Monday 14 June 2021

What We Pray

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service run by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: he has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands you gave through your servants the prophets…

Ezra 9:9–11

If the book of Ezra was just about ‘getting back in the building’, it would end with chapter 6.

In spite of setbacks and opposition along the way, God’s people have persevered. The temple has been rebuilt and dedicated. Even so, it’s not just a ‘bricks and mortar’ moment. It’s about reconnecting with the past, reclaiming their identity, and remembering God’s salvation. No wonder we read that ‘the LORD had filled them with joy’ (6:22). In truth, it would be a great place to finish the story.

But there’s more. There always is.

Ezra knew what many churches have discovered: once the building project is over, the real work starts.

Renewed worship is to lead to renewed lifestyle. But the people had lost touch with how God had called them to live. The very issues which had taken them into exile in the first place now threatened to undo them and their witness to the nations all over again. They were not only abandoning their obligations to be a distinctive people, they were also jeopardising the blessing that was designed to come through them to others.

So it is that Ezra prays.

The prayer provides a poignant window into Ezra’s heart. It’s a deeply emotional outpouring of grief to the Lord, highlighting the people’s unfaithfulness, all too aware that he stands in solidarity with them. There’s a full acknowledgement of guilt and a recognition that they have placed themselves under the searching gaze of God.

But the prayer is addressed throughout to ‘our God’. And this is the only hope for the restoration they need. Even when they stop living like his people, he will not stop loving like their God. God has ‘shown kindness’ – covenant loyalty – to them. Ezra knows that this covenant God ‘has not forsaken’ them, and that his grace is already seen in the events which have brought about their return, giving them ‘new life’.

It’s perhaps a prayer to take with us as we continue to emerge out of lockdown, whatever that might look like over the next season.

We move forward recognising that our celebrations of regathering are nothing without our relationship with God being in place. And we do so confident in God’s character and commitment to us, that his love is designed to bring us to a place of service, and that our future is based solely on who he is.

Thursday 10 June 2021

Christian Smith on Handing Down the Faith

There’s an interesting interview (here) with Christian Smith about his forthcoming book, Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion on to the Next Generation, co-authored with Amy Adamczyk.

The headline captures it nicely:

‘Sociologist Christian Smith says most American moms and dads see the Body as nothing more than a resource center for their kids.’

Some bits of the interview that stood out to me are these:

‘[M]ost parents think what’s really important about raising kids in the faith is that it’ll be good for them in this world. There’s very little reference to salvation or eternity. It’s very “this worldly” focused: The kids will be happier and make better choices. So I think religious parents have a very immanently oriented, not transcendently oriented, rationale.’

’[t] became very clear how important parents were in the formation of their children. We realized that what parents are doing with teenagers really matters more than media, school, or friends.’

‘[F]or the most part, religion has been redefined. It’s an individualistic thing that may or may not be part of one’s personal identity, along with other features like your career or your sexual orientation or your hobbies. Religious faith may be a piece of that larger sense of individual self.’

‘Parents are looking to congregations basically as resource centers. They’re not community ways of life. They’re not bodies of people who are embodying some alternative or renewed way of living.’

‘This is not a new conclusion, but it’s reinforcing what we have known for a while: American religion has really morphed into an individualistic, consumeristic reality.’

The US context means their discoveries won’t necessarily provide an exact match in other situations, but it could be worth reflecting on the overlaps.

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Rico Tice and Carl Laferton on Evangelism

Every month, The Good Book Company make available digital versions of one of their books at no charge. This month (June 2021) it’s Honest Evangelism, by Rico Tice with Carl Laferton, available in exchange for an email address here.

Christian History Magazine on Christianity and Higher Education

The latest issue of Christian History Magazine is devoted to the topic of ‘Hallowed Halls: The Christian Story of the University’.

Here’s the issue blurb:

‘How have Christians pioneered, molded, and interacted with higher education throughout the ages? This issue of Christian History surveys the Christian story of the university, following schools of particular historical interest. Beginning with the development of the first institutions in the Middle Ages – precursors to our own modern universities – and their vision for a classical education centered around theology, we trace what happened to that vision after the Enlightenment when a new kind of university arose. Finally we consider how these visions made their way to America, where today wholly secular universities, explicitly Christian schools, and historically church-related colleges all dot the landscape.’

The whole magazine is available as a 12.6 MB pdf here.

Monday 7 June 2021

Where We Start

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service run by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD… With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: ‘He is good; his love towards Israel endures for ever.’ And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.

Ezra 3:10–12

As moments in history go, this one was significant – unprecedented, even.

At long last, things were beginning to open up. New circumstances. New possibilities. Inevitably, there’d be risks involved. The experience had been draining. People would need space for lament and confession, for reconnection and reconstruction. There’d be some delayed grief going forwards. But none of that could detract from the fact that change was in the air.

Sound familiar?

It was 539 BC.

Persia had taken over from Babylon on the world stage. A new regime with new ideas. Cyrus, whose heart had been moved by the Lord, allowed captive peoples to go back to their own lands.

So it is that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the building projects – the temple and the walls of Jerusalem – that take place after God’s people return from exile. No less real, and no less hard graft, is the rebuilding of the people themselves – in relationship with God and each other. But at the heart of the restoration, that which comes first, is worship.

It’s where true restoration begins. And that’s because of who God is: ‘he is good; his love towards Israel endures for ever.’

The account is realistic enough about the conflicting emotions, the opposition they’d face, the delays involved (it would be another 20 years before the temple was finally rebuilt). Even so, the affirmation of God’s character and covenant commitment pave the way for a new start. Hope has been rekindled, faith has been stoked, memories have been stirred, markers of identity have been reinstated, promises have been reaffirmed, God has been praised.

As new beginnings go, it’s a great place to start.

For all the differences between their situation and ours, the need for worship is no less significant today than it was then. Not the sort of worship which provides a momentary retreat from the world, but worship that shapes us for life in the world, which paves the way for renewed witness on our frontlines.

Yes, as we head into this new season, there’ll be mixed emotions. Like God’s people of old, we shouldn’t be surprised if joyful happiness is tinged with regretful disappointment. But God is present with us and calls us to see his bigger purpose, to celebrate who he is and what he has done, and to be empowered to be his people in and for the world.

Thursday 3 June 2021

Word and World 9 (June 2021)

‘Race and Justice’ is the theme of the latest issue of Word and World, published by IFES. The issue contains the below pieces, which are available from here (summaries are taken from Tim Adams’ Editorial).

Paula Fuller

Left Behind: Justice and the Church after George Floyd

Paula Fuller, the Executive Vice President of People and Culture at InterVarsity USA, reflects on persistent racial divides in the American church and how students should be shaped to be agents of reconciliation.

N.T. Wright

Undermining Racism

N.T. Wright, author and theologian, also shares his perspective on the church as God’s worldwide family, and how ‘racism is a failure of vocation.’

Bethany Peevy

Let Justice Roll: Building Bridges, Pursuing Justice

We also look back at our series of Conexión articles from the past year, with stories of students across IFES regions who are choosing to confront and address injustice in their own contexts.

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Foundations 80 (Spring 2021)

Issue 80 of Foundations: An International Journal of Evangelical Theology, published by Affinity, is now available (here in its entirety as a pdf), which includes the below essays.

Here is the issue blurb:

‘Issue 80 includes a sobering and yet hopeful piece by Sharon James on how we may offer grace to those submerged in a therapeutic culture; Mark J. Lawson reflecting on the thorny issue of how the church responded to the curtailment of its freedoms during the pandemic; Stephen Lloyd critiques four books that seek to explain Covid-19 in the light of God's sovereignty; Ivor MacDonald looks at the often-neglected rural context for mission and evangelism; and Alasdair Macleod surveys the history of Scottish Presbyterianism during the twentieth century.’

Donald John MacLean

Sharon James

“It’s All About Me!”: Ministry in a Therapeutic Culture

Mark J. Larson

The Christian and the Civil Magistrate

Stephen Lloyd

COVID-19 and Creation: Megaphones, Mystery and Lament

Ivor MacDonald

Distinctives of the Rural Context for Christian Mission

Alasdair J. Macleod

The Union of 1929 and What Came After: Developments in Mainline Scottish Presbyterianism in the 20th Century

Stephen Clark

Review Article: Systematic Theology by Robert Letham

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