Saturday, 31 January 2009

Knowing Jesus and 'knowing' Jesus

I had the pleasure yesterday of spending an hour or two with a Lancaster student who has grown into a close friend. As we were approaching the end of a stretching two-week period of Gospel distribution and mission, we chatted about what God had been teaching us personally.

One of the things that my friend said was that he'd appreciated for the first time what it felt like to be a jar of clay, what it felt like to know one's weaknesses and not to rely on oneself. He went on to say how he'd intellectually understood this before (he said he thought he understood the passages and he certainly knew the cliches) but now he now understood what it meant to be a jar of clay in experience too. There was a real feeling that, over the past fortnight, my friend's life had changed. Grace was no longer just a word for him, it had become a reality.

How common an experience this is! I think of my own life and see that this has happened so many times: that theological truths that I might have been able to agree with, assent to and even explain only later become realities that I experienced and knew all the more deeply.

I was reminded of Philippians 3:10-11 where Paul speaks of a 'knowing' that cuts much more deeply than mere intellect: "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead."

Thursday, 29 January 2009

U or √?

I was chatting to a Christian student earlier in the week at Lancaster University. She had been brought up with the idea that Jesus has made a 'return to Eden' possible. Many Christians hold to this point of view - it's a kind of U-shaped view of the Biblical narrative.

Her questions, then, followed like this: surely it would have been better for God to have ensured that Adam and Eve didn't fall in the first place if salvation is all about returning things to how they were before the Fall. This had become a major apologetic stumbling block for the student.

Instead, though, the shape of the Biblical narrative is not just a 'U'; in fact, it is more like a '√'. Our heavenly existence will see our adoption as sons, a status of being co-heirs with Christ and a deeper knowledge of God's grace and mercy than Adam and Eve could have ever known. God allowed the Fall to happen so that humans might experience a quality of relationship Adam and Eve never had in Eden.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Real life ministry

Closing in on Day 8 of a 10-day mission at Lancaster University, many of us involved are now beginning to feel a bit weary. Like any CU mission there have been real frustrations and some sadness, but also a whole load of encouragements and joys.

A particular joy today was spending time with Christian students from the English Literature department who put on an evangelistic event dedicated to Biblical motifs in secular literature. I then asked as part of this event to present an overview of the Biblical story to help the students see how these themes work themselves out in Scripture. There were about 20 of us there, nearly half were not Christian. Some fascinating stories and really interesting questions. A great event organised by students who are convinced of the gospel's truth and reality, and who are growing in discerning common grace in literature. I'll try and upload my talk if I get a chance.

It's tempting during a mission week to begin to resent the sacrifices that one has to make. It was really helpful, then, for my own godliness and perspective to study Philippians 1:12-28 with the Cumbria cell leaders this afternoon. It was great chatting about how Paul's view of the gospel isn't that of a religious maniac but of someone who just sees the gospel as it really is. I've blogged about how amazing I consider this passage before, and so I'm now praying that I'll see my time now to serve others with Christ-centred and Christ-empowered ministry and death as gain.

Joys and sorrows, feeling out of one's depth, relying on God's grace to keep persevering: it is real life ministry after all.

Increased love for God, not increased knowledge

As a first year UCCF staff worker I was treated to an afternoon with Marcus Honeysett on handling the Bible rightly. For the first time in my life I realised that engaging with the Bible was more about meeting God and being transformed than merely learning things.

Marcus has posted on this theme recently - it's really worth a read. Here's his juicy conclusion:

You can search the scriptures uselessly because you are merely interested in comprehending the text, or you can search with all eagerness to your eternal profit because you have received the word in your heart.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Frost/Nixon and the search for truth

A film about the making of a TV interview in the 1970s might not immediately seem like a great evening out. There's already some spice added when the interview is the famous meeting of David Frost and Richard Nixon. Add a great screenplay, some brilliant individual performances and it leads to a fascinating piece.

Ron Howard's film has been very well shot. Apparently, the movie is an adaptation of a stage play; however, this isn't obvious. In fact, the strong point of the movie is the detail that comes from close up shots of the two main protagonists' faces. The scene of the final day's filming of the Nixon interview is particularly well shot, using shots of Nixon and Frost's face on the monitor nearby capturing incredibly emotional intensity. The film tracks the emotions and passions of the two men over the period of the interviews, and uses these to tell its story. The acting is superb, and Frank Langhella deserves his Oscar nomination.

Truth is the driving nature of the movie. It is presented as having a redemptive element. Indeed, Frost's crusade to force Nixon to confess his Watergate-related misdemeanors is because it is considered that Nixon never received the justice that he should have rightfully faced. It's a champagne moment when Nixon finally confesses, and has (along with his family and friends) to publicly live with the consequences of his actions. The truth shows Nixon as he really is: neurotic, insecure, arrogant and paranoid.

However, the movie also blurs issues of truth. Firstly, there's a blurring between conventional movie and documentary, which means that in the film itself its difficult to separate truth and creative license. The content of the movie also blurs simple understandings of truth. Cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote in the mid 1960s that 'the medium is the message'; that is, that the type of medium that is used to communicate something affects what is communicated. 'Truth' is 'conditioned' by the medium through which it is communicated. This is a theme that comes through clearly in Frost/Nixon: for instance, there's comment on the famous Nixon-Kennedy debate: while radio audiences thought Nixon won it by a landslide, on television Nixon appeared emaciated, unhealthy, and awkward, while Kennedy appeared handsome, tanned and confident. Meanwhile, throughout the movie, the viewer is shown glimpses of how both Frost and Nixon camps seek to manipulate circumstances in order to produce the 'truth' they crave. This all contributes to what postmodern scholars call 'the hermeneutic of suspicion': the position of scepticism that assumes that one is rarely (or never) being shown the whole truth; but rather a message that is mediated and influenced by power games. Even in the final scene the whole truth is hidden as a 'white lie' is considered kinder and more beneficial.

Perhaps the contemporary popularity on Frost/Nixon is because the movie concerns a politician who has made mistakes: Will he come clean, tell the truth and admit that he made mistakes and acted wrongly? And how might remorse for these actions show itself? In a world that is now moving on from Blair and Bush, these are questions that still echo loudly.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The penny-dropping moment

One of the CU Guests up this week, and a friend of mine, Rachel Earnshaw, writes about the penny-dropping moment experience she had on mission at Lancaster this week.

She writes about a late-night conversation with a Muslim:

But the amazing thing I went away from this conversation with, as well as an encouragement for both me and the guy I was with that we could explain the Gospel (which when you aren't constantly coming into contact with people who ask such blatent questions, doubt can creep in...) was this overwhelming thankfulness and joy that what I said was true and it applied for me! I am such a classic rule setter, and the type that beats myself up every time I fall into the same sinful things I struggle with time and time again... and yet just as I told the guy we spoke to, I am saved from that! I was practically dancing as I walked back, both out of excitement that God could use someone as unwilling and uncooperative and broken and bumbly as me, and also that this amazing message, that seems too good to be true sometimes when you say it out loud, IS true and IS applied to me!
Read the post in full here.

The deeper gospel

I'm writing from the last day of the first of two weeks of outreach events at Lancaster University. As ever, it's been a mixed time: frustration and heartache is inevitable, but there have also been great encouragements. I'd encourage you to check out things from the perspectives of Michael, the speaker this week, and Sarah, one of the team of CU Guests.

I've also found that this week has made me reflect more on my own walk with the Lord, and what it means for me to be a Christian. This is my fifth mission week at Lancaster University, and so it feels that reflections have been inevitable both in comparison with the first, four years ago, and the most recent, a year ago.

It was during my time as a Relay Worker that I think I realised that the gospel was really real. Not just in an existential kind of way, not just as truths in a spiritual subsection in my mind, but really real, more real than anything else. And that conviction has just kept on growing over the years since.

In the past year, I think I've seen that Jesus' diagnosis of humans is really real too. I've written about this before. I think I used to have two categories of Christians in my head: those that were basically sorted, and those that were basically unsorted. The last year has helped me to see that all of us are basically unsorted: struggling with sin, knowing hurt and feeling sore under the effects of the sin of ourselves and others in our lives. And knowing this truth in experience has had a whole number of different knock-ons: knowing that we are broken and hurting jars of clay offering other broken and hurting people hope (and don't need to be 'sorted' to first offer this hope), and knowing that only Jesus can clear up the mess.

So this mission week has felt like it's been in a richer colour. I'm grateful to God that he's helping me to see and feel these basic truths more. The gospel that I'm aware we're offering is rendered more deeply. I'm praying and having to ensure that this doesn't spill over into frustration with other Christians that appear to have a much smaller (more clinical) gospel. I'm desperate to see the gospel changing lives, in bringing people into the kingdom and then in changing lives. Because that is the ministry that, with the Holy Spirit's help, we have.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The egotistical God that demands praise?

I was chatting earlier to a student who struggled with the idea of a God that demands to be praised and was reminded of this quote I recently read:

'The praise of the God whose truth, beauty, grace, mercy, greatness and faithfulness we appreciate is the most natural thing in the world, and can be the most joyful too, as well as the most health giving. As CS Lewis wrote, 'Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.'

Lewis's wisdom helps us to see two things. First, tat what looked like bargaining with God is simply honest anticipation of glorifying him through active enjoyment of a renewed display of his active love. Second, that the corporate praise to which the psalms constantly call us, and which we seek to achieve in church every Lord's Day as we sing out together our shared appreciation of God and his ways, brings him close to us. Writes Lewis: "I did not see that it is the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men. It is not of course the only way. But for many people at many times the 'fait beauty of the Lord' is revealed
chiefly or only while they worship him together."'
[JI Packer & Carolyn Nystrom, Praying, pages 100-101]

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Free at Lancaster University

The 'Free machine' rolls into Lancaster University over the next fortnight: it's the turn of the CU there to offer their campus the opportunity to engage with Jesus and his claims.

The CU at Lancaster have got quite brave plans for the next fortnight: aiming to give out 4000 Gospels by hand (representing over one-third of the university undergraduate population), five lunchbars, five evening talks the following week as well as events in departments and colleges. I've also been really delighted to see how creative the CU have been in putting together plans: there's a Free 'Zine of poetry that's been made by some Creative Writing students, a series of audiovisuals to be shown on the uni LCD boards and a whole 'bedroom' assembled in the centre of campus where people will be able to come, chill out and say what they think constitutes true freedom. It's been great seeing everyone pull together and use their gifts.

Please pray for the CU over the coming fortnight. This next couple of weeks is probably as high-profile as the group there have been during my time; not least because of the Free marquee currently standing outside of a busy university building. We can expect opposition and things probably won't be plain sailing. But pray that we're bold in proclaiming the gospel, and that God uses these efforts to bring others to faith over the coming weeks and months.

Week 1 speaker Michael Ots gives his perspective.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

After a series of films out over Christmas that I've not exactly been that bothered about seeing, a whole batch of movies are currently out that seem to be worth viewing. Yesterday, I got around to watching the much-hyped Danny Boyle offering Slumdog Millionaire.

I'm always slightly cautious when a film is massively hyped, but Slumdog lived up to its popular billing. The acting is brilliant and the whole movie has a lovely tempo to it. Perhaps the highlight of the film is the cinematography: there are some shots which have been impeccably made, and there are several sequences where the medium of cinema is used to its very best. The chase sequences through the slums and the scenes set at the train station come to mind. Combined with skilful flashback scenes and powerful characterisation, Slumdog Millionaire draws upon all of the senses.

There are a few themes that run through the film (including love, justice and an interesting motif of destiny and/or the sovereignty and providence of God), but its major theme is India itself, in which the film is set. India not only provides the backdrop to the movie but, in many ways, is its prominent topic too. Aspects of Indian life and culture are celebrated, but it's partnered with a kind of lament (which mourns religious tension and extremism, the abuse of the most vulnerable in society and the pressures of poverty, amongst other things). It's interesting that Indian community itself has been quite divided in its reception to Slumdog. Knowing this before viewing the film made me wonder at several points whether certain aspects of Indian culture and life are really shown in a very honest light, or whether they have been exaggerated for a primarily Western audience. You'd have to wonder how the film might have been shot by an Indian director.

Still, at this very early stage of the year, Slumdog Millionaire will surely feature as one of the best. (And excitingly, one of the ones I missed from last year - Waltz with Bashir - is being shown at the independent cinema in Lancaster next week!).