Tuesday, July 24, 2012

'Consuming Religion' A Taste

I've remarked to numerous people about my reading of a book called Consuming Religion by a Catholic Scholar Vincent J. Miller. I've tweeted several times some of the arresting one-liners that regularly raise their heads within this extremely insightful read. I thought it may be helpful to give a brief 'taste' of the book with a quote here within the blog.
The context of the quote is Miller's discussion of the fundamental importance of 'desire' to the Christian faith but how the very form of that desire is reshaped negatively by the commodification of culture which is the process undergirding the flourishing of our consumer society. Miller here is stating how the commitment to life-long discipleship within "location and the lived structure of temporality" (two things vital for discipleship in Miller's thought) are undermined in contemporary consumer society.
He writes:

"Because of the misdirection by advertising of needs and desires towards consumption, our more profound desires [For God/Spiritual Growth] are focused on the moment of decision. We are looking to choose the ideal vision, synthesis, or vocation that will bring everything together for us. Commitment becomes a momentary action of self-disposition, not a long-term process of self-transformation. The practice we are engaging is consumption. Thus, it is hard for us to move on to the transformative practices of the tradition we choose. When we do manage to commit ourselves to the rigours of long-term disciplines, we do so increasingly as isolated individuals who encounter traditions in the abstract, not as part of a particular community. We live our spiritualities dispersed in the micro-monasteries of single-family homes."

Note the sections in bold as they cut to the heart of issues radically affecting the life of the local church, and exacerbating the eternal-immaturity of contemporary Christians like a surgeon's scalpel.



August is what we hope as a leadership at X1 will be 'rest' month.
We are seeking to pull back a number of things in order to know somewhat more of a restful season because, firstly, it is very good for us, and, secondly, it will hopefully enable us to be full of energy to move forward with renewed vigour and focus in the ministry life of X1 as the summer ends.
We as the LJ family are really going to try and make this work for ourselves and I am sincerely hopeful that, even as we still offer ministry and celebration times together as a church this summer, many of the X1ers will find time to enter "sabbath," the rest of God.

I pulled out an old quote from Eugene Peterson's, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and some thoughts upon that to reinforce the idea, and importance, of rest:

"Most of us have a difficult time understanding history with God as the major and definitive presence. We have grown up getting our sense of history from so-called historians, scholars, and journalists for whom God is not germane or present in what they study and write. We are thoroughly trained by our schools, daily papers, and telecasts to read history solely in terms of politics and economics, human interest and environmental conditions, military operations and diplomatic intrigue. If we have a mind for it, we can go ahead and fit God in somewhere or other. But the biblical writers do it the other way around; they fit us into the history in which God is the primary reality."- Eugene Peterson

One of the things most 'reassuring' in the above insight by Peterson is the reminder he gives that God is fully at work in our every-day run of the mill lives. God does not need to work distinct from our reality He loves to be fully alive in us as we do whatever we do for most of the day.
The powerful words I have quoted above are a poignant challenge to not only secular society, but to Christians who are being won over by the views of said secular society.
Here is the call folks: If we are immersed in the information overload offered by those who will not include God (and I assure you He is not awaiting an invitation He is everywhere present) we will lose sight of God for ourselves.

Peterson calls believers to return the notion of sabbath, to rest in awe and wonder at the person of God and His work in creation. We must remove ourselves from 'history' sometimes and look fully and humbly at all that God is and has done. When we do not do this, when we do not stop and wonder, we will lose our connection to God, we will forget Him and be defined by secularity.

His word, silent meditation, and getting away to a place where we are confronted by the naked beauty of God's creation shouting forth the glory of God are all means of seeing God again, feeling Him, loving Him, dreaming Him, knowing Him and above all worshiping Him.
Please let us not be defined by those who for now have removed God from 'history' because at the end of this season of 'history' they too will bow the knee and confess that "Jesus is King" and it is actually His Story after all!


Saturday, July 21, 2012

As we REALLY should be.

Surely the role of a church leader must be to orchestrate, to guide, to lovingly lead a people who as a whole reflect the life and love of Jesus -simple hey? NOT! It is obviously lifelong, perhaps even unattainable in this life, but, that said, it is our goal. It is certainly my goal.
There are obviously a myriad of things that hinder such 'reflection' (this is a pivotal idea/word for the Theological Aesthetics that I believe is becoming the essential Theological stance I am drawn to take - Led there primarily by Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar).
One major hindrance is what I will term 'absorption'. It is really a term to denote the osmotic process of Christian people adapting to and living by the values and ethics of the culture in which they live. There is no malevolent ambition behind this it is simply an adapting or a giving over of the radical ethical values of New Testament Christianity to those which are far easier to live by.
One small section of scripture is perhaps sufficient to expose the ease with which 'absorption' redefines our essence as the people of God and stains or muddies our reflection of Christ.

It is from Ephesians Chapter 5 and is the third & fourth verse:

"...sexual immorality, and all uncleanness, or greediness, must not even be named among you (as is fitting for saints), and obscenity, and foolish talk, or coarse jesting..."

What Paul is here impressing upon us as a model of living would, I absolutely assure you, be laughed down and cast out as a model of life for the majority of believers whom I lead and with whom I interact. Hey let me say it more effectively: it is a model of life I, yes 'Pastor' me, would say is not REALLY one by which we are meant to live today. I've said from our pulpit that I am stunned at some of the DVDs in the collections of X1ers; John Piper, speaking to aspiring Pastors, highlights that he could never ever watch many of the films those listening to him speak would consider entertainment.

I know!

Absorption has certainly drawn me away from the biblical model of life. It is the power of the Spirit, not renewed striving that will draw me - any of us - back to that lifestyle which Paul intimates here.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Do not Focus on the Body

Tomorrow I encounter one of the difficult moments every Pastor dreads: the funeral of a wonderful, godly young man. It could, of course, be infinitely worse - and I do mean infinitely - I could be taking the funeral of a ungodly young man. All the same it is permeated with difficulty.
One particular difficulty that I've encountered in the passing into glory of this precious man has been the unhealthy, and unbiblical focus on the body that remains. I know I am speaking into things laced with immense emotion but it is essential that we understand all things, particularly things like life and death, biblically.
Here are thoughts of the marvellous English Pastor of the 17th Century Richard Baxter that are notably helpful. His intention within the context of this book, Dying Thoughts, is to impress upon us the truth that this body must be left behind to enjoy our eternal inheritance with Christ. His style is incisive and, obviously, of another age, but his words drive home the point of which I feel we should be aware as Christians - of ANY culture.
(Please note that I am fully aware that his view of the body is somewhat overly Platonic but he is certainly exposing a biblical view within such.)

"I must depart from this body itself, and the life which consists in the animating of it. These eyes must here see no more; this hand must move no more; these feet must walk no more; this tongue must speak no more: as much as I have loved and over-loved this body, I must leave it to the grave. There must it lie and dissolve in darkness, as a neglected thing... It is but an instrument laid by when all its work is done, and a servant dismissed when his service is at an end.
... Or at most, it is but as flowers die in the fall, and plants in winter, when the retiring spirits have done their work, and are indisposed to dwell in so cold and unmeet a habitation, as the season makes their former matter then to be. Its retirement is not its annihilation, but its taking up a fitter place.
It is but a separation from a troublesome companion, and putting off a shoe that pinched me. Many a sad and painful hour I have had in this frail and faultering flesh; many a weary night and day : what cares, what fears, what griefs, and what groans, hath this body cost me? Alas! how many hours of my precious time have been spent to maintain it, please it, or repair it? How considerable a part of all my life hath been spent in necessary sleep and rest? ...
Yea, to depart from such a body, is but to be removed from a very foul, uncleanly and sordid habitation. I know that the body of man and brutes is the curious, wonderful work of God, and not to be despised, nor injuriously dishonoured, but admired and well used: but yet it is a wonder to our reason, that so noble a spirit should be so meanly housed: we may call it 'our vile body,' as the apostle doth...


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Non-Minced Words from Spurgeon to Hearers & Preachers

I've literally known people leave X1 - I've certainly had people call me up saying I was condemning them - through feeling what I had preached was an attack on them or their behaviour. I personally find this remarkably arrogant to feel that someone has crafted a whole sermon - the hours of labour and prayer it involves - simply to use it as an opportunity to 'single someone out'. If preachers are doing that then they should stop and they of course will meet an exceedingly righteous judge and one whom will put them straight. It is of course, by the way, precisely the role of preaching to "cut to the heart" but that is maybe a little too biblical to digest.

Anyways, while preparing for this week's message at X1 I came across Charles Haddon Spurgeon's inimitable, majestic way of saying what a preacher needs to say about his sermons (if of course the sermons are any good and in fact are NOT crafted to please the listeners and draw the crowds - some teachers give in to that temptation I assure you)

"Please remember that it is not my objective to extol doctrine that is the most popular or most palatable, nor do I desire to set forth the views of any one individual. My one aim is to give what I judge to be the meaning of the text. I probably deliver doctrinal principles that many of you may not like. Truly, I would not be at all surprised if you did not like it. Even if you become vexed and angry, I will not be at all alarmed, because I have never believed that I was commissioned to teach what would please my readers or that I was expected by sensible and gracious people to shape my views to suit the notions of my audience. I count myself responsive to God and to the text. If I explain the meaning of the text, I believe that I will give the mind of God and will be likely to have His favor, which will be sufficient for me–whoever may contradict me. However, let every candid mind be willing to receive the truth if what I am expressing is clearly in the inspired Word."

- C.H. Spurgeon

God's word is a two-edged sword able to cut to the very depths of human being. A preachers aim is to wield it with boldness, incisiveness, and transforming effectiveness.


Grace Tasters

This Sunday I have the great pleasure of preaching one of the sermons in our series Town Takers. It feels like forever since I preached; it isn't but when you always want to do it every extended period when one doesn't get a chance can feel an age. It is critical for our church and for the ongoing development of the brilliant guys brought here to us at X1 that others get to preach (or learn to preach, or teach - long discussion!).

I am preaching on Grace with this fundamental premise: Grace Tasted is Grace Treasured is Grace Transferred. Sadly there can be a vicious disconnect between those three or between two of the the three at the very least. As part of my exhortation that Grace must be tasted I felt it helpful to expose us to the glorious articulation - the effusive overflow really - of several of my 'Giants of Faith" as they tasted grace. So without further ado, ingest these delights!
(Note Jonathan Edwards has an obligatory feature!)

"But where was my free will during all those years and from what deep and secret retreat was it called forth in a single moment, so I gave my neck to your "easy yoke" and my shoulders to your "light burden," O Christ Jesus, "my Strength and my Redeemer"? How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be without the sweetness of petty things! And it was now a joy to put away what I formerly feared to lose. For you cast them away from me, O true and highest Sweetness. You cast them away, and in their place you entered in yourself -- sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood; brighter than all light, but more veiled than all mystery; more exalted than all honor, though not to them that are exalted in their own eyes. Now was my soul free from the gnawing cares of seeking and getting, of wallowing in the mire and scratching the itch of lust. And I talked like a child to You, O Lord my God -- my light, my riches, and my salvation." - St. Augustine

One day as I was passing into the field, with some dashes on my conscience, fearing yet that all was not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Your righteousness is in heaven.” I thought I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand. There was my righteousness. Wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me that I lacked His righteousness, for that was ever before Him. Moreover, I saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ Himself, “the same yesterday, today, and for ever”.
“Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons, my temptations also fled away.
” - John Bunyan

"I remember that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things that I have lived much in since, was on reading those words, I Tim. 1:17. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever, Amen. As I read the words, there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before ... I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him for ever! ...
From about that time, I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ. and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. ... The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart; an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.
" - Jonathan Edwards

You tasted grace, can you articulate it, does it look like you have?


Monday, July 16, 2012

Wedding Quotes

Many of the members of Christ First (and a veritable plethora of other churches to tell the truth) were involved in a truly special day this past Saturday. Two of the young 'golden nuggets' of our church became one in marriage. It was a truly special day for all, and it was very much a truly special day for me as I had the honour of sharing the wedding homily.
I quoted repeatedly from the spectacular Catholic Theologian that has been 'lifting my gaze' of late, Hans Urs von Balthasar (be prepared to see this name and the output of his voluminous & remarkable writings often here) and thought I would place those quotes in full here for any to take in or to re-take in - they're more than worth the effort!

"What is a person without a life-form, that is to say, without a form which he has chosen for his life, a form into which and through which to pour out his life, so that his life becomes the soul of the form and the form becomes the expression of his soul?"

"What could be stronger than marriage or what shapes any particular life-form more profoundly then does marriage? Marriage is only true to itself if it is a kind of bracket that both transcends and contains all an individual's cravings to 'break out' of its bonds and to assert himself. Marriage is that indissoluble reality which confronts with an iron hand all existence's tendencies to disintegrate, and it compels the faltering person to grow, beyond himself, into real love by modelling his life on the form enjoined. When they make their promises, the spouses are not relying on themselves - the shifting songs of their own freedom - but rather on the form that chooses them because they have chosen it, the form to which they have committed themselves in their act as persons."

"If beauty is conceived of transcendentally, then its definition must be derived from God himself. Furthermore, what we know to be most proper to God -- his self-revelation in history & in the Incarnation --- must now become for us the very apex of & archetype of beauty in the world, whether men see it or not."

Chew, ruminate, be joyfully confronted that you do not understand all he's saying - he is talking about mysterious wonderful things is he not?


Thursday, July 12, 2012

100% and 100% = 100%

We had a brilliant discussion at our X1 Explore group last night (check out more about Explore groups here). We met in the home of two single men (pre-legends I may say) who hosted excellently and one of them leading on the evening asked this, deliberately difficult, question, "In living life for Christ, who's responsibility is it to obey, God's or ours?" The response, the ensuing confusion, dare I say the apparent tension proved it's effect! (Questions can be hard, and can force us to have to REALLY think, it's not a sin!)

For many the conclusion was, "It's 50-50. 50% God and 50% us." Wrong! It's All God all us! It's 100% God and a 100% us. It is a delightful insight first highlighted to me by the ever-remarkable Jonathan Edwards and, fortunately, an insight profiled by John Piper on Twitter on July 4th for his invite to Desiring God's Upcoming Conference, "Act the Miracle" (See link here).

Here is Piper quoting directly from Edwards

"We are not merely passive in [efficacious grace], nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all and we do all. God produces all and we act all. For that is what he produces, our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active.

So God is said to convert [2 Timothy 2:25], and men are said to convert [Luke 11:32], or turn. God makes a new heart [Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26], and we are commanded to make us a new heart [Ezekiel 18:31]. God circumcises the heart [Deuteronomy 30:6], and we are commanded to circumcise [our hearts, (Deuteronomy 10:16)]. Not merely because we must use the means in order to the effect, but the effect itself is our act and our duty.
" (Writings on The Trinity, Grace, and Faith, WJE Online Vol. 21, 251.)

Thus Edwards exhorts us:

"I would earnestly exhort those who hear me, to make to themselves a pure heart (James 4:8). Though it be God's work to purify the heart [Psalm 51:2], yet the actual, or rather the active, procuring of it is your act. . .

We must not think to excuse ourselves by saying that it is God's work, that we cannot purify our own hearts; for though it be God's work in one sense, yet it is equally our work in another; James 4:8, "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double-minded."

If you do not engage in this work yourselves, and purify your own hearts, they will never be pure. If you do not get a pure heart, the blame of it will be laid to your own backwardness.
" (Sermons and Discourses, 1730-33, WJE Online Vol. 17, 85)

Even John Piper on his brief commentary for these words of Edwards for the invite notes that this is what? Yip, paradox!

Do ALL you can to obey God, He'll do His bit I assure you!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Church is People

This afternoon we have a wonderful couple with us. They're both in their 50s, he's fighting an ever growing number of ailments, she's trying to hold down a job while looking after her dude and keeping their heads above water and... they are simply remarkable for our church. In fact I would say they are two of the primary components of our being repeatedly termed "a loving family" - they are much more responsible for that then I am as the lead Elder. This morning I met with a simply wonderful retiree in his 60s. The part he's had to play in grabbing the administrative oversight of our church by the proverbial "horns" is pretty much impossible to overstate. The blessing and encouragement he is to me, my wife and young kids - the fact that he & his wife know my kids birthdays better than me. His resilience, his love of the Lord, his passion for giving, his constant and consistent attendance to the life events of the church encourage all around him of every age. Then there's the guy who's busier than any other human I know and yet gives more time, love, and energy to this church than anyone, who still has time to rush with me late last evening to grab a wardrobe for our new home without even the slightest hesitation. A man who I know for the first 5 weeks we've been at West Herts College has arrived first and left last to make sure it's all done. A man who carries this family and bears the burden of their spiritual care with all he is. Do I go on to mention the lady who has every reason to moan, to milk the system, to demand her needs be met, to scream angrily at God who instead gives almost every waking hour to serving this church administratively and pastorally. Those laden with family concerns who lead explore groups and devote hours to caring for others. And so on... Then of course, conversely there are those you couldn't be certain would come to three consecutive Sundays, who are too busy to give any time outside of the 2 hour session on Sunday that we are 'privileged' to receive from them. Singles and young couples that have just too many things they need to focus on - things of course I wouldn't understand! - to give of themselves to the church and to others... Church is people! Simon


How do you do with the juggling? Maybe that's not what it feels like to you - this 'life-balance' thing! That's precisely what it feels like to me, to us - wifey LJ included. Maybe for you its like some sort of harmonious, synchronized process that flows seamlessly in congruence with your spiritual growth, personal development etc. Not for me/us! Actually, increasingly, I'm coming to see that this juggling - and remember some of the 'items' being juggled are of such inestimable worth and startling fragility - is precisely the 'soil' in which my spiritual growth and personal development take place.

One powerful verse from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthian church which has always had significant meaning to me comes to mind in this context, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (I Co. 10.31) Why that verse? Well I think growing up, and in the preponderance of messages on Christian living that I hear, I thought/hear growing in love for the Lord and developing spiritually were/are things that take place in some sort of vacuum - let me break it to you they don't! For the vast majority of Christ-followers it's not in some remote, tumultuous part of the globe as a brave missionary that we will fight for spiritual growth; it's not leading some dynamic ministry praying for thousands and seeing the dead raised, but in the midst of the juggle, the stuff of daily living that we can most develop Christlikeness, that we MUST develop Christlikeness. We are to be Christlike in real life: holding down a job, loving wife, kids, extended family, keeping healthy, reading the word every day, serving the local church, loving the church family, balancing the books, consistently growing in holiness, driving on the roads, and checking in on what shows our kids are watching. Know what I mean?

Man I want to juggle well, I want to love my Lord, wife, kids, and church family well and still feel like I'm standing and flourishing being light and salt to a dying world. Going to need serious power from above and those old-school biblical traits of perseverance and steadfastness.
How about you? You going to re-commit to it again?


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Be Provocative about our Joy

Last night we shared a simply brilliant evening as an Explore group (our name for small groups in X1). The intimacy and unity we shared as 12 people was sublime. At X1 we push this area of church community almost relentlessly - sadly it flies in the face of both a consumerist and individualistic mindset so the message is ignored in many quarters - because of moments like last night. Sunday mornings and just having dinner with one other or another couple you "like" do not offer what we shared last night.

We're going through the X1:01 content as a group; content we are hoping as a leadership will introduce people to X1's ethos, vision, mission, and philosophy of ministry. Some of it is purposefully provocative and a brief paragraph in last night's topic, "How Can I Live for Jesus?" was precisely that. Here it is:

"It is critical that a new believer who has recently come to faith in Christ understands that this is life as humanity was intended to live. Jesus promised that He came to grant abundant life to his followers. He stated that rivers of living water would flow within them. He also declared that as we live a life of obedience, inspired by the wonderful intimacy with God that is ours as a Christian, He would abide with us and cause us to live a fruitful, joy-filled life."

Why is this paragraph even in X1:01? Well it is there for three reasons really

1) Joy-filled, abundant-life faith is the sole message of Christ regarding his followers.
2) Sadly few believers are portraying this reality. I think this is primarily due to the contemporary Christian misinterpretation of the context of joy. We think it should be my devoid of sorrow, pain & suffering but the biblical picture is that it is joy in the midst of sorrow, pain & suffering.
3) Joy is contagious, freeing and powerfully evangelistic.

So, what does your 'living for Jesus' look like? You may retort that I do not know the pain which you suffer, to which I simply allow the author of Hebrews speak, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross ..." (Hebrews 12:2) Speaks powerfully.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Don't Get this...

In the course of my bible-reading today I read 2 Corinthians 6. It is a passage of scripture that always causes me to ruminate upon a pastoral situation that is repeatedly encountered in any church situation and often with increased regularity in a church with younger people seeking their "life-time partner" so to speak.
It is an emotionally charged time and one, in an increasingly individualised setting, which few people are genuinely and wholeheartedly willing to receive the input of the church family. The pastoral situation I am referring to is the dating/marrying of an unbeliever.

To not want to hear what your peers and spiritual overseers may want to say in relation to the issues of romance and marriage is one thing, but to not heed the overt command of the Scriptures is wholly another. Again and again as I was a single young man hoping and longing for someone with whom I could honour the Lord and pursue the calling I sensed from him I received counsel regarding whom I was pursuing at any one time. But one thing that was an, "Umm duh, you don't need to tell me that" issue was the dating of someone who did not share my love for the Lord.

Seriously, I have always found dating or marrying an unbeliever a most remarkable state of affairs as it is not something "perhaps debatable in scripture." It is overtly opposed by scripture: "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?"
We can't make this one subjective. We can't fluff the lines with this one? I've even heard people say to me that they felt the Lord tell them they were called to marry an unbeliever cause they were going to "bring them to the Lord." Yes that sounds very likely that the Lord would ask you to disobey his revealed will. In fact, I can remember suggesting to my designated pastoral mentor at Bible College that maybe I could do "missionary dating" as my weekly pastoral placement - I said it to expose the absurdity of such an idea.

There are times when we, and we alone, must take the full brunt of a decision we have made - one which of course our remarkably gracious King can redeem if He chooses - but we cannot bring the will of the Lord into such decisions. We are making thousands of choices daily and the predominance of them are those in which we use the "set up" we have received from the Lord without going to Him in all reality.
This is right and actually is how it works. Thousands of choices should merely be made inside parameters inherent within our structure as human beings. For us, as believers, these parameters should be redeemed and be increasingly Christ-like the more we are transformed to His image and so in even everyday decision making we can become more God-honouring. But it is us who make the decisions, not Him.

If God did maybe get the absolute say on who we dated and/or married (not even sure Christians should date, but that's another can of worms) marriages, churches, and perhaps even our whole society would be vastly different. But, alas, we are seemingly most unwilling to listen or TO READ, when it comes to matters of the heart!