Archive for the ‘Christ’ Tag

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!

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Guest ‘Week’ Part 6: UNITING CHURCH

And finally… Unity is not always a word that springs to mind on this website, particularly given some of the recent discussion! In the Co-Mission Initiative the question is often which will happen first – will be abandon Anglicanism or will they throw us out?? With all this in mind, it’s a privilege to end Guest ‘Week’ with an article by my brother-in-law Simon recognising the existence and importance of UNITY in the modern church. It’s not an article I could have written and I’m therefore delighted to post it and think on it. (And apparently there is Part 2 coming soon!)

A seismic change has occurred in the church in Britain over the last thirty years, in particular. You might not have noticed it. It may have crept past you. But I think it might just be the most significant work of God we have seen since the Reformation. 

Sixty years ago, if you went into a Baptist church, the preacher would probably be preaching hell, spiritual gifts had died out 200 years after Christ and adult baptism instead of infant baptism was the most important theme. Anglican churches were sprinkling water on children’s heads and spreading incense and talking about being nice to each other. Pentecostal churches were using lots of spiritual gifts and many were saying if you didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t a true believer. In many of these churches, sermons would contain put downs to other denominations of Christianity. The vicar (or whatever) would subtly throw in a cuss to another church, “we’re not like that other church round the corner,” and Christian identity was formed not only by what you were but also by what you were not. Your identity existed yes, in Christ, but also in your denomination, what your exact doctrine was, who your pastor (or whatever) was and how you worshipped.  

I’ve spent some time in Italy and found that things, for the most part, are still like this over there, although there are some signs of change. Apart from the Catholic Church there are four main evangelical churches, with four completely opposing sets of doctrine, some of whom do not even recognise each others’ existence as Christian churches. In Siena the four churches would regularly preach against each other: the church which practised spiritual gifts was allegedly demonic; the one which didn’t was apparently missing the Holy Spirit (they might have had the other two prongs of the Godhead). The Valdeseans were “almost Catholic” (a massive insult) and the Pentecostals wore hankies on their heads so were too strict. This made it somewhat uncomfortable for me as I liked to regularly visit all four. I kept all the negative things they said about each other in a little book and made sure I never repeated them when I visited the other churches!  

The seismic shift, which I hope will spread even to Italy from our country is this: we’re losing our denominational boundaries.

It’s not complete yet, and there are still churches opposed to each other. There are still major disputes in the church. But ask yourself this… can you recognise a Baptist/Anglican/Charismatic/Methodist church any more? There are Baptist churches which practise spiritual gifts, Anglican churches that baptise, Methodist churches that preach a powerful gospel and Charismatic churches that don’t mind if you don’t speak in tongues and would actually quite like things to be done a bit more formally and efficiently!  

I frequent an Anglican church that baptises adults, believes in spiritual gifts and preaches the gospel every week from the Bible. Unthinkable even twenty years ago! (I was taught to mistrust churches with pews and spires when I became a Christian in a school hall church).

A lot of credit has to be given to the Alpha course and other cross-church initiatives which, I believe, are doing the work of God and unifying his church. A post-modern belief that knowing God is more important than knowing things about him, that loving people is more important than understanding and that there is no invalid way of worshipping God, is the packaging for the new consensus. And it seems that perhaps people are finally beginning to see that God is big enough and broad enough to meet all kinds of worshippers exactly where they are, as long as they worship with their hearts. 

Its hard to overstate the extent of this change in just a couple of decades. The rise of the non-denominational Christian is a 21st Century thing; the believer who would rather not subscribe to an exacting set of beliefs or doctrines; who would rather not be an Episcopalian or a Lutheran, but who wants to be counted as a Jesus follower, a God-botherer, a disciple no matter where he worships and serves. This Christian knows that some believers might find one day more holy that another or find some food unclean (1 Corinthians 11), but knows he has freedom in Christ to worship without those burdens.

Inside churches things are changing too: There are very few people these days, who would condemn the use of spiritual gifts and healing. At the same time, there are very few churches now who madly try to invoke the Holy Spirit every meeting and force people to speak in tongues or fall over.

The vast majority of churches follow the doctrine of adult baptism by immersion and christening kids seems to be dying out.

Most churches believe in the truth of God-inspired scripture. There seems to be an agreement across churches on all kinds of things that once divided them. Of course this is not the reality for all churches, there are still disagreements on some non-crucial aspects of the faith, such as what to do believe about homosexuality, but looking at the broader picture of what is happening across the country, its hard not to be impressed by the similarity of Christian doctrine across the country compared to sixty years ago. A new national consensus about key doctrines of faith seems to be forming. And this can only be good news, because there is only one church, one body and one baptism. We haven’t yet seen true unity across the British church, but God has done a pretty huge work in us and broken down a great number of barriers, to enable his Church to be more like what he intended it to be. The future of the Church is service.

Guest ‘Week’ Part 3: BATTLING AGAINST LIVING IN THE FLESH

Part 3 today – and I’m excited to welcome to the site Brian L Barber – an online acquaintance from the US of A! I have been most influenced by his entreaties to ‘Play the Man’ on his own site and have thus invited him to contribute here. So, read on to be convinced of the merits of bible memorisation (memorization if you’re American!). Do feel free to comment with your thoughts – I know it’s most encouraging for those who take the time to write.

Pastor John Piper was asked recently if he ever doubted the sincerity of his own devotion to Christ.  His answer was, “Yes.”  But he was also asked that if he did have doubts, how did he pray in light of those doubts and where in the scriptures did he turn during those seasons.  His answer to that part of the question was profound.  I’d encourage you to listen to his answer.  What struck me though was that Piper spoke of calling to mind specific passages of scripture FROM MEMORY to fight the doubts when they came calling.  

What is the primary conflict in the life of every Christian guy living in this world?  We think, as guys, that living the best life means living according to the flesh.  There is so much inside of us and outside of us that draws us into living according to the flesh.  Every sin we ever commit can be traced back to a single temptation to living our lives according to the flesh instead of putting our sin to death by the Spirit.  

Take a minute and try to estimate how many Bibles you have in your house.  The problem is that most of the time when we are fighting the fight of faith and we find ourselves in the midst of the battle, those Bibles are still in our house and we are not.  The Psalmist memorized God’s word because, he wrote, it kept him from sin – (Ps. 119:11 – “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.”  That was the first verse I ever memorized – in the KJV if you couldn’t tell.  I learned it probably 20 years ago and I can still remember it to this day.)  

Scripture memorization has experienced a revival in me recently.  I challenged myself to memorize Romans 8 a few years ago (I only have 9 verses left).  During this time I have spent a lot of time thinking about Paul’s flow of thought in that great chapter and it has benefited me greatly in living as a Christian guy in this world.  Many times a day I have recited to myself the glorious truth that “there is therefore, now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Having this text memorized has enabled me to battle against my tendency to live according to the flesh.  All of those temptations and sins we face each day are lumped into a single category in Romans 8 – living according to the flesh.  Verse 13 says, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die.  But if by the Spirit, you put the death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  

The image is that there are two ways of living your life 1) living according to the flesh, which will put you to death or 2) living according to the Spirit, which will put to death the temptation or desire to live according the flesh so that you can truly live.

Living according to the flesh, simply put, is living for something outside of the things of God and so all sin flows from living according to the flesh.  If you are living according to the flesh then, as Paul says, you are setting your mind on the things of the flesh – the essence of sin.  Paul writes in Romans 8:5-6, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  To set the mind on the flesh is death, to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

How do we put to death the temptation to live according to the flesh, the tendency to set our minds on the things of the flesh?  We set our minds on the Spirit.  And what does it mean to set our minds on the things of the Spirit?  

Paul says in Romans 8:13 that we put to death the deeds of the body “by the Spirit.”  It brings the picture to mind of us pulling the sword of the Spirit from its sheath and slaying the dragon that is the life of the flesh.  And the sword of the Spirit is what?  It is the word of God!  So how do we set our minds on the things of the Spirit?  We fill our minds with the thoughts of God.  We fill our minds with God’s word.

If we are going to fight this fight of faith and live as Christian guys in this world, we must hide His word in our hearts (fill our minds with His word) so that we might not sin against Him.  We must be ready to wield the sword of the Spirit – the word of God.  

Brothers, memorize scripture.  There are so many methods out there that help us do this, but let me tell you the way that worked best for me.  Take a blue pen, a green pen, and a red pen.  Then write the verse you want to memorize 5 times with each pen.  Now don’t be ridiculous – you need to do this with as few distractions as possible.  Don’t sit down to watch the ball game and think that this can be done during the commercials.  

Just set a goal for yourself – memorize a verse a week.  Surely at some point during the week you could find time to sit down with three pens to write down a verse 15 times…

You won’t make it in the battle against sin unless, by the Spirit, you are able to put to death the deeds of the body.  And I am pretty sure that all those Bibles in your house will not be so close at hand the next time you come face to face with the temptation to live according to the flesh…so have His word in your heart.

WRITER’S BLOCK!

It was the late 1980s. Film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen were in the midst of writing the ingenious gangster movie Millers Crossing when they got stuck. For one of the only times in their prolific career they had that most feared affliction, Writer’s Block (or Writers’ Block – there are two of them – Punctuation Ed.). Unable to figure a way to complete the flick, they hit upon an innovative solution. Putting the existing script aside for now, they instead began penning the story of a writer who indeed suffers from Writer’s Block – depicting his quandary as a kind of purgatory lived out in a festering 1940s hotel representative of his state of mind. The result of this approach? Instead of one critically acclaimed film, the Coens ended up with two. Barton Fink – the eponymous tale of the struggling scriptwriter – won the 1991 Palme D’Or at Cannes and was nominated for three Oscars, whilst the completed Millers Crossing is regarded as a genre classic still.

The point of all this? Well I have Writer’s Block and, by waffling on about the fact, I am rather hoping to shift the blockage, Coen-style. Neither is it just my blog that is suffering from a lack of inspiration. I may even be suffering from the rather over-dramatic sounding affliction of ‘burn-out’. I have given my all in coping and assisting with my wife’s recent operation and rather gruelling aftermath (although she is out of hospital as of this weekend. Yay!). However, in doing so I seem to have rather drained my appetite for everything else. When not attending to her, informing others about it or maintaining the flat and cat in her absence, I seem to have been left something of a tired and hollow shell, rather prone to aimless inaction (not that I’ve had much time to pursue this noble (in)activity). My usual default setting is to have too many things I want to do. However, over the past two weeks I have had literally no appetite for reading, writing, running, listening, working, playing (anything from online chess to PS3 football!), movie/TV-watching or thinking. I feel like some part of me is hibernating.

Regarding my Christian walk, the effect of this is interesting. I have maintained quiet times, but more out of a sense of responsibility – a head-awareness that this is when I need God most and that it’s certainly when I most need daily prayer for my wife. However, just as when I struggled to listen to the sermon last Sunday, my heart feels like it’s otherwise engaged. And yet in this I see a development of sorts. I used to be very susceptible to the ‘ups and downs’ of the Christian life – a period such as this would have left me worrisome and guilty… and would probably have seen me seeking to justify sinful indulgence. Not so much now… I know God is unchanging. I know I am saved. I know I am loved by a Father who holds all situations in His hands. I know that none of this is dependent on my present emotions. I know His care and design through the love of our church which has sustained me so. Perhaps above all, I know the hand of God in the wonderfully Spirit-filled response of my wife in these early days of a difficult recovery.

Having made this up as I go along I’m not quite sure of a conclusion… I think it’s probably this: In a time of great spiritual blessing (in the build up to the operation) I wanted to write (two posts ago) and say I know God is good and sovereign. Now, in a time of some stress, tiredness and spiritual difficulty, I want again to say I KNOW God is good and sovereign. And quite how the Coen Brothers fit into that I’m not sure! I’m not sure this post is going to win any awards, but it has led to a certain lightening of my soul…

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…

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.

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…

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.

CAREER SABOTAGE A GOOD IDEA??

I’ve decided not to go along to the interview at the Catholic school tomorrow. This may not be as big news to you as it is in my head, but it will nevertheless raise eyebrows and possibly even see a few brickbats swung my way. After all, I’ve been noisy about my desire to change job for a few years now and this job was at a great school with a significant reputation. The fact that I turned it down due to it’s Catholic ethos (and I’m not going to lie about the fact) should effectively upset 

  • The at least 3 practising Catholics and at least 2 lapsed Catholics (ie Irish) among our small school staff
  • Those who deem religion a waste of time and merely a charade for the sake of tradition… they will now see me as borderline insane for taking it so seriously
  • Those Christians who see Catholicism as a valid part of the church community and would see my views as arrogant and divisive.

Do they have a point? My brother-in-law works in a Catholic school and seems to reap nothing but benefit as a result – there is an agreed Christian morality, a forum for open prayer and a daily declaration that God is real. Am I being, well, stupid? Let’s look at my reasoning and find out.

  • It would be unfair to parents at the school for me to work there. This is not just a nominally Catholic school; after applying I read that it’s ethos is explicitly designed ‘in accordance with the Canon Law and teachings of the Catholic Church’ and that its syllabus, in particular it’s religious education, ‘is in accordance with the rites, practices, discipline and liturgical norms of the Catholic Church’. Indeed, overall, ‘at all times the school serves as a witness to the Catholic faith’. A parent who chooses this school does so on the basis of this promise. I can’t get on board with that and would therefore be representing the school under false pretences as a member of staff. By way of application, if a lad in my class was to ask about the Pope’s special status and I answered that he was a sinner like anyone else, not to be idolised, then parents would have every right to complain about me. That’s not what they signed up for. But I can’t in good conscience answer any other way. Therefore I shouldn’t be at the head of his class. Admittedly the idea of such subversion does appeal, but I’m not sure it’s the time or place.
  • It would require me to regularly attend, and presumably participate in, ceremonies troubling to my conscience. I don’t want to overplay this – I’m sure I nightly sit through TV programmes and songs that offend more than the Mass. However, it is different when my mouth issues the words, and I don’t want to ascribe any aspect of God’s glory to Mary, saints or the Pope – each of them idols if seen as above the rest of humankind and each of them saved only by the work of Christ.
  • History is a particularly sensitive subject to teach. A standard Year 8 curriculum sees teaching of the Reformation and Luther’s role, of Henry VIII’s ‘Great Matter’, of ‘Bloody’ Mary’s burnings, of the Spanish Armada, the Gunpowder Plot, the English Civil War, the Puritans, Cromwell in Ireland and the Glorious Revolution. Imagine navigating your way through that lot whilst staying onside with the Catholics!! As it is, I aim to teach without overt bias, but I do honestly report as a starting point that Luther rediscovered the teaching of the Bible, particularly regarding justfication by FAITH. Perhaps I am doing my would-be employers a disservice, but I should imagine they’d want things depicted somewhat differently…
  • If I know I’m going to turn down the job then it’s dishonest to my current employer to take a day off for the interview (particularly given I’ve been off the past two days due to a spectacular burst of sickness!), not to mention the staff who must cover me and the students missing a proper lesson at this crucial stage of the year.

Now, I’m aware, on prior performance, that I may well not have got the job. However, we’ll now never know. Am I right to bail? Would there have been any merit in my witnessing as an employee within the Catholic community? What do you reckon?? (Always risky to end with a question as I look silly if no-one answers… if no-one has, presume they’re letting me know in person!!)

20 OBSERVATIONS ABOUT 2009 SO FAR…

My year thus far. It starts quite negatively, but persist – it ends quite cheery!!

1. TUMOUR: My wife’s benign brain tumour is clearly the biggest news of the year thus far. It is horrible and scary considering brain surgery… Even so, it is with far more than token acknowledgement that I claim that God WILL use this for the good. I have already seen it in terms of the strengthening of our marriage, the strengthening of friendships, the strengthening of trust in Him. Even so, I really wish it wasn’t happening! (Sorry God…)

2. HEALING: A big challenge to us as UK evangelicals. It is the gut reaction of those in our church to pray for my wife’s ‘strength’ (generally spiritual), rather than for her ‘healing’. To some Christians this would seem bizarre. We are so keen not to give false expectations to believers, to stray into ‘wealth & health’ territory or to see Christianity as initiation into the Magic Circle. But are we exhibiting too little faith? James 5 states that ‘prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’… but also of ‘patience in the face of suffering’, so we’ll see… I’d be grateful if you’d join me in praying that the tumour would indeed shrink.

3. ANKLE: This takes me to my own ‘suffering’. Less worrisome than the above, to be sure, but my unhealing ankle ligament damage, sustained before Christmas, has significantly impacted upon my year thus far. No more chats with Tom en route to the weekly football; no more joining my wife for weekend runs; no more active lifestyle at all in fact… I pray that I too am learning patience, but if so it’s sub-conscious!!

4. 30th BIRTHDAY: Maybe it’s all tied up in this! Five years ago my ankle would have healed. Of that I’m sure. I guess these things can no longer be taken so for granted. Me being me, my birthday has unleashed a dizzying bout of self-analysis. Society says stay young, but I crave maturity, responsibility and progress, albeit whilst still being mistaken for a sixth-former at school! God has been kind to me – I have a saving faith, a wife, a home I own and a career, so I could face this artificial landmark with a certain calm. Not to say I won’t moan about these very blessings! Read on…

5. CAREER: Tumour aside, the worst thing about the year thus far has been the continuation of the annual saga entitled ‘Andy fails to get a new job’. I fear I must learn not to uphold myself by worldly standards. I’d better not, because the sad truth is I have made remarkably little progress as a teacher, whether by promotion or by moving to a better school. I know I have the potential to do more, and that I am a better teacher than some above me. But God wants me where I am for now, so I’d better get on with it!

6. THE FLAT: And as for this… it’s hard to explain how negative I feel about our material home. The next item (Debt) will be largely explained by having bought a flat – having been forced to have it damp-proofed, double-glazed, having bought the freehold and done the bathroom… only to be told that we need new floors, new plastering and that, even with all that, the flat has devalued since we bought it. We don’t have funds or practical skills (at all!). I would love to host more and to stop fretting about where this home-owning saga takes us. 2009 has not gone well in this respect!

7. DEBT: This is the shame I bear. We have been unwise at times. Savings don’t exist. Debt is significant. In this current climate it’s horrible because you’re always one redundancy or vengeful credit card company away from disaster. True faith in God is required, as well as gratitude for all we have (and it’s a lot!), but I would love to be debt-free.

8. ECCLESIASTES: Reading this in my Quiet Times was fascinating. What’s it doing there? It is so deeply cynical and depressed in tone that even the NIV Study Notes don’t seem to have a clue what to do with it much of the time! But that said, I found it massively heartening. Hope placed in anything other than Christ is ultimately ‘meaningless’. This is the alternative – and we have the answer to it!

9. JOY: As seen for much of the above, I am a real worrier (and moaner) – increasingly so as I leave my youth behind! I have a wife who can take it personally and so I need not to let it become my norm. I have begun forcing myself to acknowledge those things I am grateful for each day. Largely by…

10. DIARISATION: If it’s not enough that I record minutely my Quiet Time content and blog my every other thought, I have this year begun keeping a record of what I did each day, perhaps to enforce some accountability in not wasting my time. I want to ensure I’m seeing friends, going places… and to be able to thank God for those recorded daily blessings! It works as I’m normally grateful for most of what I’ve written down. Lets look at a couple…

11. MOVIES: I won’t say much, as when I blogged about it no-one read! My wife and I have long since been movie addicts. The surprise has been that, as I try to watch them more with God-goggles on, I find I’ve been enjoying them more! I do like to consider character motives and lessons learned… seeing how a worldview compares with our own. Turns out God isn’t a kill-joy after all!

12. FOOD: Thank God that my wife has developed a passion for working her way through the latest Jamie Oliver cook-book! Now here’s a discovery – my spiritual regime very much benefits from a general sense of physical well-being. Attempts to eat my 5-a-day, particularly with an increased fruit intake, and to eat decent satisfying meals have resulted in me feeling far more ready to do something fruitful (ha!) with my days. I have more energy and a sharper focus for sure.

13. THE SPIRITUAL ‘REGIME’: The biggest difference in my year. On the plus side it has been enormously beneficial. I have instilled a lot more discipline in 2009. I am working to devised plans regarding the gospel-exposure of my non-Christian friends, have subscribed to Christian blogs, have given more time to Quiet Times and have listened to a sermon a day on the way to work. But there’s a major down-side. I am utterly routine dependent. As shown by the snow days, it utterly falls apart without that set window before work and the journey there. Too many of my good habits, behaviour-wise, are caught up in this dependence.

14. LUST: I remain a keen admirer of the female form. The impulse is correct. But not acting upon that impulse in a sinful fashion continues to be the biggest challenge faced by the Christian bloke, particularly within a society determined to rub our faces in it. To be frank, half of my routine is designed to prevent me from fixating upon sex and the allure of the fairer species. God certainly designed me to be a married man…

15. VS THE ATHEISTS: Remember this? (Read here) What fun it was – and great encouragement. Christianity is robust enough to withstand rigorous intellectual to & fro. I will certainly return for another bout before the year is done!

16. CHRISTIANITY EXPLORED: This deliberately follows the last point. I now view my Adventures in the Blogosphere against the atheist fraternity as being God’s training for me leading a ‘guest’ group over the Christianity Explored programme currently running at CCB in lieu of ‘normal’ church. Questions have arisen of all shapes & sizes. Some I’ve dealt with well, some badly… but I have rarely met the entirely unexpected. I feel like I rehearsed… It’s been great to directly espouse the virtue of the gospel each week… Church shouldn’t be a hiding place after all!

17. BLOG: And of course there’s been this! It’s a strange old business – the time I have spent writing these thousands of words – for an audience often smaller than you could possibly imagine! Why not just e-mail those few I know are reading? Why write at all? Well it’s good to have a reason to set out thoughts – it’s good to challenge myself to see how the events of my life and the world around me come under my walk with God. If no-one at all was reading I would still have benefitted from committing to this blog. But that’s not to say I’d carry on doing it! So please keep reading!! And maybe, just maybe, I’ll discover one day in the next world that I wrote something God used for someone I don’t even know… That is always the tantalising possibility in the anonymity of cyber-space…

18. WASTING TIME: I need to do some marking! I’m not going to concoct artificial points just to get it to 20!

19. OR AM I? It would seem so…

20. THE END… Well done for making it this far down the post!