Friday, 29 October 2010

Justice and Mercy

I've heard a few times a particular way of understanding God's justice and God's mercy. It goes something like this:

'If there are two people and one goes to hell and one goes to heaven, then we see God's justice and God's mercy. The one in hell receives God's justice because all people are sinners and deserve hell, whilst the other receives God's mercy because, although deserving hell, has been saved to heaven.'

You may not be surprised that I completely disagree with this whole concept and understanding of justice and mercy. I would want to say that this is not how the Bible speaks of justice and mercy and also gives people and distorted and wrong picture of who God is and what he is like.

Aside from the way it makes God really weird and random (what kind of God? and so what?) in the way He chooses some for heaven and some for hell (also known as limited atonement; Jesus only died for some people, so only some people can ever be saved), but that this understanding of justice is, in my opinion, completely unbiblical.

In the Scriptures, God's justice is about redeeming and healing the hopeless and helpless. It is about God bringing hope and redemption to the powerless and those unable to save themselves. Justice is not about God punishing people according to some apparent higher law that people have supposedly broken. Justice is always about redemption to the powerless. Jeremiah prays, 'Correct me, Lord, but only with justice - not in your anger, lest you reduce me to nothing.' (Jeremiah 10:24). In the book of Micah it is the powerful who 'despise justice and distort all that is right' (Micah 3:9) causing pain to the powerless. God will govern the people with justice (Psalm 9:8); God will judge the afflicted ones with justice (Psalm 72:2); God upholds justice to the poor and needy (Psalm 140:12). God will shepherd the people with justice, binding up the weak and injured Ezekiel 34:16). God calls us to not deny justice to the poor and the oppressed (Amos 2:7). Jesus is the one who will 'proclaim justice to the nations' and lead 'justice to victory.' (Matthew 12:18-20). Jesus is the one who condemns the Pharisees from withholding justice and the love of God to the poor (Luke 11:42).
In Acts 8 the eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 and Philip, beginning with that very piece of Scripture, explains the good news of Jesus. Acts 8:33 says that this Messiah, this Jesus, 'in his humiliation was deprived of justice.' And in Romans 3 Paul speaks of the Cross as a means of justice by God's grace and mercy. So justice is not punishment, it is about defending the cause of the poor and powerless, of those unable to save themselves.

Those who withhold justice however will receive punishment. Does not matter how much we offer sacrifices and burnt offerings to God if we are withholding justice to the poor and oppressed. God will not accept them. He wants us to act with justice, mercy and humility (Micah 6:6-8).

Justice is not punishment.

Punishment in the Scriptures is not some kind of retributive penalty but about restoration and cleaning. It is a purging of sin in order that the land and the people might be cleansed and renewed (see Joshua 7).

I'm not sure where from in the Scriptures people can justify that beginning anecdote I used of what justice and mercy is.

Justice and mercy is something I am keen for this new church plant to be engaged with right from the start. My heart is that those who are oppressed and powerless would find hope and redemption, and that as a church we can be a people of justice who are a voice to the voiceless and a source of strength to the weak. My hope and prayer is that we can be a people of justice, pointing to this God of justice who is passionate about us and loves us with an everlasting love. My heart is that people will encounter the love of the living Jesus and recognise this God who is for us. And if God is for us, who can ever be against us?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Truth More Shocking Than Fiction

'Men hurtling planes against skyscrapers in the name of God, while someone sitting comfortably in an office knew how to exploit their derangement on the stock market. Other men earned their living by selling land mines, and at Christmas they brought their children presents with the money earned by killing and maiming someone else's children. Conscience was an accessory whose value was tied to fluctuations in the price of oil.' Giorgio Faletti, I Kill, p 68

This is an excerpt from a novel I am reading.

Interesting isn't it how fiction is more real and honest than apparent non-fiction.

I read this novel and experience so much reality and truth. I pick up a newspaper and read fantasy and absurdity.

Disgraceful isn't it that the oil used for the petrol to fill my car to drive to a polling station to vote might have come from a oil company that drills in a dictatorship country that uses slaves to build their pipelines.

Our actions have a deep impact around the world and whatever our faith we are each called to help shape a better future for all. We are called to move away from exploitation and greed. We are called to stand up for justice and destroy manipulation. It is a calling to stop seeing ourselves as victims and to open our eyes to the real victims of this world.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Books I'm Reading

I've finished Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's good to read a book that is seeking to properly grapple with the culture we live in and then seek to respond accordingly with the Gospel. I'm still thinking through his idea of 'new wine and new wineskins'; the message and the method needs to change... I'm not sure he even knows what that means. But overall I would recommend it.

Just started reading this and am finding it to make me feel very different with every paragraph. One minute I am agreeing and finding it challenging and refreshing, and the next paragraph I am disagreeing and struggling to see where they are coming from. They clearly have an axe to grind and are always overstating their case, yet there are things in here which I am keen to reflect further on.

Have now finished reading John's book and found it utterly inspiring and challenging. I think it is a timely book that needs to be read and grappled with and will be of encouragement to many I'm sure. It will also help people reflect again on the place of suffering with the human existence and the ways in which we respond to that suffering, in light of Jesus and His suffering.

I am also reading Tom Wright's new book and am enjoying it a lot. I always enjoy reading his work. Too early in to make any real comments, but thus far find it well worth reading.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

How Do You Respond To The Man On The Cross?

Mark 15:33-39
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
Stand with me at the scene of the cross. Here there is no Easter Sunday, no glorious resurrection. No, here we are faced with the cross. Right here right now is our reality. Right here at the cross, right now at the cross is all we know. We have walked with Jesus as he taught with authority and wisdom. We have marvelled with the crowds as he healed the sick and raised the dead. We have celebrated with singing as this young Galilean rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, seemingly the Messiah we had all been waiting for. Yet now we stand in the darkness of this scene of crucifixion, and all that has gone before seems distant, irrelevant and worthless. For before our eyes hangs this man, this same man. How do you respond to the man on the cross?
Darkness envelops the land and now as our eyes squint and strain through the darkness we feel relieved because we cannot see as clearly the fullness of the horror of the scene. The darkness now seems to hide it. But then what our eyes miss our ears do not, and a gut wrenching sound echoes out in the midst of the darkness.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Here at this sound the darkness of the land cannot hide the reality of the scene before us. Here at this sound our ears do not need to strain to know what is happening, for here at this sound we glimpse the truth of the horror of the event. This God-Man is god-forsaken.
His cry comes from the depths of his heart, for here he is alone, here he is abandoned. He is not singing a Psalm to prove his messiahship (Psalm 22). He is in torment, a place of unimaginable pain. Surely for Jesus, here the darkness is accompanied by silence. Here no longer can he hear his Father’s voice calling him the delight of his life (Mark 1:11).
As Jesus hangs in darkness and despair are we not confronted with the reality of our situation? For should it be us who hang there in darkness and despair because of the enormity of our sin? Because we have not loved God with all our heart soul, mind and strength, the One that has, hangs in our place. As he is suspended in our place, the horror of our sin and its consequences are heard.
As Jesus hangs on the cross the power of sin, death and darkness unleash its worst upon him. Powers that we were meant to feel the weight of. Yet in darkness and despair, Jesus experiences the weight of sin so we do not have to. Jesus hangs there so that we can be reconciled to God, so that we do not have to cry out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ for how could we ask such a question when we face the actuality of our sin? To be god-forsaken should have been our only certainty.
As we hear the depths of despair in the voice of the Son of God, how do we respond to the man on the cross?
Do we stand and discuss together what his cry might mean; cold to the reality of the suffering he endures?
Or do we leave the group for a second and present Jesus a token offering on the end of a stick, as though it might soften the weight of cross that hangs on his back?
How do you respond to the man on the cross?
As Jesus hangs in darkness, do we concede that it has overcome him (John 1:5)? Has the Light of the World been extinguished for good? Yet because of such pain and suffering, because of this journey, by Jesus, through the valley of the shadow of death, we can be sure that nothing we go through has not already been known by the Son of God. No pain or hurt, tear and mourning, crying or shame has not already been known by Jesus himself. Therefore, when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me (Psalm 23:4)! As sin, evil and death unleash their worst onto Jesus, as the horror of separation and abandonment confront him at the cross, we can stare humbly, reverently and with tears in our eyes, at the cross, peering through the darkness, and see that Jesus hangs there, representing us, bearing the full weight of all our sin, so that we can know that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39). Because Jesus was abandoned, we can know reconciliation. Because Jesus was in despair, we can know joy. Because Jesus cried out in dereliction, we can cry out in joyful reunion!
When glimpsing the horror of the scene, hearing the depth of the despair, and as we hear Jesus cry out and see the way he died, do we, with the centurion, say surely this man was the Son of God?
But do not merely gaze at the scene as if staring at the scene itself is enough. No, be sure that here God has done something, God has taken the first step, God, in his grace has made it possible for us to respond. A mystery has occurred here at the cross, a mystery that we are invited to share in. Here in such starkness and brutality, God reveals himself to us that we might respond to him.
How then will you respond to the man on the cross?

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Friedrich Nietzsche once said that 'God is Dead'.

Of course many have argued since that God is not dead and that faith is continuing to grow.

I watched this the other day:

'Do you know what's kept me alive all these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike. Hold it high in the streets so all can see. That's what preserves the order of things.'

I sometimes think that there are those who believe the best way of 'keeping God alive' in society is fear. A notion that if you offend God He will, as it were, cut out your tongue. Sam has blogged about offence here.

John Piper, among others, insists on speaking about the wrath of God as some outside source, almost like it is a god in its own right (although he would never put it like that!). He often writes about how we should be thankful that God has saved us from His wrath as though God is a schizophrenic. I have written before about my rejection of penal substitution. One of my problems with it is when people like Piper say, 'if God did not punish the Son in my place then I am not saved from my greatest peril, the wrath of God.' In this theology God becomes a Bill the Butcher character who 'cuts of our hands' if we steal from him. God's wrath becomes a god that God Himself is subject to. It's all about fear.


This is not the God I see in revealed through Jesus.

This is not the God I see who loved, lived, died and rose again.

This is not the God I see who beckons us to Himself, to know Him in Jesus.

Perfect love drives out all fear.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Seizing God's Hand

'I have been with God and with the Devil. They fought over me and God won. I seized the hand of God.'

The Chile miner rescue will be spoken about and blogged about for a long time I'm sure. I think it is a great story that deserves to be heard and spoken about and celebrated.

The quote above from the second miner really made me think about things. I don't know what your theology, belief or understanding of God and the Devil is, but this language of humanity being fought over and seized really grabbed hold of me.

As I walk and pray around Newton Abbot I meet various people from all kinds of walks in life. Every person that I meet seems to be in some kind of battle or wrestling with something.

I met *Bob* the other day. Bob was released from jail after serving a number of years for armed robbery. We spent quite some time talking and sharing and I went away really liking Bob. Now his moral compass is all over the place, yet there was something deeply profound about this guy and something about him I really warmed to. He battles with all kinds of things.

I spoke to *Graham* and Graham has been spiritually searching for quite some time. He's studied various religions, yet hasn't been convinced by any of them. He is now reading Christian theology and is really warming to Christianity. He got hold of my number from somewhere and wants to come and talk things through, ask questions and explore the Bible and who Jesus is. Graham has been spiritually wrestling for some time now.

*Jane* really wants to find a church. She isn't a Christian, but wants to find a church so she can explore faith. She has been to different churches on and off over the years from Quaker, to charismatic, to high church. Yet she as yet has not been able to settle or find the time to commit because of her job and voluntary work. Jane is in a battle about a place she can go and feel settled and comfortable to explore faith.

I think the reality is that we all battle with something. These are three people that I have met this last week and they all have different battles and very different stories. Yet they are all wrestling with something. My hope and prayer is that this new church plant in Newton Abbot will be a place where people can honestly and openly wrestle with faith and life and circumstances, and that in the midst of their battles they will find this church community to be one of love and acceptance, honesty and integrity.

My hope and prayer is that a community of Jesus followers will emerge who have seized the hand of God, and, in the midst of their battles, be pulled through them by Him. Perhaps some of these battles will remain until Jesus returns and spreads His peace across the world. But I hope that all of us may be able to seize God's hand as He stretches it out to us, and trust that He will lead us through into His Kingdom of promises and peace.

I pray that we may be seized by the love of God shown to us by the outstretched hands of Jesus on the Cross. And in being seized by this love you may hold out your hands and be grabbed by this God who loves you with an everlasting love.

'...because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.' Ephesians 2:4-7

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Heart Mender

The other day after I was having a chat with Tom on the phone my three and half year old daughter Grace said to my wife Sarah, 'Mummy, Uncle Tommy needs Jesus to mend his broken heart.'

Grace often comes out with things that are deeply profound and stunningly simple. This seems like another example. Because isn't what Grace said what Christianity is all about in essence? Surely the Gospel is about Jesus mending our broken hearts?

There are times I am sure that we feel heartbroken, alone and confused. There are times when we can feel happiness, love and purpose. But I think ultimately, however we are feeling, whatever our situations, Jesus wants to mend our broken hearts into all eternity. The reality and power of that healing may not be known until eternity when we see God and are fully known in Him, but I believe the Cross of Jesus is a place for broken hearts to be mended. The cross is where Jesus cried out with a broken heart so that we could cry out with joy over our transformed and healed heart.

'Father, we all need Jesus to mend our broken heart.'

Monday, 11 October 2010

Banksy Does Simpsons - Who Is Your Neighbour?

The artist Banksy has created this alternative and controversial intro to the Simpsons...

Read here and here about how apparently a bulk of the shows animation is outsourced to South Korea by the shows owners, Fox.

Who is our neighbour? How does the way I live affect my neighbour?

Now, I do not know whether these claims are true, but again and again we should be challenged about who are neighbour is and how we are called to love them. Last night in the pub someone said that they are their own little world, but that is rubbish. We do not live in our own little world. We might act like it and live in a belief of it, but the truth is that my actions and your actions affect our neighbour, whether they are next door or in South Korea or wherever.
So often we say, 'well its just the way it is. We can't escape the system.' But by the grace of God we can escape!

The Cross as destroyed the system! And through Jesus we can change the world. We can be revolutionaries, standing against the system that tramples on our neighbours, and become a people who fight the cause of the oppressed and tears down the systems that create slaves.

We are called to not be creators of slaves. Ignorance is not an excuse. We have to be aware of our own actions in order that we might make others aware. We need to be looking for ways to be declarers of truth, workers of justice, a voice to those who have been silenced, a people who live in such a way that brings life to our neighbour.

I wish I was even 1% of what I should be in all of this. I pray that God would convict me and help me to live in a way that loves my neighbour in South Korea, Pakistan, India, China, Newton Abbot etc etc.

But as community we can help each other. You can help me. Maybe I can help you. But we can help each other. Please, let us help each other to love each other better and love our neighbour better and love God with all that we are...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Worship Sucks

*Please note that the extract below is just that, an extract, and does not fully reflect the journey of the argument or the context into which this is written. The book is dealing with a personal reflection on the experience of desolation focusing on Psalm 22, in light of the writers own experience of bi-polar disorder and the Christian belief that God the Son suffered on the Cross. The extract below is there to get us thinking and engage in conversation, but to understand the writers intention fully you need to buy the book! The chapter this is from is reflecting on Israel's worship and experience of darkness and then reflecting on the Church's worship and experience of darkness. I do not want to mis-represent the theology and argument of the book, but rather use this snippet to get people thinking!*

'The leading of worship is a theological task, requiring significant theological reflection...worship is reduced to the singing of one song after another, often for no better reason than the personal preferences of the musician leading the worship; there is little sense of direction, progression, or journey. Moreover, the leading of worship is an extraordinarily totalitarian process...a worship leader tells me to stand or to sit and leaves me little option but to participate in whatever is being sung regardless of my personal circumstances or mental and spiritual disposition...This style of worship focuses almost exclusively on praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, usually at quite up-beat tempo, with clapping and other expressions of unqualified exuberance. Nor is this unremitting cheerfulness mitigated by more thoughtful reflective and inclusive prayers - more often than not, interjected prayers sustain the mood of joyfulness and gratitude, sometimes (frankly) in disturbingly superficial manner, offered...entirely unprepared, highly repetitive and liberally interspersed with the vocalised punctuation marks of 'Lord', 'just', 'really', and 'great'...The presence of children prompts the very worst from this style of worship with trivializing songs that provide sufficient cause for any thoughtful child, approaching adulthood, to jettison Christianity along with Father Christmas and Fairy Godmothers....Moreover, the totalitarian manner of this form of worship renders it difficult to opt out, to observe, to sit and to pray quietly while the performance proceeds. For the person...wrestling with any form of clinical depression, for the person tortured by the breaking up of relationships, for the recently bereaved, for those who have just been told of terminal illness (their own or that of a loved one), all this is unrelieved torture.

...Any liturgy of worship that excludes lament, therefore, is not just carelessly exclusive, it is encouraging dishonesty and unreality - and if the psalms and the Scriptures generally tell me anything they tell me that God looks for honesty rather than pretence; the Scriptures offer me no encouragement whatsoever to take refuge in fantasy. Here, I suspect, is the more profound reason for some apparently lively and flourishing churches having 'big back doors': that which initially was attractive and contemporary proves ultimately superficial and non-sustaining.

...My purpose is not to encourage a self-indulgent wallowing in negativity but rather to make space for realism and honesty.

...There is no resurrection without the Cross; there is no Christian discipleship other than under its shadow; there is no Christian ministry without participating in the sufferings of Christ...those who seek a theology of glory are seeking God in other place and form than that in which supremely he has revealed himself. The Cross of Christ stands at the heart of the Christian gospel and at the heart of Christian discipleship.'

'Why Have You Forsaken Me?' John Colwell pp 69-75

Monday, 4 October 2010

Mission Initiatives...

So we are one month into this church planting adventure and everything seems to be going well. We have met plenty of people and are getting a sense of various people and places that we could be involved with. Prayer continues to be our highest priority and we have real peace about how everything is going. David and Jan Coffey have very kindly set up a prayer group for us and the group met on Tuesday round David's. It's good to have that kind of care, prayer and support around us.

I was asked last week by someone if I felt any pressure with all this church planting stuff and I can honestly say that I do not feel any pressure at all. God's called me to pray and lay good foundations so I'm trying to be obedient, the rest is up to God. My Principle Nigel Wright at Spurgeons often spoke about a church's DNA (he called it their angel) and how throughout the life of a church there is often reoccurring behaviour because of this, sometimes good, sometimes bad. These early stages here in Newton Abbot are key as the DNA of the church is formed, which is why the attitude to prayer and mission, love and justice is so vital. We want good church DNA.

Talking about DNA, I've had a few chats recently about church 'initiatives' and whether we miss the point sometimes.

There are always new initiatives coming out for churches about how they can impact their community. Things get branded, marketed and 'sold' as the next new thing that will help the church reach their community with the good news of Jesus.

Such is the mission mindset or DNA of the church that everything is event based (I was told the other day that some churches in Devon want to hire a stadium and get Franklin Graham to come and speak...*sigh*). So each new initiative is event based so that the church can roll it out for a set period of time and then reflect on how it has been involved with mission and evangelism. What concerns me with all these new(? more like recycled) or 'big ideas' is that it might dis-empower churches to ACTUALLY be a part of their communities. If we keep peddling that an event every 6 months is serving our community then the churches end up ignoring or being ignorant of the needs that are going on in our communities 365 days of the year.

The Baptist Union often gives churches ideas for various initiatives to help them with evangelism and mission, yet I wonder if the ideas coming out from there are grounded in the reality of what is really happening with the people in our communities. Looking at what BUGB are putting out there I find it pretty irrelevant and out of sync with where are culture is at. And it is all so SAFE. Go here and have a look and see how safe it all is. Where is the risk and the adventure? And a cursory look at other headquarters websites tells a similar story.

Now I recognise that many Baptist churches are engaged in amazing ways within their communities as are many churches in general up and down the UK, but if we keep putting initiatives out there rather than encouraging and pushing our churches to get stuck in with the nitty gritty of community life so that we can give away life and share the love of God in powerfully prophetic ways, then we will have many Christian communities struggling to make head nor tail of what is going on around them in the lives of the people around them.

Sounds like I'm having a bit of a rant, so my apologies, but I believe we should think in different ways, more risky ways, more sacrificial ways when we are engaged in mission because I'm sure Jesus said something about a Cross when He calls us to follow Him...