Thursday, July 26, 2007

Define your culture - Don't let it define you

I've been thinking a lot recently about how Christianity equates with our modern culture and the more I think about it the more it becomes clear.

Jesus wants us not to be defined by our culture or let it define our relationship with Him. He wants us, as Christians, to define it and define it in a way that shows who He really is and reflects His nature.

We live in a consumer society, where the philosophy is to take what you can get and do what you like, as long as it offends no-one else. Take as much as out of the world as you can as much as it benefits you as long as it harms no one else, that's no problem.

We can even let this invade our Christian life. We consume church, and consume God taking what we want from them and then giving nothing back at all, or going no further than is comfortable for us to do. Taking blessing without sacrifice.

Consumerism means never leaving your comfort zone and never invading anyone else's, it means taking from this world till you've got what you want out of it. We can even consume charity work, some people give to charity when it suits them and as long as its no sacrifice to make them feel like we've done something. Its the same with things like Live 8 or Live Earth. It makes people feel better about themselves that something is being done about the big problems. Even worse, some people are completely ignorant of these issues and are only wrapped up in their own worlds to notice or care.

Now Jesus says something totally different. He says to go out of your comfort zone. The Bible commands us - not ask, command - to serve and help those in poverty or injustice, to look after this world, to love everyone as we would ourselves, treat all equally, to forgive the ones who hurt us and to stand up for God's truth, even if it offends others and causes us to be persecuted or made fun of. Even if it puts us in a minority.

Jesus calls us to make sacrifices for Him and to others and surrender control of our lives to Him. Sometimes He even calls us to live by faith and trust Him for all our provision. He calls us to things we think are impossible and which without Him are, meaning we have to rely and trust Him totally. He calls us to be counter-cultural and live counter-cultural. To re-define our culture around us to God's standards and reflect it in our lifestyle.

There's lots more to this topic and I've only briefly touched on it. But the bottom line is that we should define our culture to the standards that God calls us to, not let ourselves and our faith be governed and defined by our culture. Lets be radical for God without fear and then we can make real change for God.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Women and leadership

A few months ago I said I'd be writing on women in leadership and now finally I have the time to do so. Its a big topic, and I'm trying to sum it up in a few paragraphs when there have been whole books written on it. So here goes.

I have been to churches where for a women to be in any form of leadership they need to be married to a male leader . If they're not, then they're not officially qualified to be a leader no matter what their gifts and calling. I have also been to churches and talked to Christians who think that women should only be leading and speaking to women and children at the very most. Some churches only let women into leadership if they are married.

Some churches won't even you let you be on staff and certainly won't let you be an ordained pastor unless you're a married male. They take the passage saying that a church leader should "be the husband of but one wife" to equal that all leaders should be married males. They also use the famous passage by Paul talking about what women should not be doing in church as justification for keeping them out of leadership.

Here is that passage in full "women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church" (1 Corinthians 14 v33-35).

You would think this makes it obvious. It doesn't. Firstly, look at the context it was written. It was written to the Corinthian church in a culture where men were the most educated and most knowledgeable people in society, and a place in Corinth where women were preaching false doctrine about a female god named Diana. Into that context, why wouldn't Paul write that women shouldn't be speaking in church? The principle surely is that the untaught and unqualified shouldn't be speaking in church, which makes a lot of sense.

Lets see what Paul says elsewhere. In his letter to the Romans he says "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me" (Romans 16 v1-3)

Phoebe was a deacon in the early church. A deacon would have meant someone in leadership and would in all probability have meant she led meetings and preached to congregations of both men and women. Paul speaks of her very highly, not as some inferior person in an inferior role. He is sending her to the Romans, which means he must have placed great trust and authority on her.

Then there is the last sentence, about Priscilla and Aquila. Now when writing it was the norm at the time in letters to name people in order of seniority in the church and certainly to name the man first. However, Paul mentions Priscilla first, a sign of her higher authority within the church - in which she had a more prominent role than her husband.

These two things combined with the contextual look at the Corinthians passage can only lead me to conclude that not only did Paul agree with women in leadership in the right context but actively promoted it. Women were senior leaders and deacons in the early church.

In Corinth women were uneducated and some were preaching false doctrine. It made sense for them not to lead or preach. It's the principle that is taught here, rather than the literal text itself.

That passage has in fact been down the centuries, in a male-dominated culture, been used an misinterpreted by the church to keep women at arms length. Actually Paul actively supports and encourages the opposite.

If you're not convinced, then at the Gospels and see what Jesus said about women and how he treated them.

Jesus respects women, He treats them as equals. He goes and speaks to the woman at the well and talks to her like he'd talk to other people. When he rises from the dead He chooses a woman to be the first to hear the good news and go and tell people. Not a man, which would have made more common sense, given that women's testimonies were not regarded as valid in the culture of the time. But Jesus chooses a woman to be the first to preach the good news that Jesus is risen. She goes and tells the disciples that Jesus is alive. Not once does Jesus ever treat women any differently than anyone else. He never makes clear that they are not to preach or to lead or are somehow inferior to men. All He does is precisely the opposite.

At the original creation before the fall men and women were given dominion over the earth, it was only when sin entered the world that God put men in charge over women. If Jesus has come and taken away our sin, then surely Christian women are now free from that curse. A new covenant, a new order, back to how God originally intended.

In the Old Testament there are women leaders like Esther, although as the curse of Eve was still in place there were no female figures in the Jewish church. Once Jesus comes along though that changes radically.

If you're still adamant women should not be in leadership, then think of this. What if Jesus came down now and stopped the work of every female in church leadership. The ministry of Jackie Pullinger would not have happened and when you think of the impact she has made for Jesus on this world that's just plain ridiculous. Joyce Mayer is another gifted leader and speaker who has changed lives for Christ.

Imagine a female was preaching at an evangelical meeting when hundreds were becoming Christians. Would Jesus come in an say "Stop now, you're not mean to be leading or preaching". I doubt very much He would, especially not as the first person He asked to speak the good news of His resurrection was a woman and given the equality and respect He afforded women.

Some people have called what I'm talking about as 'feminist Christianity', trying to follow the politcally correct culture of the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. What it actually is is Biblical Christianity, its following the example of Jesus and the early church. It has not one iota to do with feminism or political correctness. Read the Bible and see for yourself.

Jesus is in favour of women, respects women and chose a woman to be the first evangelist. The early church practised women in leadership and Paul actively promotes it. Jesus has broken the curse on women through the cross and now they are free to serve and glorify God in the ways He is gifting and leading them to do. I believe that if we restrict women in leadership and preaching, we are trying to restrict God. That's not something I want to have to answer for in Heaven and its definitely not Biblical.

Men and women should be working in leadership together as a team, not one superior to the other. God has given gifts of leadership and preaching to men and women alike - let them use them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Real Church

I was reading a blog on the 'Deep Church' site I read often and there was an article about church and what it was. It made me think. What church is perceived to be and what it really is are two different things altogether.

When you ask non-Christians - and sometimes even Christians - what 'church' means to them then they often talk about the 'established' church as it is called. They usually mean either the Catholic Church or Church of England and its usually in reference to their leadership. People are at the moment criticising 'the church' for its attitude to different things - like abortion, contraception and gay priests. Even The Pope, the Head of the Catholic church, recently said that only apostolic churches are real churches, and no other 'churches' are.

What the Bible says about the church is very different.

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church with a message to them and in turn us about what church was and still should be. He says "Now you are the body of Christ and each of you is a part of it." (1 Corin 12 v 27). He had just been talking about what a body was, a few verses earlier he says "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ..." (1 Corin 12 v 12).

Paul continued and developed this theme in the letter to Collosians . He writes "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of His body, which is the church" (1 Collosians 1 v24).

What's the message here? That the church is not an institution or organisation. It is a body. It is alive. Like a living organism it has different parts with different roles and different gifts. This in practice means church is a community, a family, a group of Christians growing together and supporting each other prayerfully and practically. My church is just like this. Its a group of people who have fun together, worship together, pray together, study the Bible together and share experiences of God. We support others who are in difficult situations through prayer or by helping out practically. We go through difficult and good times together and are welcoming and accepting of new people. We reach out to our local community and try to be part of it. People with different skills and gifts use them to build up and serve the church and each other. It disciples and trains its members to develop their relationships with God and offers prayer ministry for those who need it.

That is what church is. Its a living organism which supports each other and if it puts Jesus at its centre it grows and flourishes. Ever noticed the growing churches are generally the ones with the best and most Biblical teaching and the ones that are dying are the ones without it? Its because Jesus is the heart of the church, and without Him it dies.

All churches by definition are apostolic anyway, as if they are made of Christians then ultimately they all exists because of the work of the apostles. Whether they are denominational or non-denominational it doesn't matter. They are all churches as the Bible defines them.

Christians are all members of 'the church'. For their spiritual growth its important to be part of a church community, indeed all the language of church talks of community. As long as these groups exist, they are meeting together (no matter what the number) and are putting Jesus at the centre, then there is real church. No matter what the Pope says. I'm here to tell him and everyone who wants to know - church is not an institution and is not limited by denomination. It is non-denominational, it is Christian and it is Biblical.

What's all the fuss about Harry Potter?

In case you didn't know, the new Harry Potter book was launched last weekend. I'm sure none of you have noticed. But all I've seen since Saturday is people everywhere reading this new book. Anywhere you go, everywhere you look, there's another person engrossed in the book, all desperate to know the eventual fate of Mr Potter. It's like it was the most important book ever published - and to some of them no doubt it is.

In fact, shops opened at midnight to allow people to buy the book the second it came out, and shops were fighting over who had the book at a cheaper price.

I'll come straight out and say I've never read the books or seen the films. They may be very good and I'm sure a lot of people enjoy them. But the sheer number reading it and the urgency there seemed to be made me think. The more I saw it, the less I was making fun and the more sorry I felt for them.

Whatever you think of Harry Potter I can tell you one thing for sure. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows is not the most important book ever written. Not by a long way. There are far more important books out there, books which impact the lives of those that read them and change their life forever, books which can change the very direction or path that your life takes. None of them involve Harry Potter.

This isn't about criticising Harry Potter, but as Christians shouldn't we be feeling a bit of righteous anger when we see how high a place people put on a fictional book about a boy wizard?

This, when they can't get excited about the story of God, which is much more powerful, more real, more exciting, more alive and more world-changing than any other book. We need to be getting people wanting to read the Bible and read about God with the same urgency. Then we'll have real change.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Defining Relationships

Nowadays one of the things that defines us is our 'marital' or 'relationship status'. Things like Facebook and MySpace both have sections devoted entirely to that. Either you're 'single', 'in a relationship' or 'married'. Of course, in the eyes of the world our goal should be to be in a relationship or married. It is, apparently, the only way to find true fulfillment, contentment and happiness.

I beg to differ.

I am currently in a loving, committed relationship. A relationship which involves giving and receiving, serving and sacrifice, forgiveness and grace, intimacy and friendship and which gives me true peace.

This relationship is with someone who is perfect, loving, merciful, beautiful, forgiving, gracious, kind, never makes mistakes, is always faithful and totally trustworthy. Someone who is always with me, always has been and always will be. Through whom I can do anything and can find my true identity, who sees the best in me and does everything in their power to protect, help and strengthen me.

No matter how many times I am unfaithful to this person, however many times I let them down, no matter how many mistakes I make, no matter how much I insult them, betray, fail or disappoint them, I know that every time, if I come, say sorry and ask for their forgiveness, it will be given.

Their love for me will never ever fail, no matter what I do. Not only that, I have proof that they love me enough to die for me.

Sounds pretty good eh? Maybe some of you are wondering who this perfect person is. Let me tell you, there's only one person who can meet this criteria. I suspect most of you have already figured it out.

Its Jesus Christ.

Well Jesus/God/Holy Spirit, the three in one. We can define it in may ways, but I like to put the person of Jesus in there. He after all lived among us, shared our human experience, with all its difficulties and temptations. He has been abused, insulted, rejected and tortured. He's been through the mill - He knows what is like to suffer. Any feeling, experience or emotion I have, He's already been there.

He's my Father, friend and Saviour, God on earth. I have a living relationship with Him.
The best thing is though, is that although this relationship is exclusive, that we can ALL have this relationship and it is always exclusive in that no-one else has the same relationship with Jesus.

All of this is to prove a point. Just because we're single doesn't mean second best. Think of the freedom of being single. Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, was single. As were many of the disciples, and Paul the Apostle.

Singleness is not second best and what's more does not and should not ever preclude you from serving God powerfully and being in leadership. Some churches seem to choose the opposite way and allow only married couples in leadership, when the Bible never says anything of the kind and practically proves through the lives of Jesus most significantly that there is no law on singles not serving.

You can choose what you do, when you do it, how you do it, without the anxiety of worrying about someone else. You are free as a Christian to go anywhere and do anything for God without having to take anyone else into account in your decisions. You can take even bigger risks for God. Not only that, but as a Christian you're not really 'single' anyway, as Christians have Jesus with them all the time, wherever they go.

Here's a little story from my own life. I'd been praying for confirmation from God about my relationships and whether I would get married. For months and months I prayed about it. Then somebody at my church last month completely out of the blue asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no. He said simply "You will". It was like God saying that "James, for now I want you to be single, I want you to find your character, identity and security in me. But one day, you will get married. Trust me, put me at the centre and follow me and one day, when you least expect it, I will put someone in your path".

So that's what I've done. I've decided to really devote my time and energies into spending time with God, deepening my relationship with Him, increasing my knowledge of Him and developing my character and making my security and identity in Him. I'm actually very happy being single, because it allows me to devote more time to God and go on an adventure with Him.

When the time is right I believe God will put someone in my path. When will that happen? I don't know. Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year or even further on? But I trust God that it will. I also know that when it does I will be as fully reliant on God as possible and have my security in Him.

Putting your security in anything or anyone on this earth will just cause pain and hurt. Putting that in Jesus saves your life and guarantees your future. Is it not better to be single and know Jesus than be in a string of bad relationships and failed marriages and not know Him? I know which one I'd choose. I'd choose to be a single Christian, than in a relationship and never know my Saviour. I want my life, my identity and my character defined by Jesus and not by anyone else.

Our relationship status should define us - but our relationship with Jesus, not with a member of the opposite sex. Who is defining who you are today?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Be Transformed

I watched the film 'Transformers' today. Took me back a bit to my childhood and had a great combination of action, humour, romance and comedy. Totally the last place I'd expect God to speak to me, so what happens? God spoke. To explain what He said, let me outline the details of this film - apologies in advance if you haven't seen it.

The film is basically about a war between a race of mechanic-organisms, robotic living beings, which finds its way to 21st century America. The real 'transformation' in this film I found though is not these machines, as spectacular as that is. The real transformation in the film is of the main human character is a man called Sam Witwicky.

This guy starts of as the classroom outcast, left out of all the main social groups, made fun of, no good at sports and seen as a loser. In the course of the film he discovers his grandfather first discovered the 'Transformers' and left a pair of glasses that Sam now owns which hold the key to the survival of the human race, he has to make sure these glasses don't get into the wrong hands.

He and a the class beauty who starts off tagging along with him to run away from her boyfriend discover this information and that the Autobots, the good Transformers, have all along been following him and his family for decades. They are arrested and end up fighting all these machines, and he becomes the protector of 'The Cube', a power source which in the wrong hands could be fatal for mankind. In the end he uses this power to kill the most evil transformer, Megatron, and the Autobots win the war, becoming allies with the humans. During the battle he discovers reserves of courage and strength he never realised he had, and discovers his true identity. He becomes who he was always meant to be. Of course, as is the case in these films, he gets the girl.

Now how does this all relate to God? I think it does in so many ways. I think as Christians our journey can be a lot like Sam's. We all go through periods of doubt, periods we think we're rubbish. We can't do anything for God, we don't matter. It's everyone else that gets blessed and an easy life.

This, of course, is a total lie.

I know because I myself used to think like that. Losing my mum and being bullied at school are just two things which contributed to me thinking those exact thoughts about myself. But recently discovered that all of that was a total lie. God doesn't see what's on the outside. He doesn't see the insecurities, the fear, the doubts. He made us and He can see what we can be. He knows what we're capable of if we have Him on our side and are seeking and serving Him.

If our minds and lives are orientated around Him, we can do things we never believed we could, through Him. We can change the world. We can be warriors in the Spiritual battle that daily goes on to try and bring this world back to Jesus. God sees what we can be. Satan is trying to stop all this happening and will do anything within his power to stop it (He must be worried about this blog, as I've had a few tachincal difficulties posting it!).

He has limited power, but still significant power. He gives rise to doubts and insecurities about ourselves and our worth, as he takes our circumstances and uses them against us. He makes our lives difficult and uses subtle half-lies to manipulate us to walk away from God. Why? Because he knows how dangerous we are to him when we have the power of Jesus by our side, and when the only fear we have is of the Lord.

There is a spiritual battle going on on this earth, and as Christians we are all participants in it Prayer, worship, service, The Spirit and the word of God are our weapons against him, and against anything of God, Satan cannot stand. The best bit about this, is that the war has already been won. Jesus won the war for us on the cross. We can take strength and courage from the fact that no matter what Satan does, he cannot defeat the power of God or the cross. The battles will rage until Jesus returns, but Satan knows he has already lost.

The other amazing thing is that in our hearts is the power of God. He has put His spirit in us and as Timothy says, it is "Not a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline" (2 Tim 1 v7). He is always with us, and His power and spirit is always with us, living in us. We can do anything with the power of God in us, anything that God tells us. Let's not be afraid, but move forward boldly.

Anything that comes against God cannot stand, and whatever the enemy throws at us, if we trust in God and put Him in the centre, we can get through it. We can be more and do more than we think. We can be 'transformed' more into God's image and into who He is calling us to be.

What an exciting prospect that is...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Prayer: Conversations with God

I've been reading 'Red Moon Rising' recently, about the birth and growth of the 24-7 Prayer movement and am feeling very inspired to write about prayer right now. This will hopefully be the first of a few articles on the subject of prayer.

The thing that struck me first of all when thinking about prayer was about how we do intimacy with God, and that there are different ways of doing it than just the conventional, well known ones. Intimacy is the closest kind of relationship you can have, its something you share with one other person and its a unique interaction between two people of closeness in a way you don't have with others. Most commonly that happens between married couples, but in a Christian context this also happens with God.

When we talk about intimacy with God we often talk about reverence and awe, facedown worship and quietness and stillness. I think this is very much intimacy with God, but I think its more than that. I think intimacy is engaging with God throughout your day and being totally honest with Him about what's going on in your everyday life and involve God in even your most private situations and thoughts. Its like an ongoing conversation with God

Intimacy and a real relationship with God is ongoing. In my experience you can reach a level of closeness where your everyday experience you go through with God. As you walk to the station to go to work, on the train even at work. If you're away on holiday sitting by the pool. If you're riding your bike or walking anywhere, or catching the bus. Even while listening to worship music on your i-pod, you can engage with God.

Quiet arrow prayers or praying aloud even, talking to God as you would your closest friend - as opposed to your 'buddy' - about life issues, about how you're feeling, to ask Him to cope with your day and your life while its happening. Discussing things with Him and asking Him about things that are on your mind, and challenging Him on the things you find hard and don't understand. Listening to him while you go about your life. You can I beleive even share a little in His sense of humour as you see that played out in everyday life. That is all intimacy with God.

You can't have a relationship with God on that level unless you have that closeness and trust between yourself and God. This is not the informal 'buddy' God we hear so much about nowadays, it's a lot more than that. It's having that reverence to know who He is, to have the closeness to trust Him and be honest with Him in prayer and engage daily with Him. Say how you feel, be honest with Him. If we don't understand what's happening, ask!

Its the closeness and honesty Job shared with God. He wrestled with God, challenged Him, enquired of Him. You can't do that without something more than a 'buddy' relationship and without the fear of the Lord - the awe and wonder of who He is and His greatness.

Once you come into the courts of the King you can engage with Him personally and intimately, with total honesty, with the security of His grace, mercy and love. Talking to God honestly, frankly and with respect and awe for who He is. That's as intimate in a different way as spending time in the quiet and the still and sitting in a room inviting God's spirit to come.

It's another form of intimacy, and is close in the right way, without the 'buddy' attitude. In my experience it means you get to see another side of God and really engage with Him about real issues with great honesty, and laugh as He laughs, feel the pain He does and the righteous anger. When you share that intimacy with God, you begin to feel what is on His heart and it becomes transplanted on to yours. What a privilege.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Crazy thing, getting a train

I did a crazy thing today. I got a train from Taunton to Epsom. Nothing crazy about that, you might well say.

Tell you what, I'll go back about 24 hours. I was staying at the Holiday Inn in Taunton on a cricket tour with friends. I'd been reading a book called "Red Moon Rising" about the birth and growth of the 24-7 Prayer movement. I was reading about an awesome God doing awesome things and people doing crazy things for God.

As I read, my heart was racing. All I could think about was getting involved, about doing something. Forgetting whatever else I was doing, forgetting the world's agenda, their values and priorities. Reading this book it seemed much more of an adventure to go wild for God and get involved in building up His kingdom.

But I thought I could continue my weekend away and still do this. Not so. On the Friday morning in the health club I was in the jacuzzi relaxing and it came to my attention the name of the health club - "Spirit Health and Leisure". The logo was straight opposite where I was sitting and for some reason I could only read the words "Spirit" and "Health" together. It felt like God was trying to tell me something.

That evening I read more of the book. I was by now getting very excited and was struggling to put the book down. The amazing protection, power and awesomeness of God and His clear plan in this 'accidental' movement was truly incredible. So I put some worship music on in my hotel room and worshipped. I simply had to.

The thing is, as I was worshipping, I had a sense that God was telling me to leave this all behind and go home. To leave the cricket tour, pay for a train ticket home and travel back therefore missing out on playing two games of cricket and having to pay out more money.

The problem was, this was one of those annoying awkward feelings you get when you hear something from God and know its from Him. The feeling of attempted denial and trying to change God's mind before the realisation. There's no getting away from it. This was God testing my obedience. I had no idea why specifically I had to go back, just the knowledge that I did.

So I made arrangements to go. I got players to play on the games I was supposed to and made my excuses. People asked me why, I just said "I have to go, and I can't explain any better than that".

So I got on the train home from Taunton on Saturday. By now it had dawned on me that it might have something to do with prayer and spending a lot of quality time with God, praying about my future. In fact, more than that, I started to feel a great sense of destiny and calling.

The more I read about 24-7 the more I realised that I had to get involved. Prayer has always been one of my biggest passions and I've always suspected it might involve 24-7. But now it was feeling very real. God was also telling me to be patient till the right time - this year may be too soon, God has things to do first. But one thing I know now, is that God wants me involved in the 24-7 prayer movement.

Of course, this all starts in my own church. We're starting a new service and there's new opportunities. I want to be more involved with the prayer life of my church and now have fresh motivation and vision for what that should be. I'm going to talk about this with my pastor.

One thing is for sure, my life has no changed. My past is being put further and further in my past and I'm moving into a new life, and that includes moving house. My past needs to be put to the past. My future is beginning now - its the present.

My present and future life will be one not decided or even defined by the people and culture around me or by the circumstances that befall me - as they have been in the past - but by Jesus.

Forget your modern-day consumer culture. God has shown me the folly and pointlessness of it all, and how much this world needs Him and His agenda, and from now on that's my agenda.

Its amazing how revolutionary a train journey can be...