Need a change of perspective?

Giant PebblePerspective changes things. From one angle something can seem small and insignificant. From another, it can appear large or even dominant. A small pebble on a beach can appear to be a large boulder, with the distant sea now merely a backdrop.

We have a great deal of choice about how we look at things. We can skip over the details and take in the wider picture, or we can get in close and examine the tiniest speck. Changing perspective means we have to do something about it – we need to move.

This can also be true about how we “see” things in our lives. Our current perspective will cause some things, whether they are events, people, ideas or something else, to look either larger or smaller. Their apparent importance and impact may vary depending on how we are looking at things at the time.

A shift of perspective might enable us to realise that we’ve been caught up too much in the details, or maybe we’re so obsessed with the big picture that we can’t see the small things any longer. Either way, a change of perspective might help us to appreciate differently the balance of elements in our life.

Faith in and the desire to follow Jesus helps bring about new possibilities for shifting our perspective and seeing life in new ways. Looking at things (as far as it is possible) from God’s point of view can open our eyes to a whole new set of priorities. Some things increase in size and importance, whilst others diminish.

What seems important or “big” in your life right now? Is there anything you may have lost sight of? Have you tried moving, changing your perspective? Through prayer and openness to the Spirit, we can learn to see in new ways.

© Joe Lenton, July 2013

Image: “Giant Pebble” © Original Art Photography By Joe Lenton, 2013 – available to purchase as a print. Part of the gallery on

The Worship Dilemma

There is little that seems to draw as much controversy within congregations as the thorny issue of “worship”. For some, it seems to be almost synonymous with singing. For others, it might be more of an unspoken state of the heart/mind or a feeling. What is clear is that it is something very important to our identity as Christians, but something we find it hard to agree how to express.

In an earlier article, “Praying with Scripture Part Two – Praise & Worship”, we looked a little at what “worship” might be. Here, I want to explore a little more the dilemma of worshipping together.

If worship involves describing God’s acts and attributes in some way then it would seem logical to assume that worship will use words – either sung or said. This much we tend to be able to agree upon. However, which form of words should we use? How do we cope with the fact that some will like formal liturgy whereas others will not and some will enjoy older forms of English used in older hymns whilst others like more modern ones?

One possible solution is to have different services that use different forms, e.g. a Book of Common Prayer service and an informal one. However, this risks having the effect of splitting us further into groups that only attend our particular favoured forms of service. Worship effectively only becomes possible in homogeneous groups made up of people who want the same thing. This can end up being a generational divide – older Christians wanting something reminding them of their youth, whilst today’s youth want something that represents their culture more accurately.

How about mixing old and new hymns/songs in a service? This at least has the aim of keeping diverse people together, allowing the body of believers to remain a multi-generational, multi-cultural family. Yet even such an attempt at compromise will itself attract grumbles and some songs will still appeal more to some than others.

Perhaps we should look a little at what lies behind the idea of worship – why do we do it and why do it the way we do? I would like to explore 3 areas – 1. God, 2. Others, 3. Ourselves.

1. GodFirstly, we need to remember that worship is centred around one person and that is God. So often we effectively make out that it is all about me or us by squeezing it into a mould that suits us.

Arguing over the various forms of worship can be a bit like arguing which of the presents people have brought to a birthday party are superior. There is nothing wrong with bringing presents to someone on their birthday. Each one might show recognition of a different facet of the receiver’s character or their relationship with the giver. It might be that nobody else would have thought to bring that gift – it is peculiar to the way one person expresses their love on that day, perhaps. However, if we were to argue perpetually about whose present is “best” whilst effectively ignoring the birthday boy/girl then are we really there for them on their day or are we making it all about ourselves?

God is the only person who is truly worthy of worship. To express this to anyone or anything else is idolatry. God is unique and it is our position to celebrate this, to celebrate God and focus our and other people’s (as well as all creation’s) attention on the Creator. Whilst we argue about worship, are we risking at times destroying its true purpose?

2. Others – Secondly, as I’ve just hinted at above, worship is also about drawing others into worshipping and praising God. Through our worship, others hear of who God is and what God has done and are (hopefully!) drawn to join in. Just as Israel’s obedience was to be a witness to the nations, Israel’s worship (expressed in obedience too, of course) was to stand out and point to the one true God.

Sometimes I wonder if we risk neglecting this aspect of our worship. If it is not sufficiently different and obviously God-centred then it might fail as a counter-cultural witness to those around us. However, equally, if it is not understandable to those who may see and hear us, how are they supposed to join in? Without meaning to single out any particular Christian group, might I suggest one simple example – the use of modern English. If our services are completely in old-fashioned language, how can the youth of today understand and join in?

Is this something that should play a greater role than our personal preferences, perhaps? Maybe we should consider the nature of the community around us and what would speak to them. Maybe we should consider if there is anything about the way we worship that could speak more to others, help them understand who God is and want to worship for themselves? What if we don’t get visitors – does that mean we can do what we like or that we should focus on building up the faithful or that really we should somehow be getting people “into church”?

Our understanding of our identity as congregations and our understanding of mission and how we do it needs to inform our considerations of how we worship. In fact, it already does implicitly – perhaps what we need is to examine our presuppositions and see if our theory and practice match?

3. OurselvesThirdly, worship is an expression of ourselves. As such, it is profoundly personal and therefore likely to take as wide a variety of forms as there are not just personality types, but people. Not all of us are “wordy”, not all of us enjoy or express sentiments using music or song and not all of us are able to express our feelings in art, for example. We can each worship God in quite different ways, bringing our own particular gift to the party.

This is all very well, we might think, for our own “private devotions”. You can do what you like at home on your own; but what about corporate worship? Clearly, corporate worship is something that has always been at the heart of the life of God’s people – in the Old & New Testaments and into the centuries beyond. So, what are we to do when we are together? Should we only seek out like-minded people and go homogeneous?

I don’t think this is the answer for a number of reasons, not least the fact that the metaphor of the church as body with members acting as different parts suggests diversity. We can think, too, of the mass of diverse worshippers gathered together in Revelation 7, or the apparent expectation that congregations of believers contain mixed generations (like a family), for example.

The well-known chapters from 1 Corinthians used in debates about “spiritual gifts” suggest that we could (and perhaps should?) express some of our diversity when meeting corporately. Not everyone has the same gifts or personality type, so let’s incorporate opportunities for various gifts and personality-types to find expression when we meet. If the format of services, the words used, the hymns sung and the people involved never change then we will risk only serving up a few of the various “gifts” of worship to God that we as congregations could offer.

To some this might sound like a licence for chaos. However, structure does not have to be completely abandoned and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, God is a God of order and not chaos so we are still responsible for bringing our contributions in a suitable manner.

There are times in Scripture also when the masses said or sang the same words – the Psalms are a good example of this. It would appear from the New Testament that such corporate acts were not abandoned, but that greater flexibility (as all are now “priests” and able to contribute more directly) entered into their meetings as the Spirit was given room.

We are diverse because God has made us diverse. Worship is something that happens as God’s Spirit works in us and brings us to overflow with praise to God. Because we are different and the gifts He gives are different, the ways that the Spirit leads us to worship will vary.

This becomes a problem as we try to safeguard our own preferences above God being praised, the world being witnessed to and God’s Spirit moving amongst us. It troubles us also, if we are truly honest with ourselves, as it removes us from places of power and control. Perhaps we like certain types of sermons or when a certain person sings, or having the chance to be up front ourselves – but what about if there are others whose gifts are not being given room? Will we be willing to stand aside for a while?

For the sake of others we will sometimes have to take part in worship that is not an immediate reflection of ourselves. Conversely, we would hope that others would support us in raising our worship to God. Corporately we can celebrate God together, gladly offering up a wide variety of gifts of praise rather than cherry-picking what we think are the best ones.

To conclude, I cannot help but notice the risk of perpetuating through this article precisely that same dilemma we have been looking at. My hope is that we can find ways forward, support one another and begin to overcome arguments that divide us and cause many to leave our churches.

© Joe Lenton, October 2012

Reading the Bible – 2 Simple Questions

Open BibleReading the Bible can sometimes seem very complicated and confusing. The huge distance in history and culture may cause us to wonder if we can make any sense of it without specialist knowledge.

There are many tools that can be learned to help us study Scripture. In the main, they basically tend to boil down to 2 key questions that we can ask:

1) Why?
2) So what?

The first question, “why?”, relates to the text and what has fed into it. We ask why the author might have wanted to write this – what kinds of circumstances may have caused them to think this piece of writing useful or essential? Why is it structured the way it is? Why has it been included in our Bibles?

There are various resources that can help us to address the “why?” question. Historical and cultural studies may be of some value and so consulting commentaries may be useful. Also, when we come to think of how the text is written, an appreciation of literary technique – their skills as a writer – may come into play. If these feel too much like the tools of the expert for use in dusty studies only, then we can often get similar results by using our imagination – try to put yourself in the place of the author/first readers.

Answering the “why?” question is not an exact science. We simply cannot know for sure what the circumstances of writing were or what was going through the author’s mind. Using historical or literary tools may help us to understand better, yet in essence what they do is inform and feed our imaginative leaps at grasping “why?”. We trust also that God’s Holy Spirit is involved, speaking to us as we wrestle with the text.

The second question “so what?” is very similar to our first. The slight difference is that it concerns itself more with our present circumstances. What significance do our findings from the passage have for us today?

This cannot help but be a subjective exercise. We cannot judge what matters to us today without already involving our own cultures, theologies and preferences.  Moreover, our present situation and experiences will in part dictate what is “important” to us at the time, meaning that the “so what?” aspect of a passage may vary depending on when we read it.

If we don’t ask the “so what?” question, then we risk being left with historical artefacts or dry doctrines and systematic theologies. These things can be learnt and even agreed to without them having to affect us or the way we live. Everything is abstract rather than concrete. Asking “so what?” helps to ground our interaction with the text – we are coming to it with a purpose, not just to dig up a load of information.

The 2 questions do not always operate separately as we read. They can and do blur. For example, we can weigh up the usefulness of the answers we find to “why?” by constantly asking “so what?” – there can be a constant interaction between the past and our present.

A great deal of Bible reading involves the imagination and is an “art” not an exact science. Even if we don’t delve into “scholarly” methods, we can still help ourselves to get a lot from each passage simply by asking why it is there and what the significance is for us. If we can’t find any, then maybe we either need to work harder or come back another time as it isn’t speaking to us right now.

© Joe Lenton, September 2012

Signposts to a new creation

What is this? Just a pile of dirt?

Yes & No – this pile of dirt is a molehill. It might look like nothing in particular, but it acts as a signpost to activity below- “There is life here!”

Once you know what you’re looking for, it is easy to spot the tell-tale signs of mole activity. You can, with just a little experience, generally tell at a glance that these little piles of dirt are molehills.

The kingdom of God can be a bit like this, too. God has begun a new creation, bringing in His kingdom, but not everyone sees it. There are little signposts all over the place – but do we know how to read them?

Christians receive the Holy Spirit who brings about the first signs of the kingdom in us. It is like a down-payment that acts as a promise of the full treasure yet to come. Sometimes, the Spirit’s work in our lives can be hard to spot. We wonder why we are still so messed up, still rebelling, still getting things wrong – is God really with me?

Then, we learn to spot the little “molehills” of the kingdom that point to the work of the Spirit, the life that is buzzing beneath the surface. Each tiny manifestation of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, whether by “fruit” or “gifts”, is a little indication of what is to come.

So, whenever and wherever you notice something of the Spirit’s presence, remember that it is not insignificant, but that it points to life. The tiniest glimpse of the kingdom reminds us that more is yet to come and that God is still at work.

You may feel that your life is like a pile of dirt – but maybe you’re one of God’s molehills.

© Joe Lenton, September 2012