Sunday, 16 August 2020

Has the church regretted this season of livestreaming?

It was April of this year since I last blogged and we were about to dive below the surface of Coronavirus and we were living in extraordinary times. I blogged then about some misgivings about what I thought was ahead, and now it's August. To suggest that we are out of the other end or to continue with the imagery I've already mentioned - "we have risen to the surface", would be foolhardy in the extreme and quite presumptuous. Having live-streamed on Youtube, Facebooked live and Zoomed, (and even Microsoft Teamed on a few occasions) with other aspects of church life, I feel its right to blog again. We are due to reopen for worship in 3 Sundays time and the prospect is an exciting one. But I'd like to make some observations of the journey from under the water!

1) Rubbish has been talked of: I have listened and read like many other Ministers to the buzzing of the social media airwaves and frankly, so much rubbish has been talked about. Perhaps that's the nature of social media and in ministry circles its an opportunity to fire off our insecurities and uncertainties. At the moment I am avoiding looking too heavily at such sites. And these have been days like no other. The early days of trial brought out those understandably wanting to ask the big questions: Where is God? What is he saying? What is he doing? Why is this happening to us? I'm not afraid of big questions, my theological training and 30 years worth of ministry have prepared me to wrestle with such. But some questions are just too big and certainly not worthy of trite easy answers in a post where people can respond with like or dislike. And I've heard some rubbish from people who really should know better, some quite prominent in baptist settings. The first I listened to told me that these virus days were an entirely a spiritual experience and God was in them. The second did not come from a particularly Christian source, but went along the lines of "the planet is fighting back and repairing itself." These two were the most memorable for me (stuck in my head), but in between these were a whole load of pronouncements that God was reforming the church and moving it away from archaic building dominated ministry to where it needed to be out there in the community and that our means of communication had now been rocketed up to new horizons as the internet propelled our contact and message to places we had been unable to go before. That last bit sounds quite Star-Trekky, I know! Certainly, our Youtube channel has steadily grown, and numerous other parts of our church life were successfully zoomed. 

My observation is that this has been a dark time and that the virus has been nothing short of intrinsically evil. It has not been a spiritual experience into which God was wonderfully changing, speaking and moving the church. This has been a significant time of suffering and loss. Many have lost loved ones, many have lost jobs and income and far from the virus being some kind of journey which the church might be being mysteriously led by God to grow and change, all I can observe is that has been a time which has been predominantly disruptive and destructive. There is a high possibility that small village churches have been terminally struck and destroyed because their income has folded and this has had the effect of killing paid full or part-time ministry. In addition, churches have lost their fellowship contact to the point where some may not return to their home churches at all, some may physically go elsewhere to those bigger churches that they have liked the look of online, and still others will continue to sit at home on their couches and remotes and engage with something bizarre called cyber-church where the consumer mentality reigns, and where they are not required to respond in discipleship or engage in live Spirit breathed worship. If you think I am being harsh and merely firing off, then I cannot apologise. I have reflected and pondered and as much as we have been successful (and we really have been) in our internet streaming ministry, and as much as it has to some extent sustained some aspects of the church fellowship life (zoom prayer, men's ladies, children's, youth, tea with the vicar etc etc etc), and that this challenge was risen to with a fantastic sense of team focus, I cannot on balance see that it in any shape or form that it has provided an experience of a Spirit-filled church that we had before. Please don't misunderstand me, we were not a perfect church before, but this season has done nothing to perfect us. Slow us down perhaps. Simplify church life maybe. Stress-test our unity maybe (I know - this sounds like "What have the Romans ever done for us?"). It may have actually stifled our mission capability?! Not completely sure about that one. Definitely, it has though deepened the longing for the restoration of fellowship and our gathering just a few weeks ago on the church lawn for a socially distanced picnic and communion, even though rained on, provided something in the hearts of the church family that no upload speed could ever do. In fact, far from the rocketing channel subscribers observed in the first weeks of streaming life, it would be honest to say that most churches have seen a waining of their viewing counts and the numbers have not been sustained. Given the mindset of screen consumerism and the mindset of channel surfing, this is unsurprising! 

2) It's been fast-moving and exhausting: Taking some of the thoughts from point 1, I would observe that rather like a curve on a classroom oscilloscope that we once all wrestled with in a physics class, no one week has been the same. In fact, I would say that I have seen the curve fly all over the place. In over 30 years of ministry I have never experienced days like these. I guess the last few decades have been those of relative comfort and ease in Western Christianity! Now perhaps, these have been the beginning of days of trial? Perhaps even of toughening up? What is certain is that we are not saying and doing the same things now that we were at the start of the virus. There has been movement and progression and when the title of "new normal" arrived we concluded that this would be "it" and that we would all get what it was and settle down to a new routine, albeit of a church life that was lighter, simpler, less constrained by "this is what we have always done!" The  new normal seems somewhat rubbery and it certainly isn't possible to grab hold of it and say "this is what it is." Even now bloggers are providing 10 easy observations about the new normal - well it might do for this week, but it will be out of date next week or the week after. The energy given over to slick video and worship reflections online have mostly run-flat and been replaced with a need for biblical teaching that will go the distance. The hunger for prayer that was apparently reflected in google analytics early on has been questioned and found wanting. And many of my Pastor colleagues and I who have done a sterling job in holding their primary calling of the church they were called to together and literally laying down every ounce sacrificially in the service of their church are mentally, physically and spiritually exhausted. The pastoral support mechanisms that their denominations and streams were initially providing have dried up and are no longer being provided, perhaps through exhaustion too. We have died a death from a myriad of regulations and guidelines sent out (sometimes daily) and some of the national zoom opportunities that were initially helpful have turned into something that have lost their way because we are totally zoomed out and have no appetite left for sitting in front of our screens anymore. Ministry is changing, re-shaping, moving on.

3) The task at the start was a sustaining ministry, now it's a recovery operation: I set out to our church leadership team at the very start the aim of "keeping the church family in faith, fellowship, prayer, care and worship." And we have been highly successful as a team in gathering around this vision and throwing all our collective energy into making this happen. The church I pastor comes out of this time with a good feeling of spiritual and financial stability and each team member as well as the teams that they have overseen have worked their hearts and souls off to bring great blessing to the church. But now the task has changed - from sustaining to a recovery focus. I cannot underestimate the task that is before us. This season of the virus has not necessarily created healthy habits. People have not necessarily engaged in worship in front of their laptops, they have consumed from their couches as if watching an edition of their favourite weekly TV programme, And the habit of coming together and being the church has been replaced by becoming the remote church, literally separated and almost comparable to old testament times of exile - who knows! This remote church experience is very specific: Surely I can do all that I need to in terms of my previous church existence by staying at home and never coming out again? Other things can be done such as shopping and ironing whilst watching church, but coming together again and being the church seems like a lot of work to be honest, and the habits have been long lost. So now the focus ahead of us Pastors is of a recovery operation. When we reopen our church in 3 sundays time, I am not expecting the seats to be full - no! It will be a drip-feed return to church. Some may not even return for several months. We will, in any case, continue to stream our services, so people could stay home and continue as was. But what a loss! The church is in a risky place right now and we are going to have to work to recover what we have lost, and all of that so long as we have no second or third waves of the virus and further lockdowns - Lord, please no! Yes, the church in every place is in all honesty not in a place of sudden and fantastic recovery, we are going to have to work and pray hard. I'm sure that there will be so exciting new aspects of this new season, but right now we have a significant task ahead of us, and it's not going to be easy.

Has the church regretted this season of live streaming? I can't actually answer that head-on. Probably not, and yet I have never completely felt at ease behind the camera. And I don't think that we have suddenly discovered the future of ministry. I really hope we haven't gained a perception that the future of church is cyber church! Certainly, we have grown in our understanding of technology and in slicker forms of communication. But this evil virus has brought destruction and much suffering and right now some of the pieces are still to fall to the ground! We will have to see in the coming weeks and months how the shape of ministry changes as the oscilloscope curve fluctuates up and down, again and again, as it will for certain. 

Oh, and as to the planet fighting back theory - the new challenge of the oceans is that they are filling up now with all our throw away facemasks and gloves. If that's progress then I'll eat my mask!

Monday, 6 April 2020

Will the church regret this season of live-streaming?

So the coronavirus came like a thief in the night and in a matter of hours and days our entire church life has been overturned, and many of us have, in a reactive and necessary way, ended up cantering towards the brave new world of live-streaming our church services and exploring numerous means of doing so. But of course, not all have been able to do this. We are now all experts (of course not) - or getting there, and like reaching a new challenging level in a computer game or entering a foreign country where the language is quite different, we are coming to terms with this brave new world. I'm in the groove now with the preliminary levels of expertise of the technology: I can do the basics well and each week I find myself modifying or adapting some of the tek, and getting slicker with the presentation. I've taught myself to predominantly get past the lack of a physical presence of a congregation with which I can make eye contact, and yet to imagine our viewers in the homes that I have visited pastorally. And I've taught myself to look at the camera and make presentation snappy. And yes, I've even caught myself thinking "Oh, I don't look like that on camera do I?" And "I really must tidy myself up and brush my hair." And then I've chuckled when others have gone on camera and done the same thing. Then I've found myself unhealthily playing a pointless game that I long gave up years ago, and bound myself over to never, ever play again - the "bums on seats" numbers game, except that this time it's with "the number of channel subscribers game." And it felt good and momentarily injected my ego that we've xxx more subscribers this week. Wow! And then I slapped myself around the face, told myself how stupid I'd been for falling for the old game again, and recommitted myself that this streaming experience was primarily for our own church family, anything else was well "nice, but wasn't why we were primarily doing it." And so we keep going with this brave new world of doing church and we are adapting and perhaps this is a plateau for the moment. The loss of not being together physically Sunday by Sunday is an ache that we all feel, but we have no choice and we must make the best of what we are doing so far. And we are, and we will. Except that I have a sinking feeling that this is not completely all good and how will we recover from it? In the brave new world of cyber church, parts can be cut out, muted, changed and so that we only get to hear what we want to hear. And in cyber church, the complete lack of tangible fellowship holds no one to account.

And the entire world has gone Zoom, Facebook-live or Youtube mad. Now everyone and their mother is doing it! Suddenly I am receiving invitations to zoom-meet with my denominational leaders, association leaders, and church world leaders in the intimacy of my home where before I've not heard a dicky-bird from them. Now, all of a sudden my time can be taken up with all-day Zoom meetings, and my steady emotionally-healthy-spirituality routine has been smashed to bits. I'm just not going to survive the pace if this goes on. More to the point, I'm not going to find the silence, let alone the downtime to just relax.

I recognise that not all churches have either been able to or in fact, wanted to stream and that some church members and congregation attendees are essentially wanting to and needing to engage with an act of worship that is in their style and worship diet. So I guess the natural thing would be to find a nearby suitable church and connect in with their streaming. But now my social media feed is full of a steady list of virtually every possible church from here, there and everywhere advertising their stream. So the opportunity now exists to pick and choose what your diet is going to be each Sunday. Why stick with one? Even my local association is advertising a different church each Sunday to do this with. And okay, I might be a tad moaning here, or overdoing my argument, but the glorious spirit of spiritual consumerism is now fully present in our homes. You can surf the proverbial channels and literally pick and choose and no one will ever know. In fact, speaking as a Pastor of a local Baptist Church, I have no ability to track whether my church members are faithfully tuning in to our channel, or whether this glorious "extended church holiday" is actually a great opportunity to look around and view what others are doing. You see Youtube tells me how many are present, but not who. Facebook is I think different. Zoom shows people's faces. And will this enforced diet divide into a number of different responses? Firstly, will it mean that some will never actually come back to a physical church in the future because of the easier experience of staying at home in your pyjamas and tuning into your preferred cyber church of choice for that day? This I think has been fairly minor in the UK until now, though the USA has lived with the TV church for several decades. The assessment is mixed - physical church attendance has still continued in the US, but the consumer spirit has been strong. Secondly, will it mean that some are using this time as an opportunity to look around other churches, and actually they will choose a new, different church to attend physically in the future? That could be a gain or a loss of course! And thirdly, will there be some who actually will never ever return to church at all, because they haven't missed it. That would be a very worrying situation and one that is out of the control of anyone.

On the upside, service streaming is doing something that I recognise is a positive experience and takes me all the way back to our short few days of training in radio at theological college 30 years ago, where we had to write a "thought for the day" and you discover that most have written far too much waffle and the red pen needs to be applied. Here's what I think its doing: our first service stream was way too long, but it reflected what we normally did on a Sunday morning. But in the TV world, no one is going to stick around that long. So its made me look at what we've been doing in terms of content and cutting it right back to the really important bits, and removing the unnecessary. And actually, most churches have been woefully asleep in this respect. They have thought that what they have been churning out on a Sunday is what people want to see and experience and they have been utterly wrong. This is an unhelpful wake-up call to Preachers, Worship Leaders and all involved to wake up and get their act together. And I'm not talking here about style necessarily - after all some very contemporary churches have for a while been pitching their services almost as rock concerts where the focus is on the hero band, rather than a corporate worship occasion or experience. What we are understanding about the days we have been living in is that people are thirsty for real spirituality. That's why some of the Cathedrals of the UK have been experiencing extensive congregational growth.

We are all looking forward to getting back to normal, in our lives and in our churches. But will that actually be a good thing? We can't go back to how it was in any aspect of our lives. And in terms of church, there are things that we should leave behind. But nor should we merely buy completely into the future of this brave new world. Many have and are grieving what was. But I'm already grieving what we might become. The danger signs are already ahead on the road and much wisdom will be needed to discern carefully what we should take up, as well as letting go of the past.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Good article on clergy mental health

Sunday, 20 October 2019


The language and ideas of consumption are upon our lips every day in these times. Right now, we are trying to reverse our consumption of "things" so that the planet is not worn out - and rightly so. My garage is no longer the traditional home of a motor vehicle, it never actually was anyway, but now it is full of different boxes and bags of different types of recycling. I can't help but wonder if someone has pulled a fast one where, instead of the recycling depot, our garage has now become a recycling processing site!
The word "consume" brings all kinds of images into my head: something or someone consumes what is available, more often than not in a container, and then uses or digests the something, then often throwing away the container as rubbish. Also, in the case of fuel, a vehicle or boiler will consume fuel, and then having extracted energy, exhausts another substance which is what is leftover.
The Christian concept of stewardship is significant here. Christians are meant to be good stewards of that which God has put them in charge of. Good rather than careless. Why? Because the scriptures are clear that we will have to give an account for how we have cared for things and people and a good few other items, I guess. In other words, consumption is a reality, but the manner in which we consume has to be a careful process.
The word consume also suggests from a Christian perspective that we are not simply to be consumers, but that we are to be a people who give something back. We are not to be those that merely suck something dry, but actually, we are to be part of the process of inputting, so that others benefit.
There is a significant pause for caution and reflection here too. The implication of consumption is that that which is discarded is seemingly no longer cared for. It is potentially thrown over our shoulders or dropped onto the floor, and considered as rubbish which we never look back on, because we are only focused on that which we have got out of the process.
One of the side reflections of my dog walk today (on this topic), is that which I am very much concerned with and for as a local church pastor - the local church. Now the scriptures paint a very radical picture of the church. It is not a building or an institution or a kind of dead, lifeless and unimportant object. In fact, Baptist Doctrine which was my training at theological college and is the tradition to which I belong, very clearly paints the church as the people. The church is the committed group of people who make up a local family of believers. There are numerous types of these in local towns and they are all different. And if the local church is the living people who have committed to God and each other, then this is a living and active experience which is about how we give and put into the family, and it's not at all about what we consume. The danger here is all too clear in the context of consumption. Consumption would suggest that we are only interested in what we get out of it - in this sense, the local church. Being a church consumer would suggest precisely this - only what we get out of it, and when we are done with it, we merely discard what we no longer need and move on to something else or indeed somewhere else. In actual fact, the idea of consumption is completely foreign to being a part of a local church. No, this living relationship is a three-way process of giving to God, giving to others and receiving from others. But be in no doubt, the idea that somehow or other the local church is where you might consume or receive only, is a completely foreign, illogical and unbiblical concept which has no place in a Christian's life.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Engaging with local schools

I can't quite believe it, but I've been in Schools Ministry for over 30 years. I find that amazing because I can't say I enjoyed school as a child, except that is for the sport.
And I'm fairly sure that I didn't go to theological college (Spurgeons) with the idea that I had that the gifting in my kit bag for schools ministry, yet before I began thinking about becoming a Pastor, I was working with children as a Crusader Leader. Something seemed to happen once I began thinking about training to be a Pastor which seemed to make me unintentionally serious and boring and forget about those skills with children, and it wasn't until I met a fantastic guy in my first church called Richard Morrison, a schools worker, that I became freshly inspired to engage with schools, their classes, assemblies, staff, governors and structures. Even now whenever I walk into schools, I momentarily flick back to my childhood and think "what am I doing here?"
Over the  years I must have connected with a few hundred or so of children who have been on the end of one my school assemblies - a few silly songs, a prayer drill, an animated talk from a story in the Bible - initially using an Overhead Projector (sometimes coloured in) and then progressing over the years to a data/video projector. Mind you, some of the best assemblies involve no electronics and are entirely practical: a tennis racket and ball, a rugby or football, even my bike once, a water pistol, a golf ball and club and probably a whole load of other weird and peculiar items.
Sometimes assemblies are long-planned and quite well prepared in advance, whilst others are fresh that morning and come from a mad idea that is way out. Strange looks and responses along the lines of "you're not going to do an assembly on that, are you?"
I've also had to be keenly aware that sometimes the schools I've gone into have had our own children in, and for better or for worse my kids have ducked at the moment their dad appears at the front with yet another crazy idea.
Also, over the years schools ministry has been in different political cultures. I think that's the best way of putting it. Initially (in my lifetime) under Thatcher etc, a daily act of worship in an assembly was required and invited. This has moved over the years as assemblies with faith have become less popular. The stark reality is that unless a local Christian leader or Schools Worker goes into a school, or unless there is a Christian on the staff of the school, then a Christian assembly - or put another way - a school assembly with Christian input (the two are not the same) then a school assembly today is now reduced to a thought for the day, a presentation of a few certificates, maybe something musical, and then a nice moral "be kind to one another" kind of quick thought. I would observe that years ago the schools phoned me up to chase me for an assembly date, now the boot is on the other foot: unless I phone up and chase the school, then nothing is going to happen. That's quite a significant change.
One of the most frustrating sides of connecting with schools right now and ok, this might seem minor, but it feels major to me, is that having established a connection with a key contact in a typical local school for planning assembly dates, and other activities, and ensuring that we stay connected and communicate with each other, is that then the school seems to change that named person every year now, in the same way that the Maths Lead Teacher or English Lead Teacher is changed. This is completely confusing and means that communication is hard and the relationship has to start all over again every year.
The best connections with schools lead to some great things. In my current experience we see schools coming on to our church site for Harvest Festivals, Christmas Services, Class visits to the church to look at symbols of faith, Live demo full immersion baptisms, and even on one occasion - a live demo of a wedding service. The most memorable moments just now are when I get the teachers out the front for a kind of Blue Peter "make something in a speedy 2 minutes" kind of way, like an Advent clothes hanger candle, all whilst competing against each other. And probably the most rewarding moments are the Christmas carol services.
So I like Schools Ministry very much. Over the years it has led to me being  a School Chaplain, a School Governor and it certainly keeps you young!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday & Easter – Christians must be daft – isnt it all just a myth?

There are some who look at what Christians do at Easter and think we are mad or weird. We carry a cross down a street on Good Friday and get excited about the person who was executed on it. If you think we are stupid (because you may be atheist or agnostic, or maybe you can’t be bothered) here’s the reversal of your world: you are fighting a battle against history!
Jewish historians alone logged as a fact both the existence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, as well as his death. He lived, he existed, he died. Historical facts. It’s also true to say that he said he was God. When asked during his trial, he stated clearly that he was, and it was on this basis of blasphemy (and that alone) that the Jews claimed he had to die. And then executed him.

If you thought Jesus never existed, then – no offence, but you are fighting a daft battle that is akin to arguing that the world is flat. At best that’s a hilarious position and historically silly, at worst we’d have to question a lot of the other things you say too. No, that’s not where real question is.

The real question is whether Jesus rose from the dead.
Okay, let’s take a look at that. The first thing that people say about the resurrection is that Jesus didn’t actually die. Yes, he was nailed to the cross, but he didn’t die. Would you mind if we pull that one to shreds for a second?
Jesus was beaten to bloody shreds by the whip used by the Roman guards. Jesus was so weak after His torture that He couldn’t carry the patibulum of His cross to the crucifixion site. Jesus had spikes driven through His wrists and feet and hung bleeding for six hours. The Romans thrust a spear deep into Jesus’ side, confirming beyond doubt that Jesus was dead. Jesus was prepared for burial according to exacting Jewish custom. His body was encased in wrapped linen and spices. Jesus was then entombed, and a massive, heavy rock was rolled across the tomb entrance. A unit of highly trained Roman guards vigilantly guarded the entrance—knowing they would be punished if Jesus’ body went AWOL.

In his article, A Lawyer Examines The Swoon Theory, Texas attorney Joseph “Rick” Reinckens satirically unpacks this theory. I will just share a snippet of this must-read:

“Even in His weakened condition, in a quiet private cemetery, Jesus manages to push back the stone door without any of the guards noticing! Why go half-way? Jesus has been whipped, beaten and stabbed, is hemorrhaging, and hasn’t had any food or drink for at least three days. Does He just push the stone open enough to squeeze through? No, He pushes the stone door COMPLETELY out of the way!!!”

Adds J. Hampton Keathley, III, a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a pastor of 28 years:

“If Christ had only swooned, He still would have still been half dead. A great deal of time would have been needed for recuperation. In His weakened condition He could not have walked the seven miles on the Emmaus road. It would have been impossible for someone who had only resuscitated from the agonies the Lord endured with the beatings and crucifixion to so quickly give the impression that He was the Conqueror of death and the grave, the Prince of Life.”

Could the Roman soldiers have been asleep? Is that how Jesus supposedly made His sneaky escape? 

Peter Kreeft, a popular writer of Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics, says no way:

“The story the Jewish authorities spread, that the guards fell asleep and the disciples stole the body is unbelievable. Roman guards would not fall asleep on a job like that; if they did, they would lose their lives. And even if they did fall asleep, the crowd and the effort and the noise it would have taken to move an enormous boulder would have wakened them.”

So that argument is way off and just doesn’t stand a chance of being correct. The next thing people say is that those who saw all this happen (and there were loads) were hallucinating. It’s important to note that hallucinations come from within a person, not outside a person. Meaning hallucinations are entirely subjective. Science tells us that, generally, only particular kinds of people have hallucinations: persons who are paranoid or schizophrenic, or people under the influence of drugs.

The New Testament tells us, however, that all kinds of people saw Jesus after His resurrection. Different ages, different occupations, different backgrounds, different viewpoints.

Dr. Gary Habermas observes:

“That these different individuals in each of these circumstances would all be candidates for hallucinations really stretches the limits of credibility.”

Says Peter Kreeft:

“Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane. This one returned many times, to ordinary people. Five hundred separate Elvis sightings may be dismissed, but if five hundred simple fishermen in Maine saw, touched and talked with him at once, in the same town, that would be a different matter.”

Adds Dr. Michael Licona, a professor of theology:

“Hallucinations are like dreams. They are private occurrences … You could not share an hallucination you were having with someone any more than you could wake up your spouse in the middle of the night and ask him or her to join you in a dream you were having.”

Hallucinations do not cause people to change or create new beliefs. The fact that many people chose to believe in Jesus, after talking with Him and touching His wounds, also helps to refute this theory. Hallucinations are an individual event. If 500 people have the same hallucination, that’s a bigger miracle than the resurrection.

The next and only option (apart from the actual truth that he did rise again from the dead) is that this was a conspiracy. The conspiracy theory goes like this: Christ’s disciples simply stole His body and fabricated the resurrection story.

The great historian Eusebius (A.D. 314-318) was the first to argue that it is inconceivable that such a well-planned and thought-out conspiracy could succeed. Eusebius satirically imagined how the disciples might have motivated each other to take this route:

Let us band together to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the sham even to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? Let us go out to all the nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! And even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.

Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal in the 1960s, knows full well how difficult it is to keep a conspiracy together. Says Colson:

“I know how impossible it is for a group of people, even some of the most powerful in the world, to maintain a lie. The Watergate cover-up lasted only a few weeks before the first conspirator broke and turned state’s evidence.”

Adds Paul E. Little, author of Know What You Believe:

“Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.”

So the only possible option left is that Jesus did actually rise again from the dead. Now who’s daft? Perhaps it’s time you considered the facts before deciding that you don’t believe all this (as you might call it) "twaddle".

Monday, 5 October 2015

What is "call"?

In the Christian world we place emphasis on the word "call" in terms of whether God has called us to do something or other, but ironically I've heard on numerous  occasions those who would probably own up to little faith or none say "it's very clear that that was their calling." Stated of course with a lack of clarity as to who or what is precisely doing the calling, to what and to whom.
In The Christian world call is at the very heart of our faith. We believe God calls specific people to specific tasks. Let me just clarify how I re-wrote that sentence: I started by typing " used to be at the ..." and then decided to scratch that. Because in the days that we live in it doesn't always feel that way. It almost seems like "everyone did as he saw fit" (Judges 21 vs 25), and also as if in these days "the word of the Lord is rare, there were not many visions." (1 Samuel 3 vs 1). In actual fact, it seems that we live in days where there is at times a total relucatance by many to anything at all, let alone anything sacrifical , unless there is a spin off for the individual, a bonus or some kind of profit. Essentially, we live in days it seems where getting anybody to do anything that costs is darned right hard work. As someone once amusingly stated, it seems like the same players on the sports field are again and again asked to do the same tasks 24/7 and they are already exhausted. And of course, the days we live in display the vast quantity of the population to be simply too busy, too tired, overdrawn, too stressed, even though we seem to find hours and hours to surf the internet, play on our smartphones or watch TV. These, if they are true, are quite damming charges.

So where has call gone? Where has it vanished to? What are the ingredients of call?

It seems to me that our response to these questions can be varied, and it does depend on how we see God's guidance. Yet if we are to read the signs of the times, call seems to have largely vanished and the word of the Lord does seem to be for some, quite rare! Has call, or our sense of hearing call vanished? Let's jump straight back and say that on the basis of scripture and it's principles, and the still vast mission field, God cannot be silent, but still issuing calls to his people.

Take for example Isaiah 6 vs 1-10. A classic gobbet of scrpture on call. vs 8 and 9 are the call verses in a section that is built up to on the holiness of God. Maybe this is a theophany - probably. But what is clear is that there isn't much of a carry on! This is straight in with the question from God: "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And the reply is instant: "Here am I. send me!"
What fascinates me about this text is that the call is given, and there is a speedy response. What is unclear here is that we don't know whether the call is general - ie to anyone, or whether it is specific, ie to Isaiah. What we do know is that Isaiah is in a place of worship and prayer, which leads him to a place of vision from God. The descriptive language is detailed. But if we look closely at the question from God, the "Whom" it gives the strong sense that this call could be for anyone, and indeed they will take anyone who offers! So if that is the case, Isaiah speedily puts himself forward in obedience. We don't know if there are others around him in the same room, or even if there are whether they are experiencing the same vision. But Isaiah doesn't hesitate. There is a divine call and need and it must be responded to. Short of Isaiah's sinfulness, which has been dealt with in vs 6 and 7, there is nothing to stop him saying "here I am." And if we measure Isaiah's response to our modern day processes what we can say is that there is a divine need and Isaiah sees and hears the need and just responds. No checking of his work load, his diary, or family circumstances. Just a simple heart response.

We can potentially draw some conclusions from this: God shows a need, he requires someone to go to fulfill that need, he issues a summons to any who will hear his call. His people hear that call and respond in obedience. This we could conclude is call. As someone once said on this subject during my studies at Spurgeons, call is about "can I do a work here". In other words, this is less about flashing lights and more about the simple response of our hearts to always be ready and obedient to go!

Another example is found in Acts 16. The scripture is far more specific here and the work of the Holy Spirit quite distinct, as of course you would expect in the book of Acts. Paul and the vision from the man of Macedonia is a well known section. It is notable because vs 6 starts with the immediate sense of the Spirit keeping them from preaching in Asia. How this was made clear, we are not told. Verse 7 reveals more, stating that they tried to enter Bithynia, but "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow." Again, how, we are not told. Then we move to the vision (again) and during the night Paul is given the vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to cover and help them." We don't know whether Paul had options here, in other words whether he could have said "no". But what are shown is Paul's rapid preparation and re-deployment, and the vs 10b makes clear Paul's thinking "concluding that God had called us to to preach the Gospel to them."
We are only told the key points in this account, and not told "the what-ifs". Yet we can observe what seems to be the Spirit bringing about circumstances to provide call to Paul. Paul is not detached from this. He is not an individual who is invited to stop thinking. Actually, quite the opposite, he does use his brain. But what he sees yet again is his immediate response to need, and this is obedience to go!

Again, if we were to draw some principles from this, we could say that Paul the great teacher and church planter is open to God's leading. It's clear that "Paul had his plans", but the Spirit led otherwise. What is clear is that Paul changed his plans to comply with the Spirit's call, and was obedient. In Paul's case the call was quite specific - to preach the Gospel and plant churches.

Can it be then that we have either removed call from our spirituality today? Are we more concerned with what we want to do? We will go wherever we please, do whatever we want, but not listen well to the Spirit, let alone respond in simple obedience?
So often in church life need is made abundantly clear, but few respond. Good reasons are given, but when we compare our responses to the above biblical ones, it seems somewhat that the drivers of "me-church" and our own consumer needs are what takes priority to the Spirit's call.

Or perhaps we have become too entrenched in simply forgetting the old biblical principles, and now we simply choose using modern secular methods of choice and guidance. Where in these scoring methods does the voice of God get listened to?

For Isaiah, there was simply a need, and this was responded to.
For Paul, the Spirit distinctly guided.
In both cases the priority was God, and his Kingdom needs, not our own comforts.