Mary: when God puts your life out of shape

Even in a culture that is not very familiar with the Bible, the outline of the Christmas story is still known to many people.

Even those long disconnected from church recognise the Joseph – Mary – baby – donkey sequence (Even though the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey). And they might even remember that the baby was Jesus.

Of course, some of us know not only the historical detail but the spiritual significance of that detail and how it ties up with the prophecies made about Messiah by prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah.

What we can easily miss, however, is the profound impact that these events had upon Joseph and Mary and how the entrance of God into the world turned their world upside down. It put their lives out of shape.

Firstly Mary was physically put “out of shape”.

It goes without saying that pregnancy affects a woman physically! Some of the changes can be seen. Others are unseen, but no less felt. Carrying a baby changes your body. It changes your world.

When we are “carrying” God’s presence and purpose it changes us. It changes us as individuals. It changes churches.

Secondly, Mary’s relationships with people were out of shape

Joseph didn’t greet Mary’s pregnancy with wonder and delight. It was rather a mixture of sadness and disappointment. And then a plan of action: divorce (Matthew 1.19).

You can hardly blame Joseph for thinking the worst. Put yourself in his shoes. Would you believe Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy? It was unprecedented.

Can you begin to imagine what the other people in her village thought when they found out that she was pregnant? Can you begin to imagine how Mary felt as the gossip spread?

Her whole personal and social world was descending into chaos.

Why? Because no-one understood what was really happening. Joseph eventually understood because an angel intervened.

The difficulty that Mary faced was that there was no precedent for what was going on in her life.

When God is at work in our lives, it can result in misunderstanding. Sometimes that misunderstanding is because people have no template for what God is doing. Some people eventually get it – because God intervenes. Some don’t.

It is hard to handle misunderstanding. Misunderstanding is frustrating, even hurtful.

But it’s part of the price we pay for “carrying” God’s purpose.

How do you handle misunderstanding?

1 Peter 2.23 says that when Jesus was misunderstood and rejected that He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.

Sometimes you just have to leave it with the Lord.

Mary’s prospects for the future were out of shape

We can’t in any way claim to know what Mary’s hopes and dreams for the future were. I think it is safe to say, however, that she probably didn’t envisage having a baby out of wedlock (Luke 1.31-35) miles away from home (Luke 2.4-5). Being treated like a criminal by Herod and end up in Egypt for two years as a refugee (Matthew 2.13-18).

When you are a vehicle for what God wants to do, you might be surprised at some of the places He drives you to!

Sometimes we talk about the future as if we have control over it when we don’t!

What’s your dream? What if God told you to abandon your dream? What if God’s priority is not for us to have a clear view of what He wants us to do in the future, but instead to carry His presence in the present – and let Him shape the future how He wants?

When God begins to do something new in our lives or wants to do something new in the world, the impact brings dislocation. Our lives are put out of shape.  When that happens, we often find ourselves wondering if this really is God.

In Mary and Joseph’s case, it really was God at work.

And if God’s purpose pressed their lives out of shape, don’t be surprised if the work of His Spirit has the same impact on you.

3 things Jesus teaches us about mission – that we don’t always get!

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Matthew 9.37-38

At the end of Matthew chapter 9 Jesus spoke to His disciples about the harvest.

His words are so well known that they sometimes lose their impact or impact us in a way that they are He didn’t intend.

The harvest is huge – it is not small

The first thing to note about what Jesus said is the way He describes the harvest. The harvest is plentiful. It’s huge!

If the harvest is plentiful, we have grounds for expecting to reap a huge harvest.

The problem with the harvest is not the harvest.  It is the lack of people who will work to bring in the harvest.

Heavenly conviction about our role in bringing in the harvest is crucial to bringing in the harvest.

We need to have a real concern for people. Jesus did.

But concern in itself will not enable us to reap the harvest. We need a heavenly conviction that we have been sent into the harvest field.

It might seem unusual that Jesus simply exhorts the disciples to pray that workers would be sent into the harvest field. Especially since Matthew 10.5 records that He sent them Himself!

When we pray about the harvest in the way Jesus instructed His disciples, we develop a conviction that we are central to bringing in the harvest. In short we become the answer to our own prayers.

The harvest field is His – it doesn’t belong to the devil

Finally, the harvest field belongs to God – not the devil.

Sometimes we talk about the harvest as though we are going into Satan’s territory. Without in any way diminishing the forces of darkness and their opposition to the gospel, it is worth acknowledging that the harvest belongs to God.

Understanding that the harvest belongs to God, gives us confidence in our witness.

When the gospel turns up in a strange place

I went to see Dr. Strange last week. For the sake of my eleven year old son, of course. I made some other sacrifices for Niall’s sake as well. I helped him to eat his popcorn.

The film was a strange one for me. I never really got the whole Marvel thing as a child. We were too busy re-fighting world war two. And of course, as good Pentecostals we didn’t “do” the cinema.

The Dr. Strange experience got even stranger. To begin with, I was concerned that the whole thing was a bit too occultic for comfort. And to be honest, if you wanted to make a case for it as a subtle promotion of occult / new age ideas you probably could.

Once I hung up that particular hang up, the whole thing became quite intriguing. I’ll not spoil it for you by telling the whole story. The basic plot however is that an incredibly successful young surgeon crashes his Ferrari and sustains such serious injuries that conventional medical practice is unable to fix him. He travels east, joins a kind of monastery, develops superhuman powers and then…I promised I wouldn’t spoil it for you.

What really did intrigue me was why this sort of film has such appeal. Obviously, escapism is a huge reason. A couple of hours away from the real world never did anyone any harm.  But let me give you three other– possible – reasons for the enduring appeal of the Marvel world and what that might be telling us about Western culture.

Firstly, there is always a hero.

We still look for heroes. A political landscape that is currently in such disarray, has intensified rather than diminished our quest for a hero or heroes. Whether they are local, national or global. I’ll stop short of saying that anyone in Dr. Strange is a Christ-figure, but the themes of sacrifice, servanthood and humility, are evident throughout the film.

In the gospel, Jesus embodies all of those themes in Himself and, if you like, is the human race’s true hero.

Secondly, there is an acknowledgement that materialism does not and cannot provide the ultimate answers to life. Dr. Strange had the kind of lifestyle and intelligence to go with it that would surpass the stuff of our most ambitious dreams. But when he was in real trouble his seemingly perfect world fell apart.

The strapline of Western culture for so long has been “You can do or be anything you want”. Dr.Strange indicates that a more fitting mantra would be something like “Life is wonderful as long as, well, life is wonderful”.

Western materialism is a powerful force indeed. Stronger than many an ideology. And no wonder, behind it lies the spiritual power of what Jesus called mammon.

Finally, there is the fight.

These kinds of films would never work if there was no big, world-threatening battle. And it’s that kind of battle into which Dr. Strange is inducted.

It’s a battle between good and evil, light and darkness. The battle can’t take place without that kind of moral certainty.

Despite the moral relativism of our culture, in our hearts, we still think in terms of right and wrong. And somehow we still believe that there is a battle between right and wrong, good and evil.

As Christians, we would do well to think of the good news of Jesus as a call to battle as well as a call to salvation. I think that kind of call is not only faithful to the Bible, but is also something that would resonate with those who do not know yet know Jesus.

I discovered after the event that the director of Dr.Strange grew up in a Christian home. Perhaps what he learnt as a child and young person has shaped his film making. I don’t know. One thing I do know is that if you wanted to use Dr. Strange as a bridge builder in a conversation about the gospel, you’ll have no shortage of material. The gospel turns up in all sorts of strange places.

For a far more informed Christian review of Dr.Strange, see this piece in Christian Today.

Tony Campolo and same-sex marriage

Tony Campolo is a legend. No doubt about that. An outstanding communicator with an outstanding heart. Why would I want to disagree with him, even within the limited circle of people who read my blog?

And why would I want to engage with the issue of same-sex marriage? Especially since I don’t believe that anyone who dares challenge LGBTI values will ever get a fair hearing?

The short answer is that Tony Campolo has embraced an LGBTI stance on gay marriage.  And whilst I have sympathy with some of his arguments, I believe that in some very fundamental areas his reasoning is wrong. In addition, given the context in which he presented the issue – an interview with Premier Radio – it is easy to be left with the impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are marked by a very narrow political and ethical outlook. I believe that is misleading.

Let me begin with the last point first.

The interview begins with how Campolo no longer describes himself as an evangelical. Evangelicals, in his view are climate change denying Trump supporters. It for those kind of reasons that he wants to disassociate himself from Evangelicalism. In fairness, he says that he still holds to evangelical beliefs such as a high view of scripture.

Why is this disclosure unhelpful in the context of what he has to say about gay marriage? Simply because one is left with the distinct impression that those who hold to traditional marriage are all extreme right wing bigots. No doubt there are many who think that anyone who does not accept gay marriage is just that!

That is such a caricature. Such a caricature that it demands correcting. A commitment to traditional marriage can be found across the political and ecclesiastical spectrum. For those opposed to a traditional definition of marriage, it is very comforting to believe that those who don’t share their views are off the scale right wing conservatives. It’s seldom mentioned that people like, for example, Shirley Williams and Angela Merkel did not support the redefinition of marriage.

It also ignores the fact that the major Christian communions – Orthodox and Catholic have stuck to the traditional definition of marriage. Officially the Anglican communion supports a traditional view of marriage, though the situation within Anglicanism is more complicated.

Evangelicals who argue for traditional marriage are not an Elijah-like rump, doggedly promoting an outdated concept. There are, to use a biblical image, seven thousand all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and they are found throughout the Christian church. Add to that the adherents of other religions who do not promote the practise of same-sex marriage and a very different picture emerges to the one that is painted in the Tony Campolo interview.

And of course there are those who have battled same-sex desire and chosen celibacy out of their commitment to Christ. In a sex obsessed age they really are true heroes.

I said I believed that Tony Campolo is wrong on some points. Let me give you three areas where I think his arguments are weak.

Firstly, he claims that homosexuality is genetic and that science has established that belief as a fact.

I do not know what research that assertion is based upon. I do know that, even if some researchers believe this to be true, it is a truth not universally acknowledged among the scientific community.

A major piece of research undertaken and recently published by two distinguished researchers at Johns Hopkins University, challenges the notion that homosexuality is genetic. You probably never heard of the research, because as soon as its findings were revealed, the university under pressure from the LGBTI community, distanced itself from the work.

And you might not be aware that prominent gay rights activist Peter Tatchell does not believe that homosexuality is genetic.

This also affects our whole understanding of identity. We are left with “identity based on desire” and who knows where that will take us?

Secondly, there is the argument that goes something like “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, therefore it must be ok.”

That is true. Jesus never mentioned the issue specifically. But there again, Jesus didn’t mention a lot of things. He never addressed the issue of domestic violence. Or paedophilia. Or drugs. And He doesn’t specifically address sex before marriage. Or abortion. Or assisted suicide.

Because Jesus didn’t address an issue doesn’t mean it is not important!

What he did do was define marriage. Very clearly:

“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10.6-9.

Finally, the general approach to scripture on this issue and the reinterpretation of key verses in Romans 1 reveals the extent to which scripture has become the servant of ideology in the hands of some evangelicals or former evangelicals. The work of exceptional scholars such as Richard Hays or James Dunn – hardly the kind of fundamentalists referred to in the early part of the interview – highlight how unlikely if not impossible it is to extract the kind of meaning from Romans 1 that Tony Campolo seeks.

Here’s what Hays has to say: “In Paul’s time, the categorization of homosexual practices as para physin [contrary to nature] as a commonplace feature of polemical attacks against such behaviour, particularly in the world of Hellenistic Judaism. When this idea turns up in Romans 1…we must recognize that Paul is hardly making an original contribution to theological thought on the subject; he speaks out of a Hellenistic- Jewish cultural context in which homosexuality is regarded as an abomination…” Richard B.Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p.395

And James Dunn: “The description which follows is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy to the practice of homosexuality, so prevalent in the Greco-Roman world.” (James Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, p.74)

And of course N.T. Wright continues to hold a traditional interpretation of those scriptures that concern sexuality and marriage, commending the work of Richard Hays mentioned above.

I hope that in writing the above I have been fair to Tony Campolo and have not misrepresented him; I don’t dislike Tony Campolo because I disagree with him.

Although I neither wanted to criticise him or engage in this debate, there are crucial issues at stake. People are affected when a powerful voice promotes what has become a popular view. And it doesn’t help when it is done in such a way that, intentionally or unintentionally, it marginalises those who hold a different view.

One thing we didn’t learn from the Tony Campolo interview concerns the ethical issues that those evangelicals who have bought into LGBTI ideology seem to be unwilling to confront. Questions about reproduction within same-sex marriage and the ethics of surrogacy and sperm donors. Questions about the rights of children – whose rights are seldom if ever taken into account in the arena of sexual politics. Questions about whether sexual expression should be restricted to marriage.

I trust that this short piece at least indicates that relinquishing the traditional definition of marriage has implications and perhaps consequences that are not immediately evident: same-sex marriage is not a stand alone issue.

And hopefully, if Tony Campolo ever reads this article, he will find it in his heart to forgive me if I have been too harsh or unfair in my criticism.



Ezekiel chapter 42 comes before Ezekiel chapter 43

Okay. I have to admit I wondered why I had got up early in the morning to read this particular passage. A few verses in I queried why this was even in the Bible. Then I questioned the whole idea of reading through the Bible in a year. After all, why bother reading Ezekiel when I could be reading about Jesus healing the sick? Or the disciples taking the Roman Empire by storm? And would my life be any less complete if I gave Ezekiel a miss entirely?

If you are feeling disappointed by my early morning attitude or affronted by my disrespect for scripture, read the following, imagining you are reading it in a dark, early morning in late autumn:

Then the man led me northward into the outer court and brought me to the rooms opposite the temple courtyard and opposite the outer wall on the north side. 2 The building whose door faced north was a hundred cubits long and fifty cubits wide. 3 Both in the section twenty cubits from the inner court and in the section opposite the pavement of the outer court, gallery faced gallery at the three levels. 4 In front of the rooms was an inner passageway ten cubits wide and a hundred cubits long. Their doors were on the north. 5 Now the upper rooms were narrower, for the galleries took more space from them than from the rooms on the lower and middle floors of the building. 6 The rooms on the top floor had no pillars, as the courts had; so they were smaller in floor space than those on the lower and middle floors. 7 There was an outer wall parallel to the rooms and the outer court; it extended in front of the rooms for fifty cubits. 8 While the row of rooms on the side next to the outer court was fifty cubits long, the row on the side nearest the sanctuary was a hundred cubits long. 9 The lower rooms had an entrance on the east side as one enters them from the outer court. Ezekiel  42.1-9

That’s for starters. The rest of the chapter is more of the same.

Thankfully, Ezekiel 42 eventually gives way to Ezekiel 43. Ezekiel 43 is a wonderful chapter that heralds the return of the glory and presence of God to His temple. It’s a chapter packed with prophetic, indeed messianic, symbolism and imagery. In short, it’s the sort of stuff you want to read.

By the time I had reached chapter 43 I was making a mental note to skip chapter 42 next time – if there was a next time.

And then I was struck by a thought: there must be a reason that chapter 42 is included. And there must be a reason that it precedes chapter 43. I can tell you are impressed by the dazzling logic.

That thought led to this thought: before God’s glory came back to the temple, a lot of detailed – and yes perhaps boring – preparation had to take place.

And then this thought: if we want to host God’s presence and glory we have to be prepared to do a lot of mundane, perhaps boring, detailed preparation. Emails. Spreadsheets. Cleaning the house to host your connect group. Phone calls. What seems like endless meetings.

Often we think those kinds of things are just necessary or even unnecessary evils that get in the way of the main business of ministry. In fact the reverse might be the case. Those “kinds of things” might actually make a way for the main business of ministry.

Perhaps it’s Ezekiel 42 kind of stuff is what takes us to Ezekiel 43 kind of experience – the kind of experience we all want.There is a reason that chapter 42 precedes chapter 43. The one is not complete without the other.

And will I keep reading Ezekiel?  yes, I will keep reading Ezekiel. Even chapter 42.

3 fears that turn up when God is at work

The dimmed lights. The chair. “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. I don’t need to add Magnus Magnusson or even John Humphrys to reveal that the subject in question is Mastermind. For a generation, or two or three, it was and perhaps is the greatest, most challenging of all quiz shows.

What you might not know about Mastermind is how it came to be.

It was the brainchild of Bill Wright. Wright had been a gunner on an RAF bomber in the second world war. His plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. Part of his experience as a prisoner of war was interrogation. Interrogation in a darkened room. The interrogation began with three questions seeking his name, rank and number.

Not surprisingly the experience left its scars on the airman. Recurring nightmares of sitting in a darkened room being asked to provide his name rank and number continued into the post war years.

One day the story goes, Wright had an idea, an idea to turn his nightmare into a quiz show. The darkened room would remain. The intimidating interrogator would remain. But instead of being asked for name rank and number, the contestants would be asked for their name, occupation and specialist subject. The BBC liked the idea and Mastermind was born.

Not everyone is able to turn their fear into a successful quiz show. The Mastermind story is, however, a reminder that fear can be turned to our advantage. In fact, the gospels give the distinct impression that when fear is around it is frequently a sign that God wants to or is about to do something. The fear is evidence of His closeness not an indication of His absence (Matthew 10.28, 31, 14.27, 17.7, 28.10; Luke 5.10, 8.50, 12.32).

How do we apply that to our lives in practical terms?

Firstly, you can feel afraid because you feel unworthy.

When Simon Peter and his friends brought in a miraculous haul of fish because they obeyed Jesus’ command, Simon Peter’s reaction was perhaps not one we would expect:  “Go away Jesus – I’m too sinful to be associated with you”.

Jesus’ response? “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”

Don’t let the fear of your own weakness keep you from the mission to which Jesus calls you.

Secondly, you can feel afraid when you face opposition.

When Jesus sent His disciples out on mission, He knew that they would face opposition.

How did He teach them to handle the fear of opposition? Fear God more than people (Matthew 10.28). And remember that your heavenly Father will look after you (Matthew 10.29-31).

Thirdly, you can feel afraid when your future seems uncertain.

The story of the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in stormy weather while Jesus slept is well known. Jesus stills the storm and then asks them why they were afraid. They were no doubt afraid because they thought they didn’t have a future! But when Jesus is in your boat you always have a future. He’s started His work in you. And He’ll finish it.


It’s never too late for grace

At the age of eighteen he was king. By twenty-one he had lost his throne and spent the next thirty-six years in a foreign prison.

That was the trajectory of King Jehoiachin’s life up until the age of fifty-seven. Caught up in events that heralded the exile of the nation of Judah, Jehoiachin’s personal and public faithlessness both mirrored and encouraged the declining spiritual health of the nation.

You search in vain for any indication that the final years of Jehoiachin’s life might escape the kind of futility and failure that had marked his first fifty-seven years. 2 Kings 24.6-17 and Jeremiah 22 present a depressing picture.

However, right at the end of 2 Kings, the picture unexpectedly brightens up:

27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. He did this on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month. 28 He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honour higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived. 2 Kings 25.27-30

At the age of fifty-seven, after a lifetime of frustration, failure and futility, God dramatically changes everything. A new king comes to power in Babylon. And everything changes. God changes everything. For the rest of his life Jehoiachin is honoured in a way that he has perhaps never experienced.

No matter how difficult or frustrating life has been, God can dramatically change things. Thirty-six years of setback can be overturned in one day. That’s God. That’s grace. And it applies every bit as much to you as it did to Jehoiachin. It’s never too late for grace.