Category: Inspiring Discipleship

Truth and the Absence of Relationship

This post by Rob May was originally published at Seventy Two

People love a conspiracy theory. Lockdown has outed a few more.

So, to Covid, the vaccines and Christians.

Most of our church members have been positive about the vaccine celebrating, with those already vaccinated and encouraging those not yet vaccinated to go for it. But there are a few who struggle. Some are uncomfortable with how quickly it has been developed and are worried about its safety. Others struggle because of a similar vaccine developed some years ago linked to aborted foetal tissue. Then there’s a third group. These are people suspicious the vaccine is part of a global conspiracy. End times indicators are everywhere possibly involving Bill Gates, the mark of the Beast, the complete fabrication of Covid 19, one world governments and the involvement of almost the entire global health care system. Neither mainstream medical science nor majority theological opinion accepts this view and cannot seem to sway this small group. I probably should ignore it, but it’s got me thinking. I am increasingly bothered by it.

Over lockdown I received links to two YouTube videos from two different church members. One video was from a group of ‘medical experts’ claiming Covid didn’t exist and the vaccine was not what we thought it was. The second video presented by a ‘theological expert’ put the biblical case for the rise of a one world government, the coming of the anti-Christ and the imminent outbreak of the persecution of Christians.

Now neither church member had any direct personal relationship with either ‘YouTube expert’ yet they trusted their perspective and promoted their argument. And all of this despite the fact they also have access to their own ‘experts’ who they already know personally.

Like many churches, we have a number of ‘medical experts’. These include a consultant at the Royal Marsden, a professor at King’s College, a retired GP and a doctor training in public health. We also have some ‘theological experts’. A vice-principal of a theological college, two other ministers with theological degrees and a couple of church members with graduate level theological education. Now, our ‘medical experts’ in the church would be the first to point out their expertise is limited and they are not specialists in viruses. Our ‘theological experts’ are also aware of the limits of their expertise. But together they are more than capable of guiding anyone in our church through the complex ideas and conflicting arguments. They would also all disagree with the ‘YouTube experts’. The virus is real. The vaccine is necessary and as safe as any other vaccine. We are not entering the Great Tribulation and Bill Gates is not the anti-Christ.

But what bothers me is not which group of ‘experts’ is right or wrong. My concern is an ecclesial one and a distinctively Baptist one.

The church members who sent the videos worship every week with their own ‘experts’. They share communion together, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed together, have watched their children grow in faith together, shared fellowship together over coffee, pray together and have committed to being church members together. To my knowledge none of the ‘experts’ in church have ever sought to do them harm, to lie or to deceive them. I am not aware there has ever been a significant falling out.

So why would you trust the views of someone you have never met rather than the views of someone you not only know, but are supposed to be in covenant fellowship with? Why are real Christian relationships abandoned?

Sadly, and in very simple terms, it’s just easier. It’s threatening to dialogue with someone who knows what they are talking about, who knows more than you know but who you also know disagrees with you. It’s hard listening to someone who is not going to make it easy for you to go on believing what you want to believe.

But what bothers me more is not so much that ‘they’ do it but that I also do it. We all do it. The issues may be less obvious and we may have clever strategies for hiding our differences but it’s still the same issue. We struggle with one another in church but it’s just easier to avoid the difficult conversation. We know we are a community of sinners with very different experiences of life. Conflict in church life is surely inevitable but for most of us we avoid it. The one community on earth who should be extraordinarily good at this kind of thing is far too often not very good at it at all.

In chapter 3 of Dan White’s Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, he explores the disconnect between the transfer spiritual information and the relational health of the local church.

‘Our current unquestioned approaches to transferring spiritual information are brutal on the virtue of practice. Practice is the inner quality of being formed and informed by the bumps, bruises, and baptism of application. Practice is at the soul of being a Jesus-follower but more so it becomes the material for credibility for the people of God.’ (p.35)

A serious disconnect has been created between spiritual knowledge and spiritual formation. Church members spend years together listening to sermons and sitting in Bible studies without the need to actually get to know one another, let alone truly love one another. White calls this the absence of ‘immersion’. ‘Immersion’ is a ‘full-bodied participation and practice in the information we encounter.’ Thankfully, many people do get to know one another and we have seen the depth of love shared between church members during the pandemic. But this has not been universally shared. It means that I can believe an ‘expert’ I have never met without any awareness that at the same time it says something deeply profound about how I understand the nature of my relationship to another ‘expert’; the one whom I worship with and who is my sister or brother in Christ.

The internet has made the world an extraordinary place. The freedom and availability of information is mind-boggling and much of it is to be celebrated. But it is a complex world in which we benefit from ‘experts’ to help us navigate these complexities. In a world increasingly suspicious of ‘experts’, who do I trust? But the ‘experts’ I need most are not those who know more than me but the ones who love more than me. Not the ones who are the first to tell me what is right and what is wrong but the ones who choose to walk with me in a broken world.  Who will help me when I am tempted to avoid differences rather than to embrace the differences, that I might become more Christian and we might become more like the body of Christ.

Maybe it’s culture’s veneration of the autonomous self, society’s suspicion of ‘experts’, the collapse of truly meaningful relationships, the democratisation of knowledge all creeping into church life, hidden in plain sight. Maybe it’s not. But it still bothers me.

 

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom – Rewilding with Jesus

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I like a bit of wildness!  I wonder what image that conjures up in your mind?  Coming into my 60th year, perhaps of an aging rocker doing air guitar while head banging to loud music!  But while rock music is part of my eclectic musical tastes, that’s not what I mean.  I mean wild nature.

As we edge towards the end of another lock down, perhaps like many, you have enjoyed being outside, although with the cold and wet weather of winter that has been more of a challenge than last spring when we had our first lockdown.  Many people have appreciated the natural world more over the past year, whether it be your garden, a local park or walking along local footpaths into the countryside wherever you live.

Different things in creation appeal to different people.  For some its bird spotting.  For others, its wildflowers or trees, or the wild animals that you might catch a glimpse of scampering through the hedgerows and woods, trying to escape your gaze.  For me, it’s wild places and wild landscapes.

I’m on sabbatical at the moment.  I had hoped to take some time walking a long-distance footpath, but lockdown has restricted me to some local walks out into the Hertfordshire countryside.  Very pleasant and refreshing, but you wouldn’t call it wild.  Very tame in fact.  Lots of farms, stables, and grassy field for grazing, although I am a still wary when I cross a field with cows in.  My mind keeps drifting back to my last sabbatical in 2013 when I walked St Oswald’s Way in Northumbria, from Lindisfarne to Heavensfield on Hadrian’s Wall.  There was wild coastline, wild moors and even some wild cows!!

Wilderness and wildness are not always comfortable places.  I remember walking alone through a particularly dark forest in Northumbria on a very damp day looking for a place to stop for lunch.  Having found a sheltered place with a few rocks to sit on, I decided against it.  It felt dark and oppressive and I moved on to a more open, lighter if wetter spot to take a break.  And another time, walking across the flat, featureless moors of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, becoming edgy as the path petered out and deciding to return to the security of the well-defined path around the edge.

Perhaps at the heart on the unfolding climate and environmental crisis is that we are not comfortable with wilderness and wildness.  We like to tame the world, reshaping it to our needs and security.  Wild places are disappearing.  Back in 2013, I visited BMS worker Laura-Lee Lovering who lives in the small town of Nauta in the Peruvian Amazon where BMS has a mission centre.  Looking in the forest one day she commented that local people preferred the ordered cultivated land to the wild jungle.  But that ordering and taming has an impact.  This week, I read on the BBC that half of UK wildlife has decreased over the past 50 years and their habitats have been squeezed by modern life.

This uncomfortableness with wildness is found in the Bible.  Richard Bauckham in “Bible and Ecology” suggests the Bible distinguishes between two different types of land – cultivated and wild places.  Places of security and places that are dangerous and full of threat, unfit for human habitation.  No wonder we want to tame them.  Yet, as we remember during the season of Lent, Jesus spent time in the wilderness;

“he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals.”  (Mk 1v13)

Jesus faced threats in the wilderness.  From Satan and his temptations, perhaps all about finding security and taming the wildness of God’s purpose for Jesus.  Do we face the same temptations today in our drive for security today?  Taming the wilderness so it fits our needs and lives.  Yet, in doing so, we ignore that this is a part of creation that God makes for the wild animals.  Many of the drugs that we use to treat disease such as COVID come from extracts of plants that are found in wild areas like the Amazon.  Cutting down the rainforests may seem to bring security now, but what might we lose that will bring us security later in the face of new threats such as COVID.  There are even suggestions that COVID skipped from wild animals to humans because we increasingly encroach on wild areas.

In the wilderness, Jesus was “with the wild animals”, but I wonder if he was threatened by them?   Or does this express the freedom that God in Jesus wants to bring between the whole community of creation, between human and non-human?  Freedom that Isaiah speaks of as he looks for God’s future where;

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.  (Isa 11v6-9)

What knowledge might we learn from Jesus being “with the wild animals”?  And how can we put it into practice?  That will depend upon where you live, or where your church building is placed.  Many people put out food for the wild birds in the gardens.  Perhaps you could sow some seeds that will attract butterflies.  Or make a simple “bee house” for your own or church garden to encourage these insects that play such an important role in sustaining plants that we rely on for food.  If your church has land or a graveyard, how might you manage it to provide a home for wild animals.  Or you could ask questions about new housing developments locally; how they might provide a home for wild nature as well as people.  Maybe there are conservation projects you could support locally or further afield – check out the BMS World Mission Carbon Offsetting tool that supports tree planting projects in Northern Uganda.

This Lent, take time to rewild yourself!  Spend time with Jesus in the wilderness, with the wild animals.  Take a walk around your garden, in the park or out into the countryside.  As you go, you could pray this prayer – it’s also available on the Baptist Union Environment Network (BUEN) YouTube channel – seeking God’s peace for the whole of his community of creation.

A Prayer for Lent – Wilderness and Wildness

Jesus, we are not comfortable with wilderness;

it’s wildness; its otherness beyond human imagining.

We seek order, control, taming it to fit our imagination, needs, our security.

 

Yet, you were in the wilderness.

Lord of all things in heaven and earth,

In whom, through whom, for whom all things were created;

Tempted by, yet overcoming our fear of the wilderness and

wildness of God.

 

Jesus, we are not comfortable with the wild animals.

We cage them behind bars or within documentaries;

Push them to the margins by our urban life,

trapped in ever decreasing wild reserves.

 

Yet, you were with the wild animals.

The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,

yet not its wildness, lying with the wolf;

Living the harmony of the community of creation

that God brings through you.

 

Jesus, of the wilderness and

the wild, tame our fears;

May we be made anew,

in you, through you, and for you,

seeking God’s shalom between the

whole community of creation.

Amen

 

This blog is part of a series from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

The post Twelve Steps Towards Freedom – Rewilding with Jesus appeared first on Seventy Two.

Is there enough evidence to convict you?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

I remember a few years back, I assisted at an Alpha course. We had the usual big first session, which included a meal and a testimony. The Testimony was a businessman who had come to faith. The location was in the commuter belt, so many of the guests would probably understand. His testimony was a powerful one of rejection of God, until a final acceptance BUT he ended by saying what a difference God had made to his life. He said he still had all the things he used to have – powerful job, sports car, money, home and even his yacht but he also had God as well, the icing on a very abundant cake.

Now this may well have gone down well with his audience, who of course would be unwilling to give up their wealth. But I left feeling slightly disturbed; didn’t Jesus tell a rich man who loved his wealth to give it all up? This was what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, it is not the sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus, it is a ticket into heaven, without having to pay the cover price! And sadly, many Christians have fallen down this trap, Jesus and church community have become a bonus to their lives, rather than something that shapes their lives.

I was reading the Northumbrian Communities “Celtic Daily Prayer” as I do most days, one of the morning sessions was a reflection on Acts 4:15-21, where Peter and John are put on trial. The reflection quoted from a book by Arthur Burt and he said, “if you were arrested for being a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?”. This phrase stopped me in my tracks!

If I were arrested, what evidence would there be? What witnesses could they call, what would my bank statements, my browser history tell them. If they were to do a stake out, with hidden cameras around my house, what would they learn? Would my life present enough evidence to make a case, to take me to court to convict me?

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel there is a court case, a trial. The goats and sheep are separated. They seem to be unaware of any difference, but Jesus knows! He divides them along simple lines. Not about were they moral enough, did they lead good lives, were they good church attenders, did they try to convert people, but simply – how did they treat the “least of these”. Were they genuinely good news to people who are mostly used to being excluded or ignored? (ps I am fully aware of the hermeneutic that this is about how non-Christians treat the “brothers”)

In the Gospel of John, when we read the story of the calling of the first disciples, what impressed them most was that he was a “man of complete integrity” (John 1:47 NLT). Christians are called, like the disciples, to not just believe in Jesus but follow him. The evidence of following Jesus, is not in whether we believe the right things or say the right things, but whether we live in the right way.

So , “if you were arrested for being a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?”

 

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The Failings of Tribes: Part 1

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

[To honour confidentiality, I have refrained from mentioning many details in the following story. My vagueness at times is intentional. However, I don’t believe this takes away from the impact of the story.]

I’m at a conference. I love conferences. There’s always so much coffee to drink and so many people to meet. As an extrovert this suits me perfectly. This particular conference was for ministers, so being a minister myself, I’ve always found it a great source of encouragement and solidarity, being with people who I could relate to on so many levels.

During the conference we were told about an evening session on the second night in which we could share stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, of our ministries. I had been asked to share, as at the time the church in which I ministered was going through a very difficult period and they believed that my experience may be helpful for those gathered. At the very least it would be a chance for me to be prayed for.

So, there I am, stood in front of all these other ministers, anxious and if I’m honest, fearful. I shared about our church’s struggle, but as part of that I had to share how I had changed my mind on a certain controversial theological topic. I shared with tears in my eyes, laid bare and completely vulnerable. The only thing I remember from sharing was the reactions on people’s faces. Some, those who generally agreed with my theological position, were doing all they could to show they supported me and were with me. The faces I remember most though were the ones that dropped: unable to look at me. I felt their disappointment. I felt their rejection.

Two people offered to come and pray for me. Neither of whom mentioned me in their prayers. They prayed for the church and that they would be guided into what could only be articulated as their understanding of theological orthodoxy. Not once did they pray for me.  They didn’t pray for the person they had been laughing with earlier. The hurting human standing next to them.

After that meeting a few people ignored me and didn’t want to or didn’t know how to talk to me. I was no longer a part of their club. The changing of my mind had excluded me from their tribe. I had crossed an invisible boundary that I didn’t know existed. Only an hour before that we were friends, now I represented the allusive enemy, the opposing viewpoint.

That night I rang my now wife; my then girlfriend, who was and is quite simply my rock. She is an endless supply of support and strength. We start talking about our days and I tell her about the evening session and what I shared. Within seconds I was in floods of tears. I felt so rejected and excluded. It felt as though many of my relationships were fragile, based entirely on what I read and ultimately, what I believed.

I feel it’s important to note, before moving on, that my tears were a drop in the ocean of tears cried by those who know constant rejection from the places in which they should find sanctuary, welcome and love: the church. This blog has been written with these people in mind. The excluded, the marginalised, the ones that don’t fit in because they think differently or act differently. It is with their faces, their stories and their tears, firmly secured in my heart, that I write this blog.

————————————————————————————————————————–

So, let’s talk about tribal boundaries.

For the sake of clarity, let me explain what I mean by this. By tribe, I mean the people you agree with, find solidarity and community being around. In the Christian world this could be your denomination (Methodist, Anglican, Baptist…), your Spirituality (Charismatic, Liturgical, Contemplative…), your broader theological tradition (Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal, or somewhere in between…) and your narrower theological convictions (Creationist, Evolutionist, Affirming, Traditionalist, Complementarian, Egalitarian…). We could mention hundreds more, and we could probably argue for ever over the lists I’ve just made, although this would distract from the point I’m trying to articulate. A tribe is a group of people you find solace with, who think like you, act like you and see the world in a similar way to you. These tribes have boundaries that mean you’re either in or out. Most tribes, it would be fair to say, would be a mix of the above categories.

In a funny way Rob Bell captures what I mean well, when he describes the tribes of the Ancient Near East.

‘In the ancient Near East, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity – your tribe was everything. And everyone belonged to a tribe.

You worked for your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.

Tribes existed for their own well-being and preservation. (You see the humour in that last sentence, right? Like anything has changed in thousands of years.)’

I think it’s fantastic that Rob Bell acknowledges at the end of the quote that nothing has changed, ‘in thousands of years.’ Tribalism has and always will be a very human thing.

At this point I must nuance my very negative portrayal of tribalism. Tribes are natural and not necessarily bad at all. We are drawn to people like us. People who share our beliefs, our values and our world view. This is what, in my opinion, leads to the beautiful diversity of our faith. It’s impossible to say Christians believe a, b and c, because the breadth of beliefs in denominations is huge, let alone across broader traditions, such as Evangelical and Liberal. Or geographically: East and West. We are a diverse bunch of misfits, who find solace in the company of those like us.

The problem for me with tribes is that more often than not they exclude the other, as I have shown in my experience at the minister’s conference. Also, equally as problematic, they have a tendency to make God small, as we’ll go on to explore now.

Ultimately, tribal boundaries dictate what God is like and how God is to be experienced. Often this leads tribes claiming a certain ownership over God, making God small. Richard Rohr put this far better than me in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’:

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to any power structure and any form of arrogant thinking. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years, and held captive by culture, by nationalism, and by Christianity’s own cultural captivity to a white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview… [Jesus] came in mid-tone skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, and living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.’[1]

You may not agree with everything Rohr says and that’s fine, but I hope you’d agree with his last sentence in regard to Jesus, ‘no one owns him, and no one ever will.’

Jesus never fitted into categories or stayed within the boundaries of tribes. In fact, he had a habit of blowing tribal boundaries to smithereens. Let me throw out some examples:

  • The Pharisees got regularly rebuked by Jesus for their strict tribal boundaries; the hundreds of extra laws they placed around God’s law.
  • Jesus was the Messiah, but not as any understood the title Messiah. No understanding of the Messiah could contain him. There were aspects of the title he owned, but much he didn’t. This is why, particularly in Mark’s gospel he comes down so harshly on those that try too early to define who he is (see Mark 1:40-45 for an example of this). This is regularly referred to in biblical criticism as the Messianic Secret. Jesus wants to redefine this highly politicised title in all that he’s doing and therefore, needed time to do this.
  • Jesus constantly ignored the tribal boundaries around appropriate company. The famous criticism thrown at Jesus being, ‘why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16). This isn’t the behaviour of a Rabbi. This isn’t the behaviour of a religious Jewish man. In first century, Palestine, the company you had at your meal table was hugely important. Your guests reflected on you and your values. So, in order to maintain good standing in the local community, you made sure you ate with the socially acceptable. The ones who were like you: part of your tribe.
  • Jesus refused to hate and treat people as second-class citizens. Again, challenging cultural norms of the time and placing himself firmly outside the tribal boundaries of appropriate behaviour. He spent time with Samaritans (the enemies of the Jewish people), treated women as equals and welcomed gentiles (non-Jews). All of which was deemed unacceptable.

There are hundreds more examples I could give. The point is this, no tribe could adequately describe him, and no tribal boundaries could contain him. ‘No one owns him, and no one ever will.’

If all of this has been a little confusing, let me spell out in one sentence what I’m trying to say: strict tribal boundaries nurture exclusion and make God small. I would love to say that my experience at the minister’s conference is an anomaly. I would love to say that the rejection I felt was rare and unprecedented in Christian circles. However, the very fact you’ve got this far into my blog means you probably know all too well, that it isn’t.

Here’s where I’m at…

I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.

I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.

I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 35. I must add that Rohr makes a distinction throughout the book between Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the human nature of the Second person of the trinity, is culturally bound, whereas Christ, the divine nature is universal. The ‘Christ mystery’, his oft used phrase, has always existed and is present in all people and things. I do not think you need to agree with him here for his quote to still be valid. I felt, however, that this was important to mention as it does further expound what he says.

 

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Arguing People into the Kingdom?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

I am a big social media fan, and as an Enneagram 8, I love an argument. I have been reading a lot of Richard Rohr recently, which has allowed me to realise that that online argument is probably not as important as I like to think it is!

But one thing I have tried not to do, is argue with people of no faith.  Most of my responses are to Christians who, in my opinion, are talking nonsense (I am also prone to talking nonsense sometimes). I genuinely believe that we cannot argue people into the Kingdom of God, and that ridiculing or baiting people of no faith is counter-productive and an unbelievably bad witness.

But I have seen two examples recently, one was a Facebook friend who posted a rather trite Christian Meme (you probably know the type I mean), one of her clearly not-yet-believing friends commented with a facetious comment about fairies, and within a few minutes another (this time Christian) friend piled-on, there was an attempt to “prove” God existed. Luckily, the argument was defused, but I wondered if there might have been a better way to handle this.

I recently had an article published in a local paper, about why our church had opted to move online during Lockdown 3.0. I tried to avoid the comments section as my local paper’s online edition can get rather toxic. But my wife did look and saw an ex-church member had commented. The comments section contained a few comments by the “usual” commentators, mostly saying that religion was a nonsense, and “you may as well stay closed”. But this ex-member, who is theologically in a different place to me (probably why he is an ex-member) weighed in with a proof text Bible verse and with a few comments aimed at “the atheists”, which probably didn’t help things!

But it made me think, how could we be better at using social media when we face opposition. Sadly throwing proof-texts at people will never work (they won’t read them for a start) nor will trying to “prove” them wrong. The answer to me comes back to when Jesus faced opposition, he very rarely tried to win the argument, but often found better ways of engaging with people. He would often meet a question with a question, and let his opponent find the answer!

My advice is, next time someone replies to you with “you may as well believe in fairies” or “Jesus wasn’t real”, rather than trying to prove or to win, maybe the offer should be to further dialogue, to meet face to face for a coffee, to listen and learn about why they feel so hurt by Christians, let down by faith or so angry at church, maybe there is story here that needs to be heard?

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People of Hope in Challenging Times

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

We’re called to be people of hope, living differently in challenging times. How might we do this practically? And how is such countercultural, ‘hopeful’ living to be sustained?

An alternative to consumerism

A good place to start is by asking the question: What happens when people lose hope? Part of the answer is we live only for the present, often in selfish ways. The ‘advent’ of the shopping frenzy which is Black Friday reflects this. It’s a day alien to British culture, originally flowing out of Thanksgiving Day in the US. Yet it invaded our lives in 2013 as yet another day when we were encouraged to consume more and more. Then Cyber Saturday was added. Now there’s days and days of ‘Black Friday Deals’. We are consumed by consumerism and mired in materialism. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the earth gets depleted. And we are never satisfied. We always need just that little bit more.

So let’s be people who reflect our hope by living for the future and for others. Instead of the shopping trip, contact a friend and go for a walk. Instead of buying more and living cluttered, complicated lives, let’s buy less and enjoy what we have. Let’s be generous. Let’s share. Let’s show where our hearts and our hopes are truly set.

An alternative to darkness

Something else happens when we lose hope: we live in darkness. There’s been much darkness recently, but news that Covid vaccines are here, or at least on the way, is wonderful indeed. Announcing this, our Prime Minister talked about how the ‘searchlights of science’ had triumphed over the darkness of the virus. The ‘scientists have done it’ was the headline. As Christians we will want to question the exaltation of science to an almost godlike position and look behind it to praise the creator and sustainer God who is the source of all positive scientific and medical endeavour. But the point of talking about this is not to be critical. It’s to notice the use of light in such a ‘hopeful’ way. This has deep biblical resonance. At the beginning of creation God said let there be light and it was so. At the end of Revelation the new heavens and the new earth are full of sparkling precious stones that dazzle in the brilliant brightness. The darkness has been dispelled – for good. All this wonderful light is refracted through the person of Jesus who, in his own words, is the light of the world. And light is so closely linked with hope. The old cliché – light at the end of the tunnel – is freighted with hope. It’s tough going now, but there’s light ahead, things will get better, we can see it, let’s keep going… It may be a cliché, but it’s a very attractive one.

So let’s be people of hope-filled light, asking ourselves the question: How can I bring light to others walking in darkness? The answers can be simple. A word of kindness and calm in the midst of bitterness and anxiety. A word of wisdom in a situation of confusion, to people overcome with emotions such as anger or despair. A food parcel dropped off, a food bank supported, that Zoom call made when the last thing you really want to do is go online and talk to a friend when you’ve been in virtual meetings all day. Simple answers but profound. Answers that are full of hope and light. Whatever our frontlines are, let’s live differently. Let’s reflect the light of the world.

An alternative to secularism

Above all, let’s share Jesus, the embodiment of hope. It’s easy to be sad about what you can’t do this year, especially if you’re a church leader, especially if you’re in tier three! But are there things we can do now which maybe we couldn’t before? Invite people to the virtual carol service? Send people the link? Might it be that people this year are more open to a message of peace, more open to community, more questioning about the way they live, more open to the hope that is only found in Jesus? The British church has long prayed for revival: a time in the life of our nation where there is a great turning to God accompanied by real transformation. Some have hoped and prayed and prayed and hoped. But it seems – to quote Pete Greig – that God is ‘on mute’. Might this be the moment he breaks his silence? What a hope that is! Are we ready? God is stirring people’s hearts to seek him. Is he stirring yours to point the way for them to Jesus?

An Alternative to Despair: Sustained by Hope

How is such hopeful, light-filled living to be sustained in the midst of the ‘tunnel’ of darkness? It’s easy to think the answer is ‘Jesus’ or, perhaps, ‘Jesus and the Holy Spirit’. Of course both these answers are right! But I’m increasingly convinced there’s something more to be said. Let’s reflect for a moment. When Jesus tells us not to worry how does he encourage us? When the Bible urges us to look to Jesus to sustain us in our discipleship, what further detail is shared? The answer? We are told to look to the future. Don’t worry, says Jesus, instead build up ‘treasure in heaven’. Don’t be anxious, says Paul, for the Lord ‘is near’. Look to Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews tells us. Yes, ‘fix your eyes on him’. But look to him expressly as the ‘pioneer and perfecter’ of our faith who has run his race and ‘sat down at the right hand of God’, encouraging us also to run for the finish line. Know your future, the Bible says. In passage after passage, in the Old Testament and the New. The marriage supper of the Lamb is coming; the new heavens and the new earth are coming. The light at the end of the tunnel is no myth. The searchlight will become a floodlight. Look up the passages. Look to Jesus for present help, yes, for he shines a light in the darkness today. Allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with power. But look forward too. Let the Christian hope so capture you that you live in the light of its coming reality right here, right now. In the end it shouldn’t really surprise us: hopeful Christian living is sustained by drawing on the Christian hope itself. And what a hope it is.

 

This is part two in a two part series for Advent. Click here to read part one.

 

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Advent Hope in Challenging Times

This post by Peter Morden was originally published at Seventy Two

Psalm 25: 1-11

The Christopher Nolan film ‘Tenet’ has been one of the movies of 2020. I went to see it with my son in a socially distanced cinema experience before the second lockdown began. It’s full of great acting, with John David Washington especially good value. It’s fast paced with some breathtaking scenes. There’s just one problem: I didn’t understand any of it. It’s important when talking about a film to warn about possible spoilers. Let me assure you there’s no danger of that here: I have no clue as to what was going on. Central to the film is the concept of ‘time inversion’. I think that means people go backwards and forwards in time. This leads to scenes being repeated over and over in subtly different ways. At one point, the John David Washington character ends up in a fight to the death with himself. Or is it with someone who just looks like him? Who knows! The film left me confused and disorientated, with a sense of being swirled around, unable to get my bearings. ‘Big, bold and baffling’ said one review. For me that just about sums it up.

Actually, that’s a bit like life sometimes. Especially now, in these Covid-19 times. This year has been relentlessly difficult. In lockdown or semi-lockdown loneliness and fear have so often been compounded by confusion.  What are the different rules for different areas? Are we to stay in or go out or a bit of both? What tier are we in now and what does it mean? The questions are endless, the answers are hard to understand. Alongside this, there’s the loss of hope. We ‘hoped’ it would be over after the first wave, then by September, then by Christmas. But each time we’ve been disappointed, and as the book of Proverbs reminds us, ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick’. It’s a bit like my two hours at the cinema with Tenet. We can’t follow the plot, we don’t understand what’s going on, it’s like being swirled around…

What we need as we enter the season of Advent is a strong dose of real, biblical hope. Wonderfully, this is just the time in the church’s year that speaks of such hope. Psalm 25 is not often cited in connection with Advent but it deserves to be, for it speaks of finding bright hope in the midst of deep darkness. I encourage you to read it.

The Psalmist, David, does not find holding onto hope easy. You catch a sense of this in verse 2: ‘Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.’ This is an urgent plea. He essentially says, ‘Lord I trust in you but I’m struggling here. Don’t let me down.’ We may feel like this ourselves. Life is difficult and disorientating right now. We feel like hope has been repeatedly deferred. If this is us, the Psalm tells us we are not alone.

And, amazingly, the Psalmist not only stands with us but points the way forward. The urgent cry gives way to the confident affirmation of verse 3, ‘No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.’ How is such hope discovered and how is it maintained? By focusing not on hope itself, but on the character of God and his promises of the future.

As to character, he is faithful, gracious, forgiving and good. Search the Psalm for these powerful truths, all of which are fulfilled for us in Jesus who is God our Saviour (v 5). No wonder the Psalmist holds onto his hope in such a God.

And what about his promises? Verse 13 is the antidote to my confusing Tenet experience. For we are not just being swirled around in life, and we are certainly not going backwards and forwards in time. No, rather than being in a never-ending loop, history is heading somewhere. Those who live their lives for the living God, will ‘inherit the land’. This promise is ultimately fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth. At advent we eagerly anticipate the return of Christ and the ushering in of our sure and certain future. I invite you to say with David, ‘In you, LORD my God, I put my trust’. Our God will not let us down.

What will this mean for us right here and now in these difficult days? Will it mean we won’t get sick or won’t get made redundant? Will it mean my family will definitely stay well and that I won’t have financial difficulties? Does it mean my business won’t fail? For the asylum seeker, will it mean my application will be upheld?

The answer to all those questions is ‘not necessarily’. Sometimes God will spare us sickness, for ourselves or our loved ones, and will answer our prayers in other ways too. One of the asylum seekers we work with as a church in Leeds has just been granted leave to remain quite unexpectedly, even though hope of a good outcome for his case seemed lost. Our hopes for tomorrow are not always deferred, for we have a prayer answering God.

Such deliverance does not always come though, and we should not be surprised at this.  We follow Jesus who entered a world of pain and then journeyed to the cross to win us the salvation of which this Psalm speaks. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him. But the Christian hope shows us he is someone who can be trusted and who will ultimately see us through. We have a future and a hope which is ‘steadfast and certain’. God clearly doesn’t mind too much about spoilers, for he has told us what is to come. The future is actually ‘big, bold and brilliant’. Hope in such a God and such a future makes everything seem different. Try it. If such hope truly grips us it will transform the way we live today.

 

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The Rule of Six and the Gift of God

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

The rule of six. Are we being offered a gift or is our activity simply being constrained?

I am a bit of a weirdo when it comes to number patterns, I kept daily stats on my computer throughout lockdown, and I’d already been having conversations with whoever would listen, about multiplying small groups and how six seemed an ideal number on Zoom, even before social gatherings of more than six people became prohibited by law.

Physical or virtual, the UK church can maintain a focus on the seed of the word of God taking root and flourishing in the lives of a growing number of people, even and especially in these times. Whether you’re a church leader of many years’ experience or a day one follower of Jesus Christ, we all have a part to play and some responsibility to take.

Step one: Determine to be shaped by faith, not by fear. It’s a heart thing. The virus is revealing the object(s) of our passion. If we over focus on our circumstances, whether good or ill, our relationship with God and the character of God will become blurred.  The virus has brought into focus the reality of the spiritual health of the UK church. I wonder what you’re seeing as a result. At the end of the day the ‘church’ is made up of individual followers of Jesus, we are the ‘living stones’ being built together. Let none of us be under any illusion; we are all a part of both the problem and the solution.

Step two. Pay attention to the core spiritual disciplines. ‘You can trust the word of God and you can trust the Spirit of God’. That’s the mantra I keep repeating to groups, especially those starting or leading them, when they get concerned about the shape not looking like their traditional Bible study. My counter-question: ‘how have people’s lives been shaped to become more like Jesus by how you’ve previously operated?’ tends to make the point.

Alan Hirsch highlights five things as ‘core spiritual disciplines’ in “Forgotten Ways” (is the virus revealing what we’ve forgotten?):

  • Engagement with Scripture
  • Prayer
  • Worship and service
  • Stewardship
  • Community

I’ve been a Baptist Minister for thirty-four years now, which means I’ve been a regional Minister longer than a local Minister. Consequently:

  • I’ve come to see our main Sunday gathering more through the eyes of a member of the congregation than as a provider/leader
  • I’ve not been reliant on whatever my local church serves up on a Sunday morning, to sustain me.

I realise I have a myriad of opportunities to engage with other Christians every day, which help me deepen the roots of my faith and relationship with God, which is both unusual and an immensely enriching privilege. However, lockdown brought no new challenges to my growth as a disciple, because I have been in the habit for many years of taking responsibility for my own life in God. Sadly, the virus has revealed a large slice of the UK church have become reliant on someone else opening up their Bible for them.

For anyone who’s not aware, we’ve developed The Discipleship Cycle as a mechanism to help individuals engage with God’s purposes through their lives by engaging with scripture. The app will be released in the new year, so watch this space.

Step three. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting with one another, as some are in the habit of doing’. My hunch is, when the writer to the Hebrews first penned these words, our small group was more what would be brought to mind, than the typical Sunday gathering I attended pre-March 2020.

For me, our small group has been the most significant source of spiritual encouragement and rootedness out of anything, since the pandemic hit our shores. At no point over the last twenty years have I succumbed to the temptation to believe I can do this alone.

If I’m tempted to despair, it’s when listening to the desperation in people’s voices to return to meeting as they once did. Please don’t mishear me; I’ve no issue with meeting on a Sunday. I love being a part of the large gathering, vibrant worship, big-scale encounter experience. Yet I have to say honestly, being part of a small group enables and nurtures life in God, in reality, day-to-day, more than anything.

If you’re in a position of leadership my plea would be: maintain your focus on making and growing disciples, but think smaller not larger, for your delivery slots. If you don’t have any formal leadership responsibility my plea would be: ask to join with a few others to engage with scripture together and pray the life of God into one another. If you can’t find a group to join, start one.

The rule of six is a gift.

 

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How Can We Sing The Lord’s Song In A Strange Land?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

All around the country many pastors are constantly checking with Government guidelines to see how and if they are able to meet them. While there are moments where we are having to try an interpret the rules each week, there are some things that remain consistent, one of those is congregational singing. Some people are enjoying new a creative ways of doing worship, (we have been doing reflective “not sung” worship services for a few years  now – so we have got used to it) while others are finding it much harder, one minister said on a facebook group “I have never ever led worship without singing”.

But it is not just pastors, churches are having to get used to services without sung worship and some people just don’t like it. Someone I know said this to me, on why he will not be attending, “with no singing I doubt I would (come)…. (I can’t) understand how your church like virtually all the rest are  not bothered about singing”. The criticism is a little unfair, as I imagine most church leaders are bothered, but just know that the guidelines are clear.

Now I do not believe that God caused the pandemic, but I think that God can use the Pandemic to teach us. We are a church in Exile,  we are in a strange land, because we have lost the familiar of what our worship used to look and be like, whether that is hymns or choruses, choirs or guitar and drums, most worship involved singing. We are learning to not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. See Psalm 137.

So what is God trying to teach us? I think we have become too reliant on worship as an activity we do “in church” together, we have become used to doing worship rather than, as Paul writes in Romans 12 offering our bodies, our lives, as worship.

Amos 5 (and we have to be careful not to assume that Amos is talking to us directly) says that the worship of the people of God had become detestable because unless worship led to an outbreak of justice, unless it radically changed our perception of the world, then worship was something that God “despised”. Has our sung worship become so detestable to God that he needs to force us to stop singing?

Author Stephen Mattson said this on Facebook recently “Worship isn’t always a hymn or song or sermon. It’s often a protest, an act of civil disobedience, a march, or a night spent in jail.”  People have told me that God needs our sung worship, maybe God doesn’t need it at all, maybe the point of worship was to break the chains of injustice. Maybe what  God wants from our worship is not what we think he wants.

Jesus said in Matthew 25 that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the stranger or visit the Prisoner, we do it for him. Maybe this is exactly the type of worship we should be offering to God. Maybe this is exactly what Paul was talking about offering our bodies.

When people said that the churches were closed, I refuted that, we never did close and yes many went online, but many also discovered that the church could be a place for real good.

During lockdown many big “worship” led churches have found themselves becoming food banks or clothes and food distribution centres. Pastors were walking dogs and doing shopping. The Youth Worker connected to our church was cycling around the local area delivering food. My fear is, that when things eventually go back to normal, when Exile ends, we will just go back to singing the old songs in the old ways. Will all the efforts that have helped so many people just cease?

 

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom: Live

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

He sat down in front of the young adult group one Sunday evening.  An Australian whom our minister had got to know.  Let’s say his name was Roger.  “Hello”, he began, “my name is Roger, I am a Christian and I am alcoholic”.  To the ears of a very naive young Christian in their early twenties (nowadays that would make me a Millennial) that seemed odd.  It got my attention.  But the combination of those two things – Christian and addict – didn’t seem to fit.  But over the next hour or so, Roger unpacked with some honesty his journey into addiction and faith.  It opened my eyes.  That for Roger, each day was a battle to find freedom.  The desire of the addict was never fully going away.  But each day he stayed off the bottle was a victory, one that he asked Jesus to give him, one more step towards freedom.

I don’t know if you have been following each of the twelve steps as we have journeyed towards freedom.  Freedom from our addiction to fossil fuels that are driving climate change and rubbishing our environment.  Towards freedom for the natural world that God’s redemptive heart is to “liberate from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8v21).  A journey recognising our powerlessness and seeking a deeper conversion to God’s purpose.  Going deeper than “greenwash”, confessing our climate sins and being ready and willing to change.  Listening to the voice of so many vulnerable people around the world facing both a COVID and climate emergency just as acute.  Willing to take practical steps to mitigate the impact of our lives on theirs and the life of the natural world, whose myriad forms of life face extinction at one hundred times the natural rate.  And not just for a moment, but to endure in a new way of living as disciples that shares God heart for his good creation.  Goodness perhaps you have increasingly been aware of through lockdown and over the summer as we have enjoyed more time outdoors.  I’ve taken to sitting in the garden over the summer for my daily prayer time reflecting upon what its plants and wildlife, and the wideness of the sky teach me about God, sensing the divine presence.

But this journey is not about ticking off the steps.  Nor does it end here.  Looking ahead, these steps need to inspire us to a new season of renewal in how we live as disciples.  I guess this is one difference from the journey to being addicted to alcohol and being addicted to climate changing fossil fuels.  With alcohol, the only solution is to stop using it and engaging in a daily battle for freedom.  Our addition to fossil fuels is more difficult to deal with.  Having shared this journey, have you stopped using fossil fuels?  Not by a long shot!  On the day I write this on September the 12th 2020, Carbon Dioxide makes up 411 parts per million of the atmosphere.  A year ago, it was 408 parts per million.  The global COVID lockdown has had little impact.  We are all trapped in this addiction because our lives are embedded in a global economic structure reliant on fossil fuels that seems beyond our control.  Already one degree warmer than 200 years ago, the Earth will warm by up to 4 degrees by the end of the century if nothing is done, when even the Gen Z’s will be old never mind the Millennials!

Perhaps you know all this.  But has it brought spiritual awakening?  The last of the twelve steps is Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”  So, how are you going to do that?  Is your spiritual wakening to climate change enough to make you think how to include the issue in your ministry as a leader?  To encourage the church to take it up on their agenda.  To let it reshape your sharing the gospel, and joining with God’s mission to your neighbourhood and the whole Earth?

Perhaps you are already doing this.  A lone voice struggling to heard among all the other demands that face us as Christians and churches.  Seeking growth to stem continual decline.  Reaching out to Millennials.  Pioneering.  Speaking up for economic and racial justice.  It can be hard to keep on alone.  It can be hard to be released from addition and when you don’t have others to support you.  That why the Twelve Step programme of AA and other groups is worked out in community.

At the start of September, to coincide with Climate Sunday, BUEN was launched.  The Baptist Union Environment Network.  Gathering people across the Baptist Together family who share a concern for God’s “buen” – good – creation, over climate change and the environment.  Connecting within our Associations people who want to share their concern and passion to inspire others.  To share in God’s mission to care for creation.  Enabling Baptists Together to work for justice for creation and people impacted by environmental change.  And releasing and listening to the voice of children, Gen Z and Millennials whose future world is being shaped by our lives today.

A community of people, seeking to be free from addiction.  Supporting and encouraging one another, sharing the invitation to share in God’s mission to care and redeem creation with others.  You can discover more and how people and churches are already responding on the BUEN Facebook page, on Twitter and in the Baptist Union website – http://www.baptist.org.uk/BUEN .  Or you can read about in the latest Baptist Together magazine.  To get involved, you can email BUEN at BUEnvNet@outlook.com .

This year is an important one for responding to climate change.  In just over a years’ time, the UN Climate Conference will convene in Glasgow.  It’s vital that the nations of the world accelerate their response.  We need a 4-degree shift in the way our global society works if we are to counter a 4-degree shift in our climate.  And if we are going to play our part, raise up a shared prophetic voice, we need a 4-degree shift in our discipleship too.  It’s going to take a while, but we don’t have long.  Finding freedom from this addiction is urgent.  The world is already 1-degree warmer, and we and creation are feeling the impact of that.  We need to begin a journey of 1 degree shifts in our discipleship to bring us towards loving creation as God does, will all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  A daily battle towards freedom.

And despite all the doom and gloom that we hear about climate change, there is hope.  Remember the power of the butterfly.  Something I learnt as a meteorologist.  It’s the way the weather and climate works.  A butterfly can flap its wings over South America, and 5 days later you can have a tornado in Texas.  Small things matter.  Didn’t Jesus say something similar.  Yes, I think he did.

“‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’”  (Matt 13v31-32)

This blog is the final part of a series of 12 from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

 

 

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