Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

DURING THE OPERATION…

My wife is currently in surgery having her tumour removed. I have fulfilled my pledge not to blog about her condition prior to the operation. However, I feel it’s important to make clear how powerfully God has been at work during this time. I want to do it now because I don’t know the outcome of the operation currently ongoing. I have every expectation, and would do with all good reason even if I had no trust in God, that things will go fine and that full recovery will ensue. However, I don’t want what I write to be perceived as coloured by the knowledge of a happy ending, or otherwise.

The fact is, to this point, my wife and I (I may just call her N for this post! I don’t want to use her name, despite the fact most readers will know her, as she has nothing to do with the blog and deserves her cybersphere anonymity until she chooses otherwise!) have seen such great growth and so many blessings. I know I have touched upon it before, but it really bears repeating. This has truly been a humbling season and one that I think will have greatly strengthened our continuing witness and testimony.

Blessings of Support

Let me make absolutely clear that the church doesn’t have a monopoly on compassion or practical love. To pretend otherwise would be to insult the cards, texts, chats, offers of food and, well, the love of our many non-Christian mates, family members, colleagues and, in N’s case, the brilliant community she shares in at the gym (crazily fit career women who each set their alarms before 6 every morning in order to make the same classes – it forges a strong common bond!). Had we never been to church we would still have appreciated a great deal of great support.

Even so, this is the time to be part of a church! Particularly a good one. A lot of atheist websites, often tarnished by personal experience for which some professed Christians should be highly ashamed, work from the starting point that church is a negative, tedious, grasping, judgmental, hypocritical body at every level – something they are doing a good service by liberating people from. To them I would cry out that on every level, in every way, you would do the cruellest and most brutal thing to take this community from N and I! Where to start? 

·        There’s the weekly comfort, prayers, encouragement and hugs from open, compassionate, honest people who care.

·        There’s the food rota that sees me fed for the next two weeks!

·        There’s the pair of absolute legends who have given up days to free us from DIY hell and get the kitchen sorted for Nina’s convalescence (the bathroom and bedroom are next in their sights!)

·        There’s the whole group of church elders who packed into our tiny lounge – sitting on the floor and allowing the cat to walk all over them – as they prayed together with N

·        There’s N’s prayer triplet in which she can confide and confess

·        There’s our small study group who have prayed, planned and done much to build N up via study of God’s Word

·        There was dinner at Perks’ house and the amazing e-mail he sent just prior to the op. Very precious to N I know – this is a pastor who truly gets involved (and Pete – if you’re reading – you guys have been absolute stars too)

·        There’s the church member working at the hospital who spent time with N outside of visiting hours both last thing last night and first thing this morning. And another training at the hospital who just now texted offering to provide N with any supplies she needs!

·        There’s the almost ridiculous number of texts, cards, letters, gifts etc we have both received – sometimes from people we barely know!

This is not just nice people being nice out of a sense of duty. Every part of this points to Christ and affirms the love of God. The kindest thing of all has been the sharing of Bible verses and insights that N spent last night looking over and feeling powerfully protected. These are people changed and motivated by the gospel. These are people committed to counter-cultural servant-heartedness. And they have served as wings to carry us through a difficult time.

Blessings of growth

There is more to write about this later. I will be less forthcoming as some of it is private. But let me just say that N has changed. So many prayers have been answered. She has such a love of her fellow Christians. She is so outward-looking and keen to serve others as she has been served. She is so hungry for the Bible. She is so confident in the Lord’s protection – all the way into theatre. She has always been a naturally stressed and anxious person. The good night’s sleep she got last night, her calmness approaching general anaesthetic and brain surgery… even the grateful heart she has having lost half of her hearing for good; it would all have been impossible to comprehend before the incredible journey of the past few months.

As Reformed (repressed?) Evangelical types, we are often accused of underplaying the role of the Spirit (laughably by some of not even ‘having’ the Spirit!) but let me make this clear – N may not prophesy in tongues or swing from the rafters in church, but she could not be more clearly Spirit-filled if indeed she had a halo of flame! Overnight there is a completely new fluency and familiarity in prayer. Overnight there is a desire to smash idols and share the gospel. God changes lives – and His plans are better than ours.

And finally…I sat next to a man at the London Mens’ Convention. He asked me to pray for his wife and I asked him to pray for mine. He spoke of his wife’s deep depression. It all began with a medical ailment that she suffered last year… and it caused her to lose hope – to abandon hope in a situation she considered beyond the pale. That grieves me. It has bugged me ever since. It was so different to my account. That woman needs someone, wherever she is, to grab a hold of her and to turn her around. The practical love of Christians should point to the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus points us to assurance, victory and life everlasting, even as he himself bleeds and dies in fearful agony. This life can be tough. And painful. And lonely. And frightening. But, as Christians we are enabled by the Spirit to be those who show ‘patience in the face of suffering’ because we can see that ‘the Lord is full of compassion and mercy’ (James 5) and that our eternal blessings are assured. This is our greatest witness, and it’s a witness that has been powerfully noted anew by many people around us in the weeks of preparation for this operation. God is truly good and to be trusted.

 

 I’ll let you know how the op goes…

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THE TURNING TIDE…

Another news item for you – David Booker was recently sacked from his job as a charity worker. His crime? He engaged in apparently friendly discussion with a colleague regarding his religious beliefs – including a biblically honest answer regarding his views on same-sex marriage and homosexual clergy.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/5140133/Charity-worker-suspended-over-religious-debate-with-work-colleague.html

I mean, really?! Well, first off, I’d better point out that any of the millions of Christians who have remained true to the gospel under threat of torture and death would have cause to scoff if I too liberally used the word ‘persecution’ to describe our current state of affairs. After all, Christianity is still (I think) the state religion, and bishops sit in the Houses of Parliament, for all the good it does… But, the first signs are there – they really are. This one will probably be reversed – I mean, surely?? A man talks to a friend at work, honestly and calmly answering questions regarding his faith-informed views. If that’s a crime at work, then why not on the street? In the pub? In the church, even?? But this is not a one-off and, as atheists in the past week have announced the intention to begin targeting school assemblies and hospital chaplains, we must again understand that a battle is being announced. The other side is really very keen indeed – are we?

Without any great insider insight, I can see a logical progression to this, leading us to a point where we could be genuinely despised by many. The issue will continue to be homosexuality. Once the current anti-homophobia law is passed, without any ‘free speech’ clause, it is only a matter of time before a preacher is prosecuted for preaching that practising homosexuality is a sin. It is hard to see how the new law can fail to urge conviction under such a circumstance. Once it is deemed unacceptable for such views to be voiced, then there is no reason to see why society should permit them being written down and sold to children. Thus, opponents will look to censor the Bible of Leviticus 20:13, for example. Once this happens, and once Bible-believing Christians fight bitterly for the defence of unaltered Scriptural integrity, then, make no mistake; we will not be what we always envisaged when asked to consider future persecution – that is heroic martyrs, admired as we’re bullied for our truth by a cruel despotic regime. No, we’ll be the ‘hate-mongers’ who are fighting for inclusion of a verse about gay-lynching. That’ll put us right up there with the BNP in terms of our reputation.

It’s horrible isn’t it? But I can see little real reason why it’s unrealistic. To endorse biblical Christianity is increasingly seen as negative, fundamentalist, pushy, arrogant and, most damningly to our world, as homophobic. Occasionally, particularly for us under the Co-Mission leadership of Richard Coekin, we are asked why we get obsessed by the ‘gay issue’. We’re not – really we’re not. Well, I’m certainly not. Same-sex sexual sin is no more or less serious than any of the other million sins we have found to separate us from God. Jesus has dealt with it by his substitutionary death on the cross, thus meaning the law of Leviticus has been fulfilled and no longer practically applies. My gay unbelieving mate is no different to me than my straight unbelieving mate – both need Jesus in order to gain any measure of righteousness in God’s esteem and are doomed without him! But Leviticus is in the Bible and should thus very much remain there – we may sometimes struggle with it, but begin picking and choosing which bits of God’s Word to keep, based on whether they suit our current world-oriented culture, and we will be neutered and irrelevant in moments – tossed to and fro on the prevailing winds.

I will finish with the advice of 2 Timothy 3 – great guidance in anticipation of any tough times that may await us.

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

LONDON MEN’S CONVENTION

Saturday was my first London Men’s Convention. I almost feel it’s too late to post about it now. The blogosphere is festooned with reviews and highlight summaries; particularly regarding the contributions of Tim Keller. However, as suggested by the title, I’m posting about it anyway. I’m going to start with the statement that it was brilliant. I’m then going to suggest some reasons why.

 

1. It was brilliant because it meant quality time with blokes from church

Yes we see each other every week. But the time available around the biscuits immediately preceding or following a meeting is limited. What’s more, it is largely occupied with us asking out about each others’ week, sees people variously joining and leaving the discussion – dependent upon their biscuit needs, and is also populated by those of the fairer sex.

The time spent travelling to the Docklands, taking breaks, eating lunch and getting back home on the other hand was hours long in total, saw us captive in our proximity to one another, and allowed a more bloke-friendly realm of banter. This therefore enabled hours of uninterrupted chat – spent dispensing borderline abuse or considering football, workplace pressures, health concerns, preferred worship styles, ideas for talking to others about Jesus, film recommendations and much else that helps grow relationships. It’s sometimes nice to hang with the boys…

 

2. It was brilliant because the talks were brilliant

 

A confession: I fell asleep during the second Keller talk. It was still brilliant, or so I’ve heard, but I’m really lacking kip at present, and I blame the carb crash that inevitably results in following Pete Matthew to Square Pie for lunch… Anyway, regarding the talks I do remember – I was often struck by the little things I’d never previously noticed – skilfully pointed out in otherwise familiar passages regarding the person of Jesus.

Wes McNabb pointed out Jesus’ authority in ‘dismissing’ the large crowd prior to his walking on water – that and the fact he knew exactly where their boat was! It was pitch black!!

Tim Keller blew my mind by pointing out the significance of every little thing recorded in John whilst Jesus hung on the cross. A few folk more learned than I were open-mouthed at his linking the water from his side to that which gushed from the rock struck by Moses’ staff in the wilderness… particularly when it was pointed out that the rock too played a substitutionary role in taking the blow from the staff (usually a measure of punishment) prior to pouring forth the water of life.

His second talk (that which I was conscious for) was helpful in pointing out the lunacy of no-one expecting Jesus’ resurrection – following all his talk about the ‘third day’ – and then making clear that it’s because they were no more naturally inclined to expect the dead to rise than would we be! This was linked to prevailing ‘chronological snobbery’ in people assuming they would have gone along lightly with such a notion.

Mike Cain strengthened my belief, borne of Revive 2007, that he has rare gift of analogy. Whatever modern day scenario he picks to depict biblical concepts, he tends to stick with it throughout – anchoring the talk in the familiar whilst doing thorough justice to the passage. In this sermon examining Jesus’ return, it was the idea of him awaiting his wife’s return from a trip away; we progressively heard of the wisdom in him following those instructions she left behind and of the need for him to show his love by doing the washing-up before she return, and not waste his time watching football!

I would also like to ‘big up’ Richard Coekin, who looks admirably comfortable in front of a crowd of thousands and seems utterly authoritative in his role as chairman.

 

3. It was brilliant because the worship was brilliant

 

This is a qualified statement. It could have been more brilliant if we hadn’t assembled the most reserved 4,000 men in all London. That number of voices could truly have raised the roof… As it was, most arms were held vigorously at sides, but the basso tones nevertheless swelled my heart as they grew in confidence throughout various well-penned anthems, each pointing surely at the figure of Jesus Christ. Stuart Townend and his band are skilful indeed, but it is overwhelmingly the words, particularly of those penned by Townend himself (In Christ Alone, How Deep the Father’s Love etc), that leave me euphoric… He truly has a great line in triumphant last verses!

 

4. It was brilliant to see people from other churches

 

By virtue of a couple of years doing summer camp, I know a few faces about the place. There is also the constant anticipation of bumping into one of my blog heroes (someone please introduce me to Jam Carey – I never managed to spot him!) and the surprise of stumbling upon of couple of Year 11 students from my school! It is great to be reminded that this community of ours is larger than a corner of Balham. With so many faces, both familiar and otherwise, surely we can impact upon this capital of ours?!

 

So, there you go. It was also brilliant to buy a newspaper, but to be so busy chatting and listening that I never read a single page! That said, I want to add a proviso here – I know from posting a similar review of the Lads’ Weekend Away that not everyone does so enjoy this ‘sort of thing’. The large crowds can alienate those who feel less comfortable among their brethren, whilst the constant singing and hours of Bible-bashing may not be to everyone’s taste. However, there can be little real harm in hearing skilful Bible exposition, in getting to know other Christians a little better, nor in letting the many secular support staff about the place see the passion that exists for Christ. I would hope few ultimately regretted spending the time or money… For my part, I deem it to have been worth very penny. I very much hope I can return next year (along with a non-Christian mate or two – it’s the mission version next time as part of Passion for Life) and tell you again how brilliant it all was!

 

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS PART TWO – ‘HUMAN SACRIFICE’

OK – here’s another. Same site (I would have represented some very interesting email correspondence instead but I don’t yet have the co-corerespondent’s blessing…), and the challenge here is ‘defend the indefensible’ in terms of the prevailing societal view. My atheist mate posted a very strong accusation of a God who demands ‘human sacrifice’, citing many bloodthirsty OT passages such as that of Jephthah’s daughter or Saul’s descendants. His assumption was that Christians should be, at best, embarassed. Another atheist, in commenting, presumed that Christians would claim that it was irerelevant nowadays as it was the Old Testament. I felt I had to express our view, in the full knowledge it would get heavily criticised. A good idea? (Let me know as I’m most unsure!)

PS the reference to the Spanish touches on Cortes and the Spanish colonisation of Mayan/Incan peoples. It is cited in the original post as an example of ‘Christian’ hypocrisy as those killed by the invaders were apparently condemned largely for their practise of human sacrifice…

“Just felt I should show up here briefly because it would smack of ducking the tough ones otherwise. I could go into technicalities, placing each example in context (eg Jephthah’s rash vow was entirely unnecessary and uttered during the rule of the Judges – a time in which Israel was going its own way and doing a lot of stupid things. God is notably silent throughout the episode). However, it would merely be to skirt around the fact that yes, God does sanction killing in the Old Testament and yes, he does see death as ‘the wages of sin’.

It’s a toughie to us pampered and liberal 21st Century types (although significantly less of a toughie for most who have preceded us). However, it is helpful I think to note a few underlying principles.

Death is absolutely and consistently portrayed throughout the Bible as a just and appropriate fate for sinful rebellion against a holy God. It is the entitled destruction of created beings by the one who created us – having seen his handiwork rebel against him and his purposes, trying instead to put themselves in his place. The New Testament hasn’t seen God change personality or us get any better – its just, as you correctly note, that Jesus has paid the price as the entirely sufficient sacrifice by virtue of his blameless life. Thus, no more blood for now. God didn’t have to act painfully in order to spare us a deserved punishment. Therefore we can rightfully see him as God of Love, as well as of Justice and Righteousness. It is worth noting however that those who reject Christ’s act will still have to stand on their own merits – a somewhat alarming prospect…

You are also right to see Jesus as the fulfilment of OT sacrifice – and of substitutionary sacrifice. The lamb that took Isaac’s place on the altar, the Jews’ place at Passover, and the Israelites place on the Day of atonement in the temple is fulfilled by the long-prophesied ‘Lamb of God’, Jesus.

And, as post-Christ New Covenant ‘Christians’, the Spanish were, of course, bang out of order…

Right, I entirely anticipate being ripped to shreds here but try to resist making it personal. I’m not hitting you around the head with this stuff – I just read “let’s see what some likely Christian responses would be”, so I thought I’d better give one. And, as a sign off, I would note that I don’t think this much touches upon the issue of God’s existence. It is, after all, a puerile argument that God can’t exist if you find some of his methods unpalatable…”

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS PART ONE – PARENTING

Dear all – I don’t want the site to lie dormant whilst I get back to grips with a new term at school. Therefore I’ve decided to share a few replies to others that I’ve posted or sent of late.

First off – a comment in response to an atheist friends’ blog on corporal punishment. He is against it and has strongly criticised Dr James Dobson’s insistence that it is the loving thing to do (Dobson himself was apparently extensively beaten as a child). He vows not to allow brutality and pain a part in his soon-to-be-born daughter’s upbringing…

My comment:

” I was interested by this, enough to step out from lurking in the shadows for once! I totally disagree with you (although I entirely respect your choice and motives), and not necessarily on religious grounds alone. I’ve just always felt that moderate and controlled smacking – not done as an angry outburst – is a harmless and effective deterrent. Did me no harm whatsoever, nor my parents before me, nor most of our mates… I do get annoyed when the currently overwhelming tide of mistrust and political correctness tries to portray those who do it as abusers; particularly in light of a generation of spoiled and pampered kids starved of discipline and lacking, as a whole, respect for those around them. That’s not merely a changed perspective as I age – kids genuinely don’t have the same automatic wariness and respect around their elders as we did. It’s seen in everything from the failure to surrender a seat to the ubiquitous loud playing of music or swearing on a crowded bus.


There is a Christian element to it – in my assumption that people are not naturally ‘good’, but need to know rebellion carries unwelcome consequences (a conviction hugely strengthened by my 6 years as a teacher!). But that’s not the primary motive on this one – I just think it works. I hate most the assumption that I can’t be trusted to administer such punishment lovingly and without excess or recognising limitations. It’s the same suspicion for all that has led the state to tell me I can’t lay a hand on a pupil or be alone in a room with him because I’m most likely a paedophile. Such fear is only prevalent in a morally baseless and deeply troubled society. One that, at present, trusts children too much and adults too little…

 

PS As for Dobson – I haven’t read the book, so I can’t judge. But I would certainly agree that love includes discipline. If kids don’t learn tough lessons from us, applied with the motive of care and improvement, they will certainly learn them elsewhere with an outcome less sure. All kids are moulded by their formative experiences – it is more loving they learn that wrong behaviour results in discomfort than that they perceive there are no real consequences to their antisocial conduct. That said, if your summary of his experiences are true, it does sound like brutality and abuse – pure and simple. I learned my lessons without any need for bruises or tools beyond the palm (or back) of a hand…

 

PPS And just in case it seemed I was being careful to leave God out of this one – yes the obvious analogy stands. I do believe God disciplines us in love for the good of our eventual character, just as does a parent (Romans 5:3-4). And a spoiled and whingeing Christian is just as unappealing as a spoiled and whingeing kid! “

What do you think? Decent comment. Is corporal punishment OK?

GOOD INTENTIONS

There’s been a notable lack of self-flagellating angst on this site of late. Well, let’s make amends. Truth is, I am rubbish in school holidays and I can’t abide it. I have made God-assisted strides in introducing discipline and constancy into my term-time routine. My diligence then is relatively assured when it comes to quiet times, completion of the work I’m paid for and the avoidance of some of those bad habits I will always battle as a pathetic sinner. However, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, the lack of school acts as rug pulled from under my routine. Without an alarm to signal the enforced start to my day things like quiet times and work (anything productive in fact) become things to be put off ever further into the expanse of hours unfolding before me. Faced with time on my hands, I will fall into those traps of sloth, gluttony and lust (I’m not confessing to internet-assisted sin here – that lies in my past, but my imagination is more than capable of filling in the blanks) recognised by any underemployed bloke.

It’s horrible, but the worst of it is that I don’t address it – which is where you, the reader, become my accountability partner. Those, like my wife or fellow-prayer tripleteers whom have heard me moan about this for years have every right to ask – why not set the alarm? Why not schedule activities for those hours and leave the house in doing so? And the horrible truth of the matter? Well, part of me relishes these lapses – part of me, my sinful nature, is forever counting down the weeks to falling off the wagon. Which is why we’re back at another ‘enough is enough’ moment. It is time to repent – and that means more than saying ‘sorry’. It means turning away from my sin, and walking in a different direction. Holidays are no longer outside of my drive to grow in godliness. That would be to run this race whilst neglecting to acknowledge the rules; to claim status as a soldier whilst engaging in civilian affairs (2 Timothy 2, if you hadn’t spotted it!). Come half term, I will allude to this post and will pledge to report on my progress. It is important to set a precedent prior to the vast stretch of the summer holidays – a blessing yes, but dangerous indeed if misused.

So, soul bared, this issue constitutes the first of my list of good intentions for the coming term; intentions I will now share with you. They will not make me any better a person or more deserving of salvation. However, I believe they represent a healthy attempt to fight the ongoing battle within me as described in Romans 7 – a war between my worldly nature and an indwelling Spirit of righteousness. Pray that, by God’s help, I may not fail entirely!

 

Andy’s List of Good Intentions this term:

 

  1. Sort out attitude at half term – same rules apply as at any other time!
  2. Put wife’s needs before my own without resentment, particularly in light of her imminent operation, hospitalisation and subsequent recuperation
  3. Buy food/cup of tea for the homeless I pass in town who ask for money (social justice)
  4. Read Christian books – and finish them!! (By half term – Stott’s The Cross of Christ, Carson’s How Long O Lord, Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Driscoll’s Vintage Jesus all to be finished! (3 out of the 4 currently at various stages of incompletion!))
  5. Continue blogging at least weekly
  6. Get guitar strapped and practise in order to be of better service in church worship!
  7. Spend time on internet only after required work has been done for the day
  8. Bring the gospel in some manner to each non-Christian friend, either by one-on-one chat, by invitation, by email correspondence, or by lending a book
  9. Maintain weekly Bible study with wife
  10. Cycle to work instead of driving 3 times a week this term (good financial stewardship)
  11. Save some money each month
  12. Prepare properly for each lesson I teach (diligence and witness in work)
  13. Prepare properly for school Christian Union sessions – put together series on The Sermon on the Mount
  14. Take some responsibility for development at least one younger Christian who has recently joined church

I’ll let you know…

REVIEWING ‘THE SHACK’

You may have heard of William Paul Young’s ‘The Shack’; the US-bestselling phenomenon which has ‘cut through the clichés of both religion and bad writing to reveal something compelling and beautiful about life’s integral dance with the divine’ (Mike Morrell). In the eyes of some it has almost become a religious text in itself, worthy of evangelising through schemes such as ‘The Missy Project’, set up by ‘a team of us who have read and been touched by The Shack (and) are convinced this book deserves a reading across the broadest reaches of our culture’. Some churches, such as Grace Chapel in Tennessee are ‘joyfully giving copies away by the case’.

 

The Shack is an inexpertly crafted tale of a man angrily grieving the tragic death of his daughter at the hands of a serial killer. Receiving a mysterious note from ‘Papa’, he returns to the scene of his greatest loss to find waiting for him his maker in three persons. A weekend of conversation and revelation ensues, leading him to better understand and deal with his loss. The book was lent to me by my brother, albeit in the weary expectation that I would find plenty wrong with it. Is he right? Well, yes, there is a huge amount ‘wrong with it’ theologically. It plays to every subtle liberalising distortion of biblical truth that characterises so much of our Christianity. It places little stock in the value of church or Bible (probably why few who so campaign for the book seem to give that dusty old tome so much as a mention), and campaigns hard for a ‘God is Love’ reading of the universe, whilst entirely neglecting that God is also Just, Righteous and promises Judgement, a terrifying prospect for most. It sets enormous stall in free will, insisting that ‘true love never forces’, and firmly endorses that there are many paths up the mountain to God, stating that ‘Those who love me (Jesus) come from every system that exists… Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslim’. It denies that Jesus was ‘forsaken’ or punished on the cross (‘Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I (God) never left him’), assures us of our great freedom in Christian conduct (‘that is why you won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures’) and sees great worth in a man ultimately acting ‘like a child’, criticising any suggestion of hierarchy or authority in human relationships, particularly in those between men and women.

 

I do intend to say nice things about the book as well. But add these reservations together and you do have something potentially dangerous, particularly if put into the hands of a non-believer. Anybody signing up to faith as a result of exposure to this God, as opposed to the biblical model, may well end up considerably startled when they read of God turning from Saul because he refused to slaughter every Amalekite, or may blanch when they read Joel’s analogy of sinners trampled in a winepress. It is not that these passages undermine the fact God is good or loving. It is because God is good, and pure, and holy, that He cannot abide sin and cannot leave it unpunished. It is then because God is loving that He gave His only son to take this punishment in our place. But it remains the case that, for those who reject God’s gift of salvation by His son, punishment remains upon the eternal agenda. If the unbeliever never understands the danger he is in then he will never understand his true need for Jesus. The Shack never alerts us to the scale of our predicament; instead it hints at salvation for each sinner mentioned within the book without ever setting out the requirement for faith and repentance on their part. Indeed, the worst single line in the whole book is as follows, issued from the mouth of God: ‘I don’t need to punish people for sin’. I understand I do the line a disservice by starving it of context, but it should still never have been put on paper.

 

But for me, bearing in mind my last post, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the book was simply how, for want of a better word, wussy the depiction was of all three members of the Trinity – but of Jesus in particular. Here is our very model of manhood. Here is the greatest of leaders, who stilled the winds with a word, who physically threw the money-lenders from the temple, who faced down the leaders of the day as ‘hypocrites’ and as a ‘brood of vipers’, who all but wordlessly faced one of history’s cruellest deaths and inspired thousands to die for his name. Yet, alongside the woman God and the female Holy Spirit, we have here the tamest depiction of the Son of Man – male yes, but constantly kissing, hugging, crying and laughing at things that really aren’t at all funny (a constant failing of the book). Let Jesus be a man! Let him have a real sense of humour! Let us not neuter the Bible and its template for humanity.

 

Ha! That’s over 700 words of criticism. I’m not sure this is going to be an entirely even-handed depiction of pros and cons. But then I’m not sure it deserves to be. Yet I didn’t regret reading it. Really I didn’t. There were times when I was very glad I did. It does certainly connect on an emotional level, reminding us that the Christian walk is a relationship with a God who cares. It reminded me of a line from an old Adrian Plass book – ‘God is nice and he likes me’. I’m not sure I agree that God is ‘nice’; Switzerland is ‘nice’, orchids are ‘nice’, whereas God is something rather more awe-inspiring… However, there is some value in hearing it said once in a while – pricking the cold bubble of doctrine I occasionally tend to stand within. There is also true wisdom about God to be found amidst the Shack. For example I love the idea that ‘He embraces even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love’. More than anything, it inspired in me a genuine excitement, a thrill at the thought of heaven and of meeting my saviour. Young conjures a sense of wonder and certainly keeps you turning the pages to see what other treasures lie in store for Mack, the central character.

 

Even so, by way of conclusion, I repeat again; push this into the hands of the undiscerning unbeliever, and they may find it difficult to filter out the good from the misleading. Therefore I would recommend it only sparingly. Read the Shack as you would any other work – taking what is helpful and remaining wary of that which is contrary to God’s Word (eg The Bible!). Resist strongly the idea that this is some new revelation bringing Western culture to an enhanced version of the truth and enjoy it simply as an interesting and flawed work of fiction.

LET US PLAY THE MAN

The phrase ‘let us play the man’ comes from 2 Samuel 10 and gives the title to a blog I frequent by Pastor Brian Barber. It’s a great concept and, as we learned from Perks last weekend during the Men’s Breakfast in Balham, the word used also translates as ‘be strong’ in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. Basically, our session was about men being men. It would have made Germaine Greer explode, but I found it somewhat satisfying. After all, in this world of men as overgrown adolescents, with societal expectations of us lower than ever, it is hugely appealing and important for Christian men to stand as real men unafraid to lead… to provide, to protect, to take responsibility and to be a role model to the next generation. It certainly appeals to women, of that I’m sure.

 

But to get personal about it… Can I play the man? I’m average height – for a girl. I’m never going to win many arm wrestles. I am unsuited to manual labour. I earn less than my wife, and, relatively speaking, am considerably less important in my workplace. I wear my heart on my sleeve so will never be the strong silent type… But maybe that’s not what it’s about. If I am willing to put my wife sacrificially before myself… If I am willing to take responsibility for the decisions we make… If I am prepared to lead in ensuring her spiritual development and her physical and emotional wellbeing… If I am righteous, consistent and marked by integrity… Perhaps I can yet be a man as God intended (although he could have helped out by granting a tad more muscle mass and verticality).

 

The challenges I take on board in all seriousness from thinking this through are as follows: More financial wisdom is required in order that I can lead and ease my wife’s stress. Less passivity in decision-making as a principle would be advisable (particularly when my wife wants me to make decisions – problem is I’m genuinely often not bothered either way!). I must be a rock during her imminent tough times in hospital and beyond – yes, I’m allowed moments of vulnerability, but they can’t be the main event day to day. As for physical strength… it sounds silly but I’m half way to thinking there is genuine merit in hitting the gym. It is good to know as husbands that we are capable of protecting our wife and of course carrying those cupboards and boxes that need carrying! It’s a way of making the most of what God has granted. Watch this space…  

ON THE RESURRECTION

THIS POST IS WRITTEN AS PART OF A CO-ORDINATED SERIES OF ‘RESURRECTION BLOGS’ ACROSS A NUMBER OF SITES, AS ORGANISED AND PROMOTED BY THE EXCELLENT ‘SLIPSTREAM’ LEADERSHIP RESOURCES SITE FROM THE EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE

 

This Sunday is somewhat significant. It is, unbelievable as it may seem to look at her, my wife’s 30th birthday!! But even more importantly (it’s OK, I’m sure she’d agree!), it’s the day set aside for us to remember God’s risen son and His empty tomb. So let’s take the opportunity to do just that…

 

As Reformed Evangelicals we can be charged with focussing too much on Jesus’ death and not enough on his resurrection. It’s perhaps a merited claim – the thought did occur to me when I joined CCB. However, in a way I think such prioritisation is fair enough and is based on rather more than bloodlust – it is after all the cross that saves. Our predicament could not be resolved by resurrection alone, for that doesn’t atone for our wrongdoing. The sinful rebellion that separates us from God could not be forgiven on the basis of the dead rising, but by the sacrificial blood of the Lamb, slain in our place. As P.T. Forsyth wrote, quoted in Stott’s masterpiece ‘The Cross of Christ’ (p.43), ‘Christ is to us just what his cross is. All that Christ was in heaven or on earth was put into what he did there… You do not understand Christ till you understand his cross’.

   

But neither could the cross be attributed its current status if Christ had remained dead. What use is a dead saviour?? The rotted corpse of Christ would speak of Satan’s victory and a job well done by those who opposed the gospel – it would provide little comfort to his demoralised apostles, and would be unlikely to have inspired them to martyr’s deaths in the cause of spreading Jesus’ words. No, the first Christian leaders were revitalised then commissioned by the Risen Lord. It is by the Resurrection that we ever knew of God’s love for us, as demonstrated by the sacrifice of His Son. Now it is Jesus alive who intercedes on our behalf at the right hand of the Father. It is by the miracle of the third day that we know death is defeated and thus face our own demise with confidence. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’. It is the resurrection that assures us of God’s eventual victory and the futility of opposing Him. It is the fact Jesus is alive that places Him above Mohammad, Buddha or even Abraham, mere historical figures all. Were he still dead, the mockery of those who deemed him fit only for a crown of thorns would yet ring out. So then; the resurrection needs the cross and the cross needs the resurrection. Jesus was fully aware of both aspects of his chosen fate long before this day, Maundy Thursday, 2000-odd years ago. He thus told his disciples that the Gentiles ‘will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him’ but that ‘three days later he will rise.’ (Mark 10:34).

 

And what does this resurrection mean to me, given that this blog is generally a little more geared towards personal application? Well I’m not sure I know of a clever lesson to be learned – the resurrection was, after all, the point at which Jesus decisively showed himself to transcend mere humanity – but it does invoke in me gratitude and excitement. Gratitude; that I am assured of my salvation and of Christ’s victory by his having risen again. Excitement; every time I read again of the women at the tomb and of the Road to Emmaus. This drama trumps the resurrection climax of The Matrix or Harry Potter, even whilst it inspires them! It is just the most fantastic realisation… that Jesus, whom they love, is alive and triumphant. It was laughable to imagine death could contain the Son of God. Everything he told them was true. It must have just been awesome… as it will be when we get to see him in the flesh.

 

When arguing with atheists, I’m sometimes asked, incredulously, whether I honestly believe this could have taken place. Well if it’s ridiculous to believe the empty tomb (and no Jew or Roman was ever able to produce the body, much as they must have ached to quell the growing excitement), then how much more so to believe that God could create even one planet or forgive my many sins. So it is that, strengthened by the evidence of the world around me, and by the evidence of a changed life and heart, and by the trustworthiness of God’s Word that explains both… I can say, with confidence; I am really very thankful for the resurrection and for another Easter Sunday. Have a good one!

AM I A CALVINIST??

NEW DISCLAIMER HERE – REPLACING THE ONE ALLUDING TO LENGTH. I HAVE MADE A COUPLE OF ALTERATIONS SINCE POSTING – ONE TO AMEND AN INACCURACY, ONE TO CORRECT AN OFFENSIVE SLIP OF THE ‘PEN’. SORRY FOR THE ORIGINAL OVERSIGHTS (sorry mum!)!

Well here’s my third attempt at answering the title question. The first two never made it onto the site. Never has a post waylaid me for so long or caused my brain to so ache. It has led to fascinating conversations with good Christian chaps (thank you Colin, Stu and Tom) and the odd argument along the way. And I think I have found some kind of resolution…

Why does any of this matter? Isn’t a Christian a Christian?? Well, sadly, we all know that’s not quite the case in these fallen times. A quick perusal of this the internet will quickly confirm that countless numbers of those labelling themselves as followers of Christ hold views barely comprehensible, or indeed palatable, to my church mates or I. And I’m quite sure others feel the same about us. So, if the church means anything; if we are to be anything more truthful and integral than another messy forum for human opinions and priorities; then we must attempt to get a handle on God’s truth. And truth must exist, for if God is OK with everything done or believed in His name then he is hypocritical bordering on schizophrenic. So, I will trust in the Bible because, without it, I have nothing to go on but the subjective experiences and accounts of flawed humankind. So, to put it another way, if the Bible is Calvinist (and Perkins, Driscoll, Piper, Carson etc etc would say it is) then so must I be.

Not that it’s easy. I was raised a Baptist – my dad a Methodist and my mum a High Church Anglican (AUTHOR’S NOTE: MY VERY CROSS MOTHER HAS DEMANDED AN APOLOGY, ASSURING ME SHE MOST CERTAINLY WASN’T ‘HIGH CHURCH’, AND THAT MY GRANDFATHER WOULD HAVE A FIT AT THE SUGGESTION. SORRY!!).  All of these would generally be seen as Arminian, ie not Calvinist. What’s the difference?? Well most of it lies in that old favourite – predestination. The Calvinist sees the God of the Bible as a God who controls all things, at all levels; who has chosen those who He saves and who ordains all things by His plans and purposes. Arminius on the other hand was insistent that, for our conversion and faith to be in any way genuine, or our sins to be deserving of punishment, they must each be our own decisions, borne of free will. Arminians thus teach that God’s ‘elect’ are simply those whom God, by His omniscience, knows will respond favourably by their free will to the offer of eternal life by the blood of Christ. They would point out that, in the famous passage from Romans 8, it is ‘those He foreknew’ whom He ‘predestined’.

It is more conceptually comfortable to humankind that way, to be sure. However, Calvinists would argue that the Bible is stronger than that – that God is far less passive than such a reading would imply. They point out that Jesus says that the ‘blessed of the Father’ shall inherit a kingdom prepared for them ‘since the beginning of the world’ (Matthew 25:34), and that Jesus ‘shall lose none of all that He (God) has given me’, but will ‘raise them up at the last day’ (John 6:39). Most convincingly, among many clear verses, is Ephesians 1:11, in which Paul writes that ‘we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will‘. It is hardly worth noting that, for even one person to be chosen, or for one biblical prophecy to be fulfilled, an imponderably vast number of strings must be pulled by God in order to make true to His plans. Would this ever include not ‘electing’ someone? Well, the Calvinist will always point out that He hardened the Pharoah’s heart – so bringing about pestilence and judgement on an epic scale – so that His people whom He loved may be freed to reach the land He had promised them. Judas Iscariot too was ‘lost’ ‘that the Scripture might be fulfilled’ (John 6:12) – it certainly wasn’t an accident, but was part of God’s good plan.

It would indeed then seem undeniable then God predestines and actively controls according to the Bible… yet Arminians are not just indulging in wishful or rebellious thinking. The Bible consistently does talk of an offer of salvation open to all. A Calvinist must make some interpretive leaps (AUTHORS NOTE: I HAVE CHANGED THIS FROM ‘LIBERTIES’, HAVING DECIDED IT IS VERY OFFENSIVE AND MISLEADING TO SUGGEST THAT CALVINISTS ‘TAKE LIBERTIES’ WITH SCRIPTURE. I OFFENDED MYSELF READING IT BACK!) with biblical text in viewing all universal language as referring, in fact, only to those God has elected. Paul certainly appears on this side of the argument also: In 1 Timothy 2 he writes of God our Saviour; ‘Who will have all men to be saved… who gave Himself as a ransom for all’. In Hebrews, Jesus tastes death, ‘for every man’. In John, of course, God so loved ‘the world’… not just a few within it. We know, of course, that justification is by faith; and Jesus was prone to congratulate people for the extent of their faith. The language is of a human choice well made, rather than of divine coercion. An Arminian might see the direct and undeniable intervention of God in the Pharoah’s heart as an exception worth recording – much as that made in the memorable case of Saul/Paul en route to Damascus – rather than as a rule. This is not after all a God unable to choose and deliver – but one who values submission made of free will – a free will allowed by a God who could easily withdraw it, and sometimes perhaps does. The Calvinist alleges that an Arminian is attempting to take some share of the credit for their salvation. However, and this thought is my own, is there really any credit to be found in the guilty allowing an innocent man to take their place in the electric chair?

So what do I think?? You can well see that I’m sympathetic towards elements of both sides of the dispute. Am I then merely a fence-sitter? Well no… at this point I’d like to allude to the story of the woman who poured her expensive jar of perfume over Jesus’ head whilst he sat with his disciples, much to the disapproval of Judas (Mark 14). Why? Well, we see two clear and undeniable things going on – the plans of God and the plans of mankind. First, God is fulfilling His gigantic purposes – Jesus is being symbolically anointed for burial on the eve of his long-prophesied death. This is not a coincidence. People’s actions are played out entirely according to His vast and perfectly realised plan. I see the same in the unfolding of my own life according to his sovereign intention. I am exactly where God would have me at this point of my life. Second though, the woman is choosing to spend a year’s wages on showing her love for Christ. Jesus is mightily impressed, telling the group that ‘wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her’. She has genuinely made a good decision worthy of praise and reward, just as did Noah or numerous others lauded in the Bible. Judas soon made a bad decision, worthy of great punishment, as did the Sodomites or numerous others condemned in the Bible. Both interpretations – that seeing here free will and that seeing divine dictation – are entirely valid, yet the explanation of how the two can co-exist is entirely and irrevocably beyond us. But then, as soon as we accept both, we cannot put God’s actions and our own on an even footing. He is the creator, we the creation, so His will clearly trumps and ordains ours. Thus, I am a Calvinist, but not a smug and triumphant one, nor one who supposes I have it all figured out. After all, we live in the realm of the woman who bought the perfume. We must make our decisions, and are accountable for them. The realm of God’s purposes is generally well beyond our scope – even beyond that of the angels, who simply rejoice when they see a sinner repent (Luke 15:10) – but it is nonetheless real and ultimately all important.

So I am perhaps a ‘conceptual Calvinist’, utterly convinced of God’s ultimate control; utterly sure that I was unable to save myself (‘Total Depravity’), that I did nothing to deserve my salvation (‘Unconditional Election’), that God has chosen not to save everyone (‘Limited Atonement’), and that God will, by His Spirit, convince and deliver all of those He has elected (‘Irresistible Grace’ & ‘Persistence of the Saints’). But I’m not sure I’m a practical Calvinist, as many implications of these ‘five points’ are practically beyond our knowledge and understanding in the here and now. To be a practical Calvinist is to risk grieving less for our sins – after all, they were ordained by God and no other outcome was possible; to strive less in evangelism – after all, God has already chosen his elect, regardless of who I decide to invite to church. Such fatalism is absolutely contrary to all biblical instruction and neglects the fact that, contrary to appearance, we have absolutely no idea who has ultimately been elected and who hasn’t. That’s why I believe the ‘Persistence of the Saints’, in particular, to be almost unhelpful to dwell on. After all, however Spirit-filled I may be, however strong my love for other Christians, however powerful my witness and however evident my growth in godliness… I could still lose my faith, deny Jesus and curse God, securing eternal punishment for myself in doing so. It has happened to better than me. Then the Calvinist sighs ‘well, he was never a Christian to begin with’. Conceptually it is true – God cannot ‘lose’ those he has elected for heaven. But it’s a pretty meaningless statement from our perspective – as far as any of us can possibly tell I am indeed a Christian! Satan is a roaring lion and it will take discipline and work to keep him and his lies at bay. We must work, and evangelise, and PRAY, as if it is all important. That is the world that we are ordained to live in, whatever mysteries we are assured lie beyond it. It is also the world we preach – telling people to repent and believe for salvation, not telling them that they’re helpless and dependent on the will and action of God’s Spirit outside of their control.

Furthermore, as Calvinists, we cannot answer every question and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. No human mind can truly get their head around the paradox that God, who controls all, creates all and ordains all in this world, then remains blameless for the rebellion, rape and murder done within it. Sometimes we really must accept that God created this outrageously beautiful world, that He gave His son that we might know Him, and that His character is thus such that we can trust Him even when we don’t understand. Plus, we must remember that we’re not saved by the strength of our doctrine, but by faith in Christ and repentance. There are many who truly love Christ, who shine as lights for Him in this world and who serve Him mightily, who nevertheless have never heard of Calvin nor lost a moment’s sleep over predestination. The intellectualisation of Christianity can be a distraction from the golden rules to actively love God and our neighbours. That’s not to say this was a waste of time – I want to know my doctrinal foundations are firm, biblical and bear scrutiny – but it’s Christ, not Calvin, who will save me.