Saturday, February 28, 2009
This is now the 37th posting, most definitely the busiest February thus far. In fact, I may even be on for the most blog posts in a year, if this keeps up.
This month there were several book reviews, on The Shack, The Reason for God, The "Fifty Nine" Revival, and Angels and Demons. I also thought about Lily Allen's song, The Fear, in a new feature reviewing the UK's Number One. Lily remained there throughout February, but will she continue through March?
In church, February was the month of Open House. I spoke twice, on How Can I Believe that God is good, and that being good won't get you to heaven? There were also some thoughts on Quiet Times and Quiet Days, both perhaps not quite as quiet as you would imagine. I also complained about the impatience of others, before seeing this reflected in myself. Point taken.
To close the month, we've had a special series on the 1859 revival, it's origins, the Anglican response, one parish's experience, the local experience, and the desire for a new awakening.
What can we learn from 1859 and implement today? The origins of the revival came from sustained, faithful prayer rising up from the Lord's people. The prayer meeting in Kells met for almost two years before the work went outside the village. The Lord also blessed the advance of His word as it was read, preached, and applied to the sinful hearts of the people. The Lord blessed the united work of Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists and Independents as they came together in prayer meetings, setting denomination aside and joining under the one Lord.
So where do we go from here? Let's join in prayer for the mass conversion of men, women and children in this land, so that many are saved and the glory goes to God. One verse that is used by revivalists is this:
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)
Friday, February 27, 2009
Following the success of The Da Vinci Code, Hollywood is turning to another of Dan Brown's novels for more conspiracy thriller movie moments. Having previously enjoyed reading Angels and Demons, I thought I would return to it before the movie is released.
The book is centred on the events of the Vatican Conclave of cardinals, when the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church gather to elect a new Pope. The last time I read the book was round about the time of the election of Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, which gave it even more topical interest. Having read it again, I notice that it's even more topical, with its descriptions of the CERN Large Hadron Collider, seeking the Big Bang 'God Particle' which provides the antimatter terror threat exploited by the Illuminati. The Illuminati are the successors of a bunch of scientists condemned by the Vatican who formed a secret society to plan the overthrow and destruction of the Catholic Church in revenge.
As with the Da Vinci Code, Brown sends his hero symbologist, Robert Langdon, on a high-speed chase across Rome seeking to save lives and follow the ancient Path of Illumination, as the seconds tick away on the antimatter hidden within the Vatican. Expect more conspiracy theories, secret societies, architectural gems, suspicious characters and the usual unexpected twists in the tale.
However, the central issue which is discussed time and again is that of science and religion. Are they complementary or contradictory? How do scientists have faith, or how do churchmen view science? Will the Roman Catholic Church continue to war against the advance of science, or will it make peace with the footsoldiers of atoms?
As usual, Dan Brown's theological view seems to be all over the place. Occasionally he says something worthwhile, but then it quickly descends into nonsense again. However, it might be useful for some Christians to re-read the book (or read it for the first time) before the film hits our cinemas in May 2009, to be able to discuss the issues. Certainly, it's a page-turner, and will provide discussion starters with those on the outside of the church.
The revival in Belfast quickly spread to Carryduff, Dundonald and Castlereagh, adjacent districts in Co. Down. Eleven revival prayer meetings soon sprang up in Dundonald, and the number of converts increased rapidly.
If anyone has more information on what happened, then please do let me know.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
It's probably a good thing that Christians are getting in on the act, but surely many useful conversations could be had with kids who are into the HSM stuff rather than having a poor imitation coming from Christian media? Plus, I noticed that Sunday School Musical has a 15 certificate in the UK - which would surely limit or remove the very target audience they are seeking to reach - especially if Christian parents are more wary of certificate ratings and not exposing kids to unsuitable material?
I've found the trailer on Youtube if you want to have a look:
The Rector, Theophilus Campbell, writes this about his Confirmation service of 1859:
Perhaps I ought to state that at our annual confirmation this year my numbers were one hundred and sixty-one, while the average of former years may be stated at twenty. All of these, with perhaps half-a-dozen exceptions, have come to the Lord's table. During the confirmation many of the candidates were deeply affected, and could scarcely restrain their feelings. Of these one hundred and sixty-one, only sixteen were 'stricken cases'.
161 confirmands in one service! Truly revival struck that parish. Oh that we would see such scenes again. Lord, revive us again.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
And waited, until eventually she got out. Pause, as she put her seatbelt on. Then, she had seen a car about half a mile away from the far end of the car park coming, so she let it past before going on herself. Or rather, stalling, and stopping.
I could feel myself getting unduly annoyed, thinking that I could have been halfway home by now. Deep breath, and calm yourself. No point getting agitated - take your time.
The dear lady then drove up to the ticket barrier, but missed it by an arm's length. Which meant she couldn't reach the machine to put her ticket in. Had to take off her seatbelt again and climb up the side of her car door to get the ticket in. Drove past the barrier, stopped to put her seatbelt on again, and dithered before getting into the line of traffic queueing for the traffic light.
So why did I get annoyed? I still would have been sitting in the traffic light queue, and wouldn't have been any further forward. When I did get out of the hospital, I called into a local supermarket and had a pastoral contact that may not have happened if I had fumed and tried to get past the lady. Perhaps I need to take it easy sometimes. Take my time, and find that I am in God's time all along, all because of little old ladies!
* Yes, it's another musically themed posting title - this time the name of Take That's song, Patience. Behold, the video:
The Archdeacon of Derry, in an address to the clergy sanctioned by the Bishop, recommended that they should keep aloof inasmuch that the Church of England clergy* could not join other denominations except by sacrificing their principles. Whilst acknowledging that the revival was of God, he advocated the holding of separate meetings. Consequently, services were held in the Cathedral and in the church schools, but they were thinly attended and there were few results... This attitude of the episcopal clergy of Londonderry stood out in sharp contrast to the example of Dr Knox, the Bishop of Down and Connor (and Dromore), and the clergy of his diocese.
Dr Knox called a meeting of the clergy of the united Dioceses, and gave the revival his support and blessing. He then took part in the united weekly prayer meetings in the Music Hall, Belfast.
Throughout Paisley's book there are further incidents of revival striking Church of Ireland parishes including Magheralin, Lurgan (where an extra 500 seats in Shankill Parish Church had to be provided in the years after the revival because of the increased attendances), Portrush, Coleraine, Garvagh, and Monaghan. It seems that 'where brothers dwell together in unity' the blessing was particularly sweet, while in many places, the Church of Ireland clergy condemned or worked against the work of the Spirit.
May we in our day discern what God is doing, and not work against the Lord and his purposes.
* Church of England clergy - at this point the Church of England and the Church of Ireland were united in the Church of England and Ireland, which explains why the Archdeacon of Derry refers to Church of England clergy in his address.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Throughout the day, after three talks, there were periods of silence to reflect on the issues of ministry raised in the life of John the Baptist. Yet also part of the day were three packed Prayer Book services, so alongside the quiet there was much singing and liturgy. To be fair, it wasn't what I was expecting - perhaps a quiet day would be better with less liturgy and more quiet?
Nevertheless, it was a useful time, and it provided us with a place to catch up with colleagues from across the diocese.
* Bonus points if you spotted the title of the Bjork song in the title of this posting - thought I would add the video for a blast from the past:
Björk: Iceland's finest!
Not a bit of it! To trace the origins of the 1859 outpouring, instead you must turn to a prayer meeting, in a schoolhouse in the tiny village of Kells, County Antrim. There four young men began to pray weekly on Friday nights, and it blossomed and spread, bringing the Holy Spirit's blessing on their endeavours, and awakened many to their utter sinfulness and need of salvation.
The four men were James McQuilkin, Jeremiah Meneely, Robert Carlisle and John Wallace.
Quoting from Ian Paisley's book: These four young converts were naturally closely allied in spirit and they mutually agreed for their own edification and the salvation of precious souls to meet weekly for prayer and Bible study... The place chosen for meetings was the Old Schoolhouse near Kells and the meetings commenced in September 1857. During the long winter of 1857-58 every Friday evening, these young men gathered an armful of peat each, and taking their Bibles made their way to the old schoolhouse. There they read and meditated upon the Scriptures of truth and with hearts aflame with a pure first love, poured out their prayers to the God of heaven. The peats made a fire in the schoolhouse grate and warmed their bodies from the winter's chill, but their prayers brought down unquenchable fire from heaven which set all Ulster ablaze for God, and warmed with saving rays at least 100,000 souls.
For three months, there was just the four of them, but then converts began to be added to their prayer group, so that by the beginning of 1859, there were 50 men gathering each week to pray.
As Jeremiah Meneely said years later: We did not allow the unsaved in the prayer meeting. It was a fellowship meeting of Christians met for the one great object of praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon ourselves and upon the surrounding country. This was the one great object and burden of our prayers. We held to the one thing and did not run off to anything else. The Presbyterian minister (Rev John H Moore) was favourable toward us all the time but many of the people ridiculed our praying for an outpouring of the Spirit, saying that He had already been poured out on the day of Pentecost. But we replied that the Lord know what we wanted and we kept right on praying until the power came.
Source: The "Fifty Nine" Revival by Ian R K Paisley.
Monday, February 23, 2009
Starting from a prayer meeting of four converts in the Old Schoolhouse in Kells and Connor, County Antrim, it rapidly spread across the country, affecting over 100,000 people. God's grace and mercy were richly poured out on this land, and the Holy Spirit was mighty in operation. Over the coming days I'll post some quotations from the book, highlighting stories from local places, as well as lessons to learn.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
You see, some people genuinely believe that humans are good. All of us are good, and eventually we all become good, and God will let us into heaven because we tried to be good, at least sometimes. But it just doesn’t work like that. We quickly realise that we’re not good all the way through. We’re selfish and proud, and look out for ourselves.
For others, we think that it’s a matter of balance, like the scales of justice. We know that we do some bad things, but we hope that the good things we do outweigh the bad. So the good cancels out the bad, we’re in profit, and we get into heaven.
But again, as we’ll see, that doesn’t work. How could you ever be sure that your good was outweighing your bad? Life would turn into a constant guilt trip as you try to balance things, like a bad dieting phase where you have a chocolate bar one day and then starve yourself the rest of the week to make up for it.
Most of us perhaps fall into the relativity trap. It’s all relative, and while we recognise that we do bad things, well, at least we’re not as bad as yer man down the road – did you hear what he did last week? We’re all very skilled at making ourselves appear in a better light than others. So we compare ourselves to those who are worse offenders. It’s maybe even more of a temptation for you if you go to church every week – compared to the heathens who don’t come along.
You might even think of it in a scale like this: Right at the bottom, worst of the worst, someone like Hitler. Then coming up, not as bad but still bad you might put murderers, then robbers, then liars, and compared to all that bunch, you appear at the top of the class, gold star for you and a sure way into heaven – compared to all those bad people down the list…
But again, it just doesn’t work like that. You see, in trying to highlight the sins of others, you conveniently forget about the sins that you also commit. Now, you may not think them as important, or as scandalous or as wrong as others, but they are nonetheless still sins, and still wrong.
For a few minutes I want to share with you from Romans 3. As Paul outlines the good news of Jesus, he first has to knock down some barriers to the gospel. One of these major barriers was the thought that some Jews had about themselves. You see, they couldn’t see how they needed the salvation of Jesus, because they were God’s chosen people, and had God’s law (the Ten Commandments and all the rest), so surely they were all ok.
Paul takes some time and outlines first how the Gentiles, the non-Jews, were sinful, but then he extends what he is saying to the Jews as well. What about this for a comprehensive condemnation:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)
As Romans 3 later says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ That falling short is the image of an arrow missing the target by not even making it to the target. Perhaps another way of thinking about it is the high jump bar. The bar is set so high that no one can make it. Everyone fails and falls.
The problem of sin is that the wages of sin is death. The proper result of our sin is death, and one day, each of us will die. So if sin is sin, then any sin is just as bad as any other – all are punished and end in death, so the comparisons with others fail. Similarly, the attempts to balance our good and bad just don’t wash. How do you make up for the wrong things you have already done, never mind trying to be good for the rest of your days?
Well, there are just two answers. We can try to save ourselves, or we can find that Jesus can save us. All those things that we talked about at the start – the balancing good and evil, the comparing ourselves with others – these are ways we try to justify ourselves. It can lead some people to try so very hard to be so very good, so that in the end, God has to say to them, yes you’re good enough.
As Tim Keller says, ‘Self-salvation through good works may produce a great deal of moral behaviour in your life, but inside you are miserable. You are always comparing yourself to other people, and you are never sure you are being good enough. You cannot therefore, deal with your hideousness and self-absorption through the moral law, by trying to be a good person through an act of the will. You need a complete transformation of the very motives of your heart.’ (The Reason For God, p. 177)
Being good won’t save us – expecting God to give us a pat on the back for our own achievements just doesn’t work, when we have rebelled against him the whole way.
But the good news is that Jesus can save us. Jesus is the one who can deal with our sin – who has dealt with our sin, and who offers full and free pardon. Jesus died the death that your sin deserved, in your place as your substitute, so that you don’t have to bear it yourself. That’s what Paul goes on to say: (Romans 3:23-25a)
We are justified by faith – as we trust in Jesus, then it is just as if I’d never sinned. As Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment we deserved – this is what propitiation means – bearing God’s wrath on sin, and taking away that wrath. This is, then, the only way we can get to heaven – not by saving ourselves by our churchgoing or charity work or trying to be good. No, the only way to heaven is by trusting in Jesus, taking him as our Saviour, and sheltering under his cross, as the only ground of hope, and the only way to find peace.
It’s as if we have run up a huge debt on our credit cards – maxed them out, and can’t pay the bills. The debt I could not pay. Jesus comes, and takes the bill, and pays it himself so that we can go free. Or liked condemned people, we are in court, sentenced to death. Jesus comes, takes the sentence, and allows us to go free.
This talk was presented at Open House in Dundonald on Sunday 22nd February 2009.
This week, I'll be embarking on a short series of postings on the 1859 Revival. Watch this space for the daily updates.
Friday, February 20, 2009
We might realise that it's all because of our sin. Originally, things were perfect, and were made to last. But that all changed. We thought that we could do a better job of running things.
Yet it might surprise you to learn that it was God who brought about the processes of decay and rotting. We read this in the letter to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:19-22)
When we see things rotting and spoiling, it is to remind us of our sinfulness, and to point us to a better reality, an everlasting kingdom which is to come. Just as the creation groans - rocks, hills, trees, flowers, cows, milk, oranges - waiting for the restoration and renewal of all things in the new heavens and the new earth, so we are to look forward with the anticipation of hope. A good lesson to bear in mind when clearing the fridge and taking the rubbish out to the bin.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
It's sad to see it closing down, the with resultant job losses, and the decline in competition for music sales on the streets of Belfast. Even more so when we consider that it has all happened so quickly. The initial shop closures were on the 8th January, and Zavvi Belfast (Victoria Square) has had just one month of reprieve before the death sentence falls on it.
With the credit crunch crisis still hitting hard, it appears that people are cutting back on their consumption, which takes the cycle round again and threatens more jobs. Where will it end?
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
'But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.' (Exodus 1:17). The fear of Pharaoh meant nothing to them when their conscience was stricken with the fear of God. The king's command meant nothing compared to the command of the King of Kings. As the apostles declared before the Sanhedrin: "We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29).
Are there situations when we find ourselves in conflict between the laws of the state and the law of God? Let us find encouragement to follow the example of Shiphrah and Puah to take a stand for truth, when it truly is a matter of principle.
We find that God honours those who honour him (1 Samuel 2:30), to the extent that the midwives gave birth themselves. Those who were responsible for helping others give birth, were blessed with children themselves. (Exodus 1:21)
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
When you think of God, you wouldn't imagine He could suffer from amnesia. God is, after all, omniscient - all-knowing, so how could He forget? Yet a few times in Genesis, and again in Exodus, we read that 'God remembered'. Does that mean that God had forgotten and then it suddenly struck Him to recall someone?
After Joseph has brought his family to Egypt, and he and his generation have died out, a new king Pharaoh comes to the throne in Egypt, who doesn't know about Joseph. The Israelites are seen as fair game to be exploited and enslaved. Moses, who had been brought up by his mother then passed over to Pharaoh's daughter, has tried to save the Israelites by beating up and killing an Egyptian. But it has all backfired, and he's off in the desert of Midian.
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel - and God knew. (Exodus 2:23-25)
God remembered! God always knew, but here is the decisive time to act - in God's timing He is seen to 'remember'. God's remembering is connected to His acting and saving. Just think of Noah, riding high on the waves in his ark. 'But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.' (Genesis 8:1).
Or think of Lot, sojourning in sinful Sodom, as divine destruction threatens. 'So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived.' (Genesis 19:29)
God's remembrance is intimately linked with his saving acts. Little wonder, then, that he calls us to also remember his saving act on the cross with bread and wine.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Sunday, February 15, 2009
The surprising thing is that the author might seem slightly inexperienced, being just nine years old! Imagine, a dating book from a child! Alec Greven was talking to BBC's Newsbeat, and he said that "Your goal is to make sure she does most of the talking so then you can't mess up."
It seems he is planning a series of follow-up volumes on How to talk to moms, dads, and grandparents.
As I've been reading through Genesis, I came across a passage I can't remember reading before. Or maybe it never struck me as it did in the current climate. After Pharaoh's dreams of the fat cows and the skinny cows, the good ears of corn and the thin ears of corn, the land of Egypt had seven good years, then seven years of famine. During the good years, under the Premiership of Joseph, food was stored up in the barns of Egypt. When the famine struck, times were hard. All the grain was held by Pharaoh, and the people languished.
At the start, the people of Egypt could buy grain. But then the money ran out. A proper banking crisis, with famine conditions. So what to do? They went to Joseph and said, "Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone." (Genesis 47:15). The solution Joseph came up with was for them to exchange their animals for food, so that all the livestock came under the ownership of the state.
But that was just one year. There were still some more years to endure. Same famine. No money. No livestock. What to do? They went to Joseph and said, "We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord's. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? But us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate." (Genesis 47:18-19)
From then on, Pharaoh was to receive one fifth of the produce of the land, and the people were to keep four-fifths for food and sowing. Two tithes for the government by right.
So how did Joseph and Egypt deal with an economic crisis? Complete nationalisation, not just of industry, but also of livestock, land and people. Will such a solution rescue the United Kingdom today? No, I don't think so. In fact, I don't think government can save us. It's expecting too much. Yet it might just help to curb the greed of those who exploit others for their personal gain.
Friday, February 13, 2009
Reading through Genesis, in the last chapter we find a state funeral of sorts. Jacob, also known as Israel, had died in the land of Egypt, having made it to see his son Joseph alive, and also his children. Joseph by this time had risen to the rank of Prime Minister of Egypt, seeing the nation through years of famine and national crisis (another posting on this soon).
Jacob was to be buried in the cave in the field of Machpelah, where his wife Leah was buried, as well as Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah. Thus far, the field and the cave was the only portion of the Promised Land held by Israel. It was all Abraham saw - he died in faith.
Picture the scene:
4And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, "If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5My father made me swear, saying, 'I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.' Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return." 6And Pharaoh answered, "Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear." 7So Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, 8as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen. 9And there went up with him both chariots and horsemen. It was a very great company. 10When they came to the threshing floor of Atad, which is beyond the Jordan, they lamented there with a very great and grievous lamentation, and he made a mourning for his father seven days. 11When the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, saw the mourning on the threshing floor of Atad, they said, "This is a grievous mourning by the Egyptians." Therefore the place was named Abel-mizraim; it is beyond the Jordan. 12Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them, 13for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan and buried him in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place.
What a sight it must have been! Israel buried in honour by the state of Egypt in the promised land. Several generations would pass before the people of Israel would leave Egypt for good, and take possession of the land in its fullness. And through it all, God's promise and purpose continue to be worked out.
Which ice cream company is found in the Bible? Walls of Jericho
Who was the shortest man in the Bible? Knee-high miah (Nehemiah); Nicodemus (he was a ruler); Peter, because he slept on his watch; Bildad the Shuhite.
Who was the smartest man in the Bible? Abraham, because he knew a Lot
If you have any more of a similar ilk, please add them in the comments section!
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The love of a woman for her mother-in-law? Those mother-in-law jokes from comedians just don't seem appropriate!
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
For some reason, Monopoly has the reputation of taking hours and hours to play. Even the mention of its name causes a severe reaction within some people. For others, it seems to bring out the very competitive nature lurking within.
To counter the image of extra-long games taking days, weeks, even years to complete, Monopoly have introduced a new feature to quicken games. Now you can play faster with the Speed Die. In addition to the standard white dice, there is a red die in the newer versions. The red die is special, with 1, 2, 3, as well as a picture of a bus, and two pictures of Mr Monopoly (for the 6 sides of the die).
If all 3 dice show the same number, then you can move to any square on the board! If you get the bus, then you can move either the number of squares on one die, the other die, or both dice. If you get Mr Monopoly, then you do your turn as normal (paying rents or whatever), but then automatically move to the next unowned property which you can buy or auction. If all properties are owned, then you must move to the next property on which you can pay rent to another player.
I recently played this way with Stewart, and the properties are all snapped up very quickly. Mr Monopoly kept appearing (given that there's a 1 in 3 chance of him rather than a 1 in 6 chance for the other sides), but it's bad news when Stewart has hotels and you land on the first one with Mr Monopoly ushering you onto the second hotelled property too. In both games I regret to say, I was bankrupt.
Both games, with 2 players were finished in about an hour and a half each, which isn't bad for Monopoly. With more players, perhaps it could be quicker, although it could also get more complicated. All in all, Speed Die Monopoly is well worth it. Thank you Hasbro and Parker!
Monday, February 09, 2009
Sunday, February 08, 2009
Why do bad things happen? Or rather, why does a God who is meant to be good let bad things happen? Does God not care? Is God not powerful to stop them from happening? Or is God simply not good?
The first thing we have to do is sort out what we mean by good – and where it comes from in the first place. When we say that something is good, what do we mean? Is it just what feels good for us, or is there an ultimate standard? Is ‘good’ a subjective thing – what’s right for me is good? Well, surely not. Just think of two children being given sweets. If there’s a difference between the two, then you’ll probably hear ‘that’s not fair’ – from we’re no height, we appeal to a standard of fairness – we know good and evil, right and wrong.
So where does this standard of good and evil come from? Is it just something that evolved – evolutionary principles? Or is it implanted deep within us – a shadow of the divine image we were created with – an echo of the goodness of God?
Yet, when we hear that phrase – the goodness of God, some of us may well doubt it. How can God be good when … You fill in the blank. You know how it ends.
Humans have always been questioning God’s goodness. Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They had all they needed; they enjoyed God’s company, truly they were in Paradise. Even in Paradise, God told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The serpent comes along and asks Eve about this. Why was it God had told them not to eat of it? ‘Did God actually say…?’ Surely God was holding something back – or in other words, God wasn’t truly good. If God was good, so the devil’s lie goes, he would have given them all things without limits. ‘You will not surely die…’
So Adam and Eve take the fruit, eat it, and suddenly everything changes. Banished from the garden. Cut off from God’s company. Turned against one another. Perhaps God was good all along – knowing what would happen when Adam and Eve – and us – want to make our own decisions; try to be god ourselves.
Now you might be thinking that God can’t be good if he removed Adam and Eve from the garden. Surely he was being bad there? Yet even in this, God was acting according to his character of goodness, holiness, and love.
Later, Moses is granted a vision of God’s goodness, and the name of the LORD is proclaimed: ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving sin and iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6-7)
So you see that a vital part of God’s goodness is his being merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Rather than judging Adam and Eve straight away, he graciously allows them to live and produce children, as well as promising the one who will deal with their sin.
When Moses first encountered the LORD, Moses asks what his name is. “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14) – which speaks of God’s unchanging nature, as well as his endless existence – always present tense. In this again, we see something of God’s goodness – because he never changes.
You see, when the Israelites went into the promised land, they were warned not to turn and follow the idols and false gods of the natives of the land. In and around the area you had Baal and Asherah – husband and wife farming gods, who needed sacrifices to be kept on your side to boost your crops. Molech was another false god – to keep him happy, you had to sacrifice your son or daughter. Do you see the problem? These gods were so unpredictable – you had to keep giving them things so they would like you and help you.
In contrast, the Living God never changes – his nature is as it always has been – that of mercy, love, grace, slow to anger. I’m not saying that we can take God for granted as a result – but he is not capricious or likely to suddenly change his mind.
So if God never changes, then can we see how he is good? Theologians talk of ‘common grace.’ What they mean by this is a practical, permanent grace that God extends to the whole of the world, both saved and unsaved. Jesus speaks of it in the Sermon on the Mount, calling for his followers to love your enemies ‘so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ (Matthew 5:44-45)
The sun and the rain (and even the snow), are God’s good gifts to everyone – not just those who follow him. Even the rebellious benefit from the sun and the rain. As James says, ‘Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17)
However, a wider application of common grace can also be seen. Earlier I mentioned that God graciously allowed Adam and Eve to live and have children, rather than immediately judging their sin.
Does God not do the same today with us? Imagine that there was immediate judgement for our sins, so that as we committed a sin, we were struck down. How long would anyone survive? As the Psalmist says: ‘If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?’ (Psalm 130:3) God’s goodness in his common grace not only gives us things we don’t deserve like sun and rain, but also withholds judgement until the proper time – giving us the opportunity to repent and believe.
As Don Carson says, ‘Acts of kindness and self-sacrifice surface among every race and class of human beings, not because we are simple mixtures of good and evil, but because even in the midst of our deep rebellion God restrains us and displays his glory and goodness.’
But maybe the sun and rain just don’t cut it for you. The rain seems to complement your tears of pain and suffering. If God was good, then this wouldn’t happen. Let me take you to a prison cell. A man has just been thrown into jail accused of assaulting his boss’ wife. It’s the low point having been attacked by his brothers and sold as a slave far away from home. Joseph (minus his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) languishes in prison, but ultimately ends up as Egypt’s Prime Minister to guide the country through years of famine. After his father dies, his brothers are fearful of what Joseph will do to them. But here’s what he says: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Genesis 50: 20).
Or let me take you to the town of Bethlehem as two women arrive after a long journey. The older of the two had left ten years before with a husband and two sons. Now, she just has one daughter-in-law, and she wants to be called Mara (which means bitter), because the LORD has brought her back empty, and the Almighty has afflicted her. Yet for Naomi, God’s goodness is always with her, and is completed when she has a grandson. Her suffering was bitter, but God’s goodness did not fail her or Ruth.
Let me take you on to a hill outside a city. Three crosses stand waiting for their victims. The men are nailed to the crosses, and the crowd watches to see what will happen. The man on the middle cross had been making deaf people hear and blind people see. Lame men had been walking, and he had even raised the dead. But now he hangs on the cross, his back lacerated from the flogging, his head pierced with the crown of thorns, struggling to breathe, in agony.
He saved others – let him save himself. Yet he dies, a cruel death on a Roman cross. Where was God in this? Was it a mistake, after everything had been going so well? No, even in the death of the cross, God was working his purpose for good – demonstrating his goodness and his love for the world.
‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)
Can you imagine it? While we were still God’s enemies, Jesus died for us to make us his friends! When we’re tempted to think that God is not good, that God does not care, we can look and see the Lord Jesus, who still bears the marks of the cross – the wounds of love. Jesus lives, assuring us of God’s goodness, and his love.
How can I believe that God is good? We see it in his common grace, but we also see it much clearer in Jesus. Throughout the Psalms we see a theme being repeated: ‘Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures for ever!’ (Ps 118:1). ‘Oh taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!’ (Psalm 34:8).
This talk was presented at Open HouseDundonald on Sunday 8th February 2009.
Saturday, February 07, 2009
The first, The Magician's Nephew was read excellently by Kenneth Branagh. In fact, I almost wish he had been reading them all. Sadly, he's not, and I'm now listening to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, read by Michael York. Perhaps I was just used to Belfast boy Branagh's tones, but York has a different style to his reading.
All well, until you come to Lucy's meeting with Mr Tumnus. Mr Tumnus, you may remember, is a faun from the land of Narnia, who lives near to the lamppost. In the audiobook version, Mr Tumnus has an Irish accent. A really bad Oirish accent at that. At least he'll shortly be turned into a stone statue at Jadis' (the White Witch's) palace and there remain for most of the book. Yes, it's that bad.
Roll on the next book, with a different narrator!
Friday, February 06, 2009
As the line goes:
I am a weapon of massive consumption
And it's not my fault, it's how I programmed to function
The message of the song seems to be that the whole purpose of our lives is to consume products, in greater quantities. Despite this being a solely Western concern (imagine this being played in a refugee camp or orphanage), is it even an accurate indication of our purpose?
There's no doubt that many are seeking the purpose of life. Indeed, as today's news suggests, Michael Phelps was seeking purpose and fulfilment in recreational drugs. As Dave Bish points out, all the gold medals in the world won't satisfy. Neither will Lily's consumer mindset.
Trying to fill a God-shaped hole in our hearts with anything else will not succeed! As Saint Augustine says: Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you. Our purpose is to love, serve and obey the living God, and worship him only.
Timothy Keller's magisterial book The Reason for God is such a book. Split into two sections, the first deals with common misconceptions and problems non-believers have with the Christian faith, and the second presents the reasons why it is logical, consistent, and acceptable to believe in God.
On the whole, I enjoyed the book, and will certainly return to it in the future to think through the issues again. His treatment of sin was different to how I would have approached it, but I can see how his approach may work, and also what he was communicating when he proposed sin (following Kirkegaard) as "in despair not wanting to be oneself before God." (p. 162). Through the following pages he unpacks this somewhat, but I don't think this is the line I would have gone down.
Granted the subject and the nature of the discussion, some parts of the book were philosophically heavy, and I struggled to keep going through them, particularly some of the early chapters. Perhaps this is because I had never read any of Keller's material before, or perhaps I wasnt focused on the topic at hand. Despite this minor problem (which may be me, and not the book), I would highly recommend The Reason for God.
Thursday, February 05, 2009
Having seen the snow afflict England, Wales and Scotland, it finally hit Northern Ireland today, with some heavy snow showers this afternoon. This was the scene in our avenue, with a mixture of snow and slush, but when it freezes later on it will be bad for driving.
No White Christmas, but a white February. Check out my Flickr photos for a few more Dundonald snow pictures!
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Stafford came to public recognition when there was a disagreement between the two Presbyterian Churches in Portadown over admittance to the pulpit of his church. Is this the Presbyterian Church giving him tacit approval for his stand of conscience against women ministers? Time will tell. It should be an interesting year for him, and for PCI as a whole.
Good to see where his focus lies though - not on quarrels or dissensions, but on the Gospel: "I hope I can be a real encourager to the church and help it through what are really difficult times," he said. "But yet in the midst of all this to remain confident and be confident in the gospel, and continue to speak and live the gospel in a way which is real and relevant." This from the BBC News report.
Monday, February 02, 2009
Ebony and Ivory
Originally uploaded by Gary McMurray.
I must confess. Sometimes my quiet times aren't so quiet. Music plays an important part in my life, and sometimes, it is an essential part of my devotional times.
I'll give you an example. Last week while at the Preaching Conference, my small group was looking at Revelation. In one of the sessions we were studying Revelation 5, with the new songs sung to the Lamb.
"Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever" And the four living creatures said, "Amen" and the elders fell down and worshipped. (Rev 5:12-14)
I can't hear those words without immediately hearing the conclusion of Handel's Messiah ringing in my ears: Worthy is the Lamb. * That evening, I had to listen to the concluding sections of Handel's Messiah, and was lost in wonder, love and praise. Let's hope we sing it in glory!
On other occasions, devotions can occur as I sit on the piano stool. I'm not a great pianist - one fingered normally works, and I'm starting to add in simple bass notes too, using the guitar notation at the top of the music. Yet as I (very) slowly play through In Christ Alone or Oh To See The Dawn or some older scriptural hymns, the words resonate and become 'stuck' in the mind. This helps me remember the words, to reflect on scripture as I go about my day, and it's also much better than having Lady Gaga's Just Dance or Pink's So What constantly replaying in my head.
I remember reading a book called Music to Move the Soul. There's no doubt that music is spiritual, but will we use it for good or evil? My not so Quiet Times can be a source of strength as I depend on the Lord and sing for Him.
* I've tried to embed a video and link to a video of Worthy is the Lamb, but it doesn't appear to be working at present. I'll try again later.
Certainly the storyline is engaging. Mack* goes on a camping trip with his children, when tragedy strikes. The sense of panic is well conveyed and heart-rending. The development of the characters is well observed. The reader is carried along in the story, all the time feeling for Mack in The Great Sadness.
Yet the story is but a vehicle for the book's central premise. What if you could meet God face to face and discuss tragedy. Or, as Christianity Explored asks: If you could ask God one question and you knew it would be answered, what would it be?
Surprisingly, Mack finds himself encountering the three 'persons' of the Trinity. Each take time to discuss with him, gently leading him through his problems, and bringing him to trust God for all he needs. Yet as I read, I began to fear that Mack had not encountered the living God. Rather he has encountered the emergent God. While it may be useful for the book to appear, and to get people talking about God, the book is certainly not one on which to base our doctrine or understanding of God.
Others have written extensively on the Shack, but some of the problems for me include the statement by Papa, the African-American woman masquerading as God the Father: "I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my purpose to punish it; it's my joy to cure it." (p. 120) Well, that sounds like good news for modern man - God doesn't punish sin? Connect this to the statement that "I've never placed an expectation on you or anyone else... because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me." (p. 206) Gospel truth, or good news for itching ears (c.f. 2 Timothy 4:3)?
It doesn't seem to fit with the declared intention of God to punish sin for his own glory. 'Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.' (Jude 7) 'For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.' (2 Corinthians 5:10)
One other major problem (although there are several more), concerns the assault on God's sovereign choice in election and predestination. In one scene, Mack is introduced to Sophia, wisdom. Mack is placed in the judgement seat, to see how he fares judging God. Mack is asked to decide which of his five children will be saved, and which, therefore will not.
"You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God's new heavens and new earth, but only two." ... "And you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell." ** Mack couldn't believe what he was hearing and started to panic.
"I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does. He knows every person ever conceived, and he knows them so much deeper and clearer than you will ever know your own children. He loves each one according to his knowledge of the being of that son or daughter. You believe he will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from His presence and apart from His love. Is that not true?" (p. 162)
The drama is intense as Mack fights against it, before finally offering himself to go to hell so that his children will be saved. This is commended, as it is how God acts. It is absolutely true that Jesus dies in our place, but is it equally true that therefore everyone will be saved? Does it follow that Jesus died for all, and hell will be empty? To follow the logic of the book you could come to this conclusion. Yet again, it fails to match up to the Scriptural evidence.
At the very least, a reading of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats shows that not all will enter into the Kingdom. Some will hear that "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matthew 25:41) Further, the Book Revelation is clear that not all will be saved. Several times there is mention of the 'book of life of the Lamb'. Those without an entry in the book (which was written before the foundation of the world - Rev 13:8) will worship the beast, and will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).
As the Briefing article suggested, we need more Shack Time - with the living God, though, not the god found in The Shack. In knowing the living God, we will be able to recognise the false images we find in emergent literature.
*I've noticed this is the second book in recent years in which the main character who comes face to face with a spiritual being is called Mack. The other book is The Testament of Gideon Mack, by James Robertson, where Mack meets the Devil.
** Even though, it appears, that the writer would deny that hell exists.
Sunday, February 01, 2009
In the first half of the programme, they were joined by the City of Belfast School of Music Concert Band, who were brilliant! Sadly they left during the interval (maybe it was past their bedtime...) and were replaced by the Celtic Tenors who shone in the second half of the evening.
The finale (The Holy City) brought the house down, and pointed to the new Jerusalem which will one day descend from heaven to be our dwelling. Hosanna to your King!
Their next engagements are a service in the Old Presbyterian Church, Ballyclare on 22nd February, and a concert in the Waterfront Hall on Monday 23rd February.