On putting the horse before the cart

You mustn’t put the cart before the horse, we often say to one another. Horses come first.

The problem is carts are easy to fix or change. But it takes years to train a horse – and even longer to re-train a horse.

The same is true in church life. Church structures and meetings matter. But what really drives a church is its people, and especially it leaders. And so we mustn’t put the cart before the horse. In other words, we mustn’t prioritise structures over people.

The problem is that, like carts, structures, programme and meetings are easy to change. They are within are control. Discipling a person take times. But this is what produces results in the long run.

Nor can we train a horse as we might fix a cart. (Perhaps this metaphor has run it’s course.)

You don’t disciple people through courses and programmes. You educate people through courses. And education is good. But education is not the same as discipleship. Discipleship is both formal and informal.

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The Glory of the Story Sample: Day 111 – Jacob renamed Israel

Reading: Genesis 32

Here is another extracts from The Glory of the Story, my father’s devotional introduction to biblical theology in the form of 366 daily readings which show how the Old Testament story is fulfilled in Christ. The Glory of the Story is available as a Kindle book for $2.99 from amazon.com and £1.99 from amazon.co.uk. I’m posting extracts from the chaper on the story of Jacob, usually on the first Monday of the month.

Since Jacob’s dream at Bethel he has spent twenty years working for his uncle, Laban (31:41). They now agree to live apart setting up a stone that neither can cross (31:52). Jacob cannot go back. But ahead of him is Esau with 400 men. Terrified, he prays, claiming God’s covenant promises (9-12). He sends his family across the Jabbok river (marking the edge of the land of blessing – Deut. 3:16) while he remains alone.

During the night an anonymous man (who is none other than God himself) comes and wrestles with him. With just a touch he cripples Jacob at the hip. But Jacob has spent his whole life struggling for blessing and is not going to stop now. By daybreak he has acquired not only God’s blessing, but a limp and the new name, Israel – probably meaning ‘God fights’ or ‘God rules’. What are we to make of this?

1. Jacob maimed
This conflict brings to a head the battling and grasping of a lifetime. Jacob discovers that it is against God, not Esau or Laban, that he has been pitting his strength. God wants all of Jacob’s desire to win and acquire, but purged of his self-sufficiency. His faith triumphs once he clings to God alone. He does not let go because he could not. He emerges broken but blessed, his limp a lasting proof of the reality of the struggle.

2. Jacob named
Before God blesses Jacob he asks him his name (names in the Bible often reveal a person’s character). Jacob is forced into an act of confession. ‘I am grasper, deceiver.’ But now Jacob becomes Israel meaning he struggles with God. As he stands on the edge of the promised land he is given a name which, instead of expressing his guilt, expresses God’s grace towards him. Every time Jacob’s descendants hear the name ‘Israel’ it should remind them of this story and the assurance of God’s help. In all their trials, even when God seems to be fighting against them, he is ultimately on their side.

‘What was once exhibited under a visible form to our father Jacob, is daily fulfilled in the individual members of the Church’ (Calvin). God fights against us in our self-sufficiency (1 Pet. 5:5-6) to reveal what poor and helpless people we are, and to teach us that our strength lies in recognizing our weakness (2 Cor. 12: 9-10). Like Jacob, we are simply cripples who have been blessed.

Closing thought
Calvin says we should think of all the servants of God in this world as wrestlers. Might the term Quiet Time for daily prayer lead to an unhealthy quietism?

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Why the Reformation – review and interview

Here’s a review from Robert Strivens of my latest book, Why the Reformation Still Matters, co-written with Mike Reeves.

Mike Reeves and Tim Chester have produced a sharp, relevant historico-theological analysis of key Reformation truths and shown their continuing relevance today. And they have done so in fewer than 200 pages.

You can read the full review here.

And here’s an interview with Mike Reeves in which he talks about the book.

Why the Reformation Still Matters can be bought from amazon.co.uk and pre-ordered from amazon.com.

After the EU referendum

Here’s what I’m saying to my congregation this morning after the UK voted to leave the EU …

Whatever your views on the EU – and I know some of you voted ‘leave’ while others voted ‘remain’ – our nation is entering a time of radical political and economic upheaval. It may or may not be the case that in a few years time we’re stronger as a result. In one sense your view on that depends on how you voted. But it also depends on how we’re led over the coming months and how the rest of the EU reacts. What is clear is that we face a time of major turmoil with years of negotiations, replacement legislation, market fluctuations, investment uncertainty.

At the same time, there’s a leadership vacuum in the nation. One main party leader has resigned. The other main party leader may have half his shadow cabinet resigning as we speak. We don’t know who our prime minister will be. And it seem we may have an election before the end of the year. At a moment when we most need good leaders, we have no leaders.

We are also a divided country. The vote was close. Older people to leave; young people voted to remain (and many are now very angry). London voted to remain, the shires to leave. There are calls in Scotland for a second independence referendum and it may chose to leave the UK. The Northern Ireland settlement is under pressure.

The vote is unlikely to affect missionaries to Europe in the short term. But we don’t know what the long-term impact might be.

The Matt cartoon in The Daily Telegraph yesterday showed a newsreader saying, ‘Aliens didn’t land on the earth and Elvis wasn’t found alive, but everything else has changed.’

Fortunately that is exaggeration for comic effect. Some things remain the same. England are still beating Australia at rugby!

But more significantly:

  • Jesus is still in heaven on our behalf.
  • He still rules his people through his word.
  • The gospel is still the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
  • God’s promises are still a sure foundation.
  • Christ is still coming again to renew the world.

Here are the words Isaiah said for a time of turmoil in Israel’s history.

Isaiah 40:21-26

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 ‘To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

Isaiah 40:6-8, 11
‘All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures for ever’ …
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

Comforted by God’s word, let’s pray for our nation:

  • That good leadership might emerge.
  • That divisions will be healed.
  • That the poor will be protected from the upheaval.
  • That missionaries will be able to continue.
  • That the gospel will continue to spread.

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