Archive for the ‘Thinking about Church’ Category

AND FINALLY…

My wife – the unnamed hero of much of this blog’s output (Jesus being the named hero) – is getting baptised on Sunday. Having been raised a Baptist myself I have bugged her about this for years. She always said she wouldn’t do it until she could genuinely proclaim repentance, active faith and a changed life. She also thought the prospect of standing in front of a crowd and inviting people would be too terrifying. Well on Sunday she’s doing it, entirely of her own initiative. She’s scared but she very much wants to proclaim the goodness of Christ in front of friends and family, Christian and non-Christian. I hope you’ll be there Sunday to see it…God is brilliant and I’m chuffed to pieces. That’s a good way to end the blog.

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NEHEMIAH AND THE GOSPEL

A couple of really interesting comments on the last post regarding the necessity of ‘giving the gospel’. I will get to responding! However, I want to start with Nehemiah. I am all over that book right now. I’m reading and studying it in my quiet times and listening to Driscoll preaching on it on my journeys to work. It’s just a great book for those of us who live in the city. It’s about a standard guy who sees his city broken, lost and desolate. The journey he takes is inspiring. First, he mourns and fasts over the city. Then he prays. Then he plans. Then he DOES something about it! He humbly approaches the authorities, he figures what he needs, he builds a team, he goes to the city, he speaks to the people, he REBUILDS THE CITY! And, when determined opponents mock, scorn, distract and threaten that work, he remains steadfast, unflinching and prayerful, his people working with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other – ready to defend the fruit of their labours if called upon. Nehemiah cared for the city. He wanted to transform it and so he set about doing so as a man of action. The city is the key strategic place to begin any great work – it has the most people, the most languages and the most influence – it dictates the culture, the media output and the politics of a nation.

I am proud to live in one of the world’s greatest cities and I’m proud to be part of a network of churches that is actively seeking to impact upon it by planting and by telling the good news. There is already some family pressure for us to opt out of the city in favour of suburbia’s sanitised comfort. However, I hope I long resist such temptation – in favour of real multi-culturalism, real community and proximity to real need… perhaps raising kids less sheltered, racist and fearful than the ones I teach! It’s in the city that the battle-lines are drawn and are visible!

People in the city do need our physical help – they need love as expressed by feeding the hungry and caring for the lost. We perhaps need to get better at that – we are a little too white, middle class and intellectual to provide much of a haven for the broken people of even Balham right now. It’s something I know several who frequent this site are very keen to address through initiating hands-on weekend community work imitating the Besom or Nehemiah Projects that already run in the area (and in which they are already involved) to care for those incapable of looking after their own homes and welfare. However, more so, we must be keen to give the gospel, as that is the thing Londoners need the most. It is not enough we be ‘good people’ in the eyes of others. Yes we must live the gospel, with love, in order that our message not be undermined but be strengthened by them seeing the practical love of Jesus in us. But we MUST also tell the gospel. Explicitly. It is up to those who hear and the will of the Spirit as to whether they respond, but they can’t respond to that which they haven’t heard!

And so too with our friends. If the past few months have taught me anything, it’s that we are fragile and that life can be threatened or cut short at any time. Therefore I do believe we should push a little harder than Debbie and Simon are suggesting. If our friends can hear the gospel from us within a relationship, then brilliant. However, it makes sense that they also hear it from those teachers best trained to deliver it, at events tailor-made for such a thing. For without hearing the gospel – that is Christ crucified in the place of sinful man so we may be saved through faith in him and repentance of that which grieves him – they will assume merely that Christianity is a meritocracy… a code for ‘good people’ to earn their way through the Pearly Gates. The gospel changes things. I have had one person this week tell me ‘I don’t like it’ and one tell me ‘It’s not fair’. That doesn’t happen when you’re discussing creation v evolution. Or atheism v theism. The gospel provokes, challenges and demands a response to the work of Christ. We must live the gospel, but we must also tell the gospel.

PS A note on Driscoll. Yes I listen to him a lot and I am thoroughly inspired by him. However, neither do I follow him unquestioningly. I am very wary of how much he speaks every week about himself; his life, his church and his family; it really is at least half of every sermon (you only really realise how much when listening through a series in quick succession!). Such a self-referential style I do feel carries with it the danger of fostering a personality cult, plus which his tangents can be more memorable than his exegesis of the passage. But he does love the Bible and he’s presenting it to thousands via the gifts that God has given him and that he has had the courage to employ. So yes I’m a (cautious) fan!

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.

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.

IN THE NEWS THIS WEEK…

This is the news…

  • St Alban’s Cathedral has denounced the hot cross bun as ‘too commercial’, preferring the more ‘medieval’ and, by implication, more Christian, recipe.
  • The BNP has announced it is to use the image of Jesus in its advertising, identifying itself with the persecution the Son of God faced.
  • The RS curriculum in UK schools is to be expanded in order to reflect the equally valid faiths of Rastafarianism and Druidism, as well as examining the ‘Rise of atheism’.
  • Ministers in the UK vote against inserting some allowance for ‘free speech’ into the Bill outlawing the incitement of ‘gay hatred’. Many observers believe will now leave churches liable to prosecution if they preach that practising homosexuality is wrong or a sin.
  • The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission has suggested a cutting down of maternity leave in order that paternity leave be increased. After all, it is currently grossly unequal that the mother be given so much time with their newborn child…
  • The ‘old-fashioned’ Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali has stepped down following long-standing tensions with the Archbishop of Canterbury over the liberal direction of the church. An aide working for the church in Canterbury has called him an “arsehole”.
  • Meanwhile, the Archbishop himself, Dr Rowan Williams, has used his position to congratulate Muslims in the UK, in a week where he has also spoken out about the environment, bankers and knife crime. A search of his 6 press releases in March locate not one single mention of the word ‘Jesus’.
  • Your humble blogger wonders what on earth is going on in this world of ours and is unsurprised that 71% of the UK see religion as ‘unimportant’. He resolves to try and do his bit in order to ensure some measure of sense and truth continue to be spoken.

PS Your blogger this week missed church for no good reason for the first time in years. He instead spent 7 obsessive hours putting together his lecture for the Gifted & Talented Society at school. It concerned Arguments for the Existence of God – a topic he felt partially justified his tardiness. He got to school the next day to find the lecture had been cancelled. He is confused as to the moral of this story.

 

PPS The manic season is abating – real & meaty blogging is to resume imminently… beginning with a profound analysis of whether or not I’m a Calvinist!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HELL OF A THING TO BELIEVE!

You will, I’m sure, be aware of Caroline Petrie; the teacher disciplined for her solicitation of prayerful assistance for her young daughter – herself punished for her evangelistic efforts in the playground. Well, Terry Sanderson has now written on the Guardian website, condemning the sympathy she has received, and suggesting that her daughter was the persecutor rather than the persecuted. His reason? Well apparently this little girl had been ‘scaring’ her classmates by informing them they were destined for Hell unless they believed in Jesus. I know! How very dare she?! (Btw I know I haven’t linked here to the article. Do look it up. However, I’m very keen that the atheistic crumb-trail not lead to this site. This is where I report on my apologetics attempts, not where they take place!)

Well there are a couple of issues here. One is certainly the unpalatable nature, to the unbeliever, of them being considered worthy of judgement and punishment for the life they have led. However, I’m fairly convinced that this is above all yet another manifestation of everyone’s current favourite viewpoint – that all beliefs are ‘equally valid’ and that it is arrogant, nay wrong, for anyone to ‘force’ their views upon another, thus deeming them better in any way. I heard this very argument just last week from a colleague at work – he was perfectly okay with the faith of me and other Christians, just so long as we didn’t see fit to bother anyone who disagreed. He was, after all, a ‘very spiritual’ person himself, as denoted by the fact he had at one time pursued an interest in yoga…

This is, of course, an utter sham. This politically correct version of ‘tolerance’ is in fact the very opposite of what it purports to be. It is, as Phillip Jensen has noted, utter intolerance for any strongly held view – for any profession of truth. Indeed, it is itself a big and bullying supposition – that no one view is true, and therefore that all religious views are equally false. After all, the very existence of truth blows the idea wide apart, as it instantly renders all else false, and therefore not valid at all! To these people, all faiths and worldviews are the equivalent of having drawn ‘a card, any card’ from a deck – no one holds any greater intrinsic worth than another – it’s ‘whatever works for you’. In fact, for the believer it is more like a sum. There is a right answer. A true answer. After all, 1+1=4 may indeed “work for you”… but it’s wrong! And you’ll fail the exam!

So then, no Christian should have any part of this construct. If you are willing to claim that Hinduism and Christianity are equally valid, then you can’t believe that Jesus is indeed the way the truth and the life, or that no-one comes to the Father except by Him. The fact many liberal Christians DO play that game gives us sufficient reason to question their faith. Viewed in the light of this assumption of truth, Caroline Petrie’s daughter becomes, not a bully, but a bastion of compassion. She presumably believes, in all good conscience, that Hell is a real and urgent threat; one endangering her friends’ very eternal lives. What sort of person would she be then – what sort of person are any of us – if she and we don’t warn those we care about?? The person who sees the precipice and tells the person about to step over is not an abuser for upsetting them. And even if you don’t believe the cliff exists… well, you can still respect their good motives. If they are deserving of punishment then so too was Jesus – he, after all, was most indiscrete when speaking of ‘hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9) Many at the time indeed thought him so. They therefore put Him on a cross.

I am going on a bit. But my point is this. As hospitals, schools and workplaces in general begin to view evangelism as an offence, on the grounds that it denigrates the competing views of others, I wish to say that Christian views are NOT just opinions to be kept to ourselves. They are, in our eyes, a matter of truth, expressed necessarily for the sake of those mired in error. You may not agree. But if we truly believe that to be the case, then it is a denial of our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience and of our very self-respect to tell us we must always keep it to ourselves.

TEMPTATION IS NOT SIN

Jesus was tempted. Jesus did not sin. We know it, sure, but do we always see the distinction in our own lives? Maybe it’s just me, but I have always had trouble separating the temptation from the sin. It matters because, if you already feel guilty and defeated as a result of having been tempted, then you are far less likely to stand resilient in the face of the sin itself. In fact, I have come to think there is more credit in having resisted temptation than in never having been tempted at all…

 

I give an example (and no I’m not going to wheel out the oft-used analogy of the second look at a girl being the sinful one – much as it’s a good’un): Person 1 hates the taste of alcohol, can think of nothing worse than drinking it in significant amounts, perhaps hangs out with other tee-totallers, and, would you believe it, has not recently succumbed to drunkenness! Person 2, on the other hand, loves a beer, is surrounded by drinkers, but has managed to limit him/herself to a couple of pints – an amount at which he/she knows by experience is safe in terms of conduct implications. In this case, I think we’d agree, Person 2 has showed rather more resolve; rather more evidence of godly decision-making. Person 1 hasn’t done anything wrong, of course, but he/she will have other battles to fight – this one was a breeze! Yet I suspect our gut reaction may be to see Person 1 as the ‘better Christian’ – as the godly stand-out more worthy of praise.

 

Anyway, enough intro – time to apply this to myself. I very nearly fell right into this trap. A month ago, I began my much-blogged spiritual retox and, you know what, I was bang up for it! I was ready for it, enthusiastic, motivated… there was nothing I wanted to do more at that point than to fix my eyes on God. I had little else on my mind… It was easy, to be frank. And, on some level, I’m sure I congratulated myself for the standards I set. Fast forward to last week, and some of the steam had run out of my drive for godly endeavours. My brain was not fixing upon the things I wanted it to fix, I was not half as keen on getting up to read the Bible, there seemed better ways to spend my time than reading about or discussing Christ. It has been a struggle, even a chore upon occasion. Following the loss of routine with Monday and Tuesday’s snow days, I had to drag myself kicking and screaming back into where I should be for the rest of the week in mind, motive and deed. It’s been a right old struggle, to be fair. And I felt as if I had failed. I felt as if I was a bad person!

 

On occasion I may have been right. I am a sinner, and I have been a sinner this week, just as every other week. BUT my issue was with the temptation as much as with the sin. I was far more comfortable, like the non-drinker above, doing the right thing when that was the easy thing to do, than when it went against my every sinful instinct. That’s why I write to remind myself this Christian life is not MEANT to be easy! If it was, why would James write ‘blessed is the man who resists temptation’? (James 1:12). Jesus didn’t brush off temptation with a nonchalant shrug – I’m sure it pained him as it pains us. There are many biblical ‘40’s to choose from in comparing his 40-day stint in the desert. The one that springs to mind however is the 40 days spent by Israel in the Valley of Elah, facing Goliath, the fearsome enemy of God. Sin is meant to be imposing, intimidating and is meant to take courage to face down. There is an inevitable tension in the Christian life. Even Paul cried out ‘What a wretched man I am!’ as he struggled to walk the Christian walk. If I give up defeated every time the wrong thing feels like the appealing thing to do, I’ll never get anywhere beyond short-lived bursts of enthusiasm.

 

The Christian life is meant to be toil, a race demanding stamina, and is characterised by the joy that tells us it’s worthwhile because Jesus died for our sins – not joy because it’s easy. I will be tempted this week, in any number of directions, but I will, God willing, whilst picking up a couple of sprained ankles along the way, keep on running this race of ours…

WHO TO INVITE?

Posted 1/2/09

I write this having just learned that the two friends I’d managed to convince into coming along to church this evening (we are running a Christianity Explored course during the next few services) have pulled out. Such is the way of things – I’m disappointed, but I’m determined not to fall into the trap of worrying what others in church will think of my apparent lack of evangelistic endeavour. Oh OK, I’m already in that trap! I worry about it because they know, and I know, that I should be able to rustle up someone at events such as these – given the large number of non-Christians with whom I socialise and converse. There are, after all, some at church who claim not to know a single non-Christian to invite! I suppose it’s possible… some move into the area, make the church their social network, and perhaps work for Christian organisations too.  I however, strange as it may seem, went to a school full of non-Christians, moving on to a university where I lived in halls again full of non-Christians, prior to taking a job in a company, yes you guessed it, full of non-Christians. Therefore I know loads of them… its Christians I’ve traditionally had a harder time getting in with (prior to CCB of course)! So then, returning to the purpose of my post, where ARE they on evenings like these??

Well, being honest, I tend to see them in various categories: the Opportunities, the Toughies, the Impossibles and, in a category of their own, the Self-Confirmed Atheists. I’ll also allow for a few floating Who Knows?

‘Opportunities’: These are the ones who often grew up in churched families. They may purport to believe in God or, even if they don’t, the concept still exerts an emotional hold over them. They are more likely to say yes to events like the one tonight, and seem, in human eyes, eminently ‘convertible’. In reality, of course, no-one is convertible until the Spirit does His thing, thus meaning that these individuals, proving just as unlikely as anyone else to see Jesus as their actual living saviour, often prove to be the biggest source of frustration.

‘Toughies’: these are the biggest group in my life. They are generally middle class, university educated, comfortably placed in society… basically think they have life figured out. They are usually agnostic and happy to keep it that way; in fact they are uncomfortable talking about the messy matters of faith. They are liberal enough to cheerfully accept my faith, just as long as it’s not forced upon them, and as long as I don’t start acting ‘weird’ (ie let it affect my decision-making and priorities).  Being honest, I haven’t invited these guys tonight. They don’t want to sit around talking about Jesus per se, but they can generally be enticed by the more acceptable mechanisms of pub quizzes and Carol Services. Outside of this, the tactic is to engineer those rare one-on-one discussions in which you can actually start asking some deeper questions. MSN Messenger conversations are a handy tool, as are car journeys. Some would be shocked were they to discover how intricate my plans are for engineering such situations!

‘Impossibles’: this is where God has to change my heart – the guys who I don’t invite to anything because I’m scared. There aren’t many, but I know they would think me an absolute weirdo or would be too embarrassed for words. That said, there is some sense in there too. Often the reason it would be so awkward is simply that we don’t know each other that well. There is something to be said therefore for genuinely getting to know someone before you start gospel-bombing them. Why should someone open up to you if you have no relational foundation to base it on??

‘Self-Confirmed Atheists’: Funnily enough, these guys are the easiest of the lot to deal with when it comes to inviting. OK, they’re not likely to come along to church, but I can assure you of the following… If someone is interested enough to call themselves an atheist on Facebook, then they almost certainly want to argue the fact with others. In fact, they probably want to carry out a little evangelism of their own. So start arguing!! Before you know it, you will have laid down the gospel a dozen times – all whilst correcting the 500 misconceptions he/she holds about your beliefs and activities. At least the battle is being waged in the open! For so long, apathy has been the bain of British evangelism I’m sure.

‘Who Knows?’: It was one of these scheduled to come along this evening. Sometimes you just have to take opportunities when they emerge. A mate, more a mate of mate, whom I haven’t seen for a while, posted a note on Facebook this week randomly listing 25 things we might not know about him. One of them was that he believed in God but ‘didn’t have to go to church to prove it’. Seeing the way in, I ended up emailing him with 25 responses to his 25 points, all so I could invite him to church in Point Number 7. Almost worked as well…

Above all, don’t forget, we’re not expected to convert all our mates – that’s in God’s hands. However, the one thing we should never leave ourselves open to is the possibility that, before the throne of judgement, they can turn to us and ask “Why did you never tell me? Why did you never let me know??” Once they’ve heard the truth, the decision must be theirs… although we can always have another shot. But, whether by hearing Perks at an event, whether by having us challenge them to read Tim Keller for balance having seen them read Dawkins, or perhaps, one day, by actually just telling them the gospel ourselves… we need to let them hear.

JAMES, IDOLS, HAPPINESS AND PREACHER GEEKDOM

Posted 24/1/09

STUDYING JAMES

KG and House Groups are both now tackling the book of James. I don’t know if most there will be already familiar with its content. However, I have just finished studying it in my quiet times and, may I say, it’s REALLY challenging! Perks has referred to it as the ‘great little book’ of James. Yes it is. But it’s also the ‘difficult little book’ of James, so we need to be open to the work of the Spirit if we are not to founder on verses such as ‘a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone’ (2:24) (taken out of context, this clearly causes us all kinds of headaches. That’s why atheists love to throw it our way!)

It is full of huge challenges; regarding our relationship with worldly interests – ‘get rid of all moral filth’ (1:21); and calling us to social justice – ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (1:27).  It also gives us ample scope for debate, considering our expectations of God, particularly regarding healing; ‘the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’ (5:15).I also became particularly aware that the stakes are high in James. Obviously it should be read in the knowledge that it is part of a whole in which God’s gift of grace is made abundantly clear. Even so, we shouldn’t skip lightly over the fact that we are warned ‘Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged’ (5:9) or, a few verses later, ‘Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned’ (5:12). We like to quote these verses with the scary endings omitted, but they should serve to remind us of sin’s horrific consequences.

In short then, it should be fascinating, but I hope people ask the questions rather than remain fretting over them afterwards.

PREACHERS

My good habit drive is still going – not necessarily for the same reasons it began… Yes I am still trying to keep sin at bay and I want to focus on God and all these good things. But, by nature, I’m also obsessive and a lover of knowledge… whereas I was previously funnelling that into being a music geek, film geek and football geek above all else (with maybe a little bit of history geek in there too), I am now genuinely having a whale of a time as a ‘preacher geek’. I am collecting my MP3s of Stott (professorial), Driscoll (brash), Piper (surprisingly fierce), Carson (occasionally high-pitched), Richardson (approachable), Tice (surprisingly posh for one called Rico), and Perkins of course – fascinated by their different styles and biblical interpretations; then subscribing to their blogs. There’s a whole world out there, being uncovered in my journeys to and from the workplace…!! It is so easy, though, to make these men the idols (I think Andrew P may already be a victim, having seen him become giddy as a schoolgirl when told Tim Keller was coming to London!). They are good leaders because they constantly, unerringly, point their listeners to the Bible. It’s a good thing too because, in this digital age, its not just the thousands in their churches that could be very easily led astray by anything said in addition to, or contrary to, the message of that good book.

HAPPINESS

It is my increasing conviction that we should not expect happiness or pin too many hopes upon it. So often the unevenness of the Christian walk is largely because of disappointment at our circumstances (the impounding of a car, for example!). In reality, most of human history has been a study in misery! This is a depraved old world, after all, capable as it is of lovely moments along the way. As a teacher, I tell my classes that for most in medieval Britain not even drinking water was available and few survived infancy. In Tudor times, stealing an apple was a hanging offence, and yet many did such were their desperate straits. Victoriana sees Jack the Ripper untraceable as the whole of Whitechapel was populated by the wretched gin-soaked poor – women on the game, whole families in half a room and most with no fixed abode. The world wars brought little more satisfaction as families and homes were left in pieces… in fact, only our parents generation have really birthed these expectations of comfort – luxury even – and long well-travelled retirement. And what has it resulted in?? Record levels of depression in the West!! Happiness is in fact rare and fleeting. This perhaps wasn’t a surprise or a tragedy when people were more fixed on the ‘prize’ that awaits us at the end of Philippians 3’s ‘race’. However, in an atheistic version of the world worldly happiness is all we have to cling to, so no wonder people are depressed!

IDOLS

This month has been chock full of talks and blogs on idols. I have been told more times than I can remember how Martin Luther stated that all sin first requires us to break the first 2 commandments (pertaining to loving things other than God). This relates to the notes above. All unhappiness is generally idol-based. We think we need things other than God, or are entitled to them. We then get upset when we don’t get them, or they fail to deliver. In fact, idols beget idols. We’re fat so thinness is an idol – we’re thin so fashion is our idol – we’re fashionable so attention is our idol etc etc. Most think they’d be more fulfilled by a wife, by kids, by a holiday, by a promotion, by the gym etc etc. All good ideas but, as Driscoll says, ‘don’t let your good things become your god things!’ He also says that a handy way of discovering your idols is by imagining your personal hell and your personal heaven – the things you’re lacking in the former, and blessed with in the latter, are probably your idols. This, idol-busting, really is the stuff of the Christian life!! (Following last night, my idol may just be Jenni’s roast pork dinner…) 

THE VIOLENT POST

Posted 19/1/09

There is a popular view among the Manly Men of Co-Mission (By which I mean our pastors – to generalise: The Bible, Sport, Kids, War Movies, Grrrrr) that violence depicted on screen is less harmful than sex. At times it may even be presented as virtuous and valid. This shouldn’t be surprising – Matt Fuller has an Army background, Perks the Navy. These are not pacifists. They are keen we know that men should be willing to fight self-sacrificially for loved ones and faith when righteously called upon.

In practise this has often led to the use of examples from the likes of 24 or James Bond in sermons, as well as an environment where the 18-rated likes of Die Hard are comfortably bandied about church folk as cited personal favourites. It’s often only when people start getting their kit off onscreen that people start getting concerned. An imperfect illustration of this would be the church screening of Atonement during a mission event. A lot of concern was expressed at the sex scene shown (fairly steamy and certainly not within a marital context) but none whatsoever at the scenes of a character slowly dying amidst the carnage of Dunkirk.

Now, before I get my Co-Mission Manly Membership revoked, I’m not necessarily about to oppose any of this. I just wish to recount, as food for thought, a fascinating conversation I had yesterday with Jeab Burstow, director of the Good Book Company and all-round good egg. He very strongly opposes this line and has some interesting things to say about the matter. I don’t wish to misquote somebody more than able to speak for himself, but I’d paraphrase the gist of Jeab’s argument thus: We are commanded in Phil 4:8 to dwell upon ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is admirable’. Such instruction does not cover those violent, hateful acts often presented as popular entertainment. He suggests that our hearts have been hardened to the murderous, visceral material often included in prime-time broadcasting to such an extent that we don’t see it for the sin it is. Having watched the first series of every Co-Mission boy’s favourite, 24, he stopped tuning in due to the upsetting and lingering impact of scenes such as that when a teenage girl, helpless in a hospital bed, is murdered by a man purporting to be a father; or that when a graphic description is given of a gruesome form of murder employed in the Russian gulags (the implication being that a character is about to suffer the same). In each case, I think Jeab is better than me at seeing both the wrong and the reality in the scenario; it is diabolical that someone would abuse the trust of parental position to murder a girl in her hospital bed… and people really did suffer that way in the gulags! What I forgot 10 minutes after the credit rolled, he found lingering and disturbing to this day.

So is he right? Well, The Wrestler (on current release – likely to garner Mickey Rourke a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar) was an interesting movie in this regard. I felt uncomfortable in the strip club scenes (the tragic central character frequents one particular bar, trying to find a meaningful relationship to compensate for his loneliness) and was pleased with myself that I did. With great self-righteousness I recounted to my wife how aware I was of the apparent sin and seediness depicted there – of how wrong it was to be presented with naked bodies for entertainment. However, I was aware of nothing untoward when the same character was being attacked by a staple gun or thrown through a plate glass window onto nails, each in lurid detail, and each again presented ultimately for the sake of entertainment… It’s sin to which I am utterly desensitised.

There are two common counter-arguments. One is that we need to engage with our culture; be it Lord of the Rings or Reservoir Dogs. To that, Jeab makes the valid point that, if we’re serious about identifying the interests of our culture, it’s Eastenders we should be watching… it just happens that Reservoir Dogs better suits our tastes and the demographic we are comfortable trying to reach! (ie not the grannies and those on the local estate). Second is that the Bible itself is a very violent book, and one that rarely shies from giving us the vivid detail. However, I can see for myself that the Bible seldom if ever depicts violence as entertainment; rather as just punishment for those who have displeased God – a precursor of judgement which we should take seriously indeed.

Nevertheless, I would add a couple of other arguments which I’m not entirely sure I could yet refute. I’m not sure that viewing violence does necessarily damage us. It’s very different to sexual images, the lasting mental imprint of which is clearly going to make more difficult our sexual purity later on. It is one area where I think the age certification does its job. I think violent images can be utterly unsuitable and damaging to the young who don’t understand their context. It can be disturbing to adults as well, but in this case each person IS different and has different levels of susceptibility. We need to know ourselves – if such images do make us more angry, more accepting of conflict, more likely to cuss, or less able to focus on godly things later on, then it is clearly bad for us. However, I know that I watch The Wire (An acclaimed TV series, again 18-rated, featuring some strongly violent exchanges) and emerge with a heart for social justice, not a desire to own fire-arms. This links to my second point: Such programming CAN be instructive. Violence onscreen, and I’m sure this is where Perks finds his enjoyment, is very often employed for righteous ends, in order to restore order or unveil injustice. We do sometimes need to know the hardship, risk and sacrifice made in order that freedom and certain values can be restored, or the suffering endured daily by others denied our peaceful existence in the suburban West. This is where war movies, in particular, come into their own. It would perhaps be irresponsible and doing a disservice were we to present the struggles of our grandfathers as bloodless and tame. There may be a time when we need to step up to the plate, knowing what we’re letting ourselves in for…

And then, against that, I could say things like ‘it is for God to judge and wield punishment, not Jack Bauer’ or ‘the ends don’t justify the means’ or many other things… but I’ll draw a line. I’m also aware that there’s scope here to slope naturally into an examination of some Christians’ ability to applaud the real life massacres of children in Iraq or Gaza for the sake of ‘righteousness’… but that’s for another day. I’m not really sure what to think, other than we probably shouldn’t be whooping and applauding the television whilst a serial killer dismembers his innocent victim… or mindlessly chewing popcorn to the pyrotechnics of a recreated wartime assault. All ‘entertainment’ represents a worldview and either a rejection or an embracing of God’s rule. We need to, at the very least, be aware of what sins we’re seeing and what it is to which we’re giving our approval. I’d be keen to know your thoughts.