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