There be Monsters Here!

So it turns out this old blog is shot through with malware and all sorts of other nasty stuff. Somewhere along the line I got hacked and now the damage is in too deep. So I’m bringing an end to stephenmurray.co.za in it’s current incarnation. Instead I thought I’d give blogging a fresh go and maybe recapture something of the glory days. So I’ve started a new blog (that’s not self-hosted so no trojans) called, O Sweet Exchange. I’m hoping this will be a more regularly updated blog so stay tuned.

RIP stephenmurray.co.za (2009-2013)

O Sweet Exchange!

There is something deeply comforting about picking up a 2nd century Christian document, reading it, and finding that the person who wrote it has a very similar theology to one’s own. It reminds me that we didn’t just make this stuff up, it’s not the flavour of the month or the passing fad. These words from the Epistle to Diognetus (2nd Century) assured my heart in the last few weeks:

“He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal … O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!”

Her Easter Day

Last week in preparation for a sermon on the significance of the resurrection I stumbled upon this little piece of poetry from C.S. Lewis,

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.

Apparently Lewis initially wrote it for the poet Charles Williams but then adapted it for his own wife, Joy Davidman, in the epitaph on her grave. What a hope, to know that, because of the resurrection of Christ, we might enjoy our own ‘Easter Day’.

Neighbourhood Focused

Last night, at our little church plant, we looked at the third value we’re hoping will shape our experience as a local church in a particular locale that God has called us to. We entitled the value, “Neighbourhood Focused”. One of the historical examples that has really captivated me as I think about what a neighbourhood focused church would look like is the example of the early church that sociologist, Rodney Stark, highlights in his book, The Rise of Christianity. Here’s a quote I shared with our group last night:

Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world… Christianity revitalized life in… cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective… services.

This morning I opened up Romans 13 (I’ve trying to read through Romans very slowly since the beginning of the year to have it really sink in – because I’m a bit slow) and was immediately confronted with these verses:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,”and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)

What would it look like for churches to really love that way. To do our utmost to see that no harm comes to our neighbours (v10)? Christians have lived like this in history past – perhaps it’s time for a new gospel movement that bears the fruit of deep, tangible love for our neighbours. May God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, help us.

Presentations of Perfection and Grace

One of the biggest mistakes we make when we think about the role of the church community in the world is to forget exactly what God is presenting to the world when he presents the church. Much disappointment, hurt, and unfulfilled expectations arise out of getting this wrong. When God presents the church to the world he is not presenting perfection. He has done that already, when he presented Christ to us all. Jesus lived the perfect life and showed the world, for a brief thirty-something years, what perfection really looks like. When God presents the church to the world he doesn’t present perfection, he presents grace. He presents a community where the perfection of Christ is slowly doing it’s work of grace to ensure that ultimately this earthly community will be transformed into perfection.

If you think that God is presenting perfection when he presents the church then any sort of failure, frustration or hurt experienced in community will greatly disappoint you and also significantly reduce your commitment levels to such a body. Your suspicion will be heightened and you’ll find yourself mistrusting much of the teaching and activity of the church community.

If, on the other hand, you think God is presenting grace when he presents the church then you’ll see that experiences of failure, frustration and hurt need not lead to disappointment and mistrust, but rather to forgiveness and reconciliation. Brokenness (both within yourself and in others), instead of crippling your relationship with the church will instead lead to opportunities for redemption and testimony of God’s working.

A lot of people in our city are hurting because they demanded perfection and found the church wanting. A lot of people in our city are missing the amazing redemptive joy that comes from being in a community of grace. Grace says “ultimately our performance doesn’t define us. We are instead defined by the perfect performance of Christ.” How do you view the church?

Why I Preach the Gospel

If you follow Ligonier Ministries at all you would know something of the heartache the Sproul family have encountered in recent times.  Two days ago RC Sproul Jr. lost his 15 year old daughter to her struggle against a condition she was born with called Lissencephaly, a condition that caused significant disability. This death follows just a year after the death of his wife at the hands of cancer. Reading about this tragedy (perhaps with new eyes as I now too have a beautiful young daughter), I was overwhelmingly reminded of why I preach and believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I preach the gospel because I want to be able to mourn like RC Sproul Jr. mourns. On the day that his daughter died he sent out the following words in a series of tweets:

“My precious girl Shannon’s mute tongue is now loosed, though once lame she now leaps for for joy. She and her mom are held by our Lord”

“Death, who has haunted my home for 15 years, struck again today. And again his prey escaped. Christ is risen, and that changes everything”

“My Princess Happy is now a Queen of Joy”

“We don’t say, “I know You love me, unless You take my wife” nor “I know You’re all powerful, unless You take my girl” Though He slay me…”

I preach the gospel because without Jesus taking my sin upon his shoulder and bearing it to calvary I cannot have the hope contained in those tweets, I cannot hope for a better resurrection of the dead, I cannot make sense of the injustice, pain and suffering I see around me all the time, and I cannot lift my head to face another day with those I treasure knowing this life is but a fleeting instant.

I preach the gospel because in Christ is hope, hope eternal, and I desperately want everyone to know that.

The Black and White of Psalm 1

Psalm 1 is a psalm that is very black and white. It contrasts the righteous with the wicked, the just with the unjust, good with evil. It paints a picture of the “way” that God watches over and the “way” that will ultimately perish. It uses stark categories that leave many readers wondering if it’s a bit unrealistic. Life is more messy than the picture presented in the Psalm. “Good” people are only really authentic if they have a shade of brokenness, a dark past, some fatal flaw or inconsistency. We don’t buy the squeaky clean type because experience tells us that they don’t really exist. Life is more conflicted. So is Psalm 1 simply overstating the matter? Painting pictures in an ideal world? Or something else?

Well, consider this: Shortly after Jesus’ baptism, Matthew, the gospel writer, records the following event for us (Matt 4:1-11)…

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

See here is the conflict between the word-soaked righteous man and the wicked. In the Bible you can’t really get more wicked than Satan – he is the very essence of evil. And here he comes to present Jesus with an alternative worldview. Here he comes and he offers wicked counsel, he tries to get Jesus to see the world from his point of view (taking him up on the mountain), he’s even a mocker of sorts in the way he twists the Scriptures.

But Jesus delights himself in the Word of God. Everything Satan throws at him he rebuffs with God’s view of the world – with Scripture – God’s Word. And so in the end Jesus, like a rooted tree, is left standing, attended by angels, and Satan, like chaff, drifts away.

“The Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1:6)

Jesus is the blessed man of Psalm 1. He is the righteous one. In him there is no sin, there is no wickedness. In Jesus we find the one place in this world that is black and white like Psalm 1 paints it.

Prayerlessness in Church Planting

Ed Stetzer has a very informative guest post up by John Thomas about his reflections on a failed church plant experience. In the post he lists 5 things where he basically confesses that he got it wrong. The first item on the list hit me square between the eyes as I read it: Prayerlessness. Here’s what he says on prayerlessness:

I failed to pray as I ought. Self-reliance and fierce independence marked the day. Strategy and proven methods were my fail-safe, not sweet communion with the One who held the answers to my unasked questions, let alone the immediate needs of the day. Bootstrap theology and iron-will methodology only carried me as far as my boots (metaphorically speaking) and wherewithal would take me. And that was not far enough. I was, after all, wrestling with the eternal and weighty matters of gathering the bride of Christ.

The lesson I learned: Prayer as the foundation for church planting is not just a spiritual slogan. It is a necessity and must be part of the planter’s DNA long before it becomes a core value for the church.

I just spent last weekend at a great church plant up in Durban teaching on the subject of prayer and it feels like God is just ramming this into me at the moment: If you’re not going to pray your socks off then don’t plant a church!

The more I think about it the more I am astonished by the amount of arrogance, self-reliance and foolishness that is exhibited when I fail to pray and fail to encourage others to regularly pray about our up coming church plant. God is the ultimate worker, I am not. He must be the first and supreme port of call in all endeavors that bear his name. John Thomas is right, “prayer as foundation” in your ministry needs to be way more than a slogan, it really and honestly needs to be the bedrock of everything you do. There’s a very real sense in which the best thing I can do for this church plant, the best thing I can offer, the best work I can embark upon, is to develop my spiritual vitality with God. To do that is better than all my learning, all my strategy, all my fundraising, all my vision-casting. I desperately need ever-increasing intimacy with Jesus, and the people I will soon minister to need me to have ever-increasing intimacy with Jesus.

Church Music: Lyrical Quality

Ever since I became a Christian (about 13 years ago) I’ve had some sort of involvement in church music. In fact I think I even played guitar a few times in church long before I became a Christian. And although I don’t think I’m particularly gifted in this area I do have something of a keen interest in church music and keeping up with trends in contemporary church music. A fairly well documented trend in recent years has been the “revival” of hymn singing in contemporary churches. Several groups have set about either re-arranging old hymns or writing contemporary hymns for the church. A lot has also been said about the need to inject deeper theology into our singing in light of the poverty of theology in much of what passes for “contemporary worship music”. I’m grateful for the rich theology that the Hymns Movement has re-injected into our corporate gatherings.

While I’m very positive about these developments they’ve caused me to ask questions about church music and not so much the theological depth of the music but the artistic depth and quality of the lyrics, and the writing of lyrics. The more I read older hymns the more I’m thoroughly impressed by the way in which saints of old wielded the English language to not just include rich theology, but also to so impress that theology upon the heart. There are some groups today who basically sound like they just ripped a page out of Grudem’s Systematic Theology and put a four-chord alternate rock tune to it. What a lot of old (not all) hymn writing got right was that it expounded the rich theology with equally rich use of language. I long for more artistic and creative use of language in conveying deep theological truths, I long for lines like this:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

(The Love of God – Frederick M. Lehman 1917)

Have many of our contemporary artists lost this ability to write, to craft lyrics? Are congregations just prepared to settle for far less in terms of lyrical quality? I’m not quite sure where the fault lies? It would be amiss of me not to mention that there are a few contemporary artists bucking this trend. I’ve been really impressed with the music coming out of Sojourn Music based in Louisville, and in particular the lyric writing of Jamie Barnes. I’m also crazy about the music of Sandra McCracken. I just wish that these people weren’t just the small exception in what has become the enormous industry of contemporary worship music.

When Jesus isn’t Real: Part II

How do you allow an event, that took place 2000 years ago, to shape your inner emotional and existential life? You don’t have to be in ministry for long before this becomes a recurring question that you hear. Ok granted, the word “existential” doesn’t come up all that often in questions ordinary church people ask me, but the idea does. There’s a nagging sense, in many, that the gospel is an intellectual reality that they’ve made peace with, but they just don’t feel its force in a subjective way. “I believe the gospel in my head – I just don’t know if it’s gotten hold of my heart”.

The answer that I tend to give to folk is something I’ve been trying to develop over a period of time, learning from Scripture and the insights of other pastors. I’d still like to sharpen it more, but here’s the second (see the first here) in a number of suggestions as to why an individual might be having a hard time existentially relating to the gospel:

2. You need God to do a supernatural work deep within you

I didn’t think too carefully about order when I started writing this series. So at the moment the order is random but if truth be told this one should probably come first.

When the apostle Paul expounds on the gospel in Romans 5 he makes a very poignant statement about our subjective experience of the hope of the gospel in verse 5. He says, “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” Now whether you consider yourself charismatic or not, I’m not sure you can read this verse to say anything other than that the Holy Spirit subjectively and supernaturally impresses the love of God upon us (BTW – if you’re not at all charismatic know that this is the way the Puritans read this verse – see Richard Sibbes). At its core, our subjective grasping of the objective gospel is a supernatural affair. God has to pour his love into your heart by his Spirit.

The implication is that the only thing we can do here is get on our knees and pray that God would do that supernatural work in our hearts and that he would do it in increasing measure. So pray, pray, pray.