Monday, November 30, 2009

Christmas Letter - from church magazine...

How do you feel about Christmas?

Some people love it and have never reallylost the wonderful child-like innocence of it all – they can't wait for the decorations to go up, the music to start playing and the anticipation of the big day itself, spent with loved ones.

For others, it's one of the toughest times of the year. Cold weather, memories of past Christmases where everything went very wrong, broken relationships and loneliness all take their toll. And Christmas is the hardest time to be alone.

And for those of us who go to church, Christmas is often the time when we hear sermon after sermon reminding us not to take Christ out of Christmas, or all we'll be left with is M&S. It's clever, but I don't think it goes far enough.

So amid the abandoned diets, merry-making and sorrow, preparations and presents and pies, let me offer three quick thoughts about Christmas.

1. Let Christmas blow your mind

Of course, Christmas is about Jesus being born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. And it's a great story to teach children – there are all kinds of useful lessons about it being important to treat refugees and poor people well. But so often we leave the Christmas story for the children, and we don't stop to realise how earth-shatteringly huge it is. It's like buying a new car, and only ever using it to enjoy the way the windscreen wipers work!

Christmas is when the infinite, eternal God, who made everything that exists became part of his own creation. And not an important part either. He didn't become King of the Universe at Christmas, though even that would have been a big step down. He became an illegitimate baby born to a poor couple from a conquered race, born in a grotty cave-stable in an insignificant backwater of a town in the unfashionable end of the Roman Empire. And that is the same God who spoke and the universe was created. A Christmas carol puts it well:

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Or as C.S. Lewis wrote in The Last Battle: “In our world, too, a stable once held something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” If that doesn't blow your mind, I don't know what will.

2. Let Christmas bring you to your knees

And God did this not just to blow our minds, but to enter into our experience. The God of the Universe became one of us and lived as one of us so that we could know him and be with him. God himself bridged the gap between people and God, and at immense cost to himself.

Do we praise and worship God for Christmas? Do we let the facts of Christmas bring us to our knees? I recommend that you take some time on your own or with another Christian to just think about what God did at Christmas until you are left with no choice but to worship him for it.

3. Let Christmas warm your heart

Christmas is also a time to celebrate what we have in this life. Telling people to put Jesus at the centre of Christmas often doesn't work because they don't see how he will help them enjoy Christmas more. We need to show them that Jesus was right when he said “I have come that they may have life to the full,” and that the best life to live is one with Jesus at the centre.

So I hope and pray you will all enjoy Christmas, that you will enjoy Christmas all the more because Jesus is at the centre of it, and that you will share that enjoyment with others who don't have as much to rejoice about.

God bless, and have a very Happy Christmas!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Parable of the Sower

Jesus was very good at telling stories. We are rather less good at understanding them. Some of the stories Jesus told were very clever and multi-layered. We are especially bad at understanding those. Two quick examples:

The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 has for a long time largely been understood as being about the "prodigal son". For such a long time, in fact, that the word prodigal has had time to change its meaning rather significantly, therefore making the title doubly inaccurate. It was pretty clear to people who looked at the context and the parable a bit that the elder brother was a more important character than he was often given credit for - he's the one whom the listeners were meant to be identifying with, and so on. But Tim Keller's excellent book The Prodigal God points out what should have been obvious all along - that the central character is the forgiving Father, but that the parable is challenging and illuminating on a whole series of levels - notably by looking at the three main characters in turn.

However, the popular understanding of the Parable of the Sower seems to be heading the other way. Far too many times in the last few weeks, and often by people who should have known better, I've heard it described as the Parable of the Soils. And of course, that is one valid level of interpretation. There is an important point there about how different types of soil respond to the message - which one are we going to be? That may well even be the primary meaning in Luke 8 - the same parable sometimes is used to make different points in different gospels (e.g. the parable of the lost sheep). But the parable is used three times, and it's usually preached from either Matthew 13 or Mark 4, and neither of those passages let us leave the interpretation there.

Matthew 13 doesn't even allow us to call it "The Parable of the Soils", because it is one of the very few parables that Jesus names for us. And he calls it "The Parable of the Sower" (Matt 13:18). And once we realise that it is primarily about the sower, not the soils, it makes more sense.

It's always a good idea to look for surprises (relative to the culture they were originally spoken in) in the parables. So in the badly-named parable of the Prodigal Son, the big surprise is that the Father was watching for his son to come home, and ran to greet him and welcome him back. The parable of the sower (in Matthew and Mark) has two big surprises. One is that the sower sows everywhere, not seeming to care what sort of soil the seed lands on. That is a silly way of sowing. The other is the result - getting a crop of "thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown" (Mark 4:20) is a ridiculously high yield, especially for such a silly method of sowing.

In both Matthew and Mark, these make perfect sense when read in context, because in both gospels the parable follows straight on from people rejecting Jesus, and specifically from the incident where Jesus' mother and brothers try to get him back, but Jesus says that whoever follows him is his brother and sister and mother.

The natural question to ask in that situation and in that culture is this. "If Jesus is someone really special, why are so many people rejecting him?" That's why, too, in both Matt 13 and Mark 4, Jesus quotes a chunk of Isaiah 6 about God's people rejecting God's message. The focus then turns back to the character of the sower in the passage. Why is the sower sowing in such a way? Why is Jesus ministering to people, many of whom reject him. Why isn't he cherry picking the people who are most receptive?

And the parable's answer is that God's strategy is this mad sowing - the telling everyone sowing, and that that method of sowing produces the really abundant harvests. So we shouldn't get worried by people rejecting the message. Something like that, anyway...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Make Life Flow

As a church, we're supporting Tearfund's Make Life Flow campaign. As part of this campaign, several videos have been made, set in a village in Uganda where girls have to walk a long way to get water - the only spring is 1½ miles from the village, and down a very steep hill. The village in question is clearly in a bit of Uganda where there is plenty of water - Tearfund have helped to build a large rainwater storage tank, and there's lots of greenery around.

I don't doubt the campaign is a good one, but the videos left me unsettled because there were so many questions unanswered.

  1. As far as I can tell, every single old village in the UK (before water mains) was built on a river, stream or spring. Why was this one not? Were they refugees from some conflict? I can understand villages being built away from springs in areas where there isn't much water around, but this isn't one of those areas.
  2. In areas where there isn't a regular stable water supply (e.g. Israel), people have been building underground cisterns to store water in for thousands of years - at least as early as Genesis 37. Essentially, Tearfund have helped the village to do that (except with overground tanks). Why didn't they have cisterns already? Why wasn't that part of building the village in the first place?
  3. In the video, there were lots of women and teenage girls, but very few men and teenage boys (except the pastor and the schoolteacher). Where were they? The obvious answer would be doing some kind of herding work, but if all the men were some distance away, why was there so much danger of the women being raped on their way to collect water? And if they weren't some distance away, why weren't they offering to protect the women collecting water?
  4. Why weren't the men helping to improve the infrastructure, when it's obviously something which creates a lot of benefits and their physical strength would have been useful?

I guess it seems that there are so many background questions and issues that need tackling to really do something about poverty like this. I think I understand urban poverty far better - not that I know what to do about that either... Still, what Tearfund are doing looks like a good start.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Wesley Owen

Wesley Owen bookshops are up for sale. It will be a sad day if they close down - the local Wesley Owen is very good and is the only Christian bookshop within 30 mins drive of here...

Added to which, Wesley Owen and STL distribution (also up for sale) provide the services necessary for most of the church bookshops and bookstalls in the country.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Am I a Conservative Evangelical?

It isn't the sort of question that keeps me awake at night. But it's something I think about occasionally...

It's easy to say that I used to be. 5 years ago I was involved in lay leadership in a conservative evangelical church, going to conservative evangelical camps and conferences and so on and agreeing with most of what was being said, and reading mostly conservative evangelical books. I criticised mainstream conservative evangelicalism on issues like their failure to communicate the primacy of grace when discussing homosexuality, but I did so from within the movement.

But am I still one? My context has certainly changed - I'm now an ordained minister in a charismatic evangelical church and while I still go to some conservative evangelical events, I probably go to more charismatic evangelical ones and read quite a lot of books from both charismatic and open evangelical perspectives. And I seem to fit the label "conservamatic" fairly well, though I'm a lot more comfortable in high church settings than most conservatives or charismatics, and don't like being defined as fitting into any one group.

The thing is, my theology hasn't changed much at all. There are quite a lot of areas where my understanding has deepened or clarified, but I don't think my theology has moved much. The big things that have changed which affect whether I'm a conservative evangelical or not, as far as I can tell, are:

  • I've realised that conservative evangelicals often emphasise and word things in reaction against points of view they've come into conflict with - especially Ryle's caricature of 16th century Roman Catholicism, modernist liberalism, postmodern syncretism and pentecostalism.
  • I've realised that there are a good number of charismatics who don't fall into the traps which I used to associate with them, and that a lot of them don't mean what I thought they meant in the way they talk about the Holy Spirit. Many of them also seem to use the ecstatic gifts (which I never really thought had ceased) sensibly rather than just ignoring them as the conservative evangelicals did.
  • I think I understand much better how it is quite possible to be a sincere and Bible-believing Christian and to be a convinced charismatic (like my training incumbent) or anglo-catholic (like the local suffregan bishop), and I'm happy getting along with such people and even being a regular member of their churches. I think there are much more important issues than church politics, such as love for God and others, mission and evangelism, and so on.
  • Conservative evangelical culture has solidified a bit more and moved slightly, and I'm not hanging around with them as much.

Having thought about it a bit, I think I'm happy and comfortable being a conservative evangelical (albeit one with charismatic leanings and some catholic sympathies) when I hang around with conservative evangelicals. And when I hang around with charismatics, I'm happy being a charismatic with strong Biblical tendancies and conservative influences. When I hang out with open evangelicals, I'm happy fitting in at the more conservative end of open evangelicalism unless they start conservative-bashing. And when I hang around with wider groups, I'm happy not really fitting any label well but saying controversial stuff and trying to mix up the stupor that seems to hang over such gatherings. And I think and find it is quite possible to be all of those without inconsistency.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bonhoeffer - being alone

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when He called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone, you are rejecting Christ's call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called--the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Hat tip to CQOD.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


Glo claims to be the next big thing in Bible study. It's a computer programme; it's quite expensive, but I got given a free copy with all the functionality and a fair bit of the content, so I thought I should probably review it.

The first thing to say is that it is a biiig programme. Like 18GB of hard drive, and needs a machine that can cope with Vista easily. I've got a fairly new computer with 3GB of RAM and an Intel T1600 Dual-Core processor, and Glo was pretty slow on it.

The interface does look very nice and kind of funky. It's clean and modern and looks good - the promotional video is just about right for that, except you probably need a very top-end computer to get that kind of performance. But I've seen websites with that kind of functionality which work much quicker, probably because they are using the greater power of servers. Which makes me wonder - wouldn't "the Bible for the digital age" be better working off some very fast servers somewhere? Kind of like BibleGateway, but maybe looking a bit funkier?

Glo seems to come with the KJV, NIV and CEV. But the search tools are fairly basic, and there doesn't seem to be any facility for using original languages or anything. And that's important because I was doing that stuff even before I went to theological college, thanks to e-sword, which is free, has Hebrew and Greek, and integrates Strong's numbers, unlike Glo, which is quite expensive.

Some of the resources that come with it are quite nice. Little video tours of places in Israel and so on. Study notes of a fairly comparable level to the NIV study Bible. A zoomable map interface that is very clearly based on Google Earth.

But Glo seems to be "all fur coat and no knickers" as the saying goes. The map interface doesn't seem to be searchable at all, and neither does the timeline (which I'd been hoping would be useful for teaching a Bible overview - nope). There's a basic search for the Bible text, but it's only a basic search. I tried searching for "Chronicles" in the search box, and it didn't even tell me there were two books of the Bible called "Chronicles". And the level of scholarship that has gone into this is pretty shoddy.

Don't get me wrong - I'm an evangelical who believes that Scripture (as originally given) is perfect, and I think that theological study is good and important when done rightly but all too often it's done badly. So let me give an example.

There's a video about Jesus' birth on Glo. And they visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. They seem to have only been there on a pretty crowded day - it was rammed with people - whereas when I went there it wasn't too full at all. There's a bit of film in the grotto under the church where Jesus was quite possibly born. But then they point out (rightly) that it wouldn't have been like that then, so the rest of the film is in a free-standing stable. Which misses something quite big. All the early post-Biblical accounts point to Jesus being born in a cave. The grotto under the Church of the Nativity is a cave. Archaeology tells us that Bethlehem had a fair few caves, and a lot of them had a little shelter built onto the front and were used either as houses or as barns. So Jesus was probably born in a cave which had been partly converted into a barn or something like that. The idea of Jesus being born in a free-standing stable just doesn't seem to exist for centuries afterwards. And yet they blithely go along with it. The message of the video - that Jesus went all the way to the bottom to get us - was pretty good though. It's just a shame they messed it up with poor scholarship.

Or take the Bible timeline. OK, so they don't give a date for Adam and Eve (though their position on the timeline does make it look like 4000BC). But they very clearly put the Exodus at 1400BC, and try treating the Judges as sequential. Now the only way of getting the Exodus to 1400BC is if we take 1 Kings 6:1 absolutely literally. But 1 Kings 6:1 says a certain period of time was 480 years, and 40 and 12 are both clearly symbolic in Israelite thought. The archaeology suggests 1200BC as a much better date for the Exodus. The Judges shouldn't be sequential for the following reasons:
1) almost all of them only seem to operate in a small area, and the areas mostly don't overlap.
2) if you add up the total time the Judges ruled for and the times of oppression between judges, you get some very big number which doesn't fit into any Biblical chronology
But Glo just seems to ignore all of this. It's as if they've taken a lot of their intellectual content from someone who thinks that academic study of the Bible is a bad thing.

To summarise, I'd recommend Glo for someone who has a very fast computer and wants stuff to look pretty. Or if you want a series of video clips of Americans looking around sites that come up in the Bible. Or if you want an electronic Bible that has notes at the level of a basic study Bible, but costs three times as much. But not if you want Bible study software.

It's a shame really, because this could have been so much better. Like by giving BibleGateway a new interface, putting a load of videos up of Israel and so on, done by someone who knows what they are talking about, and releasing a patch for Google Earth that displays Biblical locations while being searchable.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Subverting Halloween

Last Saturday night, I went for a walk. It's easier being out on Halloween, because it avoids the problem of what to do with trick-or-treaters. And I got thinking about how to subvert Halloween - subverting often being much better and more fun than opposing... Of course, Halloween seems to by dying out slowly, so it's no longer as much of a problem as it was for Christians. Anyhow, here's what I came up with on how to subvert it.

  • Use the fact it's Reformation Day on 31st October and All Saints' on 1st November.
  • Hold a "heroes of the faith" dressing up event. Ideas - Peter and fishing nets (or fishnets), Daniel and some lions, David and a slingshot with some toy sheep, Luther with his beer or tonsure (depending on age), Zwingli with some sausages, Cranmer's wife in a box, Catherine with a wheel, Jael and a tent peg...
  • Put up posters beforehand saying you'll give sweets to anyone dressed as a goodie. Give people stuff if they're dressed as Spiderman or whatever, but not if they're dressed as witches, devils or the psycho killer from Scream.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Holy Sonnet X

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow
And soonest our best men with thee do go
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppies or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swellst thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

John Donne