Friday, March 30, 2007

What does it mean to get involved Wilberforce style?

I had a smashing night out seeing the new film 'Amazing Grace' which tells the story of William Wilberforce and I commend it heartily. Wilberforce was a man of extraordinary vision, courage and perseverance and this film shows how a crucial piece of history played out in the life of this nation. The key dynamic is the friendship of Wilberforce with William Pitt the Younger and the highs and lows of the lifelong campaign to bring an end to the slave trade. Albert Finney gives a stunning performance playing as the ex-slave trader John Newton. This film is funny, sad, heart-warming and inspiring and well worth scheduling an evening out to watch. (View the trailer on the sidebar)

Recently, I heard Lord Hastings on this subject of slavery and it made me think deeply. At the time of Wilberforce there where 4m slaves worldwide. Today, conservatively, there are estimated to be 12.4m slaves and one agency has quoted a figure as high as 27m. These range from children enslaved as industrial labour to the ever increasing sex-trade from Eastern Europe and beyond. Remember the drowned Chinese cockle pickers? They were 21st century slaves This is is a living reality in many cities across the UK. There is as great a need for a call for justice for slaves as ever there was 200 years ago.

But how do you go about doing anything? One thing you can do is have a voice and sign a petition www.wilberforce2007.com) You can also give your money away to a variety of charities or you can get involved in political campaigning. It was on this subject that Lord Hastings had the most interesting insights.

This was his advice. Firstly (and he said this as a committed Christian) Christian's write the most annoying letters of all the ones he receives and are often the most narrow-minded and short-sighted. He used the example of the sex-discrimination act where lots of Christian groups had written to him demanding he make this HIS issue and saying that he had to make a stand. His response was a simple one. He said "Why this issue?". "Why homosexuality?" "Why didn't you write me a letter about the 200K children living in poverty in the UK, about stem-cell research, about euthaniasia, about prison reform, about nuclear weapons, about the Aids pandemic in Africa and a host of other crucial legislation that has been across my desk in the last 12 months?" Rightly, he said, if these groups and individuals had written to him about these things then he might have listened to them on sex-discrimination. Fair point.

He concluded with some straight-talking. He said "Don't write a letter to your MP". If you want to enact change and fight for justice then you have to go and see your MP face to face. That's getting involved. When was the last time any of us did that? Have you or I ever been to see our MP's in their surgery and if not why not? Surely that is the legacy of Wilberforce. He didn't just talk and write but he acted. Not just for a day, or while the issue was in the news, but he gave his whole life and being to it. He stood on the deck of the slave ship Madagascar and breathed in the stench of death and injustice such that he would never allow himself to forget it. That's getting involved the Wilberforce way.

'He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God' Micah 6:8

And why did Wilberforce do what he did? What motivated him to a life of such passion and perseverance that it cost him his money, his reputation and eventually his health and life? Well, perhaps John Newton answers that question for us as well as anyone: "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour"

And so he is. Wilberforce, above all things, knew that and took it deep down into his heart and life and may each one of us know it too.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Simon Ponsonby gets 'God inside out'

One of the most constant debates while I have been studying theology is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Often views are polarized, on one side are the sometimes self-indulgent gnostic excesses of the extreme Charismatic, who can often chase after 'the experience' at the expense of or neglecting the necessity of sitting under the word. On the other hand, there are those who seem unilaterally focussed on the word and sometimes come across entirely cerebrally as if though they wouldn't know an experience of God if it hit them over the head. These folks are all word but no joy, power or passion. Then there is a third group who don't have a scooby-doo what I am talking about. They are the most important bunch of all but we'll come to them.

For Christians, there must surely be a place where we can stand firmly in the truth of the scriptures and uphold this boldly, but also be able to stand in the reality and experience of the presence of a loving Father God who gives good gifts to his children and power from on high to proclaim Kingdom reality now. But how are are we to do that and who will help guide us so we don't get ourselves into a pickle.?

Well, onto the stage confidently strides Simon Ponsonby's new book and says a very timely and justifiably loud "LOOK HERE". It is called 'God Inside Out' and I enjoyed reading it immensely and it is set to be a staple text on my book shelf for years to come and I'll tell you why.

1. For anyone who has already read 'More' ( if you haven't then go and buy a copy!) or attends St Aldates, you will know Simon's passion for the word and his great teaching and preaching gift, but you will also realise that he is steeped in both Church history and the work of God over many years in his own life. This shines through, particularly his love of the Puritan's , most notably John Owen, which I also share. If you have read 'More' then be warned you will find this to be a more scholarly animal with less personal testimony (though the stories he shares in the latter part of the book are amazing and the story of he tells of his son's birthday really made me smile) and it is clearly the fruit of much reading and study.

2. There is so much I enjoyed and will return to that you just have to go out and buy a copy for yourself, but if you have ever wondered which came first the chicken or the egg, Simon will answer that one for you! It's in the bible, as he demonstates. More seriously, he also explores in depth the work of the Spirit in creation, justice and compassion, through history, in sonship, in regeneration and the Spirit and power.

3. It is only in the third section of the book that he deals with the subject that seems to occupy such heated discussion among Christians. What does it mean to be baptised in the Spirit? Well, I'll let him tell you.

"There is a tension between owning what we have and pursuing more. Just as the New Testament says that all believers are already 'saints' but are still exhorted to 'become sanctified' (1 Cor 1:2), so it is with baptism in the Spirit (BIS). We need baptising with our baptism. Perhaps, rather than speak of BIS as an experience and energising power to be sought, we might better think in terms of the release of the Spirit. Though not a biblical term, I believe it conveys the biblical truth. I receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit when I am BIS-incorporated into Christ. But the powerful presence of God needs to be let loose, the giant needs to awake. I need to let him be God, be the Spirit, blowing where, when and as he wills. I need more. BIS is an inside-out movement of the received Spirit within the believer-having co-joined with our spirit his charisms and character pervade exocentrically through our soul,body and outward to the Church and the world." (p.250)

The giant needs to awaken. Doesn't it just! I pray that it may be ushered in through this book and may Simon's prophetic voice unite Christian's to crack on urgently with the mission Christ has tasked us with, rather that continuously discussing what might be the most orthodox or appropriate way of doing it.

The Chapter I liked most was about sonship, probably because it plays most to my heart and my own story. The Spirit tells us we are children of a loving Father and to know that in your being is transformational. I cannot explain it any better than Simon does in concluding quote by Tom Smail:

" Within the Charismatic renewal today, there is a good deal more talk about spiritual gifts than exercise of them; more discussion about the power of the Spirit than actual experience of it. One of the main reasons for that is most people just do not have the confidence that God has accepted them and loves them just as they are as his children, and therefore will not let them be led astray by what is fleshy or demonic but will give them all that he has promised-his robe, his ring,his shoes. This confidence will not be created by repeated acts of laying on of hands, but only by an awareness of the Spirit's cry of Abba at the creative and motivating centre of our lives. This is what releases from the paralyszing fear of God and man that grips so many-and it is not a technique that we can master but a sovereign work of the Spirit which must liberate us" ( Tom Smail, Forgotten Father, p140 and p.188 in God Inside Out)

If there are any gaps, those looking for the role of the Spirit in spiritual warfare may be left wanting, but I suspect Simon would say that it doesn't say much about it in the bible-hence it is a justifiable omission. Also, the loss of the narrative style of 'More' is a shame and this has much more of a lecture feel to it. One point of note for you Simon, when you read this. Are you privvy to a few more Chapters in Galatians than I have in my bible and does that explain why you know so much more than me? (p181 para 2)

In conclusion, this will certainly go on my recommendations sidebar and is one for Andrew Whyte to cry from his pulpit and exclaim 'Sell your bed if you have to, but buy this book!' Thanks to Simon for this gift to the Church and may the church now have ears to listen to its message and it is, most certainly, a book 'for such a time as this'.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

My Doctor

I went to the Doc's this afternoon for my test results and she says I am basically OK but have to have some more tests. She says I passed a Gall stone, (which sounds painful and I can tell you it is!) but she want me to have some more tests. Back in four weeks to give a bit more blood and see so more prayers please.

On the up, my doctor is great. I haven't been to the doctors for years and this was a pleasant surprise. She is absolutely fantastic at her job, which is rather rare these days. She is kind, communicates clearly, is efficient and has an enormous empathy, which I suppose you need when you may have to tell people they are about to die. Not me, this time thankfully! As my friend Adam so often quotes 'Excellence lad excellence' and that's what I experienced.

My hope is that I might be half as good a pastor is she is a Doctor and may there be many more like her (as I'm sure there are). Pastor's may have a thing or two to learn from our friends at the medical front line.

Bless them all.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gilead

I have been rather ill recently and done the 'visit the doctor' thing. I had a bad pain in my stomach and the doc sent me off for scans and you never quite know what they might find. Happily, all seems sort of OK for the time being but I am waiting for some tests so a prayer or two would be great.

I confess this has awakened me to having taken my health for granted and all of this has got me thinking about living and dying. Granted not a happy subject, but this brief incident has made me realise I will not be here forever. Nor will any of us as it happens. Only yesterday, did I learn of Costa's news (who is at Wycliffe with me doing a Phd), and he got knocked off his bicyle and is badly hurt. These things so often come from nowhere.

Accompanying me through these last couple of weeks has been a novel called Gilead (see 'A book I just read' on the sidebar) . It is the story of a letter that an elderly Pastor writes to his young son. It is a book packed with wisdom and insight and seems to have taken the author about 20 years to write. It's worth the wait. Usually the fact that a book won a Pulitzer Prize would put me off, but it really isn't that scary. Thanks go to Steve for putting me on a novel of such peace, gentleness and goodness.

The 78 year old Reverend reflects....

" I have been thinking a lot about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial-if you remember them- and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping like acorns hitting the pavement so hard they'd pass my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of the moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among the trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on a prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me" (p64)

Isn't it true how quicky we cease to be astonished. By a tree, a child, a piece of music, a sunset or simply a moment of tranquility in the midst of a busy day. There is so much that resonates with those words 'It's still new to me.' Perhaps it does with you too.


He concludes his many thoughts with:

" Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must be also a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave-that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all ember now, and the good lLord will surely someday breathe it into flame again" (p. 281)

Don't we all need a bit more grace and courage? I certainly do. This made me think about what I might write if I were about to die and what, if anything, I might want to say. Now may I hope not be the time to dwell on such things but there will come a time when it might be necessary. I suppose the challenge for all of us is to have led the sort of life that might warrant having something to pass something on to another. As our culture becomes increasingly consumed by things and their pursuit, my concern is that it will have less and less to say and less and less to pass on. Fortunately, this book is a staying of the tide.

" The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him be eternal praise" Ps 111:10

This morning I read these words of the Psalmist and oh how we should all desire and chase after more wisdom. Let us try to do it now before it is too late.

I hope this novel may help you, as it has me, seek after wisdom once again, so that I might have the mereist thing to give away.

Enjoy.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Without Wesley would we have had Wilberforce?

About three years after I became a Christian, I was given a book by John Pollock called 'Wesley the Preacher' and reading it captured my heart. It is not an overly scholarly work, which can so often can make a story impenitrable, it reads instead like an 18th Century adventure that happens, amazingly, also to be true. I have reread it this week and once again my heart has been 'strangely warmed'.

Wesley is arguably one of the most influencial Christian's of the last five centuries and with all the current talk of Wilberforce it is worth remembering 'Jacky' and his stamp on our nation. As we teetered on the brink of revolution two brothers and a squinty-eyed man called George Whitfield turned England and the North America upside down with the preaching of the gospel of grace. What was interesting to note is that they were all already ordained before they truly understood the love and power of God to save and free the human heart.

Do you ever wonder what revival looks like? Well this is a good place to find out.

For all his Greek, Hebrew and prolific learning at Oxford, Wesley had mistaken Anglican 'religion' for Christianity (not much changes!). But his works, as he discovered, could never save his hungry soul. Thanks to the intervention of some Spirit-filled Moravians and, more specifically, a man called Peter Bohler, the day and the man were saved. Wesley was convinced that forgiveness and peace must be earned by unceasing effort. Bohler's frank reply were to change the course of his life:

"Believe and you will be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus with all your heart, and nothing shall be impossible to you! This faith, like the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. Seek and you will find" (P.90)

Of course, some time later in Aldersgate Street, Wesley wrote in his journal that...."I felt my heart strangley warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation...'.(P.98). This account of his life, his preaching and the results are nothing short of remarkable. What struck me as I reread this piec e of history is the trouble and strife that come with revival, not least over matters of theology. The predominant dispute throughout the revival was over predestination that led to the parting of the ways between Whitifield ( the Calvinsit) and Wesley (the Arminian), though they were eventually reconciled. When revival comes, I wonder what will be our doctrinal issue set to divide and if we will learn the Methodist's lesson? I pray so.

Towards the end of his life, Wesley started to be troubled by the issue of slavery and in 1774 wrote his 'Thoughts on slavery'. This was his call:

"Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is, to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you by his own act and deed, by his own voluntary action. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle toward all men ; and see that you invariably do with every one as you would he should do unto you" (P.242)

John Newton read this pamphlet in his vicarage at Olney and Wesley's words opened his eyes to the crime in which he had been formerly engaged. Eleven years later Newton would have a profound influence on a young boy, one William Wilberforce, and his story is now being told to all as we celebrate 200 years of Abolition. 'Amazing Grace' it was for sure, but perhaps it came a little earlier and through people other than the historian's may now acknowledge or remember.

Give yourself a treat and read Wesley's story and I pray it may set your heart aflame as it has mine.

Monday, March 19, 2007

At a country funeral

At a Country Funeral
by Wendell Berry

Now the old ways that have brought us
farther than we remember sink out of sight
as under the treading of many strangers
ignorant of landmarks. Only once in a while
they are cast clear again upon the mind
as at a country funeral where, amid the soft
lights and hothouse flowers, the expensive
solemnity of experts, notes of a polite musician,
persist the usages of old neighborhood.
Friends and kinsmen come and stand and speak,
knowing the extremity they have come to,
one of their own bearing to the earth the last
of his light, his darkness the sun’s definitive mark.
hey stand and think as they stood and thought
when even the gods were different.
And the organ music, though decorous
as for somebody else’s grief, has its source
in the outcry of pain and hope in log churches,
and on naked hillsides by the open grave,
eastward in mountain passes, in tidelands,
and across the sea. How long a time?
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide my
self in Thee. They came, once in time,
in simple loyalty to their dead, and returned
to the world. The fields and the work
remained to be returned to. Now the entrance
of one of the old ones into the Rock
too often means a lifework perished from the land
without inheritor, and the field goes wild
and the house sits and stares. Or it passes
at cash value into the hands of strangers.
Now the old dead wait in the open coffin
for the blood kin to gather, come home
for one last time, to hear old men
whose tongues bear an essential topography
speak memories doomed to die.
But our memory of ourselves, hard earned,
is one of the land’s seeds, as a seed
is the memory of the life of its kind in its place,
to pass on into life the knowledge
of what has died. What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.
That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.
The community of knowing in common is the seed
of our life in this place. There is not only
no better possibility, there is no
other, except for chaos and darkness,
the terrible ground of the only possible
new start. And so as the old die and the young
depart, where shall a man go who keeps
the memories of the dead, except home
again, as one would go back after a burial,
faithful to the fields, lest the dead die
a second and more final death.

Wendell Berry, “At a Country Funeral” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The (Spiritual) Adventures of Cyber Cindy

I have finished all my essays! One of the benefits of this is I am now able to read all the books that I have been unable to read while studying. Here is one I read this week that I commend. The first warning is this book by Gill Rowell has both a name and a cover that makes it look like it is a book for teenage girls. The truth is it's a book about hermeneutics. That sound's really dull doesn't it? Well, don't despair, it is actually a very stimulating read and wonderfully explores Ruth and the Samaritan woman and how we should interpret them in the context of post-modernity.

" If you wish to communicate,
On this one thing please meditate:
Avoid pretence, be real, be true,
That I might know who's really you.
Show me yourself in honesty,
And not the you you'd have me see.
We will not progress very far,
Unless you show me who you are.
Yet all is lost if you don't see
The person who is really me!"

G Bailey ( in the Foreward of Cyber Cindy)

Rowell brings both these biblical women to life, makes them real and asks some searching questions along the way. John Goldingay, who is an OT professor at Fuller, says in his review 'Cybercindy is the most exciting un-putdownable Christian book I have ever read. Buy it quick'. In truth, I am probably too dim to see its genius but of its genre and for its sheer originality it deserves a space on the shelf and some considered attention. Even now, I am mulling over these stories and seeing them in a different way. I hope some may enjoy it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Is that OK or is it just that nobody has noticed?

The other night I went out for a drink in Oxford. The restaurant I had chosen happened to be hosting the annual dinner of the 'Oxford Labour Students' and their key note speaker was none other than Alistair Campbell. Perhaps I am getting old (which indeed I am!) but it occured to me that what made for a labour student seems to have changed rather. The assembled company seemed be southern public school types who you would more expect to see at Henley Regatta than at the TUC conference. How the tide has turned.

Richard Ely wrote "We have among us a class of mammon worshippers, whose one test of conservatism or radicalism is the attitude one takes with respect to accumulated wealth. Whatever tends to preserve the wealth of the wealthy is called conservatism, and whatever favors anything else, no matter what is called socialism." But what happened to that radicalism and idealistic belief in change and in a society that is not yet? Now, I am far from a socialist and have only ever voted Tory, think it philosphically misguided but there is something nonetheless that I admire.

I attended a northern red brick university in the 80's and witnessed the last throws of what one might call 'socialism'. The 'socialist worker' students were daily found outside the union selling their newspapers and calling for the defence of students, miners, ethic minorities, the poor and whoever else was deemed the underdog of the day. As the buses left for London filled with hope and zeal for the poll tax march people power and socialist/student passion set out to defeat the establishment and its wicked tax bill. Of course, let's not forget there was a riot to boot but the principle of managing to muster enough enthusiasm to compell people to spend 6 hours on a coach seems to have been lost somewhere.
Twenty years later, I am listening to Radio 4 as I awaken to a new day to hear the proposal that the Labour Party are proposing to spend £21 billion on Trident. I'll say that again. The Labour Party is commissioning a Trident nuclear arsenal and are going to spend your money and my money to buy it. Would anyone have ever have foreseen that in 1987? And where may I ask are the voices of protest? Is that OK? Was it in their manifesto? Who's organising the rally and when are the coaches for Trafalgar Square leaving? I'm not organising it because I am no longer 18 and surely it's not my job to call out for this apathetic generation. Where are those passionate students enduring the rain selling the socialist worker when we really need them and where are the women of Greenham Common to show us an alternative view? The irony is that when Labour politician's were wrong in the 80's in their unilateralsm in the face of a Soviet threat and now when that threat is gone or certainly more difficult to define they are in favour of it. They are in danger being wrong on both counts. Is a missile system designed for Moscow really the same things need to defend us against terrorism and rogue states with bombs? Where is anybody, really anybody, who gives even a modicum of a hoolly.

I'll tell you where they are. They are in a wine bar in Oxford getting drunk on expensive chardonnay listening to Alistair Campbell learning how to write a good press release- so don't hold your breath. The rest are probably on Facebook and wouldn't recognise a protest march if it hit them over the head. So who will fill the vacuum? Perhaps, just maybe, it's the job of the people of God, the Church, to rise up and pray and proclaim and stand and question and ask and be passionate for a different world and a Kingdom that has not yet come. One that doesn't have as it's solution a bomb with the capacity blow us all the smithereens. The Kingsdom beats socialism and do you know what I think- it might just have the capacity to change the world.

For the first time in my life I think I might write to my MP.

(Check out 'They work for you' for an easy and accessible way to have dialogue with your MP)