Tuesday, 28 June 2016
To my dear brothers and sisters in the UK Church, I must be one of the most fortunate Americans ever to live in Britain. You have given me my ministry, my identity and some of my all-time best friends. It is here I began to appreciate irony, subtlety and understatement. I cannot adequately express the sense of gratitude I feel toward you all. What is especially encouraging for me is meeting an ever-increasing number of church leaders, many of them young, who have a genuine thirst for God. This speaks well for tomorrow’s generation.
It is to tomorrow’s generation I share some things on my heart.
Don’t water down the message
Firstly, the priority of the gospel. My greatest hope for British evangelicals is that the gospel will never be taken for granted. I have been thrilled to learn how many church leaders and many evangelists have the same concern. The gospel is always under siege, particularly at a theological level. The enemy will always seek to rob the gospel of both its stigma and power. I applaud those who affirm Paul’s teaching of the blood of Christ propitiating the justice of God. Our calling is not to make the gospel palatable but to tell it as it is, and this includes the unpalatable truth about God’s wrath and the judgement to come.
We all want people to become Christians. But why? To make them nicer people to live with? To cause them to be materially better off? Or to live longer? Paul said that if ‘in this life only’ we have hope in Christ we are to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19). Why should we long for people to become Christians? It is because of the wrath of God. The earliest message of the New Testament was to ‘flee’ from the wrath to come. The Bible in a nutshell is this: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that we should ‘not perish’ but have eternal life (John 3:16).
I’d rather be known in hell than admired in the world
I love to visit the Holy Land to be where Jesus did miraculous things. I also love to visit places where the Holy Spirit did extraordinary things. At least four times I have stood and meditated on a vacant lot in Enfield, Connecticut where on 8th July 1741, Jonathan Edwards preached his historic sermon ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’. So great was God’s power that people literally held on to pews in the church and to tree trunks outside to keep from slipping into hell.
Affirm the whole of scripture
Secondly, I affirm the God of the Old Testament. I am always amazed and reassured that Jesus never apologised for the God of the Old Testament – his father! This includes being unashamed of the Genesis account of creation, especially: ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them’ [Genesis 1:27, NIV 1984, italics mine]. The modern redefinition of marriage reflects a disdain for God’s plan in making us male and female. I thank God for those who have resisted this trend, and hold to a biblical definition of traditional marriage.
References to the inspiration of scripture in the New Testament include the 39 books of the Old Testament. If we affirm the New Testament it means we affirm the Old Testament too. I accept there are things in the Old Testament that are hard to swallow. Yes. But this is true with the New Testament too. Part of bearing the stigma for Christ is the willingness to look like fools in the eyes the world.
Remarry the Word and the Spirit
Thirdly, the word and the spirit will come together as it did in the book of Acts. There is a growing conviction that a remarriage between the word and the spirit is God’s way. I say this because those truly open to the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the operation of spiritual gifts are now in the majority among evangelicals in the UK. Sadly for me, this is not the case in the United States.
We will not win people over by theological argument alone
By word I mean the centrality of the gospel. By spirit I mean signs, wonders and miracles. I believe that it will mean a spontaneous combustion of power and authority for the Church and a wake-up call to the nation. Never forget that John Newton, famous for his hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, was the impetus behind William Wilberforce, who brought incalculable social change to the world. While we wait for this nation-changing awakening, we may thank God for encouraging signs now.
We need the Spirit of Christ in us
Fourthly, our very lives must make the world want what we have. Arthur Blessitt was given an open door in Amman when an Arab sheikh noticed him across a restaurant. The sheikh said, ‘I want what you’ve got.’ There was something about Arthur’s countenance that gripped this Arab. Arthur led him to Christ. We will not win people over by theological argument alone but by a different spirit in us than is in the world.
What will win the world will not come about by the keenest intellect humiliating an opponent but by the most transparently Christ-like person melting hearts. When Paul determined to know nothing among the Corinthians but Jesus Christ and him ‘crucified’ [1 Corinthians 2:2], it was his commitment both to the objective gospel of the cross but also subjectively to the manner of life he proposed to live before those who had never heard the gospel.
Who are you impacting?
My old mentor Rolfe Barnard preached a sermon called ‘The man who was known in hell’. It was based upon the incident in Acts when a demon said, ‘Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?’ (19:15 [NIV]). Rolfe pointed out that it was Jesus and Paul – and not the man trying to cast out demons – who had a reputation in hell. That sermon influenced me deeply when I was young, helping me to aspire to be a threat to the devil. If I had to choose I’d rather be known in hell than admired in the world.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne saw a true touch of revival in Scotland. Six months after he died in 1843 a young minister travelled to St Peter’s Church, Dundee to inquire what M’Cheyne’s secret had been. An old elder took the young preacher to M’Cheyne’s desk, saying to him: ‘Put your elbows on the desk and place your forehead in your hands, and let the tears flow.’ The elder then took the young man to M’Cheyne’s pulpit, telling him: ‘Now put your elbows on the pulpit and place your forehead in your hands, and let the tears flow.’ M’Cheyne had a passion for the lost. May God grant us a fresh passion for the unsaved who are in danger of the wrath to come.
After M’Cheyne died, a letter addressed to him was found in his coat pocket. It was written by a man who had heard him preach the previous Sunday. In it he wrote that he came to the church unconverted, but the sight of M’Cheyne’s face – not the sermon itself – so gripped this man that he could not help himself – and was instantly saved.
We need to make a greater impact on our generation and on generations to come.
‘T’was not the truth you taught, to you so clear, to me so dim;
But when you came to me you brought a sense of Him.
Yes, from your eyes He beckoned me, from your heart His love was shed;
When I lost sight of you and saw the Christ instead.’
Dear brothers and sisters, Jesus loves the Church. He loves the UK. So stay strong in the work God has called you to and never be ashamed of the gospel. Proclaim it with power and truth. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, through the sprinkling of his blood by the Holy Spirit, be with you all evermore.
Friday, 24 June 2016
In addition there is this growing move towards bigger government, centred in the European Parliament, and which has the effect of taking government further away rather than closer to the people. And the figures bandied about, about how much we are paying towards all this, has only reinforced that concern that we are paying for something - and someone - we can't see and don't know.
I was interested to read the following quote from today's Times:
"The British referendum had already forced even Jean-Claude Juncker, the arch-federalist president of the European Commission – the institution which proposes all those directives and regulations – to admit that the EU meddled too much in everyday life."
And that is what people are perhaps rebelling against? This fiddling from afar by people who don't, many feel, fully represent the man and woman in the streets of Swansea or Manchester.
Those on the far right, sadly, have fed into this. Their xenophobic views which, although not outright racism, has enough distrust of the foreigner, to get very close to it. They have tried to blame all our ills on honest people who have travelled far from home and loved-ones to make a better life for themselves, something no doubt we would have done if we were in their shoes. Without such workers we would have been - and will probably end up being - in a mess with regards to people who are willing to work hard for a living, something which, let's be honest, some of our own folk are not always interested in doing.
Whatever the reasons for the vote - and the above is, after all, a bit of educated guess-work mixed in with listening to conversations and reading articles - the point of this blog is to ask where is God in all this? And the answer? The same as it has always been, with us.
Listening to some people - the panickers and the so-called pragmatists - this is the end of the world and the only option is to find some island or country somewhere where bad things like this don't happen and their children will be safe. Good luck with that. Like the perfect church, it does not exist and to go there would, in any case, spoil it.
No age has been without its turmoils, its compromises and its challenges. Thinking back to my parent's generation they had to contend with the aftermath of a devastating First World War and the onset of another in the Second. And came through it. How? Although it is unfashionable to say it, I believe that whatever the strength of their faith in God, or their lack of it, there was still an underlying optimism that God would see them through. And whether their fading religious practices meant something or not to them, the Christian Faith still spoke of faith casting our fear, good overcoming evil and love conquering hate.
In a brief text conversation with one of my daughters who exclaimed despair at what has happened, I sent a verse that popped into my head from Psalm 61:2. It reads:
"lead me to the rock that is higher than I."
Who is that rock but God. And as governments have come and gone, politics have promised and failed to deliver and ideas that are sold as the solution to all suffering have actually caused the opposite, God remains the one rock that is steady in the storm. Where else have our ancestors turned to find a "present help in time of trouble" (Psalm 46)?
And so looking at the disaster which is the decision to leave Europe, although it is not good, God is, and if we trust in him He will lead and guide us still. "All things really do work for good" (Romans 8:28) for those who will not forget that, and that is why, despite the results, I am, and will continue to be, optimistic.
Wednesday, 22 June 2016
I was very struck recently by the wording of the above verse in the English Standard Version. The Amplified Bible puts the word 'let' in brackets meaning, I guess, that it is implied by the order of the words or structure of the sentence in the Greek. So it reads:
"[Let your] love be sincere (a real thing)."
This puts an important, and, I believe, correct slant on the meaning of the sentence. For example if we look at the word 'let' in other contexts we will see the thrust of what Paul is getting at here:
If I 'let' someone into my house, it means opening the door and inviting and therefore allowing them to come in. I put no effort into pushing them. They come in at my invitation and at the offer of a door fully open.
If I 'let go' of an object in my hand, I allow the force that is pulling it - whether a person or gravity - to take control of it by not holding it back. By letting go.
In each case it refers to letting an outside person or force have its own way. What does this mean in the above context: "Let love be genuine"?
It means allowing the force of love which springs from the fountainhead - God himself - have its way in and through me as I cooperate with its forward momentum. God reaches out in love to all of His creation and has called us, as Christians, to be the means by which He continues to do that to His world. Our calling therefore is to "let go and let God" do precisely that.
The Message translation of Paul's words perhaps gives the best meaning:
"Love from the centre of who you are."
Who you and I are, are people who are filled with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-11). We are "in Christ" and Christ is in us. We are 'one' even though we still retain free will and our bodies still harbour habits and members which are affected by wrong desires and selfish intent. But at the centre is who we now are. We are "new creatures" (2 Corinthians 5:17), new beings who have submitted all we are to all that God is in Christ. And so Paul is saying, in effect, "live your life from that new centre. Let love have its way and love others".
God is love and loves everyone without condition, even His enemies. We are to love like that but cannot in our own strength, something Paul himself refers to in that famous passage in Romans 7:7-25. But we can now do all things through Him who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13). We can love others, even our enemies, with the love of Christ who is in us, and at the centre of who we now are in Jesus.
So let us let go and let God love through yus. Let love be real, sincere, genuine.
1. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2. but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
3. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
When I was a teenager and went to the local Cinema in Clydach - affectionately known as the 'flea pit' - I remember that before the main feature started we would have the usual adverts. When the adverts about food would come on I noticed that I would always get hungry. And when the adverts showing Coca Cola came on with the liquid being poured into a glass with ice cubes in it, I would always get thirsty. Reflecting on this today I have concluded that it wasn't because the adverts were so clever that they made me hungry when I was not, or thirsty when I was not - they were not THAT clever - it was because they both acted as reminders to me that I was indeed hungry and thirsty and needed to eat and drink.
What has this got to do with the above psalm? I was reading it the other day and got as far as verse 3 when I noticed a response in myself as I read these words:
"He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither."
The response was to suddenly feel that I was that leaf that was withering, rather than the tree that was fruitful. Why did I feel like that? It is because despite being daily immersed in the water of the word through daily Bible reading and prayer, what I have been giving out is not matched by what I am taking in. I felt - feel - dried out. As I read about the tree drawing up water from the nearby stream, I suddenly felt like that advert in the Cinema, very thirsty, and very dry. I am spiritually withering.
Further analysing this I came to the realisation that given the amount of speaking and writing I do - funeral sermons (sometimes three a week) - the occasional Wednesday talk, Lyfe Group preparation, Sunday morning talk and sermon, searching and collating quotes and illustrations, reading Christian books, writing book reviews and researching for sermons or articles and meeting and talking with various people about the Christian faith - I have slowly been over-drawing on my inner and spiritual resources, I am like a car whose petrol gauge is now close to 'empty'. I need a refill.
I write this not to say 'woe is me' but to point to the power of the Scriptures to speak to us in so many different ways other than just through the intellect.
For a change I am trying to expand my reading beyond the narrow confines of my own Christian tradition - evangelicalism - and drink from the other Christian tributaries which feed the same Christian river called the Church. At the moment it is Roman Catholic theology and spirituality. And what I am discovering is a fresh approach to the Bible which asks the question "how do you feel when you read this passage?"
As part of my upbringing I was taught to distrust feelings and emotional responses to the objective truth of the Gospel. This was neatly summed up with this little ditty by the great reformer Martin Luther:
“Feelings come and feelings go,
And feelings are deceiving;
My warrant is the Word of God--
Naught else is worth believing.
Though all my heart should feel condemned
For want of some sweet token,
There is One greater than my heart
Whose Word cannot be broken.
I'll trust in God's unchanging Word
Till soul and body sever,
For, though all things shall pass away,
HIS WORD SHALL STAND FOREVER!”
However as one great Anglican preacher once wrote:
"The correct response to wrong use is not disuse but right use" (David Watson)
So although we must safeguard ourselves from letting our emotions run away with us, or being guided merely by feelings, we are still emotional beings who feel things. To deny that would be to deny ourselves as those made in God's image and likeness. We feel because God feels - love, pity, compassion, anger etc.
So what these Catholic writers are teaching me is this, that truth and revelation do sometimes evoke an emotional response in us and to carefully and prayerfully run with that in order to see if God is saying something to us that our ears and thinking have somehow managed to tune-out. The moment when I read Psalm 1 and 'felt' suddenly spiritually dry was such a moment. God 'spoke' to me and I heard him. Not with my ears or mental faculties but in my heart and through my feelings. In that moment I 'got' what that image was meant to portray and it has given me a fresh way to read the Bible.
So I commend that to you. When you read the Bible don't just think with your mind, but allow the pictures it paints speak to your heart and your feelings. Does the passage evoke an emotional response for you? Why? What does it mean? What is going on in my life right now that this passage really speaks to me about? Pray about it.