Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review: Gordon Hannon: Some Parson! Some Man

Biographies can be a useful way of getting to know another person, particularly someone from another era. Christian biography can be especially helpful when it shows that saints in previous generations have been through the same struggles, giving encouragement for the road that lies ahead.

Almost ten years ago, a biography was published on the father of a former bishop of Clogher, Brian Hannon, and grandfather of the Divine Comedy and The Duckworth Lewis Method frontman, Neil Hannon. I'd picked it up in a charity shop and had left it on my to-read pile for a while, so finally dived in to see what it would tell me about Gordon Hannon. In some ways, it almost tells the reader more about the author than about the subject - written by Gordon's son David, it is David's opinions and preferences that are brought to the fore.

The introduction highlights the meteoric rise of Gordon Hannon, a canon at 32, rector of Shankill Parish, Lurgan and Archdeacon of Dromore by the age of 41, he suddenly and unexpectedly stepped off 'the career ladder'. This career ladder and the desire to rise is seen in the son's glowing terms of his promotions, and also in this comment on Gordon's short stay in Ballymoney of just three years: 'The fact that he only stayed in the Parish for three years, while learning and practising the exercise of the duties of a Rector, suggests that he learnt quickly and soon mastered the practicalities of what was involved.' The move to Lurgan was then 'an extraordinary leap forward in his career.'

Another sign of the author's opinions crops up in describing how two of Gordon's brothers had been killed in the First World War, and how a friend and advisor of Gordon's had written to him: 'I hope you don't hesitate to pray for the brothers who have been taken from you. Death has not put them beyond the reach of our prayers.' The author then comments: 'A remarkable comment, in direct contradiction of Church of Ireland teaching at the time.' As if, in his mind, the teaching of the Church has changed! We do not and should not pray for the dead - our prayers cannot help them, if believers, they are in Christ and in no need of anything; if unbelievers, they await the last judgement.

One of the most interesting parts of the book, although also the most confusing, was the reason Gordon had given up his 'career ladder' and resigned the parish and Archdeaconry. It all came about through attending a School of Life for Clergy run by the Oxford Group, led by Frank Buchman. There, he realised that his wife 'had no real or meaningful faith' - which made me wonder why he had married her in the first place... The Oxford Group came to be central in his life, later renamed Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which was some sort of philosophical Christianity. The standards of the group centred on the need for change and being totally committed to God, tested in four areas: absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, absolute love. These were explained and expanded in Gordon's book 'Any Parson'.

Yet this 'special' kind of commitment and organisation seeking to bring change seems to me to be seeking what should be found in the normal Christian life. It leads me to wonder why it took a special organisation to need it? What was lacking in the churches in this period of the interwar years and postwar years? There does seem to have been some sort of change evident in his life - but was this actually a first conversion, rather than some second turning and re-dedication?

The book then traces Gordon's life in serving with MRA, working with Frank Buchman and travelling around the world, before finally coming home and becoming the Vicar of Kilbroney in Rostrevor.

All in all, it was an interesting read, but not one I'd recommend. There were parts where I didn't like the writing style, with bits in present tense, rather than past tense, and it was often bitty in content. It's also hard to know who the book is produced for, unless those in the older generations who would have known or heard tell of Gordon. The book is available secondhand on Amazon for £0.01.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review: Different by Design

The gender agenda is repeatedly being brought to the fore in churches, homes, workplaces and wider society. Christian believers may increasingly be seen as out of step with the culture. Should we just get with the programme? Or should we continue to listen in to what God is saying in the Bible? Carrie Sandom addresses these issues in her new book, Different by Design: God's blueprint for men and women, as she takes us back to the Bible and helps us discover God's plan for the sexes.

The introduction paints a picture of society as it currently stands, seen in the lives of several women and families. Sandom identifies a 'gradual feminisation of the workplace', with an 'over-feminized' and 'emasculated' society. What will be the implications of such female leadership? While arguing that some women have a 'having it all' desire (work, family, leadership etc), she wonders if it is actually what women want. 'Not when our desire to be treated the same as men means we're never really treated as women.'

Her first key point is that men and women are different by design. An example is given of listening in to conversations on the Tube (I didn't even realise anyone spoke on the tube!), and seen in a variety of areas - task or people oriented; waffles and spaghetti; how they relate to friends; how they deal with harsh words and negative criticism; logic and intuition. She then asks the why question. Why are men and women different? Moving beyond the obvious differences in bodies, she argues that the hunter-gatherer / home-maker divide doesn't go back far enough. Rather, we need to return to our first parents: 'Adam and Eve were equal in God's sight, but they were not identical.'

The pattern for God's design looks behind the scenes to the character and nature of God. 'We were made for community... it is a reflection of God's own nature.' The Trinity is then outlined, explained, and used as the pattern we follow in equality, diversity, unity and order. 'The Father exercises loving authority over the Son, who humbly and willingly submits to it.'

The revelation of God's design then takes us on a guided tour of Genesis 1-2. 'The two accounts of creation give us both a panoramic view as well as a microscopic one... They are complimentary accounts, not contradictory ones.' The foundational principles are discussed, such as order (where the days point to the creation of habitat and then the inhabitants), purpose and blessing. In Genesis 2 as the camera zooms in, we find freedom and responsibility, union and completion. On marriage, Sandom remarks (p. 54):

It is a beautiful picture and perfectly illustrates that marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that changes the focus of all other family relationships. It is a commitment with definite intention and starts with the man taking the initiative. It is to be witnessed by other members of the community and then consummated by their sexual union. He is to love and cherish her as his own body, because she is now a part of him. Similarly, she is to consider herself joined with him in loving partnership even though she remains an individual and distinct from him.

This is marriage as God intended: the coming together of a man and a woman, to form a one-flesh union that is broken only by death. This means we mustn't be naive about same sex partnerships - they do not constitute a marriage. Scripture is clear that a marriage is between a man and a woman. We mustn't be deceived into thinking that pornography and masturbation are legitimate ways of satisfying our sexual longings. We cannot enjoy one-flesh union on our own. And we mustn't be fooled by those who say that sex can be enjoyed without making a public, life-long commitment first. The longing to be united in marriage and to become one-flesh with your spouse is God-given, but God also gives us the parameters for how those longings are to be satisfied.

From there, we come to the rejection of God's design, as the author asks where are the men in church - have they been driven away by the women? We see the pattern rejected in three scenes from Genesis 3: (i) God's word ignored leading to disobedience - 'every temptation to sin in some way doubts God's word, denies God's judgement or distorts God's character.' (ii) God's word upheld leading to judgement; (iii) God's word sustained leading to grace.

In the next chapter, the reader should be aware. The masking of God's design begins with a horrific story of a father sexually abusing his daughter, which is shocking and explicit. This story, as well as biblical examples of sexual brokenness, demonstrate that unity and order always elude us. There's a helpful diagram of the interconnectedness of beliefs on women, sex, leadership etc held by various theological positions.

The restoration of God's design is the chapter we were waiting for from the start, as Jesus re-establishes God's ordering of relationships. His attitude to men and women is discussed, being revolutionary compared to the surrounding society, and yet the author is clear that while women were witnesses to the resurrection, they were not apostles. I wasn't sure of the effectiveness of the chapter, as the jump from men and women to what Jesus did on the cross seemed a leap too far, almost disjointed.

The remainder of the book applies the design to various areas of life, as it seeks to discover the implications of God's design for marriage, the church and the workplace. In the marriage chapter, there's a useful discussion on submission as Ephesians 5 is placed in the context of the whole letter. At one point, there is specific application for women, married or not, which made me wonder if this is primarily (or even exclusively) a book for women. I think it's still useful for both sexes, though.

In the church chapter there are the usual contentious passages about women teaching and having authority. Given that the author works for a church (as an Associate Minister for Women and Pastoral Care), her handling is faithful, and seeks to argue that the scriptures push for men to be in authority over the church family as in the home family, and for men to teach in mixed congregations. This is not to the detriment, though, of the Titus 2 model, where the older women teach the younger women - women certainly have a role in ministry.

All in all, this is a very helpful book which helps us return to the Bible's teaching on gender and sex, with clear Bible explanation, sensitive application and good illustrations. Amidst the prevailing voices of our culture Sandom provides a loud and clear call to rediscover and relate within God's designed differences.

Different by Design is available from Amazon and for Kindle.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Orange Order: Faith Proclaimed or Feet Parading?

The other day, I was in a national shop in a local town. The assistants are always polite, always friendly, mostly chatty. Picking up and scanning the copy of The Irish News I was buying, the lady quickly made a few assumptions and asked me who would win on Sunday. I had to confess that I didn't know what she was talking about. It turns out it was the GAA Football Ulster Final yesterday between Donegal and Monaghan, which was won by Monaghan 0-13 to 0-7, although I couldn't have told you that without looking.

The assumptions were plain and obvious - buy the Irish News, be a Roman Catholic / Nationalist / Republican, and chat about Gaelic Football. It's precisely because those assumptions are in place (similarly, probably with those on the 'other side' who buy the Newsletter) that I wanted to share a couple of articles from The Irish News last week. Many who need to read them would never ever pick up a copy of The Irish News - but perhaps they'll read them here.

They are both by William Scholes, the faith and religion editor, and were published on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th July. First up, 'Faith proclaimed becoming lost to order's feet proclaiming.'

In it, he explores the 'juggernauts of religion, culture and politics' colliding for the Orange Order. Reflecting on the scenes from the Woodvale Road after they were banned from returning along the Crumlin Road past Ardoyne shops, he says, 'Sorting out where it stands on faith would seem to be central to that.' As he declares, 'Something has clearly gone badly wrong for the Orange Order, certainly in Belfast, if feet parading has become more important than faith proclaimed.'

While recognising that Belfast is a case apart, and in other places, such as Fermanagh, the Twelfth is an entirely different kind of a day, it all comes down to identity:

It seems to be a question of identity. If the Christian's identity lies "in Christ", then while flags, parades and other expressions of culture can remain vitally important, they are no all-consuming.

My thought is on how the actions of attacking the police can be a witness to the love of Christ and his concern for the lost.

The second article came a day later, entitled 'Orange Order needs to have critical friends.'

Scholes focuses on the debate in the recalled Stormont Assembly on Tuesday on the parades issue.

There was going to be a showdown. And after a weekend of violence, intemperate words and the usual blame game, this wouldn't just be any old showdown.
It would be Achilles stepping out of his tent on the Plain of Scamander and confronting Hector at the gates of Troy. It would be King Henry V at Agincourt on Saint Crispin's Day.
But in the end, it was more like Noggin the Nog. Or was it Mike the Knight?
Tuesday's debate at the recalled assembly was the build up to the let-down, at least for anyone expecting a full-on blood on the carpet battle..
For anyone who clings to the belief that politics is the answer to our problems, there were glimmers of hope to be discerned.

The end point and conclusion of his opinion piece should provide a plan for the future:

It is highly tempting for the silent majority of the Protestant community - as if it were a homogeneous bloc in the first place - to allow its apathy towards the Orange Order in Belfast to turn into disavowal.
But that would be a mistake. If Orange ears are apparently shut to nationalists, then it is for other Proetstants to help them see another way.
Some might prefer the order to stop paying lip service to a Christianity its actions at Woodvale contradict but as long as being "Christ-centred" is part of its DNA, Church leaders in particular will have a duty to be involved.

Two important articles, albeit almost entirely hidden away from the eyes who most need to see them, because they're appearing in the Irish News. We give thanks for the peaceful parade / protest on Saturday, but the order needs to find a new way forward, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with the whole community as a matter of first priority.

Note: Both articles are used with the permission of the author, William Scholes.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Lies! Lies! Lies!

Michael Green is a well respected preacher, author and evangelist, with lots of experience in apologetics. This book came highly recommended to me several years ago when it was published, but I've only just got around to reading it. Despite the delay, it was well worth a read.

In Lies, Lies, LiesGreen seeks to expose the myths about the real Jesus. He seeks to address some of the regular myths and fallacies floating around in popular culture, in order to help people discover the historical Jesus. It's a vital work, because 'every now and again it is time to break the silence' and answer the objections. Looking at society, he identifies the problem that civilisation is collapsing around us by rejecting Jesus and his truth. This spurs him on: 'This book is written in the conviction that the person and teaching of Jesus offers the most realistic hope for human destiny, both personal and collective. That is why, in what follows, I have tried to peel away layers of untruth and misunderstanding that keep many from considering his claims and recognizing his worth.'

The first chapter serves as an introduction to Jesus, explaining what a gospel is, and how we find out about Jesus in them. He helpfully shows that each of the gospel writers declare unambiguously that Jesus is divine - a very early belief - as well as in the three ways that Jesus claims divinity: he forgives sins, accepts worship and has the right to judge. Each of these are powers reserved for God, but claimed by Jesus. As Green comments, these are 'totally crazy claims - unless they were true.'

In the rest of the book, Green tackles some of the common statements being bandied around: 'Scholars are discovering a very different Jesus'; 'Jesus had a fling with Mary Magdalene'; 'Jesus? He's just a myth'; 'The New Testament manuscripts are unreliable'; 'The New Testament story is incredible'; 'Jesus never really went to the cross'; 'Jesus did not rise from the dead - his tomb has been found'; 'Jesus did not rise from the dead - there's no evidence'; 'Nobody thought Jesus divine until the fourth century'; and 'The "New" Testament is evil'.

Quite a lot of the focus is on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and all the nonsense claims that are perpetuated in that work of fiction. However, he also discusses the claims of Islam about Jesus; as well as the tomb of Jesus' family which was supposedly found in Jerusalem. There are lots of pages which deal with the Gnostic 'gospels' which demonstrates the unreliability of them. Each of the chapters is carefully researched with the appropriate material explained.

The interested skeptic will find lots to consider here, as will the ordinary Christian seeking to help their friends to discover the real Jesus amongst the many alternative protrayals. It will also be a useful addition for a pastor's library when dealing with those issues in sermons, apologetics series, or with enquirers. Lies Lies Lies is available from Amazon (Kindle) and ThinkIVP (ebook - cheapest!).

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Orange Parades: History Repeating Itself?

The scenes in Belfast over the Twelfth have been shocking. Members of the Orange Order, bands, and hangers-on attacking the PSNI with a variety of weapons and ammunition, due to the blocking of a parade. After the positive coverage of Northern Ireland during the G8 (only a month ago), the normal headlines have returned, with footage beamed across the world of people waving union flags attacking Her Majesty's police service.

Orange leaders have been describing the blocking of parades as the latest installment in a 'culture war', citing the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall as another field of engagement. In actual fact, though, problems with parades are not a new thing. Even further back than the Lower Ormeau or the Garvaghy Road / Drumcree disputes, the student of Irish history discovers that things were even worse about 160 years ago. So bad, in fact, that party processions, both unionist and nationalist, were banned for over seventeen years. The incident that brought the ban? The battle of Dolly's Brae.

© Copyright Kevin O'Kane and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It was the Twelfth of July 1849. The Orangemen of Rathfriland had marched to Lord Roden's Park - what is now Tollymore Forest Park, at Bryansford. Appeals had been made for the Orangemen to return by the new road, that is, the one known as the Horse Shoe Bend on the A50. The Orangemen, though, had gone that way the year before and 'been humiliated over the next year by songs mocking their cowardice.' [1)

Waiting for them at Dolly's Brae were 'masses of armed Ribbonmen... crowded to prevent them.' [2] Between the Ribbonmen and the Orangemen were troops and police, to keep the peace and ensure the march passed through. Everything almost worked out. 'When they were twenty yards of so beyond the danger zone, someone threw a squib and all hell broke loose.' [3] Firing began on both sides, the police moved to scatter the Ribbonmen from the hill, and in the turmoil, many were killed. 'At least thirty Ribbonmen were killed and Orange stragglers burned some Catholic houses and attacked one of the owners.' [4]

The following year, 'Sir William Meredith, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, brought in a bill outlawing Party Processions.' [5] Parades were completely banned, with the order going 'into decline.' [6] Ten years later, 'following a serious riot at Derrymacash, near Lurgan, County Armagh, a Party Emblems Act was passed. The displaying of party flags, banners or emblems from buildings (or other public places) was prohibited; so, too, was the ceremonial discharge of cannon or firearms. Even the playing of traditional party tunes in public was outlawed. Orange leaders denounced both Acts as tyrannical, unconstitutional and an infringement of British liberties, yet they insisted that all brethren should obey them.' [7]

It seems like an early prototype of the current Parades Commission, and even more of a war on Orange culture than we are currently experiencing. The danger, though, in such times of 'persecution' is that a new hero will emerge, who will stand up and be counted. With the union flag dispute, it appeared to be Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer. With the parades dispute now, who can tell? In the 1860s, the Orange hero was William Johnston of Ballykilbeg in County Down.

'As the events of 12 July 1867 illustrate, the Orange Order remained capable of putting large crowds on the streets, when its cause demanded it. That day, William Johnston of Ballykilbeg, who was opposed to legal curbs on Orange marches, led 100 Orange lodges, with 40,000 people as participants or spectators, in procession from Newtownards to Bangor.' [8] Johnston and a few others were prosecuted, but 'so intent was Johnston on making his mark that he refused to pay the bail money that would have secured his release. When he emerged from Downpatrick jail a month later, thousands of supporters had gathered at the gates, singing Orange songs as loyalist bands played their party tunes.' [9] Such was the groundswell of support for Johnston that he was soon after elected to Westminster and successfully brought about the repeal of the Party Processions Act in 1872.

Reading the accounts of the events of the 1860s, there are some striking resonances with today. An embattled and embittered Orange order under siege. Violence surrounding some parades, even while the vast majority pass off peacefully. Government legislation seeking to pursue peace but making the situation potentially worse. Heroes and martyrs waiting in the wings to rise to prominence. An uneasy political situation.

Rathfriland District still remember Dolly's Brae - the name of that road emblazoned on their District Bannerette like a military battle honour. The rest of us need to remember it as well, and all that followed, to seek a peaceful resolution before it's too late and history repeats itself.

[1) Ruth Dudley-Edwards, The Faithful Tribe, p. 250.
[2] Mervyn Jess, The Orange Order, p. 34.
[3] Kevin Haddick-Flynn, Orangeism: The Making of a Tradition, p. 277.
[4] Dudley Edwards, p. 251.
[5] Haddick-Flynn, p. 279.
[6] Haddick-Flynn, p. 280.
[7] Haddick-Flynn, p. 281.
[8] Chris Ryder & Vincent Kearney, Drumcree, p. 12.
[9] Jess, p. 36.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: Calico Joe

From this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the game of baseball seems like a glorified version of rounders. A game which our American cousins get overly excited about. A game that thrives on statistics and innings and home runs and such like. You might wonder why you would want to read a book about baseball at all. Calico Joe by John Grisham is that very book, and yet it's definitely one to read - even without knowing the first thing about the game.

Very helpfully, Grisham provides a brief introduction to the game for his British and international readers before he launches in to the story. In those 14 pages, he runs the reader through the basics, setting around 88 terms in their context with explanation. This book is worth it just to catch a grasp of baseball - he definitely hits a home run with the introduction!

I've previously written about my love of Grisham's story telling, and this book is no exception. The story is narrated by Paul Tracy, the son of Warren Tracy - a pitcher for the New York Mets. It follows the events of Paul's childhood, growing up mad about baseball, yet with an uneasy relationship with his father, made worse by the events of one particular night. Now, thirty years on, Paul seeks to bring reconciliation, but could it be possible to right one wrong from so long ago?

Grisham's observations about people, and his characterisation continues to his high standard. There are moments of gentle humour, as well as touching moments. The breakdown between father and son is captured and portrayed painfully and realistically. And the ending? Well, it comes just a little too quickly. Towards the end it seems that it all finishes quite abruptly, which was disappointing.

If you're into sports, it's a book to savour. If you're into fiction, you'll think it fantastic. And if, like me, Grisham is one of your favourite authors, then you'll enjoy this, one of his latest contributions. Calico Joe is available from Amazonand on the Kindle.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sermon Audio: 1 Peter 4: 12-19

On Sunday morning I was preaching from 1 Peter 4, as Peter rounds off his section on suffering. His message to us - don't be surprised!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3:10 - 4:8 Bible and Crown

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost a year since the Olympic Games in London. It was great to see the British athletes win 29 gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze medals. They were brilliant at the cycling, the rowing and the long distance track races. However, when it came to one particular event, the British men’s team did it all wrong, and were disqualified. The women didn’t even make it to the Olympics. Now, at the risk of turning into A Question of Sport, which event was it?

The relay race. The 4x100 metres. The final changeover was disastrous, it didn’t happen correctly, and despite finishing second in their heat, the men were disqualified. Many a cold, wet afternoon during PE being taught how it was meant to be done, as the baton is passed to the next runner. It’s so important for the baton to be passed, for the next person to take over and have a chance at a medal.

The apostle Paul is writing his young friend Timothy, giving him instructions as he passes the baton on. Paul has been giving his life to the work of the gospel, travelling around the known world telling people about Jesus, planting churches, and declaring the good news. But now he is in prison. Execution is not too far away. Paul’s race is almost over: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.’ (4:7). It’s up to Timothy now to take up the baton and run his race, to continue on Paul’s work of teaching.

Yet as Timothy looks to the future, as he sees what lies ahead, it seems that the relay race isn’t being run on the nice new athletics track in the Olympic stadium. What lies before him is more like an army assault course, with obstacles and dangers to face. Paul even spells them out for him. He reminds him of the persecutions & sufferings in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, These were places where Paul had been driven out of town, opposed, and stoned (that is, attacked with stones, not drugged).

More than that, it’s not just Paul who will face problems and difficulties for being a Christian: ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ (3:12). Now you might think that it’s silly to mention this at all, especially if you’re thinking about becoming a Christian, but we have to present the whole truth. The Lord Jesus warns us to count the cost before we decide to follow him.
So the future looks bleak. Is it all just doom and gloom? Why would anyone want to be a Christian faced with such opposition and problems? Wouldn’t it be easier to just continue on in your sinful life and live the way you want?

Paul gives Timothy a glimpse of reality - what his life will look like as he follows Jesus. But it’s not all negative. Rather, he also gives two great big encouragements, as he looks to the future in faith. Two things that we are given by God as we love and serve him.

The first comes at the end of chapter three. Paul has said that evil people and impostors will go from bad to worse. That may be the direction they’re going, ‘But as for you...’ Timothy, don’t follow the crowd. Don’t go the way of the world. As for you, continue in what you have learned... What is it he has learned? What is it that he has firmly believed? It’s the ‘holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’

The Bible is able to make us wise- to give us the information we need in order to find salvation- salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Despite there being 66 different books from around 40 different authors written over a period of a couple of thousand years, there is one uniting subject. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is all about Jesus, sharing the good news, showing us his glory.

Now how can this be so, if there are all those different authors? Behind them, and through them, Paul tells us, there is one author: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’ (3:16) Just as my words are coming out of my mouth as I breathe, so the Scriptures are God-breathed. Scripture says what God is saying. When we read the Bible, it’s not just ancient words on a page, but God speaking to us now.

I suspect that I’m a typical man, [and perhaps wives you’ll recognise this trait in your husbands too]. I get a new piece of equipment, some new technology, and straight away, I want to turn it on and get stuck in. I’ll footer about with it, trying to make it work. It’s only when I get stuck that I’ll go back to the box to find the instruction manual. We think: I can sort this out myself. We don’t need any help. Until we realise we do.

Life can be like that. We have some freedom and off we go, making our own mistakes, trying to sort things out ourselves. We live the way we want to, and then wonder why we end up getting things so very wrong. We need the instruction manual. We need to hear from the Maker, who knows how life is meant to work. Paul tells us: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work..’ (3:16-17)

Perhaps today you’re wandering, you’re lost. You recognise yourself among the evil people and impostors going from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. The remedy is to be rescued. To turn from error and self-deception, to the living God who has spoken. To become wise in the way of salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus. To learn about the saviour and to trust in him. To be taught & corrected from his word so that we can love and serve him.

In the world of Twitter. Lady Gaga has over 38 million followers, Justin Bieber 41m - all eager to hear from their heroes (even if it’s just what they ate for breakfast!). Yet we have the words of the living God in our homes, often in a box, out of the way on a shelf, gathering dust. One of the banners you’ll see at the Twelfth shows the secret of England’s greatness as a Bible is presented by Queen Victoria to foreign princes. Will you take up your Bible and read and learn, and hear God’s voice to you? It is in this way that we hear and are saved, as we trust in the Lord.
The first thing we’re given is the Bible, the scriptures. This is what Timothy is to give himself to learn and teach and proclaim, in and through the dark days that lay ahead of him. At the end of our passage, Paul tells us about the second thing we’re given, which encourages us to keep going as we love and serve the Lord Jesus. Here’s what he says: ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.’ (4:6-8).

You see, as Paul comes towards the end of his life, as he completes his race, he looks towards the finish line, towards the podium. The reward isn’t a gold medal and a wee posy of flowers. Instead, what awaits is the crown of righteousness. This crown of righteousness is the sign of being accepted by God, of being in the right with God. It is awarded by the Lord, the righteous judge, who judges with absolute fairness and justice. Remember where Paul is: He’s on remand, sitting in prison, awaiting the death sentence, which the unjust judge, Nero, will pass on him. His earthly life will cease, condemned as a prisoner; but Nero’s judgement doesn’t concern him. Rather, he is looking forward to the only opinion that finally matters - the Lord, the righteous judge, who will award that crown of righteousness.

Now you might be thinking to yourself that of course Paul deserves such a crown - he’s in the Bible, after all, he wrote books of the Bible, he was so very good. You could not be further from the truth. Paul doesn’t deserve this crown of righteousness. Earlier we spoke of salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. That is, salvation from our sins - Paul needed rescue, just as we do too. Our rescue is in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, in the great exchange taking away our sins, and giving us his perfect righteousness. It’s by faith that we receive God’s grace. Indeed, as Paul says, ‘I have kept the faith.’

Paul can face the future with confidence. His heavenly reward is certain. His crown is laid up ready for him. Friends, today, your future can also be certain. You see, Paul wasn’t boasting, as if to say, well I’m all right, I’ve got a crown waiting for me. He goes on to say that it is ‘not only to me but also to all who have longed his appearing.’

Jesus is returning, the righteous judge, who died to save us. We too can be sure of receiving the crown of righteousness as we hear God’s word of grace and respond in faith. Jesus has died to win your salvation. Will you hear and heed him today? Will you trust in the Lord for your salvation? Will you welcome him on that great Day when he appears as judge? The Bible, God’s breathed out word, points us to the crown, God’s gracious gift, offered freely.

This sermon was preached at the Lower Iveagh West Orange Parade Service in Magheralin Parish Church on 7th July 2013.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Book Review: A Quick Introduction To the New Testament

Another little Kindle freebie from a while ago, I picked up this Quick Introduction to the New Testament because it was by Don Carson and Douglas Moo. The title page tells me that it's an excerpt from An Introduction to the New Testament, just a little section of a much bigger book (which may well also be on my bookshelf, but hasn't been read yet).

To be honest, I was slightly disappointed with this book. I had imagined and expected that it would be an introduction to each of the books of the New Testament, a little sampler to whet the appetite and help the reader to learn more about the books that make it up. That's not what the book is, though. Rather, it's more an introduction to the academic study of the New Testament:

'This introduction provides little more than a surface history of a selection of the people, movements, issues, and approaches that have shaped the study of the New Testament.'

Along the way, there is a brief discussion on how we got the New Testament written down and passed along, including the textual evidence for the authenticity of what we hold in our hands today:

'There are about five thousand manuscripts or parts of manuscripts (some of them mere fragments) of all or part of the Greek New Testament, and about eight thousand manuscripts or parts of manuscripts of versions.' This, the authors note, means that 'of all the works that have come down to us from the ancient world, the New Testament is the most amply attested in textual evidence' - compared to the Annals by Tacitus or the works of Euripides.

From there, the authors move on to textual criticism, as scholars seek to discern and decide between the variants that have inevitably arisen through hand written copies of the text. Yet we should not be worried: 'The overwhelming majority of the text of the Greek New Testament is firmly established. Where uncertainties remain, it is important to recognize that in no case is any doctrinal matter at issue.'

Another major section focuses on longstanding interpretive traditions. This presents 'a highly selective summary of a handful of important people and movements that proved influential in the interpretation of the New Testament and some small indication of the impact of the New Testament documents in history.' These people include Ireneaus, Walter Bauer, the Jesus Seminar, the schools of Alexandria and Antioch, Athanasius and Chrysostom, Augustine, Anslem, Abelard, and many others. This then leads to the rise of biblical theology, with lots of interesting details and discussions. From there, the focus shifts to historical criticism, literary tools and the impact of postmodernism.

AS I've said, it wasn't the book I thought I was getting to read, but I'm glad I did read it. This is a good summary of the flow of thought about the New Testament over the past two millenia and as such will help theological students to put the pieces and names together to get the full picture. It's primary audience is the student, but many other interested readers may also benefit from the work of Carson and Moo.

I'm terribly sorry if you're interested in reading this - it's now no longer available on the Amazon Kindle store. The fuller work it's taken from, though, is still available from Amazon.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sermon: 1 Peter 4: 12-19 Don't Be Surprised!

Many, many years ago, I was one of the leaders at our youth group in Dromore. We had an evening service, and then the youth group started shortly afterwards in the hall. One particular night I was still in church, chatting to our minister while he cleared up, and then headed over to the hall. I opened the door, and got a big surprise. There, at youth group, were lots of familiar faces - but extra faces who weren’t normally at the group. My parents and granny, other friends from church... you’re guessed it. The leaders had organised a surprise party for my 21st.

It was a big surprise - I wasn’t expecting it at all. A nice surprise. But sometimes there can also be nasty surprises. Something bad happens, something you didn’t expect, and you’re caught off guard. Unexpected circumstances and suddenly you think - this wasn’t what I signed up for, I want out.

The apostle Peter is writing to small groups of Christians scattered throughout modern day Turkey. Already Peter has reminded them of the immense blessings they have received from God - the new birth into a living hope, an unspoiling, imperishable, unfading inheritance, guarded through faith to receive their salvation. They are God’s chosen ones. And that’s often where we want to stop. All the blessings, it’s all great, give your life to Jesus and you’ll breeze through life.

But as we’ve been following Peter’s letter, we’ve also seen that Christians are chosen exiles. He has reminded us time and again that we’re not home yet, that this world is hostile, that how we live matters as we show what it’s like to be a Christian to a watching world - and last week, that time is short, how we use our time matters, so we don’t want to live according to the desires of the flesh any more, but rather live according to God’s will.

This morning Peter is finishing off this bit of the letter and the big idea is this: ‘Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal... as though something strange were happening to you.’ If we’re exiles, we shouldn’t be surprised when we face opposition. It’s not a strange thing. It’s part of the deal. Now straight away you might be thinking to yourself, persecution, opposition, that’s just something that happens far away to other people. Our culture here is strange - persecution is a normal part of life for Christians. (2 Tim 3:12).

Can you imagine a school teacher who resigned because they didn’t like children and hadn’t realised that the job would entail being around kids all day? Or a man who went into dairy farming but didn’t like cows? Just as those things go with the job, so Peter is telling us that opposition comes with the territory, we shouldn’t be surprised.

Rather, in our reading this morning, he gives us three encouragements to keep going when opposition comes. When you feel like giving up, this is the true grace of God, to help you to stand:

First: Rejoice as you follow the pattern of Jesus. It sounds very odd, doesn’t it, to rejoice when you’re suffering, to rejoice when facing opposition. Is it like telling someone to have fun when they’re going under the dentist’s drill? But look at the connection Peter makes. ‘rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’

When we’re identified with Jesus, we are following the same pattern - suffering now, glory then. As we were thinking of last week, time is short - suffering for a short time, but an eternity of glory with him. One day we’ll see his glory revealed, every eye will see him, and we’ll shout for joy when we see him (link to 1:8,9).

Second: You are blessed because you have the Holy Spirit. Verse 14: ‘If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.’ Even though they might say all kinds of bad things about you, their word is not final; their say does not matter. What matters is God’s opinion - his word is blessing, guaranteed by the gift of the Spirit.

You have the spirit of glory - the foretaste of the glory to be revealed, God’s Holy Spirit, who helps you through the fiery ordeal.

Third: It’s no disgrace to bear the name of a Christian. You see, it’s not just any suffering Peter is talking about. It would be a disgrace to suffer as a murderer, thief, criminal or mischief-maker. But to suffer as a Christian - for that to be the reason you’re passed over for your promotion at work; or to be sidelined from your friends; or to be teased (or worse) in the community - this is no disgrace, rather, says Peter, it’s a reason to glorify God because you bear this name.

What a privilege it is to bear the name of a Christian; to be united with Christ, to live as one of his chosen exiles. And yet, as we’ve been seeing over these weeks, it’s not easy. The world is watching. We need grace to live up to the name, to show our faith by our deeds.

The story goes of Alexander the Great, the Greek military general who had conquered almost the entire known world by the age of 30, who had a soldier brought before him on the charge of stealing a horse. What is your name, he asked the soldier. ‘Alexander’ came the reply. Here’s what Alexander the Great replied: ‘Soldier, change your name or change your conduct.’ He didn’t want someone to share his name and act in such a way.

Here we have the true grace of God, lots of encouragement to stand when the world is weighing us down - the pattern of Christ’s suffering leading to glory; the blessing of the Holy Spirit; the giving of a new name - that of Christian - from our Heavenly Father. God the Trinity combines to equip us to live as elect exiles as we journey toward home.

And it’s toward home that Peter points in those closing verses. You see, we know that we’re on the way home, along this path marked with suffering. But we know that the outcome of the judgement is sure, we are God’s chosen. Peter asks them to think for a moment - what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Can you imagine living a life of ease now, persecuting God’s people, thinking you have it made, only to discover on that day of judgement that you’ve been wrong; that you’ve missed the path of life - in fact, that the very people you were giving a hard time to were in the right?

With all the encouragement we’re given by our great God, who gives us his grace, therefore, says Peter, ‘let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.’

God is faithful. He won’t let you down. He is with you. And on that we can depend. Whatever you face this week, know this for certain: we have a new name given by God the Father; and the gift of the Holy Spirit as we follow the pattern of Christ - suffering now, but glory in a little while. This is the true grace of God. Stand in it!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th July 2013.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Sermon Audio: 1 Peter 4: 1-11

On Sunday morning I was preaching from 1 Peter 4. In this passage, Peter reminds us that time is short, and how we use our time matters to God.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Book Review: Simpler

I'm always on the lookout for special offers and free giveaways for my Kindle, and a few weeks back Mike Burns was giving away his ebook Simpler: Declutter Your Life and Focus on What's Most Important. I downloaded it and gave it a read. You might know that I could benefit from something like this - for most of the time, my desk exists somewhere under the mountain of books, papers, pens and other stuff. I know where everything is, but perhaps I could benefit from decluttering?

The book is written in a motivational speaker style, with lots of 'you can do it' encouragement and generalisations about whatever it is you need to get sorted. 'Every person who reads this book, including you, can take steps today to declutter their life and begin to focus on what's most important to them.' (Loc 53) Similarly, 'My life isn't always simple. But it is simpler than it used to be.' (Loc 68)

The book is divided into two sections. The first looks at 'A Case for a Simpler Life', where mindset and approach are considered, eventually leading to action. On the subject of busyness, Burns argues that 'if we want to live well, we can't just COUNT activities, we have to WEIGH them.' (Loc 113) He introduces the concept of minimalism, in terms of priorities.

However, the whole section is summarised by deciding on our own values and being honest about what is most important to yourself. This is in the context of the fact that 'Life is short. Our days are limited.' (Loc 174) There's a valuable insight here, although he really misses the whole point, by only being focused on this life, and on extracting as much good out of this life as possible. While his philosophy is minimalism, his approach continues to proclaim materialsm loud and clear. You see, if this world is all there is, then it's all about the material world, he's seeking to have heaven on earth. On that, I'm reminded of the CS Lewis quote where if someone aims for heaven, they get this world thrown in as well, whereas if they focus on this world, they miss out on both heaven and earth.

The second section then gives 'Practical Tips for Decluttering', looking at a range of areas of life, including your mind, your inbox, your bookshelf and your relationships.

There is a helpful bit on the need to prioritise. 'In case you've can't do everything. When we find ourselves overcommitted, we have to be reminded that we must not only say "no" to bad things, but also GOOD things. Saying "no" to mindless things is A LOT easier than saying "no" to good things.' (Loc 365-368) [Incidentally, I wish he had said no to the excessive use of ..... and BLOCK CAPITALS for emphasis!]

I was interested to read how he had whittled down his book collection to just 18 books. The way he did it was to remind himself of the following: 1. You are probably not going to read all of those books. 2. If you do read them all, you may be reading too much. Most of those books will be outdated when it comes time for your children to read them. It's not likely that the internet will go away. It was interesting, but not an approach I'm going to follow - 18 books just wouldn't work for a pastor and voracious reader living in a community with no permanent library!

At the heart of Burns' philosophy is the idea of minimalism. In his words, 'minimalism is about eliminating the unnecessary so you can focus on what's most important.' (Loc 141) He is certainly consistent, writing in a minimalistic style. The book didn't take very long to read through, and didn't say very much. I don't think it's a book you would want to declutter your wallet or purse to buy, though. Simpleris available for the Kindle. You'll probably find much of the content on his blog.