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Friday, 3 November 2017

Deadly Boring


John Humphreys has made the news by saying he thinks the Radio 4 ‘Thought for the Day’ is “deeply, deeply boring.” Apparently contributors have nothing more to say than “be nice to each other” or, as Justin Webb pointed out, “if everyone was nicer to everyone else, it would be fine” and the world would be such a better place. There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for that 3 minute slot among the presenters for well-meaning religious moralism, so why bother with it?

We have to begin by acknowledging that it is quite possible that some of these short talks might really be boring. If they are that predictable then they probably will be. And if they are that boring then John Humphreys has a point when he asks they have to interrupt an interesting discussion for a dose of religious mush.

But my first question is whether he, or the BBC, actually want something more than religious mush? They say they do, but is that really true? Giles Fraser in his column in The Guardian says that there is a bias against all religion at the Beeb. One way I think this operates is that the BBC, along with other broadcasters, operate a kind of censorship scheme on what can or can’t be said, what is acceptable as opposed to what is unacceptable. I don’t know how active that scheme is – for instance, I am not party to information about whether a contributor’s talk is censored before they broadcast it. Do they have to send the script the day before? Or is it scanned the morning they arrive for non-approved phrases? I don’t know what happens there, but the controversial elements of the Christian message are certainly filtered out of BBC content. Whether it is on the grounds of unpopularity, bigotry, offensiveness or unbelievability you don’t hear much about repentance, sin, the exclusive claims of Jesus, the stats that demonstrate that marriage (one man, one woman) promotes health, the way that children and the poor pay the price of the sexual revolution, or our absolute need for God’s grace because we are so twisted by sin that we cannot save ourselves.

I bet those elements of Christian faith would be too much for them. Dare I say it, I suspect that list would simply be too interesting for Radio 4. So once those and other controversial elements have been removed, what is left that can be broadcast? Well, it is nothing more than the religious moralism that John Humphreys so despises. It makes all religions sound the same, which is what the secular mindset insists is that case anyway. And it makes them all sound boring, because moralism is boring. Just telling people “Do this, don’t do that” is tedious and ineffective. One of the Church of England Bishops (I don’t know which, but I remember the quote), faced with religious decline, moral collapse, and social upheaval in the early 1700s said, “We have preached morality until the people are sick of morality!” Society was desperately corrupt and no amount of urging people to become better had any effect.

So it is a self-fulfilling prophecy if Radio 4’s religious slot is boring. It is never going to be much more than what it already is because two key elements of the faith have been stripped away. The first is what Paul calls the “offence of the cross”. That this has been lost is not surprising; people were trying to remove it in Paul’s day. The cross is a huge scandal and offence because it tells men and women that they are sinners, rebels under God’s judgment and deserving eternal separation from God for their sins. The good news about the death of Jesus on the cross is that it tells us he has paid that price for us, in our place. He died our death before God, taking our sins so that we might live. But the offence lies in the verdict it pronounces on us: we are powerless to change ourselves at heart, unable to win God’s favour and utterly dependent upon his mercy for our salvation. That message does not chime well with the self-sufficient, self-righteous, and self-centred. It never has.

And the second element that is lost in the religious mush is the power of the cross. On the cross Jesus puts to death our sinful nature and renews those who trust in him. Receiving Christ by faith means we also receive the gift of the Spirit who empowers his followers to live like him. Moralising cannot produce this power. All it can do is tell people to try harder. But the cross gives both an incentive for godly living (you have been saved) and a boost (in the form of help from above). ‘Thought for the Day’ does not (ever?) allow its contributors to broach controversial matter like that. That is too much for the secular gatekeepers to let pass. It is much safer to stick with what they’ve got.

Friday, 27 October 2017

The God who knows

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At what point do we begin to realise that we can lie and get away with it because other people don’t know what we have done? It’s at quite early age, really, seen in children as young as 42 months. Various experiments have tested this out, one of which put children in a room with an object behind them. When an adult briefly left the room they were asked not to peek at the object, but in most cases the children did. When the adult returned they were asked if they had peeked and in most cases the children lied and said that they hadn’t. It seems that one factor in the lying process is a growing awareness in the children that they are individuals in their own right. They unconsciously conclude that since on one else is around, then they can say what they like and no one can contradict them. In this case, the children were rumbled because there was a hidden camera watching them.

Now the experiment was fairly harmless, but you see the same pattern in adults who commit crimes and then brazenly deny any knowledge of what has happened until CCTV footage identifies them. They hold out up to that point because they think no one else knows. The increasing use of dash cam footage in car accident insurance claims demonstrates this principle in action from another angle. People might be tempted to lie about whose fault it was until the recording shows what really happened.

It is interesting, then, that Hannah tells us that “the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” This phrase comes as a part of her exuberant prayer at the birth of her son, Samuel, who was born after years of childlessness and anguish. It is a prayer which outlines her deep-seated trust in God in all situations in life (including her years of grief at being childless) and an overwhelming joy in his help and deliverance. God is the Rock upon whom she stands, unshaken and confident, and this vantage point gives her a unique outlook.

The first things that she says cannot remain are arrogance and pride: “Do not keep talking proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance.” Perhaps she is thinking of the taunting of her rival, her husband’s other wife, and the pain caused by this other woman’s mockery. But it extends to all forms of human pride because “the Lord is a God who knows.” There is nothing that escapes him; there are no mysteries to him. And we are not just talking about him knowing what went on, why it happened, and so on; we are talking about his knowledge of us. There are no mysterious people for him, no hidden traits of character. We often say about people, “I don’t know what they keep doing this…” or “What possessed them to do that…?” But God understands the hidden depths of our personalities, both what we do and why we do it. There is no mystery for him in what we are.

The Bible’s conviction is that we live our lives under the gaze of one who saw us and knew us before we we born, and from whom we cannot hide. It tells us that there is nothing that is hidden from God; everything is laid bare before him. And “by him deeds are weighed.” So that gaze extends not merely to what we have done, but it looks at our hearts and assesses our motives in those deeds. How do you think your deeds will look when placed under that searching light? When they are weighed by the God who knows? At the very least you will see that pride simply cannot exist alongside such knowledge; arrogant talk must cease.

Such knowledge is threatening to those who do not want their lives exposed, rather like the criminals who skulk in the shadows to avoid detection:

Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
But for us who follow Jesus that exposure is, ironically, deeply reassuring, because we discover that God knows us perfectly and yet does not reject us. He knows us with all our sins and failures, but provides the salvation from those sins in Jesus Christ. He knows all our deeply flawed attempts to follow him, yet works to mould us into the likeness of his Son. As John says, “we walk in the light”, under the spotlight of God’s knowledge of us. There is no hiding or fooling God. But that really is the best place to be.

Friday, 20 October 2017

In me you may have peace

 
If we are honest we all have certain expectations when it comes to experiencing peace. Perhaps we think of sitting on a sun lounger by the pool, a cool drink in hand. Or maybe it is watching a sunset on a quiet evening. Whatever the image in mind, it is usually something calming that is also distinguished by an absence of trouble or disturbance. The peace by the pool, for instance, would shattered if there were other noisy tourists with out of control children. We usually cannot think of finding peace alongside trouble. Trouble normally has to be absent. And yet Jesus is clear that the two can, indeed must, co-exist.

“I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33)

They way that he expresses it there tells us that there is one certainty in life and one possibility. The certainty is that “in this world you will have trouble.” His peace, by contrast, is the possibility. If we are to know peace, we have to find it in the face of trouble, not because trouble has been taken away. What form that trouble takes is not specified. Jesus was speaking to his disciples in the upper room the night before his betrayal and death, so he has mentioned the trauma that would be caused by those events. He also talked about them experiencing hatred and facing persecution in future, so these would be on his mind, too. But his basic assertion is that, whatever form it takes, troubles come our way. Living as a disciple of Jesus in the world will entail tribulations, struggles, testing, pain, even suffering. It is an inescapable reality. We know that God may answer prayer to help us through particular difficulties. He may remove certain problems and trials. But he has not made any absolute promise to smooth over everything for us. Just the opposite. “In this world you will have trouble.”

This should not surprise us. When the Bible talks about the world it frequently means our collective rejection of God and his rule. The world is implacable in its opposition to God and everything he wants. It stands in defiant and angry rebellion against God – “cosmic treason” is the phrase I came across recently, that also describes sin’s effects. The whole of creation is brought down by our sin. The entire cosmos is out of sorts and longing for the day when it will be restored. And what this means, therefore, is that we have no right to expect God to strew our path to heaven with rose petals.

So we have to find the peace that he offers in the shadow of that reality. When the apostle John wrote about “being in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” and meeting with the risen Lord Jesus, he was exiled on the island of Patmos, doing time “because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” When the visions ended he was still breaking rocks. And when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi he observed “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry.” It is interesting that Paul says that it is a secret that has to be learned, because we all know that it does not come instantly. Little by little it has to be grown, strengthening and building through one difficult situation after another. We learn that Jesus is our peace, that he has made our way open to God, and that we will find freedom from fear as we look to him. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” Jesus says to us. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Several years ago I met a Cambodian Christian who had spent several years in prison for his faith. During that time he had seen tremendous blessing, with scores of fellow inmates coming to faith in Jesus. I wonder if the authorities who put him there saw the irony, but he testified quite openly he didn’t see the opportunity at first and that it took him three months to come to terms with his imprisonment. He initially questioned the Lord angrily about why he was in jail. He was in deep depression and completely lacking in peace, but then he changed. He didn’t say what it was that altered his outlook, just that he came to accept that God had put him there for a purpose and that he could serve him there just as well as on the outside. I was amazed that it had only taken him three months to see that, but I think the secret lay in accepting the assurances in Jesus' words. We find our ultimate peace in him, Jesus says, not in the world around us. That world will only bring us trouble. But “Take heart,” says Jesus. “I have overcome the world.”

Friday, 13 October 2017

Keep going



It can be hard to keep going. In July 1952 Florence Chadwick set off from Santa Catalina Island to swim the 24 miles or so to the Califormia shoreline. She had already done a similar distance in swimming the English Channel, but this proved more difficult. A thick fog descended that obscured visibility to the point that she could hardly see the boats accompanying her, but it was her inability to see the coastline that proved more damaging. She swam for more than 15 hours before giving up, exhausted. But once in the boat she discovered that she was just a mile short of her destination. If only she had been able to see the coastline, that would have made all the difference.

There is a lesson in that for many situations, not least for what it means to keep going in the Christian faith. It can sometimes seem just like we are swimming in the fog, buffeted by the waves, isolated from others around us, and unable to see where we are going. It can feel like we are just swimming for the sake of it, and all because we have lost sight of our ultimate destination.

John Bunyan understood this clearly when he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. He portrayed Christian resting en route at the Delectable Mountains. He still had a long way to go to the Celestial City, but the lofty vantage point in the mountains afforded a view of the City, a glimpse of the goal before the next stage of the journey. Christian didn’t know it at the time, but he was going to need that preview very soon. When he left the mountain top his path quickly descended and wound its way through the Valley of the Shadow.  There in the gloom he felt himself alone, with no view of his route ahead and certainly no sight of the heavenly City. And so it was only with great difficulty that he struggled through.

The Christian faith is very much future oriented, and we need this view of our future more than we realise. Like Abraham we are looking forward, beyond the insecurity of a nomadic life, to the heavenly city with its eternal foundations. There were times when it looked like the promise could never be fulfilled. But Abraham, the writer to the Hebrews tells us, saw this city with the eye of faith, and that vision was what sustained him. And like Moses, we persevere because we see the one who is invisible and are looking ahead to our reward. The way ahead may be tough. Perhaps there is hostility and persecution to be faced, as there was for Moses. But the knowledge of the the heavenly reward gives extra resolve to push on through to the end. If, however, we forget the heavenly reward, we cut off a main source of strength for the journey. And the Bible writers would not be surprised to learn that we have then lost motivation for living as a disciple of Jesus.

An important part of Christian discipleship, therefore, must be to “set our minds on things above.” We have to make sure we look long and hard at the eternal future we are promised so that it is imprinted on our consciousness. Like Christian in Valley of the Shadow, there will be times when we cannot really see that future clearly, but what we have taken in earlier will be there to sustain us. Above all, we must “fix our eyes on Jesus.” He, after all, is the great goal to which God has called us. He is the prize. Not so much the location (if that is a good way of describing it), nor the peace, nor the presence of loved ones, great blessings though they may be. It is that we shall be with him. “They shall see his face” is what John says in breathless wonder as he contemplates heaven. It is the vision of Jesus and all the blessings that flow out of his death and resurrection that will sustain us. That higher perspective is what will keep you going.

Two months after her initial failure Florence Chadwick made another attempt to swim the strait. Once again the fog came down, but this time she swam the distance successfully. She is reported to have said afterwards that she had a picture of the shoreline in her mind all the way.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Speak to my soul




There is a poignant moment in the film “Little Voice”. LV, played by Jane Horrocks, has an amazing singing voice and can mimic other famous singers, but she never does so in public. When she is finally persuaded to perform at a local theatre, she initially cannot start because she is looking for one particular person in the audience. She has always sung for her father, even though he is dead, and needs his presence to give her the courage to go on. It is only when she sees him that she is able to break into song.

There is something in that in what David writes in Psalm 35. He is under attack and facing overwhelming pressure from those who want to bring him down. The previous psalm talked of peace and God’s protection, but there is not so much of that here. Instead, he is enduring what Derek Kidner calls the scheming, the mobbing and the gloating, and there is little evidence of God’s immediate help. But this is not a psalm of despair, rather it is a full-throated cry for help. It begins with a plea to God to deal with his enemies and it is punctuated with remarks that show he is confident God will show up and give him cause for praise eventually. And amid the prayers one request stands out: “Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’”

What is this but longing for his Father’s voice to reassure him in the chaos, for a sense that God stands with him, alongside him in his hour of trial, and that he will deliver him. The apostle Paul discovered this during his final imprisonment. When brought before the authorities to face initial charges he suddenly found himself alone, “no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” Perhaps they left him simply out of fear of being arrested with him. But with the other members of his team already scattered far and wide it is evident that Paul was deeply hurt by it. Yet in the end he was not abandoned, for “the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength…” In his hour of greatest need the Lord supported him so that he did not fail.

If we delve into Paul’s writings we discover that he has written this principle into one of this letters.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
At one level this is a simple process. We make thanksgiving and prayer our regular habit, so that, in everything we do and in every situation we face, we lift our thoughts to God and ask for his help. Then, Paul says, we will discover his peace, in ways that we cannot explain or perhaps even fathom, guarding us in Christ. He will speak peace into our troubled hearts that will hold us securely, as if he has put a guard around us. Simple to say, but harder to explain. Paul says it is beyond understanding how it happens. But it is not beyond understanding that it does.

Some years ago a friend’s mother was seriously ill in hospital. She was dying, but had suffered quite seriously in the process, so much so that when the church pastor turned up to see her she would not let him pray or read the Bible. A woman of deep and strong faith she was so grieved about her illness that she was angry with God and could not find any peace with him. I did not see her, but we prayed for her at a leaders’ meeting. The next time the pastor went to see her it was evident that prayer had been answered, for she was at peace. She had in some way encountered God and heard “through the earthquake, wind and fire, that still, small voice of calm.” With some others they celebrated communion, taking bread and wine to remember Jesus' death on the cross, the source of all our hope. They prayed and read Scripture. Later that same day she passed peacefully into the Lord’s presence.

One of the deep consolations of faith is that we find God alongside us in our anguish. He does not shield us from all the assaults of life. As Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” But he reassures us in that trouble that we will find our true peace in him. So he encourages us to put our trust in him, call out to him, wait for his help, and discover that he really is our salvation and everything we need.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Unshakeable


There is something in all of us that causes us to forget how weak we really are. Many people will tell you that they felt invincible when they were younger and only realised later on in life that they were anything but. They start out with the attitude that they can handle anything, but then life takes its toll and forces them to change that assessment. Maybe the psalm writer was experiencing a little of this when he said:
When I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be shaken.”
O Lord, when you favoured me, you made my mountain stand firm,
But when you hid your face, I was dismayed.” (Psalm 30:6-7)
“I shall never be shaken” is the motto of the self-confident. “I am strong. I stand up for myself.” It is the watchword of the self-sufficient. “I can manage. I don’t need a helping hand. In fact, I don’t want one because that would make me have to admit that I am weak.” And it is the motto of the independent who believe they can live without others and, above all, without God. But this is not just the way that our secular society thinks and lives, as if twenty-first century westerners are the first people to live like this. It is the way human beings have always behaved. Particularly when things are going well we assume that this is how it will always be, that nothing will change, and we will be untouched by anything that comes our way. But reality, of course, is otherwise.

We are weak and easily shaken. It doesn’t take much to knock us down. Health changes can be sudden, jobs lost, those we love taken from us. In that moment all our boasted strength evaporates, as many will testify. There are people living on the streets who once held down high-flying jobs. And others whose mental health has been shattered by the body blow of family tragedy. All would have said this was the last thing they expected.

So when David writes about himself he is honest enough to say that this is how he once thought, but there is an extra element to his self-assessment: he acknowledges how much he needs God’s help. Firstly he states that it is only with God’s blessing that he is able to stand firm. “When you favoured me” is the way he puts it. When God helped him and gave him what he needed, then things were good. But when God withdrew that help, that was the time he struggled. “I was dismayed”, he says, shaken to the core.

This is a simple statement of dependence upon God that many are unprepared to make. It rejects the idea that I can stand alone in life, but rather insists that peace and inner strength will only come when God pours himself into our lives. Without him, if he “hides his face”, we can only be dismayed. That probably goes a long way to explaining why so many people in the west are empty and insecure. And it points us to what we need  to live securely: a foundation to life that cannot be shaken.

It is no accident that one regular theme in the Bible is that God is a rock and that to build on him provides a secure foundation. David in Psalm 40 says that God has lifted him out of the quicksands of despair, placed his feet on a rock and given him a firm place to stand in life. We may be battered by what life hurls at us, but the rock under us cannot be moved. Jesus goes on to say that to obey his teaching is like building a house on a foundation of rock. The storms of life may beat agains
t such a house, but it will stand firm because it is built on rock. He contrasts the fate of those who do not follow his teaching with a description of the collapse of the house built on shifting sands. And the writer of the letter to the Hebrews observes that believing in Jesus means we are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” We stand firm because what we have in Jesus cannot be lost.

These are all statements of dependence. I put my trust in one who is stronger than me. I lean on him because he is more dependable. I may very well be shaken, but my hope is in him who is unshakeable, so I will not be dismayed.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Open my eyes



There are probably many times that you have read the Bible and it has seemed lifeless. You know the spiritual reason for this – the Bible isn’t lifeless; you are. It’s not the Bible that is the problem; it’s me. The Bible remains God’s Word and the Spirit speaks through it whatever I am feeling. To change the picture, the sun shines each day, whether I can see or not. Someone who is blind may never have seen the sun, but that person’s lack of sight does not mean the sun is not still shining. The problem is with their eyesight.

But knowing that is not always helpful from a spiritual point of view. Ok, the Bible feels dead and the problem is with me, but now what? I can’t just summon up the will to bring the text to life again. True. That’s where this prayer comes in useful: “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

This prayer begins with us recognising that we need God’s help to see what is beautiful in his word and asking him to show us, and there are several ways in which this needs to happen. First, our attention needs to turn from the other things that distract us. We all know how hard it is to see how good something is if we have something else in view. For instance, the benefits of a healthy diet are hard to appreciate if you have been brought up on junk food. In spiritual terms we are taken up with junk which seems more exciting and pleasurable, so to start with we need God to take our minds off that. “Open my eyes…” to the emptiness of the things that captivate me at present and help me put them aside.

Secondly, more than just showing how bad something is, we often need someone to explain how good the alternative really is. In our ignorance we often fail to understand the alternative’s real qualities. A few years ago my wife and I were visiting friends in Chicago so we took the opportunity to visit the Art Institute of Chicago where, among other things, we stumbled on an exhibition of Matisse’s work. We wandered around that section of the gallery for 10 or 15 minutes, rather unimpressed, before heading off to other rooms. But six months later we watched a programme about Matisse and saw his work in a new light. Matisse’s style was explained and we began to understand something of its beauty. We both remarked that we could have done with that information in Chicago. We might have appreciated the exhibition more.

We have to admit that this is frequently our problem with the Scriptures. We fail to grasp how beautiful, wonderful, powerful, or glorious the Scriptures are. We have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that they are just words on a page, dead letters from dead writers. We are dazzled by the visual wizardry of our age and all it offers on our small screens, so remain unimpressed when presented with an ancient book. We need to see that it speaks with God’s voice and thus appreciate its beauty. It will challenge us, rebuke us, occasionally terrify us. It will comfort, strengthen, revitalise and sustain. It will guide, give wisdom, teach and instruct. And it will thrill, delight and bless us with God himself.

When the psalmist writes about God’s word he is utterly persuaded of the beauty of God’s word. The whole of Psalm 119 is taken up with the joys of knowing God in his word. The psalmist uses 176 verses to describe that word – statutes, commands, laws, ways, decrees, precepts – alongside speaking of his delight in living by that word. So he talks about discovering God’s strength in affliction because God’s law was his delight (v92), meditating on God’s law all day long (v97), finding God’s words sweeter than honey (v103), claiming that God’s statutes are the “joy of my heart” (v111). He sums it up: “I love your commands more than gold.” (v127)

These are the words of a man who has seen beyond the distractions and diversions. Looking past the dust that blinds us he has found the diamonds. And all this is because he prayed “Open my eyes…” Lord, open mine, too.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Machiavelli is alive and well

According to former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan a week is a long time in politics and the events of this last week have proved him right again. It was on Friday 24 June that Boris Johnson was leading the Leave Campaign’s victory celebrations after the vote in the referendum went their way. On Thursday 30th, however, he was announcing that he would not be standing for election as Conservative Party leader. His one-time ally and campaign manager, Michael Gove, had announced he was standing as well and this had effectively destroyed Johnson’s chances of winning. So he chose his press conference to announce to a shocked audience that he would not be standing after all. I think this makes it one of the most dramatic moments in politics I have ever witnessed – not just what has happened, but the way it happened is what has set the news alight.

Michael Gove had always maintained that he didn’t wish to be leader of the party, nor that he had what it takes to be Prime Minister. So no one was prepared for him to announce his candidacy just three hours before the deadline, least of all Boris Johnson. It is said that Gove tried to ring Johnson immediately before the event (nothing like letting your friend know in advance!), but that Johnson didn’t pick up. However the Johnson camp insist that no such call was made. Whatever the truth, the drama in these events is worthy of The West Wing, or more likely The Thick of It.

And it very definitely is a drama. Boris Johnson saved his speech until the last moment before the deadline, weaving a description of what the new leader should be for nine minutes before ending with the punchline that left everybody staggering, namely that he would not be that person. Significantly, he quoted from Brutus’ words in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. While relevant to his case, in that it speaks of taking the opportunities when they arise, it is surely meaningful that is comes from the mouth of the betrayer who stabbed Caesar. He didn’t quote Caesar, but surely could have done: Et tu, Brute?

It was interesting to hear Michael Gove talk about his reasons for standing when previously he had pleaded his unsuitability and one remark stood out for me. It was that he was willing to sacrifice his friendships for this. Now, there is a sense in which we must all be willing to sacrifice friendships if a matter of moral principle is at stake. If I discover a friend of mine is, say, selling drugs outside the school gate I should have no trouble handing him over to the police. That may mean we then cease to be friends altogether, but it is a price that must be paid in this case. Maybe that is how Michael Gove sees this situation – he said that he felt Boris would not be able to organise the nation’s departure from the EU. Was this a moral justification for a coup? Or was it just that power was in touching distance, it was too good an opportunity to resist and no friendship was going to stand in the way?

Jesus observed that it is in the nature of human politics that “Gentile rulers lord it over each other.” He was describing what he saw in the Roman and pagan world especially, where political assassinations were real and common. Herod, in whose reign he was born, was notorious for the way he despatched enemies, friends and family, but he was by no means exceptional. But Jesus had a specific reason for mentioning this to his disciples: it was to dissuade them from using the same tactics. We may be surprised to learn that such a warning was necessary, but James and John had just proved that it was. Although Jesus had been talking about his forthcoming death, their minds had been on the coming glory, so they put in a request that they would be given the chief seats in heaven. The angry reaction of the other ten to the brothers’ barefaced cheek reveals that they had wanted to ask the same question and were annoyed that James and John had got in first and elbowed them out of the way.

But Jesus will have none of it and tells them that Christian leadership is about servanthood first – being a slave, actually. With Jesus as the supreme example of self-sacrifice there is simply no room for self-aggrandisement, let alone Machiavellian knife-in-the-back tactics, in those who profess to follow him. There is something ugly about scrambling for position and power, whatever the position sought. That is made all the uglier when friends turn on each other. But it is desperately ugly when it happens in the church – yet the very fact that Jesus has to warn his own disciples about it proves that these are not just sins of the political world. We also will have to guard ourselves very carefully against it as well.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Loving the stranger


The current debate about whether Britain should leave or stay in the EU has produced some pretty unedifying debate. Rather like the US Republican nominations, we have candidates building their case by belittling others and using point-scoring tactics. Both campaigns, for instance, have warned that the apocalypse is near if we vote for the other side. I confess I have stopped listening. Except at one point, that is. I nearly always listen for what is being said about those who are not like us.

Several years ago I attended the annual conference of a UK evangelical church grouping and went to a seminar about mission in Europe. It was a helpful presentation reflecting on the changes in the previous decade that had given new opportunities for mission, but the questions afterwards centred around the European Union. The seminar had been wider than that, but people were fixated by the EU and their hostility towards it was tangible and sustained. The result was that mission to these countries was forgotten. There were no comments about the doors that had opened in Eastern Europe or the church planting initiatives in former Soviet republics. There was no rejoicing that churches which had flourished under persecution were continuing to grow and were even sending missionaries to other parts of Europe. I wonder how much extra giving for reaching these nations came as a result of that meeting, because missional thinking had been swept aside and people were forgotten in the heat of the moment.

It demonstrated how easy it is for a cause to blind its followers to other people. I am sure that those who attended that seminar were devout and gave money to support the spread of the gospel around the world. But just as some people change personality once they get behind the steering wheel of a car, so these previously mission-minded saints changed once the trigger subject of Europe arose and thought of compassion for the lost evaporated. Loving the stranger became an alien subject.

Loving the stranger is a similarly alien subject in this current referendum campaign. It has produced a rash of hostility towards the outsider in this rather ugly, populist campaign. We have seen the rise of an unpleasant nationalism, which the referendum seems to have stoked up. It operates by blaming those who are not like us for the woes we believe we are experiencing and by proposing their exclusion and removal as the answer. All I can say is that that sort of solution does not have good pedigree.

The Bible urges us to think of the alien and the stranger in active and compassionate ways. It calls upon the wealthy and privileged to share with those in need, to find ways of giving generously and sacrificially to them. It commands them to welcome the disadvantaged, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. One of the most moving stories of the Old Testament that demonstrates this is that of Ruth. A member of the hated tribe of Moab, she married into an Israelite family that had moved to Moab during a famine (economic migration goes both ways). This family had stayed in economic exile for some years, but tragedy struck again when all the men in the family died leaving Ruth, her sister and her mother-in-law Naomi widows. Naomi made the decision to return to Israel and Ruth went with her. How would she fare as an alien with no rights? More than that, as a member of an enemy tribe? The short story shows how she “found shelter under God’s wings of refuge”: she was given work, she was welcomed into the people of God, she married another Israelite and by this became an ancestor of King David, and ultimately found herself in the line of the Messiah.

The account of Ruth demonstrates that there is a generosity in the Bible’s appeals that we think of the stranger, the alien and the outcast. I wonder what would happen to her in the UK today?

Friday, 27 May 2016

Statistically outnumbered


Apparently there are now more people who count themselves as having no religion than those who profess to be Christian in the UK. This change represents a massive jump in professed non-religiousness in just a few years since the 2011 census. It has gone from perhaps a quarter to nearly half the respondents, so Christianity is now statistically outnumbered and some are saying that its days are numbered as well.

Perhaps we should begin there: this is not death of the Christian faith - and those who triumphantly announce this usually show that they are ignorant of the phenomenal growth of Christianity around the the world. Still less are we witnessing the death of God, even though it is perfectly natural to make this assumption. You can see that line of thinking in Old Testament times, when people assumed that if a nation was defeated in battle that must be because their god had been defeated. But the Old Testament prophets steadfastly resisted this notion and boldly proclaimed that God remained sovereign even when his people were defeated. In fact, they insisted that God had either allowed or even brought those defeats about. He was then, and still is now, in control.

What appears to be happening is that nominal Christianity in Britain is in its death throes. For years we have been told that this is a Christian country because 65-70% say they are Christian, in spite of the fact that not all of those even believe in God and only 7-10% ever darken the doorstep of a church. What that means is that most people are Christian in name only, but not really believing and hardly, if ever, practising. They perhaps put "Christian" on a form when going into hospital, say, but that definition forms no real part of their lives or identity. In fact, such a weak attachment cannot hold them, and they inevitably slide away into what Eddie Gibbs has described as a "notional" faith. In such a state they hold increasingly vague ideas of faith until there is no further link with the original and any notion of faith just evaporates. So what these new statistics show is not some drastic decline in Christianity, but rather that people who do not actually believe are now no longer using the label Christian to identify their beliefs. If anything, these figures show what the truth has been all along, but it seems no one wanted to hear it.

And it is not easy to hear. Nobody really wants to admit that Christianity has practically no influence in the life of the nation, but the Bible is more realistic about this. The Bible relates more instances of spiritual decline than we might think in which Israel, God's own people, shut him out of their lives. On one occasion things were so bad that Elijah the prophet genuinely thought he was the last believer left. Ahab the king had introduced Baal worship that had effectively led the nation to change its religion, while Jezebel his queen was murdering the prophets and their supporters who wanted to stay faithful to God. It would be an enormous understatement to say that Biblical faith had lost its influence. But even in such apparently dire circumstances the Lord will not allow his dejected servant to think he has been beaten. He tells him that there are "seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal" and then he outlines how he is going to act.

What that Biblical account means for the future of Christianity in Britain is hard to say. It reminds us that there are always true witnesses to God in every age, who may be outnumbered and outgunned by the changeable majority. It tells us that God may reawaken faith, or he may not. There are accounts of Israel returning to God in the Old Testament, but it didn't happen in Elijah's time. The faithful few remained the few. In fact, this is the usual position of Christianity around the world. Our situation in Britain and the US of cultural dominance is by no means the norm. Elijah's experience of isolation and irrelevance is far more common and it appears that we are just returning to the default position. Frank Skinner wrote a couple of years ago that at least this means you have people in church who want to be there, rather than a mass of people who go to be seen going or because it is the done thing. True, but it is nevertheless not easy to contemplate Christianity becoming a cultural irrelevance (or worse) to the vast majority. So we need to take encouragement from Elijah's experience - it is as if it was written for times like these. God has not lost control, but is working out his purpose that we cannot see. Following him although others abandon him is still worth it and should fill us with hope to serve him diligently. We need the determination of another of Israel's leaders faced with people turning away: "As for me and my household" said Joshua, "we will serve the Lord." Who knows what may come of such faithfulness? He is Lord, his word is true, Jesus is risen from the dead, and nothing in these new statistics changes any of that.