Satisfied?

Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones could never get any satisfaction back in the 1960s when this song played over and again on the airways: “I can’t get no satisfaction” (released 1965).

This week I have been working with a Wycliffe Hall student team, Peter Sanlon and the congregation of St Mark’s Tunbridge Wells.

Among other things we have been surveying people door-to-door, giving out fliers and the tract Longing for Paradise (see) as well as doing some video interviews.

Leafy suburbia is “largely satisfied” it would seem: health, contentment, peace and money. But not everyone; and not all the time.

Nagging questions the meaning of life and the possibility of life beyond death remain.

And, of course, the person of Jesus Christ continues to be a source of fascination and interest. Established Religion and Church-going hardly feature, but the quest for satisfaction does not go away. Our hope as a team is that the good people of Tunbridge Wells will find their deepest needs in Jesus Christ, for it was he who said: “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness (in all its abundance)” (John 10:10).

The team’s 5minute summary of this theme is here

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The “Watch” Word for the New Year

The Watch Word for the New Year

The sales were in full swing. Town was bustling. I left the family to finish their shopping and went for a coffee in Starbucks.

Just me, my coffee and my phone. I love my Samsung Galaxy S4. Contacts, social media, music, diary and email on the go. So much a part of our modern world, but, today my phone battery was flat.

Coffee in hand, I sat to watch the world go by. I know all this. In fact, I have written about it! (“Stress. The Path to Peace”, IVP, 2014). Nevertheless, it was sobering to observe: 80% of the people around me were glued to their phone. Everyone, it seemed: families gathered around the tables, groups of 4 friends, men and women sitting on their own. The virtual world, apparently, so much more real than the, er, real world around them. Human contact had given way to peering into a small screen.

And, who am I to talk? I would have been doing the same thing if my phone had any life left in it!

But, it looked different without the phone before my eyes. I felt restless; not sure what to do with myself.

And, all the while this bible text pinging through my clogged up memory bank:  “Simon…Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” These words are originally directed at Simon Peter and the other sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the night before he died, as Jesus wrestled with the inevitability of a cruel and sin-bearing cross, he went to pray. His soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. “Stay here, and keep watch” he instructed his followers.

Of course we know the story. Three times Jesus returns and finds them sleeping. But Jesus is ready: he has “watched and prayed” and now he is ready to drink the cup of wrath down to the dregs. Simon (we believe), on the other hand, is totally ill-prepared for this battle, instead lashing out with his sword (see Mark 14:32-51).

As the world sees in the New Year with fireworks and fresh resolutions, the Christian Church holds a “watchnight service”

I particularly like John Wesley’s idea of Covenant Services encapsulated in this modern version of the prayer:

“I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

So, although not being a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, this year I am covenanting to “yield afresh”, to put all things at God’s disposal.  I will take the time to “watch”. Time to clear my cache memory and time to defrag: that is, to yield, to pray, to refocus on Him and value the human relationships which are all around me.

Would you care to join me?

Why not check out new resources also available at http://www.simonvibert.com

Convicted!

Technology convicted me this weekend

Yesterday was our first day out with a new SatNav. The deep Russell Crowe Aussie voice is calming and reassuring (particularly for the female ears).

 But my first try-out revealed rather more about my stubbornness and independence than I had intended to divulge. Ironically, it was the words I spoke to my wife – out of my own mouth! – that brought about my own conviction.

 Reaction one –please turn off the verbal directions

 Being told what to do by someone else – even an electronic voice – was irritating. I preferred observing the Satnav screen and making my own way. As I journey through reading the Bible in a year I recently reread the bizarre story of Balaam and his donkey. That stubborn old mule – Balaam – failed to heed the words of the Lord and needed rebuking by his donkey:

 The angel of the LORD asked {Balaam}, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” (Num 22:32-33)

 Finally, Balaam gets the message and confesses his sin for failing to hear the voice of the angel of the Lord.

 What are you like at asking for, and then heeding, directions? God has given us His Word and His Spirit to instruct and to guide us. I must not turn the volume down or allow it to be drowned out by the hullabaloo of modern living. Pump up the volume (particularly when your instinct is to do the opposite!)

 

 Reaction two –please turn off the speeding notifications

 The Satnav reminders were convicting and uncomfortable. But rather than ensuring that I always drove within the law, my conscience felt more comfortable when the notifications were turned off. We do the same thing in the spiritual realm, don’t we?

 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at their face in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like. (James 1:23-24)

 The warnings of the bible are there for our own good and failing to heed them is to self-inflict harm. Talking back to the Satnav helps no one!

 

 A better way – “Be wise; Be warned; take heed; listen; have ears to hear….”

 The bible has a lot to say about, first hearing and then, heeding God’s word.

My driving experience yesterday reminded me of the need to be less stubborn and to be better at listening: first to the words from my own my which convict me; then, secondly, to the voice of Scripture.

 I’m still not sure I am going to turn up the sound on my SatNav, but I will renew my pledge to hear and heed God’s voice, something which God strongly encourages:

 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.  Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:8f.)

Preparing for suffering with the help of Job

Job 6 – “When words are like wind”

 In “Blue like jazz” Donald Miller wrote that he did not like Jazz because it didn’t resolve. He didn’t like God for the same reason.

Job helps to answer the question: what do you do with the unresolved, and how do you love God when life doesn’t make sense?

Miller argues that he eventually learned to love Jazz when he heard a street saxophonist “playing his heart out”, utterly absorbed in the music. When you love God you learn to live with the unresolved. Job helps us feel the heart of God.

Job is a complex and detailed book. The following four points are intended as an introduction to the long exchange between Job and his three so-called friends.

1. The value of Job

“If I did not have Job! It is impossible to describe all the shades of meaning and how manifold the meaning is that he has for me. I do not read him as one reads another book, with the eyes, but I lay the book, as it were, on my heart and read it with the eyes of the heart… just as the child puts his schoolbook under his pillow to make sure he has not forgotten his lesson when he wakes up in the morning, so I take the book to bed with me at night. Every word by him is food and clothing and healing for my wretched soul. Now a word by him arouses me from my lethargy and awakens new restlessness; now it calms the sterile raging within me, stops the dreadfulness in the mute nausea of my passion. Have you really read Job?” (Soren Kierkegaard in Repetition ).

Kierkegaard encourages a deep absorption into Job in order that we might be immersed in the “melodic line” of the book and find our dependence on a God who knows what he is doing, even in spite of appearances to the contrary.

2.  The unhelpful role of his friends

As some have observed, perhaps their most useful contribution was when they wept with their suffering friend and said nothing. Unfortunately, they broke their silence all-too-soon! (2:13). Not everything they said was wrong, in fact, someone once remarked that they spoke “the right words at the wrong time”.

For example, Eliphaz

–        4:7 – do the innocent really suffer? Have you examined your heart?

–        4:17 – you are presumptuous to think that you are “right with God”

–        5:9ff – God is so much greater than you, so don’t question his plans

–        5:17ff – God sends suffering to discipline and correct us

–        5:27 –  He is confident that “he has the mind of God” …

  • How easy it is for “friends” to presume to know definitively what God intends to teach in this or that circumstance…

 

3.  Job as a model of innocent suffering (6:1ff)

Job’s responses are helpful

–        6:2f – My suffering is very real (“if it could be weighed”)

–        6:4 – but my suffering drives me To him not from him

–        6:8-10  – heaven would be more preferable to suffering on earth (Phil 1:21)

–        6:14-20 – The comment attributed to Teresa of Avila “God, if this is how you treat your friends, have you no wonder you have so few of them?!”

  • Job hasn’t gone that far — he finds himself comforted by God’s consistency, but deeply troubled by his so called friends    
  • Undependable (v15) – like overflowing streams, thawing ice
  • And like caravans which have gone of course 9v18ff)
  • They are confident that they are going in the right direction,  but in fact they are way off track
  • V24ff. Look, I’m not saying this because I am unteachable…but your arguments are not convincing (namely that I must have sinned; and that is why I suffer)
  • V28ff. You are judging me, but won’t look me in the eye; you believe you know my heart and my integrity
  • V30 But, in fact, I am suffering innocently — I have not spoken wickedly not been malicious to anyone. Cf v10 “I have not denied the words of the Holy One”

–        Consistently throughout Job, he is held up as a model of one who – though he suffers greatly – he is innocent.

 

4.  Job points us to Christ

 1.      Jesus denied a simply link between sin and suffering

 John 9:1ff – “who sinned that this man is suffering?”

  • Jesus’ answer implies
  • There is a connection between sin and suffering, but it is not simplistic;
  • There is an answer to suffering but that too is not simplistic

 2. Jesus taught: We are blessed when we suffer unfairly or unjustly (Mtt 5:10-12)

 3. Jesus is the sinless suffering par excellence (1 Peter 2:21-25; 3:13-18) … and unlike Job, his suffering deals with the very problem of sin and suffering

It is sometimes said: “Suffering makes you bitter or better”.  The way you react to suffering depends on your prior commitment to trust God in whatever circumstances he brings your way. A deep engagement with Job and his sufferings will help the Christian prepare for the trial, testing and difficulties of life.

Existential Threats

Cambridge University have announced the foundation of a new Centre for the study of Existential Risk.

Its purpose? To consider the threats posed by four main areas:-

  • Climate Change;
  • Artificial Intelligence;
  • Nuclear War;
  • Rogue Biotechnology

The centre is to be led by professor of philosophy, Huw Price, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics, Martin Rees, and Jann Tallinn, the creator of Skype.

Apocalyptic disaster from nuclear fallout has long been thought to be a real threat. We are increasingly aware of the impact of climate change and aware that advanced biological or germ warfare could wipe out large numbers of the human civilisation.

Media coverage of the launch of this centre has focused on the advances in Artificial, or Super Intelligence, which raises the potential that “we are not the smartest things around” and, it is posited, could potentially threaten human survival.

These are real concerns. Somewhere beneath the Blockbuster movie hype is buried a genuine anxiety that humanity could well destroy itself. 25years ago Neil Postman’s perceptive book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” elicited one commendation “This comes along at exactly the right moment…we must confront the challenge of his prophetic vision”.

Postman argued that 1984 had come and gone. George Orwell’s book of that name feared the banning of books and the imposition of totalitarian oppression, reducing human beings to a mindless existence. But the world of 1984 was free from many of Orwell’s imagined threats. Aldous Huxley was more prophetic, though, in “Brave New World”. Here the threat is the trivialisation of culture, the preoccupation with image and feelings and the drowning out of truth in a sea of irrelevance. The threats which Huxley imagined could much more easily be implemented through artificial intelligence and out-of control biological forces.

But, Christians maintain, the existential threats to our existence pale into insignificance when you consider what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31).

As the Church approaches the season of Advent we prepare ourselves for Christmas. Not, in fact, by thinking first of Christ’s coming as a baby in the incarnation. But rather, we think his return as judge and king. When we ponder a final day of judgment we approach Christmas to welcome the saviour with open arms.

It might be that, as in the days of Noah, God will use natural means to execute the destruction of the world. But, nevertheless, the controlling initiative comes from outside of our world. Ultimately we will not destroy ourselves, but God will come back to wrap everything up: it will be a day of final destruction, initiated by the Judge of all the earth (see 2 Peter 3).

So, in the, we might say, the threats to the end of the world are more apocalyptic than existential. I wonder, will our Cambridge professors give my thought to this threat?

 

Some biblical wisdom on dealing with Stress and Worry

These thoughts have been going through my mind as I work on my forthcoming book on Stress!

What is quite clear is that everyone seems stressed; everyone worries (at least in the western world). And, because Christians are not exempt they are also tend to add “guilt” to the list, assuming that believing in a sovereign, loving God should mean that we don’t worry and don’t feel stress.

We cannot expect perfection in this life. Moreover, we live in an overstretched world; consequently we often feel close to breaking point. Of course, the Bible has plenty to say about how to live a life trusting God and with an expectation that God will supply all that we need in Christ (e.g. Phil 4:19- “… my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”). But how can we put this into practice?

As I have continued to ponder this issue, two dominant themes from early days as a Christian have returned to me. In my teens I attended a large Sunday night youth group. I remember a talk which I gave entitled:-

God wants warriors not worriers

The theme was that we dissipate worry by getting to work fighting for the cause of the Gospel. It’s not bad advice, of course.  But, again, I ask: how does this work in practice? If you tell a worrier not to worry then you add to their worries their own anxiety over worry itself!

When Jesus told his disciples “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:25) He spoke about the futility of worry (you won’t live any longer by worrying – actually it is likely to have the opposite result!); He said: you need not worry because your heavenly father looks after the lilies and the birds, so how much more will he look after human disciples; and He encouraged a God-directed focus so as not to be preoccupied with the affairs of this world. “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness…” (v33).

My other regular teenage activity was night fishing. After several hours peering into the water, imagining my float was about to go under, ever expectant of hauling another fish out the water, exhausted, I finally went to bed. But then sleep was elusive as my mind was swimming with the sight of fish swirling around my mind!

Worry causes sleeplessness, of course. Not least because the mind is filled with all the activities and stresses of the day, swimming around the mind!

Part of the answer to sleeplessness is the redirection of one’s gaze. Christian meditation is not about emptying the mind, but rather filling it with thoughts of God. Telling a worrier not to worry doesn’t help. But assisting them focus on the God who won’t give us up and won’t let us down, is the perfect displacement.

This leads me to a related thought which also came from my teenage youth group.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

We used to end every Sunday evening singing the same song:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.

These were good thoughts: staying focussed on Jesus does put this world properly into perspective. This is consistent with the advice we find in the Bible: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

More on this anon, but before I finish writing my own book on the matter, you might like to check out two helpful recent IVP books on these matters:

* The Worry Book. Finding a path to freedom (Will can der Hart & Rob Waller); and

* You can Change. God’s transforming      power for our sinful behaviour and negative emotions (Tim Chester).

The Hunger Games – Christian Review

Hunger Games – Review

 The much hyped movie “The Hunger Games” (2012) is based on the 2008 book by Suzanne Collins. My 15 year-old’s verdict is: “BEST FILM EVER!”

 The 76th Annual Hunger games are, we are led to believe, the entertainment of the future. Here is game show hype with ultimate risks and rewards. Katniss Everdeen takes her young sister’s place and competes against other randomly selected contestants from other districts. Included among the contestants is also Peeta Mellark who will also compete for her affections. Most of this can be gleaned from the back of the DVD, but if you really want to spoil the plot for you why not read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunger_Games_(film)?

 There are some reminiscences of Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show” (1998) which also featured a game show contestant who found his world manipulated from the outside in order to keep up ratings.

 Christian bloggers have emphasised the themes of self-sacrifice and found echoes of cosmic battles and apocalyptic overtones. Whilst the author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, is a Roman Catholic she is on record indicating that there are no intended Christian themes in the book. This Christian content review is worth reading (http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/protecting_your_family/book-reviews/h/hunger-games.aspx).

 There is much that can be said about this movie. It is a sensual (and refreshing relatively non-sexual) movie which should be just enjoyed!

 My main reflection as a preacher and evangelistically minded pastor is the vision of the future contained in this movie.

 The expectation of conflict and a final battle it seems is inherent in our human imaginings of the future.

 There is realism in this plot, though. The future envisioned by the author is no utopia. It carefully observes the fallen human desire for constant entertainment and titillation, and the gentle mocking over the ends to which game show contestants will go for fame and fortune. There are outside forces bringing influence to the outcome of the games, but ultimately the cynical producers and fickle audience are not, apparently, able to destroy the heroism and sacrifice of the individual.

 The future, apparently, is not the utopia which made up the theme of so many Hollywood movies of previous generation. Rather, despite the entertainment-orientation and cynicism of the audience, the power which makes the world of “The Hunger Games” go round is that self-determined love. There is an ideal, not of utopia, but the power romantic love.

 This is a clever film, based on a well conceived book. It also reflects the modern age: true love is found, not in God, but rather is an ever elusive human-romantic love: an ideal for which even the most cynical person longs.  But the Christian will want to say: this is too hope to much of any human love. Romantic love needs to be subservient to agape love and, for me, movies such as The Hunger Games actually make me marvel afresh at being loved sacrificially, fully and savingly in the Father, Son and Spirit. The greatest demonstration of self-sacricial love is in the PAST not in the FUTURE. As Paul says: Galatians 2:20 “…I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”