Tom Wright on the balance of Christian life.

Tom Wright, in his short commentary, Luke for Everyone (p297-8), comments on the balance of Christian life, as an integration between scripture and sacrament, head and heart, belief and action.:

“Take Scripture away and the sacrament becomes a piece of magic. Take the sacrament away, and scripture becomes an intellectual or emotional exercise, detached from real life. Put them together, and you have the centre of Christian Living, as Luke understands it.”

The poor in the gospel of Luke (iii)

Having called his disciples, healed some people, and having taught (and been thrown out of) the synagogue, Jesus comes down from a mountain where he was praying to the plain, where a crowd had gathered to hear him teach. This is Lukes version of the Sermon on the Mount – I guess we could call it the Preach on the Plain or something like that.

He begins with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes:

Looking at his disciples, he said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied. (Luke 6:20-21)

This differs a little from Matthew’s version in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:4) and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (5:6). The differences reflect the emphasis for the poor shown in the gospel of Luke, but what else?

The beatitudes are not commands, but statements, and they come directly after Jesus has called the 12 disciples. Tom Wright (in Luke for Everyone) likens it to Jesus reminding his new team of followers of 4 or 5 things to remember as they start to follow him. They are reminders of what God’s kingdom looks like, which is upside down when compared to the kingdom of the world, then or now – reminders of who is to be valued – not just the people that current society values, but those who have no voice. It is similar, again, to what many of the OT prophets were saying.

Tom Wright says it well:

“Jesus is… fulfilling his promises at last, and this will mean good news for all the people who haven’t had any for a long time. The poor, the hungry, those who are hated, blessings on them! Not that there’s anything virtuous about being poor or hungry in itself. But when injustice is reigning, the world will have to be turned once more the right way up for God’s justice and kingdom to come to birth”

The poor are blessed because they stand to gain the most from God’s justice and kingdom coming, and they are most likely to look for it. By contrast, the rich, if they consider themselves rich and of no need “have already received their comfort” (6:24). It seems clear that Jesus is talking about the literal rich and poor not just the spiritual. God’s message is for everyone but the poor may be looking for satisfaction, fulfilment, and the kingdom of God more.

A puzzling bit of the Bible – Exodus 4

I’m following a Bible reading plan that helps you get through the Bible in a year – never done it before and I’m already a bit behind, bt I suppose the important thing is getting through it rather than the pace!

Anyway, I was reading Exodus a few days ago and came across the part of Exodus I’ve never really noticed before – God has just appeared to Moses in the burning bush – very dramatic – and commissioned him to go back to Egypt, to be God’s mouthpiece and to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Moses is just on his way, when we get to 4:24-26.

“At a lodging place on the way, God met Moses and was about to kill him”. (Ex 4:24)

I guess God is holding Moses to the same standards that he was about to judge Pharaoh with, requiring him to dedicate his whole family to God through circumcision. Circumcision was the covenant sign, a symbol of putting away all that is pleasing to God. That said, the incident confuses me still… it certainly is another puzzling bit…

Historical Societies oppose modernising churches.


This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday March 16 2008 on p20 of the News section. Old churches are seeing efforts to update their worship space for the benefit of the whole community, by removing Victorian pews, are being thwarted by historical societies who want to maintain the history – even though they never actually visit the church.
It is worth noting that most church pews were later additions in the Victorian era – pulling them out simply allows the church to return to the flexible open-plan worship spaces that they once were, whilst providing for some 21st century needs.

Parishes at war over plans

to rip out pews

Archers-style rifts arise as vicars try to create space for concerts and yoga

Vicars wanting to rip out pews to make their churches more like community centres are meeting resistance from parishioners in a series of acrimonious battles raging across the country.

Small communities are bitterly divided as villagers follow the example set by the fictional folk of Ambridge in Radio 4′s The Archers and fight to retain their church interiors.

In Kildwick, near Skipton, objectors are threatening court action to prevent pews being removed from St Andrew’s church, a Grade 1 listed building. ‘It has caused a real rift. It’s a tragedy,’ said Keith Midgley, chairman of Kildwick Parish Council. ‘They want to replace them with chairs. Really they want to make it rather like a concert hall.’

At St Edmund’s church in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, the plan to create space for yoga classes and the Women’s Institute by removing a third of the pews has provoked fierce objections from the Victorian Society, which is trying to save the church’s rare ‘poppy head’ pew ends. But vicar Allan Scrivener said it was the only way the 700-year-old church could move back to the centre of the community.

The trend for removing pews seems to be ‘increasing as more churches get the idea’, according to the Victorian Society. Vicars concerned about declining congregations see pew removal as a way of making church space more flexible and relevant to the whole community, not just the worshippers.

Each year, up to 60 of the more controversial cases of church ‘re-ordering’ are referred to the Church of England’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Division, while hundreds more are decided locally. Stephen Bowler, who sits on the Church of England advisory committee dealing with ‘re-ordering’, said it was getting harder for churches to remove pews without putting forward a comprehensive argument.

Public opinion seems to be in the pews’ favour. In an online poll after The Archers aired the issue, 61 per cent of listeners voted against fictional vicar Alan Franks’s proposals to rip out pews.

Sir Roy Strong, the eminent art and cultural historian and former director of the V&A, weighed into the debate last year with an impassioned plea for country churches to put themselves back at the heart of the community, if need be by burning their pews. He told The Observer: ‘Of course people go bananas with “Oh Aunt Maud made the hassock and granny sat there”, but church interiors have always changed.

‘But in rural communities everything has gone – the shop, school, post office – and all that is left is this big old building in the middle. It can’t go on just so that eight little old ladies can have communion once a month.’

For the Rev Roger Powell, vicar at the tiny, Grade 1 listed Norman church of St Andrew in Ogbourne, Wiltshire, applying to remove the fixed-box pews is a difficult solution to his modern problem.

‘It’s the only public building in the village,’ he said. ‘With falling numbers, there is a service here each week, and we don’t always get double figures. So we have got this beautiful, ancient building only being used by a very small number of people for one hour a week.’ He wants to make room for a youth club, concerts and art exhibitions. The Victorian Society is vehemently opposed.

‘It’s tough. In 50 years’ time I don’t want people blaming us for destroying the church. It’s heart-wrenching, and we are torn over what is the right thing. It’s a sticky road for us all,’ he said.

Have we created a substanceless world?

A few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, got into a bit of a media tangle over comments about making arrangements for religious law systems to be accommodated within UK law. His comments were quite detailed and in depth, and took a bit of listening to, had to be heard in context, and took some work to understand exactly what he was meaning. Unfortunately much of the media didn’t get that far. They heard one word. Sharia. And the media frenzy that followed seemed to focus on this word and soundbites.

Now, was Rowan right or wrong to say what he said? Perhaps using the word ‘sharia’ was unwise – he might have forseen the difficulties it would cause. Perhaps Rowan might learn to communicate in shorter sentences. But either way, my point is that the media at large did not take the time to understand what he was trying to say, but instead opted in favour of a sensationalist headline. Bound to get attention, but not necessarily reflect Rowan’s opinions.

Alex Kirby of the BBC wrote this about him, a few days afterwards:

The first is his inability, or refusal, to say everything in the neatly-packaged soundbite most of the media now demand. It’s hard work understanding an archiepiscopal speech or sermon these days. But it’s always worth the effort, which has certainly not been the case with all his recent predecessors.” (from an article by Alex Kirby on the BBC website)

More recently, Barack Obama has been in the news. This time, not over things he said, but over things his pastor said. Pastor Jeremiah Wright was accused of being unpatriotic in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”. This quote was used as an example of what a bad pastor he must be, and hence what a bad President one of his congregations will make. However, once again, the soundbite does not do justice to the context. Without looking deeper, the intent of the quote is mistaken, and his real meaning is missed.

Anderson Cooper of CNN has quoted the relevant parts of the sermon here, and the youtube of the actual sermon can be found here. (The gist of the sermon was a call to social transformation and to examine your own life and society)

It takes time and investigation to discover the context of peoples’ statements. Life cannot be summed up in media soundbites or editorial comments. In trying to do that, we lose a lot of the depth, insight, and subtlety that is essential in thoughtful comment. We lose a lot of life’s substance and we are reduced to sensationalism

Church welcoming, closing the back door.

I’m reading just a section from Bob Jackson’s book, The Road to Growth. Here’s a couple of stories that he tells on the subject of church welcoming:

“The Bishop and his wife had been on holiday and were driving home from the airport on a Sunday morning in holiday clothes. As 10:30 approaches and they entered his diocese they decided on impulse to pull into a local church and join the service. They were given a hymnbook and sat on the next to the back pew. As they were saying their prayers at 10:29, heads bowed, the warden came up to them and said, ‘I’m sorry you can’t sit there, that’s Mrs Jones’ pew’. The bishop looked up startled and the warden said, ‘Oh my God! It’s the bishop!’. After the service, the bishop had a little chat with the warden, who ended up repeating, ‘We’ve got to change haven’t we, we’ve got to change!’

And a personal one from Bob:

“My wife and I left parish ministry for an itinerant on. We started going to a nearby church where a friend was the vicar. After five months said to my friend, ‘Okay, I’ve had a rest now, I’ll take a service for you if you like’. Soon I was leading a communion service. At the door at the end of the service many in the congregation thanked me ‘for visiting us today’. We had sat in a pew and worshiped with the congregation of a hundred people for five months and ha not been noticed. I only became visible when I preached… It was easy to attend a service at that church, but almost impossible to join the community. Little wonder that most o the people who tired attending did not stick. They were offered no relational glue.”

Bob talks about churches needing to be friendly and offer friendship. Many people stop going to church by accident, because they ave not been integrated into a community or offered real friendship, or simply they got out of the habit and no-one noticed. Jackson talks about opening the front door of the church in a welcoming friendship and in closing the back door ensureing people don’t simply drift away gradually.

Other points from this same chapter. (pp65ff).

  • welcoming is important – but try to introduce yourself, saying something nonthreatening like “I don’t know you, I’m Bob’, rather than saying accusingly “Are you new?”
  • Churches need relationship glue – people need friendship as well as friendliness. They need to be able to integrate into the community.
  • Larger churches need smaller subgroups to pastorally care for each other and therefore notice when people are ill or not there.
  • Congregations should notice newcomers and offer a friendly conversation, as well as point/help the newcomer to integrate into the community. Many people ‘belong’ to Christian community and see it in action before they believe.
  • ‘Welcome cards’ only work if followed up quickly.

I’d be interested to hear people’s stories of the welcome they received at church, good or bad.

Christian environmentalists, putting time and money where their mouth is.

Some friends of mine, who are Christians, have a heart for looking after the environment. Today, they are featured in the UK newspaper, The Times, for bucking the trend amongst young people. When given an fairly large inheritance from a family member, instead of ploughing the money into a deposit for a house – which would have been their first step on the difficult-to-get-on housing ladder -  they bought a woodland near Rye in Sussex,. Mike gve up is well-paid job in software engineering to work for an environmental charity, and they moved 100 miles so they could look after their wood and enjoy it. Now they spend most of their spare time coppicing and doing things in the woodland to manage it.

They have a blog, Peplers In Rye, where they share what they are doing, and share some of the wonders of enjoying God’s creation through caring for the natural world. It’s well worth a read.

Bible-believing Christians – Velvet Elvis 2

Martin Luther, Wycliffe, Cranmer and other church reformers of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century were some of the first to suggest that the Bible should be available in the languages of the people – English for the English, German for the Germans etc. Previous to that, people generally didn’t own their own Bibles, the church would own one in Latin which the priest would read and interpret for them.

Everyone having access to the Bible was a wonderful thing. But it didn’t half cause problems. Almost as soon as the reformation caused a split in the church between Protestants and Catholics, the church split again into smaller denominations – lutherans, calvinists, anglicans, anabaptists, puritans and so on. They all read the same Bible, but came to different conclusions on what certain parts of it mean (not, I might add, on anything fundamental like the deity of Jesus, the Cross etc, but mostly on issues of practice.)

It is fantastic that now everyone can read the Bible for themselves. But doesn’t that lead to the possibility of everyone understanding it differently?

I am a Bible-believing Christian, but what does that mean?

It means I take the Bible seriously and I work to understand it and apply it to my life. I consider it inspired by God. There are no parts of the Bible that I can simply ignore, but I work to understand what it meant when it was written and what it might mean for us now. I don’t pretend to understand it all.

Having said that, there are many other people who also ‘believe the Bible’ who come to different conclusions from certain passages than I do. Rob Bell, in his book, Velvet Elvis, mentions a lady he met who said something like this “I just believe the Bible”. But at the same time, she describes her faith as ‘a personal relationship with Jesus’. The phrase ‘personal relationship’ is not found anywhere in the Bible. It’s not a bad phrase, it can describe what being a Christian is like so long as you define what it means, but the point was that someone had interpreted what it means to know got and summed it up in the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ So, Rob points out, that she obviously believes a lot more that just what is found in the Bible – she believes in the interpretation of the person who told her that phrase too. So, everything is interpreted.

Rob bell says:

“The idea that everybody else approaches the Bible with baggage and agendas and lenses and I don’t is the ultimate in arrogance. To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture or background or issues into is and come out with a ‘pure’ or ‘exact’ meaning is not only untrue, bit it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy”

How can we be sure we have the right interpretation?

This is his point. The Bible is inspired, and it’s words are ‘living and active’ because they came from a God who is ‘living and active’. This is why we shouldn’t just read the Bible alone, we should read it in the context of prayer, and of a community who prays, thinks, and supports each other. Point of the Bible is to point us to God, and the joy of reading the Bible comes from a desire to seek God and wrestle with the texts as we apply them.

Rob Bell again:

“The writers of the Bible are communicating in language their world will understand. They are using the symbols and pictures and images of the culture they are speaking to That’s why the Bible has authority – God has authority and is present in real space and time. The Bible is a collection of stories that teach us about what it looks like when God is at work through actual people. The Bible has the authority it does only because it contains stories about people interacting with the God who has all authority”

It has authority because God has authority, not because it fell from the sky as a holy book.

The poor in the gospel of Luke (ii)

OK, onto chapters 3 and 4 of Luke. Chapter 3 begins with a section on John the Baptist. He is preaching and baptising in the river Jordan and the crowds come out to see him. He preaches that people need to repent before God, and that being of the right lineage is not enough to avoid God’s judgement-

“I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:8-9)

Quite naturally, the crowd respond “What shall we do then?” John’s answer is revealing:

“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same. Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do? “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (3:11-14)

This is an answer that has social action right at the heart of it. Repentance is not just about saying sorry, but it is about turning one’s life around, away from the sinful behaviour. In this case, John’s listeners should turn towards God’s justice, making sure there is enough food and clothing to go around instead of storing it all up. This matches what some of the OT prophets, particularly Amos were saying. (In Amos’ time Israel was busy keeping all the religious festivals but ignoring the plight of the poor – Amos rebuked them for it). I wonder what John would make of the so-called ‘Christian’ West storing up treasures, food, clothing, wealth for themselves whilst there are so many in poverty worldwide.

Chapter 4- And Jesus has been through the temptations in the wilderness, and he goes back to his home town. He goes into the synagogue, opens the scriptures (at Isaiah 61:1-2), and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, 21and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:18-20)

This is a quite astounding statment about who Jesus is. He is saying about himself that he is the anointed leader (Note that both the word’Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ mean ‘Anointed One’) that God has sent to do extraordinary things. Firstly, to preach good news to the poor. Why to the poor? Well, it is good news for everyone but it was the poor that would feel it the most. They are the ones who were most likely to recognise that they needed help/a saviour in order to be right with God. Their life circumstances are more likely to be dramatically changed as they find purpose, identity, and community in the people of God. The gospel turns human structures upside down, and restores all people to dignity, so that there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). Jesus spent most of his time with people on the edge of society who were shunned by the rest; they gained great dignity from that.

He also claims freedom for the prisoners and to release to oppressed. There were some then and now who have been literally released from oppression by the power of the Holy Spirit, whether physical oppression or the oppression of addictions. Prisoners who have discovered God’s love for them find that, even though their outward circumstances might not change, their are truly free and find a new lease of life within their spiritual freedom. But everyone gets to be released from the oppression that is slavery to power of sin, which captivates all of us (read Romans 5-8 in this light)