Choosing a baptism bible verse – a small change that’s made a big difference

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Back in 2015 I attended a conference in Durham Diocese to discuss baptism practices and theology with colleagues from the Lutheran Church in Northern Germany. An idea which I took from our German friends was to encourage parents and godparents to choose a bible verse for their child’s baptism. We completely overhauled the way we do our baptism preparation (which is a session we run at church and the parents and godparents attend together) and one part was to introduce choosing a verse which is then read out in the service.

We have a list of verses for them to choose from (although we would welcome someone asking for one not on the list):

  1. The Lord bless you and keep you – Numbers 6:24
  2. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. – Proverbs 3:5
  3. Jesus said ‘You are the light of the world’ – Matthew 5:14
  4. Jesus said ‘I am with you always’. – Matthew 28:20
  5. Be kind to one another – Ephesians 4:32
  6. Jesus said ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ – 1 John 3:23
  7. Jesus said ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. – Luke 6:31
  8. I can make it through anything with Jesus – Philippians 4:13
  9. God says: ‘Do not be afraid for I am with you’. – Isaiah 43:5

When we introduced this to the baptism preparation session I was quite sceptical about it, thinking that the families would arbitrarily pick one and then we’d move on. On the contrary, the groups often spend some time debating which verse to choose for their child and regularly ask for a bible so that they can look it up. We now use the verse as the basis for the bible reading in the service and then preach about that – people are also more ready to listen when I say that the family have chosen this verse especially. We make our own baptism certificates and now the chosen verse is printed on there as a reminder to the family.

So this was a simple change we made that has made a big difference to our baptism ministry.

I’ve been reflecting on why this has been such a popular addition to our baptism sessions. I think it taps into the current zeitgeist. Photo-11-10-2017-15-51-38-1024x768It is very popular to have quotations on soft furnishings or on the wall of your home, as my friend Robb points out in an article commenting on these strange candle holders.

It is also very popular to have a tattoo of a quotation. So when I explain to the families that they have a chance to personalise the baptism service by choosing a special verse that will be like a life-motto for their child, they instantly understand what it’s about. It’s a surprisingly easy way to engage people in bible study. Why not give it a try?

This article is hilarious on this current trend for inspirational home furnishings (caution, this article is very cynical!): https://www.buzzfeed.com/joannaborns/inspirational-home-decor.

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My new tumblr blog: songs evoking scripture

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One of my many blogs that I incorporated into this one was called the Unknown God blog. This consists of a collection of things I’ve found from popular culture that for me speak of God in some way – there is a real mixture of art, film, books and music on there. One of my passions in life is music – mainly of the alternative variety but my tastes are reasonably eclectic. I often find that music moves me more than other art forms and often songs I listen to make me think of particular bible passages, they either directly relate to specific verses, they evoke the mood of a passage or sometimes they illustrate the point of a passage. Sometimes the reverse happens. I decided to create a Tumblr blog to share these as I’m simply sharing music videos and the scriptures I think they relate to. The simplicity of tumblr works well for something like this. You can find this new blog here:

http://songsevokingscripture.tumblr.com/

I hope it becomes a resource for me but also perhaps for you. These songs could be used in all sorts of ways: to introduce a bible study, as an intro or outro to an alternative church service, for your own quiet time, in a sermon…Be blessed!

A word on World Mental Health Day – what we can learn from Elijah’s depression – 1 Ki 19

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This Wednesday was World Mental Health Day which seeks to raise awareness about mental health issues. I would say probably about 75% of my friends have had a mental health problem. I’ve had mild depression and I have received counselling. I’m saying this here as I am sure quite a few people wouldn’t expect that of me. Mental health affects us all and one in 4 people has a mental health condition. We really need to stop the stigma about it – mental illness is an illness just as severe as cancer, heart failure or any other ‘physical’ illness.

If you don’t know much about mental health I would encourage you to watch this video from Ruby Wax where she talks about her own mental health issues – in a very amusing way.

I think the church still has a very long way to go to supporting people with mental health problems. I love the story of Elijah in the Old Testament. It is a very early story of a man faced with mental health problems after what should have been the most impressive day of his life. He defeats 450 of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel to proclaim his God as Lord and shortly after this amazing climax of his ‘career’ so far, he crashes:

He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ – 1 Kings 19:4

God doesn’t abandon him. He doesn’t chastise him for wishing he was dead. Slowly and gently the Lord restores Elijah and gives him a new purpose and direction for his life and a new companion with whom to share his journey – Elisha.

How does the LORD restore Elijah? Here are 3 things that God provides that we can also offer friends and family who have mental health issues:

  • Food (v5) – a simple gesture we can offer friends who are struggling is to provide a meal or cake (cake is always good!)
  • Encouragement to move (v7-8) – another thing we can do is to encourage friends to get out of the house, go for a simple walk or to the gym. Physical activity can really help with depression. If you have a dog, why not ask if the friend would like to take it for a walk?
  • Acknowledgement of the problem (v9-10):

And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

10 He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’

Naming the problem can really help. Encourage your friend, if they’re ready, to share their story. Let them cry, let them get angry. Don’t try and offer a solution, just listen and let them name their grief.

Here is a prayer for the mentally ill from Mind and Soul:

Be Father Lord, when I turn to run away from your embrace;
Catch me in your strong, sweet caress should I turn from the race,
And when I scream distress, shout not human reason in my face,
But talk me down, softly into a quiet, safe, intimate space.

Bring smiles to shine upon distorted ways, I simply pray,
Change my actions for the better with every passing of the day.
When electrons fire in double speed at a continuous pace,
Into a confined constricted place; capture me in your loving grace!

Quell the doubts kept hidden in garments of praise,
Whilst others whisper words of distaste in judgement’s haste.
Love’s fire flames – scream thoughts, once imprisoned and encased,
Out beyond lives wasted, into the heart’s fertile and limitless place.

Open me again as I stand at a distance, in disbelief and disease;
Soothe me in a quiet voice, as a father who knows and yet is well pleased.
Coax me gently back again as before, into your light of loving grace;
Recapture my tearful face, Daddy, in the palms of your embrace.

Show me love beyond the moon, even in the crevices of sin’s disgrace;
Help me forgive sounds of distrust, sitting in humanity’s disregarding face.
Lead me through shadows of tainted separation, to dance in unity with you,
Entering peace that surpasses all understanding: knowing you to be truth.

– Anon, 28/08/2012

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Spare a prayer for all those who struggle with mental illness today and pray for eyes to see the need around you.

A fantastic resource for Christians in this area is Mind and Soul. Stephen Fry also linked on Twitter today to a site called the Art of Recovery that contains resources for individuals on overcoming mental illness.

An Olympics-themed bible study – “I press on towards the goal to win the prize”

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I decided that in our small group this week that it would be good to do a bible study with an Olympics theme. Apologies if you’re sick of all the Team GB mania but I figure, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

There are a surprising number of bible passages that I could have used for an Olympic themed bible study. I asked some friends on Twitter and also did some keyword searches on Bible Gateway and I came up with this (not comprehensive) list:

Ecclesiastes 9:10-12 – ‘the race is not to the swift’

1 Kings 19:2-4 – Elijah runs for his life

Judges 16: 28-31 – The strength of Samson

1 Samuel 17 – David and Goliath

1 Corinthians 9:23-25 – ‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?’

2 Timothy 4:6-8 – ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race’

Hebrews 12:1-3 – ‘Let us run with endurance the race set before us’

2 Timothy 2:4-6 – ‘An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.’

The passage I have decided on, however, is Philippians 3:4:14.

Here is the plan for the evening, feel free to adapt it to your own context. At our church we use the structure of the ‘4 Ws’ – welcome, worship, word and witness so that is how I have laid this out here.

Welcome

Discuss what you liked the most about the London Olympics opening ceremony and why. What was the most inspiring thing for you?

Worship

Read Psalm 19 together – spend some time in the quiet reflecting on the daily display of God’s glory we can see all around us.

If you wish you can read this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Spend some time in prayer – sharing just simple sentences of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Word

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;  as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead,  I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. – Phil 3:4b-14

Questions to discuss:

1. What sort of things do you put your confidence in? (v4-6) Are they what the world sees as important?

Paul’s attributes made him a model Jew in every sense, he had every reason to trust that he’d got ‘everything sorted’.

2. Paul uses a strong word in v8 to describe the things he and his world used to pride – rubbish or, in the KJV, ‘dung’! How does it feel to describe those things you put your confidence in as fit for the bin? Can you do that? Why do you think Paul uses such an extreme image?

3. What’s the purpose of dismissing what the world puts confidence in?

4. Why do you think, in verse 10 that Paul mentions the resurrection first and then suffering? Is this a prayer you can pray?

5. The goal that Paul describes in v14 is the finishing line that the athletes in the ancient world had to focus on and reach in order to win the prize – which in those days was a wreath crown like those given in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games:

If the athletes didn’t aim for the mark, they were disqualified and wouldn’t gain the prize of the crown. Paul uses this imagery elsewhere;

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” – 1 Corinthians 9:25

With this in mind, what do you think the goal or mark is? What do you think the prize or crown is?

Witness

Watch this film:

This clip was featured in a run down of the ‘top 50 Olympic moments of all time’ on TV this week.

How do you watch this film in the light of the bible passage we’ve looked at tonight?

How is this clip reflective of your own life experience?

How might you encourage a friend with this story?

Read the whole Bible in 90 days

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Back in 2009 a friend of mine at church created a ‘bible in 90 days’ reading plan which a group of us did together. The plan requires that you spend about an hour reading the bible each day (with no days off!) and as such, works best when done as a group in fellowship. I found it a great experience and I’m so glad to say that I have now read the whole bible from cover to cover. I wrote about this experience on this blog here.

This week I read this blog post by Jon Butler about reading the bible in a year and it reminded me of my 90 day challenge.

So, if you’re interested, here is the 90 day reading plan. Note that in week 11 you get to read all 4 gospels (this is a real highlight of this plan). I highly recommend undertaking this with a group of friends so that you can encourage each other (we met in a pub after church each week to share how we were getting on – no guilt trip, just honest conversation!)

Overview

Week 1: Genesis – Exodus
Week 2: Leviticus – Numbers – Deuteronomy
Week 3: Deuteronomy – Joshua – Judges – Ruth – 1 Samuel
Week 4: 1 Samuel – 2 Samuel – 1 Kings – 2 Kings
Week 5: 1 Chronicles – 2 Chronicles – Ezra – Nehemiah
Week 6: Nehemiah – Esther – Job – Psalms
Week 7: Psalms – Proverbs – Ecclesiastes – Song of Songs – Isaiah
Week 8: Isaiah – Jeremiah
Week 9: Jeremiah – Lamentations – Ezekiel
Week 10: Daniel – Hosea – Joel – Amos – Obadiah – Jonah – Micah – Nahum – Habakkuk – Zephaniah – Haggai – Zechariah – Malachi
Week 11: Matthew – Mark – Luke – John
Week 12: Acts – Romans – 1 Corinthians – 2 Corinthians – Galatians – Ephesians – Philippians – Colossians – 1 Thessalonians – 2 Thessalonians – 1 Timothy  -2 Timothy – Titus – Philemon
Week 13: Hebrews – James – 1 Peter – 2 Peter – 1 John – 2 John – 3 John – Jude – Revelation

Detailed reading plan

Week 1

Day 1 – Genesis 1 – 16
Day 2 – Genesis 17 – 28
Day 3 – Genesis 29 – 40
Day 4 – Genesis 40 – 50
Day 5 – Exodus 1 – 15
Day 6 – Exodus 16 – 28
Day 7 – Exodus 29 – 40

Week 2

Day 1 – Leviticus 1 – 14
Day 2 – Leviticus 15 – 26
Day 3 – Leviticus 27 – Numbers 8
Day 4 – Numbers 9 – 20
Day 5 – Numbers 21 – 32
Day 6 – Numbers 33 – Deuteronomy 7
Day 7 – Deuteronomy 8 – 23:14

Week 3

Day 1 – Deuteronomy 23:15 – 34
Day 2 – Joshua 1 – 14
Day 3 – Joshua 15 – Judges 3
Day 4 – Judges 4 – 15
Day 5 – Judges 16 – Ruth – 1 Samuel 2
Day 6 – 1 Samuel 3 – 15
Day 7 – 1 Samuel 16 – 28
Week 4
Day 1 – 1 Samuel 29 – 2 Samuel 12
Day 2 – 2 Samuel 13 – 21
Day 3 – 2 Samuel 22 – 1 Kings 7
Day 4 – 1 Kings 8 – 16
Day 5 – 1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 4
Day 6 – 2 Kings 5 – 15
Day 7 – 2 Kings 16 – 25
Week 5
Day 1 – 1 Chronicles 1 – 9
Day 2 – 1 Chronicles 10 – 23
Day 3 – 1 Chronicles 24 – 2 Chronicles 7
Day 4 – 2 Chronicles 8 – 23
Day 5 – 2 Chronicles 24 – 36
Day 6 – Ezra 1 – 10
Day 7 – Nehemiah 1 – 13
Week 6
Day 1 – Esther – Job 7
Day 2 – Job 8 -25
Day 3 – Job 26 – 42
Day 4 – Psalms 1 – 25
Day 5 – Psalms 26 – 45
Day 6 – Psalms 46 – 69
Day 7 – Psalm 70 – 89
Week 7
Day 1 – Psalm 90 – 108
Day 2 – Psalm 109 – 134
Day 3 – Psalm 135 – Proverbs 6
Day 4 – Proverbs 7 – 20
Day 5 – Proverbs 21 – Ecclesiastes 2
Day 6 – Ecclesiastes 3 – Song of Songs 8
Day 7 – Isaiah 1 – 13
Week 8
Day 1 – Isaiah 14 – 28
Day 2 – Isaiah 29 – 41
Day 3 – Isaiah 43 – 52
Day 4 – Isaiah 53 – 66
Day 5 – Jeremiah 1 – 10
Day 6 – Jeremiah 11 – 22
Day 7 – Jeremiah 23 – 33
Week 9
Day 1 – Jeremiah 34 – 48
Day 2 – Jeremiah 49 – 52
Day 3 – Lamentations 1 – Ezekiel 12
Day 4 – Ezekiel 13 – 23
Day 5 – Ezekiel 24 – 35
Day 6 – Ezekiel 36 – 47
Day 7 – Ezekiel 48 – Daniel 9
Week 10
Day 1 – Finish Daniel
Day 2 – Read Hosea
Day 3 – Read Joel and Amos
Day 4 – Read Obadiah, Jonah and Micah
Day 5 – Read Nahum and Habakkuk
Day 6 – Read Zephaniah and Haggai
Day 7 – Read Zechariah and Malachi
Week 11
Day 1 – Matthew 1 – 16
Day 2 – Matthew 17 – 28
Day 3 – Mark 1 – 13
Day 4 – Mark 14 – Luke 6
Day 5 – Luke 7 – 18
Day 6 – Luke 19 – John 6
Day 7 – John 7 – 21
Week 12
Day 1 – Acts 1 – 9
Day 2 – Acts 10 – 18
Day 3 – Acts 19 – 28
Day 4 – Romans 1 – 11
Day 5 – Romans 12 – 1 Corinthians 9
Day 6 – 1 Corinthians 10 – 2 Corinthians 7
Day 7 – 2 Corinthians 8 – Ephesians 6
Week 13
Day 1 – Philippians – Colossians – 1&2 Thessalonians
Day 2 – 1 Timothy – 2 Timothy – Titus – Philemon
Day 3 – Hebrews
Dat 4 – James – 1 Peter
Day 5 – 2 Peter – 1 John – 2 John – 3 John – Jude
Day 6 – Revelation 1 – 12
Final day!!! – Revelation 13 – 22

Other bible reading plans

There are plenty of other bible reading plans around – Bible in one year, Chronological Bible etc. I would really recommend those offered by YouVersion – if you have a smartphone you can do these plans through your phone reading in whichever translation you like – all for free!

http://www.youversion.com/reading-plans/all

5 things I learnt reading the Bible in 90 days

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First, I have a confession to make: I didn’t quite complete the ‘challenge’ within 90 days, it was more like 100 days but I think that’s close enough. I wasn’t being sponsored to do this!

As I posted a while back at the beginning of September, a group of us agreed to read the Bible from cover to cover over a 90 day period. When we could we met with each other each Sunday to have a chat about how we’d found things, insights, frustrations and questions.

I know quite a few people were intrigued that I joined in this challenge so I thought I would outline here the main things I learnt:

Reading the Bible every day – whether you are taking it in or not, or whether it leaves you cold or you have a major insight – is good for you. Full stop.

It’s a great discipline. Just as sometimes you can go to the gym and not notice any improvement at all – indeed, sometimes you feel worse – over time it has an impact. The Bible is no different. It truly is ‘living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword’

It is of benefit with most of the books of the Bible to read a whole book through in one sitting every so often.

This is particularly true of the Gospels and the Epistles, they are full narratives from beginning to end and it is helpful to read them in one go, otherwise you can miss things. Books this is not especially good for are the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) – because they are almost too long for this! And Psalms and Proverbs, because each section is purposely written as a stand-alone piece.

Reading the Bible for up to an hour each day made me realise that I CAN make time for spiritual disciplines.

I was helped by having a long commute, but doing this did make me realise that with effort (discipline comes along with sacrifice), it is possible to make time to nurture yourself spiritually).

Reading the Old Testament law and prophets helps you to understand some of the words and images Jesus uses.

You can’t fully understand the Gospels and their religious context without reading the Old Testament.

Reading the Bible all the way through provides an affirmation of the fundamentals of Christian belief, that Christ died for our sins, was raised on the third day and that He will come again.

Although there were challenges along the way, and I still have a lot of unanswered questions, I found the experience largely spiritually uplifting.

Adam and Eve in lego

Image from the amazing Brick Testament, click this image to go to site

My favourite bit:

My favourite book of the Bible remains the book of Ruth. However, this time, I really enjoyed Genesis.

My least favourite bit:

I really struggled with the book of Jeremiah. I found it so bleak and quite discouraging. However, one of the strengths of the way we did this was meeting together each week to discuss how we were doing. Invariably, where one person found it hard, someone else really enjoyed it. This just showed me how the Bible really is a ‘gift that keeps on giving’. When I read Jeremiah again, maybe I’ll feel differently.

Let me know if you would like the plan which we used. I would really recommend, if you are wanting to do this too, undertaking it with at least one other person so that you can encourage each other along the way.

Our God of the valleys (Bible in 90 days)

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You probably know that I am currently in the middle of  reading, with some friends, the Bible in 90 days. I blogged about all the wonderful insights I had in the first week and, well, it went a bit quiet! Not surprisingly really as the books following Genesis and Exodus were quite hard going. That coupled with being ridiculously busy at work (rubbish excuse I know) meant that I didn’t really blog about it. Well today, I had one of those ‘discovery’ moments.

It’s one of my favourite things about the Bible that no matter how many times you read it, you can have a new insight at any time. It is indeed ‘living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12)

The verse which stood out for me today was this:

“‘The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Because the Arameans think the LORD is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” – 1 Kings 20:28

The mistake the Arameans make, is thinking that the God that the Israelites worship is only a god of the hills or high places, that he only dwells ‘up there’ and will not come to help the army ‘down here’. How often do we, or people who don’t know God make that same wrong assumption?

I know, from personal experience, that God is indeed a ‘god of the valley’. Twice recently, I’ve been asked what the most defining moments of my life so far have been. I have to say, they’re not actually the ‘mountain top moments’ – they have more commonly been the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ moments. It is most often, in our deepest darkest moment in the valley that we truly meet with God.

Jesus, the suffering messiah is described in Isaiah 53 as:

‘a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’

and this goes on to be revealed in the Gospels.

He is a God of the hills – we do, perhaps more rarely, have ‘mountain top moments’ with Him – see Peter, James and John’s experience in Matthew 17. But He is also, most definitely, a God of the valleys as well.

As my pastor would say: Be encouraged!

Our God is a god of the Valleys

Our God is a god of the Valleys