A Test Of Endurance

Church planting essentials: Perseverance

Previously in this ad-hoc series I wrote about the importance of patience in the heart of a church planter but took a moment to separate patience from perseverance.

“Perseverance is that quality that keeps you walking when you turn into a headwind, keeps you going when you’re faced with trials and battles. It is determination to not give up or go back. In other seasons of life perseverance becomes stubbornness.”

In this post I want to unpack perseverance a little more. I’m fairly confident that all church leaders see this need for this one, but for a church planter who maybe has not had years of leadership experience they may never have been in a situation where the leadership characteristic they most need is perseverance, the ability to endure.

I would want every prospective church planter before they get anywhere close to leading an actual church plant, to spend a day meditating on 2 Cor 6:3-11 and then when they’ve done that, to do it again.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and then some in pastoring people, I’ve brought trouble onto my own head through unwise words, stubbornness, pride and all the rest of it but this passage isn’t focussed on what happens when I screw up but what happens when we are faithful, diligent and doing a ‘good job’.

There are plenty of pastors around the world for whom ‘imprisonments, beatings, riots, calamities, hardships, hunger’ are an everyday reality. I’ve church planted in the UK and Sweden so that’s not been my experience so far.

‘Affliction, slander, dishonour, sorrowful, poor (relative), sleepless nights, unknown,’ that I can relate to.

The divorce of friends will give you sleepless nights, your teams criticisms will sting, the adulterer you’ve disciplined will slander you, the divisive can easily find their way in, the disillusioned will spread disappointment. Your income may be low enough to be stressful, you will be unknown and more quickly forgotten by your sending church than you thought possible, people you hoped to build with will leave (there’s never a good time to lose friends) and not always for reasons that make it easy to support. Death, serious illness, unemployment can rock you.

In a healthy larger or more established church some of these shocks can be absorbed by the church and the leadership team. In a church plant they can absolutely knock the stuffing out it.

I have tried two ways of enduring and only one of those would I recommend.

The first way is to channel Winston Churchill and start saying things like,

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Or

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

You become dogged, determined and you try and become the personification of the immovable object and you won’t let the ?#*@ grind you down.

There are several dangers here to your soul, well my soul at any rate. I struggled to trust people and beat an emotional retreat (heart very far from being wide open 2 Cor 6:11) while coming out all guns blazing in defence of this thing called ‘your church’. I fell back into the trap of believing that this church was being built on me and by sheer force of will would I pull this thing through.

Honestly, it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t healthy. Watch out.

There is a better way. Romans 5:4 is a sobering verse to consider, endurance comes as a result of suffering and this endurance shapes my character in such a way that produces hope but a hope that is set firmly in the experienced love of God and not back in my ability to endure trials.

Biblical perseverance pushes me back onto the promises of God, the victory of Christ, the hope of his eternal victory even if I suffer setbacks or defeat. It is the assurance that Jesus will build His church. It is a resting in the love of God for me through the Holy Spirit, a discovery of joy and a willingness to continue to love and be loved, that I do not fight against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12) and that I, chief of sinners, have received great grace. By God’s grace will we overcome, by God’s grace will light defeat the darkness and love overcome hate, truth defeating lies and so on.

This form of perseverance and endurance still requires that I wear my spiritual armour and stand firm, it requires and demands much of me, even to the point where I feel like I am stretched to breaking and yet even then God says my grace is sufficient. And it is, it really is. Don’t rest on anything else.

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Death is not a biological necessity

“It is interesting that death is not a biological necessity. Every living cell and organism is equipped with the essential machinery to ensure repair and renewal so that life can continue indefinitely. Surprising as it may seem, eternal life is not a biological impossibility! In one sense, although individual cells are destined to die, organisms seem to be designed to live forever. The ageing process  involves active biological mechanisms, as yet poorly understood, which cause the repair and renewal process to malfunction, leading ultimately to biological decay and death. Perhaps this is a physical counterpart of the biblical truth that through human evil, the creation is ‘in bondage to decay’ Romans 8:21″
- Professor John Wyatt in Issues Facing Christians Today Death is not a biological necessity quote eternal life death
p,433

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Holy Spirit stained glass

What is a ‘Spirit-led’ Church?

A fantastic description by Roger Olsen on what a ‘Spirit-filled and Spirit-led’ church might look like. Enjoy:

“A Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church will be alive, “crackling” with energy and passion, without fanatical extremism that focuses attention on ecstatic experiences rather than on the grace and glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Its people will come to worship and other meetings with excited expectation and not out of a sense of duty or with unhealthy fear. In a truly Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church visitors will come to see what God is doing among them. They will testify that “God is busy” (Hauerwas) there. Lives will be transformed in noticeable ways.”

You can read the whole thing here

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Measuring tape

Church Planting Essentials: Accurate measurements

Every church leader gets the numbers question, it comes with the territory. We can debate the merits of the question and the need for questions that probe quality and not just quantity, but if you’re a church planter, numbers rule your world.

Let’s be honest, no church planter sets out to plant a small group, stop there and say ‘mission accomplished’. We may not be dreaming of a mega, multi or missional monster but I’d bet my house no-one in the West thinks getting eight or ten people is hitting the church planting jackpot.

If making disciples is the goal and those disciples also make disciples then logic dictates the numbers should, at some moment in time, go upwards.

The numbers may take their time to nudge in the right direction, which is why patience is essential, but when it comes to numbers we all know which direction is right. Up is good; down, not so much.

All this to say, you will measure the numbers it is both inevitable and unavoidable. That being said, it’s essential then that you use a good measure.

In church plant number one, I used a bad measure. It was way too short. It would measure week to week. One week, the music was great, everyone showed up, we had visitors, the technology worked, the place felt full, members contributed to the worship, the sermon wasn’t terrible, the children were great, nothing got broken.

The next week would pretty much be the opposite.

Progress was so uneven, backwards, sideways and the odd faltering step forwards; it was an emotional and exhausting experience. This also comes with the territory but a poor measure makes it so much harder.

I realised that my identity was getting caught up in this and so I would be great one week and low the next, following the ups and downs of our small church plant. For the sake of my relationship with God and my emotional health I needed a better measure.

Slowly, the day-to-day, became week-to-week which became month-to-month (still not long enough) until I settled on year-to-year. It’s worth saying that depending on your country and context even year to year may be too short.

Yearly is where I’ve landed and it’s where I encourage those starting their first church to set their sights.

Taking a yearly look helps me as a church planter in a number of ways. It’s easier to see the trends from the spikes and dips in your growth chart and to see if there is genuine growth, or not.

Measures and changes you made the year before take time to have effect, there is no quick fix in church planting and a year gives you enough perspective to assess and adjust where necessary. It stops me from constantly tinkering and worrying and assessing what we’re doing. To use a motoring analogy, the car needs to be on the road and not in the garage for a service the whole year.

Taking a year view reminds me this is Christ’s church, He is building it according to His plan and not according to my emotional needs, this helps me relax and focus on being faithful and fruitful. You get the idea.

Here at church plant number two, I take my yearly evaluation sometime at the end of November and it’s a very easy, simple and fun process. We invite everyone, who is regularly (and that’s our baseline – regular) with us as a church, out to dinner. No random guests, no surprise additions, no padding the numbers because it was a Christmas service – it is just you and your group. Counting them is quite natural because well, it helps when booking tables. Taking pictures is also allowed.

As we look from year to year, you see some faces that are there one year and gone the next. Some faces you see year after year, after year. Each picture tells a story of faith, of mission, of love, of the gospel. And each picture reminds me that church planting is ultimately not about the numbers but about people finding their place in the people of God.

This year will be our third dinner, I’m looking forward to seeing what God has done.

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waiting

Church Planting Essentials: Patience

I know there are some church plants that just seem to explode into life almost the moment they began. Churches where everything seems to go just right and the line on the growth chart (because that is what we’re thinking about) just keeps climbing.

I’ve never led one of those church plants.

I’ve led teams where my family was the team, where every inch of ground is hard-fought for and growth (because that is what we want to see) can happen slowly, it can happen gradually and it can take a long time coming. Or at least it will feel like a long time; a very long time.

I want to separate patience from perseverance (another must have quality in a church planter). Perseverance is that quality that keeps you walking when you turn into a headwind, keeps you going when you’re faced with trials and battles. It is determination to not give up or go back. In other seasons of life perseverance becomes stubbornness.

Patience though is a different kind of waiting – it is not passive but it is not stressed. We live and work in secular Stockholm with a shockingly low proportion of Christians, we knew what we were coming to and we knew we were called.

We run through our mental check-list:

  • Praying? Check
  • Hospitality? Check
  • Sharing the gospel? Check
  • Making friends? Check

Your calling is sure and you are sure you are doing the right things but the fruit just isn’t there. We’ve been praying every week for salvation for two years, for people to be saved, baptised and added to the church.

What do you do when it’s not happening for you? I know what I used to do. Check my methods, redouble my efforts, quietly despair and sometimes complain. All of which suggests that somehow the salvation of people depends on me, when I know for a fact I can’t save anyone. Remember, we are doing the stuff.

What I’ve learnt between church plant 1 and church plant 2 is that Jesus promised to build His church (Mt 16:18). We believe that Jesus intends to build His church in Stockholm and has asked us to come and help. So we do what we’re told and we wait.

Hebrews 6:12 says it is through faith and patience that you inherit the promises. Not that we’re sluggish but that we’re patient. Faith should always be in Christ, faith in His goodness, faith in His gospel as the power of God for salvation, faith in His Spirit to lead us, equip and empower us and faith that God’s word will not return empty and void.

So two years on, we’re still praying, still opening our home, sharing our faith, making friends and waiting on His goodness, His plan, His timing.

The difference is remarkable. Not especially in the results (which is what you were hoping for), although we are really encouraged by what God is beginning to do.

No, the real difference is in me. I’m not carrying the load of making a church succeed, it was a weight too heavy and one I was never supposed to bear. I’m not pushing or pressurizing, I’m not so frustrated by the pace my companions are moving. I’m at peace.

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Are you listening?

Therapy, sin & modern idols

I’ve often heard Christians say they struggle talking about sin for fear of coming across as judgemental. It’s an understandable concern but a largely unnecessary one.

Sin, not just as an action but as an idolatry, can be identified by its destructive consequences and you don’t need to step into a church to hear about. Step instead into the therapist’s office.

Late last year the Guardian published this article about therapy in Britain today and the estimated one million people who visited a therapist. One of the therapists interviewed said,

“The fundamental issue is always, who am I? How can I be in the world? The questions people used to take to the priest and the wise woman: self, relationship, existence.”

The challenge for the Western church is to offer the hope of the gospel that goes far beyond the ability of even the best therapist.

Internet porn addiction

“A lot of young men make daily use of porn on the internet. I’ve worked with quite a few who have been sent by their girlfriends because they think they have a porn addiction. And they probably do. But they don’t see it as a problem, so they tend not to stay.”

Body dysmorphia

“There’s a huge pressure on everyone to look a certain way, and it’s coming from everywhere.”

Workplace insecurity

“There are a lot of very vulnerable families out there, and I think we’re going to reap what we have sown. If we don’t provide a strong base for families, the consequences are not good; children’s capacity to thrive, on all levels, is affected by their family life.”

Multiple relationships

“The biggest change is that people are experimenting with all kinds of relationship styles: not living together, not having children, constructing three- and foursomes that exist over time, and much more involvement in what is known as BDSM or kink. At the same time as the growing trend in polyamory, the government is trying to privilege traditional marriage with tax breaks and so on. It’s fascinating to see how people are rebelling against the government in their intimate lives.”

Social Anxiety

“I’m seeing a lot of people in their 30s. There’s a feeling that life is difficult and complex, that it isn’t working out…what they really want in life versus what they feel is expected of them. Our internal world is often in conflict with the world we occupy with others and society.”

Work/life clash

“I also see people overwhelmed by the pace of work who have decided they want a better quality of life, rather than material gain. It’s happening earlier, from around 30″

Domestic overload

“I’m seeing a lot of people who are struggling. Mothers juggling way too many balls – working, managing the finances and the family, and not feeling supported by anyone. Fathers feeling trapped either in work or unemployment, needing to pay the mortgage, feeling like wage slaves and unappreciated in the household.”

Social media addiction

“I see a wide range of people – students, couples, professionals, semi-skilled people – and 60% of my clients are men. Internet addiction is something I’m seeing a lot of. Not just pornography but social media: YouTube, online gambling, forums, it is addiction across the whole range. It’s interfering in their day-to-day life – studies, work or relationships – so they come to me to try to break away from that or manage it. At the moment they’re all male, from a student to a businessman in his 40s.”

Relationship breakdown

“I am seeing a large number of people in mid-affair or dealing with the aftermath of an affair. The gender fluctuates.”

stress

“There’s a lot of stress now surrounding work. Where there are lay-offs, those left behind are having to do more as their funding is cut and everyone’s responsibilities increase, but without more support. Managers are finding it very stressful and everyone is much more scared about losing their jobs.”

Read the whole thing here.

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cadbury

Why should I?

Our family (and especially my wife) has long enjoyed the fruits of George Cadbury’s labours, yet his chocolate was not his greatest legacy.

Cadbury, a devout Quaker, built towns, country parks, sports fields all in the interest, not of profit but of the lives of the men and women who worked for him.

I was particularly struck by the quote above when visiting the Cadbury factory in Birmingham. Cadbury realised that there is a measure of freedom in how you choose to spend your money. This freedom increases with your wealth. The fact that for many in the western world, despite our wealth don’t feel free is often down to our choices. Cadbury points out that if you spend your money on one thing, you cannot also then spend it on another thing.

He has also developed a clear sense of his priorities – that which is more important to him. Paintings he had decided were not important to him, tackling poverty and the living conditions of his workers was.

It’s too easy for most of us to say but I can’t buy paintings either but the question is the same if you have £10 left over or £1,000,000. What is important to you?

Cadbury is also wise to ask, ‘why should I?’ I imagine there were a great many people suggesting ways he could divest of his fortune. In contemporary life where we face the constant barrage of advertisements there is also a constant stream of suggestions of ways to spend our money.

In the face of this pressure, ‘why should I?’ is a great question to ask.

Here are a few quick reasons though why we should give our money away?

  1. We can help people with their material needs
  2. We can help people with their spiritual needs
  3. We store up for ourselves treasures in heaven
  4. We become more like our heavenly Father who is an extraordinary giver

What reasons do you have for giving?

 

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fantastic

When being good is not enough

Just recently I was discussing with a few friends about the reason, according to Christianity, why Jesus died on a cross. We talked, for some time, about the reality, extent and problem of human sin. We talked about goodness and our own sense of morality and righteousness and that it is quite common for people to think they are good people.

But what if good, just isn’t good enough? What if the requirement was, well, fantastic? Are you fantastic? And if you are and you make it to fantastic, with your fantastic life and your fantastic family and fantastic friends – what happens if you find out then, that what really was expected was INCREDIBLY AWESOME or some other unattainable adjective? What then?

And if fantastic is what life should be about, what of those who have failed to get over the much lower bar of average and instead bumble and plod about their ordinary lives, in an ordinary street, doing an ordinary job with their more or less ordinary family? Or to put it more personally, what happens to me? I am not fantastic.

I am one of seven billion people currently alive. I am limited in knowledge, time, space, energy and a thousand other ways. I am by definition, very ordinary.

God has not asked me to be fantastic, but meek. God does not require me to be awesome but to be humble, poor in spirit. God has not laid on me the burden of being the greatest but asked me if I’m hungry or thirsty. God did not tell me to stand out from the crowd but instead to love the crowd around me. My example in life is a carpenter not a celebrity. It’s faith not fame that God is interested in.

It’s often thought that a life of faith places great burdens and requirements on its adherents but compared to the burden of being fantastic? Now that is a heavy load. Jesus’ voice rings out to a world weary of trying to be brilliant:

“Take the yoke I give you. Put it on your shoulders and learn from me. I am gentle and humble, and you will find rest.”

Matthew 11:29

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Book Review: The Bible in 100 pages

Bible 100 186x300 Book Review: The Bible in 100 pages Phil Moore bible In the introduction to his book, The Bible in 100 pages: Seeing the Big Picture in God’s Great Story Phil Moore gives us some numbers on the Bible:

“It was written across 2,000 years by at least 44 different authors in 3 languages in 9 countries in 3 continents.” In addition it is made up of, “66 books, 1,189 chapters and 31,102 verses.” All of which can make the Bible, for many, a daunting and often impenetrable book to read.

Instead what is offered up here is a 100 page overview of the Bible, covering every period, tracing the arc of God’s redemptive plan from creation to new creation, revealing time and time again how it centres around the person of Jesus.

One minor niggle I had was with the phrase ‘Jesus is the true and better…’ not because I think there’s anything wrong with it especially if you happen to be called Tim Keller, but it has perhaps become too much of a signature phrase.

However, being influenced by Tim Keller is not a weakness in my book and well, Jesus is the true and better Adam, Moses, Joshua, David, Israel, …and such a neat little phrase is hard to beat!

The size of the book, the length of the chapters and the language (adapted as it is from a sermon series) all make this a very accessible book. It is ideal for the person who has some idea of the Bible, who maybe remembers some stories as a child and has been going to church for a short time and wants to take a first step into finding out more.

However it turns out it may not be so ideal for the person who knows absolutely nothing about Christianity. A friend gave the book to one of his colleagues at work to read and her comment was, there was just so much that was new, so many new names, new dates that it was hard to take it in and then it moved on. For her, the book was too fast paced and too condensed. Interesting.

If you enjoy reading you’ll get through this book in one or two sittings and that is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It is obviously intended as a small first step that should lead to other steps, including of course, reading the Bible itself.

Yet it is almost too fast, over too quick to perhaps truly whet the appetite but the Bible in 165 pages is not such a good title.

Having said all that it is going onto the shelves as a book to readily give away to students, commuters and anyone else looking for a quick-fire, sure-footed and trustworthy introduction to the big picture of God’s great story.

*Full disclosure: I know Phil Moore personally but he offered me no financial incentives for reviewing his book. Hint, hint Phil.

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Welcome

Church planting essentials: Hospitality

Family. Church. When you think about those words what comes to mind? Are there any overlaps? It is quite possible that neither of them carry any positive associations for you, yet that only serves to highlight our deep need for a place where we are loved, nurtured, cherished and valued; a people who give us our identity and our place in the world, a people to whom we belong and who belong to us.

Our conviction is that the church is the household of God (Eph 2:19 for example) and this shouldn’t just be a theological and theoretical truth but a lived out, everyday reality. We want to be part of a church that feels, acts and lives like it really is a family. But what is a family?

Steve Holmes puts it well when he says;

“When the Bible talks of the church as ‘family’, what picture are we meant to see?…Two things, I think, both of which extend beyond the local church. One is a theological reality: we have been adopted by the same Father, so we just are sisters and brothers; this is the highest privilege of salvation. Second, there is an ethical imperative, but I think it is more about availability than intimacy: your family, in the various cultures in which the Bible was written, are those who have an almost unlimited claim on your hospitality, help, and resources. A family member who requests help cannot be turned away, even if you have never met her before.”

Seeing the church as family has led us to learning and practising the gift of hospitality. It isn’t simply a method of gaining new members but putting into practice our ecclesiology. That sounds quite grand but the reality is, for us, fruitful but costly, joyous but exhausting. It has also hammered relentlessly away at my selfishness.

Hospitality has meant working through with our children about sharing their space, their toys and their parents with people when all they want to do is be on their own with their mum and dad.

Hospitality has meant giving up bedrooms for young men and women who have moved to Stockholm or are in between lodgings.

Hospitality has meant finding extra places at the dinner table, extra beds on the office floor, extra food in the fridge and longer waiting times for the bathroom.

We are not extroverts in our family, we all need our space and time either alone or just as a family. We need it to recover, we need it for our sanity and well-being. Hospitality strains all those feelings of need and entitlement. It can be costly and exhausting.

Hospitality has meant allowing people to be in your home when we are tired, grumpy, dishevelled and behaving poorly and want just to be left alone (it should be said that all of those descriptions apply mostly to me). It has broken down any notion our friends may have had about the pastor’s righteousness. The notion of salvation by works is clearly ridiculous.

For those who have come to us with Catholicism in their history, this has been both a shocking and stunning revelation. In contrast to the image of a distant but powerful priest here leadership is approachable, familiar and, in my case, very ordinary. Yet somehow, mysteriously, God is at work not through power and strength but through some quite obvious weaknesses.

Hospitality has helped a spiritual family take shape. The gospel in our lives is taking shape not through slick meetings but by regular time around our kitchen table.

Hospitality has opened our lives to a richness and diversity of cultures that we have never previously experienced and seen how the Gospel transcends culture, nationality and language to create a multi-cultural, multi-coloured, family.

Hospitality has given us friends when we moved to a city where we knew almost no-one. Hospitality continues to give us friends. This week I have been called a true brother and that a friend loves our church because it is their ‘family’. Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-31 have been tested and found to be true.

Hospitality is the catch-all term of practising all the ‘one-another‘ verses of the New Testament. Hospitality allows us to live the gospel. God has welcomed us in to His home. We were strangers and were invited in, enemies who have been made one of the family. We are not paying guests in the household of God, we are adopted children, through Christ we belong.

This captures the essence of hospitality, it is treating people whether they are a complete stranger or a treasured friend as if they belong, because, in Christ, they do; they belong.

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The Sunday meeting

Sunday lunch 2 300x224 The Sunday meeting service meeting gathering Does your church meet on Sunday? If it does, do you know why you do what you do? Does the person you sit next to know?

I’ve been going to church meetings and services since I was born. For the last 39 years the overwhelming majority of my Sundays have featured a church service.

As a child this was a given, as a teenager it was resented, as a student it was often a source of guilt, as a church leader they were both the high point and the most exhausting point of my week and when I forgot the gospel it would have an undue influence on how I saw God, church, myself and what I was doing with my life.

Church and the meeting are often blurred together; I’ve often said, that many Christians today know that the church is not the building but not so many know that the church is also not the meeting.

Moving abroad to plant a church in a new context gave me a fresh opportunity to think about church meetings – what they were for and what you did in them.

Earlier this year Tim Chester of The Crowded House church in Sheffield wrote a series of posts that worked through their understanding of meetings and what they hoped they were for.

  1. The aim of our gatherings
  2. The shape of our gatherings
  3. Our gatherings: contemporary and traditional
  4. Our gatherings: familiar and responsive
  5. Our gatherings: participatory and accessible

I found the process really interesting to see and it was a helpful exercise to think through even though the result would look different.

Our calling as a church is to make disciples who make disciples so at Grace Church we have taken Acts 2:42-46 as the basis for our answer spread over two different points in the week. We study the Bible together, eat together (and break bread together), pray and worship together.

So we study the Bible to learn about who we follow and what that following looks like, it sets us in the story of what God has done and is doing.

We break bread because this is our regular enactment and participation in the gospel – bread and wine, body and blood, we are partakers in the death & resurrection of Christ until He comes again.

We worship God because of who He is, what He has done for us in Christ and as we draw near to Him, He draws near to us. We are a Spirit-filled community.

We pray to ask God to help us in our everyday lives to honour Christ, serve Him, follow Him and witness to the world of His grace to us.

We fellowship together because God has not called us to follow Him alone but set us in a family, that together we may strengthen, encourage and serve one another in our calling as disciples and show to the world the same love that God has shown us. This is why missional communities are so important to us because we are about creating families on a mission together.

All this currently takes place in the (mostly) relaxed setting of our home but change is coming. As we multiply missional communities we will probably gather them together and the shape and balance of what happens in our gatherings and what happens in a missional community will shift and we will again think through the aim and shape of our gathering.

If you’re a church leader how have you answered the question of what your meetings are for? If you’re a church member would you be able to explain why you do what you do and would it be similar to your leaders’ answer?

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Serve

Seven ways our lives can tell the Gospel

I’ve often wondered how we should live our lives so that it declares the gospel. It’s too easy to fall into a check-box legalism that ends with all the joy sucked out of life as the burdens of rule-keeping eventually weigh you down.

Too often churches have encouraged their followers to a lifestyle that says ‘we are under the law’ and not ‘saved by grace’. The problem is if you asked people to describe a lifestyle that declares grace and not law, you often end up in a mix of actions that lean more on political or moral convictions than on the teachings of Jesus.

Yet I believe Jesus expected the life of his followers to be seen by others and He expected the watching world to notice the quality of their lives, marking them out as His followers. The kind of life that God had always hoped his people would live – lives that tell the Gospel.

A careful reading of the New Testament however reveals the ways in which Jesus and the apostles thought our life in Christ would continually be telling the gospel. The way we live would always create opportunities to tell people of what God has done for us. Our lives should show the grace of God to the world.

In John 13:35 Jesus says;

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love is the calling card of the followers of Jesus. The question is simple; how can you tell if someone follows Jesus? By the love they show to other followers of Jesus.

The answer however has proved depressingly difficult for Christians over the centuries to grasp. Love can be quite vague, sounding great but not meaning much. That and the fact we all think we are more loving than we are actually are.

It isn’t hard to see in the New Testament plenty of examples of what love should look like. One way to discover what the apostles taught about how Christians are to love is to look for a phrase that demonstrates an expected standard of behaviour between Christians. This is quite easy, because they all used a very common phrase – ‘one another’. There were, as you’d expect in any kind of group, certain things you were not to do towards one another and there were certain things you should do for one another.

There are so many examples of how they use this phrase that it gives us a very clear picture of what it looks like to ‘love  for one another’. As I started looking for examples of “one another” I began to notice that often the command was accompanied by an explanation.

Take John 13:34 for example:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

Command: Love one another

Reason: Because I have loved you.

Our love for one another is directly linked to our understanding, appreciation and response to the love we have received from Christ. This love extends even to those that persecute us and are our enemies and it is only this kind of love that separates the follower of Jesus from everyone else, as Jesus pointed out ‘even tax collectors love those who love them’ (Mark 5:46).

Here are six more ways our lives can tell the gospel:

BE AT PEACE WITH ONE ANOTHER

 “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7)

This is more than being polite, it is making sure that the person you greet knows they welcomed as they are into your life. I tell the story of the lived experiences of immigrants here in Sweden. The majority of Swedes are polite, courteous and friendly in public yet I’ve heard numbers of stories that tell of people who have lived here for 15 years or more and have never been invited into a Swedish family’s home. Tolerated but not welcome.

The welcome here has the sense of open-hearted, generous hospitality. Mi casa es su casa. Which, is of course precisely how God has treated you. Clothed in rags, empty-handed, hungry and homeless, the Father welcomed you in, clothed, fed and housed you all because you came home with His Son.

SERVE ONE ANOTHER

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)

In Galatians 6:2 Paul urges the church to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.” What was that law again? Oh yeah, love one another.

Jesus was the Father’s humble servant, taking your burden and carrying it to the cross because this burden was too heavy for you. Now, we cannot do what Jesus did but through confession and forgiveness, through humble service of another we demonstrate love.

BE KIND & CARING TO EACH OTHER

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Eph 4:32)

I know the motivation here points to forgiveness (see the next point) but I don’t think it is too hard to make a case for how through the gospel Jesus has been kind and caring to you.

Lost, bruised and left for dead on your own spiritual road to Jericho, Jesus has found you and paid the price for your restoration. Our gratefulness and gratitude to Christ for His ongoing kindness and care motivates us to show the same kind of care for others.

FORGIVE ONE ANOTHER

“bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:13)

This one is admittedly costly, forgiveness can be a genuine battle and struggle yet we forgive others their trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, right? God’s forgiveness is the direct reason, motivation and strength for you to forgive others.

ENCOURAGE ONE ANOTHER

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24)

God actively builds up His people, pouring out love into their hearts – when we consider the God’s grace to us and what He says about us can definitely shift your sense of self-esteem. It’s incredible how encouraging the ‘God of encouragement’ (Rom 15:5) actually is.

Our attitude to our brothers and sisters then is one of seeking to strengthen, build up, encourage and stir love and goodness in them. Drawing it out of them like a smile out of a grumpy child.

DISCIPLE EACH OTHER

 “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)

I imagine that a number of readers would be instinctively nervous about this last one. I’ve heard enough stories where instruction or admonishment (Col 3:16) has been enthusiastically but not lovingly given. I can think of a few occasions where I have failed in this myself.

Yet I have put this last because a) it is there in the Bible and we can’t ignore it and b) because in order for it to be done well it depends on the others that precede it. I receive instruction (or am, at least, much more likely to) when I am loved, welcomed, served, cared for, encouraged & forgiven and when the one who speaks to me does so with humility, as a servant and as one who is seeking to build me up.

We all know about knowledge that is ‘puffed up’ (1 Cor 8:1) and which ‘destroys’ (1 Cor 8:11) and that without love is worth nothing (1 Cor 13:2) but knowing Christ and knowing God, His character and His ways is a knowledge we are called to excel in (2 Cor 8:7). It is this knowledge, above all other forms that means the foolish in this world can shame the wise.

Yet how is this related to the gospel – because as Christ has made himself known to us, taught us and showed us the greater way of love and it is this way that we teach others in.

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Leave none alive

dt20 16 17 300x225 Leave none alive justice God genocide canaanites apologetics I recently had a conversation with a friend about one of the big apologetic questions: God’s involvement in what would seem, to modern eyes and ears, to be genocide.

I followed up the conversation by collecting some blog resources that addressed the issue and thought they may helpfully serve others.

There are a few points worth remembering when trying to frame an answer here, we need to think hard about all of God’s character. What does it really mean if we affirm God is holy and God is just and God is judge as well as God is good and mercy and love?

A western liberal mindset recoils from God’s instruction to ‘leave none alive’ in Deut 20:16-17; fails to see the contemporary similarities in Deut 20:18 to not give air space to poisonous beliefs and would be approving of the command in Deut 20:19 not to destroy the trees. God can be infuriating in His unwillingness to fit inside our boxes.

I think it’s also worth bearing a few things in mind when considering ancient warfare so that we don’t miss the contemporary parallels. My point is, we like to think the world has changed since the times of ancient Israel. A quick scan of the news or 20th century history would suggest that kind of optimism is misplaced. Consider too, that when it comes to warfare the idea of non-combatants is a relatively new one, rhetoric concerning the defeat of an enemy doesn’t always match the reality on the ground (it’s not hard to find talk of the ‘destruction’ or ‘eradication‘ of ISIS in terms very similar to Deut 20:16-18) yet no one thinks that means every last man, woman and child should die. Lastly, the sad reality of war is that we are always ready to accept the deaths of ‘innocents’ if it means the defeat of a determined enemy in a just cause.

The next section of links relate to Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster?

At the other end of the theological spectrum (which is not my position but it’s worth understanding) is this from Peter Enns or this and for some push-back on Enns position is this from Derek Rishmawy

Having said and read all that, it still remains a persistent and difficult question; what resources have helped you on this question? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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Homeless man

Gleaning

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.”
(Lev 19:9-10)

Here is a good example of an Old Testament law that many admire. Ancient Israel, like most societies for most of human history, was based around farming and agriculture. The ability to grow crops, to grow more than you need to feed your family, so you have something to sell and trade was (still is) a vital piece in the nation building puzzle.

Yet here in Leviticus while the promised land was still a promise, God instructed his people not to maximise their profits, not to be ruthless in their harvesting but to remember the poor. The edges of the fields, the fallen grapes, the leftovers and scraps were to be left so that those who were without land could work, gather and survive.

The most famous example of this in the Bible comes from the story of Ruth who gleaned from the fields of Boaz. In an incredible picture of the gospel, the Boaz becomes Ruth’s redeemer who takes a poor immigrant outcast allows her to gain from his labour and then wins her as his bride. The gospel written into the ancestry of Jesus (Mt 1:5).

Whatever else we conclude about the God of the Old Testament, it is hard to argue that He did not, does not, care deeply about the fate of the poor, the refugee, the lowly. The Israelites had their commands to tithe and to give, but her woven into their new economic system was an instruction to care for the poor.

Today, gleaning is for most of us a principle in search of a practice. We love the idea, but now that more than half the planet lives in a city (and maybe as many as 70% by 2050) we don’t have fields or vineyards and we don’t grow our own food. In the UK, food banks have become one way for people to try and do something with this principle by encouraging people to buy a bit extra and then give that extra to a food bank.

In Sweden food banks don’t exist, so we’ve had to get creative. Sweden has a nationwide deposit system on canned or bottled drinks. You pay one or two crowns extra and then get that money back when you recycle the can or bottle at a return station (usually in the shops you buy the drinks from).

What I quickly noticed was that many of the homeless could be seen walking the streets of Stockholm gathering thrown away bottles and then recycling them and reclaiming the deposit. This has a number of benefits, it increases recycling, it provides a small amount of income to those who glean and they have to do something in order to gain a benefit. I’ve no idea whether it’s better than begging but I think I see the difference.

There are some differences, this is a product of our waste and not our work, it from our leisure and not our livelihood but we’ve begun to give our recycling to our local gleaners. Of course, if giving our plastic bottles and tin cans was the sum of our giving to the poor then that would be a poor showing indeed, but that isn’t what it’s about for us. We could keep the money, reclaim the deposit, walk past the gleaners. We could be more ruthless. Instead we’re trying to build habits into our ways of living that remember the poor.

How could you apply this principle where you live? Leave some ideas and suggestions in the comment section below.

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Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

jacobs year living biblically 194x300 Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically As someone who possesses far too many unread books, there is a constant backlog and churn in my to-read list. I think it’s true to say that this book has been in my ‘to-read’ list for about seven years and only now makes the shift to ‘read’.

In 2007 AJ Jacobs was  an agnostic New York liberal (of Jewish heritage) working for Esquire magazine when he decided to write about biblical literalism. His approach was unique – for one year he would try to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as possible.

Jacobs had a few goals in writing the book one was to explore the spiritual dimension of life through immersion in its world. Another goal (and this is the key one) was to explore the topic of biblical literalism. An astonishingly high number of Americans claim to take the Bible literally (somewhere from one-third to over half) and as Jacobs says:

“A literal interpretation of the Bible – both Jewish and Christian – shapes American policies on the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion – right down to rules about buying beer on Sunday.” (p.6)

But Jacobs, quite rightly, suspected that most people were guilty of picking and choosing and Jacobs’ fearless year of doing it properly would expose the shallowness of these other literalists. What follows, in a year long journal of his efforts, is a very entertaining and insightful account of Jacobs’ journey.

As a Jew and because the Old Testament is bigger than the new, the majority of the book is weighted towards his exploration of the Hebrew rules so the section on the New Testament covers a mere 50 pages or so out of 330. To be honest, his heart really isn’t in his exploration of Christian literalism – not that I think he’s missing much.

Along the way, there are some strange and difficult rules to follow – his attempt at stoning an adulterer is hilarious and various sideways journeys into rabbinical Judaism are both curious and enlightening. As he discovers that it is almost impossible to take the Bible literally, he also discovers that the Bible also has much that is wise, virtuous and good and he chronicles the positive changes to his parenting among other things. He moves from thinking of religion as simply the cause of division to seeing how the religious do far more good than he had imagined.

Some of his attempts to be literal are just plain silly – not saying Thursday because it’s origin is the god Thor which violates Ex 23:13 and some are funny, his huge biblical beard and tassle-wearing, tent-making and pigeon lifting efforts. Often the attempt to be literal goes much further than the plain-reading would suggest but then, exactly how far do you take literal? Which is, after all, basically his point.

As a result of his quest to be ultra-literal, Jacobs book is oft-quoted in pop-level hermeneutics books – it’s the plea to drop the false notion that we take it literally, or that we don’t all pick and choose which is Jacobs’ conclusion:

“The year showed me beyond doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion (pick and choose). It’s not just moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate…But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing…the key is is choosing the right dishes.” (p.328)

He then raises the key question that follows, what then of authority?

“Once you acknowledge that we pick and choose from the Bible, doesn’t that destroy its credibility? Doesn’t that knock the legs out from under it? Why should we put any stock in any of the Bible?” (p.328)

The question is a good one and Jacobs never really explores the ways Christians or Jews should interpret the Bible, that interpretation has always been a valid task or how one chooses is vitally important although that omission is not a fault of this book.

It’s worth noting this book is one of the more significant books of the past ten years because his ‘Year of…’ approach has also became much copied. Quite often it’s used as a tactic to try to prove the ridiculousness of your opponent’s position by showing how silly it is to take it literally, so don’t try to follow it at all like Rachel Held-Evans and her Year of Biblical Womanhood being a good example of that.

Overall, this is a really enlightening and entertaining read, it reveals as much about general contemporary ignorance of faith as it does about the complexities of living with faith and that literalism is not the way to go when it comes to reading the Bible.

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Film Review: Terms & Conditions May Apply

terms and conditions may apply xlg 194x300 Film Review: Terms & Conditions May Apply Have you ever actually read the terms and conditions before agreeing to a new app, website, download, program? No, me neither. As a result of all our online connections, purchases and browsing a lot more people know a lot more about you than you may be comfortable with. Your personal privacy is not very, well, private.

That’s the premise of documentary film Terms and Conditions May Apply as it explores the boundaries, safeguards (or lack thereof) of the information you willingly give to Facebook, Google, Amazon and a host of other companies and agencies.

The information age is only 25 years old, it is not a mature environment and in many places laws and practices are just beginning to take account of the sheer scale of human activity that takes place on the internet and to balance individual privacy, commercial attempts to exploit the mass of information available and geo-political issues. There’s no question that when it comes to setting the norms, values and practices and culture of the information age – Facebook and Google matter more than you or your government.

If you think this debate doesn’t matter, then well you’re not really thinking. From Wikileaks and Edward Snowden to an ill-advised tweet that could cost you your job, get you arrested for performing street theatre or ban you from international travel. The role of twitter in spreading revolution or propaganda is recognised by governments, terrorists and freedom seekers alike.

Facebook and Google and others (such as governments) have more information is available about you to pretty much anyone who wants to know. For example, Google (if they could be bothered) could compile a massive profile on you that has your life history, pictures of your family, your holiday habits, shopping habits, religious views, political preferences, probably what room you’re sitting in as you read this or whether you’re reading it on a train. They could tell your favourite colour, your sexual preferences, viewing habits, friends, travel movements, hopes and dreams, your current state of health and likely future health too. They would know your income, credit rating, educational achievements, they would know whether you look at porn or have bought 50 Shades of Grey instead of Calvin’s Institutes on your kindle and a lot more beside. Even though they say that information won’t be given to a third party, that’s not exactly true.

The basic answer most people give is ‘I don’t have anything to hide so what does it matter what they know?’ and the right answer to that, of course, is – you don’t know what you have to hide until you have to hide it. A Christian living in Iran or North Korea, if they had access to social media, must be extremely careful about what they say. As would a homosexual in Russia or Uganda.

Even today, companies as a matter of routine will Google you, check your Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts before hiring you, how do you know that your personal views haven’t been taken into account? Of course, what we consciously publish is one thing, what they do with what we think is private is another. Which mostly means sell, so-called anonymous data for profit.

Additionally, many of us may think that if we delete an account (let’s say Facebook) then, well, it is deleted, which is not quite true. It may no longer be visible to other users but it is very visible to Facebook. Not quite deleted as in burnt and the ashes scattered to the four winds, more deleted as in hidden in the attic in case we one day need your data.

Like many documentaries TACMA is more interested in making a point than proving its case more polemic and partisan than investigative and inquiring; more fear-mongering than simple awareness raising. As a result it’s quite one-sided in its choice of interview subjects and lacks a balancing voice – there’s no level-headed commentator or journalist here to provide perspective. Still even so, this well-made film forcefully gets its point across.  Thought provoking stuff.

For those interested here’s a trailer

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Film Review: Connected

Connected poster2 201x300 Film Review: Connected I’ve been doing some research into the issue of faith & technology (expect to read more of that in the coming months) and as part of that research loaded up a few documentaries.

First up was Connected. The film, made by Tiffany Shlain who as the founder of the Webby Awards seems well placed for this, is about modern life, all-pervasive technology and the issues that raises.

She opens the film with an interesting anecdote – failing to control the uncontrollable desire to check her email, a recognizable condition of the permanently connected & totally distracted. So how did it get to this?

It’s an interesting question but unfortunately Connected never gets close to providing an interesting answer. It fails for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Shlain gets diverted by her father, Leonard Shlain’s battle with cancer and her own personal struggles with conceiving a second child. The film then takes on an impossible burden, tribute to a beloved father, journal of a difficult pregnancy and deal with questions of technology.

Secondly, Connected fails from a lack of clarity – Shlain (and her brain surgeon father) sees connections everywhere and instead of trying to give an interesting answer to one interesting question it attempts the impossible again – perhaps everything is connected so we need a theory about everything. Connected proceeds to offer up an incredibly poor history of humanity while simultaneously throwing out theories about how too much left-brain thinking had advanced the world but now was ruining it and it was time to put things right by humanity engaging in some mass right-brained living for a change.

Thirdly, Connected fails from a lack of evidence – it’s all commentary, supposition and guesswork. The bees are disappearing, mobile phones might give you cancer, men use the left-brain while women are right-brained, auras are real, war is bad and wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got along. Well, yes, yes it would. No interviews, no facts and no argument does not make a compelling case.

Fourthly, Connected fails by being one-dimensional film-making. Between the home-footage shots of her dad and her childhood and an endless montage of archival footage we are subjected to an almost continues 80-minute voice from Shlain. It’s like listening to the opening voice-over of Sex and the City for 80 minutes only its liberal, self-obsessed New Yorker angst about what kind of world we are leaving for our children and segue from concerns about over-populating the world to the news that she’s expecting twins. There is no discernible trace of irony.

So, if you’re looking for an interesting documentary about technology and modern-life save yourself the 80 minutes of your life that you will never get back again and don’t watch Connected.

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ergli camp

Baltic Pioneers

ergli 300x225 Baltic Pioneers relational mission newfrontiers mission friendship featured So as the summer holidays recede into the rear view mirror it is helpful to reflect on some of the things that happened before ploughing ever onward into the busyness of autumn. One of the highlights was a short camp we went to in Latvia.

Hosted by our friend Matt Medd, it was a gathering of church planters from across Scandinavia and the Baltic nations and their friends and families each one connected to the Relational Mission family of churches, which is part of Newfrontiers. There were about a hundred people all told at the beautiful campsite you can see in the picture.

The camp really captured well the name of the team we work with, Relational Mission. Volleyball, food, canoeing, sauna, zipline, swimming, hanging out as friends and families. Everywhere you looked, you could see the value of relationships. This wasn’t a business conference, it wasn’t just for church leaders trying to improve their platform or productivity; it was families and friends together.

Yet, it wasn’t friendship that brought everyone together, it was mission. Over the past six years or more, a slow and steady stream of pioneering families have moved to the north of Europe and begun opening their homes and connecting with people. Now we have the Jones family in Helsinki, the Reillys in Gdansk, Matt and his friend Normunds building in Riga, the Heaths in Tallinn, us in Stockholm and joining with existing churches such as The Father’s House in Smiltene, Latvia as well as others looking in, connecting and becoming friends.

There are new outposts of mission ringing the Baltic Sea, a new generation of missionaries to the godless, secular north. It was a friendly, low-key, out of sight and un-hyped gathering – just right for families and friends. It was also a beginning, a next step in working out what mission and friendship fuelled by a desire that many others will become followers of Jesus as a result of these families.

If you would like to know more about this journey we’re on, I’d really recommend you consider going to The New  a weekend conference in Helsinki next month, exploring what it means to be on mission.

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Life Together: Confession & Communion

bonhoeffer2 225x300 Life Together: Confession & Communion Dietrich Bonhoeffer This is the fifth & final post in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (CommunityThe day with othersThe Day Alone, Minstry).

As Bonhoeffer draws this work to a conclusion he refocuses his sight on the gospel and that a gospel community is made of sinners who have confessed their sin and found their salvation, thus the importance of both confession and communion.

He opens the chapter with a wonderful statement of God’s grace:

“It is the grace of the Gospel…that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Prov 23:26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you.” (p.86)

For Bonhoeffer the place of confession is vital, it is more than accountability it is being Christ to one another. We become Christ to each other, hearing the confession of sin and declaring forgiveness in the name of Jesus. The one to whom we confess keeps our confession as God keeps it.

Bonhoeffer then is sharp in his analysis of sin.

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.” (p.87)

Confession breaks our reliance on self-justification. In confession we recognise sin’s mastery over us, in the forgiveness we receive we see Christ’s mastery over sin. Bonhoeffer sees no need for public confession of private sin but that one brother or sister represents the whole fellowship, and where we are in fellowship we are never alone.

Yet Bonhoeffer knows how hard confession of sin is; ‘It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing sin to a brother’. Yet it remains crucial for this very reason;

“Since the sin must come to the light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgement. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.” (p.91)

The power of confession, though, lies not in the act of confession but because it leads us to ‘none other than Jesus Christ himself who suffered the scandalous, public death of a sinner in our stead’. Yet we also come to the cross in confession in ways many of us miss.

 

“We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely the public death of the sinner. And we refuse to bear the Cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession.” (p.89)

So confession is death to us and death to sin, but it is also the place where ‘breakthrough to new life occurs’.

“Where sin is hatred, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made. ‘Old things are passed away’…Christ has made a new beginning with us.” (p.90)

It isn’t a law that we confess an offer and an opportunity and Bonhoeffer wonders who can afford ‘to refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?’

Although Bonhoeffer gives most space to confession, the book closes with communion – our picture of the gospel. Here you can see how important confession is – we cannot come to the table unreconciled. Confession is preparation. Mourning before the dancing.

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness, new life and salvation.” (p.96)

 

 

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