Communion Cups and Oceans

ocean2Almost twenty years ago I was serving on one of the Operation Mobilisation missionary ships.  During one month-long visit to a port I met a volunteer who later became my wife.  We had a few conversations and it was obvious that there was a genuine and mutual interest.  When I flew home from the ship my family wanted to know all about her.  I told them what I could, of course, but actually I didn’t know that much.

If we fast forward two decades the story is different.  After 17 years of marriage, 6 children, 5 homes, and lots of different shared experiences, I have more to say about her.  If someone genuinely wants to hear about my wife now, I can share a lot.  I can share facts, but I can also share what I appreciate about her character based on these years together.  And I imagine that if God gives us another few decades together then I will have even more to spill should anyone ever ask.

That’s the reality of close relationship. Over time the amount we have to say multiplies.

Lately I have been pondering this on the spiritual level too.  When we first respond to the Gospel we probably don’t know too much about Jesus.  Maybe as a young Christian we know a few facts that form the skeleton of Jesus’ story: He is the Son of God who came to Earth; He taught, healed, died, rose and returned to His Father in heaven; He is there now and will come back again.

Essentially this basic skeleton of the Jesus story, with some variation, will be the basics known by beginners in the faith.  These facts could be written on a piece of paper and stored in one of those tiny communion cups that some churches use.  These facts are amazing, and for many of us our lives and our eternities were transformed by trusting Christ based on this level of knowledge, so we should absolutely worship God in light of this.  Nevertheless, this is a very limited awareness of Christ the person.

Here is my point in this article, and one of my greatest concerns in life: I have sat through too many sermons and presentations where it feels like the preacher is drawing from not much more than a communion cup full of information about Christ.  Sometimes it has been preachers who have preached for decades, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ Himself.  Sometimes it has been ministry leaders who are significant in their own area of expertise, but still seem to have very little to say about Christ.  This concerns me for them, and it concerns me for me.

If Christianity is about having a relationship with Christ, then it seems reasonable to expect that over time that relationship will result in an increased reservoir to draw from as we speak of the person we love.  Years of communication and of shared experiences should significantly increase what we have to say about our spouse – both in a human marriage, and in our relationship with Christ.

A while ago I was reading one of the Puritans and I was struck by how he could go on for page after page about the character of Christ.  He was prompted by some detail in John 14-16 as Jesus cared for his disciples, but he obviously had pondered long over the character of Christ as revealed in the Gospel stories.  Suddenly I was struck by how little so many preachers actually have to say about Christ the person.  Surely as life progresses we should have more and more to share about Him?

Was it Spurgeon who asked, “Where are all the divines?”  That is, where are the men and women who are so close to God that it really shows?  If that was a concern in the 19th century, are things any better in the 21st century?

Here are a few quick thoughts that may provoke some prayerful pondering on this issue:

1. It is possible to take the benefits Christ offers us, but not realize that He genuinely wants a two-way relationship with us.

2. If we can talk long about a dear friend or spouse we have known for years, how much should this be true of us when we have walked with Christ for years?

3. Christian ministry will always be limited when our relationship with Christ is limited.

4. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we communicate with Him over the years – years of reading the Bible, years of prayer.

5. We will grow in our knowledge of Him as we share life’s experiences together – praying our way through the exciting, the exhausting, the painful, and even the boring bits of life.

6. There is more to Jesus than just a set of facts: born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, “son” of a carpenter, etc.  We can know Him personally: His character, His values, His heart.

For me, one last thought reveals both a great fear, and a great thrill as I move forward in life:

7. Christ has, for all eternity, thrilled the infinite heart of His Father.  What we can say about Christ should not be limited to what can fit in a communion cup.  By the time the years have passed, surely we should have much much more to say of Him who is really more than an ocean full of wonder?  My prayer is that we all will.

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Could we with ink, the ocean fill,

And were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill,

And every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above,

Would drain the oceans dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole,

Though stretched from sky to sky.

(The Love of God, by Frederick Lehmen)

Advent – a Season of All Tenses!

During Advent I will be posting some brief articles on this site. I may link to some of them, but not all. So if you’d like to see them, be sure to bookmark this site. Thanks!

Pleased to Dwell

pleased-to-dwellv5During the early centuries after Christ the church developed the advent season.  It is a season to prepare our hearts to welcome Christ.  It used to be a season of fasting in some quarters, but now is probably needed more as a perspective check in the midst of consumer feasting.

Think about the tenses.  It would be easy to put advent in past tense – a season to remind our hearts of the coming of Christ.  That would be amazing.  God become flesh and dwelling amongst us, come to die in our place, to reconcile us to God, etc.  A past tense advent would be wonderful, but we have more.

Advent has future tense – it is a season to prepare our hearts to see Christ.  It is not only to celebrate his birth in Bethlehem, but to stir our hearts with the hope that one day we will see…

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Michael Ots: What Does It Mean to be Human?

Foundations

michael2Michael Ots is an evangelist who regularly speaks at events in universities across Europe. His first book, What Kind of God? is translated into Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Spanish.  To find out more, please visit www.motsy.org

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‘Man is a crumpled piece of paper in the rain whose only liberation is death’ – this was the conclusion of the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. Most of us would not share his bleak conclusion about humanity. However, his was the logical conclusion to come to if at the end of the day we live in a materialistic universe where there is nothing more than matter. The scientist Francis Crick said ‘You, your joys and sorrows, memories, ambitions, sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the massive assembly of nerve cells… Who you are is noting but a load of neurons.’

The problem with such views…

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Viv Thomas: Paths & Connections

Foundations

ERT4EdXbViv Thomas is the Associate International Director of OM International, and Hon. Teaching Pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith. He has authored Future Leader, Second Choice, Paper Boys, The Spectacular Ordinary Life and The Spectacular Ordinary Organisation. His next book, Wisdom Road, will be published in December 2015.  For more information on Viv’s ministry click here, or for OM, click here. I have known and worked with Viv for many years and have appreciated his heart and his input.  In this post Viv offer three foundational questions we should be pondering.

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Phileena Heuertz suggests some questions that help us get to the core of what is going on in our lives. I suggest that we let them rumble through our minds and conversations listening to the voice of the Spirit as we go.

Who are you?

This is the identity question. It is not always easy to answer…

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Dave Bish: Where Are the Depths Found?

Foundations

BishDave currently serves on the staff team for Grace Church Exeter, but is pursuing a next step into pastoral ministry elsewhere in 2016. He’s married with three young sons. He previously spent 11 years on the staff team of the UCCF, as a Christian Union Staff Worker and then as Team Leader for the South West. He’s edited three volumes of sermons by puritans Richard Sibbes and Jeremiah Burroughs in addition to many years of blogging at thebluefish.org.  As Foundations is being released, I am thankful to Dave for this guest post on what it means to be human.

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“The depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily placed within.” Taylor, p540.

In his enormous book A Secular Age Charles Taylor is examining the shift that has occured over the past 500 years from a world in which it was…

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Standard Sermon Shape: Why Not?

This week I’ve been trying to offer some nuanced critiques of approaches that we can easily take to preaching.  The verse-by-verse and word-by-word approaches seem to honour the text, but can often fail to communicate the the passage effectively.  Topical preaching seems to honour the need for relevance, but there is no direct correlation there. Today I’d like to address one more text related issue: the standard sermon shape.

There is a sense in which most messages are going to have some similarities.  They tend to have introductions and conclusions with something in between (typically, though not always!)  The Bible tends to be read and explain and applied in something like that order, albeit with lots of variation possible.  Most messages are either deductive or inductive in broad shape, or some combination of both.  All of this is fine.

However, there are some standard sermon shapes that can be imposed on any passage.  Perhaps three points and a poem.  Perhaps a problem, solution, application approach.  You may have another default shape that comes to mind.  Why do I think it is better not to default to a standard sermon shape?

1. It does not recognize the diverse nature and shape of biblical texts.  I remember cringing during a sermon on a Psalm.  I was studying the Psalms at seminary and loving the diversity, the poetic artistry, the powerful and emotive imagery, etc.  Then I heard someone preach a Psalm as if it just a logical argument.  First point.  Second point.  Third point.  It didn’t just fall flat, it felt like an assault had taken place.  Supposedly paralleled truths had been ripped out of their setting and the Psalm lay in ruins in the preacher’s wake.  If we are going to default to anything, why not default to reflecting the shape of the text in the message?  You can always choose a different approach, but that is a safer default.

2. It undermines the power of the genre.  A narrative text is powerful.  So is a discourse section or a poem.  But all are powerful in a different way.  For instance, a narrative works by engaging the reader/listener with character association, with plot tension and resolution.  It doesn’t sit there waiting to be pillaged for three parallel theological statements or descriptive labels.  I. Noddy’s Contention.  II. Noddy’s Conversion.  III. Noddy’s Contrition.  IV. Noddy’s Contribution.  I think we’d do well to leave that kind of approach alone and look for how we can actually communicate what a passage says, while also honouring the way that it does what it does.

Review: The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Whatever else we may be or do, we present God to others.  We present God in our preaching of the Bible, and we present God as we live our lives.  A critical question, then, has to be this: which God do we present?

Mike Reeves’ new book, The Good God, from Paternoster, is exactly what the doctor ordered for the church today.  And not one of those miserable doctors that prescribes some yucky fluid in a plastic bottle.  I mean one of those doctors that suggests a break in the sun and a feast of good food to help you feel better from all that ails you.  The church today needs to bask in the sun and feast on the truth offered so gloriously and accessibly in this little book.

Mike introduces the reader to the God who is loving, giving, overflowing, relational.  With his light and accessible manner, Mike shares a profound taster of just how good God is.  Clearly Mike loves God and it shows throughout.  Some books on the Trinity can come across as a technical manual of heresies to avoid.  Others as an exercise in premeditated obfuscation.  This little book sizzles with energy, addresses the issues with clear insight rather than excessive technicality, and stirs the reader’s heart to worship, to delight, and sometimes even to laugh in sheer joy.

Mike’s biblical references scattered throughout don’t come across as a defensive attempt to prove a point, nor as a theological citation method that distracts the reader.  Rather they subconsciously stir the reader to want to get back into the Bible and see this good God afresh.  As you’d expect from a Reeves book, there are also enjoyable windows into church history as key voices from folks famous, and not so, pop up to share a thought along the way.

The book is shaped, well, um, trinitarianly.  An introductory chapter invites the reader into the pre-creation love relationship that is the Trinity.  Then the book looks at creation, redemption and the Christian life (as in, Father, Son, Spirit, although brick walls can’t be built between the roles of each in each chapter).  The book closes with a chapter that asks who among the gods is like you, O LORD?  I won’t give away the end of the book by sharing Mike’s answer, but I know if you start, you’ll want to read to the end anyway!

I will say this though, the advance of anti-theist “new atheism” gets a clear response in the final chapter.  Oh, and for one final twist, just when you feel like there’s nothing left to add, he also addresses three of the big issues that Christians sometimes throw out in opposition to an emphasis on God’s loving relationality. Superb.

This book is a must read and a must share.  As you read it you will think of others you wish would read it – from atheists to strident single-author-reading Christians. But most of all, I think you will be thankful that you read it. I am genuinely excited about how God will use this book in the years ahead!

To pre-order your copy in the UK, click here or the book image above.  Note – the book will be released in the USA later in 2012 by IVP under the title, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith.

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No Ads to See

Apparently individual posts on this site were carrying adverts placed there by someone other than me.  Today somebody found the ad to be inappropriate.  I have paid the fee to remove ads from the site.  Apologies for any annoyance from ads in the past, and I hope this helps make the site better for you.

Idea as DNA

The goal of the passage study process is the single sentence summary that distills the message of the passage into a short statement.  This sentence then acts as sheriff of the sermon preparation process, determining whether each element of the message should be there or not.  The sermon is all about the effective delivery of the main idea.

If you have thirty seconds to preach, then the main idea is the message.  Given the bonus of two more minutes, then you can give an overview of the text to support the main idea.  Given the frivolous extravagance of an extra thirty or forty minutes, you can develop every element of the structure in order to drive home the main idea as effectively as possible.

In the message preparation process you begin with one concise, pregnant sentence.  As you move through the process, the message grows and develops.

My wife has been pregnant four times.  Each time it is exciting to consider the growth of the child inside.  Now it is too small to see, now it is the size of a peanut, the size of a strawberry, like your fist, the size of your outstretched hand, etc.  When that baby is born it seems so tiny, but then it grows and grows.  All the necessary information for that unique individual is contained in the individual imperceptible cell at the beginning of the journey.

The same is true of a message.  The short, pregnant sentence of the message idea is ready to grow and develop into the message.  So no time spent on the formulation of that sentence is wasted.  Rather it is an investment in the message to come, with all its uniqueness and biblical potency.

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