Silent Night, Holy Night

25 12 2012

Six o’clock in the morning and the house is silent.  The potential of the day is just lurking, waiting to come alive. It is Christmas morning. No doubt in many homes with young children, parents have been forced into wakefulness already.  For us it is yet to come. My mind has already wandered over the preparation of the potatoes, the parsnips, the brussel spouts and much more. And it has put those thoughts aside for those things, by necessity will push their way to the forefront later on. Now is a time for reflection. Yes, the presents have been wrapped, the food has been bought in and we can do no more, so now relax, sit back for a few minutes and ponder on the wonder of this day.

The Christmas accounts of the Gospel are amazing. It is no wonder that some are trying to push them off Christmas cards, no wonder they try to challenge this day saying silly things like, “Well it was a pagan festival that you Christians hijacked.”  Smart move whoever did it. Now we’ve anchored this day to act as a particular day of remembrance. So it could have been January 10th, May 15th July 6th, who cares! It’s just a day when we remember something incredible – a baby cried (almost certainly) and God was suddenly out in this world in human form.

We can’t cope with that really, the thought of a baby expressing God, or even later on of a grown man being God while still man. My wife and I have been reminded recently of the illustration of the meal offering in Leviticus where flour and oil mingle together to form one material – you cannot distinguish between the two but they are still two materials blended together. Thus God clothed in humanity revealed himself to us.

I have sometimes pondered on why He didn’t just occupy a grown human body but that would have required one of two things. Either he would have to invade the will of an adult human being (and God never invades our free will) or He would have had to create a unique human figure at the age of say thirty (but God doesn’t do magic and anyway such a being would not have thirty years of human experience  and it seems that God made the most of this unique time in HIS experience by entering into so much of what we experience.)

So often when we say, “But Lord, you don’t understand what I feel, what I’m going through,” He replies, “But I do, I’ve been there!”

But there’s an even more mind-blowing thought and it is that which we see particular in John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks about having come down from heaven where he had existed before.  This baby born on whatever day it was, was containing the incredible third person of the trinity, the Son of God, who has always existed as one expression of those three expressions of that one God. We’ll never understand it this side of death, but that unique expression of God that we call ‘the Son’ had always been, and now was in human form.

I recently heard Christians testifying at a Christmas service and was saddened that they could only focus on Jesus coming to die. As critically important and real as that was, they missed the sheer wonder of God putting Himself in human form so that He could reveal His character to us through this human being. How do we know we have a loving and good God? Look at Jesus. Read the Gospels with an open heart and see the wonder of this ‘man’ and marvel. Every life he touched, he touched with love and goodness. He healed thousands, he even raised the dead and all he did was an expression of God’s goodness and love and, yes, eventually he died on a Cross to take the punishment that was due us for our sins.  Those of us who have been Christians a long time tend to lose the wonder of this person who ministered in Israel for three years some two thousand years ago.  Pause afresh and reflect and wonder.

I like the nativity stories because they are so blatantly supernatural – angels turning up all over the place, dreams given to guide, and a supernatural man-less  conception. Awesome! I recently heard someone trying to explain what the ‘star’ was that guided the wise men to Bethlehem, and was left thinking, “Well I suppose that’s what it might have been – but it might have been something else, but who cares – somehow God managed to guide these astronomers cum astrologers to Bethlehem where He used them to be the supplies of the finances that the young family needed.”  Why is it that we feel we have to explain every detail of HOW it all happened. Sorry, I can’t explain virgin birth, I can’t explain angels and lots more, but if God says this is what is, then OK. There is sufficient that I do understand, that I’m happy to rest in the bits that I don’t understand.

It’s like Christmas is a time (whenever it actually was) where God says, “Here you are. Here are my gifts to you – a massive pile of evidence for you to unwrap and think about, to help you believe, and when you come to the bits that you can’t understand, don’t worry, I do!”

A baby in a manger, angels, shepherds, wise men. It’s just the start of the story and there’s nothing else like it in all of history, in all of the world. So ponder on it, think about it, marvel over it and don’t let the opening of presents or preparing food  or whatever other practical things force them on you this day, detract from the wonder of it. Whatever else you do, stop and say thank you.

Declining Christianity – Clear your head

13 12 2012

Declining Christianity – Clear your head  (December 13th 2012)

A Statistical Bulletin from the Office of National Statistics of the UK included the following in its ‘Key Points’ that has just been published:

“The number of residents who stated that their religion was Christian in 2011 was fewer than in 2001. The size of this group decreased 13 percentage points to 59 per cent (33.2 million) in 2011 from 72 per cent (37.3 million) in 2001.”

What is remarkable about that is not the fact of fewer people declaring themselves Christians but that the figure is as massively high as that. I say this because other figures suggest that less than 5% of the population are in a church on a Sunday morning. Be generous and say there are people who work, can’t be in church or others who are Christians but disenchanted with church and it might be reasonable to say that there are say 7 or 8% of the population who have a faith worth expressing in some corporate form. (In the USA the figures are larger but the same decline IS taking place).

That bastion of liberal thinking, The Times, in its first leader yesterday, under the heading “Change not Decay” had a sub-heading, “The decline in Christian affiliation noted in the Census, is a challenge to the Church. It should respond by embracing, not rejecting, modernity.”

Now of course the Times, in a world where we value free speech, is entitled to pontificate on church matters but whether the editor is qualified to do so is another matter. It’s a bit like saying to Nick Clegg, “You know the Lib-Dems ought to think differently and lose the values they have campaigned on for the last twenty years” and of course papers do just that, but we accept that such political  ‘bodies of belief’ have come to such an organisation after careful thought and, although in Nick Clegg’s case it varies from Labour or Conservatives (or Democrats or Republicans), we accept that that is their way of thinking and their beliefs – and we accept that; we may not agree with it but we accept that that is where they are.

Now when it comes to the Christian faith we are in slightly different ball game because here we have a body of beliefs that start from the fundamental belief that there is a God and He is the One who communicated what we now have as our beliefs. So if we start, as no doubt many of the writers for the Times start, with a belief that there is no God, then you are wasting your time arguing baldly against the Christian faith because you fail to understand the basics.

If we are part of that declining majority, or are someone wanting to seriously think about the real issues here, may I suggest some key points of belief and then make some key suggestions to remedy that declining number.

Key Beliefs

1. Belief in the Bible

The vast majority of critics of the Christian faith, experience shows, have very little or no knowledge of the Bible or of its background. They therefore have never bothered to find our that, contrary to much public opinion, what you read in the Bible is quite reasonable and portrays a lifestyle that is better than most exhibited by modern culture. More over they have never bothered to look into the history of how the Bible came into being, and how it is made up and, therefore, do not realise that of all ancient documents it is the best attested and that there are very good reasons to accept it as it stands and it is not full of errors, contradictions etc., that modern society like to suppose. Modern society is largely ignorant of these things.

2. Lives based on the Bible

Moreover these cultural critics have failed to understand and choose to ignore the facts that:

  • Those with a strong faith, with strong beliefs in the validity and claims on them of the Bible, and specifically the New Testament, are statistically (yes, statistically, surveys again and again show it) likely to be healthier, more conscientious workers, more conscientious parents, more likely to remain in committed relationships, and be more likely to be contributing to the well-being of society.
  • Those churches that hold weakly to those beliefs, are the ones declining and actually they only exist because of the strength and financial well-being of those churches who do hold strongly to those beliefs, and declines in belief come from those have been part of such weak churches.

3. The Uniqueness of the Christian Faith.

As I have recently written elsewhere, let us not have any silly talk, as those in the secular world might assert as they look in from outside, that all religions are the same. That is born out of ignorance; all religions are different. For the outsider, you may look at the claims of the particular ‘religion’ and make your own assessment, but never say they are the same.

Christianity is unique in its claims that:

  • God has come to this earth in human form (Jesus Christ),
  • lived on this earth for some thirty three years in the land of Israel two thousand years ago,
  • the last three of which were spent teaching and performing signs and wonders to reveal who he was to those with eyes to see.
  • At the end of that period he was killed and after three days rose from the dead and a number of weeks later ascended bodily into heaven.
  • The claim is that in his death, the Son of God took the punishment due to the human race so that whoever may come to God and receive forgiveness and enter into a life of love and goodness,  empowered by God, a life that is all about, not trying to win God’s favour but simply receiving it.

Suggestions for Recovery

For those of us with faith, we are to reject the temptation that puts on sackcloth and ashes and bemoans the awful times we live in and declining church figures, and instead reclaim who we have been and who we are, and when we do that, we will find sensible people coming to their senses and returning to God! .

1. A People of Assured Beliefs

Now obviously from what I have said in the earlier part, a starting point has to be a people who are confident in their beliefs and confident that they know WHY those beliefs are valid. Sentimental ‘thoughts’ or mushy ten-minute meditations on a Sunday morning do nothing to equip a people to realise who they are and what they have going for them!  The church needs to return to the historic role of teacher of truth as clearly seen in the New Testament of the Bible. When we do that, the rest can follow.

2. A People of Love and Concern expressed in Goodness

Listen how one historian speaks about the church in the past. He said it was known for its care of widows and orphans, its alms houses, hospitals, foundling homes, schools, shelters, relief organizations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on.”  Yes, down through the ages it has been the church that has worked into society providing the things that today the Welfare State tends to provide. When there was no Welfare State, when no one particularly cared for the needy, it was the Church who stepped forward, expressing the love of Jesus to his world.

The world looks for a church that is not introspective but moves with the love, care, and compassion of Jesus Christ, to bring God’s goodness into the society round about it.

3. A People of Revelation and Power

The early Church of the New Testament reveals a people who were not afraid to say, “God says,” because they were a people who heard God. We need to teach all new believers to learn to listen to God through the various means He has given us, and then live our lives and perform our serving on the basis of what we hear. That will change the world.

But Jesus and the early church also exhibited the power of God to bring (good) change to lives. Millions of testimonies down through the centuries have been, “I came to God through Jesus Christ and my life has been utterly transformed,” or, “Well, I’m not sure I understand all this but all I know is that He has healed me,” or “All I know was that I lived a life of addiction, and when I came to Christ he set me free, and life is now wonderful,” or “I was lost, lonely, drifting and without meaning in life, but when I came to Jesus Christ I found, love, friendship healing and purpose in life and now I feel utterly fulfilled.  Those are genuine testimonies that have been repeated millions of times – because God IS, and God is ALIVE, and God DOES STUFF when we come to Him – and it is good!

Well there we are. Think on this and see where it take you.



The Folly of a Godless Society

22 07 2012

I once thought that as our society here in Britain degenerated,  people would cry out for an alternative and turn to God.  Well it may be that we have got to cry some more before we will come to our senses.

These days I only write on this blog when it seems my level of frustration has reached such a peak that, like a boiling kettle, I need to vent.   The past five years have been a revelation but it seems that for most of us we don’t have eyes that can see. Every single major national institution has been discredited during this time and the reason for that is because people have been exposed and shown to have been acting unrighteously – government, media, police, the money-world, people generally.  Again and again our papers and TV news channels have been full of the failures of people.

On one recent political analysis programme recently two journalists both asserted that that nation is in a state of giving up and both warned that this could have repercussions in the collapse of society.  Increasingly people are asking, “What is wrong?” The answer of obvious but unpalatable for godless men and women.

I have written this before but it bears repeating.  Thirty four years ago I started teaching Law and for seventeen years I started off the course (which in those days meant two hour periods!) by getting the class of usually 18 to 23 year olds to imagine a new society, and I asked them to consider in small groups whether they needed rules, and why and who should make them. After an hour of deliberation they then fed back their answers. They always agreed we need rules to protect the weak. The crucial point was that at the beginning of that period, thirty four years ago, 100% of the class always said they believed in absolutes so there were some thing that were definitely right and some wrong. Over that seventeen year period they were a gradual shift until by the early 1990s probably only 5% believed in absolute right and wrong and the majority now believed it was just what you thought it to be.

A variety of writers (apart from me) have linked good ethical behaviour with belief in God, and declining ethical behaviour with a loss in belief in God. Humanist optimism has been proved to be hollow and empty and our society is proving it day by day. When you remove the one base for ethical standards is it any wonder that we are left with an ‘anything goes’ mentality.   You can scrabble around for whatever temporary fix your can dream up, but it won’t be a fix. We are learning that a society reaps what it sows, and if you sow godlessness, you find that unrighteousness, greed, injustice and folly spring up.

Those are not necessarily the primary reasons for turning back to God, but they certainly point us in the right direction. We are about to start the Olympic Games and yet again – but now with ordinary people – we are being exposed as a shallow, self-centred, greedy people.  The fiasco of the security firm failing its mandate is only made worse but many of those supposedly being employed not bothering to turn up for the work. On the other hand we have passport control staff threatening to strike just before the Olympics start. Greed and self-concern rule OK!

No, not OK, but we are reaping what we have sown but I suspect that it will need the grace of God for those in authority to have their eyes opened.  In the meantime, get ready for the next plug to be pulled to let flow away any self-confidence we have left. When, oh when, will we come to our senses and realise that actually, God’s design and God’s way works

Consider for a moment what is found so often in ‘the world’, see it through some of the things we’re warned against in the New Testament,  for example, “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, …. anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” (Col 3:5,8)  Which sort of community is it best to be living in, that one or one that is described as with, “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive … put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col 3:12-14) It’s pretty obvious really, isn’t it!

Those are two glimpses that the New Testament gives of the two possibilities; we could have used many other similar verses. The first Colossians quote cites just some of the things seen in our modern godless society; that’s the lifestyle we’ve chosen as a society, egged on by the media. The second is the world of the Christian believer, a world that works because it is how God has designed it.  So, I ask again, when, oh when, will we come to our senses and realise that actually, God’s design and God’s way works, and is best?





Crumbling Morality

22 07 2011

I nearly didn’t write this blog. One gets so used to what goes on that I sometimes think we’re all like that proverbial frog that doesn’t realise that as the water starts heating up it is going to boil to death. The ongoing nature of what happens in our Western world – and I’m writing about Britain – means that we become blasé about it.

I mean how many of us us still think about the bankers and money movers who essentially caused what we now refer to as ‘the credit crunch’ by their greed? They are past history and as imbibers of modern media we simply move on to the next big news item – but their greed is still there waiting to emerge when given a chance. Since then we had the scandal of MP’s expenses – again greed  stepping over acceptable boundaries, but again that is now past history.

The present chaos has become an even bigger mess of wrangling people who stepped over acceptable lines – MP’s,  journalists, news proprietors, and police, they’re all in the mix and what a messy mix it is. Jaded opinion says, they’re all as bad as one another. Jaded opinion says the MP’s are out to get the Press for having exposed their fiddling. Jaded opinion says the Press involve the police just to spread the muck and involve the MP’s. Pigs fighting in the mud in the sty it seems.

But why are we surprised? This site has a Christian dimension to it and we and many other Christian commentators have been saying it loud and clear for a number of years – when you remove God from the equation you have no other absolute by which to measure what is right and wrong, and therefore our society is left not so much as that famous quote at the end of the book of Judges – “everyone did as he saw fit”, but more as “everyone does what he thinks he can get away with.”

And there is the folly. You can shout as much as you like that there isn’t a God but the fact is, there IS  and He does act into His world and what we are seeing is one of the many proofs of that. The Bible portrays it and we’ve been seeing it – God who brings out into the open all the dirty goings on so that they may be seen and judged.

A number of us have also said, that the ‘credit crunch’ was but a warning and worse would follow if there was no repentance. Well the repentance is not obvious so get ready for worse. When the IMF warns that Europe is on the edge and may cause global financial collapse don’t be too hasty in breathing a sigh of relief when ‘historic’ packages seem to be agreed.  It may be that or it may be something else, but we have been warned. The only problem is, as I have found many times, sin is equated with stupidity. So often, in retrospect, we look at what has now been revealed and wonder how people could be so obviously stupid as to step over such ethical lines and put themselves in such positions as they now try to squirm out of. Well, sin is equated with stupidity.  Saying sorry genuinely (not merely because you’ve been caught) and changing outlook and behaviour is the only answer. In the absence of that, watch this space for the next episode in the ongoing saga of sinful, godless men and women who still think that “they can get away with it.”








Judgement on Us?

24 05 2011

I quite often, on one of my other blogs, get questions about God’s judgement.  For some reason that has been near the front of my thoughts recently. Most of the time people think of God’s judgement as Him bringing catastrophes upon people and killing them.  That actually, in Scripture, seems to be a ‘last resort’ thing that He does; He only does it when He sees that that person or those people are set in their ways and are never going to change by His more gentle discipline. That, I conclude, is God’s objective though, with most people – to discipline or train or bring about  purposefully, changes in behaviour. He wants us to enter into the fullness of what He has for us, but so often sin gets in the way and prevents that goodness flowing into our lives.  Thus He brings discipline to bring about a change of behaviour so that our new behaviour will be open to Him bringing His goodness to us.

But it’s the way He sometimes disciplines us, and what has been challenging me is the thought that sometimes His discipline is in the form of giving us what we want!  He comes to us and He finds that we have our hearts set on some particular course of action or way of life. He tries to speak to us to warn us that that is not the best thing for us but we are so set on it (and indeed our own will) that we are deaf to His words.

This is where it gets nasty: He gives us what we want! The result? It becomes a burden to us, it wears us down. I have watched one young man of great ability desiring to get on in business and reasoning out his path – and God has let him! So he got a new job, a bigger and better one, only a year later to realise that if he had stayed where he was he would now be better off. God is teaching Him to learn to listen to God’s will and be content with what he has. Then God will bless him with abundance.

I have watched another man demand leadership and demand a certain style of church. His demands were unrighteous in the way they came and so, set in his ways, God gave them to him, and now they are like a millstone round his neck. He now struggles to cope and to justify his actions, but the truth is he is struggling and will continue to do so until he realises the truth – God knows best.

I know another who criticised church leadership and declared it was authoritarian. His years of ongoing criticism were rewarded by God by giving him the leadership he wanted but now he is authoritarian and people fear him.  There is this expression, isn’t there, “What goes around, comes around.” What we try and dump on others, God brings round and dumps it on us, to teach and train us.  Is He being unkind?  No, He is simply disciplining us to bring us to our senses, so that we see the truth.

Then there is the one who has been yearning for riches and so God gave it to him and now he is too busy administering it and making more to enjoy life and his spiritual life is withered.  One day he will come to his senses and realise that wealth is not THE all important thing, but a relationship with God. It will happen but it will take time.

The fearful thing about all this, is that I wonder if I am set in my ways, in my directions, in my wants, so that God will give me what I want and not what is best until I come to my senses. I hope not.  The heart is so deceitful. I desire to be open to the Lord and have asked for His help, so I must trust I will be open to Him and His will, for that is best.  How many of us in today’s individualistic world are doing our own thing and are mistaking God’s discipline for His approval? The comforting thought is that He still loves us even if we are self-willed. But that means He WILL do something about our self-will rather than not do anything about it. He will act against it, BECAUSE He loves us. Oooops!

The Woes of Lifeless Preaching

3 05 2011

The Woes of Lifeless Preaching 

It seems my blog writing is like London buses. Nothing for a long time then several come together. This particular one has been stewing in the back of my mind for a number of weeks and just needs speaking out. Remember, this is supposed to be a blog about faith and the Christian life.  It concerns the quality of preaching today. Over the last three months my circumstances have changed (I’ve retired) so my wife and I have been free to try out a variety of churches and we’ve also been to Spring Harvest, the focus of which this year was all about the Bible. The following are some of the things that have cropped up as we have listened to a variety of preachers in this time.

1. The Preacher Whispers.

This particular speaker had a rather ineffective microphone and spoke very quietly. No one has taught him that out there are people who would like to hear him, and so he has obviously never learned to project his voice. Don’t preach unless you want people to hear you and you are willing to put effort into projecting your voice!

2. The Preacher is Tired

At least this was the conclusion when listening to one particular preacher and in a measure he has my sympathy. Being a one-man ministry and doing all the pastoral work and preaching every week (which is what I think this man does) is tiring and it is difficult to maintain power in preaching. If this is you – give others space, take a rest and get renewed.   Both this man and the previous one convey that the message is not very exciting. Read sermons by Martyn Lloyd Jones and almost every time he conveys that this is THE most important message in the Bible.  If the Bible doesn’t excite us, don’t preach!

3. This Preacher is Chatty

This message came over like a chat over a cup of coffee. It was largely unstructured but most of all it lacked authority. Authority in preaching comes from a man who is given over to God, and who has the word of God burning in him, and who has spent long times in the Word and knows his Bible. The more you know it, the more authority you will have. Until you have that authority, sit down and read your Bible.

Linked with this is a failure to realise the purpose of preaching. It is, I would suggest (without resorting to ML Jones or John Stott’s books on preaching) to convey the truth of the Bible in such a manner that it is understood and it then moves people into action and change. It is the truth revealed by God in His word that will change lives and change the world.

4. This Preacher declares only Law

This preacher conveys guilt and pressure by the use of the words, “ought” and “should”, instead of conveying the possibilities in God and by the enabling of His Spirit, that have been opened up to us by the finished work of Christ on the Cross. There are imperatives in the New Testament as well as the Old, but unless we also preach the means of achieving them in Christ, we simply set people up for failure and more guilt. The wonder of the Gospel opens up the way for people to move into a new experience of being enabled by God to become the people He has designed them to be.

5. This Preacher bores with principles.

Yes, he quotes Scriptures all the way through, in fact so many you never take any of them in, but he never takes time to apply them, open them up and illustrate them. Principles thus become rules which are tedious and hard to work on. This preacher asserts that he believes the Bible implicitly, but has obviously never meditated on it because all we receive is a surface glossing over of proof texts.

6. This Preacher only tells stories.

This man has been told we live in a TV age and so realises that illustrations are all important, but along the way he has never taken in the wonder of the word itself and realised that this is the truth he is to be preaching and not merely emotive stories.  The stories may be highly emotional but unless we are left with the sense that the Scripture has been conveyed to us, its understanding opened up and applied to our daily lives, all we are left with is an emotional buzz which soon evaporates. Our will has not been impacted and changed by the truth of God’s word that He has conveyed to us.

7. This Preacher has never been taught discipline

I have no problem with 50 minute sermons if they have all the matters above taken into consideration. This particular preacher declared his intention to cover two chapters of the book of Revelation in his sermon, and no, it wasn’t a skeleton overview of the big issues of the last days, he was going to cover it all in detail, which suggests he has little knowledge of the book or of his audience. At the opposite end of this scale is the preacher (probably from a particular denomination) who has been schooled to preach the message in ten minutes. The only trouble is that he still leaves his congregation hungry. However concise, however compact you are able to be in that period of time, you are indirectly conveying that actually the Bible isn’t very important and isn’t worthy of our time and effort on a Sunday morning or evening. The result is people whose lives have not been changed y the wonder of God’s word, applied in the power of the Spirit, by God’s faithful servant who has spent time and effort to bring it.

And to summarise….

So often it seems we are being presented with a sketchy view of Scripture, together with a shallow understanding of it because preachers have failed to read and absorb the Bible, be moved by it and become utterly convinced that this is THE truth of God that saves people and transforms people, so that they have the most exciting task in the world, to present the most exciting truths in the world. Please can we return to that!

Loving Feet of Clay

9 02 2011

I just called by to check when I had last written here – a year ago!  Well 2010 anyway. I noted titles of things I had recently (or fairly recently) written and noted one about time passing. So where am I today that I wasn’t back in 2010?

I think the answer has to be, more aware of people and more appreciative of people. For the past four months I have been interviewing people from all walks of local life and I have enjoyed people. It has caused me to think about these people a lot more: are they as good as they seem, and why do I even have to ask that question?

Have these people been putting on a show for me? I don’t think so for they are often remarkably honest. No, I think it is just that I have been focusing on one side of their lives, their work, their vocation, the thing they do everyday, and many of them are really enthusiastic about it.

It has made me think about being made in the image of God. I pondered that a number of years ago. What is it that differentiates us from the animal kingdom? What characteristics do we have that make us similar to God? Well, we are not all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise like He is, so what is it?  It is the abilities to communicate, think, plan, reason, invent, create, write, work, order, purpose and enter into the fullness of what we were designed to be, i.e. grow and change. The amazing thing is that we have all of these things despite being sinners – and that is what I have been observing in the people I have been interviewing.

But then I have also been becoming more aware of what I shall simply and gently refer to as people’s feet of clay.   It doesn’t matter how nice people are, how fulfilled people, how creative they are, or whatever, they are still sinners, so they don’t tell me how they have argued with their spouse or ‘partner’, or how unsure of life they are, or of their fears – those will come later when they trust me perhaps.

I have seen this distinction most clearly in reading biographies or autobiographies (written by another or written first hand).  I started a year or so ago reading the biography of a hero of mine, Alistair Cooke of ‘Letter from America’ fame. There was an amazing amount more that he did and I found it an enthralling book – but he certainly had feet of clay. He was emotionally stunted in respect of his children and divorced from his first wife. That will do to be going on with. I was disturbed by that because I had always enjoyed his way of writing and speaking and he was my hero – but he had feet of clay. I learned that feet of clay should not stop us admiring the “in the likeness of God” side of people, even if they weren’t aware of it themselves.

I next went to read of Anglican bishop, David Pytches. I have only seen and heard him minister once, and that recently, and he struck me as an immensely gentle and godly and sensitive man growing into old age with some struggles. But when I read his autobiography, I felt his feet of clay often shone through (there’s a mixed picture!

I’ve also been rereading Francis Schaeffer’s biography, another man greatly used of God but again a man known by those close to him to have feet of clay. My wife speaks of her teenage years of knowing Tom Rees, an evangelist greatly used in the mid-twentieth century by God, but again, known by those close to him, as a man with feet of clay.

Next I took a book token given for a birthday and bought and read Alan Sugar’s autobiography. Quite an amazing business man in many ways, often with streaks of humility and loyalty that stood out – but what feet of clay does he admit to! But I still found myself appreciating the ‘in the likeness of God’ aspects of his life.

So there we are, people made in the image of God, capable of great things, but at the same time with feet of clay that reveal we are sinners in desperate need of a relationship with the loving God. That is the sad part of so many of these lives. Yes, they do have reflections of greatness in their lives, but at the same time there are these ‘feet of clay’ these things that spoil and limit and hinder, things that stop us becoming so much more. And that is sad!

The truths underlying all this? I believe there are three key things here. First, we are called to love all men, whether we are aware of their feet of clay or not. Second, God loves us even with our feet of clay and will still use us if we are available, despite our feet of clay. Third, God is saddened by our feet of clay because those are things we seem to fail to get to grips with, and they mar and spoil what we could and can be.

Nativity – truth and fiction

24 12 2010

Nativity – truth and fiction

When I woke this morning I found last night’s last episode of the BBC’s four part series, The Nativity, still in my mind. It was memorable and it was different and we enjoyed it. It had more of a sense of reality about it than any other film we’ve ever seen about the events of Christmas two thousand years ago.

What were the good things about it? Well, as I’ve said the sense of reality, the feeling that this is how life might have been then – but the truth is that it may have been very different because it is difficult to judge from two thousand years distance. But it communicated well. What was also good was the fact that they didn’t fudge the central issue – Mary was a virgin and still conceived as a result of a divine encounter. What was also good was the supposition that the ‘star’ was actually three planets coming into alignment – just at the moment of Jesus’ birth. Although speculation, it certainly added to the sense that this was a cosmic event, and that sense of divine destiny was heightened by the sound of machinery like massive cogs moving the planets into place just for this supreme moment.  What was also excellent was the genuine worship brought by the wise men. What was intriguing was the ongoing saga in the background of a young man who was a shepherd suffering under the harsh regime of Herod, which eventually brought him to the stable where he saw the child and – we presume – was released from all his anger – a little too much unsaid at that point.

But then I felt myself feeling a little sad for the BBC because having done such a good job on so much of it, they altered it to suit their filming whims. The setting of Mary & Joseph’s betrothal was excellent but thereafter Joseph got the rough end of the plot which diverted from the Biblical text considerably.

For instance, to start with, Matthew tells us that, Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Mt 1:19) In the filming Mary’s ‘disgrace’ is a major issue and so it was not being kept under wraps.  Next in the text we find that shortly afterwards in a dream he gets the message from heaven – which he believes and “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Mt 1:24) In the film he rejects her story throughout and holds her at a distance until the birth in the stable. Not so! The text indicates they lived under one roof as husband and wife (without sexual relations) for at least five or six months (If Joseph had wanted to hide her disgrace she would have told him within the first two months of her pregnancy, the dream followed shortly afterwards and he took her home to appear as husband and wife before she really started really showing she was pregnant. One would assume that a journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would take less that two weeks and so they didn’t start off until half way through her last month.)

The wise men skirting round Jerusalem also moves somewhat from the text. Again Matthew tells us they boldly (or naively) arrive in Jerusalem and start asking around. Herod eventually calls them in and gets details from them before sending them off again.

The timing of the wise men according to the text, and most interpreters understanding of it, was also astray. It was nice that they turn up just behind the shepherds but the text suggests it was different from that. Intriguingly the text says “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” (Mt 2:11)  What is intriguing about this is the reference to “the house” and the absence of any reference to Joseph. When you put this story together with the fact that Herod later ordered the death of baby boys under the age of two (Mt 2:16), it suggests that some time had passed before Herod acted and the fact that the little family escaped south to Egypt (and not north away from Nazareth) suggests they were still living in Bethlehem and to do that Joseph would have had to find work and would explain his absence from the home (which they presumably borrowed or rented) doing work for someone as a carpenter in their home. Everything points to the wise men coming months later to Bethlehem to this little family that appears settled there for the moment at least. But what’s the truth among film-makers; the story is the important thing!

So, an enjoyable story opening up new thoughts about the reality of it all, but nevertheless short on the truth as presented by the Gospels. But you can’t ask for everything can you? Or can you?

Drop outs from Church

2 12 2010


I have just been reading an article about the number of young people between the ages of 20 and 30 who have been dropping out of church and of Christianity. I was slightly surprised at my reaction to them – sympathy!

Now why did I feel that? Ideas pour to the surface. The fist one is that just recently I have retired from being a full-time pastor – and I feel relieved and I also feel anxious for those in our leadership team who continue on. Why relieved? Three things immediately come to mind. The first is the freedom from administration, the second is the freedom from the burden of people, and the third is the freedom from responsibility. I had better explain those.


So much of modern church life is given over to planning and administration. Hours are spent discussing church. I recently sat in briefly with a group of leaders from another church and to my horror heard the leader talking about leadership meetings going on until one in the morning! If the Holy Spirit was moving I suspect we wouldn’t spend so much time talking.

I wonder if many of our young people hunger for a reality of ‘life’ instead of administration?  Where, they might wonder, are the Philips who might get led off down a desert road at the prompting of God to go and do something that is not yet clear, something that may cut right across the organised blessing of the present?


For years I have preached and anguished and seen “what could be”. I have a feeling if that aged saint, Tozer, was around, he’d have some things to say about our lack of commitment and our lack of love and lack of effort. I think this was typified by an appeal I’ve heard about this Christmas. In recent years we have been involved in filling shoe boxes for children in Eastern Europe for Christmas. This Christmas it was suggested we supported another organisation who were saying, give us your money and we’ll fill the shoe boxes for you – to save you the effort of having to do it.

I wonder if many of our young people yearn to see a church on fire, a church all out, a church that says nothing but nothing is as important as going for God? Where, they might be thinking, are the four stretcher bearers who would be prepared to rip the roof off the house to get to Jesus?


For years I have anguished over my flock, often while no one else really seemed to care. That load is on someone else’s shoulders now. But I wonder if some of that sense of responsibility comes because I’ve felt alone and in the absence of the Spirit’s moving I took a load that was ultimately God’s? But that can be a cop out. But again it can be because so much of church life is institutionalised and we run on tram rails of expectation and legalism – you can’t do that, we’re the ones who lead the church.

I wonder if many of our young people see the straight-jackets we, the older generation, have perhaps put on ourselves and on the church. Where are the Jonathan’s, they wonder, who will scale the cliff with their armour bearer just to see what God might do?

So let’s shout for reality, let’s shout for freedom and let’s break lose to a new day where at long last we turn the world upside down and reveal the emptiness of the world that is crushing us!


All Publicity, Good Publicity?

20 11 2009

All Publicity, Good Publicity?

I went through period when I felt there was nothing I could or should comment upon. Suddenly it seems to have changed! The latest piece of info-speak that I have come across that seems intellectually incredible comes from the Humanist Society’s website where there is comment upon their ‘billboard campaign’ against labelling children, complete with comment from Richard Dawkins. Expounding on some of the bad rationale from the God Delusion this dogma declares:

We also believe that labelling children is coercive because it:

  • places an expectation on the child to conform to her parents beliefs
  • removes choice and decreases autonomy by limiting the options available; by constraining the child to think that their religion is “a given”.
  • can act as a threat, either because there is an implied risk of parental disassociation if the child rejects the religious beliefs, or because inherent in the religion itself are explicit metaphysical dangers (judgment, Hellfire etc) associated with disbelief or apostasy.

Now I have some well-founded objections to this as follows:

1. Intellectual Dishonesty playing with half-truths

I come from the Christian part of the world that is neither Anglican nor Catholic and I have so say that in my reasonably wide experience, children from our families are not labelled, and we do not label other children. Yes, I understand that where there are ‘faith schools’ there is often a bias in favour families from a clear faith, but that is more linked with the work and ethics ethos that goes with Christian faith and “The faith” is not the big issue at many such schools. In Catholic schools there appears to be a stronger leaning towards identifying children as coming from Catholic families but, I would suggest from local knowledge, the emphasis is on the family and not the child. I suspect the same is true of the Muslim families.

The vagueness of the dogma is thus all-embracing and does not cover the majority of the Christian population (I’ll say more on this below). It is only a vague truth therefore and there would be a sense of integrity in this dogma if they specifically aimed it at faith schools (which they do in other posters) and at specific religious groupings. Aiming at the whole audience is careless and sloppy, and intellectually indefensible.

2. Utterly Inaccurate

In the Christian world at least, links to faith schools are minimal – most of our children don’t go to such schools, simply because there aren’t enough of those schools. Put those schools aside, therefore, and my experience tells me that these three ‘reasons’ above are unrealistic and verging on the absurd.

My wife and I are both practising Christians. We have three children who are now in their late twenties or early thirties. They are all bright kids who think for themselves. Where there are religions or religious expression that is authoritarian then it may be that there could be a shred of truth in these things – but the vast majority of Christendom does not fit in the category of authoritarian. My own children came to church with us, made their own decisions to be Christians without pressure put on them. They have had plenty of opportunity to reject those beliefs whenever they wanted but have not done so, seeing their faith as the best alternative in a world of mixed values and being very happy with their choices, being aware of all the others!

I have also known a number of other children who grew up in a Christian environment but rejected the life and beliefs of their parents and went their own way. They have also turned out to be those who have struggled with life and have not got a happy outcome – but that has nothing to do with their supposed feelings of ‘guilt’ of leaving the Christian fold (which is absent), but simply because of the life choices they have made, similar to so many of their peer group in the world, who similarly are struggling with the wonders of a humanistic lifestyle and its outcomes.

3. He who lives in glass houses….

Possibly the greatest hypocrisy and deception in this dogma is the implied claim that while Christians impose values on their children, atheistic humanists don’t! You must be joking! Richard Dawkins is crusading for the hearts and minds of the children of this nation on a platform that many of his scientific peers think is abhorrent. From my own observation, I would suggest that crusading humanists may well be those who impose their views far more than their Christian counterparts.

My wife is an RE teacher and her curriculum requires the students to analyse the historical evidence for Jesus Christ and the resurrection. What she increasingly finds is that many of her students who come from atheistic families (i.e. mother and father deny belief) are literally incapable of objectively analysing the factual evidence that is there in history. They have been so indoctrinated by their parents that they are intellectually incapable of being objective when presented with accredited historical data. They are UNABLE to be unbiased. Now that is far more worrying, I suggest.

I recently came across the following quote which starts with a supposition and goes on to recount an experience. It is worth bearing in mind:

people who have been given a faith-based education are generally more tolerant when dealing with people of other religious and non-religious faith traditions than those who have been nurtured in an intentionally anti-religious or ‘secular-humanistic’ environment. The way in which Muslim parents actively seek out Christian ethos schools is testimony to the fact that they believe those schools are more likely to encourage a tolerant and warm attitude to their own religious beliefs, than a school which may deliberately exclude the idea of the divine. Lord Sacks was educated at St Mary’s Primary School. Comments the Chief Rabbi, ‘I got more tolerance in that Christian school than I suspect I might have had if I had gone to a secular school where no faith was taken seriously at all. That was when I discovered religiously based tolerance – the religious roots, the foundations of tolerance.’

Intolerance is clearly alive and well in the humanist camp, but here is my closing thought. I am aware that there are many unthinking people who mindlessly subscribe to the thoughts of the Humanists, but it strikes me that anyone who knows anything about the reality  of the individual child’s ability to make up their own mind, will know that this language from the humanist website is empty posturing and must simply be a means of gaining publicity – except it does not show them up in a good light, and one wonders if, in fact, this publicity is good publicity, or rather it shows them as bigoted zealots with an intellectually empty cause?  Sad!