Blogroll: God Gold and Generals
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Some encouragements for Christians for the new year. I believe we need encouraging simply because we get easily discouraged. This then naturally can lead to being inwardly focused and even defeatist. I hope these points encourage you.
1. Gods ways are deeply mysterious and far beyond our understanding.
In fact not only this, but all the more, he often appears to be doing the exact opposite of what we would do, which is not surprising as he is the infinite Creator God who made and upholds the whole universe and we are utterly, indeed laughably small, weak and insignificant. Things Christian wise in our country may appear to be in retreat yet the bible assures us that he is working out his purposes out and nothing can stop him. This doesn’t mean that we should become fatalistic but that we should redouble our efforts to play our part in his grand plan.
Imagine D Day with God as Eisenhower and we are some isolated infantry soldier pinned down in a shell hole on on one of the beaches, wet, tired and frightened. "Does Ike know what he doing?' we might think to ourselves. But the universe is infinitely bigger than Normandy, and God is infinitely bigger and more loving than Ike. Yes, of course God does. He is in complete control and victory is certain. Things may look difficult in our shell hole (and we may be "killed" or "wounded") but the ultimate outcome and control of the battle is never in doubt
2. Collapsing culture can be good!
Don’t worry about the culture. Yes it’s going away from Christians but should we really be surprised about this? This trend away from Christianity in the UK has been going on for well over a hundred years. We are not and cannot be responsible for the trends in the culture - or indeed the success of the church - we are responsible for being faithful. The U.K. has had a very exceptional culture for about 1500 years where there has been for better or worse a state church. Christianity has been part of the establishment in the UK (often with disastrous consequences). This state church is sadly now sailing steadily away from historic Christianity and barring a volte face is going to formally repudiate key tenets of orthodox Christian thinking. So what? We will be in the situation that in fact most Christians in the world are in. Why should we think we are going to always have an exception to what others go through? It was hardly what Jesus promised or what the early church experienced. Just read Acts for example. When I talk to people in the rest of the world it is simply laughable how much risk they take and how timid we are. Let's "gird up our loins" as the Bible puts it, get out of the shell hole in which we are hunkering down and try and storm the beach!
3. Suffering can be redemptive
Not only is suffering normal for Christians it can be powerfully used by God for good. The cross is of course the ultimate example. In fact suffering as a Christian is part of Gods plan for his church. Each of us is called to take up our cross daily and follow the Lord. I have found personally that suffering though deeply unpleasant is part of Gods design for his people and that it teaches us to trust him and know him more. Of course nobody but a masochist wants to suffer but God can use our suffering.
My recent experience at Watford FC where i could simply talk about the Lord Jesus to 22000 people is a case in point. Had i not had cancer i would never have had that opportunity. And the opportunity was absolutely nothing to do with me! It was 100% God, I was like a leaf swept along on a mighty flood. It was Jonathan Carswell of 10ofthose idea to write a book and Jonathan Pountney of 10ofthose idea to propose this to Watford. I was staggered that Watford agreed (oh ye of little faith) and i was shaking like a leaf walking round the ground to do it. God can use the terrible sufferings in our life (and yes they are very hard and i hate having cancer).
4. People on average are far more open than we think
I believe that by far the biggest error we make today as Christians is that we think most people are hostile to the Christian faith. I just don’t find that the case. Yes, there are a few people who are vehemently antagonistic and because these individuals are typically very vocal we think that they are characteristic of everyone. But as Glen Scrivener has pointed out after a recent experience where a vocal atheist tried to dominate the discussion at a university Christian event “the person with the mike doesn’t speak for the room”. For the other non believing attendees at the event were irritated that one opinionated person was hijacking the discussion. Most people are not particularly anti Christian they are indifferent or ignorant. They I find know virtually nothing about what becoming a Christian actually means and are often intrigued when we spell that out. Yet we often give up before we even start sharing our faith. We as it were refuse to even get into the landing craft in Portsmouth never mind storm the beach in Normandy. Come on friends, I urge, let's climb on board this great "boat" of gospel witness.
5. I see a willingness to grasp several cultural nettles that have not been hacked away for too long in our circles
Questions and Doubts of young people
One big issue with a more hostile culture is that its especially tough for 12-18 year olds. many of them have doubts and questions which are quite natural. They typically reflect questions like "Is God anti Gay?" "Is God misogynistic?" "Is God racist" and "Has science disproved God?". The worst possible reaction is to shut down debate and refuse to allow young people to raise their questions and doubts. We can make church youth groups into places where even to ask a question or have a friendly argument is to be seen as "betrayal". An excellent and hugely popular resource to help 12-18 year olds raise their questions is "Reboot" from OCCA/RZIM. These events held throughout the UK and throughout the world attract very large numbers of young people (1000s for some events) who are encouraged to ask any questions they like https://www.zachariastrust.org/reboot
Another "taboo" topic is money. Yet the Bible has a huge amount to say about money, according to one estimate more than twice as much as on faith and prayer combined. Because we are culturally averse to talking and especially teaching about it, not surprisingly money is a huge problem in many senses in evangelical circles. I dont mean as much the lack of it, i mean more the missed opportunities that exist because we dont use it as we should. A most encouraging development last year (which I have been involved in) were wto linked initiatives. Firstly Gospel Patrons https://www.gospelpatrons.org is a wonderful global organisation designed to encourage Christians to become "patrons" or "investors" in gospel initiatives such as church planting. I went to an excellent event at Lords before Christmas where the very large room as completely packed with many young people, men and women, who listened enthralled as Garry Williams told them ti the story of John Laing the well known C20 builder who used his large wealth to support a huge range of gospel initiatives such as UCCF. then four friends of mine chatted very warmly and personally about how they use their finances to get involved in numerous existing initiatives. Secondly but closely connected we will soon be launching "The Generosity Project" which will be an Anglo-Australian co production with book, DVD etc designed to help local churches teach about generosity. Watch this space.
While it is the opposite of encouraging to hear various stories of abuse emerge in our churches in 2019, I believe strongly that "sunlight is the best disinfectant". These abuses have obviously been going on for a long time and the best policy now is complete openness and a proper and thorough external investigation with open publication and follow up on wider lessons learned. Misguided attempts to sweep the whole thing under the carpet have been sadly highly counter productive. We should confess our sins as evangelicals and with Gods help repent. we should also care for and listen carefully to the victims of such abuse. For excellent guidance on how we should do that and deal with abuse more generally please read my review of Mez McConnells' searingly honest new book "The Creaking on the Stairs",https://jsjmarshall.blogspot.com/2019/12/the-creaking-on-stairs-by-mez-mcconnell.html
One of the areas where lessons will need to be learned is on that ultimate English taboo, class. My friend Steve Kneale has been stressing this rightly for years, as have others like Mez and Ian Williamson. There are many things that could be said but here is one: there is a grotesque misallocation of resources in our churches in the UK. Wealthy churches have lots and build up more, poorer areas and churches have precious little. Brothers and sisters this is wrong! But I have a feeling, with help from people like the FIEC, that this is beginning to change. People are listening to what is being said and action is beginning to happen. Yes lots lots more to be done but we have at least made a start.
Another obvious taboo. According to one estimate for example 50% of evangelicals in London are BAME. Historically these people have been at best ignored and at worst discriminated against but there is an obvious need for white churches to benefit from the youthful dynamism of such churches. I see encouraging signs of more BAME leaders being given platforms for example. We white evangelicals can also offer our services to such churches - not to tell them what to do but to see how we can listen to them and serve them. "For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many"
May Almighty God encourage each one of us as best we can to love Him and serve him better in 2020. May we not be discouraged and downhearted but full of prayer, energy and faith and joy, through the Holy Spirit. May we all press onto the calling to which we were called, to serve faithfully the Lord Jesus, to whom be glory for ever and ever.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
This year I am going to nail it. I am going to achieve the perfect Christmas and make it the most wonderful time of the year. The food has been bought, timings have been worked out, trial runs have been run. Presents have been purchased, wrapped, an inventory has been taken and everyone has roughly the same number of gifts. Husband and teenage sons have been given a pep talk about attitude and gratitude. I am more than capable of making them miserable in my drive to give them the Best Christmas Ever. I can no longer cajole my teenagers into wearing matching pyjamas on Christmas Eve, but believe me, I have tried.
What makes the perfect Christmas? The adverts and glossy magazines tell us that we must have a perfect meal – the roast potatoes must be crunchy, the turkey must be moist and the gravy must be free of lumps. (Sprouts are a matter of individual conscience.) Christmas songs tell us that it is a season for sentimentality. “It’s the hap-happiest season of all!” Christmas films give us the “true meaning of Christmas”, and tell us that the time of year is powerful and can change a Grinch or a Scrooge into a generous and beloved member of the community.
It is impossible to achieve the perfect Christmas. Even if we throw ourselves into making it wonderful, sometimes we fail. A perfectly nice, ordinary Christmas can be disappointing because we measure it against the perfection we see portrayed around us. And if our picture is worse than just ordinary, Christmas can be a heartbreaking time of year. A recent bereavement, illness, broken relationship, estrangement from children are all the more painful around the holidays.
I love Christmas, and truth be told I like the glossy magazines, the songs and especially the movies (as a transplanted American I can’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life without crying like a baby). But what they offer is only partially satisfying. The reason the perfect Christmas appeals to us is because we want to belong and to feel loved. We are attracted by cosiness and familial warmth. The sentimental songs, the images of perfect family celebrations and the heartwarming films expose our need for someone to understand us and to love us just the same.
The most wonderful thing about Christmas is not executing a meal or everyone getting along. The most wonderful thing about Christmas is that God himself came as a vulnerable baby so that we could find our belonging. The Bible says that Jesus would be called Immanuel, which means God with us. We sing O Little Town of Bethlehem and ask “O come to us, abide with us our Lord, Immanuel.”
Christmas is over in a day. On Boxing Day we might still be eating leftovers, but the presents are all unwrapped, family has dispersed and we may feel a bit empty. Life returns to normal. But what would it mean for Immanuel, God with us, to abide with us? To stay and not to leave us? It would mean that Christmas would not be something we had to achieve. It would mean that the hollow sentimentality is replaced by something with a heart. God came down to us, to be with us and to abide with us. “And He feeleth for our sadness; and he shareth in our gladness.” Because Jesus came as Immanuel, God is not distant. He knew pain and rejection and betrayal as a real human being in the way that we do. “He came down to earth from heaven who was God and Lord of all.” This, as Luke’s gospel says, is good news of great joy.
I was asked by my friend Ben Virgo to nominate my book of the year as part of a panel and this is it. A strange recommendation for Christmas perhaps? For this is a very tough and disturbing book to read, but equally one that I think everyone affected by abuse, every Christian and especially every pastor should read.
Mez McConnell was savagely and appallingly abused by his stepmother as a child. He was abandoned and tortured. He weaves his own story into the story of Christ and like all good Christian books the hero is not Mez, but Christ. What comes across so clearly is that anything Mez experienced - helplessness, pain, abuse, ridicule, rejection and abandonment - Christ voluntarily experienced much worse. Mez systematically walks us through what the Bible has to say about how we find ourselves in this sad and evil world and what God decided to do about it.
I found much of what he says resonates with me and my experience living with cancer. It can be read by anyone experiencing suffering. Obviously though, Mez's experience is far worse than mine, as he was hurt as a helpless child by the hateful and malevolent “her” not like me as an adult by random mutating cells. But the principle of who God is and what he is doing and what to say to people in suffering is helpful whatever your exact circumstances. This book, even though it's about an intensely painful subject, is therefore very helpful on suffering in general as well. Especially that the best answer to “why did God allow this to happen?” is “I don’t know but I do know somebody else who went through far worse. "
Mez throughout is brutally honest and as he says this must have been such a painful and difficult book to write. This is most noticeable when he writes about his stepmother. This person called “she” or “her” throughout the book is someone he never names and perhaps the most searing part of the book is how he lives after he became a Christian with his feelings towards her. It is truly eye opening and extraordinary to read when Mez tells us how he rejoiced in the discovery of the biblical doctrine of hell and hoped that she would be paid back there in spades for the evil she did. Only once Mez realised that the bible also teaches that anyone can be forgiven if they repent and come to Christ did he come to some further stage of understanding of the Bible's message. .He is painfully and humbly honest about his feelings even now as a pastor towards sex offenders who turn up in his church. The process he writes so openly about, of trying to understand what happened to him, even as a Christian, would surely be helpful to others In similar situations.
The book closes with some helpful interviews with victims, repentant abusers and pastors of abusers who reflect practically on the themes of Mez's book. How does it work to have an abuser in your church? How can we help victims? Personally I found this section exceptionally useful and practical.
The church to say nothing of society has a massive problem with child abuse. Evil is at work and technology and family breakdown are making it worse and worse. Sadly of course some people within the church itself have been at worst doing the abuse and at least have often been complicit. May God have mercy on us all. Reading Mez's book will both help those with such an experience as well as those seeking to love and serve such victims. Every pastor should read it. Thank you Christian Focus for publishing it
And what about Christmas? How can I recommend a book like that now? Mez says this “Jesus entered into our broken, chaotic, painfully messy reality. This means that he is not a God who is far off, disinterested in us. He is a God who has come near to us... Let’s, just for a moment consider the God-man, Jesus, who didn’t leave us to our own devices. Who didn’t let us stew in our own sin and mess. Who hadn’t forgotten about us. “
Yesterday we went to see Handel's "Messiah" with the Halle Orchestra and choir in Manchester. My cousin Paul's daughter Clara was singing in the choir. It was very moving experience for all of us.
“Unto us a child is born; Unto us a son is given” sang the choir
These words come from the Bible and were written by a man called Isaiah about 700 years before the birth of Christ. Isaiah foretold many details of Jesus’s life: for example that he would be born of a virgin, that he would live in Galilee, that he would be killed and even the type of grave that he would have in death
What does the prophecy mean? That Jesus was the long promised Messiah, born for us: for everyone. This means that he was born for you too.
Why was he born for you? Why do we need him? He was born to save. This is what his name means: the angel told Joseph to call the baby Jesus for “he will save his people from their sins”
Why do we need saving? From evil. Thats easy to understand if we look for example at the recent events at London Bridge, where we see both good and evil, but it’s harder to understand if we look within ourselves. If we are honest we have to admit that there is evil within each of us. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said “the line between good and evil doesn’t run between nation states or political parties or even between people...it runs right through every human being.”
What kind of Saviour does Christmas bring?
A child. A tiny, completely helpless child who couldn’t survive for a few minutes if left on his own. A child who will grow up to be just like you and me.
A human being who will be tired, hungry, happy and sad, feel all the same emotions that we feel. Just like us.
But also not like us. For he is a son and what the bible means here is not an ordinary son but the Son of God.
Yes, this tiny, helpless child Christians believe is also God the maker of the whole universe. So vast is the universe that there are two stars in the known universe for every grain of sand in every beach in the world.
Christians believe that the tiny baby Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. That the infinite, unknowable Creator God who made and sustains the whole universe became a tiny baby in a manger in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. The infinite God who made the universe humbled himself to become the lowest of the low.
Why did he do that? For me and for you, to rescue us from evil.
What motivated him to do that?
Love. God could have justifiably thrown away the whole human race as irretrievably ruined beyond redemption. But he didn’t. He cared so much about us that he was willing to come as a helpless tiny child, to live as a human being, to die in our place, to offer us a way to be rescued from evil, to even defeat death.
"Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth. "