Category Archives: The Christian Life

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

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

Because you’re worth it!

Book 3 Chapter 10 Section 1-6

If there is a motto for the 21st century Brit, this is it! Our media screams out day after day as a mantra for modern day living, “Go on spoil yourself you deserve it”. We know that we don’t really need that flat screen TV, ipod, new mobile phone, anti-aging cream, XBOX 360 (delete as appropriate!) but we buy them, why? “Because we are worth it”. We deserve the best that life can offer and no one has the right to tell us otherwise. Restraint and moderation have been forgotten and our society has embraced materialism with a religious fervour – that is until the credit crunch hit.

Calvin takes a very different approach to our possessions. He poses the refreshing suggestion that we should use the various things in creation for the purpose they were created. Why did God make food, clothing, flowers, or precious stones? Not only for our sustenance but also our enjoyment. But this enjoyment should not go to excess, so that we over-indulge our appetites and end up abusing the God-ordained purpose of the object. We should bear in mind that “the object of creating all things was to teach us to know their author, and feel grateful for his indulgence.” In regard to food, Calvin asks “where is the gratitude, if you so gorge or stupify yourself with feasting and wine as to be unfit for offices of piety, of the duties of your calling?”

If we become so obsessed with the gifts and forget the Giver we risk becoming like the gifts. As Calvin says “for many are so devoted to luxury in all their senses, that their mind lies buried: many are so delighted with marble, gold and pictures that they become marble-hearted…The kitchen, with its savoury smells, so engrosses them that they have no spiritual savour.” Rather we should view ourselves as stewards of all that we have, recognising that in fact we really own nothing (1 Cor 7.29).

Response

How refreshing it would be for us all to use things for the way they were created, if we all used food for the pleasure and nourishment it provided without becoming anorexic or obese. What would society look like if we all used clothes for the simple purposes they were created? No fashion industry would be needed, no sweat shops in Asia, no competing to keep up with the latest look.

While some may say Calvin is advocating an Amish-type existence, he is no kill-joy. He is all for enjoying the good things in life, but framing that enjoyment within the purposes of the Creator. What advice would Calvin have for us regarding our possessions? I think he would say, use it, enjoy it, but don’t let it master you or abuse it beyond its natural purpose. Best of all, be content with whatever God has given you, patiently bear hard times, use what you have to bless others and realise that you have these things, not because you are worth it, but because He entrusted you with it.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of God.” Proverbs 30.8-9

A couple of billion heartbeats later

HeartbeatBook 3 Chapter 9 Section 1-6

2.5 billion – that’s the estimated number of heartbeats of someone who lives until they are age 70, at 35 million heartbeats a year. That means if I live until 70 I only have some 1.2 billion heartbeats to go. That’s all that separates us from eternity – just the thump, thump, thump of our cardiac muscle. Obviously many never reach the ripe old age of 70, and a few find that their tired heart can keep going for a few more million beats.

Calvin’s message in Chapter 9 is that Christians should look forward to the end of this life, not from a morbid fascination with death, but because this is when life really begins. He’s not just saying this to make us feel better, he really believes that the best is yet to come. It reminds me of CS Lewis’ play The Great Divorce, when the people in heaven were more real and joyful than they had ever been on earth. There is something coming on the other side of death that will make this life seem like a rainy bank holiday weekend in Llandudno (no offence meant, but you can’t argue with childhood memories!).

Calvin ties this topic into the theme of bearing our cross that we were looking at last time by pointing out that one of the effects of the many afflictions that we bear is that they make us despise the present life. We yearn for an end to our sufferings that sometimes almost make us hate our earthly life. Calvin says that this is one of the legitimate goals that God would has in giving us a cross to bear. The cross is our remedy to an over-indulgence in this life, Calvin recognises the danger that “our minds being so dazzled with the glare of wealth, power and honours, that they can see no further.” In fact, “the whole soul, ensnared by the allurements of the flesh, seeks its happiness on the earth.” So God shows us the “vanity of this present life, by a constant proof of its miseries.”

But alongside the danger of becoming too besotted with the glitter of earth, is the other extreme of becoming so disillusioned that we begin to hate our life on earth. As someone once said, we risk becoming so heavenly-minded to be of no earthly use. Calvin warns against ingratitude to God who has given us numerous divine blessings in this life that we should be thankful for. These are a foretaste of what is to come – “before openly exhibiting the inheritance of eternal glory, God is pleased to manifest Himself to us as a Father by minor proofs – i.e. the blessings which He daily bestows on us.” We must never let our weariness of the troubles of life become a weariness of life itself.

And yet how few believers truly live in the light of these realities, having a desire to depart, while also having proper thankfulness and joy at the simple pleasures of this temporary life? How infrequently we meditate on the reality of the brevity of this life and the certainty of our future life. As Calvin says “there is no fact which we ponder less carefully, or less frequently remember.” But our attitude in this area is a sure sign of the depth of our Christian maturity, for “no man has made much progress in the school of Christ who does not look forward with joy to the day of death and final resurrection.”

Response

Chapters 9 & 10 form two bookends of the Christian life – the former driving us to meditate on the glory of the future life, the latter reminding us of the importance of our stewardship in the present life. It’s vital we hold the present and future life in balance. Without a right focus on both we will become inbalanced and unstable, either becoming intoxicated with the futility of this present life or overly comfortable with our temporal blessings. How hard it is to be both content with what we have, as well as eager to leave the body and be with the Lord. There are many times when I have been more than ready to go, but now with the blessings of a young family and a faithful companion my heart desires to see them grow.

How little we ponder these things, even as Christians. Do we dwell on the reality of the temporary nature of everything we see? Have we grasped that one day, even though none will realise it, there will be the last ever Premiership season, the final Wimbledon Championship, the final season of Formula 1 (this may be nearer than the others!!)…there will be the last house sold but never lived in, the last person poked on Facebook, the final Twitter tweeted. Our task is to live in the constant reality of these truths, while simultaneously finding joy and delight in the momentary sparkle of creation.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you.” 1 Peter 1.3+4

Father, we know our lives are fleeting in our heads, but we sometimes convince ourselves us we are here to stay. Help us to number our days aright and avoid either extreme. Inflame our hearts until we meet, that every heartbeat would be full of love for you, Amen.

Our wilful, joyful, costly submission

Screen Shot 2018-01-04 at 16.54.36Book 3 Chapter 8 Section 1-11

In this second chapter on self-denial, Calvin focuses our thoughts on what it means to “bear the cross”. He begins by stating that our example and model in this should come from our Lord, who, despite being the most beloved Son and completely sinless, was subjected to a “perpetual cross” while on earth. The only reason He carried His cross was “to testify and prove his obedience to the Father.” On the contrary, there are many reasons which make it necessary for us to bear our cross:

  • To reveal our false confidence in the flesh – because we estimate our virtue above its proper worth
  • To prove to us our great weakness and frailty – thus teaching us true humility
  • To learn to invoke His strength – teaching us to daily rely on the grace of God, not our own strength
  • To try our patience and train us in obedience – that we might “display striking proofs of the graces” He has given us to withstand such trials
  • To prevent us from becoming corrupted by His indulgence – and so not become like the children of Israel who kicked against the father who reared them (Deut 32.15)
  • To correct our past faults – treating us as children who are rightly disciplined (Heb 12.8)
  • To suffer for the sake of righteousness – which is singled out as being particularly glorifying to God (Mat 5.10).

Calvin goes on to say that without trials there would be no such thing as patience. For patience only grows in adversity, never peace. God would have us display the glory of the gifts He has given us, that His grace and power may be demonstrated to the world. As Calvin says “But if God Himself, to prevent the virtues which He has conferred upon believers from lurking in obscurity, nay lying useless and perishing, does aright in supplying materials (i.e. trials!) for calling them forth, there is the best reason for the afflictions of the saints, since without them their patience could not exist.”

However, knowing that there are so many good reasons to undergo trials does not mean that believers possess a “total insensibility to pain” as if there feelings were desensitised. Our goal is not to be like the Stoics who aim to be so divested of humanity that nothing in life can affect them – treating adversity and prosperity, grief and joy all the same as if they were a stone. Even Christ himself experienced grief and “shed tears for his own and others’ woes.” We are caught between wanting to obey God and trying to avoid suffering. We by nature recoil from trials, but knowing that this is often the path we must take to obey our Father we press on, not knowing what lies ahead.

Response

With so many good reasons for undergoing trials and tribulation its a wonder that we complain so much when we go through them! Seriously though, how hard it is for us to hold on to these truths in the midst of our sufferings. Most of the time it is only when looking back, often after many years, that we can see any positives from our ordeals. And yet Calvin reminds us that is in the midst of these trials, when they are at their fiercest, that we are virtue shines the brightest. Our patience, thankfulness and graciousness at the time of testing glorifies God and demonstrates to the world the reality of our faith.

Some trials are common to believer and unbeliever – for example disease, bereavement, redundancy and natural disasters. In addition when the believer takes a stand for his Lord he will often face persecution. In all these things, whether they come to us because we are believers or because we are living on a broken planet, we can view them all as the cross that we must bear. They can all be redeemed by embracing them for the sake of Christ. This is where the difference comes – not in the nature of the trials themselves, but in our offering of ourselves willing to God to bear them for His pleasure.

“Everyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” 2 Timothy 3.12