Thursday, January 19, 2017

Affinity Theological Study Conference March 1 - 3, 2017

The Christian Church: 
Its Mission in a Post-Christian Culture 
Looking forward to this. A hugely relevant theme. The conference format includes opportunities for in-depth discussion of papers that are circulated beforehand. See here for full conference details and booking information. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

La La Land

Think that was a chick flick. Boy meets girl. Singing and dancing. Be true to yourself. Pursue your dreams. No especially theological thoughts generated. One line hit home though, 'People love what other people are passionate about.' Can use that somehow. Are we passionate about the gospel? 

Sarah enjoyed it anyway.

Suppose I did a bit.

Maybe there is something in that line.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Christ and the Decree by Richard A. Muller

Baker Academic, 2008, 240pp 

Why should a busy pastor give time to studying a work of historical theology like this? Surely we'd be better off reading a how-to manual on sermon illustrations, counselling, leadership, or what have you. If we must read theology, let it be an entry level piece, or a nice little primer that won't overload our poor little minds. A work of in-depth scholarship about what people from hundreds of years ago used to think about stuff, what's the point in that?

Well, because we might learn something and gain valuable insights into God's word and ways. Also, those insights may provide us with resources to help resolve some of the theological controversies that are raging in contemporary evangelical circles. Arguments over the eternal submission of the Son, for example. 

It is sometimes claimed that the theologians who followed Calvin and the early Reformers regressed into scholasticism. Not quite arguing over angels on a pin head, but as near as. They moved away from the biblical simplicity of Calvin and Bucer and began to employ hair splitting theological definitions, and developed elaborate theological systems. Those systems used Calvin's teaching on predestination as the axiom from which they deduced their doctrines. 

As Muller demonstrates, however, Calvin was not averse to using the apparatus of scholastic theology in giving expression to his thought. Reformed orthodoxy that followed in his wake continued where he left off. Both in terms of methodology and as they developed key Reformation doctrines. When it came to predestination, it was not the axiom from which they deduced their doctrinal systems by logical extension. 

Predestination underlined the Reformed emphasis on salvation by grace alone. But the decree was discussed in relation to  higher order doctrines, with a concentration on trinitarian ground of decree and its Christological focus. Christ and the decree was the point where the infinite and finite, the eternal and historical met. Christ was seen in relation to the decree in three ways: he is the electing God together with the Father and Holy Spirit; the Elect One, chosen to become the divine/human mediator; and the one in whom sinners were chosen for salvation. 

When it comes to Christology, the Reformed were fully in line with the teaching of the Definition of Chalcedon in confessing that Christ was a divine person with a human nature. But their preoccupation was on Christ as mediator, acting as prophet, priest and king to redeem his people from sin. Close attention was given to Christ's mediatorial work in both his state of humiliation, from his incarnation to the cross, and exaltation, from his resurrection to eternity. That the incarnate Son was and remained fully God when he became man was safeguarded by the so-called extra Calvinisticum. He who was held in his mother's arms as a baby also upheld the universe by his power as the Son of God.

As I say, there has been a lot of rather heated discussion in recent days over whether we may rightly speak of the eternal submission of the Son to the Father. In a way the phrase sounds right because the New Testament bears witness to the fact that the Son was sent into the world by the Father. And that arrangement was made in eternity. In another way, we might feel a bit queasy over the idea that the Son stood in a relationship of eternal submission to the Father. Do we not confess that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are homoousios, of the same divine being? The fullness of that divine being is in all three persons, ruling out any notion of subordination.

Calvin taught that concerning his divine nature, Christ was God in himself, autotheos, but concerning his person he was of the Father. The Reformer acknowledged that there is an order of persons in the Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but insisted that all three persons were equally God, with one divine being and will. Muller brings out that Calvin and his theological heirs successors grasped this point very well when it came to discussing predestination. They saw that Christ was not simply the Elect One, or the means by which the decree was executed. He was also, together with the Father and the Spirit, author of the decree to save. In that sense, the Son was self-designated to act as mediator, willingly submitting to be sent into the world by the Father. 

Reformed thinkers accepted the Partristic insight that in their external actions the three persons of the Trinity act as one, but not in the same way. All things are of the Father, by the Son and through the Spirit. This entails no hint of ontological subordination on the part of the Son as God, but recognises that it was singularly appropriate due to the order of persons that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who became incarnate. 

Talk of the eternal submission of Son to Father is therefore inappropriate. At least it needs to be highly qualified. Better to speak of the Son submitting to the will of God that he be sent into the world by the Father.  But it must be underlined that by 'God' we mean one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We may, indeed then say that the Son is the Electing God, the Elect one, and the one in whom we are elected for salvation. It is partly because we seem to have forgotten that the Son is himself the Electing God that we are having such trouble over the language of eternal submission with its subordinationist overtones. See here for more on Calvin, Beza on this theme. 

Muller expertly traces lines of development from Calvin through to Polanus and Perkins by way of Beza, Ursinus, Zanchi and others. He corrects the notion that Calvin was the gold standard of Reformed theology and that the slightest doctrinal development should be viewed as a deviation. The whole 'Calvin and the Calvinists' thing popularised by R. T. Kendall is shown to be baseless. 

Of Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf (1561-1610) and William Perkins (1558-1602) Muller writes,
In their thought we perceived at last the convergence of parallel lines of christological and predestinarian doctrinal development, the convergence of which can only occur in the infinite depth of the Trinity. And when the lines do converge in the realisation that the Son considered as God is the source, while considered as mediator in union with the human nature, self-determined executor of the decree, then on this infinite scale we also perceive the ultimate doctrinal "arch" of which not predestination but the trinitarian ground of all theology is the keystone. This structure had developed from Calvin, reaching fruition at the end of the century in the codification of early orthodoxy.
Muller's work also teases out the pastoral implications of the orthodox Reformed treatment of Christ and the decree. How are poor sinners meant to know whether they are among the elect? The decree in itself lies hidden in God. But the God who decrees is no deus nudus absconditus, an inaccessibly hidden deity. Muller explains, "There can be no deus nudus absconditus because the Christ who redeems is, according to his divinity, the God who decrees." The trinitarian foundation and Christological focus of the decree means that the believer can be sure they are elect because the Father has drawn them into saving union with Christ by the Spirit. We are in him by faith because we were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. Christ, as Calvin put it is "the mirror of our election." 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Silence

Silence. The silence of God. How do you cope with that? Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) set out for Japan on search of their lost mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). The last news of him suggested that he had renounced the Catholic faith and gone native, embracing Buddhism and a Japanese a wife. Surely not, think his acolytes. Unthinkable. And off they go. 

Wasn't easy being a Catholic in seventeenth century Japan. The authorities viciously persecuted missionary priests and their Japanese converts. They were doused with boiling water, burned alive, drowned.  This is all shown in wince-inducing detail. But nothing could induce Ferreira to renounce his faith. Right?

We'll see. The film is beautifully shot, with the glories of nature standing in contrast to the ugliness of human cruelty. The pace is slow moving and meditative. The main 'priest' parts are played well, as are the Japanese characters. Rodrigues has his own serial Judas iKichijiro; too cowardly to stick to his beliefs, yet racked with guilt over his frequent lapses from faith. The Inquisitor not a is not portrayed as stereotypical sadist 'baddie'. He seems almost kindly on occasion, visibly deflating when Rodrigues refuses to yield. But he will stop at nothing to stamp out the alien faith, using physical and psychological torture to achieve his aims.

The film explores some thought-provoking themes. When Garupe expresses disappointment with their flock of devout peasant villagers, Rodrigues reminds him, "Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt." In his suffering Rodrigues becomes increasingly identified with Christ. Before his arrest by the Japanese authorities, having been betrayed by Kichijiro, the priest stoops to drink from a stream. His face reflected in the water suddenly becomes that of Christ's. Paul wrote of the 'fellowship of Christ's sufferings' (Philippians 3:10). 

The Inquisitor explains to Rodrigues that Christianity will never take root in Japanese soil. It is a Buddhist country. What might be true for Europeans won't work in Japan. The priest counters that according to the Christian faith, truth is the same everywhere, or it's not truth at all. When Rodrigues finally encounters his mentor, Ferreira, his worst fears are realised. The Jesuit missionary had lapsed from the 'true faith' and conformed to Buddhism. How could he?

How could anyone? The renegade priest explains that Japanese believers who had turned their back on Roman Catholicism under the pressure of persecution had not really understood it. Under the influence of Buddhism the Japanese could not conceive of any reality beyond nature. Christianity had not been properly contextualised so that indigenous people could grasp the Creator/creature distinction. When they heard of the Son of God, they identified him not as the second person of the Trinity, but as the sun that shines in the sky. But a sense of the transcendent beyond nature is not that easy to eradicate. According to Paul, even idolatrous pagans know God, even though they would prefer not to, Romans 1:20-21.  

The Christianity under the spotlight in the film is decidedly Roman Catholic, replete with religious icons, symbols, masses and priestly absolution. Iconoclastic Protestants would not have had qualms over treading an image of Christ into the dirt as Roman Catholic believers are forced to do in the film. So what? But if such an act was seen as a repudiation of faith in Christ, that would be more tricky. 

One of the main things that hit home to me in watching the film was the great evil of religious persecution. No one should be forced to abandon their beliefs. The Inquisitor concocted a cruel dilemma for Rodrigues. Only if he denied his faith would his friends be spared untold suffering. Now he understands why Ferreira had gone native. The priest turned Buddhist suggests to the younger man that his apostasy would be an act of love; laying down his faith for his friends. What Rodrigues wrestles with throughout his trials is the silence of God in the face of such wretchedness.

It's nothing less than tragic that people are still persecuted for their faith in the 21st century. Organisations such as Open Doors campaign for an end of religious persecution and seek to channel aid to suffering believers. 

The final scene reveals whether Rodrigues had indeed lost his Roman Catholic faith as the heavens remained silent. When facing death, what did he have left to hold on to?

The silence has been shattered. The Cross is the grand announcement of God's love. Jesus suffered with us and for us that we may be rescued from sin and suffering though faith in him. He endured the awful silence of God, crying from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He did not die for the good and beautiful, but for the miserable and corrupt. Those who share in his suffering will also share in his glory. 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Effective School Governance by Mark A'Bear


Very few people know exactly what they are letting themselves in for when they join a school governing board. I certainly didn't. 

Whatever your preconceptions may be, you'll find that it isn't quite as you imagined. Your admirable desire to 'make a difference' will have to be channeled through the appropriate decision making processes.

You may have skills that could be of use to the board, but knowing how to apply them in the context of governance is another matter. For example, the role of a governor with accountancy expertise isn't to do the school accounts. That's the business manager's job. But your background may help you enhance the board's ability to ensure value for money is achieved in the use of school funds. Hopefully, anyway. 

The same applies whatever one's work experience or skill set. Governors aren't there to do stuff, but to decide what important stuff needs doing and ensure that it's done well. In the jargon, governance is a strategic, not operational role. 

If you don't fancy that, go and do something else. 

Mark A'Bear would agree. He even has a chapter on 'When should you not become a governor?' But there are many good reason for becoming one, and those who do should want to maximise their effectiveness. 

Good governance makes a difference by giving a school a clear sense of direction, and then making sure it is making progress towards the direction that has been set.

It's all about vision and strategy. 

Simples. But how do you go about creating a compelling vision for a school, how may governors contribute to the strategy devised to make that vision a reality, and how can they tell if the vision is being achieved? 

That's where A'Bear's book comes in. He breaks down the essentials of governance into their component parts, chapter by chapter, and puts them all back together again at the end. A bit like James May does on the telly with Hornby train sets, or electric guitars, but in this case the author is working with the concepts and procedures of school governance. 

All the key parts are here, including who should govern, stakeholder engagement, operating strategically, establishing accountability, governance structures, the roles of the chair and clerk, Ofsted preparation, and more besides. 

A'Bear writes in a  clear, crisp and accessible way that will not leave new recruits to the world of governance scratching their heads. More experienced colleagues will find his guide a useful primer and source of best practice.

The recent Ofsted survey report, 'Improving Governance' suggested that lack of self evaluation is a common feature of weak governance. This book is a self evaluation aid in itself and contains some of the key documents that have been produced to help governing boards evaluate their effectiveness. Such as the APPG's 20 questions for governing boards and an equivalent 21 questions for MAT boards (Appendix V). Governors would do well to use the material in this book to help them reflect critically on how their own systems of governance measure up. If we don't, Ofsted certainly will next time they come a-knocking. 

A'Bear has governed in both primary and secondary sectors, but those involved in governance at secondary level will notice some gaps in his coverage. For example, newly appointed secondary colleagues could probably do with having things like Attainment 8, Progress 8, EBacc, and Sixth Form accountability measures included in the glossary alongside info on SATs and Sports Premium Funding. Can't have it all, I suppose. Maybe such lacunae can be made good in a second edition?

As the author acknowledges, it isn't easy to keep up with the rapidly changing world of education in England. He does his best to ensure that his treatment is up to date, addressing both the LA maintained and academy sectors. He also has a word or two to say about the shiny new world of multi academy trusts (MATs). Greater attention is given to governance in the maintained sector, however, with details provided of the different categories of governor in LA schools that don't apply in academies. Little is said about the roles of members, trustees and local governors in a MAT. The main functions of governance apply whatever the type of school, but more academy-specific information wouldn't have gone amiss.

Speaking of academies, it's no good boards of maintained schools burying their heads in the sand and hoping that full academisation isn't going to happen. It is, eventually. Like it, or not. A key question for governors of LA schools is whether they will take the initiative and form a MAT with other like-minded local schools, or wait until they have to join an already established one to avoid being left high and dry. It would have been useful had A'Bear given some guidance to schools in making that choice, or at least flagged up the excellent materials provided by the National Governors' Association created to help governors make informed decisions regarding academisation options - see here and here (subscribers only). According to the Department for Education, 97% of schools converting to academies in the last couple of years have joined MATs (see here). 

It is sometimes feared that the ascent of MATs will lead to the demise of governance at the individual school level. In some large MATs local governance has been removed altogether, or  reduced to functioning as little more than focus groups. 

That need not happen, however, and a good case can be made for maintaining a tier of  local governance in MATs. The MAT board is ultimately responsible for the governance of its schools, but I believe local governing boards (LGBs) still have a role to play in exercising the core functions of governance at individual school level. They should  champion the distinctive vision and ethos of their school and  scrutinise its performance data with a forensic thoroughness that would not be possible at MAT board level. Especially if the MAT grows to accommodate numerous academies.

Admittedly, if local governance has become dysfunctional or ineffective, the MAT board will have to step in to turn things around, but otherwise a good measure of 'earned autonomy' should be the order of the day. 

Aside from anything else, it seems strategically flawed and short termist for MATs to abolish LGBs, not have them in the first place, or deprive them of core functions. The founding boards of many locally based Community MATs were largely drawn from their member schools' old governing bodies. Where are successors to members and trustees on MAT boards going to come from in the future, if not from the ranks of local governors who have cut their teeth at that level? 

When considering joining or forming a MAT, existing governing boards should pay careful attention to the extent to which they will still be exercising core functions of governance set out by A'Bear within the MAT structure. Being abolished, or reduced to a glorified focus group shouldn't cut it. But boards should be open to the enhanced development opportunities that are part and parcel of belonging to a MAT. Among them: deeper collaboration with other schools, sharing best practice and achieving economies of scale. The economies of scale bit will become increasingly important as the impact of a 3 billion pound shortfall in education funding is felt by schools. As reported by the National Audit Office (see here). 

A'Bear's Effective School Governance lacks the political dimension present in its nearest equivalent on the market, Improving School Governance by Nigel Gann (Routledge, 2016). The latter title could almost be styled A Guardian Reader's Guide to Governance. You won't find a critique of Thatcherite educational neoliberalism and its deleterious effects on schooling in A'Bear's volume. Both books cover similar ground when it comes to the practicalities. Gann is stronger on the history of school governance. But I'd probably want to place Effective School Governance into the hands of a new colleague ahead of Gann's lengthier work.

Educational structures in England are in a state of flux at the moment and school governance is being shaken up as the system moves towards wholescale academisaion. This timely book is a reminder that good governance makes a difference and sets out exactly what that looks like in practice. Let's ensure for the sake of our pupils' education that school governance at all levels is as powerfully effective as it can be. That's certainly one of the things that needs to happen if we are going to construct a school led system in which every child exceeds their expected potential.

* I am grateful to the publishers for providing a complementary review copy. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

A Brand New Start for 2017

Amongst our Christmas presents were tickets for my wife and me to see Paul Weller perform at one of the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Roll on March. I’ve been a Weller fan ever since his days with The Jam, when I was a teenage mod. One of his songs, Brand New Start seems kind of appropriate for this time of year. It sounds like a set of New Year’s resolutions:
 
I'm gonna clear out my head
I'm gonna get myself straight
I know it's never too late
To make a brand new start
 
The track is an expression of confidence in human ability to turn our lives around. Weller even sings of his desire to “build a heaven on the ground”, which seems a tad ambitious given the state of the world. There have been many attempts  to create a perfect world over the course of history. But man made utopias have been doomed to failure. There is something stubbornly self-destructive about human nature that resists all attempts to create heaven on earth.
 
How many of us manage to keep our more modest New Year’s resolutions? Will we still be off the chocolate, working out at the gym, or whatever it is come February, March, April? While full of good intentions with our ‘brand new starts’ it’s often a matter of, ‘same old, same old’ as the months roll by.
 
For all his determination to make a fresh start in life, Weller realises that some things are beyond his grasp,
 
There's somewhere else I should be
There's someone else I can't see
There's something more I can find
There's only love to me
 
The things that we long for most deeply often seem elusive. Jesus once had a conversation with a very religious man who seemed to have everything up together and sorted. But it was not enough. Jesus told him, “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3). But how is that supposed to happen? My favourite Christmas carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing says of Jesus that he was “born to save the sons of earth/born to give them second birth”. 

Jesus is God’s way of giving us a brand new start. 

*For Trinity Dilton Marsh parish magazine 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016: A year in music

2016 may go down as a year of political upsets and celebrity deaths, but closer to home it was a year of celebration. Not all the time, of course. But we did have a couple of biggies to celebrate. July marked our 25th wedding anniversary and August my 50th birthday. 

Sarah and I enjoyed great holidays in Rome/Venice in May/June and Portugal in August. We also attended a number of music concerts and performances during the year. Quite a few, in fact now I think about it. 

We saw The Beatles show, Let It Be, which was fab. Caught some other tribute bands, playing homage to Madness and The Who. Pretty good, but nothing beats the real thing. 


I was a teenage mod, into The Jam, Secret Affair and other 'mod revival'  bands of the 1970s and 80s. We saw Secret Affair at The Fleece, Bristol and caught From The Jam at Frome and Salisbury. Nice to hear the old songs, but it's a bit of a pity that they haven't moved on much since their heyday. Bruce Foxton procued a new album this year, Smash the Clocks. Pretty good, but the bassist evidently didn't have the confidence to include more than one new song in the set of either gig. At lest with Weller there's always something fresh and new at his concerts. 

We saw Coldplay at Wembley Stadium in June. They were off the scale in terms of creating a stadium filling live event. Flashing wrist bands, confetti showers, oversized bouncing balls, huge screens projecting fantastic visuals. It was all there. Chris Martin was a bundle of energy, bouncing up and down the runway that dissected the stadium. Great accompaniment provided by the band. People don't like to admit to liking Coldplay, but you've got to love the effort they put in to making a gig such a special event. They played a good mix of songs old and new. From their early Indie sound to the more recent poppy stuff. An unforgettable way to celebrate our 25th.

For the last few years Westbury has played host to the Village Pump Folk Festival, a folk music weekender. We hadn't attended until this summer, although the venue is just up the road from us. Partly because I thought folk music was a bit hairy beardy, double denimy. Not my scene, really. But, then again, I quite like some of Billy Bragg's stuff and  a number of Paul Weller's albums have a folk vibe; Wild Wood and 22 Dreams, for instance. Anyway, the organisers were offering discounted evening tickets for locals. The Proclaimers were on the bill Saturday evening, so we got some cheapo tickets and headed for the White Horse Country Park. Really enjoyed it. Keston Cobblers Club were great fun, fine musicianship from Scottish folkies Breabach. The Proclaimers performed a set of songs old and new, culminating in the inevitable 500 Miles. 

We saw Madness at their House of Common one day festival in August. That was a good day out. A band that's been going for ages, but is still producing songs that stand up well against their back catalogue. Old favorites It Must Be Love, Baggy Trousers, and Our House had the crowd bouncing. 




Feeder played the Bristol O2 Academy in support of their new album,  All Bright Electric. I've long had a soft spot for their brand of melodic rock. Not just because they are Welsh.  We enjoyed their show back in October. 

What else? 

We caught local Northern Soul act, The Allnighters a couple of times, including their Christmas party at Frome. Fast paced, upbeat sweet soul music. Pity I can't dance, otherwise I'd have given my bowling shoes a good workout. 

Saw a couple of classical music concerts at Colston Hall with friends. As I recall, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performed Brahms' Violin Concerto and Mahler's 1st Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Orchestra played Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams, Sibelius' Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. 

For 2017 we've bagged tickets to see Paul Weller at the Royal Albert Hall in March and Radiohead at Manchester Arena in July. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

David Sky: The Gov-Father (A Christmas Special)

I know, it's been some time since I updated you on what's become of my old friend,  David Sky. People have been asking (really), but 'least said, soonest mended' and all that. 

Fact is, I hadn't seen him for ages. Then I unexpectedly bumped into him at a school governor training session. Yes, that's right, Sky is a governor. Chair of Governors at that.

He and Bathsheba now have a daugther, Solomena, who has just started primary school. David hadn't heard of governors before, but he thought they seemed like important people and that he should be one of them. Whatever they were. He was a bit hazy on that at first, but then most people are. Even some governors.

Good job that as a parting gift form the outgoing HMCI Ofsted has produced something to show us how it's done. Bye, Sir Michael. Oh and while I remember, Pale Rider was a Preacher, not a Headteacher. Get your own Wild West shoot-em-up heroes to serve as role models for the education sector. 

Anyway, David Sky. There I was at this governor training session on the finer points of RaiseOnline (don't ask), and I spied him sitting at another table. 'What's that monkey doing here?', I thought to myself. Unusual. Then I twigged. It was my old sparring parter, Mr. Sky. 

Before I could head over to his table and grab a word, the training presentation began. I'll gloss over that bit, unless you'd really like a run down on  Raise and Progress 8... No? Lightweights. 

Coffee time. I really needed a caffeine boost after the first presentation of the morning, but held off so I could catch up with Sky. I could hear him holding forth on how his school had the best Progress 8 scores in the world for the last five years. Strange that, as it's an England-only system that was only fully rolled out for the 2016 results. 

'Sky', I said. He didn't miss a beat. Around four years had gone by since I last heard from him, but his slightly amused contempt for me hadn't diminished one bit, 'Understand any of that? Come over so I can explain?' 

Sitting right next to him was a purple Telletubby-like thing. 'What's that?' I asked. 'That' he replied, speaking slowly as if I was a bit dim 'is Robo-Clerk. With computers these days you can have driverless cars on the roads, and pilotless drones in the air, so why not robotic clerks with enhanced artificial intelligence?' What will they think of next? 

I wondered why Sky had brought his Robo-Clerk to a training session. He explained that he could never remember anything from training and it was too much like hard work to put any of it into practice, so he got Robo-Clerk to record the sessions. She could then pre-write minutes that made it seem as though his governing body knew their stuff and ticked all boxes for Ofsted. 'But how's your school actually doing? I asked. 'I dunno, ask her.' he replied with a shrug of his shoulders. 'Hope your chair's on top of his brief, then.' I said, hopefully. Sky: 'I am the chair. No use being in something unless you're the boss of it, as someone once told me.'

I had so many questions for Sky. Last I heard Taffia Godfather, Dai Corleone was after him because Sky had escaped his clutches. He'd gone into hiding, as he didn't want to be forced back into service as a tea boy. That was all sorted now. Turning the tables, Sky had made Corleone an offer he couldn't refuse,  promising him a lifetime supply of Glengettie tea and Welsh Cakes if the feared Godfather called off his henchmen. 

'I hope you haven't been using Taffia tactics on your governing board.' I cautioned. Threatening  governors that you'll have them 'sleeping with the fishes' if they vote against you, is contrary to the National Governors' Association Code of Conduct. 

'Don't worry' Sky shot back, 'no one's voted against me since the last one got zapped by Robo-Clerk.' I'm sure there must be a rule in the Governance Handbook against weaponising the clerk. Apparently, it wasn't deadly, but still. Can't do that. 

The session ended and Sky was eager to leave as soon as possible. Christmas was coming and Bathsheba expected something really special, and expensive, and unique as a present. Or there'd be trouble. And Solomena was beginning to take after her mother. There are some things than not even Robo-Clerks can fix. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Took my girls to see this on Saturday. Many of the familiar features of the Star Wars universe are in the film. The Empire's Death Star super weapon, snazzy space ships, stormtroopers clad in white plastic armour, laser guns going 'whoosh, whoosh, whoosh', and so on. But none of the 'goody' characters. No Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Wookie, R2D2 and that. Baddies get a look in, mind; Darth Vadar and his henchmen. We'll have to wait for the follow up to The Force Awakens to see what happens to our familiar heroes. 

Not that this spin off was altogether lacking on the hero front, with the feisty Jyn Erso played by Felicity Jones leading the charge. 

Saga-wise, Rouge One fills in some gaps between Episodes 3 and 4. We discover that the Death Star was built with a deliberate fatal flaw. The drama concerns a mission to discover the plans to the Death Star that will enable the rebel alliance to pinpoint its weak spot and finally destroy the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.  

Cynical types may dismiss Rogue One as superfluous spin off, designed to part fools from their money as fans of the franchise impatiently await the next film in sequence to The Force Awakens. But it's a decent enough contribution to the series. A bit slow to start with, some good action sequences and a pretty gripping plot. Interesting new characters. Fantastic visuals.  

At the start the Rebels are a sorry lot. The will to fight sucked out of them by the apparently overwhelming power of the evil Empire. Resistance seems futile. But Jyn rallies the insurrectionists to action with the words, 'Rebellion is built on hope.'

Interesting thought. The powers of darkness in this world appear so unassailable. There seems little point in resisting the reign of sin and death. But there is hope in the form of a weak and vulnerable baby, born around 2000 years ago. Of him it is written, 'For this purpose the Son God God was manifested, to destroy the works of the evil one'. 

Zechariah, father of John the Baptist prophesied of Jesus,

"the sunrise shall visit us from on high
 to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Luke 1:79)

Through his lowly birth, redeeming death and mighty resurrection the Son of God has triumphed over the kingdom of darkness. When the Lord returns in glory death, the 'last enemy' will be destroyed. 

In the meantime those who belong to Jesus are called to join the rebellion against sin's tyrannical rule. Here are our marching orders, 'Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:14). 

Resistance is not futile. With the high praises of God in our mouths and a two edged sword in our hands (not a lightsaber! - Psalm 149:6), we march in to battle. Confident of victory. The note of praise we sound is not servile and demeaning; it is the liberty song of redeemed rebels,  
Praise is the great act of rebellion against sin, the great repudiation of our wicked refusal to acknowledge God to be the Lord. (John Webster, Holiness, SCM Press, p. 76). 
Jyn was right. Rebellion is built on hope. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Renewal: Church Revitalisation Along the Way of the Cross by John James

10Publishing, 2016, p. 130

For bright young things contemplating a call to pastoral ministry church planting is where it's at. Or at least service in an already large and thriving work. Why bother trying to turn around a dying church when you can start a new one? After all, isn't the gospel all about new birth and fresh starts? Certainly. But let's not forget that the God of the gospel is also the one who raises the dead.
                    
Where villages, towns and areas of cites are totally devoid of evangelical witness there is certainly a case for church planting. No argument there. But in many cases communities could be reached with the gospel more effectively by the revitalisation of existing churches.   

Not an easy task, admittedly. Struggling churches are often small, demoralised and disconnected from their neighbourhoods. A stuck in the mud membership may be reluctant to embrace change. Considerable ‘cons’. But there are ‘pros’ too. An established work is likely to have its own buildings, at least some presence in the local community and a group of seasoned Christians who may be longing to see the Lord visit the church afresh by his renewing power.

Sometimes it may be too late and a church will need to close its doors. But if a leader is willing to take on the challenges and the church is willing to embrace change, revitalisation becomes a real possibility. After all, with the Lord nothing is impossible.

John James writes from his first-hand experience of church revitalisation at Crossway Church, Northfield in Birmingham. But this is no ‘this is how I did it – go and do likewise’ manual. James knows that there are no silver bullets or copy and paste programmes for turning around dying churches. It takes the grace of God at work in pastor and people and the faithful application of biblical principles of church life.

A leader involved in revitalisation ministry is going to need bucket loads of God-given grit, determination and stickability. Not to mention the patience and wisdom required to know how best to implement change without alienating established church members. Leaders mustn’t shy away from conflict, but they also need to ensure that the church is united behind a common vision for reaching their community with the gospel.

To that end, James recommends that churches bear four essential questions in mind: 1. What has brought us together? 2. What are we aiming to do together? 3. Where does our authority come from? 4. How will we make decisions together? Regular reflection on these questions will help fellowships maintain their gospel focus and embrace an outward facing growth mentality.

In a way, all pastoral ministry is revitalisation ministry along the way of the cross, whether in congregations large or small. Ultimately it is only the risen Jesus who can breathe new life into dying churches by the power of his Spirit. This book helps us to see some of the biblically sanctioned means by which our Lord may do just that.

John James provides valuable advice and counsel for people who may be thinking about engaging in church renewal ministry, and gives welcome encouragement to those already involved in that difficult, yet rewarding work. Expect a healthy dose of realism mixed with a good dash of faith in the God who awakens the dead. Re-establishing a vital gospel witness in every community in the United Kingdom is going to require thriving gospel churches in every community. Who will say, 'Here I am, send me'?

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times