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)
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.
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. 6 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.
As we explore the theme at City Church of how true strength is found in weakness, I’m reading the story of Gerald L. Sittser who lost his mother, wife and young daughter in a tragic accident. His book is called A Grace Disguised and the inside cover reveals this is not a book about one man’s sorrow. Rather, it is a moving meditation on the losses we all suffer and the grace that can transform us. Here is a short extract that helps us to see what that looks like in one man’s experience.
Loss forces us to see the dominant role our environment plays in determining our happiness. Loss strips us of the props we rely on for our well-being. It knocks us off our feet and puts us on our backs. In the experience of loss, we come to the end of ourselves.
But in coming to the end of ourselves, we can also come to the beginning of a vital relationship with God. Our failures can lead us to grace and to a profound spiritual awakening. This process occurs frequently with those who suffer loss. It often begins when we face our own weaknesses and realize how much we take favourable circumstances for granted. When loss deprives us of those circumstances, our anger, depression, and ingratitude expose the true state of our souls, showing us how small we really are. We see that our identity is largely external, not internal.
Finally, we reach the point where we begin to search for a new life, one that depends less on circumstances and more on the depth of our souls. That, in turn, opens us to new ideas and perspectives, including spiritual ones. We feel the need for something beyond ourselves, and it begins to dawn on us that reality may be more than we once thought it to be. We begin to perceive hints of the divine, and our longing grows. To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true and deepest selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.
I have just begun an evening series at City Church entitled Perfected in Weakness. The goal of the series is to move us, as a church family, from a position where weakness is seen (or at least thought-of) as something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. In our church culture weaknesses are often things we hide from others as we give the pretence of being sorted Christians. As a church we need to arrive at a place where we can be open and real about our weaknesses because we recognise that it is precisely in our weaknesses that God is most glorified. As we do so we will be increasingly able to speak to one another in appropriate ways.
Has it ever been easier to claim to be able to live independent, self-sufficient lives? Here’s one example of what that claim looks like: a book by five-time Olympic Gold medallist, Steve Redgrave. It’s not aimed at high-achievers but at people like you and me. It’s called You can win at life! Unlock your potential and go for gold! As you flick through the chapter and section headings you get a sense of its message; identify your dreams, your boundaries can be limitless, and winners are people like you. Through-out the book are encouragements to recognise the huge potential for success within you. The blurb on the back cover of the book reads In you can win at life! Steve reveals the secret of his success and shows how we can ALL learn to achieve our goals, given the right balance of self-motivation, vision and hard graft.
The book is a summary of the message of the age – and all too often the message in our churches. The power is there within you. It’s like north sea oil the only real challenge is how to get it out. And that is what makes what God wants to teach us through the apostle Paul so radical. For he writes:
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness (2 Cor. 11:30, NIV)) and I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor. 12:9, NIV)
For Paul the secret to life is that there are no strong people (to borrow from the title of Jeff Lucas’s new book). The reality is that the world is not divided between the strong and the weak but divided between those who know they are weak and those who don’t. It is only in learning that we are weak that we are ready to begin to look outside of ourselves and to the God of all grace for help.
Paul writes of the painful lesson that was so hard to learn; that is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2Co 12:10, NIV). Steve Redgrave just might be able to motivate you to run a sub-4 hour marathon, he might just persuade you to start your own business but what he hides from you in his book is that most important lesson of all – there are no strong people. Despite the boastful words of every candidate on the apprentice it is our own mortality that serves as the reminder that whatever our strengths might be we are wearing out and our lives are running out. In the book of Common Prayer we read ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. I wonder whether that is something we are ready to accept?
We may have some strengths (our gifts and abilities given by God) but we are all weak people who have some strengths. So when God allows us to experience our weakness, whether that might come through physical, mental, or spiritual incapacity, it is a severe mercy. God is teaching you that you cannot make it alone. We all need to know that our lives are in his hands. That our future is found not in depending on our strength but on his strength at work in us.
The tension we experience in our Christian lives is that our weaknesses are the things we most want God to take away and yet our weaknesses are the things God finds most useful in growing us up in our faith. You and I want God to take away are the things he most wants to use. Paul did not enjoy his suffering but he learned that For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:10, NIV).
It is a lesson we really need to learn because we think weakness is wrong and yet Jesus says weakness isn’t wrong – weakness is the way to eternal life. Weakness is the path that Jesus walked. He was crucified in weakness (2 Cor. 13:4, NIV). Weakness is where we learn that you and I need God – we don’t just need to know about God, we don’t just need to believe in God, we need to depend upon God – because only through Christ can he take us through death to eternal life.
Are we ready not just to serve Christ but depend on his strength because our own resources are not enough.
Paul Tripp writes in Broken-down House:
When you stand back and consider, you are confronted with how little is actually under your control. When you stop and look, you are faced with your smallness, your weakness, and your limits. But don’t get discouraged and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be. Think about it. Only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits,and humbly recognise how small I actually am,can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope. Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way because, in forgetting who I am and who he is, I have been trying to do his job. He concludes, you do not have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God.
We were made to live not just God-honouring lives, but God-dependent lives. The problem is that even after God saves us, even then, we don’t naturally turn to him. As Christians we simply get on with our own life. So Paul boasts of weakness because they are they very place where we learn that the power for the Christian life comes from Christ and weakness is where that truth is most often discovered.
In our weakness we realise, maybe for the first time, that we need to depend on the God of all grace and depend on him as never before.
“I have no secret. You haven’t learned life’s lesson very well if you haven’t noticed that you can decide the reaction you want of people in advance. It’s unbelievably simple.
If you want them to smile, smile first.
If you want them to take an interest in you, take an interest in them first.
If you want to make them nervous, become nervous yourself.
If you want them to shout and raise their voices, raise yours and shout.
If you want them to strike you, strike first.
It’s as simple as that.
People will treat you like you treat them.
It’s no secret. Look about you. You can prove it with the next person you meet.”
In the last post we explored what a city-suburb church might look like and in particular thought about the role of small-groups as missional communities to reach impenetrable communities with the gospel. Now we take a brief look at preaching and expectations.
B. Preaching and City Suburbs
Look for bridges over which the gospel will travel and expose the idols that the gospel – Ed Stetzer
1. City-suburbs and bridges to the gospel
The suburbs are community killers. Many churches make the assumption that because people have moved to a setting that has back decks instead of front porches that they don’t want community. I have found that they do — they just do not know how to seek and receive it. Life transforming suburban churches can and must lead people to deeper community even when the culture pushes against it. - Ed Stetzer
Our preaching should therefore feature gospel applications that are corporate in nature and that celebrate the power of the gospel to establish, deepen and maintain community.
Established because true community comes not from a shared experience but from a shared identity of being in Christ.
Deepened because as those in Christ we are able to overcome the barriers to community. We learn to trust, commit, love and serve those who are family in Christ.
Maintained because through the gospel we are able to overcome the breakers of community. We are ready to forgive, to hold our tongue, to overcome the temptations to put ourselves first.
2. City suburbs and idols that need to be destroyed
Darrin Patrick suggests we ask the following questions to expose the community idols that function as alternative gods in our culture.
• What do people in this suburb worry about most?
• What, if they failed or lost it, would cause them to feel that they did not even want to live?
• What do they use to comfort themselves when things go bad or get difficult?
• What do they do to cope? What are their release valves? What do they do to feel better?
Some of the surface idols identified with city suburbs:
In affluent suburbs (middle-class?) they might include: Career, wealth, aspiration, status anxiety
In poorer suburbs (working-class?) they might include: Consumerism, close-knit family, amusement (TV, etc.)
In our preaching we need to return, repeatedly, to these idols and demonstrate how they are gods that fail and how everything they promise is found in Christ.
C. What to expect when planting in City suburbs?
City-suburb planting highlights a tension particular, although not unique, to planting in such situations: a tension between two truths.
1. Longer term opportunities – People tend to live a longer time in the suburbs (living in the same house for 20 years I can still remember every neighbour I’ve had by name) and that provides opportunity to build gospel-relationships over a longer-term.
2. A Cocooning Commuter culture – Theologian Robert Banks (quoted by Al Hsu) observes: One of the key victims of the automobile is the experience of local neighborhood. Since people drive to and from their homes, they do not see, greet or talk with each other much anymore; since they go greater distances to shop and relax, the corner store disappears, and the neighborhood park empties, so removing the chief hubs of local neighborhood life.
D. Could you plant in a City suburb?
Who might be suited to plant in suburbs? Is this the right suburb in which to plant?
1. Do you have a love for this particular community?
2. Can you demonstrate a commitment to this community eg. can you move in? are you willing to educate your kids in the community? etc.
3. Do you have a ‘gift-set’ that is a good match for the suburb. What skills or gifts are needed to connect to the culture of the suburb. Do you need to be a creative-type? a family-man? interest in sports?
4. When it comes to character how patient are you? Can you cope with the frustration of slow growth in the early years?
Cities are pitted against suburbs . . . Rather than contrasting cities against suburbs, it is more helpful to see cities and suburbs as part of a metropolitan whole. Our contemporary understanding of “the city” needs to include both city and suburb, and God needs Christians to have a presence throughout the entire metropolis. Al Hsu
I’m speaking at a workshop today at the Planting for Christ conference. My theme: Planting in a City Suburb. Here are my notes . . . part 1.
A. Cities and suburbs
Wikipedia defines it this way (highlighting how the term means something a little different in the US from the UK). A suburb is a residential area, either existing as part of a city or urban area (as in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom), or as a separate residential community within commuting distance of a city (as in the United States and Canada).
English Heritage goes for the following: In general terms, suburbs can perhaps be best described as outgrowths or dependencies of larger settlements – somewhere with a clear relationship with a city or town but with its own distinct character.
Maybe we can best say: a city suburb is a distinct, recognisable area within a city, often with an integrity and character that is valued by the local community.
2. What is the relationship between the city and the suburb?
For cities like Birmingham (perhaps to be contrasted with global cities) a typical pattern would be
Urban-core, inner city, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, rural
B. What does it mean to plant in a city-suburb?
Rather than appealing to a sector of society you are taking responsibility for a part of the mission field geographically – John James, Helier Chapel.
You might identify the community by a post-code, a housing estate, political ward, but usually by a named area.
1. Contextualisation is essential
- Contextualisation is inevitable
- Contextualisation is biblical
- Contextualisation is necessary
- Contextualisation is complicated
2. When planting in the suburbs, community is key to contextualisation
a. Learn the culture – Ron Edmunson comments: Every city, every village, and every group of people have their own unique identity. What matters most? What do they celebrate? Where do people live and play? What do they do for fun? What’s their language? What are the traditions unique to this area? What history do they value?
b. Learn the market – Chip Weeler asks: Are schools an option for a building? Is the community in a growth mode or a declining mode? What are the major problems, concerns, and needs of the community? Who are the leading employers? What are the demographics?
c. Commit to the community. Planting in suburbs takes time and a great deal of patience.
3. Top Ways to Connect to Your Community
a. Be specific and strategic with your contacts
Very often this means starting with the families; mums and toddlers, kids & youth, messy church.
We’re five years in and we’ve seen very little fruit. We are still right at the start. But there is a whole community of people whose kids have been with us and we’re having conversations we wouldn’t have had three years ago – Andy Weatherley, Grace Church.
b. Build missional communities as a key strategy to reach the community
In City-suburb planting the church needs to engage the community.
Telling members of the plant simply to ‘go and be missional’ in an impenetrable community simply won’t work.
Missional small groups are a surer way in to the community and a training ground for plant members. The leader’s job is to create a context for mission within a community setting. For these groups to work at least the hosts and leaders need to live in or very near the community being reached.
- Small group bible-studies are open to the local community (ie a mixed group of Christians and non-Christians). All the questions are aimed at our belief system – Andy Weatherley. The danger is that you de-skill the Christians in their Bible-handling skills.
- Small groups are intentionally outward focused and look to draw in members of the community through a variety of social gatherings e.g. Eating food, celebrating national events such as Jubilee, Football World Cup, Christmas, Oscars Film night, . . . whatever your community is in to.
- Small groups are often the first point of contact with non-Christians.
Small group leaders need to be evangelists as well as Bible-study group leaders. A church-planter adopting this model needs to give a disproportionate amount of time and attention to training up leaders
Community group leaders are the key to the success of our church – Andy Weatherley, Grace Church.
c. Be a servant
- Street Associations
- Neighbourhood Watch Schemes
d. Use media to connect with your community
Chip Weeler suggests: Invest as much as you can in a Web site—a good Web site. Have the Web site up and running before the launch of the church, and use it as a tool for outreach. Post sermons, worship services, and areas of involvement. Make sure that the Web site clearly spells out where you meet, when you meet, how to dress, what to expect, and how the kids will be taken care of . . .take advantage of online communities such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as YouTube and other popular, free online sources.
Use photos from the community, landmarks from community, community events, etc. on your page. Give the casual viewer of your site links to the community they can identify with.
Produce a local newsletter; highlighting what’s going on in the community, featuring church-run or hosted events but not exclusively.
Follow Twitter feeds relevant to your community.
e. Join with community events (to use the language of Brad House ‘read the rhythms of your community’)
Have a presence at community events but be careful how you use it.
Case Study: Grace Church: Co-Co Mad (arty, drama, crafty festival)
Where are the places people like to be in your suburb? Build in visits into your ministry as a planter and team.
Schools, Library, Gym, shops,
g. Run your own church events & activities
• Curry club
• B-B-Q and family games day
• Clothes exchange party
• Gospel choir
• Football team
I was invited by the staff team of Magdalen Road Church to speak to them on the topic of the inerrancy of Scripture. Here are four God reasons for Christians to have confidence that what the Bible says, God says.
1. God is a God of truth (taken from Words of Life by Tim Ward)
The claim that the Bible is inerrant is a conclusion drawn directly from what Scripture says about God, and about itself in relation to God. Scripture says, as we have seen, that it is breathed out by God, as his own words. In addition, in Scripture God states with great clarity that his character is such that he cannot lie, and that he alone is utterly truthful and trustworthy (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18) . . . It is therefore right to conclude that Scripture’s words will borrow their qualities from God.
2. God is a God of love (taken from Essentials by John Stott & David Edwards)
Is [it] a reliable revelation? Indeed, we have strong Christian reasons for expecting God to have given us one. We both believe [Stott in reply to Edwards view of Scripture] God said and did something through Jesus Christ which was unique in itself and decisive for the salvation of the world. Is it not inconceivable, therefore, that God should first have spoken and acted in Christ and then have allowed his saving word and deed to be lost in the mists of antiquity? If God’s good news was meant for everybody, which it was and is, then he must have made provision for its reliable preservation, so that all people in all places at all times could have beneficial access to it. This is an a priori deduction from our basic Christian beliefs about God, Christ and salvation.
3. God is a God worthy of our trust (taken from Essentials by John Stott & David Edwards)
John Stott describes this one as his most important argument:
Submission to Scripture is for us Evangelicals a sign of our submission to Christ, a test of our loyalty to him. We find it extremely impressive that our incarnate Lord, whose own authority amazed his contemporaries, should have subordinated himself to the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures as he did, regarding them as his Father’s written word.
If submission to Scripture was right for him, as it was, it must be right for us also.
4. God is a God deserving of our obedience (taken from Evangelical Affirmations by Kenneth Kantzer)
Christians hold the Bible to be the Word of God (and inerrant) because they are convinced that Jesus, the Lord of the Church, believed it and taught his disciples to believe it.
The conclusion of the matter?
When it comes to whether we can trust the Bible we’re really asking questions much bigger than what is the Bible, we’re asking what is our God like. Who God is and what God has done gives us reason for confidence.
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