Category Archives: The Christian Life

A brief history of civilisation

As we near the end of the City of God something of its epic ambition is really starting to hit me. It is a phenomenal book, charting history, philosophy, Greek gods, the rise and fall of Rome, the repeated conquering of the known world.

As we near the end (Book 18 of 22), you expect the pace to slacken off, easing into the final straight. Instead the 80 pages of Book 18 are encyclopaedically expansive. We are treated to a view from Augustine, probably writing in 426AD, of the entire history of human society since the founding of cities to his present day. The reigns of rulers and kings are recorded from Augustine’s extensive records and compared with the equivalent sequence of events in the history of Israel.

Rather than recount all that here, I want to focus on two key themes that emerge and have striking relevance for today. Firstly, our intrinsic desire to deify ourselves, and secondly the purposeful intermingling of the heavenly and earthly cities. These two themes shed light on the difference between the two cities.

In charting the origins of many of the so called Greek Gods Augustine shows how people elevate others who achieve some spectacular feat, incredible military victory of undertake some form of quest. He notes that “ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the king of Greece” during the time of Joshua.

The recurring theme is that people want to be more than human. Whether it is an origin story like Romulus & Remus being raised by a she-wolf, or a mythical tale of “Gorgon with serpent locks and turned to stone those who looked upon her” there is the repeated desire to ascend from this mortal body and live forever among the gods. Often on pain of death societies would reinforce the divine nature of these ascended super-humans as they wrote plays and invented ceremonies to celebrate and replay the legends to rapt audiences.

It got me thinking how we still have this desire to ascend. It is perhaps expressed differently today but the impulse is still strong. Just today there was a football match where a successful player was retiring and the eulogies had religious undertones – how this legend would never be forgotten by the fans, effectively living forever, immortal in their collective consciousness.

Similarly hosts of actors are effectively immortalised through the silver screen by their work to live on beyond their years as downloadable content for fans not yet born. We cannot escape the human attraction of becoming like God, even after all these centuries since that false promise was made in the Garden of Eden. Then, as now, it is an empty aim, disappearing as quickly as grasping the morning mist. We just can’t lift ourselves up to become more like God.

By contrast the City of God is all about a people who are not being lifted up to possess unnatural abilities, but are being pressed down to experience pain and suffering as they go about their very human pilgrimage to heaven. This is our second theme. The intermingling of the two cities leads to the church suffering from outward attack:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome.

XIII.49

And inward division from false teachers:

There are those in the Church of Christ who have a taste for some unhealthy and perverse notion, and who if reproved – in the hope that they may acquire a taste for what is wholesome and right – obstinately resist and refuse…they become heretics and, when they part company with the Church, they are classed among the enemies who provide discipline for her.

XIII.51

This is profound teaching, and as someone who grieves for the state of the visible church in the west, I am greatly encouraged to read:

The dearer this name (Christian) is to those who want to live a devout life in Christ, the more they grieve that evildoers within the Church make that name less beloved than the hearts of the devout long for it to be.

XIII.51

It is ok to grieve for the state of the church – Augustine sees this as part of our persecution in this world – and have our hearts broken by the sinfulness within the church. Reading this book, I realise there would probably be something wrong with us if we didn’t care about the purity and health of the church. The key is to balance this with the the comfort of God and to draw deeply from the wells of salvation so that we can say with the psalmist “you’re consolations have gladdened my soul” Psalm 94.19. This will ensure our sufferings are redeemed for our good.

The right and wrong cause of conflict

Looking back over the last few weeks we have touched on some big themes – some of which we like to talk about, others we try to avoid. I’ll let you decide which is which!

I was struck when reading Book 15 of the City of God this week that there are really insightful lessons for us on a key topic that perhaps we don’t like talking about but is an inevitable part of being human – conflict.

In this section Augustine traces the early days of the earthly and heavenly cities, right back to their founding fathers Cain and Seth. He sees the conflict between Cain and Abel as a picture or symbol of the conflict that will always exist between the two cities.

As we trace Cain’s descendants they are the first to establish a physical city on earth. He compares this to how Rome was founded by two brothers, one of whom killed the other. Augustine contrasts the evil jealousy of both sets of brothers with the goodness experienced in the heavenly city:

Cain was the diabolical envy that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil. A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them.

XV.5

He goes on to explain that the members of the earthly city “fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked. But the good, if they have reached perfect goodness, cannot fight against themselves”.

Thus we see that there will always be conflict between the citizens of the two cities as well as conflict within the earthly city as it fights itself. Moreover, we know that no citizen of the heavenly city has reached perfection so “there may be fighting among them inasmuch as any good man may fight against another as a result of that part of him which makes him also fight against himself”. He goes on to say

Spiritual desire can fight against the carnal desire of another person, or carnal desire against another’s spiritual desire, just as the good and wicked fight against one another. Or even the carnal desires of two good men may fight.

XV.5

There is much more in Book 15 worth exploring, including a fascinating explanation of the long length of life before the flood, incest and giants. But that is for another day! The jewel that I would hold up before us is this brief dive into the types of conflict, summarised as:

  • Earthly city infighting
  • Earthly and heavenly city fighting each other
  • Individuals within heavenly city fight with themselves against their own sinful nature
  • Spiritual desire of one person fights against carnal desire of another (within the heavenly city)
  • Carnal desires of two good men fight against each other

While the first and the last in the list are ultimately ungodly conflict, the other three causes could have a godly purpose and motivation. Indeed, there can be no progress towards perfection without conflict – either in the individual or the church. There are remnants of the sinful (carnal) nature in all of us, even the most godly.

What this tells me is that in vain do we seek a life free of conflict, whatever city we belong to and whatever our need for peace and calm. We should expect conflict, welcome it (to some extent), and learn from it in order to grow in godliness and spiritual maturity.

Choosing a life void of conflict, with comfort or any other object as our goal, is choosing a life of spiritual stagnation. The key question I leave this section of the book with is this…will I live determined to be driven and controlled only and ever by my spiritual desires throughout any and all conflict I experience? Whilst I naturally avoid conflict, if when it comes, I can keep this as my spiritual north, then the conflict will be redeeming and healing whenever it arrives and wherever it leads.

“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Exploring a Faith Network

One of the key building blocks to creating a diverse and inclusive workplace is empowering employees to bring their whole self to work. If you are anything like me then you will know how powerful this is if you have ever been in a team where everyone knew each other really well, had developed a high level of trust and accepted the different abilities and experiences each person brought to the team. This goes a long way to creating a high performing team!

Over the last couple of years I have been exploring the possibility of establishing a new staff network for those employees within the company I work for who have a faith. Faith is one of the features of life that can lead you to being in the minority at work, in a social group or country.

I would like to try and establish a safe space for people of faith to raise their hand and find others that belong to that faith for mutual encouragement. I myself have a Christian faith and have benefited enormously from the group of 70+ Christians that are connected through Yammer. We have been meeting once a month since June 2019 and have found it really helpful, especially this year with all its challenges to share our concerns and pray for each other, our company and our leaders.

At the start of 2020 I put out some suggested religious festival dates that we wanted to encourage people to celebrate with their Wood colleagues, its been great to see some of these celebrated this year.

My guiding principles in this journey have been to:

  • Accept people as they are, knowing that it is in the company’s interest for us to each be our unique selve
  • Agree to disagree – we will never agree on everything, especially when faith and religion are involved, we must be generous and think well of those that have different beliefs from us
  • Advocate for our own passions – each person can decide what they are passionate about, without pressuring others to advocate for their personal interests
  • Welcome all faiths and those who are curious and want to know more.

If you would like to know more about this initiative then please get in touch.

Thrive Dundee

As part of our discussion and prayers on next steps from the Thrive conference (www.thrivescotland.org) we sensed God prompting us to explore establishing a marketplace city gathering across Dundee.

There are already such groups in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and we feel that now is the time to see if God is opening a way to form a similar group in Tayside. There is a growing group of people in and around the city who attended Thrive and are keen to meet up when it is possible again.

I realise there are challenges around physically meeting up but wanted to start praying about meeting face to face for breakfast in the spring of 2021. We are planning on having a Zoom call in the new year and potentially start meeting for a fortnightly breakfast in March or April.

We would ask for your prayers for this new extension of our ministry. If you would like to know more please contact me.

The world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you

If there is one book that has incapsulated the journey I have been on in the last 15+ years it has been Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. I only read it three years ago, but little did I realise I had been experiencing the reality of its challenge long before Tod articulated it for me.

It was the summer of 2017 and I was sitting in Cafe Nero riveted to Tod’s description of explorers Lewis & Clark. They set out in 1803 to map the western part of America, an expanse previously unknown and assumed to hold a water course to the Pacific Ocean. Tod interlaces this analogy of exploration with the steady marginalisation of the church in western civilisation.

The beauty of what Tod does in this book is that he is able to draw insightful parallels from their unexpected adventures in the wilderness with the monumental shifts that have taken place in society’s relationship with the church.

The gems in this book are too rich to summarise in a soundbite, they reward the thoughtful. This book deals with how to lead transformational change within an organisation when all around us is shifting. In the military they call it VUCA – volition, uncertain, complex & ambiguous. How do we lead change in a VUCA world?

What kind of leader do we need to be in order to both care for people and lead them into uncharted territory?

I have found its wisdom has remained with me these last few years. It calls us to not remain in the shallows but cast out for deeper waters abandoning our preconceived assumptions of what life would hold. Complete surrender is the goal, letting go of the need to gain approval or acceptance.

Stepping in to the unknown will mean we let go of our human resource to find all sufficiency in God’s provision – often in the unlikeliest of places & the least listened to people.

Reflecting on this book helped me to see two things clearly that I will be forever thankful for:

I need to care less about what people think of me – I surrender my need for approval

I need to care less about the problems causing the decay – I surrender my need for control

This is the fifth book review ahead of Thrive Scotland 2020, a catalyst conference starting on 9th September for encouraging Christians in the workplace.

The father’s heart for authentic living

A review of Unravelled by Jon Peterson

Unravelled is the fourth book in my Recommended Reading ahead of Thrive Scotland conference in September 2020…and it is the most hard hitting so far. This book is part manifesto for a renewed vision for a 21st century way of being church, and part guidebook to experiencing unshakable spiritual security in the Father’s love.

This book came to mind as I was doing some amateur stone dyking in my garden. I wanted to jump straight to rebuilding the wall and filling in the gaps…but before I could do this I had to do the hard, boring, dirty work of removing soil, weeds and small stones from the collapsed section.

In exactly the same way Jon expertly deconstructs our false thinking about leadership, authority and spirituality in western church culture. As a master surgeon he splits our skin with his scalpel in order to extract the tumour. And some of it is close to the bone as a result – this is a deep examination of our motives and hidden drivers for how and why we do ministry.

If we would see churches and workplaces transformed by the power of the gospel some deep surgery may be required. We all know churches have individual characteristics that express the gifts and flaws of their family makeup…are we ready to put ourselves on the operating table in order to become more like Christ together?

One of the key questions I have found this book making me ask myself is how do shift from “attending” to “belonging”?

The first authentic step I found fairly painful was to examine my own heart and realise that I was putting the vision of what I thought God was calling me to do before the people I was doing it with. This vision-first dynamic creates dividing lines and weakens the family bonds.

The second step was realising I needed to deliberately put myself in a place of weakness and vulnerability to hear what God was saying to me through others. This Stumbling Edge, as Ken Janke (one of our Thrive speakers) calls it is the place of faith, failure and growth. Eventually, we can even come to enjoy our feet not being able to touch the bottom as we learn to live beyond the illusion of control.

There are many more lessons within these pages for those with the courage to walk this path with Jon. It was a blessing to meet him and Ken Janke in March 2019 – and then read some of Ken’s story in this book. My prayer is that God uses this book to help us become more humble, more real & more secure in the Father’s heart. Enjoy!

This book review series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Embedding whole life discipleship into your church’s DNA

A review of Scattered & Gathered by Neil Hudson

This is my third book review on our Thrive Scotland reading list. If the first book (Thank God it’s Monday) helped us understand our work as a joyous calling to kingdom living, and our second book (Every Great Endeavour) helped deepen our biblical basis for whole life discipleship, then this book is our manual for embedding these truths in our churches.

Neil writes with warmth, sensitivity and empathy, learnt no doubt through years of helping church leaders wrestle with these meaty topics. He uses his experience to gently unpack our established expectations of church – what it means to be a gathered community.

Throughout this is a book of encouragement and exhortation for church leaders, who Neil wants to spur on rather than drag down. This is not a book selling a new formula for quick fix discipleship, or a list of new initiatives to do on top of our current activities.

Instead it is a realigning of what we are already doing across a broader canvas and with our frontlines in sharper focus

Each chapter starts with a reframing of testimonies from biblical characters – shedding fresh light on some familiar stories. After delving into key topics such as worship, preaching, small groups and fellowship from a whole-life perspective, he then identifies helpful examples of how it might look in practice, alongside advice on making a start on incorporating a wider kingdom perspective into our church rhythms.

This is a timely and practical book for church leaders keen to equip their church for life on the frontline. For those who have sought to create a church culture more supportive of our scattered lives, but seen it remain a fringe issue, this book provides the blueprint to moving from gesture to posture, for…

“Gestures are fine and are appreciated when offered, but a posture is permanent“

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Essential reading for the Christian at work

A review of Every Good Endeavour by Tim Keller

It is a rare jewel of a book that effortlessly articulates and unpacks the complex struggles and dilemmas that those of us seeking to serve God in the workplace wrestle with, yet this book cracks the code of our unspoken questioning.

If you have ever wondered if your work is important to God; if God has a greater purpose in putting you in an organisation; or if your work can be meaningful in the midst of the mundane then read on.

Some of us are struggling just to survive in our jobs let alone thrive. How can I do what I do every day in a way that is more connected to God’s purpose of extending His kingdom? Throughout the book Keller explains the wrong thinking that has shaped our assumptions – like why society values certain types of roles over others and why work is so tough, even when you’re in the right role.

He meticulously unpicks our sloppy thinking around our subconscious spiritual hierarchy, and society’s beloved idols that unwittingly shape our thinking.

I found it a book of immense helpfulness in aligning my own job to how I can then serve others, serve society, model competence and witness to Christ – a formidable calling!

If you have all that sorted then feel free to skip this book, for the rest of us it is Induction Course 101 in essential frontline living – every Christian entering the workplace should digest its rich teaching before picking up your new lanyard and photo ID.

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming to in September.

Whom shall I release?

Here is a message I shared with Cupar Baptist Church in May on Mark 15 where Jesus is before Pilate, as we see the innocent presented as guilty and the guilty presented as innocent. Hope you enjoy it.

95% is not obedience

Recently I have started reading the bible in what I would call the Countdown style. 2 from the back, 1 from the front and 1 from the middle – ie 2 chapters from the Old Testament, 1 from the New and 1 psalm. It has brought up some interesting insight as I mediate on such a broad sweep of redemptive history.

This morning I read Genesis 21 & 22, Matthew 11 and Psalm 11 and found an interesting parallel. In Genesis Abraham’s love for his son is tested, in Matthew John the Baptist’s quest for the Messiah is answered, and in the Psalm David’s refusal to flee from his enemies is declared.

It struck me that each of these passages shows us an important but different aspect of obedience. Obedience in the bible is always in the context of relationship with the Creator. As our maker and father he instructs us in the best way for us to walk, he guides us towards the best pasture to feed on. The question is, will we follow?

Abraham’s obedience overcomes paternalistic love; John’s obedience overcomes nationalistic apathy; David’s obedience overcomes hostile attack. In each the test is different but similar. Do you love me more than your greatest love? Will you follow me if you are the only one? Are you prepared to trust in my protection?

Sometimes we are tempted to think of obedience as this impossible standard of perfection that encompasses everything we think, say or do…and that would be correct. On this level our every action is marred by our tainted motives. Much of this is innate and only slowly and painstakingly redeemed.

However there is another aspect of obedience which is the deliberate choices we make to either follow or reject God’s leading in our lives. This is conscious, deliberate, stumbling toward God in faith moment by moment. We will never defeat our every sinful motive (who can know all their hidden faults?), but we are expected to choose the path of obedience over family love, fear of enemies and paralysing apathy.

In this place if we are only willing to give God 95% of our hearts, then this is not obedience. Full and unreserved surrender is the currency of heaven. Yes we stumble in times of weakness, yes we have a backlog of bad tendencies to work through, but in the moment by moment relationship we are holding nothing back. This is the outworking of Jesus’ call to remain in him and bear much fruit.

Father, help us to submit our lives to your care, enable us to overcome our hesitation and fall forever into the ocean of your unconditional love. Amen