Friday, 28 April 2017

Looks interesting

Would You Adam and Eve It? from Searchlight Theatre on Vimeo.

Living A Transformed Life Adequate To Our Calling

The following is an excellent article by the late Dallas Willard published in 2005. It picks up some of the themes of the last two posts and is concerned about that middle part of the salvation process - the present.

"Walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called." 
(Eph. 4:1)

"Since we stand before so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, with our eyes set on Jesus, who initiated our faith and will bring it to perfection." 
(Heb. 12:1-2)

"There is no good tree which produces bad fruit…. 
The good man out of the good stored up in his heart, brings forth what is good." 
(Luke 6:43-45)

To fulfil the high calling which God has placed upon us in creating us and redeeming us, we must have the right inner substance or character. We must come to grips with who we really are, inside and out. For we will do what we are. So we will need to become the kind of people who routinely and easily walk in the goodness and power of Jesus our Master. For this, a process of "spiritual formation"—really, transformation—is required.

Spiritual formation for the Christian is a Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self –our "spiritual" side—in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. In the degree to which such a spiritual transformation to inner Christlikeness is successful, the outer life of the individual will become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. We will simply "walk the walk," as we say.

Christlikeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment, of course. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Nevertheless, well-informed human effort is indispensable. Spiritual formation in Christ is not a passive process. Grace does not make us passive. Divine grace is God acting in our life to accomplish what we cannot do on our own. It informs our being and actions and makes them effective in the wisdom and power of God. Hence, grace is not opposed to effort (in actions) but to earning (an attitude).

Paul the Apostle, who perhaps understood grace as none other, remarks on his own efforts for Christ:

"By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I laboured even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me." (2 Cor. 15:10)
The supernatural outcome that accompanies grace-full action stands out.

Spiritual formation in Christ is the way of rest for the weary and over-loaded, of the easy yoke and the light burden (Matt. 11:28-30), of cleaning the inside of the cup and the dish (Matt. 23:26), of the good tree that cannot bear bad fruit (Luke 6:43). It is the path along which God’s commandments are found not to be "heavy." (1 John 5:3)

Before turning to some details of Christian spiritual transformation in the various dimensions of the human being, we need to be clear about the general pattern that all effective efforts toward personal transformation—not just Christian spiritual formation—must follow. Because we are active participants in the process, and because what we do or do not do makes a huge difference, our efforts must be based on understanding. The degree of success in such efforts will essentially depend upon the degree to which this general pattern is understood and intentionally followed. Jesus indeed said that without him we can do nothing. (John 15:5) But we can also be sure that if we do nothing it will be without him. So he commands us to "abide in the Vine." (15:1-7) We must find a way to do that.

Let us begin with a couple of easy illustrations, and then spell out the pattern in its generality.

Learning to Speak Arabic
Suppose someone wishes to speak a language they do not presently know: say Arabic or Japanese. In order to carry through with this simple case of (partial) personal transformation, they must have some idea of what it would be like to speak the language in question—of what their lives would then be like—and why this would be a desirable or valuable thing for them. They also need to have some idea of what must be done to learn to speak the language, and why the price in time, energy, and money that must be expended constitutes a ‘bargain,’ considering what they get in return. If they are to succeed, all of this needs to be clearly before them. They need to be gripped by the desirability of it. That would be their vision.

The general absence of such a vision explains why language learning is generally so unsuccessful in educational programs in the United States. The presence of such a vision, on the other hand, explains why the English language is learned at a phenomenal rate all around the world. Multitudes clearly see the ways in which their life might be improved by knowledge of English. As the vision is clear and strong, it pulls everything else required along with it; and the language is learned, even in difficult and distracting circumstances.

Still, more than vision is required, and, especially, there is required an earnest intention. Projects of personal transformation do not succeed by accident, drift, or imposition. Effective action has to involve order, subordination, and progression, developing from the inside of the personality. It is, in other words, a spiritual matter, a matter of meaning and will, for we are spiritual beings. Conscious involvement with "order, subordination, and progression, developing from the 'inside' of the personality," is required.

Imagine, if you can, a person wondering day after day if he or she is going to learn Arabic, or if he or she is going to get married to a certain person—just waiting, to see whether it would "happen." That would be laughable. But many people actually seem to live in this way with respect to major issues involving them, including spiritual growth. That fact goes far to explain why lives often go as badly as they do. To learn a language, as for the many even more important concerns of life, we must resolutely intend the vision, if it is to be realized. That is, we must initiate, decide, bring into being, those factors that would turn the vision into reality.

And that brings us to the final element in the general pattern of personal transformation: that of means or instrumentalities. Carrying through with the pattern for the illustration at hand, one will sign up for language courses, listen to recordings, buy books, associate with people who speak Arabic, immerse yourself in the culture, possibly spend some intensive times in Jordan or Morocco, and practice, practice, practice. There are means known to be effective toward transforming people into speakers of Arabic or Russian, etc. This is not mysterious. If the vision is clear and strong, and the employment of the means thoughtful and persistent, then the outcome will be ensured.

Another Illustration: Alcoholics Anonymous
Another illustration of the "general pattern" of personal transformation is provided by Alcoholics Anonymous and similar "twelve step" programs. Here, of course, the significance of the transformation or change is perhaps far greater for the person involved, than in the case of learning a language; and the outcome is a negative one—that is, a refraining from doing something very harmful, something that could possibly lead to untimely death. But the pattern is basically the same.

A desirable state of being is envisioned, and an intention to realise it is actuated in decision. Means are applied to fulfil the intention (and the corresponding decision) by producing the desirable state of being: in this case, abstinence from alcohol and a life of sobriety, with all the good that that entails. The familiar means of the traditional AA program—the famous "twelve steps" and the personal and social arrangements in which they are concretely embodied, including a conscious involvement of God in the individual's life—are highly effective in bringing about personal transformation.

V-I-M: The General Pattern
With these two illustrations before us (language learning and AA), the general pattern of personal transformation should now be clear. We emphasise that it also holds for those transformations that can only occur through Grace: through the initiative and through the constant direction and upholding of God. To keep the general pattern in mind as we continue, we will use the little acronym "VIM," as in the phrase "vim and vigour."

Vision
Intention
Means

"Vim" is grammatically related to the Latin term "vis," meaning direction, strength, force, vigour, power, energy, or virtue; and sometimes meaning sense, import, nature or essence. Now spiritual formation in Christlikeness is all of this to human existence. It is the path by which we can truly, as Paul told the Ephesians, "be empowered in the Lord and in the energy of his might" (Ephesians 6:10) and "become mighty with his energy through his Spirit entering into the inward person" (3:16). It spells out the "life to the full" that Jesus, in his own person, brought into the life of humankind. (John 10:10) Only by receiving this life do we become adequate to our calling. God never intended anything else.

So, if we are to be spiritually formed in Christ, we must implement the appropriate vision, intention, and means. Not just any path we take will do. If this V-I-M pattern is not properly put in place and resolutely adhered to, Christ simply will not be formed in us. We do not want to be ‘picky’ about the details. That can sidetrack us into legalism. But apart from an overall V-I-M pattern of life, what we are inwardly will be left substantially as it was before we came to know Christ, and as it is in nonChristians. Our inner life—what makes up our inner being of will, thoughts, emotions, social connections and even the dispositions of our body—will constantly entangle us and defeat us. Paul’s penetrating description has never been improved on: "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish." (Rom. 7:19) Paul, of course, did not stay there. He knew the bitter reality, but he also knew how to move on.

We will make a quick survey of V-I-M in spiritual formation, and then return to each part for a deeper look.

The Vision of Life in the Kingdom
The vision of our life in the kingdom of God, is the place we must start. This is the vision Jesus brought. It was the gospel he preached. He came announcing, manifesting, and teaching what the kingdom of the heavens was like, and that it was immediately availability in Himself. "I was sent for this purpose," he said (Luke 4:43). If we from the heart accept Him and His kingdom, we will find our feet firmly planted on the path of Christian spiritual formation.

What is "the kingdom of God." It is the range of God's effective will, where what God wants done is done. It is, like God himself, from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 103:17; see also Psalm 93:1-2; Daniel 4:3; 7:14; and so on). The planet Earth and its immediate surroundings seem to be the only place in creation where God permits his will to not be done. Therefore we pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and we hope for the time when that kingdom will be completely fulfilled even here on earth (Luke 21:31; 22:18)—where, in fact, it is already present (Luke 17:21; John 18:36-37), and is available to those who seek it with all their hearts (Matthew 6:13; 11:12; Luke 16:16). For those who do so seek and find it in Christ, it is true even now that "all things work together for their good" (Romans 8:28, PAR), and that nothing can cut them off from Gods inseparable love and effective care (Romans 8: 35- 39). That is the nature of a life in the kingdom of the heavens now.

The vision that underlies spiritual (trans)formation into Christlikeness is, then, the vision of life now and forever in the range of God's effective will. This means we are partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:1-2) through a birth "from above," and participating by our actions in what God is doing now in our lifetime on earth. Thus Paul tells us, "Whatever we do, speaking or acting, do all on behalf of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:17, PAR). Being born into his Kingdom, in everything we do we are permitted to do his work. That is what we are learning. That is the priviledge extended to us in the gospel. What this vision calls us to is to live fully in the kingdom of God—and as fully as possible now and here, not just hereafter.

The Intention to be a Kingdom Person
The vision of life in the kingdom through reliance upon Jesus makes it possible for us to intend to live in the kingdom as he did. We can actually decide to do it. Concretely, we intend to live in the kingdom of God by intending to obey the precise example and teachings of Jesus. This is the form taken by our confidence in him. Our confidence in him is not merely a matter of believing things about him, however true and important they may be. Indeed, no one can actually believe the truth about him without trusting him by intending to obey him. It is a mental impossibility. To think otherwise is to indulge a widespread illusion that now smothers spiritual formation in Christlikeness among professing Christians and prevents Christian spiritual formation from naturally spreading worldwide.

Gandhi, who had closely observed Christianity as practiced around him in Great Britain and in Europe, remarked that if only Christians would live according to their belief in the teachings of Jesus, "we all would become Christians." We know what he meant, and he was right. But the dismaying truth is that the Christians were living according to their "belief" in the teachings of Jesus. They didn't believe them! They did not really trust him.

Knowing the "right answers"—knowing which ones they are, being able to identify them and say them—does not mean we believe them. To believe them, like believing anything else, means that we are set to act as if they (the "right answers") were true, and that we will so act in appropriate circumstances. And acting as if the right answers are true means, in turn, that we intend to obey the example and teachings of Jesus our Master. What else could we intend if we believed he is who his people through the ages have declared him to be?

The idea that you can trust Christ and not intend to obey him is an illusion generated by the prevalence of an unbelieving "Christian culture." In fact, you can no more trust Jesus and not intend to obey him than you could trust your doctor or your auto mechanic and not intend to follow their advice. If you don't intend to follow their advice, you simply don't trust them.

Intention Involves Decision
Now, an intention is whole and real only if it includes a decision to fulfill or carry through with the intention. We commonly find people who say they intend (or intended) to do certain things that they do not do. To be fair, external circumstances may sometimes have prevented them from carrying out the action. And habits deeply rooted in our bodies and life contexts can, for a while, thwart even a sincere intention. But if something like that is not the case, we know that they never actually decided to do what they say they intended to do, and that they therefore did not really intend to do it. Accordingly they lack the power and order that intention brings into life processes.

Of course the robust intention, with its inseparable decision, can only be formed and sustained upon the basis of a forceful vision. The elements of V-I-M are mutually reinforcing. Those whose word "is their bond," or "is as good as gold," are people with a vision of integrity. They see themselves standing in life and before God as those who do not say one thing and think another. They "mean what they say." This is greatly valued before God, who abominates "swearing falsely" and honors those "who stand by their oath even when it harms them" (Psalm 15:4, PAR). Similarly, it is the vision of life in God's kingdom and its goodness that provides an adequate basis for the steadfast intention to obey Christ. And that intention, carried through, will in turn enhance the vision by making it clearer and brighter.

Means
The clear vision and the solid intention to obey Christ will naturally lead to seeking out and applying the means to that end. That is the natural order in human life. Here the means in question are the means for spiritual transformation: for replacing the inner character of the "lost" person with the inner character of Jesus—his vision, understanding, feelings, decisions, and character. By finding such means we are not left to ourselves, but have rich resources available to us in the example and teachings of Jesus, in the Scriptures generally, and in his people through the ages. They include such practices as solitude, memorization and meditation upon scriptures, fellowship and accountability to others, and so forth. More on this below.

Suppose, for example, we are convinced that we should, as Jesus would, be generous to those who are in need, but who have already taken away some of our money or property through legal processes. Mere "will power," with gritted teeth, cannot be enough to enable us to do this. By what means, then, can we become the kind of person who would gladly do this, as Jesus himself would do it? If we have the vision of the goodness of it, and we intend (have decided) to do it, we can certainly find and implement the means.

For example we might, in solitude, prayer and scripture meditation, identify our resentment and our anger toward the person who needs our help as the cause of our not gladly helping him. And then there is justice. Ah, justice! Perhaps in the form of "I do not owe it to him. He has no claims on me." Or perhaps we feel the legal case that went against us and in his favor was rigged or unfair. Or again, perhaps we think we must secure ourselves by holding onto whatever surplus items we have. After all, we may say, who knows what the future holds? Or perhaps we think giving to people what is unearned by them will harm them by corrupting their character, leading them to believe one can get something for nothing. Or perhaps it is just not our habit to give to people with no prior claim on us—without regard to whether they may also have injured or deprived us. Or perhaps our friends, including our religious friends, would think we are fools. And so forth.

What a thicket of darkness and lostness stands in the way of doing a simple good thing: helping someone in need, someone who just happens to have previously won a legal case against us, possibly quite justly. It is the all-too-customary human thinking, feeling, and social practice that stands in the way. And, truthfully, it is very likely that little can be done on the spot to help one do the good thing that Jesus commands. But by a course of study, prayer and practice we can become different inside, and then be able to do it with ease and joy.

This is characteristic of all Jesus’s example and teaching. When my neighbor who has injured me or triumphed over me in the past now stands before me in a need I can remedy, I will not be able "on the spot" to do the good thing, if my inner being is filled with all the thoughts, feelings, and habits that characterize the ruined soul and its world. On the other hand, if I intend to obey Jesus Christ, I must intend and decide to become the kind of person who would obey. That is, I must find the means of receiving his grace and changing my inner being until it is substantially like his, pervasively characterised by his thoughts, feelings, habits, and relationship to the Father. Overall, this will amount to a life organised around wise spiritual disciplines under grace. We learn that we cannot do what we should do just by trying, but that by training we can become the kind of person who would do it with little thought or effort.

In the spiritual life it is actually true that "where there is a will there is a way." It is true there because God is involved and makes his help available to those who seek it. On the other hand, where there is no will (firm intentions based on clear vision) there is no way. People who do not intend to be inwardly transformed, so that obedience to Christ "comes naturally," will not be transformed. God will not pick us up and throw us into transformed kingdom living, into "holiness."

In sum, the problem of spiritual transformation (really, of the normal lack thereof) among those who identify as Christians today is not that it is impossible, or that effectual means to it are not available. The problem is that spiritual transformation into Christlikeness is not intended. People do not see it and its value, and decide to carry through with it. They do not decide to do the things Jesus did and said. And this in turn is, today, largely due to the fact that they have not been given a vision of life in God's kingdom, within which such a decision and intention would make sense. The ‘gospel’ they have heard did not bring that vision. As a result, the entire V-I-M of Christ's life and life in Christ is not the intentional substance and framework of their life."

The rest of Dallas' Article - and others - can be found here:
http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=119


Salvation - past, present and future Part 2

Paul in Romans 7 is referring to the sin habits that his previous life without Christ have formed in his body, his mind and his reactions to the things that haoppen to him. We too learn these habits from early on, picking them up from adults around us, later friends and peer groups, as the sin that is present in the creative order works away in us. The Bible and the Church has various ways of explaining this, the most well known of course being the story of Adam and Eve our parents.

Now bearing in mind this does not have to be read as literal truth (you can if you wish) it neverthless seeks to explain how the power of sin came into the world and links it with our disobedience of God's express command: "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:16-17). Please note that God wasn't wanting to deny them the understanding of the difference between good and evil - any responsible parent would want to do that - but in their original state of innocence and sinlessness they were, made in the image and likeness of God (see Genesis 1:27), at that stage perfect and pristine creatures. The knowledge of good and evil therefore represents the knowledge that only God possessed at that stage. Therefore to eat the fruit of that tree was to disobey God and try to become like Him, gods themselves.

Adam and Eve, so the story goes, weer however tempted to disbelieve and disobey God leading to a fall from grace and introducing the power of sin into the world - the 'Fall' - and giving it access to theri lives. The following chapters up to Chapter 6 then chart the gradual descent into darkness that this means for God's creation which, although originally good ("very good" Gensis 1:31), now became so disfigured and corrupted that Genesis 6 tells us:

"....(so) great man's (had) wickedness on the earth.....become.....that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." (verse 5)

Look how deep that goes, right down to inclinations ('natural' tendencies) and the thoughts (mind) of his heart (centre of our being) was ONLY evil ALL THE TIME. The power of sin was now so great that it had, like a cancer, completely dominated the personality of human beings, holding sway and power over everything they did, thought and spoke. The Church has called this sin 'original' sin or 'ancestral' sin. Either way it's power is present in all of us, whether we were born with it - as Roman Catholics and many Protestants believe, - or we pick it up from the 'environment' in which we live. Either way we need saving from its power or we will eventually become so corrupted by it that we will turn away from God and 'perish' (see John 3:16) in the sense that we won't be able to enjoy the life in all its fulness with God that Jesus came to bring and God originally intended (see John 10:10).

It is THAT power that Jesus came to defeat and destroy on the cross and through the resurrection. This is made plain in Romans 6 especially in this passage from the new Living Translation of the Bible:

"5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. 6 We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. 7 For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. 8 And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. 9 We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. 10 When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. 11 So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus."

So in this sense, if we put our trust in Jesus and are united with Him in His death and resurrection through faith, living under the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives, then we are 'saved' and delivered from the power of sin. But - and it is a significant 'but' - we still need to go on being 'saved' by exercising our faith, and living out the Christian life. There are still significant battles to be fought against those sin habits and tendencies at work in us, and which Paul so vividly describes to us in Romans 7. And to enable us to address these we need to walk in the power of the Spirit whilst practising the spiritual disciplines which Christ has given us as his disciples (a 'disciple or apprentice is a follower of Christ who practices certain disciplines in order to live the life Christ would live if He were you and I. See Dallas Willard article in the next post).

And so Jesus teaches us how to give alms, fast and pray (Matthew 6). The Bible talks about Biblical meditation (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1) and the need for solitude (Luke 5:16) etc. These are the 'tools' of the Christian trade that help us to engage in the fight against sin and work out "in fear and trembling" what Christ has done for us (Philippians 2:12). And it is this that is sadly lacking in so many today who look back to the moment they were 'saved' but ignore the fact that the war has been won but there are still batles to be fought. How else can we obey Christ's command to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). In other words make perfection - to be like God - your aim or goal (telos in Greek).

And so salvation is past - and begins the moment you and I respond to the call of Christ, and trust Him as our Saviour and Lord. It continues, as we offer "the parts of (y)our body to (Christ) as instruments of righteousness" (Romans 6:13) so that sin shall no longer be our master, as we learn, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to "live no longer under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:14)

And what about future? Well is the goal or aim is perfection, then when we "have fought the good fight" and "finished the race" and "kept the faith" (note all these suggest that this is our part, working with grace to grow up in our salvation (1 Peter 2:2)) there will be in store for us "the crown of righteousness, which the Lord...will award (us)" (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Then, and only then, will we be finally 'saved' in the fullest sense of the word.

So we can talk about being saved (past tense), but the Lord's work in us will not, as yet been completed. We can also talk in terms of being saved (present tense), as the work of God in tandom with the Spirit and through grace as we follow Jesus is ongoing. But still that work is incomplete. It is only when we have finished the race of faith that we can trully say that we are now saved (future tense) because like runners it is only when we have finished the race that we will be given the winner's crown.

Salvation - past, present and future Part 1

One thing you will quickly discover when you become a Christian is that although you know you have been saved from sin and forgiven and reconciled with God, and things have quite clearly changed in your life, old sin habits continue to persist. That flaring temper is still there, and although it is less vociferous than before, it still rise us and explodes no matter how many good intentions not to do it next time. Or you struggle with addictions to over-eating, or selfishness or gossip. What has happened? Surely now we are Christians we are "new creations"? Here is the promise from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV).

Moreover, the old 'me' has been put to death. here is another promise, this time from Paul's letter to the Galatians:

"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."  (Galatians 2:20 NKJV)

If it is no longer I who live but Christ, and because of His work on the cross and my faith in Him I am now a new creation, then how come I still have certain character traits and sin habits that are more like the old me rather than the new?

It is because 'salvation' - from the Greek word meaning to be healed or made whole - is a process, not an event. Unfortunately, many Christians see it as an event and talk about being saved on a particular day when they gave their life to Christ. In terms of the day I responded to what Jesus had done for me on the cross made a decision to follow Him, I can pinpoint the day as being 31st August 1981. I can, therefore, using the jargon, say that I was 'saved' on that day and in that moment. But if I was 'saved' or made whole on that day, why is it I still struggle with being whole? Why is it that I still have bouts of explosive anger, moments of selfish self-indulgence and other manifestations of sin that are completely unrepresentative of the Christ who is in me and who I now follow? If I have now become a new creation, why is it that the old still stalks me, and disfigures the character of Christ in me?

This is the problem Paul was struggling with in Romans 7:7-25 especially the following verses (15-24):

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"  

Paul then, like us, is struggling with this dilemma. He knows he has been justified by faith and reconciled with God - he has been 'saved' - and yet he is aware that the battle, instead of being won, still rages on in him and although he knows what is right and wants to do it, still struggles with the sin which shows itself so quickly and easily in his life. He talks about this sin being in his 'members' (see verse 23). There is something in his mind and body which seems to 'remember' past sin habits and chaarcter flaws and still acts them out in him.

This is not as strange as it sounds. When I injured my right hand I had to learn how to use my left hand instead while the other recovered. So I had to learn to open doors, type, hold a fork, change my clothes, brush my hair and teeth all with the unfamiliar left hand. It has been a struggle because when I have to do any of the above my right hand "moves by itself" to do them because it 'remembers' having doen them all before. Even now, when I still have to use mostly my left hand when my right hand is painful or weak, I still instinctively use my right hand, even though it is uncomfortable and sometimes painful (which is why I am taking so long to recover). The habits and routines of right hand usage over 59 years and deep seated and do not chaneg overnight. I have to learn new ways of living using the left over the right. It is frustrating, difficult and challenging. What has this got to do with salvation? See the enxt post to find out.

The astonishing love of God

The following is the astonished response of one TV host to the forgiveness of her husband's killer:

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Can we trust the Bible?

Alpha Course Session 1

Alpha - a way of evangelism

A woman once approached the great evangelist D. L. Moody to air a grievance. (Moody was an international evangelist of great renown in the 19th Century.)
The woman said to him, “Mr Moody, I don’t like the way you do evangelism!”
“Well, ma’am, let me ask you, how do you do it?” Moody asked.
She replied, “I don’t!”
Moody responded, “Well, I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it!”

The previous post showed a teaser film introducing the Alpha Course which has been seen by millions across the world. The course was originally designed as a sort of back to basics course for the congregation at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London to help the people there brush up on their faith. Since then, however, it has taken off as one off as a great way to introduce the Christian faith to those who are genuinely seeking.

But it has come in for criticism by some because it does not fit in with various denominations' particular doctrinal emphases or because it says too much about the Holy Spirit (how can you say too much about God?) or because it is too upper middle class, too English, too Anglican, too London-based and a whole host of other reasons. At the end of the day, however, as Moody pointed out to the woman who criticised him, at least it has introduced so many churches to the importance of actually DOING evangelism rather than just talking about it.

Of course, it is not fail-proof and it is not guaranteed to grow your church or make anyone a Christian unless, of course, they want to be one. But in my personal experience in past churches, I have never once run an Alpha Course that did not produce fruit. Someone has always either come to faith, renewed or deepened their faith after attending it. And so I can, from my own personal experience, recommend it to anyone interested in running something that will help people think about faith.

And what is particularly good about the current Alpha Course it that it has been re-done with a 21st-century audience in mind, using films, interviews and personal stories, rather than one person standing up and speaking for half an hour (40 minutes originally). And so on the next post, I will put the first film on the new course to give you an insight into what it is like.

Incidentally, a major plus for the new realisation of the Alpha Course is that it is not Minister or Vicar dependent. It can be run by a trained team of church people, who can greet, pray, welcome etc the various people who walk through the door. 

Alpha Course Teaser Film

The great faith of Coptic Christians in Egypt

Like many of you I read with dismay, sadness and anger about the killings of Coptic Christians in Egypt as the congregation of St. Mark's Church, Alexandria, met for worship on Palm Sunday. The intended target was Pope Tawardos II who, fortunately, was not present when a suicide bomber blew himself up killing 45 people and injuring 100 more. What sort of God did that bomber worship who would reward such a despicable act? And what sort of faith not on exonerates such a person but proclaims them a martyr, worth of the highest honour with ticket straight into heaven. If heaven was indeed populated by such people I am not sure I would want to go there.

But underneath all this terrible news I was good to see that light still shines in the darkness. I read that the widow of the Egyptian Christian guard who died protecting Coptic Pope Tawardos II during ISIS' Palm Sunday bombings has said she forgives her husband's killer.

'I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,' the widow of Naseem Fahmi said, in a message to her husband's killers and other's contemplating such violence, according to Open Doors.

'I am sure Naseem has been happy to give his life for Christ,' Samira, who was wearing black in mourning, said. 'When we talked about this one day he said that he would be willing to defend the church with his own blood. Last Sunday he did.

'He told me that he knew me and the kids needed him, but that he also knew that God would take care of us if something might happen to us.'

Naseem was one of the men guarding Saint Mark's church in Alexandria, the seat of the Coptic Pope, last Sunday. When the suicide bomber tried to enter the church, Naseem halted him and asked him to pass through the metal detector first.

There the assailant detonated his bomb. Naseem, a 54-year old father to two sons, was killed in the blast, but his quick intervention saved many.

In two months Naseem would have become a grandfather for the first time. He was also was a committed, beloved church member who served his church for over 20 years

'Naseem's life was at the church, and now his life is in heaven. I know he is in a good place.' Samira said. She added: 'I am proud of what my husband did, but life has become hard for me after his death. He was everything in my life.'

Naseem's brother, Fawzy Fahmi, said, 'After we heard the death of my brother Naseem, we went to the morgue to recognise his body. It was difficult for us to recognise him because the explosion completely ruined his face. In the end we were able to recognise him through a scar in his leg. He underwent a surgical operation on his knee 25 years ago and that helped us to recognise him.

'We have mixed feelings. It is difficult to express what we feel. We live between the sadness of losing our brother and the joy that he went to Heaven. Our only comfort that he is in a beautiful place with Christ now.'

On Monday this week an Egyptian Coptic priest gave an address to the bombers, in which he said he loved them, forgave them and was praying for them.

He said: 'You gave us to die the same death as Christ – and this is the biggest honour we could have.'

I can only marvel at such faith as this, that forgives enemies, and is not afraid to die in the loving service of God. It challenges me to ask myself if I would be willing to do the same. And it fills me with such a great love for all my brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering not only in Egypt, but across the Middle East and indeed the world.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Thy Kingdom Come 2017

Boldness in prayer

Reading Luke 11:1-11, especially the following verses:

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Luke 11:5-10  NRSV)

One of the problems we face in prayer - meaning here the prayer of request, or petitionary prayer - is that we become so worried about offending God, or asking for a wrong or selfish motive, or a whole number of other 'wrong' meanings and attitudes, that we either become inoffensively vague or stop praying altogether. Yet what we see here in Jesus' teaching in Luke 11 is God giving us permission to let rip in prayer and hammer away at Him with our requests for an answer. We can be - Jesus is saying - as brazen and bold in our praying as we like. This is underlined by the word translated above as "persistence" (verse 8). Here is what the NET Bible notes say about the word:

In verse 8 the term ἀναίδεια (anaideia) is hard to translate. It refers to a combination of ideas, a boldness that persists over time, or "audacity," which comes close. It most likely describes the one making the request, since the unit's teaching is an exhortation about persistence in prayer. Some translate the term "shamelessness" which is the term's normal meaning and apply it to the neighbour as an illustration of God responding for the sake of his honour. But the original question was posed in terms of the first man who makes the request, not of the neighbour, so the teaching underscores the action of the one making the request. 

The basis of our shamelessness arises from our relationship with God as our Heavenly Father. As His children, He tells us that we can come to Him at any time, just as we are, in whatever mood or frame of mind we are in, and 'let Him have it' in prayer. That is the thrust of the teaching here. Confidence in God's love for us, which is boundless. This is also true of Luke 18:1ff and the story of the persistent widow. For years I have understood the parable as being about the need to be persistent in prayer, underscored by verse 1 which tells us that the reason that Jesus told the story to His disciples "to show them that they always pray and not give up". But at the conclusion of the parable Jesus says:
"However when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth." (verse 8). In other words, will their trust in God and their love for God - which led them to be confidently persistent in the first place - still be in evidence (a question that is finding itself very relevant today in Britain).

In only making the parables in Luke 11 and 18 only about persistence, we run the risk of making persistence a method or formula by which we can have a successful outcome to our praying. That is to say that if I just ask God so many times He will reward my persistence, rather than my faith in Him to answer. Can you see the difference? Every time we forget who we are praying to, and what our relationship is with that Person, we turn Christianity into a religion and prayer a religious practice rather than a conversation between Parent and child.

So in our prayers. God does not reward persistence so much as our willingness to take our relationship with Him to the very limits, only to discover that, like His love for us, there are no limits.

So Jesus teaches us to ask and keep on asking (verse 9), don't stop. To seek and keep on seeking and to knock and to keep on knocking (all three verbs are present continuous meaning they are now and ongoing. And we can do that because, as He taught us earlier about prayer, God is our Father.

In fact how much we REALLY believe that He is our Father, is tested by our willingness - or not - to pray and keep on praying. If God is scary, frightening, distant, capricious, unreliable etc then of course our prayers will peter out into nothing because we are afraid of offending Him or going to far, to worse still, overstepping the mark, the boundary of what is allowed or not. If God is anything other than our Father then our prayers will not be bold, and confident - and therefore persistent - but tentative, fearful and unsure. That is not the relationship that the Bible - or God - has in mind for us. See Abraham asking God to save some of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), or this wonderful passage from the desert fathers which captures this audacious relationship perfectly. It concerns the great Abba Sisoes, who inherited the place where St. Anthony the first hermit had lived:

"Abraham, the disciple of abba Sisoes, was once tempted by a devil. The old man (Sisoes) knew that he had fallen, so he stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven and said, "God, whether You like it or not, I shall not leave You alone unless you heal him." And he was healed immediately."

Simon Tugwell comments: "If this seems irreverent, it is no more so than our Lord's own parable about the widow and the unjust judge, which he told us to encourage us to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1-8). (See page 16 Did you receive the Spirit?)

So next time you go in prayer to God about something that really troubles you, remember who you are and who He is ("our Father in heaven"), and don't hold back in your praying. Your persistence in prayer will never outlast God's persistence and patience in listening to you. Unlike the friend in bed with his family, or the exacerbated and unjust judge of Luke 18, no request or manner of expression will ever stop God from listening and answering.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

How do you grow a church?

How can you take a dying church and make it grow again? That is a $64,000 question hundreds of struggling ministers would love to know the answer to. But the honest response is that I haven't a clue, even though every Church I have served in have looked to me for the answer. But I don't know. Trust me I have read ALL the books.

Gordon Strachan, current manager of the Scotland Football Team was once asked how, after a series of losses, when all talk was of him losing his job, his team had suddenly started winning again. With a customary twinkle in his eye, Strachan thought for a moment and then said suddenly, "I know what it is, we changed the coach driver!"

In other words, he had no idea why one minute the same team had gone on a run of losing matches only, suddenly, to start winning again. The same could be said of turning a dying church into a living one. There is no easy answer, no matter how often you may try changing the driver!

When I go along to churches which are busy and full, with lots of activities for every age group, it is tempting to think that the answer lies in such things as good organization, a new building, lots of young people and families or a contemporary music band with a gifted speaker. But then that means it all comes down to human effort and you grow a church by having the right things or hiring the right people. What about God? Doesn't He get a look in?

Jesus tells his disciples that there is only one way to build a church, and that is to let him do it (Matthew 16:18). That does not mean that we are not involved, but that ultimately He is the one who will do it and should, therefore, get the greatest glory. And after all, He has made the biggest investment.

To use an analogy, when I was a bricklayer, none of us workmen could start building until the materials had arrived and the Head Foreman had come along and shown us the plans and told us what to do. We then could get on and build houses. But once it was all finished the work of the individual workers were never mentioned. Instead, it was the firm that got all the credit. It was never Mark Williams or Joe Bloggs who built the houses, it was Wimpy or Hales or whoever the firm was.

It is the same with the church. God will build His church, and it is God, therefore, who should get the glory at the end.

How great is our God

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Take me to the alley

I am a huge fan of singer/songwriter Gregory Porter whose mother was a minister and who died when he was 21. You can see her influence in the lyrics of the following song. I am not sure if Porter has a faith but these words are spot on:

Well, they build their houses
in preparation for the King

And they line the sidewalks
With every sort of shiny thing
They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon

They will be surprised
When they hear him say

Take me to the alley
Take me to the afflicted ones
Take me to the lonely ones
That somehow lost their way

Let them hear me say
I am your friend
Come to my table
Rest here in my garden
You will have a pardon.

Bringing the gospel message to life

The message of the cross and the resurrection are not enough to win people to Christ! That statement is enough to catch the attention of any serious-minded Christian and can, at first glance, seem to deny the very fundamental heart of the Christian Faith, but before you write me off as a liberal and a heretic let me - or rather let William Law - explain. This is from the book I am reading called "The Power of the Spirit" published by none other than CLC. He writes:

"The truth and perfection of the gospel could not be realized until it became solely a ministration of the Holy Spirit. Though instructed in heavenly truths from Christ Himself and enabled to work miracles in His Name, nevertheless the apostles were not yet qualified to know and teach the mysteries of His Kingdom. There was a still higher dispensation to come which they could never have part in from an outward instruction, even from the lips of Christ Himself. Only when he, being glorified, should come again in the fullness and power of the Spirit, breaking open the death and darkness of their hearts with light and life from heaven, could they experience in themselves all that He had promised to them while He was with them in the flesh. "I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you that I go away," said Christ, thus teaching the need of a higher and more blessed state than they could know through His bodily presence with them. For He adds, "If I go not away, the Comforter will not come" (John 16:7. Therefore the real comfort and blessing of Christ to His followers could not be had except through something more than His physical presence and verbal instruction, wonderful as these must have been to those privileged few."

Many churches today are struggling despite knowing Jesus and His message having personally benefited from it themselves. They have a heart for the gospel and long to share it with others but something is missing. Could it be the Holy Spirit? I am not one for looking for quick fixes or miracle cures, and I am dubious about the benefits of another revival when the last one fizzled out like a damp squib and seemed to leave us worse off than before. However, I would say and am becoming more and more convinced, that we need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit, a New Pentecost so we can see the truth about Jesus live once again.

This is no quick fix though and it is salutary to remember that Jesus told the disciples that they would have to wait for the Spirit's coming. Waiting requires patience and we live in an impatient age. The church has caught something of this and looks to other solutions to get things going. So we have building projects and publicity stunts, whilst bemoaning the fact that nothing seems to work anymore. We must pray and wait, and wait and pray. I am convinced that nothing else will work.



Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Help and the helper

Years ago I remember being introduced to the person of the Holy Spirit through the writings of Catherine Marshall. In particular, I remember her book The Helper, which was written following her own discovery of the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian. We need the help of the Holy Spirit in all kinds of ways, not least in reading and understanding the Bible. Here is what William Law an Anglican Christian of the later 17th, early 18th century:

"Read whatever chapter of Scripture you will, you will be ever so delighted with it - yet it will leave you as poor, as empty and unchanged as it found you unless it has turned you wholly and solely to the Spirit of God, and brought you into full union with and dependence upon him."
(The Power of the Spirit).

Over and over I have discovered the truth of this observation as I have met people for whom the Bible meant nothing, while for others it was the richest book in the world. And the difference between the two? The Spirit of God. Once the Holy Spirit indwells within you then the Book of books comes alive when once it was dead.

Slow work

Growing a church is a slow business, painfully slow, and requires great patience, perseverance, and prayer. I was much encouraged recently by the following quote from Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala. He writes:

"There will come a day, Paul says when all our "work will be shown for what it is because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work" (1 Corinthians 3:13). The gold, silver and precious stones will endure while the wood, hay, and straw will go up in smoke.

Paul doesn't say that the quantity will be tested. He says nothing about attendance totals. Everything will focus on quality.

Warren Wiersbe made an interesting observation about this passage to the Brooklyn Tabernacle staff.
"What's the difference between these two materials, besides the obvious - that one is fireproof while the other isn't?

"I think it's significant that wood, hay, and straw are abundant...right outside your door, or only a few miles away at most. Any forest, any farmer's field has an abundance of these.

But if you want gold, silver, and costly stones, you have to dig for them. You have to pursue with great effort. They're not just lying around everywhere. You have to go deep into the earth."

To me, says Cymbala, these words are profound. Spiritual "construction" that uses wood, hay, and straw comes easy - little work, little seeking, no travail, no birthing. You just slap it up and it will look adequate - for a while. But if you want to build something that will endure on Judgement Day, the work is much more costly.
Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire pages 135-136

More on the Kingdom of God

Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri. Writing about the Kingdom of God he says:

"....The revolutionary insight that’s been central to my theological journey is a deeper understanding of what the kingdom of God actually is.

I remember telling my church eight years ago that seeing the kingdom of God has given me “new eyes.” Reading the Bible with “kingdom eyes” made Scripture brand new to me. I came to realize that the kingdom of God was virtually the sole topic of Jesus’ teaching ministry. The gospel of the kingdom is what the apostles were announcing in the Book of Acts. And even though Paul doesn’t use the term “kingdom of God” often in his epistles, I came to understand that what Jesus tends to call the kingdom of God, Paul tends to call salvation, but they’re talking about the same thing!

Back in 2006, I worked on a single question for several months: What is salvation? I finally concluded the best answer is this: Salvation is the kingdom of God. Our personal experience with the kingdom of God (including forgiveness) is our personal experience of salvation, but the kingdom of God is much bigger than our personal experience of it.

The problem we have today is that the term “kingdom of God” is archaic and obscured under layers of religious veneer. “Kingdoms” went out with the Middle Ages, and we tend to think of the “kingdom of God/heaven” as privatized Christianity experienced in our personal spiritual lives.

But Jesus was announcing that the government of God was at long last being established in the world through what He was doing. The apostolic gospel was a proclamation that Jesus is now the world’s true King; in light of this, we need to rethink our lives and begin to live under the administration of Christ. "

The above is part of an online interview with Brian. To read the rest go here.
https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/trevinwax/2012/06/28/from-word-faith-to-the-church-fathers-a-conversation-with-brian-zahnd/

Monday, 10 April 2017

What are you filled with?

This week - Holy Week - I am reading through the last chapters of Luke which tell the story of Jesus' Passion. Today is Luke 22:1-23 and my thoughts settled on verse 3 today where Luke tells us:

"Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve." 

It is not wrong to feel pity for Judas. As the saying goes "there for the grace of God go I" and so who knows what we would have done caught up in the same circumstances? However Satan does not enter or gain access to our thought processes and manipulate our wills unless he is given an opportunity, which is why the advice of the Bible is always to watch and pray, using the prayer Jesus gave us in the Lord's prayer which, as you remember, says "lead us not into temptation but deliver from evil" (the actual wording is more correctly translated "from the evil one"). Judas, despite his very close proximity to Jesus, let his defenses drop and Satan "entered" and gained access to him and the rest, as they say, is history.

But here is the question. Laying aside the more extreme understandings of our text to one side (did Satan possess him etc), what are we allowing to fill us? What are we filled with? That which is good or that which is evil? That which will lead us upon ever darkening paths, or that which will lead us towards the light?

In the letter to the Ephesians Paul admonishes his readers not to become drunk with wine but be filled with the Spirit (see Ephesians 5:18). The context is Paul warning the Ephesians to be on their guard against "the fruitless deeds of darkness" (5:11) and to "wake up" (5:14) and take every care about that they live their lives "not as unwise but as wise" (5:15) "making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil" (5:16). He tells them to avoid being filled with wine, "which leads to debauchery" (5:18) but instead to be filled with something (or someone) which will lead them in the right direction. The presence of God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit.

The point here, in both texts, is that we can be 'filled' with that which is good and beneficial or we can be filled with something that is the opposite. What are you and I filled with? Who is it at the centre of our life and existence? If it is the Lord, who is the Spirit, then we will move and walk in the light. Anything else and we run the risk of being like Judas. We will betray the Lord and be filled with a darkness that eventually leads to death and destruction. Judas gave in the devil and this led to the crucifixion of Jesus.

I admit everything is not as black and white as I have painted it. People cannot be divided into good and bad as easily as that and most, if not all, are a mixture of both. But the point I am making is that we nevertheless have to be careful about what we dedicate ourselves to, and what path we follow in light. There are, ultimately, says Jesus, only two paths. One is narrow and challenging but leads to life. The other is broad and easy and leads to ultimate destruction. Our choices are important. What 'fills' us is important.

We don't have to look far to see contemporary examples of this today with the atrocities of Isis across the globe and the recent suicide bomb attack in Egypt in a Coptic Church. How many today have opened their hearts to darkness and bring destruction on others?

Today is the funeral of the policeman PC Keith Palmer who was killed in such a violent and senseless way by Khalid Masood. Masood, like Judas, appears to have given up his life to the darkness and let it rule him. The result was devastation and the loss of innocent lives. So be on your guard. What fills you will control you. Be filled with the Spirit, the same Spirit Paul tells the Galatians, which will produce nothing but good fruit in those who yield their lives up to God (Galatians 5:22-23). Such people will see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control grow in their lives.

What - or who - are you filled with? Be filled with the Spirit.

Friday, 7 April 2017

The dangers of religion

Bill Johnson in his book "Face to face with God" has an interesting definition of religion. He defines it as "form without power". This ties in with St. Paul's words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:1-5

"But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people." 

Looking at forms of liturgy, liturgical dress, processions, incense, icons etc, this is not a criticism of them per se (you could equally talk about worship bands, waving hands or churches that avoid using names that have any 'religious' connotations to them), but a criticism of the kind of religiosity that says that these ALONE are what the Christian faith are about.

Jesus makes this point over and over again, as does the rest of the New Testament. Take, for an example, the story of the Good Samaritan, which was in the news recently as it was read by a member of the Royal Family in Westminster Abbey at a memorial service for the victims of the recent attack on Westminster Bridge. In the story, Jesus paints a painful contrast between religiously correct Jews - the priest and Levite - and the religiously, theologically incorrect and heretical Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man when everyone else passed by.

Of course, the inference of this is not that all outward forms of faith expression are bad, but if they become a substitution for the 'real thing' without any real spiritual life within and alongside them, then this is where Bill Johnson's definition (and St. Paul's) hits home. And we can all point to stretches of time when the church has fallen into to woeful habit of getting its services right, arguing over fine points of practice and correct use of words and liturgical niceties, while at the same time failing to pray with purpose, reach out in mission and live out in loving service to others. And this becomes particularly pronounced as the church fights for survival in an aggressively secular age where it has, frankly, forgot its way, its true identity and what it is here for.

Not only that but personally, when times have been tough, and I have hit a brick wall in preaching etc, or have been under spiritual attack, it has been all too easy to retreat into the safe confines of going through the religious motions, maintaining the status quo and just surviving. Doing church is so much easier, hassle free and causes the least amount of problems, personal or otherwise, when you do things by the book (the 'church' book, not THE book). But it then results in spiritual; dryness and a feeling of guilt and loss which is only assuaged when the Spirit moves and life returns, for a time, back to "normality" The kind of normality where God's presence is real, prayer is powerful and the Spirit of God is active in your life and the life of the Church.

Of course, when things are going as they should and God is at work, the enemy pops up and says that this is not supposed to happen all the time and I should not to expect it to. So the foot is taken off the gas, the vehicle slows down and the ensuing lull becomes a concern leading to panic and a return to the religious default position of maintaining services again in order to feel as if you are doing something right. In other words, religion.

So what is the key to circumventing all this? Prayer. Constant, regular, persistent, wrestling (at times) prayer. Seeking God's face, and His presence, at all times and at every opportunity. It is only our constant relationship with Him that prevents and protects us from falling into mere 'religion' again. And that is true of every church and not just the ones where folk dress up and process. Religion is a danger across the board. We must, says Jesus, "watch and pray".

So next time you struggle, don't go to the forms but to the Father. And remember, forms may help in your relationship with God but they must never become a substitute for it.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The upside-down teaching of Jesus

"The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament really set conventional wisdom on its ear. According to Jesus:

we win by losing (Matthew 10:39).
we live by dying (Matthew 10:39; John 12:24.
we get by giving (Luke 6:38).
we lead by serving (Matthew 20:26).
we get to be first by being last (Mark 10:31).
we defeat our enemies by loving them
(Luke 6:27-31; Romans 12:20)
we are responsible to initiate reconciliation with people when they offend us (Matthew 18:15), and we are also responsible to initiate reconciliation when we offend them (Matthew 5:23-24). So whether we are the offended party or the offender, it is up to us not to wait for others to come to us, but to go to them to initiate reconciliation.
we are obliged to care about and spend time with sinners and outcasts rather than trying to curry favour with the rich, powerful and influential (Mark 1-4)

This is radical teaching. Jesus took almost every conventional thought of his day, and our day, and turned it upside down."
Bob Grahmann: Transforming Bible Study page 23-24

What does God want?

Thinking over the readings for the morning Office - the prayers and readings which are set out for each day - and was struck by the following verse from Psalm 40 (verse 7) which in my translation goes like this:

"In sacrifice and offerings, you take no pleasure,
you have given me ears to hear you.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required, and so I said, "Behold, I come."


Lots of different things can drive our Christian walk. Family, tradition, duty, obligation, fear, self-preservation, doing what you are told to do, or what you have always done. All of these can be found in the Bible. Some of these things are good things, but when they become an end in themselves they can be fruitless or even damaging.

The writer of Psalm 40 was used to the yearly round of sacrifices at the Temple which God, in His Law, commanded should be offered at certain times and seasons (see Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy). As a committed, dutiful and devout Jew he would have made his offerings to God at the appointed times. But something changed in his life and he came to realize that God wanted more than this. He discovered that what really pleased God was not sacrifice and offerings but the loving attention of His people:

"In sacrifice and offerings, you take no pleasure,
you have given me ears to hear you."

God wants us to listen and be attentive to Him. He wants us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants to speak with us, engage with us, relate to us, love us. He wants us over and above all the sacrifices and religious stuff we do. That is not to say that those things are wrong, provided they are an expression of our love and not a substitute for it, which sadly, they are. In fact, the only 'requirement' that God really wants, the bottom line of the Christian faith is that we come to Him as we are:

"Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required,
and so I said, "Behold, I come."

Notice that there is no qualification to the 'I'. It is not a holy 'I' or a perfect 'I' or a worthy 'I' that God wants. He just wants us, just as we are. Which reminds me of that wonderful hymn by Charlotte Elliott:

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt;
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
has broken every barrier down;
now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
here for a season, then above:
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

The hymn beautifully captures how we are to come to God. And yet how many time, unthinking, have we sung it in Church? But look at it closely and note how we are to come, and HOW God wants us to come to Him:

Just as I am, without one plea....poor, wretched, blind etc.. Doesn't that throw the door open wide, not narrow it down to the perfect, the faultless, the sinless and the saintly?

I am reminded of the words of the One who brought this home to us so powerfully when He makes this promise:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

9 changes churches muts make or die

The following is an article from an Amercian website but it has interesting things to say which might be useful:
"It broke my heart. Another church closed. This church had unbelievable potential. Indeed, it had its own "glory days," but only for a season. But, 10 years ago, few would have predicted this church's closure. Today, it is but another statistic in the ecclesiastical graveyard. I know. We don't compromise doctrine. I know. We must never say we will change God's Word. But many of our congregations must change. They must change or they will die.

I call these churches "the urgent church." Time is of the essence. If changes do not happen soon, very soon, these churches will die. The pace of congregational death is accelerating. What, then, are some of the key changes churches must make?

Allow me to give you a fair warning. None of them are easy. Indeed, they are only possible in God's power. Here are nine of them:

1. We must stop bemoaning the death of cultural Christianity. Such whining does us no good. Easy growth is simply not a reality for many churches. People no longer come to a church because they believe they must do so to be culturally accepted. The next time a church member says, "They know where we are; they can come here if they want to," rebuke him. Great Commission Christianity is about going; it's not "y'all come."

2. We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God's truth is unchanging. So we do find comfort and stability in that reality. But don't look to your church not to change methods, approaches, and human-made traditions. Indeed, we must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference. "We've never done it that way before," is a death declaration.

3. We must abandon the entitlement mentality. Your church is not a country club where you pay dues to get your perks and privileges. It is a gospel outpost where you are to put yourself last. Don't seek to get your way with the music, temperature, and length of sermons. Here is a simple guideline: Be willing to die for the sake of the gospel. That's the opposite of the entitlement mentality.

4. We must start doing. Most of us like the idea of evangelism more than we like doing evangelism. Try a simple prayer and ask God to give you gospel opportunities. You may be surprised how He will use you.

5. We must stop using biblical words in unbiblical ways. "Discipleship" does not mean caretaking. "Fellowship" does not mean entertainment.

6. We must stop focusing on minors. Satan must delight when a church spends six months wrangling over a bylaw change. That's six months of gospel negligence.

7. We must stop shooting our own. This tragedy is related to the entitlement mentality. If we don't get our way, we will go after the pastor, the staff member, or the church member who has a different perspective than our own. We will even go after their families. Don't let bullies and perpetual critics control the church. Don't shoot our own. It's not friendly fire.

8. We must stop wasting time in unproductive meetings, committees, and business sessions. Wouldn't it be nice if every church member could only ask one question or make one comment in a meeting for every time he or she has shared his or her faith the past week?

9. We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. We are really busy, but we are not doing the business of God. Around 200 churches will close this week, maybe more. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes. The need is urgent. Hear me well, church leaders and church members. For many of your churches the choice is simple: change or die. Time is running out. Please, for the sake of the gospel, forsake yourself and make the changes in God's power."

Originally posted at thomrainer.com. Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Good News

I don't know about you but I am fed up to the back teeth with bad news. Whether it's Brexit, terrorist attacks in London and St. Petersburg, Isis and Syria, all I seem to see and hear is wall to wall bad news. So it's good to be able to talk about Jesus and the Good News that He came to give us. He was so concerned to bring us this Good News that He died to bring it to us. In fact, His death opened the door to God so that we don't have to despair any more about what is going wrong in our world. We can play our small part in putting it right. If we follow Jesus He can show us how.

The Evangelical Alliance has produced a new website full of good news stories by people who have discovered Jesus and the power He has to change lives, communities and our world. So why not check it out and follow the link at this address:  https://greatcommission.co.uk/

Thanks, but no thanks!

We had a wonderful day yesterday starting with the awards ceremony where Ruth, our youngest child, received her degree - a 2:1- after thre...