Wednesday, 17 August 2011

I've moved

To anyone who might still look at this blog, a note to say I've re-started blogging after a hiatus at

Monday, 11 January 2010

Speaking the truth in love

I’ve been made to think in recent times about what it means for a Christian to be committed to ‘speaking the truth in love’ to other Christians, whether individuals or groups. 

Often it seems to me that, in the name of ‘godliness’, we chicken out truth telling. No doubt there a grain of sensitivity behind all this: after all, we don’t want to cause others unnecessary pain through our blabbering. On other occasions, we are aware that a particular audience just doesn’t need to hear our gripes and pains. But, looking at my heart, I know that often I fail to tell the truth to others because of my ‘fear of man’.

This fear can even be institutionalised in some Christian circles. We believe that there are certain things that we just can’t say. There is an unwritten code which dictates that talking about finding situations (or people) difficult should be not done, or only alluded to, even when we believe that we have been objectively wronged. I guess I’m not the only person to have seen this lead to an ‘elephant in the room’ syndrome where, for example, certain individuals or churches or organisations aren’t mentioned by name – although everyone on the inside knows exactly who or what is being talked about.

I wonder whether, in situations like this, any good comes at all from this approach. The veneer of words merely used to obscure painful realities rarely does anything positive. On the other hand, it can lead to cynicism, caricature and further suspicion. Motives are analysed and re-analysed – and the issue at hand remains unresolved. All in all, hardly a great model for loving others.

What is the answer? Surely it is to speak with humble honesty. I need to consider who I need to speak to about the problem, and likewise those I don’t need to speak to (for instance, it may be a matter for church elders, but not the broader church membership as a whole). I need to be certain of my acceptance by God (whether I am right or wrong), which frees me from being driven to be approved by others. I need to admit that, because of my sin and fallibility, I may be wrong and uncertain in my judgements. I need to admit that I might be part of the problem. I may need to admit to myself my confusion and confess that I don’t know the way forward. And then I speak, with graciousness and humility, to those who need to know, and don’t speak to those who don’t need to know, giving the situation time and prayer to change.

The cynicism which goes with 'the elephant in the room' is ugly and leads to a lack of truth and love between believers. But, with God’s help, we can surely speak honestly and specifically, leading to real change.

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.