Tag Archives: jesus

Stuxnet and holiness

I spent this morning having a much longer than expected debate about holiness with Greg Sharples, leader of Pip n Jay’s student work and co-leader (with me) of Pip n Jay’s intern programme.

We’re totally agreed that we’re called to be holy – special, set apart, owned by God. We know that our life is really in Christ, not in our own schemes and efforts to be good (see “Who are we?”). So what is there to debate?

What we need to do, practically, in order to live a holy life is a big question. What makes us sin and need forgiveness is another. We know people who are much more radical than we are in how they deal with this by isolating themselves from bad influences. I am convinced that God works in us to deal with bad influences in various ways so, like Jesus, we can live in a broken and corrupt world without sinning ourselves. In Mark 7, I believe that Jesus’s point is that sin comes from our desire, not from our surroundings or even our consumption (directly). 

But Greg was also right to express some alarm if that was our whole teaching, because we also need to be mindful of how our consumption can corrupt us and lead us towards sin.

I think it’s difficult to arrive at an answer about how to live in a holy way purely by regulating our consumption or by assuming we can deal with anything bad which enters our minds.

The problem is that our decision making processes, our very minds, are corrupt and in need of fixing. God wants to do this, and it’s possible because our life is in Christ. We are not consigned to struggle alone, but are being transformed. We’re also not to be self reliant, but to help each other, be open and accountable with one another, and take advantage of other people’s ability to see our blind spots.

During the day, I found an odd example to illustrate – I’m not sure how helpful it is for the non technical people, but here it is anyway – I’d welcome your thoughts!

Stuxnet. A self replicating computer program (technically a worm, not a virus, because it’s self reliant, not part of another program), and probably the cleverest and most damaging one ever made. When it was discovered last July, it shocked experts with the audacity of what it seemed to be designed for, and how subtly it achieved its designers’ aims.

It seems that it was designed to make its way into a particular system no-one expected could be infiltrated – Iran’s uranium enrichment machines. When it eventually found its target – the system software which controlled these machines – it embedded new code into the system programming which did three things:
(i) It made the machines work in a way which, rather subtly, damaged the machines (making them spin too fast and slow down abruptly, causing physical damage) and at the same time made the product useless.
(ii) it disguised the fact that this was happening by delivering false feedback to the machine operators, who relied on the screens to tell them everything was fine, as well as to sensors which monitored operations for safety.
(iii) it hid itself, so that in the event of discovery, clear up would be extremely difficult, if not impossible without junking the machines and everything else connected to them.

It’s hard to estimate the cost of all of this and, although the machine manufacturers initially denied the could be significant physical damage, they later admitted that this was the case. Iran’s nuclear programme has probably been put back at least three years as a result.

What’s the link with holiness? This looks like an example to me of how something can be corrupted by what it takes in, and how that ends up causing damage and spoiling the product (or the fruit God expects us to yield) while at the same time the operator thinks everything is fine, because the corrupted system is outputting lies. If we’re the operators of our body machines, we have to pay attention – not just to what “the screen” says (our conscious thought and non-conscious instinct?) but also check the health of our bodies and the quality of our fruit. But that’s not all…

Stuxnet was not discovered by the Iranians, but by computer security experts in Belarus. In other words, it could have gone on working for longer without some outside intervention. The alarm was triggered by people who spotted SOMETHING was going on with certain types of systems, and they worked out that the problem was corrupted programming. The fix – to renew the correct programming.

Guarding against future infections is very much non-trivial – now that this kind of attack has been recognised, they can’t simply disconnect machines from each other which need to be connected in order to do a job. No-one was browsing the internet on these machines, but someone, somewhere probably used an infected USB thumb drive somewhere in the building. It’s likely that no matter how careful people are about the environment of an industrial machine, if it needs to connect to anything, it’s vulnerable. The smart thinking is going into how to protect, check and, if necessary, renew the programming. It strikes me that this is only possible if there’s a trusted, secure reference point which we know cannot be corrupted.

And that is where there is some good news for us in Jesus. We have a reference for good life, and we’re connected to it – in fact, Jesus should be defining and refining who we are. We can’t do this alone, or even with a set of rules we’ve come up with in our best intentions. We can’t define holiness through our best efforts to regulate our conduct or check our desires – we can still be deceiving ourselves because our minds are corrupt. It has to be a God-driven transformation process, renewing our programming.

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2 

Who are we?

I believe we have a choice – to be defined by Jesus or defiant against Jesus.

This weekend we had a visit from Pip n Jay’s new vicar-to-be, Rev Tim Silk. He is facing a really difficult job, taking over a church which spent over forty years under one leader, and the last two years in between leaders, wondering about who and what it is, and what it is meant to do next.

After months of speculation and uncertainty since Tim’s appointment, this was the first time most of us got to see him explain his vision and process for going forward. The big question we can expect to hear a lot is “who are we?”

I think this is genius. Tim has been very clear that he’s not after the job description labels we have been carrying around (that would be “what are we?”) So right away, this sets the expectation that things can change, not because Tim doesn’t respect who we are, but because things are not as important as people. Tim is planning to spend about a year finding out who we are each saying we are, what is in our hearts.

That sounds good, but the best is still to come. Looking further forward, “who are we?” is also the key question for people following Jesus. 

A Christian grows in many different ways, and no-one seems to take quite the same path as anyone else – we all have different starting points after all. Christians have love and concern for each other, or at least know that they should even if this is something to improve on, and it’s not uncommon to try and work out how others are getting on in their journey with Jesus.

It is quite typical for people – including church leaders – to make some sort of judgement about this based on activity. A church can be set up to do lots of stuff, and there may be a belief that Christians grow by participating in that activity – from socials to training courses and service opportunities. “What are we doing?” then becomes the key question as we plan for growth.

However, there is compelling research from Willow Creek which shows that high participation in ministry programmes does not correlate well with spiritual growth. Some growth might happen, but it’s not guaranteed by a long way. Increasing activity is not the best gauge of increasing faith or faithfulness. So what is?

“Who are we?” turns out to be a much better question, not just for measuring where we are, but also for defining an aim as we move onward. It is not a Christian’s goal to become proficient at juggling massive numbers of commitments to activities. It is our goal to become more like Christ.

Life can end up being defined by our activities, roles and responsibilities if we are not careful. “I am a discipleship group leader” or “I am a piano player”, for example. Outside of church, “I am a music consultant” also seems pretty good to me. There are obvious potential problems ahead if I lose one of those roles for some reason, perhaps beyond my control. It could lead to me questioning who I am, not just reconsidering what I do – it’s the sort of thing which leads to depression when people lose their jobs.

On the other hand, if everything I do and everything I think I am is secondary to who God says I am in Jesus, that gives me an eternal significance and much greater stability. The caveat is that, to live this fully, I have to be able to accept that anything other than my identity in Christ can change, and that might be painful. But Jesus calls us to this.

“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:38-39).

Jesus adds some good news – living this kind of life is not an isolated or pointless experience, but one which brings God into people’s lives. “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40)

Paul writes that we have to consider old life gone and new life in Jesus – “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)

This has amazing, everlasting consequences for us – defeating the power of death itself – “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:4); “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

Are we truly living in Christ? That is the BIG question. In order to do so, I need to be defined by him, not by my own plans, roles and ambitions. Jesus tells me that I am accepted, secure and forgiven, a member of God’s family and heir to his eternal kingdom. (Best summary ever – from Freedom In Christ)

I’m not really sure why I would want to defy that and go my own way – I probably like my own ideas a bit too much! I might also be confusing the love God has for who we are (who he has made us to be) with the things I call love, which might only be for what people do for me.

What I do know is that I want to love more like Jesus, and be defined by his love for me.

(I made the mosaic image at a day conference called “Imaging God” in June 2009 at Saint Stephens Church, Bristol – the main source image is a sculpture of Jesus at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, Melbourne, photo cc licensed by flickr.com user mugley)

Why don’t Christians praise more during sermons?

(Hello! If you’ve been reading my blog mainly for X Factor, radio or similar bits, I’m thinking the spiritual interjections like this might be unexpected. With best blogging practice in mind – focusing to grow a reputation and an audience – this might be better in a separate blog, But to be honest, I’m writing this to express things I’m thinking about rather than things to impress readers. So I hope you forgive me if this seems a bit random. There’ll be more like it to come, but I’ll continue tagging posts so you can follow the topics which interest you. Thanks for reading!)


I’ve been reading “Multipliers” by Liz Wiseman, a useful and challenging book about the differences between leading people in a way which shows how clever you are, and leading people in a way which gets the best out of them. I want to do less of the former, more of the latter. It’s clearly ideal for a leader to unleash a dozen (or a thousand) people’s potential, yet it is surprisingly tempting for clever people in leadership roles to prioritise the establishment of their own authority and recognition of their genius, and all too easy for this to end up stifling others’ potential. A clever leader may not even see this happening. But a great leader will put the work in to make sure it does not.

I found myself getting distracted while reading. I’m keen to put the core ideas into practice, and trying to imagine the situations where this can happen. In some, I need to behave differently. In others, I think we need a change of culture, new and higher expectations of each other, and perhaps new structures for our meetings together which enable people to participate more fully. 

In church, for example, Sunday meetings have a structure. This varies across different styles of church, and I have more experience in some than others, but I’ve seen a bit of a range. The central focus, the reason for being together, is normally worship – our expression of love to a God who loved us first and loves us most, who even supplies all the love and inspiration we need, but asks for that to become visible and audible in us. In worship we connect with God, we bond with each other as we do this together, and we express visible qualities of an invisible God to anyone else in the world who may be watching. All of this should end up being a personal and corporate growth experience – a fresh touch from God who wants us to call him Father – but worship is not primarily about us or for us. It’s for God. This is incredible in theory, and amazing in reality. If you’ve not experienced it, look for somewhere that practises it, and see if it changes your mind about God.

There are normally other things mixed into a church’s Sunday meeting structure. There’ll be some business to announce while everyone is there and paying attention, “the notices”, which might be a list of stuff read out, or a newsletter, or if you’re at Hillsong, a whizzy video produced impressively in super widescreen, Often these will be about life and ongoing worship together. There’ll be a collection to pay for the costs of church, and most churches will make it clear that this is also a part of worship – it’s another expression of love and thankfulness. The structure and mechanisms vary (from informal plate passing to high expectation bucket patrols) but it’s all clearly in need of a worshipful response.

Then, at some point, there will be teaching. A church leader or special guest will take a position at the front of the crowd, ask for order, and then start sharing wisdom. This is the bit which intrigues me. In the church where I grew up, it would never be longer than ten minutes. People would start checking their watches after five, and tutting after six. If the sighing and shuffling didn’t put the speaker off after seven or eight minutes, the sound of prams wheeling and doors slamming would deliver a pretty strong hint at the ten minute mark. I later joined churches with far bigger appetites for preaching, and looked back on this bite-sized word culture as deeply unspiritual, but I think God has challenged my view of that lately. The people I grew up with loved God, worship and community. They sent their children for six to fourteen years of church education. They placed a massive value on spiritual learning, but expected worship to flow on a Sunday. I’m not sure the resistance to change was entirely healthy, but the love of God and desire to be in community with God’s people were real.

For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been part of evangelical Anglican churches – ones which place a high value on learning and applying the Bible to life, and which generally reflect this desire on a Sunday with talks which last from between 30 and 60 minutes. This format goes back a long way. Lengthy speeches were actually quite popular in the Victorian times when the pews went in. There is evidence much further back, in the New Testament, that teaching sessions could go on for a really long time. My favourite example is when Paul taught for so long that Eutychus, sitting on a window sill, fell asleep, fell out the window and died when he hit the ground. Thankfully people had the faith to pray for his revival, they enjoyed communion together, and then carried on until dawn. An hour seems pretty short in that context.

But how do you hold someone’s attention for an hour? In our multichannel age, when so many media messages are tightly shaped to fit short attention spans, is it surprising that people’s attention can drift during a long sermon? Of course speakers never want this to happen, and there is no reason why it has to. Well crafted, relevant messages, stories, engaging challenges and genuine connections with the exciting things God is doing somewhere can certainly hold attention for as long as a standard TV documentary. Teach as well as Jesus did, and people will give their attention for days and longer.

What I’m wondering is whether clever teachers (possibly myself included) actually make this harder than it needs to be. We know we’re not there to focus on ourselves and our cleverness. We know the job of sharing truths about God should be part of our worship of God. But I’m thinking that the sermon form itself, if it demands talking from one person and only listening from everyone else, looks like the perfect platform for the least helpful behaviours of clever leaders. One way communication is not a good format for ‘multiplier’ leaders to get the best from their teams. So should we be looking to change the format? If so, how?

One answer to this is ‘workshopping’ – using some of the time for discussion and practical work in smaller groups, and expecting creative input and commitment from individuals. This is good stuff, but it might be a long way from what’s expected (and helpful) in a Sunday worship gathering. I’m thinking we’re wise to keep the focus on God and worship throughout, and have other times where our personal development might be the central focus. When we commit ourselves to grow and serve God, that is part of our worship, so there is a link, but I’m also thinking that for someone expecting simply to meet with God, be inspired and learn something, regular workshopping might be a bit try-hard and offputting.

I’m thinking more about expecting a basic level of response during teaching. If a speaker is pointing people to God, and people are recognising and connecting with this, isn’t worship a natural response? Doesn’t that fit pretty neatly with everything else people are gathered to do on a Sunday? That response might be pretty simple – many churches encourage “Amen!” (meaning “we agree!”) and “Hallelujah!” (meaning “praise God!”), and even demand those responses during a talk. Why not encourage that, or even English words(!), as we expect and encourage people to listen and respond actively? (My wife Helen walked in a few minutes ago, saw the title of this post and responded “Because it’d be really annoying” – which I guess might be fair enough…)

To be honest, I don’t think raising the noise and chatter level would make a big difference by itself.

The real inspiration is in the way Jesus, and those who followed him, taught truth with love and grace, always ready to respond to people’s needs, and in a way which seemed inseparable from praise and worship. Jesus had a speaking engagement which was so packed, the house filled up to bursting point. But someone needed healing from paralysis, so his friends cut a hole in the roof and lowered him down. Can you imagine that happening in church? Apart from whether or not we’d expect church to be that full, just imagine how uncomfortable everyone would get with the noise. It would be a pretty noticeable interruption when the roof comes off, and someone starts getting winched down directly in front of the speaker! And if things were allowed to get that far, would we expect the speaker to respond, or kindly remind everyone that healing ministry takes place after the sermon, just before the coffee? Jesus responded to this expression of faith, not just with healing, but the almighty challenge of forgiving the man’s sins – something shocking and unprecedented which revealed the true nature of his mission and God’s love. Talk about disruption on every level.

When Paul wrote to churches to explain the gospel and what we need to do about it, teaching and praise were virtually inseparable. His challenging first letter to the Corinthians opens with recognition and praise of God, which links with praise to God for who he has made the church to be. The practical lessons are hard, but the context is always worship of God who makes all things possible in Jesus. The writer of the letter to the Romans – teaching so clever it gets taught in secular law schools today – cannot separate truth about God from praise to God. The letter opens with praise for what God is doing, develops into a story and legal case concerning our standards in life and how we can relate to God, and it is woven through with recognition and worship of God. At one pivotal point, between recognising God’s mercy and openness, and showing the response we need to make, the writer leads readers into worship – it might even have been a song:

“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to give him advice? And who has given him so much that he needs to pay it back? For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36, New Living Translation)

A typical Anglican service borrows praise from the New Testament letters and puts them all the way through our led prayer and worship. Are we as ready to let the teaching slots fill up with praise, even if that disrupts our structure? And for the non-Anglicans too: every church I’ve ever visited which rejoices in its freedom from liturgy and overly-structured services still has a structure and culture of its own. We probably can’t function as a body without structure. But we restrict ourselves, maybe even restrict what God can do among us, if our meetings have a “silo” structure separating worship, teaching and response into things we know we can easily plan and operate. Being true to God’s word, sharing it faithfully, brings worship, and growing faith that God can and will work among us, live, is an exciting and engaging thing.

So the really big challenge to speakers, I think, is to be as authentic and faithful as Jesus, Paul and the other apostles, full of grace and truth, while flexible and ready to respond to something God may choose to do as it happens. Paul had to interrupt what I’m sure was a great sermon in order to bring someone back from the dead. What an inconvenience! What was the bit people remembered from that night? Eutychus’ experience was memorable enough to include in the scriptural history of the early church. God does things at times we don’t expect – perhaps even when we meet together to worship!

Are our preachers trained to look and respond to those times, leading people into praise and worship, prayer and seeking, thanks and sharing DURING the sermon time when appropriate? It might demand more flexibility from the team which leads a service. It might require more attention from the congregation, and produce even more meaningful worship and whole hearted commitment to follow the things God is doing outside church as well as inside. I think I’d like to see more of that. I’d love to be the kind of leader who expects it, and gets the most from everyone following too, for God’s glory.