The Hardmen (and women) – book review

From the same authors who wrote The Rules: the Way of the Cycling Disciple – in other words, the Velominati –  this book is, in effect a demonstration of the rules in practice within professional cycling.  In fact it is one rule (Rule Five) that drives much of this book, although Hardmen contains a concise list of the all “the Rules” as an appendix.

I loved it. You might expect this, given the religious language that peppers the Velominati output.   I’ve not found a link yet between Luther’s 95 theses and the Velominati’s 95 rules, but I bet it’s there somewhere.  But as with ‘The Rules’, the subtitle of this book has a spiritual nod:  the legends of the cycling gods.

It’s often laugh-out-loud funny.  Great for me; not so for my wife when I’m quoting lines from it when she was trying to get to sleep.    The language can be ripe, though – I didn’t quote those bits to her.  It seems to ride against the feel of our times, too:  there’s not much that’s feely-touchy to the book; it’s all about shutting up and letting your legs do the talking.  In Hardmen, quitting is most certainly character failure too.  Overall there’s a gritty machismo, albeit something also seen in a few female riders.

Like much cycling lore, the golden era of this book centres on the 1970s and 80s,  perhaps because it was a time of perceived – but not actual – doping innocence.   It splits riders into five groups, few of whom are the three-week tour specialists.  Of course Eddy Merckx is there, but no Anquetil or Indurain, and certainly no Armstrong.  The greater bulk are those whose results might not be so spectacular (Merckx notwithstanding), but those riders who would grind out a victory over a single day’s classic ride.  Drugs are not lauded, but neither are the riders condemned absolutely – Tyler Hamilton gets a mention for instance, as does Marco Pantani.

As ever there’s a gospel story here.  Books like this feel good because they recognise human culture for what it is: messy, but with a higher aim; grubby, but focused on some honourable glory.    The cycling gods here are human and fallible,  prone to character flaws and failure, but still loved and lauded.  It recognises that suffering is part of the whole story and through such suffering comes glory: “suffering is about taking care of ourselves mentally so we may be each a complete person”.  Redemption here is found in suffering, and that of the rider.  That may be true.  But one day, every cycling god has to climb off the bike one last time.  And where then comes redemption?


Evangelism again. How do we do it? 

A few weeks ago I looked at the question of the Gospel (i.e. the Good News) here.   More importantly I set out what I think are five chief characteristics of the gospel, as set out in the Bible.

Having re-read the article, I thought I had missed one or things out, but on receiving a copy of a leaflet called “Evangelism for the Local Church” in the post on Saturday, I think it’s kind of OK.  That’s because the Gospel is a message about Jesus – in other words its the content.  The process of telling others the good news, well that is evangelism.   We need to know about both as Christians.

In order to comment on the leaflet, I found it helpful for my own thinking to set out the basic steps of evangelism.   One of the most concise examples of evangelism is set out in Acts 8, verses 26-39.  We know this because the passage tells us in v35: “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.”  That passage that Philip references is Isaiah 53:7-8.

What is going on in this particular evangelistic incident?  Let’s see:

(1) Philip trusts and hears from the Lord, who initiates the whole incident (v26,29)

(2) Philip was observant of the Ethiopian’s circumstances – he saw the Ethiopian reading OT scriptures (v28)

(3) He didn’t start with a statement. No, he then asked a good gospel question (v30).

(4) He listened to the Ethiopian’s response (v31).

(5) He answered by taking the Ethiopian Eunuch to Jesus from his point of misunderstanding through scripture (v35).

(6) The Ethiopian heard the good news and responded – by asking to be baptised,

(7) Lastly, and with great joy I suspect,  Philip did just that.

It is an exemplary description, and the use of Isaiah 53 is important.  Why? Because:

(1) Isaiah 53 recognises that the Lord is sovereign (vv1,4, 6, 10)

(2) All humanity has acted with treachery to the Lord’s sovereignty – our transgressions and iniquities (vv 4,5,6,8)

(3) The suffering servant – which Philip will have pointed out was Jesus – suffered the punishment due to us (vv2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,1011,12) in fact this vicarious atonement is the strongest theme in these two verses.

(4) The suffering servant will rise again in great power (vv 10,11,12).

This is the classic structure of setting out the good news.   Or, should I say the classic structure of the good news follows this structure: God’s creation; Humanity’s failure; Jesus’ death, and then his resurrection to his kingdom.

If set it out simply and well, it should demand a response from each of us:

Do I now recognise God’s sovereignty?

Do I now see that we are traitors by nature?

Do I see that our only hope is for someone to do something about our failure, which is what Jesus did on the cross?

Do I recognise that Jesus will return in full power to judge each of us?

So what am I going to do? Repent, and be baptised like the Ethiopian eunuch, or carry on in my own particular chariot?

So let’s now turn back to that evangelism leaflet.   It’s not bad at all.  In fact it’s probably one of the best things I’ve had sent to me by the national church as an institution.

Now, as someone who has spent most of my church life steeped in evangelism, it is a bit fudgy in one or two areas.   My two main frustrations are these:

  • firstly, it doesn’t describe much in the way of content, whereas Acts 8 does, by quoting Isaiah 53.  In other words, the leaflet talks about the gospel, but it doesn’t actually set out the good news -the gospel itself.   But it does, largely go through the process that Philip did above.
  • Secondly, it doesn’t mention repentance. The process of coming to faith involves recognising that we are sinful, and turning to Christ isn’t just about having the benefits of following him. In other words, the booklet should note that coming to faith involves repentance.

Yes these are pretty major – I wouldn’t consider instructing others in evangelism without looking at both these areas carefully.

But otherwise, hats off.   There’s much good stuff here.  Contact is made with “those who God [in his sovereignty] has brought into his path”; nurture is our “intentional investment” in relationships. Commitment is “the specific invitation to people to follow Jesus Christ”, and growth starts with “becoming a Christian and joining a worshipping community”.    Further it rightly points out that it’s not about getting people to church; that we need to live our faith with integrity, and that mission is clearly a lot more than being in ‘contact with people who might use our building or might be part of a wider network” (all p8).

And here’s the best thing: every member of the clergy has been sent this, and it implicitly says “look church, this is what we’re really here for: to evangelise – to tell people the good news of Jesus Christ.”   Compare this with the great commission that Jesus gave to us his church in Matthew 28:19–20:

“…go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The booklet isn’t so far off. Encouraging isn’t it?

The (second) Gospel according to Paddington – a film review

There are few more delicious feelings than enjoying unexpected pleasure; it might be the act turning a corner in some bland city to find the faded glory of an old arcade, or some food that provides a new and delightful sensation..  In this case, it was going to see a film out of duty, and enjoying one of the movie highlights of the year, Paddington 2.

I’m rather partial to Wes Anderson movies (Fantastic Mr Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel) because of his phenomenal attention to detail in placing every item in every shot, and this film shows the same kind of craftsmanship.  This shows in Paddington himself.  He is of course a CGI – sorry if that’s a spoiler for you – but he appears so seamlessly, that you instantly suspend belief.

The story works well, the plot is utterly believable, and the setting is ageless, although just not quite contemporary.  There’s little to put your finger on why, but then you realise that no mobile phones appear (or tablets) and yet the phone box is vandalised and the Shard appears.  Engineering appears  to be 19th century, but Henry Brown has a very modern job.  All cleverly done.

The story starts with Paddington’s wish to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday.  Mr Gruber has the ideal thing – a London pop up book – which Paddington soon realises is going to cost him more than the 50 pence he has tucked in his ear.  Unfortunately the chief baddy in the film, Phoenix Buchanan – played brilliantly by Hugh Grant – realises that this is the book he has longed for all his life, due to the secret it contains.   The film then takes on the story of how Phoenix’s bad desires, and Paddington’s honourable desires work themselves out.

The film presents an idyllic view of human (and bear) flourishing: the perfect family, the twee but wonderfully multi-cultural London street all work together to overcome evil intent and bear injustice.  Well, all of this, and a good dollop of marmalade of course.   All centred around the delightful ‘person’ of Paddington.   There’s much for the Christian to grasp – this story tells something of our story too.

See it at the cinema if you can, or at least make a fun evening of it.  I can almost guarantee it will lift your spirits like few other films.


Book review: Church Planting is for Wimps, by Mike McKinley

I love this book’s subtitle: “How God uses messed-up people to plant ordinary churches that do extraordinary things”. It’s the literary equivalent of click-bait, because well I’m a bit messed up, and I’d like to do extraordinary things, so of course I want to read this!

The reality – rather assuringly – is that Mike McKinley isn’t particularly messed up and the church that God builds through his work isn’t particularly extraordinary. Of course, then the subtitle would be “how God uses average people to plant ordinary churches that do ordinary things”. And the reality for most of us is this is exactly who and where we are, and therefore this is a super read. It’s also a quick read – I got through most of it in 90 minutes in a coffee shop, and to be honest I’m using this review to capture the main points so that they last longer in my mind than the flat white I was drinking at the time.

Mike Mckinley joined Capitol Hill Baptist church as a young punk (the UK variety), and yet found a home with people who were culturally at another end of another spectrum. After some years working and in seminary, the senior minister, Mark Dever, asked him to go and plant another church as part of CHBC’s newly formed planting strategy. This was driven simply by the practical constraints of their building. Too many people for their building and nothing more spirutual than that.

The story is simply that of a young minister going through all the anguish, decision making and work that pretty much any church planter/invigorator must go through. He went to help an old and knackered church called Guilford Baptist rediscover the gospel and life itself.  Many questions arise, and McKinley uses his biography as his answer. Will it work? Am I the right man? What about the stroppy existing members of the church? How will it affect the family and marriage? How do we grow? What about evangelism?

Mike’s ordinariness, and his American take on self-deprecating jolliness is charming. Some of the book is laugh our loud funny – I love the image Mike paints of Mark Dever being in the Reformed Mafia, along with his “boundary issues”. Of course there are questions that McKinley never answers, but it was a helpful read – two or three of these testimonies are worth as much as any accomplished manual on church planting and revitalisation.

Three things strike me.

(1) The act of church planting and revitalisation is invigorating for Christians.  It makes us excited about faith in Jesus and so we talk about it- and ideally Him – to others.  That’s evangelism.

(2) As with pretty much any significant church growth, a good chunk of it comes from an unexpected angle; the work amongst the Spanish speakers was not something that was carefully envisaged in the early days.

(3) Most of all it reminded me that the truths for church plants/revitalisation are the same as for any churches – our job is the great commission: as we go, we are to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey and follow Jesus. That’s it.

The Gospel According to Blade Runner 2049 (A Film Review)

We film lovers enjoy a period of cinema history where many films are prequels, sequels, or even part of a cinematic universe. In the last year or two, we’ve had Star Wars, Justice League, Marvel, Lego and even Trainspotting. And now we have the sequel of a film made 35 years ago. 35 years!

The original Blade Runner falls into that marmite category, although few would argue against it being some kind of classic. It happens to be a favourite of mine, but it’s telling that it took several different edits (and 25 years) to get it right. Had the Final Cut been the original, some of the debate around the main character – Deckard – might not have taken place. Nonetheless it was one of those films that changed the direction of subsequent films in its genre.

Its sequel, Blade Runner 2049, has plenty to be getting on with.

There are some superb elements: it is a visual phenomenon, particularly on a huge screen. The film does well to immerse you in its world, and in many ways LA 2049 is the most richly described character in the film. Others disagree, but thought that the music is as apt as the Vangelis score was for the 1982 original.

This is a different kind of film to the original, however. It’s almost art-house-existential in nature, and that feeling is enhanced by the sheer length and scenes with long edits and slow movement. The original was a futuristic version of a 40s sleuth film, with a twist at the end. This isn’t that, although there is a hunt to solve a mystery. No, this film is primarily about a search for meaning.

There’s some frustration with plot and flow. The link between the first replicant character, Sapper Morton, and the rest of the film is implicit where it could do with being a little more explicit. Few of the characters make me feel for them. There are some awkward step changes in continuity. There are apparently meaningful clues (a yellow flower, something called the Galatians Syndrome) yet they end up being mere passing scenes. And this leads to a related, larger issue. I’m all for a slow film, but this borders on the ponderous. As an example, the scene where Deckard and K first met seems to go on for far too long. I get that Deckard is keen to protect himself from intruders, but even so, the scene -and the whole film could have done with some tightening, while maintaining an unhurried pace.

I wonder too whether it suffers from the same issue as Star Wars VII. The Force Awakens had to reference heavily the original 1977 film, and while it was good, Rogue One was better for being free of those constraints, while it remained in the same kind of universe.

Blade Runner 2049 is a thought-provoking film, though. There are several biblical references, (read this review for more, but note the spoilers) and the nature of created beings is at the heart of this film, much more so than in the original. Existence, humanity, free will – ultimately some kind of theology of self sits right at the heart of this film. It raises those questions in a good way, and then leads us to ponder the answers rather than fully trying to resolve them itself.   I’d recommend it for Christians (although there are scenes which are definitely not for the faint-hearted) not least because we have to seek God’s answer on these very same questions.

It’s taken a night and a morning to dwell on it; for me. it’s a good film, but not a masterful film. The original Blade Runner was a detective thriller with an existential undercurrent. This film is the opposite, and therein lies its strength, and probably its weakness.

Amazon strategy for churches?

That’s a somewhat goading title.  I don’t believe in strategy in any case (more on that in a future missive).  This letter is worth a read; it’s from Jeff Bezos – CEO of Amazon – to his shareholders.  In it he explains one of the core values at the heart of Amazon – his notion of ‘Day 1’.  He explains how that looks in four chief ideas: True Customer Obsession; Resist Proxies; Embrace External Trends, and High-Velocity Decision Making. Here’s five observations:

  1.  Bezos uses implicitly biblical language.  I did a quick family survey, and when I mentioned his ‘Day 1’ idea, we all immediately thought of Genesis 1.  For Bezos, the Day 1 ethic is one of creation – of care and innovation of worrying about the outcomes rather than the processes, and curiously, of ‘high velocity decision making’.   God has form in this arena.  When we read “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3 NIV), that’s about as high-velocity that any decision gets.
  2. More practically, there are some things that are helpful for a church to consider, and critique biblically.  It’s clear that as churches we should not jump on every latest fad – we shouldn’t Embrace External Trends (see 2 Corinthians 1:12 for instance).  But perhaps it would be at least wise to note them and their effect.
  3. In the same way that Amazon lives and breathes with a focus – or true obsession on customers,  as church we too are called to have a rapier-like focus.  That’s summed up in the great Commission of Matthew 28. (I’m open to listening to hear of we should focus on anything else ahead of this, but I’ve yet to hear anything that surpasses this).
  4. As Church too, it’s all to easy to focus on what Bezos calls proxies, rather than resisting them: Amazon should resist focus on the process and instead focus on the product.  Surely that’s the case for us too – Jesus’ highest criticism was reserved for the Pharisees whose focus on worship process blinded most of them to the Messiah stood right in front of them. It’s all to easy for us to ‘worship the worship’, rather than Christ himself.
  5. I’m struck by how as Anglicans we value the primacy of consensus, at global, synodical and even parish level.  I’m not quite sure why that holds such sway, but Bezos’s notion of ‘disagree and commit’ as a principle might help us overcome the turgid nature of much church discussion, while actually – and properly – committing to the majority agreed outcome.

Just what is the Gospel?

As Christians we often talk about the gospel, but I’m increasingly aware that this is shorthand for some fuzzy notion of a collection of ideas.  It’s something involving Jesus, being saved from an otherwise horrible future, the cross and eternal life.  That fuzziness isn’t very helpful, though.  What I’ve done below, therefore is work through this question – briefly – and come up with a concise statement that I can remember when I need it.  It’s helped me bring clarity for my own sake.   Even so, I think it’s probably better to have a handful of Biblical definitions up your sleeve.

Why don’t you have a go at answering this question?

Let’s start with the meaning of the word gospel: it is simply “good news”. Why? Three reasons.

  1. Every instance of the words translated as gospel or good news in the NT has at its root the stem εὐαγγελι-. There is no exception at all.
  2. In English Bibles, the verb tends to be translated as good news and the noun as gospel. Whatever, good news and gospel are interchangeable, so gospel simply means good news.
  3. The good news is a message, therefore, not an act or a movement or anything else. The Good News is not Christians being nice, those who bring social action, or being available for pastoral care. Those are good things, and they may be the means by which we share the gospel, but they are not the Gospel. The Gospel is Good News and remains just that – a good message.

Let’s go back to the question, then: what is the gospel itself? Why is the news good? There is no singular answer because the Bible tells us the gospel in many ways. Here are two great examples:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44 NIV11)

“But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4–7 NIV11)

For me, with the constant grating and awareness of my own moral failings, these two bits of scripture speak to my heart about the joy of true treasure – Jesus, and the cleansing power of Jesus’ life, poured out to death, so that I can be made righteous before God. There are others, of course. Mark’s gospel is a gospel: that’s the title Mark uses for his biography of Jesus. Freedom from poverty and slavery are good news, because in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, Jesus proclaims that he brings this. Isaiah 53 is the gospel, because Philip explained how this pointed to the good news of Jesus to the Ethopian eunuch (Acts 8). The eunuch, in turn believed and was baptised.

It’s worth spending time survey what the Bible says is the gospel -the good news.  What I found was that although the Bible tells the gospel in different ways, it seems that there are five essentials.  I take it these are as follows.

  • The gospel focuses precisely on Jesus Christ, rather than the church or love or God generally.
  • The gospel is about the astonishing and much-needed human restoration that only God is able to bring to deal with the effects of our sin. In my first two examples see how much change comes through the good news: total handover of the old life for the treasured new one; and rebirth and renewal leading to a new eternal life.
  • The gospel is cross-centred. In all four gospels, as Jesus moved through his ministry, there was clearly a sense of his coming hour. That was undeniably the glory of Christ’s death on the cross, and his resurrection from it.
  • The gospel is God’s declaration, in which we trust or don’t trust. Our lives follow, but our minds must first grasp this declaration – this proposition- and be renewed.
  • Because of those, the gospel can only be held by faith and trust, and not gained by good works. Good news comes from God, following God’s actions alone and cannot be earned; the gospel always comes to us.

The gospel is often much more than this, but never less than this.  And when we share the gospel, this is the basis of the good message that we are to share. If  it’s not this, it’s not the gospel.    So having done some workings, here’s my Gospel summary.

Humans have no right to any eternal life with God our creator, because it is our nature to ignore him and his goodness. Either we do that on purpose or – more often – because we’re just not bothered. In turn he has every right to respond in the same way. In fact he cannot ignore this otherwise there would be no eternal justice. That’s the bad news for us.

However, the divine Son of God, Jesus, became one of us and died painfully on the cross as one of us. He took the blame for our wilful ignorance of God. God did more than that, too. Jesus rose from the dead and promised that if we trust him, we have new eternal life, starting now. That’s the very good news of Jesus, in which and whom we are asked to trust.