Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Podcast Presuppositions

The Friday Night BBC Radio 4 Comedy Podcast is usually a hit & miss affair – a few good lines in among a lot of old gags. It seems though that rather than concentrating on producing better material our current batch of comics are much more interested in promoting secular (anti religious) values in their half hour of air time. This week, in among jokes as cutting edge as, ‘Britain’s a good place to live for a start it’s not France’ (sic), Punt & Dennis took it upon themselves to expose the dangers of religious belief.

So we had a little girl’s voice asking her Daddy if there was a God. The father replied in measured gentle tones, ‘well some people think there is and others don’t, you really have to make up your own mind’. This was followed by the suggestion that this little girl would grow up enlightened, reasonable and an all round good citizen. Next the same little girl’s voice asked the same question. This time the father screamed in an Ian Paisley accent, ‘Yes there is and if you don’t believe it you’ll burn in hell forever’. The implication being that this litle girl would grow up to be a repressed and fanatical suicide bomber. How the audience laughed.

Firstly notice the stereotypes, the non-religious (or at most agnostic) father is reasonable, intelligent and in the business of promoting intellectual freedom in his children. Whereas the religious father is clearly an irrational bully and in the business of brain washing. Thus even before any actual assessment of their views is begun those in the religious camp find themselves vilified and caricatured. Now I know this was a comedy programme but nevertheless like the racist comics of previous years it drip feeds anti-religious prejudice into mainline culture – it gives permission for others to mock. The anti-faith lobby in Britain today leaves Christians feeling a little like Jews in 1930’s Germany – a minority who it is acceptable to distain, a group whose own human rights must always take second place to the accepted values of the political and media classes, and those upon which the blame for many of society’s ills can increasingly be laid. That of course (I hope) is to over-dramatise the situation but those who claim to promote the greater good in our society should be wary of such parallels.

Anyway, back to the joke in hand and the presupposition that children should not be told what to believe – how pleased people are when they tell you that they were brought up to make up their own minds about God. For them it is a mark of enlightened parenting and their intellectual independence. However, I suspect that most of them weren’t told in response to the question, ‘Are black people inferior to white people?’ – ‘well some people think they are and some don’t, you’ll have to make up your own mind about that’. Or to the question, ‘Would it be alright to kill someone if you really hated them? – ‘well son, I wouldn’t like to say, it’s really a matter of what helps people personally’. No self-respecting parent would fail to give strong and unambiguous guidance on such issues.

The option of ‘make your own mind up’ is left for categories that are regarded as essentially trivial, e.g. is Revolver a better album than Sgt Peppers? (The answer is ‘yes’ by the way). So Punt & Dennis are doing no more than revealing that they don’t think God is important. God is a matter of indifference. So whether my children believe in God or not – so what. The implication being that there are no implications. This is the presupposition that we need to tackle such secular beliefs upon – because as CS Lewis said: ‘if Christianity is false it is of no importance, if it is true it is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.’

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Deleting the Junk

info@greenviewchurch.co.uk – is the email address for anyone wanting to contact the church via our web site. Unfortunately this address seems to be a magnet for large amounts of junk email. Most of which have rather purile headings which I have to scan through just in case there is actually a legitmate enquiry in there. I have to confess that at one point I hadn’t checked it for several weeks only to find on opening it that over 2000 emails has accumulated. I then had the tedious and time consuming task of deleting them - 25 at a time. It took ages.

It’s amazing how relatively quickly the whole account got completely swamped and clogged up with this defiled rubbish. But it got me thinking of the daily rubbish that accumulates in my own life – both my own sin but also the defilement that external sinfulness brings to it (e.g. things seen on TV, comments overheard, other people’s bad behaviour etc). Because uncleanness in the Bible contaminates people both from internal and external sources. Unchecked that contamination can swamp us spiritually and clog up our relationship with God. Which is why we need daily cleansing or, as my old Pastor used to say, ‘to keep short accounts with God’ (i.e. don’t let sin built up in your life – cancel it out quickly and regularly). In the Old Testament such was the ‘ease’ with which you could get contaminated that sacrifices and washing rituals were readily available for quick cleansing.

Every day we need to clear out the accumulated junk in our lives by getting before God in confession and in asking 'to be every whit clean’ (Jn 13:10 AV). I’ve learnt the lesson – every day I open up that email account and delete the junk before it gets out of control.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 Jn 1:9)

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Golden Compass - Atheism for Kids

December 7th sees the release in cinemas of 'The Golden Compass' - a film aimed at children (although not yet rated) that is based on a trilogy of books by Philip Pullman. It looks set to be a holiday season blockbuster and will doubtless generate lots of publicity in the coming weeks - see a trailer here:

Once again Christians will feel the discomfort of anti-Christian atheism being slickly promoted in mainstream culture - for Philip Pullman's self-confessed desire in writing the 'Dark Materials' trilogy was do for atheism what CS Lewis' Narnia books had done for Christianity. The Golden Compass is truly atheism (of the particularly anti-Christianity type) for kids. Although set in a parallel world to ours its agenda is very clear - it is a world in which the church (or Magisterium) is a sinister body whose aim is to suppress freedom and a world in which God is a senile fading despot. It is a world that can only be saved by the 'upward fall' of humanity - to do what Eve did and reject God thus creating a Republic of Heaven. This is a mainstream Disney -type kid's film which will be in cinemas everywhere in four weeks time.

For a slightly more in-depth response to the original novels you can read my own review here: PULLMAN REVIEW

Friday, November 09, 2007

How the UK changed between 1997 & 2007

Make of these what you will...
I copied the following statistics from a special Observer Supplement on the Blair Years published earlier in the year. I came across then again recently and thought they might be of use as sermon illustrations or just general interest...

Life Expectancy
1997 - 74.8 (m) & 79.7 (f)
2007 - 76.6 (m) & 81 (f)

Households with multi-channel TV
1997 - 25.5%
2007 - 78.6%

Pupils at Private Schools
1997 - 473,000
2007 - 615,000

Average House Price
1997 - 72,382
2007 - 172,006

Number of Mobile Phones
1997 - 8m
2007 - 65m

CCTV Cameras
1997 - 100,000
2007 - 4m

Men using Viagra
1997 - 0
2007 - 900,000

Average attendance at Premiership matches
1997 - 18,463
2007 - 34,171

Prison population
1997 - 61,114
2007 - 79,380

Visits to Museums
1997 - 14.4m
2007 - 38m

Cost of flight between London & Frankfurt
1997 - £325.00
2007 - £118.90

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hitch Hikers Guide to Evangelism Pt 1

I recently attended a seminar on ‘one-to-one evangelism’ (run by Mark Simpson & David Gibb of St Andrews CofE in Leyland) and thought it may be helpful to share some of my notes.

Evangelism Frustrations in a Large Evangelical Church
1. People come to the church with experiences of successful evangelism in CU’s, Summer Missions and other para-church events but don’t see the same results in the church.
2. The church runs evangelistic events and courses but the number of non-Christians brought along is often disappointingly small.
3. Most growth is from people ‘drifting in’ rather than from outreach contacts.

Result: is guilt about lack of evangelism (success) – often by leaders who then transfer their guilt to the rest of the church.

The problems (why are we so poor at this?)
Many of us are quite private people. We live in a society that is not very relationally motivated – individualistic and materially focused (Christians aren't immune from this). We are mobile and often don’t live or work in the same place long enough to build-up substantial friendships. We are busy both in work and in church.

Titus ch.2
Different groups in the church are addressed but a common theme emerges – there is a focus on how they live: their behaviour and lifestyle. Why? So that God’s word will not be brought into disrepute, to give opponents no basis for their attacks, and to make the Gospel attractive. Titus is a letter with a major emphasis on being people ‘eager to do what is good’.

The problem is that we often want to skip the above and go straight to a Gospel conversation – which can be personally wearing, turn others off and damage building longer term relationships.

Four Principles
1. Be Natural: Don’t force the Gospel. Be genuinely interested in others. Do things you actually enjoy (i.e. don’t do things simply to make contacts with potential converts) as then your friendships will be natural and genuine.
2. Be Long Term: Real friends will accept invitations. Give time to others – work often allows this best.
3. Be Gospel Ready: Have a Gospel outline practiced – you may not use it all but at least you’ll have something clear to say if an opportunity arises. Pray! This also has the side-effect of making us more sensitive to spotting potential opportunities.
4. Be Church Connected: Good Gospel preaching equips Christians to share their faith. Keep doing the evangelistic events so people do have a stepping stone for their contacts. Recognise the naturals ‘the people people’ and give them the freedom to be with others (i.e. not stuck behind the scenes or doing in-house church activities every night).

Hitch Hikers Guide to Evangelism Pt 2

Finally (see Part 1) – DO DOOR TO DOOR

'What?' - you cry, isn’t that the antithesis of all the above ? Don’t people just hate that kind of thing? Isn’t it so passé and a big turn-off to non-Christians?

A number of years ago I was stuck in Fort William having just completed the West Highland Way and facing the prospect of getting back to Glasgow with only 11p. My friend suggested we hitch hike – well I had heard the stories about foolish people who picked-up hitch hikers and had to be scraped out the ashtray later on. So I assumed that no-one in their right mind would ever pick hitch hikers and that to stand at the side of the A82 with our thumbs stuck out was a hopeless idea. ‘No’, insisted my friend it was perfectly feasible and that he could categorically assure me that before 150 cars passed us by we would get a lift. So we stood as car after car sailed by (some drivers ignoring us, some laughing at us, some wondering what sadistic weapons of torture were concealed in our rucksacks – but (and much to my friends delight) before we got to ‘150’ a car stopped and gave us a lift! The reality is that there are still enough people (albeit a pretty small minority) who will still give people lifts that it makes hitch hiking a viable option (sadistic killers take note).

Now door to door has, if nothing else, the side benefit of helping Christians to be ‘Gospel Ready’ and evangelistically focused. But more than that it may be that there are still enough people out there who will respond positively to getting a leaflet and seeing the church take an interest in them that this is still a worthwhile activity (the JWs & Mormons obviously think so).

So this is something we are looking into starting around the Shawlands and Pollokshaws areas. Anyone interested in being part of this will be very welcome.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Worshipping in the Study

I have been really blessed this year to have read a couple of books by Prof Macleod - he is a master theologian, inspirational preacher and wonderful writer. Below is just one quote from his book Behold Your God (1990)...

On the self-revelation of God
One other fact connected with the revelation of Exodus 3:1-18 ought not to be ignored. Moses’ immediate reaction when he sees the burning bush is to say, ‘I will now turn aside and see this great sight.’ This resolution is deliberately opposed by God: ‘Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground,’ God is not simply a great sight, the object of speculative curiosity. The revelation of his glory and the whole theological process which legitimately follows from it is holy ground. We cannot stand as superiors over God or His Word. We may not coldly or detachedly analyse and collate the self-revealing deeds and utterances of Jehovah. We may not theologise without emotion and commitment. The doctrine must thrill and exhilarate. It must humble and cast down. Our researches must be punctuated with frequent cries of, ‘Oh the depth!’ and even periodically abandoned so that the pent-up emotions of our hearts may find relief in expressions of wonder, love and praise. Theology has lost its way, and, indeed its very soul, if it cannot say with John, “I fell at his feet as dead’ (Rev 1:17). (p39 - italics mine))

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Vision Thing

You can’t get away from it (certainly not if you’re a church leader) but having a Vision is now de rigueur for all those involved in ministry. Actually it has been for sometime – since the 80’s no self-respecting church is without its Mission Statement, Purpose Statement, Vision Statement and Strategy documents. Which is all well and good as long as we don’t get too bamboozled by the jargon and business-speak. After-all good planning is not a 20th century invention. Nor is operating within a management flowchart any guarantee of success - either in church or business.

But what should a Church Vision be? Or what shouldn’t it be? Let me start with the positive: it should be essentially spiritual. In fact I’m going to argue that it’s all it can meaningfully be. A church vision (to be robust and credible – i.e. something that won’t become redundant within a couple of years) needs to be focused on basic Gospel priorities. So a sound Vision will be, for example, 'To be a church where the Bible is faithfully taught, where people are cared for and where outreach is encouraged and facilitated'. Of course in response some will say this is too airy-fairy, just spouting general truths that anyone could sign-up to and lacking the kind of concrete goals that will actually motivate people. Now again there is nothing wrong with concrete goals – we might see the provision of a new church building as something we need to plan for and invest in. But the new building must simply be something to help facilitate a greater vision. Otherwise our ministry aim becomes just to construct a big hall – so what! Or perhaps it’s to employ another worker – again so what! These things only become meaningful if they are part of achieving the greater spiritual vision – to strengthen and facilitate a Kingdom community.

This means that plans about buildings, structures and even workers must be flexible. So any sense that a Vision needs to include a rigid 10 year plan of activities is in danger of putting the cart before the horse. Paul had a vision to evangelise. He also had a short term plan to achieve this – he would go to Bithynia and preach the Gospel there – a good, sensible and reasonable plan. Except for the fact that the Spirit closed the door to Bithynia and sent him off to Macedonia instead. Same Vision but a flexible plan. Paul’s need to adjust his short term planning was not a failure but simply the recognition that in God’s providence circumstances change and we need to follow God’s lead – rather than doggedly pursue plans (perhaps for fear of losing face) when God has moved to redirect us.

Indeed such is the nature of church life that making and remaking plans will be a perennial activity. People leave and ministries go with them, new people arrive with gifts for new ministries we couldn’t have anticipated, local circumstances change, opportunities arise and so on. All of which mean that any thought that we can decide now what ministries will look like or in some cases whether they will even exist in 5 or 10 years time is to risk being inflexible and presumptive about God’s leading. Nevertheless if our Vision is spiritual we can still continue to pursue it albeit in different and changing ways – whereas if our Vision is focused on certain structures or programmes we become prisoners to an unbiblical criteria of success and failure.

I have spoken to a church leader who said that their church had gone through a process of massive change – restructuring, new plans etc. All with the aim of reinvigorating the church, creating new impetus, being a launch pad for a new era of spiritual advancement and dynamism in the fellowship. Within two years the changes had lost their novelty and excitement – and people were actually speaking about needing a new springboard to keep things moving. Perhaps the problem was that the changes had become the Vision.

Now, of course, church and ministry leaders need to be constantly looking at ministry needs and opportunities and developing them accordingly. It’s good to have goals, to take stock, to do new things, to improve and at times to discontinue old things.

But the Vision needs to be the Gospel being lived out in God’s people (in holiness, love, service and outreach) because when we lose sight of that we will become more concerned about building an institution than building a people.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Clan Adam or Clan Jesus?

On Sunday night we strayed from Galatians 4 into Romans 5. So I thought it might be helpful to restate what I was trying to explain with a few embellishments (it’s a ‘preacher thing’ – sorry!).

In Romans 5 (as in Galatians) Paul is at pains to show that Law-keeping (or legalistic religion) contributes absolutely NOTHING to our standing before God. He is insistent that our acceptance and inclusion into the family of God is a gift, entirely provided by Jesus, and received on trust, that is, through faith.

To hammer home this point he presents us with the contrast between ADAM on the one hand and JESUS on the other. Adam sins in Eden – he breaks God’s command concerning the Tree and the result is death. A penalty that subsequently falls on all Adam’s descendants (i.e. all humanity) because everyone from Adam onwards dies (v12). But here’s the thing – in the period between Adam and Moses there was no law. The Law only came in with Moses at Mt Sinai - and where is no Law then there can be no Law-breaking (v13). The people between Adam & Moses were not breaking any laws (there were none) and therefore they can’t legally be held to be doing anything wrong in that sense. YET they are all dying – they all nonetheless come under the penalty of sin (v14). Why?

Well it’s because they are counted as being ‘in Adam’ – their identity is bound up with their ‘Clan Head’ so to speak. It is Adam’s disobedience that communicates death to all his descendants. So even though they haven’t actually broken any of God’s commands (v14) – they nevertheless bear the fall-out of being a member of ‘Clan Adam’.

But – and this is the great bit – conversely Christians do not receive the gift of life and righteousness by keeping the Law but simply by being in ‘Jesus’ – having their identity bound up in Him. It’s Jesus obedience and righteousness that communicates life to all those in ‘Clan Jesus’. Just as the members of Clan Adam (in the period up until Moses) didn’t die because of any Law-breaking they had done – so members of Clan Jesus do not receive life because of any Law-keeping they do. It is all about the Head of the Clan.

So Christian - both Galatians and Romans shout at us – put aside your fixation with Law-keeping as the basis of your security and joy in Christ. Stop measuring your standing before God on the basis on your religious performance and look again to Jesus. A minister commented to me once that when he considered all the junk and sin that seemed to crowd into his life that he felt at times the only option was to be saved all over again. In one sense, of course, he was right – we need everyday to gather up all that junk and sin and throw it on the bonfire of the Cross – and be liberated and thankful all over again.

Too often as Christians we are like football fans watching Manchester Utd or music lovers listening to Mozart – but rather than being captivated and thrilled by what is before us - we just sit depressed and agitated because all we can think about is how rubbish our football skills or musical talent is in comparison. We need to live the words of that old chorus:

Fix your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth [including ourselves] will go strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dawkins & The Media

Came across this article in The Herald - thought it was a useful corrective to Richard Dawkin's increasingly desperate attacks on faith and Christianity in particular - with the added bonus that it comes from a 'neutral source'. It also highlights the inbuilt bias with which so much of the media approach these issues.


RD reminds me of the George Orwell quote concerning one of his characters that, 'he wasn't so much the type of atheist who didn't believe in God as the type who just didn't like Him'.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Full List of Posts: Dec 2006 - June 2008

Confessions of a Failed Atheist
Honouring God with Empty Hands
Paul's All or Nothing Gospel
The Reason for God - Quotes
An Intelligent Faith
Weary Worship?
Giant slaying - 'ANXIETY' is his name.
Teaching - it's a deal-breaker
Vision by numbers...
'The Lost Message...' - if only!
Jesus Driven Ministry - Quotes (3)
Jesus Driven Ministry - Quotes (2)
Jesus Driven Ministry - Quotes
The Gospel according to Hollywood
Not the same... (Benedict XVI & Indulgences)
Podcast Presuppositions
Deleting the Junk
The Golden Compass - Atheism for Kids
How the UK changed betwen 1997 & 2007
Hitch Hikers Guide to Evangelism Pt 1
Hitch Hikers Guide to Evangelism Pt 2
Worshipping in the Study
The Vision Thing
Clan Adam or Clan Jesus?
Dawkins & The Media
snag is coming
Playing with Words
The Gospel’s Guilty Secret
The Last Taboo
Pollokshaws Carnival 07
Spiritual Yobs
Attention Perfectionists
A Senate Prayer
Zechariah Calling
Additive Free Gospel
Day of Shame
Freedom & Service
Great Expectations
Church Planting
Ballot Box Morality
Spiritual Tourists
Permission to say ‘No’
A Mother’s Prayer
Why the British Stopped going to Church
Jesus and Romantic Love
Disciples or Christians?
Philip Yancey Book Review: ‘Prayer’
Mark Driscoll Book Review: ‘COARR’
Check out Jessica Hagy
Last Call to Prayer
The Christian’s Secret Stress Buster
The Most Important Person in Greenview
Personal Happiness and the Trinity
Saddam & the Death Penalty
CUs and the Ekklesia Report
Non-religious Objectivity?
Wheels within Wheels
Standing with the Brothers
Jesus & President Bartlett
Ministry Checklist
A Call for Unreasonable Christians
Filling Up

Thursday, August 16, 2007

snag - programme 2007/08

That it might be done on earth as it is in heaven...
Christian ethics in a complex world
snag (saturday nights at greenview) will be kicking-off a new winter series on Saturday 13th October at 7.30pm.

Sat 13th October - Drawing the Lines - Dr Stephen McQuoid
Tolerance,intolerance and how we decide

Sat 10th November - Playing God? - Dr Brian Neilly
Stem Cell Research, IVF & Genetics

Sat 8th December - Godly & Green - Dr John Bingham
The Bible and environmental concerns

Sat 12th January - God & Mammon - Edward Lobb
Handling wealth in a material world

Sat 9th February - Culture Clash - Dr Ken McPhail
How Christianity & Culture shape each other

Sat 15th March - Loving me - David Clarkson
Fashion, Fitness & Self esteem
The cafe will be open from 7pm each night.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Playing with Words

Doesn’t it drive you nuts how slippery people can be when it comes to theology? Frequently this comes in the form of treating (what would appear to most people) straightforward statements as if they were fiendishly complex and impenetrable riddles. Now I don’t want to appear to be a simpleton here – I know language can be complex, nuanced and multi-faceted. But increasingly Christians seem to be using these considerations as an excuse to kick unpopular doctrines into the theological ‘long grass’. So Scripture texts that jar with our 21st century Western sensibilities can be ignored on the basis of, ‘scholars are divided on the precise meaning of this passage’ etc etc. This linguistic ‘get out of jail free’ card is also increasingly deployed whenever we are faced with a dodgy public pronouncement of some Christian leader we admire – ‘oh, I don’t think he/she was actually saying…’ – when if words mean anything it is abundantly clear that Christian Leader X was undoubtedly saying…

You’ll not be surprised to learn that I’m going to blame Post-Modernism for this. It is one more manifestation of the belief that there is no absolute truth – or at least that no-one can ever be certain they have it. Consequently any interpretation of a statement is as valid as any other even if they contradict each other – the old ‘what is true for you may not be true for me’ approach. But like much Post-Modern thinking the situations in which this approach is employed are conveniently selective. So no-one would say, “murder – it’s not my ‘cup of tea’ but I’m happy if it works for you”. Whereas when it comes to something like religious belief it is simply a case of ‘what makes you happy!’

Take the Bible’s apparently clear statements about the existence of Hell. Statements we are told, even by some who call themselves Evangelical, that are not to be taken at face value. Yes, the Bible has all these warnings and depictions of a place of eternal torment but they are just to make a point rather describe an actual reality. The point being to emphasise how strongly God feels about sin and people rejecting Him. We are not to think there is actually such a place - it’s just hyperbole to stress how awful it is to reject God.

The problem is that it all seems just a bit too convenient. Something we are happy to apply to things we don’t like but when it comes to Heaven for example, we tend not to say, ‘Well actually all that Heaven stuff is just there to emphasise how pleased God is when people respond to Him positively – but hey you’re not to think it actually exists’.

Secondly, not only is it self-servingly convenient, but we would never accept such a premise in other areas of life. Imagine you have bought a new DVD player and within the first week it develops a serious fault and no longer works. You read the guarantee which says, ‘In the event of a fault developing we will replace this product with a new DVD player’. However, back at the shop you are told there will be no replacement, the assistant explains: ‘Well of course, the guarantee says we’ll replace it, but that’s just a way of letting you know how much we really hoped it would work - we never intended that people should take it literally’. Or you get a memo from your Boss telling you to sort out some problem but you do nothing on the basis of ‘who is to say what they really mean’– it may just be a way of them telling you something of their inner feelings rather than something to actually be acted upon.

Of course, the reason we don’t generally ignore, reinterpret or plead bafflement with the words of employers, policemen or even friends is that we tend to take those people seriously – we would view it as patronising and even disrespectful to presume that what they say is not really what they mean.

When it comes to God’s words, however, it is difficult not to conclude that the widespread readiness to disregard or fudge them is because we don’t think they really matter that much. We have persuaded ourselves that our relationship with God exists in some mystical sphere unaffected by what we actually believe about Him and that theology is essentially irrelevant to the quality of that relationship. Big mistake! Words are the basic currency of relationships – the ability to be known by and to know another. To say, ‘I am obedient to someone’, but then to disobey what they say is a nonsense. To say, 'I know someone', but to have ignored their own self-disclosure and constructed your own image of them is a delusion. You don’t obey them and you don’t know them.

Much of the linguistic ‘smoke and mirrors’ used in Christian circles today has the effect of refusing to allow God the possibility of having spoken with any significant degree of clarity. Evangelical Christians need to start having a bit more confidence in the ability of God to communicate clearly and to have a bit more courage in accepting what He says.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Last Taboo

(I missed John Moir’s sermon on ‘Proverbs & Money’ so apologies if these thoughts on Money are just repeating anything he said. )

The Times on Monday (16/7/07) carried an article entitled ‘The Last Taboo’ which carried the subtitle ‘Why it’s OK to talk about sex and death, but never salaries’. Money (i.e. personal wealth) is the last great taboo of our society it seems – it is the last bastion of privacy in a world where people will speak openly about almost anything else – relationships, sex, feelings, likes and dislikes etc. The article quoted the psychologist and author of ‘The Real Meaning of Money’ Dorothy Rowe as saying: ‘it is sensible not to go on about what you earn in a world where money is so important and people are measured and their value is measured by what they have got’. None of this of course is new or should be a surprise to Christians – we live in an incredibly materialistic world. A culture whose worldview is almost the exact opposite of that taught by Jesus (Lk 12:15).

Worryingly however is that this is yet another cultural phenomena that has found its way into church life. Now I’m not suggesting that Christians go about announcing their salaries or savings – that would be a recipe for creating envy, pride and deceit. Rather I’m thinking of the danger that teaching about money in many churches becomes more and more a taboo subject. There are a number of factors that might lead to this – (1) The fear of pastors and church workers about raising a subject that may appear to have an element of self-interest for them; (2) The abuses of the Prosperity Gospel peddlars, their obsession with money and the rightful distaste of their lifestyles and techniques; (3) the right desire not to appear to be being judgemental or legalistic about something that ultimately is a matter of conscience before God.

Nevertheless, this is a subject the Bible refuses to avoid. The New Testament has more to say on the subject of ‘Money’ than it does on the subject of ‘Prayer’. To be in a church where there is no regular teaching (with practical application) on the subject of Money – is as Biblically faithful as being in a church where you don’t get regular preaching (with practical application) on Prayer. ‘Money makes the world go round’, goes the old cliché and at a human level it has an element of truth in it. So it would be unthinkable that the Bible wouldn’t have loads to say about the subject – and it does. Which of course makes the unease I feel even writing a piece on this subject, to be read by fellow church members and friends, all the more indicative of the battle we need to fight to regain our Christian distinctiveness in this area of life.

The reality is (as all the surveys seem to show) that Christian giving is not impressive and often amounts to a fairly meagre proportion of individual and family expenditure (the US average is 3% of family per capita income). Giving is a searching issue (no doubt one reason why we are happy to follow the Biblical teaching of keeping it private, Mt 6:3) because it reveals in a very stark and objective way where our priorities really are. Mark Driscoll checks out the giving record of anyone being considered for eldership. After-all you can deceive others about your prayer life and devotions but the Bank Statement never lies!

Well before this piece becomes ‘A Longer Theological Article’ let me suggest three practical ways for Christians to think about our use of money and where we are investing it for the future…

1. Tightening our belts now. Craig Blomberg in his book ‘Neither Poverty or Riches’ quotes a survey in which Christians were asked ‘if they knew that their income would drop by 20% next year where would they try and cut back their expenditure?’. The number one answer was ‘eating out’. So why now give up some of those meals now and give the saved money to Gospel work.
2. Sacrificing. Now of course all giving involves some sacrifice – but how often have we upgraded something that was actually perfectly ok. Yes we got some extra features but it was more a decision based on fashion than practicality. So again why not say ‘I was going to get a new XXX but instead I’ll make do with the old one but give the money I would have spent to a Christian Mission’. (Remember sacrificing a bull in the Old Testament was the equivalent of smashing up your new small car in Greenview’s carpark).
3. Being possession lite. Have you seen the TV adverts for Storage Units? These huge warehouses where you can rent a secure room to keep all the surplus possessions that you no longer have room for at home. Can I suggest that if the average Western Christian ever gets to the stage that their home can no longer accommodate all their possessions – they should be giving them away or selling them and giving the money to a good cause. We don’t need bigger barns we need bigger hearts.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Pollokshaws Carnival 07

Thanks to everyone who helped out, visited and prayed for the Pollokshaws Carnival. The weather confounded the forecasts and stayed dry. The Greenview stall was able to give out stacks of leaflets about GV activities and provided lots of opportunities for putting a human face to the church. Let's pray that further contacts and opportunities to show God's love to people in the area will arise from this.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Spiritual Yobs

Some thoughts on Titus ch.3

Titus 3 opens with a reminder to Christians to be both law abiding and public spirited citizens. That is, people who both uphold the law but add to that basic obedience by ‘being ready to do whatever is good’. Further Christians are to be marked out in their communities as people of good character, e.g. are peaceable (avoiding unnecessary confrontations); considerate (e.g. where they park, the volume of their music); show true humility (self-restraint – biting their lip, Pr 12:16) and extending this to ‘all men’ – not just those they are trying to suck-up to or are intimated by because of their wealth and status etc.

All of which, of course, is just a reiteration of Jesus’ own teaching: to go the second mile, turn the other cheek, and do to others as you would have them do to you. But it’s a tough call – one that goes against the grain of both our natural egos and our culture. The latter which extols the characteristics of self-promotion and pushiness in programmes like the X-Factor and The Apprentice.

After reading Titus 3:1-2 we might be tempted to think – ‘well Paul, that might be alright for some but you don’t know my neighbours or my colleagues and if you had to put up with the kind of behaviour I do then you might have a different approach’. Almost as if sensing this objection Paul immediately turns to why the attitudes and actions of v1-2 are always the only appropriate ones for Christians to follow.

V3 begins ‘for’ (inexplicably missed out in the NIV) - you were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved, full of malice, envy and living in a cycle of tit for tat. Strong stuff – but this is the reality of every life outside of Jesus in the sight of God. We were not lovely people in our non-Christian state. In fact we were God’s anti-social noisy neighbours, creational vandals, inconsiderate law-breakers – we were spiritual yobs outside the gates of heaven.

But how did God respond to us? By shutting his windows and hoping we’d go away, by treating us with contempt, by throwing back at us the same kind of inconsideration we had shown Him? No – but with kindness, love (v4), mercy, salvation, cleansing, renewal (v5), with generosity (v6), giving us hope, making us heirs and rewarding us with eternal life (v7).

So we who depend on the fact that God extends to us the very opposite treatment to what we gave Him, who enjoy untold favour and blessing that has no basis in anything we do (v5) – how can we possibly contemplate withholding kindness and love from others. The idea that my sensibilities are so precious or that my indignation is so righteous that I would be entitled to hold a grudge or treat someone with disdain is just outrageous. As my old Pastor, Arthur Campbell, used to say: ‘Don’t stand on your dignity, stand on it!’

Ok, you say, I can see the logic of what you’re saying, but I feel as if you might as well write the word ‘VICTIM’ across my forehead at this point - because it’s a rough world out there and if I’ve got to go out with that kind of attitude I’m going to be eaten for breakfast. Well actually, this call is incredibly powerful and liberating and here are two reasons why….

It breaks the cycle of evil.
This is a well rehearsed observation but one that is worth restating. When we ‘do good’ especially towards those who don’t deserve it we break the endless merry-go-round of ‘tit for tat’ that perpetuates ill-feeling and sinful behaviour. It cuts through the vicious cycle of evil feeding evil. To ‘do good’ as a matter of principle is to live out the Gospel that saved us. Most Christians were not beaten or coerced into the Kingdom of God but were arrested by God’s kindness and love towards them – all the more in the light of their unworthiness of it. Unconditional love shown in the face of hostility is an astonishingly powerful thing.

It liberates us from the tyranny of others.
By treating others with consistent proactive kindness we are making a statement that we are people controlled by God and not 'the crowd'. We are saying: my actions will no longer be determined by how others treat me but by how God has treated me. So whereas the old way and the way of the world is: you cut-in on me while I’m driving and I’ll give you dog’s abuse, or you undermine me at work and leave you high & dry next time you’ve got a problem, or you expose my weakness at church and Ill expose yours. In other words: you yank my chain and I’ll bark! We now go into the world as people whose responses are controlled by God.

This is life transforming and radical stuff. No wonder Paul tells Titus to stress it – so that the people might be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good (v8). This is the Gospel – being understood, being the motivating factor in our lives, and being lived out in the world.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Attention Perfectionists

Check out this piece on David Field's (Oak Hill lecturer) excellent Blog - for all those who 'worry a little too much and try a little too hard'... 'PERFECTING OURSELVES TO DEATH'

A Senate Prayer

Was sent this prayer via an email with the exhortation to pass it on - it is a prayer that resonates with truth and refreshing clarity. However, I couldn't help but notice that perhaps the No.1 biggest pastoral issue and social failure of the past generation is not mentioned - perhaps just a bit too near the bone even for evangelical pastors to challenge?

"It seems prayer still upsets some people. When Minister Joe Wright was asked to open the new session of the Kansas Senate, everyone was expecting the usual generalities, but this is what they heard:

Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance.
We know Your Word says, 'Woe to those who call evil good,' but that is exactly what we have done.

We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.

We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem.

We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor's possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.

We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.

Search us, Oh, God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Amen!

The response was immediate. A number of legislators walked out during the prayer in protest. In 6 short weeks, Central Christian Church, where Rev. Wright is pastor, 5,000 phone calls with only 47 of those calls responding negatively. The church is now receiving international requests for copies of this prayer from India, Africa and Korea."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Zechariah Calling

(A sermon from late 2004)

Zechariah’s World: where Z fits into Biblical history.

Abraham: God’s Promise – all nations would be blessed through him.... followed by....

  • Promised Land: reaches peak under David / Solomon;
  • but then Division into Israel and Judah.
  • Israel the bigger part in north (why it got the name ‘Israel’): has only wicked kings
  • until it's finally overrun and absorbed by Assyria in 722BC

Judah, small state in south, mixture of good and bad kings

  • Staggers on, but is overrun by Babylonians in 587BC – the people taken into exile (Daniel etc).

Theologically the Exile was a catastrophe for the Jews
So much of their faith seemed to lie in ruins...

  • The invulnerability of Jerusalem: shattered
  • The place of God’s special presence (Temple): shattered
  • The promise of dwelling in their own land: shattered
  • The promise of being a great nation (looked up to by others): shattered.
  • It was theological meltdown: all they thought was non-negotiable - disappeared.

But there was hope: prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel...

  • pointed beyond the Exile and God’s judgement to Restoration;
  • promises of renewed blessing;
  • of a time when God’s Law would be written on their hearts (Jer 31)
  • when the nations would come up to Jerusalem to worship (Is 49)
  • never again would Jerusalem be given over to her enemies (Is 62)
  • of a new Temple where God would return again in glory (Ezk 43)
    Pictures of great blessing and renewal – surpassing even David & Solomon.

Then in 538BC the Persian Empire under Cyrus defeats Babylon

  • and under Cyrus (e.g. Ezra 1:1-4) the first wave of Exiles return to Jerusalem.

But the return is a major anti-climax

  • No massive return of people – only a trickle
  • They land they return to is about 55km by 65km.
  • Jerusalem itself is still in ruins & barely inhabited.
  • Weak, vulnerable, poor & surrounded by enemies (Hag 1:6).

    A pale shadow of her former glory: never mind the one promised by prophets - a state of humiliation.

In 521BC Darius becomes Emperor and oversees a period of stability in the Empire

  • so while Israel struggles: all around is peace and prosperity (1:11&15).

And it is into this world & this time in the history of God's people...

  • That the word of the Lord comes to Zechariah son of Berekiah …. (1:1)

Ch.1:1-6: So who is Zechariah the Man?

Other than 1:1 we don’t know much about him

  • he was a prophet (obviously);
  • he may have had a priestly background: Priest called Iddo in Neh 12:4
  • certainly has a concern for the Temple.

Big part of his ministry is to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple

  • important because the Temple re-building had stalled (Haggai)
  • Ezra started to rebuild it in 538BC and completed foundations in 536BC
  • but building of the structure didn’t start until 520BC – just before 1:1
  • So Z encourages the governor Zerubbabel to get on with it (Ez 5:1-2).

A Contemporary of Haggai

  • who like Haggai saw the nation’s problems as primarily spiritual.
  • Which is where we begin in looking at the book itself.

So v1, we are directed to an obscure corner of the Persian Empire

  • to this isolated, weary and doubtful people.

What might you say to such people – what would you want to say?

  • a word of encouragement / comfort / reassurance?

Rather v2: the opening words are a reminder of God’s anger – ‘was very angry’

  • pointing them back to the generation before: who experienced that anger.
  • unlike our present culture (even in churches) - the Bible doesn’t hesitate to attribute anger to God – OT & NT (Rom 1:18)

One of the problems the pre-exile prophets faced: was the rejection of the idea of God's anger

  • so Jeremiah is persecuted for declaring God’s anger (Jer 19:15-20:2)
  • false prophets declared everything is fine with God (Jer 23:16-17: 21-22)

But God’s anger is a real issue and must not be forgotten

  • God will judge rebellion and the rejection of His Covenant claims.
  • The previous generation: played fast and loose with the Covenant;
  • so God’s exclusive place became negotiable: widespread idolatry
  • His worship became superficial (going through the motions): hypocrisy
  • His service became optional and dispensable: complacency.
    - and God was very angry

A danger for every generation: one that didn’t disappear even after the Exile experience...

  • it hasn’t disappeared today: it was still the concern of Zechariah
  • the danger of ‘boredom in worship and immorality in life’. (DRD)

These were warnings Israel's fathers failed to heed (v4)

  • No doubt reassured by the false prophets: God won’t mind etc
  • Perhaps, it was so long in coming: that they just didn’t believe it would.
  • After-all, the warning had rung out for centuries: since Solomon
    · and you know, they had got by until now
    · nothing had happened, there was always still time: tomorrow!

But WOW, it actually happened – the warnings came true

  • Jerusalem was smashed, the land ravaged, the people killed & scattered
  • and here they are now: this rump, this stripped out band of refugees.

V5 Where are you forefathers now? Gone, judged, ruined!

  • where are the prophets now? The warnings aren’t endless.

V6 Understand this, get to grips with this: my Words are true.

  • They’re not dependent on being popular/convenient
  • They don’t have ‘sell-by date’: e.g. they don't become redundant even when those who brought them are gone
  • They stand on their own – in God’s authority – and will be fulfilled

Let’s take this on board in our lives: learn this lesson.

  • God’s warning to us: about idolatry / hypocrisy / complacency
  • are not without precedence – and neither are His judgements on them.

    Let’s not be seduced by words of false security, e.g.
    · it doesn’t matter how I live;
    · it’s ok that God is compartmentalised in my life;
    · or that I’ll sort these things out 'soon'

But one day – for each of us...

  • God’s words will be fulfilled.
  • we’ll find out He means what He says

What He says: to Zechariah’s community and to us is that:

  • Salvation cannot be separated from real relationship with God
  • Blessing cannot be divided from obedience.

So Z says to the people: don’t make the mistake of your fathers : v4

  • but ‘Return to me’ and ‘I will return to you’ v3
  • if you Repent/ Return - I am ready to receive you: restored relationship

But we might ask: what is it that this generation are to repent of?

  • It was their Fathers who sinned & who were judged
  • and they, when judged, acknowledged they had been wrong (v6b)

Well answer is probably in Haggai (Z’s contemporary: compare dates Z. 1:1 & H 1:1)

  • H's concerns about the people’s slackness in building the Temple (H 1:2)
  • This failure to get on with this task – is the key to this warning call

At one level their stalling here is understandable
· Know from Ezra: lots of opposition, discouragement, hardship.
· No work on the Temple in the two years prior to Zech 1:1

But the restoration of the Temple was central to Covenant renewal....

  • Central to getting their relationship with God into order: getting it running properly is getting the Temple sorted out
  • which is why: Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai & Zech are so concerned with it.
  • why it’s final completion in Ez 6 (motivated by Z&H) is such a joy.

But here in Ch.1: the people seem to have given up on it.
· It probably seemed too much hassle;
· Too much opposition, feeling of being vulnerable and weak
· perhaps doubts about God’s promises after all that happened

Easier to play down the God stuff and do up the house (Hg 1: 3)

  • Result of this neglect was the withholding of Covenant blessing (H 1:5-6)
  • Nothing wrong in itself with a bit of DIY
  • but the problem was: was what was being neglected as a result!

They wanted to live a normal life: but that’s not what God had called them to:

  • One writer: calls it the sin of being normal’. (Webb)

But they were to be a Kingdom People, a peculiar people, a covenant people

  • Called not to fit in and just be like the rest
  • but to build God’s kingdom, to stand out for God,
  • to put God (relationship and service) at the top of their list of priorities.

A big temptation for us today: in a day of 'small things'

  • When God’s promises to build a kingdom that will fill the earth and last forever seem remote
  • When we feel outnumbered, weak and increasingly out on a limb
    - is to want to just fit in, go for the easy life, and be like everyone else.

God’s call to Zechariah’s community is to Return to Him

  • To put that relationship and service at the heart of our activities and lives.
  • To know again the fullness of His Covenant blessing.

We realise, of course, that New Covenant blessings are not crops and land...

  • but blessings are still based on obedience to God’s call;
  • a return to the Lord: confident that His Word is sure: His promises are true

If we want to see God’s blessings in our lives and as a church:

  • then God needs to be at the centre of out lives: knowing Him,
  • attending to our relationship with Him, serving Him: must become our priorities.

Need to pray that, if God has spoken to us in this...

  • We will confess where we have become complacent and turn afresh to Him,
  • that we, as a church community, will be delivered from, ‘Boredom with worship and immorality of life’.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Additive Free Gospel

At the end of our first Galatians Bible Hour I quoted some lines from an old Sankey hymn: here it is in full...

Nothing either great or small -
Nothing, sinner, no;
Jesus did it, did it all,
Long, long ago.

'It is finished!' yes indeed,
Finished every jot:
Sinner this is all you need -
Tell me, is it not?

When He, from His lofty throne,
Stooped to do and die,
Everything was fully done:
Hearken to His cry.

Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing, all was done,
Long, long ago.

Till to Jesus' work you cling
By a simple faith,
'Doing' is a deadly thing -
'Doing' ends in death.

Cast your deadly 'doing' down -
Down at Jesus' feet;
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
Gloriously complete.

P.S. My nostalgia-fest of hunting through Sankey & Redemption threw up a number of hymns with fantastic words... so expect some others to be appearing in due course.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Day of Shame

It’s official – I’m over the hill (well actually if only I had been – bear with me it will all become clear). For the first time in over 20 years of hill climbing I gave up – yes I was the panting struggler holding up the rest. Now I could spend some going through a list a mitigating circumstances: the foul wet weather, my rubbish jacket so I was soaked to the skin before I was half way up the first hill, the bad decision to have muesli along with my full cooked breakfast, that I gave up only after climbing two Munro’s (which many might consider a respectable tally in itself) – but the plain truth was the other four climbers were fit for more (5 more in fact) while my respiratory system was operating about as impressively as a Scottish election. As I trudged my way back down the mountain I reflected that the day would not be a total failure if I could at least get one sermon illustration out of it – so here goes….

Heavy on my mind was that I had done the same climb in 1996 – what had happened? On that occasion we had done in it in the snow even having to use rope at one point to get over a nasty overhang of ice. On Saturday the overhang that caused the problem was sitting over my belt. 11 years of little decisions – the bedtime snacks, the mid-morning chocolate bars, the bus to save the 15 minute walk. None of which on their own were ‘terrible’ or ‘reckless’ but over the months and years add up – and then one day you find yourself lying in a gale between two rocks shouting things like, “I’m fine, you go ahead, I’ll follow on in a bit’. Oh the humiliation!

I suppose for most of us that’s the way our spiritual life goes – negatively or positively. We are not in general the result of some massive stand-alone decision we took to be really good or really bad spiritually. We are each the culmination of years of little decisions. Little decisions that in themselves weren’t ‘terrible’ or ‘reckless’ – just a decision one day not to pray - but then repeated the next day, the decision to skip reading our Bible because we were rushed, to miss the evening service, to not get involved in that activity. Each one defensible at the time – never taken with the intention of wanting to be spiritually flabby – but they mount up, they have a collective effect.

Conversely, and this is the good news, you don’t become a great man or woman of God overnight – you don’t blitz the Quiet Time for a few weeks and end up sorted (that’s just exhausting, unsustainable and leads to despondency). Rather it’s the little decisions, to spent a few minutes in prayer today and then tomorrow, to read a passage of the Bible rather than rushing straight to the next thing, to get to the Prayer Meeting etc etc. All very unspectacular at the time – but they mount up and in 5/10 years you’ll end up spiritually fit enough to tackle ‘spiritual mountains’.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Freedom & Service

Some more from Eugene Peterson's wonderful book: 'A Long Obedience in the Same Direction'

Psalm 123 - Service
'The basic conviction of a Christian is that God intends good for us and that he will get his way in us. He does not treat us according to our deserts, but according to his plan. He is not a police officer on patrol, watching over the universe, ready to club us if we get out of hand... He is a potter, working with the clay of our lives, forming and reforming...

The experience of servitude is recurrent through history. And the experience has never been happy... Masters get lazy and become scornful of those under them. The cry 'too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud' is believable..

We live in a similar slavery. True, we have, in our country, abolished the institutionalised forms of slavery and all but elimanated a servant class, but the experience of servitude is still among us and is as oppressive as ever. Freedom is on everyone's lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated. But not many feel or act free. Evidence? We live in a nation of complainers and a society of addicts. Everywhere we turn we hear complaints: I can't spend my money the way I want; I can't spend my time the way I want; I can't be myself; I'm under the control of others all the time. And everywhere we met the addicts - addication to alcohol and drugs, to compulsive work habits and to obsessive consumption. We trade masters; we stay enslaved.

The Christian is a person who recognises that our real problem is not achieving freedom but in learning service under a better master.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Great Expectations

A Lesson for Christians from the 'Blair Years'

So Tony Blair has finally announced his departure from office after 10 years as Prime Minister. The media of course have been in overload with their reviews, reflections, special supplements and assessments on the ‘Blair Years’. One repeating theme has been ‘how much have things improved since 1997’ – accompanied by a flurry of opinions on the perceived positives and negatives. What I find striking is, whether you think things are better or worse, that the big issues in politics remain largely the same - Health, Education, Crime, Interest Rates etc. Indeed these were key issues in 1987, in 1977 and so on.

Yet every new generation of politicians rises up with confident promises about tackling our problems, delivering world beating standards and giving us satisfaction in all these areas. Often key to the solutions suggested are the need for ‘radical changes’ or a ‘new approach’. So in the 1980s & 90s many told us Scotland’s problems in these areas could be dealt with if only we had Devolution. Now we have Devolution and other voices tell us that the solution lies in Independence. Well this isn’t to be political (in a Party sense anyway) but I absolutely guarantee you whether Scotland becomes Independent or not the very same issues will still be problematic in 10/20… years from now. You see for all the radical changes and new approaches we never seem to get to that place where we can rest contented with the big concerns/issues of life put behind us.

Ok – just in case you were thinking you had clicked The Herald website by mistake – what’s the relevance of this in our Christian lives. Well it is that we live our Christian lives all too often under the same illusion – that our frustrations and problems can be dealt with by some great new fix. That if only we make this change to church or have that experience then everything will fall into place – final spiritual satisfaction and contentment will be delivered. The reality is that no matter how many times you change your church structure, reinvent your services or initiate a new ministry the big struggles of the Christian life – purity, obedience, faithfulness, living sacrificially, being Christ and other person centered etc – will continue. You can be Conservative or Charismatic, High Church or Low, Trendy or Tight, and the day to day battles of your Christian life will be exactly the same.

If you are waiting for a lightning bolt from heaven that will make your life finally sorted then you are on a road to disillusionment with the Gospel. Yes, there are high points and times of great blessing on the way – but the warp & weft of so much of the New Testament is: keep on going, persevere, be an over-comer, fight the fight, resist the devil, endure hardship, don’t give up, hang in there – an emphasis and tone reflective of a life that involves going against the grain in this world.

Now this isn’t to suggest a counsel of despair – just as the Health Service can doubtless be improved so can our personal and collective walk before God. A good idea is a good idea and we need to change to keep up with and tackle the different circumstances and challenges of life. But where many were naïve in May 1997 to think a change of government could make problems go away - Christians should remember that ultimately their hope is not in creating the perfect church or discovering some secret formula for spiritual success but in the coming of the King and establishment of His Kingdom. Until then our contentment is to 'keep on keeping on' knowing His presence and provision in the battle.

Church Planting

Check out this 8 minute video by Mark Driscoll on Church Planting - it's got MD's usual edgy feel and non-PC bluntness - but I thought it was a real challenge to Christian men... GOOD SOLDIER VIDEO

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ballot Box Morality

May 3rd is election day for the Holyrood Parliament. This year Christians (indeed all) voters have the added option of voting for an explicitly Christian political party. This has added significance because our proportional representation system means that there is a good chance of Christian parties actually picking up a few seats if church-going folks do cross their box. Further the potential impact of a Christian Party is increased by the likelihood that in a Parliament where no party has an overall majority even having two or three seats can give substantial power and influence.

So, why on earth, in such circumstances would Christians have any reservations about voting for a Christian party? Well here is one reason to at least think carefully:

Christian Parties tend not surprisingly to centre around a number of moral issues. So the leaflets I’ve seen for the ‘Scottish Christian Party’ highlight their policies on Abortion, Section 28, Capital Punishment, promoting Chastity before marriage, opposing Casinos etc. Along with these are the usual all-party policies on helping small business, being energy efficient, promoting public transport etc.

So what is the problem? For myself it is the concern that a small minority Christian party uses the political expediency of large non-Christian parties to enforce a morality on a society that has no desire for it. For example, the Christians use their three votes to make Alex Salmond First minister in return for concessions on Sex Education. Such a scenario while potentially opening up Christians to charges of manipulation also starts to project Christianity as essentially concerned with legalistic moralism. You see when a society rejects God and moves away from the Gospel it will inevitably want bad laws – laws that are self-serving and give license to sinfulness. That is part of the inbuilt judgement that comes on a godless people. The job of the church is not to impose a morality (from the top downwards) upon people who don’t want it - but to preach the gospel so that as individuals are changed by God’s power they will naturally live better lives and want better laws. Israel had a perfect legal code (one that literally came from heaven itself) but it ended-up morally bankrupt because internally they were a people incapable of meeting external righteous demands.

Imposing an external morality on a nation that has by and large rejected God will not transform that nation and is likely to cause great resentment against those imposing it. The Church’s call is to preach the gospel and live good lives among unbelievers. That is not to say that individual Christians can’t be good politicians or represent godly values in the political world - but we should be very cautious about banding the church under a political banner that feels qualified to both impose morality and run our bus services.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Spiritual Tourists

From Eugene Peterson's
'A Long Obedience in the Same Direction'

'It is not difficult... to get a person interested in the message of the gospel; it is terrifically difficult to sustain that interest. Millions of people in our culture make decisions for Christ, but there is a dreadful attrition rate...

There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient aquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.

Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure...

I don't know what it has been like for pastors in other cultures and previous centuries, but I am quite sure that for a pastor in Western culture... the aspect of the world that makes the work most difficult is what Gore Vidal has analysed as 'today's passion for the immediate and casual'. Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, pray, preach, and teach, want short cuts... They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide... The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Permission to say 'No'

('culture'/'society' = prevailing media & popular values.)

We live in a culture that exalts ‘tolerance’ as a supreme virtue. This has increasingly worked itself out in the creation of an ‘anything goes’ society. The rights of individuals to express their preferences and to have those preferences acquiesced has become a foundational principle of our 21st century Western culture. This is given weight by the view that a person's preferences and the person themself are almost synonymous - thus to deny me my preferences is to forbid me to 'be myself'. Consequently if anyone fails to give me permission or to acquiesce with my preferences they are quickly branded as oppressive, narrow-minded and intolerant.

Now, of course, our society is not quite ‘anything goes’. It has its boundaries beyond which it does become intolerant. However, these boundary lines are essentially pragmatic rather than absolute (even if people like to think in terms of the latter). For example, our society thankfully does not (yet) accept Paedophilia – although Paedophiles could (and do) argue that their preferences are just part of who they are and all such boundaries are just cultural conventions. Indeed, such have been the huge shifts in ‘public morality’ over recent decades and the lack of any absolute moral foundations for deciding right and wrong – it will be no surprise if our society’s current antipathy to these preferences softens as well in due course.

This pragmatic approach to morality is based in part on a moral collusion – you accept my preferences and I’ll accept yours. No questions asked! But what about those who do ‘ask questions’ and who fear the precedents being created in our society. Who see that a pathway whereby people ‘self-define’ what is intrinsic to them, and then demand the acquiescence of others in those things (which are now classified as their ‘human rights’) must ultimately lead to moral and societal chaos. Chaos in which the clash of rights created will inevitably be resolved by those with power suppressing the consciences and rights of those who think differently.

Our society is offended by those who do not acquiesce with its collective preferences and as a result increasingly seeks to remove the right of individuals to say ‘No’. For our society ‘tolerance’ is to say ‘yes’ to everything (that it likes) – but it is a narrow self-serving ‘tolerance’ because the right to say ‘yes’ can only be meaningful if I also have the right to say ‘no’.

Monday, April 02, 2007

A Mother's Prayer

With the passing away of my mother last week there is always the temptation to use the Blog for an outpouring of mawkish grief . However, I hope the account below of how my Mum came to faith (written in April 2005) will be both be an encouragement to readers and honouring to her memory.

Mum started attending Greenview Family Services in August 2004 and then attended the Alpha course in Autumn that year. She admitted being quite defensive about being on the course at the beginning but warmed to it and found it challenging to her. She spoke of how she had felt a great peace since coming to Greenview and that her previous anxieties about life (so afflicted with ill-health) had receded.

On one occasion the Alpha talk used the illustration of Christ knocking at the door – and how the handle was on the inside, i.e. it was up to us to open the door to Him. She said at the following discussion that she ‘felt that she didn’t have a handle’ and didn’t know how to receive all the things other Christians spoke of. It was suggested that she should pray about this and ask that God would show her ‘the handle’ – to which she replied she couldn’t pray, she didn’t know how to. The course ended but it was clear that her attitude to Christianity has softened and she was much more open to the gospel.

In January 2005 she attended the Alpha course again, saying she hoped to get much more out of it this time. On the previous course she had bought a Bible and on this course bought some daily reading notes to use. I asked her, about half way through the course, if she had been using the Bible notes – she replied ‘not really, I don’t read much at all these days’. I then asked about prayer, if she had managed to pray especially as it had been something she felt she couldn’t do previously. She replied, ‘Yes, I pray all the time, thanking God for all the good things He’s given me’. I then asked how she would feel about praying for something such as forgiveness. She replied, ‘Oh I have, I asked God to forgive me for being so hostile to Him all my life’. I said that was great and it sounded like she was ‘almost there’. She said she was still ‘a bit hesitant’.

In the Alpha Away Day discussion group someone asked how you become a member of Greenview. I said that the basic requirement was that you needed to be a Christian. Mum then asked ‘How do you become a Christian?’. Taking a deep breath I explained (again!) that it was simply to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and to trust that through His death on the Cross your sins can be forgiven and that you are accepted into God’s family. I added, it’s a prayer like the one in the booklet I used at the Family Service recently. On the way home I asked her if she thought she could become ‘a church member’ on the basis of what was said. She said she did believe in God and that it had given her a real sense of peace. I asked where Jesus fitted into all this as He had to be at the centre of what she believed to be real Christian. She said she would think more about it.

The following week (in April 2005), after Alpha she asked me for a copy of the booklet with ‘the prayer’ in it, which I got and she took home. The week after that, I asked if she had looked at the booklet and if she been able to pray the prayer. ‘Oh, I’ve prayed it every day, it sits beside my chair’, she answered. ‘You know that makes you a Christian’, I said. ‘Yes, I suppose so’, she replied.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Why the British stopped going to church.

‘as the nineteenth century wore to its close…it seemed as if there were no good arguments left for religion’ (AN Wilson)

Thus it is argued by Wilson that the collapse in British church attendance in the twentieth century (C20) was an historic inevitability. Such were the advances in mans’ understanding and control of the world that the Church was doomed to be become an increasingly superfluous element in national life. However, far from being a helpless victim witnessing its own demise it will be argued that the Church itself was the most significant contributor to its marginalisation in the lives of C20 Britons...

Read the rest of this longer theological article at: 'UK Church Decline in the C20'

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Jesus & Romantic Love

A slightly pointless piece on some contemporary Christian praise.

Is it just me or have others noticed a trend in contemporary praise songs to present Jesus as ‘Lover’? That is, love for Jesus and relationship with Him is increasingly expressed in almost romantic terms. Of course, I’m inevitably being selective but consider the following lyrics…

Hold me close, let your love surround me,
Bring me near, draw me to your side…

You are the love song we’ll sing forever…

Like a rose trampled on the ground,
You took the fall and thought of me,
Above all.

Lord you have my heart
And I will search for Yours…

Your love is better than wine,
Your name like sweetest perfume.
Oh, that You would kiss me
With the kisses of your mouth
And draw me, draw me after You.
And like a moth to the flame
I fly into the fire of Your intimate love
As You draw me, draw me after You.

The simplest of all love songs
I want to bring you
So let my words be few
Jesus, I am so in love with you

Here in your arms,
I am lost in your love.
Holding me close,
Never let me fall.

My lover’s breath is sweetest wine,
I am His prize and He is mine;

Now this ‘two lovers together’ imagery is not unbiblical. The Song of Songs is a book full of romantic and passionate expressions of love between two lovers – and a book which has been understood to express (among other things) a picture of the love between Jesus and the Church. So expressions of romantic love (as pictures) are not inappropriate in this context. However, like everything in the Christian life they need to be held in balance with all the other Biblical data. Because there is just the danger that a pre-occupation or over-emphasis with this expression of how we relate to Jesus could have negative effects. Such as …

1. Further feminizing Christianity. Now I say this acknowledging that I probably stand on the ‘pathologically independent - left brained – repressed – West of Scotland Man’ end of the emotional spectrum. But I suspect that the above lyrics will resonate and sit much more comfortably with women than men (in the same way I suppose lyrics about Jesus as Conqueror and Warrior may connect more with men than woman). So again let me stress this is not an argument to ‘ban’ such lyrics but to raise the concern that at a time when men are often struggling in our churches we may risk further alienating them by too much emphasis on presenting relationship with Jesus as something gushy and romantic.

2. Suggesting that such romantic feelings represent true spirituality and love for Jesus. That is, if I, as that ‘football watching – heterosexual - West of Scotland’ male, find that such romantic lyrics about another man leave me slightly cold is that because of a spiritual deficiency on my part ? I might think so – surely if I really truly loved Jesus then these sentiments would naturally pour out of me. But I wonder if I’m not being intimidated by a definition of love which is actually too narrow.

For example, take my father (passed away but supposing he was still alive now) – you might say to me, ‘Do you love your father?’ My response would be, ‘Yes, of course I do’. ‘Ah, but do you really love him in deep rooted way?’, you probe. Again my response would be, ‘Yes, I have a profound love, gratitude and admiration for my father’. BUT that love does not lead me to imagine or desire that he would draw me close or put his arms around me in some romantic sense – or indeed kiss me on the lips. Likewise, my love for Jesus – deep, profound, grateful – is man to Man, brother to Brother, friend to Friend, servant to Master, saved to Saviour. That is, my love for Jesus is not undermined because it is expressed differently from my love for my wife.

I state above that this is ‘a slightly pointless piece’. Because my point is not to rubbish the above songs (I actually like most of them individually), nor is it to deny they draw on Biblical imagery, nor was it because of any problem I have with the praise in my own church (quite the opposite). It is just to emphasis the need for Biblical balance in every part of our Christian life and to reassure (myself!) that love for God is not defined by romantic feelings but by a whole orientation of heart and life.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Disciples or Christians?

Have recently been very challenged reading THE GREAT OMISSION by Dallas Willard - here are some selected quotes....

The word ‘Disciple’ occurs 269 times in the New Testament. ‘Christian is found three times… (p3)

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress towards discipleship. (p4)

A mind cluttered by excuses may make a mystery of discipleship, or may see it as something to be dreaded. But there is no mystery about desiring and intending to be like someone – that is a very common thing. (p8)

Being unwilling to follow him [Jesus], our claim of trusting him must ring hollow. We could never credibly claim to trust a doctor, teacher or auto mechanic whose directions we would not follow. (p11)

…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggests you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him. (p13)

Grace is opposed to earning not to effort. (p34)

The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spirituality but rather obedience. (p44)

And one of the greatest temptations that we face as evangelicals – for the moment I include what is sometimes called the charismatic stream of the church – is the idea that the personality and heart are going to be transformed by some sort of lightning strike of the Spirit. (p56)

Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. (p61)

Most statistical measures and anecdotal portraits of evangelical Christians, not to mention Christians in general, show a remarkable similarity in the life texture of Christians and non-Christians. (p69)

Spiritual formation in Christ is orientated toward explicit obedience to Christ. (p72)

...formation by the Spirit of God in Christ. This comes initially and mainly through immersion in and constant application of (John 8:31; 15:7) the Word of Christ, his gospel, and his commands that are inseparable from his person and his presence: ‘The words that I have spoken to you’, he said, ‘are spirit and life’ (John 6:63). (p75)

We must stop using the fact that we cannot earn grace as an excuse for not energetically seeking to receive grace. (p76)

It is a simple fact that nowadays the task of becoming Christ-like is rarely taken as a serious objective to be thoughtfully planned for… Indeed mortifying or putting to death doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing today’s Christians would be caught doing. (p84)

Spiritual formation… is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite form or character…
The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. (p104)

Biblical religion is above all a religion of the heart and of the keeping of the heart. (p108)

In the battle over views of Christ the Saviour, Christ the teacher was lost on all sides. Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches… (p109)

One could now be Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced a whole generation of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their non-professing neighbours… (p110)

If, now, one adds that forgiveness is strictly a matter of what one (professes to) believe, we have a recipe for the consumerist Christianity-without-discipleship that we have inherited at the present moment. (p111)

Conversely the gifts of the Spirit can only be rightly used if the one who receives and serves others by means of them is well formed in inner Christ-likeness….
Gifts by themselves do little to form the spirit and the character of those who exercise them. (p116)

The people to whom we minister and speak will not recall 99 percent of what we say to them. But they will never forget the kind of persons we are. (p124)

Someone has insightfully said, ‘The greatest threat to devotion to Christ is service for Christ’.
What a paradox! This is so easily a challenge for many ministers. Allowing service for Christ to steal our devotion to him is a radical failure in personal soul care. (p130)

Power without Christ’s character gives us our modern-day Sampsons and Sauls. (p131)

Many serious and thoughtful Christians are looking for ways into an intelligent and powerful Christ-likeness that can inform their entire existence and not just produce special religious moments. (p138)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Philip Yancey - Book Review

Philip Yancey
‘PRAYER – Does it make any difference?’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 2006)

What did I expect coming to this book?

1. That it would be well written. Yancey isn’t one of the most popular Christian authors writing today for nothing – the two previous books of his I’d read (‘The Bible Jesus Read’ & ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace’) were skilfully written, engaging and easy to read. He has the particular ability to articulate the frustrations and angst felt by many Christians in the West today – he has the knack of expressing the nagging doubts Christians often have but can’t quite put their finger on.

2. A bit ‘touchy feely’. I don’t mean that in particularly negative sense. Yancey is a very sympathetic writer who uses lots of real live stories. His style resonates with our more ‘feelings’ culture which is why he connects with so many people. He tends not to be strongly didactic (i.e. he won’t say ‘this is just the way it is so like it or lump it’) but is very persuasive. One final point is that inevitably his books need a bit of translation from ‘American’ into ‘English’. Otherwise some of his stories can come across as a bit ‘cheesy’. Likewise some of the issues he wrestles with are obviously more relevant to an American cultural setting.

3. A bit ‘wet’ theologically. Better clarify this quickly – it’s not that Yancey is a raving liberal but sometimes you feel that he ends up with a kind of stalemate between pastoral problems and the Bible. That is, he can get so immersed in the difficulties of a pastoral situation that the clear cut truths of the Bible never seem to be quite enough. He also has the tendency (which seems to be increasingly common among certain Christian writers) to dip into and quote favourably from a broad range of ‘spirituality’ – from Rabbis to Catholic priests. While the quotes themselves are usually not contentious I worry that this sends out confusing messages to readers and may give credence to some of these source’s less Biblical views.

Were my expectations realized?
1. Well written – yes. This is a well researched and thorough book at over 300 pages. It’s loaded with lots of quotes and provides a fairly comprehensive overview of the main issues surrounding prayer.
2. Touch feely – a bit but not overly so. There are ‘drop in’ boxes interspersed throughout the book with extracts of letters, poems & testimonies – but if these don’t excite you then they are easily skipped over.
3. A bit ‘wet’ – on occasions but generally very good. Yancey faces most of the issues head on and by and large doesn’t avoid the unglamorous answers. It certainly isn’t a light-weight pop-paperback or a 'quick-fix to your prayer problems' type book.

How does he tackle the subject?
In 5 parts.

Part 1: Here he highlights well some of the key questions we have about prayer. E.g. the sense of discrepancy between our personal experience of prayer and the stories we often hear about great ‘prayer warriors’ – the type of people who got up at 4am and prayed for 2 hours before breakfast etc. Whereas often if we muster 10 mins we feel we’ve done well. His main reflection in this section is how Prayer allows us to get a right perspective on our lives.

Part 2: Unravelling the Mysteries
Does God care about the small details of our lives (e.g. when we pray about our lost car keys) and if so how do we reconcile that with Tsunamis taking place? The sense that our prayers so often are concerned with either ‘Trouble or Trivia’. Questions such as: Does it make a difference how many people pray for me – if I only have one praying friend am I less likely to be cured than someone with a 100? He raises the issue of our ‘polite prayers’ in contrast to the raw honesty of the psalmists for example. Big theme in this part is of God giving away power - that prayer is not asking God to absolve us of our responsibilities

Looks in this section at the issue of ‘Does Prayer Change God’. That is, can a changeless God be influenced by prayer. This was the main point where I wondered if a bit of ‘wetness’ might appear and we might find ourselves shaking hands with Open Theism. Yancey ends up with a bit of a fudge here concluding that while the ultimate outcomes of the universe are set by God we have some leeway to improvise the details of how those are arrived at. This of course leaves the problem that such is the interconnectability of all things how could God control one thing but not the others.

Part 3 – Language of Prayer
Here the focus is on hindrances to prayer and styles of prayer. This is accompanied by a plea for honesty and authenticity – getting away from false piety. Prayer is seen as building a relationship rather than following set agendas. He includes tips for overcoming distractions but crucially he sees prayer as involving discipline & practice – this is not as noted above a quick fix guide to Prayer.

Part 4 – Prayer Dilemmas
Deals with the problem of unanswered prayer and looks at possible causes, e.g. sin, neglect of the needy and other responsibilities. Talks about the blessings of unanswered prayer – that if we were always to get what we prayed for it would simply be too much responsibility.He notes however that for all our explanations there is fundamentally a mystery about this.

Part 5 – The Practise of Prayer
Highlights the need to make time for prayer. Covers some of the effects of prayer – e.g. lifts burdens / lightens mood / liberates from anxiety. Also noted is the benefit of perseverance that leads to patience. Crucially that it is prayer that sustains our relationship with God.

I was overall impressed by the thoughtfulness of the book and was grateful for the confirmation that Prayer is about seeking, learning and doing – rather than something to be addressed by easy techniques.

It is a book loaded with memorable quotes so my highlighter pen nearly ran out - which for me is one of the marks of a good book.

Ultimately it challenged me to stop and pray at various points as I read it. It’s a book that will involve a bit of commitment to get through it but will pay dividends for any thoughtful Christian with a desire to further deepen and understand prayer in their life.