the blue fish project

Sunday, April 05, 2015

'What kind of day has it been?'

Mary got up early that morning. Her world at fallen apart at the best she could do was to walk out of the city to anoint his body. Her world had caved in. Light would come but if you'd seen her along the path you'd have met a broken woman. Perhaps, if British, she'd have said she was fine but platitudes cover a multitude of pain.

The story would be different later that day, because sometimes things change like that - and the change she faced would be the dawn centuries of dark nights of unchanging circumstances and chronic illness would long for in agonising anticipating trust.

I sat in church just over two years ago having spent most of the week in hospital with one of our sons. I've told that story before here so I wont rehearse its details.

I felt God spoke to me in two ways that morning.

First to give me a glimpse of what he might do in this painful and dark time. I wouldn't 'process' anything else of that experience for a good month or so after that but that word has been a comfort and help.

The second was the dawning realisation that only a few in the room knew what kind of week I'd had. That was fine but the thought after was: how many more people have had (more or less) horrendous weeks, experienced heartbreak and anguish, failure and betrayal this week.

I was in pieces. And on those days: church has to be a great place to be.

Despite my theology I realise I'd assumed that church is doing better than it is. Its a baptistic flaw to think highly of ourselves - to build firm boundaries, to have a pure church, to think ourselves and others more mature than we really are. A charismatic flaw to assume victory and healing. I'm freshly embracing the messiness of a more Anglican mindset. Where my tradition looks down on those 'muddled nominal believers' who may not be able to articulate their faith or appear not to live in consistently. Y'know, perhaps that's better than we imagine! Don't we all really and only come in weakness and emptiness and failure and confusion to receive from the riches of Christ. Isn't that more real?

I saw this again recently looking around the room at church. I'm aware of a handful of the stories unfolding in peoples lives. Varying levels of trauma and pain. Stories in which it is amazing that they're even in the room. I see one praying for another, another listening, another carrying a load (or a child) another just sitting, being.

It's a young parents win on better days to successfully get out of the house and into the room and home again - add in even a little of the fractureness of this fallen world and just being there is an immense victory in taking another breath.

We sit on our chairs, trophies of grace.

Some in better seasons in which we rejoice, and who are able to aide others. Some in harder seasons in which we weep together, who are learning tentatively to receive help from those who approach to lend a hand.

Sometimes church is the last place I want to be, but true too: no place I'd rather be.

When everything is breaking, there is one who finds us in the garden - in person unseen, through his people seen - to speaks our name and walk and stumble the three legged race of life with us.

Image: creative commons.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

"Everything’s s’pposed to be different than what it is here"

Sin is one of the hardest subjects to speak about well today. As Francis Spufford observes in his book Unapologetic we think of sin as trivial naughtiness, prompting him to try the term HPTFTU as an alternative phrase. It's easily misheard or is a term that quickly offends in a way that prevents further dialogue.

Careful thought is needed. I loved reading Neal Plantinga's book Not the way its supposed to be, last year. It's a thoughtful and careful discussion of how to think about this subject. He draws together the varied biblical language and category so that we might take this subject more seriously.

The biblical approach to sin isn't monochrome. Different audiences are addressed differently. Jesus was accused of being sin-lite by the Pharisees who blindly missed his confrontation of their parading and privilege and pomp whilst grunting and grumbling about his acceptance of 'tax collectors and sinners'.

The outsiders were deeply aware of having broken God's world and presumed their own exclusion from his people - they needed his welcome. The insiders presumed their place at the table and missed the light shining in plain sight.

The self-religious think that God should talk about sin more but miss when he does, and then take offence at the welcome he gives to those who self-exclude from his family because they're far more sensitive to their sin.

We become dull in our hearts and blame others for not forcing us to be more 'godly' as if that were possible. 'If you'd done your job I'd be less sinful...' The corruption is deep, deeper than we dare admit or know.

For all references to 'we' here, read I.

The night is dark, but the morning far brighter.

Sin is a slippery subject, simultaneously a terrible and delicious experience, and a devilish reality.  "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being" (Solzhenitsyn) and Plantinga offers to be our guide as we try to get clarity as we stumble in the shadows, cast in contrast to the bright light of Jesus.

TGC has this essay version as a pdf which condenses it significantly and gives an excellent overview.

Image, creative commons.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

All is gift (reflecting on the sacraments)

I had the opportunity to travel to London on Monday for a day with Peter Leithart, a pastor, author and scholar from the US who spoke on the place of the Sacraments in the life of the church.

I was struck by the high value he placed on unity in the church, on his practical application of the generous welcome of God to the weak, and his passion for these oft neglected gifts of Christ to his church. It was great to learn from one in another tradition alongside Lutherans and Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians and others from Newfrontiers and more.

I'd have plenty of questions around his theology - not least that he baptises babies, but Leithart's pastoral heart for his people, his love of the church, his conviction that church has something to say to our world moved me deeply.

I appreciated his attention to the Rites (rituals) of the church and the way that these both engage and challenge our culture and our world. He noted that we all have rites, however formal or informal. The question is what they are, and even more so: what story they tell.

And I loved his passing comment that its not so much that Baptism or The Lord's Supper are means of grace, they are simply grace, gift. Food isn't so much a means of nourishment. Food is nourishment. Bread and wine aren't just a means to get grace - they are grace, they are gift. And in baptism we get God himself, he claims us and names us for himself.
Reminded me of Evan Koons 'All is gift'

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Looking back on #ilovemycity

As a church we're persuaded from the Bible that we're to explore, experience and express the goodness of God across our city. From a preaching perspective we work through different books of the Bible and seek to hear the good news of Jesus in the language and emphases of those books.

Exploring, experiencing and expressing God's goodness isn't a set of three mutually exclusive categories but inevitably some terms we're more generally addressing our UP-ward relationship with God, sometimes our IN-ward experience of church, or our OUT-ward experience of life in our city.

That means each term has a different feel. In the autumn we were unpacking Galatians, exploring the character of relationship with God with his people. We called this 'You are always welcome'. Over Christmas we considered the incarnation and its implications for life in this world, 'One of us'.

This term we've been in Genesis 1-4 considering the foundations of all things 'I love my city', and God's big story which runs from the garden to the city to fill this world with his goodness so it can be his home with all who trust in Christ.

Download the final sermon in this series: I love my city - everything with him.

We wak in this series thoroughly in the tradition of the Dutch Reformed churches, people like Abraham Kuyper who argued that Jesus stakes his claim on every square inch of his world. We stand on the shoulders of rigorous thinkers such as John Dyer, Don Carson, Andy Crouch, Tim Keller, David Stroud, Jon Tyson, Os Guinness, Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri Fellowship and others who have taught us that the Christian story is of the renewal of all things through substitutionary atonement in Jesus.

I've loved the way this has widened my eyes to see what God is doing in this world, in his world.

Personal salvation and personal piety are unspeakably wonderful. Our story is never to be less than that, but it must be more. Its not that I'm the type or am inclined to a wider vision - a small salvation suits me nicely, but it falls short of a Biblical view of the gospel of Jesus.

As Evan Koons says in a highly-rated resource we've been making use of, we need to ask:
What is our salvation for? For the life of the world.

In Genesis we allowed ourselves to paint the picture. A rich canvas of purple one week, green the next, and then blue and so on. Optimistic and idealistic in Genesis 1-2, realistic, bleak and deeply hopeful in Genesis 3-4 as we engage with human betrayal of God, curse, sin, alienation, vengeance and more. And in the darkest moments, there is the Triune God seeking people.

As we go forward I feel that we have a rich opportunity to pursue a grassroots initiatives in community across our city, sharing 'life on life'. We can back local relief agencies and partner with others - such as Foodbank, YMCA, CAP. We can seek to value the vocations of people - called to join God in the renewal of all things through business and retail, education and health care, academia and customer service and more. And we can seek to resource those - particularly at our local University - who may wield great influence for good in society in their graduate lives.

We'll either represent Christ in those places or something else - the gospel has application to every part of life.

In each area can we do that with an eye to the bigger picture and the deeper mystery of faith.

Next up we're in 1 Peter, 'Everyday Church' - what's so special about church, why and how should we do church in today's society.... I'm excited at the prospect of growing as a loving family together.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Process stories: behind the scenes of a new preaching series

A week on Sunday we start a new preaching series for the summer term, unpacking the message of 1 Peter. We're calling this 'EVERYDAY CHURCH' which is the title of Steve Timmis and Tim Chester's book on 1 Peter. For us discipleship has 'UP' to God, 'IN' to church, and 'OUT' to our city aspects. After series in Galatians on God's welcome, on the Incarnation and Genesis on living in this world, this is going to be more of an 'IN' series. A look inside how Christian faith, layed out to the mix gathering of newer and more established believers and many friends who are journeying regularly with us. 

As Jesus has welcomed us we seek to offer his welcome.

In looking at 1 Peter, we're asking what's special about church, why bother with church community, and how does that work in today's society?

This series will begin in the school and University holidays so we'll be podcasting and seeking to communicate clearly so people catch the start - though we know many members and friends may be with us irregularly so the sermons will need to both be a coherent series and stand alone messages - each seeking to meet people where they are and issuing a call to faith in Christ.

Friday afternoon for me then was about finalising the visual identity for this and printing the resource booklet covers. Next week I will complete the content and get that printed too. Our printer is a monster and will be working very hard!

Producing our series literature isn't where this begins. Our senior leadership team met in January and decided what we'd be preaching and focussing on. In February Stu and I prayefully hit the books, he has a mid-term study week. I've been particularly helped by Angus Macleay's book 'Teaching 1 Peter' from the Proclamation Trust, along with Edmund Clowney's gospel-centred classic in the BST series, whilst also drawing on hours in the text itself and the work of excellent evangelical scholarship.

From there we shape the series outline. What's the message of this book? How can we communicate that clearly and effectively? We're leaning heavily on Macleay's approach with a 13 week series. He suggest a options for 3,5,8 and 16 week series. We're very slightly condensing his long series approach.

I produce a notebook for our preaching team - Stu, Joe and myself, and three guest speaker who will join us this term - with key questions to bear in mind both drawing out the meaning of the text and communicating it's message to human beings at our Sunday gatherings.

Meanwhile Stu has met with a professor at the University who is a world expert on 1 Peter - a little providential opportunity which we're thankful for. We're a young team and anyone we can learn from is worth listening to.

Before we even get started on this my eye is on our next series which will take us from late-July through to the end of August. Traditionally this is a time to train up younger preachers. With that in mind I'm pushing forward on a few fronts. We're going to work with a book I've taught before in another context. I've begun to issue invitations to preach, juggling availability on dates. I've invited the curate of a local Anglican church to come and do some training with us on how to handle a Bible passage. He's an old friend from my time with UCCF and I'm delighted that he plans to join us for all four preparation evenings - two on handling the Bible, two on crafting a sermon. We have much to learn together.

Meanwhile this Sunday we conclude our present preaching series, a term in Genesis 1-4 which has for me been a fascinating vision of the God who made this good world to flourish under the hands of his image bearers, moving as GK Beale says towards a global Eden, a glorious city, and yet terribly marred by our deep relational betrayal. Only through the wounded Christ can things be restored, and as human beings turn to find life in him they join him in the renewal of all things. We're supplementing the lessons we've learned from one of The Gospel Coalition's Top 10 resources of last year - 'For the life of the world' a video discussion series based on Dutch Reformed worldview theology from Abraham Kuyper.

People are taking next steps, responding to what Jesus says in his word about his gospel, and it's great to see changed lives.

Our Senior Leadership team will meet later in April to set our direction for the autumn and it'll be time again to gather resources to do our best to serve our city with the good news of Jesus.