Wednesday, 31 December 2008

A psalm for 2009

2008 saw a dramatic amount of change. My own personal circumstances have altered in ways I could have scarcely imagined a year ago. The world has been seen to be an unpredictable place over the past twelve months. Psalm 62 speaks to those who are aware of changing and bewildering circumstances. It is a great psalm to reflect upon at the beginning of a new year.

It is reckoned that David might have written this psalm when he had been deposed by his son, Absalom, before he regained his throne. In some ways, it doesn't really matter: the theme of the psalm is universal.

Sometimes we all find ourselves in a vulnerable condition described by David: as if perched on a leaning wall or a tottering fence. We feel like we are real pushovers. So, the question is, where do we turn from for support in these times?

We may turn to others. And so we should. God’s design is that believers in him should be part of a church. And being part of a Christian community not only gives us the opportunity to help those in need, but also to ask for help when we ourselves are in need. But though others may help we cannot rely on them. Even they will sometimes let us down. As this psalm puts it, "Surely the lowborn are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie. If weighed on a balance, they are nothing: together they are only a breath." All of us – from the highest to the lowest – are but ephemeral breaths of wind. And even as trustworthy as others might be, they have no control over their futures. Eventually even they will die.

You might put your trust in riches to support us as we totter. Writing at the end of 2008, that seems less sensible than at other times. Apparently, the average British person lost 13% in 2008. In 2009 it seems that many will be affected their firms going bust, and many will be made bankrupt as loans are called in. Some will lose houses. In order to bail out the banks the government has borrowed billions. In future years we will have to pay this all back as taxes are increased. One person I heard recently said it's like putting your money in a pocket full of holes. How foolish it is to set your heart on riches!

Who then can be relied upon? Where then can my soul find rest? In God alone. Truly he is my rock and my salvation. He is my fortress, I will never be shaken. Over and over again this psalm insists that we are secure in God and nowhere else. ‘One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: power belongs to you, God.’

A lot of people see God like a liberal football referee, who gives a lot of warnings but never books a player or shows a red card. They imagine a God who talks big but never delivers. They mistake his patience for his tolerance. They think he winks at sin. So many people seem to 'get away with it' that there seems no point in obeying the rules. "They take delight in lies; with their mouths they bless but in their hearts they curse."

The age of Premier League football with cameras everywhere has changed discipline in football. Apparently, there are at least thirty video cameras recording all of the action at Premier League games. And that means that the referee may miss a shirt tug or a sly push, but the cameras collect it. Indeed, things missed by the referee may still result in a retrospective red card. Omniscience may be fairly new to British football, but God has had it for years. He never misses a trick.

What a referee to have on your side! Nothing the opposition can throw at you goes unnoticed. He is a strong supporter.

So why doesn't he act? Well, it’s because he is concerned about the final result of the game. A few years ago, I missed the first half of the European Cup final. It was AC Milan 3 Liverpool 0 at the time. I almost didn’t watch the second half. I’m glad I did. Although it would have been easy to have given up in the face of such adversity, Liverpool refused to surrender and eventually won on penalties, masterfully led by topical figure Steven Gerrard. God is not primarily concerned about our comfort or even our bank balances. He cares about the final result. It is our salvation that matters, ours and every one else's. God is gathering together a people that will be his forever. That is how he is glorified. That is how his strength is shown.

And that’s second thing David heard. That God is not only strong, but that he is also loving. That's why he is so patient. It is not his purpose that any should perish, rather he wants everyone to repent. I’m very glad he gave me time to repent. I’m sure you are too.

In 2009, let us turn to the LORD. As the wall we are standing on starts to lean, as our fences totter, let us rely on him in everything.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Doctor Who, feminism and Jesus

After the awful Doctor Who Christmas special last year, we were relieved at my in-laws' house that this year's episode was significantly better. The plot was fun, there was plenty of snow and you got the sense that Doctor Who is perhaps the 21st Century equivalent of the pantomime.

I couldn't help noticing, though, that there was more of a politics to the episode than some. The combination of it being Christmastime and these politics had interesting things to say about Christianity, Jesus and feminism.

There were several mentions of and allusions to Jesus throughout the episode. At the grave side of one of the workhouse owner, a vicar rehearsed burial liturgy, surrounded by a group of men. There was a strong link of Jesus (and Christianity) with patriarchy. The villainess, Miss Hartigan, who had worked in one of the workhouses for many years, ended up in partnership with the Cybermen in reaction to the evils that she witnessed as a result of such patriarchy (indeed, this was portrayed as her only escape!). She represented herself as a new suffragette-style hero(ine) that came into the world at Christmas - only now not one that would oppress women. She even used the words, 'Behold, I have risen'. Miss Hartigan was set up as a kind of Christ figure; the implication throughout being that Christianity (even Jesus?) is misogynistic and oppressive.

In the end, however, the Doctor seemed to identify the problem with Miss Hartigan's plans: her ideals, too, were shown to be oppressive. In compassion, the Doctor offered to send Miss Hartigan and her Cybermen to another planet, where they wouldn't need to 'convert' anyone (another backward slap at Christianity?). However, once Miss Hartigan's eyes were 'opened', the horror of her evil meta-narrative convicted her and she imploded.

In the end, perhaps the episode was a critique of patriarchy and feminism. Feminism that become an inflexible meta-narrative is to be rejected as it threatens to become an evil ,oppressive (and Christianity-like) system; yet the tragedy portrayed by the episode is that a real heroine (a character called Rosita, who helps many children to be saved) ends the epsiode merely as a nanny. We're forced to ask... is this right? Is it right that a heroic, bright woman can rise only to this position in a Christianity-influenced (Victorian) patriarchy?

An interesting theme. I wonder what the writers would make of Jesus' encounters with women in the Gospels?

Matthew Parris on mission

An interesting article by Matthew Parris in the Times: 'As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God'.

This is a truly incredible article, including the following quote: 'Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.' Well worth a read and a ponder.

HT: Michael Ots

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Stuart Briscoe on Christmas

Found a Christmassy quote that is worth pondering:

'The spirit of Christmas needs to superseded by the Spirit of Christ. The spirit of Christmas is annual; the Spirit of Christ is eternal. The spirit of Christmas is sentimental; the Spirit of Christ is supernatural. The spirit of Christmas is a human product; the Spirit of Christ is a divine person. That makes all the difference in the world.' (Stuart Briscoe).

Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Grumbling vs complaining

A few posts ago, I spoke of how the writers of Scripture envisage Christians as people who do not grumble, so confident are they in God's goodness and sovereignty.

However, the Bible does positively hold up believers that complain... The Psalms, for instance, are full of incidents where the psalm writers open their hearts in complaint. So what is the difference between grumbling and complaining? How can I make sure that I'm a complainer and not a grumbler?

The difference to me seems to be the focal point of my problems. In Psalm 6, for instance, David complains about all manner of things in his circumstances (including his enemies, and illness in body and spirit). His response, however, is not to grumble but to complain: to place all of his concerns into the hands of the LORD, knowing that the LORD alone is one that can help in this situation. Even though his circumstances are the subject of his prayer, the complaint is God-centred (isn't this the thrust of Philippians 4:6-7).

It would seem to me that, whilst grumbling is always a danger, it is possible to complain in a godly matter in conversation with others too (particularly when the audience of complaint is also wary of letting the conversation drift into grumbling).

It would also appear to me that (despite the danger of grumbling), it is sometimes right to complain, particularly when, in some way, God does not appear to be getting the glory he deserves or, from what he has revealed about himself, his will is not being done. For example, whilst the danger is always that it will spill over into grumbling, it is right that injustice or church gospel disunity causes us to complain (primarily to God, but sometimes to each other).

Any other ideas on how we can complain in a godly way, but not grumble?

Friday, 19 December 2008

Changeling: Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' redux

Tonight Linda and I went to see Clint Eastwood's latest film, Changeling. We had both been really moved by Million Dollar Baby and so looked forward to viewing it with anticipation.

Let's make one thing clear: it isn't pretty viewing. The film opens reminding the viewer that it is based on true life, and this is what makes the movie powerfully arresting. In fact, the auditorium was quieter at the end of the film than any other I'd been to since The Passion of the Christ. Whilst there wasn't much gore, the subject matter was such that it leaves you squeaming at many points.

The trailer for Changeling only gave the bare bones of the plot: a boy is abducted, a police search ensues, a boy is found, but the boy's mother Christine Collins (played by the very good Angelina Jolie) insists that the boy returned to her is not her son.

However, perhaps the main issue that the film raises is the matter of madness. After confronting the city authorities, Mrs Collins is branded an unfit mother, branded delusional and sent to a secure psychiatric hospital. Later in the film, another view of madness is presented in one of the other major characters. The movie considers what 'madness' is, who has the right to call someone else 'mad' or delusional, and whether 'madness' ever mitigates one's societal responsibility. And so whilst there are other strong themes (human evil, death, the family, justice and women's rights), it's issues of 'madness' and the role of the institution that is explored most deeply. In this respect, it is very similar to the 'archaeology of knowledge' of the penal system and the hospital presented by the French postmodernist Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish. The movie questions whether two key figures - Mrs Collins and Northcott - might be treated in the same way today (and if not, why not?).

It's true that societal factors are highly influential in governing behaviour. I believe that evangelical Christians (like me) have traditionally underplayed these societal forces. However, part of what Foucualt's philosophy has done has placed us in a society where nobody is ever 'guilty'. We can always blame our mental health, our disposition, our upbringing or our parents. At the end of Changeling, it's worth considering this question: despite all of the guilt and the violence, who is guilty? (The answer might surprise you).

For a second opinion, here's what Nick Pollard of the excellent Damaris organisation made of it:

Top films of 2008

Dave K recently posted his top films of 2008. I don't think there were loads of classics (although we didn't make No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, and I'm still hoping we'll catch Waltz with Bashir), but here's my top 5 so far. I've linked to films I reviewed.

1. The Dark Knight
2. Changeling
3. Wall-E
4. Juno
5. Quantum of Solace

I quite enjoyed bits of Iron Man, Charlie Wilson's War, City of Ember, Burn After Reading and Jumper. Lowest marks of the year would include films like 21, The Duchess and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

"The grumbling Christian" - an oxymoron?

I’ve been spending more time today in Philippians, and I’m thoroughly enjoying seeing Paul’s gospel-heartedness. He glorifies Christ and he values Christ and his gospel above everything else – and calls other believers to do the same.

Today I’ve been thinking about Philippians 2:14-15: “Do everything without grumbling and arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Last time I taught Philippians, on a summer team in Moldova, this was one of the verses that jumped out at us. Grumbling and arguing is even easier than normal when under pressure in a different culture without creature comforts. Even, in everyday life, it's hard not to grumble or argue. So why is it so important not to grumble? And why does Paul put this prohibition against grumbling right here? He just done telling the Philippians that God is at work in them, he’s about to call them to shine as lights in this twisted, dark world... but first he has to warn them to do all things without grumbling and complaining.

Perhaps this reflects on the pervasiveness of grumbling and complaining. We all find it so easy to grumble and complain! But a grumbling Christian is, for Paul, an oxymoron. A grumbling Christian spreads darkness and bad mouths God. So, says Paul, God is working in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose. And that means that if you want to please God and glorify him in our dark world, you’ve got to get a handle on grumbling. Grumbling is not a ‘minor sin’. It is an indication that all is not well in the spiritual life of a believer.

Of course, the vice of grumbling doesn’t turn up for the first time in Philippians. (Bible Gateway gives 25 other places where the word ‘grumble’ or ‘grumbling’ is used in the NIV). In fact the same word – ‘grumbling’ – is used plenty of times to describe the redeemed people of Israel in the wilderness. I think Paul is alluding the the people of Israel here in Philippians. God saves them with outstretched arm then has to listen to their grumbling just about every step of the way to Canaan! Now, Paul teaches the Philippians, God is powerfully at work in you to will and to act... so learn from the bad example of Israel.God has brought you out of the world, and now it’s time to shine his glory into the darkness of our world.

Israel, of course, had hardly got across the Red Sea when their grumbling began! (In fact, they were grumbling even before they got to the Red Sea: Exodus 15:24). They grumbled about water. They grumbled about food. They grumbled about Moses and Aaron, God’s appointed leaders. They grumbled about the spies. And, of course, their grumbling was ultimately directed against the Lord and his provision. (In this sense, all grumbling is ultimately against the Lord).

The people hit an all-time low in Numbers 16. Firstly they grumble against Moses and Aaron’s leadership... and then following God’s judgement, instead of seeing their own sin, they grumble again (Numbers 16:41), blaming Moses for God’s judgement. And this grumbling is serious. By the end of the chapter, nearly 15000 people have died in judgement. Grumbling is a serious sin against God.

If grumbling is so pervasive, where does it come from? Surely it’s when we lose sight of God’s grace and sovereignty. We grumble because we are self-centred and proud, and that we think we’re not getting what we deserve. Grumblers develop the mindset “I deserve better than this”, and think that life (or God) should have given them a better deal. In that respect, grumbling an symptom of arrogance. It is saying that I know how to run my life better than God, that I doubt his sovereignty and wisdom and goodness.

How, then, does a person fight a grumbling spirit? What is the antidote? Well, this is surely answered by the rest of the letter to the Philippians. It’s letting the wonderful truths of the gospel hit home and placing one's cicumstances in God's hands in this light. It’s cultivating joy that isn’t dependent on one’s present circumstances, but from the eternal realities of an everlasting and wonderful relationship with Christ. It’s learning to know and experience the very great value of the gospel that puts everything else in its correct perspective. It’s through seeing death as gain. It’s working towards a prayer life in which thanksgiving plays an important part. It’s rejoicing in the Lord always. It’s keeping our eyes on the citizenship we have in heaven. It’s learning to be content whatever the circumstances. Above all, it’s knowing Christ, who didn’t demand what he deserved, but gave it all up and made himself a nobody in order to serve others in humility.

Monday, 15 December 2008

"What does it matter...?"

I've spent the day soaking in Philippians 1, challenged again by Paul's attitude in putting the gospel first that caused him be to be willing to face personal discomfort, denigration of his name and bruised feelings so long as the gospel is preached.

What shines through this passage is the great splendour, goodness, potency and effect of the proclaimed gospel message, and the glory that goes to Christ through its proclamation. In the light of the gospel, nothing else can hold first place for our ambitions and motivations.

Here are two quotes I've been reflecting on today in this light:

"Putting the gospel first ought not to be the exception among us, but the rule. We are talking about the good news that reconciles lost men and women to the eternal God. We are confessing the gospel: that God himself has provided a redeemer who died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to himself. Without the gospel we are cut off, without hope in this world or the next, utterly undone. Compared with this good news, what could possibly compete?" (Don Carson, Basics for Believers)
"[O]ne day, as we know from his promises, he [Christ] will come again in unimaginable splendor to perfect his kingdom. We are commanded to watch and be ready. Meanwhile, the gap between his two comings is to be filled with the Christian missionary enterprise. We have been told to go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, and we have been promised that the end of the age will come only when we have done so. The two ends (of earth space and time) will coincide. Until then he has pledged to be with us. So the Christian mission is an urgent task. We do not know how long we have. We certainly have no time to waste. And in order to get on urgently with our responsibility, other qualities will be necessary, especially unity (we must evangelize together) and sacrifice (we must count and accept the cost). Our covenant at Lausanne was "to pray, to plan and to work together for the evangelization of the whole world". Our manifesto at Manila is that the whole church is called to take the whole gospel to the whole world, proclaiming Christ until he comes, with all necessary urgency, unity and sacrifice." (The Manila Manifesto, Lausanne Covenant 1989)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Athanasius and the development of Trinitarian doctrine

Yesterday the UCCF North West had a good team day on Athanasius and Trinitarian debate led by the very knowledgeable Donald Allister. It was an interesting and heart-warming time, particularly poignant at this time of year when we think about Jesus' incarnation.

Athanasius has been one of my heroes for quite a while. Donald's 'warts and all' exposure of how things developed during the 4th Century didn't really change that (although they did make me appreciate much more the kind of pressure that many Christian leaders were under at that time). The other thing that really stood out was that the Arian heresy was far more subtle than often caricatured today. We briefly considered Arian interpretations of Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-6.

One of the interesting things to ponder was that Donald suggested that he believed that there would be many 4th Century Arians that would prove to be saved. He suggested that many people were Arian at that time simply because theology hadn't developed enough for the case to be otherwise. And so whilst Athanasius saw Trinitarian theology to be of salvation importance (because only God can reconcile humanity to God), perhaps many who did not have the blessing of this reality could still be saved. I've thought a bit about the 'eschatological' element to doctrine a bit before (that we should expect doctrine to be constantly rendered more clearly over time, yet never contradicting previous true Biblical insight), but I'd like to do some more thinking on this. Any thoughts or good things to read?

Monday, 8 December 2008

"God can't look on or have anything to do with sin"

It’s a common evangelical cliché and throw-away line. But is it fair to say that ‘God can’t look on or have anything to do with sin’? I’ve heard a couple of people (festively) attacking this notion recently, on the grounds of the incarnation.

The argument runs like this:

  • Jesus is fully God as well as perfect man;
  • During his ministry, Jesus associated himself with sinners – he talked with them, worked with them, ate and drank with them;
  • Therefore, the idea that God is totally against sin is false (as what can we say but that Jesus is ‘having something to do with sin’ during his ministry?).
Now I think that this argument is flawed for a number of reasons (for instance, it seems to imply a deistic and unscriptural understanding of a god that isn’t actively involved in creation apart from when physically manifested in the person of Christ). But let us put this aside for the moment.

It’s surely true that Jesus associated himself with those widely recognised by the religious establishment (and pretty much everyone else) as being particularly sinful (see Mark 2:13-17). Equally, the New Testament endorses Jesus as God (Colossians 2:9 and so on). But does this mean that we must come to the conclusion of the third statement above? Or in what sense, if any, is it impossible for God to look on or have anything to do with sin?

Clearly, as God in the flesh, Jesus looked upon sinners, in the sense that he looked at them. But in his grace he came not to endorse their sinful lifestyles (or even to say that their sin didn’t really matter) but to bring them freedom and forgiveness and reconciliation in his kingdom. When Christians (perhaps thoughtlessly) say that the God of the Bible can’t look on sin, they’re not saying that he’s somehow blind to the sinful reality of the world, but rather that his character as moral arbiter of the Universe is to call sin evil and wrong. The great news of Christmas is that, in Christ, he’s found a way of reconciling us to himself in his own body without compromising his character.

There is one question that remains. It’s this: if Jesus really was fully God, why did no-one (as sinful beings) burn up and drop dead in his presence? John 3:17 says that, ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ This is the same Son of God that, according to John 1:17, came into the world with grace and truth. In other words, the Father would have had every right to send Jesus the Son into the world to immediately condemn it (and by implication each of us – for, as members of the world, each of us is sinful). But he preferred to send him instead as an atoning sacrifice to make reconciliation to himself possible. Peter perhaps caught something of this when he said (in Luke 5:8): “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!” Jesus had every right to condemn Peter, yet lived amongst sinful people in order to be the perfect sacrifice to make atonement for sinners.

I think that part of the reason that this debate has come up is that, in certain circles, Christmas is presented in quite a flat and tired way: it's just a necessary preamble for all of the stuff that followed later. We feel unable to say what it means to have our God as Emmanuel, God with us. The implications of the incarnation as an event in itself are sidelined and flattened (perhaps because we can’t fit it otherwise into 2 Ways to Live). And that is wrong and a symptom of wider illness in evangelicalism.

It’s right to look for and meditate upon the wider significance of the incarnation. (Indeed, I’ve been personally struck recently by the number of times that Hebrews draws real pastoral application from the incarnation and the humanity of Christ). However, in looking to say that the incarnation represents more than just a pre-requisite for Easter, we surely cannot say that it is anything less.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Avoiding the idolatrous abomination

One of the most significant sessions that had a bearing on future ministry was when Marcus described boring Bible studies and talks as 'idolatrous abominations' (you can hear the story re-told from his perspective here).

It was at that moment that I realised for the first time that a sound Bible study or talk that did not lead to worship is not treating Scripture in the way intended when it was given to us. The Bible was given so that we might joyfully submit our lives to Jesus in everything. Bible ministry that stops at understanding makes an idol of reason and knowledge.

That session, several years ago, profoundly changed my ministry. I say all this because I was reminded of it in listening to Tim Keller's recent sessions on Bible 'application' (not a term he likes, and I dislike too) and 'preaching to the heart' given at Oak Hill College (thanks Dave). Tim Keller uses a different vocabulary and slightly different approach to that which Marcus took, but the heartbeat was the same. The first session, particularly, is a 'must listen' for any who expound Scripture.

They're available here:

MP3: Tim Keller at Oak Hill College (1) November 2008
MP3: Tim Keller at Oak Hill College (2) November 2008

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Am I really a Christian?

Once again, I've left it far longer than I had intended to write a post. The last few weeks have been pretty busy. The busy period finished with the superb Lancaster University CU houseparty at a snowy and misty Blaithwaite (see above).

I gave a seminar on the title 'Am I really a Christian?' The first part of the seminar focused on how anybody can be saved at all. The second part focused on the signs that the Bible writers point to as characterising those who have true spiritual life, those joined to Jesus, our living Head. It's not that these things define us as Christians; rather, when we have true spiritual life, they characterise us.

Here are the characteristics I came up with:

1. The truth test: a born again believer accepts God's promises as not just being true generally, but true for them. The genuine Christian has a humble assurance of their assurance and forgiveness. "The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20 - see also 1 John 2:1-2, Romans 4:20-21).

2. The confession test: a true believer is pleased to declare Jesus as Lord, in word and action. 1 Corinthians 12:3 says: "No-one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit." Greg Haslam puts it like this: 'Is Jesus the boss in your life? Are you unashamed to let it be known that he is? Unembarrassed to speak of your allegiance to him before others? Glad to sing, say, preach and declare ‘Jesus is Lord’ in an unforced way on each occasion? Does this flow as a clear and resounding certainty from your heart to your lips? If the answer is ‘yes’ to each of these questions, then you must be a Christian, for the indwelling Holy Spirit produced that confession.'

3. The obedience test: a genuine believer is committed to fighting sin in their life. Will Metzger puts it like this: 'God, in his mercy, will not allow children of his to be comfortable in sin. He makes us restless, even to the point of questioning our salvation, so that we might not presume on his favour but, instead, relish his grace. Often we recognise our salvation not by victory over sin but by the warfare that is still going on within us. Comfort and encouragement do not come from outward circumstances of “success” but rather from drawing near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, from knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Boldness coupled with humility is the result.' See 1 John 2:3-6, Mark 8:34-35, Galatians 5:17 and so on.

4. The fruit test: the Holy Spirit puts the attitudes and desires of Christ into true believers. It is true that Christians slip up - again, as Metzger puts it, 'we sometimes find winters where no fruit is evident, even in the lives of genuine believers.' However, Jesus promises that true believers will bear fruit, particularly his own character (John 15:5, also Galatians 4:22-23).

5. The personal test: a true believer knows that they know Christ. This is what Romans 8:15 and 1 John 5:10-12 say. Christians are not people who are backing a plausible theory, hoping it works out. They have the Spirit’s testimony in their hearts that they know Christ. You can look at what Jesus has said and what he’s done, but knowing him is personal. When it comes to knowing someone, you know whether you know them or not. With a theory, I may not be sure that I’ve grasped; a moral code, I’m not sure whether I’ve kept it well enough - but a person, I know whether I have met them or not.

'I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.'(1 John 5:13)