The Windy Confidence of Christianity’s Critics

In a book way back in 1992 called ‘Suffering’, Alistair McGrath wrote:

“Some say that nothing could ever be adequate recompense for suffering in this world.  But how do they know?  Have they spoken to anyone who has suffered and subsequently been raised to glory?  Have they been through this experience themselves?

One of the greatest tragedies of much writing about human suffering this century has been its crude use of rhetoric: ‘Nothing can ever compensate for suffering!’ rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease.  It has a certain oratorical force.  It discourages argument.  It suggests that what has been said represents the distillation of human wisdom on the subject, and is so evidently correct that it does not require justification.  It implies that anyone who disagrees is a fool.  But how do they know nothing can compensate for suffering?

Paul believed passionately that the sufferings of the present life would be outweighed by the glory that is to come (Rom. 8:18).  How do they know that he is wrong, and that they are right?  Have they tasted the glory of the life to come, so that they can make the comparrison?  Have they talked to others who have been through the bitter experience of suffering and death, and have been caught up in the risen and glorious life of Christ, and asked them how they now feel about their past suffering?

No.

Of course they haven’t.

The simple truth is that this confident assertion of the critics of Christianity is just so much whistling in the wind.  Their comments are made from our side of the veil which separates history from eternity.”

p.96-97

Choosing Life in Suffering

cryingfaceOne of life’s great questions centres not on what happens to us, but how we will live in and through whatever happens.  We cannot change most circumstances in our lives.  I am white, middle class, and I have a good education.  I have not always made conscious decisions about these things.

Very little of what I have lived, in fact, has to do with what I have decided – whom I have known, where I came into the world, what personality tendencies have taken hold.

Our choice, then, often revolves around not what has happened or will happen to us, but how we will relate to life’s turns and circumstances.  Put another way:  Will I relate to my life resentfully or gratefully?

Think of this example:  You and I have crashed into one another on the road.  For me it might create not only serious injury, but also bitter resentfulness.  I may drag through life, saying, “The accident changed everything.  Now I am broken and life is hard.”  You may suffer the same hardship, but say, “Might this moment serve as a call to another way of life?  Might it be an opportunity to master something new, a chance to make my brokenness serve as a witness to others?”

The losses may be non-negotiable.  But we have a choice:  How do we live these losses?  We are called time and again to discover God’s Spirit at work within our lives, within us, amid even the dark moments.  We are invited to choose life.  A key in understanding suffering has to do with our not rebelling at the inconveniences and pains life presents to us.

 

Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, p.12-13

A Growing Church

growth1 Cor 3:1-15; Col 2:19 and John 15:8,16

I distinctly remember it was Jesus who said, “I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16:18).

Even so, we live in a global business age of organisation, efficiency and profit, and there are thousands of books on growth.  If you are more organised, more efficient and more profitable, you will grow….but only if you stick to our new-fangled formula!

The Western church has been swallowing this bitter idolatrous pill for decades.  We’ve put down our Bibles, and picked up secular ideas and initiatives – why?  church numbers are declining, people are leaving the church, pews and seats are becoming empty, coffers are down, bills are up, and then someone said, “Hang on a minute, if we just branded ourselves like Nike, or glamorised ourselves like L’Oreal, or popularised ourselves like celebrities, we too can achieve what they achieve!  And should the gates of hell get too close, we’ll just sloganeer them out of town with a TV ad campaign!

What does it mean to be a growing church in this context?  In fact, what does it mean to be a growing church and be faithful?  Can the Church ever be faithful and successful?  Can we do sexy marketing, or shall we just stick with cheesy slogans to do with babies and mangers, bunnies and daffodils?  easter bunnyHow can we claim to proclaim something better, something the world needs, something unknown and un-buyable?  Can the church compete with a world that clamours for everything but Christ and him crucified?

Can we ever be faithful and successful?  What does it mean to be a Growing Church?

I’ve had experience in small and largish churches in my twenty three years as a follower of Jesus.  At various times I’ve loved the many and at others I’ve loved the few.  I suspect we would all love to see our own churches grow.  But I bet most of us have some particular and peculiar idea of what we expect when we think about a “growing church.”

And almost all of us have been shaped by growth as defined apart from the Gospel.

During the post-war decades, the church did not refuse the idolatrous impostor of superficial techniques for church growth.  The Evangelical mission mistook discipleship for cloning!  We made precious converts to Christ in our image, not His!

It was especially the decades of the 60’s-90’s that witnessed the meteoric rise of growth techniques apart from covenantal faithfulness to Christ.  Even before the ancient Israelites entered the Promised Land, God reminded them that any “success” they would have would be because of His grace and gift.  They had to remain utterly dependent upon God – not the result of their own efforts, expertise, skill or technique.  It was God.  Later, Jesus would say “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

Jesus understands the depravity and severity of our sinful nature.  We distort everything through our distorted desires. Love distorted for lust. Faith distorted for safety. Ministry distorted for egotistical self-promotion.  Marital sex distorted for a sickening free-for-all pornography culture.  A potty culture for a potty-mouthed people. That’s sin.

And even when the saving grace of God breaks in through the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, we still get pulled and pushed by our old desires, but now we apply that to the Gospel and to church.  Unaware of what we are really doing, we get tempted to pursue non-gospel goals using unbiblical motives.

We cry out “Where are you God?” when we suffer because we haven’t understood that Jesus is with us and in us and around us in our suffering.  And the One who is near is thought to be far; the One who is present is thought to be absent.  So we conclude: “God must be far; God must be absent.  This Christian thing doesn’t work too well, so now I too will take myself far from “the church”; I too will absent myself from Christ.  I will find other gods.”

We become forgetful of such earth-shattering verses as, “My grace is sufficient for you, my grace is perfected in your weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).  quote-at-bottom-god-is-nothing-more-than-an-exalted-father-sigmund-freud-230062There is only one god that failed here, and it is often the one we imagined (we are so Freudian), because our imaginations had not seen the glory of the Living God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.

So how we view God must not based on our expectations (ha! as if we know!!), but on God’s revelation in the Scriptures.  In several surveys conducted before 1993 on preaching within contemporary evangelical churches (documented by David Wells in No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, p.223), less than half were shown to be explicitly biblical and only 19% were grounded in or related in any way to the nature, character and purposes of God.  Less that half were biblically deficient!  This is a scandal that should outrage us (holy outrage of course – but let’s be outraged in moderation, less than 50% should do it)!!

One of my favourite NT scholars is Professor Anthony Thiselton, he similarly comments on this in his brilliant study of the Apostle Paul when he says, “Much preaching today consists of anecdotes about human life, Paul’s preaching was mainly about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.   Perhaps this is why we miss some of the sheer excitement of the Gospel.”  He’s right!  Ever heard the derogatory remark, “He’s so heavenly minded he’s of no earthly use!”?  What manure!  We need more heavenly minded people!  Even our own cultural proverbs stand in opposition to the Gospel (see Colossians 3:1-4).

And all these observations and trends influence how we got where we are and why we are here and in large measure, what to do about it.  Fellow Baptist minister Ian Stackhouse of Guildford Baptist Church, in his Gospel-Driven Church (p.108), says that much in church life, especially preaching, is based in ignorance of the Gospel and thus simply consists of communicating vision and motivation – both of which are driven  by a concern for success.”  Ian’s friend and fellow pastor Dave Hansen told him, “The church is there for Gospel proclamation.  thinsoupPreaching my ideas and visions for the church is cheap leadership and is not preaching – it is thin soup!”  Wowzers!

The Gospel is the vision and the idea is the Gospel.  When the post-war church in large chunks, not everywhere of course, but when the church bought into the values of secular gimmickry and the thin soup of its mission and purpose, the damage was done.

A growing church, or a fruitful church (both are biblical), is an organic community, like a farmer, not a business man; like a shepherd, not a politician.  It is organic not mechanical (think industrial revolution); it is Spirit-led not organisational (think big-business).seed emerging

Holding on to the Gospel, in gift and grace, is very, very hard.  It requires self-awareness of the Old Adam; it requires faith and trust in the New Adam Jesus Christ;   It requires the eyes of faith to see what God is doing; and it requires the boldest of people to join in with Him; to get out the boat; to look up; to obey Jesus.

When we secularise the sacred or forsake faithfulness; when we grab but don’t give; when we preach ourselves not Christ, then we have abandoned being the church.  This is what Eugene Peterson calls ‘whoring after other gods’ and I’m sure he got that from the many passages on idolatry in the Bible!

As usual, he goes even further, “The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches.  There are instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God, week after week, in towns and villages around the world.  The HS gathers them and does his work in them.  In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called the paster (ahem!), and given a designated responsibility in the community.  The pastors responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.  It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades” (Working the Angles, p.2).

Apart from Me you can do nothing.  One plants, another waters, God gives growth!

The church that looks for quick results in the seed-planting of well-doing will be disappointed.  If we want potatoes for dinner tomorrow, we don’t plant the seeds today!  There are long stretches of darkness and invisibility and silence that separate planting and harvest.  During the stretches of waiting there is cultivating and weeding and nurturing and the planting of still more seeds.

“My ways are not your ways, declares the Lord!”  The Western Church doesn’t need new ways and good ideas, it needs the Old Ways and God’s revealed idea.  The Ways of the Lord.  The Way of Jesus.  “I am the Way” Jesus said, it is narrow I know, but it is my Way.  It is marked with suffering and persecution, I know, but it is my Way.  It will lead to the Cross.  Your Old Adam must die, but the New Adam will rise in You.  Adam will die.  Christ will rise.  You will live.  Knowing this Way, the ways of the Lord in life, death and resurrection, is the business of the Church.

milewideI am much less interested in church as numerical growth, but in spiritual depth.  Growth of just one person in Christ.  That’s success.  That’s fruit.  That’s Gospel grace and gift.  My experience of mission work in several African countries confirmed what many have said about the African Church that it is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Although that’s by-and-large true, I think it very unfair to limit this observation to Africa.   Consider the impact of a church that is an inch wide and a mile deep!

Baptist theologian Paul Fiddes, Principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford University reminds us that the Christian community is not the wish fulfillment dream of any individual who envisions a community according to his own ideals.  The sooner we are disillusioned by the unhappy and ugly aspects of any community the better.  Why?  because by sheer grace God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.   Why?  because living in illusions (a product of our distorted desire), makes us into accusers of others when they seem to fall short of our own imagined aims.  The church is not a human ideal that we must realise, but is a gift of God (Fiddes, Under the Rule of Christ, p. 11-12).

A bunch of sinners, gathered in gift and grace under the proclamation of the Gospel, learning together what it means to be “on the Way of Jesus”.  Stumbling, but being helped back up.  Turning round only to discover Jesus really is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  You may want to leave too!  But where shall you go?  Only Jesus has the words of eternal life – you know that already!

Being fed up with people, only to realise that these people are saved, sanctified and deeply loved by a God of miracles – big enough miracles to even save sinners like you and me.  Now that’s Gospel power!

A growing church exists in grace and gift, is shaped by the Gospel to grow everyone in Christ-likeness, as we gather week by week.  In season and out of season.  In sickness and in health, ’til death us do eternally join!  Church is the enactment of our marriage vows to God.  We are His bride.

No gimmicks.  No secularism.  No formula.  No techniques.  No cheap Gospel.

Just sinners, watered by the preaching of the Gospel, planted in good soil by God’s Word, and grown slowly and securely by God Himself.

the-sowerFaithfulness in the soil where darkness turns to light.

Faithfulness in the water, where the flood becomes the baptism of our salvation.

Faithfulness in growth by the Word, whereby we live in joy with the great mystery: Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Amen.

A Brief History of Christian Zionism

Israel_Palestine_Flag[1]

The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.”

Introduction

Zionism is a multifaceted ideology, making definition difficult.  Generally, it may be defined as ‘the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.’[1]  The term ‘Zionism’ was first coined as late as 1892 by Nathan Birnbaum, and expressed in his published paper ‘The National Rebirth of the Jewish People in Its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish Problem’ in 1893.  The term ‘Christian Zionism’ was probably first used by Theodore Herzl, as he described the convictions of the Christian founder of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant.  It can be defined as ‘Christian support for Zionism and the state of Israel and, by implication, opposition to people and groups deemed hostile to Israel.’[2] Continue reading

Joy and Suffering

Christ's hands

Joy to the world the Lord has come!

The angel declared, “I have come to announce good news of great joy…”

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.”

He later added on that solemn last night, “You will have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

One of the great characteristics of Christian conversion and living is joy.  It is a fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.  It is the Holy Spirit in this passage that shapes us to be like Christ, and Christ-likeness is precisely what the fruits of the Holy Spirit reveal:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.

How’s your joy?  Or rather, how is Christ himself being fashioned in you?  What does it mean to say ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’?  It just seems to me that joy is crucial and central to the vitality of our lives.  How’s your joy in the Lord right now?

Going back to the earlier Scripture reference, no one can take this God-given joy from us, even in the midst of sorrow.  And we all suffer from sorrow, yet we must grow the fruit of joy.  Sorrow is certain but joy is the promise!

Real joy does not flee in the face of sorrow or suffering.  Real, Spirit infused joy, that divine fruit growing in the garden of the human heart tended by Father God, is that element of the fruits of the Spirit that can’t be faked!

We are masters of undercover living!  We can look like we love, show kindness, be gentle, be faithful and all these things, we can force ourselves to do a loving even sacrificial act, but we can’t, in a million years, force ourselves to be full of joy.

It’s like the 10 commandments.  We can tick right down the list, 1 through 9 and proudly assert that we do all these things, and do them quite well actually, thanks for asking!  But number ten will get us.  That inward, secret chamber of the heart, where coveting what others have, is born!  No one sees that!  They all think I’m a great worshipper and lover of God, but dang, that last one sure sorted out the wheat from the chaff.

Joy is like that.  Why is it even a fruit of the Spirit?  Think of someone you know who is full of joy, the joy of the Lord.  Aren’t they just attractive to be around?  Joy is that secret weapon of God that he gives to not only show us what He is like (heaven is going to be great – and you can quote me on that), but to enable us, in Christ, to live through, bear with, to survive well, the sorrows and traumas of living in a world broken by sin’s destruction and death.

And so the promise of this fruit of the Spirit is a way God assures us of inner healing.  We all need healing.  We all seek wholeness.  For some, maybe most, our search for wholeness is a life long quest.  Christ came to make us whole, and we are only whole when we are fully and finally in him.  Our life here, on earth, together, is a step-by-step journey towards that ultimate promise:  “I will heal you” says the Lord.

And the agony we face is this:  Unless we attend to our inner conflicts, pains and contradictions in Christ, not only are we harming ourselves, but in all likelihood, we will inflict wounds on those around us.

But God has created us for wholeness not brokenness.  And our search continues from the first day to our last day.  The joy of the Lord, the promise of something that God is, keeps us going.  Joy.

Evidence that our world is broken is seen in any old bookshop.  Books promising healing and wholeness may help in some small way, but their very existence reveal the gravity of the human problem.  And yet joy isn’t a Christian version of mere positive thinking.  In her book, ‘Smile or Die – how positive thinking fooled America and the world’ Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the folly of forcing joy and how in the end it actually leads to catastrophe.  Thankfully she doesn’t even spare the cancerous church problem of the health and wealth gospel, which is no gospel at all, but a disease.

The world is broken.  Christ is the answer.  Joy is the down payment.

There are no short cuts.  Look at Job.  After all the discussion with his so-called friends, God eventually speaks and gives him a better lesson on creation and nature than anything even the BBC can do!  Job’s ‘comfort’ begins with the chilling words of a God who shatters our illusions, even if we are roughly right about our own suffering.  God doesn’t comfort Job in any sense of the way we mean.  Before his devastating tour through the natural world, God simply says, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?”  There was no “there there” because there are no short-cuts.

Jean Vanier writes, “Each human being carries their own wounds, their own difficulties of relationships and their own anguish.  It is a question of learning to live day after day with this reality and not in a state of illusion.”   Fake joy maintains this illusion (i.e. ‘Smile or Die), real Christlike joy exposes it (i.e. Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice – while chained to a prison wall no less)!

So this Spirit given gift helps us in our lives to become like Christ in the midst of our fragmented lives, with ourselves, with others, the wider world and not least, with God Himself.  The joy of Christ, sustains us as we face each of these areas in our lives.

The reason why the story of Adam and Eve is so important to the understanding of sin, is because every human being is either Adam or Eve.  We live our lives playing out their drama until the New Adam comes, Christ Jesus, to rescue and restore.

The perfect and sinless Adam and Eve are set in a garden.  All around them the glorious and mysterious presence of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.  “It’s all yours” God says with joy.  “The whole world, all of it…..except…..except that little tree over there, don’t go there, that’s the only condition.”  And suddenly, with that command, millenia before the 10 commandments are given, they break number ten.  Millenia before Paul writes of the fruits of the Spirit, their joy in God and joy in the world now vanishes as they covet and desire the only thing they were not to touch.

And when desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin fully grown, gives birth to death.  They take the fruit, and eat.  Sin comes, joy goes, they hide, God searches.  “Where are you” he calls, as a father calls out when playing hide-and-seek with a toddler!  “Oh there you are….er, why the fig leaves…..er, I found this half eaten apple, is it yours?”

In rejecting God and his Word, they reject their wholeness.  They and the entire human race lives with this legacy.  We embrace sin and we get sorrow.  Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake, it’s all rather pathetic.  Sin’s curse is set:  enmity between men and women, pain and suffering, toil and sweat.  Relationships broken and creation groaning.

And unless our relationship with God is made whole, we all remain standing, fig-leaves flapping in the breeze, under the tree in the Garden of Eden.  Joy-less and sin-full.  And the only way to end this joyless and sinful existence is to say ‘Yes!” to Jesus and stand not under the tree that condemns us, but the Tree that condemned Him.  Where he took our joyless and sinful nature and nailed it.  For the joy set before him he endured the Cross.

Adam and Eve took a short-cut when they disobeyed.  The cross tells us that Jesus took no such short-cut when He obeyed.  The mingling of the Joy of the Lord and the sorrow of our sin is a lifetime process of becoming like Jesus.  The wood that made the cross was once a seed, and the tree took years to grow.  It was fashioned, cut, stripped and reshaped.  Chosen.  Like us.  And this is never easy or comfortable.  It is drawn out and painful.

And then it is thrust into the earth, a horizontal and vertical.  As our arms reach out to the forbidden fruit, so Jesus’ arms reach out.  His reaching out cancels our reaching out.  His obedience cancels our disobedience.  His death cancels our death, and his joy is ours when, and only when, we too see that we have been crucified with Christ.  You’ll have joy all right, now pick up your cross and follow me!

The Old Adam loved his tree.  The New Adam endured his.  The Old Adam hid from God.  The New Adam assures us that God has found us.  The God who is near, seeking us out, searching for the waifs and strays, the lost, the broken, the joyless.  And he brings them home, clothed in robes of righteousness not fig-leaves, healed, whole and full of joy.

1500 years ago a Benedictine abbot wrote, “To seek God means first of all to let yourself be found by him.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  He is the God of Jesus Christ.  He is your God, not because He is yours but because you are His.   To choose God is to realise that you are known and loved in a way surpassing anything you can imagine, long before anyone had thought of you or spoken your name.”

When you were born, God whispered, “I’ve been expecting you.”  And when you are Born-again, God says, “Ha!  I’ve found you.”

And then God says,

“Now that I’ve found you, I’m going to sanctify you, heal you and give you a mission to do.  I accept you just as you are, but I’m going to change you, in the same way a highly desirable tree with forbidden fruit can change and be crafted into a crude and undesirable cross, I’m going to change you.  I’ll take your sin, your brokenness and sorrow, slowly but surely, and nail it to the Cross.  I will forgive you, and change you, from glory to glory, and make you like Jesus. 

And because Jesus is so full of joy, I will give you his joy in all fullness.  You will have sorrow, and trials, and temptations, but I promise, I am with you, keep your eyes on Jesus and my Spirit will grow the most wonderful, delightful fruit in your life.  Your relationships can be restored, when modelled on Jesus.  And by His stripes, I will heal you.  Now go and tell all people everywhere about this good news of great joy that is for all people.  Go, go on.”

And as Paul writes at the beginning of Philippians chapter 4, so I say to here, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!”

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.

Amen.

Fashionable Justice Murders Embarrassing Truth

SeaRocks

I have recently started to enjoy reading more of Malcolm Muggeridge, a former journalist with a truly remarkable way with words.  And I say truly quite deliberately, because I would like to share what he says about truth.  

In his book, the first part of his biography called Chronicles of Wasted Time – The Green Stick, he is writing about the illogicality and banality of seeing this world as the destination of humanity, which, I suppose is what many people do, especially those influenced by the rise of the new-atheism (which isn’t new at all)!  He says the Christian idea of ‘he that loves his life in this world shall lose it, and he that hates his life in this world shall see it projected out and glorified into eternity, is for living not for dying.’ Continue reading

Spiritual Progress through Suffering and Catastrophe

PoppiesinRubble

“Nothing could be farther from the truth than the facile belief that God only manifests Himself in progress, in the improvements of standards of living, in the spread of medicine and reforms of abuses, in the diffusion of organized Christianity.  The reaction from this type of theistic meliorism, which a few years ago had almost completely supplanted the faith of Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus among modern Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, is now sweeping multitudes from their religious moorings.

Real spiritual progress can only be achieved through catastrophe and suffering, reaching new levels of profound catharsis which accompanies major upheavals.  Every such period of mental and physical agony, while the old is being swept away and the new is still unborn, yields different social patterns and deeper spiritual insights.”

William Foxwell Albright in From the Stone Age to Christianity, p.402

Much of contemporary Christianity is absurdly Disney-like when suffering occurs, which it will.  That we confuse peace and joy with the absence of suffering is the complete opposite of biblical faith.   I don’t mean to rant like a buffoon, but too many people are not reading their Bibles, and they’re the ones who ask where God is when suffering hits.  God is in progress I’m sure to some degree, but He is not in it in the way utopian political views are expressed, under the banner of the relentless march and unquestioned triumph of technology in our world – not to mention the pathway paved with gold for science!

Both these Molech-like gods of our age demand more and expect us to ask less.  And yet, these bastard-children of humanist utopian dreams are creating a dystopia of misery in addictions and false beliefs, and they don’t, can’t even answer the question of suffering and evil in an age that has mastered the art of evil, both in rhetoric and practice.

Anyway, I’m off to have the small collection of cancerous cells in my neck cut out.  Praise the Lord for medical science!  Praise the Lord whether or not it works.  Praise the Lord because the Lord is the Lord.  I remember reading this most excellent line, “We do not praise God because He has caused us to triumph, but rather, to praise God is to triumph.”

Joy and peace to you all.