Reading the Bible Badly

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Reading – Matthew 4:5-6 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

It concerns me how easily the devil manipulates scripture to serve his own agenda, and I worry how often we choose to read scripture in a similar way. I have and still do often pluck verses from their context and apply it to my own or another’s life, often without really realising what I’ve done. It’s so easy!

The most striking example of this I have found is perhaps the oft quoted Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Often this is used as a verse that excuses passivity, and assumes a pre-won victory in whatever endeavour we happen to be undertaking at the time. Rarely is this beautiful portion of scripture ever quoted with the two verses immediately prior to it. The “all things” Paul is referring to is actually the ability to live in any situation, either with little or with much. Essentially, he is stating that he knows the secret to living in poverty or wealth. It’s truly a remarkable claim and ought to be studied and treasured, but it is not suggesting what it is popularly assumed to be suggesting.

It’s interesting though, given how easily scripture can be dissected and distorted, how Jesus responds to the devil’s temptation. He doesn’t appeal to another authority, instead he fights the devils misuse of scripture with more scripture. Jesus was saturated with the word of God and knew how to utilise it. It was not only for theological speculation (like I’m doing now) but for a real-life situation with very real consequences. The lesson is that in order to avoid being misled, or misleading others with dodgy interpretations of the Bible,we must not avoid studying scripture but instead study it more deeply. Jesus studied the scriptures avidly, but unfortunately avid biblical study (as opposed to cherry picking the occasional verse that we like) is often considered too difficult, or dangerous (some people believe we should just passively absorb scripture) and both are upsetting misunderstandings. Biblical study is practical, it’s faith enriching, and it doesn’t have to be complicated.

A simple, and free, resource to use would be http://www.biblehub.com. It gives detailed notes on specific verses and words which is important. There are also plenty of things to help place these words and verses into the broader context of the passages. If you want to go a bit deeper into the original languages it has an incredible amount of detail and information on the Greek and Hebrew. Healthy Christianity is certainly more than good biblical literacy, but shouldn’t be less. Whether we like it or not we read scripture through a filter, and it’s our responsibility to try to make sure that filter is helping, not hindering our knowledge of Christ.

A common objection to the idea that all must study scripture is that part of the Holy Spirit’s role is to interpret scripture for us. (I’m not entirely sure the Bible clearly states this, and I think it assumes the Bible is primarily there to extract truths from) but I’m happy to accept that the Holy Spirit is an important companion when reading scripture. We can be moved and nudged to certain stories, and we can often find that a passage is shouting about our present situation… But this in no way relegates personal and responsible study of the scriptures to a optional hobby. It isn’t simply a quirky pastime of those who seem to be good at it. Each of us are called to meditate and examine Gods scripture, to live with it close to us.

We can all commit to a deeper involvement with the word of God. Perhaps a good place to start, if you haven’t already, would be your favourite verse or passage. Read the whole book that it’s contained within. Often bibles will tell you what the purpose of a book or letter was and this is tremendously useful. As you work through the book try identifying recurring themes or words, they tell you what the author is trying to emphasise. Are there any verses that you don’t understand? Make a note and return to it later with a commentary or bible dictionary. Are there any verses that seem to have a difficult message? It’s easy to ignore it but spend some time wrestling with it. It’s also helpful to draw on the various practises and traditions of those around us to better understand our bible. Recently I’ve been trying to meditate on passages using the “Lectio Divina” model. (You can google “Lectio divina” to find out more).

Fully engaging with scripture is like fully engaging with an environment. It’s akin to the difference between simply seeing a photo of a Forest, and experiencing the forests sounds, smells and textures. We know the forest better, more intimately by studying both the bigger, beautiful picture and also its small, intricate details. Let’s not limit our Christian growth by refusing the explore the world of scripture in the same way!

One final thought occurs to me from this passage about Jesus’ testing. It is a clear demonstration that scripture can be quite easily, by ignorance or malice, broken up and distorted into a false word. It becomes shaky and unreliable. Mere words on a page can be so horribly twisted that they lose their status as the sanctified word of God.

But wonderfully, Jesus cannot. He allowed himself to be mistreated and broken. In the midst of it his character was not once distorted in any way. He was not made false or unreliable. The unjust crucifixion demanded bitterness and rage, but he remained loving and merciful, (“Father forgive them”). When cut, scripture burst forth in his cries in which he quotes Psalm 22. He cannot but be the the truth. He is and always will be the Word.

So, let’s not assume we spend some time with the Bible, and other times with Jesus. Their connection is mysterious, but profound. Let’s draw near him, and stay near him and ask him to read the scriptures with us.

Tips for Youthworkers

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I’m preparing to finish my first year as a full-time paid youth worker. I’m reflecting back on the things I’ve learned this past year, and there are some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up. These might be helpful, particularly if you’re new to youth work!

 

1. Always always always carry a pack of playing cards. You never know when you might want them. They can be especially useful when meeting a young person informally. They can allow both parties relax and talk, and even laugh, but it also easily allows parties to spend times in silence without it getting awkward. Having something to do with your hands also lets many people relax and concentrate. Always carrying a simple pack of cards is a must.

2. It’s okay to hang out with the adults sometimes during church, particularly during the tea/coffee afterwards. Taking the time to get to know the young people’s parents is important. You don’t have to be best buds with them, but it helps them to trust you if they’ve had a few conversations with you. It also gives you a chance to get a better insight into the young people and their lives at home. All of this adds up to make your job a whole lot easier and effective.

3. If you’re relying on a team of volunteers to help with an event, firstly make sure you thank your volunteers after every session. It’s just common courtesy. Secondly try your best to ensure each volunteer gets time off. Get a rota going and encourage them to swap “shifts” if need be. Commitment scares people, if they’re given “breathing space” regularly it really helps attract volunteers and then retain them.

4. With young people environment is so important. How the room is laid out, what music is playing, what chairs are available, what the lighting is like… These are all factors that can make and break the atmosphere of a session. There are no universal rules as to what works, as every youth group is different, but here’s three basic common-sense tips: low-lighting is relaxing while bright lighting is energizing, chairs need to comfortably face the speaker (if you’re doing a group discussion that means circles), clutter creates stress but tidiness relaxes… A quick internet search can tell you more.

5. Routine is simply good practice. You don’t need anything as strict as a timetable, but following a common pattern in a session just helps the young people to anticipate what’s next and prepare accordingly. Imagine if you went away to a conference and you weren’t told which session lunch would follow? I know I’d be stressed out and would be less engaged with the seminars. Same with your youth. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Also, deviations from normal accepted patterns should be announced, if only to prevent young people interrupting something important to ask when snack time is.

6. A well-fed youth group is easily spoken to. Generally fuller-tummies = less mobile teenagers. If you have a time planned where silence, quiet discussion or reflection is expected of the young people, try to time it just after food. Half the work is done for you.

And finally,

7. Engage with their music. I know it can be painful, but just do it. Young people, particularly teenagers are discovering all sorts of new feelings and opinions that are new to them. One of the main ways they’re learning how to feel about some situations is through their music. For instance, they might never have been cheated on, but still have incredibly strong views on it because a certain song about it is intense and moves them. Use their music. Tap into it. Quote the songs in your studies, encourage them to share their music at youth group and explain why they love it, listen to it with them and if need be challenge it. I guarantee you’ll get a better discussion on a topic centered around a song than you will with a power point slide.

 

 

“Matthew 7:23” worries…

Depart from me

If you’re like me, you might occasionally have what are called “Matthew 7:23” worries. You know the verse, that terrifying one. Jesus declares that there are some who will have professed his name, but ultimately Jesus will say “depart from me, for I never knew you”.

The danger it seems is that we can do good things, for the wrong reasons. My worry comes every now and then in the form of a question. “Is he talking about me?”.

The only helpful bit of advice I’ve heard to resolve this worry, came from one of my favourite authors Adrian Plass in his most recent book. He wrote very simply: “Learn to love Jesus, and then do what he says”

Not the other way around.

Thank you Adrian.

Innocent Smoothies and the Church

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These are just a few things I think the church could learn from the international smoothie-making company “innocent”.

1. It’s nice to look nice

First and foremost, the design and visuals for Innocent products are superb. Care has been taken at every level of the branding to make the products fun. They give us an insight into the creators of the product. Without knowing them, I know that they are life-affirming, interesting, and even a little self-deprecating. The syntax, language, logo, and especially the jokes on their packaging are designed to interest and yes, entertain their consumers.

Most churches could do with a bit of marketing training. Simply saying on your church flyers that your church is “fun and interesting” is neither fun nor interesting. In fact having to state it sometimes indicates that the church is neither. Let’s abandon the comic sans and clip-art posters and learn that making things look nice is actually an important, vital part of the mission. It’s not shallow to want quality aesthetics. In this age of digital-everything, not being up to scratch in these small, but crucial things further entrenches the view that the church is stuffy and out-of-date.

2. Be mission-shaped

Lets take a look at Innocent’s mission, which hung above every loo apparently so it’s not forgotten):

Be natural,
be entrepreneurial,
be responsible,
be commercial and
be generous.

Everything they do flows from these 5 values. It determines how they spend money and who they work with, right down to what plastic they use for their bottles. When I look at these values I notice three things: the values are positive, outward focused, and ontological (about being, not simply doing). These are three things the church could take note of.

Positive.
When we outline our values, it’s just better and more life affirming to focus on something positive rather than negative. For example, don’t say “serving sinners”, say “serving people”. Both statements are true, but one needn’t be on your church welcome leaflet. Does this mean you water down the gospel? certainly not. The tough language if needed can come later, when they’re welcome, and a part of the family. When the cultures biggest gripe with the church is that it appears judgemental, I cannot stress how important this is.

Outward
The values are briefly explained on their website. Pursuing each value involves a great deal of different things, but rather than droning on about it they decided to show how each value benefits others, which to be fair is probably the bit we care most about. Every single one of their values improves the lives of others in some small way. Check them out here: http://www.innocentdrinks.co.uk/us/careers).

If a fruit smoothie company can be motivated by world-improvement, then the church has no excuse. The church has historically been a vehicle for great social change. Many churches are doing great at this, but often limit themselves to causing “spiritual” change in their community. They hold prayer events, do worship meetings etc… Theres nothing wrong with that (although I dislike drawing a harsh line between what’s spiritual and what’s not), but it would also be nice if we were fiery and passionate about those basic needs too, from providing water for the developing world to planting trees in the local park.

Ontological
Innocent uses the language of being, not simply doing. This makes a much stronger statement about their commitments, (they don’t just do nice things, they are nice people) and it has the added bonus of sounding far less like they’re blowing their own trumpet. Instead of simply saying “We do creative worship” say “we are creative worshipers” and let your actions speak for themselves.

There is a significant caveat with this approach. Innocent wouldn’t say such things about themselves if their actions didn’t support their claim, and nor should the church. If you say you are something then you need to be it. Your actions don’t necessarily define who you are, but they do reveal who you are. It’s a great cliché isn’t it, “we don’t do church, we are the church”. Sound’s great, and its true, but if we’re not doing stuff we might as well call it a day and all go home. CS Lewis said: “Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in “religion” mean nothing unless they make our actual behaviour better.”

So don’t just do nice things, be nice people.

3. Senders, not keepers.

Finally Innocent aren’t precious about people in the sense that they actively encourage people to move on to other ventures. They train and encourage their staff to become entrepreneurs themselves and in turn create their own businesses. Not only does this develop the staff, it also likely develops the company. It ensures the company has a fresh injection of people coming in with new ideas, while the current staff are leaving innocent and taking with them all the good business practices they’ve been learning.

The church could follow suit and make its chief aim to send, rather than attract. The parallels with church-planting are easy to see. Just as some of the intrinsic D.N.A of Innocent goes into new business ventures, the D.N.A of a church can go into new churches and faith-communities. These in turn become organisations in their own right, and go on in turn, to send their own people off to do new things. It’s multiplication, rather than just accumulation.

I say again, Innocent isn’t precious about people. Instead, by training, developing and sending their people they’re demonstrating that people simply are precious and that, sounds like a very Christ-like attitude to me.

My Unremarkable Testimony

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I was asked recently to share my testimony. Initially I didn’t think it was worth writing about. It lacks all of those components that ‘exciting’ testimonies have: strange coincidences later seen to be miracles, encounters with angels or Jesus appearing in my dreams. I didn’t return to my Christian roots after years of rebellion. There was no addiction to drink or drugs to break nor any childhood prophecies of becoming a man of God to be fulfilled.

Truth be told, I was reading an apologetic in the bath (Frank Morrison’s “Who Moved the Stone?”) and it convinced me that the resurrection might have really happened, and if it really did happen then I probably ought to do something about it. I had a tract lying around so when I got to my bedroom I figured I’d pray the prayer on the back. It was a fairly standard example of the sinners prayer. Now, because I grew up in a charismatic church and had seen some pretty incredible things I expected my true conversion to be a lightning flash moment, with angelic choirs and fireworks going off. It was a shame, I thought as I knelt down to pray, that I did not have my tambourine with me ready for the party in heaven that was about to kick off.

It wasn’t at all like that. I said the prayer, felt no different, and stood up a little disappointed. Though I have since been privileged to witness many miracles and experience many incredible things, my Christian walk began on my knees with slightly disappointed expectations. (I’m not quite sure where I picked up the daft idea that Jesus was there to do what I expected.)

In one sense this brief and unremarkable moment was an omen for the future. My journey still involves a fair bit of “knee-time”, often in silence. It certainly still involves a lot of unmet expectations. In time I came to realise that what I had done that day was simply take my first step on a lifelong journey. My status with God had changed, and in that sense everything was different. But I hadn’t changed, I was no different.

Yet.

Christ had come to dwell within me, but he wasn’t planning to live in my messy heart without rearranging the furniture, chucking some stuff and mending some broken things. I had habits to break, virtues to practise, discipline to be learned etc. He’s still moving in. Apparently one day my heart will be a temple like no other, truly unique and perfectly suited to house Him. Which is nice.

Like I say, I was reflecting back on my very undramatic testimony, scribbling some notes getting ready to share it, and this is what I wrote. I’d call it a poem but that would be giving it far too much credit. Enjoy.

On reflection, I think I had the impression
That saying the sinner’s prayer
Would release fireworks.
But I must say it right
And mean it completely
Or else picky Jesus
Wouldn’t save me
I remember when my knees
First met my bedroom carpet
When I said the prayer I had read
On the back page
Of a badly written tract.
I thought I had given you my whole life
In just under twenty seconds
I wasn’t aware that this clumsy prayer
Was really just the start.

Spring of Living Water

JEREMIAH 2:13

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Occasionally we come across a portion of scripture that really captivates us. The last few years I have been trying to redress the imbalance between my Old and New Testament literacy, and whilst doing so some of the imagery I have come across in the poetic and prophetic books of the O.T. completely astound me. This is one such example.

This passage in Jeremiah involves water, and in the ancient middle-east water is an immensely evocative symbol. Water meant opportunity, growth, fruitfulness and above all life itself. It was and is in any parched land a precious commodity. There is no obvious parallel symbol for the western world because for them water represented so much good. Having a reliable constant source of water is so fundamental that life can barely get going without one.

God calls himself a spring of living water, and in fact, he unapologetically tells Israel that he is the only spring of living water. A spring for the people that is fresh, available and unending. The implications are massive. He is saying that all good endeavours, growth, opportunity and even life itself rely on him in the same way a community relies on a water spring. He himself stands at the centre of the world sustaining life. He’s responsible for the food, plants, gardens, fruit, grass, animals. Without him everything becomes parched and quickly dies. You can take the image a step further and suggest that the farther away from the spring of water something lives the less healthy it is. We should all live our lives as close to the water source as possible (Psalm 1).

The terrible thing is that despite Gods’s centrality to all of life itself humanity chooses not to rely on God but instead on other things. These other things are often good things that were given to us by him and more often than not it was something he made for our pleasure. But instead of loving him, we have what Tim Keller calls an “over-love” for the things he gives. He says that these idols are at the very epicentre of our desire.

The prophet Hosea also spoke of this tragedy, having experienced it first hand when Gomer left him: “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” (Hosea 2:7-8)

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This brings us to the next image represented. The image of the broken cistern. Cisterns were dug into the ground to store water. The image above is a surviving cistern in the Middle East. A broken cistern is one that obviously leaks, and cannot hold water, and this evocative image of a leaking well of water speaks volumes about the outcome of choosing anything else over God. Every other well runs dry, the water disappears. It isn’t even used up fruitfully. It disappears into the ground. It’s wasted, and must be replaced by more and more water. The well can never be filled, though we will constantly attempt to fill it, even pouring our very selves into it if necessary.

Doesn’t that proclaim a stark truth that we often miss? Isn’t it the perfect diagnosis of addiction? The drug user must fill his body with more and increasingly heavy drugs to keep a sense of being filled. The more a person craves and accumulates money, the less one is satisfied with each coin. The alcoholic’s thirst can only be quenched by more and more booze. The lonely people who crave nothing more than attention and human interaction, tragically, become pushier and pushier until they push potential friends away. The casual use of pornography becomes an addiction that requires increasingly hardcore material.

An over-love for anything but God, is idolatry, and idolatry always looks like addiction. Like every addiction idolatry grows and grows until it destroys us. Each step in the process requires a little more sacrifice than before. Eventually, what we treasure will require us to die for it. We’ll have nothing but ourselves to throw into the well. When everything about a persons life becomes fixated on the attainment of a single thing, the process is complete and very difficult to redress. They have ceased to fully live, and are simply existing. In a non-literal, but very real sense, they are dying.

Jesus Christ is the only God who says instead “I died for you”. He threw himself into the well, so we don’t have to. He poured himself out, figuratively and literally in greater and greater ways until the cost demanded was his very life. And as we saw earlier, he doesn’t just save us from bondage to idols, he promises us himself, the spring of living water. I’m reminded on the story in the Narnia tale “The Silver Chair”. Jill, a nervous young girl meets Aslan for the first time by a stream, and is terrified of being eaten by the lion. Desperate for a drink, but too scared to approach the lion’s stream she says “Oh dear, I shall have to find another stream”.

“There is no other stream” The lion says.

Let us not try to fill up our cisterns any more. Let’s trust in God for the water that brings life. Let us drink from Gods spring, after all, it’s the only one.

Being Perfect – Simply a Dream?

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Matthew 5:48
New International Version (1984)

‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’

I’ve always been fascinated by these few words. They are charged with enigma, which is hardly surprising considering their source. What do they mean? Is Jesus actually commanding his disciples to be as perfect as God or have we got the wrong end of the stick?

Let me just say that Jesus being truly perfect would have been perfectly realistic. His followers were (and are) to go on being flawed and messy builders of the kingdom until kingdom come. In fact, we ought to be very wary of purportedly ‘sinless’ Christians:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8

We can however, claim to be righteous and forgiven of our sins:

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us”. 1 John 1:9-10

But that isn’t the same thing as saying we are sinless now is it?

So what does Jesus mean when he tells us to be perfect?

It’s important to note that ‘perfect’ in the bible has more than one meaning. It can be used to mean ‘spotless’ or ‘faultless’ which is our typical understanding, but it also can be used to mean ‘mature’ or ‘completed’. It is in the second sense that Matthew 5 utilizes it. So the command is to be consistent, and mature in our faith, which lets be fair is achievable. Barnes’ Notes state this:

Applied to people, [perfect] refers to completeness of parts, or perfection, where no part is defective or wanting. Thus, Job (Job 1:1) is said to be “perfect;” that is, not holy as God, or “sinless” – for fault is afterward found with him (Job 9:20; Job 42:6); but his piety was “proportionate” – had a completeness of parts was consistent and regular. He exhibited his religion as a prince, a father, an individual, a benefactor of the poor. He was not merely a pious man in one place, but uniformly. He was consistent everywhere.

Perhaps this could be the crux of Matthew 5:48. Does this speak to you? It certainly speaks to me. The command for my faith to be consistent and complete is a high calling. I must be the same with friends and enemies, at work and rest, in public and in private.

It’s a calling I intend to pursue with all my heart, knowing that one day Christ will complete the good work in me, and my duty shall become my choice. “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. (ASV)” Yes I shall be, and I look forward to it.