Aug 2, 2013

The biggest danger to your ministry? Tripp says ‘you are’

Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling is proving to be a highlight of my summer reading.

Here’s a man who knows my heart and understands the unique challenges and dangers of pastoral ministry. The book is written by a man who has failed in ministry,so writes with compassion and care. He has also, through countless conversations with church leaders, ministered the gospel to leaders.

In the introduction he describes Dangerous Calling as a diagnostic book. His aim is to reveal to leaders, often blinded by their sin to their sin, the idols that drive too much of what we do and why we do it. Perhaps the most disturbing sentence of the book is this one: it is right to say that the greatest danger in my life exists inside of me and not outside of me. This is because a pastor’s ministry depends, finally, not on whether he can preach, set out a clear vision for a church or deliver good pastoral care but on what is motivating his ministry. The condition of a pastor’s heart shapes everything.

Through the second half of the book Tripp shows just how devastating it is for a pastor to look for the wrong thing in the wrong place. To want and to seek from ministry what is ours in Christ. When you forget the gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Why do ministers fall and fail? Why do so many leave ministry? For most, behind the many presenting reasons, underlying them all, is a failure to apply the gospel to ourselves as well as our congregations.

In the concluding chapter of the book Tripp summarises his ‘big-idea':

This is the bottom line. This is the great internal war of ministry. You are called to be a public and influential ambassador of a glorious King, but you must resist the desire to be a king. You are called to trumpet God’s glory, but you must never take that glory for yourself. You are called to a position of leadership, influence, and prominence, but in that position you are called to ”humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” (v.6). Perhaps there is nothing more important in ministry than knowing your place. Perhaps all the fear of man, the pride of knowing, the seduction of acclaim, the quest for control, the depression in the face of hardship, the envy of the ministry of others, the bitterness against detractors, and the anxiety of failure are all about the same thing. Each of these struggles is about the temptation to make your ministry about you. From that first dark moment in the garden, this has been the struggle–to make it all about us.

It is so easy to confuse your kingdom with the Lord’s. It is so easy to tell yourself that you are fighting for the gospel when what you’re really fighting for is your place. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re simply trying to be a good leader when what you really want is control. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want to build healthy ministry relationships when what you really want is for people to like you. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re trying to help people understand the details of their theology when what you’re actually working to do is impress them with how much you know. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re fighting for what is right when what is really going in s that you’re threatened by someone’s rising influence. It’s so easy to tell yourself that you just want what is best when what you really want is a comfortable and predictable ministry life. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want God to get glory when really you enjoy ministry celebrity more than you are willing to admit. It is hard to be in a position of ministry prominence and influence and to know your place, It is very tempting in subtle ways to want God’s place. It is vital to realize that the temptation of the garden still lives in the pulpit, the study, the counseling office, and the ministry boardroom.

Here is the bottom line: wherever you are in ministry, whatever your position is, no matter how many people look up to you, whatever influence your ministry has collected, and no matter how long and successful your ministry has been, your ministry will never be about you because it is about him. God will not abandon his kingdom for yours. He will not offer up his throne to you, He will not give to you the glory that is his due. His kingdom and his glory are the hope of your ministry and the church. And when I forget my place and quest in some way for God’s position, I place my ministry and the church that I have been called to serve in danger.

It is here that I need to be rescued from me.

In your ministry, in the location where God has positioned you, is there evidence that you have forgotten your place, or is your ministry shaped and protected by a daily commitment to “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God”? Would the people who serve with you thing that you are too orientated toward power and control? Would the people you serve assess that you care too much about what people think about you? Would they say that you care too much about attention and influence? Would they see you as being tempted to take too much credit, or would they say that you clearly demonstrate that you know the ministry God has called you to is not about you? Would they conclude that you really do know your place?

Jul 19, 2013

85 questions to ask before you marry

In marriage preparation at City Church we ask engaged couples to complete the following questionnaire on their expectations for married life. It’s one we adapted and added to from a questionnaire I did 20 years ago in my marriage prep. classes at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

Our approach is to ask the couples to complete the worksheet separately and then talk through their conclusions with each other. We don’t then go through the answers, question by question, with them in marriage prep. classes but we do ask them to talk through with us any areas of significant disagreement or uncertainty.

Expectations in marriage worksheet

  A. Spiritual life 

1. Where and when do you generally read your Bible and pray?  
2. Do you expect to have devotional times together? How often? 
3. How important is God in your life? How is this manifest? 
4. Are you growing as a Christian? In what ways do you envisage your spouse being able to help you grow? Be specific.

B. Daily living 

1. Are you a ‘morning’ or ‘evening’ person? What time do you like to go to bed in the evening and get up in the morning? 
2. How important are music, radio, TV, social media, surfing the internet and computer games to you? Do you think anything will need to change when you are married? 
3. If you were given £25,000 what would you do with it as a couple? 
4. From the list below, what jobs around the house do you expect to do, what might you share with your spouse and what do you expect your spouse mostly to do?

Mowing the lawn, Car maintenance (if relevant), Washing up
Cooking,  Cleaning the toilet, Food shopping
Ironing, Paying the bills, Wiring a plug,
Unblocking a drain, Sewing on a button, Changing the bedding
Doing the washing, Driving the car (if relevant), Taking the bins out

Husband will do:

Wife will mostly do:

We will share:

5. Do you expect to keep some secrets from your spouse? For example:

  • Earnings?
  • Savings?
  • Weight?
  • Private letters? 

6. In what areas do you expect to disagree most? For example:

  • Money?
  • In-laws?
  • Leisure?
  • Life-style? 

7. Is there anything you feel it will be difficult to discuss with your spouse? Are you willing to try? 

C. Social 

1. How would you like to celebrate your first wedding anniversary? What about your tenth? 
2. How do you view your (future) in-laws? How often will you visit them? How often will they visit you? 
3. What about your own parents? How often will you visit them? How often will they visit you? 
4. How often would you expect to speak to your parents and other close family? 
5. How do you think your relationship with your parents will change once you’re married? 
6. How might your parents and in-laws be cared for in old age? 
7. How do you view your future spouse’s friends? Will you encourage these friendships? 
8. How many evenings a week would you expect to be:

  • Out, with your spouse?
  • Out ,without your spouse?
  • In together, with friends?
  • Left at home alone?
  • In together, alone?
  • Out together, just the two of you? 

9. How important is time on your own to relax? Do you relax best in the company of others or in your own company? Do you think you will need time alone when you are at home or on holiday together? 

D. Christmas

1. How was Christmas for you growing up? 
2. What traditions did you have as a family that you would love to keep/prefer to lose? 
3. Do you look forward to the Christmas season? 
4. How would you like to spend your first Christmas together? 
5. How might you balance time spent with your respective families over the years?  

E. Children 

1. What makes you nervous or afraid at the prospect of having children? 
2. If you are able to have children, how many children would you like? How important would financial considerations feature in your thoughts? What other factors would apply? 
3. How long would you like to wait before trying for children? 
4. How would you respond if you became pregnant on honeymoon? 
5. What would be your top three priorities for your children? 
6. What is your view about infant baptism? 
7. Do you anticipate parenting in a similar manner to which you were brought up?  Why or why not? 
8. What sort of education would you want for them? 
9. How do you see your responsibility as regards ‘bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6v4)? How about your future spouse’s responsibility?  

F. Church 

1. What areas of church life do you currently serve in? 
2. Are there any responsibilities you should consider giving up once you are married?
3. What particular contributions to church life do you anticipate having as a married couple? 
4. In what particular ways do you want to serve God together?  Be specific. 
5. How do you want God to use your marriage and home?
6. What part will hospitality play?

G. Communication and Conflict 

1. Are you good at communicating “basic” information: diary planning, phone messages, short- and medium-term plans? If not, how will you improve? 
2. Are you good at the kind of communicating that builds and strengthens intimacy? Do you think you need to improve at making space for that in your relationship? 
3. Do you think your spouse does? How can you help? 
4. Do you find it easy to talk about things you are struggling with? How can your spouse help you? 
5. How good are you at “speaking the truth in love”, saying difficult things in a loving way? 
6. Are you willing for your spouse to be frank with you regarding any personal habits you have that they find unpleasant or simply unhelpful? How best might they address or initiate the subject? 
7. How do you respond to conflict?  Do you go quiet, sulk, become argumentative, become defensive? 
8. How do you anticipate resolving conflicts? 
9. Do you consider your future spouse to be good at communicating?  How could they improve? 
10. Do you consider yourself to be good at communicating?  How could you improve?

H. Recreation 

1. What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time? Is this something you plan to continue to do when married? Would you anticipate your spouse being involved in this? How? 
2. How often do you expect to have a holiday? What would you expect these to look like? 

I. Work 

1. What is your attitude towards work?  Do you find it difficult to stop working? Do you find it difficult to switch off after work? 
2. How important is having a career to you? What expectations or hopes do you have for your career? 
3. How would you respond to an expectation from an employer for you to work overtime, or increase your hours?  
4. How do you feel about the role of housewife and mother? As a mother, how soon would you consider returning to paid employment, if at all? As a father, how would you feel about your wife going back to work?

J. Money 

1. What standard of living have you been used to?
in your childhood 
2. What expectations do you bring into marriage in relation to this? Do you expect a steadily rising standard of living? 
3. What debts do you have? 
4. What about savings and assets? 
5. What is your attitude towards money?  Do you generally save up before buying larger items, or do you buy these on credit and pay back? 
6. When you buy something, do you prefer to pay more for quality instead of pay a lower price? 
7. Do you budget carefully? 
8. Are you giving to the church in a disciplined manner? What will that look like when you are married? 
9. Will you have a joint account when you are married? 
10. Do you plan to save together? How much? What will these savings be for? 
11. Will you maintain a savings account, pension, life insurance? 
12. Who will be in charge of the money when you are married? Who will be responsible for paying different bills and how? 
13. Do you expect to talk about every purchase you make, set a threshold for this, or each be free to spend what you want? 
14. How much money do you think you ought to spend on holidays? 

 K. Home 

1. Do you expect to be living in Birmingham in 5 years? What about in 10? 
2. What are your priorities in choosing where to live? 
3. How important to you is where you live and what sort of house/flat you live in?

  • Now?
  • In 10 years?
  • At retirement? 

4. What sort of home would you expect in 5 years’ time? 
5. How important is it to you to be buying your own home? 
6. How much of a practical handyman/woman are you? Do you enjoy doing things around the home, for example: putting up shelves, mending things, decorating, making curtains, etc.? 
7. How tidy are you? How important is it for you to have a clean and tidy home? 

L. Marriage 

1. Try to write down in a sentence or two about why you want to get married and why to this person in particular? 
2. How do you hope being married to your spouse will benefit them? 
3. How do you hope being married to your spouse will benefit you? 
4. What could undermine these benefits? 
5. How often do you expect to have sex? 
6. Where would you turn to if you were having problems with the sexual relationship within your marriage? 
7. Do you think romance is important? How do you intend to be romantic towards your spouse? 
8. How will you keep God central in your marriage? How might you keep a check on that? 

Notes for discussion

Jul 10, 2013

So you love Jesus, but do you really want to be like him?

For the Christian the goal of the Christian life is to become increasingly like Christ. Paul writes: And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18 NIV). John writes we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  (1 John 3:1 NIV).

But what do we mean when we say we want to be like him? It seems to me that we most often mean we want to be like him in character or godliness. Maybe we wish we had his self-control, his trust in God, and so on. Or maybe we want to be like Christ not just in character but in wisdom. We want the mind of Christ to know how to live to please God in every situation.

But what about like him in our circumstances? Would we actually want our lives to look like Jesus’s life? In becoming like Christ it seems to me that the Bible wants us to share his experiences too. The reality is that discipleship may well take us where we don’t want to go. It will involve a life that includes suffering (1 Pet. 2:20-21), rejection (John 15:20), personal injustice (2 Tim. 3:12). The battle in discipleship is a battle to be ready to go wherever He may take me. Perhaps that is because the hardest lesson to learn is that the mind of Christ and the character of Christ were formed in him in adversity. It will be our experience too if we truly want to be like him.

Francis Chan in interview once said:

You passionately love Jesus, but you don’t really want to be like Him. You admire His humility, but you don’t want to be that humble. You think it’s beautiful that He washed the feet of the disciples, but that’s not exactly the direction your life is headed. You’re thankful He was spit upon and abused, but you would never let that happen to you. You praise Him for loving you enough to suffer during His whole time on earth, but you’re going to do everything within your power to make sure you enjoy your time down here. 

In short: You think He is a great Savior, but not a great role model.

Jul 9, 2013

Nothing is wasted

Here’s a short-piece I recorded for Acts29Europe entitled ‘Nothing is wasted’ not even our mistakes.

Jul 5, 2013

When God takes you where you don’t want to go

Pete Wilson, in his book Plan B, puts his finger on the dilemma modern, western Christians face:

Whatever you wanted for your life, if you’re a Christian, you may well have assumed God want it for you as well. You might not admit it, even to yourself but you were pretty sure God was going to  sweep down and provide for you as only God could do. The problem is, what you assumed was not necessarily what happened.

Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get cancer at forty-one. Nobody ever grew up thinking, I’m going to get fired at fifty-seven. Nobody ever planned to be divorced twice by forty-five or alone and depressed at age thirty-five. Nobody thought their child would end up in prison at age twenty. You never imagined you wouldn’t physically be able to have children. You never imagined you’d get stuck in a dead-end job. You never imagined the word that might best describe your marriage would be mediocre. But it happened, and you’re frustrated. Or hurt. Or furious. Or all of the above.

We are preaching through a series on Sunday evenings at City Church called Perfected in weakness we are looking at the weakness of physical suffering. What CS Lewis called the problem of pain.  It  is a problem for Christian and non-Christian alike. Maybe for you suffering is the reason you are not a Christian. George Bernard Shaw once said:

How are atheists produced? In probably nine cases out of ten what happens is something like this. A beloved wife, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, struck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria. The onlooker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.

The problem of pain is also a problem for the Chrsitian. It works a bit differently for us, however. Our problem is not simply that as believers we might fall ill, or suffer as much as unbelievers. No, our problem comes in trying to reconcile what we know about God with what we experience in our lives. The problem for the Christian is that we do believe in a God who loves us and is sovereign over their health and it’s because he is in control that we know that when we suffer it is God who sends it. Our problem, to put it in the words of Christopher Ash is not ‘just that it hurts . . . it is more than this: it is the conviction that it is God who is doing the hurting.’

No wonder that we suffer in this way we find ourselves deeply perplexed as to what God is doing. Some Christians try to resolve it by denying that God does stand behind suffering and prefer simply blame Satan or put it down to ‘living life in a fallen world.’  Others wonder whether God is really sovereign in troubling times: a good God wouldn’t do this to me, maybe God doesn’t know everything that will happen to us.

Or if we can’t escape the idea that God must allow it, we begin to fear that although God is good we wonder whether he is good to me.  What if our suffering is a punishment from God for sin in our lives.  Christopher Ash writes of a suffering believer ‘in a way, the deepest question Job faces is this: ‘Is God for me or against me?’ For ultimately nothing else matters.’

Can God be both loving and sovereign and still allow his people to suffer?

In two places in the Bible we gain a particular insight into what is going on when we suffer, Job 2:1–10 and 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. We find something of an answer, although we may find the answer is not be the one we were hoping for. Christopher Ash identifies 5 truths in the story of Job that we also find in Paul’s thorn in his flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. In both stories of suffering we find the same five truths at play:

1. God’s servant (Paul or Job) is blameless. This does not mean sinless but it means in a right relationship with God. God says of Job ‘In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.’ (Job 1:1 NIV). In their suffering, neither man has any reason to fear that he is being punished for sin.

2. Satan has real influence. He is the immediate, direct cause of the suffering they experience. Paul describes the thorn in his flesh as a ‘messenger of Satan’. In Job we read ‘Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.’ (Job 2:1 NIV)

3. The Lord is absolutely supreme. Satan and the Lord are not two equal and opposite forces at work in the world. Limitations are placed on Satan by divine command. Quite simply, there is nothing that Satan can do unless God allows him. See Job 2:6 and 1:12.

4. The Lord gives terrible permissions. God is in control and it is God who allows his servants to go through the suffering they do. It is not pleasant. It involves real pain and discomfort. If God is for us then God must have a purpose greater than our immediate personal happiness.

5. God’s servant grows in grace. In their suffering both Paul and Job trust God with what they don’t understand. Paul and Job both discover that their faith is not only proved but strengthened –by what they go through.

In the next couple of posts we’ll consider

1. Suffering – Who’s to blame? 2 Corinthians 12:7–10. Our suffering is meaningful only because God stands behind it

2. Suffering – who’s in control? Job 2:1-10. Suffering is not only meaningful because God is in it but it is purposeful because God will use it to teach us about himself.

3. Suffering – what is God trying to do achieve through our suffering? Job 38:1–11, 40:1–5; 2 Cor. 12:7–10. We will discover that, finally, suffering is redemptive. It humbles us and therefore serves to keep us close to God. We learn to trust him with what we don’t understand as well as what we do. We learn to rely on him for strength when we have none of our own.

Jun 28, 2013

Our story: City Church, the first 14 years

The Gospel Partnerships invited me to share some the ways in which God has been at work in and through City Church Birmingham since we began to meet in 1999. The Gospel Partnership site contains a growing set of resources on training, multiplying congregations and evangelism. Well worth returning to the site on a regular basis for input from a whole range of churches.

Jun 26, 2013

The surprising impact of ‘ordinary’ members of a church

We’re preaching through a series at City Church entitled Perfected in weakness. Here’s an extract from the sermon I preached last Sunday entitled the weakness of inadequacy.

Madonna once said:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.

Clinical psychologist Oliver James in his best-selling Affluenza puts his finger on just what is at work here:
Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety. You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.

That sense of inadequacy is something we bring with us into church life. Maybe you look around your church and think ‘I’m not as good looking as that person, I’m not as trendy as that person, I’m not as godly, or gifted, or confident as the person sitting next to me.’ And you fear being ordinary at best and what you really fear is being irrelevant.

If ever there was a passage written to help us with the weakness of inadequacy, it is 1 Corinthians 12.

1) God’s design: unity in diversity

If you are a Christian you share with every other Christian the same identity; an identity that has nothing to do with your performance or popularity. We are children of God, united together with other Christians through being united with Christ. Through the same Spirit of Christ we know Jesus Christ – that’s the thrust of Paul’s introduction in v.3. But our unity is expressed in diversity. In verses 4-7 three times Paul talks of ‘same’and yet ‘different’. It’s surely impossible to miss Paul’s point: unity is not uniformity.

What works for a British Lions rugby team, made up as it is of 15 players of all shapes and sizes, and the very thing that makes the sound of an orchestra sublime, is true of the church. The God who loves us the same has given us different abilities and roles. Paul wants us to know that God is a God who loves us and loves diversity: that includes personalities, characters, abilities and gifting.

Paul says that God gives gifts to each one (11), he arranged them . . .just as he wanted them’ (18), God has combined the members (24), God appointed the gifts (28).

It has been said ‘when we freeze water, we make ice cubes – everyone the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes – each one different.’ And David Prior notes that ‘we differ from one another because God wants those differences to be moulded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing.’

What follows?
1. If the gifts we have are from God then we should use them
2. If the gifts we have are from God then we should be thankful for them
3. If the gifts are from God we should trust that he knows which gift to give us (even if we would rather he had given us a different gift)
4. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be useful
5. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be used for the building up of the church

David Prior says that every Christian is ‘unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. . . this is the glory of the church as the body of Christ.’ Is this how we think of ourselves and each other?

The problem is that we, like the Corinthians, have a hard time accepting what Paul is saying.

Two tendencies that we’re going to look at in turn. The first is to say ‘but I don’t belong’ and the second is to say ‘but I don’t need you.’ You see, we can’t expect that the church will be healthy unless we have the right attitudes to ourselves and our place; we need to have the right attitudes towards one another. We need to know that we belong together and that God has made me to play an important part.

To help us understand this Paul uses a powerful analogy for our life together and the picture he uses is the human body. There it is in v.12 (NIV), ‘the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ And yet for some Christians the weakness of inadequacy is always at work. And we recognise it has a paralysing effect. So, v. 14, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong’ and again in v.16, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong’. The church is full of people who can see all that others have to offer, but very little sense of why they are needed.

Well, what is Paul’s response?

2) ‘I don’t belong’ – Accepting the way God has made me
If we were all the same, v.17, all an eye, or all an ear, we would be useless. God knows what he is doing when we remember, v.18, God has arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. The reason Paul’s analogy works so well is that it’s pretty obvious to us that for a body to function the various parts must be different. The eye can’t do the job of an ear nor the ear the job of an eye. The whole point of a body is that it depends on diversity. It simply must have many different parts to function. And God knows what he needs and what he’s doing in putting you in this body.

Now I don’t know quite how my body works, I just know the various parts do their work and God puts it all together. In one sense it’s a relief to me that I don’t know or need to know. The one thing I do know is that I feel a whole lot better when every part of my body is working as it should. So with the church. Just as I don’t need to know how my body works, so, I don’t need to know quite how God will use every member to play his or her part to build up the body of Christ. I don’t need to know quite how we will make a difference in the body of Christ. We simply trust God to build the body as we each get on with playing our part.

You and I don’t have to try and measure your contribution – we simply have to trust that God wants to work through you. Sometimes we get an insight. Sometimes someone says a particular thank you for something we’ve done, but not often. So don’t require or expect uniformity. That’s not the way God made us. And if God has put us in the body, to play our part, there’s really no place for feeling inferior on account of difference.

But Paul goes further than simply saying we’re all different. He wants us to see that in the way God has designed the body, he turns the standards and expectations of the world on its head. Paul is quite sure that it is precisely those who think they have least to offer who often make the greatest contribution.

Our key verse for that idea is v.22 those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Do you see that in this verse Paul recognises that in a human body there are what he describes as weak organs? He has in mind the internal organs that need protecting; our liver, lungs, heart. You don’t see them, they are fragile, but they are indispensable.

I think v. 22 is a really encouraging verse. What it seems to say is that weakness is something from which we are all to learn. Maybe it is true that you are not as gifted as someone else, or have the same place of honour in the body but God says through this passage ‘be content to be who God made you to be, because God has a purpose for you.’ When it comes to the human body it is the weakest members who have the greatest impact. I can manage without an eye or an ear. If tragedy strikes I can learn to live without the use of my legs or arms. But the liver is essential and the heart is indispensable. In other words the weakest members of the body only seem weak. And so with the church. Those who appear to have little to offer often make the biggest impact, don’t they?

In our own congregation those going through sufferings or struggles of various kinds are often the greatest encouragement. A mother raising a disabled child, a member battling cancer, whatever it may be, there is much to learn from those who seem weak. Quite simply, because God works through weakness. Pablo Martinez writes: ‘God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways . . . God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.’

There were those in the church at Corinth who felt they had nothing to learn from weakness. And today there are those who cannot see that Christ is powerfully at work in someone battling same-sex attraction, depression, loneliness, and so they fail to learn, and they fail to be encouraged or inspired, and they fail to give glory to God.

3) ‘I don’t need you’? – Learning from those who are weak
As you go on in life and as you grow up in life so you realise that you have more to learn than just the theology of Wayne Grudem, and that God has given the church teachers in many forms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945 has written arguably the greatest book on Christian community, Life Together. In this he states ‘the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.’

If we only seek out the impressive, the connected, the intelligent, I wonder whether you would ever have sought out Christ? In Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV) we read ‘He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’

When we think of Christ’s origins, raised in a working-class town in the north of the country and when we think of his appearance dressed as he was in ordinary clothes and when we think of his ministry and reputation, rejected by the thinkers and leaders of his time, if we were looking for someone to impress us we might just have missed him.

It is so easy to overlook the presence and power of God in the church – it is found in weak people.

Paul rejoiced in weakness and therefore if we share his joy we too will look to learn from those who are conscious of weakness. Once you realise that one of the primary ways, if not THE primary way of growing up in the Lord is through your weaknesses, then your attitude to the weak begins to change.

The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak – because he sees something he didn’t see before – Christ’s power at work. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he seeks to learn from them. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he longs to be blessed by them.

Jun 21, 2013

The government signals that faithfulness in marriage no longer matters

If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would change the very nature of marriage for everyone then we are in no doubt any longer. If we were in any doubt that the introduction of same-sex marriage would weaken rather than strengthen the institution of marriage for everyone then the recent remarks of Baroness Stowell put that, too, beyond doubt.  Baroness Stowell, who speaks for the Conservatives in the Lords on equalities issues, confirmed that faithfulness in marriage is not to be a requirement under the proposed legislation for same-sex relationships. Rather, issues of fidelity would be up to each couple to decide for themselves. 

As the law stands, for heterosexual couples adultery has always been a grounds for divorce. The proposed legislation for same-sex marriages will not include the same provision.

Quite simply there are only three options for the government:

1) In order to maintain a level-playing field an adultery clause has to be added to the proposed legislation but how do you define adultery in some homosexual relationships? Hence the governments decision not to include it.

2) Or to maintain a level-playing field adultery has to be removed as a grounds for divorce for heterosexual marriage

3) Or we accept different definitions for marriage depending on whether you are gay or straight.

David Burrowes MP in the Telegraph article said: “This goes against everything the PM has said about his desire to try and strengthen marriage by extending marriage to same sex couples.”

“If the legislation is not urgently amended, it signals the abolition of the law of adultery. It will create an adulterer’s charter across both types of marriage, which far from strengthening this great institution will do irreparable damage to it.”

(HT: Christian Institute)


Jun 16, 2013

Atheism has failed says Chief Rabbi

Fascinating article in this week’s Spectator from Jonathan Sacks,the chief Rabbi on the failure of atheism to find an answer to the question ‘why be good?’

I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

Jun 14, 2013

Disappointed with Jesus? Why some prayers go unanswered

If Jesus’s highest priority was your immediate personal happiness wouldn’t he always answer your prayer of faith? That we know he doesn’t, suggests that it isn’t. In our series Perfected in weakness, we are learning that God has a purpose is saying ‘no’ to genuine prayers of faith. Sometimes God has a purpose in disappointing us. Paul says of the thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12 v.7–8) ‘three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient.’

That God may answer our prayers in ways we would never think of is seen in the story of the raising of Lazarus. For Mary and Martha must deal with their disappointment with Jesus. In John 11 we discover that Lazarus is sick, v.1, and so his sisters Mary and Martha send for the one who heals the sick, Jesus. They know what Jesus can do and they know Jesus loves Lazarus. Their message (prayer) to him in v.3 is  ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.’

Jesus loved not only Lazarus but Mary and Martha too (v.5), and so we know what we expect to happen next; on hearing the news Jesus will hurry to the aid of Lazarus.

But what we read is not what we expect;  yet, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days (John 11:6, NIV, 1984).

A deliberate purpose in delay?

The little Greek word ouv plays a crucial part in our understanding of what Jesus is doing. The word reveals why Jesus’s love leads him to a decision not to go to the aid of Lazarus. After all, if Jesus loves Lazarus, why is his response to their urgent cry for help, delay followed by disappointment?

Part of the problem is that the NIV 1984 translation does its best to obscure the relationship between v.5 and v.6.  In fact Don Carson, in his commentary, maintains that it is ‘without linguistic defence’.  When it translate ouv as ‘yet’ we find ourselves juxtaposing Jesus’s love with his delay. It reads like an unresolved tension; even a mystery.

Better translations are offered by ESV:  ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’ And by the new NIV: ‘now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.’

 What difference does it make?

Correct the ‘yet’ to a ‘so’ and a causal link is revealed. As Carson points out, ‘this means that the two-day delay was motivated by Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. ’ It doesn’t so much mean Jesus heard that the one he loved was sick and yet he didn’t go, but rather Jesus heard the one that he loved was sick and so  he didn’t go.

What’s the difference? Read it the first way and you start thinking Jesus loved them and yet it might remain a mystery as to why he didn’t go. Read it the correct way and you start to realise that Jesus can love someone by not answering their prayers in the way you would expect. Maybe that helps us to understand that God always answers our prayers according to his love for us, but often in unexpected ways.; ways that have in mind not our immediate happiness, but our salvation and what may work to achieve it.

Now, that is a massive difference to your theology of prayer. It means that sometimes Jesus says no to your desires because he loves you.

John Calvin and his wife had only one child and this precious son died not long after he was born. Calvin wrote a letter to a friend, and in it said the Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our infant son. But he is himself a Father, and knows best what is good for his children. Jesus loves Mary and Martha and knows what is best, so he does not answer their prayer in the way they would hope.

God’s goal is greater than our goal

Now that only makes sense, it can only make sense, if God has a greater good in mind than that you should have a happy life now. It only makes sense if he has a greater good that, in some sense, might even be threatened by giving you a happy life now.

John 11 dares to ask us ‘can we trust God enough to allow him to disappoint us?’ To watch your brother die while you wait for Jesus to come must have been a terrible experience. Yet Jesus had his reasons. Some of us struggle to put ourselves in Mary & Martha’s shoes, but others can relate to their tragic circumstances.  To be sure that Jesus loves you and the one for whom you are praying, to know he has power to heal because you have witnessed him healing people many times and then to wait for him to intervene, only to wait in vain, is a test of faith.

Lazarus has been dead for four days by the time Jesus arrives. Mary meets him and says (v.21) Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died. It wasn’t because Mary didn’t believe that she spoke as she did, it is precisely because Mary did believe that she said what she did. This is not a statement of doubt in Jesus; but a cry of confusion.

Asking the right question

When we know the truth about God, when we are sure that he is good and that he is for me, and then he doesn’t seem to show it, wouldn’t we ask why? As a pastor I would be worried if you didn’t ask ‘why?’,  not least because asking the question is a statement of faith and a desire to know God better. Who wouldn’t say to Jesus ‘where were you?’ Who has never cried out in confusion ‘God what are you doing?’

Within a year of starting City Church, a member of our congregation died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  She was a woman in her early 30’s, who had given her life to serving Christ, she worked for a mission organisation in the city and therefore it made no sense to us that the Lord should allow such a tragedy. It made no more sense than the loss of his son did to John Calvin.

Can you think of unanswered prayer in your own life even now?  Prayers that have been uttered in faith, prayers that you have seen God answer for others and yet God not answer for you. We need to learn that we can trust Jesus even in such circumstances. In our passage we learn that Jesus had a deliberate purpose in disappointing Mary and Martha. He allows their prayer to go unanswered for a time and three reasons stand-out:

1) This way will bring more glory to God (v.4). Only if Lazarus dies can the world begin to see that Jesus had the power of life and death in restoring him to life. God’s son was glorified through this tragedy.

2) This will strengthen the faith of Mary and Martha. Through this trial they grow closer to Jesus and just a few verses later (John 12:1-3) Mary adores and worships Jesus in an extravagant act of devotion as she pours perfume on his feet.

3) This will bring about the salvation of many, John 11:45.

Learning to trust God with our circumstances

Sometimes God says no and we see quite quickly what he is doing. Mary and Martha witnessed the power of Christ not only to heal the sick but raise the dead. They witnessed many coming to faith in Christ through his delay and they saw what glory it gave to God. Their confusion was real but relatively short-lived. At other times God says no and we don’t understand, but even then we begin to see that in our helplessness God strengthens our faith and he speaks to others through our experience. When God says no to our cries for help, our only option is to trust and obey. All we have is a choice to believe that he has a greater goal in mind than an immediate personal happiness, and all we can do is to look for God’s purpose to refine our character.  We begin to learn that God’s purpose is to use this experience to shape our characters, cast out our sin, increase our hope, and to build our trust.

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