Friday, 15 May 2015

The election, the poor and the church: stop moaning and get loving

I awoke last Friday morning to a shock election result.  No-one had seen it coming.  Though when you look back now the outcome seems, in some ways, to have been inevitable and obvious.  However, I also woke up to a storm of Christians bemoaning the outcome for the poor, marginalise and oppressed in our society.  What would they do?  How would they survive even more cuts?  How could Britain have done this to them?  Wake me up in 5 years because I don't want to watch... and so on.

Grace church works in just such an area, with exactly the types of people who have suffered most from the cuts that lets be honest have been needed.  And yes it's tragic that the cuts have most savagely affected those who are worst off in our society, though I haven't come across too many people advocating for tax rises, or writing to protest that their child does not need the "free" school meal for under 7s available to all and offering that instead that money be redirected to those most in need, or advocating for means tested child benefit.

It is often areas without the voice to loudly protest that lose their services first, that are least well represented, that there is less fuss about because they simple aren't headline/campaign material.  That is wrong but it is the way our society works, and we should be upset at such oppression and unfairness.  But here's my frustration, all the venting and anger about what the election result meant for the poor, marginalised and deprived is not reflected in the churches involvement with those communities in Britain.  The church in the UK is largely a middle class phenomenon, reaching middle class networks at the exclusion of the neighbourhood based poor and marginalised.  So was it just so much arm-chair whingeing?  Was it simply people expecting the government to do what they know should be done but which they lack the will power to do?

I look at it a different way.  God is sovereign and this is a God given opportunity for the church to serve the poor and marginalised in our society, to love them as we are called to.  To engage with these communities and help them have a voice, to provide services and relationships and networks through the church that are being lost elsewhere.  In Leviticus the answer to poverty and marginalisation is always community based on the love God.  That answer stands just as much today as it did then.  I think the next 5 years provide an exciting opportunity for churches to connect and create communities of grace as we meet needs and serve those most vulnerable and in need in our society.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Dwelling in a text

I've been musing on something for a while now.  I wonder how much our 'instant' culture and it's unquenchable search for the new and the novel, and it's 'been-there-done-that-got-the-T-shirt' culture has impacted our Bible teaching.  Do we fall into the trap of racing through books of the bible, teaching each passage in it once, chapter by chapter (or more if it's the Old Testament) and then moving on to the next book?  Treating God's word like fast food to be consumed on the go.

Would we benefit more from a slow measured, prolonged, lingering over the feast scripture serves up to us in each passage.  What if we didn't package and programme our bible teaching but rather chose to dwell in a passage for a longer period of time?  What if we spent three of four weeks on a passage, mining it for the treasures it contains and the insights it brings?  What if we were in a passage long enough to learn it, not just grab a couple of it's truths?  What if we took time to marinade in it's teaching to apply it's depths deeply?  How would that feel?  How would it help us counter the culture around us of racing, time pressured consumption, before moving on to the next thing?  How would it shape us and feed us in ways that are different to now?

What would we lose?  What would we gain?  And would we go back to a fast-food diet of scripture again?

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

God, Government and the Big Issues

Last night saw the second of our series looking at politics and faith in light of the impending election, here are the notes and questions we used to stimulate discussion.  Due to time constraints we are only able to sketch out some outline biblical thinking on each of the issues, but hopefully it was, and will prove, helpful.

1. What is the purpose of government?

2. What are the issues you care most passionately about as you think about voting?

3. How is individualism driving the political parties and their promises? How does it influence your thinking?

4. How are Christians to be distinctive in the way we engage in politics and think about voting?

What is the purpose of government? That’s a great place to start. What should we be expecting whoever gets power on May 8th to do? What’s the goal we have in mind for whoever we vote for? Or maybe to turn the question on its head, how is the ultimate goal of government going to affect who we vote for? We’ll hopefully be better able to answer that at the end of this evening, as we explore who we are called to be and having looked at that look at 4 big issues; the economy, welfare, immigration and the environment, before we consider, briefly, how we live under government where we don't agree with everything that it does.

We are to be children who look just like our Father


We saw last time that God is sovereign, God institutes government, and therefore we should pray, find out about our candidates, be realistic, be thankful and vote. But with that in place how does the bible shape our thinking?

What matters most to us as Christians? Is it moral issues? The poor? The NHS? Immigration? The economy? The Bible starts with character not issues. God’s values are rooted in his character, in fact you could say God’s character is his values. And God’s people are to be just like their Father, bearing the family likeness in character and values.

So what is God like? We’ve only got time to scratch the surface. But let me highlight a few things:

God is holy. (Lev 19:2, 1 Peter 1:15-16) Holiness is part of God’s nature, it’s his otherness, his power, glory, splendour, uniqueness, purity, love, justice. And in Leviticus 19:2 God calls his people to be holy because he is holy, it occurs in the middle of the holiness codes of Leviticus 17-22, which shows the lives God’s people are to live in their Father’s image: holiness in worship, holiness in love for neighbour, holiness in seeking justice and rooting out injustice.

God is love. (I John 4v7-8) God has always been love, there’s never been a time when God wasn’t love. God the Father has always loved Son and Spirit, God the Son has always loved and delighted in the Father and the Spirit, and God the Spirit has always loved and delighted in the Son and Father. Love is at the very core of God’s being all that he is and does.

It’s love that causes God to create so others can share in this outgoing joy and love. It’s love that marks out God’s rule and reign, his judgement and his wrath against sin. God is love and so those who are born of God, who carry God’s DNA, who are his sons and daughters.

We see it demonstrated visibly in Jesus, God in love come, and God in love acting to alleviate suffering, and God in love making God known. And calling a people to himself who he teaches to love their neighbour, extending that term to mean everyone even traditional enemies, as well as brothers.

As children of our heavenly Father our character will be his character our values his values. We’ll seek to be holy and to love.

There are lots of other characteristics of God, Exodus 33 and 34 show us we’re just scratching the surface. But those two characteristics are helpful for us. Especially because as we know God is love and is holy, as we look to be likewise we find that his word is our guide to his character. What God speaks reveals his character for us, working out those two principles. So the moral code, God’s laws, aren’t a dictators barbed wire but a loving Father’s fences, not restricting freedom but enabling wellbeing for the world.

In Matthew 23:23 when Jesus confronts the Pharisees for their bad rule it is because they’ve neglected justice, mercy and faithfulness which are enshrined in and at the core of all of God’s law. So how does that help us as we think about some of the big issues at the election? We will seek justice, mercy and faithfulness, as we are holy and love, and we will find them in the Bible and what it teaches about life.

The Economy


This seems to be the biggest issue in 2015. Everything else seems to hang on this.

Answer this question: What’s the purpose of the economy?
Economic activity isn’t an end in itself. And chasing profitability, growing GDP as if that will answer all of societies needs is idolatry. In the bible economic activity wasn’t an end in itself but work was a good gift from God as were things to enjoy in their right place. In the law economic activity isn’t about consumption, individualism or capitalist one up man ship. Read Leviticus 25 and you see Israel’s economy was designed to foster love for neighbours, strong family relationships and a caring connected community. The question we have to answer is which parties economic policies best reflect God's values?

We can’t avoid the deficit when talking about the economy. The Bible is clear in it’s radical teaching on debt and default. Enormous levels of debt are unbiblical, both personally and nationally. Default isn’t an option. Rather it exhorts us to live within our mean and use our gifts productively. How we deal with the debt provides a challenge for us as Christians as we think about who to vote for.

Welfare


Welfare is another hot potato especially as the discussion becomes loaded with the rhetoric of ‘scroungers, skivers and shirkers’ used by the media. But reality is somewhat different, of the £256.6 billion spent on benefits £144.1 billion is pensions. And a significant chunk of the remaining £112.5 billion is paid not to the unemployed but those in work or raising children.

In the Bible poverty is viewed more holistically than in politics. It sees financial poverty as a symptom of relational poverty, and its solution doesn’t stop at financial handouts. The overriding aim is to draw the vulnerable into the community and back into relationship. Leviticus 25 puts in place – interest free loans, temporary sale of property, and indentured labour as means of provision, all the while setting an end point on such things. Then there are the laws on tithing and gleaning rights. These laws focused on provision within community and maintaining and developing existing supportive relationships.  A great case study of this is the story of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz where we see God's values, his holiness and love, enfleshed in Boaz as he provides for Ruth and Naomi abundantly, reconnecting with community, creating relationships of provision and secure their future place as active members of society.  This should't have been an exception in Israel but the norm.  When we look at welfare policies we should be looking for this relational focus.

How much have you bought into the rhetoric of scroungers, skivers and shirkers?

How can we better invest in relationships with those in need? What challenges does this pose for us individually and as a church?

Immigration


After the economy this seems to have become the biggest issue talked about at this election. Again the debate is unhelpfully polarised into two extremes with inaccurate language, and spun statistics making the real picture hard to see.

The bible has two categories of immigrants and Israel’s response was to be determined by their circumstances and attitudes.

The ger, sojourner or resident alien were dependent foreigners (e.g. Ruth, Rahab). They were to be treated with love and generosity because of their vulnerability. The other group was the nokri, a true foreigner whose loyalties lay with his country of birth, who visited temporarily and was economically independent. Their presence is allowed but the threat economically and to faith was recognised.

In Israel all immigrants were welcome, whether vulnerable and dependent or independent. They were invited to integrate, including in faith and were treated equally when they did so. But the reality that a nokri’s allegiance lay elsewhere meant measures were taken to protect Israel from exploitation by those who did not care for Israel and her people’s well being.  As we think about immigration as a policy we want to share God's values.

How has immigration affected you personally?

How does the Bibles teaching affect your thinking on immigration?

Environment


Sustainability and the environment are matters of justice. The creation mandate calls on us to care for God’s world, and the command to love our neighbours means doing so in a way that enables the welfare of all. Our use of the environment is indicative of how we think of God and others, God’s concern is our distant neighbour in countries far away and those generations as yet unborn who will live with the consequences of our consumption now.

How important are green issues to you? Are green issues playing a part in this election?

What will it mean to you personally to care for creation and pursue justice in the way you use the world’s resources?

Q&A time


God the Government and moral issues


1 Peter 2v11-17. (11-12)give us principles for us to live by as God’s people living for his kingdom but in the world. You can summarise them like this: Fight sin, do good, call sinners. Peter then fleshes those principles out in a number of areas one of which is our relationship with the government. The government is there to determine fair and just laws for the good and wellbeing of all its citizens. So believers are to obey the law. But we are to go further than simple obedience we are to (15)do good within society, the church and individual believers contribute positively to society.

But what about when there’s a conflict between obeying God and government? Peter describes believers as God’s slaves, we obey the government for the Lord’s sake, not theirs or ours. We respect everyone but fear only God. God is first and foremost who we serve. So when obeying the state conflicts with obeying God we will fight sin, do good and call sinners.

It doesn’t just mean keeping the law – we will – but it means actively doing good. We will be concerned not with our rights but with government being for the good of all, advancing the wellbeing of all, speaking out against undue influence by certain groups or unfair policies against others. We are not self-interested in our politics.

It also means when we disagree on an issue with government we will contact our MP, carefully and politely explaining our view and thanking them for their time and any response. It means when they stand on a moral issue we ought to take as much time to thank them.

You can track your MP’s record using the Christian Institute website. But a word of caution we can’t do the same with other candidates who are standing. The challenge is to find out what they stand for and against too.

But we mustn't just engage with politics for a month before the General election.  God's call for us to be holy and to love isn't limited in application to our crosses on a ballot paper.  We need to be praying regularly for our leaders.  We also need to be developing good relationships with our local MP over the next 5 years.  To be known as a church and a people that love and are different, that fight sin and do good, not who only stand for their own interests.

Q&A

Monday, 27 April 2015

How should I vote?

The General Election is fast approaching and there are so many issues and opinions that it's hard to distinguish fact from fiction, claim from counterclaim.  So how do we decide who to vote for?  How do we even decide what the issues are on which we should be making that decision?  How do we think biblically about those issues and others?

Guy Brandon's helpful book, 'Votewise 2015' looks at various issues (the NHS, policing, immigration, the environment, the economy, education and so on) and seeks to help us form a biblical understanding  on which to then base our decision about who to vote for.  The book is short enough, 112 pages, to read easily and yet contains a lot of information in an easy to read format.  The questions that follow each subsection of the book are particularly helpful in challenging our thinking and getting us to think about applying what we have read.

The book is balanced in it's survey of the current state of the nation and political climate.  I've found it informative and helpful in thinking about the issues beyond those which are making the headlines in the media.  The only drawback, I found, was the final chapter before the conclusion which is a series of 5 short essays by a christian candidate for each of the 5 main political parties, they varied in quality and approach and I didn't feel they added anything to the book.

Overall though a helpful read.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

God, government and me

On Tuesday we spent the first of 3 gospel groups thinking about our faith, politics an the general election.  The most interesting part was the discussion beforehand and afterwards.  But for what it's worth here are the notes of the 10 min talk that we used as stimulus for our discussion:

Discuss
1. How cynical are you about government, MPs and politics? What has made you like that?

2. What are your feelings about the election? What questions do you have as you think about voting?

3. What issues have you heard talked about in the media?

4. What issues do you think matter most in this election and why?

What is politics? Groucho Marx said; "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies." Someone else has said poly means many and a tic is a bloodsucking parasite, so politics is.... I guess those two tongue in cheek definitions sum up the cynicism that is so much part of our culture when it comes to politics and politicians.

That may be the way our society thinks about it but how are we, as christians, to think. Tonight I want to address that issue of cynicism and see how the bible can help us avoid it by not expecting too much or too little from our politicians but having a right view of them.

God is Sovereign

We need to remember that as we come to vote. On May 8th there will be a new government and God is sovereign over who will come to power. Turn to Daniel 6v25-28. These verses are the centrepiece of the book. It’s the lesson every ruler of every kingdom has had to learn in Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar learned it repeatedly; at the fiery furnace, in his dream, humiliation and restoration, and Belshazzar learns it through the writing on the wall. Now Darius has learnt it through God’s rescue of Daniel from the lions. The same lesson holds for the apocalyptic visions that follow in Ch7-12.

God rules, his kingdom will never be destroyed, and his purposes will come to pass even though people oppose them.

As we think about the election God is sovereign. That’s the bedrock.

But also in Daniel we see that those who rule are accountable to God. That’s why Nebuchadnezzar is struck down, because of his arrogant belief in his own power. That’s why Belshazzar is overthrown. That’s what Darius learns here. Those who govern, who have power will be held accountable by God for what they do with that power.

God is sovereign, he rules. And those who rule are accountable to him. As Christians that should mean that we pray for those in authority over us. At times we will pray for courage for them to stand with their convictions, at other times we might pray that they repent and have a change of heart. But we will pray for them.

God’s vision of government

In Genesis 1 and 2 we see God establish the world and within that world give humanity the responsibility to govern the world well. Man is a creature under the creator’s authority but he is to govern the world on God’s behalf. Human leadership is to express God’s own rule.

We’re going to think a lot more about this next week but God created mankind to express his rule on the earth. The Bible is positive about the idea of governance and not just in the Old Testament where the governance of Israel is in theory under God, but also in the New Testament when under Roman rule.  In Mark 12 Jesus tells people to pay taxes, Romans 13 Paul tells christians to be subject to the authorities, and in 1 Peter 2 Peter calls for believers to submit to the authorities. Believers are encouraged to honour those who govern them, respect them and obey them. Even though those who govern are fallen, just as we are, even though they make mistakes, just as we do. Government is necessary and it is a good thing.

It’s vital that we see that God is for good government. That government is not a necessary evil. Our society is cynical about our MPs, and I think most of us have probably breathed in that air of cynicism and now breathe it out without thinking too much about it. For some of us that might mean we find ourselves thinking I can’t be bothered to vote, they’re all the same, it won’t make a difference which party gets in and so on. But as Christians we are called to be different from the world.

We are to respect those in authority over us. And we are given a say in who governs us. I don’t want to get into whether democracy is the Bible’s vision of government. It certainly isn’t the antidote to corruption that some make it out to be, nor is it the answer to the world’s problems it is sometimes painted as, only the gospel is. But we are privileged to have a say in who governs us. God is sovereign over who governs, but we are also responsible to God for how we vote. Our vote is part of how God exercises his rule, it’s also part of our serving God.

That means first and foremost that as Christians we must vote. But how should we vote?

God’s character and the political parties.

We need to recognise that choosing who to vote for is not an easy decision. We can’t simply sit and think ‘which political party would Jesus be in?’ As we explore the character of God in more detail next week and look at the society God sets up which shares his values and passions we will see that God cares more passionately about justice than the political right and more passionately for the poor than the political left.

We’ll see that there are other issues than just the ones that the political parties are making the most noise about. We’ll see that there are issues which God cares about which we might not even know what the parties think about.

But as God’s people, in God’s world, we are to vote trusting in God’s sovereignty and serving him as we place our cross in whichever box we decide to vote for. In our political system we vote for a local politician who represents us. Leaders debates are all very well but they shouldn’t sway us too much because we don’t elect a Prime Minister. We elect a local politician to represent us as one of 650 constituency politicians in Parliament. We need to elect the person who will be represent us and the issues God cares about.

That means we must do a number of things:

a. Pray about how we will vote

b. Be educated about those who we may vote for – remember we vote for a local candidate not a Presidential candidate. That means we need to get hold of information about local candidates and read it. Maybe even attending local hustings to ask questions and seek answers. Practically you can find out about your local candidates at www.yournextmp.com, we need to read what they provide and use things like their Facebook page, twitter feed or personal website to see what they care about.

c. Be voting – We need to actually vote. Whether that is choosing a candidate or registering our lack of faith in any candidate by spoiling the ballot paper.

d. Be realistic – no candidate or party is going to fit precisely what we are looking for. There is also a limit on what politicians can do. We need to be realistic and look for candidates who are realistic. We also need to be realistic and not encourage candidates to over promise in order to win our vote.

e. Be thankful – God is sovereign, even as we serve God as we exercise our vote, God rules. We can go to sleep trusting in his care and sovereignty and his goodness. Knowing that “he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed and his dominion shall be to the end.”

Q&A
What do you know about candidates for your constituency?

How do you intend to find out about them?

What sorts of questions do you think we should be asking in order to find out whether they will represent us well?

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The seen and unseen reality of church on Sunday morning

Often when you walk into church on a Sunday morning everyone else looks to have it together.  People are there, they look well presented (whether that means shirt and tie, smart casual, or everyday attire is irrelevant).  It can intimidating to walk into church if you feel that's not you.  If the week has been hard, your heart is breaking, broken, or seemingly shattered beyond repair.  If your marriage is creaking, illness and problem seem to beset everyone around you, work is frustrating on a good day, and the kids seem to be living in open revolt.

But there is an unseen reality that we need to recognise that is present in what we see.  Each of those people who have come to church, to meet with their church family, to hear from God, to sing his praise - or just to listen to others sing if that feels too raw - has come from a world you cannot see as you look at them on a Sunday morning.  They are not hiding it, they haven't put on a mask of happiness, its not a fake, it is that they are determined to meet together because they know they need to.

As we get to know one another we begin to see the unseen reality of Sunday morning that you can't know by just taking a cursory, surface glance at those around you.  As we get to know one another we come to see the story of each and every family.  Each affected by the brokenness of the world, each life impacted by the deceitfulness and destructiveness of sin.  It's there is the couple longing for a child but struggling to conceive but who still smile and welcome each and every child they meet in church.  You don't see it but as you get to know their unseen story you see the grace at work in that welcome.  It's there is the person who is terminally ill but comes week by week without many in the church family even realising how ill they are, who cheerfully takes part, laps up the Bible teaching, and encourages others.  It's there in the person whose extended family is in ruins and who lives with the brokenness and pain of that everyday, dealing with the crises that come up week by week, but who can rejoice in another's joy on a Sunday morning by grace.

One of the problems of suffering is that it can curve us inwards on ourselves.  The antidote is to get to know those around us, to learn to see the unseen story of grace woven into the life of every person who makes it to church on Sunday.  Everyone living with a present experience of the reality of living in a broken world yet knowing that God by grace is gradually writing their story for his glory, as they live trusting in his loving Fatherly care.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Why inviting people to church works.

As a church we're not flush with cash so any promotion of events we do tends to be low key, a few posters and some invitations for our folks to give to friends, neighbours and family.  Occasionally we'll leaflet drop the area we consider our parish, but that rarely seems to get results.  So much so that we didn't even do it for our Easter Service this year.

Yet for our Easter service we had over 60 visitors from the community we serve.  Visitors outnumbered regular church family which was a real answer to prayer.  Sunday School jumped from about 30 to 60+ and lots of families came to church for the first time and others returned having been at Christmas.

Why?  God works, first and foremost it was obviously God at work bringing people in.  But how did God work?  God worked through his people committed to, embedded in and caring for their community inviting people from that community to come to church.  The community see that the church is for them, both in terms of loving them well and welcoming them if they come along.  That melts away some of the barriers in terms of getting through the door.  The community have also experienced that the church loves their families, of all ages.

It wasn't a high glamour event, we don't really do those.  It was a simple Easter service followed by an Easter Egg hunt, followed by a BBQ.  Some families couldn't stay for the egg hunt and BBQ but came for the service anyway - which was a huge encouragement.  Others came and stayed for all of it.

Our prayer is that God is just beginning his work in the hearts and minds of these people.  But the lesson we've learnt is simple and in many ways not unexpected. God works through his people building relationships, caring for, and inviting others to come and see his goodness which they've glimpsed in his people.  A people not perfect but trying to relate to one another by grace as they live assured of God's love in Christ, praying for him to bring others to know that love and grace.