Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Email schizophrenia

Yesterday, I made an horrific discovery. I was given a password to a new email address the seminary has given me (apparently some time ago!) Instead of the new address is For several months I have been blissfully unaware of this parallel email presence because I still seemed to be receiving the bulk of my emails.

However, when students complained this week that their term assignments had been sent into me I realized something was (very)wrong. They had all been using my other address to which I had no access. I pleaded with the IT department - please help me!

So, yesterday, armed with my password I discovered what I have been missing. A couple of thousand emails! As I plough through them, so far I have discovered three invitations to speak at conferences; an interview with Wall Street Journal; requests for publications; messages from so many people. Oh No! I have begun to follow up with humble apologies but am often many months late.

If you are one of my victims - please receive my apologies. I shall hope to be restored as one email personality soon.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Little Z

Next Sunday I am preaching at Water's Edge Bible Church in West Chicago. This will be my first visit there. As always, when preaching a "one-off", the question of what to preach is difficult. Should I take out a recently preached sermon and dust it off? (Very tempting at this busy time of term). Or, does something so grab my attention that it demands to be preached? Actually, it's the latter.

Recently, I have been strongly drawn to Luke 19:1-10 - the story of Zacchaeus ( or little Z!) It is told so vividly that you can see the movie in your mind. It's therefore one of the best loved children's stories. Yet, it holds very demanding adult themes. It is not a children's story. There are themes of money, spiritual curiosity, isolation, lostness and salvation all within ten verses. And it is extraordinarily relevant to the twenty-first century.

My immersion in the story has been considerable and has benefited from reflecting on some pictures from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (found through Google). In Seminary Chapel on Tuesday I shall focus on two pictures and (briefly) share reflections...on my way to complete my sermon preparation.

I know some of you are highly visual - do you similarly find art sometimes helps reflection?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Another Courageous Book

I realized after posting about Alan’s book on women in leadership (and several of you have said you now want to read it!) that I have omitted to mention another courageous book by another friend of mine. John Armstrong has written a bold book: Your Church is Too Small - Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan, 2010) in which he challenges us about Jesus’ prayer vision for the church in John 17:20-21 –“that all of them might be one”. This divine plea is often drowned out by the busy small-mindedness of much church life that can be obsessed with goals focused on the local church (and its survival sometimes!) What a contrasting vision to see that Christ yearns for unity for all God’s people across social, cultural, racial and denominational lines.

He shares his own story honestly – an extraordinary journey from hard-nosed judgmentalism to realizing how God has called Christians to a life of love together for God’s sake and the world’s. Few have walked such a dramatic journey from rigid exclusionism to kingdom-centered inclusiveness, so evidently inspired by God’s love and mission. Those who know John are often overwhelmed by his desire to learn from other Christians and to network across the boundaries that have so often limited evangelicals (in particular) to their own small boxes. How I admire him for challenging us about our own spiritual identity and our need to see God’s big picture so that we join him in praying and working for renewal of the entire Christian church. He calls it missional-ecumenism. His book is immensely readable and chock full of insights and challenges.

How demanding is this vision of missional-ecumenism! Coming from Britain to the mid-west USA I noticed how the (still) high percentage of church-goers here appears to allow much more competition between churches. Frankly, the possibility of joining in with others seems remote.

At one point John quotes me in the book as I give a positive example of missional-ecumenism from my experience of Spring Harvest when 60-70,000 Christians gather from every kind of church background. I told John that I had never experienced such richness as I taught at this festival. On one occasion I worked in small teams including charismatic Anglicans, a female Salvation Army officer, a Pentecostal house church leader, and an overseas Methodist missionary. It was a taste of God’s bigger picture.

BUT, when I was last in the UK I heard from a leader that such cooperation was no longer the norm. “Oh,’ said this leader, “things have changed from when you took part 10 years ago. There seems to be much less willingness to work in such open ways.” Now, I do not know the situation first-hand but if that’s true it sadly reinforces the critical need to take John’s book seriously because Jesus (John 17:20-21) needs to be taken seriously.

Thank you John for sharing your own journey, and expressing leadership so clearly through this writing. The right word about his book and vision is courageous. May we act differently because we have read it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How I changed my mind about women in leadership

A friend of mine, Alan Johnson, recently sent me a book that he edited: How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals (Zondervan, 2010). Alan is a gifted New Testament scholar who began his teaching career as a strong advocate of women’s submission to male-only leadership. Winsomely and very honestly he tells the story of how he changed his mind as a NT scholar and Christian leader. He has collected 26 other extraordinary stories from men and women who like himself began with robust views on submissive women’s roles and later changed their mind.

It’s a challenging read that opens up this divisive issue in a disarmingly fresh way. Sometimes the subject of women in leadership is treated as the litmus test as to whether a person truly accepts the authority of Scripture or not. Anyone who appears to fudge what seems so fundamental and obvious based on certain Scriptures (especially 1 Tim. 2:11) is considered biblically suspect.

Because these are honest stories from people who have wrestled at depth with this critical issue I consider it a great privilege to listen to them. So many positives tumble out:
  • Serious biblical scholarship which emphasizes the difference between biblical authority and biblical interpretation, encouraging the placing of the difficult texts in the wider context of understanding what the New Testament says as a whole (and especially the ministries of Jesus and Paul).
  • Grace under pressure. Time after time these thoughtful, biblically committed friends tell their story with palpable longing that their change of stance on this issue will not break relationships with others.
  • Pain and Distress. Yes, there is some of this too. You would expect it! I think the most strident voice belongs to Tony Campolo who complains about the injustice of one gender being submitted to another.
  • Courage. I still have a few stories to read but I have been struck by the courage of these leaders to speak out. However, though I haven’t estimated the average age of the contributors I guess it is over 50 (!) and perhaps it is easier for well-established people to speak out in this way.

As someone who teaches in a seminary that is committed to prepare women for Christian leadership I know what it is to be told I am biblically unsound, and to be deemed unacceptable in certain places because of this one issue. I hope that those of us who continue to wrestle with this divisive matter will find this powerful book pushes us into fresh thinking and greater fellowship. Thank you Alan for working so hard to help us.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Truth Spaces (10) A Pause

Hopefully these last posts have shown something of why Jesus' questions matter. Of course questions in general are an important way of communicating because they offer such dynamic direct ways of dealing with people. They are so different from teaching or story-telling, though questions occur in both. I marvel that Jesus asked 292 questions and that he so frequently used this form of speech - often at very important moment in the gospels. He is a questioning Lord. And what makes his questions in the gospels a matter of eternal significance is that he continues to ask them by his Spirit, and he asks them personally out of knowledge about us.

I have selected eight of these questions and over these next months shall continue working on them. However, I think that my blog's format, with its relatively short postings, is not the appropriate place to try and publish any more of my work in detail. If any friends out there would like to follow my progress in more detail please let me know on and I shall try to keep you in touch.

Meanwhile, I hope that whenever you are reading the gospels you will be looking out especially for Jesus' questions with willingness to respond! Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Truth Spaces (9) Another big difference!

3) Jesus knows us
There is one other huge difference about the questions of Jesus that makes his questions unlike anyone else’s in human history. While others ask questions to teach the right answers (top-down) or lead us in conversation (side-by-side) without necessarily knowing us well, Jesus asks because he always knows us so well. He has knowledge about us unlike anyone else. When he questions people, he already knows what it going on inside them!

Scripture claims that God alone knows what is in a person’s heart (1 Kings 8:39). When Samuel was so sure who to appoint as king he was rebuked: “for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). One of the truths about Jesus that is often missed is that he looks on the heart. It is stunning to realize how all the gospels agree that Jesus possessed deep spiritual discernment about the people he met. Jesus “himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:25); “Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves” (Mark 2:8); Jesus knew their thoughts (Matt 12:25, 22:18; Luke 6:8; 11:17). Jesus is in a unique category because his questions arise out of deep knowledge of those who are questioned. Jesus asks questions not in order for him to find out about us, but for us to discover with him what we don’t yet know about ourselves.

No one knows us like God’s son, so when he asks us about ourselves it is for our own sake that we might grow into his purposes. He knows who and where we are on the journey with him. By his questions he expresses love and understanding just as they are needed. Jesus specializes in personal questions because he knows and loves persons through and through.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Truth Spaces (8) - Another difference

2) Scripture is Alive
Its all very well to claim that Jesus continues to question people today but how can we know? By the Bible! God has revealed who Jesus is and what Jesus says through Scripture. The Bible is a God-breathed book (1 Tim 3:16). As the Holy Spirit inspired its writing in the first place, so he makes it alive today. Its message is never out-dated or out-of-touch. Never!

When we open the gospels we read about Jesus in the past. These stories need to be understood within Jesus Christ’s historical ministry and studying them means taking their original context seriously. But, because Jesus is alive and the Scriptures are a living word by which God continues to speak, we can also encounter Jesus in the present. Nowhere is this more true than in the questions Jesus asks. These remain relevant in every culture, especially his side-by-side questions.

Certainly Jesus asked some top-down questions. After all, he reveals truths that no one else but his heavenly Father knows. But, too often people have been presented only with a top-down Jesus Christ, who lays down truths as though everything that matters is found on a long list of boxes to check. Yes to this and this and this! As though I can only be Jesus’ friend by my head assenting to a check-list of cerebral doctrines. Of course, doctrines are important but first Jesus wants to open up truth spaces with my heart as well as my head.

These questions show that the Lord of heaven and earth, Alpha and Omega, the Word made flesh, actually comes alongside ordinary people and opens himself up by risky, untidy and costly questions that help us grow. Interestingly, one of the descriptions given the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel is the Paraclete, which literally means “To call beside” (John 14: 16, 26, 15:26, 16:7). And Jesus describes himself as “The Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). He calls himself “The Way” to emphasize that he does not offer a list of truths to be checked but he is the Truth who offers a new way of living with him. Not for some of the time but for all the time. He invites followers into a relationship that keeps on moving and developing. Indeed, the earliest description of the church was “The Way” as believers showed they were on a spiritual journey with their Lord (Acts 9:2, 19:9, 23, 22:4, 24:14,22).

So Jesus continues to come alongside and ask these questions today as the way we should go. The Holy Spirit continues to minister, he does so side-by-side, guiding, reminding us of truths.