Jan 042010

Apologies up front – this is very much a ‘thinking out loud’ blog entry and may well descend into a bit of a rant. You have been warned! Even so, I’d appreciate your thoughts.

On Sunday I was leading the whole service and the choice of hymns, reading, sermon, etc was entirely mine. Over Advent we have spent a bit of time in Luke’s gospel and finished off towards the end of Luke chapter 2. I decided to pick up from that point and deal with a passage that isn’t (in my experience) covered very often – the incident of Jesus, as a boy, doing a bunk from the family group and being found in the Temple. I felt it fitted well with a Ne Year start as I believe the passage does a number of things, including giving a glimpse of Jesus’ future life, ministry and purpose but also leaving us with a challenge also very appropriate for the beginning of a new year and a new session – where would we expect to find Jesus if we went looking for Him?

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Jan 212008

It looks as though my soap box this semester is going to be the different methods of approaching scripture. I’ve just been reading about form criticism and that’s not actually what I want to blog about, but it did spark off a train of thought. I’ve also been reading recently some of the debate over scriptural inerrancy, infallibility and so on.

Claims for inerrancy always seem to be accompanied by great long riders over what constitutes an error. Literary gymnastics then ensue to wriggle round the very obvious inconsistencies and ‘errors’ we indisputably (I use the word reservedly) find in scripture. It occurred to me this evening that when God created this world it was ‘very good’. Not perfect, not absolutely right, not without error, but ‘very good’. Good enough, fit for purpose, just as God wanted it. It also occurred to me that our God-inspired/breathed scripture is much the same – good enough for purpose. And what’s its purpose? To point to and witness to Jesus Christ so that we may know Him and claim Him as our own Lord. And it’s good enough for that. We don’t need the letters that Paul was replying to, we don’t need Paul’s missing letters, we don’t need to know who wrote Hebrews or whether any of the other books were written by the name we put at the front. Because what we have is good enough to witness and point us to Jesus. Because when we get to that point then the Spirit has something to work with and, all too often, we forget that we worship a Trinity and that the Spirit is God as well and the Spirit has a purpose.

I really wonder if ‘inerrancy’ springs up through an unreconciled sense of doubt, a need to ‘know’ absolutely. I think it also springs up through a real misunderstanding of what/who is God’s Word. We invest that word, ‘Word’, with too much of our own meaning – text on paper and so we create a fourth member of the Trinity (if you see what I mean). And for that to be the case, the Bible has to be perfect, inerrant and ‘absolute’ – like God and not just like God, but to be God.

But I can live with doubt. The more I learn, the less I realise I know. I also realise I can’t know absolutely. But I do have faith. I have faith that God is much bigger than my doubts; that God can accommodate my doubts far better than my knowledge can hope to accommodate God.

For me, scripture is ‘good enough’. It points me sufficiently towards Jesus. It leaves room for the Spirit to work. I’ll always wrestle with scripture because I’ll never properly understand it. Even it it was perfect, it’s being read and interpreted by a very imperfect person; a person with doubts and faith.

ps – just in case this apparent ‘evangelical-bashing’ is giving liberals a sense of righteousness, I’m just as opposed to allowing scripture to be interpreted however we please, but that’s a subject for another blog, another day.

Dec 212007

Stewart recently posted on his blog about ‘depth‘ in the Christian faith. Coincidentally, I had been reading some discussions across some other websites (here and here) about some of the misconceptions surrounding the Christmas story (and the selective reporting of what was said). The two seem to come together in my mind and chime with some of the stuff I’ve been doing at uni (this, for example) this last semester.

I do wonder just how much baggage we have floating around in our head that shapes our understanding of our faith – and more to the point (and pertinent to Stewart’s blog) how ignorant we are of its inaccuracy. I was thinking about this in terms of hymns and praise songs. To what degree does what we sing in church become our understanding of the Christian faith? After all, ask someone to tell you what was said in the sermon and ask them for some lines form what was sung and I think it’s a safe bet which will be remembered best my most. This, I reckon, is even more true of those who turn up to church at Christmas and Easter only – generally to see ‘the kids’ take part in nativity plays or Easter presentations.

So, take for example “We three kings of Orient are”. Right from the very opening line it’s a misrepresentation of scripture. Pick almost any other hymn (Christmas or otherwise) and you’ll find similar things. And that’s what becomes people’s understanding of what scripture really says and what the Gospel message is.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be singing hymns. What we should understand is what hymns are. They’re poetry set to music – they’re metaphorical, symbolic, fanciful, exaggeration, and all the other things that make good poetry poetry and not an academic study. And the same applies to scripture. We need to be able to distinguish between its poetry, its prose, its metaphors, its parables, its advice, its history and so on. But to do that we need education and depth of understanding – right back to Stewart’s point. And as he suggests, that takes effort, both on the part of the educator and those who wish to learn. I think it also comes back to something that seems to have been cropping up in much of my studies this year – the proper understanding of myth/legend/saga/story, call it what you will. I was also reading an article by Richard Dawkins (sent to me by a friend) and I think it perfectly illustrates the ignorance, even of those who are well-educated, of how scripture needs to be read.

Do I have an answer to how to ‘fix it’? Absolutely not, except perhaps to make the same commitment as Stewart has done – to take responsibility and become a better-educated Christian; and in so doing, become a better witness to the truth of the Gospel, rather than reinforce popular misconceptions.

The next big question then is how to carry this into ministry. How does one have a teaching ministry that encourages and promotes depth in a congregation and yet also meets all of the other needs of that congregation. Now there’s a subject for serious consideration.

Sep 232007

Following on from today’s other blog entry, I was thinking about the lectionary. Today’s readings from Amos, 1Timothy and Luke were kind to me. There was a connection that could be made between them and, more importantly, one that could be used at today’s Harvest Thanksgiving service.

The thing I struggle with about the lectionary series is that you can hit those times when there is simply no obvious connection to be made and even a contrived one is a struggle. From speaking to a friend, I know that their view is that there doesn’t need to be a connection and it’s perfectly legitimate to have a reading with no further reference to it. The purpose of the lectionary is to expose the hearer/reader to parts of scripture that may otherwise be ignored. I don’t have an issue with that and can see the validity of the argument.

However, there are times when a reading just sits there, on its own, in splendid isolation. Should it have its own exegesis and application ‘slot’? Or should it be left to stand alone. I think the danger of the latter approach is that if it’s a difficult reading then there’s a risk of people ‘turning off’ and, rather than it being given the exposure it merits, it contributes to an overall sense of ‘I’ll stick to the bits I understand’. The risk of the former is that the service appears ‘bitty’ and disjointed or, if a contrived connection is made, there is the possibility of being open to the, perfectly valid, accusation of distorting scripture to make it mean whatever we want.

There is, of course, one over-riding influence which can come to bear and perhaps needs to be borne in mind more. When scripture is read in an open and honest way, its meaning comes not just from our own comprehension but through the intercession of the Holy Spirit as well. So, when that piece of scripture is sitting in splendid isolation, the reality is, it’s not sitting on its own and its capacity to ‘speak’ to someone is, in no way diminished.

It’s just frustrating when your eyes are opened by something you’ve heard or read and the preacher goes off down an entirely different avenue, ignoring your exciting revelation. Still, take a moment to enjoy the presence of the Spirit, leading, guiding, teaching.

Sep 232007

Well, I did it!

I created a 15 minute sermon after a bit of judicious pruning. Could I have said more? Probably. Should I have said more? Probably not. What I delivered I think worked but I suspect it was a very different style of sermon from usual. Hard to say since I’ve only heard David a couple of times and that’s too little information to ‘categorise’ someone.

I’ve been thinking a bit of what my ‘style’ is. Not sure if I really have one but what drives me is twofold (and that in a cycle of interconnectedness) – theologically-sound exegesis and biblically-sound application. I like to explore the meaning of a passage: its genre; its context; its history; its culture; its ‘story’. I then try and relate that to our present circumstance and draw out a lesson for us to follow. This means that I tend to spend more time on what might be considered the academic side (the exegesis) than on the anecdotal (the application). I struggle with anecdotes. Some people work them in naturally, with others it can sound horribly contrived. I dislike looking for an anecdote that ‘fits’. Generally because they’ve probably already done the rounds on the internet and, for me, lose their impact. That doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but only sparingly and only when they really fit. The other thing is that I tend to use only personal ones (for the same reason as above) but my wife complains that that I’m then turning the attention on myself. It’s a fair criticism even it that’s not my intention.

All this means that there is a risk of my preaching style being a bit ‘dry’ and ‘academic’. To a degree that’s a reflection of ‘me’ – it’s what I like to hear. But not all the time and that, I suppose, is where a balance has to be struck. That’s when I enjoy doing the ‘powerpoint thing’ and throwing in the odd video or sound clip – because there are others who do the inspirational, uplifting, thoughtful ‘thing’ so much better than I do.

Hmmm…. maybe 15 minutes of my style is more than enough.

Sep 072007

I’m preaching the sermon at Harvest Thanksgiving in my placement church on the 23rd. The lectionary readings for that Sunday are very appropriate and I particularly liked the one from Amos:

Amos 8:4 Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country.
8:5 You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers.
8:6 We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.”
8:7 The LORD, the God of Israel, has sworn, “I will never forget their evil deeds.

When we consider the effects of globalisation and ‘market forces’, who’s to say that things have changed much today? Our quest for cheaper goods, our throwaway lifestyle, our desire for more exotica (be it food or whatever) has a global impact. And there will always be someone ready to supply that need all the while exploiting the supplier to make their own profit.

We may make our outward show of ethical behaviour, but behind it, what’s really going on? Whether wilfully or in wilful ignorance, we can’t ignore the effect our consumerism has at a global level. All the more so if we claim the name Christian yet hold the lives of others in contempt.

Aug 282007

Not the film, but a random title that popped into my head when I was reading my Bible study notes.

Anyway, I found today’s reading very challenging and not a little scary. The series is on redemption and today’s passage is Galatians 5:1-12 with an emphasis on freedom from the Law. I had one of those ‘woah!’ moments as I was reading it when one of those ‘big picture’ pieces fell into place (and left me wishing it hadn’t because it means I’ll need to do some more thinking).

The particular part that has got me thinking is verse 6 “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Given Paul’s obvious anger in this whole passage, it’s something he’s serious about and, I guess, we should consider seriously as well. He’s basically saying that if you follow one bit of the Law, then you need to follow all of the Law and you will be judged by the Law. But Christians aren’t redeemed through the Law, rather, through Grace and faith in Jesus. That faith is demonstrated by our love for Jesus, for one another, for our world. It’s demonstrated through following the loving example of Jesus – selfless, indiscriminate, abundant, unquestioning.

So for, so easy (hah!), but the bit that I really need to spend time in prayer and reflection about is the whole idea of when do we apply ‘the Law’ and when do we respond in love? It’s that old ‘the Bible says’ chestnut. Are we applying what it says in a legalistic manner, or we applying it because it’s an example of how God wants us to behave? The obvious one is homosexuality. Condemned because the Law (the Bible) says so (arguably), yet, if we apply that Law, why not the others? Why is this one different? Is there a balance to be struck? But that’s just one small (albeit controversial) example. Does it not also spill over into the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ attitude so prevalent in churches?

More thinking required.