Blueprint: Beautiful Difference

We finished the series looking at the church as the joy of the whole earth, a place where beautiful differences are held and expressed. We looked at it through gender, gifts and generations. You can download the message here: Beautiful Difference or read on for a transcript. IMG_7017

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
    in the city of our God!
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
    is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
    the city of the great King.
Within her citadels God
    has made himself known as a fortress.
For behold, the kings assembled;
    they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
    they were in panic; they took to flight.

— Psalm 48:1-5

The Blueprint of the church in scripture is of a people radically different from the wider world they live. For the past 3 months we’ve explored some of the sketches the Bible presents for us: city, family, bride, field, movement, buttress of truth and more (available to listen to/download here: Blueprint).

The city of God, the psalmist says, is the joy of the whole earth. This term we’ve been ‘walking around the city’ together and ‘thinking on the steadfast love of God.’ to quote psalm 48.

In the New Testament the marvelling and celebrating over the people of God continues:

Through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’

— Ephesians 3:10

It isn’t only the visitors to the city who marvel but the ‘rulers and authorities in heavenly places’ (angels, & demons).

What is the manifold wisdom of God that Paul’s announcing?

In Ephesians it is the uniting into one people from two peoples. Jew & gentile coming together as one to show how wise and powerful God is. But this uniting of hostile or different parties isn’t seen only in the uniting of different people groups. In Galatians Paul says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The manifold wisdom of God on display in the church, the joy of the whole earth, is displayed in the beautiful difference on display.

Against that backdrop, let’s get into it and start by looking at the various approaches to difference and what Christianity’s answer to them is: Gender…

Gender

First of, the world is a divided world with many irreconcilable and distinct differences in it.

The creation poem in Genesis shows this:

Light / darkness,

Day / night,

Summer / winter,

Seas / sky,

Land / sea

Those things aren’t one and the same or interchangeable.

The atheist writer and social critic Camille Paglia points out more distinctions from her work on ancient civilisations and the art world:

Earth / sky

Land / Rain

Female / male (female association with mother earth; Job quote ‘naked I came from mother’s womb, naked I shall return there.’)

Body / Head (distinction between body magic and head magic)

Curves / Lines 

Cyclical / Linear

Internal / External

Invisible / Visible

Eastern / Western

Chaos / Order

Nature / Society

The fact that there  are differences/opposites in the world ought to be self-evident. It is often the case that these differences are set against one another, often in conflict. Female vs male, eastern vs western, nature vs society. In the beginning however the difference between the man and woman wasn’t a source of conflict but of joy.

In the creation account when God makes Adam he forms alone. Adam is placed in a garden and commissioned to keep it but early on it becomes clear that he isn’t complete, he cannot complete and carry out what God wants him to do on his own. Next, he declares his aloneness ‘not good’ and tries to find a partner/helper for him. He parades the animals in front of him to emphasise the difference between him and the animals.

(See: Jen Wilkins ‘not like me, not like me…’ here for more on this.)

But when God creates male and female, the first word spoken (despite obvious differences) is ‘same’.

“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”

— Genesis 2:23

There is obvious difference but there is also an appreciation of similarity; there is a celebration of the other without competition.

We’re then told that it is ‘male and female’ together who reflect the image of God, not male alone and not female alone. Gen. 5:1 ‘When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them.’ Author Alastair Roberts puts it like this:

We tend to think of the standard unit of humanity as being the individual. But the unit of humanity in scripture is the man and woman made in the image of God. Male and female are akin to two magnetic poles structuring time always in reference to one another. Humanity is irreducibly two, it cannot be broken down.

— Alastair Roberts:

Male & female are different but beautifully so, and in order to fully express God’s image and complete God’s mission they need one another.

Sadly however the story doesn’t end there.

After the man and woman disobey God, their relationship changes as brokenness enters the world. The difference between men and women becomes a source of friction.

Conflict

Gen. 3:16 ‘your desire will be for/against your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ So we end up with books likeMen are From Mars, Women are from Venus’ men say (as if to emphasise our difference) ‘you can’t understand a woman,’ and women say ‘if you want a job done right, get a woman to do it.’ And the conflict grows. And the conflict still grows.

In every society, owing in part to the man’s greater strength than the women but owing mostly to his sin nature, women have been oppressed and abused by men and it is far from over. As the recent scandals in government and Hollywood have shown and along with #metoo campaign and statistics that tell us that something like 1in4 women in the uk have been victims of sexual abuse. The conflict continues.

As Christians it’s our belief that men and women are each made in the image and likeness of God, that means that women ought to be treated with the honour and dignity that is theirs as co-image bearers with men. The laws of nature won’t lead us that sort of mutual honour. In fact the laws of nature are red in tooth and claw, it is a  dog eat dog, dominance hierarchy where the strong eat or rape the weak. One approach to the difference is to embrace conflict and look to establish who’s better than whom.

This other approach, the opposite problem, is that of denying that there are any differences at all.

Deny difference

In modern times we’ve done away with the ‘heaven and earth’ distinction, the ‘visible and invisible’, and increasingly any ‘spiritual’ things at all; that’s what atheism is.

Along with this (and as a result of this?), there is also a growing move to ‘do away’ with the differences between men and women as well. Gender is a social construct we’re told and our sex ought to have no bearing at all on our identity.

In the 1970s the social activist and radical feminist Shulamith Firestone wrote:

The end goal of the feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself… The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least with the option of) artificial reproduction… The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.

When she wrote it in the 70s much of what she said must have seemed utterly bizarre, but now her ideas are much more mainstream.

More recently, writing in the Guardian newspaper in May, journalist Amy Westervelt points out that the topic of motherhood comes up in just 3% of all the recent papers, journal articles and textbooks on gender theory.

She also comments that for years women’s magazines have written articles on female sexuality promising ‘great sex’ whilst at the same time also being committed to a policy of ‘we don’t do motherhood’. The fact that sex could lead to motherhood for women is seen by many as oppressive. Just as sex differences are being slowly eradicated so is the value and importance of motherhood. Increasingly the state plays the role of the parent and if a young girl tells her careers advisor that she wants to be a mother when she grows up, she is likely given strange stares and offered counselling.

We devalue motherhood at our peril, we seek to do away with the differences between the sexes at our peril as well.

The Christian message, however is different. Rather than putting our differences against one another or denying them altogether, the Bible teaches that we need one another, that although different we complement one another; as gravy complements chips or as cheese complements wine, the two work to enhance and improve the other.

In the gospel God reconciles our differences by making the divided, united, the two, one. Jew, gentile, male, female, slave, free.

In his passage on how men and women ought to pray in church with the discussion on head coverings Paul concludes by saying:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.’

1 Corinthians 11:9

Men and women are meant to honour one another as men and as women, recognising the value and beauty of both. In churches there ought to be no derogatory joking or sexist remarks, just as there should be no chauvinism, belittling, racism, nor classism. There should be no statements about inferiority of any kind among God’s people

C.S. Lewis writing about the eventual destiny of men and women in Christ saw this, saw the value and significance of the people around him and he wrote:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible Gods and Goddesses. To remember that the dullest, and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.

In a society where women are not honoured as women, the society suffers and in a society where men are not honoured as men it also suffers. We live in a society where, as we’ve seen, motherhood is not honoured and valued as a high calling, and the same could be said of fatherhood. The image in popular culture of what a father is is Daddy Pig and Phil Dunfey from Modern Family.

I like Daddy Pig & Phil Dunfey(!) but if a grown up, slightly clumsy & goofy playmate for their kids is about all a man can hope for as a father it’s no wonder fatherhood in our society is in a crisis as well.

Fatherhood, needs protecting and honouring in part because of its difference from motherhood. A Father can much more easily avoid being a dad than a mother can avoid being a mum. When a child is born the midwife never says to the woman ‘who’s the mother?’(!) because she saw where the baby came from.

On the other hand, every time a couple take a child to register its birth the registrar always says ‘who’s the father?’ Because it isn’t obvious! And it’s at that moment a good man will step up and say ‘I am.’ – and it is a statement he will need to make again and again in that child’s life – I am his father, I am her father.’ But it’s a statement that fewer men are making:

In 1972 1in14 households in the UK were fatherless, now it would be 1in4.

What’s more; there 236 local authorities in England and Wales in which more then 50% of the families don’t have fathers. 

This is awful and catastrophic. That is what happens when a doesn’t honour men and women but instead when a society is bent on denying difference and devaluing distinctions between people.

It ought not to be the case in the church. It mustn’t be the case in the church.

The church

The New Testament teaches that the church, as the household and family of God, needs fathers it needs men who are going to take responsibility for and protect the church and it’s a requirement that God puts on men as early on as Genesis.

When the man and the woman disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree, it is the man that God speaks to and addresses. It is the man who is called to account, to take the responsibility and the blame for the actions of the entire human race; we are described as being ‘in Adam’ rather than Eve because a man was created as the representative head.

When the Bible calls the husband the head of his wife it is with this imagery in mind. To be the head doesn’t simply mean that he’s ‘the boss’ or ‘in charge’ any more than in a physical body the head is the boss of the heart; they work together. It is the man’s responsibility before God to be on the look out for trouble, to honour and protect his wife and family and to embody God’s fatherly authority.

God the Father is the model for fathers, the model for husbands and the model for elders in the church. God the Father glorifies and honours God the Son, and so it is the job of the head to honour the heart and ensure its flourishing and full expression.

The way this translates into the life of a local church (which is called the family of God) is that its male leaders are called elders. Paul lays out the requirements for eldership:

An overseer (in the church) must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household how will he care for God’s.

1 Timothy 3:1-3

The pattern is – to oversee or govern in the church, to be a father in the church, a man must be able to oversee and father effectively in his own home. Elders are men called by God and appointed to guard and lead the church, not exclusively (or independently of women it should be said) but nevertheless they are to do it distinctly and deliberately.

But, as with the other aspects of our difference, so here; the way an elder is to govern is as a servant, seeking to become less in order that the church’s members become more.

My friend and church leader Phil Moore says: eldership isn’t meant to monopolise leadership but to mobilise it. Elders are given in order for a church to release others into leadership and positions of authority; because that’s what fathers do.

Elders, are men who are told to take responsibility for the guarding of the church family. They are meant to take the rap for its shortcomings and failures, and it is men as elders who are meant to step up to the block first and offer their necks to the sword before anyone else. Christ offered his life for the church, and asks men to follow him in doing likewise. 

In the book of Acts Paul and Barnabas address a church to encourage them saying ‘it is through much hardship that we must enter the kingdom of heaven,’ and then immediately afterwards appoint elders. It is part of how a church prepares for and survives hardship, by appointing fathers who get hit first when trouble comes; because, again that’s what fathers do.

It is true also that churches need mothers, it’s just that that isn’t what’s being referred to when Paul speaks of elders and the governing structure in a church. Given that the man bears a name used by God ‘father’ it is God’s call on him that he be discouraged from sitting back passively on the sidelines, and embody God’s action in the world.

Families need men who engage in family life as an act of embodying God. Churches need men who step up, rather than step back and refuse to let others take the blame for the state of the church. Again, that isn’t to say that women shouldn’t or that they can’t; it’s just I’m here talking about eldership.

It should also be stressed again that eldership is distinct from leadership and the gift of leadership, as we’ll see when we come on to talking about gifts. Although not independent of leadership, it is distinct from it.

In this church we have men and women in leadership positions across the church, together using their gifts, together guiding the church and making decisions. Our senior leadership team (to use the language common in the world) is made up of men and women. It doesn’t surprise me when a woman has a stronger leadership gift than her husband nor does it surprise me if she’s a better preacher. Our difference isn’t a difference of ability but a difference of kind. Men, as fathers and potential fathers, are called to take account for the church even though it’s the men and women together who end up steering it.

There are women who are recognised as mothers within the church, and the church needs them.

We’ve not done so publicly but as we move forward together it’s going to become increasingly important that we do honour and recognise the various leadership roles people play in the church. The mothering that women like Jane and Ruth have taken on ought to be commended and honoured, the level of maternal care and concern that women like Polly and Amy feel for the church here needs valuing as well.

In the church there ought to be a recognition and honouring of the beautiful differences between the sexes, and not a toxic competitiveness or a blancmange of non-distinction. The church needs fathers and mothers.

Gifts

And so we come to gifts. The church is a place where both men and women should flourish and is the place where part of that flourishing is a result of us using and honouring our various gifts. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit… faith, healing, miracles, prophecy,

NB: for the common good

V26 ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.’

And the instruction is given in Romans 12:

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness

NB: no gender restrictions are applied in any of this.

God has given you gifts that are to be used to help strengthen and build the body of believers you’re a part of. Here again we see the temptation to compete, to set our gifts against each other: that gift is better than my gift, or ‘I’m not valuable because I don’t have his/her gift.’ And also the temptation to deny any distinction at all: that we’re all superstars at everything. My friend went to his child’s parents evening recently where the teacher said something similar to that; and he had to try and insist that his son wasn’t good at everything, he said it was quite an amusing battle.

We need to honour and celebrate difference without being threatened by one another

Part of our brokenness shows itself in the way we often feel devalued when someone else is honoured rather than rejoicing in and sharing in their honour. When I compliment one of my kids and not the other when they’re together, the other always protests and so I have to teach them – I’m not devaluing you by honouring them, rejoice when they’re honoured and trust that there are times when you’ll be honoured and your brother won’t.

The chances are that if you don’t know what your weaknesses are or if you feel embarrassed or awkward that you have any weaknesses at all, you’re not through on this.

In the church we ought to work hard to ensure none of us derives our value, worth or identity from our gifts.

Instead we want to celebrate the beautiful differences at work among us and then we will be able to relate to what Paul says: when one is honoured, all rejoice together.

Generations

Lastly, and very briefly, this brings us to another aspect of beautiful difference, that of generational differences.

The church is the joy of the whole earth because it is the place that men and women recognise their beautiful difference, where each member recognises the beautiful difference of the gifts in use and also it is a family where the generations honour and respect one another’s differences.

Again this is counter-cultural. We live in a society and a time obsessed with youth and in a culture that pushes its elderly to the margins and discounts their opinions; demonising their choices, as was seen with the Brexit vote of two years ago.

I’ve heard of some people saying they don’t go to church prayer meetings because too many old people go, or certainly not enough young(!) and I met a visiting couple one Sunday say in a rather disgusted tone ‘there’s so many young people,’ – they’ve never come back.

Instead let’s seek to be a church that honours and celebrates the beautiful differences among us. The church BBQ last week, was a fantastic vision of family, to see older people and younger people together.

The church is a community of brothers and sisters (and not just potential sex partners), of mothers and fathers, grandads and grandmas; a place where people are honoured and nurtured to become all that God has called them to be.

Conclusion

My prayer and hope is that the church in this town and across the world lives up to the her potential and possibility.

My prayer is that one day the world will be caught aghast by the beauty of the church, that like a diamond lying in the muddy banks of a Congolese river and like a flower bursting through a dusty and dry African plain, so the church would be seen in our towns, against the backdrop of an increasingly godless society.

The joy of the whole earth is a community of people where the poor are honoured, and treated with the dignity and value they have, where the rich aren’t deceived into putting their hopes or identity in their wealth.

The joy of the whole earth is a community where our cultural backgrounds play second or third fiddle to our identity in Christ, that people wouldn’t say ‘I’m too English to understand these Africans, or I’m too American to get along with these Asians.’ But instead we’d see ourselves as one in Christ united by him. And we’d work through our misunderstandings. 

The joy of the whole is a community where men and women behave like brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, where greatness is seen in terms of servanthood and the old make way for the young, cheering them on at every step and misstep and the young defer to the old and listen to and seek out for their advice.

That, and nothing less than that, is what God has called us to be. That is the Blueprint of the church, that is the joy of the whole earth, a community of beautiful difference expressed in gender, gifts and generations.

And all of that is possible because of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death was an act of destruction, He destroyed the dividing walls of hostility between people and genders, but hie death was also an act of creation; on the cross he was uniting all people under him the head over all things.

Death & Hope

To be a Christian is to trust Christ. It doesn’t mean for one moment that we are shielded from the pain and chaos of life under the sun, but it does mean that in it all we have a friend and a saviour to walk with.

Hope in the English language has come to be something of a ‘flimsy’ word. We talk of ‘hoping for the best’ or we say simply that ‘I hope so,’ meaning ‘I’m really not sure, but I’d like it to happen.’ This is different from how the word is used in the Bible. Biblically hope means ‘certain expectation’ rather like how, during advent, we hope for Christmas. We know it’s coming, we wait for it with anticipation and we prepare for it all the while expecting it to occur.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13 Paul writes to the church and says that we ‘do not grieve as others do, who have no hope.’ Christians grieve, but not as others do. We grieve but our grief is not disconnected from our hope. We are to enter into our grief, not ignore or it pretend it away but we do so knowing that a loved one who has died in Christ is not lost. The person may be ‘lost to us’ but they are not lost to God, he knows exactly where they are.

Paul describes death as ‘being with Christ’ and says that this is ‘better by far.’ When the thief on the cross put his hope in Jesus, the Lord said to him ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. Today, in that very instance, immediately without a delay.

Our culture doesn’t talk much about death, it pushes it to the margins and it likes to carry on with life pretending that death won’t occur. It does occur however and it will occur to each of us, that much is certain. As a result of the way our culture treats death, we can’t expect to be helped much by our upbringing when it comes to thinking about death.

In the Bible death is a departure, it is a defeated enemy that has been and is being placed under Jesus’ feet. Death for the Christian is described as being ‘gain‘ and is talked of as being a servant that takes us into the presence of our saviour. People in Christ who die don’t ‘pass away’ as though they slip into some shadowland. Biblically speaking a Christian who dies has ‘fallen asleep‘ and is awaiting the final resurrection and restoration of all things.

In the Old Testament when King David experiences disaster it says of him that he ‘strengthened himself in the Lord.’ When loved ones die and when we experience disaster we must do likewise. We are so used to listening to ourselves and listening to our circumstances that we could all do with a healthy dosage of speaking to ourselves and our circumstances from time to time. To strengthen yourself in the Lord looks like declaring aloud the truth of God’s word and the theological reality of death for the Christian.

Try reading the following aloud as a way of strengthening yourself:

Father I renounce the lie that this life is the end and that my friend is lost. Instead I declare the truth that they are with you and delighting in your presence. I renounce the lie of doubt that wants me to spiral into despair, instead I declare the truth that you defeated the power of the grave when you rose again on Easter Sunday. I choose to stand on these truths that you are a Father who loves us, a general with a clear plan in his mind, a King with absolute authority and a shepherd who leads us through disaster. Thank you that you identify with us in our grief and pain. You’re the only God ‘out there’ to whom we cannot say ‘you don’t know what it’s like,’ since you do know. You visited the funeral of a friend and you entered the grave yourself, triumphing over it for us. Thank you Lord. Please help me to trust you at this difficult time. 

In Jesus’ name.

Amen

FIGHT: tigers & puppies

Scripture

Read Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Observation


Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to not think about something, especially something you’re worried about? I well remember a few years ago when I was speaking at church on the subject of anxiety. The Bible passage said ‘do not be anxious about anything…’ and my message, it followed, was on ‘freedom from anxiety’. Well, I was a mess. I was so nervous about it that I couldn’t prepare for the sermon. Anxious thoughts about ‘how not to be anxious’ flew round and round my head. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t pray, couldn’t escape thinking about it. The irony wasn’t lost on me ‘physician heal thy self’ was all I could hear spinning back and forth around my brain, it was horrible.

Where worry is concerned our thought life can behave badly can’t it? We don’t try to obsess about missing that flight or not completing that essay in time, it just happens. And of course worry is a very reasonable virus, it uses all the right logic and explanations. Anxiety convinces us that it’s not only permitted to consume our thought life, but that it’s entirely appropriate and commendable that it does so!

Paul’s answer to anxiety, as he explains it in the above Bible reading, isn’t to use reason and persuasive argument. He doesn’t try to out argue anxiety, he knows that’s a lost battle. Reasoning against anxiety isn’t a fair fight since we’re emotionally compromised from the start. Anxiety, you see, has a head start on us and anxiety has access to the arsenal of our emotional life making it a very powerful foe indeed. If it was only a question of explaining politely to worry why it is that we’re not going to go where it wants us to go then I’m sure many a worry would be stopped dead in its tracks. But it doesn’t work like that does it?

‘Goodness did you hear yourself just then?’ Anxiety says ‘you made a complete fool of yourself. Is it any wonder why NO ONE wants to be your friend?! I’m amazed you have any friends at all, or do you? I can’t see those supposed friends of yours hanging around too long after they find out exactly what you’re like. Can you see that happening?’ 


After that comes the hot flushes and clammy palms, followed by the loss of all colour from our face, an ice cold forehead and then that all too familiar knot in the stomach – the permanent resident in the body of serial worrier. Sound familiar?

So what’s the answer to anxiety? Sadly for us there isn’t a pill to fix it. It isn’t a case of praying a particular prayer (perhaps five times a day), or singing a particular song. Anxiety is tiger that needs taming rather than a puppy that needs training. Puppies aren’t too ferocious, they can be quite cute and (after much effort) they can be house trained. We’re bigger and stronger and more powerful than puppies and so in the end, they will obey us. Not so with a tiger. Tiger’s are ferocious and strong and move at a lightning quick pace. They will run rings around us and destroy us if we’re not careful. Taming a tiger isn’t just a matter of persistence, it requires courage, strength and nerves of steel (I speak from experience of course).

Getting our thought life in order involves more energy and effort than puppy training (and even that can be pretty full on). Getting our thought life in order requires determination and courage, and supernatural power.

Just prior to the above Bible passage Paul explains that he’s ‘learned the secret of being content whatever his circumstances’ something I’m sure many of us would like to know.

In our Bible reading three big clues are offered, three things that will aid us in our fight against anxiety: Rejoicing, asking and thanking.

Celebrating what God has done in the past and asking (petitioning) God to help us in the present. Mixed with a helpful amount of thankfulness, creates quite a powerful concoction. It enables us to stand our ground against anxiety and positions us to receive peace from God in the midst of worry.

Celebrate, ask, thank.

It isn’t easy (tigers don’t give up without a fight), but it is possible. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can be free from life crippling worry.


Weekly Challenge

Read Philippians 4:8-9:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The first step toward enjoying your status as a forgiven, loved, adopted and empowered child of God is to start taking seriously what you think about. Do your thoughts past the Philippians 4 test? 

  • True
  • Honourable 
  • Just
  • Pure
  • Lovely
  • Commendable
  • Excellent
  • Worshipful 
Take some time this week to write down as many things as you can that meet the above criteria. List areas of your life, perhaps things you’re consistently worried about, and write things that might pass the Philippians 4 test. Do it over a few days and see what the Holy Spirit brings to mind each time:
For example:

Myself: What’s true is that I’m a Christian, I’m loved by God, I’ve been adopted into his family…


Difficult circumstances: What’s true is that my Father promises to be with me throughout every difficulty I face. What’s worshipful is that he’s always got me through things in the past, he’s worthy of my worship


Others: What’s commendable is that I’m grateful for my wife, for how she loves me and cares for me. I’m thankful I’ve got friends who, despite knowing the worst bits about me, have stuck by me and pray for me…

I might also list: my future, my job, my kids, my self image, my past, my money… Adding to this list daily will force your mind to think about and dwell on true and good things as opposed to the destructive and anxiety laden things we often think about.

Have fun!

FIGHT: a sword for the fight

Scripture : Today’s full reading can be found here

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might… 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. 

Observation:


Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians with an instruction to put on spiritual armour. After all he’s communicated to the church about the Christian life, about their position in Christ, about their need to be filled with the Spirit and about how they are to prize unity he concludes by saying, essentially ‘…and don’t forget, it’s a fight!’ 


In this fight we’re given metaphorical armour to help us: Faith is like a shield, righteousness becomes like a breastplate, salvation a helmet. It has often be pointed out that all of the equipment we’re given to help us in this struggle is defensive and protective; all of it that is apart from one item, the sword of the Spirit. The sword of the Spirit, we’re told, is the word of God. The one thing that can help us gain ground and not simply stand it, is scripture; the Bible, the good Book, God’s word.  


I was reminded of this recently when praying through something I was struggling with. I have become quite good at trying to reason with my anxiety. I’ll analyse facts in cold blood, I’ll discuss what I’m worrying about with others, and I’ll attempt to pick apart negative thought patterns and reduce them in size. All the while failing at actually picking them apart and reducing them in size. While praying (or worrying aloud as it often becomes) it struck me how little I was using the truth of scripture to help me in my struggle. I was essentially trying to break apart a mountain using only plastic hammer and chisel. It wasn’t working and neither could I expect it to. Reason doesn’t have anything like the power that scripture does. 


Jesus when tested and tempted by the Devil in the wilderness (here) didn’t try to win the argument or reason the Enemy into a corner. Instead he leaned on and trusted in the power of scripture to help him. Read it for yourself and you’ll notice the repeating statement of Jesus ‘it is written.’ The devil tempted him with self sufficiency and independence from God and he replied with ‘it is written…’. The enemy offered him success over his enemies, fame and glory and he replied ‘it is written…’.


If Jesus leant on scripture this way, then I need to as well – and so do you. You cannot flourish as a believer without it, you cannot withstand the onslaught of the enemy or even the onslaught of your own sinful desires without it. We need to lean on and trust in the same truth that Jesus trusted in. And the promise comes that as we draw near to God ‘he will draw near to us’ and as we resist the devil ‘he will flee from us.’


Weekly Challenge


Since scripture is so essential it makes sense that we give ourselves to learning it and being shaped by it. Becoming familiar with truth doesn’t happen accidentally. Spend this week reciting daily the following statements that relate to our identity in Christ:

In Christ I am God’s child (John 1:12)
In Christ I belong to God (1 Corinthians 6:20)
In Christ I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self control (2 Timothy 1:7)
In Christ I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me (1 John 5:18)
In Christ I am holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4)
In Christ I am forgiven (Ephesians 1:8)
In Christ I am a saint (Col. 1:1)

FIGHT: the first battlefield

Every week for the next 7 weeks as part of the Essence teaching series we’ll be posting videos & blogs to help us get to grips with our new identity in Christ. Be sure to visit our Facebook pages regularly for resources designed to help you grow.
________________________________________________________________________

Let’s start by considering an important principle.

Take a few minutes to read over the Bible verses listed below. Consider as you read them what they might have in common:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 


For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,

2 Corinthians 10:4-5


Did you find a common thread woven through? I’m sure there are plenty of things they have in common but the reason I picked them is because of their mention of the mind and our thought life:

  • Be transformed by renewing your mind (Romans 12:2)
  • Whatever is honourable, whatever is… think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
  • Take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)
The principle is this:

What we think about matters. What we allow ourselves to dwell on, matters. What we play on repeat in our heads over and over, matters. It all matters.

In my experience, what goes on in the grey matter between my ears has a huge impact on my joy, faith, peace, and contentment. My thought life greatly affects the quality of life I’m enjoying. 
As a new Christian I kept a journal in which I documented my thoughts about faith. I remember on one occasion after seeing something quite miraculous take place, writing in my journal: ‘never forget! God is real, God is Good. Never forget! I’m going to live for God, wholeheartedly, 100%!!’

That ought to have settled it then; wholehearted, determined Christianity from then on. Except that it wasn’t, and it didn’t. 
A few weeks later I’d done exactly what I’d told myself not to do, I’d forgotten. I’d concluded that God wasn’t real, that if he was real then he didn’t love me and wasn’t helping me. As such I wanted to quit as a follower of Christ. 
That process has been (and still is to some extent) a common one for me. It’s a process of remembering and forgetting, remembering and forgetting, remembering and… you get the idea. What I find reassuring however is that I’m not the only one who battles like this. For the past 10 years I’ve had a front row seat on many people’s different experiences and Christian lives. I’ve watched again and again as others have gone through the same cycle I’ve just described. 
The apostle Paul (who wrote the Bible verses above) seemed to be aware of this problem as well. He understood that being a Christian requires a diligent and careful approach to our thought life. That’s why he wrote so often about it.

Here’s some questions to consider:

How much are you aware of the positive or negative impact of your thoughts? 

Do you ever find yourself walking to the shops but daydreaming about disaster?

Are you aware of where your mind wanders to most often?

At the end of the day, if I were to present you with a highlights tape of your thoughts what would the repeating themes be? 

We must start to take seriously the responsibility to discern the truth from the lies in our minds. There is a call to arms in the whole area of our thinking and we can’t afford to go AWOL – too much is at stake.
Weekly Challenge

To help, here’s a little challenge to complete…

By Friday have memorised the statement of truth below taken from the Freed For Purpose course. Find a friend who’s doing the same and at the end of the week, test each other:

I recognise that there is only one true and living God, who exists as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is worthy of all honour, praise and glory as the one who made all things and holds all things together. (see Exodus 20:2,3; Colossians 1:16,17)

FIGHT: for joy

Scripture

In your presence is fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures evermore. — Psalm 16:11

Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. — Psalm 37:4

Though you do not see him you love him and you believe in him and you are filled with inexpressible joy. — 1 Peter 1:8 

Observation

The Christian life involves a fight. We’ve been looking at that concept together now for several weeks. We are told to stand against the devil and his demons and to not be unaware of the Enemy’s schemes against us. We can’t pretend like we’re living during peacetime, we’re not.

As a Christian I believe God wants me to be happy and, since he wants for me to be happy, I have a responsibility to fight for my joy and contentment. Consider the scriptures we’ve just read. God is happy, overflowing with and possessing joy evermore, pleasures in abundance. We as Christians share in his joy. Peter describes the experience of Christians everywhere when he says ‘although you haven’t seen him face to face, in the flesh, you love him and… are filled with inexpressible joy.’

Let’s consider a few facts about God and joy:

  1. FACT: God is happy. ‘Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,’ Psalm 135:6
  2. FACT: Jesus is happy, ‘God has anointed you with the all of gladness above your companions.’ Hebrews 1:9
  3. FACT: We are made to know God. ‘All can know you from the least, to the greatest.’ Hebrews 8:11
  4. FACT: Knowing God makes us happy ‘…filled with inexpressible joy.’ (see above)
  5. FACT: Sin offers the pleasure and happiness we were made to find in God. Deuteronomy 28 for example.
With that in place the question becomes ‘how do I seek my happiness in God, who is the eternal and ongoing source of joy, rather than in the fleeting and shallow pleasures of sin?’ Now, that’s a good question.
We’ve shared before as elders about ways that we seek joy in God. Andrew calls it ‘joy fuel’ (or #joyfuel if you prefer).
Some of the things Andrew’s got on his list of ‘how to fight for joy in God’ are:
  1. Put Jesus before church/ministry. Make bread & wine a regular activity in your life.
  2. Use electronic media wisely. Avoid the sites and places that rob you of joy and instead find blogs and video clips that lift your spirits rather than drain them.
  3. Get the relationship between body and soul the right way round. As the body behaves, the soul often feels. We dance our way into delight rather than waiting to delight in God before we dance. God deserves our noise, our kneeling, our clapping and our cheering. We give it to him, and our soul is reminded and responds with joy.
  4. Read the scriptures. Don’t be intimidated by the size of the Bible as a book. ‘Bite off’ small chunks if it helps and spend time reflecting on them until the light of revelation floods you with joy. 
  5. Fast sometimes. To fast means ‘to fasten ourself to God’ and clinging fast to him gives us more of him; and he is happy.  
  6. Speak positively. Words have the power to create or to destroy. As the mouth speaks, the heart believes.
  7. Get baptised in the Spirit again and again. Wait on God’s Spirit, until he fills you. Being baptised means to be ‘plunged into’. When you were baptised in water, you knew about it. When you’re baptised in the Spirit, you know about it. 
Which one’s can you identify with, pick up and apply to your life as they are? Go for it. Fight for joy. Don’t settle for drinking from puddles when God has promised rivers of living water to flow out from your inmost being. 
Weekly Challenge

This week, your challenge is to come up with you own list of what you could do and where you could go to get happy in God. Is it a regular meeting with a close friend? If so, schedule it in. Is it a private Bible study? If so, schedule it in. 
We do not get to know God accidentally, we do not get happy in God without meaning to. 
Find out what makes you happy in God and make a habit out of it. 
Try starting with a list of 5 things, five pieces of #joyfuel if you will. Then, if you’re really serious about joy, think of some activities that correspond to particular ‘rhythms’ or ‘seasons’ in your life. Try thinking of 2 weekly, 2 monthly and 2 annual activities you could do. For me, that would look like:
Weekly:
1. At least 3 mornings of Bible journalling and prayer
2. Praying with Amy at least 3 times a week
Monthly:
1. Spend time with a good friend who makes me laugh and encourages me
2. Go on a prayer walk in the countryside
Annual:
1. Fast from food for a day or two (usually during the Hunger rhythms at Kings)
2. Have a holiday where a switch off all phones and computers
What would it look like for you? 
Have fun. Seriously, have fun!

God The Father: Bruises the Son

Scripture


Today’s full reading is John 18:1-14

Jesus commanded Peter, ‘put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?’
John 18:11

Observation

Jesus is clear. What’s happening to him is from the Father.

He rebukes Peter on that basis: ‘this has come to me from the Father.’ Jesus trusts his Father and desires to do what the Father sent him to do. His rebuke of Peter is a question that sounds a little like ‘do you know better than my Father?!’

Jesus is incredulous. The Father is in charge of all things and is over all things. The Father has given his Son this ‘cup’ and now the Son must drink it.

The cup he mentions is the same cup he was agonising over in the Garden of Gethsemane. The cup is the wrath of the Father, the cross and the abandonment Jesus will experience by his Father. Having already asked for ‘another way’ Jesus is now convinced that this is the only way. It is certainly the way his Father wants him to travel. Having prayed that prayer and arrived at his conclusion, Jesus is ready.

Peter on the other hand hasn’t been on this emotional journey and arrived at the same conclusion. Peter is only concerned with protecting Jesus and getting him enthroned in place of the Romans.

Let’s consider the Father mentioned here.

We begin by reminding ourselves that everything else we’ve seen about him until this point is still true. At this moment it’s extremely important for us to keep that in our minds.

With that in place it’s clear that this moment, this cup, is not something the Father has issued to his Son easily. This is difficult and costly for both of them, and true as that is – Jesus still drank it, the Father still gave it.

Here we see a God who willingly and without coercion gives up his Son to death. See the Father who allows his Son to drink poison in order that we all may be reconciled to him. This is the final nail in the coffin of the austere, strict and malicious Father God of our nightmares.

This act by the Father was on that broke his heart. This act of braking his Son, broke him. A Father like the one Jesus has been describing to us throughout this series certainly couldn’t have been left unaffected by these events.

Prayer


Father Thank you. Thank you for the glorious truth contained here. Thank you for your commitment to me and to us. You’re a good good father and I am thrilled to belong to you. I gladly bow my knee to you today, gladly trust you knowing that you would not ask me to do anything you’ve not been through yourself. You’re a Father who identifies with us in our pain. Thank you.

God The Father: Eternal Life

Scripture


Today’s Bible verse is:

‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to all those you have given to him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.’
John 17:1

Observation

‘This is eternal life’ Jesus says, and surely whatever follows next must get our full attention.

This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.

Eternal life, that is never ending, full blooded, never giving up, never running out, enhanced life in HD, that sort of life comes from and is found in knowing the Father and the Son. Not just knowing about them, not occasionally firing off a prayer to them when we’re in need but knowing them. God is a person after all.

This sort of knowledge is less like knowing a recipe or knowing a map and more like knowing my wife. I know her but I’m also always getting to know her. My knowing of her deepens as our intimacy increases. Although I would say that I know her quite well now, I also know that I will never reach the point of saying ‘I know enough about her now – she is fully known.

How much more is that true about God the Father? God is infinitely more exciting and mysterious, perplexing and familiar majestic and nearby.

Application

Jesus says that this is eternal life. Eternal life is not something that happens when I die, it is something that ‘happens’ (or begins) the moment I begin a relationship with the Father. ‘When I met her I felt as though my life had finally begun’ is a sentiment often expressed by someone in love, it’s just that that sentiment finds its fullest expression and fulfilment in knowing the Father.

When we enter into a relationship with him it is as though Shakespeare’s words become true of our lives: all that’s past is preface.

Everything that went before is merely the beginning and introduction of what can happen now.

So how do we come to know the Father? First of all we admit. We admit that we’ve been living a life of worshiping other gods. By that I mean we admit that we’ve been searching for meaning and fulfilment in everything and anything other than God, the Father who made us and loves us. Second of all we turn away from that life. We’re sorry for our idolatry. Thirdly we ask him to forgive us. We believe that Jesus’ death on the cross was the payment and punishment that our idolatry deserved. We reach out to Jesus and take hold of him, trusting his sacrifice for our acquittal. Fourthly we begin. We begin a life of knowing him, we ask him to teach us, lead us, and fill us with his Spirit.

Admit. Turn. Ask. Begin. Simples.

Prayer


Thank you Father for the eternal life that is mine in Christ. Thank you that by repenting of my old way of life I entered into a new life of knowing you. Thank you that that life is eternal. Please help me to know you all the more. Amen.

God The Father: The Father Who Loves Me

Scripture:


Today’s Bible reading is John 16:25-33

The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father. 

Observation

I don’t know if you’ve had this experience before, there’s every chance that I’m just a little odd, but as I sit here writing this my heart is beating fast at the truth contained in these words. I feel as though an answer to a question I’ve wondered about for some time has at last arrived.

It’s a question Amy and I were discussing together recently: ‘since the Father loves the Son so much (and it’s clear from John’s gospel that he loves him a lot), does he actually love me or is it only the bits of his Son he sees in me that he likes?’ Does he love me for me or does he just tolerate me because the Son softens his heart towards me?

Does God know me and love me for me?

It’s a valid question.

There are several ways of answering that question but in my opinion none of them are quite as definitive as this one from the mouth of Jesus.

When we come to God and ask him for things ‘in the name of Jesus’ that means we’re asking on the basis of who Jesus is; it’s on his reputation and authority that we stake our claims and requests.

What we’re not doing (as Jesus points out here) is asking the Son to ask the Father as though he’s in the next room. We don’t hand our requests to the Son and then wait nervously in the corridor for the Father’s answer. Jesus says that explicitly: ‘I won’t ask him on your behalf‘ but rather, he says ‘the Father loves you.

It may be temping to skip onto the next phrase from Jesus mouth ‘because you love me‘ and have it sour the statement ‘the Father loves you’ but before we do, allow this to sink in – the Father loves you. Jesus says so, explicitly.

You. The personal pronoun, you. The you mentioned here are the disciples he’s speaking to, so do we have permission from the text to apply that ‘you’ to well, me? Let’s hold that question for now.


We can come to the Father (in Jesus’ name) and ask knowing that he loves us, individually.

God the Father lavishes us with his love and kindness and generosity; based on what? Based on the fact that we share a common love: ‘because you love me’ he says.

Understood like this the phrase that could sound like a reluctant condition to the Father’s love ie ‘only because you love me’, starts to taste a little less bitter and a lot more sweet. It isn’t ‘I love you BUT – only because you love him!’ but rather ‘I love you because you have turned away from loving the things that stop me from knowing you and have come to love the object of my affection as well.’ It is this phrase (the ‘because you love’ the Son phrase) that gives me permission to claim the first part of Jesus’ statement for myself: The Father loves you. This makes it true not only of Jesus’ original hearers but of me as well since I also love the Son as they did (and this answers the question above that we put on hold).

Application

The Father loves me. The Father loves you. We don’t pass our prayers onto the Son who reads them to his Father. We can come in, we can have an audience with him. Why? On what basis can we be so bold? Because he loves us. He loves us. The good and pleasant things we receive in this world do not come to us neutrally. They come from a Father who is good and who does good and who loves us. You are loved.

This also means that the bad and unpleasant stuff in life doesn’t come to us as punishment or as evidence of God’s disdain toward us. These things come but they do not change the truth of Jesus’ words one bit. He loves you.

Prayer


Thank you that you love me Father. Thank you that you are always inclined to bless me, to shower me with goodness, to lavish me with your kindnesses. Thank you Father that I can stand before you, or sit or kneel (or sleep!) and know that you love ME. Me. Little old, smelly old, flawed ME. Yippee. 

God The Father: Looking For Fruit

Scripture


Today’s full Bible reading comes from John 15:1-17.

By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
John 15:8

If we’ve learnt anything from this devotional study it’s that the Father is always wanting to glorify the Son and the Son is always wanting to glorify the Father.

So when the Son says ‘my Father is glorified when you bear much fruit’ he’s essentially saying ‘bear as much fruit as possible.’ and fruit (whatever it is) is clearly something good, something that I’d want.

Again we see the round about and constant Other affirming nature of the Godhead:

  • Glorify my Father by bearing fruit
  • Prove to be my disciples (thus glorifying the Son)
The Son says ‘glorify him’, the Father says ‘glorify him!’ each about the other.
This is good for us too for since God is Other-centred and outwardly life giving we benefit from him when he is glorified by and in us. As a result of the ‘glorify-him no glorify-him!’ nature of God we get to ‘bear fruit’. But what exactly is ‘fruit’? It’s obviously a good thing, but other than that what can we say, what are we talking about? Let’s look into the passage to find out.
Let’s look at v12-15:

  • The first thing suggested from these verses it that it’s obedience, but not just cold and plain obedience, it’s obedience that’s born out of intimacy and familiarity with God. So, stating it more clearly, part of the fruit is intimacy and friendship with God.
  • Also in our mind at this point, and not inconsistent with the above statement, it’s the Fruit of the Spirit laid out by Paul in Galatians 5:22. It is character that is Godlike. We become more life giving, generous, warm hearted and joyful – that’s fruit I’d be keen to produce!
  • Fruit also has something to do with answered prayer. The Father wants and will answer our prayers.