Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – 1 Chronicles

Our next few books are going to be the same but different. We’ve met the Dueteronomic Historians, who, from the vantage point of the Babylonian exile, were able to reflect on the period of the monarchy and explain what went wrong. I now need to introduce you to a new strand of literature, that coming from what is called the ‘Priestly’ source (P). Generally reckoned to date from the 5th Century, Israel had returned from exile to Jerusalem, and were living under Persian rule. The same period of history is written up, so it will feel a bit as though we are rewinding, but the interests and style of the Priestly writers are completely different from those of the Deuteronomists. Imagine two lectures or sermons, one given by a hellfire preacher passionate about the gospel, and the other by the archive curator of your local museum of history. That’ll give you some idea of the flavour of our next few books. In fact we have met P before, as some of the sections of the first five books (the ‘Pentateuch’) look as though they come from this source. The main concern is the careful documentation of facts and figures, the listing of people involved, and liturgical details of worship. P is not as easy to read, which is why it is often neglected. In fact the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are simply a long list of names, starting with Adam and going right through to Saul and his family. (You are allowed to skip this bit, although if you like funny Hebrew names this is a rich trawling-ground. I particularly like Zelophehad.)

The actual story is picked up in chapter 10 with the death of Saul and the crowning of David, and continues to the preparations for the building of the Temple and David’s death. There are some well-told stories, but there are regular interruptions for more lists, of David’s key soldiers, various people involved in the building of the Temple, priests, musicians and Levites, and so on. In places it feels as though you’ve somehow put down the Bible and picked up the phone book instead.

But in spite of this rather archivy approach, the books contain some deeply spiritual and significant passages. David’s psalm of praise in chapter 16, written to celebrate the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, is a highspot of worship. The exploits of his mighty warriors in chapter 11 make great reading, especially for blokes, and David’s touching call to the people to give generously to the work on the Temple, and his own leading by example, is a great stewardship passage from which to preach. This is not merely a historical record: like everything in the Bible is has a theological point of view. The Priests are keen to exalt the place of worship in the community, to trace its origins back to David, to demonstrate how much care and attention ought to be paid to it, and perhaps therefore to raise awareness among those returned from exile but more intereste in home improvements than the worship of God. A fascinating insight into this period can be found in the writings of Haggai, who found a nation at comfortable ease, living in their panelled houses rather than working  on the Temple of God. This book is a call back to the priority of worship, to the careful attention which must be given to it, and to the reverence with which God is to be treated.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy is one of the most important books of the OT: without it we wouldn’t really be able to make much sense of several later books. It is presented as three sermons from Moses as the people overlook the Promised Land, which through their own faithlessness and grumbling the previous generation were doomed not to enter. So before he dies at the end of the book Moses gives the people a pep talk, reminding them of the journey so far, of some of the laws from Exodus (hence the book’s name, which means ‘second law’) and telling them how they and their children should live when they did cross the border.

Two themes ring out from this book: one has to do with separation, the other with worship. These two areas are to become foundational for what lies ahead. The Israelites are to keep themselves separate and holy by not compromising with the standards of the nations around them, when it comes to morality and idolatry. And they are to worship God as he demands, not as they might fancy, and in particular they are to worship him in the place which he is going to choose, which will turn out to be Jerusalem. These principles are set out clearly in chapters 12 and 13.

The next few books, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, are known collectively as the ‘Deuteronomic History’. Like all history they are written up from a particular point of view, and that point of view is set out in Deuteronomy, the ‘preface’. A few centuries later the people find themselves in exile in Babylon, and they can’t help but ask themselves the question ‘What went wrong? How did we get ourselves into this mess?’ The answer they come up with is that we have systematically violated the two principles set out in the book of Deuteronomy: we have not kept ourselves separate and holy to God, and we have tried to worship in places other than Jerusalem. The Deuteronomic history books, and some would say Deuteronomy itself, were almost certainly compiled during the exile, and served both as a review of the past but also a warning for the future. So we shall see in a few weeks that all the kings of Israel and Judah are judged almost exclusively on whether they adhered to the policy of ‘centralisation of worship’, in other words did they allow worship only in Jerusalem or did they tolerate it elsewhere?

A distinctive section of the book is the ‘blessing and cursing’ section in chapters 27 to 30. If the people will do as they are told, they will experience a long list of blessings throughout the land, particularly centred around victory over their enemies and fruitful harvests, whereas if they choose disobedience (which of course they subsequently did most of the time) they would know God’s curse in the shape of defeat in battle, sickness, removal of possessions, unfruitfulness and lack of harvest. Finally the choice is set before them in the starkest of terms: life or death (30:11ff).

Moses then prepares for the future by appointing Joshua, who along with Caleb, the other faith-filled spy are the only ones from that generation to enter the land, as his successor as leader, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. After blessing the people he dies on Mt Nebo, is mourned, and the stage is set for Joshua to lead them over into the land.

How are we to read this book today? Surely the same two principles around which the book is centred apply every bit as much to those the other side of Christ’s cross: we are to be holy and different from those around us, and we are to worship God on his terms and not our own. Blessing and cursing may not be quite so clear cut as they are set out in Deuteronomy: indeed we shall see much agonising as we continue through the OT about why innocent people suffer and the nasty get away with it. But ultimately the choice is ours, on an eternal canvas – death or life?

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

File:Bangladesh Army.jpg

The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.

World without end. Amen.


It was good to revisit the church where we had once worked, and to see how far they had moved on in their quest for creativity in worship. It was a New Winey, lots-of-worship-songs kind of church, but far from following the music books slavishly they were being dead creative by starting songs not necessarily at the beginning, as is normal, but with the chorus. Coming out of one song, they struck up, without a pause, the rousing chorus:

Be to our God for ever and ever

Be to our God for ever and ever

Be to our God for ever and ever Amen.

This chorus was repeated a few times, then a few times more, with ever-growing intensity, and then without warning we started the next song (from the chorus, of course, not the beginning). Sadly we never did find out exactly what should be to our God: we knew exactly for how long it would be to him, but never what it actually was.

But my favourite piece of musical inanity in worship took place when we were being led in ‘Over the mountains and the sea’ a song, which incidentally, was my nomination when a friend asked via the gift of Facebook what our absolutely worst song was. My immediate response was ‘The one which expects me to sing the line “Oooh I feel like dancing”. I don’t!’ We were being led by an enthusiastic band who seemed particularly to enjoy the line ‘I could sing of your love forever’. Round and round we went, with all the highs and lows of volume and intensity which good worship leaders know instinctively how to handle.

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever

I could sing of your love forever …

After what seemed like about 20 minutes of this, my son (in fact he of the random icebreakers – see below) leant over and whispered in my ear ‘Do you know? I really do believe they could!’

Steve’s Random Icebreaker No 3

Another to add to your collection of questions to get your group’s discussion going:

What’s your favourite thing about a horse?

Surveying the Liturgical Scene


OK, here we go with this blogging lark. I’m going to try and do three per week (#rodformyownback), one asking some questions about the current liturgical scene in the C of E, one with some biographical hints on hanging on to God in bad times, and hopefully something a little bit lighter too. It won’t be deep or scholarly, but I hope it might make people think, and at times be fun too. So let’s begin with liturgy.

Many years ago now I wrote a book called ‘Liturgy and Liberty’, which seems to have become something of a standard text. It was written from the context of a large evangelical/charismatic church which was nevertheless proud of its Anglican heritage, and its these was basically that liturgy and openness to the Holy Spirit were not opposites, but that the two could go perfectly well together. I then attempted to give some practical tips for how this might be made to work. The book was republished as ‘Living Liturgy’, and you can still get it off of Amazon for 1p.

Well, that was many years ago, but as I look around the Anglican church now I see very little evidence that anyone took much notice of it. Of course I caricature, but there are growing, Spirit-filled, disciple-making churches, and there are liturgical churches. (There are of course growing Cathedrals too, but I think they’re a special case. I’m currently worshipping at a cathedral, and it’s very nice, but trying to ‘join’ it is a bit like trying to join a cinema. As to how well it is forming Christian disciples, citizens and leaders I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t know if anyone else has either.)

But visit yer average thriving evo/charismatic church and you’re likely to find that worship = singing songs. This has become institutionalised in the ubiquitous ‘Now we’re going to move into a time of worship’ 20 minutes into the service. If any liturgy at all is used, it is likely to be for the confession, thus proving that unlike Yellow Pages liturgy is only there for the nasty things in life.

At times this neglect of our Anglican liturgical heritage is held up as a virtue, and rhetoric reminiscent of the early House Church days is used to explain that all liturgy is ‘vain repetition’ and a human device to quench the Spirit. But most often liturgy is omitted by default rather than by design. This is reinforced by the festivals of different networks, where what is modelled is essentially un-Anglican, if not anti-Anglican. My sense is that the younger people particularly in such churches have unwittingly accepted the idea that liturgy and life can never go together.

This is of course not without some justification. In the early days of the House Church movement many people from what they would have described as ‘dead’ Anglican churches found new life and freedom elsewhere, and it became easy to believe that the liturgy (usually of the Book of Common Prayer) was responsible for the lack of vitality. The drift towards ‘Anglican’ networks and quasi-Vineyards is the contemporary equivalent, and of course these tend to be the kinds of churches which are growing and disciple-making. But is there a cause and effect thing going on here? is it possible to have a thriving church which is profoundly and thoroughly liturgical? That’s what I want to explore, and I’d be glad of any help anyone out there could give me.