Thursday, August 11, 2011

CharisMissional - my new blog

Just to let you know that I’m now blogging at CharisMissional.

After blogger here on blogger for a serveral years now I decided it was time to move to WordPress. In doing that I thought I could perhaps re-launch the blog with a bit of a clearer focus. Some time ago I posted a little post about the word CharisMissional. The more I’ve thought about it the more that seems to be where I’m coming from.

Why CharisMissional?

Don't worry, I'm not trying to start a new movement or anything, it's just my attempt at a witty name for the blog! The word CharisMissional is a blend of the two words – charismatic and missional – that I feel are both important to my Christian faith.  The new blog will be dedicated to helping other Christians learn about the gifts of the Spirit and mission and hopefully to share their own insights and experiences in these areas.

What Will Happen To This Blog?

I hope to keep this blog going. I will post here any thoughts or comments that don’t really fit in my new blog. One of the reasons for the new blog was that I realised a lot of my posts were about Christianity, mission and those sort of areas. I’m not sure yet what will now appear on this blogger blog now. Perhaps reflections of a more personal nature or other topics that I’m interested in. You’ll have to wait and see. Also there is still plenty of stuff on this blog that I’ll revisit and keep on linking to on the new one.

In the meantime please feel free to follow me at CharisMissional.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Community Fun Day 2011

Yes, it’s that time of year again! Last weekend we took part in Ladywood Community Fun Day. In this photo you can see Philipa who ran the Grow Well stall.

This year we didn’t have a Prayer Tent but our church was still very much involved. A couple of years ago our church helped on the day as our worship that weekend. This year we were meeting on the Sunday but still a number of people put in a lot of work to serve the community. Members were stewards for the event, helped put up and take down the stalls and tents and were litterpicking throughout the day. It was noticable how no litter was there at the end of the day.

My friend Harry from Karis Neighbour Scheme did a sterling job of pulling a lot of the day together. I think he was exhausted by the end of the day. Many people from the local community took part.

Nettes and I did some surveys for WorkShop – the local job club that we are running. We were trying to find out what sort of help people would appreciate and also publicising WorkShop at the same time.

For the accounts of the fun day in previous years see:
Community Fun Day
Reflections on the Community Fun Day
Prayer Tent at Community Fun Day

For more of our photos on flickr see:
Dave and Nettes photos

Friday, July 08, 2011

Alan Hirsch explains how Christians can use de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats

Alan Hirsch
One of the leading advocates for missional living, Alan Hirsch, recommends using Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats as a possible tool when brainstorming new direction or ideas for your organisation or church or even when doing a group Bible study. You may recall me blogging about Alan Hirsch and contemporary apostles and what he said about how we can be apostolic. Well, this is really just a footnote to that post.

Hirsch describes Edward de Bono as ‘no theologian but definitely the leading specialist in creative learning processes.’ I have a number of de Bono books and have enjoyed them over the years. One key to understanding where de Bono is coming from is in his book Parallel Thinking. There he maintains that argument and debate are easily abused by being adversarial. He admits that there might be gentler discussions in which a genuine attempt is made to explore a subject but ultimately he sees our common approach to discussions as flawed. In its place he proposes what he calls parallel thinking. In other books de Bono outlines practical ways to do this. One of his most famous methods is the Six Thinking Hats.

In the Forgotten Ways Handbook, Alan Hirsch outlines de Bono's Six Thinking Hats. ‘The six hats’, he says, ‘represent six modes of thinking and directions to think rather than labels for thinking.’

Six Thinking Hats
The six hats can be summarised like this:

White Hat: Think of white paper and so data and information. What information do we need to know about this situation? What would you like to know? What do you need to know?

Red Hat: Think of fire and warmth and so emotions. What are your immediate instinctive feelings about the situation?

Black Hat: Think of the black robes of a judge. What are the dangers and difficulties of the situation? What are the problems?

Yellow Hat: Think of sunshine. Think of the positive and optimistic viewpoint. What are the benefits of the situation?

Green Hat: Think of vegetation and growth. This is where you think creatively about the situation. Suggest changes and modifications.

Blue Hat: Think of the sky. This hat gives us an overview. How would you organise the thinking about the situation? For example, propose a sequence of hats to be applied to the situation for all group members to take in turn.

In a previous book with Michael Frost, The Shaping Of Things To Come, Hirsch described the six hats like this: ‘Participants agree to switch hats for a period of time in order to take a certain approach that they would not normally take to the problem. While wearing a particular hat, each participant is committed to thinking only as that hat allows… You don’t need actual hats, just the imagination to think and speak in different modes.’

Group Discussion and Planning by Anyaka
One good way to organise a time of thinking about something is for everyone in the group to take the same hat for a given period. So for example everyone might think positively about an idea using the yellow had and then everyone think critically using the black hat and so on. In debates only some people tend to see the positives, whereas those on the other side tend to see the negatives and people don’t tend to think much in any of the other ways. Six hats thinking gets everyone working in every direction that is needed.

An important point for Hirsch about the six hats is that ‘the method produces fuller input from more people. In de Bono’s words, “it separates ego from performance.” Everyone is able to contribute to the exploration without denting egos.’

I love this method. I wonder where we can actually use it. Any ideas?

Related post:
The Forgotten Ways: Apostles in the Emerging Missional Church

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Praying for Saint Phillip’s

Robert Pickles
Nettes and I had a good time this morning praying in what used to be Saint Phillip’s Sixth Form College. This is a building that has stood empty for some time and is now rented by New College Birmingham. New College works in association with the Birmingham Bible Institute Family that includes Birmingham Christian College. Robert Pickles gave us a guided tour of the building explaining that the plan was to use some of the rooms there for the college, but there was more space than they needed.  He was open to suggestions that may be acceptable uses for the rest of the space, such as opening the canteen as a community café, renovating and using the sports hall and even using rooms for a social enterprise.

Paul & Jackie had invited us there to pray. They work with the homeless and run a Drop In one day a week at the Ledbury Centre. They have been helping decorate Saint Phillips along with some of the guys who go to the Drop In. Paul & Jackie and some others usually pray every other Saturday about the work with the homeless and the Drop In. This time they had decided to come to Saint Phillip's to pray that these premises would be used for God’s Kingdom as New College moves in there and to pray about possiblities for other projects that might be explored.  Paul and Jackie are looking to eventually move the Drop In into larger premises as it is outgrowing our little church building and are hoping to explore the possiblity of using some of the space at Saint Phillip's.

New College, Birmingham

Another idea that has been mooted as a project for the local area is to have local artists and artisans set up a social enterprise running workshops teaching people their skills. It could be that they also have exhibitions and sales. This is the sort of project that might be feasible to be run from a place like Saint Phillip's.

We prayed for some time in the canteen gathered around Robert and Hazel Pickles. It is great when Christians get together at grass roots level to pray like this. But we were also talking about the importance of church leaders getting together. We were saying how we know of local leaders in the area getting together to pray. Robert also mentioned an initiative called 2020 Birmingham where leaders across Birmingham from a number of different groupings are working together with an aim to plant twenty churches in the Birmingham area by the year 2020.

Finally we broke down into two or threes praying in different areas of the centre. I went with Nettes into the small kitchen. Among other things we were praying that the kitchen would serve wholesome food and not be tempted to go the fast food route but to serve healthy, locally sourced produce and for the café to be a fair trade café and possibly even a training enterprise.

This is all very exciting!

Related posts:
Down And Out In Birmingham
More Thoughts On Social Enterprise

Thursday, June 23, 2011

is there a place for silence in our worship?

On Sunday in the midst of our sung worship we had a wonderful time of silence. These times don’t occur very often but when they do they are moments to cherish. I don’t mean the silence that occurs when a change over is happening or at the end of the meeting. Nor do I mean a time of quiet meditation while the musicians play. This was a time when we just paused in total silence for several minutes just contemplating God. To my mind it was perhaps what the psalmist was meaning when he wrote ‘Be still and know that I am God’.

I might be wrong but I got the impression that this wasn’t planned. We sung with great fervour for a time and then we stopped and went into this time of contemplation. It was great to be silent not rushing onto the next song or contribution. It wasn’t awkward or embarrassing. Certainly I wasn’t wondering about the next thing we were going to do and why it wasn’t happening. I was just caught up with God and longed for that time to continue.

It doesn’t have to be spontaneous to be great. I believe there can be a place for announcing a time of silence when something has been said that would be good to spend some time meditating on. We could even schedule in such a time beforehand. I love these times too. I just wish they were longer and more often. But I can appreciate the feeling that people will lose concentration or think that the next person wasn’t prepared to do what they needed to soon enough. So I can see why after a short time we can feel the need to move on to the next thing.

Times of silence like this are nothing new. We have had them on occasions before. I remember them becoming very frequent for a time in one church I was in many years ago. I have longed for those times to return.

In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster mentions the discipline of silence. He sees it as important that we spend time alone with God in silence just listening.

Also it has been appreciated in our homegroup when we have had a time of silent reflection and jotted down our thoughts on something before launching into a discussion.

The Big Silence
Last year, I was inspired by The Big Silence on the BBC where people spent days in a monastic retreat in silence. Some of them actually did appear to experience something deeply spiritual. Not long after my little daughter Callie wanted to spend a day in silence. Even though she only managed a couple of hours she enjoyed the challenge.

Silent mediation has always existed in Christian traditions. Protestants have tended to lose this emphasis. Evangelicals and Charismatics have journeyed even further away from this. We forget how little time we allow for reflection. But perhaps silence is returning in a new way.

So let us be open to these moments in our worship, both in our own private devotions and with others. Let us not be embarrassed to pause and not say or do anything except to contemplate God and listen to his voice. Yes, I believe there is an important place for silence in our worship. I trust that we will cherish these moments.

See also: Celebration of Discipline

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Passing on the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Last Sunday in Sunday School we were praying for some of the children to receive the Holy Spirit. As it was Pentecost we were looking at the story of when the early church were first baptised in the Holy Spirit. After briefly telling them of my own experience I gave the children the opportunity to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It is now thirty years since I first experienced the Holy Spirit. In a small Pentecostal prayer meeting I began to speak in a language that I had never learnt. I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. To tell the truth I didn’t even believe everything I was told about it at the time. But the result of this experience was one of overflowing joy and a desire that everyone could experience this too.

There wasn’t any mighty rushing wind or fire but I would see my experience as similar to what happened to the early church at Pentecost. Of course not everyone’s encounter with the Holy Spirit should be a carbon copy of mine but I do believe that God wants to fall on all his followers in a special way. The Bible calls this the ‘receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit’. Being a gift it is freely given. As believers all we need to do is ask and keep on asking.

In a way receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit opens wide the door to moving in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And I believe we can express these gifts very naturally as part of our authentic relationships with each other. Gratitude is a natural response to receiving a gift. And gratitude often results in generosity. If we are invited to someone’s house for a meal we may take a bottle of wine and on a later date invite them to ours. We may even copy our host’s role model and start inviting others into our home.

Over the years I have come to realise that exchanging gifts like this is a mark of the Spirit at work. Whatever God gives us we pass on. It is what we as Christians do. The Spirit inspires us to become more like Jesus to other people. We serve each other and we serve the world.

So whenever Christians gather it is an opportunity to exchange gifts. This may mean praying for each other or speaking God’s word to each other. But it actually involves far more. We share our lives together. We share food. We share our possessions and even our money when the need arises. There are many gifts we can bring to each other both inside and outside of our worship gatherings - our time, our energy. We just need to ask God and to think more creatively.

Thirty years ago I received this gift of the Holy Spirit and God enabled me to begin to give to others in a way that I'd never really done before. Last Sunday I had the chance to give these children an opportunity to receive this gift too. My prayer is that as a result God's giving will be multiplied through them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

What is Spiritual Warfare?

I just came across a post from (e)mergent Voyageurs on the topic of spiritual warfare. Interestingly Jamie Arpin-Ricci doesn't see spiritual warfare as praying ‘against the principalities and powers’. Instead he interprets it as referring to resisting human injustice for example in political terms.

He writes this post in the context of being missional and in response to this question:

“How does a ‘missional’ Christian stand against the systems/powers of injustice in the world? What are the weapons of your warfare?”

He takes two main passages from the Bible:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:10-12, NIV)


“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, NIV)

Jamie sees Ephesians 6 as a mandate to confront people responsible for injustice, suffering, exploitation and marginalising the poor. This is how we stand against the ‘powers’. He sees these ‘powers’ as refering to the unjust systems of our world - presumably with spiritual forces behind them.

He interprets 2 Corinthians 10 like this:

Firstly he sees it as indicating that we should live in the ‘opposite spirit’ to that we wish to overcome. For instance, we should live generously and not support businesses that perpetuate the poverty we wish to overcome.

I would add that too often we stop reading before the end of the story of the Prodigal son and miss the point that Jesus was making. Let us not be mean spirited like the Prodigal's elder brother but instead let us remember to embrace those on the margins who need someone to stand up for them.

Secondly Jamie points out that we should bring the light by researching areas of injustice and publicly speaking out about them. But we do need to take care that we protest appropriately in a Christ-like manner.

Thirdly he concedes that this should involve prayer. This is essential to centre our own spirit as we work against evil. But prayer is only part of the action and we should not downplay the importance of our lifestyle and our protest in spiritual warfare.

I would also add that 2 Corinthians 10 appears to involve challenging evil within the church and not just outside. It may even involve rebuking our friends. And what if they don't agree with our challenge? Yes, there is a place for church discipline but I think it is important to say that when Christians disagree we should do so ‘on our knees with open Bibles’. We need to accept that sometimes we may have to agree to disagree and still stay friends.

Overall I tend to agree that spiritual warfare is more about standing up for what is right than it is about shouting at the devil.

Check out Jamie's original post here and let me know what you think.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Justification: Has Wright Got It Right?

In this book JustificationN.T Wright challenges the historic evangelical (especially reformed) view that justification is mainly to do with the imputing of righteousness – that is that Christ’s righteousness is treated ours. Wright does believe that we have been given a right standing in Christ but he sees justification as more to do with being declared righteous. Wright sees justification as more corporate – we are declared righteous because we are ‘in Christ’ - part of God’s people both Jew and Gentile – rather than purely an individual right standing before God. His is the more holistic ‘bigger picture’ view.

The Future of Justification
Piper’s View of Justification
Wright wrote this book in response The Future of Justification – a critique by John Piper of Wright's previous writings. In that book Piper championed the tradition view of justification criticising Wright’s view as departing from this. Piper emphasises elements that Wright leaves out such as the idea of human rebellion that he sees as an offence against God’s glory that deserves condemnation.

Many may find Piper’s outline very familiar and almost synonymous with how the gospel was presented to them. He talks of the law bringing condemnation - everyone falls short of the Law and so needs a substitute - no-one can earn their righteousness. The Pharisees are just one example of this universal inclination to over-the-top law keeping as a way to receive eternal life.

It only by grace through faith that Christ takes our punishment and we receive his moral righteousness imputed to us so that God’s wrath is taken away, our sins are forgiven and perfection is provided for us.

Wright’s View of Justification
God’s original intended purpose, Wright says, was to rescue the whole world from sin and death. By the world he means the whole of creation with mankind in the centre. In other words, we are put right to put the world to rights.

He sees the law as a school teacher. The plan was for Israel was to embody the law and so be a light to the nations but they failed. Interestingly, rather than seeing the law as a way to earn salvation Wright says the Jews in Jesus day saw their works as a badge of their covenant identity. Justification by works refers to their attempt to keep the law out of love and obedience to God as a sign of their Judaism. Their main concern wasn’t what they must do to get to heaven but longing for the Messiah to come to vindicate their nation.

Wright describes true justification as God declaring righteous those ‘in Christ’ declaring them to be in the covenant because Jesus has allowed his rescue plan to continue to the whole world.

So How Does Wright Get to These Conclusions?
He sees the first century context as the key rather than the teaching of the reformers. He looks at the grand sweep of scripture and draws his understanding from that rather than from isolated verses with predetermined meanings.

Another key is that he takes Ephesians as his starting point and interpret other epistles such as Romans in their light. Wright also emphasises the importance of the continuity with the Abrahamic covenant and the nation of Isreal as we can see in passages in Paul’s letters that are often marginalised by reformed evangelical interpreters.

He carefully examines the cultural context of first century Judism. He looks carefully at the original Greek words and even criticises the NIV translation at points. The second half of the book goes through Galatians and Romans in some depth as well as putting them in the context of books such as Ephesians. He also does a fascinating exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 in response to Piper’s point that this shows imputation to be central to justification. Interestingly he argues that this verse refers to the apostles embodying the message of reconcilation.

So Has Wright Got It Right?
It appears to me that actually Piper has quite a lot in common with Wright. Their view of the gospel and of the future is really very similar and some of the points appear to be more points of emphasis. Wright does talk of individual salvation and forgiveness of sins. Despite what Piper says, I would say that he is clear on this. It’s just his emphasis is much wider than the individual. Also Piper is keener than Wright on talking about God’s wrath and condemnation.

Some may accuse Wright’s view as veering away from evangelicalism. Nevertheless the debate between Piper and Wright is done in a very gentlemanly fashion without any name calling. Piper refuses to condemn Wright as preaching a false gospel. The only hint of this as in one endorsement quote on the back of Piper’s book that said ‘Piper will not allow believer’s to put their trust in anyone other than the crucified and resurrected Saviour’ - perhaps implying that Wright would.

We do need to be careful about new interpretations. We should not overturn centuries of understanding lightly. There are interesting parallels with the ideas of getting back to a first century understanding that has come out of the house church movement. But there have also been red-herrings such as pre-millennialism and Zionism that have arisen comparatively recently.

One problem I have with Wright’s ideas is that he sees God’s righteousness as purely his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. Whereas Piper sees God’s righteousness as his faithfulness to uphold his glory in all that he does. Piper may win this battle but I’m not convinced that he wins the war.

Though it is not without problems Wright’s controversial work appears to me to be very Biblical. I have much sympathy for his overall view on Justification. If you are serious about understanding this subject then I would recommend you getting your head around Wright’s book. If you’ve read Piper’s book then you must certainly read Wright’s or your understanding will be severely lacking.

Related post: N.T. Wright and the Gospel

Saturday, May 28, 2011

do we need a close circle of friends?

circle of friends by
 Jenser (Clasix-Design)
It is interesting to look at how Jesus related to people and see what we can learn about how we can relate to people today but I think we need to be careful about taking some aspects of this as being too prescriptive.

I have heard it pointed out on more than one occasion that Jesus had three circles of friendships. He had a large group who he related to more than just the crowds who followed him: the seventy two whom he sends out in Luke 10. He then had the twelve disciples with whom he developed deeper friendship. Finally he had were three closer more intimate friends Peter, James and John – his 'inner circle', so to speak.

I may be wrong but I wonder how much of that pattern is one that we should seek to copy and how much it reflects the culture of Jesus time. Jesus was a Rabi and this pattern of relationships could easily be following that social norm of the time.

In a more individualistic culture that we find ourselves in today many of us may struggle to identify our 12 or our 3 best friends. Those of us who have been through the University experience often found that we did develop close friendships then - particularly those of us who spent some time in a hall of residence. Some of these people we may have kept contact with over the years. But today how many close friends do we have? Perhaps we all think that other people have closer friends that we do.

It is perfectly natural for our closest friendships to be our household especially for those of us in a nuclear family unit. Groups of singles sharing houses may find the same thing. And looking at Jesus for our role model also raises questions about cross gender friendships as he also had close relationships with women such as Mary & Martha and Mary Magdalene.

There may be quite a variation in the number and depth of friendships we have and in what different groups may prefer to do together. We would do well to look beyond the stereotypes. In a recent men’s meeting we were discussing these issues and found that there were as many men who wouldn’t be interested in watching football together as there are who would be.

best friends by
It was also relief to many of us to hear that others too felt they had a larger circle whom they may feel that to some extent they can be fairly open and honest with but we may not have relationships with an inner circle as Jesus had. Yet we still agreed that on the importance of building friendships and relationships.

As Christians we believe that we cannot express our faith fully in isolation. The Bible refers to church as a community of people – the body of Christ. It also encourages us to reach out to those outside the faith and to seek to be a good influence to those around us. So taking steps to get to know people better is something to be encouraged.

For instance it is good that we should help each other with using our practical skills. If you enjoy doing DIY or gardening and others have jobs that need to be done then this could be a good way to help. There are character strengths that we can help each develop by being more open and honest in discussions within various groups in the church. And anyone in such groups can be seeking God as to the way forward for the group and sharing their insights with their group. And hopefully we have friends outside our local church from whom we can learn.

Yes, there are other places that we can turn to develop a skill or get help with a weakness. I am someone who benefits from reading books and information on the internet and doing courses. Also we may have networked with people through social media and use them to find out nuggets of information or advice that we need. But I do think it is important to find time to relate to people face to face.

Building good friendships both inside and outside of the church community is probably something we all need to work on. But I'm not sure that we should be too worried if we can’t identify that inner circle of a few close friends as long as we are still making an effort to reach out to people.

What do you think?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The End is Nigh? I think not!

It has just gone 6pm on May 21st 2011 and the world did not end! What on earth was that all that about? Loads of people were talking about a ridiculous prediction of a Christian broadcaster whom some would claim is really a cult leader.

Apparently Harold Camping who may or may not have some affiliation with the Latter Rain movement, who also quote this date, calculated that the end of the world would happen today, yes today 21st May 2011 at 6pm. Well, not actually the end of the world as such, but something called ‘the rapture’. All the Christians would disappear and the rest of the world goes through a really bad time called the tribulation, so he claimed.

Like most Christians, I do believe in the doctrine of the second coming – that somehow in the future Jesus returns to earth and everything changes. But I don't claim to fully understand what this means or how it is going to happen. And I wouldn’t say it’s something that could happen anytime soon. As I understand it, before Jesus returns there is a lot that has to happen. Basically God’s kingdom has to fill the earth. Ordinary Christians have to live for God so much that our cultures are transformed into God’s ideal.

A lot of the ideas associated with the rapture have been popularised in the Left Behind series of novels. The basic idea does come from the Bible. 1 Thessalonians 4 that says that when he comes we will be ‘caught up to meet him the air’. But those who believe premillennialism – especially those of a dispensationalist leaning - have added a detailed timetable to this. A number hold to the idea that this timetable may be kick-started at any moment. They even point to events in the world such as natural disasters and wars as indications that this moment is just around the corner. If you care to examine history you'll find it's an idea that only became popular a century or two ago.

The big problem I have with much of rapture theology is that it breeds an escape mentality. Instead of working for a better world today it implies that we should look forward to being taken of it. Any notion of improving our world by for example campaigning for social justice or the environment is undermined if we believe that it is all going to burn. Is it really worth transforming our culture if it will all be irrelevant soon anyway? All we can hope to do is to preach to people and convert them to our way of thinking before it is too late.

Of course most premillenialists don’t believe that they can predict the date of the rapture. Though some would say that it is likely to happen at any moment soon. It’s just one extremist that some how has gained the attention of the media that has stuck his neck out predicted the date. In fact I would suspect that most pre-millenialists would seek to distance themselves from this loan voice. No-one for one minute should begin to think that Harold Camping’s view was ever a legitimate interpretation of scripture.

If Harold Camping continues his ministry beyond today and his followers continue then they will need to work out some way of resolving the cognitive dissonance that will inevitably occur. Will he discover some miscalculation, as apparently he did after predicting the rapture as 1994? Or perhaps he will say that the end did happen in someway or that God has had mercy because of the efforts of the faithful and so extended the period. Who knows!

In the meantime I suggest that we carry on in our attempts to make the world a better place – as it is most definitely not going to end any time soon.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is God really a Good Shepherd?

God wants you know that he will bless you and prosper you. He will lead you to good places to 'green pastures' and 'still waters'. He will lead to you places of peace. He will give you peace of mind and peace in your life. He will give you good things. This is because he is a good shepherd. Every thing he leads us into is good. He knows all our circumstances and is in control of everything in our lives.

But have you ever looked around at what is happening to you and wondered if this is really the case? Sometimes it looks like God has left us. Things go wrong in our life. Our plans don’t always succeed. We don’t always have enough money. We get sick. We get hurt. All this happens often through no fault of our own. We pray and our circumstances don’t miraculously change. They may even get worse. How do we reconcile this with God being our good shepherd? Can we reconcile it?

What is our reaction to disaster hitting? Are we angry at God? Do we wonder how God could let things happen? An old question comes to mind: if God is all powerful and all loving how can he allow anything bad to happen? Either he isn’t all powerful or he isn’t all loving. Of course there is a third option - that we don’t fully understand God. Though much about God has been revealed in the Bible we must never forget that we cannot fully understand him. Ultimately God is a mystery.

Psalm 23 is that is not just about the 'green pastures' and 'still waters'. One of the most wonderful parts of the psalm is that we can 'walk through the valley of the shadow of death' without fear. When the darkness closes in on us God is still there. He is with us in the difficulty. He is leading us through the problems. There is a blessing for us in the middle of the situation not just at the end. That is God being our good shepherd.

I believe in a God who heals. Miracles do happen today. But in my experience I don’t see that healing right away. When it does come it comes by natural means – a body repairing itself or the result of medical treatment. In some situations that healing does not come at all. I don’t know why. But that doesn’t stop me asking. I will still anoint with oil. I will still command a healing in Jesus name. That is what I see in the Bible. But I will also face the facts. There are no simple formulas.

When God does not appear to be answering my response is not to lose faith. It is not to blame God. As Job said, God is the one who gives and takes away. Whatever he chooses must be good by definition – even if in my mind I wouldn’t do it that way. I give thanks and praise to an all powerful, all loving God who knows exactly what he is doing. Yes, God is really a Good Shepherd even when it doesn’t look it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Callie’s Baptism

I am very pleased that my seven year old daughter Callie was baptised on Saturday. I captured the moment on this shaky video with my little camera.

Jess produced a much better video that she has put on facebook here and I have made some photos available here.

Some of you may be thinking that seven is much too young for a believer's baptism like this but Callie has clearly made her own decision to follow Jesus. She had been asking about baptism for some time. We talked with Steve and Helen who are leaders in our church and they very responded positively. In fact they were keen to get on with it. So we arranged a mutually convenient date on a Saturday afternoon so that members of our family could come and be part of the celebration. 

We believe in baptism by full immersion. But our church doesn’t have a building that is big enough for us all to meet in never mind one with a baptismal pool. For our meetings we usually hire a local community centre or gather in each other's homes. So whenever we want to baptise people we have to think carefully about how to do it. In the past we have borrowed other church’s facilities or hired a swimming pool. This time Steve and Helen offered to host Callie’s baptism at their home using their inflatable pool in their back garden. They have baptised adults in that pool before so they knew it would be big enough to baptise Callie in.

It was a great time with some of the church, some of our family and even neighbours all piled into Steve and Helen’s home. When the pool was ready we went out into the garden. We didn’t feel there was any need to make it into a service as such, so there wasn’t singing or anything like that. Steve just explained about baptism in literally two or three minutes. It was encouraging to hear Callie shouting her agreement: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ We had decided that Helen, along with my wife Nettes, would do the honours. So they knelt down in the pool with Callie and immersed her with everyone looking on.

A big thank you to all who took part including my niece Hannah on towel duty and of course Danni Smith who made this cake.

I would best describe Danni as a cake artist. As you can see the cake also captured the moment. Thank you Jess for arranging this; it’s not something we would have considered. The cake made a great centre piece for our little buffet. As well as food we provided soft drinks for the children and bottles of wine for the adults.

Callie was also blessed with a number of presents. We had bought her a Bible but other people gave her cards and presents too including this wonderful bracelet that tells the story of Jesus.

Christ's Story Beaded Bracelet
It was great to finish the afternoon chilling with Steve and Helen in the conservatory with an incense stick burning.

Phew! What a day!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Celebrating The Royal Wedding

On Friday Britain has a day off for the Royal Wedding and though many might be cynical of the media hype most are grateful of the holiday and an excuse to party.

For me the whole affair was rather poignant, as the day before was something of a bad news day: two friends in our church both lost loved ones at tragically young ages. But still as my parents used to say ‘life must go on’.

Asbo Jesus 1009
One project that we are involved in our community is our local In Bloom and we had a launch party for it on that afternoon. There were a couple of tents out and Nettes ran a cake decorating stall. Their was some seed planting, balloon modelling, face-painting but the aim was to let people know about our local In Bloom later this year.

Of course this wasn’t the only party on the day. Outside Ladywood Health & Community Centre – the venue our church hires for its meetings – there were some tents, stalls and also bouncy castle. 

Round the back in the Ledbury Centre - our little church building – the folks in the Drop In where glad to find somewhere that they could chill out away from the wedding celebrations. The Drop In developed out of our ministry to the homeless and some homeless guys who regularly come to the Drop In were sifting through some clothes that had been donated while others were playing snooker.

Just down the road in the Methodist Church, the local Christian charity that we have ties with, Karis Neighbour Scheme, were having their party.

Karis Neighbour Scheme
Karis do a lot of work serving people in the community generally being good neighbours. This includes work with many refugee and asylum seeker families and it was good to see some of them there.

It was really glad that I popped in to get this picture of Roo as I also saw Phillipa from Karis’s Grow Well Programme - a project that encourages health through the therapeutic effects of gardening and making contact with the natural environment. It was fortunate that she found me as she had lots of free sun flower seeds for me to take to our In Bloom launch but couldn’t find us.

For us the celebrations didn’t finish on the Friday. On Saturday a lot of us from our church piled down to Jess’s to party in the evening with drinks and nibbles.

Then on Sunday our church had a Royal Tea Party for our next Family Church – our alternative style service with fun activities for all the family. We were making bunting, table decorations and colouring in a picture of a royal banquet while discussing the meaning of Jesus parable of the wedding banquet and how God invites us to be part of his kingdom. We even sung ‘I cannot come to the banquet’ before sitting down to our feast. 

And finally, today Alex and Ellen a couple from our church are getting married and I love this description of them as ‘kingdom royalty… surrounded and supported by God's royal priesthood’, which is not only apt for this weekend but also reminds us of the wonderful truths of the Kingdom of God. A pity I forgot to charge the camera for that one. Oh well - never mind!

Phew! What a weekend! I can identify with the verger in this viral video:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Christian Symbolism in Doctor Who

Did anyone else spot the parallels between the Doctor’s death in The Impossible Astronaut and Jesus death on the cross? Of course there is nothing new with using Christian symbolism in science fiction. The idea of the hero dying or at least appearing to die and then coming back from the dead is a well known plot line. And given that ever since the revival of the series Doctor Who has started on or around Easter Saturday it shouldn’t be surprising. I just think there were so many references in this opening that it was worth commenting on.

In the first few minutes of the story the Doctor dies. Interestingly the date of the action in episode is clearly shown on scene to be Good Friday – the day before the story was transmitted. Before he dies the Doctor gathers his friends together for a meal, well actually a picnic, but I think the symbolism is getting a bit clearer here. This is the Doctor’s Last Supper with his companions. They even share some red wine. The fact they are by a lake even shows echoes of Sea of Galilee where Jesus ministered.

The Doctor appears to know that something important is about to happen. He tells them not to interfere as he his assailant appears – a mysterious space-suited figure. It reminded me how Jesus was anticipating his death and expected Judas to turn up in the garden and betray him.

A blast from an energy weapon and the doctor is fatally wounded. But of course in Doctor Who the Doctor doesn’t die he regenerates and takes on a new appearance. So, as he does in the new series, the Doctor stretches out his arms and begins to regenerate - light flashing from his face and hands. Isn’t it obvious now that this pose is supposed to remind us of Jesus death on the cross? The Doctor is then hit again by the energy weapon. He falls down and his companions look on his body. The regeneration is halted. He really is dead.

The gun shots at the space-suited figure as it walks back into the lake reminds me of Peter taking up his sword to defend Jesus. And then his companions burn the body on a boat on the lake in a Viking style funeral reminded me how Jesus' friends prepared his body for burial.

His companions in shock and mourning, despairing yet trying to understand what has happened just as Jesus disciples are portrayed between the death and resurrection. They go into a nearby diner and suddenly the Doctor appears out of the bathroom. The twist on this resurrection scene is that this is an earlier version of the Doctor. It is time travel science fiction after all. And off they go on an adventure. But perhaps it is leading up to some way in which the Doctor will be resurrected after his death later in the series.

Some interesting parallels?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Understanding Atonement

This article can now be found here on my new blog CharisMissional. However when you have read that you may still like to read the comments below.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebration of Discipline

A year or two ago I heard that two or three people in our church were reading through a book called Celebration of Discipline. I did a bit of research and found many comments that spurred me on buy this book and study it myself. It is interesting that a book written in the 70s by someone from a Quaker background should resonate so well will so many different groups of Christians today. Some might be critical of what is sometimes referred to as his ‘mystical’ approach. However, I would say that Richard Foster appears to have a grasp of hearing God and being in tune with the Holy Spirit that Christians whatever their background can find beneficial. Recently I have been reading through this classic discussion of spiritual disciplines again and each time I do so I feel uplifted.

Richard Foster takes twelve different practices and outlines how putting effort into them can help us grow spiritually. He classifies them as the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study, the outward disciples of simplicity, solitude, submission and service, the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

I find this book stimulating, inspiring and encouraging. At first the title made me fear that it would make me feel undisciplined and lacking in these areas. But as I began to read I didn’t find that at all. Richard Foster has such a gracious way of expressing even the most challenging ideas. If anything it was encouraging to see that so many things that I do already such as study and solitude can be seen as spiritual disciplines. It also articulates some of the things that I feel strongly about very clearly. I’ve never been someone to spend frivolously so I found that I resonated a lot with what Foster calls simplicity. In no way does this book make me feel that I should to be excelling at all of the disciplines. Instead I feel that what Richard Foster does is outline ideas for each one these that sometimes affirm my experiences and other times make me want to try to develop some of these further.

I love the way each discipline is elaborated giving interesting insights into its other possible aspects. For instance in meditation he talks about meditating on current affairs seeking God for insight, as well as giving practical exercises. I love his ideas for study that include the study of nature and the study of people. There is a good range of ideas on each discipline some much easier to do than others, for instance, he talks about partial fasts from different things as well as prolonged total fasts.

Richard Foster is also careful to point out pitfalls and cautions with the disciplines such as falling into legalism and is very practical about how to do them. He has some good physical advice on how to fast for instance and is clear that corporate disciplines such submission are very open to abuse but he still feels that they are important to explore. He gives very practical stories that show how the disciplines have been used and developed.

I found the structure of the book really helpful. The questions at the end of each chapter helped me in reading in the book. Although some of them are simply factual he also enabled me to think about his points by asking for reaction and even disagreement with his points. The way he clearly enumerates his points also adds to clarity and quick reading of the book. He is perhaps a little more formal and stilted than we are used to in Christian writing today but I could easily cope with that.

There are many copies of this book around that can be picked up very cheaply. So even if you’re not sure about it I would really recommend anyone having a look at this book.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sod the Difference

I’ve just been listening to Sod The Difference - a talk from Greenbelt 2008 where Jenny Baker comes to the conclusion that there isn’t really that much difference between men and women at all.

Are Men From Mars And Women From Venus?
Jenny takes to task books like John Gray’s Mars and Venus books even though she admits that plenty of people would say that they have found them helpful and learnt to communicate better. Her contention is that Gray’s books and those like them perpetuate gender stereotypes. Looking at the psychological research she finds the evidence that they are based on very questionable. An idea that has also been touched on by Jon Birch in this recent ASBO Jesus cartoon.
Are Men Wild At Heart?
Jenny is also critical of Christian books such as John Eldridge’s Wild At Heart that looks at masculinity and John & Stasi Eldridge’s Captivating that looks at femininity. Jenny pointed out “there is as much of difference between some of the women as between the women and the men”. She is clear that she believes that “there are lots of different ways of being masculine and lots of ways being feminine. People are far more complex than narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity allow. There’s space for men whose hobby is knitting as well as men whose hobby is boxing and both can be masculine”

But she says in many Christian books like Wild At Heart and Captivating “instead of diversity we are dealt absolutes”. In these books we hear narrow definitions of what it means to be masculine and feminine. For instance Wild At Heart says “Like it or not there’s something fierce in the heart of every man” and if we don’t fit these narrow definitions of what it means to be we are damaged and in denial.

John Eldridge argues that these differences he sees not as cultural but as basic to the way God has created us. Jenny points out that, “discussions of difference can be helpful if we hold them lightly and we see where they fit. But they become a punishing straightjacket if we invest them with more authority than they merit. Any talk of differences can be used in quite a dangerous way.

The Myth of Mars And Venus
“I think we need to resist the use of differences as an instruction manual for how to behave” she says. “And instead take the time to listen and learn and to interact with the uniqueness of the real people with whom we live and work. I think focusing on difference can be an excuse for laziness and a way of justifying immature behaviour instead of doing the work of growing up. Instead of focusing exclusively on differences between men and women – let’s celebrate our sameness – the things we have in common.”

Looking at the psychological studies Jenny comes to the overwhelming conclusion that men and women are not very different at all. Even though some small differences in the brains have been found looking at men as a whole and women as a whole there are no significant differences in many psychological characteristics.

A book that she recommends that looks at such psychological research is The Myth of Mars of Venus by Deborah Cameron. In this book the idea that gender differences are a myth is unpacked. It not just a false belief but it is also a story that has been told for a long time. This is how stereotypes have developed. When we see someone who fits our concept of how we think men or women behave this confirms our stereotype. When we see someone who doesn’t fit we say that they are an exception to the rule.

In conclusion, Jenny points us back to the creation story. The response of Adam to Eve was not that she was an alien from a different planet but that she was ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”. In other words his initial thought was “Here is someone who is just like me”.

I found Jenny’s talk both scientifically sound and immensely practical in giving an approach to understanding gender differences. Let us approach each person as unique and not be quick to make assumptions on the basis of whether they are male or female.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Time With God 2011

For the past few years once or twice a year our church has had a 24 hour prayer event that we call Time With God. There wasn’t one scheduled in this year but my wife and I began to feel that is was time for one. So last weekend we arrange it and again had people praying in our small church building around the clock. We had a number of different prayer stations and multi-sensory activities. For instance one was a multi-sensory meditation on Psalm 51 using horse radish source to remind us of the bitterness of sin, grape juice for God's cleansing and honey for sweetness of God's word.

Simple Beginnings
I think the ethos in Time With God has always similar to 24-7 prayer. But when we started we just opened up the rooms in our little church building for people to shut themselves away in and seek God. There were CD players in each room, we supplied people with candles and some guidelines and we encouraged people to write on flip chart paper and blu-tack it to the walls.

People in the church booked times over the 24 hour period which amazingly filled up even through the night. We managed to arrange it so we always had at least a couple of people in the building. The time flew by and some people began to happily book two hours or even more. Each time we did it there were many encouraging stories of how God has touched people during these times.

Getting More Creative
One year someone brought some art materials. Then came the ‘pray dough’ – an activity encouraging us to pray by moulding play dough. People were praying and expressing that prayer not just in written ways but also in pictures perhaps even bringing a newspaper with them and cutting out a headline and writing and drawing prayers around it. As there were so many payers written and painted we set up a wishing line in the hallway and encouraged people to peg out their prayers.

One year my wife and I took responsibility for organising it and took along lots of bean-bags and throws to make a cosy corner, laid out a few books to inspire prayer such as books of Celtic prayers. Other times people had set up one or two prayer stations. We ran with that and arranged for at least one in each room - each one encouraging prayer in different ways often using different senses.

The Beginnings of a Team
The last time we did this we had the sense of beginning to get together a team. Before this the responsibility to organise it had been with one couple who had passed it to another. When we took over we wanted to do more but it was a lot of work laying out the rooms and clearing them away again. It was great when we had one or two others on board – and it was encouraging to see them using their creativity. We also began the idea of having a corporate time during Time With God when there could be more group activities as well as individual prayer.

Even now that one of the team has now moved away to study we still felt there is the beginnings of a team as others begin to get on board. Another time we would like to build on this and get together a bit sooner to plan with one or two more if possible. I think we need to more clearly divide up the tasks so that everyone knows what to do – send out emails confirming this. Perhaps we could even meet again to confirm the plans just before the event.

One thing that we like to do is to bring prayers that have been written or drawn into the following Sunday morning meeting. People have commented how encouraging this is. I think this is an opportunity not just for the team to do this but perhaps to ask others in the church who might not otherwise be involved. It’s amazing what can be done when several people get there and muck in and it’s a lot less stressful than doing it ourselves.

related post Time With God

Friday, April 01, 2011

Church In The Present Tense: A review of a review!

Church In The Present Tense has recently been reviewed blogger Jonny Baker who works for CMS. Edited by Kevin Corcoran the contributors are Jason Clark, Pete Rollins, Scot McKnight and Kevin himself. The book aims to give a snapshot of these and a few other leaders within what is sometimes called ‘the emerging church’.

Jonny's review kicks off with what some may think as a bit of an unfair comment that the book has no representation from women. I think this is a valid point as an important aspect of the emerging types is they claim to listen to voices from the margins yet apparently lack female leaders or at least need to promote them more. I remember Jenny Baker, one year at Greenbelt, mentioning the lack of female leaders in general in churches when discussing gender issues in her talk ‘Sod the Difference’.

The review then points out how the book clearly shows the different perspectives on theology, mission and church that are held by the contributors. I think this is an important point as many still think there is a monolithic doctrine of the emerging church – so when someone they link with that label says something they don’t agree with everyone gets ‘tarred with the same brush’, so to speak. He points out that in the midst of all the philosophical debating we do need a humility about truth but one that doesn’t stop us saying things that are real such as Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Oddly Jonny doesn't give a rounded overview of the book but instead comments in detail about the two chapters that stood out for him by Jason Clark an 'emerging church' leader who is part of the Vineyard churches.

In his first chapter Jason Clark questions Christians who critique the church having stepped outside of it. Jason sees this as a mistake as such people, he says, have lost contact with church life and ultimately with God’s mission. Jason recommends remaining in the traditions of the church where you are rather than leaving in the search of the latest model. The gist of what he is saying is ‘Don’t be focused on the problems with your church.’ and ‘We need more people around us who verbalise their love for the church.’ Jason lambastes the consumerist faddism of seeking the next big thing whether it is emerging, organic or house church but, rather ironically Jonny comments, then proposes this new model positioned within the traditional church which he calls Deep Church. Jonny points out that people are already writing books about Deep Church so isn’t it just another chasing after the next big thing? But I think Jonny’s main concern is that we need to be shaped in Christian identity as Jason suggest but we also need to be empowered to live in our culture as Christians

Jonny appears to resonate more with Jason Clark’s second chapter on worship. This opens by Jason discussing liturgy, the rediscovery of the church calendar and the catechisms. This is comparatively new to Jason being part of the Vineyard churches but very familiar to Anglicans like Jonny – although Jonny has found new life breathed into these through his own experiences in Alternative Worship. I am very aware that these liturgical aspects of worship have been largely shunned by those in my circles. But I would concur with Jonny’s hope that now they will be opened up afresh. Again Jonny emphasises the importance of mission and engaging with our culture. He feels that these are important aspects of worship in addition to the idea of spiritual formation that Jason Clark outlines.

Even though Jonny rambled on a bit and his thoughts really do need editing I found this a fascinating review. I really must investigate this book further.

Newly found Christian relics may be fakes

The new find of supposed ancient Christian writings may well be a fake. You may have seen the recent story on the BBC news about the discovery of writings from the first century in a cave in Jordan. This story and subsequent retellings of it contained lots of speculation about the find: Have we found proof that Jesus resurrection was some sort of trick? Have we found some others stories about Jesus that are not in the Bible? The fact is that this find has not even been authenticated yet and the process of authentication takes a long time.

What do we know for certain? A Bedouin from Jordan claims to have found umpteen lead tablets in a cave a few years ago. However they are now in the possession of an Israeli who says that they have been in their family for a hundred years. The tablets have some writing on them and are bound together with wire in book form. The writings have been examined and photographed. But they have not yet been totally deciphered. The few words and symbols that we do understand indicate that they might be from the first century.

The director of the Jordan Department of Antiquities thinks that they could be early Christian writings and might even be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. David Elkington an expert who is investigating these relics and trying to get them to a museum in Jordan is quoted by the BBC as saying that they could be "the major discovery of Christian history".

What the BBC failed to mention is that the Israel Antiques Authority dismiss the idea that this find is of any value. A report in the Jewish Chronicle said that experts “absolutely doubted their authenticity”. Church Mouse - a Christian blogger on current affairs whose judgement I trust - gives us some insight in the way that media works, “…in each re-telling,” he says, “the critical bits are left out and some additional piece of speculation is added in”.

But what if these relics aren't fakes? Is it possible these writings could have a profound impact on the Christian faith? Could they prove the Bible wrong? Could they lend credence to other writings that have been discovered such as the alternative Gospels?

I was interested to see in a recent post Scot McKnight pointing to a book Who Chose The Gospels. This book investigates the idea that the four gospels were not accepted until the council of Nicea. The thought that for hundreds of years other Gospels were competing for acceptance sounds intriguing. But the evidence actually indicates that the four we have now were accepted very early on and the others regarded as the work of false teachers.

I would suspect that any writings that are too different from traditional beliefs similarly could be dismissed as the work of Christian sects that were never accepted. But I still think that archaeological finds can help us understand the historical, linguistic and cultural context of the Bible. Writings such as the alternative gospels may well be worth reading along with other writings from the time.

If and when this find is authenticated and deciphered it is possible we could gain some new insight into the world of first century Christians but I doubt it will shake Christianity in the way some have suggested.

Update: It now looks almost certain that they are fakes. Here is Church Mouse's recent post.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Will Bell’s Universalism Matter?

In case you haven’t heard Love Wins the latest book of Christian author, speaker and church leader Rob Bell will probably be about Christian Universalism – the idea that everyone gets to heaven in the end. I say “in case you haven’t heard” because so many people have heard. I have seen it mentioned recently on lots of blogs and facebook statuses. I say “probably” because it isn’t released until later this month and the publishers aren’t giving the whole game away yet. Will he argue for evangelical universalism, conditional immortality or something else? We just don't know. In the meantime Rob Bell has managed to stir up some controversy across the internet and so generate a lot of publicity for his up and coming book.

So what is the book about? Love Wins is subtitled “a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived”. In his YouTube trailer for the book Rob Bell asks some hard questions about the afterlife such as “Will only a select number get to heaven and billions burn forever in hell?”, “How do you become one of the few?” and “What does this tell us about the nature of God?” He sets up his book as an attempt to answer these questions and to show that the good news is better than we’ve been told. But what he will say is still unclear. He is playing his cards close to his chest.

The publisher’s blurb does make it a little more explicit than his trailer though. It tells us Bell argues “that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering”. And it goes on to say, “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic.” This makes it appear that Bell will reject the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal suffering. A lot of people are increasingly convinced that Bell is going to argue for a Universalist position that ultimately everyone gets to heaven leaving hell empty, if he thinks such a place exists at all.

A lot of conservative evangelicals are getting hot under the collar about this. Yes, this book has got Christians talking – especially evangelical Christians. Some refer to Rob Bell as one of the most influential evangelicals in America – especially among young people. But others question whether he is evangelical at all seeing him as having more liberal leanings. I’m not sure how Rob Bell would refer to himself but the fact that he has got so many people talking indicates that he is certainly worthy of the accolade of influential. But I do worry what message some of the less than gracious debating sends about Christianity.

I also wonder why so many who hold the traditional idea of hell appear to fear so much the thought of others being misled by Bell. Do they actually think that he will persuade so many about this? Perhaps so. Rob Bell is an excellent communicator after all. When I read Velvet Elvis I found his words capturing my imagination. But ultimately I don’t think his strength is in teaching Christian doctrine. It might be interesting to see what his position is but I suspect that I will find Bell’s book frustrating. On such a difficult subject as this I would prefer a detailed argument based careful exposition of the scriptures. But perhaps that’s not the case for most Christians.

One of the best books on this topic that I have read is The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (a pseudonym of Robin Parry). This caused some debate but it was nothing like the controversy I am seeing Bell’s book making now. The Evangelical Universalist set out a case from the scriptures that ultimately you can read the Bible as teaching that everyone will be saved in the end. It is well written, thorough and made it clear, to my mind at least, that universalism is a respectable Christian option.

However personally I didn’t quite feel that I could accept the position as there were still some problem passages that left me wondering. In the 80s I had read the chapter of Evangelical Essentials where John Stott outlines ‘conditional immortality’, the idea that hell is annihilation rather than everlasting torment. I found this a more convincing argument and even though the Evangelical Universalist went into more depth I still ended up leaning towards conditional immortality rather than full blown universalism.

Ultimately I am somewhat bemused by the furore over Rob Bell’s book. Having already read these more intellectual offerings I would see both conditional immortality and universalism as just as much possible interpretations of the Biblical teaching of hell as eternal suffering. If I had to plump for one it would be conditional immortality but I wouldn't want to be too dogmatic about that. And whatever Rob Bell argues for, though I may find his writing inspiring, I doubt that his more rhetorical style will cause me to modify my basic understanding of this topic. But I'm sure he will persuade some.

Update: The first review of this book by someone who has read it!