Monday, February 27, 2012

Truth matters

One of the first lessons that parents impart to their children is the importance of telling the truth. But one of the first lessons that children learn in life is that it sometimes seems easier to lie that tell the truth. This is especially the case when they are tempted to be dishonest in order to avoid being punished for being naughty. Of course, when the lie unravels, they find themselves in double trouble. As the Good Book warns us “Be sure your sins will find you out.”

Relationships are based on trust and relations soon sour when it turns out that someone has not been altogether honest with us. When governments casually break their manifesto promises, the electorate quickly becomes disillusioned. The phone hacking scandal has broken the bond of trust between newspapers and their readers. If, on a personal level we discover that someone has lied to us, we find it difficult to believe their word ever again. Remember the boy who cried, “Wolf!”? The Christian faith recognises the vital importance of honesty. One of the Ten Commandments tells us, “You shall nor bear false witness”.

God is almighty. Nothing is impossible for him. But the Bible reveals that there is one thing that even he cannot do. He is “the God who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). That explains why human beings, created in the image of God also have an inbuilt concern for truth. That is why dishonesty is an expression of something badly wrong with the human heart.

Christian believers follow Jesus not because their faith makes them feel good about themselves, but because they are convinced that the claims of Christ are true. We believe that he really is the Son of God who became man. We believe that he really did die on the cross for the sins of the world. We believe that he really did rise again from the dead. We believe that he really will give forgiveness and hope to all who trust in him. Truth matters. Jesus said, “I am the truth”. 

And if you think that speaking of faith with such conviction is off-putting in our age of fashionable posdmodern   doubt and uncertainty, then read this.   

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Let us pray?

Who might have thought that prayer would be the subject of headline-grabbing controversy? Mr Justice Ouseley of the High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council has no power to include prayers as part of the formal agenda of its meetings. The case was instigated by the National Secular Society. The ruling has implications for local councils across the country. Secularists greeted the ruling with glee. Their rejoicing looks to be short lived. Eric Pickles, the Government’s Communities Secretary has vowed to pass legislation that will give councils the right to begin their meetings with prayer if they so wish.

It is interesting that it is prayer of all things that has thrown up the issue of the role of faith in public life. For what could be more essential to the life of faith than prayer? A person becomes a Christian when they call upon God to save them from sin through the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christian life is sustained by prayerful communion with God. Jesus taught his followers to pray to their Father in heaven, to worship him and bring their requests to him. In prayer believers acknowledge their total dependence upon God and seek his help to live in a way that brings glory in his name.

Christians may pray to God for all manner of things; for the provision of their daily bread, for guidance when perplexed, for strength to resist temptation and so on. But prayer involves more than brining a “shopping list” of requests to God. It involves enjoying fellowship with God the Father in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of his Spirit.

But prayer is not simply a matter of “private spirituality”. It is right that believers pray for God’s blessing on their country. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to the Jews who were exiled to Babylon, “And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:7) Similarly the apostle Paul said, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

For Christians, prayer should always be top of the agenda.

* For the March edition of News & Views, West Lavington parish magazine. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Exiled Publishing

I'm thinking about trying to get a collection of some of the stuff posted here published. Anyone with experience of being published got any suggestions on how I might do this? 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On reading The Confessions of Saint Augustine

The Confessions of Saint Augustine,
Translated by Rex Warner, Signet Classic, 2001, 352pp. 

It has long been my habit to leave a book in the car for occasions when I know I'm going to be kept waiting around. A visit to the doctor, or dentist etc. For the last year or so The Confessions of Saint Augustine has served that purpose. Maybe reading this spiritual classic in short, sporadic bursts isn't the best way to go about it, but there we are. I finished reading the Confessions  the other week when taking my daughter to an orthodontist appointment. While she was getting all braced up, I concluded Book XIII, Augustine's somewhat mind-bending reflections on Genesis 1. 

This isn't a review of the Confessions (despite what it says in the link below), so much as an attempt to urge those who haven't yet read this work to give it a go. Rex Warner's translation in the edition I read is wonderfully vivid, crisp and clear. 

In a sense, the Confessions is Augustine's autobiography, 'a work of unique self-revelation, in which he becomes something more than his own Boswell'. (B. B. Warfield, Augustine and His "Confessions" in Calvin and Augustine, P&P, 1980). But it is an autobiography with a difference. The work's title is not incidental, for the Confessions takes the form of an  elongated confession to God. While others are invited to eavesdrop on Augustine's confession, it is primarily directed at God himself. The work opens with a note of praise, citing Psalm 145:3. Augustine asks for permission to pursue God, "Let me seek you, Lord, by praying to you and let me pray believing in you; since to us you have been preached." This element of dialogue with God continues throughout the Confessions, "Oh that I might find rest and peace in you!", "My God let me remember with thanks and let me confess to you your mercies done to me.", "Command what you will and give what you command.", "I have heard you, Lord my God, and I sucked a drop of sweetness from your truth and I understood." 

Augustine charts the course of his life from his birth to the time of writing his confession. He tells of how he was delivered from the error of Manichaeism to embrace the truth of the Catholic faith. He details his conversion experience, when, famously he heard a child in a neighbouring garden calling out, "Toll lege", "Take and read." He took and read Romans 13:11-14 and was never the same again. Augustine wrote out of a deep sense of the sovereign grace of God by which he was saved from sin. He us utterly entranced by the beauty of  the Lord, 
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
This was the triune God who revealed himself to Augustine in his Son and by his Spirit, "The Trinity, my God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Creator of all creation." 

In prayerful dialogue with God, Augustine reflects on love and desire, friendship and bereavement, memory and time (see here), faith and reason. It really is remarkable stuff. For good reason Augustine's Confessions is regarded as one of the great works of Christian theology. Time spent with the Confessions is time well spent. Better if you find yourself waiting around to listen in to Augustine's conversation with God than read the standard waiting room fare. Will it be for you, Hello! magazine, a leaflet on root canal treatment, playing Angry Birds on your phone, or The Confessions of Saint Augustine? As the voice said,  Toll lege.  

My current "time redeeming" read is Letters of John Newton. Mine is a second hand copy of the Banner of Truth 1965 edition, original price 4s6d. I had to interrupt this post for a family visit to the dentist (it's all teeth, teeth, teeth with us). While waiting for my six monthly check (yea, no fillings this time!), I read Letter I, Grace in the Blade and very good it was too. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

London Theological Seminary: The Movie

See here for a short film on the London Theological Seminary. The seminary will be holding a Open Day for budding preachers on 10th March. Visit the LTS website for details.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Not for filthy lucre: blogging free of charge

We live in such a commercialised, consumer orientated society that it is difficult to escape being exposed to adverts, whether watching commercial TV, walking down the local high street, or catching up with friends on Facebook. Talking of Facebook, it was recently reported that the social networking site may well be worth $100bn when floated on the stock market. Why? Largely due to advertising-based revenue. Has Don Draper taken over the world or something? 

We can all 'tut-tut' at the absurdity of it all, but do we have to join in?  Maybe I'm just getting a bit crotchety in my mid-40's, but I'm getting increasingly vexed by seeing Christian blogs that carry adverts. Once site I visited recently dedicated 'reformed spirituality' to featured ads for Amazon and a mobile phone company. Another hosted ads for Tesco and Dell  alongside posts on Wesley and Whitefield.

Yes a 'workman is worthy of his hire', and those who 'labour in the word and doctrine' are 'worthy of double honour'. But would we allow advertising posters to be plastered on our pulpits? Blogging isn't something for which we should get paid via advertising revenue. It should be done free of charge. Not for filthy lucre's sake.  

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Housegroups: A leader's survival guide, Edited by Ian Coffey and Stephen Gaukroger

Housegroups: The leader’s survival guide
Edited by Ian Coffey and Stephen Gaukroger, IVP, 2011, 194pp

When I received my review copy of this book I was a little bemused as to why it was thought that I might be the man to offer an assessment of this title. The churches I serve have monthly fellowship evenings that meet in people’s homes, but they aren’t quite housegroups in the usual sense of the word. It was hard therefore to motivate myself to read and review a book that has little direct relevance to my ministry. My inertia wasn’t exactly overcome when, flicking through descriptions of the contributors I found that one of them likes playing and listening to country music. But probably out of a misguided sense of obligation I thought that I had better read the book anyway and offer the dear readers of Evangelical Times the benefit of my opinion.

Now, it is often at this point that reviewers try and outflank their readers by saying that although they initially thought that the book they were sent was barely worth their notice, on getting started, it was in fact the best thing that they had ever read on the subject. What the reader thinks is going to be a hatchet job turns out to be a warm commendation of a most excellent title, with the glowing review concluding, “Sell your shirt to buy it.” But you can hold onto your shirt. I’m not going to play that old trick on you. As I read through the book I found little to pique my interest and a few things that made me feel rather dismayed.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all bad. There are helpful points on the biblical basis of housegroups and some down to earth advice on how to lead such meetings well. The book includes suggestions on the art of asking a good Bible study question, handling awkward people and encouraging the less vocal members of a group to take part. But the guide is not well suited for use in the distinctly Evangelical and Reformed Churches that make up the vast majority of ET’s readership. It seems aimed more at Churches belonging to the Evangelical Alliance. Video resources produced by Steve Chalke are highlighted. The Alpha Course rather than Christianity Explored is recommended as an evangelistic tool. The chapter on Creative worship suggests that with a meditative instrumental CD playing in the background, housegroup members write about their own inner “secret garden”. The piece on Praying together, talks about using gift-wrapped boxes, each labelled inside with a different gift of the Spirit found in 1 Corinthians 12. Once the boxes are opened the group is encouraged to pray for that particular gift to be released in the church. I could go on, but I won’t. Enough’s enough. If the good people at ET know of a title Housegroups: The reader’s survival guide, I’d be glad to see a copy.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Friday, February 03, 2012

Some notes on EMW Leaders Conference

So, last Saturday, which now seems like ages ago, myself and a couple of deacons belonging to the churches I serve headed for Wales in my trusty Ford Focus. I'd not been to this particular conference before, but the programme looked good and it was nice to for us be able to attend an event together, rather than me jetting off to a Ministers' conference on my own. Here are some brief notes. 

The glory and grime of service

First up was Phil Swann's message on John 13. 

Leadership is stressful and challenging. We have to preach unchanging truth in changing times. We contend with our own sinful hearts and the devil. There is a lot of focus on leadership today, with many books devoted to the subject, e.g. Beyond the Band of Brothers, by Dick Winters. BBC TV's The Apprentice is essentially about leadership. 

John 13:1-17 

The narrative:

1. An intimate time for Jesus and his followers, sharing a meal in the Upper Room.
2. A strategic time. Jesus was about to die on the cross and be raised from the dead. 
3. Instruction for leaders, the disciples would have to lead the church in fellowship and mission.
4. Shocking, that Jesus of all people would wash their feet. Yet this was the kind of leadership that Jesus was commending, John 13:15

Strong leadership is servanthood.

1. Love

John 13:1, Romans 5:8. Servant leadership is love in action.

2. Power

What kind of leaders does Christ want, prime ministerial figures who exude power and competence? Jesus knew who he was, John 13:3 and yet he did not shun the lowly task of washing feet. 

3. Humility

Christian leadership is not about manipulation and control, but showing Christ John 13:15. 

4. Care

Foot washing was an act of personal care. Gospel-shaped leadership means getting close to people and caring for them in a Christ-like way. 

Developing the spiritual life of the church 

Bill Dyer led a seminar on this subject. 

We are living in days of spiritual decline. In our Reformed circles have doctrinal knowledge, but little bold faith. We tend to be cautious, timid and risk adverse. Are we quenching the spirit? We  need a deeper knowlage of God. There is little expectancy and consequently  a lack of prayer in the churches. Prayer focuses on human need (the unwell etc) , rather than intercession for the lost. Too much preaching is 'in word only'.The work of the Holy Spirit is neglected. Little happens in our churches that cannot be explained naturally. Preaching has become a a lecture. We pay attention to organisation, what we need is a revived church.

1. Restore church as priesthood of all believers. Involve church members in decisions.  Paul's concern for "every man", Colossians 1:28. The Calvinist Methodist had heir experience meetings to encourage fellowship and prayer. Encourage the whole church agree to raise prayer life of the fellowship. 

2. Reassess the prayer life of church. a. Preach on prayer. b. Reflect on corporate prayer in the Acts of the Apostles. c. Prayer does not change God, but us. d. God has  limited himself to our prayerful involvement in his work. e. Difficult days demand more prayer. f. God wants us to plead his promises. g. Persevere in prayer. 

Be radical and creative in prayer meetings. Encourage all to pray earnestly and unitedly. Discourage lengthy prayers. Give more time for missional prayer. Divide up prayer times into pastoral and missional sections. Pray for the power of the Spirit on preaching, for witness and service opportunities, fresh converts, revival. Raise the profile of the Prayer Meeting. Where action is. Seek guidance and blessing. Use older people.

3. Restore true spirituality. We need the work of the Spirit. Are we embarrassed by what we see in Acts? We must seek a deeper experiential knowledge of God.

4. Act in dependence on God. Pray about decisions in members' meetings. Pray and then act in faith.

5. Rally the church around the gospel. Passion for the gospel drowns out trivia. 

You can touch a life

Stuart Olyott gave the final address. 

1. Core teaching, Mark 9:30-37, 10:35-45.

Disciples concern with rank, rule and authority. They wanted to be first. Jesus showed them what spiritual greatness really is: being last and a servant. He was servant of all. We can touch a life via lowly service.

2. Biblical examples

Moses' life was chamged by his father in law's wise advice, Exodus 18. David was helped by Jonathan's visit, 1 Samuel 23. Jonathan strengthened David's hands in God. Naaman's life was touched by the words of his servant girls. She had her master's interests at heart. Jeremiah was rescued from a dungeon by an enslaved eunuch,  Jeremiah 38. Peter was led to the Messiah by Andrew, John 1. Paul was accepted by the early church because of Barnabas' commendation, Acts 9. Apollos was instructed by Aquila and Priscilla, Acts 18. Titus encouraged Paul, 2 Corinthians 7:6.  Timothy did not seek influence or emunence, but wanted to serve interest of others, Philippians 2:19-22 cf. Philippians 2:4-7. 

3. Practical outworking

Touch a life. Ask: How can I serve best interests of others? Your wife, children, newcomer at church, church members.

Don't arrive at church at the last moment and then leave quickly. Talk to people. Get to know them. Visit the sick. Open your home for meetings. Don't neglect family life. Don't often be absent from church. Know your Bible. Get to grips with theology. Pray for people. Don't criticise them. Pray for your pastor and the church fellowship. Support theological seminaries. Take an interest in the  worldwide church. You can touch a life. Who is greatest in heaven? He who was servant of all, John 13.

The conference's biblically sound and practically helpful ministry challenged us to consider how we might be better servant-leaders in caring for the flock and reaching out to people in the community. Serving the Servant King and touching lives for him. That's what it's all about.