Now what?

There's plenty I'd like to say about the referendum result but it's much better that we listen to God, whatever our opinion on what has happened...

"The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!" (Psalm 97:1)

"It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man." (Psalm 118:8)

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

"The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:5-7)

"Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me." (John 14:1)

"Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil." (Proverbs 3:5-7)

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39)

"If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." (Romans 12:18)

"If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet." (Proverbs 29:9)

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)

"...but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect..." (1 Peter 3:15)

"Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." (Matthew 6:9-13)

20 questions for the EU referendum


Questions for anyone able to vote

Why has almost all of this debate been about what's good for us, rather than what's good for others?

Why has almost all of this debate been about economics, rather than peace, goodness, creativity, love?

Why do the questions above sound ridiculous in a country that calls itself "Great"?

How do you think Britain can best influence the world for good?

Can you acknowledge that both sides have some arguments worthy of consideration, and that both sides are guilty of speculative / fraudulent uses of statistics? (The BBC's Reality Check could help clear this up.)

What are the best arguments against your preference, and how would you respond to them? (I imagine The Spectator’s case for leaving and The Economist’s for remaining would be among the strongest.)

Are you aware of the biases in the news sources you use? (A report on newspaper coverage credits The Times with being balanced in its coverage, so here's their editorial on which side they are supporting.)

What is the most emotive part of the discussion for you, and is this clouding your judgement? (Mine is the fact that both my grandfathers were European immigrants - one was fleeing tyranny and the other was seeking opportunity; both found a home here and blessed the land.)

Who in Britain, Europe, and around the world, support each side of the argument, and why?

If you had watched the country you were brought up in change in the staggering ways Britain has over the past 50 to 60 years, and felt excluded by much of that, might you not hope that things could be changed back?

If you were under 30 and never known a Britain that wasn’t cosmopolitan and multicultural, with international cuisine, travel, and communication, might you not be confused by people wanting to separate themselves from their nearest neighbours?

Have you considered that voting to Leave will probably be used by the SNP as the reason for another referendum on Scottish independence, which they're more likely to win than the previous one?

Do you realise that this referendum will not affect our involvement in the European Court of Human Rights, all European sporting competitions, and Eurovision?

Will you accept the result and resist grudge-bearing, despising, and sneering “I told you so”, whatever the fall-out in the coming years, given how divided the country has become over this?

A question for the Prime Minister

If leaving the EU would be such a massive disaster as you keep saying, why did you risk such a terrible possibility by calling a referendum out of sheer short-term political expediency?

Questions for Christians

What would be loving to our neighbours? (Remembering of course that the question "Who is my neighbour?" has been asked and answered before.)

What would most help more churches be planted across the UK and Europe? (On a similar line, Steve Homes has an interesting comment on religious liberty and the EU.)

Are you praying that God’s Kingdom would come, and for those in authority over us, as per Matthew 6:10 and 1 Timothy 2:2?

Have you read anything by thoughtful Christians to help with your decision? (The Evangelical Alliance has written several articles.)

Will you be "voting as though not voting"?

How I intend to vote

With reservations and with hope, as usual! Some of the questions above express the ambiguities I have felt and observed during a torrid campaign. I think that Christians can vote in good conscience either way but giving weight to what I believe the most important issues are (which are very different to those either campaign has focused on), I have concluded that it is better to remain than to leave, so that is how I intend to vote.

Euro 2016 first week review

We have been lent a larger TV for the tournament, which is going to work especially when the end of group stage games are being played simultaneously.

On the telly

In the contest between ITV and BBC for best coverage I’m calling it a high-scoring draw. ITV’s commentators are generally weaker but they make up for it with Slaven Bilic in the studio, whereas their rivals continue to employ Kevin Kilbane. When the BBC brought in Gianluca Vialli (who quoted Aristotle) for analysis alongside Thierry Henry and Rio Ferdinand, it was genuinely interesting to listen to guys who had played the game at the highest level and knew how to express their thoughts about what they’d seen.



The other key area in this competition is opening titles. Neither theme song has the singalong joy of “Bra-sil, Bra-siiil” from two years ago, let alone "Sing Sing Africa", but I like them both. The BBC went for a typically chic cover of La Foule by Izzy Bizu (no relation to Bixente Lizarazu) but the accompanying graphics based on fish-eye lens views of France is comprehensively outplayed by ITV’s art deco tour of the country by the tournament’s likely stars, soundtracked by Charles Trenet’s La Mer.



As usual, neither broadcaster can admit that the other exists, pretending that the only way to watch some games is on their late-night highlights packages. Clive Tyldesley had the decency to say about England against Wales (which was live on BBC), “If you aren’t able to watch the game live, we’ll have highlights later” but that’s as good as it gets, which is silly.

There are no good adverts relating to the football. This is almost always true anyway but the current dominance of betting companies and their laddish idiocy (“Oi mate, want us to shaft you whilst making you feel like a top fella? Give us your money then, get in!”) leaves little space for anything other than anodyne car adverts. Mars rather naively chose to make an advert based on the invasion of France by English stereotypes, an example of art not so much imitating life as failing to anticipate it. What none of these can match, however, are the toe-curling movie tie-ins that Manchester United have thought are a good idea. X-Men: Apocalypse was bad enough but Independence Day: Resurgence is somehow even worse. The players seem to be having fun when not being asked to speak, but the whole thing is more embarrassing than Bebé.

Off the pitch

It’s been a horrible mess, hasn’t it? Sport is so often an escape from the real world but there’s just so much real world happening at the moment. No doubt we hear more reports about the bad things than the good (or the plain normal) but that’s because violence and death are generally more important. My daily Bible readings currently happen to include Proverbs (how to be wise or a fool) and Revelation, in which God amidst chaos triumphs over all evil. One day that will be the real world.

Le plats du jours

After the success of Football Fan Food at the last World Cup, Deb is cooking meals from all the participating countries again. French onion soup with large cheesy croutons started things well, Flying Jacob is a crazy but somehow pleasant Swedish casserole, Belgian beer and beef are delicious when cooked together for a long time, Russian blini were a bit average (and thus considerably better than anything else Russia has brought to this tournament), Maria’s Ukrainian honey cookies were sweet and sticky, a blueberry jus works well with lamb chops as any Icelander will tell you, and Welsh rarebit with beer and bacon was a great way to toast England’s last-minute winner (you see what I did there).

Star spotting

According to the ITV title sequence, these guys were due to be the stars:

Paul Pogba (France). A mixed first game saw him dropped for France’s second, only to be introduced at half time against Albania as manager Deschamps realised it wasn’t working without him. A 70-yard pass set up the breakaway goal that sealed their win but the host’s real hero has been the man who scored it: Dimitri Payet.

Robert Lewandowski (Poland). Greater than the sum of the parts around him but he hasn’t received a great deal of service so far. A star striker rarely is enough for a team to succeed in a tournament and some of the top teams seem barely to be bothering with one at all.

Gianluigi Buffon (Italy). I cherish him as one of the few players in the tournament who is older than me. He and his fellow Juventus defenders were in full “You shall not pass [in Italian]” mode against Belgium. He is the classic Italian tournament stereotype of passion and experience, but he shouldn’t try swinging on the crossbar when celebrating again.

Gareth Bale (Wales). Two belting free kicks made mugs of goalkeepers, and he was good fun in the build-up to the England game. I can’t work out whether his or Andy Murray’s mouth opens larger when they roar, maybe it’s a Celtic thing.

Robbie Keane (Republic of Ireland) and Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland). Perhaps included in the title sequence to make up the home nations and neighbours numbers, but Evans was the perfect combination of Manchester United big-game player and Tony Pulis disciple in his side’s wonderful victory against Ukraine. Keane, however, looks like he’s been enjoying American cuisine a bit too much.

Christiano Ronaldo (Portugal). After his sixth 50-goal season in a row, he looked a little out-of-sorts against a spirited Iceland, and then moaned about everyone’s new second-favourite team celebrating a draw. As someone said, he really should take a long hard look at himself in the mirror – except he probably already does.

Thomas Müller (German). A victim of Germany’s failure to play a real striker, he isn’t getting the space he likes to “interpret” because defenders aren’t having to worry about someone ahead of him.

Zlatan Ibrahimović (Sweden). A buffeting game against the Republic of Ireland was a pretty good introduction to the Premier League he is apparently considering moving to. Even further ahead of his compatriots than Lewandowski or Ronaldo, he was isolated for most of the game but still set up Sweden’s goal.

Andrés Iniesta (Spain). The puppet-master was at his imperious best against the Czech Republic, with a pass success rate of 90%, finding unseen angles, pulling and probing the entire opposition, and setting up the winner, whilst probably wishing the options ahead of him were a bit more like the ones he’s used to at Barcelona.

Wayne Rooney (England). It isn’t saying a lot to suggest that this is already Rooney’s best tournament since he took Euro 2004 by storm. Comparisons with Paul Scholes are ridiculous but he has now settled into a midfield position and is leading his team. Those who suggested that England’s most experienced current player and record goalscorer shouldn’t have even been in the squad should have revised their opinions by now. It’s not his fault that he can’t act.

Match reports for the short of time / attention

I’m writing a six-word summary of each game (up 20% from 2014, because 6 and 16 sound better in a phrase) which you can keep up to speed with at #Euro16in6

Week 23 miscellany: Ramadan, theology made visual, EU "facts", Yorkshire, getting pure

This was the view from our holiday cottage in Whitby. This was the only moment that it was sunny.


Ramadan started this week, a month in which Muslims fast and seeking God. The 30 Days of Prayer website has a daily prayer topic for Christians, along with articles to help them understand Muslims and Islam better. If you want to see how those prayers are being answered, David Garrison has some amazing research results.

If you find most church powerpoints not that great but still better than just a load of text, you might like Tim Challies and Josh Byers' book, Visual Theology.

The EU referendum debate continues to be tedious and annoying in proportion to how important it is. Martyn Lewis has made a helpful contribution by pointing out that the decision is less about facts and more about preferences and appetite for risk.

As he so often does, Andrew Wilson sifts a theological debate charitably and wisely: this time it's about Bethel Church.

Joe Shute reports on the Archbishop of York's pilgrimage around his diocese.

For those battling with issues of lust and pornography - or any other sin - Jimmy Needham's advice on what really matters and how to achieve it will be encouraging.

Staying Out For The Summer (of Euro 96)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27840736

They say that the music you loved as a teenager are the tunes you always cherish the most. Maybe that's true of football tournaments too. Alan Shearer's BBC documentary, Euro 96: When Football Came Home, laid the nostalgia on thick and I have wallowed happily in it, experiencing the triggering of many faded memories.

It was a summer of firsts: I started my first job (£2.63 an hour to wear a white polyester trilby at Littlewoods café), went to my first gig (the astonishing Smashing Pumpkins, with Arthur and Tom) and even got a girlfriend for the first time (a little too soon after she'd broken up with Tom, if we're being honest).

Shearer’s show reminded me of many of the other moments I loved during that summer: Tony Adams’ searingly honest expression as he admitted that for too long England players were known for being “all heart, no brains” (a quote we repeated to each other frequently). Baddiel and Skinner sitting on their Fantasy Football sofa, which made me feel again the flash of excitement at staying up late to watch them. My proud prediction that this would be the tournament that proved Alan Shearer was rubbish (he scored five goals in England's five games, and was successful in both penalty shoot-outs). More strangely, during the documentary I saw a clip of a woman in the crowd wearing a loose red shirt (pretty much all 1996 clothing was loose unless you were in the Spice Girls), waving her arms and hollering in celebration, and immediately remembered seeing her twenty years ago and thinking she looked funny but it was ok because everyone felt like she did. Of course Three Lions has stayed in the memory, along with most of the lyrics and even the clips of commentary they used.

Jonny Clark's house was the usual location for our socialising and so played host to boys passionate about football and girls laughing at them. That’s where I saw the scarcely believable 4-1 thrashing of Holland, by which time our involvement had developed from general interest to innocent expectation of glory. Those friends were vital to getting me into and keeping me in church. When the quarter final against Spain came around, we, the church youth band, were in a minibus somewhere near Milton Keynes, trying to watch the penalty shoot-out on Ging's Sega GameGear with a TV adaptor. Unsurprisingly, it was only later that we saw Stuart Pearce's raging catharsis. The semi-final saw another new venue: youth leader Simon and Gwen's house, with the game frequently interrupted by “Tobi checks” as we turned the volume off to hear if our screams had woken their sleeping infant. He slept through another Shearer goal, a disallowed German golden goal, Gazza's agonising miss, and Southgate's misery. Mark gave me a lift home in his Fiat Panda for the umpteenth time.

Seeing players you first knew two decades ago, you can't help considering how they have aged. Alan Shearer has clearly always been a man in his mid to late-forties, as the interviews from 1996 show. Teddy Sheringham seems unchanged in a different way, and could probably still play a glorious sideways pass to Shearer when it looked for all the world that he would shoot. He was perhaps the least troubled by what might have been, perhaps sated by his treble-winning experiences of 1999. Terry Venables was living the dream in Spain but wanted to swap it all for a tournament win. Seeing Gazza was, of course, desperate. Ravaged by alcoholism and hopeless without football, he’s aged forty years since his finest summer. The sadness of what has become of him tinged everything else, making the story both better – it was only a game of football – and worse as you looked at the guy now and wondered what would be next for him. He clearly wanted to live in the past, and who could blame him?

Euro 96 confirmed a turning-point, however. It seems incongruous that John Major was still Prime Minister then, for this was very much a Tony Blair-era event: the country seemed colourful and confident again. Football mirrored this, leaving behind much of its working class white male background in a process that had begun after Hillsborough and the introduction of all-seater stadia, and continued with Nessun Dorma and Gazza's tears at Italia 90, and the formation of the Premier League in 1992. On the first day of the season after Euro 96, David Beckham scored that goal against Wimbledon and was described by John Motson in commentary as “surely an England player of the future”, which is exactly what he was.

Perhaps the only thing that hasn’t changed is that sickening feeling of hope deferred.

Week 21 miscellany: confusion at Man Utd, during graduation ceremonies, and in 30s and 40s

I went to an event at the Signet Library last week, it's very fancy.

How crazy was Louis van Gaal at Manchester United? Not as crazy as Manchester United itself, suggests Jonathan Lieu.

My friend Stef Liston wants to make his epic poem, He Was and Is and Is To Come into a fully illustrated book, and maybe even a film, and you can help him with that.

As graduands around the world start attending their graduation ceremonies, David Brooks wants more commencement speeches that help them realise how life works.

If you're way past graduating and still don't know how life works, Beth Moore's perspective for 30s and 40s could really help you.

Here's Michael Reeves telling the story of William Tyndale and the early English reformers...

Likes / Dislikes of Future / Past, and other thoughts on worship music


As the cheering crowd are faded out, strings begin to twang, thumbed casually enough to sound like tuning. John Mark McMillan's voice, deep and resonant but with a singsong style, warms up: "When the night starts pushing up the day... You're what I'm counting on." A rush of guitars is followed by the boom of electro-toms that are a near-constant throughout the album, and Live At The Knight is up and marching.

This slow-to-quick start, followed by a full blast of Guns / Napoleon, has become familiar to me over the past few months, following a friend’s recommendation. I want to talk about what I really like about this album and what I don’t. I’m going to criticise it on my own terms rather than its own, which is perhaps unfair, and if the overall impression of this article is unfavourable then it needs to be restated that I have come back to Live At The Knight far more frequently than I have many other albums that I have fewer problems with. What I’ve found interesting and exciting is that McMillan writes worship music and music that is Christian. These are not mutually exclusive terms, of course, but there’s a lot less of the latter around. I’ve enjoyed it because it tells stories, shares experiences, has thoughts. They’re not all tightly tied up with “correct” conclusions, which is fine but also causes problems. We'll get on to that later.

With barely a pause for breath, Borderlands follows Guns / Napoleon. It's rare when listening to Christian music that Bruce Springsteen is the first reference to come to mind, but he's clearly a deep influence here. Borderlands could hardly be more obvious, musically and thematically. “Living in the borderlands, I don't feel like a boy, I don't feel like a man...You've got to take what you get just to get what you can.” The narrator may not be quite as blue collar as The Boss's creations but there's the same sense of people living in the gap between reality and expectation, and a coda that concedes the irony of them failing to achieve their dream by the very methods they've been encouraged to use: “You can't hold on to love and live by the law of the jungle.” A huge drop at the chorus to a half-time rhythm led by a pounding drum beat accompanied by keys is only missing a saxophone solo to be straight from the E-Street Band's playbook. I love Springsteen so I'm totally happy with this, and I like the idea of the showing how the gospel subverts our hopes whilst offering us something better.

McMillan acknowledges this debt when he gives a mini-lecture (one of three monologues called “Dialogues”) on what real love is like, describing Springsteen's Tougher Than The Rest as his current favourite love song. He somehow plays the hipster card with one of America's most famous songwriters, “It was a huge song in the 80s, most of you didn't experience that.” (McMillan was born in 1979.) This celebration of love that's not afraid of a fight is the introduction to his wife of eleven years, Sarah. Her clear style complements the resonant tone and deeper notes of his, a lovely combination of beauty and honesty for King of My Heart and Glorious Things. This climaxes with him singing a coda whilst she maintains the chorus in King of My Heart. This is polyphony at its most basic but it’s still more than you’re usually likely to get in this type of worship music, and it sounds wonderful. There should be more harmony and multilayering in our songs about the triune God.

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Interval I

Ironically, as that chorus and coda entwine I find two other things happening in my mind. I’m thrilled by the music but I’m troubled by the lyrics. “You are good,” declares the chorus: amen, I reply. “You’re never going to let me down,” proclaims the coda: hmm, I think. What I've come to enjoy most in listening to this album is that the lyrics are poetic, and that also makes it tricky. I fear becoming a Christian literalist at this moment, a tone-deaf believing Dawkins.

What you have to understand when this happens is that I’m listening as both a worshipper and a pastor: someone who has a responsibility to care for God’s people and help them know the truth. If they’re frequently singing, “You’re never going to let me down,” how will they respond when it seems like He has? If this line is essentially another way of saying that God is faithful (Romans 8:28) then that’s fine, but will it not also encourage the mind-set that everything in this life is going to go the way that we want it to? Many Christians certainly think this way – we’re encouraged to by the culture we live in, and too often by Christian teaching which essentially the same thing backed up by a couple of context-free Bible quotations (Romans 8:28 again?). Will God ultimately let any of His children down? No, because we’re going to be with Him forever in joy, when every wrong will have been dealt with. Does that mean that we’ll never feel let down in this life, that we’ll never have to learn that our expectations were faulty? Of course not. I can’t think of a single character in the Bible who didn’t have to deal with this. Even Jesus. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

That famous cry from the cross is a quotation from Psalm 22, a song whose first half is full of misery but which concludes with hope. Jesus knew this, of course. The Psalms contain expressions of all emotions: love, joy, anger, hope, sorrow, despair, celebration, awe, repentance. They legitimatise us coming to God whatever our mood, and give shape to how we should worship Him. There is a time for each and all. We shouldn't expect a single song to convey all truth, that's why the Bible has a songbook, and we should have one too. Blessed Be Your Name by Matt Redman may manage to hold a lot together in a single song but others will be more appropriate for certain times only and some will need others alongside them to give a full breadth of truth. And maybe some just shouldn't be used in public contexts because there’s just too much ambivalence.

That may seem like a lot of thinking about a single line in one song but these things matter. What we sing stays with us and even shapes us, so we should make sure that it’s good. I remember hearing Terry Virgo tell of his conversations with songwriter Stuart Townend, who laboured diligently over every word and idea in his songs, the most famous fruit of which is the mighty, joyful, and true In Christ Alone.

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It used to be said that you only needed to know three chords to play in a punk band. Contemporary Christian Music hasn’t always required much more than that but our current obsession with novelty, the new mother of invention, bears some good fruit here. McMillan’s songs are at their best when his pitch leaps up several flights of stairs at once to hit high notes (and wave a flag whilst he does so, it seems to me) before returning to the lowlands, a juxtaposition that is also found in heavy rock beats contrasting with something lighter and ethereal.

I may sing more worship songs in 3/4 time than I realise, but it still seems wonderfully strange to hear a slow waltz as Death In His Grave proclaims the resurrection in triumph. Holy Ghost is melancholy but hopeful: the emotional sucker punch of piano and cello underneath lyrics that speak of confusion, and end without resolution. Here are many of the elements that have made me keep coming back to this album. Then comes my favourite.

Shimmering keys, with their hint of the stadium-filling singalong to come, introduce Future / Past. Its first line is one of the best I’ve ever heard. “You hold the reigns on the sun and the moon, like horses driven by kings.” Oh my, that’s a line to make me stop in my tracks, to snap my head up in attention to the Lord of all, to fall to my knees and see my life for what it is and my God for who He is. The album is worth that line alone. As promised, the chorus is hands-in-the-air huge, McMillan’s vocals leaping to falsetto heights, taking our hearts with them.

And yet. Oh no, another irritation.

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Interval II

This one happens mid-song, whilst I’m still reeling from Future / Past’s opening line and just before we sing of God’s timelessness in the chorus. It’s this: “In this fortunate turn of events You ask me to be Your friend.” I’m happy for “fortunate” to be sung with a wry smile, and it doesn’t have to mean “lucky”, but the next bit? Does Jesus ask me to be His friend?

Kim Walker-Smith is the guest vocalist on this song. She is part of Bethel Church in California and Jesus Culture, one of the most influential churches and worship bands around in charismatic circles. I think this lyric summarises one of my key concerns with what those guys are doing (much of which is amazing and God-glorifying, by the way, and the brevity of this acknowledgement shouldn’t be taken as that meaning less than what I’m going to write more about). As I said in the first interval when wondering what to think as I told God He was never going to let me down, telling Jesus that He asked me to be His friend feels like making the wrong person the centre of attention.

The Protestant Reformation of the Sixteenth Century recovered and popularised many great truths about Christianity, including the reality of a personal relationship with God which needed no mediating priest on earth. The Pentecostal movement that began in the early Twentieth Century promoted the vital work of the Holy Spirit in the life of individual Christians. I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am for these things, and I live everyday with an awareness of God’s personal care for me. I see this in the Bible, I experience it in my own life. I also life in a culture that is incredibly self-centred, and I am therefore highly susceptible to believing that the universe and its Maker revolve around me. So to suggest that Jesus sent me a friend request, and by implication that I was the one on whom my salvation was contingent, is unhelpful.

This happens again in the encore song on Live At The Knight: McMillan’s most famous and controversial song, How He Loves. There’s enough poetry in me to cope with the metaphors, “[His] love’s like a hurricane: I am a tree”, and I somehow make it past the visceral “Heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss” but the chorus finishes me off with its repetition of “He loves us, oh how He loves us.” Why do I have such a problem with this? It is true, God does love us, better than any of us comprehend! Maybe if I belonged to a harsh and unloving “Christian” tradition this song would be like balm to my soul, a gift from God, even. But for me it feels like an issue of focus once more. The trouble with singing “He loves us” again and again is that it starts to suggests that we are entirely lovely, lovable. This is the affirmation, the validation all the world craves, so it's no surprise to find it in Christian songs, but you won't find it in the Christian Scriptures.

God’s words sometimes sting whilst being sweet. Here’s what He told Israel after He rescued them from Egypt.
“It was not because you were more in number than any other people [i.e. impressive in themselves] that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)
Centuries later the Old Testament prophets remained emphatically theocentric:
“For my name's sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off… For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9, 11)
The gospel preached in the New Testament is glorious news but it starts with what a terrible state we were in. We were alienated from Him (Colossians 1:21) and enemies of Him (Romans 5:10)…
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…” (Ephesians 2:1-5)
So it isn’t surprising that when Jesus surprisingly calls us His friends, it is He who plays the active role, He who decides that this is going to happen and sets the terms:
“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:14-16)
Verses like these smash my ego and force me to put all my confidence in God. I am not loved because I am lovely but because He is merciful. I can know with certainty that I am loved, celebrating it and singing it joyfully, but I also know that the story isn’t really about me. In fact, the more I think about Him, the less I think about myself at all. Timothy Keller calls this “the freedom of self-forgetfulness.” I will sing about God in relation to myself because that’s one of the primary biblical methods of understanding and appreciating God. But it is about Him much more than it is about me. Listening again to another favourite, Guardian by Ben Cantelon, I notice that personal pronouns abound but the focus throughout remains fixed on God. It's almost entirely about what He does for us but is ultimately all about Him.

In case you were wondering, I haven’t thought of an alternative line to sing instead of “You ask me to be Your friend” yet. Perhaps this is the tension between a poetry of passion and a pastor’s desire for precision.

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Carbon Ribs is a song about Mephibosheth, and there aren’t enough of those! Heart Runs is another stadium rock hit packed with metaphors a crowd can sing together. Then we end (ignoring the encore) where we began, with Counting On. Not for the first time, the singer is choked. A stumbling, stumbled sinner can gasp, through tears, “You’re what I’m counting on.” Yes, He is.

Review of the Premier League season 2015-16


Best league table
The may have played mind-numbingly uninspired football, only able to win three consecutive league games once all season, and seemed perpetually on the verge of disaster, but actually Manchester United were the most efficient team in the Premier League! Tom Bryant has put together a table of who, according to OPTA’s stats, made the fewest mistakes. And unlike almost every win in their season, United didn’t just scrape it or ever look like throwing it away, they romped home a full 14 points ahead of their nearest rivals. Louis van Gaal may find some vindication in this, I wish United would find another manager.

Unsung hero
Like the referee, a football is only noticed and commented on when people aren’t happy with it (cf. every international football tournament in the past two decades). Some credit should be due, therefore, to the Nike Ordem 3, which has been used to score some wonderful goals this season. Whether it’s the “Visual Power Graphic” which helped players “see and react to the ball faster”, or the “Aerowtrac grooves and micro-textured casing” which delivered “accurate flight”, the “use-welded, synthetic leather casing for optimal touch and maximum response”, or the “six-wing carbon latex air chamber for explosive acceleration and superior air retention”, it got kicked around really well.

Best kit
Stoke City occasionally played some of the best-looking football in the league, but they always looked good in their monochrome home kit. There was a pleasing simplicity about the whole thing, even the New Balance and Bet365 logos were a good fit, however much I hate betting’s insistent relationship with football. Of course this kit has already been replaced. Not long ago there was outrage when a club changed their kit design every two years, now they just quietly get on with an annual redesign and no-one seems to mention it. All the more reason to choose something rather more retro from the likes of Toffs or Kitbag.

Best commentator
I barely watch any games live on TV, so the field is restricted here. Radio Five Live have enormous strength in depth, but when Match of the Day is on I’m always happy to hear Steve Wilson's voice. He manages the tricky combination of being simultaneously descriptive and atmospheric: “Here's Martial, getting going, and when he gets going he glides”, “Mahrez... Fantastic Mr Fox!”

Best punditry
The small doses of Michael Owen I’ve experienced are enough to astound me that anyone would pay him money to talk. I’m constantly impressed by the self-control showed by the likes of Mark Chapman when they ask an interesting question to an ex-pro and get an uninteresting answer to a different question in reply. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve preferred listening to people who have been trained to write rather than those trained to play football and The Guardian Football Weekly podcast, hosted by James Richardson is often funny, and usually interesting and insightful. Everything there is seen through a slightly cynical lens, but perhaps that’s how it should be.

Irony of the season
This award is given to two equally-deserving causes: Manchester United fans wanting to replace an arrogant, defensively-minded control freak coach with Jose Mourinho, and Arsenal being fourth on Groundhog Day. Their finishing second is absolutely irrelevant to this being funny and indicative of a team who don’t know how to win a league, who have cracked every time the pressure of actually winning the thing has been on them in the past decade. For all the good he has done the club and football in this country, Arsène Wenger seems incapable of changing this.

Overturned wisdom of the season
Ex-players who got shouted at a lot, and then went on to be the ones doing the shouting, like to say that there aren't leaders in football anymore. They’ve had ample evidence to support this, and the still-fresh memories of the Class of '92, the Invincibles, and Mourinho’s first Chelsea back them up. Footballers today are pampered and overcoached, unable to think for themselves or take a game by the scruff of the neck. This has been proved nonsense by Leicester, and a supporting cast of other “middle-ranking” teams. Of course it isn’t easy to create the necessary amalgam of autonomous initiative-takers who submit themselves to a team plan but it isn’t a thing of the past.

Most disappointing celebration
“Picking the ball out of the net and carrying it back to the halfway line with an urgent look on your face” is the new “Not celebrating against your former team.” If you’ve grabbed one goal back  and need another in the 85th minute this is an understandable response to scoring. In the 35th minute, it isn’t.

Best celebration
You can't beat Nessum Dorma, and barely anyone could beat Leicester…

Week 20 miscellany: glory, transgenderism, dementia, endurance, public service broadcasting

It's nearly the end of term, which meant we had a barbecue for students

Peter Leithart explains what the ascension of Jesus means and how fundamental to Christianity it is. This is theology that sings and might even get you singing.

In exploring what is happening in the EU referendum debate, Ferdinand Mount coins the term "Brexotic", (presumably in reference to Quixotic rather than exotic).

As the latest threat to the BBC's life passes, not without some flesh wounds, David Clark considers what its implications will be.

What should Christians think about transgenderism and how should they react to the current controversies about it? Russell Moore has some wise answers.

Pictures To Share is a series of books designed to help people with dementia have conversations and even recall memories. Rebecca Armstrong met the authors.

When a church leader's legitimate desire to see their church grow becomes all they think about, they're in trouble. Mark Dever shows why endurance is needed, and what its fruits can be...

Botanics in the sunlight

I spent a lovely afternoon wandering around the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh with my camera...











And then I had a very nice ice cream: