Monday, 8 February 2016

5 MODERN CULTURAL NARRATIVES


I've been really interested recently to read Tim Keller’s book on Preaching and in particular to absorb his understanding of the modern mind. This is relevant of course for all preachers in knowing how best to connect the unchanging word with a changing world’s mind-set and innate cultural norms and values.

Keller identifies 5 narratives at work in modern cultural thought. When I read them they resonated with me and Keller has done a great service in making explicit those things which we observe every day and unconsciously recognise.

1. The
TECHNOLOGY Narrative – the modern world puts incredible faith in technology to solve all problems. All we need to do is throw enough money, time and effort to ensure we discover the technological solutions.

2. The
HISTORY Narrative.- it is commonly assumed that history is making progress and that every era is better than the one before. This is seen every day in such phrases as “having no business in the 21st C” or “being on the wrong side of history”

3. The
FREEDOM Narrative – the purpose of a social order, according to our culture is that individuals should be entirely free to live as they choose without hindrance or interference.

4. The
MORALITY/JUSTICE Narrative – 21st c affirms that we make our own morals irrespective of any outside authority. A completely free choice in morals is the ultimate goal.

5. The
IDENTITY Narrative – Late modernity reverses previous thinking that identity was found in our social roles and instead asserts that identity is found inside of ourselves in our own desires and dreams. In effect, we must “be ourselves” at all costs and those who do so by breaking free from social norms are applauded to the rooftops!

These axioms have become so universally accepted that anyone who dares question them is regarded as a bit prehistoric and ‘out of touch’. People are drawn to them because they instinctively ‘feel right’. Yet these very assumptions themselves provide the context for debate on many contemporary subjects such as human sexuality, abortion, marriage, origins, relationships etc. Those who accuse Christians of being biased must learn that they themselves have an inbuilt bias – it would be at least honest to admit that. No-one approaches any subject from a situation of complete neutrality. In reality there is no such thing. But every one has assumptions that they do not want to be questioned.


Yet the gospel does its work by addressing all these core issues. 

TECHNOLOGY ultimately is not our hope – this idea is hopelessly na├»ve and a failed Utopian dream. Evil is deep and real and complex and cannot be solved by Silicon Valley technology. 

It is also wrong to assume that HISTORY is progressive. The new is not always better. Christianity is both far more pessimistic about the human race and far more optimistic about a future hope than any secularist.

The modern idea of FREEDOM without boundaries is also an illusion. Christianity says that true freedom is to be set free from our sin by the Son of God Himself so that we are truly free to live in a relationship with our creator and worship him.

Likewise if MORALITY is based on how we feel then we can never say anything is right or wrong. It cannot necessarily be right to feed the hungry just because we feel it is. If someone else feels it isn’t a right thing to do how can we say they are wrong? The gospel roots morality in the universal law of God and our innate sinfulness hence needing a rescuer to lift us up and give us a new law to live by.

Finally, the gospel address the IDENTITY narrative by revealing to us who and what we really are and how in Christ we can find hope newness of life, a new name and a new and complete identity.

The modern world can be daunting for Christians. But if we really understand the gospel we will have renewed confidence and hope that every one of life’s issues find its ultimate solution in the Father’s love, the Son’s redemption and the Spirit’s empowering. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

THE BOTH/AND……… EITHER/OR LIFESTYLE

Is life about both/and or is it about either/or?  Now that’s an interesting question.  There has no doubt been an enormous cultural shift in our understanding and answering of that question.

Take finances for example. In our grandparents day there was a clear either/or understanding.  EITHER you paid the basic bills OR you indulged in luxuries.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you went on holiday OR you changed the car.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you spent it today OR you spent it tomorrow.  You couldn’t do both.

Take family as another example.  EITHER you took time with your spouse and your children OR you spent time indulging your own hobbies and selfish interests.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you chose to spend sufficient time at home OR too much time at work.  You couldn’t do both.

Take faith.  EITHER you followed Jesus OR you followed the world.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you denied yourself and took up your cross OR you walked with the wicked.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you confessed Jesus as Lord and sacrificed hedonism OR you put self on the throne and went to hell.  You couldn’t do both.  EITHER you trembled at His word and obeyed it OR you ignored his clear teaching and went your own You couldn’t do both.
Well at least it was clear.  It was always EITHER/OR

But somewhere that changed EITHER/OR has become BOTH/AND.  Many people feel they can ‘have it all’.  In their finances - all the basics AND all the luxuries; all the holidays AND all the cars; spend it today AND spend it again tomorrow.  In their family – BOTH healthy relationships AND an overextended schedule.  In their faith -  BOTH the cross AND the world.  BOTH Jesus as Lord AND me as Lord.  BOTH the Bible AND the world’s philosophies.  BOTH holiness AND selfishness.  BOTH/AND not EITHER/OR.

EITHER/OR has become old-fashioned.  It’s not very popular anymore.  It once used to be the ‘in’ thing but it’s been discarded like the black and white TV or the twin speaker stereo system.  Nobody seems to think about it anymore.  Don’t ask us to choose.  Don’t ask us to make sacrifices.  Surely it is possible to have it all.  Isn’t it possible to have BOTH Christ AND the world?  Cant we BOTH sing on a Sunday AND sin on a Saturday?  Cant we have BOTH spiritual casualness AND sincere commitment?  Cant we have BOTH the blessing of God AND a free choice?  Cant we BOTH go God’s way AND go our own way?  Give us BOTH/AND.  Don’t give us EITHER/OR.

But EITHER/OR is God’s way.  Joshua said “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” (24 v15) EITHER the one true God OR the false gods beyond the river.  You can’t have both

In 2016, if you call yourself a Christian, EITHER you have an EITHER/OR lifestyle OR you can have a BOTH/AND lifestyle.  Think about it.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

5 WAYS TO MAKE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL (Part 2)


In the last blog I shared 3 ways to make Christmas special this year – enjoy family advent devotions, sing traditional Christmas carols and read the biblical narratives. Here are 2 further ways……

4. GIVE A GIFT WITH A DIFFERENCE

There are many gifts we give to people who give back to us.  But how about a gift which will make real difference to someone in real need?  That gift may be financial and you may deliberately and intentionally support a person or a project with a real blessed gift e.g. this year in Newtownbreda our Christmas giving will go to the “Water for Life” project run by Fields of Life.  My gift can be added to hundreds of other gifts to make a real difference to communities in Uganda. A simple thing but surely one which reflects the God who gave at Christmas. The problem is that often we just can’t be bothered or are too lazy or just leave it to others.  Or we never really think about it or get round to it or we feel we can’t afford it or we are just tired out. But we need to conquer our lethargy.  A gift with a difference doesn’t have to be money – it could be time with someone or just your presence in a home or at an event.  The Lord Jesus himself said “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (see Acts 20 v35) More blessed. That is an irreversible principle. So we make it more special when we give – but we need to be conscious and deliberate about that.

5. GIVE OUT AN EVANGELISTIC LEAFLET

That may sound so old fashioned but we are called to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel”.(Mark 16 v15) There is power in literature (How do I know? How much junk mail falls through your letterbox this time of year? Think those companies would spend all that money if leaflets had no effect? Of course literature works!)  A carefully chosen, well presented leaflet which tells the gospel story and reveals the truth about the Son who came to this world to save us can be mightily powerful in the hands of the Spirit.  It’s a unique time of the year – a time when many are at least exposed in some way to spiritual things.  So we need to be ‘intentional’ (there’s that word again) about getting out the message of the gospel.  And if you don’t do it then who will?  Honestly?  Who? What have you got to lose?  Some people say, “I don’t like handing out literature.  I just live the life”.  Really?  Well that’s a good thing.  You should ‘live the life’ but when was the last time somebody came and asked you how they could be saved just because they thought you were such a great Christian?  When did that happen?  Thought so!  So why not let the power of the written word do its work.  Don’t be ashamed of the gospel.  Christ is not ashamed of you.

So 5 simple things to DO so that the season does not pass you by or is handed over completely to the secularist agenda of our age.  Over to you.  Over to me.  At the end of life I’m sure that, like me, you want to hear “Well DONE good and faithful servant”.  Not just well discussed or well thought about.  Well DONE so………go and do it.  

Sunday, 6 December 2015

5 WAYS TO MAKE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL (PART 1)


Right about now most Christians start complaining a lot about how secular the season has become; how the world has hijacked Christmas and turned it into a long hedonistic festival, devoid of any spiritual significance.  Many believers long to turn back the clock to days when whole communities would turn out at their local church and everyone knew the words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All ye Faithful”.  But of course such days are long gone and it seems that the Christian voice is constantly drowned out by the secular anthems of 21st century society.

So what can we do?  Well I believe we should start with ourselves personally and with our families and do small but significant things that allow us to be intentional about keeping Christ in Christmas.  No point bemoaning how secular it has all become if we just mindlessly follow suit and just tack on an odd bit of religion along the way.  So here are 5 things you can do to make Christmas special again. 

1. Enjoy Advent Family Devotions.

Be intentional about getting the family to focus on the Christmas narratives around the dinner table if possible.  But don’t just read them, probe them, look at them, apply them together at the different levels of understanding in your family unit. Even the youngest children need to be led into a sense of reverence and awe at this great God whose son entered this sinful world.  Teenagers need to know of the God who can help them in their difficulties as “Immanuel” God with Us! Older folks need to be reminded of the faithful, unchanging God.  There are many good books to help you with this.  This year in our family we are using “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room “by Nancy Guthrie but there are many equally as good. Find out what works.  Take time.

2. Sing Traditional Christmas Carols

Some secular Christmas songs are great and play a very big part of our festivities.  They remind us of the sentiments of happy Christmases from our childhood and hopes and wishes for a better future.  Michael Buble probably is worth an airing every year and how could it be Christmas without Slade’s “I wish it could be Christmas every day”?.  But if we are ever going to turn back the secular trend in society then we have got to uphold and promote the theology of the Incarnation and that means turning back to classic carols.  When you sing…………….

                                                        “Veiled in flesh the godhead see
                                                                Hail the Incarnate Deity”

you are reminding yourself of something incredibly profound – the wonderful truth of the God who took on flesh, the Infinite who became an Infant.   Similarly when you sing


                                                          “Pleased as man with man to dwell
                                                                       Jesus our Immanuel”

you are brought to the lofty heights of gospel truth. He dwelt among us - literally he pitched his tent.  It doesn’t matter if you cant sing, sing them anyway or play them often in your home or car.  Revisit the words, the theological immensities which are taught.
 
3. Read the Biblical Narratives
I'm amazed at how Christians think that the Incarnation is confined to the familiar stories of Matthew 1 and Luke 2.  Read them certainly and look for details you may have missed but don’t forget Genesis 3, John 1, Isaiah 9, Micah 5 and Titus 2 : 11-14.  Read them carefully and prayerfully as if for the first time.  Ask the Holy Spirit to illumine them for you to show you wonderful things in the Book.  Read into the culture and the background – get to know what gold was used for, and frankincense and find out what on earth myrrh is. Understand what it meant for the Romans to be in occupation and what it meant for Herod to feel threatened by the new king who had arrived.  Seek out why Bethlehem was important in Jewish history etc etc.  Remember this is truth and God has something to teach us in all of this.  Don’t let Christmas go by default. Be intentional.
Look out for the next blog when I shall share 2 more ways to keep Christmas special.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Thought for the Day


I was happy to be back on Radio Ulster 3 times in the last 2 weeks doing 'Thought For the Day'.  I used to do this years ago but the opportunity arose again recently and so was happy to grab it.  Radio is a powerful medium. It's great to be in the public square with some good news and provoking thought.  Here's the one I delivered yesterday morning.....


I can still clearly remember when I was 18, a man I knew was celebrating his 40th birthday. I thought that was really old.  40! that was ancient.  I worked out it would be 22 years before I reached that.  22 years. that was a lifetime away so this old man could celebrate his 40th birthday if he wanted to, but it would be ages before I ever got there.  I couldnt have imagined ever getting a birthday card with the 'big 40' on it. 

Little did I know!  I sailed past 40 and then 50 and I still don’t feel old but I do wonder how it all happened so quickly.  That’s what people say about time isn’t it?  “Where did it go?” “Doesn’t time fly?” “I can hardly believe 2015 is nearly over.” “What Christmas again?”.  I heard recently that the great Big Ben needs about £40 million spent on it to keep it sound and ringing out over London.  Well even if it did stop, time wouldn’t.

 You have probably heard the poem...

When as a child I laughed and wept – time crept
When as a youth I waxed more bold – time strolled
When I became a fully grown man- time ran
When older still I daily grew – time flew
Soon I shall find in passing on – time gone
O Christ Will you have saved me then? Amen!

You see time is the one thing we can’t ever increase.  It stubbornly refuses to yield more of it no matter how hard we try.  More money?  Well its possible.  More friends on Facebook? That can be arranged.  More healthy body?  Well maybe with a bit more exercise and better eating habits.  But more time? No chance!

No its finite and it moves at the same rate for everybody.  One hour is the same for the high powered businessman rushing to appointments as it is for the older person sitting quietly at home watching the clock.

So make the most of your time.  The Bible says a lot about that because the God of heaven is the God of time.  He started the clock in the first place and he will terminate it when he’s ready.  It is time to seek the Lord, is a VERY good piece of advice.  Whatever the time.  Seek him, look for him, go after him.  That’s what time it is.

Well I've got to finish because, guess what, my time is now up.

Friday, 11 September 2015

YOUR NO.1 RELATIONSHIP



Its been a while since I’ve written a blog so thought Id let you know what’s been going on in my mind and heart recently. 

As I’ve been preparing the sermon series for Newtownbreda, called  “Your #1 Relationship”,  based on John 15 (catch the first 2 parts here - select the Archive tab).  I’ve been inevitably thinking long and hard about the analogy that Jesus uses -  the vine and the branches. 

Not really knowing much about vineyards, not surprisingly I’ve had to do some research. There was always connection and pruning.  Jesus tells us that true Christians are like branches who are connected to him as the vine.  We draw our life, our vitality from him.  Its easy to appear to be connected and yet not be.  But true life and true fruit comes from real connection.  Then there had to be pruning.


 The branches would have to be ruthlessly and constantly pruned in order to bring forth the glorious fruit.  The branches would never be left alone but they would be cut back, pared, thinned, nipped, topped in a deliberate conscious, intentional act of the gardener.  Sometimes, the gardener would even prune off some small fruit in order to get better fruit a few years later.  It was a very organised and highly skilled process.


When the glorious ripe fruit finally appeared, the passers-by and lookers-on would have been amazed and said “what a great gardener to get such fruit”.  The praise would go to the gardener not to the fruit.  It would have been his skill and his diligence that would have been praised.  


Jesus said that if you are a Christian you will be need to be pruned in order that you might give a great vintage and so that your life will bring glory to your Heavenly gardener.  This process is going on even now. It might be small things, irritants in your life with which you are going to have to learn how to handle. It might be bigger things, decisions and relationships which are teaching you lessons or it might be massive stuff going on right now, which has the potential to break you – or the potential to bring forth glorious fruit in your life.  Clip, clip, clip, the Heavenly Gardener is at His work pruning you right now.


I wonder have you noticed that?  I'm trying to learn it – to be more conscious to see God in every thing in my life.  I'm a slow learner so he often has to repeat his lessons and step up his pruning process.  Why wouldn’t he?  He knows this is my #1 relationship – and so its worth His effort in my life.

Friday, 5 June 2015

WE LIVE IN BABYLON NOW!



The Church, Culture and Change

There is no doubt that we are living in momentous days. Historians might well look back in years to come at the late 20th/early 21st century as being a key time of seismic cultural shifts.

A growing individualism, fueled by rapidly advancing technology, and an even more rapidly advancing secularism has left many bewildered by the speed of change in our society.  The flagship for many of these changes and perhaps most indicative of them is the changing attitude towards marriage and in particular same-sex marriage.  A very short generation or two ago it would have been an unheard-of and very remote possibility – now it is fact, even in the traditionally culturally conservative republic of Ireland.  What is even more obvious is the self-evident reality that to oppose such a move puts you on the wrong side of history and in danger of being labelled homophobic.  You are hardly allowed to use terms like “right” or “wrong” anymore.  Nothing is wrong as long as it is loving! A ‘modern’ society, we are told, allows people to exercise their rights in whatever way they want and we shouldn’t interfere with that.  To do so is unloving and after all “love” is the ultimate ethic.  To say otherwise makes you weird, old-fashioned, uncaring and brutal.  The long-heralded virtue of “tolerance” is not generally extended to those who dare to hold different opinions. 

This is but one demonstration of the changes taking place under our very noses.  These shifts probably have their conception in the early 60’s and the growth of the sexual liberation movement, advanced by the excessive rebellion against authority, demonstrated in the music of the 60’s particularly.  Take a look for example at some of the grainy footage of the hippy movement and open drug use of those days.  Many of our current day influencers and opinion formers and cultural shapers were children or teenagers in those days.  Many in politics, the media or music grew up with a very tenuous link or understanding of the Judaeo-Christian ethic that their parents and grandparents would have known.  Hence, the moorings have shifted and we are now reaping the consequences.

Churches have been (rightly in some cases) derided for a dead legalism, an out of touch mysticism or for feeble attempts to copy the world’s liberalism.  As a result many Christians have been left reeling with a dizzy unease as to how to respond to such criticism, how to communicate into such a bizarre world and how to defend what seems like an increasingly out of touch message.

Some have reacted by becoming a kind of ‘pietistic enclave’ – burying their heads in the sand and having their meetings in their own time-honoured way and letting the world outside their door go to hell.  Others seem to have become over-friendly with the world, seeking to win approval and acceptance by flattery and assimilation.  None of this works of course and leads the Christian church to further derision by a world which is diametrically opposed to Christian things (still not sure about that? Read Jude vv 8-11).

Truth is, we live in Babylon now.  Any thoughts that this is still Jerusalem can be forgotten. We stand with Daniel and his 3 friends.  We are faced with our own cultural Nebuchadnezzars and we are going to need enormous courage to refuse to bow down to the man-made enormous idol and to say instead, “….we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3 v18).

Truth is truth and no amount of cultural shift can change that.  The gospel is absolutely true, not just relatively so.  It was, is and ever will be true.  We may tremble at the moral and ethical consequences of further decline in our society, but God is God and ultimately he will have the last word.  That is why to stand with him, his gospel and his truth is ultimately the safest place to be.  Even if it makes you unpopular