Saturday, August 30, 2008

What hospitality does

We had a fabulous evening last night in the convivial surroundings of the home of good friends at our church. The food was gorgeous, the conversation refreshing, the attention to detail of our host and hostess - from the way the table was laid to ensuring our glasses were filled as necessary - was perfect. It was one of those truly refreshing occasions - just what I needed at the end of a busy week.

It was a reminder, if I needed it, of what hospitality does and how essential it is. If only the church could bottle this spirit and pour it over its gatherings.

So many of Jesus' significant encounters happened at the table, in the extended, time-rich surroundings of a meal. Conversation cannot be hurried, real issues cannot be buried in agendas, no one can hide behind their job title. Here is where humans touch and life and grace, love and mercy are exchanged. This is where people find themselves and each other - and in the course of the meal, God (whether they were expecting him or not).

In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus came to dinner and salvation came to the house. If only that happened more often in our neighbourhoods

Friday, August 29, 2008

The dark art of sermon preparation

Finished preparing for Sunday - and strangely it was like pulling teeth. This morning I felt really muddled-headed and unable to concentrate. But the grey matter started to clear after lunch.

I have focused on three aspects of the story of Zacchaeus that are Lucan favourites - finance, family and faith (remember I still carry the DNA of an unreconstructed evangelical baptist about my person!) - and I think it works ok.

Sermon preparation is still something of a mystery to me. Earlier in the week, I was feeling pretty chilled, on top of the passage and knowing generally what I wanted to say. Today, I looked at a blank screen and wondered if the passage would ever reveal its treasures.

Then suddenly it takes shape - first in my mind and then, through my fingers, on the screen. And it seems to come in a flash. One moment there's nothing, then there's a page of relatively coherent notes, then there's a worksheet and an edited version of the notes. And before I know it, I'm having a cup of tea, putting the finishing touches to the PowerPoint wondering where it all comes from.

Of course, a sermon's not really finished until it's been preached because, after all, this is an oral art form not a written one. So I don't know whether it's any good yet... But then, when are we are able to assess that - as we deliver it? As people comment immediately afterwards? Weeks later when an echo of what was said turns up in conversation or a question or an email?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The beauty and brilliance of Bailey

While preparing for Sunday's teaching on Luke, I have been reminded just what a wonderful scholar Ken Bailey is.

We're looking at the story of Zacchaeus and Bailey begins his reading with the simple observation that both this story and the one before it (the healing of the blind man) take place in Jericho (a fact obscured by our chapter divisions!).

So what we have is a single story in two acts of how Jesus offers the same unconditional love to both oppressed and oppressor alike. From this flows the fact that the crowd is a key character in both stories with their affections swaying one way, then the other as the narrative unfolds - and of course, it's the crowd in which we are located.

Bailey also shows how his understanding of repentance as 'the acceptance of being found' works itself out in both halves of the story. It's great stuff. And it's beautifully written as well - unusual in New testament scholarship.

You really ought to own (as well as consult regularly) Kenneth E Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (IVP 2008). Alongside this Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus retold Israel's Story (BRF 2003) and the combined volume Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A literary-cultural approach to the parables in Luke (Eerdmans 1983) are also essential reading.

Our series on hope

Well, having ruminated on big words, here's an outline for our forthcoming series on hope. The titles are suitably vague, allowing us to respond to issues as they arise in the minds of those listening and interacting with the teaching.

Having begun by asking what aspects of hope Peter expects us to be talking about both to each other and the wider, watching world - taking 1 Peter 2:14-16 as our spring board - we will tackle the subject under eight broad headings:

hope and creation (Isaiah 65:17-25 - just what did Israel's prophets expect of the future?)
hope and new creation (1 Corinthians 2:9 - how did the coming of Jesus affect that?)
hope and grief (1 Thessalonians 4 - where is hope in a world of pain and loss?)
hope and my future (1 Corinthians 15 - what's my destiny in Christ?)
hope and our future (Hebrews 13:14 - God's plans are for his people, not just individuals)
hope and my present (1 John 3:3 - the future affects my lifestyle here and now)
hope and our present (Colossians 1:24-29 - the church is a community modelled on the future)
hope and my journey (Philippians 3:20 - hope calls us on to the future God has for us)

Hopefully (sorry!), this outline is flexible enough for us to be responsive to people's concerns and questions as we make our way through the series. I have high hopes (sorry again!!) that God has a lot to say to us as we take this journey together. That's my prayer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Books on hope

The Goldingay quote in my previous posting is from a very helpful collection of essays called What are We Waiting for? Christian Hope and Contemporary Culture edited by Stephen Holmes and Russell Rook (Paternoster 2008), published to compliment Spring Harvest's theme this year.

It's a collection of biblical, historical and theological studies on hope by some top people. I'd say it was essential reading on the subject.

Also worth reading are, of course, Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope (SPCK 2007) and his grove booklet New Heavens, New earth: The Biblical Picture of Christian Hope (Grove Biblical Series number 11 1999), an expansion of his Drew Lecture delivered at Spurgeon's College in 1993.

David Lawrence's not the end of the world (SU 1995 - though it might have been republished by someone else more recently) is also really good - a genuine entry-level guide to all things eschatological.

Krish and Miriam Kandiah's Spring Harvest study guide Finding an Unshakeable Hope (Authentic 2008) is also worth checking out, though to my mind it only covers half the field; the half it covers, however, it covers very well.

Apocalypse now...

I said I'd blog on whether apocalyptic is a better word than eschatology for talking about how Christians think about the future.

Since posting last on this issue, I came across this quote from John Goldingay: 'I tell students that whenever they use the word eschatology they should was their mouths out with soap, because it sounds like a technical term with a defined meaning, but actually means different things to different people.' Astute as ever.

And he could substitute the word apocalyptic where he uses eschatology. For while there is broad agreement on what constitutes apocalyptic writing, there are a range of views on what apocalyptic thinking is and more particularly how it impacts on early Christian thinking about what God has achieved through Jesus and how that affects the future of creation.

So, most agree that apocalyptic writing is concerned with the future of God's people, that it generally features an angel revealing to a prophet/author what is about to happen and what the signs of it will be. For that reason, apocalyptic writing is often lurid and complex - just ask most Christians to explain the message of Revelation (from where the word apocalypse as a type of literature comes) in a couple of sentences!

The reason why the adjective could be a useful substitute for eschatology is that the literature gave rise to a a series of key ideas in the emerging Christian faith. The great New Testament scholar, J Louis Martyn, argues that Paul's theology is apocalyptic through and through. His argument is pretty convincing (at least as far as I'm concerned).

It is from apocalyptic that the early Christians got their understanding of justification, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the certainty of resurrection, the defeat of the forces of evil and the re-patterning of the created order once that defeat had happened.

However, the biggest contribution that apocalyptic thinking makes on a Christian understanding of the world has to do with the relationship between the present age and the age to come. In most apocalyptic writing there is a contrast between the age in which we live - which is evil and, in particular, one where God's people are persecuted - and the age to come - where justice and peace, prosperity and wholeness are the order of the day. Separating these two ages is a single moment when God intervenes to end the old age and bring in the new one.

Jesus came teaching that the new age was dawning in his ministry and yet the old age was still running. Early Christian teachers argued that Jesus decisively defeated the powers of the old age on the cross and ushered in the new age - of justification, peace with God, new creation, the presence of the Holy Spirit, etc - and that new age runs alongside the old one.

What this does is to make what Christians hope for accessible to some extent in the present. Our hope of a new world inspires our action to make this world better, for example. Apocalyptic is hugely important for our understanding of Christian hope and Christian lifestyle in our present fallen world as we follow Jesus in anticipation of the new age that is dawning through his life, death and resurrection.

But, it takes a bit of explaining and I'm fairly sure that talking about hope and how that affects our lives here are now does the job just as well. So, no doubt occasionally we'll make fleeting reference to these technical terms but generally we'll be talking about hope - what we hope for and how that hope affects how we live in today's world.

Monday, August 25, 2008

...and the winner is...

What can I say, I have been honoured by Catriona with a blog award - and here's the award logo (left) to prove it. I haven't prepared a speech but I'd just like to thank my parents, neighbours, wife, children, countless church members too numerous to mention, every family pet and the man with the beard who keeps coming to my house claiming to work with me. I couldn't have blogged without them...
Of course, I know have to nominate 7 other worthy bloggers. Worse, I have to work out to put their blog names as a hyperlink so that people can just run their mouse over the name and be taken straight to their wonderful, insightful and entertaining sites.
What's more, I can't nominate those already named by Catriona - who has excellent taste in blogs!
So here goes...
Christendom - Chris Tilling's anarchic NT blog about to relocate from Germany to London
Euangelion - Michael Bird and Joel Willetts always excellent and informative NT blog
the red pill - Jonathan Somerville's richly entertaining and prescient blog that I will be following more closely in the coming weeks
The Stuff of the Earth - Michael Pahl's NT blog
the word at the barricades - Stuart Blythe's witty and trenchant blog
simply simon - an Australian blog by a theologian-cook - there aren't enough of those in the world!
tall skinny kiwi - the original blog by Andrew Jones, great thinker and communicator on the fringe of the emerging community of followers of Jesus. Still crazy after all these years. Still essential reading.
Have fun with all of these. Hopefully they'll nominate a few in their turn...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More on the 'E' word

Well, we fell at the first hurdle with the 'E' word.

Eschatology is a word derived from the Greek word eschaton which means 'the end' and eschata meaning 'the things of the end' with ology derived from the Greek word logos meaning 'the study of' or 'words about' tagged on the end.

So, strictly speaking eschatology is the study of the end or things about the end and in Christian theology was traditionally associated with the end of the world and the second coming of Christ, the last judgement and the new heavens and the new earth.

Simon makes a good point that it's all very well to use the 'E' word in lectures but in a series at church, where you might define it in week 1, people will have forgotten what it means by week 2 or 3 and the preacher will forget to keep defining it.

Even at Spring Harvest this year, where I gather it was being regularly used in all the morning seminars, there were still baffled folk in various places asking what it actually meant.

When I was writing my Bible guide on Galatians and my Discovering the New Testament, I tended to use the word apocalyptic to describe similar ideas because the word apocalypse is at least in general use and so is not an entirely unfamiliar term.

Indeed I remember having a robust exchange of views with my then editor over whether people in church should know and understand what a word like eschatology means. Fortunately for all my readers, she prevailed and we didn't use it.

So, the 'E' word will probably not feature as we look at reasons to be hopeful. I will blog soon on why apocalyptic is a good word and whether we might use that one. I'd be interested in your views.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Shall I use the 'E' word?

So, I've been thinking a bit about our forthcoming series on hope, trying to give it some shape and find Bible passages that illustrate different aspects of the theme.

And I've hit my first issue: do I use the 'E' word?

They used it at Spring Harvest and it was marvellous to see all kinds of, I assume, Charismatic Christians talking earnestly over their Butlins' carry outs about 'Eschatology'. I imagine this doesn't happen in most churches across the UK on an average Sunday.

Did it help people? Well, you'll have to ask them. But the ones I talked to did find the word quite useful for labelling the full extent of Christian hope. It enabled them to see that hope is about more than the second coming and whether that's to be expected before, during or after the tribulation/millennium/rapture. Indeed it enabled most of them to realise that they could jettison the theology of the Left Behind series and still remain perfectly sound Bible believing Christians.

So, shall I be using the 'E' word?

I am tempted to because it will enable us to set the series - reasons to be hopeful - in the context of a full-orbed grasp of Christian thinking about the future and how it affects our lives in the present. What do you think?

cunning and conviction in David's life

I came back from sabbatical to a teaching programme on the life of David that was in its final stages. I've had the joy of preaching on the succession narrative, that part of the story that runs from 2 Samuel 9 to 1 Kings 2 and answers the simple question 'who will sit on Israel's throne after David'?

Of course, the question is not that simple at all. There is no rule that David's son should succeed to Israel's throne as David was only the second king and he wasn't a relative of Saul. There are a number of contenders - Saul's descendants (only Mephibosheth is in the frame and his claim is dealt with in 2 Samuel 9, though he reappears in 16 and 19) and David's already grown-up sons, Amnon and Absalom. In the end Solomon is the choice and the story explains how.

I've loved this section of OT narrative since Bible college. And preaching it over the past two Sundays has reminded me why. It's a wonderfully written, subtly contrived story of political, theological and emotional depth. Having looked at the story of Mephiboseth - maybe David's high point in the account - and Bathsheba and Uriah - undoubtedly the lowest point to which David sinks; this week I'm looking at the coup of Absalom and its fallout.

I'm using the text to explore the nature of the life of faith when lived in the real world. I will be focusing on two aspects of David - his cunning and his convictions. There is no doubt that David could teach Machiavelli a thing or two about how to get your way in political life, how to survive and certainly how to outmanoeuvre your enemies. At the same time, there is no doubt that his every action is driven by core convictions derived from his faith in God.

The text shows how David's cunning and convictions enabled him to triumph and leave his throne to Solomon. The author of 2 Samuel clearly approves of how David navigated his way through events. What is less clear is what God thinks - and therein lies the brilliance of the story and the wonder of its telling.

It is also where the bear-traps await the unwary preacher. There is a danger that we flatten the story and assume that what happened must be right - must be what God wants - and therefore a few simple lessons of the pious life can be derived from how David lived. It's not that simple or bland - thank God.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Spending an evening with the Dark Knight

I finally got to see Batman last night - in a half-full cinema that we could walk to.

It's quite an experience. I felt hungry at the end as if I'd done a pretty stiff workout! But I'm not entirely sure what I made of it - I think partly because you leave the cinema feeling slightly numb.

It is truly spectacular - some of the set piece scenes do really have you on the edge of your seat and out of breath - and the performances are all first rate.

There's been lots of talk about whether Heath Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker. He is certainly chilling at times, playing the Joker as a bringer of chaos with no master plan whatsoever. There is a casual cruelty about him, an unrelenting darkness; he is a character with no redeeming features and there's no attempt to explain why he is as he is - it's as if director, Christopher Nolan, is suggesting that the Joker is just evil.

Part of the numbness I felt at the end, I think, was due to a slight raggedness in the story. I wonder if Ledger's death meant that Nolan couldn't do cuts and retakes to smooth the flow as he was editing. I felt that the movie needed tightening up - though if that had ratcheted up the tension, it might have made parts of it unbearable! But there were subplots and half-hinted story lines that could have been jettisoned with no loss of narrative integrity.

At its heart the film asks serious questions about terrorism and what lengths we are prepared to go to to defeat it. The Joker is repeatedly referred to as a terrorist rather than a criminal. Indeed, he is distanced from the criminal fraternity in Gotham by the simple fact that he is equally hated and feared by them as by the good citizens.

And in the midst of that exploration, we are forced to ask ourselves what is the darkness at the heart of the dark knight? Is defence of law and order and a certain way of life a reason to commit acts that might be seen as questionable? What do our actions in seeking to defeat terrorism tell us about what kind of society we are?

All these questions face us every time we open a newspaper but maybe we need a movie as well-made as this one to actually ask them.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The great haul of China

It's great to see our sailors, rowers, swimmers and cyclists doing so well at the Olympics - and no doubt one or two track athletes will surprise us. It's a tribute to their hard work, dedication, commitment and sacrifice - all the qualities needed for sporting excellence.

It's also a tribute to the infrastructure that has been put in place over recent years in terms of facilities and coaching. I hope our great haul in China leads to a little humility among those pundits who have written off our chances of hosting a good games in 2012.

Not only do we have athletes performing at the top of their respective games, but we also have others who are competing in Beijing but who will not hit the peak of their potential until 2012. This is an exciting prospect.

We may question the amount of money being spent - and seek assurances that there'll be a lasting legacy not just in terms of sport but also local regeneration - but hosting the games offers us a chance to excel in other areas than arms sales and war fighting (and that has to be a good thing).

I still stand by my opening ceremony idea, however, perhaps with the modification of having four people representing the four nations of the UK (suitably dressed) coming into the middle of the packed arena and simply welcoming all the athletes before saying 'let the games begin' and spending the rest of the budget on feeding and immunising children in villages across Africa and Asia.

Meeting the demands

I came across this in my morning reading today:

'The demands made upon us are only possible to meet if matched by openness to the Spirit.'

It comes from Norman Motley - someone I'm not familiar with - and seems to get to the heart of the matter with a rare succinctness.

There are lots of demands made on us as we seek to follow Jesus, as we plan for ministry and mission, as we respond to the many needs of a busy church. And it's not beyond our wit to devise a cunning plan to get the job done.

But the demands go beyond merely getting the job done. The demands are about faithfully working for the Kingdom of God. And for that we need more than planning guile. We need the Spirit of God inspiring our thinking and energising our working. More than that, we need him calling us into the work itself, showing us where he is already doing things in people's lives and getting alongside him.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting to grips with the text

I'm preaching on the story of David and Bathsheba this morning. This is one of those stories we know so well and yet it is one of the preacher's equivalents of climbing Everest.

It's very familiarity make it a challenge to preach. But more than that, it's a text with such breadth and depth that encapsulating it in a twenty minute monologue is an impossibility.

So we find ourselves reaching for generalities: what is the 'key' point of the text? What is the 'major lesson' of the story? Such questions diminish the Biblical text whenever we ask them as they seek to reduce the infinite complexity of the human and divine drama to a couple of easily-grasped maxims.

And yet... In twenty minutes we cannot hope to convey, to unravel, let alone explain the intricacies of the story. So maybe all we can do is offer signposts to help people's readings; ask them to notice things along the way through the narrative, things that might help them as they reflect on the story, its characters, their reactions, the consequences of their actions, etc.

One of the questions I'm always asking people to bear in mind is 'where do they think God is in this story?' It's never as easy to answer as some think. God is in the story of David and Bathsheba but he doesn't appear as a character until the final verse of chapter 11 and then it's not him as such but the narrator's spin on what God's attitude might be. It's only chapter 12 that reveals God's heart and mind (and then it's through Nathan and our reading of the story).

So, I'm praying that as I speak this morning, people's eyes will be opened to read the story and encounter the God of grace in its unfolding drama.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Batman and the downturn

We went to see Batman - The Dark Knight last night at Bluewater. Well, we went, but we couldn't get in because the cinema was heaving with people and all the performances were sold out.

Now, I thought we were suffering a downturn, straitened economic circumstances, etc. I have to say that Bluewater was humming when we arrived at 7:45pm last night, shoppers and cinema goers milling about in their thousands.

As we couldn't see the film, we went to one of the bars for a drink. Again the eateries we passed through were doing good business with people queuing for tables.

As ever when the headlines scream that we've never had it so bad, the picture on the ground is always more mixed. Some people are undoubtedly struggling because of rising fuel and food prices. But most people are not. we're paying more for basic commodities, but those items account for small amounts of our total spending (less than 15% according to a recent analysis by David Smith in the Sunday Times) and so the majority of us still have cash left over for entertainment as I saw at Bluewater last night.

Hopefully, I'll get to see Batman at the weekend...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sharing the cafe church experience

We had a really good cafe church last night. Costa was heaving with people, there was a great atmosphere and we had an interesting conversation about fair trade and why it's spiritual as well as an economic issue.

But I did come away with some questions. The fact that we were heaving with only 35 or so people means there's not a lot of room for growth or making the project economically viable on the current model. And the fact that the venue was so full - not usually a problem - meant that it wasn't quite as chilled as we was would have liked.

I also wondered how we could use it to reach those not normally in church. We had one or two people come in off the street wanting a coffee, which was fine. But they didn't join in the 'event'. Rather they went downstairs or got a take-away.

One way forward would be to encourage church folk to bring a friend, even to the extent of not allowing church folk in unless they've got a friend. This would ensure that getting on for half the participants were non-church people. But it would exclude enthusiastic supporters and pray-ers for the project and that would be a great pity.

I think it's worth persevering with it because I'm convinced that it could be a way of reaching people who are interested in exploring spirituality but wouldn't darken the doors of a church. But we have to look at the model we are using with a view to giving it a more missional edge.

I'd be interested to know what people who've been to ours think and what experience others have had who are doing similar things in other places. Feel free to comment...

Monday, August 11, 2008

A good first Sunday

It was good to be back in church yesterday. It was a busy day - two sermons plus the teaching slot in the later service (that seemed to go particularly well) - but an enjoyable one.

It was good to see lots of people I've not seen for three months and catch up with what's been going on in their lives. August is a slightly odd month in churches as the usual programmes are on hold and people are coming and going. And there is a nice relaxed, slightly laid-back atmosphere. So that makes it a good month for re-entry, I reckon.

One of the things that is still running is our cafe church at Costa Coffee in the Market Square. This Tuesday is the third of our three month experiment. We're focusing on fair trade and the programme looks interesting. I'm looking forward to being involved and seeing how it goes.

I hope we'll be able to continue this new way of being church into the autumn - but we need numbers to pick up. So, if you're in Bromley's Market Square at 7pm on Tuesday evening and fancy a coffee, a conversation and a chance to explore life with God.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Watching the Olympics

The Olympics have started with what appeared to be the longest opening ceremony in history!

Whatever I say about it will sound churlish, I guess, but I do have to say that I felt a little queasy watching the opening 20 minutes of the extravaganza (it was all i could stomach - and I had work to get back to). it seemed to me that China showed us what we know already - that totalitarian regimes do spectacle!

The bill for Beijing is £20billion - twice the budget for London 2012 - so no wonder some of the venues look spectacular. The hidden cost, of course, is in the millions of displaced people, the dissidents who've been removed to other cities or prison. Some 1,000 troops are on the streets ensuring everyone smiles and is polite.

So here's my idea for the opening ceremony at our games in 2012. We invite the world, have a parade of athletes and then a single figure dressed in a bowler hat walks to the middle of the stadium and declares the 30th Olympiad open. The rest of the budget is used to feed and immunise children across the developing world. I wonder if it's a goer?! What do you think Tessa?

Surviving my first week

I've survived my first week back at work!

Having not been in the habit of preparing sermons, getting three ready was a bit of a challenge. but I think we're there.

I delivered the first yesterday - a short (though not short enough!) reflection on Jesus the light of the world from John 9 (what a wonderful story that is - full of wit and irony). The other two are for Sunday - David and Mephibosheth in the morning; Jesus, Simon the Pharisee and a woman of dubious morals in the evening.

I've also been catching up with people and getting up to speed on what's been happening while I've been away. it's been good to see people again.

One of my other projects - now I've got a lovely new guitar - has been getting a collection of songs together to record. I now have 32 (written over a period of 32 years - coincidence or what?!) dusted off, tidied up and ready to roll. A mate has all the gear needed, so in my spare moments (hopefully there'll be some) over the next couple of months, I'll see what they sound like and select a a dozen to put on a CD. I've been promising myself that I'd do this for the last three years; now it seems I have the chance.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Back in the office...

Back at work!

After three wonderful months in Prague, France and the UK with nothing to do except meet people, read books, listen to music and generally chill and enjoy myself, I am back at work. And I'm still looking forward to getting back into it - despite the challenges that I know lie ahead.

We had a great last sabbatical weekend in Devon catching up with friends and catching some waves - both excellent. It was the first time this year we've been in the sea - hopefully not the last!

Now my desk is strewn is paper and thoughts and the beginnings of an autumn teaching series. We'll be looking at Reasons to be hopeful in the mornings and who on earth are we? in the evenings (the latter loosely based on 1 Peter).

I am keen to have a more flexible, less buttoned-down approach to the teaching programme so that we can be responsive to people's questions and comments (so, hopefully, lots of those will be forthcoming!) and also the leading of God's Spirit as we work our way through the material.

Above all things, the church needs to be hearing from God. How else can we hopeful people, confident of our identity in a world of pain and laughter, chaos and order?