the blue fish project

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Sharing your faith at University

Evangelism, or proselytising, sounds spooky, weird, and manipulative, and the kind thing you’d do to people you don’t like. Our society hates the idea of imposing your beliefs on others, though have you ever tried that? Like getting your flatmates to do the washing up?

A few comments to begin with.
  • You're not selling Jesus. I've worked in sales, it can be a dirty business though there's nothing inherently bad about selling things. But Jesus isn't a product for sale - he's a person to meet. It's different.
  • Calling people ‘non-Christians’ is plain rude. No one self-identifies that way in our society, so it’s lazy and a power play to define others by not being like you. Christians are 1-2% of the population at best, defining people as "not us" is arrogant. And counterproductive if you want people to explore faith and change who they follow.
  • Having a ‘mission week’ sounds colonial and oppressive. Would you want to be on the other end of someone's mission?
  • Though I’m 100% for culturally appropriate events where the good news of Jesus can be explain and heralded. A talk at a pub quiz is just strange though.
  • But, whatever people say, it really is ok to talk about money, religion and politics.
  • Especially at University. More interesting conversation takes away the awkwardness - if you never get past football punditry then evangelism can feel like "And Hart saved... hey, y'know Jesus sav..." Just don't go there. Ever. Ever.
  • When people don't listen it's horrible. If you've ever had a salesperson or a politician or a JW come to your door you'll know what that's like. Don't be the rude evangelical who throws doctrine at people. I've been there. People tolerate a lot of weirdness in life, Christians epecially, but that's no excuse for being weird (and this comes in many varieties including in our society being overly intense, overstated).
  • Research suggests that people become more religious at University not less.
  • Inviting others to consider Jesus is not inherently weird or evil.
 [5] For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. [6] Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. [7] But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. [8] So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. [9] For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2:5-9)

  • Flattery
  • Greed
  • Glory-seeking
  • Burdening others
  • Being gentle
  • Being motherly
  • Being affectionate
  • Sharing your life and the gospel.
Paul makes ten references to ‘the gospel’, ‘the word’ or ‘the gospel of God’ in the first chapter and a half of his letter – as that message which brings people to be ‘loved by God’ (1:4), turned from idols to the Father awaiting the return of his risen Son who will deliver those receive the gospel word for the day of wrath. A cosmic event has occurred and another is to come and God’s means of communicating to his world is through people gentle, motherly (and fatherly as he later says), affectionately sharing their changed lives and the gospel word with other people.

If you follow Christ, you're loved. So then love.

People say that preacher Francis of Assisi once said “preach the gospel always and if necessary use words.” He didn’t. And if he did, he would’ve been wrong. In the end words are always eventually necessary, one way or another.

But, you don’t automatically have the right to be heard by anyone… “I’ve read and heard almost every missional strategy out there. In the end, love people and be available” Jon Tyson (Trinity Grace Church, New York)
  • Invest in friendships without an agenda. You, me, all of us – are made for community. 
  • Take responsibility for your budget and budget for a generous social life. 
  • Take responsibility for the people in your life. Learn to cook. 
  • Do what you do, and do it with others. Which doesn’t mean invite 9 Christian friends around and one person you can all gang up on. That's intimidating. That’s just weird. But shop, eat, play, open-door, have Netflix and a big enough screen, be a hub for people…
  • Listen, be interested in others, because people and this world are really interesting. Be interesting by being interested in others. Podcast 
  • Share the gospel of God –take responsibility for your words – it’s not enough to just parrot a gospel outline if what’s heard isn’t what you meant. How do people think/feel about the ‘Christians’ or ‘Evangelicals’? Do you know? 
  • Who you live with next year is basically decided by the end of October - the decision isn't explicitly made but the people you've got deep friendship with by then you'll probably live with. And if you only hang out with the CU people you'll have to live with Christians. If you want to live with a Christian then one day in the distant future I suggest you marry one. Christians can really be quite annoying so until you have to live with one, don't. (Yes, I'm overstating my case...)
Dr. Daniel Strange, says gospel communication is subversive fulfilment.
FULFILLMENT - The gospel fulfils right desires that human beings in the image of God have. We look for the right things in the wrong places. What we really want is Jesus. He calls us to himself.
SUBVERSION - The gospel subverts the wrong desires that ruined and rebellious human beings have. We look for the wrong things in wrong and right places. Jesus says no, and calls us to himself. 
Be patient! When asked him what he'd say if he had one hour to share his faith, founder of L’Abri, Francis Schaeffer replied, "I’d listen for 59 minutes and talk for one."

Develop emotional intelligence – which as it happens will also make you a whole lot more employable and a better friend. More curious, more self-aware, harder to offend, quicker to empathise.

Use UNCOVER. Do what the first CU members used to call "personal work" - you, a friend and a Bible.

Eugene Peterson “There are no experts in the company of Jesus. We are all beginners.” 

Sit alongside people and let Jesus do the talking. Let him walk off the page. You, me, anyone – get born again by the word of God. Love people and love them enough to invite them to consider Jesus.

[13] …when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess 2:13) 

Don't be afraid to open a Bible. This is a living word. This is where people can meet Jesus. And as you do it, always pursue honest answers to honest questions. Keep your L-Plates on. Have the humility to get help from those ahead of you who can guide your reading to develop a thoughtful mind and a large heart.

Get to CU. Get to church.
Get to
Think hard like Terrence Malick. Love deeply.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

God present. God absent.

I'm chewing on Luke's account of Jesus' resurrection in Luke 24:13-27.

The presence of God in his absence
Jesus draws near to Cleopas and his friend as they walk home from Jerusalem after that Passover weekend. They've done this before, year after year, no doubt. But this time is different. They're going in the absence of Jesus - he might never have walked this road with them before but now they feel themselves without him. Derelict.

Reflecting on Jane Dorn's photography:
Emanating from Dorn’s photographs is a disquieting sense of impermanence as one beholds these derelict structures once erected as assurances of permanence... Dorn writes: "...through the camera, I see not what is present, but what is missing. I see evidence of absence through the presence of what remains."
They're despondent. Derelict from the absence of Jesus. Absence is grief.

They'd hoped in Jesus but now he's gone. The reader knows better than they do - Luke's reportage builds the suspense and gets us pleading for their eyes to be opened. But the only know his absence.

We feel absence strangely. The friend no longer there. The good old days. Once vibrant and now lifeless. Easy to wish never to have had than to have had and then lost, if the having hadn't been so sweet.

Cleopas, derelict.

God is largely absent from our society, but church steeples still lift our eyes to the heavens. Echoes of what was once here. We are still, slightly, "God-haunted." We still, as Barnes puts it, "miss God."

These friends of Jesus have long expected salvation. Everything in them wants to believe but all the evidence they've seen says their hopes are dashed. Was this not the time after all?

They had hoped but he is gone.
The women had gone to the tomb, but he is gone.
He has walked our streets but now we cannot see him.
All the dreams, all the late night conversation, all the footsteps along the road to Jerusalem.

In their encounter the only place they see Jesus is in the Scriptures (though it is he who is teaching them) as he shows how the suffering and resurrection and glory of the Christ were necessary - a boldly public claim in our age of private religion.

The victory of God in his defeat
And what did he show them? Not that the Bible is "basic instructions before leaving earth " more the Bible's message is the story of the renewal of God's world.

That far from "we had hoped he would redeem Israel but they crucified him" rather "he was crucified to redeem Israel." "Death and all of its friends" are disarmed. The enemy of all is overthrown by the self-giving glory of the risen Christ. Death got its grubby hands on the Son fill this world with the Father's glory.

Sad brightness and bright sadness, Cleopas.

And now He prepares them for his physical absence. From here on, until the final day, he will dwell with them in the word (and beyond this passage, by his Spirit).

Indwelling, present and absent.

And in the age of his having returned to his Father, and the outpouring of the Spirit - this is the time of the beginnings of the redemption of Israel and of the glory of the Messiah.

As Wright puts it "welcome to God's new world",
Welcome, as Tyson says, to "the renewal of all things."

Not less than Zechariah prophesied in chapter 1, not less than forgiveness proclaimed to all the peoples of the world in the Spirit's empowering (as at the end of chapter 24). Sunrise in our darkness. Warmth in the coldness.

A new week. A new world.

Welcome to the presence of God in his church, in his word, by his Spirit. Welcome to the absence of the king who is always present.

"In literature, much of the meaning of a text comes from what is left unsaid, what is outside the text but faintly present, what is alluded to and so forth."
And so in the ordinary. In the exile. In the days like those of Esther. God is conspicuous by his absence, more present than we know.

This is the story of resurrection. The impossible made possible. The reversal of expectations. A  seismic shift in the cosmos. The necessary events of God's unfolding story.

As Lewis says: "now at last they were at the begining, Chapter One of the Great Story" though they hardly know it.

Broken people will populate the streets of God's new world, people longing and yearning. waiting, expectant, despondent, derelict, bewildered as they were, later they would reflect: "did not our hearts burn within us..." though they didn't know it at the time.

Image: Chris Guy

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Every little thing's gonna be alright?

No. Jesus never said that.

To follow Jesus isn't a pathway to prosperity. I grew in the secular west (as you might've), wanting to be healthy, wealthy and live for a long time. And none of those three things are necessarily bad. But, they're just not promise the Bible offers.

I believed the secular edition of the so-called prosperity gospel (which is no gospel at all because it simply cannot deliver, and when occasionally the system falls in your favour its no real salvation to have some more cash in the account).

The Christian 'gospel' is Jesus. Follow Jesus and you get him. You get him, and his Father in heaven as your father, and the Holy Spirit who fills the believers relationship with Jesus and adoption by his Father with his self-giving life.

For most of my life everything basically went ok. I passed my driving test first time. I didn't quite get the A-levels I wanted but I still got on to the course I wanted to do. I couldn't really do that course but I just passed it. And I've been employed pretty much continuously for 15 years since I graduated. (Though my current contract has an end date that gets closer by the day...)

Over the summer I realised how easy it is to 'trust God' when the money is coming in. You can say all sorts of things when you know the bills can be paid. I never struggled with anxiety. But when that security falls it's a different story.

Firstly, there's learning to trust God when its a tougher. And secondly, there's realising what came before wasn't really trusting at all, it was just the luxury of financial security - which some people have and many don't.

Anyone can look confident in God when the sun is shining.

The challenge has been similar facing serious illness with my wife and one of our children over the past three years. As things wobble, creak and smash into a thousand pieces on the floor, I begin to get the opportunity entrust myself to one who is entirely trustworthy.

Yet: the temptation is to believe he can't be trusted. I sin like Adam - betraying the one who loves me. Denying him, turning in on myself, assuming he's out to get me, rather than to rebuild and renew me.

"Through many dangers, toils and snares."
Remaking me isn't plain sailing.
The bumps aren't abberations.
In this messed up storm of a world, maybe the calm spots are the freak times.

Take up your cross. Hard-pressed. Many trials. That's what Jesus said.

The temptation is the trite answer. Baptising disney promises with Christian language.
"Search for the hero inside yourself..."
"Reach for the stars..."
Kill me now...

In troubled times I need a listening ear and practical help more than words.
Words are great for preparation and fortifying in the lulls.

I was humbled today to see a friend who has been through a far far worse than me in the past five years with his family. He made time for me. Keller's Walking with God through suffering in his bag. His storm has subsided a little lately, and he's refreshing himself with the help of another.

In the midst of it all: pray, weep, be. Silence. Coffee. Hugs. Time.
In those moments easy answers do more to make the speaker feel that they've helped than actually help. Though even the most blundering attempts at love are loving.

Words run out when I try to pray with my friend facing a horrible and chronic situation.

In the end: amazing. Yes. But generally not yet.
In the end: Jesus. And, in the middle of it all: Jesus.
This God knows what the storm is like.

Another friend, reminded me of this verse yesterday:
"A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed."

Jesus knows prosperity, resurrection, on the otherside of crucifixion.
He prospers having generously given himself for me.
He refreshes me and so knows refreshment in heaven.

Paul writes to Philemon:
"you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people."

I need such brothers, and I'd like to be such a brother. A refreshment to others hearts.

The Father promised his beloved Son. Utterly loved, crucified in love, for love, because I betrayed him. He is exceedingly more than enough in the darkest nights and as the dawn breaks.

"A bruised reed he will not break, 
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out."

Image: Broken Taco - Creative Commons.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The fatherly kindness of the kind Father

On the face of Romans 1:16-2:5 is about divine wrath and offers a list of sins. Culturally its highly offensive and uncomfortable. Applied however it offers a look in the mirror that invites us to receive divine kindness as good news whoever we are. It's a challenging study to have done at the end of freshers week in our second student Bible study of the year!

Unashamed of good news
Paul isn't ashamed of his gospel. What is that? What excites him? What makes him bold? Revelation - God has made known righteousness by faith. Not a new thing - he cites Habakkuk - but now it is coming. Now it is enacted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In the Old Testament people have been made righteous by God and much sin has been tolerated. How can that be done justly? How can God justly justify ruinous people? That answer waits until Romans 3:21-26 but before that much has to be established.

He tells of people who are without excuse. Those who have had a plain revelation of God made to them. And they have suppressed this and exchanged this truth for a lie, exchanging worship of Creator for worship of creation. Everything has been turned upside down. Sounds like Israel's story.

Therefore "God gave them up to..." Three times (24-25, 26-27, 28-32)

Paul says God let them get on with their self-destruction in all kinds of directions. Our culture might want to debate whether such things are so wrong, but for Israel - the focus of his discussion - they were according to the law. And the surrounding descriptions of being malicious and debased make clear that such a way of life is bad.  None of this is news - reading the Old Testament tells us this is how Israel often lived. That's not to say that the whole world isn't the same in the same ways -- its just not the focus here.

In his fatherly kindness God allows us to go our own way - much as the sons in Jesus' parable pursue their religious and irreligion (Luke 15), but in giving them up he doesn't abandon them, he remains concerned to welcome and embrace them into his family, when perhaps they are awakened by his gospel.

Is this to be understood as God's wrath revealed? 
I think not - at least not in full. He says that wrath is revealed - but also that this is stored up for the day of wrath. The Old Testament scandal isn't too much wrath but not enough. God's forebearance makes him look lightweight on human evil and injustice. And even when he turns to speak of the cross - it's not wrath revealed against humanity in general but turned aside from us onto the Second Adam, Jesus.

A day of wrath is to come but need not be faced by any. Tragically it will be because we presume to know better than God to our destruction.

Another warning in chapter 2:1-5. Don't judge others. It seems instinctive for members of Adam's helpless race to judge one another, to look down on others who are 'sinful' and elevate ourselves. Paul says don't go there. We're all the same. We go different ways but to the same end.

We should understand from God's patience with humanity that he is being kind. He lets us sin - which will have negative consequences for his own reputation (2:20, 3:21-26) but gives people opportunity to repent to him.

A gospel-shaped life
(1) Don't judge others sin - we're all the same.
(2) Pay personal attention to God's kindness to you, and turn to Christ.

If he'll be so kind to me as to give me time to return to him, how can I look down on another? What a challenge to the believer's posture in this world? Where we're perceived as judgemental and hypocrites, might we become bearers of good news of the kindness of God. Nothing to be ashamed of  in Christ there is kindness for any who will turn to Christ. Power to save any. If we dare believe such news.
"...they have rejected the fatherly invitation of God. And though all the gifts of God are so many evidences of his paternal goodness, yet as he often has a different object in view, the ungodly absurdly congratulate themselves on their prosperity, as though they were dear to him, while he kindly and bountifully supports them. Not knowing that the goodness of God, etc. For the Lord by his kindness shows to us, that it is he to whom we ought turn, if we desire to secure our wellbeing, and at the same time he strengthens our confidence in expecting mercy... But if any one brings this objection — that the Lord sings to the deaf as long as he does not touch inwardly their hearts; we must answer — that no fault can be found in this case except with our own depravity.[He] lead us, rather than invites, ...not the sense of driving, but of leading as it were by the hand." (Calvin)
Left to myself I doubt he is so kind. I try to minimise my sin. I try to justify myself. I try to elevate myself over others. But, the gospel of Jesus says - give up yourself and your own ways, and however bad it has got, however far you've strayed, turn and receive Christ.

In his Son he shows us his "fatherly kindness" (Calvin) for he is a kind Father. As Paul will says in chapter 10, let those who weren't seeking be found, those who didn't ask come to know him.

Further reading: Mark Horne - How is Wrath Revealed?

Picture: Ian Sane - Creative Commons

Monday, September 21, 2015

Amazing grace

It's been noted that grace isn't a thing but a person, Jesus. How do you find grace? Do you have to seek it? Ask for it? Achieve or deserve? Do I want it enough - do I want Jesus enough to come to him? Agh!!

In Hosea 2 God says "I will allure her..." to win his people for himself. Who? Those who are pursuing other lovers for their souls. As we run hard away from him, so he pursues us in Christ. When I don't want him, he's for me.

Or, famously, take the younger son in Jesus' parable. Returning to his father (Jesus) the son asks to be a servant. As he puts on his religious best and offers to knuckle down with more effort this time, he is received as a son, once dead and lost, now alive. When I think I have something to offer, he welcomes me into his family.

Or, in Romans 10, those who try to be righteous themselves miss God, but those who don't seek, who don't ask, those he finds, those he reveals himself to. While others to whom he holds open his arms stumble over Christ.

Or, the older brother in the above parable. His father (Jesus) goes out to find him but is met with religious objections about what he deserves to be paid by comparison to his undeserving brother. While I'm busy performing and grumbling, he's seeking me.

Equally, Jesus says - those who ask receive the Spirit (Luke 11), those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10). And He asks (Genesis 3): where are you? to rebels, to ruins...

To ask and to call is to do what Ole Hallesby observed: our best prayer is our helplessness.

I'm poor, he has riches.
I'm dead, he has life
I'm running away, he seeks me.
I'm not looking for him, he steps into my path.

"Am I worthy?" enough is a peculiar question in Christianity. I am not. But I'm not asked to be.

I need to be rescued from my rebellious irreligion and my rebellious religion. I'm in a hole that I jumped into and now can't get out of and don't want to get out of - but he takes hold of me and nothing is sweeter.

Only Christ, the Spirit-anointed self-giving Son of the self-giving Father would and could do what he does for me. Amazing Jesus how sweet the sound. Jesus is not earned or deserved, he is the gift of God.

The Christian faith says this is for you because of Jesus. He does all. He does everything. He is everything. A Christian relationship with God is objective before it is subjective - I totally think there is experience to be had, but that's secondary to the cast iron reality of Christ standing on my behalf on the basis of what he has done for me. It's mine by faith - as I lean on him, but only because he carried all for me.

Image: Mustafa Khayat - Creative Commons