Lent – why I’m never gonna give you up

It’s Lent. Started last Wednesday. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, is providing a strong lead and giving up crisps. Salt and vinegar being her weakness. So, I’m guessing the thought of giving something up for the next forty days has crossed your mind. Because that’s what Lent’s about, right? Honestly, I have very little idea what Lent is about. I’ve never been very good at paying attention to things that hold no interest for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really interested in Jesus’ death and his resurrection. But no so much the religiously inserted rigmarole that so often accompanies it in church tradition. After all, the Bible doesn’t talk about Lent. And so, it can’t be that important. It’s certainly not crucial to our Christian life. It might be useful but it’s not essential. We don’t have to observe it. A younger version of me would have railed against the imposition of any perceived religious ritual and flaunted my freedom in the gospel to ignore something I assumed was the re-imposition of Roman Catholicism. Aren’t you glad you didn’t know me at university?! There are valuable things that are part and parcel of Lent; meditation – by which I mean the prayerful consideration of the scriptures, perhaps especially focussing on the death of Christ and fasting. Fasting has value. But neither of those things need to be limited to this time of year. And neither of them is compulsory. So let’s keep this thing in perspective.

The single most important thing about Lent is freedom. You’re free to observe it if you want. And you’re free not to. It’s your call. But you don’t have to. Whether it’s a good thing for us to observe will likely be determined by what’s going on in our hearts. If you do please don’t look down on those of us that decide not to join you. Don’t judge us or condemn us. Don’t think you’re better or superior than us and that somehow you’ve attained a higher spiritual state. You haven’t. And be careful not to use your freedom to give it a go to lead a weaker brother into sin and cause them stumble. There may be some among us who’ve been saved from a Roman Catholic background who are constantly tempted back to putting our confidence in our fleshly observance of the religious traditions from which Christ came to set us free. Having you press that onto our conscience won’t help us to trust Christ alone for our salvation. Of course, if you don’t observe any Lenten habits then please don’t assume that those of us who do have turned Catholic. We probably haven’t. We probably just recognise the value of some of these things for our own Christians lives and that this time of year has provided the much-needed stimulus to arouse us from our spiritual lethargy and actually employ God’s means of grace. Obviously, I think there’s some value in observing Lent. But I’m not planning to. I’m just going to keep ploughing on with the same old, same old. Not because I can’t be improved upon. I can. And I probably should. But I don’t have to. So, I’m not going to. Not this time, it’s crept up on me unawares and I haven’t really prepared anything for it. But that’s OK because Christ’s death is all about forgiveness.

Runs on the Board

athersWriting in Thursday’s Times (19th January 2017), Mike Atherton (above), their cricket correspondent and ex-England Captain wrote a piece about leadership. It’s worth a read if you can get behind their pay wall. Apparently the English Cricket Board (ECB) has enlisted the help of an ex-Army Officer now Management Consultant, Gemma Morgan to help them develop new leaders.

In doing so, they assess potential leadership candidates in four areas;

  1. their impact within a group,
  2. their ability to make things happen,
  3. their interpersonal skills and
  4. their thinking skills.

That’s not surprising. It’s what you might expect. But what’s striking in the article is her insistence on character being key. The overriding message at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst is that leadership is service. Their motto ‘serve to lead’ is everywhere. Now that’s remarkable. It’s almost the polar opposite of how things ordinarily work in the world of sport. Normally captaincy is about having ‘runs on the board’. As  Morgan, an ex-international lacrosse player, observes,

‘Coming from the sports field initially this turned leadership on its head for me, because until then I understood leadership as hero-based: am I the best player, the leading goal scorer, the go-to player that kind of thing’.

Many of us in church planting and  pastoring resonate with that kind of thinking. But our competencies have to do with preaching, evangelistic effectiveness, theological knowledge and strategic thinking and so on. But, she goes on,

‘At Sandhurst I came to understand that it was not about me but about duty and service to others. It opened my eyes. Before they teach you any technical stuff, they underpin everything with values that are uncompromising. Integrity, for example, if you breach integrity you’re gone and you won’t be invited back. Once you’ve got these anchors in place, they add on the technical bits. In sport and business it is the other way around. In the army, they will not take a risk on character’.

In recent months, the England One Day Captain Eoin Morgan decided not to tour Bangladesh citing security risks as his issue. He copped a fair amount of flak for that. This was interpreted as a leader choosing to abandon his men when faced with hardship. It looked self-interested. It may not have been if he was making that decision in such a way that it gave implicit permission for others to follow suit. Interestingly Alex Hales decided not to tour as well. When pushed for her verdict on this decision Gemma Morgan would not be drawn because she simply didn’t know the rationale and motive behind Eoin Morgan’s decision. But she did say this, ‘You have to lead by example and my experience is that people will follow if you think you have their best interests at heart’.

It turns out that leadership is not so much about having ‘runs on the board’. And England’s own history bears that out because one of the most respected and most successful Captains was a man who arguably wasn’t good enough to get in the 2nd XI. He was the man who got the best out of Bob Willis and Ian Botham in the 1981 Ashes series. His name is Mike Brierley and he’s written a book called ‘The Art of Captaincy’. It’s on my Amazon wish list!

For those of us who suffer under the delusion that we might still be the hero every church needs, Morgan did close with this encouragement,

‘There is a time for autocratic and direct leadership but to get people to follow unquestioningly you have to have invested a lot of time in the relationships. If you’re selfish you will get found out. If you get a combination of a brilliant player, a charismatic leader, and someone with the interests of others at heart? Then, great. But they don’t come along very often’.

The odds are that most ofus are not in that category. And neither are our leaders. And so character really matters. And self sacrificial service is paramount. Who’d have thought it?!

In Mark’s Gospel Chapter 10 verse 45, we read this, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. That’s leadership. And it’s runs on the board. Just in a different kind of a way.

Three Benefits of our Co-Mission Network

ccmI was at Christ Church Mayfair on Sunday morning for Co-Mission Sunday (that’s not yet a regular feature in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar, but give it time). Before he got me up to preach, Matt Fuller got me up to be interviewed. I hate thinking on my feet almost as much as I hate realising afterwards what I should have said. And so Matt warned me what he was going to ask, which gave me a few moments to formulate a useful answer. He asked me what the benefits of belonging to a network of churches were.

That’s a bit like asking what are the benefits of belonging to a family. It all depends on your experience of family. And for the record (in case my Mother ever reads this) my experience of my actual family has been uniformly wonderful. And in case the Director of Co-Mission ever reads this, my experience of my metaphorical family has been similarly positive.

But I think the family metaphor works. I like it that we’re (CCB) a part of a family of churches; a network of like-minded congregations trying to help one another do the same thing. For my money there are three obvious benefits that we’ve experienced in the last 14 years.

1. Co-Mission has provided us with a network of relationships. In my wider family I have aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces and so on. It’s good for me to have so many different people in my life like that. It’s relationally rich.  But there are a lot of lonely Ministers out there and a lot of isolated churches. But that’s never been true of me or CCB. We’ve always belonged, partly because we were the first plant from Dundonald in 2002 and they looked after us. But that’s what happens in families. Those of us on the staff and the ministry trainees experience the relational aspect perhaps more than most because we’re involved in training together with others in Co-Mission. Those relationships are so helpful in terms of personal support, ministry encouragement and godly challenge. And the elders of our churches are part of the Co-Mission Partnership and we meet together several times throughout the year as we reflect on and prepare for our joint ministry activity. And wonderfully because of things like Revive, or the forthcoming Co-Mission Women’s Day or Children’s Ministry training there are ample opportunities for congregational members to support one another in other churches. It’s been our great privilege to receive people over the years from other Co-Mission congregations who know what they’re going to get with us and want to remain part of the Co-Mission family. And we’ve been able to send people off to other Co-Mission churches to serve there. And the odds are that they already know people when they get there. It’s so encouraging to be part of a family of churches.

2. Co-Mission has provided us with a wealth of resources. When we were planted we were like the typical teenage kid going off to university or married couple starting out together. We were sent with our hands full of everything that we might need for those early days. We had people, we had finance and we had training and support. There’s no way that we could have got going on our own. It just wouldn’t have happened because we didn’t have what we needed on our own. But wonderfully we didn’t need to have it all because others in the wider Co-Mission family (not that it was called that then because it didn’t formally come into existence till 2005) wanted to be generous and share their resources to help get us off the ground. We continue to share the resources God has entrusted to us. New church plants benefit from people sent from other churches. Money moves from one church account into another in order to finance a worker or two in an economically deprived area. And we share training because there’s diversity of gospel ministers in Co-Mission; men and women with different expertise and experience. And at things like the Ministry Training Workshop everyone benefits. We’ve tried to be intentional about resource rich congregations supporting resource poor congregations, especially in the early days of planting and especially if (humanly speaking) there’s likelihood of some of those ministries ever being self-sufficient. That tends to happen through local geographical clusters. And it’s a good thing to be generous and sacrificial as we steward the resources that God has entrusted to us.

3. Co-Mission has provided us with a reminder of our responsibilities. The issues of training people for ministry, reaching the lost with the gospel and planting churches are rarely off the agenda in this family of churches. It’s really helpful to be reminded of our responsibilities as churches. When teenagers grow up they have to accept that with great privilege comes great responsibility. I’m not sure we would have planted Streatham Central, contemplated training up Jay as a church planter and encouraged BLoC to hibernate with us without being part of a family that regularly reminded one another that we’re trying to reach London for Christ through pioneering church planting. There’s a great danger in our personal lives to strive for, succeed and then settle for comfort. And that’s no different in our churches. But being part of a church family where we’re often talking about planting, about places without a gospel witness and about areas of London that aren’t being reached means that there’s a godly dissatisfaction that drives us on. We’re not happy to settle for comfort because even if we’re going well in our patch, 90% of London doesn’t believe the gospel. That’s a lot of people. And so, even if any of us runs a numerically successful ministry, we’re barely scratching the surface in this great city. Theer’s work to be done. And we have responsibilities. I love being part of a network that keeps reminding us of that.

Co-Mission isn’t the best family. I’m not saying that. But it’s ours. And I’m really grateful for it. It’s helped us be church. And it’s helped me serve church. There are real benefits to our network. And I praise God for it.

Unsung Heroes

kirkby-stadiumI’m reasonably confident that you’ve never heard of John and Doreen Mallinson, Ginger Hewitt or John Geddis. Am I right? I hadn’t until I read Chris Boardman’s autobiography over Christmas. They were stalwart members of a group of volunteers at the Kirkby Stadium, a cycling velodrome near the Wirral (now closed down). It’s where Boardman learnt to compete. He went on to become very accomplished at going round in circles very quickly.

You can trace the contemporary supremacy of British Cyclists and the growing popularity of recreational cycling to this man. He won individual pursuit gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was the first man in the Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France since Tom Simpson in the early 1960s. After him came the household names of Bradley Wiggins, Sarah Storey, Chris Froome, Laura Kenny (nee Trott), Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Jason Kenny and may others. Boardman is partly responsible for the success of British Cycling, having worked quietly behind the scenes fuelling the research and development to give cyclists a technical edge as well as implementing recruitment systems and training processes and raising up and developing coaches. He’s responsible for the affordable range of bikes that bear his name sold at high street retailer Halfords. They’re very, very good bikes evidenced by the fact that the Brownlee brothers, Alastair and Jonathan, use them in triathlon. And Boardman has become an outspoken advocate and vocal campaigner for the social benefits of cycling.

But without John, Doreen, Ginger or John none of this would have happened. And Boardman knows it. They are the unsung heroes so beloved by Sports Personality of the Year. It’s the bit in the show that makes me well up. That phenomenon causes extreme embarrassment to my children and great amusement to my wife. But for me it’s fast becoming the sole reason to sit through SPOTY. But that’s a gripe for another day. But hear what Chris Boardman has to say about these volunteers,

‘Just a handful of individuals presiding over a low key activity on the outskirts of Liverpool helping people take their firsts steps in the sport. What they didn’t realise was that they were the true pioneers of the Olympic success to come, quietly preparing the ground for Britain’s cycling revolution’.

I couldn’t help but spot some parallels with our own situation at CCB. Nearly fifteen years ago people like Gordon, Phoebe, Christian, Helen, Jenni, Rosslyn and Rufus were part of small group of twenty who were planted into Balham to start a new church. None of us imagined that we’d be where we are now. It’s a wonderful work of God’s grace. I’m not going to claim that we were quietly preparing the ground for London’s evangelical revolution. But it’s great testimony to God’s goodness that he’s caused us to grow, enabled us to plant both Streatham Central Church (SCC) and Brixton Local Church (BLoC) and participated in the training of individuals for full time gospel ministry. That’s not nothing. At my last count we’d trained twelve people as ministry apprentices. And we have three currently ‘in the system’. That’s an average of one per year. I think we can and should do more. But that’s also for another time. And we haven’t even mentioned the conversion of individuals wo’ve come to trust in Christ, people who’ve been maintained in their faith, who’ve have grown in maturity and been equipped for the works of service that God has prepared for them to carry out in their homes, among their friends, at work and in the community.

I suspect that few of us in churches think much about what our participation in our local church will produce. We’re pretty short sighted. Church is part of the routine of life. Like work on a Monday morning. But take heart. Lift your eyes to the future. It is your very great privilege to be a participant in a divinely instituted organisation through whom God is building something significant for the future. One day we will be able to trace the value of our contribution into eternity. And it’ll be amazing to see how God has sued what we’ve down as He brings all things together under the saving reign of His Son, Jesus Christ. And in all likelihood we’ll probably even now have some inkling of what He’s doing in the present. But many of us don’t feel that we’re doing anything that important. Our name might appear regularly on a rota. We might be part of a team that runs a small ministry. But what we do just keeps things ticking along and the show on the road. But presumably that’s what the Mallinsons, Ginger and John thought.

In 1 Corinthians 15:58 the Apostle Paul wrote this, ‘Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain’. None of it is wasted. It all counts. The Lord will see to that. And who knows, your church may be somewhere from where the evangelical equivalent of a Chris Boardman develops!

When Chris met Brad


In 2002 Chris Boardman sat down in the canteen of the Manchester Velodrome with the British Cycling Head Endurance Coach Simon Jones and a talented but frustrated cyclist on the brink of throwing in the towel. His name was Bradley Wiggins.

Chris Boardman was someone who’d done it before. To steal a cricketing metaphor, he had runs on the board. He was an Olympic champion and a two time wearer of the Tour de France Yellow Jersey. The idea was that Wiggins might be willing to listen to someone who’d known success.

In that canteen Boardman simply asked Wiggins three questions.

1.    What do you want to achieve?
2.    What do you think that requires?
3.    How does what you’re planning get you those things?

Those are three great questions. It won’t surprise many to learn that as I read Boardman’s autobiography over the Christmas period, my arm instinctively reached for the notebook and pen. These questions are not entirely unfamiliar to those of us in the Antioch Plan, at least in broad outline. They’re scratching at the issues of vision, strategy and tactics. I’ve already warned the Antioch Planters that I may be quoting liberally from this book in the coming term. The man who was the vanguard of Britain’s cycling revolution may unwittingly be contributing to the coaching of our church planters!

But think briefly about those three questions for a moment in the context of church growth.

What do you want to achieve? I imagine the answer of our planters will be a variation on something like this, ‘I want to see the establishment of a flourishing church plant that’s heading towards sustainability as people hear the gospel, place their trust in Christ, grow in their knowledge and understanding of God’s word and use their ability, opportunity and capacity to bring about the growth of his kingdom in our local context’. Their version of that answer will be better.

What do you think that requires? Again, I imagine they’ll answer something like this, ‘It’ll take servant leadership from me and other leaders and it’ll require sacrificial participation from everyone in the church plant. Everyone will need to be involved in reaching our neighbours with the gospel, providing a church family for them to belong and training one another so that we grow in our biblical convictions, our godly character and our ministry competency’.

How does what you’re planning get you those things? If what they’re planning is an aggressive door knocking strategy, and by that I don’t mean door knocking in an aggressive manner (one would assume that would be counter-productive) but instead a determined and insistent approach to making sure that everyone in your neighbourhood has the opportunity to know of your church plant’s existence and pursue any line of spiritual enquiry that they might have, then they need to be able to examine the wisdom of said tactic especially as it comes under sceptical scrutiny from those they’re trying to persuade them in such a venture! For the record, I think it’s hard to think of reasons why our planters wouldn’t do this. It’s a good tactic, though not without potential cost.

As you’ll no doubt know, Wiggins went on to notable success, even if his efforts on the road are currently under some suspicion since they were accomplished with the addition of permissible but lamentable medical assistance. For those who are not following the story, Wiggins applied for and received a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) that allowed him to receive medication for a pre-existing medical issue. That medication also probably helped him go further and faster. For my money that’s the kind of thing that Paul has in mind in 2 Timothy 2 when he talks about the athlete receiving the victor’s crown competing according to the rules. Wiggins may have received a crown but only he knows whether he really competed according to the rules. But what’s more interesting to me than Bradley’s dodgoire TUE is that at that moment in 2002 in a canteen in Manchester, he didn’t quit. The conversation and the probing questions kept him in the game.

In the book Boardman reflected on that exchange and Wiggins’ subsequent response. The initial answers he gave were vague and unconvincing. And so Boardman sent him away and told him to e-mail him a plan once he’d thought it through. Wiggins did that a week later. But what convinced Boardman that Wiggins was now serious were his responses when pressed. Boardman writes, ‘I wasn’t directly critical, never said what was right and wrong, but I did drill down into his reasoning, asking him to explain what made him believe each particular step of his plan would work. What were his beliefs based on? How would he measure progress? Where he waffled and evaded I demanded evidence and clarity’. You might imagine that Boardman would make a persistent but productive church planting coach. But if you were planting a church you’d be glad of that kind of input, wouldn’t you? If you could survive that type of questioning you’d be certain that you were on the right path. That only leaves doing what you’ve planned to concentrate on!

It seems to me, to plan for success, our church planters and church pastors need to be willing to put our church growth plans under the same degree of scrutiny. We’ve got to have answers to those questions. God may give growth irrespective of how well we’re thought through. But it’ll be accidental. And we’ll take that, of course! But how much better to be deliberate? And plan. After all, are we not encouraged to anticipate that the Lord will work through means rather than despite them?

A 2017 Personal Prayer

2017-aspirationsI was put on the spot unexpectedly at our church prayer meeting last night. I blame Simon. We were encouraged to pray for one another and therefore share personal prayer requests. We don’t normally do that in our central prayer meeting but instead save it for small groups or prayer triplets. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But we just don’t normally do it. And so it caught me unawares.

In the few seconds I had to respond, I wanted to set the tone for our prayer requests – to make them deliberately spiritually shaped and to shy away from the more superficial things that tend to dominate my thoughts and aspirations for 2017. And at that moment the prayer reports of Paul seemed the obvious place to go. I didn’t include them all, you’ll be as pleased to hear as they were that I didn’t. I plumped for the one that’s always made the biggest impact on me. The one in Colossians 1. He writes this,

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

At first sight it’s somewhat complicated. But once you drill down a little it begins to make sense. Paul explains that he’s been asking God to give his readers spiritual insight into God’s will. He did that so that they’d know what to do in order to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. After all, if we don’t know what God wants from us how will we ever know how to live a life of which he approves? Paul then spells out just what a life that pleases the Lord looks like. And it’s characterised by four things. It was these that formed the essence of my impromptu prayer request. These are the things for which my group prayed for me last night.

1.       I’m praying that I’ll bear fruit in every good work. In other words, that I’ll be spiritually productive, that I’ll be what I’m meant to be and do what I’m meant to do. Just as a fruit tree is meant to bear fruit so a Christian is meant to bear spiritual fruit. It may be that Paul had in mind the fruit of the spirit that he lists in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He may not. But that’s surely a great place to start in terms of developing character, isn’t it? I want 2017 to be characterised by spiritual fruitfulness.

2.       I’m praying that I grow in the knowledge of God. Not merely knowledge about him but knowledge of him. We’re talking about personal knowledge that can only be acquired from the inside of a relationship not external knowledge that we can gain from a text book, or even a Bible.  I want 2017 to be characterised by knowing God better and better.

3.       I’m praying that I’ll be strengthened by God’s power. Paul prays that God’s mighty power will be at work in his readers so that they’re strengthened. What do you imagine the mighty power of God might accomplish in a believer? Endurance and patience. Bit of a let-down I suppose. And yet, keeping on keeping on and keeping calm while we wait for what we’re hoping for are not easily accomplished. God’s mighty power will help us persevere so that we endure and we don’t quit. And God’s mighty power will help us cope with not having what we want so that we’re not agitated and restless. I want 2017 to be characterised by a patient perseverance that unwaveringly persists.

4.       I’m praying that I’ll give joyful thanks. After all, what’s not to be joyful about? My sins have been forgiven and I’ve been welcomed into the kingdom of God. Not because I’m worthy because I’m not. But because Jesus is. As CH Spurgeon reminded me on Twitter today ‘morality may be enough to keep me out of jail but it’s only Jesus’ blood that keeps me out of hell!’ That’s very good news. And I rejoice in it. Some days more than others, admittedly but it remains the one thing for which I’ll be eternally grateful. And so, even if I go through the mill this year, even if my circumstances are not what I’d choose for me, my family and my church I want to continually give joyful thanks for the undeserved and incalculable blessings that I have through Christ. I want 2017 to be characterised by a heartfelt gratitude and joy.

Spiritual fruitfulness, personal knowledge, patient persistence and joyful gratitude; are those not four great things to pray for in 2017? If you’re struggling to think what you ought to pray for this year, why not start with this? And pray big ambitious prayers that aspire to exciting spiritual transformation.

The Gift That Keeps on Giving


At our recent Bedford Carols Mash Up I mentioned the phenomenon of the Four Gift Rule. I didn’t make it up. It’s a thing apparently. I got it from the BBC website here.

Here it is in outline: want, need, wear, read. It’s essentially parenting by numbers. And honestly, sometimes in parenting, numbers is just what you need. The gist of the article is that it’s possible to establish a watertight contractual arrangement between parent and offspring whereby they accept that they only receive four gifts at Christmas as long as each of the four presents fulfils one of the following criteria.

1. One must be something that they want.
2. One must be something that they need.
3. One must be something to wear.
4. And one must be something to read.

Three of those are dead easy. Number two son is getting a set of Simon Mayo’s ‘Itch’ books. Mrs P needs a new iron. Don’t worry. It’s not the only thing she’s getting. I’ve bought her socks as well. Favourite daughter will happily wear a new cycling top. But what they want, that’s a shocker. Number one son wants a new hockey stick. The top of the range option is £270. For a hockey stick! That’s not happening.

But what do they want? I could ask them. But that’s risky. I don’t want them to think that my enquiry signals some sort of implicit commitment to fulfilling their desires. But what do they want? And, more importantly, why do they want the things that they want? That’s got to be worth asking, hasn’t it? After all why do any of us want the things that we want? Surely we want what we want because of what we believe it will offer us. Deep down, what we want reveals what we really want. And that’s worth knowing.

I wonder whether what we want boils down to one of three essential things. We want security, significance or satisfaction. In other words we want to feel that it’s all going to be OK and that we’ll be safe. That’s security. We want to feel that we mean something and that we really do matter. That’s significance. And we want to feel that we’re fulfilled. That’s satisfaction.

We may well get presents this Christmas that offer us one or more of those things. I’m hoping for a week long cycling trip to Tenerife. And that’s all to do with satisfaction. A little to do with significance. I’m getting older. My powers (though not inconsiderable) are on the wane! I feel like I have a little bit less to offer as I get older. That makes me feel a little less significant. But cycling long distances with a group of others who are similarly minded gives me an identity. And that matters to me. Probably more than it should given that who I am needs to be rooted in Christ and the gospel. But I’m simply revealing why I want the things that I want.

We may give and receive ideal Christmas presents this year. They may be what the recipients or we want. But all our brilliantly chosen Christmas gifts will wear out or their effect will wear off. No created thing can offer us ultimate security and guarantee that everything will be alright in the end. No created thing can offer us ultimate significance and guarantee that we matter. And no created thing can offer us ultimate satisfaction and guarantee unending pleasure. But God has given us a Christmas gift that will. This gift will fulfil every aspect of our deepest desires. The gift of Jesus will one day provide us with unmatched security as we rest at peace forever in his glorious New Creation. He will provide us with eternal significance because we’ll belong to his people as his treasured possession forever. And he will provide us with unstoppable joy as we take pleasure in who he is and what he’s given us. That’s some present, isn’t it? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Each present we give or receive will at best provide us with only a temporary glimpse of the greatest present of all. So let’s make sure that in the midst of all our present opening we don’t neglect the greatest gift of all. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ John 3:16.

Nativity 3: Myth, Mistake or Mystery?


In a vain attempt a couple of weeks ago to enter into the Christmas spirit I forced the family to watch Nativity 3. It met with mixed reactions. The strongest of which came from one of my children who said, ‘well that’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back’. He had a point.

But how do you explain the events of the nativity? Not the film this time. The actual events of that first Christmas?

The shepherds, the wise men, the star, the angels and a baby born without the involvement of a human father. We’ve got to have an explanation haven’t we? This is not something that we can simply leave and push to one side as though it was unimportant. It’s not. We’ve got to be able to explain it, surely? I reckon there are four typical explanations to the events of that first ever Christmas. Four attempts to explain what happened.

It’s a myth

What I mean is that some of us think that there’s no truth in it. It just didn’t happen. In other words, it’s invented. Someone one just made it up. If that were true, it wouldn’t be the only invented thing accepted at Christmas, now would it?! It’s like ‘The Snowman’, the book by Raymond Briggs that was made into a film in 1982. The Snowman comes to life and takes a small boy on an adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. We all know it’s not true. It didn’t happen. The Snowman doesn’t actually exist. But we’re happy for him to reappear every year at Christmas. The problem with thinking that Jesus is a myth is that the historical evidence leads to a different conclusion. He really did exist. No serious contemporary historian really doubts that. The writers of the gospels are keen to locate the events in human history. For example, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning he wanted us to know that Jesus’ birth took place in the time of the Roman Caesar Augustus during the census that he instigated when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That’s a whole heap of historical data that precisely locates Jesus’ birth.

No, we can’t say that these events were invented. Whatever it is, it’s not a myth.

It’s a mistake

What I mean is that some of us think that it probably did happen but that the details have been exaggerated. In other words, it’s inaccurate. There’s some truth in it but it’s been embellished. It’s like Robin Hood. In popular folklore he was an outlaw who stole from the rich to feed the poor, operating in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham during the reign of King John II. Historical documents record several men called Robin Hood. It was a common name. And many of them were on the wrong side of the law even if they were on the right side of the people. But about a century or so later folksongs and ballads began to make reference to the supposed antics of him and his merry band of followers. But the Robin Hood of folklore and the Robin Hood of real history are very different characters. The problem with thinking that our understanding of Jesus is mistaken is that anyone who’d exaggerated any of the claims that Jesus made or exaggerated the things that he did would have been immediately discredited. They’d have been shouted down and shown to be fraudsters by the people who heard Jesus say what he said and saw him do what he did. Those eyewitnesses wouldn’t have let people be mistaken as a church grew through the proclamation of something that they knew to be a lie.

No, we can’t say that these events are inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s not a mistake.

It’s a mystery

What I mean is that some of us think that it certainly did happen but that we can’t know for certain what it means. In other words, it’s inexplicable. It’s like the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 that crashed a couple of years ago. We all know that it happened. The plan never landed. Bits of the plane have been found in the southern oceans. But no one knows for certain what took place. It’s an unsolved mystery. And we can think of Jesus’ birth like that. It’s a mystery. We just don’t know what it means. We can’t know what it all means. And we just say that it’s profound. It’s deep. It’s beyond our understanding. But the problem with thinking that we can never know the truth is that the rest of the Bible spends most of its time telling us what the truth is. It helps us to make sense of these events.

No, we can’t say that these events are inexplicable. Whatever it is, it’s not a mystery. So what is it? Honestly.

It’s mind blowing

What I mean is that when you get your head round the truth of it, it’ll blow your mind. Nothing’s ever the same once you’ve got it. In other words, it really is an incarnation. That’s not a word that we commonly hear. But it’s the word used to describe what was happening when Jesus was born. Incarnation literally means ‘taking on flesh’ or ‘becoming embodied’. The Bible’s take on Jesus’ birth is that he is God made flesh. As Wesley’s unsurpassed carol ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ puts it ‘Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, please as man with man to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel’. The angels in Luke 2 put it this way, ‘Today in the town of David (that is, Bethlehem) a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’. And just so that we’d be absolutely clear who they were talking about they include this line, ‘this will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’. Jesus is God with us. He is the Lord of all shrunk down into a body just like ours. But why? Why would God go to so much trouble? The clue is the other two names given to him by the angels. First, he is the Messiah, the much promised long awaited anointed king for God’s people.  And so secondly and perhaps more clearly, he is our Saviour. God sent his son to be born as a man so that he could save us. To understand the baby in the manger we must remember that he became the man on the cross. There he swapped places with us. A sinless substitute taking the just punishment for sinners. He was born so that God would treat him as though he were me so that God could treat me as though I am him. It is the most mind blowing exchange that has ever or will ever take place.

It’s not a myth. It’s true truth. It’s not a mistake. It’s plain truth. It’s not a mystery. It’s open truth. It’s mind blowing. It’s transformative truth.

What’s your explanation for the events of Christmas? What are you going to tell your kids? And what are you going to tell yourself?

Should I bother with Advent?

advent-candlesMany churches lit their first advent candle last Sunday. We didn’t. We don’t have any. And it’s not that the apprentices forgot to go shopping. We just don’t do that sort of thing. Advent, I mean. Not shopping. Or forgetting. Let’s move on.

Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. A well intentioned non-biblically mandated Early Church addition. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not without value. Because both Lent and Easter are intended to get us ready. However, you’ll search the scriptures in vain for a helpful steer about how to use the period before Christmas Day.

And that’s important. Not because we’re therefore forbidden from observing it. We’re not. We’re free to do things that the Bible doesn’t prohibit. And so it’s a matter of glorious freedom. In Colossians 2:16 the Apostle Paul warns us against those who would condemn us for our non-observance of a religious festival. The gospel has freed us from all that! And so, we’re at complete liberty to ignore the season of Advent (or Lent for that matter) if we want. Whether we observe it or not makes not one iota of difference to our standing with God. But having said that, I do think we might miss out on something useful to our Christian and congregational life by our neglect of it.

So what are we to make of advent?

First, the history. Advent comes from the Latin ‘adventus’ which translates the Greek word ‘parousia’. It means arrival or coming. And it was used to refer to the forthcoming arrival of the then recently fixed Christmas Day. Biblically, the ‘parousia’ refers both to Christ’s first coming in the flesh and his second coming in glory.

Secondly, why observe it. You don’t have to. But, it is all about preparing ourselves and getting ready for the arrival of the Messiah. Initially it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in human flesh and then eventually it has to do with the arrival of the Messiah in his heavenly glory. If in the first place it looks forward to the arrival of the incarnate Son of God it then also looks forward to the return of the resurrected Son of God. It’s a helpful time then to attune our hearts and minds to the imminent arrival of the Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, what could we do to cultivate this sense of anticipation?

This, from Tim Chester, is worth a look. It’s called ‘The One True Story’. He sent me a copy earlier in the year hoping that I’d find time to review it. I failed him. But I think we’re going to use it as a family over the next months. Containing a selection of short meditative readings, it’s designed to help you prepare for Christmas. Perhaps get the kindle version for your phone this very day.

In the past, when the kids were a little smaller, we constructed a Jesse Tree, which was fun and not too much effort.

I recently discovered that there are advent readings, a guide and a calendar for the brilliant Jesus Storybook Bible available here. And it looks absolutely brilliant for families with primary or pre-school aged children.

I haven’t done it this year. Or any year for that matter. But I wouldn’t rule out lighting an advent candle in subsequent years at CCB!


2016-04-29 14.27.01It was my very great privilege to be asked to speak this past Bank Holiday weekend at a small missionary conference for the Church Missionary Society of Australia (CMS). I travelled first to Slovenia to catch up with the organiser, an old friend and occasional visitor to CCB, Kingsley Box. He, his lovely and lively family and I travelled to Austria where we met with others who are working in Central Europe. There were missionaries and their families from Italy, France, Austria, Germany and Slovenia.

The conference was an opportunity to meet up with others doing similar things, to reflect on life and ministry and to encourage one another to persevere. I was asked to teach the Bible each of the three mornings. The rest of the time was spent listening to their stories and praying in response, participating in seminars and generally engaging them and their (many, many) children in conversation. We stayed in a self-catering ski hostel in the snow topped Alps. As you can see from the photo, it was idyllic.

As you might expect, I spent some time reflecting on the missionary experience. On the plane on the way back I scribbled down some common themes that characterised what I’d learnt. They’ll be familiar from conversations with other missionaries. But they’re worth repeating.

  1. Their lives are purposeful. Although doing life in a foreign culture is complicated there’s also a beautiful simplicity to what it’s about. It’s tied up with why they’re there. They’re there to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and the progress of the gospel. They’re doing that in different ways; with university students, with churches or with seminary students. But they’re all about the gospel. They’re on mission. They’ve got that front and centre. They have loads of other things to do; personal admin, family logistics and so on. But they see everything through that one lens. And there’s something to be said for getting that clear in our own lives.
  1. Their existence is lonely. One of the seminars was entitled ‘Living Between Two Cultures and Having Both on my Screen’. They thought about how to cope with trying to land in one culture but feeling split between two. That’s not helped because of the proliferation of social media. Unless you resolve not to use it (or somehow change the settings), it’s hard to avoid what’s going on back ‘home’ through the Facebook feed. And even though Skype provides brilliant opportunities to stay in contact, the ready availability of friends and family back home can mean that though you’ve physically left one continent, emotionally you never really leave. And that’s not good. There’s a sense of isolation that’s intensified by seeing what your mates are doing.
  1. Their ministry is costly. All genuine ministry is costly. It’s cross shaped. It’s marked by hardship and hostility now. But vindication and victory are saved for the New Creation. And so missionaries know that it’s going to be tough. No one’s hidden that from them. But there’s a difference between knowing that in theory and knowing it from the inside. It’s probably true that missionaries don’t really fit in anywhere. They don’t fit into their new culture because they come from another one. And they no longer fit into their old culture because they’ve been living in a new one. That’s especially true for the kids of missionaries. It’s pretty hard to feel that you never quite fit in. It’s much harder doing it to your kids.
  1. Their progress is slow. For some it’s painfully slow. One missionary family has been in Slovenia for nearly eleven years. And there are times when he asks what he has to show for his labours and their sacrifice. My friend and fellow Co-Mission colleague Andy Mason talks about having not only a ten year plan but a hundred year plan – to remind us that the Lord is the one who grows His church. And His timescale for fruitful ministry outlives ours and our plans. That’s perhaps a helpful way to think of things. CMS tell their European missionaries that in their first three year stint they need to learn their new language and culture and make sure that the family wants to go back after a brief break in Australia. I get that that’s vital, it’s just not a lot of ministry. And for task orientated people that’s hard to swallow. Progress is slow. But if it ends up being real then they’ll take that.

Is there anything that we can learn from their example?

I see no reason why our lives as missionaries to wherever the Lord has put us (for me it’s London) shouldn’t be marked by the very same characteristics.

  • We ought to be purposeful about reaching our networks with the good news of Christ.
  • We ought not to expect to fit in entirely with those we’re trying to reach, after all we’re exiles and heaven is our home. And if we live for Christ, we’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
  • We ought to expect it to be costly if we’re serious about serving the cause of the gospel.
  • And we ought not to be surprised if our progress is slow. But if it’s real then it’ll be worth the wait.