Monday, November 30, 2009

November Review

This is the 25th blog posting of November, and the 415th post of 2009. While it's the least amount of monthly posts in 2009, it actually ranks among the better Novembers, with just 11 in November 2007 and 13 in November 2005. The highest November since records began was 2006 with 31. With a reduced blogging capacity, what have we covered this month?

Three books were completely read this month: Fern-seed and Elephants by CS Lewis, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever, and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

My preaching this month was from John 11 (audio), Hebrews 11-12, John 8, Ephesians 5:1-21, and answering the question Where is God when I need him? (audio)

I had a few extra thousand words on the blog in the form of pictures: The grasshopper, the New York street scene, the North Irish Horse, and the Flickrmeet, plus I thought about doing a 365 Photo Challenge.

My favourite post of the month was the news that Hogwarts School isn't moving to Northern Ireland.

So that's the November review completed. 25 days to Christmas, and one month before we're into 2010. All your Christmas shopping done yet?

Photo 365?

I'm considering launching a 365 project next year. What's that, I hear you say. It's a challenge that has been doing the rounds on Flickr, in which you take a photo every day for a year - a sort of mini photo-log of your year.

The disadvantages? Well, you have to take a photo every day for a year. At the minute, my camera gets maybe one outing every fortnight or so - it would be a complete change to be using it every day. It could also be tricky to think up fresh inspiration for 365 photos from my daily life, given that I tend to do the same things fairly frequently...

The advantages? Getting to know my camera better and moving from the more automatic settings to the fully manual settings - properly using the camera. It'll also test my commitment, and make me think through what I'm doing, as well as developing my photographer's eye for shots.

Any advice or tips? Am I just crazy to even think of something like this, let alone do it?

In the meantime, here are links to a couple of friends who have been doing the 365 challenge: MacBern, JDHolic, and Zcott.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sermon: Ephesians 5: 1-21

Last year when we were just moving in to our house in Dundonald, we were also looking after our wee niece, who was about 3 at the time. She would follow us around, wanting to help, and get stuck into whatever we were doing. It was funny - if I leant against the window, she wanted to do it too. If I sat in a camping chair, she wanted to sit in one too. Wanting to do what uncle Gary did. Children imitate their parents - that’s what Paul is wanting us as Christians to do as well.

As Paul continues writing to the Ephesians, he highlights the call for us to be ‘imitators of God, as beloved children’ (5:1). What we see the Father doing, we’re also meant to be doing. And what we don’t see the Father doing, neither should we be doing that. We see this in three particular areas: Imitating God means we will be children of purity, children of light, and children of wisdom.

First of all, then, we’re confronted with the call to be children of purity. Look at verse 3: ‘But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you.’ Paul goes on: ‘Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place.’

It’s clear that our culture and society are obsessed with sex and sexual immorality. You can hardly turn on the TV, open a newspaper, or go online without some subtle or blatant references to sex and immorality. Whether it’s the Marks and Spencers advert which wouldn’t be complete without the girl in her underwear, or the way most movies have some suggestion of sexual tension or activity between the main characters, or the reporting of celebrity relationships and breakups with the sordid details in the kiss and tell newspaper stories.

The pressure from society is for us to accept immorality as normal. That everybody’s doing it and you’re out of touch if you’re not. That there are no boundaries or consequences for sex with someone who isn’t your husband or wife. These are ‘empty words’ - that if it feels good do it, and Paul says not to be deceived by them.

Paul gives us the reason why we’re to be different as Christians. We who are Christians are ‘saints’ - God’s holy ones, his beloved children. We’re to recognise who we are (saints) and whose we are - God’s, and live in the light of that - not with crude joking and easy chat about sexual immorality, because it is out of place, it is not proper among saints. It’s not that we aren’t to talk about sex - Paul isn’t calling us to be prudes, the frozen chosen - but ‘instead let there be thanksgiving’ (4). We don’t abuse the gift of God, but we thank God for the gift of sex, in its proper place within marriage. [It’s the difference between putting petrol in your car and putting petrol on the barbecue - in one place, where its meant to be used, and the other dangerous]

Especially on this Advent Sunday, though, there’s another key reason why we are called to be children of purity as we imitate God. Jesus is coming as judge, and will bring the inheritance of the kingdom. ‘For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous... has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.’ (5) Who is it receives the inheritance? The children - yet if we indulge in sin then we’re not children of God, we’re outside his kingdom. Rather, those who indulge in sin are ‘sons of disobedience’ - and the wrath of God is coming upon them.

Are you a child of disobedience? Are you outside the kingdom by your thoughts and deeds and words? Or are you a child of God, seeking to be pure in a sinful world? It’s not easy seeking purity when the world, the flesh and the devil are constantly attacking you. Let’s resolve to be children of purity, imitating our Father. What needs to change in your life? Reading those magazines? Your internet usage? Gossip?

There’s also the call to live as children of light. Paul says that as we trust in Jesus, we have been transferred, we’ve been changed: ‘For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.’ (8) It’s not something we can do for ourselves, but something that the Lord does for us - the lights come on, we can see things so much clearer.

But what does it mean to live as children of light? Clearly, there are some things that are wrong for us to do, so that Paul can say twice: ‘do not become partners with them’ (the sons of disobedience - 7), and ‘take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness’ (11). As Johnny put it the other day - when Wayne Rooney moved from playing for Everton to join Manchester United, he wouldn’t then help out Everton when they are playing his new team!

Those are the things we don’t do - but what do we do? Remember, the Christian life isn’t a series of rules - we’re not promoting legalism. Rather, it’s about our relationship with the Lord - as we ‘try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.’ (10). So as you go about your day think: ‘is what I’m doing pleasing to the Lord?’ Would the Lord be happy as he watches me tell a lie, or fiddle the books or the timesheet, or watch the unhelpful TV programme? Is what I’m doing something that I would want to be doing as the Lord returns? Verse 9 can be a help for us as we think about what pleases the Lord: ‘Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)’ - is what I’m doing good, right, true?

As we walk as children of light, Paul also calls us to take no part in the works of darkness ‘but instead expose them’. It’s like going into a dark room, and turning on the light - and seeing the spiders / creepers / mice dashing off into the dark corner. How do we expose them? By being who we are - children of light. As Paul puts it in Philippians: ‘children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.’ (Phil 2:15) Our lifestyle is different to those around us.

I remember one summer working in a factory in Lisburn, and every Monday morning there would be stories of what my colleagues had been up to over the weekend. Inevitably they would ask what I had been up to - and it was very different. There were opportunities to shine God’s light in the dark places through being different. What about you? Are we different to those around us in work? Can our neighbours see that we’re different to the rest of the street? Remember who you are: children of light; and whose you are: beloved children of God. Are you imitating God in how you live?

Perhaps you know that you’re in darkness. You’re still stumbling in the dark - like in a power cut with no light at all. It’s dangerous, especially in an unfamiliar place. Last night we were driving to Dromara, and it was dark and foggy. We needed the lights for the journey. You need the lights turned on, your life turned around. Jesus says: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ (John 8:12)

There’s one more important element of imitating God. So far we’ve seen that we’re to be children of purity, and children of light. Verses 15 to 21 call us to be children of wisdom. Wise, because the days are evil. We’ve been reminded of that this morning. Things (to misquote D:Ream) can only get worse. The time is short - the Lord is returning, but in the meantime, things are getting worse, evil is everywhere!

We’re called, therefore, to look carefully how you walk - not as unwise but as wise. That means that we know we have a short time and we want to use it wisely, by understanding the will of the Lord - again, what pleases the Lord, what he wants us to do. How will you spend the rest of your time?

When you know the Lord’s will, then go and do it - our orders haven’t changed since the Lord gave the great commission to go and make disciples. We’re called to be getting ready for heaven, and helping other people get ready for heaven.

Paul gives us one example of this: don’t spend your time partying, but praising. Will you use your time getting drunk, or encouraging one another and praising the Lord? We’re not to be filled with drink, but filled with the Spirit (not spirits, as if Paul’s saying no beer but whisky’s ok)... Wise children are marked by thanksgiving and praise, fully sober and aware of the blessings of the Lord.

We can't do this on our own - it just turns into moral effort, legalism and self-righteousness. God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us become more like Jesus.

Paul calls us to be imitators of God, as beloved children - children of purity (against the backdrop of the normality of immorality); children of light (against the darkness of the world); and children of wisdom (against the foolishness of evil). But it’s not a multiple choice question - a ‘delete as applicable’ whereby you think, well, I could be a child of light, and wisdom, but purity is beyond me. Or, I don’t like the sound of being a child of light, but I’ll take the other two. The three are interlinked, so that to be a child of purity is to be a child of light and of wisdom, through being a child of God our Father.

These things are beyond us - we need God’s help. It’s not easy to go against the flow of the world - like a mighty flood water the devil tries to sweep us away. But it all comes back to who we are - saints, God’s holy ones, light in the Lord; and whose we are - God’s beloved children, the ones whom Christ loved and gave himself up for us. We are the saved, but we also must be the sanctified, growing in holiness, growing in likeness to our Father. Think back over the past year - are you more Christlike now than back in January? What will you do next year?

We’re in this together - perhaps over coffee you’ll ask someone you trust to pray with you for a particular struggle you’re facing; or ask someone to chat it over with you. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo is lamenting the task he has been given - to carry the powerful ring to Mount Doom to be destroyed. Gandalf replies: 'All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.'

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Advent Sunday 29th November 2009.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Internet: Isolation or Inclusion?

Does the Internet draw people together or separate people? Most folk seem to think that the upcoming generations are becoming withdrawn, only interacting through the medium of a computer monitor or mobile phone text message. The interweb must be a bad thing and people need to re-learn how to interact in 'real' life.

Even when communicating through msn messenger or google talk, everyone sits in their own house in front of their own computer, being isolated. Perhaps it's just becoming normal. For example, Facebook tries to be helpful by suggesting friends of friends you may like to add as your own friend too. Fair enough, but now it's going a stage further by bringing up the wee box with suggestions of friends to reconnect with. The other day I was sitting and in the suggestions box there was one of the ladies from church. You haven't spoken to Ruth on Facebook recently, why not write on her wall? Well, why would I talk on facebook when I've seen her at church meetings and events and talked to her there???

An example of the Internet bringing people together is the Flickrmeet. The what? The Flickrmeet. It's a group of photography enthusiasts who use the website Flickr and meet up to go on a photowalk. We had one last week in Belfast, around the Christmas Continental Market at the City Hall and on to Victoria Square to get some photos of the dome. A great night with some good friends. Plenty of laughs, some new knowledge and tips for the camera, and a couple of good shots.

Say hi to Clair, Bernie, Faye, Steve and Jonny!

Continental Market

Christmas Night Dome

Friday, November 27, 2009

Good News

Last night was our monthly Potty Training. Just in case you're thinking I'm a bit old to just be getting out of nappies, don't worry: it's Post Ordination Training, now known as Continuing Ministry Education. All the Curates in the first three years come together once a month for a service, some food and some training. Sometimes we have a visiting speaker, sometimes we lead it ourselves, and sometimes it's a mixture.

This month we met in Knockbreda (or the church beside Forestside!) and our meeting was partly to discuss our reading (Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI) and partly for each of us to share something encouraging from our ministry. Clergy gatherings, as well as Christian gatherings, indeed human gatherings, can often focus on the negative, the discouraging, the confusing and painful. Last night we had the opportunity of sharing one good thing from our parishes and work. Personally, it was so difficult to only share one thing!

It was really refreshing and very encouraging to hear how God is working in our part of the world for conviction, conversion, discipleship, maturity, growth, and all to the glory of Jesus. Good news about how the good news is impacting our churches and communities. An example of what Paul refers to in Romans 1:12 'that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.'

Jesus was praised, we were thankful and excited to see what is happening, and encouraged in the fight. Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

McFlurry's McLinks (10)

It's time for another batch of McLinks straight from McFlurry's Google Reader and web browsing.

We're doing some Christmas doorstep and street evangelism in Dundonald next month, so I noticed some resources and discussions on evangelism: Dave Matthias talks about the "plod of God"; Mark Driscoll has some ideas on Christmas sermons.

Also on a Christmas theme (and before December...) The Simple Pastor shares resources for a Simple Christmas. The Church Mouse similarly wonders about an affordable Christmas, and Dave Keen has some Advent resources.

If you hurry, you can still get a free audiobook of John Piper's Desiring God. (H/T to Erik Raymond). Meanwhile, Adrian Warnock shared the link to the free iPhone app from Logos Bible Software. All this talk of technology reminds me of Al Mohler's article on the hypersocialized generation, and Carl Trueman's comments on blogs (ironically on Stafford Carson's blog!)

My previous post was on The Hobbit, but Dave Keen linked to a map of the plot of Lord of the Rings.

James Cary has a great post on the Dogmatic Atheists and the new advertising campaign.

Kevin De Young considers a liberal review of a conservative church (Philadephia's Tenth Presbyterian where Philip Ryken ministers), the New Gospel, and again discusses homosexuality in a clear and biblical manner. Tim Challies had a series on Sexual Detox which is now available as an e-book.

On preaching, Colin Adams shares Dale Ralph Davis' Old Testament Crib Sheet, while De Young considers being yourself.

I'm still enjoying the posts from Stuff Christians Like, here's one on staring at the choir, and another on having Saviour moments. Shallowfrozenwater considers the precious perfume.

Today is Thanksgiving in America, and Kevin De Young considers Saint Paul's Thanksgivings.

Sometimes the video in the McFlurry's McLinks is humorous, but today, this is a fantastic Reformed rap, The Greatest Story Ever Told from Shai Linne:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Review: The Hobbit

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start - those lines of advice from The Sound of Music should have been heeded when I launched into reading Tolkien. I can well remember my introduction to Tolkien, finding a one-volume bargain edition of The Lord of the Rings in an outlet village near Chester in England, back in January 2004. I bought it, and though it took me ages, I persevered to read it through. Much later, I realised that The Hobbit was the prior story, the prequel if you will, and so I found a copy in either a secondhand bookshop or a charity shop, but never got round to reading it.

Since then, I've seen the films, and have always meant to get round to reading The Hobbit, or There And Back Again, but never managed it. Until, that is, my recent holiday, when I plunged into the book, and read it over several days! Another reason for reading it is because the scripts have been almost completed for the filming of The Hobbit movie(s - there are going to be two films), the first of which will be out in 2011.

Maria was right - starting at the beginning would be the best place to start. Having read The Hobbit, some of the puzzles and confusing things in the first couple of chapters of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are explained and assumed! We're told in The Hobbit how Bilbo Baggins (the main character of the story) comes upon the powerful magic ring, and we're introduced to Gandalf the wizard, as well as the characters of dwarves, elves and men, not forgetting Smeagol / Gollum.

As with TLOTR, The Hobbit is the chronicle of an epic journey, to regain the dwarf treasure of Thron, guarded in the Lonely Mountain by Smaug, the dragon. Bilbo Baggins is accompanied by thirteen dwarves (a few more than Snow White had), and they meet many dangers and adventures along the way.

The timing of my reading was fortunate, and provided me with a quote about Gandalf which fitted well into last week's evangelistic talk - about how Gandalf thought of most things, and while he couldn't do everything, he would do a great deal for a friend in a tight corner. Is this how we view God too?

Another interesting point that is repeatedly developed is the value of a creature is not the same as the impression they make. The dwarves continually look down on poor Bilbo Baggins, probably due to his inferior size, yet it's he who gets them out of sticky situations and becomes the most valuable member of their travelling party.

The main moral of the story comes in an extended unveiling of continuous greed, with various parties vying for what they desire, so that they end up being consumed by consumption, consumed for want of being consumers.

If there was a minor criticism, it would be that it's perhaps too short. Sometimes, in a bid to move the story on Tolkien covers long periods of time with short summary statements, and it's on to the next adventure. If only it was slightly longer and we had even more to enjoy of Bilbo and the others.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sermon Audio: Psalm 34

Here (eventually) is the sermon audio mp3 file from Sunday week ago's first Open House session: Where is God when I need him?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Not Forgotten

When you're young, you think you're indestructible. Nothing can happen, and death is many decades away. Life is for living, and there's plenty of it going spare. You can never imagine one of your friends dying 'too soon'.

That's why the death of a young person is so unexpected, so shocking. For everyone in the community, yes, but particularly for the family and friends of the deceased. And while the wider community can forget so quickly, with the litany of people dying, and other news stories coming and going, those who were close to the person can never forget.

Time seems to move so quickly, and yet it can also stand still, with memories returning of former days. Happy memories, things to smile about, yet with tears never far away.

It's hard to believe, but it's one year today since PSNI Constable James Magee died, alongside Constables Kenneth Irvine, Declan Greene, and Kevin Gorman, in a terrible accident in their police 4x4 vehicle on their way to help colleagues in Rostrevor.

As I wrote last year, James was my best friend at Primary School. We were always playing together, and I spent many happy times up at Bishopsmount, the former family home in Dromore. It was always fun taking my bike up there, as there was a path right around the bungalow for us to do cycle races. There were the goats and other animals to look at but not get too close to. There were the vintage cars in the garage to get excited about. He had the most amazing and massive model railway set which was always out in one of the garages. There were the ham and cheese sandwiches and the weak diluting orange juice. There was the times we played football and got stuck in the whirly-line, then James' mum would come out and scrub down the concrete saying that she had to get the pitch all clean for the footballers. There was the big stove in the kitchen to get warmed at when we had got cold outside. There was the stony lane between the house and Church Street under the old railway tunnel which echoed as you shouted out. There were the silly jokes that made us laugh all day. There was the time when David Riddell put his hand on the electric fence having been told it was turned on.

Despite going to different secondary schools, we stayed in touch, still going to Sunday School together, and then being Confirmed on April 9th 1995.

Confirmation 1995

It's hard to believe that James has been dead for a year now, and yet one thing is certain - he has not been forgotten.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Sinful Woman

I want to play a game of Odd One Out. I'll show you four pictures, and then ask which one is different. Pictures are a thief, a rioter, an adulterer and a Bishop. Which is the odd one out? You'll probably say the Bishop. The others are bad characters, getting involved in badness.

The Sinner. Tonight in John 8, we're introduced to a sinner, someone who is doing wrong. Jesus is in the temple and the scribes and Pharisees bring along a woman caught in the act of adultery. She was having sex with someone who was not her husband. Sin. Against the Law. The Pharisees rightly point out that the woman is a sinner, she has broken the law and deserves to die- to be stoned (which I quickly realised means something quite different to our young people). So what will happen?

Jesus does something unexpected and perhaps slightly strange. He bends over and writes in the dust. So they keep asking what he's going to do - she deserves to die. It's then that Jesus turns things around.

The Sinners. "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." There's a few issues going on- the men wanted to use the situation to trap Jesus, so they could accuse him and kill him, but more than that, it takes two to tango, so why had they only brought the man? The big question is: who is without sin? If there's one person without sin then the stoning can go ahead.

Yet there aren't any sinless people among the accusers. They accuse her, but they're sinful themselves. They look down their noses at someone who is worse, as if it's a league table of sin, and they're doing better. We have a tendency of doing this too- I'm not as bad as her. He's badder than me.

The Pharisees slink away, one by one, seething as their sin is exposed. None left, just Jesus and the woman.

No one condemned her, but she's not yet in the clear.

The Sinless Saviour. Jesus, the one without sin who could have chucked a stone, does not condemn her. It's not that she had done nothing wrong, just stitched up by the mob, innocently caught up in it all. She was a sinner. She was in the wrong. But Jesus invites her to receive his forgiveness, not giving her condemnation, but offering a fresh start.

Jesus doesn't condemn her, but neither does he want her to continue in her sin. "Go, and from now on sin no more." This incident allows us to see John 3:17 in practice: 'For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.'

The Odd One Out round at the start wasn't quite right. It's not that the three criminals are different to the bishop. All four are sinful. We don't condemn you here- the leaders are just like you. But we have been and we are being changed by Jesus. There are only two categories of people in the world- the sinful and the saved. Which are you?

This talk was presented at SET (St Elizabeth's Teens) on Sunday 22nd November 2009. John 8:1-11.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Smyth and Jones Weekend

St Elizabeth's seems to be having a Smyth and Jones weekend, with two visiting speakers. This morning, we had our termly Men's Breakfast over in Wolfe's at the Dundonald Omniplex. Ulster Fries all round, apart from the veggies! Sharing with us was Adam Smyth from the BBC, a member of Bloomfield Presbyterian. Speaking from Hebrews 12, Adam challenged us on what holds us back from running the race, and on sharing the gospel and taking the opportunities we are granted.

Tomorrow morning, it's the turn of Adam Jones from IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), visiting the morning service to preach God's word as well as highlight the work among students. While we're not a student church by any means, we do have some students. We'll also hear from them about some of the student-led evangelism at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown.

And as if all that wasn't enough, we also had a Church Table Quiz last night. Great nights craic over 14 rounds.

We'll get back to regular blogging this week as things have been neglected somewhat this past week. That's all for now!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NIMA 2009

It's Wednesday, but it feels like a Monday. Monday morning is the start of the week for me, as it's the day after the last big preach, and as far as possible from the next one on the following Sunday. Monday morning is the time for deskwork, printing out the passage for Sunday's preach, and getting stuck into the initial exegesis early on in the week.

All of which is fine, until something else happens on Monday, then Tuesday becomes the new Monday. But this week, Wednesday is the new Monday. Why, I hear you say?

Monday and Tuesday were two great days spent in Trinity Methodist Church, Lisburn (really Ballymacoss) at the Northern Ireland Minstry Assembly, organised by the NIMA working group and Proclamation Trust. Around 90 pastor-teachers, student ministers and apprentices came together for two days of fellowship and teaching from God's word, in an assembly that spans the denominations - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and some others.

Hugh Palmer, Rector of All Souls' Langham Place (John Stott's church) spoke on Preaching That Connects, an exposition of 1 Thessalonians, giving us a great re-introduction to Paul's letter, while at the same time feeding us richly from the Bible, and inspiring us to be focused on the primary task of teaching and preaching - which sees change, which is passionate for people, which counters the culture and which faces the ultimate realities of life and death.

Voddie Baucham, Pastor of Preaching at Grace Family Baptist Church, spoke on the need for faithful preaching in a day when the culture is hostile and many are abandoning and compromising the faith once for all delivered to the saints, and becoming like the world rather than changing the world through the word.

His final session was a statement on why he believes the Bible - something which would have been very useful in those dark days of Trinity:
The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses which report supernatural events in fulfillment of specific prophecies claiming that they are words of divine origin, rather than human in origin.
All of which is the outline of his talk from 2 Peter 1:16-21.

Two very different styles of presentation, but the one united message, restoring confidence in the word of God and the call to preach the word. The notes taken will have to be carefully examined and considered again and again over the coming weeks, so that the conference wasn't just a nice two days but don't really affect what I do and how I do it - otherwise it would have been a wasted opportunity.

Colin Adams of Unashamed Workman was also at the conference and has blogged on the impression of illustrations.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Is God When I Need Him? (Sermon: Psalm 34)

It’s a tough question we’re looking at tonight as we begin our new series of Open House. Where is God when I need him? It seems to be a question for many people - a serious question, and a serious challenge. Type that phrase into Google (which might be an indicator of where we’re at), and you get almost 92 million results. It’s a popular question, and lots of people are trying to answer it.

The immediate problem is clear - I need God because of some particular situation in my life, but he seems absent, distant, uninterested. Perhaps you find yourself asking this question tonight - it might be because of some illness you’re battling, or long-term suffering, or some home situation, or you have a decision and need some help or guidance or intervention.

You pray, you search for God, but he appears to be absent. Where is God? Why does he not do something? Why does he not answer my prayers?

Where is God? The question brings us to the heart of the matter - what is God like? What can we expect or demand of God? Or, perhaps the more pressing issue - what do we think God is like?

In The Hobbit, the story before the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the wizard is described in these words: ‘Gandalf thought of most things; and though he could not do everything, he could do a great deal for friends in a tight corner.’ Is this how we think of God as well? Can’t do everything, but should do a great deal for us when we’re in a tight corner?

Let’s look at the testimony of one person who has experienced God’s help and salvation when he needed it. We heard Psalm 34, one of the Psalms written by King David. He was in a tight spot, and God rescued him.

Why does David begin by praising God, and calling for others to praise God with him? ‘I sought the LORD, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.’ (34:4) Later he says ‘This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.’ (34:6)

That’s all very well, you might say, but what about me? I’ve been crying to the Lord and he hasn’t answered me. What does David tell us about the Lord in this Psalm? First of all, we have particular comfort if we’re going through time of trouble or suffering: ‘The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.’ (34:18) ‘The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry.’ (34:15)

What we’re seeing here is that, rather than God being absent or distant, God is near as we suffer, that God is watching - not in a nosy, or spiteful way - but watching with eyes of compassion, and quick to listen. You know the way a parent always hears when their baby cries out, no matter how deep a sleep they’re in? My wife’s sister was over last week, and she could hear baby Elizabeth crying in the next room even over the noise of the TV and us talking... But God doesn’t sleep, God isn’t distracted - he always watches and listens to us.

But what does it mean when it says ‘The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous’? It has nothing to do with us - as if you have to be ‘good’ for God to listen - you know, as if God’s help is a barter system - if I’ve done my good deed of the day, or if I’ve helped an old lady across the road, or if I’ve been to church or whatever... The righteous are those who are trusting in the Lord, or as verse 5 says ‘those who look to him’. In verse 22, we have the promise that ‘The LORD redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.’ The picture here is of trouble coming, like a huge shower of rain, and taking shelter in the Lord, trusting him for protection. But it’s not protection from suffering or trouble - it is protection forever - our future is secure and there is no condemnation.

So far we’ve seen the particular comfort the Lord provides, but David also invites us to praise God all the time, to get to know him all the time: ‘Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!’ (34:8) I love it when I’m going round the supermarket and there’s a free sample - recently it was mince pies in Marks and Spencers - and I’ll always try a wee bit (so long as I can). We’re being invited here to sample the Lord’s character, to experience who he is, and to trust in him.

Because the Lord is good, we can and should depend on him all the time, not just when things are rough. God is not just a rainy day God - just sitting waiting around until we think we need him. I recently read on a blog this exact attitude: ‘I had made him a God of weeping and tears. When life got hard and painful, I would go see him, take my problems and weep with him. When life got good, I would walk away and eventually pat myself on the back for all the good times I was experiencing.’

Do we do this with God? We demand him to be present and helping when we need him, but then when we don’t need him we’re not interested. Where is God when I need him? The very same place he is when we think we don’t need him!

But this might raise another question for you - if God is right there, near to the broken hearted, and I’m taking refuge in him, then why doesn’t he do something to show it? Why doesn’t he answer my prayers or intervene to change things when I cry to him?

Consider Paul. Paul was one of the first Christian leaders, a missionary who travelled vast distances telling people about Jesus. One of the leading Christians, and yet he suffered from what is described as a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ It was some particular ailment or illness or situation, which Paul found incredibly difficult, so he does what you or I would do, and prays to God to take it away. Here’s the answer the Lord gave: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Cor 12:9)

It’s not that the Lord didn’t answer Paul’s prayer - it’s just not the answer Paul expected. Could it be that when we pray to God that we have one desired outcome, like taking a shopping list to God, wanting ‘yes’ answers all the time?

CS Lewis once asked if God forsakes those who serve him best. ‘He who served him best of all said, near his tortured death, ‘My hast thou forsaken me?’ When God becomes man, that Man of all others, is least comforted by God, at his greatest need.’

As Jesus died on the cross, he knew the loneliness of separation from God. He suffers in our place, stands where we should have stood, and therefore is the one who sympathises with our weakness and suffering. Indeed, the Lord Jesus promises all who trust in him: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ (Hebrews 13:5).

Where is God when I need him? Closer than you think, if you will but cry out to him, and take refuge in him.

This sermon was preached at Open House at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 15th November 2009.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

By the Buy

Perhaps I should have been a sub-editor. Spelling mistakes just leap out at me. They call out wherever I turn, and give me no piece peace. There's a couple on the same 'loyalist' mural down on the Newtownards Road - I always mean to stop and get a photo of it, but haven't bothered yet - the two words in question are 'repubiclan' and 'miltary'.

Today I spotted an interesting one in a shop in Bangor. There was a basket containing packets of crisps which were reduced because it was: 'Past sell-buy date.' First of all, I haven't heard 'sell-by' being used in ages - it's always 'Best Before' or 'Use By' these days. But these crisps were past their sell-by date! Somewhat confusing, though, for the sign writer, what with buy and by sounding the same... I didn't risk the out of date crisps - I didn't think they would be a good buy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Review: The Gospel and Personal Evangelism

Ever feel that you could or should be doing more in the area of evangelism? For most Christians, the 'e' word is probably a scary prospect, as well as a guilt-inducing word. As Mark Dever says early on, 'why is it, when we have the best news in the world, that we are slow to tell it to others?'

Mark Dever's book is a great introduction (or re-introduction) to the Gospel, and as our hearts are warmed by the good news, being stirred to personal evangelism. In a friendly, readable way, Dever explores some of the reasons or excuses why we flunk at evangelism. Perhaps we don't think we can speak to anyone, or that our friends won't want to hear or respond. A popular excuse seems to be that we don't know any non-Christians! It may well be that we're so caught up in church activities that we don't have a night for an 'outside interest' or time spent with non-Christian friends building relationships (not seeing them as gospel projects or conquests to be won).

His advice is first-class - to close our eyes to pray for opportunities, then to open our eyes to see them!

Another challenging section questioned who should be doing evangelism. Is it just for the professionals, or maybe for those with a particular gift of evangelism? We can't get out of it that easy, as Dever (quoting John Stott) points us to the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 'Every Christian is called to be a witness to Christ in the particular environment in which God has placed him (or her!).' He also asks whether we have reduced our evangelism to just inviting people to meetings rather than inviting them directly to Christ. A challenging thought, particularly as our local church is big on issuing invitations (e.g. our new Open House programme begins on Sunday night - Where is God when I need him?) Is inviting people to meetings and events the safe way?

A helpful observation for every-member evangelism is when he discusses the Church's call to love one another - again, quoting John Stott: 'The invisible God, who once made himself visible in Christ, now makes himself visible in Christians, if we love one another. It is a breathtaking claim. The local church cannot evangelise, proclaiming the gospel of love, if it is not itself a community of love.' (Emphasis in original, speaking about 1 John 4:12)

So how then do we evangelise? 'Evangelism is a balance of honesty, urgency, and joy.' Honesty, because we don't want to lessen or blank out the importance of judgement and the penalty for our sins; Urgency, because we do not know the hour or the day - both of the Lord's return and of our friend's death; joy, because it is good news that we are sharing, and there are immense benefits and blessings in the gospel.

Dever takes some time discussing both negative and positive responses, and how we deal with them. The important thing is not to be so pushy as to completely drive someone away, but to maintain a respectful friendship - valuing the relationship we have with the person, not just seeing them as a failed project to be shunned and ignored. Who knows what may happen as they continue to think and see Christians in action?

When someone does make a positive response, as they become a Christian, then it's time for discipleship to kick in. 'The good news is not merely about the commuting of an eternal sentence but about the commencing of an eternal relationship.' It's not about getting your golden ticket and now you're ok to live how you want, but about growing in love and knowledge and service for the Lord.

All in all, this was a very helpful book for me, as we think through a bigger Christmas evangelism project in our church, and make plans for more evangelism next year. The challenge is to move from a culture of events to a culture of evangelism, where it is normal for all our Christians to speak for the Lord to the people they come into contact with. Several copies are now poised on the Church bookstall, and more can be ordered if we run out!

Highly relevant and recommended book, not just for pastors (even with the special pastors appendix), but for all Christians. Turn a duty into a delight!

This book is currently retailing for £5 from The Good Book Company.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sermon: Hebrews 11:32-12:2

Rembrance Day is a time to remember, to look back, to reflect on our recent past; on our nation's history. We're stirred to thankfulness for the bravery of those who sacrificed their lives for ours, and we can celebrate the freedom they have won for us.

Our New Testament reading this morning is very appropriate for Armistice Day, for Remembrance Day, as we remember those who have gone before in the family of faith. But more than just looking back, Hebrews 11 and 12 encourage us to look back, to look forward, and to look up. These words are words of encouragement in the battle and in the race, to keep going.

1. Look back at the examples of God's people in previous generations. The Letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were giving up on Jesus and returning to the Jewish ways of synagogue and temple, Law and circumcision. The writer points to their Hebrew ancestors and asks how did they please God? How did the fathers do what they did? It wasn't by works, but 'by faith'.

Hebrews 11 is a great chapter, with the stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and many others. It's just a pity he calls time without giving us more of the story of the judges and the kings and the prophets! But why is this written, and here? The trials that we're going through aren't new - this is how the world has always treated the people of God, but they continued on through their faith in God, depending on his promise. If you think things are tough now, see what our fathers in the faith endured!

They are the great cloud of witnesses, but what does this mean? There are two main possiblities - either we have their stories to spur us on, to encourage us; or else it's like all these saints are in the stands cheering us on as we run our race, them having already finished their races. Imagine what it would be like in the new London 2012 stadium (when it's finished) and the crowd cheering you on. The cloud of witnesses is rooting for you to be faithful as they were.

2. Look forward to the race that is set before us. We can't just look back, we also have to look forward to what remains in front of us. God hasn't finished with us yet, and has given us more to complete - we still have some way to go.

But if the Christian life is pictured as a race, then we have to be race-fit. You wouldn't set out on a run bundled up in lots of layers of clothes. I couldn't run too far in my cassock and surplice (I might trip on it!). I don't know how the marathon runners in fancy dress do it. It's so much easier to run when you're in shorts and t-shirt (although I don't recommend you try it today - it's too rainy and cold to be going running!). The writer urges us to lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely.

I don't know what you're like wrapping presents, but the stick tape is just too, well, sticky for my liking. I end up getting stuck in it, and it never goes the way I want to. Sin is also sticky, clingy, as the passage says. We like it too much to really give it up. We struggle to get rid of it even when determined. Yet it holds us back, it stops us from running as we should.

What are the things in your life that are holding you back? Where are the areas that you and I need to change?

3. Look up as we look to Jesus. We're not alone in the race, we look forward and up to the Lord Jesus, who is described as the founder and perfecter of our faith. He is where faith begins and ends - the start and the finish of faith. He has also endured the race that was before him, and because he has finished, we are certain of finishing too.

Let's consider his example of running the race. He saw the joy that was before him, and so endured the cross, the horrible, terrible, painful death of the cross, to pass through to the joy awaiting him. What was the joy that sustained the Lord? The joy of fulfilling the Father's plans, of redeeming sinners, and of the throne at the right hand of the Father.

Jesus has done it, and we can be sure of sharing in his victory. There's the old slogan 'no cross, no crown.' The way to glory is tinged with pain and sadness, as we follow in the steps of the Master, bearing our cross, looking forward to sharing his kingdom.

The joys of heaven are worth the pains and sorrows of this transitory life. We are not finished yet, but God's word brings us encouragement as we look back to the heroes of the faith, forward to the remaining race (making ourselves better able to run it) and up to the reigning, glorious Lord Jesus.

This sermon was preached at the BCP Morning Prayer service on Wednesday 11th November 2009 at St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The North Irish Horse

Today is Armistice Day, and I thought I would post an old photograph that belonged to my grandfather. He had served in the North Irish Horse regiment during the Second World War, and the photo was of the regiment football team. Grandda Moles is not actually in the picture, but here it is anyway:

North Irish Horse XI 1945

The fading writing on the back says this:

North Irish Horse Soccer XI 1945
Back row: Hamilton, Millson, Day, Hutchman, Gault, Richmond, Scott (Trainers).
Front row: McDonald, Marshal, Robinson, LT Ingram (Sports Officer), Gettings, Lees, Lester

Sermon Audio: John 11: 17-44

Here's the sermon mp3 audio file from Sunday night's Living With Loss service for those who have been bereaved in recent years. Resurrection and Life

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hogwarts Rules Out Move To NI

Plans to move Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to Northern Ireland have foundered after it emerged that the Education Minister, Catriona Ruane would be banning an ancient school tradition under current education policy. Harry Potter's old school had been interested in crossing the Irish Sea to the province where traditions are so highly valued.

On arrival at Hogwarts, first year pupils are sorted into four houses, named after the founders of the school: Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw. The sorting, or selection, is performed by the Sorting Hat, who has performed the ceremony since the school's inception. Yet in a controversial move, Ruane has revealed she will ban the Sorting Hat on the grounds that it is unfair to select children at such a young age, and particularly on academic ability.

It is understood that Ravenclaw is the particular target of the ban on academic selection, as its House values include intelligence, creativity, learning and wit. Consider these lines from the various Sorting Hat songs in recent years:

Or yet in wise old Ravenclaw,
if you've a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;

For Ravenclaw, the cleverest
would always be the best;

Said Ravenclaw, "We'll teach those whose
Intelligence is surest" ...
And only those of sharpest mind
Were taught by Ravenclaw

This decree is a big blast to the proposed relocation of Hogwarts to Northern Ireland, and the previous plans will now disappear in a puff of smoke.

No one from either Hogwarts or the Minister's office was available for comment on this report.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fast or Still?

Some Stand Still, Some Move Fast!

This is one of my New York photos. A night time long exposure in which some people are standing still, but other people are moving! An interesting effect, and to be honest, turned out a lot better than I expected! My best photography work is still the accidental or not-fully-intended shot!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sermon: John 11:17-44 Resurrection and Life

When loved ones die, things can get incredibly busy. The funeral has to be arranged, the death registered, the arrangements made for family to travel from abroad. Then there’s the people, who come to the wake, and bring food and tea and coffee. Everything gets very busy. Yet even with all the people around, there can be someone missing. Someone who could have made a difference.

In our Bible reading, Mary and Martha have lost their brother, Lazarus. They know the pain of loss, the hurt of watching their brother die. Their house is full of people, mourners, yet there’s someone missing, who could have made a difference. Jesus was a close friend, who had stayed many times in their house, and when Lazarus had taken ill, the sisters had sent word to Jesus to come and make him better.

Jesus hadn’t appeared. He had stayed where he was for another two days, so that by the time he arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days, in the tomb and all. Where was Jesus? Didn’t he care when Lazarus wasn’t well and was facing death?

Both Mary and Martha greet him with the same words when he arrives: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ (John 11:21,32) Jesus, you could have done something about this, and healed him, but you left it too late. There’s a terrible accusation here - that Jesus doesn’t really care when we suffer, when we need him.

The crowd join in the accusations. Look at verse 37: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’ If Jesus has healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, then couldn’t he have healed Lazarus so he wouldn’t die? Is Jesus not really powerful, or does he just not care?

Perhaps you’ve thought something like this as well. You asked God to heal your loved one, but you watched them slip away. Does God not care? What is God playing at?

Yet even in the hurt and pain, Martha retains some faith. Mary only says the one sentence, but Martha goes further. ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ (John 11:21-22).

When Jesus tells her that her brother will rise, Martha misunderstands and looks forward to the end of time, when all will be resurrected: ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ On that last day, when time is no more, all will be raised to the judgement at God’s command. This is what Martha ‘knows’ and yet doesn’t seem comforted by it. ‘In times of bereavement present sorrow dims the prospect of future bliss.’ (Tasker p.139)

Taking her two sayings together, Martha appears to be saying that Jesus could have done something in the past (healed Lazarus) and that God in Jesus will do something in the far future (raising the dead to judge). But right now, as Jesus stands with her, he’s powerless.

Death is the great enemy. It wins every time, its success rate is 100%, one day each of us will die. And what can Jesus do in the face of death? Had he arrived before Lazarus died, he could have prevented death. But Lazarus is dead, has been in his tomb for four days.

We see this as Jesus commands for the stone to be rolled away from the tomb in verse 39. Martha, the practical one, steps in and says ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.’

Is Jesus only for this life? Is he powerless in the face of death? Let’s think about Jesus’ reply to Martha back in verse 25. These are well-known words, but try to hear them for the first time:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’ (John 11:25)

We have here a declaration of who Jesus is, and then what that means for us. Throughout John’s Gospel we find Jesus saying ‘I am ...’ so, for example, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the light of the world’, or ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. Jesus declares something about himself, each time using the ‘I am’ introduction - the personal name of God in the Old Testament. Jesus is saying I am God - and here’s a part of what that means.

So here, tonight, we have this declaration of Jesus: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Resurrection is the victory over death, and Jesus declares that he is the one who triumphs over death. Not only does he triumph over death, but he is also ‘the life’ - the one who is life itself, the one who can give life. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus says this about himself: ‘For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will’ (John 5:21)

Jesus says he is the resurrection and the life. This was before the crucifixion and the first Easter, yet his words point forward to what he will do as he is raised from death and lives forever more. How much clearer for us, as we live after the cross, and after the resurrection for us to understand what Jesus is saying here. He will (and he has) defeated death and lives the powerful resurrection life.

This is what Jesus declares about himself. So how does that affect us? What does it mean for us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? ‘Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’

All who believe in Jesus - that means to trust in him, to depend on him - all who believe in Jesus, even though we die, yet shall we live. Physical death is something that will happen to each one of us - the only sure things in this world are death and taxes - but even in and through that physical death, we shall live. Death is not the end, but merely the movement into the greater presence of God. But more than that - the second part says that ‘everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die’ - Jesus gives us eternal life, so that all who trust in Jesus will never perish.

As one writer has said: ‘to believe in him is not only to be assured about the resurrection at the last day, but to experience here and now something of that eternal life to which resurrection is the prelude. Such a believer, though he must pass through physical death, as Lazarus has done, will go on living; and no one who has faith in Jesus will ever perish.’ (Tasker p. 139)

Having spoken these words to Martha, and then talked with Mary, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus. As he sees Mary weeping, and the crowd (the Jews) also weeping, Jesus ‘was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.’ Jesus wept. Jesus, the Son of God, weeps at the grave of his friend Lazarus - and therefore he knows the pain and the hurt that we have experienced. The Lord Jesus is not distant from our suffering - he has stood where we have stood, and carried our griefs and our sorrows.

And then he gives the order for the stone to be removed. Martha objects, but Jesus assures her: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ Notice the connection again between believing and seeing God’s glory.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He gives life to those who trust in him, and as the demonstration of his power, as a sign of who he is, Jesus calls out: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And Lazarus (or as the text puts it: ‘the man who had died’) came out.

Jesus, the resurrection and the life, gives life to the dead. Lazarus would one day die again - his was a restoration to physical life (in the next chapter the chief priests plot to murder Lazarus because his being alive was a great witness to Jesus’ power); but the life Jesus offers us will never end. As we reflect on our loved ones death, we can be confident that all who trust in Jesus live with him. And as we face our own death, we can hold to the promise of Jesus that as we believe in him, we shall live, and never die.

For the person in Christ, death is not the end. The raising of Lazarus is a sign - pointing us primarily to the glory of God in Jesus; but it also points us to the new life available in Jesus, to that eternal life, because Jesus has conquered sin and death. As a result, we don’t have to be like the crowd of mourners, ‘sorrowing as those without hope.’ We don’t have to wait, like Martha, for the last day for the new life to be ours. We can experience and enjoy that new, eternal life in Christ now, and look with hope through our earthly death, knowing that we live in him who has defeated death.

But there’s one condition. All these promises can be ours. The future can be guaranteed. But we must believe. We must trust the Lord Jesus, and take him at his word. Look again at verse 25. Jesus declares who he is, and what that means for us - but he ends with a question. ‘Do you believe this?’ Our answer to this question determines our attitude to Jesus, and our attitude to his promise of eternal life.

I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?

This sermon was preached at the Living With Loss special service for those who have been bereaved in recent years in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Remembrance Sunday, 8th November 2009.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Anonymous Tract

I'm all for evangelism, and reaching out with the gospel. The Lord Jesus requires this, and sent out his disciples to be disciple-makers. Any opportunity to share the good news of God's word about Jesus Christ should be taken. However, I do think there are right and wrong ways off going about it.

On Halloween night, we were out, and I popped home to grab some clothes before staying over at the in-laws. Lying on the mat was a tract, indeed none other than a Chick Publications comic tract. (Not that it's funny, but it is a cartoon comic style production). Someone had put it through the door and gone their merry way. Fair enough- they didn't get us in, us horrible pagan people, so they posted one through the door so that we wouldn't miss out on the message of Chick Publications "First Bite" about how a demon-inspired evil vampire is plotting to have his first bite of virgin flesh on Halloween night, but instead Faith converts him, so that he not only loses his sins but also his fangs!

Not really the best Halloween tract out there* but with some gospel message in it. My problem, though, is that their evangelism isn't really in line with the great commission of Matthew 28. The whole thing about making disciples and teaching them, in my mind, presupposes relationship and contact. Someone may be converted through reading this tract or an isolated Bible verse, but it's surely the exception. My gripe is that the tracting of Dundonald on Halloween night was indiscriminate and anonymous. There were no contact details to be found on the back page (not even in the box specifically for them). There wasn't another leaflet or card to say who had left the tract. Just a quick tract dropped and run. Is this evangelism?

Say I had been convicted and converted through reading the tract. How would I know where to go to find out more? How would the people behind the spreading of Chick tracts ensure that I come under their own brand of teaching and (hopefully) discipleship? That is why I'm not convinced by anonymous tracting, soothing the mission conscience by indiscriminate leaflet dropping.

Over the run-up to Christmas, we're planning a range of evangelism efforts in the parish. I'll be sayig more about these in the coming weeks. But one thing I'm determined to not do is anonymous fearful evangelism. As we go out, we'll be clear that we are from St Elizabeth's Church, and include contact details and leaflets about our fellowship and meetings. But even more important is the personal touch, the ongoing and growing relationships with people as we bump into them at work, in the shops, at the gym, or wherever we find people. We're called to make disciples, not leaflet drop.

*For the best tracts check out The Good Book Company

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Book Review: Fern-seed and Elephants

CS Lewis is best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia, and as the Christian apologist author of Mere Christianity. However, his entire writing career notched up many smaller essays, addresses and sermons, some of which have been published in collections. One such collection goes under the title of Fern-seed and Elephants, taken from a scathing attack on the problems of modern Biblical scholarship, in which the scholars
'ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.'

We'll return later to the conclusions from that particular address, but first we'll review the other essays in the collection. 'Membership', ahead of its time, decries the insistence that 'religion belongs to our private life', while private, solitary time is effectively denied by the wireless! How much more today, with broadband internet, mp3s, satellite and digital TV, and other modern technology! Lewis' point in the essay is that membership in a society or club is very different from membership in the church, in the body of Christ. In a club, all members are equal. and equal rights is key. In reality, though, membership in the church means that all are different, but together make up the body. The key difference is that
'we are summoned from the outset to combine as creatures with our Creator, as mortals with immortal, as redeemed sinners with sinless Redeemer.'

'Learning in War Time' was primarily addressed to students in Oxford during the Second World War, who were concerned with whether they should be studying in the midst of wartime. However, to ask that question is to miss the more pressing question than war:
'Is it right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything.'

The solution for Lewis is that becoming a Christian doesn't mean that we stop doing the normal everyday things we did before, but rather that we offer them up to God, doing everything for his glory.

'Forgiveness' is a very short piece which was very challenging, in which Lewis admits that the forgiveness of sins is something that we affirm in the creeds, but which can be hard to believe. On God's part in forgiving sins, we find it difficult to believe for two reasons - we want to excuse our own sin rather than confess (with the problem that if wrongdoing did have mitigating circumstances, then it is not sin, and that God knows such circumstances better than we do, and so takes them into account anyway); and that we don't really believe that God will forgive our sins. When it comes to us forgiving the sin of others, it's another story. We accept our own excuses for sin too easily, but don't accept others' excuses easily enough. Forgiveness is defined by Lewis as 'killing every trace of resentment in your own heart - every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.'

'Historicism' was an essay that I have to confess I didn't really 'get' - perhaps it was more relevant to the particular circumstances in which Lewis was writing, or for a particular audience. The main point appears to be that we can't claim to accept anyone's explaining historical events, because we can't fully know God's purpose, unless God reveals it. The only divinely sanctioned explanation of events is found in the Scriptures.

In 'The World's Last Night', Lewis examines the reality of Christ's return, and considers the question of how we would react if this was the world's last night. He hits a slight wobble when he gets sidetracked into discussing the claims that the end would come in the lifetime of the apostles, yet even through this hits on a useful point, that errors and ignorance make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable. More positively, as he discusses the practical impossibility of predicting the time of Christ's return, he says that 'precisely because we cannot predict the moment, we must be ready at all moments.' Not that this should lead to perpetual fear, but perpetual remembering - is this an activity I want to be doing as Jesus returns? The return will bring judgement- which should be stripped of it's inherent modern association with punishment. Rather, judgement is the verdict: on what each of us is. Then punishment or reward will follow, with no errors made.

'Religion and Rocketry' is an interesting theological discussion concerning life on other planets, and how Christ would relate to them. Would they also have fallen? Would Jesus' death on the cross satisfy for them too? How would we relate to those other creatures and species?

'The Efficacy of Prayer' is another short article which begins by asking if prayer works, but is quickly turned around, because prayer and God cannot be subjected to laboratory experiments. Prayer is not something to be used for our benefit, to work for us; rather it is a relationship and a revelation of who God is, not what we can get. Indeed, answered prayer is not a sign of favourites with God, after all, the Lord Jesus' prayer in the Garden was refused, the cup was not taken away, and he went to the cross.

And so we return to 'Fern-seed and Elephants'. Speaking to ordinands who seemed to disbelieve the Bible but keep the public front of intellectual assent, Lewis is highly critical of this unbelief and sham. His final paragraph is worth repeating in full:

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right that you hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite so frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the vicar: he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one's own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.

An excellent and thoughtful series of articles, although with some minor things I would disagree with. All in all, Lewis is worth reading, and especially in his less well known shorter collected writings.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Changing Gears

As I've been driving recently, I've come to realise that I don't drive the way I used to.

Ten years ago, I had just passed my test, and the world was my oyster in my Renault Clio. Mum and dad didn't drive, so now we had the opportunity to go and see all those places I had only ever heard of. (Indeed that may still be the reason why I love driving so much - the sense of adventure and freedom, seeing new places and finding new roads). My driving philosophy was to get there as quickly as possible, with no delays or holding back. For that first year, under the experimental conditions of the 'R' Driver (Restricted Driver limited to 45 miles per hour for the first year after passing the driving test in Northern Ireland), I would still try to push the car on.

Both then and after having graduated to full speed, the boundaries would be stretched. The old 'ten percent plus two' margin of error for police speed cameras was exploited to the full, and then some. Full speed ahead.

Then I had my accident. Into the back of a car at a green traffic light. A wee fright, but no major damage to either car, and no injury claims. So over time my philosophy returned. Full speed ahead. Try to set records for regular journeys, always beating my personal best, so long as there weren't any stupid or old drivers on the road in my way.

But now, almost imperceptibly over time, my driving style has changed. There wasn't any conscious decision on my part to drive slower; but now I rarely exceed 60 on dual carriageways and motorways. I'm happy to observe speed limits, especially the 30 if there's a speed demon behind wanting to go quicker. I'm more careful; less willing to take risks I previously would have jumped at.

Have I turned into an old man in my 29th year? Or am I coming to realise that it's not worth speeding to an early eternity? Perhaps being married has calmed me down, my life is more settled now, and I'm more aware of the interconnectedness of my existence- what I do has consequences for those around me, not least my wife.

The unneccesary speed has gone, and you'll likely overtake me on the road. Now to work on my driving anger at the stupidity of other drivers, who disobey the rules of the road (e.g. Speed limits, driving in bus lanes, parking on urban clear ways, sitting on yellow boxes, failing to move at green lights, being in the wrong lane and holding up traffic rather than following through the consequences in the lane you're in, hogging the outside lane on motorways at 50mph, driving in the middle lane of the new three-lane motorways rather than the inside lane, not using indicator lights to warn us where you're going etc). Quite a list, which raises my righteous (?) anger! Lots to be working on. Just don't get annoyed at me if I'm not fast enough for you now!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Grasshopper

I've been going through some photos from the summer that hadn't been uploaded, and found this grasshopper from the grounds of the Bishop's Palace at Downhill, County Londonderry. We spotted him during a visit when we were on the north coast for New Horizon.