Monday, 15 October 2007

Don’t waste your (university) life: Jesus is Lord

Congratulations. You’re here. You’re a student. A returning student, having survived placement year. A second year student, having survived first year. You’ve got loads of people trying to give you advice. Your parents. Your Guild. Your friends. Your tutors. Your great-aunt who you thought was dead until she sent you a tenner to “help you at college with all those books you need to buy”. Here’s some advice from The Aston Times editor:
Just a thought... have you ever wondered where your life is going? I turned twenty recently and re alised that a huge chunk of my life had already been lived, but what had I achieved? I answered myself that I had gone through school and got GCSE’s and A-levels and had, in turn, got into Aston University. I’ve passed my driving test, can play an instrument and have done things I never dreamed I would... bla bla. All achievements and landmarks in my life that I am proud of. ... Where are you going and what do you plan to achieve in your life? For me my ultimate goal is happiness for me and all those around me.
Where are you going and what do you plan to achieve in your life? I don’t want to pile on more advice. I’m going to turn to a small bit of God’s picture on life, and give you just one thing to remember when you think about university life. Jesus is Lord.

Does that seem far away from being a student at Aston? It’s the ultimate message of God and the universe. It’s the ultimate goal of all things. Look, other people can tell you that Keycom are rubbish. Other people can invite you to Gosta. Other people can tell you which meals are good in Café Lago! Other people can remind you to get your assignments in on time. But if you’re going to think about where you’re going and what you plan to achieve while at uni – if you’re not going to waste your life, then remember this ultimate goal: Jesus rules.

That’s not just my take on life vs. last year’s editor’s take on life; it’s not just a lifestyle you might want to consider. It’s fact. I’m going to read a short section from the Bible – if you have one with you, turn to Romans 1.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints... [ESV]
This, Paul says, is the gospel, the good news, of God. This is the creator of the universe speaking: not just your student newspaper editor. And he says there’s good news all about Jesus Christ our Lord. If you’re not going to waste your time at uni, remember this: Jesus is Lord. If you’ve trusted him with your life, he’s your Lord. Not that he belongs to you. Look how Christians are called in v6: you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

That’s your identity: you belong to Jesus Christ. You’re not defined by being a student. Your lifestyle (sleeping in, lectures, watch neighbours, study, coffee, chat with flatmates, study, pasta, go out, sleep in, lectures…) doesn’t define you. Your bank balance (or lack of it) doesn’t define you. Your clothes don’t define you. Your subject doesn’t define you. Your gender and sexuality don’t define you. Your background doesn’t define you. Your identity is that you belong to Jesus – Jesus Christ. What does that mean? Look again at vv.2-5. You belong to the one all the prophets spoke about in the old testament. The one to whom all God’s people looked forward to in faith for 2000 years. The one who was God’s faithful Son where all the others failed through disobedience and mistrust of God’s word. The one descended from David - the rescuing King God promised for thousands of years. The one who was shared our humanity – perfectly man, he represented us but didn’t sin. The one who rose from the dead and is appointed to a position of power and authority, God’s King, to rule the nations and judge the world! The one who will bring about a new heavens and new earth which will be perfect, redeemed, restored, renewed. The one whom ALL will worship, giving praise and glory because he ALONE is worthy. You belong to him. That’s your identity, because Jesus Christ is Lord. Not an academic or social interest: he’s Lord. You belong to Jesus Christ our Lord.

So what? So what for you on campus? You trust in Jesus and believe he’s Lord. So what? Paul says this gospel sets him apart. It makes him stick out.

Imagine this: one day you’re walking across campus with a friend and as you pass the lake you see a couple of students creeping up behind a Canada goose with a net. As you stop and stare, they quickly throw the net over the goose, and while one holds it down, the other grabs it by the neck and wrings its neck. They start to drag it inside, one saying, “I wonder how long it’ll take to roast?” You turn incredulously to your friend, who sees your look and says, “It’s ok: Canada geese are classified vermin so it’s not illegal to kill them.” You reply, “It’s not just whether it’s legal! Those girls are in the vegetarian society!”

Y’see, no matter whether it’s permitted on campus, a vegetarian won’t roast a goose. That's not who they are! And a leeetle bit like that, no matter what’s permitted on campus, or what everyone else is doing, if you believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, your life will be shaped by him: that's who you are! Look at what God’s looking for, in response to Jesus, his saving kingship and his rule: in v.5 we’re told he wants to bring about the obedience of faith in all nations, for Jesus’ glory. He wants people trusting in Jesus and living it out.

That involves 2 things on campus, which aren’t really all that separate – living lives belonging to Jesus Christ, shaped by trust in him, and telling others about Jesus Christ, so they can respond with faith and live lives for his glory too! All to see him glorified. “What are you doing and what do you plan to achieve in your life?” the Aston Times editor asked. Glorify Jesus. Magnify his glory. There is nothing bigger you could do with your time at uni and the rest of your life.

Magnify Jesus on campus. What's that about? Well, it means we want to be like a telescope, not a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass makes tiny things look bigger than they are, but a telescope makes you see humungous things more like the size they really are! You look down a telescope and see that tiny speck you thought was dust on the lens of your glasses is actually a ball of burning gas so heavy that if our planet were anywhere nearer it, we’d fall towards it and be burnt to oblivion!

That’s what our lives & words should do with Jesus: students around us think he’s about as significant and precious as a speck of dust on the lens of their glasses. Looking at us, and listening to us, they should see down a telescope: see how in reality Jesus Christ is Lord: he’s magnificent, glorious, merciful, gracious, powerful, just, yet saving, and infinitely precious, for who he is and what he’s done.

Jesus is Lord. That’s why Christian Union exists: to promote the good news that Jesus rules. To be a telescope for other students to look at Jesus. We live for Jesus and we speak for Jesus. We get involved in church so we learn from those who know Jesus better & for longer, and see how they live for Jesus & speak for Jesus in their stage of life, and we hear from his Word and obey it. We get together on campus to encourage each other in living with Jesus as saviour-King and Lord, and we get together to show campus what Jesus being saviour-King and Lord looks like. We get together to help each other tell those around us why we have this hope in Jesus. We get together to obey the good news, to call people on campus – from all countries – to faith in Jesus, so he’ll be seen more and more for what he is – absolutely and above everything we know, magnificent.

You will find, if you haven’t already, that you have some different views from others in the CU, some different experiences of living for Jesus, and we certainly won’t all like the same style or way of doing things: but Jesus is infinitely more precious than what style we find helpful, he’s infinitely more worthy than what makes us feel comfortable. And he prayed for God to put his glory in those who believe in his apostles’ message, so we’d be one, so that the world would believe that the Father sent Jesus. It’s hard work, but we get to work as the various parts of that telescope, magnifying Jesus for our campus: displaying his glory, declaring his glory. The Christian Union glows with God’s glory, not because we’re wonderful, but as in life, in word, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we testify that Jesus is Saviour-King and Lord.

So Jesus is Christ and Lord. How are you going to respond to that? God’s good news demands trust in his Son. Do you trust in him for your life & death? Then live for him & speak for him at university, to be a telescope for your campus to see him by the Holy Spirit in us. That’s what CU is: but that’s beside the point. It’s what God’s gospel is.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Perceived Readership

Or 'Why I don't usually post book reviews'.

I read a fair number of books, and both students I work with & other friends know well that I'm ready to advise on books at the drop of a hat (or, more conventionally, a request or when helpful). Yet I don't blog book reviews. I keep a rolling list of what I'm reading & have read on the blog, so you can always note that and ask me about it, but I don't blog book reviews.

This is because of perceived readership. When I advise a friend, a CU member or a relative, I know something of the context. Something of their background, their theology, how given they are to reading, what they enjoy, what they've been challenged by lately, and what challenges possibly face them. I can think of the book which would help, and why. I know of plenty of other titles which are marvellous, Biblical, helpful books but would not particularly help them at this present time. That is, I know to a fair degree of certainty that I can serve them well: above all, I can interact with them and work out which book will serve them best in the gospel.

In writing a review on a blog, however, I have no idea of readership. Therefore to accurately serve the Church (in the persons of my readership), I would have to put in so much explanation and so many caveats, that I get tired even thinking of it. Hence I don't post book reviews.

The one time I took exception to this went to prove the point: I posted some thoughts on a couple of books, including one 'Total Church'. I say, 'some thoughts' deliberately - they were hardly comprehensive reviews. Overall, I recommended the books, though for Total Church I possibly noted more by way of caveat than I did actual positive comment: very aware of the readership issue. I received some helpful interaction from one of the authors in the comments, and corrected / clarified a line of my post. When a friend in another local church mentioned the book with me rather critically, I was again reminded of how people in different situations read a book's emphasis differently (that is, of course, the value of interpretation in global, inter-generational, cross-cultural community - namely, the Church). She had been discussing it with church apprentices. Next I knew, one of them was telling me they'd analysed my 'review' of the book! Which just makes me more reluctant than ever to post thoughts on books I've read to the generic public domain. Now, if I'd been asked to join them in energetically analysing and interacting with the ideas in this book in person, that would be a different matter altogether!

There is a 'postmodern' reluctance to be judged by what we've put in print which is suspect. There is a 'postmodern' sickeningly-common cry of 'You haven't read him (w)right!' rather than engaging in discussion on the text in question.
There is a 'postmodern' doubt about being able to communicate at all, given our different frameworks of interpretation, and different ideological pre-commitments.

Yet because there is a living, true and self-revealing God who has chosen to interpret his acts to us in the medium of language, and because we are made in his image, I uphold that we can faithfully communicate and interpret. The postmodern mind more readily recognises the effects of sin in marring this: bringing doubt, confusion, and frustration in communication - both from the speaker and the hearer. (More readily, that is, than the modern mind - to ultra-generalise - which tended to think 'scientific', 'rational' means of analysis could overcome any problems, of communication or otherwise.) Yet the perversion of sin does not make communication utterly impossible or irredeemable. There is frustration, power play, domination, lies, deceit, and everything else found in Genesis 3. But there remains a living, true and speaking God who has not completely withdrawn his grace from the world and works redemptively throughout history.

Hence I will not cease from all attempts at communication (to the despair of some, no doubt), nor will I cease from recommending and discussing books. But I will be extremely reluctant to post book reviews generically, unless God gives me a lot of energy to note background, context, and many caveats, for a diverse readership.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Quote of the day: enjoy all in God

Matthew Henry (concise) on Habakkuk 3

When we see a day of trouble approach, it concerns us to prepare. A good hope through grace is founded in holy fear. The prophet looked back upon the experiences of the church in former ages, and observed what great things God had done for them, and so was not only recovered, but filled with holy joy. He resolved to delight and triumph in the Lord; for when all is gone, his God is not gone. Destroy the vines and the fig-trees, and you make all the mirth of a carnal heart to cease.

But those who, when full, enjoyed God in all, when emptied and poor, can enjoy all in God. They can sit down upon the heap of the ruins of their creature-comforts, and even then praise the Lord, as the God of their salvation, the salvation of the soul, and rejoice in him as such, in their greatest distresses.

Joy in the Lord is especially seasonable when we meet with losses and crosses in the world. Even when provisions are cut off, to make it appear that man lives not by bread alone, we may be supplied by the graces and comforts of God's Spirit. Then we shall be strong for spiritual warfare and work, and with enlargement of heart may run the way of his commandments, and outrun our troubles. And we shall be successful in spiritual undertakings.

Thus the prophet, who began his prayer with fear and trembling, ends it with joy and triumph. And thus faith in Christ prepares for every event. The name of Jesus, when we can speak of Him as ours, is balm for every wound, a cordial for every care. It is as ointment poured forth, shedding fragrance through the whole soul. In the hope of a heavenly crown, let us sit loose to earthly possessions and comforts, and cheerfully bear up under crosses. Yet a little while, and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry; and where he is, we shall be also.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The Legal Rights of Student Christian Unions

Julian Rivers, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Bristol, responds to Mark Shaw's adjudication at Exeter with The Legal Right of Student Christian Unions. I confess I found my eyes glazing over at some points of legal issue in the early sections, but the introduction is a good reminder of the background to Christian Union groups and the issue, and point 6. "The human rights of religious associations,including Student Christian Unions" sets out a number of our current legal rights according to the European Convention on Human Rights and case law on it - helpful to know in summary. These include evangelism, having a religious test for members & officers, and holding views deemed offensive to others:
Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a
society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of
every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10 (art. 10-2), it is applicable
not only to "information" or "ideas" that are favourably received or regarded as
inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock
or disturb the State or any sector of the population. [From case law based on article 10 of the ECHR]
Julian makes a point on discrimination, basing it on pluralism, which I confess I'd never quite seen to do:
The indiscriminate application of non-discrimination standards to clubs and societies is destructive of the very pluralism that characterises Western democracy. A political party must draw distinctions on political grounds if it is to retain its identity. An orchestra must select on the basis of musical ability and instrumental need if it is to perform well. A sports team must select sportsmen and women according to sporting ability. These criteria of dstinction might be objectionable in another context. A political party should certainly not select on the basis of sporting ability, for example. It should also be noted that the application of certain criteria may be highly situation-sensitive. This is very clear in the case of gender-specificity, which may rightly play a role in some sports and not others, or in some musical contexts, but not others. A students’ union has no interest in destroying (e.g.) single-sex rugby or the male voice choir, by insisting on the admission of women, let alone the abandonment of trials or auditions.

By the same token, a religious society may decide to protect its identity by stating its religious position and requiring members to adhere to that position. The students’ union has no interest in promoting a particular type of religious society, for example, by permitting a ‘Christian society’ but prohibiting a ‘Roman Catholic society’. Nor does it have any interest in ensuring that all religious societies take the form of interest-groups rather than that of a group sharing a commitment to a belief. Its role is limited by the need to respect pluralism – i.e. to allow students to form whatever clubs and societies they choose. That form might be open to all interested students, or it may be restricted to those who can share the identity of the society. It is up to the students! Mark Shaw QC’s failure to recognise the significance of pluralism at para. 92(4) of his ruling is one of its most disturbing features.
Julian then deals with 'Necessary and proportionate limitations on the rights of Christian Unions' in section 8, before drawing conclusions in section 9.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Quote of the day: I feel I want I need


The real gospel is the good news of the Word made flesh, the sin-bearing Saviour, the resurrected Lord: "I am the living One, and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore" (Rev. 1:18). This Christ turns the world upside down. One prime effect of the holy Spirit's inworking presence and power is the rewiring of our sense of felt needs. Because the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, we keenly feel a different set of needs when God comes into view and when we understand that we stand or fall in His gaze. My instinctual cravings are replaced (sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually) by the growing awareness of true, life-and-death needs:

  • I need mercy above all else: "Lord, have mercy upon me." "For Your name's sake, pardon my iniquity for it is very great."
  • I want to learn wisdom, and unlearn willful self-preoccupation: "Nothing you desire compares with [wisdom]."
  • I need to learn to love both God and neighbour: "The goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith."
  • I long for God's name to be honoured, for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth.
  • I want Christ's glory, lovingkindness, and goodness to be seen on earth, to fill the earth as obviously as water fills the sea.
  • I need God to change me from who I am by instinct, choice and practice.
  • I want Him to deliver me from my obsessive self-righteousness, to slay my lust for self-vindication, so that I feel my need for the mercies of Christ, so that I learn to treat others gently.
  • I need God's mighty and intimate help in order to will and to do those things that last unto eternal life, rather than squandering my life on vanities.
  • I want to learn how to endure hardship and suffering in hope, having my faith simplified, deepened, and purified.
  • I need to learn, to listen, to worship, to delight, to trust, to give thanks, to cry out, to take refuge, to obey, to serve, to hope.
  • I want the resurrection to eternal life: "We groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body."
  • I need God Himself: "Show me your glory." "Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus."

Make it so, Father of mercies. Make it so, Redeemer of all that is dark and broken.

Prayer expresses desire. Prayer expresses your felt sense of need. Lord, have mercy upon us. Song expresses your felt sense of who God is and all that He gives. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. But there are no prayers and songs in the Bible that take their cues from the current therapeutic felt needs. Imagine, "Our Father in heaven, help me feel that I'm okay just the way I am. Protect me this day from having to do anything I find boring. Hallelujah, I'm indispensable, and what I'm doing is really having an impact on others, so I can feel good about my life." Have mercy upon us! Instead, in our Bible we hear a thousand cries of need and shouts of delight that orient us to our real needs and to our true Saviour.

- David Powlinson, in The Therapeutic Gospel, Journal of Biblical Counseling Vol.25 #3. Article appears to be available online from 9 Marks.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

(Un)common grace in a common park

The autumn crispness in the air has not yet reached biting point; the sun still hangs over the tree tops to warm my back as I watch. Against a copse's background shadow it lights up a sprinkle of silver fluttering from a tree, while a moment later at the foot of its neighbour a golden wave shimmers over the grass: leaves lifted by the wind. A rustle overhead as a solitary dry leaf falls, jogs against a twig, then spirals silently to join the patchy carpet. The horsechestnuts, bravely reaching up tall from dense base of holly and laurel, chorus with birdsong - a riot of calls in chiming competition amidst the foliage. Squirrels run from ground to trunk to branch, occasionally pausing, front legs suspended in midair, eyeing me: threat? Curious? A terrier charges past noisily, faintly hailed by human voice. Squirrel doesn't stir. Curious, then. Brambles bereft of fruit: picked, no doubt, by eager juice-stained fingers; now in vain nettles reach to sting, vainly to keep that which they could not enjoy. What joy in grass, in undulating surface underfoot, crisp leaf. Squirrel bounding unawares. Radiant white drifting softly: feather floating, sun-reflecting, touches down. Consider the trees: the many hues, shimmering in the breeze with a gilding of death. Grace?

A concession to 'diaryblogging'

The day started at 8am with battling the traffic to pick up the Relay Workers Stu, Helen & Rach from Bournbrook and Bournville, proceeding to JB's where we gratefully received some rather good filter coffee and spent a couple of hours preparing a study in Romans 1.16-2.1 & 3.9-20 for CU small groups in the West Midlands. Our prayers were answered that we would not only study, or prepare a study, but that God would do some open heart surgery through his word, by the Spirit who breathed it out.

From there Helen joined me in heading straight to Hartpury College: over an hour's drive made more enjoyable than usual by chat with Helen about theology of church, the importance of things of secondary importance, denominations, church governance and various other things, and a soundtrack of Sovereign Grace Music. Arriving 15 minutes early, we paused for a picnic lunch in the car before joining the CU leader/founder Jez for freshers' fayre. Jez had already singlehandedly produced flyers, stuck CU publicity on cans of beans / spaghetti and arranged for them to be delivered to each flat on campus, booked a stall for the CU and made a sign for it. Then, on his own student-wise, in a small college of strong relationships where everyone knows him, he stood and manned the stall - only having asked me to join him for help because he thought it'd be more welcoming to girls! Between welcoming freshers and others who signed up - both Christian and non-Christian (Jez's witness being key with some there), he chatted about how God had arranged for him to play for the college's football teams without going through the ungodly initiation stuff, and how he doesn't drink when he's out with the team since the only point of it is to get drunk. He gets a bit of stick for it, but we had some guys signing up to come along to CU, and taking evangelistic books we had on the table, who've been asking him questions as a result of this witness. I was thrilled again to see how God is at work through just one young man who's prepared to live for Jesus & speak for Jesus on his campus. After prayer, Helen & I headed back glorifying God for what we had heard and seen.

After half an hour touching base at home, it was on to Aston for the evening. By this stage I was exhausted, and on rounding the corner into Aston carpark shot up a brief prayer: "Lord you know how tired & weak I am, and I know this is really small for you, but/so could you please turn the heart of the security man so I don't have to spend as much energy as last time trying to persuade them to let me into the carpark?" Rolling down my window on approach to the intercom post, I reached out my hand to press the button - and before I could touch it, the barrier raised! Small mercies, bringing much thankfulness to God. So then, dinner and planning with Agape office staff who also serve on Aston campus, before it was back to Aston CU's first main meeting of term. The room was packed, and I was up to speak on what CU is, introducing UCCF. Actually I spoke more on the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, based on Romans 1.1-7, and the implications for being students - which does include what Christian Union is, but that's not the main point. It's glorious and precious to speak of Jesus being both Lord and Christ, even if all I could feel was my weakness. Still praying for the word to take root and live on in those who heard it - both Christians and those who aren't yet, but who came to that first meeting. Gave away free copies of Areopagus by Roger, and sold a couple of Pure, while catching up with returning students and meeting new ones. Following a chat with a student at Birmingham Christian College who wants to help the CU reach out to Muslim students, we headed home, Helen rejoicing in having helpfully shared with a student about what we'd seen in Romans at the very start of the day. Thus we collapsed at 10.30pm, rejoicing in God's gospel being his power to save believers, and I close with quoting Helen: "You have the best job in the world, but oh boy we need more staff!"

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Quote of the day: our mission

The greatest cause in the world is joyfully rescuing people from hell, meeting their earthly needs, making them glad in God, and doing it with a kind, serious pleasure that makes Christ look like the Treasure he is. [John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life]