Friday, 26 December 2014

Gifts: A Christmas Meditation

When we buy our gifts at Christmas, and indeed at any other time, we often ask ourselves what kind of gift is appropriate for the person? As a general rule, we don't buy after shave for toddlers, neither do we by cuddly toys for middle-aged men. Those gifts are not fitting.

Our sense of what is appropriate for them boils down to what we think will bring them pleasure, or at least be helpful. As mentioned above, we don't buy children's presents for adults or vice versa, but even amongst adults, there is wide variation. I know one middle-aged man, who would be thrilled if I got him a West Ham United season ticket for Christmas, but if I got it for his middle-aged friend, his middle-aged friend (whilst being from the same demographic) would be distraught - considering it an utter waste of money. The gifts that bring pleasure or are helpful to those receiving them are those gifts which resonate most strongly with a sense of who that person thinks they are or what they think they are becoming.

So when the (unknown number of) wise men come to Jesus and present their gifts to him, what do the gifts say about who he is and will become? Well, one helpful way of looking at it is this...

All the way down the Old Testament, the three big jobs (the proper term is "offices") which illustrate best who Messiah would be and what he would do when he came were those of king, priest and prophet. And each of the gifts offered are symbolic of those three offices.

1. Gold: The office of a King - 1 Kings 10:21

Gold is symbolic of power and glory. Power because it is rare and valuable, so to have it, you must be powerful. Glory because it is "solid light" and it shines like the sun.

King Solomon reigned at the height of the Israel's power and glory. In fact, you could almost call Solomon an emperor - not because he took an empire by military force, but because nations from all over the known world were behaving like an emperor's vassals and falling over themselves to send tribute to Solomon in the form of all kinds of precious things. So much gold was around at this time, that silver was considered of no value!!

Moreover, when the Queen of Sheba visits him (1 Kings 10), she can't believe how glorious the kingdom is, not only is the kingdom supremely wealthy, but the ruler of the kingdom is wise and has ordered everything in his kingdom in an understanding way such that his people are the happiest of peoples.

2. Incense: The office of a Priest - 1 Samuel 2:28

Incense was burned by priests in worship, both on its own and mixed in with the various food sacrifices. It symbolised the prayers of the righteous wafting up to God. It was forbidden for kings and prophets to burn incense at the altar.

Priests remained in the presence of God at the tabernacle / temple. They drew near to God on behalf of the people, and to people on behalf of God. They brought God "near" to the people by teaching them everything God had commanded them to do and brought the people near to God by offering prayers up to God on their behalf, but also helping them to offer right sacrifices.

3. Myrrh: The office of a Prophet - Matthew 23:30-39

Myrrh was used amongst other things to anoint the dead and is symbolic of death.

Prophets were not based in the temple, they went out into the world as the conscience of the people - they called wandering people and nations back to God by their words and their lives. The problem was that people would usually rather kill them than hear and receive their message. The likelihood was that in the Old Testament, if you were to be a faithful prophet of God, the best you could hope for was to be considered an utter wacko. More likely, you would be exiled or killed.


What can we say of this Jesus who, as a baby, received these three gifts?

1. That he was a king, but as God, he was a different kind of king.

His kingdom and power were not of this world, and so his definitions of power and glory were not either. He used that power to serve, to heal and to restore. The great glory of this kingdom was not to be seen in gold encrusted temples and palaces, but on a twisted wooden cross where love would find its deepest and fullest expression. The Glory of this king and his kingdom continues to flow into the whole creation, for by the power of an indestructible life, this King Jesus reigns and pours our his Holy Spirit into the world. Glory returns to him, but not in the form of gold, silver and precious stones, but in the form of something greater, the souls of men and women who are captivated by his beauty and swear to him their allegiance.

2. That he was a priest, but as God, he was a different kind of priest.

He lived constantly in the conscious presence of his heavenly Father for he himself was the true temple. He not only brought God near by teaching the people how to obey him, but he himself was God deeply desiring to draw near to his people. He would also draw near to God on behalf of the people offering up prayers to God. However, this priest would not teach people how to make food sacrifices to God, instead, he would become their sacrifice. He would not offer the blood of animals to God, but rather his very own blood, and in so doing, not just make people symbolically clean, but actually and thoroughly clean and righteous before God, enabling them to draw near to him, not just once, but for all time.

3. That he was a prophet, but as God, he was a different kind of prophet.

As a prophet he went looking for the lost sheep of Israel, speaking words and living a life that demonstrated the message: "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!" The Lord is looking for those who will worship him in Spirit and Truth. However, he soon ran into opposition from those who saw his teaching and ways as a threat to their established order and after three years of plotting and a sham trial they crucified him. But the blood of this prophet was of a different order and spoke a better word that the blood of all the Old Testament prophets, for instead of calling our for justice to be executed on those who spilled it, this blood called out for their acquittal. Now, instead of bringing words of jusdgment and death, this prophet, speaking from Heaven, speaks words of eternal life, that through his body, the church, flow into the whole creation.

Through Christ and by the power of his Spirit, God has demonstrated his power and his glory, he has drawn near to us, made a way for us to be fit for his presence and sent his words of eternal life out to the ends of the earth to call all those who will hear him.

He has joyfully made his peace with us. Will we receive that peace and reciprocate that joy?

Friday, 19 December 2014

The Consolation of God: An Advent Meditation

At the beginning of the last chapter in the Old Testament, there is a curious little promise:
“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 3:1
If you were a devout Jew, like Simeon, living at the time of Jesus' birth, believing the prophecies that God gave to Daniel in Daniel 9 and half decent at doing your seven times tables, then you would be living state of great expectation, that at some point in your lifetime, Messiah, the one enigmatically referred to here as "the messenger of the covenant" could finally appear.

Of course, we modern, progressive "on the right side of history" types tend to write off that kind of apocalyptic number crunching as ridiculous, fictitious Dan Brown style speculation, but for Simeon and others like him, this was a time of taking God at his Word, fasting, praying, waiting, looking and hoping - and they were not disappointed.

So it's no surprise to him that the Holy Spirit - in accordance with what He had had written down hundreds of years ago by Daniel, tells Simeon in Luke 2 to hurry down to the Temple where he will finally see the Lord's Anointed One. Simeon's heart must have been on the verge of bursting open with joy!!  Exactly how the Holy Spirit pointed out which baby Jesus was the baby Jesus, we don't know, since, on any given day there would have been many (possibly hundreds of) babies being dedicated in the temple as it was the only place of dedication for newborns in the whole nation - and Jesus was a common name at that time as Oliver or Mohammed is in ours.

But there's a twist…

You see, every time The Lord Jesus had come to his temple before, it was in a manifestation of great power and glory.  When Moses and Aaron and all the Israelites finished the Tabernacle, (Exodus 40) the Glory of the Lord (an old testament pseudonym for Jesus) came and lived in it - it was his house and his house was in the midst of the camp.  The Son of God drew near and made his dwelling amongst them.

When Solomon finished building the great temple in 1 Kings 8, the same thing happened, the Glory of the Lord (yes, that's Jesus again) was so excited to be with his people, he barely waited for the priests to get out of the Holy Place before he moved in making his house in the midst of the City of God's people - Jerusalem.

But after years of personal and national apostasy and idolatry by the people, the Glory of the Lord, (Jesus again), left his home, the temple.  And like all empty houses, it soon got plundered, ransacked and eventually flattened by invading powers.

And even though God restored the people back to the land gave them great favour with the ruling empire of the day such that this empire bankrolled the reconstruction of the temple, the Glory of the Lord, (you know who by now) never returned to take up residence in it.

So whilst many in the restored kingdom didn't care, to those who were looking in faith to the coming of the Lord, the words of Malachi 3:1 brought great comfort to an otherwise desolate, and seemingly deserted people.

But now, 400 or so years later as Simeon walks into the temple, he doesn't see a glory cloud above the Holy of Holies, he doesn't hear a Voice booming before which he trembles (e.g. Deut. 18:16).  Jesus had finally turned up at the Temple in the way that he promised he would back in the Garden of Eden, as one born of a woman, born not of natural descent or of a husband's will, but born by the power of God (John 1:13)

Jesus is the Consolation of God - Luke 2:25. The word used in Greek that is rendered 'consolation' in our English Bibles describes the kind of thing a mother does when she finds her runaway child who has been set upon by bullies and left in a heap, as she holds the child in her arms she nurses and heals the wounds and strengthen's the child's spirit with her words. (For another example, see Matt 23:37)

The great hope of Christmas is that in all our misery brought on by our own mad and faithless wandering, the Lord has not just drawn near in a glory cloud as of old, but he has united himself eternally to our humanity by becoming one of us, that he might bear and destroy our curse (a bit like this) and with great compassion pardon, cleanse, heal, strengthen, renew, adopt and glorify so that we might become like him. Truly, Isaiah was right:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder
Isaiah 9:2-3.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Anna: An Advent Meditation

In Luke's gospel we're told (chapter 2) that there was a lady called Anna who was a prophetess. Luke goes on:

she was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

Now, why should Luke bother to include a mention of this elderly lady? Honestly, what does this add that we don't already get from what Simeon said? Back then ink, paper and copying was an expensive and time consuming business. Is this merely a frivolous little cameo of life in first century Jerusalem? One that makes charismatics go "Hurrah!" and everyone else go "Well she was a bit intense!" Is he ticking his diversity box, making sure every sub-group gets a mention?


Anna's life tells a story that echoes the great story of history. Her story brings that great story into sharper focus and helps us to feel it more keenly. She's a symbol of the Old Testament Church. She is a matured (elderly) Eve.

Back at Eden, in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, Eve, symbolically became a widow. If you read what the LORD says towards the end of the chapter, He has no promises for Adam, all his promise of redemption is addressed to Eve. It is the seed of the woman who will crush the Serpent's head. Adam will not contribute anything. All he gets is judgments. Whilst Adam carries on living, and he will bring forth biological life, his ability to give spiritual life to Eve and through Eve to creation is gone. He is dead and buried as far as Salvation's story goes. (Notice that in Genesis 4. Eve get's all the airtime of the two, Adam is just a detail.)

Eve will hold on to that promise of a serpent crusher miraculously going forth from her womb as she ventures out into the wilderness beyond the temple mountain garden of Eden. Though Adam and Eve were never let back into the garden, they would come to the entrance to offer sacrifice. It's most likely where Cain and Abel offered their famous sacrifices of Genesis 4.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and we see the echo of Eve in the face of Anna the prophetess. Anna was married seven years to a man who then died, echoing the seven days of creation that culminated with Eve's marriage to Adam. He then spiritually died.

Anna, no longer the soft and tight-skinned fresh-faced virgin of Eden, but a tired, wrinkly worn out pensioner, who despite all the trials and temptations, all the joys and sorrows, all the false starts and hopes of life, held fast to God's promise of Messiah all her life long. And even though her eyes were failing and her strength fading, she finally saw the hope that she had long been waiting for when she looked into the face of that baby Jesus.

The Serpent Crusher of her youth was finally here.

True Israel, the Eves, Noahs, Abrahams, Sarahs, Jacobs, Josephs, Moseses, Samuels, Davids and others of the Old Testament who had waited and hoped through times of flood, famine, wealth, slavery, apostasy, warfare and anything else you care to mention, who had seen so many false starts in their people's history, finally in the face of this little baby, saw all their hope culminated.

The Serpent Crusher of their youth was finally here.

This widow would be married once again to a truly life giving husband.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

#trending 6: Identity - Sermon Notes

In this final sermon on identity, we aren't looking at the best of what our culture has to offer in helping us to understand ourselves, rather, at a handful of the, sometimes unspoken, assumptions and slogans that fly around in the mainstream of popular culture. Here are a few to get you thinking:

Identity in Popular Culture

  • I have no essential identity – bodies are accidental - Our culture's story of evolution is one which tells us that nothing is fixed - we can become whatever we want.
  • My desires and their fulfillment are my highest duty - How often have you heard the phrase, "Whatever floats your boat…" "Whatever makes you happy…" This is fine when it comes to the colour we want to paint our living room, but as a compass for making moral decisions, it is deeply flawed.
  • I express myself through consumption - Think about the way you dress, and the way you decorate your home - it's all about expressing to the world what you want them to see of you. We are all about image management.
  • My achievements are the definition of my success and self worth - Whereas in other parts of the world, people define themselves by their ethnic / tribal ties - in our culture we define ourselves by what we do. If you haven't "achieved" anything much, you're written off as a nobody.
  • Public responsibility is dead, long live me - whilst we talk a good game about how concerned we are about the environment or human trafficking or other such causes, how many of us have done anything significant about it for any significant length of time.
  • Judgmentalism is the new unforgivable sin - clearly there are some very unloving, ignorant and plain stupid things said by people who have never (or not for a long time) experienced a particular way of life / circumstance, but to then say that we are never allowed to pass any kind of judgment on the choices and / or actions of each other will only serve to further lock us all up in the prisons of our own self-righteousness, suspicion, fear and prejudice.
  • Self-esteem is the new moral currency - Right and wrong is less and less rule based and more and more located in what helps me to feel good about who I am and what I am doing.
  • Government exists to enable my rights & choices - we expect them not to rule over us, but to help us fix our problems and realise our dreams - the obvious destination of this philosophy is anarchy.

Popular Culture in the Church

  • Genie Jesus - God has a beautiful plan for my life - In the survey I did most people said that the one thing that would significantly improve their life right now was money, a partner or a change of job, suggesting that God's "beautiful" plan is to bolster our sense of who we think we are rather than seeing that when he says beautiful, he means sacrificial - in the sense of soldiers at the D-Day landings.
  • Greasy Grace - Biblical commands diluted down into encouragements - We often pick and choose which commands we listen to and ignore the others saying they don't matter or God didn't really mean it.
  • Our public voice is lost – we retreat to the shadows for fear of being labeled - No one who wants to be part of civilised society wants to be labelled a bigot. So we either shut up or retreat to the irrelevant shadows.
  • Success & technique trump faithfulness - Christian bookshops are full of techniques on how to be a better…[fill in the blanks]. We have many manuals about how to be a better spouse, parent, leader, how to grow a ministry or church successfully, but not so many about how to be faithful. In his closing address in the Bible, Jesus in Rev 2-3 says he's not interested in success, but in faithfulness.
  • The world can go to Hell so long as I and my loved ones are alright - Through a twisted desire for self-preservation we have a shrivelled sense of our calling to the world.

The Bible and Identity

The Bible talks about our identity, not as a set of "truth statements" but as a story. The True Story in which all our little stories take place (see Genesis 1-4):

  • Wonderfully made - God carefully made man out of the dust, and breathed life into him. He then went one better - he made woman. Woman is man glorified.
  • A Reflection onto Eternity - Through the family unit (diversity in unity) multiplying and spreading out across the earth, the human race would reflect the joyful, abundant, spreading, outgoing love of the Father, Son and Spirit.
  • The Dark Exchange - But rather than God, Adam and Eve chose to listen to a different voice. Rather than reflecting God, they chose to reflect the serpent, they still wanted all God's benefits, just none of the loyalty those benefits entailed. They wanted to be their own gods.
  • The Irreparable Loss - After that Dark Exchange, Adam and Eve don't repent, they blame everyone else and lock themselves into a place where before God they don't, can't and won't do what is right.
  • The Orphaned Wandering - Adam and Eve, and the human race that would flow from them are exiled from fellowship with God to wander over the face of the earth - as a covering for their shame they build great civilisations over history, with great cultures, but at the centre of all these manifestations are dark, orphaned and rebellious hearts.
  • But…

In Christ, Our Identity is Transformed and Glorified - 1 Cor. 15

  • The Man From Above - Jesus stepped into history 2000 years ago. He was a miracle birth, not born with the same orphaned, corrupted heart that you and I have.
  • Jesus is True Humanity - We are ghosts of our former selves alienated from everything and everyone, but Jesus was and is the true human - relating perfectly to God his Father and all creation. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, but Jesus is the reality of God.
  • The Death that Swallowed Death - Eternally - In Christ's crucifixion, God takes into himself all the effects of the curse that we brought upon ourselves when we locked ourselves into our orphaned and rebellious hearts and threw away the key. God has made his peace with us for all the offence we caused him, the question is, will we make our peace with him?
  • The Life that Pours out Life - Eternally - Jesus, now ascended to the right hand of his Father pours our his life and likeness to all who respond to the call to make their peace with him.
  • True Life is found in Death - True life is when we give up trying to be the controller of the universe - when we die to the way of life which puts us at the centre and instead, puts us in submission to God. We then receive his life to blossom as he intended.
  • Transformed Sameness - Christians may not look any different on the outside, but their whole reality changes when they put their trust in Jesus, in a similar way to the way life changes when you get married, have kids, turn 18 etc. In one sense everything is the same and yet, everything is different.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Some of the "Identity" Survey Results.

Here some results from the recent Identity survey I did for a sermon of mine:

Setting that in context, according to our membership directory we are about 45% men and 55% women and, currently, on average, we gather a bit more than twice our number of members across our three Sunday meetings.

I think that the following two are fairly self-explanatory, but if you have any interesting observations, do mention them in the comments.

This last one is interesting and if I was better at writing surveys (hindsight is a wonderful thing) I would have framed the question differently. Instead of saying "rank the following in order of which stresses you out the most" I think I should have said "rank the following in order of which you think about the most."

As a consequence, with God's expectations ranked 4th overall in the stress stakes, I don't know if this means that we have a mature understanding of our identity in Christ e.g. Matt 11:28-29 or if it means that we are far too worldly in our thinking e.g. 2 Cor. 10:12 and don't really care about his expectations.


Once again, many thanks to all who filled in the survey. It's also great to get little messages like these two:

I hope, with God's help, to measure up to the expectation that I have created. :-)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

RFC Bible School 2015 - Open for Registration

2015 will see us running our Bible School for the second time. It's open to anyone at RFC who wants to know the WHOLE BIBLE better, but has either always felt daunted by the task or could never quite mobilise themselves to do it alone.

The nine session course will take place at the RFC Offices on the third Monday of the month (not including July, August or December). We'll start each evening with a pizza buffet at 7pm followed by two taught sessions delivered by one of the Bible School teaching team and finish around 9:30pm.

Whilst we, the team, plan to cover a lot of material, and there are some hard bits, we aim as best we can to pitch that material academically at GCSE / O-level standard. The sessions are as follows:

19th Jan: Approaching the Bible - What do we need to know about this book before we open it?
16th Feb: What's the point of the Bible? How the whole Bible points to the supremacy of Jesus Christ
16th Mar: Starting out - How Genesis 1-4 sets the scene for everything that follows
20th Apr: Leviticus - How the Law brings God near for both death and life
18th May: The Psalms and their Friends: How to learn wisdom from music and poetry
15th June: How the Prophets called the people back to Christ, their first love
21st Sept: How the gospels show us the glory of Jesus from different angles
19th Oct: Reading the New Testament letters in the shadow of Acts
16th Nov: Understanding Revelation - The Last Word, The New World and the Triumphant Love of the Living God

To whet your appetite, here is one of the sessions we (I) taught last year.

There are no formal written assignments in this course, but anyone who wishes to write something to consolidate / build on what they have learned is welcome to do so and will get feedback on it. But it goes without saying that the best way to understand the Bible beyond this course is to read it.

The cost of the course is £70, which is to cover the cost of our food, drink and course handouts over the nine sessions. However, we don't want cost to stop anyone from attending, so if you would like to participate, but finances are tight, bursaries are available - more information on request from the church office.

Book in via Eventbrite, but payment needs to be made via the church office.

Ideally we would like at least 20 people to sign up (it feels like a "proper" class size then), but will happily run it for whoever we get. Due to space issues, the maximum number we can take is 35.

Would love to see many of you there.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Jesus prayed the Psalms, what did that look like? What does it look like for us when we do the same?

Down history, the church across the world has prayed the Psalms of the Bible. Not in a sugar-coated, fridge magnet Genie Jesus give me nice things way, but in the same way that Jesus used them - to strengthen their hearts.

As a good Jewish lad, he would have learned the Psalms, but when it comes to Jesus, there's more to it. He is the focus of that Psalm's fulfilment. The Psalms are a prophetic echo of Jesus prayer life.

So the next time you pick up a Psalm, ask yourself:
  • What would have been going through Jesus' mind as he read and prayed the Psalms? 
  • At what point was he in his ministry when Psalm [insert no. btw 1 & 150 here] would have come to mind?
So if we applied that principle to Psalm 3, what does it look like? No doubt, Jesus saw A LOT more depth and life than I do, but here's a starter for 10.

Firstly, Jesus tells his Father that he is falsely accused by his enemies.
Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,“God will not deliver him.”
Then, he entrusts himself to his heavenly Father  to protect, sustain and vindicate him.  He also looks to the Father as his glory - Jesus was not interested in promoting himself, but that everything he was and did in life would honour the Father and he looked to the Father to order his steps and deliver him from evil.
But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
I call out to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.
Arise, Lord!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.
From the Lord comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people.
So then, those who are united to Christ, who are in Christ and are now his hands and feet on the earth can pray these words with the same confidence that Jesus did when he prayed them, knowing that Jesus and his Father, through the Spirit will be just as faithful as the Father and the Spirit were to Jesus, for it is their heart to share all they have and are with us.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Dreams: A Picture of our Final Awakening

Last week, I awoke in the middle of the night and heard Elli fretting in her sleep, it sounded like she was having a nightmare so I gently called out her name. She awoke and told me that she had, indeed, been having a very distressing dream. We prayed God's redeeming love over the dream and both fell back asleep again until morning.

The Bible speaks of our transition into the next world as an "awakening." That this world, as solid as it feels, is a dreamworld compared to the reality of the world beyond the veil where God lives:
For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14
Jesus says:
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. John 5:25-29
Whether your life feels more like a fantasy or a nightmare, a time is coming when we will all hear his voice and be awoken to the greatest reality.

Monday, 6 October 2014

It's all about Jesus Christ

In the introduction to Christ our Life, Mike Reeves writes:
Once upon a time a book like this would have been utterly run-of-the-mill. Among the old Puritans, for example, you can scarcely find a writer who did not write - or a preacher who did not preach - something called The Unsearchable Riches of Christ; Christ Set Forth; The Glory of Christ or the like. Yet today, what sells? What puts a smile on the bookseller's face? The book that is about the reader. People want to read about themselves. There's nothing necessarily wrong in that, of course; but that is not primarily what life is about. "For me to live is Christ," said the apostle Paul. "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil. 1:21, 3:8). Startling words, all too easily dismissed as religious overexcitement. But Paul was not raving; he was speaking plainly, the deepest wisdom; that life is found in Jesus Christ, the author and source of it, and if we know him rightly, we will find nothing so desirable, so delightful as him.
It's not just our self-focus though; we naturally gravitate, it seems towards anything but Jesus - and Christians as almost as much as anyone else. Whether it's the 'Christian Worldview,' 'grace,' 'the Bible,' or 'the gospel'; as if they were things in themselves that could save us. Even 'the cross' can get abstracted from Jesus, as if the wood had some power of its own. Other things, wonderful things, vital discoveries, they so easily edge Jesus aside. Precious theological concepts meant to describe him and his work get treated as things in their own right. He becomes just another brick in the wall. But the centre, the cornerstone, the jewel in the crown of Christianity is not an idea, a system or a thing; it is not even 'the gospel' as such. It is Jesus Christ.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Parallels of Ezekiel and Revelation

In doing some study for delivering the last Bible School session of the year in November, I heard that Revelation and Ezekiel are parallel in many significant ways.

So if you want to get into Revelation, rather than reading a bunch of internet whackos, a good place to start is the book of Ezekiel.

For example, John, in Revelation, like the prophet Ezekiel is addressed as "son of man." Much of the imagery of Ezekiel is picked up by Revelation. Consider the following parallels:

  • The Throne-Vision: (Revelation 4, Ezekiel 1)
  • The Book: (Revelation 5, Ezekiel 2-3)
  • The Four Plagues: (Revelation 6:1-8, Ezekiel 5)
  • The Slain Under the Altar: (Revelation 6:9-11, Ezekiel 6)
  • The Wrath of God: (Revelation 6:12-17, Ezekiel 7)
  • The Seal on the Saint's Foreheads: (Revelation 7, Ezekiel 9)
  • The Coals from the Altar: (Revelation 8, Ezekiel 10)
  • No More Delay: (Revelation 10:1-7, Ezekiel 12)
  • The Eating of the Book: (Revelation 10:8-11, Ezekiel 2)
  • The Measuring of the Temple: (Revelation 11:1-2, Ezekiel 40-43)
  • Jerusalem and Sodom: (Revelation 11:8, Ezekiel 16)
  • The Cup of Wrath: (Revelation 14, Ezekiel 23)
  • The Vine of the Land: (Revelation 14:18-20, Ezekiel 15)
  • The Great Harlot: (Revelation 17-18, Ezekiel 16, 23)
  • The Lament Over the City: (Revelation 18, Ezekiel 27)
  • The Scavengers' Feast: (Revelation 19, Ezekiel 38)
  • The First Resurrection: (Revelation 20:4-6, Ezekiel 37)
  • The Battle with Gog and Magog: (Revelation 20:7-9, Ezekiel 38-39)
  • The New Jerusalem: (Revelation 21, Ezekiel 40-48)
  • The River of Life: (Revelation 22, Ezekiel 47)

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Jesus Prayer and Me 2: Petition - Sermon Notes

Accompanying slides can be found here.

Read: Matthew 6:25-34

This week we are looking at the subject of petition in prayer. Petition, like intercession is asking for things, and whilst there is crossover between the two, put simply, intercession is asking on behalf of others, petition is asking for yourself.

Whilst prayer may be a dying art in the West, it is alive and well in the rest of the world. Petition is the most common and natural form of prayer - because whoever we are, we all need help (Matt 6:32). We are utterly contingent (dependent) creatures. Unlike God, we do not have life in ourselves, (John 5:26) and we live and labour under the consequences of out own rebellion against God. I would argue even atheists "pray," if it is only in the sense that they look to themselves or other people as their source of help.

The question that needs answering is not, does God hear? Because being all powerful, we know he does, rather how can we have any confidence that he will listen and respond favourably? Our confidence is Jesus Christ, for by his death and resurrection, he has carried humanity right into the heart of God and brought us into God's family (Heb. 2:13) and so we can call God, Father. This is an extraordinary truth that we should not allow familiarity to dull.

1 Peter 5:7 tells us to cast all our cares on him for he cares for us - whether those cares are big or small, real or perceived, we can come to him and talk to him knowing that he will listen and take action where necessary - as any father would.

But our Father like any good father, isn't there to indulge all our feelings and desires. He is there to develop the good and cut out the bad, to train, grow and prepare us for real life. Like all good fathers, our heavenly Father has desires and ambitions for us that are good. Jesus - the perfect son - was so intent on seeing his Father's will be done that he said "My food (bread) is to do the will of him who sent me" (John 4:34). So when we pray "Give us this day our daily bread," we are not only asking for our needs to be met, but also for the adventure of following him and the joy of doing his will in the world more than our own.

Growing in Christian maturity, means going on a journey from being short-sighted and me centred in praying to being big hearted and other-centred. It's not about ignoring ourselves, but rather that a miracle takes place in our hearts where we become like God as we find our greatest joy in seeking and seeing the flourishing of others.

Four pointers to help us pray for ourselves:
  • Be specific - what EXACTLY do you want from God? (Matt.6:7)
  • Be Biblical - if you cannot find a bible verse to inspire you in prayer for what you are asking, then you may be asking for the wrong thing - and not get it, or the right thing, but in the wrong way. (1 John 5:14)
  • Be real - when asking for ourselves, our motives are often mixed (e.g. Hannah's desire for a baby 1 Samuel 1:9-11)
  • Be persistent - The answer will be yes, wait or no.
What do we do when God says no and when Heaven is silent? Prayer is not magic, it is the meeting of wills: God's and ours. Even Jesus saw this in the Garden of Gethsemene when in agony as he faced up to his impending crucifixion said "My Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours." All of us will be living with unanswered prayers in one form or another and we just have to continue to trust God, for where else can we go? (John 6:68).

Suggested Questions:
  • What is you confidence that God is you Father and will listen wholeheartedly to you?
  • When you pray to him, do you tell him the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is going on in your heart? If not why not?
  • Jesus said that his food was to do his Father's will. Where are you on the journey of being more like Jesus in this regard? Are you more self-centred in your praying or other/Kingdom centred?
  • Which of the four top tips did you find most helpful? Why?
  • Have you lived, are you living with unanswered prayer? How are you dealing with it - continuing trust, or growing cynicism?

Monday, 1 September 2014

New Training Horizon

After not dying on my cycle round the Isle of Wight at the beginning of the summer hols, I have been cajoled into signing up to this:

It will have been nearly 5 years since the last time I did an Olympic distance triathlon. Like a pregnancy, I have just short of nine months to get ready. Although I hope my "labour" will not last as long!!

The Olympic distance training will now gradually resume, in tandem with the Olympic eating, from which I never took time off.

If I'm honest though, I'm most looking forward to time spent with friends and having grown up in the North West, cycling through the amazing scenery of Snowdonia, which I used to be fairly familiar with, so long as the weather is clement enough and I'm not doubled over the handlebars with fatigue.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Jesus According to Hebrews

Here are some statements that the Biblical book of Hebrews make about Jesus!

  • He is sent from the Father
  • He is the heir of everything
  • He is the creator of everything (in the power of the Spirit and under the authority of the father)
  • He is the radiance of the glory of the Father
  • He is the imprint of the Father’s nature
  • He is the sustainer of creation
  • He is the redeemer of everything
  • His throne is established for ever
  • He loves righteousness and hates wickedness
  • He is exalted by the Father above all at his right hand
  • He is the same yesterday, today and for ever
  • His Father is working to ensure that he is honoured by all
  • He was made made (a) perfect (mediator) through his suffering
  • He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters before the Father
  • He took on Flesh and Blood so that he might destroy the power of the devil and deliver us from slavery to the fear of death
  • He is a faithful and merciful high priest (mediator between God and us)
  • He is our man in Heaven, able to sympathise and help us when we are tempted yet he himself was without sin
  • He is quick to draw near
  • He offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears on our behalf to the Father
  • As a man, he learned obedience through what he suffered
  • He has become the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him
  • He is our forerunner into Heaven
  • He has promised to be our salvation and sealed it with an oath
  • He is a sure and steadfast anchor to the soul
  • He is our mediator in the power of an indestructible life
  • He is the guarantor of a better covenant
  • He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption
  • He has entered into the presence of God on our behalf
  • He will come again to save those who are eagerly waiting for him
  • He endure great hostility from sinners during his earthly life
  • For the joy set before him, endure the cross, scorned its shame and sat down at the right hand of the Father

Therefore, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Prayer is to the Christian as (Sexual) Intimacy is to Marriage.

Just read, in half an hour, Mike Reeves' excellent little book on prayer. It's so short, you could read it over a coffee and for £3 from here, it's a bargain.  Get it and pass it on when you've finished.

Mike doesn't draw the analogy, but basically prayer is for the Christian like intimacy (esp sexual intimacy) is for marriage. Intimacy does not make you married, nor does it break your marriage, but the amount and nature of the intimacy mutually experienced is probably the best indicator of how deeply the spouses do or don't love each other. Prayer does not make you a Christian, nor does lack of it unmake you one, but it does reveal what your attitude towards God really is deep down. He puts it like this:
In one sense, your prayer life is disgustingly revealing: it does reveal who you really are. For all your talk and theory of faith - you can affirm the truth of prayer and know that God is good - your prayer life reveals how much you really want communion with God, and how much you really depend on him. I stress, it does not tell you about your security as an unrejectable child of God, but it does tell you, very accurately, how much of a baby you are spiritually, how much of a hypocrite you are, and how much you actually love the Lord. Thus, if your tendency is to think you're rather wonderful, remember your prayer life.
Yet don't be dismayed! Yes, it means you need to start at the beginning in learning how to pray. But prayer is the 'chief exercise of faith' so of course you're naturally rubbish at prayer, because you're naturally lacking in faith. If prayer is 'the chief exercise of faith' - then of course everything, the world, the flesh and the devil - conspires against prayer. This means that you're not the odd one out in your struggles with prayer - and it's not your secret shame - which can be the crippling fear. You're just a sinner, naturally inclined away from faith and prayer. We're all sinners. And you know who the friend of sinners is? Jesus.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Creating a Web of Plausibility

The recent Storyville documentary on Lance Armstrong, trailered below, is fascinating viewing because it shows us all an eerie side to ourselves we'd rather ignore. Click here for David Walsh's take on the whole thing - also fascinating.

True, the Armstrong Fraud went on for so long due to deliberate and premeditated lying and obfuscation from Armstrong and the handful of people around him, but also because the vast majority of pro-cyclists were doping too and therefore had neither the moral high ground nor the moral energy to take him on.

But perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about it all was that we wanted the lie to be true. We all wanted to believe that it was possible for a guy not only to beat a most aggressive form of cancer, but then recover to become one of the greatest endurance athletes ever. Of course, one cannot deny that could be possible, but in Armstrong's case it wasn't. Nothing brought it home so clearly than seeing again footage (that I had seen a hundred times before), only to realise that whilst performing these incredible breakaways on the mountain stages, he was not suffering, not out of breath, no emotion, nothing. Just a calculated drug-fuelled machine, fulfilling his contract of "winning" races.

Everyone wanted to back this winning horse and when you tied this parable of sporting success to our human struggle against cancer and the Livestrong Foundation, the lie became even harder to deny or diffuse in the public consciousness. No one wanted to be the party pooper who made a wreck of this all-round feel-good gravy train apart from a couple of prophets who saw through it in the forms of Paul Kimmage and David Walsh.

Armstrong's deception was so effective because it's the lie we all want to believe about ourselves. The lie that we are the masters of our own destinies and that we are strong enough to beat up all our opposition (be it in Armstrong's case other cyclists, critics or cancer) then to stand in the glory of our victory and giving gifts to all those who idolise us (in Armstrong's case - hope of overcoming or even a cure for cancer) all the while massaging our egos reliving the moments of our epic rise to power with all those who love to receive drops of our reflected vainglory.

The shocking truth (or to use the biblical term, the mystery of sin: Rom. 1:25, Rev.17:5-7) about the human condition is that we have a toxic addiction to telling lies to ourselves and each other about everything, but especially about who God is and we crave that others reinforce this web of deceit. At its most basic level, we know this as "tolerance" but it can and has grown into full force extermination programmes in an effort not to have the lie exposed for what it is. If you don't believe me, you're only admitting and reinforcing the power of the lie in you - let that thought mess with your brain for a bit…

We need to be rescued not from our actions, but from ourselves (Col.1:21-22) not just once, but every moment of every day. (1 John 1:8-9)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Importance of Jesus' Ascension

Last week, most of the global church of Jesus formally celebrated the Ascension.

Here are seven reasons why the Ascension is great news taken from an article by Gerrit Dawson! (No, I had never heard of him either).
  1. Jesus inhabits his earthly body - he didn't unzip and step out of his skin suit when he got back to Heaven. He is the eternal God-Man and has a body like ours, but glorified and he will glorify all those who receive him.
  2. Jesus sits on the Throne of Heaven - It wasn't Jesus' spirit only that ascended, his whole body did too. Bodily ascension is as important as bodily resurrection.
  3. Jesus lives - Heaven is a real place with time and space, not a floaty ethereal place which half exists. And real beings with real bodies live there.
  4. Jesus gives - Kings show off their glory by giving gifts to their people. David gave the Israelites some raisins (2 Sam 6:19), Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2)
  5. Jesus speaks to the Father on our behalf.
  6. Jesus restores and glorifies - The Image of God marred in Adam and disfigured in Jesus at the cross is not only restored but glorified in the ascended Christ.
  7. Jesus reigns. The church is a future centred people, but from the future now of the throne of Grace - Jesus directs his people in the present by his Spirit orchestrating all of history to the time when he will be revealed to the naked eyes of all.
To read the excellent article in full click here.

Or have a read of Psalm 24 remembering that Jesus is the answer to the "Who?" of verse 3.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Cycling the Isle of Wight

My good friend Sean suggested recently that I come out of cycling retirement and join him and others on the annual cycle fest that is the ride around the Isle of Wight. A wonderful idea until I remembered that my ego is even bigger than my gut (which these days is quite something), how fit all the others are and how unfit I am! I have therefore had to come up with the following game plan for the ride...
  1. Survive - Most likely scenario is that I get so tired that my head drops or I forget how to corner at speed and go headlong into a lampost or more likely on the Isle - a thorn bush.
  2. Not to sustain an injury. When surrounded by such relative titans, it's easy to fall prey to the temptation of pretending to be fine, keeping pace with them whilst not admitting that I am over stretching myself and dying inside and in the process strain, tweek, pull or even rip a muscle I forgot I had.
  3. Not to frustrate my fellow cyclists utterly by my relative lack of fitness compared to them who have not only been training consistantly, but upped their game since I forsook the sport to court and marry my wife! Fortunately, they are a very gracious bunch, so this is the least of my worries, but I would still love them to feel that we had a good blast round the island.
Anything else is a bonus!

In case you were wondering, I do love cycling, genuinely. As with many things - the risk is part of the thrill. I just don't want to be the weak link in the chain gang.

To that end, I went out for the first of a few training rides so that I have a semblance of fitness in time for the 25th July.

I want to look like this:

But I fear, I will probably look like this:

Still, it can only get better from here! :-S

Friday, 30 May 2014

Resources Theological

For a while now, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship have run a theology resource website called Theology Network.  It is good for entry level study as well as having deeper level stuff and it is all free!! :-)  You can become a mighty armchair theologian from the comfort of your own commute!

Now, in a similar vein, Mike Reeves and the good people at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology have launch - their long term vision is to make robust and sound theological study available to the masses and restore the link between the theology school and the local church.  The framework Reeves gives is incredibly compelling...

If you have a desire to grow in understanding of the Bible and the treasures of church history, but don't have the time and or money to attend a full course - this is one to watch.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Personal Reflections from Catalyst Festival 2014

Reflections might be too glorious a term for some of these, but…
  1. It was wet.
  2. It rained.
  3. I managed not to have to go to the loo in the middle of the night! (Believe me, if you have never been camping, this is a major achievement esp. when the weather was a wet as it was - sound of running water etc.)
  4. My new gas-powered Trangia and Pocket Rocket burners worked a treat. Phew!
  5. There are many different types of camping. Elli and I exemplified the expedition variety where everything you take has to have at least two different uses or it justify being packed in the bag, compared with (all?) the rest who were into home from home camping - someone even had a microwave in their tent!!
  6. Elli and I took two tents, one for us and the other for our stuff, although some thought it might be one for me and one for Elli, as if we were going it Abraham and Sarah style…
  7. It was great to go to something like this again as I can't remember the last time I properly attended something like this - probably Word Alive in my student days back in the year 2000!!
  8. Great to catch up with friends and get to know others better on the RFC camping plot. It's always fun / interesting what you learn about people when you go camping together. No doubt they would say the same about observing me… :-S
  9. Me getting "foot in mouth disease" moments and being rescued by my wife…
  10. Elli and I went to a seminar on fostering and adoption. Provocative to say the least - there were moments when there wasn't a dry eye in the house, as stories of God's redeeming love in the day to day were shared by carers who have faithfully cared for vulnerable children for many years. I had a hard time holding it together at one point. Along with the beautiful stories, three thought provoking (over?)-statements that have stuck with me from that session are: 1. Adoption is the heartbeat of the Gospel, it is how we come into the family of God. 2. As an overflow of 1. Many see adoption and fostering as a Plan B when Plan A has failed - e.g. they cannot conceive or have had their desired quota of biological children and find they have space left over, but why not integrate it into your plan A family planning schedule? 3. If every church in the UK took in one one child who needed fostering or adopting, the finding placement crisis in the foster care / adoption system would be eradicated. And in case you're wondering, we are thinking about it as a part of our plan A family planning… that's why we went to the seminar. Watch this space.
  11. Dave Devenish on building multicultural churches was excellent too. He pointed out three different types of cultures: 1. Law/Guilt (traditional Western society) 2. Honour/Shame (Eastern and Postmodern Western societies) and 3. Security/Anxiety (Tribal/Animist societies) and how the Gospel is good news to all those different groupings - Simple, but outstanding in helping me to think through how to reach the increasingly ethnically diverse land we live in. I had a shower of pennies dropping all over my head!
  12. The main meetings were excellent. Great sung worship and some exquisite contributions - like manna from Heaven. I heard Mike Pilavachi for the first time - quite an experience! And it was good to put faces to names I have heard much about in this time of switching apostolic spheres (from Newfrontiers to Catalyst Newfrontiers).
  13. Was great to be on the prayer ministry team and have the privilege of praying for people.
Main personal take away was to repent of being so caught up in myself and to listen for and be more obedient to what the Holy Spirit is saying and doing. Simple to summarise, but hard to do, because I like control and running to my own agenda. Feel free to ask me if I have acted on this take away three months from now or if I have reverted to the same old habits… If I have reverted, please kick me up the bum.

The Great Porn Experiment

An interesting non-religious take on the dangers of porn. Helpful for anyone (working) with boys or anyone who (knows someone who) is suffering from arousal addiction.

I guess in the West, that probably means everyone…

May the church, in time, be the place where he finds the desired "control" group.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Are you More Interested in Pleasing God or Avoiding Sin?

N.B. Here is the original sin:
Adam said nothing as the serpent tempted (attacked) Eve.
An extended quote from Metaxas' biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer about an essay Bonhoeffer wrote documenting what he had learned 10 years in to being part of the resistance movement in Nazi Germany. It is unflashily called: "After Ten Years,” and to me has strong echoes of Galatians 2:20. The names of those mentioned in the quote are those who were also part of the plot to assassinate Hitler.
Bonhoeffer had written an essay a few months before his arrest, titled “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943.” At Christmas 1942 [he was arrested in April of 1943], he gave copies to Bethge, Dohnanyi, and Hans Oster, and he hid a fourth copy in the ceiling of his attic room. The essay is an assessment of what they had been through and learned in the extraordinary experiences of the ten years since Hitler’s ascension, and it helps us see more of the thinking that led him and all of them to the extraordinary measures they had been taking and would continue to take against the Nazi regime. And it confirms Bonhoeffer’s crucial role in the conspiracy, that of its theologian and moral compass. He helped them see precisely why they had to do what they were doing; why it was not expedient, but right; why it was God’s will.

He opened by framing things.

One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet — people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant, and futile, who looked beyond all these existing alternatives for the source of their strength so entirely in the past or in the future, and who yet, without being dreamers, were able to await the success of their cause so quietly and confidently….

The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.

Then he dismissed the standard responses to what they were up against and showed why each would fail. “Who stands fast?” he asked. “Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God–the responsible man who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”

This was how Bonhoeffer saw what he was doing. He had theologically redefined the Christian life as something active, not reactive. It had nothing to do with avoiding sin or with merely talking or teaching or believing theological notions or principles or rules or tenets. It had everything to do with living one’s whole life in obedience to God’s call through action. It did not merely require a mind, but a body too. It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings in obedience to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom — that was what it was to obey God….

Bonhoeffer talked about how the German penchant for self-sacrifice and submission to authority had been used for evil ends by the Nazis; only a deep understanding of and commitment to the God of the Bible could stand up to such wickedness. “It depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith,” he wrote, “and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.” Here was the rub: one must be more zealous to please God than to avoid sin. One must sacrifice oneself utterly to God’s purposes, even to the point of possibly making moral mistakes.  One’s obedience to God must be forward-oriented and zealous and free, and to be a mere moralist or pietist would make such a life impossible:

If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.

Bonhoeffer spoke of death too:

In recent years we have become increasingly familiar with the thought of death. We surprise ourselves by the calmness with which we hear of the death of one of our contemporaries. We cannot hate it as we used to for we have discovered some good in it, and have almost comes to terms with it. Fundamentally we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death (although we all know that weariness which we ought to avoid like the plague); we are too inquisitive for that — or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our lives' broken fragments…We still love life, but I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not our outward circumstances, who make death what it can be, a death freely and voluntarily accepted.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Tips for Singing Songs of Praise in a Small Group Setting

Below is the body of a handout I wrote for a recent lifegroup leaders training session. Some of the top tips were added by others as we talked it through - this is the result...


“Canned worship is to lifegroup singing what modeling magazines are to teenage girls – they can have the unintended consequence of making our own efforts feel fake and inadequate.”
Richard Walker musing on his sofa 5th May 2014.

We are part of a church culture saturated by canned worship, but what do you do if you’re no Tim Hughes yourself and you're in a life group that doesn’t have a wannabe Matt Redman or Lou Fellingham to whom you can delegate the singing bit??

Before launching off, let me declare, there is nothing inherently evil about listening to worship music or using it to help you sing in lifegroups. But we miss out on something very human and God given if we never sing together unaccompanied.

Massive generalisation I know, but… Our culture says that singing is an expression of feelings. The Bible says that singing is an obedient reality check stemming from seeing who God is and what he has done. Most of our reticence around sung worship stems from us listening more to our culture’s definition of singing rather than the Bible’s. Not that feelings aren’t important, but they slot into a bigger picture. We so often take ourselves and our feelings too seriously - placing ourselves at the centre, rather than taking obedience to God seriously, and putting him at the centre.

Very few people are incapable of singing in tune.  Whilst we may not all have "platinum album" quality voices, God made the overwhelming majority of the world's population to sing in tune, they just need practice and confidence.

The Bible says we should make a joyful noise (Ps. 95, 98, 100), nowhere does it say that it has to be tuneful or beautiful. There is nothing morally dubious about off key, raspy singing.

That said, whilst tone deaf raspy singing is not problem for God, it can be a (big) distraction for us, so here, in no particular order are some tips to help you survive and hopefully enjoy unaccompanied sung worship and minimize the number of cringe worthy moments…
  1. Don't take yourself too seriously, take God seriously.
  2. Most people have never been taught to sing properly and whilst no one needs formal training some tips can go a long way in helping.
  3. Stand to sing. Take some deep breaths together (remember point 1). Stretch if you have been hunched up all day / since you arrived. Like exercise, people need to warm up voices before singing. Nothing will stop you hitting those high notes well like a scrunched up diaphragm and cold vocal chords.
  4. Lead confidently, if you’re reticent, then don’t be surprised if everyone else is. Even if you delegate this part of the meeting to someone else, you still need to help stir everyone.
  5. Pick songs that help your group. If everyone is tired on a week night, don’t avoid worship, sing songs of truth that get their eyes off themselves and onto the living God.
  6. If a song starts badly, people will thank you if you kill it, admit it and start again or choose a different one altogether.
  7. Starting a song at the right speed is best, but if you err one way, err on starting a song too fast rather than too slow.  A too-fast song is weird, but a too-slow song is painful.
  8. Many songs have low verses and high choruses. If the song goes high at the chorus, start singing at the chorus or wherever the high point is, so that you can pitch it appropriately, and don’t all turn into a bunch of strangled cats half way through the song.
  9. Have someone tap/clap/beat out a rhythm especially with modern songs which often have long pauses in between verses and choruses – that’s when the musicians on the CD would be doing their clever twiddly bits.
  10. We do most of our singing in rows meaning we don’t have to try to avoid eye contact. Remind people it’s ok if you catch each other’s eyes as you sing.
  11. Avoid closing your eyes for long periods of time, keep an eye on the dynamic of the group, encourage people to contribute. Often they will do if they get a green light from you.
  12. It was felt that "Here I am (Majesty)" was one of the best songs to illustrate these pitfalls.
  13. As you come to the end of the chorus, say the first line of the section where you want people to go next e.g. Back to the beginning / back to verse .... Etc. Whilst your regulars might do this intuitively, it's especially helpful for those who are new to your group.
  14. If your lifegroup finds sung worship difficult, talk about it together, explore why. Some of the most extravert people can become quiet and reclusive when singing - why is that? Talk about where you are and where you want to get to / should be.
  15. Sometimes we let good practice slip over time, don't be afraid to say "We used to do… and for some reason lately, we haven't, we need to get back there…"
Any other top tips to share?

Sunday, 27 April 2014

You Heard it Said #1 Sermon Notes - The Beatitudes. Matthew 5:1-12

Notes for this Sunday's sermon below, accompanying slides here (Apologies for the mixed up ref on slide "5" which should refer to Matt. 6:9-10):

This week sees us starting a new sermon series looking at some extracts from what was probably Jesus most famous public address - The Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5-7. One strand in that sermon that Jesus picked up on was the teaching his hearers had picked up from their culture / upbringing etc and showed them how, in his Kingdom, everything would be turned on its head.

Jesus had already been announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand and doing miracles to demonstrate it (see Matt. 4). Now, as the King of that Kingdom, he sat down to instruct his newest subjects, the disciples - and anyone else who wanted to listen in. The central point is that one day Earth will be like Heaven is now as the two will be united as one and his subjects (disciples) are to work towards that day (Matt. 6:9-10, Rev. 21).

You and I only have one life to live and how we live it defines our eternal destiny. Our culture has many expectations of us and how we should live it, we have many expectations of ourselves. Jesus cuts through all that noise and opens his sermon with some declarations of what his subjects should be like.
  • Poor in spirit - knowing that however good it may be, they will never be fully satisfied in this life, John 12:25, Phil 1:23.
  • Mourning - because they know the fate of those who refuse to heed Jesus' words, Matt 23:37, Ecc. 7:4.
  • Meek - they look and wait patiently for the vindication of God, rather than taking matters into their own hands. Luke 18:1-8.
  • Hunger and thirst for righteousness - their first question every day is "how can I please my Lord?" not "How can follow my heart and be authentic?" Jer. 17:9, Rom.12:1-2
  • Merciful - this can look like weakness, but Jesus says it is the path to receiving the mercy of God. Matt 18:21-35.
  • Pure in heart - those in whom is no hypocrisy or double standard - their life is an open book. John 18:20.
  • Peacemakers - those who move towards those who aren't like them and befriend them in Jesus' name. Eph. 4:3, 6:15.
  • Persecuted - Jesus was love personified, but he was hated, reviled and eventually crucified. Those who want to be like him should not be surprised if they find themselves treated the same way. 2 Tim. 2:12.
So how did you score as a wannabe follower of Jesus? All of us fall short, the only question is by how much?

The good news is that Jesus did all of those things perfectly for us and God has accepted his life as a substitute for our own if we will put our trust in him. He was not satisfied with this life alone (Mark 9:19, Heb. 5:7). He mourned because of sin (Matt 23:37). He was meek (Matt 26:52-54). He hungered and thirsted for righteousness (John 4:34). He was merciful (John 21:15-19). He was pure in heart (Heb. 5:7). He gave his peace (John 14:23). He was persecuted (Matt 26-27).

But Jesus isn't the great consumer champion, he didn't suffer so that we could lead a culturally expected life that looks like everyone else's, just a little bit more optimised in "moral" department. He came that we might die to this old way of life and live a new way. He died so that we could be new creations, fit to house the Spirit of God and live an extraordinary and exemplary life. He died and was raised that we could be like him. (Mark 8:34)

Monday, 21 April 2014

Summer Holiday

My wife likes listening to me speak French. Couple that with the fact that I've never been to the Alps before, (I know, and I call myself a French teacher!!) and you have the reason why we've just booked ourselves two weeks in the Vanoise National Park.

What is not yet clear is how much cycling I / we will do as I am currently experiencing crepitus in my left knee. (I know - I'm only 36 too!!)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Trinitarian Humility and Glory

Many are suspicious that God is probably some egomaniac who only created us so that he could make us suffer and then demand worship from us, torturing us in Hell if we didn't comply. That may be because they replace the true God with one made up by their own self-centredness (anthropomorphism).  It's no surprise then, that the "god" they come up tends to be horrible beyond imagination.  Our so called modern generation is no different from all those who went before, we just express it differently. (Acts 17:29)

But the Bible introduces us to a delightfully different kind of God. One who you and I would never imagine up, because we are too self obsessed. (1Cor. 2:9)

The Father, Son and Spirit are all seeking that we prefer the other.

The Father is not interested in his own glory, he wants all to behold his Son. (Matt. 3:17, 17:5)

The Son does not seek his own glory but wants only to honour his wonderful Father, he also tells his disciples that is is better that he leaves, and the Spirit comes, then things are really going to get going! (John 14:28, 16:7)

The Spirit simply wants to honour the Son (John 16:14) as the Son honours the Father (John 5:19).

And so the humble social dance goes on eternally.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

God is Reigning from the Tree

The Cross is not a defeat, it's a victory.  On that theme, four Good Friday meditations from the archive: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Glen has also posted an excellent thought on how Jesus didn't just die for us, we died with him.

Here too, is a hymn adapted from a 5th century poem by a 17th century hymn writer.

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

There whilst he hung, his sacred side
By soldier's spear was opened wide,
To cleanse us in the precious flood
Of water mingled with his blood.

Fulfilled is now what David told
In true prophetic song of old,
How God the heathen's King should be;
For God is reigning from the tree.

O tree of glory, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear,
How bright in purple robe it stood,
The purple of a Savior's blood!

Upon its arms, like balance true,
He weighed the price for sinners due,
The price which none but he could pay,
And spoiled the spoiler of his prey.

To thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done:
As by the cross thou dost restore,
So rule and guide us evermore.


You can hear a slightly different version of it, here.

And my favourite Easter video, here. Get the tissues ready.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Moses and Jesus

Doing some prep on an upcoming sermon and fascinated by the connections between Moses' life and the life of Christ. Whilst I won't be commenting on these parallels directly, as only having 25mins there are more pressing matters, they are interesting to note…

Moses' prophecy in Deut 18 that one like him but greater than him would one day walk amongst them had finally come true.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Reporting on our China Trip

Whilst Elli and I are still processing our sentiments from our recent trip to China, here are some shoot from the hip observations.

  • China is urbanising at a phenomenal rate. We were staying in a backwater city, the equivalent of a market town like Worcester, but it still had a population of 5 million - bigger than every city in the UK apart from London.
  • China is communist pretty much in name only - whilst officially the political system remains - probably still strong in the rural areas - the ideals being flaunted on their billboards and TV commercials, are the American dream played with new Chinese actors.
  • We never saw a house whilst we were there, only blocks of flats and parks.
  • The Chinese work so hard, because they are highly motivated, but also because their odds of success are small.  Like everywhere else, there are many more people than jobs.
  • The one child policy means that soon, there will be one child supporting up to six adults - his parents and grand-parents. The whole of the developed world is getting top heavy.
  • Due the one child policy, sex selective pregnancy has been rife. There are many more boys around than girls.
  • Property speculators are buying up new flats in the hope of selling them on at a profit, but this is driving the price of property up for everyone else who can't afford them now. Like in the UK, a starting teacher has to move back in with his parents and get a job in their home city or rent a room somewhere - social mobility is still relatively limited.
  • Most of China is still ethnically monochrome. Apart from one English conversation teacher we met at the school, we were the only non-chinese people we saw all week in a city of 5 million and as a result we were looked at a lot - especially by small children.
  • Food - amazing and very healthy, if at times a little spicy - we ate loads and put on no weight!
  • Friendliness - all the people we met were genuinely warm and welcoming especially our hosts.
  • Appreciation of cultural heritage - students and teachers alike all had a strong affinity to their history and tradition - unlike us English teachers who, when asked to sing Auld Lang Synd, could barely remember the words between us! 
  • Chinese education is free at primary and middle school level, but families have to make a contribution to high school education.
  • Progress to the next year is about stage not age. So you will often get different aged kids in the same class. 
  • Teachers only teach two lessons a day, but with classes of 60 students, there's a heck of a lot more marking.
  • Teaching is genuinely child-centred. This is what surprised us the most. Children are told to chase their dreams not conform to state expectations.
  • Teachers all enter a national teaching competition with heats and a final winner.
  • High school kids finish lessons at about 8:30pm and then have about 4hrs homework.
  • Chinese teachers face the same issues there as we do here. Namely being caught in the middle between central government's obsession with outputs and the deep conviction that what makes life worth living is more than the sum of our measurable achievements.
And for those who love pandas...

Here is a video from the Panda Preservation Reserve in Chengdu:

Noah - A Film

Elli and I went to see this latest cinematic offering last night.

The main similarities with the biblical text are the following:
  1. There's a guy called Noah (and another named Methuselah and another named Tubal-Cain who is a forger of iron, but I don't see him playing any of his brother's nice musical inventions - Gen. 4:21-22).
  2. There's a boat.
  3. There are a lot of animals.
  4. There's a lot of water.
If you take a snapshot view, of the film other similarities occur, but when set against the flow of where the Bible has come from and where it is going. The film's portrayal of the original story is simply unintelligible and bizarre.

That said, I thought two sentiments were well expressed and helpful to me.

Firstly, the way that wicked king Tubal-Cain twists the commands of God to his own advantage - using "the Creator's" blessings not as an opportunity for service and self sacrifice, but for domination and self aggrandisement. He views his actions as not only his right, but his duty and he is justified in his own eyes - no matter how morally depraved he actually and clearly is.

Secondly, Noah's insistence that all should perish including himself and his family. The wickedness that he sees in humanity, he sees in himself and his family, so why should he / they escape? The rest of his family move too quickly (for my liking) to the glib humanist cliches about guilt and innocence, justice and mercy.

Salvation is not a right. It is never earned. It will never be merited. God doesn't see a glimmer in our unregenerate eyes and think - he could turn out a good'un. Our benchmarks of justice, mercy, guilt and innocence are far too skewed by our own over optimistic assessments of ourselves.

Mercy is, by definition, undeserved.

In the film, Noah is an inhumane, mystical eco-warrior charged with saving the creator's creation. The aim is preservation.

In the Bible, Noah is a picture of Christ who preaches to all, but who is reviled and ultimately saves only those who are made like him, transporting them with him through the waters of judgment and death to a renewed world. The aim is transformation.

I'm not on Facebook atm, but my wife told me that a friend of mine posted this excellent article which blows my well meant, but stupid little review out of the water!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Trip to China

View of Luzhou, Sichuan
Courtesy of Wikipedia

On the date of our first anniversary, Elli and I will be on a plane to China. We are going with a group of teachers to experience and find out more about how the Chinese education system works. Our destination is Luzhou in Sichuan province. We fly direct to Chengdu from Heathrow.

With the media going on about how amazing Chinese maths teaching is, it will be interesting to see where the dividing line is between truth and spin, and see first hand what is replicable back home here and what is not.

Will also try and wangle some business class seats, at least for our flight out... :-)

We're back on 14 Apr.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Our problem is that we are far too easily pleased...

“Man cannot live without joy; therefore, when he is deprived of true spiritual joys it is necessary that he become addicted to carnal pleasures.”
Read more here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

An International Comedian on the British

It's always fascinating to see what foreign comedians make of us.  Here is the "German Comedy Ambassador" Hemming Wehn making fun of the very people he is performing to! I can't work out if the laughs are comfortable or not - I certainly think he fires some home truth at us! Indeed, is the fact that they are laughing a peculiar British response?

Warning - contains some offensive language.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Lent: Preparing the Soil of the Heart for Fresh Seed and Rain

Whilst the 24/7 "always on" principle may work for certain types of businesses and services, it isn't one that is good for the soul as it can leave us feeling disconnected, distant and without any real sense of the passing of time.

Back in Genesis 1, on day four, God created the sun, moon and stars as signs to govern "days and seasons." There's nothing here about creation being the same 24/7 all year round - life is liturgical, it's about rhythm and repetition and growth. The word we have translated as "signs" (yowm) in Gen 1:14 is particularly related to sacred time / religious festivals. (e.g. yowm kippur - the day of atonement). Israel ran on a lunar calendar and God told them that they were to set their religious festivals by that lunar calendar "The Lord’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month..." (Lev.23:5) etc.

This is why, for many centuries across the world, the church has observed Lent. Forty days of humbling and self denial. Like a farmer turning the soil, ready for the new plantings, Lent is a season for preparing the heart, with no obvious benefit, to receive again the message and the power of that first resurrection morning.  It's nothing to do with superstition or ritual, it's because God has made us rhythmic (liturgical) creatures.

Yesterday, many friends of mine ran the Reading half marathon. They went in to strict training, so that they would know the joy of crossing the finishing line and accomplishing something meaningful for them. There was no moral requirement for them to do it, but they chose endure the pain of training for the joy of victory in running. Those who watched from the sidelines will no doubt have felt a good vibe from the event, but spectating is nothing like taking part.

Lent is like this, there is no moral compulsion for us, but, if done with a right heart, then after the humbling and self-denial there is joy and gladness! Watching someone else do it, is nothing like taking part yourself. So some pointers...
  1. Give up something meaningful that creates time in your day e.g. social media, TV (maybe all  TV or just a particular programme e.g Eastenders), a sport that you do, a meal.
  2. Give up something that may have come to have more of a hold on you than is good. e.g. coffee, wine, beer, chocolate, cheese, meat etc
  3. Use the time / cravings created by what you have given up to drive you to bible meditation, prayer (a great resource is here if you want it) and serving others in all the spheres God has given you influence.
  4. Time with God costs you nothing financially, why not use any money saved from all that booze and those chocolate bars and mocha-choca-frappacino thingamajigs for blessing someone in need.
I am always humbled by small Muslim kids who will fast food and water for Ramadan especially when it takes place as it does, this year in July when the hours of daylight are LONG!! I have so much more to be thankful for - so much more to gain and yet so often I am so dull of heart to get going.

May God make us valiant and courageous, for indeed, these are strange days we live in.