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Saturday, 28 December 2013

New Creation Revisited

I actually wrote this last week but forgot to post it as Christmas took over! Belated Happy Christmas to all my readers. 

I said in my last post that in the past I (perhaps in keeping with many in the charismatic world) understood 2 Cor.5:17 to mean that because the old has gone and the new has come, I and others need no longer struggle with stuff from our 'old' lives. If I did, it was because I was not exercising enough faith in this truth (early in my Christian life I actually doubted whether I truly was a Christian when I did struggle). In reality, some of us needed help with major issues in our internal worlds but we were told or told ourselves (or the message was 'in the air' in some way) that we just needed to have more faith or 'come into a greater revelation.'

Now I do believe that the 'eyes of our heart' need opening up to spiritual realities and that growing revelation and realization of our new identity in Christ is absolutely fundamental to the Christian life. But it is about how we understand it and the application or outworking of it that I have questions. Although I think some specific, individual verses so encapsulate a vital principle that it is understandable and legitimate (up to a point) that they are lifted out of context, we should go back to their original context to check we are are understanding them correctly.

One of the key issues in 2 Corinthians is that Paul is dealing with those who are challenging the authenticity of his apostleship and he specifically brings up the whole issue of not judging by outward factors (see 5:12). He is assuring his readers that his motivation is not to please himself but to live for the Christ who has died for him (5:14-15); and that one consequence of this new way of living from new values is that he does not judge people outwardly (and he is painfully aware that this is what he did even in relation to Christ before his conversion - see 5:16) but sees them from a whole new perspective. The perspective he now views them from is this: the new creation of the future age to come has already burst in upon this world through the death and resurrection of Christ! Everything has changed now because of this and he views everyone and everything from this perspective, including the fact that our purpose in life as Christians is to tell people about this ultimate new reality - that God is in Christ reconciling the whole world to himself (5:18-21), another way of saying He is restoring all things, or making all things new. In the middle of this, he writes:
if anyone is in Christ, new creation (the 'he is a' is not in the original)
The point is not so much that they are made into new people (though I think that is part of it, rightly understood) but that they live from a totally new reality; they are no longer defined by this present and passing age but by the new resurrection age, the new creation. This means new and different values, perspectives, sense of identity, ways of evaluating, priorities etc. We don't live by this world but by the better way of a different kingdom. It is perhaps best summarized by what Jesus says of his followers in John 17:16, quoting from The Message version:
They are no more defined by the world than I am defined by the world.
This is a longer post than I planned. Next post will say more about how we view past and present struggles and brokenness in the light of this new creation reality.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A New Creation? Yes, but....

Following on from my last post, I want to start a few posts on the healing journey. It has to start with a key issue that has been vital for me to work through in recent years. I believe in the amazing truth of 2 Cor.5:17:
'...anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!' (NLT)
The reality of the new creation - our new identity and new nature in Christ (as a present anticipation of 'all things made new' of the future age to come) - is a vitally important truth that I receive and celebrate with gratitude. The 'Yes, but...' of this post's title refers to the understanding and outworking of that truth in the Christian life and especially as it relates to responding to the experience of our own and others' brokenness and mess in our internal worlds.

The expression of faith that I learned from early on in my Christian life included the simplistic reading of this passage that meant because 'the old has gone and the new has come' my past, and any pain and damage associated with it, was dealt with and I could forget it. It was gone. It came down to 'easy believism' (just have faith, brother...) or, if there was anything that seemed to be hanging on, just a matter of some kind of spiritual, high octane deliverance ministry that dealt with it once and for all. Of course, when it didn't happen as was expected people could be left feeling guilty for their lack of faith and some of us could contribute to their guilt by the insensitive things we said. And so for many the only solution was to push things down beneath the surface, rationalise it, find something to 'medicate' the pain and/or just pretend and avoid openness and transparency so you could get on with life. All that happens of course is that the pain and the damage is deflected and will come out somewhere and someway eventually often with tragic and even more damaging consequences. In some cases, it can cause or exacerbate serious mental illness.

I am grateful to Ian McNaught for anticipating this post with his comment on my previous post in which he pointed me to an article by Ted Haggard who 'fell' from his position and ministry as a high profile Christian leader in 2006, partly perhaps because he had been taught this take on the new creation truth, and his damage was deflected into a series of actions that led to his downfall in a Christian world that really didn't know how to deal with damage in Christians who are 'supposed to be' new creations. I find the article really moving, helpful, passionate, compassionate and insightful. It not only deals with this issue but with how the church handles fallen leaders, and responds to the issue of mental illness among Christians, in the light of another recent high profile suicide by a Christian leader. I would also highly recommend a series of posts by Christian leader, blogger and psychiatrist Adrian Warnock, posted earlier this year in the light of the tragic suicide of Rick Warren's son, Matthew (it's worth pointing out that the Warrens' had a far healthier approach to understanding new creation truth and how to respond to mental illness; but the wider evangelical and charismatic church doesn't always).

In my next post I want to begin to explore a better approach to this 2 Cor.5:17 text and the wonderful truth it contains while still leaving space for us to deal better with brokenness.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Back to Blogging....on the Journey

Back to blogging later than intended! The problem with stopping a regular activity is that other things quickly rush into fill the spaces of time that it leaves, and you then struggle to reinsert it into your schedule! Any advice on how to stretch time will be gratefully received. I hope I have not lost too many readers in my absence. 

I want to continue with more thoughts on different aspects of the journey that I (and others) have been on in the last couple of years. See here for my suggestion of four different aspects. And I have also suggested a fifth - a journey of cultural transition. More on that later.

Over the next few posts, I want to say a little about the restorative or healing journey. And then some thoughts on the closely connected devotional journey. In relation to healing, I am not intending to get into personal detail here. These are personal and private things that it'd be inappropriate to air online. Rather, I will make some general comments about the need for a healing journey and what I think is involved; and I will then recommend some books that have helped me. However, as a bookish person one of the things that I am having to realise on this journey is that just reading another book (or attending another conference or getting into the latest 'revelation' or experience) doesn't deal with it. I think the answer lies (I put it that way because I am still very much on this journey) in honesty with self, transparency toward God and others, intimate encounter with God and trust. I am intending to post on things like:
  • a new creation? Yes, but....
  • glory in clay jars
  • the trouble with triumphalism
  • the challenge of transparency
  • the love of the Father
Hope you'll join me to reflect on these things and to maybe share your own experiences of your journeys.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Shall We Dance?

In my last post I wrote about the fact that healthy belief formation often involves holding two truths in tension with each other. To over-emphasise one at the expense of the other will mean we end up in a ditch. But I was also keen to point out that this does not mean that we live life on a tightrope, afraid of falling on either side; or with our hands tightly gripping the handlebars so that we don't swerve too far one way or the other. That's no way to live. I think we should be able to dance together along this road as we go on our journey, not huddle together in the middle, afraid of the ditches. (To be aware and alert is not the same as being afraid). Perhaps it's the dance that holds the key.

Because although we need to learn to live with and 'feel the tension', I remember finding it really helpful when someone suggested that we learn to deal with the tension of truth not primarily by trying to strike the right balance but by learning to walk (or dance!) according to the appropriate rhythm. You see, even just to walk means putting your weight on one foot and then on the other. Even more so, with dancing we have to learn where and when to place our weight on one foot, and when to shift it to the other, in order to get the right balance and equipoise - not as tightrope walkers but as those dancing together to create a beautiful work of art. In the journey of a community, different things will need to be emphasised at different times, the weight placed on some aspects of truth only for it then to shift to another aspect. Equally, different people bring different emphases of truth and insight at different times for different purposes. Learning to make room for one another is what enables us to dance. Insisting that only our particular emphasis be accepted is not dancing. It's not even walking. It's hopping! To change the metaphor, to just play one note all of the time is not to create music; it is just to make a noise. 

There is more on the dance here, here and here

I am feeling prompted to take an internet fast for the next three weeks, as God wants me to focus on other things in my own personal journey during that time. This means no blogging for three weeks but I hope you will join me again after that as I continue with reflections on the different aspects of our journey. Thank you for reading my blog. Blessings!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Truth in Tension

Here's another dynamic that I think affects the shaping of our beliefs and practices on the theological journey. It is that grasping truth often means living with a challenging but creative tension of truth(s). I have often used an illustration when talking about this which I discovered from my friend Mark Lawrence originally came from Ern Baxter (though he may well have got it from someone else also). It's like a road with two ditches on either side; if we over-emphasise one aspect of truth at the expense of the other, then we end up in one of the ditches. In my last post I suggested that we don't let go of the need to listen to and honour apostolic and prophetic revelation; but it is also true that it is together that we have the mind of Christ and so we all get to take part in the conversation of pilgrims. It is not either/or, it is both/and. If we over-emphasise one at the expense of the other, then we end up in a ditch. And Ern Baxter apparently used to say that if you don't 'feel the tension' you are probably missing the truth; you may even be in one of the ditches.

I am not talking about some grey, boring, middle-of-the-road balanced position. It is about holding together two truths with equal force. I remember, as a teenager, cycling down a hill at quite a speed when I became aware of a wasp on my chest and desperately tried to brush it off with one hand while holding one side of the handle bar with the other hand. With my imbalanced grip, I ended up swerving to one side and fell off the bike into the path of on-coming bus - which thankfully stopped! I wasn't trying to ride in the middle of the road (I would get knocked down then) but I did need to get the equal pressure on each end of the handle bar to avoid swerving. Let me give you another example. I hear a lot about grace teaching at the moment (and enjoy most of it) and I reckon you can never be too extreme about grace - our faith is not about what we do for God but about what he has done/does for us. I don't in anyway try to qualify that. But I hold it together with the equal truth that for spiritual formation and growth, grace enables me to 'make every effort' and to 'train myself' (Phil.2:12-13; 1 Cor.9:23-27; 15:10; 1 Tim.4:7-8; 2 Pet.1:5 ) - otherwise I end up in the ditch of passivity. Awareness of the ditches does not mean that it is like walking a tight rope, constantly afraid of falling. Definitely not. The road between the ditches is broad and one on which we can hop, skip, jump, cycle(!) and dance (more on this in next post). It is not about tightrope walking but about holding truths together so that we can enjoy the road without falling into either ditch.

Kevin Gerald preaches a great message on what he calls dumb dichotomies, the tendency among many Christians to insist on either/or, rather than both/and. This refusal to hold two truths in tension, to insist on dumb dichotomies, is perhaps the most common reason for unnecessary and unhelpful dispute and division between Christians. We have to learn to live with these tough but productive tensions.

Remember: if you are not feeling the tension, then you are probably missing the truth.

Monday, 4 November 2013

'Revelation' and Conversation

Although I am moving my more overtly theological reflections to my new blog at Pentecostal Pilgrim, I want to still make a few general points about what I have called the theological journey, before moving on to other aspects. There are some dynamics that really affect the forming and shaping of our beliefs, and thereby influence the steps we take on the journey. This post is about one of them.

For many of us, influenced by the pentecostal-charismatic and Word of Faith movements, the idea of getting 'a revelation' about something is a key concept. There is certainly some value in it. Beyond the general theological concept of revelation (that God has revealed himself e.g. in nature, history, Christ and Scripture), there is the vital spiritual idea that truth needs to be grasped inwardly, that 'the eyes of our heart' need to be opened (Eph.1:18), that we apprehend truth not just in our minds but in our spirits (1 Cor.2:9-16), and even that sometimes our 'hearts take us where our heads can't go' (Bill Johnson, I think - surely!)

I also think that there are men and women of revelation, apostles and prophets who have a measure of grace-gifting to help make sure that the church stays founded on and aligned with a revelation of Christ (Eph. 2:19-20; 3:4-6; 4:11-13; 1 Cor.3:10-11; 4:1-2, 15). Honour releases such gifting and in our present journey and cultural shift, I urge that we be careful not to let go of this treasure. The church is founded not on a collection of opinions but on a heavenly revelation (Matt.16:13-19).

Having said that, I have also seen this concept of revelation be used, or abused, to bolster a particular position on an issue and to close down conversation with others who disagree with us, often on issues on which there are legitimate diverse perspectives (pretty sure I have done this myself in the past). Revelation relates to the heart of the gospel. In other words, to Christ - his incarnation, life, teaching, mission, death, resurrection, ascension, present rule and future return. I have come to realise that when I get 'a revelation', I am not seeing something new or novel or that no-one else sees, I am just getting a fresher and deeper grasp of 'the open secret' of the gospel. On many other things that need to be considered on a church's journey, there is much room for openness, diversity, dialogue and even disagreement. And the way forward will be found often not with the revelation of one person. That may happen occasionally, but more usually it is through the genuine conversation of fellow pilgrims. In writing about these things. Paul did not say 'I have the mind of Christ' but that 'we have the mind of Christ' (1 Cor.2:16). We need each other to see the way forward.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Path Not A Fortress

I have said that I think theology is really important and that we all do theology, whether we recognise it or not. But I realise not everyone connects with it when it gets too 'studious'. Fair enough. But I do want to get into theology in more detail and some have expressed an interest in this. And so I have started a new blog to focus on my theological reflections and developments. It'll hopefully free this blog up to focus on more general reflections on our journey, thoughts on the spiritual life - individual and corporate - and on the practical outworking of the different kingdom values. If anyone is interested more in the theological journey then the blog is at Pentecostal Pilgrim 

But before the studious stuff moves off this blog, let me share  one extract from a book by an OT scholar which I have been reading recently. What he says about biblical interpretation I think also applies to the theological and all other aspects of the journey:
'Perhaps we should think of biblical interpretation more as a path to walk than a fortress to be defended. Of course, there are times when defence is necessary, but the church's task of biblical interpretation should not be defined by such...I would rather think of biblical interpretation as a path we walk, a pilgrimage we take, whereby the longer we walk and take in the surrounding scenes, the more people we stop and converse with along the way, and the richer our interpretation will be. Such a journey is not always smooth. At times what is involved is a certain degree of risk and creativity: we may need to leave the main path from time to time to explore less travelled but promising tracks…[it] always requires patience and humility lest we stumble...But as we attempt to understand Scripture, we move further along the path. At the end of the path is not simply the gaining of knowledge about the text, but God himself speaks to us therein. The goal toward which the path is leading is that which set us on the path to begin with: our having been claimed by God as coheirs with the crucified and risen Christ. The reality of the crucified and risen Christ is both the beginning and end of Christian biblical interpretation...again, this is why the metaphor of journey or pilgrimage is so appealing. The path we walk may contain risks, unexpected bumps, twists and turns. We do not always know what is coming around the corner...It is always an option I suppose, to halt the journey and stand still, or perhaps turn around and walk back a few hundred yards, so as to stand at a safe distance from what lies ahead. We should continue the journey, however, not because we are sure of our own footing, but because we have faith in God who placed us on the journey to begin with.'
(Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 2005, BakerAcademic, pp.162-163,171).

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Scripture and Story: A Better Way

On my theological journey, I am beginning to have my engagement with Scripture refreshed and even transformed. This is by increasingly realising the power of reading Scripture as a Big Story told through many and diverse stories. This emphasis on narrative is not new in the academic world of Biblical Studies or Biblical Theology, but has not generally made much impact at a popular level. In general, most 'Bible-believing Christians' still use the Bible either as a devotional aid, a book of rules, or a theological compendium. Most of the time we read it to be inspired and 'spoken to' (a good thing because Scripture can and should certainly be a 'place' we encounter God). But when we are trying to work out doctrine, ethics and practice we use it like a legal code or a compendium where we lift out different proof-texts on a subject and then stitch them together to decide what we are meant to believe. It's like the Holy Spirit might just as well have inspired something like Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology. Then we could just go and look the subject up in the index and be told what to believe and do. But that is not the nature of the inspired Scripture that God has given us and there's a good reason why.

God told a Story through stories set in the real, messy, broken, ambiguous and plural world, involving communities in process in actual historical contexts. And this matters. Instead of being able to tick off a bunch of statements of belief, we are required to work out what's true and what matters by engaging with the Story and stories, with the help of the Holy Spirit and in conversation with each other. There's a beginning and end to this Story that provide its trajectory. There's the hero and central character, Christ, that provides it's focus. There is a vitally important turning point, the Cross, that provides it essential message. And there are Big Themes or principles that provide its parameters and constants as we seek to work out the Story's significance and meaning for us now. Because, of course, we are also invited to be part of the continuation of this Story as we move towards its final chapter, the restoration of all things, to everything made new. 

Reading Scripture this way, especially when moving from Scripture to our beliefs, is not simple and straightforward. But it helps us avoid dogmatism and straining at exegetical gnats as I mention here. Engaging in the stories and Story in this way encourages reflection, conversation, openness, diversity, provisonality in many beliefs, ongoing reflection and reform, willingness to explore and change etc. And it's just much more exciting!

Monday, 28 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 3)

I have a suspicion that we can perhaps get the best model for engaging Scripture from one biblical passage. It is Luke's record of Jesus' encounter with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-53). I encourage you to read it again. It is absolutely brim-full of insights - at least hints of everything we need to know about encountering Christ through Scripture. And allowing Christ to interpret Scripture for us. I can't go into lots of detail here (any USMM students reading this, get ready to dig deep into it!) but here are a few thoughts.

Jesus meets us where we are, on a journey in conversation with each other, struggling with life in all of its messiness, pain, disappointment, and confusion as well as the good stuff (i.e.not just in the Bible study, your daily quiet time or faith confessions). And he's happy to come to us hidden and in disguise at times, getting us to be honest about our feelings and experiences ( he doesn't want us getting all religious on him!). So when we're at the point when we want to cry out because things just don't make sense, that could well be him turning up. He's content to start with our experiences and even the testimony of miracles that raise a hope we hardly dare believe. But he doesn't just leave us in the realm of experience, whether our feelings or the confusing testimonies of the supernatural. He takes us back to the Scriptures.

He helps us to understand that all the Scriptures were always all about him - and he makes that which was familiar blaze with freshness. He reveals himself in the Scriptures. We learn later that this was not just stimulating the disciples' minds but setting their hearts on fire. He reaches the deepest part of them as he opens up the Scriptures to them. But it is significant that that though they were granted insight to Scripture, it was only as he enacted the breaking of bread that they really recognise and encounter him. It is by pointing them to his death on the Cross that they truly begin to see beyond concept and testimony to the person, the one it's all about. This is just one of the reasons why I believe that the Cross lies at the heart of God's self-revelation in Scripture. It is the crux of the story; everything turns on this.

But the process of revelation and encounter is not complete until this Christ is shared with others. Then they too come to encounter the risen Christ. And their encounter with the Messiah catapults them into engagement with his Mission. They are to be witnesses of the resurrection and sowers of its message. They - and we - get to continue the story that Scripture unfolds, that Jesus has just been revealing, and that is all about him.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 2)

Oh dear! My apologies for the 'promise' that I would post the second part of this 'tomorrow' and then not getting round to it until 5 days later! And I can only use 'problems with lousy internet connection' as a partial explanation. Anyway, here's a further thought on the centrality of Christ to understanding the Scriptures.

My point for this post is a simple one. Theology shouldn't be separated from spirituality and discipleship. That is, from our experience of God and practical obedience to his will and ways revealed in Christ. And just as Christ is the one who is the full revelation of God, he is also the one in whom we find our reconciliation to God (2 Cor.5:19) - he is the source both of spiritual revelation and intimate relationship. So it is from a place of participation in Christ and relationship with him, that we come to understand the truth. It is only by being his followers, his disciples, that we can really get it!. That is why he says:
Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. (John 7:17)
Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Ultimately of course, Christ is the truth (John 14:6). This does not absolve us from the often hard work of Christian theology - thinking about God in conversation with Scripture and others - but it surely does mean that true insight is more likely to come to the thoughtful and devoted follower, than to the detached and indifferent egg-head.

In relation to Scripture, this is beautifully shown by the fantastic passage from Luke 24 where Jesus comes alongside two of his now dejected disciples. He wonderfully restores them as he walks with them, and opens up the Scriptures (which are all about him) to them, and opens up their hearts to the truth. In fact, it's such a great passage, I think I will do a third part on this subject looking more closely at it. But I will learn from my mistake, and not promise when.

Let's finish this post with a clear, simple claim: you cannot truly understand Scripture without following Christ.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Christ and Scripture (Part 1)

Obviously, on any theological journey, Scripture must play a major part in shaping and defining our understanding of Truth. (By the way, I believe theology is foundational as what we think about God affects everything about us; and the task of theology must inevitably be seen in pilgrimage terms as our understanding should be developing and 'always reforming', never static and rigid).

So Scripture is vitally important but the centrality of Christ is really relevant here as well. If we do not read the Bible through the lens of Christ then we will totally misunderstand it. For instance, I think if we try to base our view of God by reading the Old Testament without this lens on, then we end up with a very different God than the one who is revealed in Christ. The Pharisees and teachers of the law made this mistake all the time. They studied their Bible diligently but they so missed the fact that it was all about Jesus (John 5:39-40) that they plotted to have the author of life killed. They missed the Word of God in the very words of God.

I think perhaps many Bible-believing Christians are building their lives and faith on what they think is the foundation of the word of God, but they have ended up with a warped understanding of Scripture and God. Hebrews 1:1-3  tells us that, through the OT prophets, God revealed something of himself 'at many times and in many ways', but that now 'he has spoken to us by his Son' and that that Son is the final and full revelation of God - 'the radiance of the Father's glory'. Christ is the only foundation we can build on (1 Cor.3:11), and so the written Word must be understood through the incarnate, living Word.

Here's a rough rule of thumb to help you. If your interpretation of any part of Scripture leaves you with an understanding of God that looks different than the one revealed by Christ on the cross - loving his enemies, giving himself in astounding, unconditional, sacrificial love, reconciling the world to himself, amazing us with outrageous grace - then guess what? Your interpretation is wrong. As Bill Johnson says, 'Jesus Christ is perfect theology.'

A little more on this tomorrow hopefully.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Map is not the Territory

Years ago, I remember being in a number of conversations and discussions with Bryn Jones (many of my readers will know who I mean) where he would say something that would really stop you in your tracks and make you re-think things. He had a knack for doing that. On one such occasion I remember him saying something like, 'always remember that the Truth and what you believe are not the same thing!' That made me pause!

It seems obvious of course. But we were people who were strong on believing the truth, proclaiming the truth, standing for the truth, defending the truth. I guess some of us just assumed that what we believed was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth - so help those who didn't see the truth like we did, God!
Bryn, who could be a formidable defender of truth himself, was reminding us it was nevertheless necessary to realise that we might be wrong. That our beliefs were not infallible and we should not assume that we had a corner on the Truth. Stay open. As I got to know him a little better, I realised that although he would fight for 'ground taken' in terms of revelation, he was also a great explorer of truth, willing to re-examine his beliefs and re-think things. He was a genuine theological pilgrim.

I was reminded of this when reading in Boyd's book about the importance of realising that 'the map is not the territory'. That is, our belief (interpretation, understanding etc) is the map and not the actual territory, i.e. the Truth about God, life, the Bible, the world etc.. If we equate our map with the territory, then we miss out on the opportunity and necessary process of learning from other people's maps. If our map is the territory, then other people are just plain wrong. That vitally important process - the conversation of pilgrims - is essentially fellow travellers comparing maps. That way, together we get a better understanding of the actual territory we are trying to negotiate. Even then, there'll still be many surprises on the journey!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Christ as Centre

'For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor. 2:2)
Theological pilgrimage is tough. When you embark on a journey on which you get serious about re-examining some of the things you have believed for many years with supposed certainty, it can be really unnerving. You experience what some call 'cognitive dissonance'. That's a technical way of saying your mind gets messed up! So much so that it actually begins to affect your emotions and even your spirit. It's painful. And the temptation to retreat to the safety of familiar and comfortable certainty is strong. Honesty and the desire for sincere, authentic faith keeps me going. And something else.

As I have explored what I actually believe - e.g. about how we understand Scripture, the nature of faith and understanding, of revelation and authority, the role of the Spirit, community and culture in apprehending truth, and many doctrines that I have taught and been taught over the years - I have had to face uncertainty and change (no bad thing, but challenging). But one thing has become clearer, more certain and even more captivating than ever. And that is simply my faith in the person of Jesus. He has become to me even more beautiful and astounding in his stunning revelation of what God is really like. And the outrageous, sacrificial selfless love that he demonstrates on the Cross, and the scandalous grace he express in his gospel enthrall me more than ever. When you have that as the centre that holds, it liberates you to explore, to question, to doubt, to change - without things falling apart. He is enough.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Book Review: Benefit of the Doubt

A little later than intended, I am reviewing the book I mentioned in my last post. It is a book that has really helped me to begin to articulate some of my own thoughts and feelings about the nature of faith; an understanding of it that enables us to go on a faith journey that can involve exploring, questioning and changing our beliefs. The book is Benefit of the Doubt by Greg Boyd, a writer, pastor and theologian who has been a significant influence for me over recent years (see here about how an earlier book of his affected me). He blogs at ReKnew.

In this latest book he goes after a view of faith that he calls certainty-seeking faith - an attempt to psychologically convince ourselves that we are certain of our beliefs because we think that this is what God wants, this is the faith that pleases him. In an excellent chapter (10) he confronts the verses in the Bible that could be taken to mean this and demonstrates a better way of understanding them. But he also shows how this view of faith is just unbiblical in a far more fundamental way. He argues that faith should not be seen in psychological terms but in covenantal terms. It is not about our beliefs primarily but about trust in a person - God revealed in Christ; and our commitment to that person based on that trust. Although this involves belief, it is far more than that. Faith is like the  'I do' of a marriage vow and the on-going living out of that vow.

This does not require that we be certain about all our beliefs but that we are 'confident enough' in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the things that I love about Boyd's approach, as with many of his writings, is the Christ-centredness of it all. From this place of trust and confidence in Christ, and his unconditional love, it is then OK to wrestle with God about the doubts and questions we have from inside that relationship. And without that relationship being threatened. This honest and trusting, 'wrestling faith' is actually what pleases God (as Boyd shows really well from Jacob and Job, though less convincingly from Jesus at Gethsemane and Calvary). From the central point of trust in 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' (because it is the Cross which presents the most stunning revelation of what God is really like), we are then free to explore our beliefs in relationship with Him. He shows this Christ-centred approach brilliantly in relation to questions we may have about the Bible and our interpretation of it (Chapter 9). And in keeping with the subtitle, he argues that seeking certainty from the Bible and our beliefs can involve us in making idols of them instead of finding our source of life in Christ - which is exactly the mistake the Pharisees made (John 5:39-40).

There are gaps and weaknesses - I'd have liked him to explore and evaluate the idea of 'revelation knowledge' (easily abused!) and of the idea of 'full assurance' or 'conviction' that the Holy Spirit may give (see 1 Thess.1:5) and how that combines with a questioning faith. But on the whole this is a really welcome and thorough explanation of a way of thinking about faith. An explanation that enables us to journey in terms of the formation of our beliefs. With a refreshing honesty and authenticity as he shares vulnerably from his own faith journey, he is strongly critical of the certainty-seeking, conservative form of Christianity of his early experience:
'Faith isn't viewed as a journey in which one explores and possibly changes beliefs along the way in this inflexible understanding of Christianity. It's a fixed package about which one must strive to be certain.'
Thankfully, his well articulated understanding of faith - that I gladly share - encourage us to journey, to explore and to change.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Idol of Certainty

There are a number of reasons why people don't like the idea of changing their beliefs but one of them is that many of us have had an approach to faith that wrongly emphasised the 'virtue' of certainty. This is the main theme of an excellent new book by Greg Boyd that I hope to review over the weekend - Benefit of the Doubt - which he subtitles 'Breaking the Idol of Certainty'. As the book shows, this certainty-seeking approach to faith has all kinds of negative effects, but one of them relates to what I was speaking of in my last post - the idea that a leader should never change his/her beliefs.  If we place such high value on being absolutely certain of what we believe, on the idea that 'a person's faith is as strong as that person is certain' (Boyd) and tend to use the language of 'revelation' and conviction too easily, then the expression of any degree of doubt or consideration of changing our understanding is seriously frowned on. In a leader it becomes almost unforgivable, a sure sign of 'creeping liberalism' if not likely apostasy!

Boyd is quite right - the problem is that we have made an idol of certainty, of the 'rightness' of our beliefs. The questioning of them by ourselves or others then inevitably shakes our foundations. But Christ is our one foundation, our source of life (the one from whom we get our identity, security and sense of significance). If he is at the centre and foundation of our lives, it frees us up to have doubts, questions and uncertainties, as well has to enter conversations with those who disagree and differ from us, and to explore diverse and alternative views, without it shaking us. As one who in the past has liked to be very clear and settled on what I believed, this truth challenges me to the core - a good thing! I have to face the question as to whether Christ truly is my foundation and centre, or have I made an idol of my beliefs. After I have reviewed Boyd book in my next post, I'd like to explore more what it means to have Christ as the centre of our faith and understanding, and how that affects our theological journey.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Importance of Changing Beliefs

Some time ago I heard it suggested that leaders who changed their beliefs were unreliable leaders; that to change your mind about something that you once strongly believed somehow cast doubt on your credibility as a leader. If all that was meant by this is that leaders cannot be those who are 'blown about by every wind of doctrine' (Eph.4:14) or who are vacillating when it comes to the fundamentals of the truths of the gospel (and it's important to reflect on what they are!) then I agree. But if it means that a leader (or any Christian for that matter) should never change the beliefs that they formed in the faith community they grew up in, or that they encountered in their late-teens to early-20s (a really important time for belief formation) or when they first became a Christian, then I think almost the complete opposite is true.

I would have more respect for a leader who could trace the development of their beliefs over time as they have changed, shifted, filled out, developed etc. And especially if they had some moments where they had honestly admitted to those they led that they had been mistaken, and courageously apologised for where they'd been too strident and dogmatic in the past about such beliefs, and explained where they had actually changed on some beliefs and why. I'd be even more impressed if they went on to explain how a living faith is like a journey and that it is important to be open to recognising that we might have got some things wrong, and to be honest when we need to change some things we have believed. It seems to me that the only alternative is a dogmatic, un-reflective, head-in-the-sand fundamentalism - a form of religion only too prevalent in our world today, including among some Christians.

I have always tried to be open to reflecting on what I believe but in recent years I have much more consciously gone on a theological journey which has involved abandoning some things I once believed, changing on others, shifting my perspective on others and becoming more willing to be open, uncertain and provisional on others. In the next post I'd like to look at the reasons why this is important to do, what sometimes stops us from doing it, perhaps explain some of the things I've changed on and just generally consider what it looks like to see the process of belief formation not as a static thing but as a continuing journey. I hope you'll be interested enough to keep reading.

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Theological Journey - We All Do Theology!

A few posts back I outlined what I think have been the 4 journeys - or, more accurately, the 4 aspects of the one journey - that I think some of us have been on (I could add a fifth - a Cultural Journey, in that I think many of us are aware of a shift in the culture of our church communities arising out of other aspects of the journey; but I'll come back to that another time). The last few posts about connection have been about the Relational Journey. I now want to start posting some stuff about the Theological Journey.

Let me use this post to say something, first of all, about theology - and I hope you haven't already switched off by the mention of the word. A lot of Christians like to think that they 'don't do theology'; they just love God and follow what he says in the Bible. Mmmmm! Sorry, but I reckon that whenever you think anything about God - his nature, his purpose and his ways - you are doing theology. That includes anything at all that you think and/or say about Jesus, the Bible, church, evangelism, miracles, prayer, meaning and purpose in life etc. It's all theology. It may not be academic theology (and that doesn't matter), but it is theology. You can't escape it, so I suggest it is better to use our God-given minds, and hearts, to try and think through carefully and humbly about what we believe about God, neither being intimidated at the thought of thinking through these things, nor using spirituality as an excuse for mental laziness. 

In the next post (tomorrow all being well) I want to confront an argument that I have heard in support of certainty and consistency in our most important beliefs. In contrast I want to write about The Importance of Changing Beliefs. Hope you can join me for that! Let me leave you with a quote:
"A true and living faith is never a destination; it's a journey. And to move forward on this journey we need the benefit of doubt." (Greg Boyd)

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Connections and Covenant

Oh dear! A week has gone by and I haven't posted! Thank God I am free from guilt. I just wanted to post one more thought on connection before I move on to something else (perhaps...). It concerns a word that many of us have valued over the years but perhaps also been intimidated by: I am talking about covenant.

Sadly some of us picked up an idea years ago that because we were all 'in covenant' together in our churches or networks or ministry partnerships, then disconnection was regarded as 'covenant-breaking' or 'violating-covenant'. In fact, it was a funny old thing because in my experience most of us said that we did not really believe this, and many of the leaders who might be accused of this stance are on record as saying it doesn't apply in most cases. And yet often when people felt that it was right to disconnect, for whatever reason (good or bad), the stakes for relationship had been raised so high by this language that it often felt that the concept of covenant-breaking cast a dark shadow over it and prevented us from handling disagreement better or maintaining relationship after disconnection.

Of course, covenant love is a beautiful thing. When we are brought into the new covenant with and through Christ, we are actually in that covenant with all our brothers and sisters in Christ. And, by the way, we are failing to value that covenant every time we gossip, ridicule, slander, dishonour, devalue, or dismiss any fellow-Christian (oh dear...if we're honest perhaps we are all covenant breakers). Of course, to have the opportunity to express that love in Christ in a strong, committed, transparent, mutually honouring relationship, friendship and partnership within a local church family (I believe God ideally wants us all connected to one of those by the way) and among close friends and fellow-workers, that's fantastic. Love, loyalty, faithfulness and honesty are vitally important in such relationships, and when they are damaged it's a tragic thing. But when the concept of covenant is used a a means of control through guilt, and covenant has become a cold chain locking us into a connection that no longer has life and purpose in it, then we are massively missing the point of covenant.

In fact covenant love enables us to disconnect with love. David and Jonathan are often rightly used as a great example of covenant friendship. I have always loved the words spoken by Jonathan to David when a combination of circumstances and calling meant they had to disconnect:
Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD...(1 Sam 20:42)
Far from being a chain that bound them, their covenant enabled them to separate in peace for they were knit together in heart and that joining transcended space and time. Of course, such covenant love should also affect the way separation is handled and means always maintaining peace, honour, love, regard and a good report towards and about those we disconnect from. Let's learn both how to connect and disconnect (when that's right) with love and honour, like these two covenant friends.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Connections and Calling

This is a really tough one. I think it lies at the heart both of our own personal growth and the functioning of an effective, growing church community. How do you figure out when and/or whether to disconnect in order to follow what you believe is a God-given calling? Which comes first - connection or calling? Should we ever sacrifice our calling in order to hold on to our connections? Or do we sacrifice connections in order to pursue a calling?

This is such a biggy! I have seen examples of people becoming frustrated and unfulfilled in their callings in order to maintain a connection that they should have moved on from. There were others who have missed out on callings because they didn't value connections that were part of God's means of helping them fulfill their calling, but they got impatient with the process. And I have seen the emphasis on 'covenant' connections used as a way of locking people out of their calling. And I've seen communities made dysfunctional by people focusing only on their own calling, and failing to value their connections.

This is such a minefield, and I still have not worked out a way through it in my own understanding (though I submit that it is better to be honest about this than to think you have it all worked out and then brazenly set out across the minefield). But let me suggest a few tentative steps from things I've learned from observation and experience, as someone who has been involved in Christian community for nearly 30 years and as a leader for 20 of those years. Hopefully I won't set off any explosions:

  1. Even when we have a strong sense of personal call (not all do), we must start by recognising that the mission of God involves us in building relationships and communities so we have got to make this connection thing work!
  2. We can also therefore believe that if we stay sensitive to the Spirit, there will be for each of us a place where we have vital connections and flourish in our calling. Ultimately both are necessary and available; we should not have to sacrifice one for the other.
  3. But there is a journey to that place that may involve disconnections along the way; so we must stay sensitive to the Spirit's leading, listen to his voice and learn his ways. 
  4. We must always pursue our calling but put great value on our connections so we do not leave them lightly.
  5. We should recognise that the pain and frustration that sometimes arises from following a calling in the context of connections and community is often part of the process the Spirit uses to form us and shape us. Sometimes the desire to disconnect is carnal. Sometimes it is the stirrings of the Spirit. We have to stay close and open to Him to know which it is.
  6. Let's not use the Holy Spirit as a cover for our own independence.
  7. Let's talk openly and honestly with those we are connected with about our calling and what we think the Spirit is doing in the process. Let people challenge our thinking but don't be intimidated away from the Spirit's call. 
There are more things that could be said about each of these points; and more points that could be made.But that's enough to think about. Feel free to suggest some of your own.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Connections and Continuity

I still can't stop thinking about connections. And I have recently had a number of significant conversations with people about this; so I have a few more posts on this subject to come over the next few days. I have suggested that the re-configuring of relationships and partnerships in the Church right now has meant disconnection for some. Where this has meant being honest when an historical connection has come to an end and recognising that God has new and fresh life-links for us on the next stage of our journey, that's a healthy thing even if it involves pain in the process. Some pain is healthy. Such disconnections have resulted in the formation of new groups, partnerships, ministries, networks etc and this also can be a good thing. But I have one word of warning to set alongside these observations.

On our recent travels, especially in the States, two things stood out for me: the first I blogged about here - my world has been too small. The other is that there are a lot of really good churches and ministries around the world that have built something of substance and significance over the long-haul. And it made me realise that I do not want to be part of something that is continually fragmenting and splintering into smaller and smaller pieces - that is not healthy. I value vital connections but I also value continuity. Discovering vital connections may involve disconnection at some stages of life, but we must really value those connections when we have them and work at maintaining and strengthening them. If the reconfiguring degenerates into constant disconnecting and an under-valuing of enduring relationships, I believe we will have misunderstood the Spirit's intention. Many of us have appreciated the ministries flowing out of Bethel Church in Redding, CA - what is interesting to note is how long some of those guys have walked together in friendship and ministry over the years. There is continuity. And an important lesson they have learned and passed on is to value relationship above agreement. If connection depends on agreement, get ready for a lot more fragmentation.

Some readers may see only contradiction between disconnection and continuity. I think both are important. And I hope by setting the two together I will help readers who are experiencing the present re-configuration to still really value continuity as well as vital connections.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Dealing with Disconnection

I have said that I think God is doing something in terms of realigning parts of his Body in the UK for his purposes in our generation. I don't pretend to understand all that's happening, but people are finding each other again, some are discovering new significant relationships for the future, and yet others are also finding a deepening and strengthening of old connections with a surge of fresh life and commitment in them. It's all good!

But for some of us, it has also involved disconnection and that has been difficult at times. By disconnection I mean the leaving of a denomination or network, the ending of a working partnership with certain people, churches, ministries etc.who have been significant in your journey so far. It is vital to understand that such disconnection does not necessarily indicate that anything is wrong or bad about the people we are disconnecting from; it is simply responding to what we perceive is the Spirit's rearranging of things (though you probably won't fully realise what is happening at the time). Disconnection should never be about criticising past relationships.

New connections mean the Spirit-led forming of new relationships - not necessarily the joining of a new denomination or network (maybe this new thing God is doing will challenge such an idea of 'joining' a 'something' and be focused far more on relationship, friendship and mutual honouring) - but with a sense that this is for purpose even though you may not fully know what, or how it's going to unfold.

The kind of disconnection I am talking about will usually mean an end to a close working partnership, but it need not lead to an end in relationship. I think we are in a new season where people can disconnect but still honour one another, maintain relationship, seek advice and input from one another as appropriate etc. - to a much greater degree than I have ever seen in the past anyway. There are dangers involved in this so for what it's worth, let me give some advice from my own observations:
  1. Don't use dis-connection as an excuse for avoiding the challenges of relationship and community life. 
  2. Recognize that disagreement is compatible with relationship (and perhaps evidence of its health) so does not always (or usually) necessitate disconnection.
  3. If it is clear that it is right to disconnect,do so with grace and peace, and always honour those you leave. 
  4. Try to maintain relationship with those you disconnect from, even when not in active partnership in ministry and church building. . 
Hope that's helpful to some of you out there.  

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

New Connections and Re-connections

One of the joys of the journey in recent years has been the new connections and re-connections I have
made. The re-connections were with people who I had journeyed with years ago but who I had become disconnected from. Sometimes that was just down to the way our lives and callings developed, in terms of geography apart from anything else. But in many cases it was also because there was a culture, for whatever reason, in which disagreement and divergence seemed to require disconnection. Or that an end to a working partnership in ministry meant an end to relationship. And sometimes because my friend's 'enemy' was my 'enemy' (why enemies?!). Many of you know what I mean. I remember listening to a good friend and a mature, seasoned servant of God being asked a couple of years back what his greatest regret was over his 40 year involvement in the restoration movement. His answer was about the number of good friends and relationships he had lost; he said that he wished he'd realised earlier that 'not everyone who left me was my enemy!' Friends, this should never have been.

So I have really enjoyed re-connecting with old friends. In one case, it involved asking forgiveness of a friend who I had criticised for the pathway his journey had taken him, because I realised I had never taken the time to understand the pathway he was on; I just criticised it from a distance.

I have also really valued discovering new connections with other leaders, co-workers and many members of the Body who have become/are becoming new friends. It has been so good to realise how big and diverse the Body of Christ is. All of this, I am sure is just a small part of what God is doing as he rearranges things in his Body at the same time as showing just how wonderfully expansive is this kingdom we are part of.

In my next post,I want to say a little about the challenge of disconnection and the importance of maintaining connection, and of knowing when connections need to be loosened and when they need to be strengthened.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Connections on the Journey.

A couple of posts back I suggested that part of the nature of pilgrimage is that it is unsettling. It requires we break out of the familiar and the safe and this is so our security rests only in the divine Presence. Still true! But it's worth saying that it also helps to make it less scary when you have other people who are on the journey with you. We are meant to be a community of pilgrims, not a bunch of isolated wanderers; church is a family on a journey, and we are not meant to travel alone.

Having said that, new journeys - or perhaps better to say, new stages of the journey - may involve disconnecting with some people (Abraham had to leave his people and his father's house - Gen.12:1), as well as continuing with others and discovering new connections and re-connections with still others. This is part of the 'relational journey' that I mentioned in my last post. Just over two years ago, quite out of the blue, I felt that the Holy Spirit dropped into my heart and mind (with a clarity and simplicity that is not typical of the way I hear God!) that this was going to be a season of new connections and re-connections for me. Little did I realise what this was going to mean! I am now convinced from my own observations and from talking with other leaders in the country that the Body of Christ in the UK is going through a major reconfiguration and realignment, with some connections loosening and others being discovered and others deepened.

While relationship, community and shared pilgrimage is great, the processes of dis-connection, re-connection and discovering new connections, the loosening of some and the deepening of other connections can be confusing, bewildering and painful. Disconnection can be especially painful and destructive if handled badly and so I want to share some thoughts on this whole subject in posts this week, and hope you'll find them helpful. Please feel free to join in the conversation of pilgrims too as I can only offer my perspective and that is inevitably limited. That's one of the reasons we need each other.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Different Kinds of Journey.

All this talk of journey - but what exactly is the journey I, and maybe we (I don't want to assume for you, dear reader) are on. In fact, I think I'm on a number of journeys at once, or probably different aspects of the one journey: the journey home (see here), to the place that our hearts know we really belong, to the place of his continual Presence. But right now the practical outworking of that for me has been four-fold, I think (constant travel messes my mind so can't count properly) and will indicate some of the kind of things I hope to blog on. Here goes:
  1. A Relational Journey: the journey has meant disconnecting from people I have walked with many years, leaving a spiritual house and then both re-connecting and connecting with new people in the Body. This is painful and unsettling and opens you up to misunderstanding by some. It does not mean being critical or ungrateful towards past connections, though some may see it that way. But I do believe God is doing some serious re-configuring in his Body right now, and for good and significant purpose. I'll probably blog more on this soon. 
  2. A Devotional Journey: growing in my experience of and understanding of God, seeking to go deeper in encounter and relationship with Father, Son and Spirit; valuing and living by Presence and intimacy, no matter the cost and wherever it leads. It involves being open to fresh experiences and expressions of the spiritual life, but keeping it authentic, not getting swept up in pretence or peer-pressured into super-spirituality. Most of all, it means experiencing more of his transforming and revolutionary love that changes everything!
  3. A Theological Journey: theology is not for the egg-heads. Whenever we talk or think about God we are doing theology. And going on a journey in relationship with God must involve a journey in what we think about him as well as what we experience of him - and each affects the other. So I am very much on a theological journey and this has involved shifts and changes in what I believe. That's a problem for some, and so can open you up to serious misunderstanding. I will blog about this quite a lot in the coming months. 
  4. A Restorative Journey: this has been the most challenging and surprising. Challenging, because it has meant having to face up to some of my internal mess, and brokenness in ways I have not been able to before. Surprising, because I was always a little suspicious of what we saw as 'inner healing'. There is much that I still do not understand and I am still a little wary at times. But I am open to allowing God's trinitarian, incarnational love to heal me. If you've read The Shack, you'll have an idea of what I mean by that. I will blog only a little on this to explain - but I'm not yet up for online soul-exposure! Make no mistake, though: the healing journey is vitally important.  
This has been longer than I had intended. I'll work at making posts shorter but more frequent in future, and hope they help and encourage readers on this beautiful adventure we are all on. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Keeping the Dream Alive When Stuff Just Happens

It's been awhile. Too long! I am still settling into patterns and rhythms of my 'new job.' But still thinking of journey. And I have been reading and thinking about the journeys of some of the patriarchs and especially Abraham's. Keeping it really simple, I just noted that his journey began with a call from God but then took so many twists and turns, including setbacks and wanderings, but that it was punctuated by occasional and sometimes startling encounters with and revelations from God that kept the dream and the call alive.

Between the encounters, stuff happened! Some of the stuff wasn't good, and some of the bad stuff was his own fault. So his journey was full of stuff like almost getting his wife taken advantage of through his own cowardice, running off in the wrong direction instead of trusting God, producing an Ishmael by faltering in his faith. And then there was stuff that just happened, circumstances and other people - an ungrateful and foolish nephew, a war, a famine, arguing over a well, his wife's death. And sometimes he managed moments of outstanding faith and courage - think of his first response to the call, his selfless love of Lot, his intercession for Sodom, his outstanding trust when asked to sacrifice his own son - and beneath it all, including the mistakes and the mess, there was an underlying trust in the one who called him. Between times, God just turned up and awakened the dream - sometimes in strange ways he would reaffirm Abraham's call and vision: a deep sleep and a bloody sacrifice, circumcision (oh, please!), sacrifice your son.... And sometimes in beautiful ways - look at the stars, think of the sand, over a meal with strangers, with words that lifted him up to see beyond the stuff.

I wonder if, like me, you can relate to this. From the moment of the call, a lot of stuff happens, including our many mistakes, and occasional better moments. It is not just one smooth road ascending to greater spiritual heights, in continual awareness of his presence. But we keep going in the middle of the stuff, basically trusting God even when our faith does not seem so big. And then there are the precious moments when we get surprised by hope, amazed by grace, overwhelmed by love, touched by presence; and the dream and the call is found to be still flickering with life. It really is all about His grace and goodness!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Between the past and the promise

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father' family, and go to the land that I will show you.
(Gen 12:1)

A journey begins with a departure. We leave something. And often what we leave may be familiar, comfortable, safe. We may be fond of it and secure in it. The journey many of us have been on (and are still on), has meant leaving what was familiar and safe. And frankly you do not know how everything is going to work out. It’s a risk. Another word for it - adventure. We could have stayed right where we were and minimised the risk. But our place of security would have become our cemetery - as it did for Abram's father, Terah (Gen.11:31-32). The journey may be scary and challenging, we face uncertainty and challenge, detours and disappointments, - but at least we're alive! And learning and changing.  And moving forward. Because as well as a departure, Abram had a destination. He had a divine promise - the land. The challenge of pilgrimage is that it's the journey that lies between leaving the past and entering the promise. But he had something else - in the promise of land was the implicit promise of the divine presence, because it was land that He would show him. God was coming along as his guide! So the gap between departure and promise can actually be filled with Presence. Between leaving the familiar past and entering the future promise, there is only Presence. Pilgrimage, then, is all about where we place our security - in the familiar place or in the  divine presence. And where you place your security is a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why Journey?

In my last post I addressed the issue of how the Bible presents the journey motif; but I feel I also need to say something about why it is so central. It's because we're not home yet.

We were created to live continually at home in the presence of God. His purpose has always been to have a home among us - the people he created to enjoy a loving, intimate relationship with him. We became estranged from God on the inside when we went our own way and lost our life connection with him; and the beautiful world he created to inhabit became a broken world. One day God is going to have his dream home among us in a new heaven and a new earth, a new home (Rev.21:3; 2 Pet.3:13). As Christians we get to anticipate something of this when we enjoy God's presence and live in increasing intimacy with him now. But this broken world we live in is not our home. We can live in it either as restless wanderers like Cain, or as responsive pilgrims, like Abraham - who follow the call to pursue the presence of God, ultimately knowing that we can never build our home in this present age/broken world, because we are looking to the home/city/renewed world where God dwells among people.
And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God. (Heb.11:9-10)
Like Abraham, then, we can only live 'in tents' in this world because we are aliens and strangers here; we belong somewhere else, in the place of intimate connection with God. So we set our hearts on pilgrimage, to be pursuers of his presence.

But I suggest there is another journey going on. God is not just waiting at home for us to arrive; He is always pursuing us - even into our brokenness, pain and mess - in order to draw us back into the intimacy of his presence, to take us home to be with him.

Tomorrow, I'll get on with what the journey is actually like -and how it strikes at the vital issue of where our security lies.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Journey in the Bible

There are a few dominant motifs in the Bible [A motif is a recurring element in a story, an image, or narrative pattern or event that has some evocative significance]. There is one of the Garden, or Land of presence and plenty; there is that of Building - related usually to the Temple, God's Dwelling Place; or those related to the Battle, to warfare, to overcoming enemies; and then that of the Lover, of Marriage, of the Bride and Groom. There are others but these are major ones (any other suggestions?) and the motif of the Journey or Pilgrimage is up there with the big ones, and one that I especially connect with. A really rewarding way to read/study the Bible is to trace some of these motifs through the various parts of the Bible, the different stages of its unfolding Story, and discover the rich, significant and surprising insights that help to convey God's ultimate purpose. I want to just draw attention to the motif of the Journey by way of background to the journey I/we are on at the moment that I intend to reflect on in the next few posts [I am discovering the importance of placing our own journeys/stories against the backdrop of the bigger Story of Scripture, to rightly understand them - I must post more on that some time soon].

Scripture itself is best seen as a Big Story told through many stories, and a story always involves a journey - in the case of the Bible's story, it is the journey from creation to new creation. Then, the story of God's rescue and restoration plan after humanity's rebellion begins with a man - Abraham - on a life-changing and history-changing journey, and others of the patriarchs have significant journeys. Two major journeys loom large in the OT - the Exodus and the Return from Exile - and in fact they are re-imagined and reworked by NT writers to convey something about the spiritual life and our present journey as the church. Many other stories in the OT involve journeys for key characters - think of David, or of Ruth, for example. And consider how the psalmists compared the spiritual life to following the right path or way. In the NT, Jesus seemed to be always travelling, most significantly to Jerusalem; and how many of his parables involved journeys or travel? Jesus is of course the Way, as well as truth and life (John 14:6). Then there are the missionary journeys in the book of Acts, which form the backdrop for the letters. And those early Christians, like us, were aliens and strangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11), having no 'abiding city' (Heb.13:14), and so committed to a life of pilgrimage in this world. One of  my favourite journeys in the NT is the one where the risen Jesus drew alongside the despondent disciples on the Emmaus Road, and restores their hope (Luke 24). And of course Jesus is able to do that because of the journey he has made from the Father's side to the Cross and through death to Resurrection, to new creation life, blazing a trail for us to follow, and then preparing to make another journey at his Return when he comes to make all things new. Wow! So Journey lies at the heart of our faith - that is why it was originally called the Way (Acts 9:2). This has significance for us now - let's consider it over the next few days. Most posts won't be as long as this one!

Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Journey

If we are going to break out of our small worlds, we have to be prepared to travel. We need to be willing to go on a journey. It was actually my recent travels that really made me realise how small my world has been in many ways. Since then I have reflected on how the language and concept of journey has been really dominant over the last 2 years - both personally and for the church community I belong to. We have been on a very significant journey that has involved change, challenge, excitement, adventure, surprise, being unsettled, learning new things and new ways etc. - and the journey continues, with even more twists and turns, and unexpected directions. Right now, my own personal journey has meant significant change.

Of course, there is a very real sense that we are all continually on a journey. At risk of cliche, 'life is a journey' and perhaps all that I am describing is simply this journey of life. Maybe. And then of course, as Christians, absolutely central to our faith is the idea of pilgrimage. We are those who have set our hearts on pilgrimage (Ps.84:5), on a journey to Zion, to the heavenly dwelling, to the promised land, to the fulfillment of the divine dream, to the city with foundations (Heb.11:10). And so travel, journey, pilgrimage etc. should be our common lot and daily experience. This is true. But I also believe that there are seasons in the spiritual life when we are made aware of this pilgrim call more than at other times (just as there are seasons when the language of establishing foundations, or sending down roots, are the appropriate and primary metaphors). And it is also sadly true that we - both individually and corporately - can allow ourselves to become settlers rather than pilgrims, to stall on our journeys. God then graciously stirs things up, and us up, so that we are unsettled, and have the opportunity (if we respond) to set out on the journey again. Many of us feel that this is exactly what has been happening.

So over the next week or so, I intend to reflect on this idea of the journey, its various aspects, and its meaning for me - and maybe for some of my readers - now. In the next post I will look briefly at how and why the Bible presents and explores this idea of the journey. Hope it will help.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Enlarging our world through reading

One way to enlarge your world is through reading. And reading writers outside of your tribe, often very different thinkers - people you may disagree with on some things and even many things, but who you can nevertheless learn something from. I have read many books from my tribe of Pentecostal-charismatics over the years - and many different families within that tribe - but in recent years I have also read material from conservative evangelicals, emergent church leaders, faith teachers, classic and progressive Pentecostals, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran theologians etc. I have enjoyed this wide reading and benefited greatly. I don't agree with them all - in fact, some I passionately disagree with on some things - but that's OK, because only reading people you agree with in order to reinforce what you already believe is exactly what perpetuates tribalism.

Of course I recognize that not everybody has the inclination or the time to do lots of book reading, but there are other ways of engaging with thinkers from other tribes - blogs, websites, youtube, audio downloads etc. I also recognise that in our busy lives we must prioritise our time toward what God has called us to, and to existing God-given connections. There is a danger of losing focus, and achieving breadth at the expense of depth. But enlarging our world can actually contribute to the depth if it causes us to think through what we believe more carefully; and you can be led to new God-given connections as you enlarge your world.

So here's a list of people I've read, engaged with and learned from in the last couple of years. Please note that I am not claiming to have read whole books by all these writers; some I have only dipped into (all are Christians of different tribes, and there is one Jewish rabbi). In a world of blogs, online articles, Google previews and Kindle samples etc. - it is so much easier to at least get a taster of what others are thinking.Why not google one of these names that you have not heard of, or heard of only vaguely, and see if they enlarge your world. And if anyone wants to recommend to me some writers who have challenged and enlarged their thinking (as opposed to just reinforcing what you already believe), please do so - especially female writers who I think are under-represented in the Christian world, but that might be just because my world is still too small. I'd also love to hear your thoughts on any writer from the list you do engage with:

Bill Johnson, Danny Silk, Kris Vallotton, Greg Boyd, Dallas Willard, Peter Scazzero, Roger Olson, Ann Voskamp, Brennan Manning, Frank Viola, Jurgen Moltmann, Hans Kung, N.T Wright, C S Lewis, George MacDonald, Scott Mcknight, Tim Keller, T Austin Sparks, Brian McClaren, Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Christina Cleveland, Don Miller, Steve Uppal, Paul Scanlon, Stephen Matthew, Richard Foster, Steve Backlund, Andrew Wommack, Miroslav Volf, Amos Yong, David Bentley Hart, Richard Rohr, Jonathan Sacks, Graham Cooke,Paul Tripp, Gordon MacDonald, Ben Witherington, William Paul Young, C. Baxter Kruger, Henri Nouwen, Andrew Wilson. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Things Are Changing For Me

Because I feel that God wants to do a restoring work in areas of my heart and life – and after much prayer, reflection and discussion with my wife and close friends - I have come to the conclusion that the Lord requires me to lay down my leadership of Community Church Huddersfield, and to step down from eldership there. I have realised that it would be too difficult to continue with the pressures of leadership while co-operating with God in the work he is doing in and with me at this present time.

I will continue as a member of the church family and will continue to use my teaching and other gifts as part of the body, but I will not be in governmental leadership. I will be working alongside the leadership of the family of churches that we are in relationship with, in the area of theological research and developing written teaching resources. I will also continue to blog, and hope readers will find helpful what I have to write here.

As I am sadly aware how the Christian rumour-mill can distort things, I thought I would write something down clearly here on my blog. I want to be absolutely clear that although it involved making myself accountable to others, and has not been an easy decision, it is a conclusion I have come to myself, and believe it is God’s will for me at this time. I have not been sacked! I have not jumped before being pushed! I am choosing to do this, as I believe it is the Lord’s will. And I am so grateful to God for a wonderful wife, amazing friends, and an outstanding church family who have offered me nothing but love and support. I am so thankful for the culture of unconditional love and openness that God continues to cultivate among us. I hope to return to leadership at some point but right now I am trusting God with my future while seeking simply to respond to his leading in the present. I’d appreciate your prayers.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A little more on tribal thinking.

For those who'd like to think a little more on the subject of the tribal mentality, there is a fascinating article here by Caroline Myss. I do not agree with all she says, especially the over-emphasis on individualism, I have no idea what 'tribe' or worldview/belief system she identifies with, and I am not a fan of the conspiracy theorist website that it is posted on. But part of avoiding tribal thinking is being willing to learn form those with whom you disagree, and who are not like you.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Tribal thinking

The small world mentality I mentioned in my last post is similar to what has been described as tribal thinking. This is when we think that the group or the tribe we belong to is the best, or the truest, the most important, or the only one that really counts. We get sucked into group-think, rather than being able to really evaluate things for ourselves; it becomes almost impossible to challenge our tribe's assumptions, values and belief systems and we are affected in our prejudices towards other tribes and ways of thinking by the assumptions of the tribe we belong to or identify with. As a result we can react badly to thinking and perspectives that are different to our tribe, and allowing our beliefs to be challenged and changed becomes really difficult. End result: living in a small world!

It is significant that the nation of Israel was made up of twelve tribes, that were different in character, culture, aspiration and prophetic mandate, but made up one nation. And that the apostle John hears the heavenly song about those redeemed from every tribe, language, people and  nation (Rev.5:9). God's kingdom is multicultural - and makes room for many tribes!

All people at least come under the influence of one tribe (ethnic, cultural, political etc.) even in the individualist West. And I believe all Christians are part of a spiritual tribe, and that there are many families or households within those tribes. Being part of a tribe and spiritual family  is fine (and inevitable). It is the danger of tribal thinking and tribalism that we should avoid. It is also OK to have affection and loyalty to your family and tribe, but not to the point that the beliefs of the tribe cannot be subject to critical reflection, or that other perspectives are dismissed, and even derided; and we become unwilling to learn from others. Two things to help keep us free of tribal thinking - 1) be willing to continually learn, even from those we are very different from and disagree with on many things, and 2) be willing to change and grow in your understanding, beliefs, perspectives and practices.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Living in a small world

Finally getting back to blogging. The twists and turns of my sabbatical have been surprising and challenging. But some clarity for the way forward is beginning to emerge (more on that in future posts). During the summer, I have traveled a lot (unusually for me) - to different parts of the Philippines, and to Illinois and California in the US, and to Ireland for our family holiday. During my travels, I was struck by the fact that really the world I have been living in for many years has been far too small. But I am not talking in terms of geography. It is possible to travel the globe often and still live in a small world. I am thinking in terms of the Christian world, the body of Christ across the globe, the diverse and varied expressions of Kingdom communities in different parts of our world. And not only because of recent travels, but through reading and discussion with others over the last couple of years, I have realized that for many years I was stuck in a small - though really good - segment of the Christian 'world'. And I guess I ending up thinking that, even if it wasn't all that there was, it was enough; and that it was central to all that was happening in the Kingdom. But frankly, that's like someone living in a small vicinity of Huddersfield and thinking it's the epicentre of world affairs!

Alison and I have recently visited a small church in Manila, linked to NFI in the Pacific Rim; and a fantastic work among orphans and abandoned children in the rural parts of Puerto Princesa; we have visited Wheaton College, one of the bastions of mainstream evangelicalism in the US - it was attended by Billy Graham and there is a Centre in honour of this remarkable man who, as well as preaching the gospel to millions and advising and praying with Presidents and world leaders, helped to break down the divisions between Christians of different tribes; we visited the impressive campus of Willow Creek Church, one of the largest churches in the US and were blessed by their friendliness and sense of community and concern for the poor; and of course we have visited the amazing Bethel Church in Redding, California. We absolutely loved our time in Bethel, but just a little word of warning: while it is important to know the people and ministries that God brings into our lives to help us at a particular point in our journey (individual and corporate) and for us to learn as much as we can from them, let's not exchange one small world for another. Let's be open to learn from a wide range in the Body of Christ, and not just one part of it. Do you know I met great Christians in the US who had never heard of Bill Johnson!!?

I also want to add that I think it is important to know and honour your roots and heritage, while still being open to learning from across the whole Body. I am thankful for the neighbourhood I grew up in - but there is a big world out there!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A Pause in Blogging

Okay, so I've not been blogging. Here's why. In a few days, I go off for a five month sabbatical - a rest from my role as senior leader at Community Church Huddersfield. I have been in that role for the last fifteen years. I recognise that I need rest and refreshing, and that God needs to do some restorative work in me. I had realised that this would mean a break from blogging for some of that time at least - this season needs to be far more about what God wants to say to me rather than what I want to say to others! So what happened is that once I knew that I was going off on this sabbatical, I kind of lost the impetus to blog; my mind has been far more on the spiritual and practical preparations for this crucial step. So now I just need to accept that the blogging has already stopped. And I won't be blogging for at least the next two months. But I hope that my readers will come back and take a look in early June - I may well be back to the blog by then, with hopefully some richer stuff as a result of what God will be doing in me. In the meantime, I'd appreciate your prayers for myself and for the church. This is going to be a really significant time for us.

Also, I'd recommend in the meantime that you follow Mark Lawrence writing about servant leadership (a vitally important issue for the church right now) - the first couple of posts indicate it's going to be an excellent series. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Cross and Kingdom - Glory In Weakness

It's been far too long since I last blogged. Life has been happening! While attending to life, still in the background of my thinking has been the cross and the kingdom. In my preaching, I have been looking at God 's glory in us - specifically about how we get the glory that is on the inside of us on to the outside. I don't just want to tell people that Christ is in me; I want them to see him in me.

With thoughts on cross and kingdom still in the background, I think when I was preaching last Sunday I stumbled into something that lies at the heart of this issue of getting the glory out! The message is here if you are interested. But the key to it is from 2 Corinthians 4, and especially v.7 - 'we have this treasure (of God's glory within) in fragile jars of clay.' Many times we feel like jars of clay - and chipped and cracked ones at that; maybe even broken in pieces. But the sense of weakness and inadequacy that we think disqualifies us may actually be the very thing that qualifies us - for grace! God is in the business of taking burnt and discarded stones and building a temple fit for his glory with them. He chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He uses jars of clay to be carriers of his glory! And actually, somehow 'his power is made perfect in our weakness' (2 Cor.12:9), at least in part because it shows that the power is not from ourselves but from him (2 Cor.4:7)

As you read on in 2 Cor.4, you realise that Paul is talking about the cross and resurrection principle that is at work in his life, and that is a key to getting the glory out for all of us (I may blog more on this). And so again we see why we must keep the cross as the centre of our vision of the Kingdom. A man betrayed, beaten, mocked and crucified seems a pitiful expression of such weakness - and yet it was the means of God demonstrating his power, winning the ultimate victory and setting in motion the restoration of everything in heaven and earth. But there is not just glory beyond the 'shame' of the cross; there is actually glory in 'weakness' of the cross, because there we see the extent of the love of God put on display and there is nothing more powerful than his love. 

Friday, 22 February 2013

Kingdom, Cross and the Power of Weakness

The Kingdom theology that I grew up with, and the culture it helped to produce, put a great emphasis on faith and power, on 'taking authority' and 'reigning in life', on overcoming, being more than conquerors, on the life of victory and the triumphal advance of the kingdom. I have benefited from this 'faith message' and it was certainly a great antidote to some of the spineless and anemic forms of Christianity that I had come into contact with before then. But I have come to feel that it also sometimes missed something - and it relates to this point about putting the Cross at the centre of our understanding of the Kingdom.

I consider Isaiah 53 to be one of the most beautiful and powerful portrayals of the incarnation and cross in all of Scripture. It speaks of Jesus as the suffering servant, who grew up before God 'like a tender shoot', who had no 'form of majesty or beauty' to attract us, who was 'despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief', and who ultimately was 'led like a Lamb to the slaughter.' Of course this picture of Christ takes its place among the kaleidoscope of prophetic images of him in Scripture, which can only be held together by the Spirit in us, who causes us to see the different aspects of Christ as we need to in the various stages and seasons of our journeys. But in my experience, the bright and colourful lights of Christ as risen Lord, mighty Warrior and conquering King sometimes blinded us to these darker but still beautiful shades of Jesus as suffering servant and crucified King. And to the message it sends us about how God uses the apparently weak, despised and broken to win his greatest victories and achieve his ultimate purpose. 

In such a Christ I so gratefully find a God who does not break the bruised reed, or snuff out the smoldering wick (Is.42:3), who takes the charred and rejected stones and make a glorious temple out of them (Neh.4:2). This is the God of who David said because David knew: 'a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise' (Ps.51:17). It is because of such a God who demonstrated his greatest power in such weakness, that the weak are able to say I am strong (Joel 3:10; 2 Cor.12:10)! This is the glory of a cross-centred kingdom.