Archive for the ‘Central Point’ Category

Have you stalled in your evangelism?

May 10th, 2013

I’d passed my test the day before. The first in the Lower Sixth to do so, and with only five minors, I’m pleased to tell you. I was the bee’s knees. Utterly confident, with Top-Gun sunglasses in place and chewing gum in the mouth, I cruised round the corner in front of the lads in year above, pushing my mum’s dark green Ford Ka to the max. The engine roared. So did the crowds. It couldn’t have gone better.

And then I stalled.

Nightmare. I can still hear the jeers today.

We’ve all been there haven’t we?! Driving along, quite swimmingly, even impressively (especially if you’re in a Ka), and things are going well. It’s a smooth journey, the car is doing what it’s meant to, you’re doing what you’re meant to, and you edge nearer and nearer to your destination almost without thinking. Then, perhaps, you slow down, perhaps there’s a hill to climb, and suddenly, often without warning, there’s a chug chug chug, and then silence. You’ve stalled.

Stalling in our evangelism

If you’re like me, then you might recognise this not only in your driving, but in your evangelism. Let me explain…

Like the smooth journey in a car, we often have initial conversations with friends, with family, that actually go okay! They find out we’re a Christian, and they aren’t appalled at it! We talk to them about our testimony, and they’re intrigued by it! We show them there’s reasonable evidence for being a Christian, and they understand it! We invite them to something, and they enjoy it! God’s at work, doing what he’s meant to be. We’re giving it a go and speaking for Jesus, doing what we’re meant to be. Of course it might take a long time, like any journey in a Ford Ka, but often we’re moving along quite steadily to where we want to get to. Our friends are genuinely interested. We’re on a journey. We’re feeling good and our engine roars, perhaps our Christian friends look on, and they roar with approval too.

And then a little hill comes in the way. Perhaps a time where we don’t see the person for a while. Perhaps busyness gets in the way, and we forget to get back in touch with our friends. Perhaps the Alpha course finishes, the questions have been answered. Or we just reach a point where we don’t know where to go next to move them on in their journey. Things slow down. There’s a chug chug chug, and then silence. We’ve stalled.

Can you think of opportunities that have stalled like this? I can. Praise the Lord for his grace and power that means that over my time as a Christian I have friends and family who have asked their questions, heard talks, read some of the gospels with me, gone to church, gone on Alpha, gone on Christianity Explored, been healed, gone to mission events, debated long into the night, sung praise to Jesus, noticed a difference in my life, prayed, searched. One even told me they thought that the gospels are true, that Jesus is alive and that they can’t see any objections to the message of Christianity. And yet, at least from what I can guess, none of these folks are Jesus-loving, truth-believing, church-serving, gospel-spreading Christians today. It’s all come to a stand-still. A cross-roads. Chug chug chug. Then silence. We’ve stalled.

And if I’m honest, that annoys me. They seem so close, and yet so far. Is there any way I can bring these people to Jesus?

Can these journeys restart?

Thanks to some extremely helpful teaching from evangelist and author Michael Ots, I’ve been captured this week by one world-changing idea. One top tip for when you stall? When you’re wondering what is stopping seemingly keen and engaged and interested people from becoming a Christian? You’ll never guess. Ready? It was this:

Ask them.

Simply ask them!

However long it’s been, however poor you’ve been at keeping it on the agenda, however long it’s been since you were in touch, however hard you find talking about Jesus, ask them! Could you simply ask them a question? Instead of dropping in awkward Jesus-links at every opportunity like I so often do, instead of forcing things, could we take a step-back, and ask them?

“We’ve chatted about this before, what is that stopping you from becoming a Christian?” “So where are you are you up to with your thoughts about Jesus?” “If there’s one reason why you aren’t a Christian, what would it be?” “What do you think about Jesus nowadays?”

The question itself hardly matters, but one that specific enough to move things on and cause a seeker to reflect, to revisit older ideas and conversations, reminding them that they were once so interested, yet open enough to avoid forcing our own agenda or ideas about where someone is at. And when they answer, it enables us to have a conversation, plant some seeds, pray more specifically, understand our friends more, be genuine with them and real, asking their thoughts and opinions not forcing a pre-planned three-point outline on them at every opportunity. If things have stalled, and you’re not sure where to go next, ask!

It’s not revolutionary. It’s not rocket science. But it’s open. It’s honest. It’s genuine. It’s loving. It shows a respect for the other person. It’s light. It’s not-intense. It can be done in a car, over coffee, on the phone, in the office, at the cinema, on a jog, at the supermarket. And more importantly, I can actually think of some people right now who I could do this with. It excites me. It helps me believe again that they might come to Jesus.

Who are the people that you could ask a question? Just imagine the opportunities, the conversations, if you asked three friends! Let’s not be crippled by the chug, chug, chug and the silence. Let’s ask – gently, weakly. And let’s see what happens!


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Christians Against Poverty

April 17th, 2013


Even the most cursory review of scripture reveals God’s immense care for the poor; His desire to see the needs of the oppressed, hungry, naked and destitute met and their cause upheld. This concern was lived out through Jesus’ ministry and is also therefore central in the activities of His church.

One of the ways we are seeking to live this out as a church is by partnering with Christians Against Poverty and Grace Church in Stirchley/Cotteridge to run a debt counselling centre here in Birmingham.

The centre has been running for 6 months and we are now working with a number of clients across the city.

As part of Churchcentral’s week of prayer this week, let’s be praying for the CAP Centre. Although there are many specific areas and situations which need God’s intervention, there are basically three things which if our clients receive, their lives will be utterly transformed:

1.      For our clients to find hope, forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ

2.      For our clients to break out of unmanageable debt

3.      For our clients to find community in the church

It’s wonderful that our God is committed to those in severe need, as well as willing and able to answer our prayers! It’s also great that CAP and the local church are able to offer these things to people in great need here in Birmingham.

If you would like more information or to receive our CAP prayer newsletter please email

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April 14th, 2013


The Christian life is a life defined by joy. However, it is also a life marked by discipline. Just as in any human relationship we must discipline ourselves to enjoy that relationship fully, the same is true of our relationship with God.

Fasting- abstaining from food for a period of time- is such a discipline.

Fasting is a funny one as there is no explicit command in the Bible to tell us that we must fast. However, it is just assumed that we will do it. Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words- ‘when you fast…’ not ‘if you fast’ (Matthew 6:16) and it is a practice that Bile heroes in the Old and New Testament thrived off- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Paul, even Jesus himself.

If you’ve not heard my sermon on this, download it from the website, but this blog post should go into a bit more detail on the practical ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of fasting.

Why should we fast?

Maybe the best way to answer this question is to ask why people in the Bible fasted. Here is a non comprehensive list:

1)     To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:24-27, 2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:1-3)

2)     Repentance (Joel 2:12-14, Jonah 3:5, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Daniel 9:16-19)

3)     Seeking answer to specific prayers (2 Samuel 12:22-23, Ezra 8:21, Joel 1:13-14, Esther 4:3)

It is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that fasting can be practised wrongly as well. It shouldn’t be directed towards people, to impress them or make you look very pious (Matthew 6:16-18), it shouldn’t just be performed as a religious duty just because it’s the done thing either (Zec 7:4-5) and just because you’re fasting it doesn’t mean that you can stop obeying God in other areas! (Isaiah 58:1-11)

Basically, the kind of fasting God rewards does not just involve going without food, but it involves a specific attitude: a desire for God.

In Psalm 109, David describes one of the times when he is fasting (109:10), and his motivation is clear:

‘My eyes fail,
looking for my God.’ (Ps 109:3)

 True fasting, it seems, is not fasting done to impress people, not even fasting done primarily to get stuff off God, it comes from a deep desire for God himself.

And this is the result of true fasting, as Isaiah makes clear in Isaiah 58:9:

‘Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.’

 This is the amazing thing about fasting, its reward is the most valuable thing of all: the presence of God. Hearing his voice saying that He is right here by our side.

So you’re sold? Good. But how do we do it?

How should we fast?

I’ll break this down into a few other questions to help:

1)     Does a fast have to be a food-fast?

Fasting is nearly always going without food in the Bible. People often ask though, ‘can I fast something other than food?’ Of course you can. You can do or not do what you want (within reason) and taking a break from things like television, music, social media sites or computer games might be a good idea sometimes. However, I’d encourage you that if you want to fast to do it the way the Bible suggests. I’ve always found that there is something about going without food that complements seeking after God. There is something about physical hunger that mirrors the spiritual hunger we feel (or want to feel) when we fast.

2)     What counts as food though?

Is toothpaste food? What about a milk shake? How about chewing gum? Soup? Muslims fasting during Ramadan won’t let anything pass their lips and some Christians seem to get themselves in a similar state of legalism about fasting. Basically, you don’t have to fast and the manner in which you fast is largely up to you. This is a matter of your heart to seek God, he is much more concerned about your heart than whether you inadvertently swallow a fly or start munching a biscuit because you forgot you were fasting.

For me, I avoid things that I would normally count as food and be reasonably relaxed about the types of drink I have. I would adopt as many breath freshening methods as possible as well (if you don’t know why, try fasting and breathing on people at the end of the day, you’ll soon find out!)

 3)     What should I do while fasting?

I have fasted for several days in my life that I am almost certain have had no spiritual benefit at all. Some have been spent working so solidly that I forgot to eat, other times I was ill! Not wanting to sound repetitive, but fasting is not just an external action, it is a way of seeking God. Therefore, I would doubt the effectiveness of fasting and simply missing lunch and dinner to put in extra time at work.

Prayer is fasting’s perfect partner, but I would also spend time reading God’s word when I’m fasting and spend other time quietly, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Remember fasting is about seeking God. One of the reasons its helpful is that it frees up time to do just that.

I find it helpful to extend my morning quiet time instead of having breakfast and to go for a walk during my lunch break and sometimes at dinner time as well to pray. Not eating can actually free up about 2 hours of your day; my advice would be to use this time wisely.

4)     How long should I fast?

Again this is up to you. Some people suggest starting by just fasting one meal, but again there is no biblical precedent for this. An averagely healthy human being can go at least 3 weeks without food without suffering any lasting damage, so a day is not going to kill you! Its not easy though. My advice would be to start with a day. There may never be a need to do a longer fast or you may feel like you want to fast for longer next time.

5)     How often should I fast?

Fasting is not something we do to tick off our Christian bucket list. It is a practice that we have up our sleeve to do whenever we feel prompted by the Spirit. Some people find it helpful to fast one day every week, and that’s fine. I avoid this, as it can become legalistic and when I’ve done this before I’ve tended to end up fasting mainly because that’s what I do and not to seek God urgently for his presence. I fast when there is something particularly pressing to pray for, or when I really need God’s guidance. I’m glad that as of today I can add a new reason to this list: when my church gathers together to pray and fast together!

Will you join us this week, on future prayer and fasting weeks and build this joyful discipline into your life too? If you do, avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, Jesus promises that the Father will reward you. Yes, he promises it. Check out Matthew 6:18 if you don’t believe me.

Oh yeah, one more thing, stock up on some tasty breakfasts as well ;)

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Margaret Thatcher and the myth of pitiless indifference

April 12th, 2013

They say you will always remember where you were when you found out that Princess Diana died. I was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of a mate’s house in London.

I wonder if the same will be said for Margaret Thatcher. On this occasion though, perhaps I should have paid attention to what was said to me at that moment, rather than my exact location. Upon hearing the news, the very next thing that I was told was: ‘Its probably best to avoid facebook for a few days.’

Wise words. Sadly unheeded.

The most controversial/divisive/polarizing (etc, etc) British Prime Minister of the 20th Century certainly lived up to her tabloid headline legacies if my facebook chums are at all representative of British society.

It’s quite disorientating when you’re used to a stream of ‘lol’s’, hilarious cat pictures and amateur weather reports to suddenly have to deal with words like ‘genocide’ and ‘odium’ and, in some cases, status updates that go on for over 500 words.

There was passion. There was vitriol. There was a smattering of sentimentality, but even that was executed with feeling. People really care about this woman’s life, even if they hated the woman herself.

And what was missing? Well, on Monday there weren’t many ‘Keep Calm and carry on’ spoofs, 90s music videos, nor even the usual plethora of half eaten sandwiches  that people so kindly photograph and instagram for me on a daily basis. The banality and trivilaity of 21st century existence suddenly exploded into real human emotions. It was like people came alive again on Monday 8th April.

I know what you’re thinking. Its what I thought too. It all goes to prove that God exists, doesn’t it?

Oh, that’s not what you were thinking. How embarrassing! Well, let me explain my train of thought then.

According to the prevalent philosophies of our age, we really shouldn’t get so worked up about things. There is no such thing as moral evil that we should take offence at, and actually no such thing as moral good that we should celebrate and take pride in. At a popular level, a moral life is one in which you listen to your heart, hold on to what you believe or follow your dreams. Underpinning these pearls of wisdom, are the slightly more sophisticated ideas of 20th century moral philosophers.

AJ Ayer argued just before the Second World War that all morality was totally subjective. Statements like ‘giving to charity is good’ and ‘murder is bad’ are essentially just expressions of people’s opinions along the lines of ‘I like Marmite’ or ‘I’m not overly fond of the colour mauve’. In effect then, Bob Geldof is no better than Anders Breivik. They simply have different tastes.

Jean Paul Sartre, writing at a similar time, redefined a good life as a life lived with force and vigour, devoid of any objective moral checks. According to Sartre, I define my own meaning and my own morality. The most important thing is to make sure that I use my freedom to act with commitment and passion, and not just to fade into the background. Try to relieve 3rd world poverty or gun down a few dozen people? Following this train of thought, both courses of action would be equally ‘moral’, in that ‘morality’ is a myth and both decisions would forcefully impose your own version of meaningfulness on the world.

And then a little more recently, we have the New Atheist movement, whose proponents have joined forces with Ayer and Sartre in cheerfully explaining away any sense of moral obligation that we’ve been led to believe in. Our sense that some things are ‘right’ and some things are ‘wrong’ is a product, like everything else, of the evolutionary development of our species. Our more kind and empathetic ancestors proved to be better survivors than our more selfish, violent predecessors and so human beings have this general feeling that helping old ladies across roads is good and stealing milk off school children is bad.

Which brings us nicely back to Baronness Thatcher.

Why are people so hot under the collar about this lady and the decisions she made? It would make sense for miners from Yorkshire to have strong feelings about this, but I’m not facebook friends with any miners from Yorkshire. Why are people who were barely alive when the Iron Lady bid her tearful farewell to Downing Street so irate about what she did or did not do?

The answer is simple. Their responses give us a glimpse of the truth we all know but so many have tried to hide. Our actions and decisions matter. Humans have real value. There is such a thing as right and wrong.

The moral relativism and evolutionary extrapolations of the last 100 years have deadened us to moral evil and the value of human life. No question. We might have never heard of Ayer, Sartre or even Dawkins before but their effect is overwhelming. For most 21st century Westerners, life simply doesn’t have any meaning. Not really. Not beyond, eating and drinking, for tomorrow we die. And this leads to countless directionless, meandering lives lived with no sense that they have any real consequence. It also leads to a general atmosphere of utter apathy.

Then, every now and again, something comes along and shakes us out of our carelessness and frivolity and reminds us that we’ve been tricked. An event or personality appears that provokes an emotional reaction that shouts that our actions do matter and our lives are important. They can be forces for good or forces for evil. Not forces for ‘whatever we decide is good’ or forces for ‘the things we’re not very keen on’ or even forces for ‘what we’ve been programmed by natural selection to value or despise for the continued promulgation of the human race’. Real good and real evil. And if there’s real good and real evil, there must be someone beyond us who decides what fits into each category. It is impossible to conceive of a moral law without a moral law giver. Therefore there must be a God and he must care enough about human beings to set us codes of behaviour.

Richard Dawkins wrote this in his book ‘River out of Eden’:

‘The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

It’s a very good summary of the only sensible conclusion to questions of life’s meaning if you remove God from the equation. However, try telling that to Morrissey, Glenda Jackson and Elvis Costello. I don’t wish to side myself with any of the specific verdicts of her life- I don’t really understand politics and still hold to the apparently slightly outdated view that you shouldn’t speak ill of the recently deceased. However, without making any judgement on Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, I think I can be pretty sure about one element of her legacy and it certainly can’t be described as ‘pitiless indifference’.

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A salute to Primary Carers

March 8th, 2013

I’m not normally a fan of ‘Hallmark Card’ occasions, but I make an exception for Mothering Sunday. Not only because I love my mum, but also because it’s one of those rare times when our society acknowledges a role that in many ways is counter-cultural.

In fact, any primary carer; whether a dad, foster or adoptive parent, or carer of a disabled adult, fulfils a role that goes against the grain.

How is this? Because these roles involve humility and self-sacrifice; the laying down of your life for another. Things that have the familiar ring of the Good News of Jesus about them, and things which are not exactly celebrated in society. In fact, many of the values society holds dearest are relinquished in order to become a primary carer; personal freedom & independence, academic achievement, and career ambitions, to name a few.

In two fantastic blogs on Motherhood, Melissa McDonald and Rachel Jankovic explore this further. If you’re a mother I urge you to read them and be encouraged!

Being a primary carer is hard. It takes all of you. But in doing it you are reflecting the life of the Servant King Jesus who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20.28).

So in our church, let’s honour and esteem our primary carers, and look to learn something from them about how we can be more like Jesus.

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Christmas; Nicety or Necessity?

December 18th, 2012

I think it’s fair to say people of all ages who’ve lived through 2012 will remember it as a good year, full of uplifting and memorable events like Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win, the Diamond Jubilee, the Olympic and Paralympic Games and Felix Baumgartner’s space leap. It’s been year that has displayed the best of human achievement and endeavour.

So sad then that 2012 has proved to have a sting in its tail.

Another school shooting, in Newtown Connecticut, where 26 people, mainly children, were needlessly and brutally murdered. This event, just as all its predecessors from Dunblane to Columbine, sent shockwaves across the world, and left us asking once again; how can this kind of thing happen?

The Newtown massacre was all the crueller as it happened so close to the festive season, when people are busy making preparations, buying presents and looking forward to spending time with their families. But Christmas is a time of hope, peace and goodwill to all men isn’t it? Surely Christmas can offer us some hope, some respite from such evil… can’t it?

I would say with confidence that it can. But not the Christmas offered by our culture. That Christmas has become a nicety. My 3 year old illustrated this when I asked her recently what she was looking forward to most about Christmas. She replied ‘Father Christmas giving me lots of presents’. Alongside momentarily making me feel like a parenting failure, she had unwittingly summed up what Christmas has become – the shallow anticipation of material gain, along with warm and cosy feelings and the hope of having a ‘nice’ time. The problem is, niceties cannot answer big questions.

The true Christmas story speaks God’s love, proximity and identification with humanity right into the heart of Newtown, Connecticut. You see, from the moment Jesus was born, he was being hunted by King Herod; a despot who was nervous about a prophesied Messiah being born on his patch. This meant Jesus, having come into the world in the most chaotic and wretched way imaginable, was now a refugee, his parents having to flee to Egypt until Herod’s death. But there was significant collateral damage: ‘Herod…gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2.16).

The slaughter of the innocents is a part of the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten, often glossed over. How many nativity scenes include Herod’s soldiers alongside the shepherds and wise men? How many times does ‘The Coventry Carol’ feature in a Christmas service?

Yet it’s integral to the Christmas story, which displays that Jesus’ life was one of identification with human suffering  (‘He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain’ Isaiah 53.3). It’s also important because events like Newtown remind us that the spirit of Herod is still active in the world. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, perhaps unknowingly, highlighted this when he stated “Evil visited this community today”. How true. And such evil. But this isn’t the evil of one ‘loner’ who we can distance from the rest of humanity and therefore cling to our supposed inherent goodness. This is the evil of the same ‘spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’ (Ephesians 2.2) and who holds the world under his control (1 John 5.19).

Nice Christmassy message? Not very cosy and warm and ‘nice’ but then neither is the gospel a nice message, neither is God ‘nice’ in the Santa Claus sense. He is good, and the gospel is good news to a humanity that has rejected its creator, gone its own way and therefore suffers the dual consequence of being morally adrift and open to God’s judgment without a plea. The only way to overcome the awful darkness that we see displayed through our own lives and through atrocities is to believe the message; that darkness is overcome through the death and resurrection of Bethlehem’s baby. For ‘the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work’ (1 John 3.8), and; ‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1.15).

We need saving, we need rescuing from evil. And that’s exactly what Jesus does. He is both the Saviour and the Rescuer of the world. That is why Christmas is a matter of necessity for us. We need it. So let’s tell it boldly, and celebrate the real hope that came into the world through that baby in the manger.

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Terrific Twos

May 25th, 2012

If you’re a parent with children of toddler age or older, you can probably relate to the stereotypical scenario of the public meltdown in aisle seven of the local supermarket, and perhaps, understand why the phrase ‘the terrible two’s’ is applied to children at that stage of life.  I’m a dad to a 2-and-a-half year-old (who is already planning her 3rd birthday party), and I have to say that my experience so far is that this is the best age yet! Let me give you some examples of why.

So we’re trying out the see-saw at the playground and my daughter says ‘I’m happy’. Rewarding enough! I then ask ‘what makes you happy’, to which she replies ‘you make me happy’, at which point I nearly fall off the see-saw, overcome with parental joy.

Here’s another one: ‘Daddy, I don’t like your singing’, ‘why not?’, ‘because I’ve got finger paints’.

How can anyone talk about the terrible twos when your toddler comes out with gems like that?!

Now don’t get me wrong, there are definite challenges of this stage. In fact I’d say that as well as being the best age yet, it is also the most challenging yet (although admittedly I’ve only a couple of years’ experience to draw on!). But the delights of daily seeing my daughter develop as a person and discover the world far outweigh the difficulties. The main reason I can say this is because I have the perspective that being a Christian parent gives me.

Firstly, the perfect model that my Heavenly Father is for me as an earthly one.

Secondly, the fact that there is a purpose to it all, which Colossians 1v28-29 explains well; to present our children mature in Christ. No mean feat! But this can be done with all the wisdom, power and energy that He provides!

Thirdly, the fact that being a parent is a faith thing. We can walk in utter dependence upon God, and while we can’t do it without Him, with Him we can prevail and have a healthy family life and fulfil the purpose of seeing our children develop to maturity in Christ.

Fourthly, the dreaded ‘D’-word! In the last 6 months we’ve had to discipline our daughter in some form on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. This is a big challenge and my wife and I have wrestled with questions like ‘are we being consistent?’ and ‘are we going to ruin our relationship with her?!’ But again, the Bible has much encouragement! Hebrews 12v11 says “no discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful”. That pain is felt by the parent as well as the child! But it also talks about God’s disciplining of us, and how it means that He is treating us as sons and dealing lovingly with us. God’s discipline means that He is shepherding us, not leaving us to our own devices, and that He has a plan to make us more like Jesus. Discipline is an act of God’s grace!

Knowing God’s discipline has definitely helped me to reflect His grace-filled approach to disciplining my daughter (although I don’t always get it right!). And the more I have to do it, the more I understand that discipline is a good thing, and an essential tool in reaching the parenting goal of our child’s maturity[1], and salvation[2].

So if you’re a parent to a toddler, or to a smaller tot who will soon be running around, talking non-stop, and pushing at those boundaries, be encouraged! God is using you to bless your children, and there is a purpose and a goal to it all. Oh, and don’t forget – enjoy every minute!

[1] Proverbs 22v15 & 29v17

[2] Proverbs 19v18 & 23v13

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No more Mr. Nasty

May 16th, 2012

What on earth has happened to Simon Cowell! I wonder if at last he presents us with compelling evidence for alien abduction. A couple of years ago, he was in his X Factor judge’s seat, dishing out the cutting, pompous put downs that had become his trademark, then after a year in America, he returns with a saintly smile and a newfound love of puppies.

In fact, it’s not just Mr Cowell who has undergone this amazing transformation. Saturday evening’s plethora of talent shows has become full of Katarina Witts, Danni Minogues and Craig Revel Horwoods queuing up to out-mean Mr. Nasty. But not any more. The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent have been most notable for their judges’ camaraderie and general nice-ness.

The bodysnatching theory seems to fall flat when confronted with this cross-channel sea change in the tone of our prime time viewing. I don’t think it can be explained by a genuine moral change in the individuals involved either. Surely this is all calculated and deliberate. The only sensible explanation for this flurry of encouragement and pleasantness is that the market research has convinced the TV executives that the British public has had enough of nastiness (at least for the time being).

I think that, as Christians, we need to take this to heart. In offices full of gossip and slander, it is so easy to be sucked into the habit of character assassination. We can be led to believe that abstaining from such conversations (or even worse, combating the tide of viciousness) might cause us to be regarded as irrelevant and trite. Similarly, sometimes as Christians, living in a world that is often so hostile to God and his values, we get the idea that we should be openly and aggressively oppositional towards our culture- being the first to criticise unwise government policy or ridicule public figures who hold views that we consider anti-Christian. You don’t have to spend long on Facebook to find Christians even slagging off other Christians who veer from their theological position.

However, we are called to be the light of the world. This means that we should show people a way to live that is different but also attractive and winsome. Deep down, the world is fed up of back-biting and an over critical spirit. Let’s show them something different. Are you known as the type of person who builds people up or cuts them down? Would people expect you to be critical first or encouraging?  In your defense of the gospel, even in the face of hostility, do you speak with pride and aloofness or with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15)?

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Anders Breivik and Retributive Justice

April 20th, 2012

A year ago I had a very interesting conversation with a female student who was seriously investigating Christianity. She was clearly impressed by Jesus and seemed to like being around Christians, but she had one problem with Christianity: the Bible’s insistence on the need for retributive justice!

Now, I’ll back up a bit to keep everyone up to speed: basically, there are several reasons why societies punish people and two of the main ones are reformation (to make the offender a better person and stop them offending again) and retribution (to pay them back for their crimes). This lady believed that any form of retribution was wrong, as paying someone back for their crimes was a vindictive, mean thing. She believed (rightly) that God was neither vindictive or mean but, from this basis, reasoned God would only ever punish with a mind on reforming an individual.

While this may seem incredibly technical, it meant that she refused to accept that a payment was due for our sin, either through Jesus’ death on the cross or through an eternity in hell. As far as I know, this still is the main obstacle preventing her from becoming a Christian.

The reason I feel compelled to dredge up this unusual chat is that this very issue has been raised with some force in the news this week through the trial of Otto Breivik. Breivik is the Norwegian man who, acting entirely alone, bombed the Norwegian government building in Oslo before gunning down 77 people on a nearby island. In most countries, he would receive at the very least a lifetime in prison, but in Norway the maximum possible sentence is 21 years and Norway’s prisons are notoriously plush. In Newsweek, the journalist Stephan Theil, reporting on these elements of Norway’s penal system, concluded that Norway “considers the idea of punishment barbaric.” Norway has come to the same conclusion as the student with whom I conversed: punishment should be primarily to reform, there is no place for retribution.

Norway will certainly have to do some soul searching about this issue in the light of Breivik’s chillingly brazen show in court. However, I personally have no strong feelings about Norway’s methods of punishing criminals. In a fallen world, governments have to make calls on issues of law and order and I do not think that the Bible categorically supports any particular answer to these difficult questions. However I believe that there is a vital question looming behind all this that we need to think through and be ready to engage with our friends about: does God have the right to punish sinners?

The Bible makes it clear that we have all broken God’s law and stand before Him as criminals in the court of heaven. It is also clear in Scripture that God’s heart is to reform us. That is why he sent his son. The gospel is not just that we can escape punishment, but that we can change and become righteous. As Paul says in Romans 1:14 ‘in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.’ Salvation starts with justification (an imputed righteousness) but is leads to sanctification (a stuttering but noticeable progress in our personal holiness) and finally glorification (when 1 John 3:2 says ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Woop woop!) One day, we will look back and see that secular Scandinavia does not have a monopoly on reformative justice, God is the master at transforming the worst sinners into Jesus’ doppelgangers!

However, the God of the Bible is a God who has put retribution at the heart of how the universe runs. Isaiah 59:18 says:

‘According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes’

and in Romans 12:19

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord.

As Christians, I certainly don’t think these should be our most beloved verses and I can see why some people who aren’t Christians recoil from those who seem to take a cruel delight in God’s willingness to repay sinners for their sin. It is hard to read about Jesus and conclude that God delights in avenging sin in anything like the way he does in showing grace.

However, we need to maintain God’s prerogative to administer justice, because for all the technical terms, justice is what this involves. God is just. Justice is good. Sin needs to be paid for. That is the horrifying reality of the depths to which we have sunk, but a universe without such justice would be out of control and even more awful. In fact, it would be hell already.

Whatever Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen (the judge overseeing the Breivik trial) decides to do to Otto Breivik, there is another judge who will have the final say on the matter. Breivik’s sins will be punished by God along with all our much less public horrors. They will either be punished in the person of Jesus on the cross or in the person of Otto Breivik in an eternal Hell.

My guess is that this trial will raise serious questions about the nature of punishment in Norway and other secular nations (like ours). We must engage with those questions by presenting a God who longs to reform but who is utterly justified in taking retribution as well.

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January 6th, 2012

Prayer – It takes a minute to learn but we’ll never master it in our whole lives. There’s so much to pray for but, according to Romans 8:26, ‘we don’t know what we ought to pray for’. It’s the activity that falls off most quickly when we’re busy, but in the busyness it’s the most important activity. It’s the part of our relationship with God that often we’d wish God would axe, but the most godly people all seem to agree that it’s the most productive, joyful and fulfilling experience there is!

How confusing! However, setting aside all the complexities of prayer, here’s the deal: if we don’t pray, we don’t get!

2011 was a tumultuous year and, from a human perspective, 2012 doesn’t promise to be any more comforting. However, God has given us a tool by which we can lay our requests before the one who is most able and most eager to change things for the better. Our nation, our city, our friends and our church. We just need to ask.

That’s why we’re kicking off 2012 with a half week of prayer:

We’re meeting on Tuesday, and Wednesday evening next week at St Francis Hall from 8-9:30pm and on Thursday evening at StarCity from 7:30-9pm. For all the morning people out there we’re also meeting on Tuesday and Thursday morning at the church offices from 7-8am.

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