Blogroll: The Good Book Company

I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 28 posts from the blog 'The Good Book Company.'

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Is free will an illusion?

Wed, 22/05/2019 - 10:13

You are out shopping for snacks to bring to the office party and decide on breadsticks and hummus. Did you make the decision? Or did your brain make it for you?

The next day your boss announces cutbacks, and you have to decide whether to go forward for voluntary redundancy or not. You decide yes. Did you make the decision? Or did your brain make it for you?

We make decisions all the time. Mundane decisions like what to eat for breakfast, and important decisions like where to live or who to marry. Our decisions seem to be real and impactful.

But if we are just our brains, as some scientists propose—if our decisions are simply the product of synapses firing—are we really free in any meaningful sense? A number of scientists and philosophers strongly believe not. It may seem to us that our choices are freely made, but free will is actually an illusion, they argue. We simply do what our brains tell us.

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Predetermined to decide?

The brain-imaging scientist and atheist Sam Harris began his book Free Will by describing a sordid and brutal attack on a family in Connecticut. It was an attack by two men, one of whom was called Komisarjevsky, that was only intended to be robbery, yet ended with four counts of murder. According to Harris, the attackers could not have done things any differently, even if they had wanted to. The violence inflicted on July 23, 2007 was a product of their genes and upbringing over the long term, coupled with their brain activity in the moment. Harris reflects:

"As sickening as I find their behaviour, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him … If I had been in Komisarjevsky’s shoes on July 23, 2007—that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state—I would have acted exactly as he did. There is simply no intellectual position from which to deny this.… Free will is an illusion."

It is disturbing to hear a respected scientist make a dogmatic statement like this. Do science and philosophy necessarily take us to this hard-deterministic place, in which prior causes guarantee a particular outcome? Is it true that there is no other intellectual position? Or is there still a case for free will?

Very much so, thankfully. If we dig deeper, we begin to spot a number of problems with so-called “hard-determinism”. We could ask the following questions.

Is it internally coherent? Does hard-determinism make sense according to its own frames of reference? Not really. Hard-determinism makes it difficult to assert any personally-held belief. Religious people are sometimes accused of being programmed to believe in God. But, we could equally make the case that an atheist has been programmed to reject God, or an agnostic has been programmed to sit on the fence. Hard-determinism makes all personally-held beliefs difficult to justify, and impossible to critique—including hard-determinism itself.

Does it have explanatory power? Does hard-determinism make sense of the world around us? Again, not really. For example, hard-determinism does not make sense of the fact that we humans strive for autonomy. So much of life centres around staying in control. We want to make our own rules, decide our own fate, shape our own lives. So much fear surrounds loss of control over the things we hold dear. But why strive for autonomy if human freedom is an illusion? There is a deep contradiction here. Are we free to make our own rules or not? We cannot have it both ways. In terms of explanatory power, hard-determinism creates more confusion than clarity.

Can it be lived? Does hard-determinism line up with our experience of life? Once more - not really. We live as though our choices mean something: as though those decisions are made by us as volitional people, and not by the mechanistic firing of neurons in our brains. We are considered morally responsible and therefore accountable for our actions, good and bad. Komisarjevsky was tried and sentenced to six life terms without possibility of release. Yet, if his actions of 23rd July 2007 were merely driven by forces beyond his control, then why punish at all? Hard-determinism threatens to completely unravel moral responsibility with implications for justice and society as a whole, which few are willing to implement. We do not live as hard-determinists. We live as though our choices mean something.

Friendship with Jesus is freely available, but begins for those who make the decision to respond to his invitation.

Several viewpoints argue in depth that free will is real not illusory. “Compatibilists” or “soft determinists” believe that, although human behaviour is determined by prior causes, we can also act freely when we are not being constrained or are seeking to fulfil our desires. Libertarians hold that the person, not their brain, is the true source of their actions, regardless of the determining factors in their biology and background. Brains don’t make choices: people make choices and can bring about alternative possibilities, if they so wish. And even if impulses do arise, we still have the capacity to allow them or stop them. We call it self-control, or resisting temptation. Philosopher Michael Shermer calls it “free won’t”, and describes this as “veto power over innumerable neural impulses tempting us to act in one way, such that our decision to act in another way is a real choice.”

Why free will?

Much more could be said about the case for free will. If it is true that we are free, volitional beings, then for what purpose? Choice is integral to relationships. Romantic relationships and friendships begin and continue on the basis of decisions and feelings. It is no different with God. God’s desire is that all people would come to know him. He offers us friendship. Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11 v 28). Friendship with Jesus is freely available, but begins for those who make the decision to respond to his invitation.

In Am I Just My Brain? neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?". Buy the book here

Categories: Christian Resources

Three questions to ask yourself when you’re telling children a Bible story

Tue, 21/05/2019 - 06:00

Telling Bible stories to children, at home or in church, is often a challenge. A younger sibling may be trying to eat the book, or poke someone in the eye. In toddler groups, someone is inevitably standing right in front of the book or making off with a visual aid. It’s not always easy to hold attention or make the story meaningful.

Steph's husband attempting a bedtime story with three energetic boys. Point proven!

Having seen how my own children responded in church groups and at home, and having faced a terrifying crowd of toddlers quite a few times in our midweek toddler group, I believe there are three questions we should all be asking when telling Bible stories.

1. Am I giving this the value I would if I were teaching adults?

We’ve all been there – you can easily spend two weeks sourcing an impressive visual aid for the toddler group or Sunday school, but just a quick two minutes is given to checking the passage itself. It’s Noah or Jonah, we’ve probably read the board book seven times this month already. We all know the story. Do we even need to open the Bible?

And yet, if you were preaching a sermon, you wouldn’t prepare the same way. So why do we feel it is important to correctly understand what the Bible says for big people, but perhaps less so for little ones? Of course, the message to children needs to be communicated in simple terms, but it doesn’t follow that our understanding of the Bible needs to be more simple or superficial. I’ve been surprised how easily I’ve held my own mis-assumptions about what a Bible story is all about until I read the passage carefully.

In fact, I would argue it takes more work in understanding the passage, the simpler you need to make it. In writing the Little me, Big God series I found that to translate these passages for young children I needed to know precisely what the words meant.

For example, when Jesus says in Mark 10:14 'the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’ we need to reword this whole phrase. So what does it mean for 'the kingdom of heaven’ to ‘belong’ to someone if God is the king? In the gospels ‘inheriting the kingdom of God’ is about enjoying the blessings of God’s reign (the phrase is used in the beatitudes). Such ‘blessings’ would be good instead of evil, comfort and provision for all our needs, acceptance and friendship with God—the things we most need as humans. Yet the word ‘blessing' would not capture that for a child, who doesn’t use it often and may not have any idea what it means How can we describe this appropriately and accurately to the Bible? We need to put the work in here.

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2. How many of my words will they take in?

A common mistake is to make a Bible story (or explaining it) too long and complicated, rather than too simple. My experience is that one or two sentences per image is right for most pre-schoolers – and many older ones too. Sometimes we tell the story and then shove a 2 line gospel explanation in at the end: ‘So … (deep breath) we’ve all sinned and done wrong things that make God sad and angry, but Jesus died to take away our punishment, so if we trust in him we can be friends with him, now and in heaven, and we need to do the things he wants us to do in our lives, just like X in the story’. Not many children would take it in. It is worth asking how many concepts you want to try and communicate in your bedtime bible story or toddler group – one may be enough. It’s better to get one across clearly, than to rush and confuse three.

3. How can I emphasise what they need to remember?

We always found it interesting asking our children what happened in the Bible story in Sunday school. Until the age of about 6 we found that key details were quite often seriously confused or inverted! I tried to find a way to ask them what the main application was—what they learnt about God, or something they needed to do—but they always claimed nothing was said about this. I’m sure that was not true. There were times, however, when they did seem to have taken things in, even at a young age and that was lovely to see.

We need to use clear emphasis and repetition—children take in less than we think. You could try using a repeated question, from week to week, such as ‘What does this story teach us about God?’ or ‘Is there someone we should copy/not copy in this story?’. Repeat this question in different ways, written and oral, illustrated through a game, or with a visual aid, to remind them.

I’d love to see churches thinking more about helping young children really engage with Bible stories. If we get these three things right I think we’ll be going a long way to doing it well.

The Little me, Big God books are a series of simple, age appropriate Bible stories to engage real toddlers with God's Word. Children will learn to listen to Jesus from the accounts of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) and Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). They will also learn that they are never too little to come to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16).  Find out more

Categories: Christian Resources

Are your prayers like Paul's prayers?

Fri, 17/05/2019 - 11:28

When I read Paul’s prayers, I am always struck by the fact that many of the matters that are the focus of my prayers are absent in his.

Read his prayers in his letter to the Ephesians (or anywhere else in his epistles), and what is striking is the absence of material issues. The believers in Ephesus were in one sense just like us. They had concerns for food and for clothes and for shelter. They would have thought about and talked about and worried about being married or getting married… being parents or wishing they were parents, or wishing some days they weren’t parents… employment, paying taxes, wealth, health… but there’s no mention of these matters at all in what Paul prays for them.

In fact, praying about health (which, if we had the chance to listen in on the prayers of Western Christians, would likely come in at number one) is rare—almost non-existent—in the Bible. So why are we praying about it so much?

It’s because we don’t want to die.

Why are my prayers unspiritual?

We want to live. We’ve got a sneaking suspicion that what we’ve got now, this side of death, is actually better than what God has for us then, on the other side of death. So we want to hang on to what we’ve got. But instead, we need to believe—really believe—that these things are true:

God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2 v 4-7).

You have now been raised with Christ into the heavenly places. You have been made part of a family that will never come to an end. One day, you will live in a new heaven and a new earth. You will see your God face to face and, with a heart no longer burdened and distracted by sin and a body no longer broken and decaying in frailty, you will praise him.

And you and I just want to pray that we’d stay healthy and live long?! Time-bound and fallen creature that I naturally am, I often forget the spiritual and eternal element of reality. That’s why the things that fill my prayers are so regularly absent from Paul’s—and why the things that fill his prayers are so regularly absent from mine. He has his eyes fixed on eternity. His prayers are spiritual. We need to make ours so, too.

We tend to live as if, and pray as if, what we most need is help with this practical issue or that specific life problem. And we all have particular situations that we need divine help with and divine transformation in. But it’s as we grow in our appreciation of the gospel that our lives will change to reflect that gospel.

What you most need to know?

So, when you start to pray, what’s the concern that fills your vision?

You are facing a huge issue in your job? You need God’s help with that, and so what you most need to know is the gospel. You need to know how to fix your marriage? You need God’s help with that, and so what you most need to know is the gospel. You are so worried about something one of your kids is into? You need God’s help with that, and so what you most need to know is the gospel. You are facing serious health problems? You need God’s help with that, and so what you most need to know is the gospel.

We need to start to pray spiritually. We need to start there—and then, as we move on to our practical concerns in our prayers, we need to let the way we pray about them flow from the spiritual truths we’ve prayed about. Let’s not allow the focus of Paul’s prayers to be absent from ours.

Pray Big by Alistair Begg will inspire you to pray bigger and better prayers as you look to your heavenly Father to do more than all you could ask or imagine! Buy it here

Categories: Christian Resources

Is religious experience just brain activity?

Tue, 14/05/2019 - 06:00

Many people admit to having prayed at some point in life, be that at bedtime as a child, or amid a crisis as an adult. Many people, regardless of their beliefs about God, perceive prayer to be a useful religious activity. But what happens in the brain when people pray? In recent years, this discipline of the devout has been studied closely by neuroscientists.

Professor Andrew Newberg and others have pioneered research into Buddhist meditation, rituals, trance states and Christian prayer, as well as those who pray in tongues A medical review in 2009 listed 40 different brain regions that are involved in prayer and meditation,showing that the brain is very active during spiritual activity. And not in a one-size-fits-all manner. Amazingly, different kinds of prayer activate different networks.

For years, many have believed that religious experience is merely brain enterprise. So does the presence of brain activity mean the experience isn’t authentic?

Not necessarily.

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Thinking about chocolate

Lots of people love chocolate. It is not just the taste that is great, but also the anticipation of the taste as we get ready to indulge. Neuroscientists now know that from the moment you decide to eat chocolate, a network of “pleasure” centres start releasing brain chemicals that lead to the inevitable “happy place”. These networks are also the same ones that go into overdrive when we are in love.

It is one thing to understand the brain’s involvement in chocolate consumption, but quite another to experience the taste of chocolate first-hand. The relationship between these two things has occupied philosophers for centuries, because objective brain processes and subjective human experience are seen as two very different phenomena.

To determine if an encounter is authentic, we need to ask some more questions. What type of encounter is it? Is it consistent with the beliefs of the person? Are there other instances of this encounter? Can it be verified? The story of the person, and perhaps of other observers too, will be as important as the signal from their brain in deciding whether the encounter is a genuine one.

Does brain activity mean that God isn’t real?

Just because something is experienced through the brain, does not necessarily mean it originated in the brain. The fact that we know and understand reward circuitry in the brain does not mean that we call into question the existence of chocolate. That’s an absurd idea! Nor would we call into question the existence of our boyfriend, girlfriend or partner, whose love also activates our brain. The very fact that chocolate and our partner exist is why there is brain activity in the first place.

Similarly, brain activity during prayer does not negate God. In fact, philosophers such as Alston, Plantinga and Swinburne argue that authentic religious experiences more generally are evidence for God. And if God does exist, then it comes as no surprise that he would make us such that our brains are active when we encounter him. This kind of data is not a threat to religious belief.

For a person’s brain and mind to be both engaged when they pray is exactly what we would expect. The Bible does not refer to people as ghosts nor as brain-washed machines but as integrated physical and spiritual beings. If there were no brain activity during prayer, this would give more, not less, cause for concern!

“But I don’t have a religious brain”

Are some people just wired to “find God”, and others wired not to? The brain-imaging data that we have accumulated so far doesn’t allow this conclusion.

In the middle of our family room at home sits a table. By name it is a dining table, yet in reality it serves many functions. Yes, we eat meals at it with family and friends, but the children also complete homework and various craft activities on it. We have held meetings around this table, and I have even written some of the words of this article on it. The table does not have one sole function. Depending on the time of day, it is an office, a meeting place, a feeding station or a space for the creative arts.

The same is true of the brain regions employed during prayer; none of them are unique to spiritual activities. All serve multiple roles in the brain but are recruited during religious practice as well. Are some people more able to engage with God than others in terms of the makeup of their brain? No. Every person has the machinery they need.

The Invitation is for all

I will never forget the day when a mentally disabled boy was baptised in my local church. I do not know the exact nature of his disability, except to say that he needed a wheelchair and was able to speak only through voice-recognition software. It was incredibly moving to hear him prepare for baptism by responding to the questions: “Do you turn to Christ?” “Do you renounce evil?” “Do you repent of your sins?” After each question, he answered in a manner that clearly showed he fully understood what was happening and why. This baptism was a reminder to me that relationship with God is not dependent on having a fully functioning brain. God is greater than the human brain, and relates to anyone and everyone, regardless of their cognitive capacity. No one is beyond his reach.

Christianity does not stand or fall on religious experiences, important though they are. Christianity is anchored in human history and pivots around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Did Jesus, the God-man rise from the dead, never to die again? If this happened, then it changes everything.

In Am I Just My Brain? neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?"

Categories: Christian Resources

4 surprising ways you can encourage your pastor

Thu, 09/05/2019 - 10:35

Just suppose you want to put a spring in your pastor or minister’s step this week. You decide – for some reason – that you really want to make him joyful, to put in his heart a delight and cheerfulness as he goes about his work of pastoral care. What will you do?

You go home. You get out a (literal or digital) back of an envelope. You stare at the blank sheet. You wonder: what – that I can do, little old me! – will actually serve to cheer him, to make his metaphorical tail wag with delight?

In The Book your Pastor Wishes you Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask), I suggest, from the Bible, seven virtues for church members. Each of these virtues will make our pastor’s work a joy. Here’s a taster of four of them.

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1. Repent and Believe!

Perhaps the most important is to repent and believe afresh today and every day. Well, you say, I can’t see how that will encourage my pastor. After all, my repentance and faith affects me, not him. Ah, but think again. Why did your minister enter pastoral ministry in the first place? I hope and expect he did it to serve Jesus and his gospel. That is, he did it because he hopes and prays that, through his labours, men and women will repent of their sins and believe in Jesus and his gospel. And then go on and on repenting and believing. So, if you repent and believe with fresh eagerness today, you are doing just exactly what he hopes you will do. He will look at you, see the evidence of fresh penitence and lively faith, and say to himself, “God is answering the prayer I prayed when I came into pastoral ministry. Hooray!” And there will be a fresh spring in his step.

2. Belong to your Church!

Your pastor hopes that, through his preaching, his prayers, his pastoral care and watchfulness, Jesus Christ will build a local church. He longs for the church he serves to grow in maturity in Christ. When you and I hover on the edge of the church, when we are spectators rather than players, when we shop around for churches that meet our needs, we frustrate this longing. A pastor looks at people like us and sighs with sadness. “I wish he or she would dive in, belong, be a proper member, build relationships, be committed to the life of the church.” And so, when we do belong, when we think of church as “us” rather than “them”, when we gather for prayer meetings, when we are part of the glorious “one-another-ness” of Christian fellowship, when we sit humbly under the preached word, then the heart of our pastor will sing for joy.

3. Be Kind in Practical Ways

Don’t underestimate the impact that simple down-to-earth kindness can have on your pastor. If he is married, kindness to his wife. If they have children, kindness to their children. Kindness is unimpressive; it is not showy; it is practical and thoughtful. Pastor friends of mine and their wives have told me many beautiful stories of such kindness, and it has made such a difference in their lives. One, whose parents were tragically killed in a motor accident, spoke of the overwhelmingly wonderful kindness of members of his church in the weeks and months that followed. Much kindness happens in less tragic or extreme circumstances. It is always of value. Little thoughtful acts of appreciation. Flowers. Chocolates. A hand-written note of thanks. Babysitting. Offers of lifts. The circumstances vary a lot, but the heart of kindness is the same in them all. Don’t underestimate its value.

4. Submit to Their Leadership

The bible says we are to submit to our pastors and to honour those who “direct the affairs of the church well”. They serve us by leading us. And we must let them lead. We don’t want them to be tyrannical, of course, and a few of them are tempted to do that. We want leadership to be shared amongst more than one elder. But we must let them lead. I know of too many pastors who seek to lead in a godly way, but whose leadership is constantly frustrated by powerful individuals, or sometimes power blocs, in their churches. Some of us have an addictive problem with power; we simply have to be listened to, to be the people who matter. What a pain we become to our pastors! But, then again, some of us have learned that, even if we may be very wise and very experienced (or so we think!), we should graciously let our pastors lead, and follow with enthusiasm. That too will put a spring in the step of our pastors.

There’s more in the book. It’s a neglected area of church life, but an important one.

The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) is about how you can care for your pastor and the difference it makes. Seasoned former pastor, Christopher Ash, urges church members to think about pastors not just in terms of what they do – how they lead and pray and preach and teach and so on – but what about who they are. Buy it here.

Categories: Christian Resources

Christian: your sermon feedback really does make a difference!

Tue, 07/05/2019 - 14:20

Christian: your sermon feedback really does make a difference!

Pastors have a tough job. The role of a church leader regularly features high among the most stressful or pressurised vocations. 

The trouble for the rest of us is that we so often forget this. It’s easy to treat pastors in the same way that children often approach their parents or their teachers - as people who exist to serve us and meet our needs, and nothing more. But pastors are just like us. They are people. They struggle. They can be ground down or they can be cheered on.

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To mark the launch of Christopher Ash’s new release The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) we approached a collection of pastors to find out what kind of things really, genuinely encourage them in their work.. 

And what came back was gloriously simple. 

Encouraging, specific sermon feedback. That’s one key way to cheer our pastors on. To put it another way, if we’re not doing that, we’re grinding them down, even if we don’t realise it. 

Here is a selection of the anonymous comments we received from pastors: 

“One simple encouraging comment can change everything. If somebody shares how a sermon/lesson/counseling session really helped them, that can make a huge difference.”  

“The best time is when someone writes a note to say how a sermon impacted them. I think we're often embarrassed to do that to pastors (I know I am) because maybe we'll seem stupid or maybe we'll make them proud. But one of the hardest things about pastoral ministry is that you never see the result of your work. I don't appreciate these comments because it tells me I'm a good pastor, but rather because it reminds me that God is actually doing something when I get up there and preach.” 

“It is a great encouragement when people share how a Bible message has addressed a particular need or situation in their lives.” 

The rest of this blog would take about two minutes to read. Honestly, I’d rather you used that time to drop your pastor a quick email, text or note, telling him one specific way you were helped or shaped by his preaching last Sunday. 

Still here with me?! OK—here are a few other things that the pastors we asked find particularly supportive:

“One memorable moment was just after we had a stillborn baby girl. One of the deacons in the church dropped by, asked how I was doing, and prayed with me... just as I would've done if the roles had been reversed. Sometimes pastors ask "Who pastors the pastor?" One key answer is, "His fellow sheep"

“I appreciate people asking how I am doing as a person as well as asking how my ministry involvement is going.  It's great when I can be treated as an "ordinary Christian" rather than as someone with a special job. Recently, a lady from church asked how I was - when I said I was really struggling to sleep she said she'd pray and then said, "Actually, why don't we just pray now for a moment" and stood and prayed with me after church. That was wonderful in the midst of a morning where everyone had been asking how Christianity Explored - or various other ministry things - were going, or had been pouring out their own struggles to me.”  

“People showing up to our monthly prayer meeting. It makes a huge difference to me when a good number - including some I know have had to come straight from work - are there. Equally, it is pretty demoralising when there’s just a handful of you, and you start to wonder how much people care.”

“Whenever I am invited to a social gathering in a parishioner’s home, especially if there are a number of the congregation present.”

“Good pastor-friends meeting with me and commiserating with me helps a ton.”

“When people listen to you and value your leadership.” 

It is a tough job, as well as a privileged and glorious one. It’s a job that you and I can make more of a joy, or more of a drain. How great that our pastors can be genuinely encouraged in a few fairly small, specific ways, that we can all manage. How challenging that, all too often, those encouragements are noticed by our pastors because they’re far too rarely offered.

The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask) looks at how you, as a church member, can care for your pastor and the difference it makes. Seasoned former pastor Christopher Ash urges churches to think about pastors not just in terms of what they do – how they lead and pray and preach and teach and so on – but what about who they are.

Categories: Christian Resources

What you watch on Saturday night is unavoidably linked to what you hear on Sunday morning

Tue, 07/05/2019 - 09:43

The following piece is an extract from Dan Strange’s new book Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play

We live in a world of constant information.

Just think about your day so far. Here’s how my morning looked…

Alarm turns on the radio: government minister being grilled over education policy.

Walk the dog, headphones firmly in, listening to a film review podcast.

Make the kids packed lunches with radio in background, trying to stop our youngest from activating Alexa and playing the Power Rangers theme tune at earbleeding levels. (Tell me: Why is it, when I shout, “Alexa, stop”, she doesn’t, but when my kids tell her to stop, she immediately does?)

Scan the news app: politics, economy, sport, economy, politics.

Check the weather app: rain.

I’ve only been awake for forty-five minutes and already my senses have been subjected to a barrage of information.

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Technology experts have stated that the amount of recorded information generated from the dawn of humanity to 2003 was in the order of 5 exabytes of data, where an exabyte indicates 1000000000000000000 bytes. From 2003 to 2010, we generated an additional

5 exabytes. By 2018, 90% of the world’s data had been generated in the previous two years alone. When you consider that 400 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, it’s hardly surprising. That’s a lot of prank videos to get through.

Telling stories

But people don’t take on information as bytes. Our smartphones might be downloading bytes of information, but our brains aren’t—the unit our minds and hearts operate in is stories. Now when I say “stories”, I don’t mean the sort of stories you were taught to write in school, with a beginning, a middle and an end (usually a very predictable one). These stories are all the experiences, feelings, imagination and ideas that we communicate from one human being to another. We read them in the newspaper, we watch them in the cinema, we hear them sung from the car stereo, we glance at them on Instagram, we frame them in our homes.

All of us spend a lot of our waking moments taking in, and telling, these cultural stories. Recent research showed that the average American consumes over ten hours of media every day. It’s thought that you’ll spend seven and a half years of your life watching TV, and over five years on social media. But there are so many hours in a day, right? No wonder that it’s been said of the TV streaming service Netflix that their greatest competition isn’t another company but the human need for sleep.

Yet many of us find this barrage of information overwhelming, at least some of the time. And for Christians, there’s an added question: how do we know what’s right? As followers of Jesus, we want to think, speak and act in a way that honours him. We want to “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3 v 2), but in reality, most of the time our minds are submerged in a constant stream of stories. The problem is not that these cultural stories are bad in and of themselves; it’s more that we’re ill-equipped to know quite what to make of them. How does what I watch on a Saturday night link with what I hear at church on a Sunday morning? We barely begin to think about it before the next thing starts on autoplay. So more often, we just don’t.

It is possible to engage with culture in a way that’s truthful and gracious, not angry and self-righteous. It’s possible to consume culture without either being bewitched by it—buying into everything it tells us—or bewildered by it. It’s possible to watch TV and read novels and play video games in a way that actually feeds our faith rather than withers it. It’s even possible for you—yes, you—to be that person who starts off talking to a friend about last night’s football and ends up talking about Jesus.

It’s possible to consume culture without either being bewitched by it or bewildered by it

Three reactions

So what do we do? I think many Christians respond to culture in one of three ways (and the rest of us respond in a mixture of all three).

Some of us just want to “look in”. We stick our heads in the sand, get into our holy huddle and Christian bubble, and hang on for dear life. We put our fingers in our ears so that we can’t hear the noise outside, while at the same time singing loudly to one another about Jesus coming back soon when all the outside stuff will go away. Until then, we keep ourselves safe from worldly influences by only ever reading Amish romance novels or the latest releases from our favourite celebrity pastor. If we were in therapy, this would be called our sanctified “flight” response.

Some of us instinctively “lash out”. This is our sanctified “fight” response. We get all huffy, red-faced and fingerpointy at the culture around us. Or we just tut and roll our eyes at sex scenes in films or the bad language on TV. At its worst, our healthy belief in judgment turns into an ugly judgmentalism. Our proclamation of the good news of Jesus is heard as a rant on morality. And then we wonder why people “out there” don’t want to come and be with us “in here”.

Then, some of us end up “looking like”. Whatever the motivation, our lives—and our cultural diets—are indistinguishable from the neighbour’s next door, and our churches end up looking not much different from the local sports club. Maybe it’s a well-intentioned drive to be “relevant”. Maybe it’s a reaction against judgmentalism. Maybe it’s simply an indulgence of our sinful nature. Whatever it is, we struggle to be recognised as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2 v 9). We have become experts at conforming “to the pattern of this world” when we’ve expressly been told not to (Romans 12 v 2).

Look in, lash out, look like: which response are you most prone to?

Engage

Let me suggest that there is another way—and that’s what this book is all about. Because it is possible to be truly “in” the world instead of “looking in”—without being “of” the world and looking like it. It’s possible to engage with culture in a way that’s truthful and gracious, not angry and self-righteous. It’s possible to consume culture without either being bewitched by it—buying into everything it tells us—or bewildered by it. It’s possible to watch TV and read novels and play video games in a way that actually feeds our faith rather than withers it. It’s even possible for you—yes, you—to be that person who starts off talking to a friend about last night’s football and ends up talking about Jesus. And that’s what this book will equip you to do. It will help you to process the cultural stories you hear every day. I want to give you the confidence to think about and speak about culture in a way that points people to a bigger and better reality: the story of King Jesus and his cosmic plan for this world. Because you can’t escape culture. But you can engage culture.

This is an extract from Dan Strange’s new book Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play. You can pick up a copy here.

Categories: Christian Resources

We need to talk about your pastor

Mon, 06/05/2019 - 06:00

My grandfather and dad were both full-time chaplains for the London City Mission, my father-in-law is a vicar, and my husband is an elder in our local church—while also studying part-time for an MA in Christian ministry. I live a close distance from men who aspire to shepherd God’s people and in so doing have chosen a bittersweet path. In public they are men who lead up-front, but in private they are often on their knees.

I think it’s true to say that ordinarily those who lead our churches can sometimes feel a little far-off. In fact, when we think about the role of those who step up to the plate every Sunday—if we do so at all—it can be easy for our thoughts to swing wildly…

On some days we may be deeply aware of the sacrifice the job of a pastor demands, while on others we might be tempted to wonder what it is they do all day(!), while finding criticism comes easily to our lips.

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Part of the problem might be that while our pastors take centre-stage at church on a Sunday, their day-to-day comings and goings often remain a mystery to us. Some of us may feel we know our pastor very well, while others may know very little about the person who serves them week by week. And so a feeling of disconnection can creep in as we lose touch with who they are, and how we can best serve them (if that thought ever occurs to us at all).

Whatever your experience of being ‘pastored’, the health and well-being of the person who is committed and responsible for shepherding your church family is of vital importance to the well-being of the church as a whole, and therefore to you. And while you may at times feel disconnected from the person who takes the pulpit each Sunday, it is right to remember that pastors are people too and that if we want a joy-filled church, we need to have a cared-for pastor.

So what exactly can we, as members of a local church do to motivate, encourage and bless our pastor in the role to which they have been called? In this warm and practical book—The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read (but is too embarrassed to ask)—Christopher Ash unpacks some of the surprising ways in which we can care for our pastors in a way that really makes a difference—to them, to us, and to the church as a whole.

One simple thing to do today

Below is a short extract from the book outlining a simple action we can all take today that can have a profound impact on our pastors:

"We want to make sure our pastors live the kind of lifestyle that any wise Christian will seek to live—with time to wind down and get enough sleep, with opportunities for regular exercise, with activities that refresh. “So what do you do to relax?” “How much sleep do you get?” “Do you take exercise?” These are all the questions of a caring church. If the answers are “I don’t relax; I hardly sleep; I never get exercise”, then we will want to explore with our pastors why this might be. It may be their foolishness, in which case we want to help them learn wisdom. But insofar as it may be down to preventable pressures from the church, we will want to educate one another to keep that watchful loving eye over our pastors.

The feeling of being “stuck” is deeply demotivating: “I feel trapped. I sense I am not making progress. My life seems to be ebbing away in this miserable place, with no hope of growth or development.” How terrible if those dark thoughts are going round in the mind of our pastors. How much better they will pastor if we contribute to a sense that “I am growing, developing, maturing in godliness, in pastoral skills and abilities, and in wisdom. I am so thankful to serve a church who encourage me, help me and enable me so to grow.”

Why not stop and think, right now, about ways in which you can thoughtfully watch over your pastor to help them use their time well and wisely? This might mean asking your pastor how their holiday went or how well they are managing to take their days off. Or you could check with one of the elders/lay leaders to discover whether they pay for your pastor to go to any conferences. And if you know that your pastor is about to have time away—be that study leave, a conference or holiday—why not ask how you can pray for them? That’s a simple and very practical way to be an encourager."

In The Book Your Pastor Wishes You Would Read seasoned former pastor, Christopher Ash, urges church members to think about pastors not just in terms of what they do—how they lead and pray and preach and teach and so on—but about who they are. He encourages us to remember that pastors are people and to pray for them as they serve us. Buy it here

Categories: Christian Resources

Friday Quiz: Paul's Prayers

Fri, 03/05/2019 - 09:27
Categories: Christian Resources

Our prayers reveal our priorities

Tue, 30/04/2019 - 09:20

The following piece is an extract from Pray Big.

To pray is an admission and an expression of dependence. A self-assured person is not going to pray prayers of petition; there’s no need to pray if you think you have got it all covered. A self-righteous person is not going to pray prayers of confession; there’s no need to pray if you think you’re good enough to earn God’s blessing. But the person who knows their heart before God—the person who knows the depth of their need of forgiveness and help from God—does what Paul does. They bow their knees (Ephesians 3 v 14).

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Paul achieved great things. His ministry literally changed the world. His preaching set a fire raging round the Mediterranean—a gospel fire that stretched from Jerusalem up through Turkey into Greece and westwards to Rome. Few men have done as much, or had as great an impact, as this short, stooping, near-sighted Jewish convert.

But Paul never thought he did any of it alone. He knew he had a privileged task: "I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace… to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things." (Ephesians 3 v 7, 8-9). And he knew that, without God’s help, it would be an impossible task. So he prayed. He recognized the direct link between his preaching and his praying—the first must be accompanied by the second. He was aware of the fact that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127 v 1). He lived out what the nineteenth-century hymnwriter Arthur C. Ainger described in “God Is Working His Purpose Out”:

All we can do is nothing worth

Unless God blesses the deed;

Vainly we hope for the harvest-tide

Till God gives life to the seed.

Jesus prayed

This undergirds all of Paul’s thinking. One plants the seed and another waters, but only God can make it grow (1 Corinthians 3 v 6-7). In this, Paul was following the pattern of his Master, the Lord Jesus. As we read the Gospels, we discover that Jesus was praying to the Father all the time. Presumably, the many instances that the Gospel writers record for us were the tip of the iceberg, not the whole of it. Jesus’ approach to life rested on dependent prayer. So the night before his death, in what we refer to as the upper room discourse, Jesus teaches his disciples in some of his most famous and moving words:

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. ( John 14 v 1)

I am the true vine … As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. (15 v 1, 9)

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. (15 v 26)

Take heart; I have overcome the world. (16 v 33)

And then comes the first verse of chapter 17:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said…”

Jesus prayed. And he said, in effect, Father, I’m praying now that the things that I have instructed my friends about, and that they have come to understand as a result of my teaching, may actually be their experience as they go out into the world.

I find this a tremendous truth and a rather uncomfortable challenge. My prayers—whether I pray, how much I pray, about what I pray—reveal my priorities. And they reveal how much I really think I need God, or whether I am, deep down, in fact self-assured and self-righteous. If Paul, “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1 v 1), knew that he needed to “bow my knees before the Father” (3 v 14), what of us? If Jesus Christ, the greatest teacher in the world, followed up his instruction by prayer, what of us? If Jesus

Christ, who was set on a mission that changed not just world history but all of eternity, took time to pray, what of us? If Jesus Christ, the Son of God, knew that he needed to pray, what of us?

So many of us struggle with prayer. Many books have been written on the subject and there’s a reason for that. Prayer comes hard to most of us, in most seasons. In Pray Big renowned Bible teacher Alistair Begg combines warmth, clarity, humor, and practicality as he examines Paul’s prayers for his friends in the church in Ephesus. Buy it here

Categories: Christian Resources

Horror in our hearts - how the gospel confronts the harrowing world of Game of Thrones

Fri, 26/04/2019 - 16:08

I once had a conversation with a friend about Game of Thrones that led to talking about Jesus. Or at least, it nearly did. But I bottled it.

It was at the beginning of the HBO series’ immense popularity, and we were both curious. Not knowing much about it but going on a family member’s recommendation, I’d decided to read George R.R. Martin’s first book, while my friend had been watching the first episodes of the TV series. But unlike millions of other viewers and readers, we hadn’t liked it very much, and we were trying to work out why.

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“The thing is,” said my friend, “if you’re making up a fantasy world, you can make it with any rules you choose. So why did he make it this way?”

I don't want this reality

For her, the problem was the sexual violence that runs through both books and films. Why not choose to imagine a world in which women are valued and sex is not used to oppress?

What had struck me the most was broader: it was the pessimism of the whole thing. The endless deaths and injustices made life in the world of Westeros seem meaningless. Unlike so many other fantasy series, where the main characters miraculously escape every hostile blow and cunning plot, in Martin’s world death and misfortune take victim after victim. 

In one sense I can see why. After all, in real life, death isn’t picky. Too often, it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Allowing death to rip indiscriminately through the cast list is a way of making things more realistic.

But my friend and I agreed: if this was realism, we didn’t want it.

Happy endings?

Looking back, I wish we had talked more about why we felt this way.

For me it was tied up in my faith. I see this world as one in which every individual is known and seen by their Creator, where injustice and oppression will not prevail, where death is not final. A world with a happy ending, announced by Jesus and won by him on the cross.

So we were right to be upset by the violence in the series; right to be discomfited by its pessimism. A world of justice and freedom is a good and godly thing to hope for. 

But I think George R.R. Martin’s harsh and horrible world made us uncomfortable for another reason, too: one the author himself intended. When criticised about the series’ depiction of rape, he explained what he was trying to show: “that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.”

His words are not so different from what Jesus says in Mark 7 v 21-22: “it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” All the things my friend and I disliked about Game of Thrones, in fact. The horror is there in our own hearts.

So we were wrong, too. We wanted to think that the world is better than it is.

I wish I'd told her

My friend isn’t a Christian. I wish I’d told her that the horror I felt at the violence in Game of Thrones should, in reality, also be directed at my own heart. I wish I’d told her that the discomfort I felt about the pessimism in the series was that I know that, in reality, there is hope for the world.

“We need to think of the stories our culture tells us and the themes it peddles,” Dan Strange tells us in his book Plugged In. “We need to learn to identify where they are suppressing the truth, and to spot where that truth keeps “popping up” like a beach ball ... We can both confront and connect the gospel to any and every broken story.”

So, having missed my chance with Game of Thrones, I’m going to try to think that way—and speak that way—about the next blockbuster series instead. The Crown, anyone?

Whether it's TV boxsets, Instagram stories or historical novels, we all consume culture. In Plugged In, Dan Strange encourages Christians to engage with everything they watch, read and play in a positive and discerning way. He also teaches Christians how to think and speak about culture in a way that plugs in to a bigger and better reality—the story of King Jesus, and his cosmic plan for the world.

Categories: Christian Resources

The most important 5 letter word in Calvinism

Thu, 25/04/2019 - 06:00

The following piece is an extract from Humble Calvinism by J.A. Medders.

The most important five-letter word in Calvinism isn’t TULIP. It’s Jesus. He has first place in everything (Colossians 1 v 18). The whole Bible is about him (John 5 v 39). The apostle Paul tells us again and again that our swagger must go and we are to boast only in the Lord. “So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10 v 17). If we are going to toot a horn, there’s one note we have: “But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6 v 14). Christ is our confidence. Christ is our cause. Christ is our song.

Let’s brag about Jesus. Parents have no problems bragging on their kids: Johnny did this at soccer… and you just won’t believe what little Sally said the other day. We brag about what we love.

You mind if I brag about the Lord for a minute?

Jesus literally holds the entire universe together, and yet he’s never too busy for me. My Jesus walked on a Galilean sea, in the middle of a raging storm, and acted like it was no big deal. And another time, he told the wind and the waves that enough was enough: “Be still!” I can’t even get my dog to sit.

In the town of Cana, a groom failed to bring enough wine for the wedding afterparty—a big embarrassing social nono. Instead of running to the corner store, Jesus turned water into wine, showcasing his glory and his kindness for this failing newly-wed. Jesus helps failures. Jesus is there in crises.

Jesus is so kind to us that even when we are at our lowest, he still wants to keep us. Even when we wanted nothing to do with Jesus, he still wanted us. He still loved us. When I forget to ask Jesus for help, he still helps me.

The crowds mocked Jesus. So what? The Pharisees were always out to get him. No big deal. His family tried to get him to tone down his preaching. Fat chance. Jesus still hung out with the people that compromised his reputation. The people that society had kicked to the curb—Jesus went to them. He has a large heart for the outcasts, the misunderstood, the oddballs. He’s the Messiah of the misfits.

When I hear a noise in my backyard at two in the morning, I just hope it’s the neighborhood cat. Darkness and danger terrify me, but not Jesus. Our Lord went toe-totoe with the demonic powers. Jesus stood up to these ancient bullies as they controlled and hurt men, women, and children. One command from Jesus and the demons scurried like roaches in the light.

Jesus encountered people with broken muscle tissue and misbehaving cellular structures, limbs, and organs. All fixed by the Carpenter of carpenters. The great Physician told a man with a shriveled and paralyzed hand to go ahead—stretch that arm out. Healed.

Jesus let Peter walk on water, contorting the sub-atomic properties of liquids and solids. And then he let Peter sink too, before enabling him to stand again. We’d all sink without Jesus.

Jesus literally holds the entire universe together, and yet he’s never too busy for me.

Though fully God—not God junior, diet God, or bargain basket God—Jesus really did let Roman soldiers nail iron spikes into his body. My Jesus did that for me. For my sins. Angels worship him, the universe depends on him, and he died for me.

Jesus became a cold corpse on a slab, but he refused to stay that way. He guaranteed he would rise from the dead and he did. His heart started pumping, his brainstem fired back on, and his central nervous system booted up. He lives. And he is alive in heaven, inviting us to go to him, to believe in him, to follow him, and to enjoy him.

When I’m unfaithful, he’s faithful. When I’m clueless, he’s patient. When I’m lost, he brings me back. When I’m confused, he’s clarifying. When I’m forgetful, he’s steady. Though there are times when I’m embarrassed to talk about him, he’s not ashamed to call me his brother, friend, co-heir.

Every thought, inclination, and urge Jesus has is totally righteous—and we can’t even begin to imagine that, because our thoughts, inclinations, and urges are so often totally not. In gym class, if Jesus had the first pick, he’d pick the kid who is always picked last, the kid we’d hope goes to the other team. We struggle to serve one another, grumbling as we get out of bed to make sure our spouse locked the front door; Jesus, however, with joy set before him, endured the cross to the point of death to save his Bride.

Jesus doesn’t use an iron fist to lead us or intimidate us into following him. Jesus transforms us: he removes the blinders, and we see what the angels long to peer into.

Jesus is realistic about our abilities. We lose our keys and can’t remember where we parked our car. There’s no way we can manage our salvation. He keeps us. He’s got us.

We could go on, but this book, even the world, can’t contain all of the ways we could brag about our Lord (John 21 v 25). We need a kind of Calvinism that doesn’t humblebrag about itself or about its footsoldiers, but loves to brag about the God of grace.

Where the points point

John Calvin shared this passion. He knew the megatheme of the Bible is Jesus Christ. Not the sin of man, or predestination, or even the atonement—but Jesus himself:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him … It is therefore not lawful that we turn away and become diverted even in the smallest degree by this or that. On the contrary, our minds ought to come to a halt at the point where we learn in Scripture to know Jesus Christ and him alone, so that we may be directly led by him to the Father who contains in himself all perfection.”

Jesus is the point of Calvinism because Jesus is the point of the Bible. Calvin’s beard would curl if he knew an itemized list of doctrines—bearing his name!—had divided Christ’s people and didn’t lead us to know and enjoy Jesus Christ. The five points are meant to be five pointers—pointers to Jesus and his grace. In fact, the last five braggable truths about Jesus you just enjoyed—his inclination, his pick in gym class, and so on—were the points of TULIP, showcasing Jesus’s incomparable glory.

Like C.H. Spurgeon, we should enjoy the points only when they are connected to Christ:

“How I do love the doctrines of grace when they are taken in connection with Christ. Some people preach the Calvinistic points without Jesus; but what hard, dry, marrowless preaching it is … let every believer remember he does not get these doctrines as he should get them, unless he receives them in Christ.”

TULIP’s aroma must be that of Christ. Christ-forgotten Calvinism is dry, rusty, lifeless. Without Jesus, Calvinism is nothing; it’s a placebo of grace. But real Calvinism redirects our hearts to the glory of our Redeemer. We are sinful, Jesus isn’t, but he became our sin to save us. We were chosen in Christ. Jesus loves us and died for our sins. We were drawn to believe in Christ because of God. We are saved forever in Christ. Christ-savoring Calvinism is soul food.

In Humble Calvinism, self-confessed recovering, cranky Calvinist Jeff Medders considers how and why the love of God gets replaced with a love of Calvinism. It's one thing having the five points all worked out in your head, but have they really penetrated your heart? Pick up a copy of Humble Calvinism today.

Categories: Christian Resources

Q&A with Helen Thorne: how to pray for your city

Wed, 24/04/2019 - 06:00

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an author? What is it that drives somebody to take an idea and run with it all the way to a printed book on sale in the local bookshop? In reality, it’s probably different for everyone. But what follows is a glimpse into one author’s story. Helen recently co-wrote 5 Things to Pray for Your City, and we asked her to tell us a bit about herself and the passion that motivated her to write.

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Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Helen Thorne and, whilst at one stage I enjoyed working at The Good Book Company, I now have the privilege of working as the Director of Training and Mentoring at London City Mission. It’s a wide and varied role which on any given week can see me speaking at conferences, writing books, teaching people to be missionaries, equipping local churches to reach out to their area or quietly mentoring a younger woman who is taking her first steps into the wonderful world of urban mission. I’m also a trustee of Biblical Counselling UK and that means I have a particular passion for those in our cities who are struggling on the margins.

How did you get involved with writing 5 Things to Pray for Your City?

I’ve been enjoying the 5 Things to Pray series for some time. I remember them when they were only blog posts and not books! I love the simple, biblical way each of the products encourages people to pray in strategic yet heart-felt ways. And it was one evening when I was reading through part of 5 Things to Pray for your Church that it occurred to me that it would be great to have a book that equips people to pray for their local city.

As Christians, we’re often really good at praying for our congregation and the few blocks that surround our church building—and frequently we’re good at praying for far flung places, too—but many of us struggle to do what Paul did so naturally in thinking about the saints in Rome or Colossae as a whole. We often don’t pray for the local very effectively. And that seemed a good thing to address.

At London City Mission, we have a real passion for encouraging people to pray for the least reached communities of London so writing on this topic felt like a natural thing to do but it also seemed like a good opportunity to partner with another city-based organisation that works with some of the communities we don’t—a few emails and a couple of meetings later, the three-way writing-partnership between The Good Book Company, City to City and London City Mission was born.

Who should pray for cities?

All people are important to God—whether they live in cities or not—so it’s probably important to say up front that I’m really keen to see people praying for smaller towns and rural areas too. But most of us live in or near a city—and all of us are influenced by what goes on in a city (whether that’s our capital city or simply an urban area nearby)—so there are good practical reasons for all of us to pray about what goes on there.

It’s more than that though. In Scripture, we find that cities are often the places where we see the excesses of humanity’s fallenness and the places where we see God’s rescue plan progressed despite that brokenness. From the first city in Genesis 4 to the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation, God’s big story largely plays out on the streets of cities. One day, of course, those who are in Christ are going to enjoy the New Jerusalem—that’s where we are ultimately headed. It seems that God is passionate about cities—and it’s good for us to reflect his passion in our prayer life whether we live there, work there or simply visit cities from time to time.

What is your prayer for the book?

The answer to that has got to be: to see people praying more about the multi-layered needs of their local city. Whether it’s interceding for the government, pleading for the homeless, praising our Lord for the work of missionaries or church-planters or quietly talking to God about the salvation of teachers, firefighters or musicians nearby—I long to encourage people to drop to their knees and ask God to build his Kingdom.

I don’t take these things for granted. I know what it’s like: we can all so easily buy a book on prayer, flick through its pages, get excited and then not pray. I know our prayer lives can so quickly become dominated by the urgent matters closest to our heart. But there are so many people in our cities who are yet to come to Christ and grow in Christ—millions going through life without a clue that Jesus is who they need most and the one who deserves their all—my hope and prayer is that this little resource will galvanise us all to broaden our prayer lives, for the salvation of souls and the glory of Jesus.

5 Things to Pray for Your City by Pete Nicholas and Helen Thorne, has been developed in partnership with London City Mission and Redeemer City to City. Whatever your urban context, use it to fuel powerful Biblical prayers for your city. Buy it here.

Categories: Christian Resources

3 truths for soon to be graduates

Tue, 23/04/2019 - 06:00

Two years ago today, I handed in my dissertation. I took the obligatory photos in front of the university clock tower, handed it in and retreated to the sofa with friends feeling slightly empty and lost. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to have handed it in. But the reality of soon entering the “real world” loomed large. While many of my friends had secured jobs that they were due to start as soon as term ended, I was firmly in the “I’m not sure what’s next” camp. And I was absolutely terrified (trust me—growing up I was the kind of kid who made an itinerary for every day of the family holiday. Planning is my jam).

Perhaps you’re there right now. Here are three things I wish someone had told me two years ago.

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God knows what's ahead

You might not know what the next few months hold, but God does. In Psalm 139, David sees the looming darkness and besetting threats, but can still praise God because “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (v16). You can trust every single unknown to your Father who knows what tomorrow holds. Rest in his grace today and trust his plan for tomorrow, knowing that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8 v 28).

... So it's ok to take risks and make mistakes

Decision paralysis is common among university leavers. Should I move to that city? Take that internship? Live with that friend? Would it make more sense  to move back in with my parents? What if I stay in my university city but everyone else moves? Am I making the right decision?

In her book, Is This It, Rachel Jones addresses this issue by pointing our eyes to our ultimate destination:

“We’re part of a story that is building to a climax where Jesus is glorified forever. Where you’ll be in 50 years’ time is uncertain. Where you’ll be in 500 years is not. This is not for maybe; this is for sure. So when you’re surrounded by a set of “maybes” (maybe I should do this, maybe I should move there, maybe I should go out with him ), look ahead to what is sure—and so, so exciting. In this sense, life can’t go “wrong”. All the decisions, indecisions and curveballs you experience can never make it go wrong.”

This is so freeing! So take the job, move to that city, take up the hobby—but ”whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10 v 31). Even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, things will probably turn out ok. 

You can trust every single unknown to your Father who knows what tomorrow holds

You're not alone

We don’t have to make these scary life transitions alone—God has given us a family of believers to walk through life with. Joining a new church can be stressful—the endless introductions and newness of it all can be exhausting, especially if you’re an introverted person.

But when we truly understand what church is, we will miss it when it’s not there and look forward to it when it is. In a podcast I was listening to recently, I was so moved by how Susan Hunt described the local church:  “I can barely speak the word ‘church’ without weeping in wonder at the very idea! The Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the family of God! The church is the people of God in all times and in all places. We’re those who were chosen in Christ in eternity past. We’re the ones with the potential to make Jesus known—to reflect the glory of God in a dark, broken world!”

That’s not to say that church will always be easy. I spent last Sunday morning wrangling with a bunch of hyper 8 year olds—afterwards I felt drained and far from excited about the next Sunday! But I can also recount endless stories of how my church family has loved me, cared for me, prayed for me, fed me and looked out for me over the past 2 years. They probably didn’t think much of it at the time, but it meant so much to me. So be confident that wherever life takes you, you’ll never be far from a family of believers who you can call home.

However you’re feeling about leaving university, you could do much worse than to take a look at Is This It? Whether you’re just feeling a bit lost or having a full “quarter life crisis”, it’s sure to encourage you (and make you laugh) as you navigate the challenges of adulting. Author, Rachel Jones is 20-something, trying to keep it together, and ready to say what we’re all thinking. Buy it here.

Categories: Christian Resources

He Died, That We Might Live: Good Friday Meditations

Fri, 19/04/2019 - 06:00

One of the best ways to view a diamond is to put it against a dark background and shine a bright light on it from the side. The contrast reveals the wonder of the stone in all its perfection. So too with the cross. The dark backdrop of the cost to Jesus, contrasted with the light of the blessings we enjoy, reveals the wonder and glory of the cross. May these Easter contrasts fill our hearts with gratitude and our mouths with praise.

He was stripped naked, that we might be clothed in his righteousness.

He became poor, that we might become rich.

He became unclean, that we might be cleansed.  

He was forsaken by the Father, that we might be embraced by the Father.

He became sin, that we might be set free from sin.

He died, that we might live.

He emptied himself, that we might be filled with the fullness of God.

He became a man of sorrows, that we might overflow with joy.

He came down, that we might be raised up.

He was condemned, that we might be justified.

He became homeless, that we might come home.

He was born of a woman, that we might be born of God.

He was lifted up on the cross, that the devil might be brought down.

He became thirsty, that we might never thirst again.

He was plunged into darkness, that we might walk in the light.

He experienced hell, that we might go to heaven.

He suffered shame, that we might be honoured.

He paid the price, that we might have a free gift.

He gave up everything, that we might gain everything.

He became lost, that we might be found.

He had the Father against him, that the Father might be for us.

He drained the cup of wrath, that our cup of blessing might run over.

He was cursed, that we might be blessed.

He was wounded, that we might be healed.

He was broken, that we might be made whole.

He was led away, that we might be brought near.

He was cut off, that we might be grafted in.

He bore God’s anger, that we might bask in God’s love.

He wore a crown of thorns, that we might receive the crown of glory.

He was punished, that we might be pardoned.

He gave up his spirit, that we might receive the Spirit.

He was killed as a criminal, that we might reign as kings.

He fulfilled the law for us, that the law might be fulfilled in us.  

He was sent by God, to save us from God.

Heavenly Father, the words ‘thank you’ are easy to say, but this thank you comes from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for Jesus. What a love, what a cost, that I can stand forgiven at the cross. Words could not tell, not even in part, the debt of love that is owed by this thankful heart. May I never lose the wonder of your mercy. In response I present my body to you as a living sacrifice. Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. Amen.

Categories: Christian Resources

How to teach our children to use screens with wisdom

Thu, 18/04/2019 - 06:00

How should today’s parents be thinking when it comes to digital technology, especially smartphones? And how can they wisely approach the extremes of being fearful of technology and being careless with technology? The following is a conversation between the Marketing and Social Media Manager for the ERLC, Julie Mason and children's author and speaker Dorena Williamson

Julie Masson: Parents today need to realize that technology is not just something to be aware of, but rather it is something that is pivotal to our lives. For example, our teenagers will likely have teachers request that they download a certain app to be used in the classroom. So, if we continue to see technology as something that is purely evil, we will miss out on the practical way our society uses technology. Banning our children from ever using it may actually hinder them more than it will protect them.

On the other hand, we need to be aware of the dangers that come with technology, and in particular, smartphones. They give our children instant access to the world and to their friends (and strangers). One of the worst things we can do as a parent is to simply hand over a smartphone and let them loose.

Our children need to be taught how to use technology properly. Just like we teach our teenagers how to drive by sitting in the passenger seat and coaching them around that first turn, we need to sit down with our children and show them how to “drive” a smartphone.

We need to explain the various social media apps and how we use them. We should show our kids interactions we have on social media so they can ask questions. We must give a lesson on digital “stranger danger” and help our children know what’s OK to share online and what’s not (your address, your school, your job, etc.). And we have to set boundaries that help protect them from danger.

Dorena Williamson: I believe that looking at technology as a tool can be very helpful. Each generation tends to wish things were “the way it used to be,” because it takes effort to embrace change. Technology progresses and shifts as it should, and there are some beneficial ways it can be utilized: As a tool of better communication, connectivity, research, and learning. We must constantly turn our worry about it into prayer and proceed in good works infused with faith.

Our family approaches access to technology as a privilege—that most people in the world do not have—that should be utilized with the constant companion of wisdom. I believe we should give age-appropriate instruction and warning to our kids. Proverbs lays out both the benefits of good choices and the consequences of bad choices, which is an excellent way to approach our families’ standards with everything, including technology.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents to give their kids phones, particularly smartphones, at younger ages. How do they resist this pressure?

JM: Our children are 10, 8, and 6. We haven’t landed on what age we will allow them to have a smartphone, but we do know that we will likely start with a “dumb” phone or get them a watch that allows calling to four predetermined numbers. It’s important to discuss these things with your spouse and other peers because there are no easy answers.

The questions my husband and I are currently thinking about regarding smartphone usage are: When will they need a phone for more than just calling or texting to let us know their practice is over and need a ride home? When we think they are in need of this, should we pay for it? Or should they buy the phone and the monthly plan with their own money? Or vice versa?

DW: I try to keep the big picture before my kids, who now range from 14 to 24 years old: comparing ourselves to other people will always make us feel better or less than. And neither is the truth. We shouldn’t respond to peers with pride or dejection because we do or don’t have the latest phone. Someone will always have the latest thing before we do. It's not easy, but I think we can keep reminding our children (and ourselves) of the “why,” and build understanding that will serve them later on.

We must also resist judging others for their reality and technological needs. Fewer people opt to have landlines, and, a single parent navigating custody may need their younger tween to have a phone. Or, a working parent may need to hear that their child’s practice ended early.

In your view, is there an ideal age to give kids a smartphone?

JM: I think that depends on the family and the child. If we had a child that was travelling for sports on weekends, we would at least send them with a flip phone. But I really can’t imagine a scenario when our young children would need a smartphone.

Determining when to give our children a smartphone should, in part, be based on how much time we are willing to invest in teaching our children the proper way to use it. We need to make time to explain the benefits and disadvantages of using a smartphone. We should also have rules and expectations in place. If we don’t have expectations in place and we don’t have time to sit down with our children to explain how to use a smartphone, we may not be ready to give our children one.

DW: I don’t think there is an ideal age. Just as some kids are responsible enough to be left at home alone at an earlier age, some kids can be trusted with technology at younger ages than others. My mantra was “a phone is primarily for communication,” and that guided our “when.” We used the phone as a way to teach trust, maturity, and wise choices. They earned it, and they lost it.

We found that when our young teen started getting more involved in sports, we needed more communication than, “Use Mrs. Jones’ phone to call us.” That varied with each child. With some extracurricular activities and team sports, it’s more streamlined for the coach to mass communicate with the athletes, and that started for us in middle school.

So generally, when our children are spending more time in activities and a phone can help with communication, that’s a good time to get one, though it doesn’t have to be a smartphone.

What is your advice on limiting screen time?

JM: We need to have a plan. We will only frustrate our kids if we say yes to screen time sometimes, and no other times simply because of how we feel that day. Decide how much time you will allow your kids to be on screens, and then talk to your kids about those rules.

Our family has various screen time rules. Our children can only play the Wii on weekends, and only after their chores are done. We keep an eye on how long they have been on it. We allow computer time once a week while I teach one child how to cook. I have restrictions set so that the only websites they can go to are educational sites I’ve pre-selected.

Also, my 10 year old has her own Nook, and she can be on certain apps (YouTube Kids, for example) for up to 30 minutes per day. We use the Circle with Disney device to help manage how much time she can spend on her Nook.

Device restrictions plus communicating a plan really help keep the frustrations to a minimum. Our kids know what our expectations are regarding screen time, so there is far less arguing about when and what they can do on devices.

DW: Remembering that technology is a tool, and phones should be primarily for communication, is a huge help.

How can parents model, for their kids, the wise use of technology?

JM: This is perhaps the best question to ask ourselves. I can put restrictions on my kids’ devices, limit screen time, and clearly communicate the rules, but if all they see is me looking at my phone, I will have failed. I have to be the one to show them that my smartphone can be a helpful tool, not an idol. I have to show them that conversation with them is more important than whatever is happening on my social media feed at the moment.

For someone like me, who loves to be in communication with the rest of the world through my own smartphone, this is very hard. I’ve had to apologize to my kids for not paying attention to them when they were talking to me. I’ve had to set certain times during my day when I don’t check my phone. During those times, usually before school and the hour after they get home, I plug my phone in and put it on DND (Do Not Disturb).

Whatever our system is, we need to figure out ways to let our kids know that they are far more important than our phones. This has to be intentional, and it has to be strategically thought through. We can’t wing this aspect of our parenting.

DW: As in all areas, we should remember that more is caught than taught, so wisdom should be our companion in using technology as a tool. We should engage with our children when we are face to face with them. And as we live and love those God has entrusted us with, we can look for ways to use technology as a point of connection. For example, my family loves to use The Bible App to discuss the verse for the day, Twitter to talk about the news that’s trending, or the computer to look up our next dream vacation together. One of our children lives out of state, so FaceTiming provides an amazing way for her to join our family time.

As parents we are called to prepare our children to live on mission in a digital world while being wary of the dangers. How can we do this well?

JM: YouTube is the preferred medium of our children’s generation. So, when my daughter tells me about a channel she likes, I watch it with her. We like to watch various YouTube videos as a family and then talk about them. I’ll ask questions about something they observed in the video and try and apply it back to what we know to be true—that we were made to glorify God, that all humans are made in the image of God, etc.

So, I think the key here is to simply talk about technology to our children. Talk about ways people are using technology for good and ways people are using it for harm. I believe this helps them think through how they can use technology for a bigger purpose.

DW: We have used computers and phones with our children to build trust. We ask questions about what messages movies and television shows communicate. It often bugs my kids, but it also makes them think critically. I’m focused on preparing them for living without me and making God-honoring decisions that lead to a beneficial life.

Because I tend to be slow in learning how to use gadgets and upgrades, my teens help me learn. But in conversing together, I am able to get access into how they process the messages they take in and, as a result, teach them as they coach me. I remind them of our family standards—why we think this limitation or that allowance is important.

This digital age has countless opportunities for career paths and areas of ministry that require expertise. So, we can use technology to challenge our kids’ thinking and, perhaps, even guide them toward their God-given purpose.  

This article originally appeared at ERLC.com

Categories: Christian Resources

Feeling passion at the Passion

Wed, 17/04/2019 - 09:28

What should we feel about Easter?

It’s a question I grappled with as I read through the gospel passion narratives preparing to write a book for children.

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It turns out there is a huge amount of emotion pouring off these pages.

  • There’s joy as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem

  • There’s foreboding as the week continues, and the opposition to the Lord Jesus hots up.

  • There’s palpable warmth and excitement as Jesus spends intimate moments with his friends at the last supper.

  • There's fear, anger, rage and bewilderment as the Lord is arrested, tried and convicted.

  • There’s disbelief, horror, and heartbreaking sadness among his disciples and family, as he is scourged, beaten and then dies on the cross.

  • And then there is astonishment, disbelief, fear, and ultimately joy and wonder as the Risen Lord is revealed at the tomb, on the road and in the upper room.

What is remarkable about the passion narratives, however, is how little passion there is in them. The writing is crisp, succinct, straightforward. There are few if any stylistic flourishes that writers use to induce feelings in their readers. The gospels do not linger on the suffering of Christ, to make us feel sorry or horrified. They simply state it. “Pilate took him and had him flogged” (John 19:1). The mockery that follows is likewise told in plain descriptive words. And when the “big moment comes”, there is no brutalising description of the details, in all four gospels it just says: “they crucified him”.

My temptation as a writer would have been to paint in detail the cruelty, pain and injustice of this execution of an innocent man—to have my readers outraged and moved by the scene. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do not.

It was my sin that took him there; it was his love for me that held him there to the end

Pointing to the bigger picture

Of course, we see a lot of emotion in the reactions to the cross. The gospel writers want us to see clearly the drama of the moment, but they do not want us to focus our empathy for the suffering of the man on the cross. They want us to look at the bigger picture. It's one of the things I had against the film The Passion of the Christ, and the kind of sermons and Christian conversation that try to move us by winding up our emotions. They focus on details that, while true, are not part of the way the Gospels are written. The scriptures want us to look beyond the nails and the blood and the physical agony, and see what a movie can never show. The momentous galactic transaction that was taking place invisible to our eyes as sin was dealt with, the devil defeated and death destroyed.

What should we feel about Easter?

We should feel passionate about the passion. But we need to make sure our tears and joy are focussed on the right things.

  • We should be shedding tears for our sin that took him there. Every moment of wonder and joy we have in reading the gospel stories gets focussed to this point. He was brilliant, beautiful and glorious in his teaching, healing and miracles. He was blameless, righteous and pure, and yet he gave himself over to shame and suffering and death for the sins of the world. It was me that put him there.

  • We should stand in silent astonishment that a sinner like me could receive such grace from our amazing saviour. Although it was my sin that took him there; it was his love for me that held him there to the end. What a saviour!

  • We should be leaping for joy for the salvation he won. And now he freely gives new life to anyone who turns to him. He pours his healing death and resurrection life into those who respond to the gospel message—and sends us out to joyfully tell others about how the grace of God has found us.

We should be passionate about the passion. Both in our personal devotion to the Lord, and in our telling others the good news of Easter.

A Very Happy Easter by Tim Thornborough is a fresh retelling of the Easter Story for young children, with opportunities to join in with facial expressions. Buy today to get it in time for Easter weekend

Categories: Christian Resources

Breakdown in the Ruck: 4 pushbacks to the Folau/Vunipola ‘controversy’

Tue, 16/04/2019 - 14:49

This is about rugby, but it’s not really about rugby. So if you’re a Christian who doesn’t like rugby, please don’t switch off.

It’s been quite the storm in the rugby world this past week. First, Australia’s best player, Israel Folau, was told he would be sacked for putting a picture on his Instagram page warning that adulterers, liars, idolators, and, yes, homosexuals need to repent or they are headed for hell. (The more eagle-eyed will spot that Folau was basically precis-ing 1 Corinthians 5 v 9-10).

Then one of England’s best players, the Saracens Number 8 Billy Vunipola, defended Folau’s comments, stating his belief that man was made for woman, to procreate. He has been sacked from his role analysing games for Channel 4, he has been publicly criticized and warned by both club and country, he was booed by fans at the weekend, and some have called for him not to be allowed to play rugby for England again.

Here are four brief points I’d love to make to various rugby authorities/coaches/commentators/reporters…

1. Disagreeing with someone’s behaviour does not mean you hate them

As Billy Vunipola pointed out in his post (in the first part, the bit that everyone’s ignoring), he doesn’t hate anyone. Rugby authorities and clubs keep stating that they want rugby to be welcoming to all—but no Christian player would disagree. Every time someone in the media expresses confusion that Vunipola is such a friendly, kind, popular player and yet believes what he does, they show the crucial truth they’re missing: that you can disagree with how someone lives without hating them.

Ironically, the basic premise that to disagree is to hate works both ways: plenty of people on social media have been calling Folau and Vunipola all kinds of things. As yet, none of them are facing losing their analyst jobs on TV, or their contracts at rugby clubs.

We need to state clearly, and keep stating clearly, that it is possible to love people without agreeing with them: and then we need to show that in the way we live.

2. This is a conflict between two ways of seeing your identity

Folau’s views are upsetting to anyone who bases their identity as primarily or significantly about sexual orientation and activity (which are not the same thing), and then builds out from there. In refusing to recant, despite facing losing his career, Folau is basing his identity on his belief about God, and building out from there.

The unchallenged (and increasingly unchallengeable) assumption in western society is that your sexual identity is a given, that you must act on it in order to be fulfilled, and that any opposition to that is hateful and bigoted. What therefore goes unnoticed is that in defending this position, its adherents have spent the weekend describing every Christian rugby player’s core way of seeing themselves as ignorant, bigoted, hate-filled, backward, outdated, etc. No one seems to have noticed that this is one view of identity telling another view of identity that it is wrong; and not just wrong but offensive.

3. ‘Causing offence’ is not a very good way of defining the limits of free speech

Everyone agrees that freedom of speech is not absolute. The settled position used to be that its limit was found at the point where speech incited violence. But no one is accusing Folau or Vunipola of that. What they have done is cause offence and upset people. Without the ability to cause offence, we lose the ability to have any kind of rational debate. Not only that, but we have to decide whose offence trumps whose. Why should the offence taken at their comments trump the offence taken at the comments of those who are offended with them?

4. What if they’re right?

Has anyone even paused to consider that if there’s a God, then he may have something to say about how to live in this world, and how to reach eternal, fulfilling, perfect life? Has anyone paused to consider that God may not always agree with the current cultural assumptions? Has anyone paused to wonder whether Folau and Vunipola might have grounds for what they’re saying? No: because they’ve contradicted one of the central, unchallengeable beliefs of modern Western culture, so by definition they cannot be correct. Who’s narrow-minded now?

Oh, and here’s a brief point for Christians:

Let’s be courageous in what we post, and be careful in how we post.

If my social media feed is completely culturally acceptable, am I really representing Christ on it? Let’s be courageous in what we post. But equally, is what I post as wise as it could be? Personally, I’d wonder whether Folau could have said the same truth, just as clearly, in a way that came across more calmly and more positively. God is more about calling sinners to heaven than he is about condemning them to hell.

But still, it’s probably better for us to wonder whether we’ve been courageous but not careful, than for us to conclude towards the end of our lives that we were so busy being careful that we never got round to being courageous. On Judgment Day, is God going to have a problem with Folau risking his career to speak truth, or us keeping our heads down, carefully never risking anything?

If you want to read more (and, frankly, more insightful and more eloquent writing) on this, Steve McAlpine has two very helpful, and not a little challenging, blogs:

Sexular Colonialism

Lying Community Outraged By Folau’s Latest Tweet

Categories: Christian Resources

How to fall in ministry

Sun, 14/04/2019 - 06:00

The scenario is depressingly common by now—word of another ministry leader having his hypocrisy and hidden life exposed. An addiction here. An affair there. An abusive exercise of power and narcissistic exploitation of position. I don’t know if pastors fall at a higher rate today than they did, say, 30 years ago, but our social media age certainly makes it seem that way.

Each time it happens, we get less adept at incredulity, less inclined to outrage and distress. We’re not happy about it, of course, but we are, sadly, getting used to it. Then the backward troubleshooting begins, the diagnosing of sicknesses long after the deaths. Ministry post-mortems tell us so much, but it would be great if we could see the falls coming.

But can’t we?

How you can fall in ministry

Looking back over the wreckage of so many disgraced pastors and failed ministries, what are some common denominators across the landscape of impurity in the pastorate? If you wanted to fall, what would you make sure you’d do?

First, you’d let the power of success (or just the position itself) go to your head.

You don’t have to be a glad-handing type-A leader to fall into the rut of egocentrism; you only have to be a pastor who enjoys approval and accolades. You could be a small church guy who enjoys being your congregation’s functional messiah—available 24/7 for the needs in your church and open to their every religious whim or command. Before you know it, you’re stressed, tired, and feeling either a little entitled or a little resentful (or both). And this combination of fatigue, stress, and stewing bitterness, over time, is a recipe for moral failure. Pushing yourself to these limits makes you extremely vulnerable for increasingly serious temptations from the evil one.

Secondly, you’d stop investing in your marriage.

For pastors blessed to have families, one of the quickest ways to vulnerability in temptation is nurturing neglect of your wife and justifying it at the same time as “the demands of ministry” or something else similarly self-aggrandizing. After a while, you may even come to see your wife not as your primary ministry but as an obstacle, an impediment, a preventer of your ability to flourish in ministry. The bitterness takes root. She doesn’t understand you, she doesn’t “get” you. And then guess what happens when you come along someone who does—or at least seems to?

Thirdly, you’d isolate and obfuscate yourself.

This is a surefire way to sabotage your ministry. Ministers have a variety of ways of removing themselves from real companionship and the accountability that often comes with it. You may find the best way is to exploit the leadership structure of your church or even tamper with it so everybody answers to you, and you answer to nobody, or nobody but “yes-men.” Or, you simply retreat further and further away from team dynamics whether emotionally or physically.

Almost every one of the pastors I’ve known personally who lost their ministries to moral failings would say later that they had no real friends. Nobody knew them. This has implications for accountability and also general emotional wellbeing. Not every lonely pastor falls morally, but they are all vulnerable to it.

But for those who don’t feel isolated from others in structure or position, there is still the real danger of obfuscation. In other words, they aren’t honest or confessional. They arrange things so no hard questions about their lives can be asked, and if they are, they just lie. The truth is seen as more costly. But nothing is more costly than investing in your not being known until the truth busts out through the debris of a moral train wreck.

Finally, you’d make a routine of neglecting communion with Christ.

This really sets a course for moral failure. Out of all the traits common to pastoral falls, this is in my estimation the most common of all—neglect of devotional life. Falls are different and so are the routes taken to them, but as soon as you commit, even if unintentionally, to not nourishing yourself in the Word and boasting in the weakness of prayer, you are deciding you are smart enough and strong enough to do life by yourself. This is a great way to plan for a spectacular failure.

When Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, he fought the enemy off with Scripture, and he was ministered to by the Spirit and the angels. If Jesus needed that wisdom and protection, who do you think you are that you don’t?

So now you’ve put all the plans in place. You’ve bought your own hype or acquiesced to cultural or programmatic demands to center the ministry on yourself. You’ve sacrificed your family on the altar of success. You’ve isolated yourself emotionally and spiritually from others, living a life of hidden struggles and sins among others. And you’ve gone stale in your devotional life, pouring yourself into things more readily efficient or immediately practical.

Then you crash and burn.

Now what?

What to do when you fall

Well, pastor, once you’ve fallen, stick the landing. And by that, I mean that once you’re laid low, stay there. For a long time. No, not in your sin. Not in self-pity or wallowing. Repent of your sin and all the excuses for it and whining over it, but don’t jump back up to pretend everything’s fine. Listen to those you’ve hurt. Submit to those who know you. Remember that vocational ministry is an honor, and it’s nobody’s right. You are
not entitled to a ministry position.

And what about grace, you say? Well, grace means that a repentant sinner can be restored to the fellowship. And grace also means that no fellowship should be subjected to unqualified leadership.

Can you ever be restored? Perhaps. I take from Christ’s restoration of Peter that it’s not just to the fold but to the feeding that fallen shepherds can be shepherds again. But I do not take from Christ’s personal restoration that haste would be prudent. We read in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 that pastors must be qualified. In those qualifications we see nothing of the aspiring pastor’s ambition or preferences. We see character issues, spiritual aptitudes, and well-developed reputations for relational and communal integrity. These do not exist for the pastor who has disqualified himself. It does not mean they can never exist again, but they cannot exist right now.

You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back.

This is the case with any point of disqualification, although some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less still for a pastor disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober-minded or a “one-woman man.”

This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate re-entry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.

This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.

So what you do, pastor, is lay low. I know it is difficult; I know it is embarrassing. But Christ and his church are bigger than you and your aspirations. The kingdom will not perish without your leadership—and, though it’s hard to face, neither will you. If you love Jesus and want to serve his church, do so out of the spotlight. Detox from the need for power and approval. Walk daily with Jesus in quiet ways over a long period of time. Let qualified shepherds feed you.

You may imagine that the bigness of grace is shown in the rushing of a fallen minister back to ministry, but the opposite is true. If you will stay low, humble yourself, and serve Christ and his church from the shadows of obscurity, you will discover just how satisfying grace actually is.

This article originally appeared on ERLC.com.

Categories: Christian Resources

Leadership matters: what does God say about Brexit? (Part 4)

Thu, 11/04/2019 - 06:00

Brexit shows us that we need good leadership.

What our leaders say and decide and do affects the shape and path of our lives. The last few years have shown us that leadership matters.

To use an example from a different but no less controversial context, I happened to be on a flight from London to Boston the day after Donald Trump was elected as US President in November 2016. Boston was one of the most anti-Trump cities in the States, and as I listened to Bostonians talking on their phones just after we landed, there was no doubt that they knew that leadership mattered, for better or (as they saw it in that case) for worse. I was tempted to wander around offering them the chance to come back under a constitutional British monarchy again, but I thought that might sound a bit smug.

Who leads us matters. And Brexit has shown us that the greater the stakes, the more we need a leader we can trust to lead us well, and it has shown us that we don’t seem to be able to find one.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that kind of leader?

To be able to follow a leader you can not just trust, but love?

Well, you have one.

What do you want in a leader?

Here’s what we want in a leader…

We need them to be able to lead because they have legitimate authority.

We want them to know how to lead because they have sufficient wisdom.

We want them to lead with integrity, doing what’s best for us even at cost to themselves.

That would be a leader who you can follow even when they say something you find confusing, or lead you through circumstances you find unsettling, because you know they have the authority, the wisdom, and the integrity. And that’s exactly the leader God is offering you—because he’s offering you himself.

A few hundred years after Psalm 46 had begun to be sung in Jerusalem, and after Jerusalem had fallen to invaders and was a shadow of its former self, with the promises of Psalm 46 seeming further away and less likely to be fulfilled than ever, this is what God told the inhabitants of that city:

‘Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.’ (Zechariah 9 v 9-10).

It’s a clear of echo of Psalm 46 v 8-10:

Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.’

… except now it’s speaking of a human ruler, a King—a man who is both the all-powerful, victorious God, and also a gentle, humble human who rides a donkey.

It’s Jesus.

Here’s a ruler with authority, all the legitimacy that flows from the world belonging to him because he made it.

Here’s a ruler with wisdom, because he knows every atom in existence and every hair on your head and every moment of the past and the future.

And here’s a ruler with integrity, who loves people so much that he was prepared to hang on a cross in Jerusalem in order to do what was best for his people—who was prepared to die in order to open the gate into his eternal city forever, and who promised to rise from the dead and then did exactly that three days after he died, proving that he always delivers; always does what he says.

Here’s the leader we need and can love to follow—one with total authority, perfect wisdom, and complete integrity.

We won’t find the leader we need for life by looking to Westminster or to Brussels or indeed into our own heart. We’ll only ever be disappointed if we look there. We find him by looking to the Creator God who hung on a cross because he loves us.

You know that, probably, if you’re reading this blog. But do you know that, live that, love that—love him? Brexit has shown us that perhaps, and perhaps often, our love of Jesus’ Lordship goes skin-deep, and beneath that we’d really rather be in charge ourselves, or live and grumble and groan like there’s no one at all in charge.

Jesus is Lord. Embrace that, embrace him, and you’re able to take Brexit seriously, but not too seriously.

God says "enough"

Christian, you don’t need to be fearful, angry or upset about leaving or remaining. What Brexit shows we’re looking for is being held out to us. And here’s the way to enjoy it:

‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ (Psalm 46 v 10)

The word ‘Be still’ in the original Hebrew has the sense of ‘Enough.’ It’s as though God sees the ups and downs of this life, and he just says: ENOUGH.

Enough.

Know that I am God, says the Creator, and the best thing that can happen is that I am exalted, because I am the one that can give you what you need.

I will win.

I will build my city.

I will be exalted.

And one way or the other, he says, in ways that you can’t see, I was doing all that through the referendum, the result, and all that’s happened since.

What does God say about Brexit? He says, Brexit is not the mountains falling into the sea – and even if it were, Be still, and know that I am God, and look to me for all you need, for you’ll find it here.

This blog is one of a four-part series (read the previous post here), and is an adapted extract from a sermon given at Grace Church Worcester Park, sw London, on 10th March 2019.

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