Tai Chi and Ru’ach Elohim

thePsalmist on July 16th, 2010

This is a slight departure from my normal posts on here (as infrequent as they might be!). Normally I simply aim to work out my own exegesis of a passage of scripture which fits in with my preaching life. This post instead is focusing on a particular issue which has arisen via a discussion on twitter and something which is affecting more and more churches across the UK – namely the role of Tai Chi and whether it is compatible with the Christian faith.

The reason why this is an issue is simply because our national health service (NHS) and other community groups are adopting Tai Chi as a gentle exercise and relaxation technique. Ostensibly there is of course nothing wrong with exercise and relaxation, nor is there anything wrong with meditation if Tai Chi is taken to that level. Many churches are being asked if a community or NHS group can hire the church hall or church itself as a meeting place for Tai Chi to take place, and some are falling foul of the media and local residents if they refuse (http://bit.ly/cLMj2o , http://bit.ly/cSZa9e , http://bit.ly/bHDC8Z ). I myself as vicar of a church of England church have just been asked by an NHS group if they can put on a class for elderly people at risk of falling in our church. Nothing wrong with that … except that the class ends with a Tai Chi session (which they failed to mention in preliminary conversations).

So why the concern? And what are the questions?

Tai Chi, or to give it it’s full name: Tai Chi Chuan (meaning “Supreme Ultimate Fist”) is a chinese martial art, at least in its original form. The modern day practice of Tai Chi which is growing in popularity is seen as nothing more than a slow form of gentle exercise, and I dare say that for the vast majority of its practioners today, especially in the West, this is absolutely true. Certainly for the old ladies who would like to use our church halls, thoughts of “Supreme Ultimate Fist” and martial arts couldn’t be further from their minds.

The issue though is the philosophy and the metanarrative which Tai Chi rests upon. The physical movement of limbs is here wholly irrelevant – what matters is the spirit inherent in the belief system which directs and guides and gives shape and purpose to those movements, and the very name which hold them together. That is what we’re going to look at now.

Within the name “Tai Chi Chuan” the word which is most important for our consideration is the word “Chi”. It is this word which the whole system relies upon. It is not so much whether Tai Chi Chuan is compatible with Christianity but whether Chi itself is compatible with Christianity. And if not, then should churches be allowing Tai Chi classes in their places of worship and their meeting halls?

On twitter the brief discussion has been between myself and two other fellow Christians over whether we can accomodate Chi within the Christian belief system. I have been making the case that we can’t, they on the other hand have said they see no problem with it. So here I’m going to detail why I don’t believe it is helpful or right for Christians to talk about Chi as being present, real or legitimate in any way shape or form.

Their contention is that God has made all things, so God has made Chi as well. One even went as far as to link Chi with the Spirit of God, or perhaps the breath of life (which God breathed into Adam to bring him to life).

Chi is the belief system that throughout all of nature (trees, air, water, animals, insects, humans, …everything) a mystical energy force flows – this energy is known as Chi.

Every person has Chi flowing within them and illness, depression, ailments, peace etc etc are all reliant upon their Chi being balanced and ‘centred’. This is not an exercise in inidivualism though, this is an exercise in harmony with nature – our individual being becoming aligned with the rest of the natural world around us.

Many people will be familiar also with the concept of Feng Shui which is another practical outworking of eastern religions which relies upon Chi. In Feng shui it is not just natural things which contain Chi, but our living spaces – homes, offices, entire neighbourhoods all need to be styled, ordered and shaped to keep the flow of Chi balanced harmoniously.

Chi is in all things and flows through all things. It is about being highly interconnected, one thing with another – all things relying on each other for harmony and peace.

The school of thought/belief that this comes from is Taoism, a 2,000 year school of belief systems covering a wide number of specific belief systems (Zen Buddhism, Chinese Alchemy, Astrology, …). Taoism is a polytheistic (belief in many gods) religious system whose ultimate aim is not to lead the believer into the worship of one true God, but to lead the believer into a harmonious relationship with nature.

The nature of man within this system is that we are each a depiction of the whole universe, with various elements of our humanity representing the five major elements of nature (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). So man is a mini-universe – a subservient representation of the larger grander scheme of nature.

There is no creator in Taoism.

In Genesis 1-3 we read the story of creation. We read the story of a creator God who is the one true and living God. He alone is the eternal and majestic author of life. There are no other gods and nature is NOT the be all and end all – He is! The Alpha and the Omega – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Creation is created not to be the highest order of existence upon which man is modelled, but itself as the subservient framework for life within which mankind is placed to subdue and to enjoy. God makes the universe SO THAT mankind can have somewhere to live out their relationship, not with nature, but with God.

Man is made not in the image of nature, but in the image of God. Nature is not the crown of creation, but mankind is.
Is mankind interconnected with nature in all it’s forms, as the philosophy of Chi would have us believe? No, not at all. We see in Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

These elements are clearly in sharp contrast, no…contradiction, to the philosophy of Chi.

The question remains though, does Chi exist, and is it perhaps a mere mistaken outworking of Chi which has led to a false religion while leaving the presence of Chi perfectly fine for the Christian to accept albeit on Christian terms rather than Taoist ones.

Again I would say no. I would say there is no such thing as Chi. It doesn’t exist, it wasn’t created, it is not there.

What? There is no energy in the universe? Yes – of course there is energy in all places and everywhere. Einstein even worked out a wonderful equation which relates matter and energy, connecting all things within the created universe E=mc². To the layman this seems very much as though a case could be made for Chi. But I’m afraid this is where the layman would be talking very much out of trite naivity. Chi and a western concept of energy are chalk and cheese. Chi is a spiritual energy, part of the creative life force of the unverse – not merely the energy which we know and understand as that which boils water in a kettle when electricity is passed through a heating element. Chi is perhaps more familiar in the sense of the ‘force’ within Star Wars, that which gives the fantasy Jedi their powers.

Yet we can see Chi at work can we not, when we see martial arts experts at work. The force required to with stand huge blows, or in turn to deliver enormous and devastating blows is all about the channeling of Chi. The fingertip of the martial arts expert becomes the channeling point of chi from within their body and funneled into one small point.

Yes, here and in many other ways, we can see, witness, or even experience at first hand the power of Chi flowing through all things. I would simply say this – the philosophy behind Chi is so far removed from the orthodox Christian faith and the creation philosophy of the Bible that I am very happy to align these experiences of Chi as part of a false experience drummed up by Satan to lead more folk away from worshipping the Creator and focus them instead on the creation … just as he did in the garden of Eden when he caused Eve’s sight to be taken away from the truth of God’s word and focussed instead on all the delectable qualities of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3).

Satan wants nothing more than to corrupt the faith of the Christian and to blind the eyes of the world.  When Christians say “there is nothing wrong with believing in Chi and in doing Tai Chi exercises” I see there the subtle workings of Satan in encouraging us to use the language and philosophy and practical outworkings of a belief system which denies the creator and reduces mankind to something much less than the crown of all creation made in the image of God.

In Genesis 1 and 2 we read of the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, the Ruach Elohim. This is in no way to be confused with Chi. This is the Holy Spirit which creates, whereas Chi is understood within taoism as part of the natural order. Yes Chi moves and forms, but it is not the originator of creation, for there is no originator – there is only balance – there is only yin and yang. In Christianity there was nothing and then there was God’s word which created (John 1). The Ruach Elohim is the  creative power by which all things are made, the breath of God spoken by the mouth of Christ at the will of the Father. It is not divorced from God, it …or rather He, IS GOD!

To link Chi with the Holy Spirit is utter blasphemy. The logical consequences of such a statement are either pentheism or panentheism – either of which fall well outside of the bounds of orthodox christianity.

The other option the Chi proponent could have, in a confused fashion, would be to pick up on the phrase “breath of life” in Genesis 2:7 (also Genesis 1:30, 6:17, and 7:15 for example). Here though again there is clear divergence between the philosophy of Chi and the nature of creation from a Biblical perspective. In Chi there is no limitation for what might contain it – trees have Chi in the same way as cows do. Within the Biblical record there is a very clear difference between framework for life and living creatures. Trees and seed bearing plants do NOT have the breath of life in them. Whereas cattle, living creatures, mankind all do. There is a different order of being.

Furthermore, mankind is not the same as the other animals which have the breath of life within them – only man is made in the image of God for instance and only man is commanded to subdue the earth. This subduing of creation at the behest of God the creator is totally opposed to the notion of harmony found within Taoism and necessary for Chi to be accepted as the energy force permeating and connecting all things.

So what then of the little old ladies wanting to do some relaxation and exercise. Should they be allowed into our church halls? And should Christians think of the universe and all creation as being permeated by this myterious force known as Chi?

The answer is a resolute No! The old ladies offer no threat. Their arms moving gently are innocuous. The opening of the door to a philosophy and a belief system so opposed to our Creator can not be compatible alongside a faith which preaches creator and which seeks to lift us above creation and place us as co-heirs with Christ. We can not allow anyone into our buildings and teach folk that they have a lifeforce called Chi flowing within then which needs balancing and channeling when the gospel calls us to call these same folks to be at one with the creator, and not the creation. It is the Spirit of God we want people to be in harmony with, not the spirit of eastern religion, and not the spirit of deception.

Balancing of Chi is to lead people to find an inner peace divorced from Christ, and yet we know that He himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).

Amen!

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The Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:22-27)

thePsalmist on May 18th, 2010

One of the great mountain peaks of Old Testament theology is this passage in Numbers 6:22-27. Here towers a mountainous peak of theology, majestically rising above the clouds pointing directly to heaven. The chapters and verses around it are the foothills which slope gently up to these words:

22 The LORD spoke to Moses: 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
24 The LORD bless you and protect you;
25 the LORD make His face shine on you,
and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD look with favor on you
and give you peace.
27 In this way they will put  My name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”
The Holy Bible : Holman Christian standard version. 2003 (Nu 6:22–27). Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers.
I chose this passage as part of our sermon series on “Peace” because I believe that in it we see something quite profound – namely, the ultimate result of being blessed by God is that we receive peace. But this is a profound peace, a wholehearted Shalom of Yahweh.
Here in this context, an ancient people long before Christ and deeply set into an awestruck and fear filled relationship with Yahweh, we see talk of God’s face shining upon His people. Yet at this stage in their relationship with God anyone who gazes upon God’s countenance should be utterly consumed by His holiness and their sinfulness. The face of God was perhaps not so much a blessing as a curse!
Here in the depths of the Old Testament and the heart of Judaism lies this miraculous glimpse of God’s true nature. It is perhaps a first glimpse at God laid bare before His people, the compassionate, gentle God being presented before a people locked in a harsh reality. Here God is telling Moses that THIS is how He, Yahweh, wants to bless the people (Num 6:22). This is God choosing to do this, it is Yahweh’s own choice and no one has asked Him to do it. Moses hasn’t come up to Him and said “Now then Yahweh, can I call you ‘Yah’? I’ve been thinking that you might have a small image problem going on. All this warmongering, sacrificing, scaring type stuff isn’t doing you any good. You need to think of something which is going to cheer people up a bit!”
No, this isn’t a spin-doctored press release or media savvy re-imaging going on. This is just God being raw, being true to Himself, and unleashing upon an unsuspecting people something deeply wonderful. …SHALOM!
The Lord bless you and protect you!
BLESS YOU – this is what this is all about. It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing with components to it. Not just the sort of thing you say to someone in the street when they’ve sneezed “Oh, bless you!”, something meaningless but polite. No, this is a blessing with real flesh on the bones. A people fighting for survival in a harsh landscape get told “The Lord BLESS you and PROTECT you!” That’s a blessing with substance right there. Protection coming from Yahweh himself, the creator, the majestic and triumphant King of all. He Himself is offering protection to His people. When you’ve got that sort of protection, when God Himself is your bodyguard then you will for sure know peace. Wouldn’t you? If God is truly protecting you is there anything in this world which could cause you NOT to be peaceful?
Shalom here is about physical, military, and national peace. A lack of strife and an absence of trouble. More than that it is the presence of real and lasting security. It is a blessing. It is peace.
Yahweh goes on “The Lord make His face shine on You and be gracious to you!”. Woah! FACE!? SHINE!? …on ME?! …No thank you! The full radiant splendour of Yahweh obliterating my feeble sinful existence. What have I done to deserve that? There’s no way I could stand under such an onslaught of unbridled holiness. I might as well go and shove my head in the centre of the sun in the name of getting a ‘bit of a tan’.
Aha! But look at what the shining of God’s face is coupled with…GRACIOUSNESS! God’s resplendent glory is enough to obliterate the unworthy, but His GRACE is the antidote to that outcome. It is of course the grace mediated by Christ Himself which allows us eternal access to the Father. Grace alone, and nothing else. Here back in Numbers 6 we see a foretaste of that immense work of God on the cross. Grace! …but grace with a purpose. Not just grace for the sake of it, another empty meaningless word. This again is grace with flesh on the bones. Just as “Bless you” meant something in the previous verse so “being gracious to you” means something here. Grace here is the vehicle by which we enter into the very presence of God. No longer far off and apart from the source of life, but brought right in close, …even face to face with our creator – the creator who has already said he wants to bless us and protect us, now ushers us into His presence. In fact in the NIV and the ESV the word translated as ‘protect’ in the HCSB is rendered ‘keep’ … ‘the Lord …keep you!’. This then coupled with the notion of God’s grace allowing His face to shine upon us sets up an image of a Father enveloping His beloved children in His arms …KEEPING us safe, KEEPING us to Himself, for Himself even. An image in which we are loved, cherished, protected, blessed, …and gazing deep into the eyes of such a wonderful Father. …an image of true peace, of real SHALOM!
And this is pushed further into our mind’s eye with the verse “The Lord look with favour on you … and give you peace!”
How is it that we should be bestowed with God’s favour? He is the holy and majestic one. It is we who should favour Him surely? …”What is man that you are mindful of Him…?” Who are we? Why should God bother with us at all? and yet … and yet He does! He loves us so much because He is love! He is not just Yahweh the terrible, but Jehovah Jireh, God our provider. He is our Father and through Christ His Son he will in centuries to come after this verse display the most perfect example of what these words mean.
Through Christ He will win for His people a true and lasting peace which no one can destroy.
Ultimately though the blessing of God, the meat on the bones of what “bless you!” means, is that we should know peace! And that peace is not a peace which is within US, it is a peace which is within HIM … and it becomes part of us by virtue of us being indwelt by Him through His Spirit and brought near to God through Christ the Son.
Peace – perfect peace! Shalom! …the perfect blessing of God!

Foolish Faith: James 2:14 – 2:26

thePsalmist on January 23rd, 2010

There is a real irony in the foolishness of the gospel though. In Proverbs foolishness was a very very bad thing:

“A foolish son bring grief to his father and bitterness to the one who bore him.” Proverbs 17:25

As Christians I think we can often bring a great deal of grief to God, and real bitterness into the heart of Jesus who bore us spiritually into this world and the next, by the utter foolishness with which we live out the gospel. A foolishness which isn’t like the foolishness Paul talks about in Corinthians, but is a foolishness in stark contrast to the gospel – a foolishness which seeks to hang on to the values of this world some measure, whilst also trying to claim the rights of heirs of God’s kingdom.

This passage from James is the fundamental reason for entitling this series “Inside Out and Upside Down”. This central passage in James’ letter is often seen as the pinacle of what the letter is all about, especially the famous opening verse:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” James 2:14

And herein lies a big issue for our understanding of the Christian gospel. It is the most important of fundamental teachings of the Christian faith that there is absolutely nothing which we can do, by way of good deeds, to save ourselves. When Jesus was confronted by the rich young man, himself a fantatsic example of upright citizenship and religious obedience, he made the mistake of addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher”:

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Luke 18:18-19

Jesus challenged him not on his question but on his use of the word “Good”. He takes that opportunity to make the point in his ministry that there is no one who is good, not really, not compared to God! Our deeds, our religious observances, our niceness or perfect morality will not add up before God to making us “good” people worthy of His kingdom:

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

ALL have sinned … and ALL are justified freely by HIS grace. Not one is justified by their own good deeds. Not one! Are we saved by our own merits? Nope! Are we able to convince God that actually we are quite holy and righteous after all? No! Was Christ’s sacrifice fully sufficient in and of itself to redeem my sinfulness? Yes, absolutely.

So why then does James bang on about our faith HAVING absolutely and necessarily to produce good works? Surely that is contrary to the Word of God? James’ most famous of passages here would appear to tread a dangerous line between the gospel of grace and the heresy of salvation by good deeds.

Well perhaps … and perhaps not. This is James at his very gospel centred best in truth. This is James at his hardest hitting, calling a spade a spade, inside out and upside down best. The gospel of grace is central and crucial, but the full impact of that grace on our lives is left without any doubts at all.

Back in Romans again we see Paul’s take on what effect the Gospel should have in our lives:

“12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spirituala act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Romans 12:1-6a

Paul makes a bold claim here. Firstly that everything we now have and are are there by God’s own grace and mercy, and that secondly, in response we should give our whole lives to be living sacrifices to Him … thus to each other who we find in the body of Christ. Paul goes on and on turning our faith upside down, just like James, making out that who and what we are comes not from us but from God … or at least it should do. Our faith should be generating more stuff from above and a lot less from the world below. The stuff we exhibit in our lives should be the gifts from God to serve one another, he says, the stuff from Up there, being given to serve each other Down here. Upside Down.

God’s grace, love and mercy in action in the everyday. Our faith, so desperately held inside our hearts, worked out in the relaitonships we are part of and the community around us which we live in. Inside Out and Upside Down.

So James is able to say in the light of all this …”What flaming good is it you muppets if you reckon on God giving you a new life and yet you live it like the old one you had before? What point is it in believing in spiritual gifts which are given for the common good, but you don’t actually use any of them! What use is the church if it was created by Jesus to change the world and yet all it does is meet in relative comfort and isolation and cares not one jot for actually being out there with it’s sleeves rolled up?”

Well, he might have said that, had he lived amongst us these days.

Wr might believe every word of the Bible, but unless it is actually busy transforming our lives, our minds, our hearts, our values (as Paul would say perhaps), then it really counts for nothing. James drives the boot deeper into our backsides saying

“You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” James 2:19

Oh! And so he brings us to the issue of a foolish faith:

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” James 2:20

Foolish Faith – a foolish faith is one for James which hasn’t even begun to grasp the reality of what that faith teaches, and yet professes to live by it nonetheless. To be honest, most people with any sort of faith have a foolish faith. I speak to many teenagers especially who would devoutly call themselves pagan, yet haven’t even begun to grapple with the true meaning of paganism … as they celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, live lives highly out of balance with nature and environmental concerns trashing the planet with their high-refuse generating, high-polluting, high meat-consuming diets. I speak to many more who profess to being convinced atheists whose atheism hasn’t even begun to be thought through, and who readily turn to prayer at the mereist whiff of trouble. And sadly I speak to so many Christians who live lives wholly divorced from the impact of the gospel on their lives, either through the outward engagement in living life the way the rest of the world lives their lives with decadence, loose morality, no morality, sexual misadventure, materialism … Or worse, the lack of love for their neighbours, the holding their faith quietly, the lack of service of others, the consumerism within the church. All of these things equally foolish for a people who have been supposedly transformed by the grace of God.

James raises before us a profound example, he talks about Abraham … a man who lived until a ripe old age of 90-odd without an heir, with no son to pass on both his worldly wealth and his faith in the true and living God Yahweh. Yahweh had promised Abraham a massive, world dominatingly large, eternal offspring … and yet he was now in old age and the promises of God looked hopeless. But God’s promise was good and Abraham’s equally aged wife bore him a son. No sooner was this son walking and talking though and God called Abraham to put his money where his mouth was. God said “You say you believe in me? Good! Now prove it! … take your son, who I promised you, and sacrifice him on an altar to me!”.

From that point on Abraham was living an inside out and upside down sort of faith. He was living a life which would have made James very proud. Abraham just quietly got on with the task of obeying God’s word, not making excuses and not theologising his way out of it. He gathered wood for a fire, took his son, some servants and headed out to the place God told him to go. He tied his son up, placed him on the wood and held out the knife ready to kill him. …And God said “STOP!”

Now that action, that readiness of Abraham was credited to him as righteousness. It’s the action of the body, it’s the words from the mouth, which truly show faith for what it is. If your faith in your heart is not causing you to sacrifice everything for God, who has sacrificed everything for you, then what sort of faith is it really?

If your faith has not enabled you to tithe sacrificially to God’s work in the church then what faith is it?

If your faith has not caused you to give up your time to serve others in the church and in the community, then really, does your faith truly mean anything in your life?

If your faith has not transformed you, how you think, how you talk, how you behave, …to be more like Christ, then is your faith really living and active and present in your life?

James finishes with these wise words:

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

And in so doing summarises just how he is able to tread that line between a heresy of salvation through works and the gospel of grace and mercy. James is saying that while the faith itself is one of grace, when it is active within us we should see transformation and real godly lifestyles emerging. A living and active faith will necessarily bring about such radical change in those who have accepted it for what it is, that they will not be able to help themselves in living out the fuitfulness of it. The love for the lost, the poor, the needy, … the proclamation of God’s word, truth, love, grace, mercy, … the sacrifice of material comforts for the sake of giving more to God and to those in need, … the study of God’s word and the time spent in prayer … All of these things and more will be evidenced by a life set on fire with a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.

Our God is a good God who loves us, but who loves us so much that He is wanting to transform our lives into something which is more like Him … and He is not tired of working among the needy, and He is not afraid of sharing who He is, and He has not had his turn to serve, or worried about money. He just is love!

Tamed Tongues James 3:1-12

thePsalmist on January 21st, 2010

The subtitle I’ve given to my series on James is “Inside Out and Upside Down” and this is perhaps never more fitting than in this passage from James 3.

The question for all of us as christians is how well our ‘private and personal’ faith exhibits itself in the practical outworkings of our lives.  The things we choose to do with our time in set pieces at set times with set boundaries are one thing – like going to church for 2 hours on a sunday, volunteering at the homeless shelter,  or serving overseas with a mission team for a week or two. These sorts of things are actually pretty easy money for living out our inward faith. Being ‘Inside Out’ Christians is pretty easy when sign up to an event or activity with Christian merit to participate in.

Where becoming Inside Out gets tricky is when it affects EVERY part of who we are ALL the time! What if Christians were supposed to somehow breathe differently to non-Christians? That would be a pain wouldn’t it? Imagine if we had to somehow walk differently, or sleep in a different fashion to the rest of humanity. What if Christians could only eat carrots or if we had to wear pink every day … golly, becoming a Christian would be pretty hard work and jolly unattractive to most people, except the weirdos of course.

Here though in James chapter 3 though he calls us to speak differently…ALL the time! And that’s tricky because what we do with our tongues is as all intrusive into our lives as how we walk, what we wear, how we breathe, what we eat.  Our speech patterns, our vocabulary, our tone, out attitude, our thoughts … all intrinsically US. I convey to the world around me most clearly who I am when I speak. It is true that perhaps my actions define me, but I believe it is my words which truly describe me. Words express every part of who we are. They express our emotions, our ideas, our beliefs … and most importantly our values.

There is a saying “You do what you value, and you value what you do!”. Perhaps James would say “You say what you value, and you value what you say!”

The values within our hearts express what is in our hearts says James. What is inside us comes pouring out of that flappy hole in the front of our faces.

James says this of our tongues: James 3:2

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

Oooh … never at fault in what we say? Come off it? Surely he doesn’t expect that does he? …No of course not, we can be expected to die for our faith as many thousands of our brothers and sisters around the world find out every year still to this day, but expecting us to guard every word which comes out of our mouths is of course just taking things too far! Of course Jesus can transform people’s lives completely – the alcoholic can be set free, the prisoner restored, the victim renewed, the ill healed … and of course even the dead raised … but we shouldn’t truly expect the words we use day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute actually transformed into something godly should we?

Yes, of course we should. If we truly let Jesus into our hearts then the values by which we live should be changed to be in line with His, and the words which come from our hearts and minds and given utterance by our tongues should equally reflect His glory.

The thing is, says James, it isn’t just about us controlling the tongue. The key, he says, is that in controlling the tongue we in turn manage to control every other part of our lives. The tongue is like a rudder of a ship, or a bit & bridle in the mouth of a horse. With that small device you can turn the whole thing. With a tamed tongue our whole lives can come into check.

It’s about living inside out! Our inward faith being allowed to change our outward living. Our inner values for Jesus and love for Him transforming the one part of us which travels furthest from our bodies … the sounds which emmanate from our mouths – the words which we speak and which can travel hundreds of meters from us through the air, or to the other side of the world via the wonders of modern technology. Speech not only describes who we are and what we believe and value to the world around us, but it also has a profound impact on who we are.

James tells us too that this influence might not always be a good one. A small spark can set a whole forest ablaze! In a church setting isn’t it so often true that the biggest problems we encounter are not ones about what people have done, but mostly about what people have said … usually out of turn and out of place! Our advice earlier in James 1:19 was to be slow to speak and quick to listen…that’s upside down thinking, that’s the values of God at work there. How often to we set alight great blazes which are difficult to control because we’ve spoken too quickly about something, expressing anger, hurt, dismay,…all because we didn’t take time to listen properly to what was being said and why…and then even if we had listened we speak with the wrong words fashioned with th values of the world, not the values of God.

Yes, James expects us to tame our tongues in a way which reflects God’s glory, and to do so not just in worship on a Sunday morning, but down the pub with our friends, on the phone with our gossipy sister, in the car when someone cuts us up, on the internet chatting to a friend, in bed, on the streets, in church and in the supermarket … in all these places we need our tongues to be dripping with the love and grace of Jesus.

Tamed tongues? … It might be easier to make we wear pink and skip down the street while I tuck into my veggie burger! Another toughey for us to enjoy as James turns our lives inside out and upsdie down!

Cross references for this passage:Ro 3:13 | “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
Ge 1:26 | Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
1 Ki 8:46 | “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near;
Ps 12:3 | May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue
Ps 32:9 | Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.
Ge 1:26, 27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Ki 8:46; Ps 12:3, 4, 32:9, 34:13, 39:1, 73:8, 9, 120:2, 3, 4, 140:3; Pr 10:19, 12:18, 15:2, 16:27, 20:9; Ec 7:20, 10:11; Mt 5:22, 7:1, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 12:34, 35, 36, 37, 15:11, 18, 19, 23:8; Lk 6:37; Ro 2:20, 21, 3:9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20; 1 Co 11:7; Eph 4:11; 1 Ti 1:7; Jas 1:26, 2:10; 1 Pe 3:10; 1 Jn 1:8

James – Inside Out and Upside Down

thePsalmist on January 13th, 2010

To begin 2010 at St Thomas’ Church I’ve set us the task of preaching through the whole book of James, or rather the letter of James.

James is an awesome letter – but also downright horrid. James isn’t the sort of letter you get from your nan. James is the sort of letter you get from the bank when you’ve gone well over the limit … uncomfortable and slightly panic inducing! It makes you wonder whether there’s any way forward, and makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been living life like.

But ultimately James is the most wonderfully revitalising thing to read because it infuses new life, new values, new purpose into your everyday living. James is awesome!

The tagline for James is ‘Inside Out & Upside Down‘, … and for very good reason! Everything about James is topsy turvy for starters, but that’s not really the reason behind the tagline. But in terms of topsy turvyness at least just look at the second verse … “consider it pure joy…when you face many kinds of trials!” …oh great! Oh yeah, Praise the Lord, I’m utterly screwed! Thank you Lord, I’m in prison for my faith and I’ve just had my bones broken, my teeth smashed and my finger nails pulled out. I’m so happy to be a christian! … or for us in the comfy western world’s 2010: “Praise the Lord, I’m so chuffed to be stuck in a dead end job, mortgaged up to the hilt, in piles of debt with miserable kids and a stomach ulcer!”

Life is full of trials and even fuller of temptations. When they come and smack us in the face we’re meant to be pleased about it … according to James!

It’s topsy turvy! …but with very good reason!

More than that though, it’s very deliberately a call to base our lives on a set of values which are utterly Inside-Out and Upside-Down.

Inside-Out
James is a book which challenges us not just to read the word of God and insert it into our brain via a quiet read over a cup of tea, but to get off our backsides and actually live out what it says … and the rest of God’s word. It is a letter which challenges us out of our comfortable little world of idealised faith which sits neatly in our little heads making us feel smug about ourselves and sends us out into the world to actually live out what we believe in the everyday situations we find ourselves in. It takes our inner, invisible, silent faith and pushes it out onto our sleeves, into our words, our actions, our relationships, our jobs, our spending habits, our walk along the street, our every part of the lifestyle we live … it turns us Inside-Out.

“Do not merely read the word of God and so decieve yourselves … DO what it says!!”

It’s also Upside-Down in the most remarkable way. James calls us to bring the stuff of God, the stuff that’s normally thought of as being ‘Up’ there, down here into our everyday lives and the world we live in! Literally, the call by James, is to bring the Upside stuff of God DOWN here into the everyday pratical world in which we live.

It is inside-out & upside-down!

New Year … new resolve!

thePsalmist on December 31st, 2009

My apologies to both myself and my one reader! …ok, who am I kidding? Apologies to myself then!

The last six months have just been too hectic with too many other things to prioritize over my self-indulgent desire to blog.  I moved in September from planting a church in a very tough neighbourhood to running a vibrant and large church in a very nice neighbourhood.

All good stuff, but also all very busy stuff.  So I’m afraid the blog has fallen by the wayside.  Ho hum!

Now though I find myself in charge of this superb church with a team of preachers to oversee and lead. That gives me new reason to blog my heart out because something I now find myself doing a lot more of is strategically planning teaching series and guiding the teaching which is going on in this new church I’m at.

So the blog in 2010 can become less self-indulgent and more purposeful and practical. I’m hoping that I can blog through a lot more of God’s word than I can preach and outline here the teaching series which are coming up for the sake of the preaching team trying to understand the nonsense going on in my head!

Well, that’s the theory … we’ll see how well I do shall we! …Ahem! ;)

Happy New Year everyone! God bless you all through His word and His Spirit! Amen!

Let us not give up meeting together!

thePsalmist on June 20th, 2009

I just love it when verses in the Bible appear to have been written for a specific occassion in OUR lives, rather than the lives of people 2000 years ago. This week saw one of those occassions.

In our deanery (that’s a collection of local CofE churches) we’re having a celebration in a week or two’s time. The idea is that we’re going to draw together all the churches in our deanery and the neighbouring one for an evening of food, music and sharing our good news stories of the stuff God is doing in our midst.

Trouble is … people are often very reluctant to bother going! It’s incredibly frustrating to be honest, and you wonder why people grumble about nothing nice to do, and then when they’re offered with something really lovely they can’t be bothered to go. Very weird!

So I went along to our neighbouring deanery’s synod meeting and shared my enthusiasm for the event and shared these verses:

Hebrews 10:24-25 ”And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”

In our tough times in which we live churches are struggling. Round here in one of the toughest areas of the UK we live, work and worship amongst vast areas of deprivation. The people in our churches are hard pressed on every side. Financially, emotionally, practically … we face and endure hardship constantly. We hear a lot of talk of the UK being one of the richest nations in the world … well, round here it really doesn’t feel like it.

In terms of sizes of congregations too, our churches are small and struggling. Couple the small numbers, and the low incomes, with often incredibly high maintenance bills to pay on old historic church buildings and you see a picture emerging of real struggle and pain amongst God’s people.

So an opportunity to enthuse, inspire, encourage and simply edify the body of Christ in these parts is essential.

Paul was writing this in his letter to the Hebrews. They too were hard pressed on every side. They had their list of struggles and difficulties. And he recognised that somehow in the being together there was joy and blessing.

It is odd then that at times of great difficulty we seem never to really learn the lesson of the ages past that sharing our lives with others is GOOD! We tend to retreat into our own private and personal space. Our natural instinct appears to go against our basic needs. When times are tough we NEED each other, but we tend to not want others involved.

Let Hebrews 10:24-25 serve as a timely reminder to you that God made us to live in community and relationship with others. When God is working in one community of faith, the blessing can be shared amongst others too … but only through relationships with each other.

So knock down the barriers, kick down the walls, and reach out and enjoy the fruitfulness of being in relationship with the other churches around you. God is there too you know!

The first sin

thePsalmist on April 3rd, 2009

Every child who’s been to sunday school, and many adults even today will be able to tell you that the first sin was when Eve took the apple and ate it! Simple … but, er, wrong!

The eating of the apple was in fact the third sin committed in God’s perfect creation.

And so the thunderous clamour of the multitudes cries out “What then, pray tell, were the first two?”, followed by a collective “hmmmm?”

Ok, since you all asked so nicely, I’ll tell you!

The account of the fall of mankind is found in Genesis 3. But before we get there we need to just remind ourselves of what leads us to the story of the fall. Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 is the story of the creation of the universe from a BIG scale perspective. It includes stories of the creation of light and darkness, stars, sun moon and plents, the oceans and so on. It’s big stuff.

Then in Genesis 2:5 and onwards we read about creation again, but this time from a human perspective.

Genesis 2:7 says “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” NKJV

Man is the only part of God’s creation in into which we see God breath the breath of life. It sets man apart from everything else, and goes along with the factoid that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1:27).

We are special. We are not animals. We are not just evolved organic matter. We are purposefully and wonderfully made, and set apart from all other parts of God’s created wonder by virtue of the fact that we are made in His image and we carry within us the ‘breath of life’. Just what the ‘breath of life’ is will have to wait for another day – suffice it to say, it’s special!

God takes this special creation, this man and this woman, and he places them in the Garden of Eden. Actually, to be politically incorrect but Biblically accurate – He doesn’t take the man and the woman to the garden of Eden, He in fact just takes the man, for He still hasn’t created the woman. It’s a minor point but one I would like those who wish to write gender differences out of the Bible to remember. They seem to be important to God for some reason, and I think we forget them at our peril.

Anyway, in the Garden of Eden we now find Adam, alone, and God says this to him:

Gen 2:!5-17  The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” (HCSB)

Notice those first words (at least how they’re written in the Holman Christian Standard Bible) …YOU ARE FREE

“You are free” God says to the man He has made special and unique. “You are free to eat from any tree of the garden”. That’s our God right there – the God of abundant blessing and love, the God of permission to live and enjoy life, the God of freedom and excitement, the God of sending us out on an adventure into the wonderful land He’s created. But … God calls out to the man and says ” Hang on! There’s one thing you need to know – the trees in the middle of the garden aren’t for eating. Please don’t touch their fruit because if you do you’ll die. Trust me – look at the awesome creation I’ve made for you to enjoy freely and joyously. Just be careful not to take the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I love you, don’t do it!”

So the world’s first man is content with God’s word and stays well away from the tree, enjoying instead the fullness of everything else God has made for him. And God then makes a companion for the man from the man’s side, not the dirt of the ground this time. And together they will enjoy this adventure of discovery and freedom to live life to the full in a perfect relationship with each other and with God their creator.

But along comes the serpent who cuts their adventuring into God’s freedom somewhat short!. There is of course a whole debate to be had over the nature of the serpent. Is it Satan? Is it just some part of God’s creation? Did God make this creature originally in a state of sinfulness? For now, let’s just say that this creature, the serpent, is indeed the Satan of the rest of the Bible.

Remember that God has told Adam that he is free to eat from ANY tree in the garden … except the tree that is in the middle of the garden. Following this instruction from God teh serpent comes forward and says to the woman:

Gen 3:1 “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden”

To which the answer is of course “no!”. The answer is ‘no’ because the question is formed as a lie. The serpent has asked a question, but has done so by making a statement about God, a statement which says “God told you you can’t eat ANYTHING!”. The total opposite of the truth. God really said “You can eat EVERYTHING … but this one thing!”.

The first sin, ladies and geneltmen, was not the taking of the fruit … but the lies the serpant told about God. You can look at it from different angles and explain it in different ways:

  • The Serpant cast doubt about God’s truth into Eve’s mind
  • The Serpant told a straight forward lie
  • The Serpant led Adam and Eve away from God
  • The Serpant blasphemed by talking about God in a negative way

Anyway you look at it, the first sin is all down to the Serpant.

Unless of course you want to say that the first sin should be the first human sin. If you want to say that, which would be fair enough, then you need to still look to what happened before the apple is ever taken from the tree.

As the Serpant speaks, Eve listens. She listens to the lies the Serpant tells about God. She might be somewhat confused by the odd question she’s confronted with “Did God say you can’t  eat from ANY tree?”, and she scratches her head thinking that’s the opposite of what she knows about God, but she responds politely correcting the Serpants mistake. But then the Serpant continues with his lies and Eve continues to listen. At some point she makes a choice. She makes a choice to believe the Serpant’s lies over God’s truth. It’s that choice which is the first human sin – a choice to disbelieve God. That sin has consequences, and in this case the consequences are that she reaches out her hand and picks the fruit she’s been told by God not to eat. The third sin (or second if you’re only counting human sins).

And from there on in … it’s all down hill!

Blogging through Mark’s Gospel

thePsalmist on March 31st, 2009

I’ve recently been preaching through Mark’s Gospel.

It’s been a big thing for me to be honest, a really exciting and once in a lifetime opportunity. Why? Well, because the church I’ve been preaching it in is the church I started – a church which has only existed for 18 months. Over those 18 months we’ve done a lot of talks and we’ve worked through some series, but we’ve not tackled a single book and preached it from beginning to end. So tackling Mark’s Gospel is the first time in the life of this new church that we’ve preached through a whole book of the Bible.

Choosing Mark was a BIG decision, and a good decision! Here’s why…

Jesus centred
Like all the gospels Mark focusses on the life and times of Jesus. While all of Scripture is inspired by God equally, for a new church spending time teaching purely about Jesus can be no bad thing … and in fact no better thing that I can think of.

Short
Of the four gospels Mark is the shortest. Mark has done a careful editing job of piecing together crucial elements of Jesus’ teaching and the events which formed Jesus’ life and ministry. He’s been economic with the stories and in that we can thank him. There’s nothing missing which is needed for a new church to know about in the first instance, and what’s there is succint and to the point – making it a great book to start on when you’re dealing with people who’ve never read anything in the Bible before!

Written for Gentiles, not Jews
The last thing to know about Mark’s Gospel is that it was written outside of Israel and Judea in the Roman world at large, where the culture and history were very different and the people knew very little about the Old Testament history. So what Mark writes has to be understandable by people who are NOT familiar with the stories of old, the Jewish customs and history, or the messianic expectation. It had to stand on it’s own to be read by a first time reader … and in my context right now, working with totally unchurched people, that makes Mark’s Gospel absolutely perfect and almost as though it was written for us!

…but then of course, it was!!!

I will be blogging about Mark’s Gospel in the Mark’s Gospel category which will appear as soon as I’ve written out my first lot of notes from the first sermons I preached. They’ll be up shortly! Enjoy!

Bible verses on Psalm19

thePsalmist on March 8th, 2009

The eagle eyed among you will have spotted the nifty little thing that happens with Bible verses on this blog. Whenever I quote a Bible verse I will always give a reference to that verse so you can read it for yourself. But the neat thing is that if I write something like John 3:16 you get to simply hover your mouse over the Bible reference and a little popup shows you what it says! This is a nifty little service supplied again by me favourite company, Logos, which they call RefTagger. It’s dead simple and really rather brilliant.

There’s a few things to say about those pop ups to let you enjoy them to the full.

The first and most important point is that at the bottom of the popup is a little link which says “more>”. If you click on it you will be taken to a brilliant website called bible.logos.com. If you follow the link there you will see the whole chapter of the Bible that the verse I’m quoting comes from. Much better still though is that at the top right of the screen you will see a list of abbreviations “NIV ESV NLT MKJV KJV more”.

These abbreviations might seem like gibberish but they actually all stand for different english translations of the Bible. If you click on one you will be able to read the same passage of the Bible in a slightly different english translation. That’s really handy if you want to check how the different translations help you understand differences in the passage. So I encourage you to use it and explore.

The other thing to mention is the little ‘L’ in a box which appears after every reference. This won’t actually be of use to most of you. It is a link for Logos Bible Users. If you have Logos installed on your computer then clicking the ‘L’ will open up the reference in your copy of Logos for you. For the rest of you I’m afraid it doesn’t mean a sausage! Sorry!

The default version of the Bible currently is the NIV (New International Version) as the evangelical tome of choice, for me at least. I hope that RefTagger will support the Holman Christian Standard Bible which I’m fast falling in love with. If and when it does then the default version will become the HCSB.