1 Thessalonians. No microwave meal.
I guess 1 Thessalonians is the kind of book many of us think we know well. We think we’ve got the structure sorted, there are not too many difficulties exegetically etc etc. It’s been refreshing therefore to revisit 1 Thessalonians with Nigel Styles at our Autumn Conference. It’s like this with Bible books, isn’t it? There are some Bible passages (not many, I’m ashamed to say) that I know off by heart. Even so, there are always beauties and delights in the text that we don’t always see first, second or even third time around. It’s tempting to think as preachers that we need to get through the whole canon of Scripture before going back over a book we’ve preached before. That may be true if all you are going to do is rehash the old material, like some microwaved ready meal. But if you’re going to come fresh to the text, fresh to the material, fresh to prayer, fresh to application, then nonsense. Of course you can preach it again. And 1 Thessalonians may be no bad place to start.
Last week we were at our Autumn Ministers conference and Vaughan kicked us off with Rev 2.1-7. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a mystery worshipper visit a church in which I’ve been ministering. But Vaughan has. And there are some good stories. “Father Roberts preached for 25 minutes!” I rather enjoyed Vaughan’s comeback. “I’ve never preached for less than 30.”
The trouble with the mystery worshipper is that he has his own agenda. He’ll tell you the things he likes about your church (provided that they tie in with his own likes). He’ll tell you the things he doesn’t like (ditto). His loaded agenda can be hard to take.
The Revelation letters are hard to take not because Jesus has a loaded agenda, but because – unlike the mystery worshipper – they hit where it hurts. Jesus is absolutely able to tell us what we do well and where we need to change. It’s encouraging to see that Jesus sees what we do: he knows. Isn’t that good news? But sobering to think whether we still have that first love. Does our church have it? Do we have it? (Clue: there may be a connection).
The reality is that we encourage a kind of activism (do, do, do) precisely because of the nature of church and ministry. We are constantly fighting that battle. And so we need to cultivate our love for the Lord. How?
Remember: consider how far you have fallen. Not just one day (we can all feel low for one day). But we need to remember the glories of our walk with Christ in the early times.
Repent: age can dampen enthusiasm if we are not careful. But we must not accept a dull blandness in our Christian walk. Pray in truths and identify what needs to be repented of.
Repeat: do the things you did at first. In other words, get going again.
All this brings a wonderful promise – to share with Christ from the tree of life.
How to remember
It’s been encouraging reading my friends’ reports of Remembrance Sunday and how this is fast becoming the major evangelistic guest event in their church – for many, they are more likely to have a full church on Remembrance Sunday than at Easter or Christmas Day. Go for it, brothers.
But it’s also worth remembering that for many, it’s not so simple. We have well over 50 nationalities in our church – active members – and the kind of jingoistic service that this particular Sunday can quickly become (need not, but often does) does not serve the gospel. We have those who lost relatives on losing sides in a world war. We have those who were forced to fight against their will. We have those who – whilst on a winning side – can hardly feel positive about the regime they were propping up (Stalin).
It’s good to remember – but, as with everything in church – we need to do it in a way that is appropriate and sensitive to those who belong and – to a lesser extent, maybe – to those who visit. I have to confess I have never found this easy – particularly because world wars (which, I think, fulfil the criteria for just wars) are markedly different from recent conflicts. Often, in Remembrance Sunday jargon, these are all lumped together.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be a November 11 humbug. I just contend it needs a little thinking through for careful Christians. Chez nous, we prayed in our mission slot for Germany. And we had a short quote from Prince Philip Kiril the great great grandson on Kaiser Wilhelm II – a Lutheran pastor, referring to 1914:
“The German people had to carry the price and there was much worse coming when the monarchy was gone – you know all of that, there’s no need for a history lesson now. There has been much lost in Germany and throughout the world and it would take too long to go through all of this and ask for forgiveness. But we have a God who can do something with our ruins. And I became a pastor because I have a strong hope that he can do something with the German people; many of them are far from God. Please pray for Germany whenever you think of them or of me. That’s what’s on my heart.” Watch the full interview from this year’s Alpha conference here.
Above all, of course, we want to remember Christ – and this needs to be at the heart of every Remembrance Sunday, however it is conducted.
Job opportunity at PT
Please pass this onto anyone in your congregation for whom it might be suitable. Thank you!
Book-keeper (& buildings manager)
Part-time (7-10 hours per week), starting early 2015
We are looking to recruit a part time book-keeper to join our existing team. For the right candidate the role may also include some buildings management responsibilities. The role is part time (between 7-10 hours per week) and the days are flexible. It is based at our London office in Borough High Street. The salary is £25-£35k pro rata depending on experience and responsibilities. The candidate should have previous financial management
More detailed information about the role and details of how to apply can be found on our website at www.proctrust.org.uk/financerole. The closing date for applications is Friday 12 December 2014.
The power of story
I read two very good stories whilst I was away. The first I had not read since I was at school – 30 years ago (ouch, that hurts!). It was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. I suppose studying it at school had put me off. But I enjoyed it second time around, even with such a gap. It’s very simply written, but has pace and flow that grips the reader. Simple, yet very effective.
The second book was Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey. No, not that one! It predates the infamous EL James novel and is another clever, gripping story – not unlike Animal Farm as it describes life in a totalitarian state. It is more involved than Orwell – characters are more developed and the story is more complex. But it is gripping nonetheless. I like Fforde books – they make me laugh and are good holiday fodder. This one is more thoughtful; sadly it was not a commercial success so there is unlikely to be a long promised sequel.
Both illustrate the power of story. When well written and pacy, stories captivate the imagination and carry the reader or hearer along. That’s also how Bible story works – whether Old Testament or New Testament. The stories are well written and captivating.
Which makes it all the more strange that so much narrative preaching robs the text of colour, pace and life. It’s not an easy thing to do to preach narrative well. But – at the very least – we as preachers have to work hard to preserve in our sermons something of the colour and involvement that the text generates. For story is powerful. And whilst preaching is more than story telling – much, much more – it is certainly not less.
This is reality. Be encouraged.
We had a few days away last week staying on the Sandringham Estate in Norfolk (sounds slightly more impressive than it really was). Sunday we headed to a local village parish church, just to the west of Kings Lynn where a couple we know are hard at work for the Lord. It was an encouraging time to be with them, especially as we had a wonderfully faithful and warmly applied sermon from Matthew 15 – not the easiest of passages.
First, a reality check. The church was relatively small – a normal congregation, the vicar told me, is about 40-45ish. His wife works hard running the Sunday School. Whether she wants to or not, this particular vicar’s wife has to be the unpaid curate. There’s music and coffee afterwards, but there are simply not (I imagine) the number of people to put on the programmes and events that larger churches take for granted.
So, here’s the reality check. Many young men going into ministry have attended a relatively well funded University church. They have perhaps done an apprenticeship in a similar church. But those kinds of churches (for which we should all thank God) are not normal. The majority of churches in this country are relatively small, underfunded and (in the world’s eyes at least) struggling. They cannot hope to put on programmes and events like larger churches do. I should know – I ministered in such a church for almost a decade.
And yet here’s the encouragement. God saves unbelievers and builds Christians through the faithful preaching of the word. That’s why I was so encouraged to visit this little parish. You don’t need the razz-ma-tazz and glossy literature. You need Christ Jesus proclaimed. This wonderful village church had it. And if you have it, we need to believe Christ will build his church.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that Trevor Archer, who is the Training Director at FIEC, joined us at the Cornhill+ conference. He has since written an article reflecting on his time at the conference and the contribution of the course to local church ministry. And about the students crossing paths (pretty much literally!) with a professional rugby player whilst on a country walk. As you do.
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
Better than O Valiant Hearts. Much better.
One of the great non-evangelical Remembrance Sunday hymns is O Valiant Hearts. Not really one to sing in church! All a bit jingoistic. But it’s got a great tune. A really good tune. Not the Holst one, the original (download it here, listen to it here). And there are some great words in Praise! by Fred Kran which fit well and are written just for Remembrance Sunday.
God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind
how hate and war diminish humankind,
we pause-and seek in worship to increase
our knowledge of the things that make for peace.
2. Hallow our will as humbly we recall
the lives of those who gave and give their all.
We thank you, Lord, for women, children, men
who seek to serve in love, today as then.
3. Give us deep faith to comfort those who mourn,
high hope to share with all the newly born,
strong love in our pursuit of human worth:
‘lest we forget’ the future of this earth.
4. So, Prince of peace, disarm our trust in power,
teach us to coax the plant of peace to flower.
May we, impassioned by your living word,
remember forward to a world restored.
Let Chris Idle do the talking:
“Some of the most popular material in demand among prayers and hymns [for Remembrance Sunday] falls far short (in several directions) of Christian standards or biblical norms. Emotions run high, war memories may still ache after 60-70 years or from more recent conflicts, but there is also a longing for new approaches. It was this need and tension which prompted Coventry Cathedral staff to commission Fred Kaan to frame this hymn.”
What kind of book is Acts?
In my morning devotions I’ve just started reading Acts. It’s a great book, isn’t it? But daunting to preach. Especially because we wrestle with the question of whether it’s normative (describing what should characterise the church in this age) or descriptive (describing the early apostolic church). For what it’s worth I think that question encourages us to make a false dichotomy.
There are clearly elements that are normative as we see the gospel of Jesus grow and spread in the power of the Spirit. There are clearly elements that are descriptive as we see the work of the Apostles (who, we all agree, do not continue in the same form, even if they continue in some form). We all agree that the church’s first council and its command not to eat food offered to idols is not applicable to the church today in precisely the way it was then.
In other words, no one thinks Acts is normative (in its entirety) and no one thinks Acts is simply descriptive (in its entirety). There are two better answers.
One is to read Scripture in the light of Scripture. To read Acts apart from assessing it in the light of the teaching of the two main Apostles it highlights (Peter and Paul) seems to be a little naïve. I know the Spirit has inspired Luke to write these words this way – and that counts for something. But do you notice how the Spirit has inspired the whole Scripture too? We have individual books. We have the whole Scripture. We ignore that at our peril – especially in a book which makes so much of fulfilment.
The second is to ask why Acts was written down in the first place. If we can – by careful reading – gauge something of its purpose then we are well on our way to answering the vexed normative/descriptive question. Work that out and you have an interpretative key.
What? You want me to do all your work for you?
Real? Yes. And no.
Last weekend, there was an interesting piece in the Times magazine by über-feminist Caitlin Moran. I’m not normally a fan, but this was an insightful article. In it, she explained how she had immediately googled for the leaked celebrity pictures of Jennifer Lawrence once she heard they were online. “Just a bit of fun,” she argued to herself. The article is her apology: “I’m an idiot. It’s all real. Of course it is.”
Her argument is that we convince ourselves the internet is not real. “Humanity has a weird perception glitch: that the internet isn’t real. In the internet, humans have created an infinite new continent. A limitless, seething megalopolis in which we do everything that we do in a realmegalopolis – shop, chat, meet – but in which we seem to believe the laws that humans painstakingly constructed, for the good of the ‘meat’ world, don’t count.”
In other words, we think the internet is a place of freedom precisely because it is not real. I think Christians increasingly have embraced this concept. We think we can maintain friendships on Facebook alone (I’m on Facebook myself, and it’s not all bad). We can survive in a mediocre church because “my church is online and Piper’s my pastor.” Christians spend more time reading blogs than they do well-argued books. And so on. We prefer to live-chat than pick up a phone.
There is a sense in which Moran is right. It is real. People we interact with on Facebook are real people. Insults (and this is the point she makes) via twitter are real insults. But that doesn’t make it normal. It is real and yet it is not. And for Christians who are Spirit-wired to be relational beings, serving one another, that’s a real problem.
The reality the internet brings is not the reality we need. It may serve our reality, but it cannot replace it. And Christians need to understand this.