancaster University CU. We’re in a time in this country where it seems to me fewer and fewer Christians are taking the Bible seriously and letting the Spirit use it to rip roar in our lives and bring us radically to Jesus. Too often we settle for impoverished sermons, Christian books that are more like self-help manuals than Scriptural truth, and suffer from a lack of hunger to actually grapple with and be transformed by the word. But I love you all very much and so my prayer for all of you for the rest of your lives is that you will continue to be people of the book, that Lancaster CU will be characterised by holding firm to the word of life, and that each of you as individuals will make time to hear God speak. I pray that the written word will continue, through the power of the Spirit, to reveal Jesus, the Living Word. And that as you see him more clearly, the joy of the LORD will be your strength, and that this will cause you to live radically. That as the joy of the LORD is your strength, and as you see knowing Jesus to be the supreme blessing, you will willingly suffer, you will willingly love people radically and sacrificially, and that you will make brave decisions for Jesus and his gospel, knowing that living wholeheartedly for Christ is never in vain.