Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…

Can the Cushite change his skin?

20 10 2010

I remember being in a Christian bookshop that was shutting down. Books I’d been after for ages were being sold off at ridiculous prices. (I literally blinked and missed Ben Witherington’s commentary on Acts for 99p – some conniving little weasel snuck in and nicked it off the shelf from before my very eyes. I nearly beat him to a pulp with a £2 copy of Lloyd-Jones on Romans volume 1 – a book I think is far more suited to inflicting pain with than reading) And in the midst of the sale I ended up picking up a random, dull grey covered book that I had no interest in, but was in a series I’d heard of… and would set me back about 30p.

That book was J. Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation. I got it home, read the back, discovered it was bound to be even less exciting than I had thought. A survey of the ethnic make up of the Bible – made up almost entirely of non-extant people groups, 80% of which I couldn’t even begin to pronounce.

I shelved it. Wouldn’t you?

J. Daniel Hays - From Every People and Nation

Some years later, I had read a couple of other books in the series, and recalled that I had this volume sitting on my shelf. I thought I would give it a go. So I packed it as holiday reading (!!) along with another couple of books. My philosophy with holiday reading is that if I only take boring looking books that I know I should read, but have little desire to, in the hope that I will have no choice but to get through them… and then I can steal one of my wife’s novels as a treat!

Hays’ book was a surprise. Essentially it went through the Bible, beginning to end, listing nation after nation, telling us where they came from and what they looked like. Not exactly what you would call a riveting premise! But as I read it, I have to say, I was amazed at the picture it painted. I had never quite realized how prominent black Africans were in the Biblical narrative! It’s not that I’d though they weren’t there – and I certainly didn’t hold the old ‘all the holy people of Scripture were beautiful European Aryans’ view, characteristic of so much anachronistic (quasi racist?!) western artwork – but I guess I’d never stopped to think that the Cushites were a black African people. And I’d certainly never noticed how frequently they occur in the Biblical narrative. Was Zephaniah a Cushite? (Zeph 1:1) How about Phineas? Says Hays:

Ph’ functions like the definite article. ‘nehsiu’ means inhabitant of the region along the Nile. Thus Phinehas means ‘the negro’ or ‘the Cushite.’ He is ‘the only leader other than Joshua that takes the initiative in any action within the book of Joshua.’ (p81).

Ok – so his writing could perhaps be a little punchier. But an interesting insight I’d not picked up before.

The section on Moses’ marriage to a Cushite (possibly the daughter of the Cushite King, according to Josephus; Ant 10:1-2) was brilliant, and unlocked the narrative in a way I’d never previously appreciated:

Yahweh’s punishment on Miriam is swift and severe. He strikes her with a skin disease and she becomes (white) as snow […] an intentional, appropriate response to Miriam’s prejudice against the black wife […] More important, and much clearer, is the theological dimension of Miriam’s punishment. She was sent outside the camp, a temporary expulsion from the family and the people of God. While the Cushite woman becomes part of Moses’ family and the people of Israel through marriage, Miriam, through her opposition to Moses, is separated both from the family and the people of Israel.’ (p76)

Slightly less seriously, (but almost equally interesting!) I was amused to learn that ‘the leopard changing his spots’ was a Biblical phrase – I’d always attributed it to Aesop, or some other peddler of fables. But no:

Can the Cushite change his skin or the leopard his spots?‘ (Jeremiah 13:23)

Perhaps I’d always been naïve… but I was astonished as I read about the way various people had used and abused texts to endorse and condone racism over the years, in particular Genesis 9:18-27. It amazed me that people could so twist the word of God to create division between people based on their skin colour.

The final chapter was an appeal to the church to root out and deal with racism. It puzzled me. Hays laid out seven concluding thoughts, as follows:

  1. The biblical world was multi-ethnic, and black people were involved in God’s unfolding plan of redemption from the beginning
  2. All people are created in the image of God, and therefore all races and ethnic groups have the same status and unique value that results from the image of God
  3. Genesis 10 and the Abrahamic promise combine to form a theme that runs throughout Scripture, constantly pointing to the global and multi-ethnic elements inherent in the overarching plan of God
  4. Racial intermarriage is sanctioned by Scripture
  5. The gospel demands that we carry compassion and the message of Christ across ethnic lines
  6. The New Testament demands active unity in the Church, a unity that explicitly joins differing ethnic groups together because of their common identity in Christ
  7. The picture of God’s people at the climax of history portrays a multi-ethnic congregation from every tribe, language, people, and nation, all gathered together in worship around God’s throne

Sure’ I thought. ‘But don’t all Christians agree with those points?‘ I had friends who were dating or married to people with a different skin colour. I’d never even questioned it: ‘Surely people aren’t that racist these days?‘ I thought. ‘Not in England? Not in English churches?’

Bizarrely enough, the two other books I’d chosen to take away with me were Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama, and William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce. Hague seems to have a peculiar habit of only writing biographies of people who share his first name. William Wilberforce. William Pitt. I half imagine we might see an account of the life and times of William Shatner in the coming years. Or seeing as Liam is a Gaelic shortening of William, perhaps I might even be the next lucky subject! Had ‘Just William‘ not already been taken, it might have made a suitable title for the series. But I digress…

Together these three books really challenged me on the issue of race. Reading again the story of the abhorrent racism that Wilberforce and friends fought to bring down, and the rather more modern account of Obama facing mockery and abuse over his mixed race parentage, really helped me to realise that it is by no means an issue relegated to the long grass of distant history. The combination of this trio of books made me question whether I had been quite naïve in my assumption that racism isn’t that prevalent in the church these days. Perhaps it doesn’t take the same recognisable form today, but it’s still there, and still an evil to be rooted out and destroyed mercilessly.

One of my favourite books to teach on is Ephesians. I have the joy of being able to spend a whole day teaching through it to hungry volunteers on a Newfrontiers training course, and the beauty of the truth that God has made for himself one new man, reconciling the irreconcilable gets me excited and emotional every time. Even preaching this summer on Genesis 10 and God’s plan to regather the nations to Himself through the Church excited and stirred me afresh.

Let’s not make the mistake of Miriam. And let us not think arrogantly that we have reached the pinnacle of history, from which we can survey the past and think ‘aren’t I glad we’re no longer like that unenlightened lot.‘ Racism is always a danger, especially in its subtle, passive forms – more about what we don’t do for those who are different to us than what we do. But the Biblical narrative does not allow for it. Neither does the Gospel. And neither should we.

Communists and Constantine

31 08 2010

In this post I promise the following: Alliteration, details of two things I’ve read in the past few days, some questions, and absolutely no conclusions.


I was pleasantly surprised to read this article about the Chinese government showing increasing favour to the Christian Church.

After many years of oppressive and drastic restrictions against the Church, the Chinese government is now not merely tolerating, but investing in Christianity; offering financial support for buildings and development.

The Communist Party’s Director General of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuo An says:

On the question of whether there is God, the Chinese Communist Party believes there is no God in the world […] The Communist Party believes that it should respect and protect religious belief. The members of the party must respect religious followers and not infringe their interests.”

Thank you Wang.

I am naturally grateful for his position, and his willingness to show respect in spite of major philosophical differences

He adds:

Our goal in supporting these religions in developing religious education is that we hope they can train qualified clergy members so that their religions can enjoy better development.

So… having the state on your side. That can only be good, right?


I just finished reading Mark Kurlansky’s Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It is essentially a history of warfare and pacifism, documenting examples of some of pacifism’s biggest successes and failures, and then drawing a few conclusions.

It’s punchy and engaging. There is plenty to say about it (for another day), and at various points I fluctuated between punching the air with joy and punching the book with disbelief. But for now, a lone comment about Constantine:

Then came the triumph of Christianity, a calamity from which the Church has never recovered […] One of history’s greatest lessons is that once the state embraces a religion, the nature of that religion changes radically […] This is not an exclusively Christian phenomenon. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism – all the great religions have been betrayed in the hands of people seeking political power and have been defiled and disgraced in the hands of nation-states.’

So… having the state on your side. Not so good after all?


I am neither a sociologist nor an historian. I approach stories like that of China with an initial burst of excitement. But the little I know about history causes me to stop and wonder… is it really as positive as I might think, hope and wish it to be? Is it true that acceptance by the state necessarily defiles or waters down a church’s effectiveness? I would certainly not wish oppression or persecution upon anyone. But then again, Jesus did say that “if the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. […] If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)

Should we be grateful or wary when a hostile state shows favour to those of faith? Are Christians better off under Communism than Constantine, insomuch as the Chinese government has not fully embraced believers? There were no visions of crosses and calls to war; for that I’m certainly grateful. The party line is still ‘there is no God.’ When an atheistic government actively encourages the development of religions with which they fundamentally disagree, should we throw our hands up in praise or anguish? Should we be thankful or sceptical?

Brother Yun in his book The Heavenly Man famously wrote:

Once I spoke in the West and a Christian told me, “I’ve been praying for years that the Communist government in China will collapse, so Christians can live in freedom.” This is not what we pray! We never pray against our government or call down curses on them. Instead, we have learned that God is in control of both our lives and the government we live under […] God has used China’s government for His own purposes, moulding and shaping His children as He sees fit […] We shouldn’t pray for a lighter load to carry but a stronger back to endure.

Is he right? How should I pray for my brothers in China? What about the Psalms that ask for God to curse oppressive nations? What about the promise that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God? Would my perspective differ if I didn’t live in a comfortable nation with the ability to worship freely? Undoubtedly it would, but how?

I don’t know.


Here are three things I am looking forward to; two in the coming year, and the third… well, who knows when?!

  • This year I get to have four days of teaching on Church history. My grasp of Church History is poor. My brain doesn’t naturally retain dates and names. But I hope to get a better grasp of the story of the Church’s development. After all, if I’m going to stand on the shoulders of giants, I ought at least to do them the courtesy of knowing their names!
  • One of the books I hope to read this year is Os Guinness’ The Case for Civility. I am intrigued and very much looking forward to hearing what he has to say on the subjects of pluralism, tolerance, and civility. How we articulate ourselves in a pluralistic society will only become more important in the coming years. I need to get clued up.
  • And finally, ‘After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

“Maranatha!” If for no other reason than to provide me with some answers.

In defence of bland testimonies

20 08 2010

I love baptisms. I love the powerfully enacted death-life-buried-raised-exile-exodus drama. You know those funny little travel towels that frequent flyers use? The ones that come the size of a pellet and expand to about 50x their original size when you dip them in water? That’s baptism right there; densely compact metaphor and meaning, the enormous salvation story crammed into a simple symbolic action. Just add water and the story bursts into life; larger than you ever thought possible.

One of the things I enjoy most is hearing people’s stories. Actually, that’s not true. I often enjoy hearing people’s stories. But there is one thing that does irritate me just a little; the ever-growing trend of people feeling the need to downplay their story. Many people consider their testimonies to be boring and hardly worth telling.

Seriously… How many testimonies have you heard at baptism services prefaced with a rather apologetic ‘my story’s not very interesting…’? There seems to be an assumption that unless your early years have been filled with wild promiscuity, mindless violence and perhaps a spell as a drug-mule, the account of how you came to Jesus isn’t really worth telling.

I understand why people think like that; I was raised in a Christian household, never shot anybody and went to church from a young age. But here are four reasons why I believe we should be proud of our ‘bland’ testimonies and not downplay them:

1. Such thinking has a tendency to glamorise the ungodly.

It is stirring to hear stories of people being redeemed from the darkest of lifestyles. But often I fear it is easy to enjoy those stories for the gossip they uncover rather than the grace they reveal. There’s something almost titillating about hearing about people who were engaged in stuff you only see in the movies. When somebody says ‘my testimony is quite boring’ they very often mean that they wish they could spice it up with some tales of dubious escapades.

That is to glamorise the ungodly.

It really is incredible when someone is saved from a life deeply entrenched in sin, but if it leaves us thinking ‘I wish I’d sinned more before I was saved so I could have a better story to tell’ then we’re not far off the wrong thinking Paul addresses in Romans when he writes ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!’ (Romans 6:1-2)

Let’s not blur the lines. Let’s not value ungodliness and devalue godliness. Or as Isaiah puts it, ‘Call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Is 5:20)

2. Such thinking fails to recognise and appreciate God’s grace

The truth is that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the fact that any of us can be redeemed is a miracle of grace. What’s more, if you have been born into a Christian family and raised in a good neighbourhood that in itself is a demonstration of God’s grace.

Paul, addressing the Areopagus, said ‘The God who made the world and everything in it […] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.’ (Acts 17:24-27)

God allots the time and place of your dwelling, which means that having a positive Christian upbringing is God’s gracious provision for you. Don’t despise it, because you could find yourself despising God’s grace. You were put where you were at the plan of the Creator, that you should seek God. He designed and hand-crafted your upbringing in order to bring you to Him.

That’s not boring; that’s immeasurably kind!

3. People need to hear that Christianity is relevant to normal people

It is an oft-cited charge that Christianity is a crutch for the weak or that people whose lives are especially ‘messed up’ are more susceptible to an offer of grace. If there is any hint of truth in this accusation, then it will be significantly undermined by the testimony of someone who has no obvious need for a crutch.

People need to hear that Christianity is not just for the destitute or the needy. The testimony of someone who is strong and independent in worldly terms, but deeply aware of their need for Jesus will speak powerfully to those who doubt that God has anything to offer them.

4.  Telling your testimony is a first step towards preaching the gospel

Many people find it difficult to speak about the gospel with their non-Christian friends, but the fact is that one of the easiest ways to begin is by telling the story of how God has changed you personally. If we are ashamed of our testimony, or fail to see the providence of God at work in our lives then we will struggle to converse with our friends, and ultimately will find it difficult to share the gospel with them.

Many of your friends are likely to be similar to you in some ways and so will be able to relate to certain aspects of your story far more than they would to a dramatic conversion testimony. If we downplay our own experience we risk missing opportunities to evangelise.

So can I implore you to be proud of your testimony. Enjoy telling it. Don’t apologise for it. It is a demonstration of God’s grace and a powerful tool for sharing the Gospel. Whether you were saved on a Damascus Road or in a Sunday School class, God deserves to get the glory and we should never diminish it.

Muggers with Morals

9 08 2010

A number of people have blogged about the video and article about Nayara Goncalves, a 20 year old girl in Florida who dissuaded a would be robber, by preaching about Jesus. Seeing it reminded me again of an experience I had a few years ago. So I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper article and post it here for all to see, just in case you’ve never heard me tell it one of the countless times it’s appeared as a sermon illustration!

In 2005, I was walking through a park on the way home from a church evening service. It was dark and late, as I’d stuck around to help pack up, and then walked my (now) wife home… Two guys came up alongside me, pulled a knife on me, and demanded that I give them my wallet, phone, keys etc – which I duly did! When they asked what else I had, I said the only other thing I had with me was a Bible.

One of them asked me if I believed in God. I said yes. They asked if I believed God could protect me from people like them. What on Earth do you say to that? The answer was a definite “yes“, and if you’d sat me down in a nice casual environment and prefaced the question with a gentle “purely hypothetically…” I wouldn’t have thought twice about answering in the affirmative. But with a knife pressed against my gut, in a dark and empty park, I wasn’t all that keen on them testing the limits of my faith!

But timidly I said yes.

There was no blinding flash of lights. No trumpet calls and cherubim with flaming swords… alas. But suddenly one of the guys panicked, and told his mate to give me back my stuff – which he duly did! They apologised, told me they were Christians too (though not practicing – no kidding!), shook my hand and sent me on my way.

I called the police immediately, and the two guys were picked up a little later, having mugged someone else straight after they’d left me.

Aside from the rather bizarre nature of the experience, a couple of facts particularly stick in my mind:

  • The sermon that evening had been on the faithfulness of God. To be honest I’d not thought a lot of it. Others were raving about it, but somehow it hadn’t really connected with me. This incident rammed home the truth in a way the sermon hadn’t. Application: be careful about which sermons you criticise!
  • I remember the confused look on the face of the officer who took my statement. There was a distinct moment at the end when he looked at me and said ‘are you sure this is what you want to say? You don’t want to change anything?‘ Probably a routine question… but I remember at the time noting a hint of scepticism in his voice and thinking that this really did sound like quite a tall story! I almost felt a little foolish describing what had happened; like it was so weird I almost had to apologise for it!
  • It’s funny – when you have an encounter like that, you can sort of end up wondering if you’ve made it up. Not totally, but the finer details. You wonder if you’ve embellished it by accident. You rationalise it. You explain it away. I was therefore thrilled to walk past a billboard a few weeks later to see the title ‘Bible Saves Rob Victim.’ I bought the paper and read the article (below). It was encouraging to have it in printed form, with comments from the court case. It reassured me I wasn’t crazy! Though I still maintain the headline made it sound like my name was Rob. And surely they could have come up with something a little more ‘tabloid’ and glamorous!
  • I remember meeting the other guy who was mugged, when we went to do an identity lineup. I remember how bitter he was; understandable, of course. But the way he referred to the muggers was full of anger, and in total contrast to the sense of peace I found myself with. It was a peace that came from outside of me. I’m not usually that calm. But somehow it didn’t affect me as it might have done. It ‘passeth-ed’ all understanding…
  • I remember being told a while later that the church I attended had previously had input into the life of one of the muggers. I believe he had attended a Sunday School the church had run for a while. Incredible how things like that pay off in unexpected ways.
  • Before this, I’d previously led worship at a couple of Alpha courses in young offenders prisons. I was told I wasn’t allowed to for a while, as I couldn’t be told where my attackers had been sent. That was fine… but I did often wonder where they were and what they were up to. Who knows what’s become of them?

So… here’s the article from the Kentish Gazette. It makes me chuckle to read it again – the way they struggle to comprehend and articulate the oddity of this ‘Christian’ mugger with a strong ‘ethical code.’ It’s a pretty prosaic article, but just so you know I’m not making it all up:

Christian robber hands back wallet

A religious youth carried out a knife-point robbery but then repented and handed everything back.

Mugger Sean Lismore, 18, a Roman Catholic, realised his victim was carrying a Bible and returned the stolen wallet and mobile, believing it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith.

The teenager had pounced on Liam Thatcher in February this year as he walked through St Stephen’s Park in Canterbury.

He asked “what have you got for us?”

But after taking the money and phone, Lismore and a 16-year old accomplice found Mr Thatcher clutching a Bible.

Lismore asked Mr Thatcher “Do you believe that God can protect you?”

After a brief conversation, Lismore then handed back the victim’s belongings, Canterbury Crown Court was told.

Prosecutor Alistair Keith said of Lismore, of Watling Street Canterbury, then apologised to Mr Thatcher, telling him he had only robbed him because he needed money to get home.

However, two hours later, the two teenagers attacked a second victim, Graeme Lawrenson, and stole £60 and a lighter as he walked through St Dunstan’s Street.

“It was an identical attack and again the lock knife was used,” said Mr Keith.

The court heard after taking Mr Lawrenson to a cash machine and withdrawing £100, Lismore handed back £40, informing his victim that £60 was all the money he needed for his train fare.

Mr Thatcher later told “detectives he has found the incident “very disturbing.”

Mr Larenson, the second victim, said he felt “in fear of violence” and found the attack “unreasonable and petty”.

The court was also told Lismore’s criminal record included 19 previous offences since June 2002 and he had a number of aliases.

But when he was arrested by police, Lismore had “admitted the offences, giving details of the circumstances”, Mr Keith told the court.

Katie Fox, defending, described Lismore as a “mixed-up kid”, adding “there were some bizarre features to the robberies because he has a moral code which he stands by.”

She said “as a Roman Catholic, he felt it was wrong to rob someone of the same faith as him, that was why he handed back all the items to his first victim.”

She added Lismore had also returned £40 to his second victim, together with a mobile phone sim card “because that was personal”.

Lismore, who admitted charges of robbery and attempted robbery, was sent to a young offenders institution for four years,

Judge Nigel van der Bijl told Lismore: “you think it is wrong to rob a fellow Christian… but then you go on to rob someone else the same night. I don’t know how you came to that conclusion.”

Sentencing on Lismore’s teenage accomplice, who admitted the same charges but cannot be identified for legal reasons, was adjourned until May 13 for probation reports.

Michael Green: Thirty Years that Changed the World

2 08 2010

I’m not sure I’ve written a book review since the early years of secondary school, when I summed up The Hobbit thus: ‘The dragon was cool, and I liked Gollum’s riddles.’

So don’t expect too much from my book reviews. Think more Richard and Judy than New York Times

And so here, my review of the last book I read, Michael Green’s Thirty Years That Changed the World.

The book is essentially a thematic study of the book of Acts, looking at many of the key principles and practices that played such a vital role for the early church, and then applying them to us in the modern day.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I like Green’s style, and appreciate that he takes seriously charismatic gifts and the spiritual dimension. Knowing a little about the man, I could imagine him preaching, living, ministering and pastoring people with the same sort of levels of zeal he was describing in the early church. In other words, he lives what he preaches… and I appreciated that.

For me, the standout chapter of the book was right at the beginning: Bridges and Ditches. Green began by looking at the advantages and disadvantages that the early Christians faced in terms of preaching the Gospel both to Jews and to Gentiles. This was a fascinating chapter. It was a succinct picture of what life would have been like in those first thirty years: the particular aspects of Roman and Greek culture that aided the spread of the Gospel, and the major stumbling blocks that Jews and Gentiles would have faced in coming to Christ. There were many comments and quotes I’d heard before, but also a good number of insights I had never previously appreciated.

Chapter 6: What of their Message?, picked up some of these themes again, and looked at how the Gospel message directly challenged people’s mindsets and lifestyles. Chapter 7 was less enlightening, but rounded off this theme well, by looking at the early church’s approach to apologetics. These three chapters together were worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, there were a few weaknesses. Firstly, its repetitiveness. Due to its thematic nature, there is a great amount of overlap between the chapters. Even a cursory glance over the chapter titles (Approach, Lifestyle, Message, Apologetics, Methods, Church Planting, Pastoral Care, Church Life, Leadership, Hardships, Holy Spirit, Priorities) hints that this may be the case. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the chapter on priorities feels like a ‘greatest-hits’ amalgam of approach, lifestyle and methods!

The second weakness was that I’m not 100% certain for whom the book was written. It feels very much like a collection of challenges and mild rebukes from one older evangelical to younger evangelicals. And thinking back to a few churches I’ve attended in the past, some of his comments and encouragements really hit the mark. But, if I can say this without sounding too arrogant, many of his observations just don’t correlate to my present experience.

When he critiques worship for not being dynamic, or churches for not preaching the word, or having the sermon as the shortest element of the service, something to be got over and done with quickly, I smile (gratefully), knowing that on the whole, that is not my experience in the family of churches to which I belong. Newfrontiers, seems to have got hold of the strategy of targeting key cities and places of cultural influence, in the pattern of the early church. Green draws this out as if it’s a fresh revelation, which to many I’m sure it is, but again, I am grateful to belong to a movement that thrives on this understanding.

Regularly Green talks about ministry in the Spirit, including signs and wonders, and laments that it’s something that is seen regularly in the two-thirds world, but rarely in this country. Again, I rejoice that I belong to a church that sees regular demonstrations of God’s power, encourages people to be filled with the Spirit, and seeks to exercise spiritual gifts. I think his slight generalisations are designed to wake up slumbering Churches. They make me grateful to be in a ‘generally awake’ movement.

That said, a number of his challenges did impact me and make me rethink genuinely how much of a priority I make of: caring for the poor, prayer, the down-to-earth pastoral side of church life, and being willing to face opposition. In a long section on ‘visiting’, spanning everything from door to door evangelism, to regularly visiting parishioners, Green provokes us to rethink whether, in trying to build large, slick churches, we have lost this aspect of church life, which was so vital in the early days. Maybe we’ve got better at putting strategies in place for discipleship and pastoring? Or maybe we have replaced genuine support with structures and systems?

The ‘Gospel in the open air’ section was painful and made my toes curl with embarrassment. ‘We laugh at the man on the street corner shouting verse from the King James Version at the passers by,’ writes Green. ‘It is an embarrassment.’ (p121) I agree. But then: ‘But open air work can be done imaginatively.’ Fair enough… I realise I have an inbuilt prejudice toward artistic evangelistic endeavours that are shoddy, half-baked, public, cringe-worthy and patently un-cool. They wouldn’t reach me, and so I have little faith to engage in them myself. And I’m aware that some of my prejudice needs to be ironed out – so I did find the chapter provocative – but what of Green’s so-called ‘imaginative’ techniques that work well (p123):

  • Holding up an unusual object that catches people’s attention
  • Using posters that you gradually unveil
  • Standing on a chair in a pub and spout rubbish until everyone is listening, then preaching the gospel
  • Jugglers using the ups and downs of the balls to explain the ups and downs of life, and how Christ can catch you in any situation
  • Using sketchboards

And my personal favourite…

  • ‘I have found circle-dancing to Israelis folk tunes a marvellous way of drawing a crowd.’

Suffice to say, his examples didn’t give me any more faith for this sort of open-air ministry. But I have taken his point, and his final challenge was a good one: ‘We have become too respectable, that is the trouble, and respectability and Christianity are bad bedfellows. Until we take to the open air we may not be taken seriously by the man in the street.’ (p126) Whilst I may still want to quibble that respectability gains a hearing from a different kind of audience, the kind of person that would not be seen dead near a living statue, I do acknowledge that there are many who will be attracted by the down-to-earth quirkiness of open-air ministry. And I thank God that some people have the faith and gifting for that, whilst simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief that ‘juggling the gospel’ isn’t a requirement for all believers!

All in all, a helpful book. I enjoyed it. I think the early chapters particularly will become a pool that I can dip into, alongside F.F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame, for a picture of early church life. Green brings Acts to life. That shouldn’t be too hard; it’s a book brimming with vitality and intrigue. But commentators have become adept at quashing the fresh, radical, Spirit-driven nature of the book of Acts, and in that sense, Green’s portrayal was a breath of fresh air.


1 07 2010

I don’t know why I always do it. I should have learnt by now that virtually everything on British TV is a disappointment.

But still, I had high hopes as I decided to watch the first episode of the new BBC 2 Show Rev on iplayer yesterday. For some inexplicable reason.

The premise intrigued me:

A sitcom about a vicar who finds himself out of his depth as he takes over an inner-city London church, with all the challenges city church leadership has to offer.

It intrigued me not least because I am a member of an inner-city London Church, and the movement I’m a part of, Newfrontiers, is hot on planting city centre churches. We have received a great deal of counsel from guys like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll about the importance of city based churches, and many in our family of churches are facing the challenges that ought to make up the premise of Rev.

So I was intrigued that the show was making the move from the village to the city. I thought there might be something profound in there. What I found was essentially an urban Vicar of Dibley.

Priest out of his comfort zone. Has an astonishingly dumb sidekick. Placed in a dying Anglican Church. In fact, even the plot of the first episode was remarkably similar/plagiarised: Dibley – a smashed stained glass window costs £11k to repair. Rev – a smashed stained glass window costs £30k to repair. I suppose that just reflects the cost of inner city life. The Rev gets drunk, swears and blasphemes. All in a day’s work…

In fact, it was so obviously Dibley Redux that the only way they could get away with it was a self-deprecating reference as a bunch of builders mock the Rev, labelling him ‘The Vicar of Dibley.’ Well, if nobody had made the link by then, they sure did afterwards…

To be fair, the series may get better. A pilot may not be indicative of the rest of the series. And there were a few good points about it… but not enough to keep me watching. I didn’t find it funny. It was tired. I was only watching for the concept, and that was a let down.

For me the one thing that made it distinctly urban as opposed to rural was that the Rev was terrified riding his bike through the traffic, and nearly got run down by a black cab.

Is this really urban church planting?

I suppose I shouldn’t really have expected the BBC to pull anything profound out of their hat, given that all they keep in there are stock clichés and tired stereotypes. But it did make me wonder:

If they really wanted to do their research and find out what urban church life is like, would they know where to come? Would they know who to ask? Would they find us? And if not, why not?

I hope that as more and more people target cities in their church planting, a new model of Christianity will begin to filter through to the popular media. Wouldn’t Rev be far more exciting if the church were based in a theatre, ran mid-week groups in pubs, led dance academies and homeless shelters, prayed for the sick and saw them instantly healed… but then I suppose there would be less opportunity for cheap gags about choir boys.

Look… If you want a taste of inner-city Church life that is passionate rather than parochial, visit one of the many vibrant London Churches run by godly men, who are making a big difference. Try ChristChurch London for a start. Visit websites like and find out why and how we plant churches in cities. Listen to this excellent talk from Tim Keller when he spoke to Newfrontiers leaders in London recently.

Or alternatively tune in to BBC 2, Monday at 10pm, where I gather this week you may get to see a church fete…