Blogroll: God Gold and Generals
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I saw this picture on a great WhatsApp group I'm part of as a joke about what lockdown is like. I commented to my friends “ah, but he’s the best person to have with you in lockdown”.
Why? If a person who lived 2000 years is even knowable now (which some of you may very much doubt!) wouldn’t it be so boring to be with that same person every day? Let alone for all eternity! Isn’t the very concept of being stuck with a “God” (Christians believe Jesus is 100% God and 100% human) who never changes, who is “the same yesterday, today and forever”, in a heaven which is always the same: wouldn’t that be appalling - a sort of endlessly boring celestial lockdown?
In fact friends, God is the ultimate pleasure giver.
Jesus told a story (see below) that touches on this question. The younger son feels “locked down” with his father and wants to find pleasure elsewhere. He revels. But when a pandemic-like crisis hits he realises he has gone wrong. He is truly miserable and to achieve happiness he has to come back home. Some flash of memory calls him. If we want true pleasure we can only find that in our true home which is the presence of God. CS Lewis said “This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures forevermore. “
The father in the story is God who wants us to come home. He doesn’t want us to be miserable, he wants us to come back to the greatest party of all time. As in the story. Why would it be so pleasurable to locked in with God?
Because he is infinite. He made the very universe we live in. He is utterly beyond our understanding. We can never experience him enough we will always want to know him more. And what is his nature? It is love. Karl Barth wrote (slightly edited) “God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of friendship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or friendship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of the darkness. In His revelation, it seeks and creates friendship where there is no friendship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … “ To know God to be at home with him is like being in the most amazing loving family where we are always at home.
So why are we so lost and miserable? Why have we chosen to reject the home we have been made for? Because we don’t know what’s good for us. God could lock us down but he throws open the door and says “choose”! And we choose rebellion and misery and ultimately death. Lockdown exposes how screwed up is the human condition. And maybe that’s in a sense good because it exposes things as they are
The writer Marilyn Robinson says “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”
Come home and be happy with God. How? Not by being good (the older brother in the story thinks God owes him a favour and ends up missing the party). But by simply accepting the invitation to come home whatever we have done (the younger brother). How do we cross the chasm between God and us? God has thrown out a bridge across the abyss and his name is Jesus.
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.
What is the biblical basis for reading the Bible with our non-Christian friends (word 121? )
There are I suggest three aspects
The word of God
Firstly and most importantly that it’s about unleashing and utilising the intrinsic supernatural power of God's word. We see that power in the OT. “Is not my word like a fire says the Lord and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” says the Lord to Jeremiah or “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” As God says to Isaiah. Or in the NT the writer to the Hebrews says “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.“
We see also the power of Gods word in creation or when the Lord speaks to the dead “Little girl I say to you get up”. In Acts, we see how the Holy Spirit and the word of God work hand in glove. One reinforces the other is the constant refrain. The apostles are of course speaking the words of God in Acts and many people come to faith. When we use those words now written down for us in the NT we are using the power of God. The power to change people from death to life is not in us it is in God's word.
God very often works with people one on one. We can think of Cain, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Nathan’s rebuke of David, Elijah at Horeb, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Jesus with the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, Emmaus Road (one on two), the man born blind, Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, Zaccheus, the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul on the road to Damascus Cornelius, the Philippian jailer and many others. Kuiper in his excellent book “God centred evangelism” says “conversion is an intensely personal experience. Nothing can be more personal..personal evangelism ordinarily affords a better and more effective opportunity for thorough and effective teaching than does mass evangelism”.
There are also quite a few passages that speak of the power of God's word when opened up one to one - Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch or one to two such as the road to Emmaus. Of course, there are also plenty of examples of teaching small groups or very large groups (Jesus with his disciples, the feeding of the 5000). I am not arguing that 121 is the only way but I have experienced that it can be very effective for evangelism because it allows people to open up and ask questions to be taught. Now if you think of a class at school it’s more efficient for the teacher to speak to all, but the best quality teaching especially in hard situations where the pupil is struggling to learn, is 121.
Now traditionally this word and its power would be unleashed by preaching in a church. The issue is that very few non-Christians are willing to come to church even if we invite them. The situation is quite different for example in Puritan times where you had to be in church on pain of fining or imprisonment. Hence the third point
We go out
Nowhere in the Bible are we told to invite people to church to hear a sermon from a professional (though that is a good thing to do). Instead, we are all commanded to go out (the Great Commission) and make disciples of all nations teaching them to believe. 121 incidentally is a near-perfect form of teaching. All Christians are commanded to "proclaim" which in the NT has a much broader use than we tend to give it today when it tends to be used only of professionals speaking in a sermon context. Think of the parable of the sower where we are commanded to go out into the world and sow the seed everywhere we can. To point out the blindingly obvious the seed goes to the soil, not the other way round. Think of the stories Jesus told of going to search for the lost sheep. Yes, Jesus did teach in synagogues and the temple (in a very religious society where every man would have had to go to the temple) but the bulk of his teaching was in “public”. In our deeply unreligious society so should ours be.
My friend Beth shared this devotion, mainly from Billy Graham, about clouds. I have to say that the last few years for me have been like living under a thick cloud, especially so I feel that right now. Everything seems gloomy and dark. Covid doesn’t help but it’s more than that. Life seems dark.
So I found this devotion very helpful.
I would also add that God not only sends clouds but that He himself also rides upon the clouds.
"There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.“ (Jeshurun is a poetic name for Israel).
They are in a way therefore his messengers. I think of the wonderful story of Elijah's servant staring up in the sky and seeing nothing and finally “a small cloud the size of a man's hand is rising from the sea”. God does send clouds but as Beth’s dear mother commented in our group
“God moves in a mysterious way ...
‘Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,The clouds ye so much dreadAre big with mercy, and shall breakIn blessings on your head.”
Jesus was promised in Daniel to come in the clouds. While on earth Jesus was transfigured in a cloud and received back into heaven in a cloud. One day the Lord himself will come on the clouds "and every eye shall see him". Then we will be caught up in the clouds to meet him. So clouds may be dark and gloomy, but they contain also a promise. God put his bow in the clouds as a promise as Beth's dear father reminded us .
I found this quote a real encouragement in its pointing to the joy that is ours through grace, giving us present help and future hope....when times, like we find ourselves in now, are unsettling, confusing and hard....
Psalm 35 points us to the faithfulness of the Lord reaching to the clouds....
And Billy Graham had a really helpful comment on this when we may feel we are living under clouds....
Psalms 36:5Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,your faithfulness to the clouds.
“My home is on a mountain nearly four thousand feet high. Many times we can see below us the clouds in the valley. Some mornings we wake up to find that we are in lovely sunshine, but that the valley below is covered with clouds.
At other times thunderstorms come up, and we can see the lightning flash and hear the thunder roar down below, while we are enjoying beautiful sunlight and clear skies above.
I have thought of the clouds of discouragement and suffering that temporarily veil the sunlight of God’s love from us.
Many people live with a cloud hanging over their lives. Some may be in hospital beds; others are suffering discouragement and bereavement. A heavy cloud hangs over them. (Covid)
The Bible has a great deal to say about clouds. For they sometimes symbolize the spiritual forces which obscure the face of God.
The Bible indicates that clouds are given to us for a purpose and that there is glory in the clouds and that every cloud has a silver lining.
It is written in Exodus 16:10, “They looked... and, behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.”
Without the clouds there would be no lavish sunsets, no rain, no light, no beautiful, picturesque landscapes.
Charles Kingsley sensed this truth when he wrote: “No cloud across the sun but passes at the last and gives us back the face of God once more.”
The Bible says that God was in the cloud and that He spoke to His people through a cloud. The Lord said, “Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud” (Exodus 19:9).
Again, God called to Moses “out of the midst of the cloud” (Exodus 24:16).
“There are clouds in our lives shadowing, refreshing, and oftentimes draping them in the blackness of night, but there is never a cloud without its bright light. So may we long to see beyond our troubles to the brilliance of His face.”
May we know the Lord is with us even when the clouds are all we can see.
May we trust our Heavenly Father, no matter what happens, what clouds we face, we can face, because of the grace given to us through the Lord Jesus giving us present help and future hope....
I’ve enjoyed reading “Gentle and lowly” by Dane Ortlund as others have too and one thing that struck me was his emphasis on Christ’s character rather than on what he has done for us. Of course, the latter is also, to put it mildly rather important as well!This made me think: which aspect of Christ’s character is important for us in what promises to be a tough few months? This morning in church our preacher Matt Taylor said “Christ cares more about our character than our circumstances” and I think that’s true. So here are some thoughts on three character traits of Christ in 2021 which we can try to emulate. Please don’t think that I have any of them and in fact in two of them in particular (prayerfulness and patience) I’m absolutely embarrassed at how bad I am. Fortunately, Christ is always like a builder who owns a ruined house “remodeling” us in his image by his word so there is hope for us all.
Maybe in these troubled times who we are is more important than what we do, for it's so easy to work until we are exhausted and yet there is always more to do. But becoming Christ-like is much harder than rushing around on the ceaseless treadmill of life (and dare I say it the Christian life!)
It’s so striking that the Lord was constantly in prayer. We may wonder why this was necessary if he was God? Because he needed to pray as to his humanity. The writer to the Hebrews tells that the Lord was able to “offer up supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death”.
We are of course not like Jesus in his divinity but we are absolutely like him in his humanity. If the perfect God-man needed to pray then so must we in our fallenness. Yet how incredibly difficult we find it! I find it the hardest thing in the Christian life. I struggle every day to pray. I am embarrassed at how poorly I pray. So how can we find help? With the Lord whom we are told prays for us and with the help of the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus himself did miracles and prayed in the power of the Holy Spirit and we have the same Spirit. Where does the Son working together with the Holy Spirit take us? To the Father! Jesus’s model of praying to the Father was revolutionary. What joy it brings to a human father's heart when his children call and ask for help. What delight when we can help them! Think of how much more the eternal Father delights to help us - all we have to do is ask
Hebrews 2:14 “ since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (which was part of Matt’s text this morning)
That is the big issue now is it not? Death. Every day we hear the awful statistics 500 750 or even 1000 dead of Covid. Do you not think when you see an ambulance speeding by lights flashing “that could be me or a loved one”? All the great medical care we have and the wonderful NHS staff and yet the Grim Reaper is ever more active. (He was always active it’s just we didn’t previously want to think about him yet now we can’t avoid it)
Jesus was continuously confronted by death in his ministry, ultimately most of all by his own. He was afraid of suffering and dying (which again is wonderfully connecting to us as to his humanity). It’s not wrong to be afraid of dying. What he had and through him, we can have is hope! Everywhere Jesus went he brought hope. Imagine being Jairus - the situation is hopeless. Your daughter is dead. Yet what quality does Jesus being into that sad home? Hope.
So he triumphed over death, broke its power, delivered us from slavery to it, and promises us “I hold the keys of death and hell”. If you have the keys to something you own it. The Lord owns death therefore we have hope.
And friends this hope that we have in the face of death because of the Lord I have found is incredibly attractive to our friends. It’s quite unique and (in the best sense of the word) should be contagious! In the middle of a pandemic that is driving us all to hopelessness and despair, we have the antidote. Let’s share it. Imagine if we sat with vast stocks of Covid vaccine locked up in a warehouse. Never! Let’s ship em out to anyone who wants one. We have something far more powerful and hope-giving than a Covid vaccine. We have hope in Christ. Let’s share it.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. . . . Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him. (2 Peter 3:9, 15)
Again I am utterly embarrassed at how poor I am at this. When we look at Christ we see how patient he is with his followers and with “random” people he meets. The patience of the Lord with his followers is amazing. At the crucial point of the Last Supper, the disciples are continually getting it wrong - Philip, for example, says “show us the Father and that’s enough”. Does Jesus bring down retribution on him? Three years day after day with the son of God and Philip doesn’t even get the most basic thing? No! How gently and kindly he guided him and them all in truth. A word here for pastors and leaders in particular: it’s so easy to become discouraged and exasperated by people, especially in Covid. How much do we need the character of Christ of patience with our flocks
And finally, note the patience that Christ has with the random lost people who crossed his path. Think of the man waiting with his son at the bottom of the mount if transfiguration. The disciples have failed. (Yes it’s them again and yes it’s us again - note by the way that their and our problem is prayerlessness). How kind and patient is the Lord Jesus with this troubled man. “If you can do anything” which is what he says is hardly a ringing endorsement of Jesus and of course Jesus gently rebukes him for his lack of faith. But by doing that he patiently and kindly fans into flame the dying embers in the heart of the man. So must we be with our non-Christian friends. One thing I have found good for patience is to keep gently asking people “would you like to chat with me about the Bible?”. Some people say “yes”. Praise God! Some say “no”. Leave them. They may well in my experience come back to you. But most people say neither yea or nay. So next time you see them ask them patiently and kindly something like “did you have a second to look at the little book on John I gave you?”. (99% of the time the answer will be no and that’s ok!). Keep going, keep asking, be patient like Christ.
May we in 2021 be more like Christ, more prayerful, more hopeful, and more patient.
Carl Trueman's new book is perhaps best described as a history of the development of an idea. It is not a study of the sexual Revolution or the LGBTQ movement or even freedom of speech - but a study a “prolegomenon” of how we came to where we are today.His central argument is that the sexual revolution did not come from nowhere but that it is the result of a much deeper revolution, brewing over three centuries, in the meaning of what it means to be a self.
Today we can see that “My feelings trump everything”. The writer Charles Taylor write about “mimesis “ and “poiesis”. We have moved in our views of society from the world having a given meaning which we must discover, to having to form our own meaning. The statement “ I am a woman trapped in a mans body” which is commonly accepted today (and that disagreeing with is so dangerous - see JK Rowling) only makes sense in a poietic world.
the writer Philip Rieff argues that we learn who we are by conforming ourselves to the purposes of a larger community. But for the modern person we believe in expressive individualism - that each of us finds meaning by giving expression to our own desires and feelings. Originally therapy by the priest taught individuals the norms of society. Now it’s the reverse: that the therapist seeks to protect individuals from the harmful neuroses that society itself creates by smothering the individuals ability to be themselves. You go to institutions not to be formed but to perform - a platform to be yourself.
Hence “snowflakes”: students go to university not to be exposed to and challenged by profound ideas but to be affirmed. Anything which challenges my feelings is by definition harmful and to be rejected. Once harm and oppression are regarded as primarily psychological then crucially freedom of speech becomes part of the problem, not the solution.
Not all identities are affirmed. Only some. More than tolerance is demanded: society requires not tolerance but recognition and affirmation of specific identity. And why is sex such a basic marker of identity?
Rieff suggests that cultures without any “sacred order” will not survive. Culture in the west today can only justify itself by reference to itself - “ because I say so”. Ethics become a function of feeling: “Emotivism”. Hence the use of the word “phobia.” Having moral discourse therefore becomes impossible.
Trueman then traces the way in which the ideas we see above arose in the first place. Beginning with Rousseau and continuing with the romantic poets such as Shelley, Blake and Byron, Trueman claims “we see the outlines of modern individualism..the real identity of an individual is to be found in the inner psychological autobiography. The authentic individual is one who behaves in accordance with this inner psychological nature. Society and its conventions are the enemy”. Especially for Shelley the key enemy was the Christian religion and monogamous marriage. Next, looking at Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, Trueman argues that these subsequent thinkers stripped the world of any intrinsic meaning: meaning and significance can be given only by the actions of human beings.
Freud took the whole movement much further. He created a powerful myth - that sex is the real key to human existence. Freud also successfully planted in the popular mind the idea that we should be defined as human beings by our sexual identity. If happiness is the fundamental goal of human beings then for Freud the pleasure principle - sexual gratification- is the purpose of life. Morality which restricts such gratification is therefore irrational and subjective. It is a phobia: an irrational fear. “Before Freud” suggests Trueman “sex was an activity: after Freud sex is definitive of who we are”. Freud’s statement was prophetic - “ the two main points (that need to be changed) in the programme for the education of children today are retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence”. Reich pushed this further melding Freud and Marx: the traditional family and its morality both resulted in people acting against their own class interest and even more in establishing a system of oppression. “Sex is no longer a private activity because sexuality is a constitutive element of social identity”. Therefore the family itself needs to be dismantled. A writer called Herman Marcuse went even further. Good words and thoughts about defeating oppression must not only be promoted but enforced and given a monopoly in public discourse. Free speech is therefore not a virtue but fundamentally harmful. (As Trueman notes: who defines the truth? Herman Marcuse!). Finally he notes that the French writer Simone de Beauvoir argues for a divorce between identity and body. There is a dualism where the body is made of malleable stuff separate from the will that presided over it. Sex is merely biological but gender allows us to self create as we wish. Standing in the way of all this, argues Trueman is the family which must be destroyed.
Now many of these thinkers will be completely unknown to the average person in the street. One of the most important transmission mechanisms suggests Trueman is popular culture and especially pornography. Porn is the therapeutic culture of the day: “if it works for you and promotes that inner sense of well being then... all is good”
Which brings us up to the present day. “The idea that sexuality is identity is now basic in the west.. sex is identity, sex is politics, sex is culture. “
Freedom of speech is under attack because in a world “where the therapeutic is the ethical ideal, the notion of good or bad..becomes psychological... words and images that promote psychologically unhealthy views should be silenced”. The same with “hate speech”. Once violence has come to include the psychological then certain expressions which contradict what I feel is my psychological well being are criminalised. As the protesting students at Middlebury College in 2017 said “ we are tired of having to engage with those who repeatedly devalue our experience and values”.
Trueman looks briefly at LGBTQ thinking today. He points out that it is an unlikely and unstable coalition. T and Q are predicated upon a denial of the fixed nature of gender something that L and G assume. How then did this coalition emerge? A shared victimhood. The T is rooted, proposes Trueman, in the thinking of “expressive individualism, connected to the central concern of the therapeutic society, that is an inner sense of psychological well being”. The LGBTQ culture he writes is an anti-culture: defined negatively by its rejection of past norms”.
The book is very well written and well argued and I suggest is important for every Christian leader to read. Unlike many other books it’s not tied up in the American culture wars, perhaps because Trueman is a Brit. 95% of its equally relevant in Europe. You don’t need to know the details of long dead writers but you do need to understand how we got where we are. Trueman is also fair minded in allowing the writers he cites to speak for themselves and it’s far from a polemic. Importantly, he points out that some of the points the revolutionaries argued were true: women and gays were discriminated against for example and he is careful not to argue for the return to an imaginary golden feudal age. Nor is Christianity itself immune from emotional individualism: look at the smorgasbord of denominations and churches available. If one doesn’t affirm you try another. I would hope that someone on the other side of the argument could read the book and think that their arguments have been presented in a fair and even handed manner.
My only criticism is that the book massively begs the question “So what? what then should the church then do about all this?” which he covers in but a very cursory fashion. He argues for four responses
Avoid the aesthetic (ie personal story) approach to beliefs
Be a community
Recover both “natural law” and a high view of the physical body.
For historical precedent look at the 2c not the 16c.
None of these points are at all developed (eg what does he mean by natural law?) and I was disappointed because there is much much more that could be said. The first and third points in particular as argued were not at all convincing to me. For example, it seems to me that you could convincingly argue the exact opposite on point 1, not in terms of where we derive truth but in terms at least in terms of communication: that we should hear more not less of the stories of godly people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences . Not to determine what we believe but to communicate it in a convincing and culturally connecting fashion. On the other hand the second and fourth points I find to be extremely powerful. I shall write more on this shortly and try and develop my thinking on these points.
All in all a very thought provoking and a carefully constructed book which if you want to understand "how did we get here" you need to read. .
New Years' parties are canceled but I would like to invite you to the greatest party of all time.
An 18c German writer called Johan Andreas Rothe wrote this as one verse of a poem/hymn and John Wesley translated it. It’s by way of inviting you to a party.
“Father, Your everlasting graceOur scanty thought surpasses far,Your heart still melts with tenderness,Your arms of love still open are,Returning sinners to receive,That mercy they may taste and live“
Here is the party invite, looking at each line
1. There is an everlasting Father God who created us and who from before the beginning of the universe has in store for us wonderful things which we don’t deserve. He invites us to the party at his home - which is our home but we have rejected it and have wandered far away from it.
2. Our feeble and laughable attempts to understand this universe creating God and his eternal purposes and the scope of his party are doomed to fail. We simply don’t understand 0.000001% of the greatness and kindness of this infinite Creator.
3. God's heart towards lost and sad human beings is full of tenderness. He doesn't want us alone and outside. How can we know this, as the infinite creator God is so beyond our understanding? Because the infinite creator became a human being 2000 years ago. This God-man, Jesus Christ was so full of tenderness to the sad and lost of his day. And that God-man invites all who will find solace to come to him today, for he is the same solace provider and party-giver 2000 years ago, yesterday, today, and forever
4. The arms of God are wide open to all who will return home and enter the great celebration. He looks out for us coming and while we are a great way off he runs and throws his arms around us: “welcome home” he says. Where do we see the arms open to everyone most of all? On the cross.
5. What must we do? We must return to the Father who made us for we will never find what we are looking for until we come home to him. Who may come? Anyone! Anyone at all! Not “good” or “healthy” or “moral” people but the exact opposite “bad” “ill” and “immoral” people. In fact, it’s only when we realise that we are like that by nature, that we are alienated from God that we begin to turn round. What will happen when we do that U-turn? We will be eagerly received in the greatest celebration of all in the universe. What do we need to bring to that fantastic party? Nothing. Come as you are. The bill for the party has already been paid (at great cost) and all are invited. Come as you are
6. “Grace” is getting what we don’t deserve. “Mercy” is not getting what we do deserve. We will find both at this party. How do we know this invitation is true? We try it and see what its like What have we to lose by trying? Nothing! How do we “try”? It’s easy: we RSVP. Talk to God: “Oh God if you are there show me the way to the party at your home”. What will we get at the p[arty? Life. An answer to death, both physical death and the eternal death of being separated from God, being outside the home we are made for. “Come and welcome,” says the Lord Jesus, holding his arms wide open and beckoning us to come in through the open door.
John Le Carré in my view by far the greatest British novelist of the last 50 years has died. I loved his books and just finished what I assume was his last one, "An Agent running in the field". Before that, I read "The Pigeon Tunnel" which were his (somewhat unreliable) memoirs.If you haven't read any of his books, you have a wonderful treat in store, though possibly not the author to read if you need cheering up in Covid! I shall not attempt an obituary for others far better qualified than I have written about him. What I wanted to write is how should we assess his novels from a Christian perspective. What does he have to say about the state of our culture? How should we as Christians think about that culture?
Le Carré was emphatically not a Christian. His father, of which more shortly, was the black sheep son of a devoutly nonconformist family, his grandfather was a respected Dorset alderman and a Baptist preacher. Le Carré himself though hated the "muscular Christianity" of his school, Sherborne, and fled to Switzerland to escape it and other aspects of the school such as bullying he disliked. In later life he was very dismissive of religion in general " a consequence of the detestation of the painful forms of authority forced upon him by various schools" he told the writer Philippe Sands. Christianity ranked alongside other institutions of the British state - most of all the Secret Services and politics - as declining, decaying, and corrupted
In this, he differed greatly from the author who clearly influenced him heavily, both stylistically and subject-wise - Graham Greene. Greene too had a spell in the Secret Services, also had a very chequered personal life, also created his own world of spooks and betrayal (for example "Our Man in Havana", a book to which Le Carré paid homage in "The Tailor of Panama" ). However, unlike Le Carré, Greene had a close if a highly tortured relationship with (Catholic) Christianity. Le Carré seems to have rejected not only the institution of the church but the concept of faith itself and almost never refers to any religious beliefs playing any role in his characters' inner lives in his books, except perhaps to Islam in a couple. As opposed to say the spook Wormold in Greenes' book, whose precocious daughters rather unconventional Catholicism is a crucial part of the plot. Le Carré is almost Marxist one might say in his dismissal of Christianity as irrelevant and of a previous age.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, his characters are far from nihilistic and frequently wrestle with deeply moral issues, even if they are constrained by the author to do so within a completely humanistic universe. Most Le Carré novels feature a dilemma somewhat along the following lines. The central character is trapped within a system (often the secret service but also later after the collapse of communism, big business) where they can choose (and are often ordered) to use deeply compromised means such as lying, cheating, and bribery, to say nothing of torture and murder. The bureaucracy in which they operate pressures them to choose these means in the interests of a greater good, such as the defeat of Soviet communism. The poor operational "moles" or "pavement artists" (terms that Le Carré virtually invented) are cynically sacrificed to protect the major pieces in the great game of espionage. Yet all parties search for something that isn't there - moral purpose. William Cash writing in the Catholic Herald says perceptively " If the West has largely moved beyond religion there remains something curiously reassuring about fictional worlds that displays design or purpose, even if its heroes are alienated and self dammed sinners conmen or betrayers."
Ah, betrayal. Along with cynicism and disillusion, this is the key theme in the dark universe. Le Carré, who was very careful to play his personal cards close to his chest, was haunted by his betrayal by his parents. His father Ronnie Cornwell (Le Carré was a nom de plume, his first name was David ) was a truly wicked con man and swindler., who served 5 terms at Her Majestys Pleasure, as well as time inside in Zurich and Jakarta. Le Carré recalled being sent as a teenager with his older brother to try and buy time from a pathetic elderly couple whose life savings his father had embezzled. His relationship with his father was complex: he paid for his father's funeral but refused to attend. But even worse was that young David was also abandoned by his mother who, perhaps due to her husband's multiple infidelities and lies, walked out on her young son aged five. They were never reconciled.
Cash again quotes Le Carre, "Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn't good enough..Betrayal is love as a tribute to our unlived lives". Or we could add "Love is whatever you can still betray". How do we betray? with lies "We lie to each other every day, in the sweetest way, often unconsciously."
So here is the rough Le Carré storyline: in a grey, morally compromised world, with no good guys and bad guys, where everybody is deceiving and lying to everyone else, people end up inevitably betraying even the ones they love. All his institutions are fundamentally controlling and dehumanizing with their own cynical agenda where the end justifies the means. The result of this given time is disillusionment and cynicism amongst the inhabitants of these systems: which in turn leads to more betrayal and more moral failure. “He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary.”
I believe this is not untypical of many peoples underlying view of life, a sort of post-modern cynical Stoicism, it is just that Le Carré expresses it with greater clarity. As he once said, “If you see the world as gloomily as I see it, the only thing to do is laugh or shoot yourself.“ As most people understandably want to live, then amusing ourselves about the cynicism of life is the only remaining strategy. Hence the popularity today of comedy
So where does that leave Christians?
1. Let us be honest. Christianity has simply no place in most people's lives. It is irrelevant. You might as well ask the average person what they think of phrenology. It is not that most people are convinced Dawkinsites. We make a grave mistake if we think that. Rather we are not part of their world, and therefore we are irrelevant. But this is an opportunity for us. How do we offer something relevant? By being radically indeed revolutionarily different: not betraying, disillusioned, and cynical but loyal, hopeful, and trustworthy. The church is sadly often not like that: but if it is full of the Holy Spirit then it can be! And when it is like that then it can be highly attractive. Ultimately the Le Carré world is fundamentally repellent: it is deeply depressing and repellent. But I would suggest that he is a prophet of our times, for he saw not only the moral bankruptcy of Cold War espionage (whilst ignoring at times just how evil the Soviet system was) but also the moral bankruptcy post the soviet collapse of the victorious capitalism system itself. See for example many of his later novels such as “The Constant Gardener” where the global pharmaceutical giant is betraying the unknowing African “guinea pigs” for its own end.
2. Certainly, any attractiveness is not going to come from the church if it is communicating as a typical power institution: for we see in his work that the ever-growing distrust in institutions, so typical of our age, absolutely includes the church in its traditional institutional role. If the church is acting, as it was seen by Le Carré, as simply another means of controlling other people, then it will inevitably be undermined in the long run by the same cynicism which is destroying trust in other institutions. Instead, the church must be willing as it was in the first century to be not a “big” top-down typical institution which is secretive and powerful, seeking to control other people, but a counter-cultural decentralized “small” grassroots, volunteer, transparent, bottom-up movement, offering something radically different and attractive to a cynical world. This also means being honest and open about our own sins and failings: for otherwise, we are at risk of becoming a Le Carré institution where the truth is sacrificed for the greater good.
3. We have something to offer to a gloomy Le Carré world which I believe is rather attractive. Even the author felt this. Talking interestingly about Judaism and Israel he said, “I am no different from any other artist anywhere in the world who feels himself an outsider in his own country and believes there’s another country somewhere else where he will be happier and safer.”
We are ambassadors from that other country and what a country it is!
For the betrayed, we can say: we have someone who has been there, who was also betrayed, who was set up to be murdered, just like a doomed, Le Carré mole, betrayed by his closest friend. The Betrayed knows your pain.
For the disillusioned, we can say: we have hope that we are not all trapped in a grey bleak institutionalized moral maze where one lie builds on another and one betrayal begets another and all roads lead to death. . We have been told the way out of the maze, another country where all are welcomed, who will enter.
For cynics, we can say: we have someone who is trustworthy. You will never be disappointed in him, he will never let you down or betray you and if you don’t believe us, please, try the Betrayed for yourself.
4.As Christians live in the culture, it is inevitable that some of that cynicism and disillusionment, that sense of betrayal, will seep into the church. Pastors are particularly prone to become disillusioned. They start out brightly but all kinds of things can shatter their initial enthusiasm. John Benton has recently written a helpful booklet which is called "Seven Disillusioned pastors" which I recommend very highly. Different things undermine different workers - John looks at Peter (disillusioned with himself), Cleopas (disillusioned with Christ), Elijah (disillusioned with ministry), John Mark (disillusioned by difficulties and others. Sometimes pastors feel betrayed by their own congregation or even members of their own family who turn on them or become alienated. I can remember my own father being deeply grieved when long-serving members of the congregation fell out with him and left. Some give up but it can just as easily make the leader cynical, mistrustful, always expecting the worst. Add the potent effects of Covid into an already toxic mix, it's no wonder so many pastors are struggling.
Church members can also become cynical and disillusioned. Sometimes they feel let down or betrayed by their own church, but perhaps the biggest weakness I see in the contemporary church is that we so easily become disillusioned with evangelism. We are cynical that anyone is really going to listen to us, doubtful that any of our friends are ever going to respond. Pearhsp the typical reaction in a Le Carré novel is a weary shrug of the shoulders
What do we need? We need encouragement. I heard about Holy Trinity Clapham which had a large banner made and hung on the side of the building, saying "Take heart". This I assume is a quote from John 16 where Jesus tells his disciples "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart I have overcome the world". We are in the same world and culture as George Smiley et al. We will have trouble, not least from our adversary the Devil. But Christ has the ultimate victory through his death and resurrection. We are on the winning side! We belong to a different country! These words should help us also to encourage each other. The more we encourage the faster we will shed cynicism. Yes we need to face the truth and sometimes the truth is depressing, but in the long run, the truth will be the triumph of Christ. There will be no cynicism in heaven! The vaccine to cynicism betrayal and disillusion is Christ and we are the NHS staff charged with distributing it. This life is a hard slog but in the long run, Christ will have the victory. Let us encourage one another with these words.
Christmas is so familiar, cosy and sentimental that we have mainly lost its meaning. For example, what was it like to receive the original message? It was like this?
"We were sitting on the floor and Coach Ek told us to quiet down and told us to stop speaking. ... It was actually real, there was someone there. I was really excited, I was shocked, and Coach Ek told me go down first.
"Why me first? Because I was the one holding a flashlight. So Coach Ek told me to hurry, to go down, because he heard someone's voice.
"We were scared. I was scared to go down myself. I took the flashlight, so I went down and I said hi to him. I said hello to him. He was still diving. ...
"When I went down, I immediately said: 'Hello, is there anyone there?' “
As you may remember this was the incredible and moving story of the Thai boys and their coach rescued underground more than 2 1/2 miles from the cave mouth. In particular I’d suggest the following
How did the boys and their coach feel - joy, amazing, pure joy. One minute it looked like all hope was gone the next a rescuer arrived and everything changed. “Behold I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all the people”.
They were alive and had food and light they could live but there was no ultimate hope given their circumstances. eventually, they would die it was just a question of time. Hope and rescue had to come from outside. They couldn’t save themselves. The people outside had to be motivated to help them: not saying "their own fault for being so careless" but loving them enough to be willing to save them. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son"
Outside help was being assembled on a scale they simply couldn’t imagine. There were over 10000 rescuers and the whole world was watching. At Christmas it’s even bigger: it’s the entire universe. "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel"What did the boys have to do ? (for they of course were at the point above only found, not yet rescued ). They had to “believe” the divers, follow the rescuer's instructions to get out, however strange they found them. The rescuer knew how to get out but the boys had no clue. "the shepherds said to one another 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing which happened which the Lord has told us about"The rescuers were willing to die to get the boys out and in fact two did die (one drowned and one died of a disease they picked up in the cave system). Here there is a difference with Christmas for the tiny baby in the manger came not only with the possibility of death but the certainty of it being the only way to get the rescued (us) out. "you see at just the right time Christ died for the ungodly"
How did the boys feel: to put it mildly they were thankful to their rescuers ! No doubt they had a party to celebrate. And so should we. "The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen"
Thanks to our Rector Angus for setting me thinking about the Thai boys and Christmas !
My friend Philip Eveson in his excellent commentary says that this psalm has particularly been encouraging or used before departing on a journey or leaving loved ones behind.
When you go in for a major operation you are doing both. You are on your own except for busy medical staff and of course, you are about to become unconscious so you don’t even know what’s happening. Your loved ones can’t be in the hospital during Covid
With small children, we repeat comforting phrases when they are afraid and crying. “Don’t cry”, “there there” and so on. There is a comfort in this gentle repetition and there is a comfort here in gentle repetition. “He who keeps” “keeper” and “watches” are all part of the same word and are used 6 times while “my help” and “slumber” are used twice each
Philip compares this repetition to climbing a stair and that’s apposite as this psalm and the psalms around it would have been recited by the Pilgrims climbing the paths up to Jerusalem. They are the “songs of ascent”. We may be walking in the valley of the shadow of death but we can see beyond the valley there are hills with a welcoming home. More than that we are promised that the very maker of the valley and the hills will in time take us out of the valley.
But now we are in the valley: for example in Covid and specifically when we go through an operation or treatment. As we lie helpless on the hospital trolley, looking at the rather boring hospital ceiling, doctors and nurses look down on us - kindly to be sure and I’m very grateful for their medical care - but they are in the end people just like us. The Christian has help of course from medical staff (and should be grateful!) but our ultimate help comes on an entirely different scale. We can look to the creator of the universe, to God.
First of all the Psalmist speaks. The Lord he remembers is first of all the maker of heaven and earth. He created everything from nothing, both the earth and the whole universe. He is if we trust in him, “my help”
Then comes another person's voice in the psalm: perhaps that of friends and family and fellow Christians. They comfort us “fear not,” they say for God will not:-
Let your foot slip.
I am very clumsy and am always tripping over my own feet I used to be a nightmare on the ski slope. I certainly didn't miss a career as a surgeon! Happily, God is not like that he is always sure-footed and no accidents can befall God
Slumber or sleep.
In an operation, we of course are insensible and are utterly helpless and reliant on others. We have not the slightest clue of what is going on. God is not like that at all: the maker of the universe who watches over us will never forget something or miss anything. On the contrary, he is always attentive, always watching. Yes, attentive to everything but above all to his children.
Positively, he is your “keeper”
Because of that in all the uncertainty and fears of life, God is able to deal with the whole gamut of potentially harmful events. The “sun and the moon” poetically speaks of all the days and of all the time: and by extension of all the possible things in life that are harmful and troubling. God can deal with them all. He shades us from any harmful effects of danger. He is equal to every emergency. He will keep us from all harm. He will watch over our life. No evil may ultimately harm us.
Three times we have this mighty promise that “the Lord “ (Yahweh) will keep us. Not just for yesterday and today and tomorrow but for all time. No hour of the day and no day of our life will we be forgotten or partially protected. He is perfect and nothing can damage his care.
Before we finish an obvious question arises: well then can I expect a life of joy, good things, and happiness and to die painlessly in my bed aged 100? Can we expect simply to sail effortlessly from strength to strength? And are these promises all automatic in some Panglossian paradise?
No. The psalm acknowledges and is realistic that there is evil in the world and there are many things that can and do albeit temporarily harm us. Not least the evil in our own hearts. Each one of us must eventually die for the wages of sin is death. This is bad news.
But here is the (infinitely greater!) good news: if God is our “soul keeper”: if we place our soul, our very being and all that we are into his hand, if we repent and trust him that he will forgive us for the evil within us for the sake of his Son, then indeed we are utterly and eternally safe. He may well lead us onto some very dark paths, with terrible enemies, but God not only watches over us there, he also knows what walking along those paths was like. The Lord Jesus went through suffering to the cross and “slumbered in the grave”, we may say, and the Father then raised him (Galatians 1:1) and reversed the death sentence on him. But what assurance for us - for while the body of the man Jesus lay in the tomb, Gods watching and keeping was just the same.
In the same way, if we trust in Christ's death and resurrection, in his power to keep us, then when we slumber either in an operation or just asleep, He will hold us fast. Both for this time and forevermore
This fascinating book slays a number of myths: that Luther defines the Reformers attitude towards Jews or conversely that Protestants were all about tolerance to Jews and Catholics all about the Inquisition.
Jews were in Europe a very small and at times persecuted minority. At the beginning of the Middle Ages most Jews lived under Muslim rule (where they were generally tolerated). Increasing emigration occurred - but not into England and France where Jews were banned, as they were in various parts of the Holy Roman Empire such as Vienna and cologne, and Zurich. Around 1% of Europe’s population was Jewish in 1500. This increase in Jews in Christian lands was accompanied by a nascent revival in interest in Hebrew through the Renaissance. This is easy though to overstate. Erasmus the High Priest of Renaissance humanism was an anti semite “if it is Christian to detest the Jews on this count we are all good Christians”
Some date the Reformation not from 1517 but from 1492 - the expulsion of Jews (by far the biggest concentration at that time in Europe) from Spain. The underlying concerns argues Austin were the same: anxiety over who exactly was a Christian and a determination to root out heresy. At around the same time for similar reasons, the Venetian authorities restricted Jews to a specific area - probably the foundry or “geto”. These were ways by the authorities of confining but also protecting the Jews from attacks by overzealous church authorities.
Growth in Hebrew studies was remarkable. In 1500 nowhere taught Hebrew, yet by mid-century pretty much every university - both Catholic and Protestant - did (and there were many more universities to choose from ). Many reformers became passionate advocates of learning Hebrew. Robert Wakefield the first person to teach Hebrew in England said that even the King himself believed that “that no one will make any progress in the scriptures without a knowledge of Hebrew”
Early Luther was not a fan of learning Hebrew nor did he learn it himself. But he did advocate respect for the Jews “we are aliens, they are blood relatives of the Lord.. the Jews are nearer to Christ than we are”. He spoke of the importance of being kind to the Jews - not toleration for its own sake but for the sake of converting them. Discrediting Catholicism was also vital. If the Jews finally embraced the new religion that would prove the errors of the old.
Though finding out what Jews thought of the reformation is not easy the evidence points to an enthusiastic response. They were certainly impressed by Luther's gentleness and kindness. But sadly this initial optimism would not last long.
Interestingly, one of the results of the interest in Judaism was a focus on the Sabbath (to be observed much more strictly) and even in some anabaptists to move Sunday to Saturday. Indeed it was concern about this trend that bought Luther later in life, with disastrous consequences for posterity, back to the topic of the Jews. He seemed not only worried about anabaptists being influenced by Jews but rather frustrated by what had not happened, that Jews had not converted. Sadly he went far beyond frustration. In his most infamous passages, he repeated the vilest and infamous ( Catholic) Jewish slanders about child murder and other false charges. He urged rulers to “set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever see a stone or cinder of them again”.
Other Lutherans did not share Luther's wicked invective. His successor Melanchthon shortly after Luther's anti-Semitic rantings, intervened to protect Jews in the Protestant territory of Brandenburg. Other examples occur and thankfully Luther’s appalling views were not shared by most Lutherans, let alone most reformers.
In Geneva, one sign of renewed interest in Judaism was children’s names. Saints names were banned and OT names were de rigeur. (My father who gave all his children Jewish first names - as did we - would have approved !). Such names were intended to convey an identification with the people of Israel. Calvin was aware of Luther's views but actually said relatively little about the Jews. He had a close friend Tremellius who was a converted Jew and he repeatedly defended him when he was attacked for being of Jewish blood. (Tremellius and other Christian writers started to write and translate books in Hebrew for Jews and these often took a friendly line “bountiful and ever-increasing greetings..dear brothers “ began one work ). Attacks on converted Jews (as pretending only) were common in Protestant and Catholic countries, especially in places like Spain where many had converted for fear of the inquisition.
In Calvin's commentaries on the OT, he frequently speaks of the Jews of those times in high terms “the firstborn in the family of God”. But in other places, he spoke in a more hostile way of contemporary Jewish biblical interpretation especially those rabbis who felt Christians overplayed the messianic character of OT prophecies. Writing for example of Psalm 72 he warned “ we must be wary of giving Jews the opportunity of making an outcry as if it were our purpose to apply to Christ those things which do not apply to him”. Austin notes in conclusion that it is difficult to tell whether Calvin’s more benign attitude reflects a friendlier underlying attitude or different circumstances for there were no Jews in Geneva. Perhaps both.
One important element in reformed thinking (which we see in names) was the increasing identification of the people of God with the children of Israel. Sometimes this was for individual rulers such as Josiah for Edward VI of England but it was much more than that. The Bible and an increased interest in the OT were of course very important but a deep influence were the frustrations that the Reformation was slowing and in some cases being reversed. Just as the Israelites suffered hardships and went into exile so did the Calvinists. This of course made for respect for Jews in general - even if less so for the Jews of their day.
Meanwhile what of the Catholic response? The Jesuits were famous for the number of Jewish converts they employed. Earlier in the sixteenth century there were a number of efforts to reach out to Jews in a friendly way (to convert them but the tone was notable) but as time went on these efforts became harsher and especially under Pope Paul IV many of the indignities such as badges (often yellow) and ghettos and restrictions on work were harshly implemented. The goal was conversion: make life unpleasant for Jews and they will convert. In parallel, there was related burning of Jewish books especially the Talmud. These papal or inquisition anti-Jewish led efforts were to some extent tempered, suggests Austin, by the powerful rulers of city-states, for whom having Jews in ghettoes means you could better manage them and even at times protect them, not persecute them. Exemptions and non-compliance were very common and some rulers went out of their way to attract Jewish emigrants to bolster their merchant classes. In general relations in Italy between ordinary citizens and Jews seemed to have been cordial even friendly at times. The same very confusing pattern was true elsewhere. Some countries notably Spain had a harsh attitude and in general, the Catholic church was hostile, but powerful rulers such as Ferdinand of Bohemia (who was also tolerant to his Protestant subjects) actually attracted many Jewish immigrants to Prague and other places in his empire. There was no monolithic “Catholic” or indeed “Protestant” attitude to their Jewish populations
As the reformation period continued into the second half of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century, historians have often talked about “confessionalization”. This inelegant phrase covers not only the process of publishing confessions (Catholic and Protestant) but a closer link between church and state and much greater monitoring and interference into the everyday religious life of subjects. At the same time, there was a “professionalization” of clergy with the foundation of seminaries and universities and a major effort to train and develop clergy. On the one hand, this intensified the interest in Hebrew (both in Catholic and Protestant areas) as well as the development of what we might be called “Jewish ethnography” - books often written by Christians about Judaism, some of which were written sympathetically. At the same time, it also left Jews in a rather strange and ambiguous status. Sometimes in cosmopolitan cities as in say Prague all three main religions existed side by side in what we might call “multiculturalism”. True religious tolerance in the modern sense stresses Austin hardly existed but in some places “live and let live” began to take root. But in others, places both Catholic and Protestant (but much more the former because that’s where the large majority of Jews lived) the drive for conformity forced more restrictions. Spain is an obvious example. In general, however, on both sides of the religious debate Jews were (perhaps ironically) regarded in a less hostile way than the “other” lot of Christians.
This translated into complex politics. In Frankfurt for example the main tension was between Calvinists and Lutherans. Ironically representatives of the former group in 1614 reprinted Luther's diatribes to create riots and expel the large Jewish population partly as a tactic against the elite, only for the Catholic emperor to intervene execute the ringleaders and restore the Jews. Meanwhile, in Prague (supposedly tolerant) the Catholic crackdown led to Protestants but not jews being expelled.
In general in these complex times, however, the trend was for Jews to migrate from the more hostile Catholic south (especially Iberia) to the Protestant north (especially Holland). However to add a twist to a certain extent this was despite the Dutch reformed church, not because of it. Holland and especially Amsterdam and its environs were the places for all kinds of refugees (most famously the Pilgrim Fathers). The city authorities allowed the Jewish refugees to settle and even discreetly helped them build a synagogue. The reformed clergy on the other hand were unsympathetic and many Calvinistic theologians advocated a repressive policy towards Jews. The Dutch Calvinistic welcome was the product of the city government and certainly not of the church.
Meanwhile, in those troubled times (the 30 years war and the English civil war) a strong strain of messianic and millennial expectancy grew in both Jewish and especially Protestant circles. Feverish calculations of the expected date occurred using respectively the Kabbalah or Revelation. Various Jewish "messiahs" circulated including one who was even protected by the Pope (though the Holy Roman Emperor took a rather different view and executed him). The conversion of the Jews was a key element in Protestant millennial thinking, allied (especially in England amongst the Puritans) to an expectation that the Jews would return to the physical land of Israel.
Austin gives many interesting examples dating from the latter decades of the c16th and later of Puritan writers predicting that the Jews would return to Palestine - and more than that, that England would play a central role in this happening. (They were perhaps 300 years ahead of their time!). Not surprisingly this led to a huge outpouring of interest in England in the study of Hebrew and Jews in general. Again it’s important to note that this was not driven by some (anachronistic) modern-day adherence to “diversity” but a belief that the Jews were to be treasured because their return to Israel (and subsequent conversion) would bring the return of Christ. Some Puritans were convinced that the newly discovered American Indians were the lost 10 tribes of Israel
The Puritans were frequently attacked by their opponents as “Judaisers” and again their strict adherence to Sabbath observance was seized upon by their opponents to show that they were Jewish influenced heretics. One Puritan minister, John Traske, who was particularly keen on sabbath observance even had the letter “J” burned into his forehead by the authorities. Less painfully, the playwright Ben Jonson presented the audience with a stereotypical Puritan “Zeal of the land busy “ whom the other characters refer to as “Rabbi busy”
All this brings us eventually to Oliver Cromwell. Despite his (very unfair) reputation he was by the standards of his age highly tolerant and did not attempt to suppress Catholicism in his kingdoms. He summoned the Whitehall Conference in 1655 to consider readmitting Jews. The driving force behind it was Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel. This talented and unusual man became a prolific publisher and put huge efforts into proving to Christians that Judaism was not blasphemous and that Jews should be the friends of Christians, not their enemies. Menasseh traveled to England and met personally with Cromwell, whom he found highly sympathetic. By no means all the Puritan clergy though agreed with Cromwells wishes to readmit the Jews, so rather than an official announcement, an informal acceptance of Jewish migration became widely known, and buildings and cemeteries were quickly acquired and the Jewish community in England (which very happily remains to this day) began to grow.
There we must let the story rest. Austin’s book is easy to read, well-timed, and fascinating, and addresses a poorly researched part of the Reformation. To simplistically say Protestants loved Jews and Catholics hated them is wrong. There were relatively (by the standards of the day) tolerant Catholics in for example Italy and violently anti-Jewish Protestants (for example in Germany). What is striking is the renewed interest on all sides in Jews and especially in the study of Hebrew which was utterly transformed in both Catholic and Protestant universities. This in turn led to a genuine interest in Jews per se and in Judaism. The more you know a people the less likely you are to fall foul of lies such as the dreadful blood libels. By the end of the Reformation period, Holland and England were emerging (thanks to Calvinistic rulers but certainly not in the case of Holland especially, the clergy) as safe havens for Jews as well as places with a particular interest (which continued to this day if we look at the Puritan influence in America ) in the return of Jews to their ancestral home. But the main driver of increased tolerance (except perhaps in England) was often not the Protestant clergy but Calvinistic rulers, over the objections of their ministers.
I hope this book appeals both to fellow Christians wanting to understand more about our complex and at times utterly shameful and appalling history (not just Catholics) towards the Jews and to my Jewish friends to whom we can only apologize for the terrible mistakes of the past, whilst hoping that the improvement in relationships, which was notable by the end of the Reformation, can continue and deepen.
The Hebrew word translated into English “only” or “alone” occurs six times in this Psalm, each time at the beginning of the verse for emphasis. The psalmist encourages us to trust, rest, rely on God alone (v 1,5, 8). What is God like? It takes the writer a while to get there as he wrestles with his troubles, but by the end, he says that God is full of mercy and love and full of power (v 11 and 12).
How should we behave when we are threatened and afraid? Sometimes we must wait (v1). None of us like waiting. Cancer treatment consists in waiting around for hours, sometimes for days. You get to the hospital have tests and wait. The tests eventually come back and then you wait for your oncologist to get them and interpret them. Finally, sometimes the results of the tests mean you have to wait again and come back the next week when your blood results have reached the right level. Its endless waiting.
Here the Psalmist is waiting for God. Why? Because as we saw, he alone can rescue us. He is worth waiting for. Does this mean that we will be rescued or healed now? We may be: but we can be absolutely sure that if we trust him, that we will be saved in the end. In the meantime, we will be moved as the Psalmist was, because we are human but we will not be moved much or dangerously ( v2): Spurgeon compares our state to a ship swinging at anchor, moving yes with the tides but ultimately secure.
The Psalmist has enemies (v 3 and 4) who want to destroy him. When we are ill, we have microbes or cells that want to harm us. That’s perhaps easier to bear than human opponents, but whatever the threat posed to us, we may well feel like a tottering wall or a fence on the verge of collapse (v3). It’s only a matter of time before the whole thing collapses: the next breath of wind should finish it off. Often in cancer, you feel like that.
Again, the Psalmist makes the same point (v5,6): this time he is “talking to himself”. I do that often and I suspect many people do! The Psalmist talks to himself, encourages himself, to trust in God and as he does that he is strengthened, for this second time he is not moved at all. He personally appropriates his God (v7) - “my salvation and my glory. “ A theoretical God would be remote and impersonal and of little use. What we need and what we have is a personal God who is near to each one of us. This is not selfish but amazing - that the infinite creator God knows and cares for each of his children. How do we get into his family? "Trust and obey for there's no other way"
This personal near at hand God is a trustworthy God - we can rely on him “at all times” (v8) which is how the writer ends up, encouraging not only himself but everyone. “Come and join me,” he says! And he also encourages everyone to pour out their hearts to God. This is perhaps the opposite and the pair of waiting: now the writer lets God have everything that he is feeling, he holds nothing back. We cannot hide anything from God anyway so we must tell him how we feel: more than that to pour out without limit our feelings and emotions into his hands.
There is no point trusting elsewhere. When everything else gives way - as it surely will - he only is immoveable. People of all types and backgrounds may disappoint us, even those very close to us, life is bedeviled by sin and corruption and most of all we will for sure disappoint ourselves (v9 and 10) . Only God can provide rest for our restless wanderings
Finally like a lot of Psalms, it points us to Christ. Verses about people assaulting the King and seeking through lies to bring him down from his lofty place remind us of the way that Jesus was betrayed by his friends. Both those such as Judas who pretended to love him but in fact hated him and his disciples who did sort of love him, even if feebly, but couldn't even watch and pray for an hour. . As Christ dies, accomplishing his purpose of offering us a way back to God, he too placed his trust into the hands of the Eternal Father. So must we do, for he alone is trustworthy. We may surely come home to the Eternal Father through trust in our Lord Jesus
The more I investigated Christianity, the more my conviction grew and the more my search deepened for further understanding. However, in my day-to-day life I realized that to go forward, I needed not to just be interested by the evidence, but to trust it intellectually, spiritually and experientially.
How has my tug of war between faith and doubt developed? My faith is now firmly in the lead, owing firstly to my trust in the truth of Christianity. I'm no longer unsettled by the absence of secular-type proof. The euphoria of having enough circumstantial evidence, coupled to what God reveals to me more and more as I continue on the journey, makes my Christian walk extremely fulfilling and hugely intellectually stimulating.
Oxford University theologian Alister McGrath, when interviewed recently about the writing of his latest book, an autobiographical work entitled "Through a Glass Darkly: Journeys through Science, Faith and Doubt - A Memoir", said that he'd started out life as an atheist, but when he finally sought to understand Christianity and to know the Bible, he became a Christian after a process of about a year. He stated that Christianity makes sense of life, and while he couldn't prove Christianity to be true, based on his findings and conclusions he trusts it to be true.
Intellectually I feel more and more able to accommodate and deploy both faith and reason in developing the depth of my Christian belief. I have a great hunger for Christian intellectualism and I find that the pursuit of faith and reason together enable me to trust in a way that I've never been able to before. It's a very liberating feeling.
French mathematician, physicist, philosopher and theologian, Blaise Pascal (who lived from 1623 to 1662 - more on him in subsequent articles), wrote:
"One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. Some men run counter to these three principles, either affirming (i.e. claiming certainty) that everything can be proved, because they know nothing about proof, or doubting everything, because they do not know when to submit (i.e. have faith), or always submitting because they do not know when judgment is called for."
Pascal elevated the discourse on Christian apologetics to a whole new level. He brings home to us that there's a balance involved between the existence of reason and faith, and to have one to the outright exclusion of the other is to deny the need for the application of both, either simultaneously or separately.
That has been hugely complemented by the way I have come to trust Christianity spiritually as well. I had an imaginary friend in my infancy, conjured up by my vivid childhood imagination, and I thought that the Holy Spirit isn't real enough in my life to enable me to experience Him as a reality and that I'd have to imagine Him instead, which would, of course, negate my belief in His existence. However, as my relationship with God grows stronger, my sense of God's indwelling presence in the form of the Holy Spirit grows stronger too.
God has set life up as a journey, a puzzle to be worked out as we grow, as we mature and as we seek. We all embark on the journey the moment we're born, and whether we take a secular route or a Christian walk, we ask the same questions, viz "Why are we here?" and "What's it all about?" My journey has taught me experientially that only Christianity provides the answers to these questions.
To trust in the truth of Christianity because you're convinced it's true, and to do so with the full freedom of choice that we have, is very liberating, and it opens up a whole new world to us. Our belief in God would be meaningless and insincere if we were programmed by Him to believe in Him and to love Him. He has given us the freedom to come to our own conclusion based on the evidence, using the gifts of faith and reason. He has created us with the ability to decide for ourselves whether we'll trust Him for who He is, and above all, for how he’s shown his love for us through Jesus.
It's important that the evidence for Christianity is such that it requires us to decide about its truth on a balance of probabilities because having proof that is as certain as the kind we associate with physical life, would force us to acknowledge the existence of God. Instead, He has provided everyone with the opportunity to experience the movement of our hearts that's so pivotal in developing the trust to become a believer.
I went through a very long period of my life without any doubts at all about my belief in Christianity.
In fact, having grown up in a Christian home and having gone to church all my life, my belief was so strong that there was a time when I derisively chided others who felt they needed proof for the truth of Christianity. "You can't prove it", I would say, "because it's a belief. And proof and belief are like different disciplines, different approaches. You simply can't subject it to an evaluation in the same way you can subject some things in this world to rational proof."
I've since realised I was wrong.
It's of course common for Christians to have doubts about their faith. Mine first surfaced when I encountered real and serious suffering in my life. It started with the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness when my sons were infants and didn't even know me. I thought I'd never live long enough to see them grow up, to help them on their way, to give them a deep personal sense of my boundless love for them.
Until I hit the buffers, I'd been reasonably successful throughout my life: at school, in sport, in the military, at university and in my business career. Throughout these "happier years", albeit many spent working in the Canary Wharf cauldron of long hours and great pressure, I never doubted the existence of God. However, it was only after one of my very same sons, whose future I worried I would never see, fully explained the cross to me for the first time in my life that I learnt what it means to come to faith and to be "in Christ".
As illness and personal instability were becoming daily mountains to climb, I can only explain the impetus that I had to want to know more and to understand more, by believing that the Holy Spirit used my circumstances to create this desire within me, at a time when I was well into my fifties.
One of the great ironies of my life is that when my early-life faith was still an unquestioning belief, simply because I'd been born into it, I was only a nominal Christian. This is often the belief status of those born into Christian homes. For years I'd heard pastors say from pulpits that "Jesus died to save us from our sins" without once ever knowing what this really meant, as it was too succinct a summary of salvation for me to grasp its real meaning. To know why Jesus died to save me, I had first to understand why I needed saving. After all, I reasoned, I'd always been a "Christian", and a "good person" and God favoured Christians and kept them from suffering and harm and setbacks, didn't He?
I now know that it was only because of my lack of knowledge of the Bible that I held this misguided belief. My walk to humility was facilitated by the humbling effect of suffering.
Over time, the loss of my health, my position of seniority at work, and then eventually my entire career and my marriage of 28 years, provided all that was necessary to threaten my complete destruction. The onslaught of illness wrecks lives, homes, families and the will to live, and I wasn't spared.
Despite coming to Christ, I found that the effects of brokenness and damage caused by what I'd been through made me doubt my belief and my faith more than at any time in my life. Given the suffering I'd gone through, this doubt should've been understandable and expected, but it in fact created a deep sense of guilt within me, which compounded my difficulties.
No matter what I did, I couldn't shake the guilt off because the doubts persisted. I held onto my faith, but only just. This was where another irony of my earlier life of nominal Christianity played out. My deep-seated family background from childhood days kept me holding on to my faith. The memory of my parents and grandmother and their unwavering faith when they were up against it in life, strengthened me and showed me the power of perseverance in the face of adversity.
Daily, mind-numbing loneliness bore down on me, giving me on some days a burden too heavy to carry. On those days, I'd simply sob in the silence of the night, alone and broken.
Despite my circumstances, throughout this time I continued to go to church and I read my Bible daily, properly for the first time, realising just how much is in it and how much is to be gained by knowing its contents.
One of the first lessons of the many I've learned from studying the Bible is that belief in Christianity isn't blind faith, it's evidence-based faith. One of the ways I came to understand this was by realising what the New Testament actually tells us. The eyewitness accounts of Jesus's life, earthly ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension are compelling. Abductive reasoning (the most likely conclusion from a set of observations), as well as the actual reasoning of great human intellectuals, past and present, steers us powerfully to the conclusion that the events recorded were the most likely of all the possibilities, and that Christianity holds the highest position of meaning and purpose in our lives.
Alright, so I held on, but only just! How would I go forward from here? What would come about to convince me of the truth of Christianity?
I posted various blogs calling for churches to shift resources towards technology and online and got the response “OK: what specifically should we spend money on? How do we reach people”
I got input in this question from a whole range of people and churches whom I think have good ideas: notably Glen Scrivener, Sam Anderson of Oldham Bethel (not a large or rich church) and Dan Rackham of Go Chatter, plus some ideas of my own. All ideas you like are theirs and the bad ones are mine !
I appreciate that some churches have mainly elderly people and I’m not holding online out as a panacea. I also very much appreciate that many pastors and vicars are exhausted and don't have much energy to do lots of new things. These suggestions are designed to be small and easy to implement.
I’m simply arguing that churches in aggregate spend far too little on online and social media. I would guess most evangelical churches spend less than 5% on it (and also spend little on outreach in general). Most businesses spend far more on outreach, trying to persuade new customers. Some people may not like spending money on advertising but I assume churches have notice boards - if you want to reach people who don’t come to church then social media is a modern notice board.
My main overall suggestions are
1. A word that we rarely hear but I believe that’s the way the apostles in Acts worked - “be entrepreneurial”. Take some risks. Try something new. Experiment. Reach out to those who don’t think about the Christian faith from one day's end to the next. Think about “how can we reach the 99 lost sheep - it’s good to care for the 1 or 2 found sheep but what about the lost? If it doesn’t work then try something else.
2. Learn from others. There are many churches that do a good job with a tiny budget. Ask other churches about their experience. Nobody minds other churches copying their good ideas.
3. Release the creativity in the congregation. Many people will have far more experience in social media and marketing than the average pastor or vicar. Let them have a go. I believe that many churches have people with lots of social media expertise but don’t use them.
1. Case Study: Oldham Bethel
Let’s start with Sam Anderson in Oldham a very deprived area and a church with a very small budget . I find it so encouraging what they have done.
“ Here's what we did. We asked for help from lots of different churches. We listened & learned, we made a plan with clear, measurable goals, showed it to a few people, the elders discussed and refined it. We put money to work on advertising. We reviewed the stats on what worked, discussed, adapted & tried again."
- "We asked apologetic questions that people in our context genuinely want answering."
- "We had a dedicated person to respond well to *all* comments. We tried to encourage discussion around any voiced objections."
- "It's a long term game, plan many ads to build awareness before 'conversions'."
- "Plan a good budget for your ads. £50-100 can put you in front of 5k-10k people."
- "Spread your budget evenly. Smaller regular ads (max every 2 weeks) will do better than one massive ad."
- "Use analytics on your website to track new visitors because of your ads."
"Last note on social media ads: FB etc will try to show your ad to people who they think will like it...often that's just other Christians! Use ad audience settings like 'exclude your page likers' to try and counteract this."
2. Reaching people
Promoting Evangelistic Events
Get your speaker to do a short video "trailer" aimed at people who might be interested. For example, I (Jeremy) do one for 90 seconds aimed at guests, just introducing myself and covering what I will be talking about. I also do a longer one for the church of say 4-5 minutes, going into more detail about whom the event is aimed at. Use the former to encourage your congregation to invite people personally by email (the best) or if they prefer (second choice) simply post it on their social media and say "please join".
Sadly organic reach on Facebook is now at an all-time low - some people estimate that as an organisation you post on your Facebook page only 4% of your followers will see your post. This used to be much higher and so it has forced many companies to put money behind promoting their posts. It would be worth a church spending some budget on Facebook geo-targeting which will enable a church to promote their service, event or post to those in their community who live nearby. Facebook gives you the analytical tools to be able to measure the success of your paid promotion so that you can decide what sort of posts perform best and how best to spend your marketing/promotion budget in the future.
YouTube Video Adverts
Many churches are running a premiered service or streaming to YouTube. A church could create a short video advert which they then put money behind promoting as a video advert on YouTube with the aim of promoting your channel or encouraging more views on your Sunday services. YouTube offers a variety of types of ads such as skippable in-stream ads, non-skippable in-stream ads, and video discovery ads. A church can define a custom location by radius, a city or postcode to see the advert or a church could target audiences who have already interacted with their other videos, or their website. With all both of these paid promotional options it's possible to spend a small amount and gauge whether it is working before either refining your post/advert or your targeting.
Google Ads Grant - Google for Non-Profit
Some churches have signed up for the Google for Non-Profit scheme. One of the benefits is access to a google ads grants budget each month. This grant could be used for more traditional pay per click ads as well.
3. Content and equipment
“The 2 videos in this Twitter thread are excellent: https://twitter.com/glenscrivener/status/1316322589552373765?s=20. Sam (NB a different Sam!) is from the New Frontiers church in Eastbourne, Kings — so they have an entrepreneurial mentality. Many churches might think that this would be "this is too technical/expensive" but I think the challenge will be good for them.
Investing £5k in live broadcasting gear seems very important to me so that you can do hybrid services to a decent quality and free people up from having to edit together Sunday pre-recorded services (which ends up being a much more resource-consuming route).
Over the last 8 months, many churches have been able to make do with the equipment that congregation members have. If a church plans to continue running an online service now is a good time to invest in buying a better camera, good quality microphone and lighting equipment. With a relatively small budget, a church can purchase a set up that will give a really good image and audio quality."
Glen goes on to suggest that “Finding the keenest Facebookers in your congregation seems important — give them the keys to the account and set them loose.”
Webinars are great as they are very accessible to non-Christians. (Invest in a decent camera or 2 and use them as your webcams. A couple of good lights too and a couple of decent USB mics).
Keep running courses such as CE/Alpha/123 online (as well as in person when possible). Such courses are proving very successful
All this assumes that your website is up to date - which if it’s not then it’s high time it was! For a £1k investment you can get a lot. "
Content for your online services
Church's could purchase short Christian video clips to use in their online service. A number of sites out there catered more to a US audience but Go Chatter for example has a good catalogue of videos mostly from the UK. These videos can be downloaded and streamed in online services. Most of their videos are actually free but they are starting to gather more video content for online services which is paid for as they work towards being a sustainable ministry. www.gochattervideos.com
Covid Christmas Online Service Packs
Go Chatter to take one example have been releasing in the last few days resources which will have lots of helpful elements for an online Christmas service. One of the packs they are working on will include a video read-along of a nativity book, a nativity play acted by children and a customisable service intro, outro, social media advert and static images. The plan is to provide lots of the resources needed to pull together an online nativity service.
Videos receive much more engagement than static images and posts on social media. A church could spend some time filming a short promotional Christmas clip which they post to social media to publicise their Christmas services online and hopefully offline. Alternatively an easier and quicker way of doing that would be to use Go Chatter Customisable videos (www.gochattercustomvideos.com) Over the next 2 weeks they will be releasing their new Christmas range of customisable videos. Churches don’t need to have any video editing skills. Each video template has different scenes it's easy to add text to. Their website takes a couple of minutes to compile the video then it can be purchased for a small amount and downloaded. Churches can then include the video in their online services, post on social media sites or a church website.
I hope you find some of these ideas helpful and encouraging. Have a go! May God bless you in using technology for His glory.
We have a WhatsApp group of friends from the church we all grew up in. A bit shocking to think some of us have known each other for over 50 Years!
I hope you find this conversation encouraging. I especially recommend the story below about the friend in ICU. Truly in these strange times, God is at work and I believe there have never been so many opportunities for Christians, in a kind and compassionate way, to try and answer our friend's questions. I have anonymized the comments below
Of course, there are many many other and no doubt better things you can say. I am not setting this to as a model but to encourage us to help each other answer our friend's questions. My one advice is "Don't close the conversation down! Keep it going" (usually by asking them questions).
M started by saying
Im after some advice...I was asked by two non- Christian friends whether I thought the Coronavirus was a message or warning from God yesterday. I waffled my way through an answer re God in control of all things and creation... and was ill-prepared. Any thoughts on a clearer response I could share?
It's a difficult subject anyway, let alone to try to explain to non-Christian friends, let alone to do so off the cuff. So, don't feel bad. God can use our poor words.
This isn't a claim to be a "wise friend." But I'll give a suggestion.
Luke 13 the tower of Siloam is helpful. I wouldn't quote it, but would say that when people were killed in a disaster in the time of Jesus, he said we cannot directly say God did that because they were extra sinful. But we should learn from it that life is fragile and death comes to all. So it is a prompter to us to get right with God.
What is shaping my understanding of this is Revelation's description of trumpets. They are both judgments on a world in rebellion and warning signals calling people to repent. That would be underlying my answer, but I wouldn't try telling a non-Christian about Revelation's trumpets!
I was asked this same question and said “That as I believe in a God who in charge of everything; that means that everything that happens to us is a message from Him, it’s just that we don’t get what the message is most of the time. “
So undoubtedly coronavirus is a message and we should each think about what it means for us personally and for many of us, it is perceived as a warning.
I also likened it to how you manage a rebellious teenager, you may trying to change behaviour by love, opportunities to shine and blessings (and we’ve had plenty of those in the West) but if they continue to put themselves in danger we may end up having to shout more loudly over the trashy music they play to try and block us out!
Coronavirus has stripped away many of our escapes, many of which are legitimate things like joy of travel to admire creation, families, music, financial security etc but when they become ends in their own right and displace God they are wrong. God is giving many of us a chance to think about what is really important.
I agree with J though that we need to be clear that people who have died or lost relatives are absolutely no more sinful than others, including ourselves.
I (Jeremy) added
“I’d always talk about Jesus, M. And don’t worry it’s so easy afterwards to think “oh no, I should have said x or y”. God takes our weakness and feeble efforts and mistakes and fumbled answers and uses them for his glory
Some of you may think there’s too
much below about “its helpful for me” but I have found this a very useful approach. “Taste and see that the Lord is good”.
Here is what I would say of course there are hundreds of ways of answering it but whatever you do always end up with the Lord.
Affirm the questioner (great Q, thanks for asking )
I don’t honestly know why Covid is happening (which I think is the truth!)
If people die of Covid it’s not that they are being punished more than others (Siloam as J notes)
The world had gone wrong and is broken (“the fall” but you don’t need to use such “religious language”). Maybe say that it’s also partly our own fault eg trashing environment (“the wages of sin is death”)
What I find so helpful is that I see Jesus when I look at the eyewitness accounts I meet someone with the power over illness and even death. So though I don’t know what Gods up to though it is a reminder that life is fragile.
Anyway, I believe he sent his son to offer us hope and rescue in this crazy world. And I find that very helpful.
How about you - do you have any particular beliefs? (Keep the conversation going)
I also very much like J’s approach also which perhaps answers a slightly different question and you could introduce it as follows
“Strangely enough there was a terrible disaster in Jesus time when a tower collapsed killing many people and people asked him whether these people were being punished for their sins. He said no, but that it was a general wake up call for us - “that life is fragile and we need to get back/get right with God”
And I’d end with a question to keep the conversation going “does that make any sense? What do you think? “
B finally posted this
I would always take heart M in the fact that they have felt able to ask you in the first place...
(My husband) and I, as you know, have been positive for Covid and one of his friends has been in ICU with Covid. On the day that he was being transferred to ICU, he made a call to us...all he was able to say...as he was really struggling with his breathing was...“please can you pray for me..I’m so frightened!!“
He isn’t a Christian. Last night we received another call from him saying he was home..and although struggling with the aftermath of the virus he was ringing to ask if he could come to church with us....he had been transferred back to the Covid ward and in a room of 4 of them 2 died on Saturday night. He described to (my husband) how he had watched a guy calling his family on his iPad to say goodbye...all alone!
God's ways are truly mysterious but always sovereign!
CS Lewis has a quote which says something like God uses pain to shout at us...to jolt us into a sense of needing to hear....because naturally the last thing we want to do is hear!
How to think about evangelism and discipleship? How are the two connected? My friend Robert Strivens sent me some helpful thoughts on this from 1 Peter which I expand on belowRobert says
We tend to put ‘evangelism’ and ‘how we live’ into separate boxes, but the Bible sees them as closely connected.
Peter’s first letter shows this very clearly: the well-known command to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us (3:15) is in the middle of a lengthy exhortation to live godly lives.
This begins in 1:15-16, with the command ‘Be holy, as I [the Lord] am holy’.
It continues with a reminder that we are a chosen generation, a holy people ... (2:9-10)
He gives a general challenge to live radically different lives from the world around us (2:11-12)
And then deals with different life situations in which this needs to be worked out, e.g. citizens (2:13-17); servants (2:18-25); wives (3:1-6); husbands (3:7); everyone (3:8ff.).
Paul sees no conflict between urging the Christians to live radically distinctive lives (Eph. 4:17ff.) and asking them for prayer that he would have an open door for evangelism (Eph. 6:19-20). We should have the same attitude, but I fear we are sometimes drawn into thinking that, to be effective evangelistically, we need to be more like the world. We shouldn’t become weird or unnecessarily objectionable, of course, in our behaviour, but we should be very different, Paul thinks
Discipleship and evangelism the Bible sees as two sides of the same coin. To use Jesus's example we should be like salt, which immediately both adds flavour to the meal and delays decay or light which shines brightly in the darkness and enables people to see things as they really are. One reason, perhaps the main reason, why we find evangelism so difficult is that we haven't really moved on as we should in discipleship. Just exhorting Christian people "tell others about Jesus" is difficult if we are not living for Jesus, loving Jesus, and following Jesus as we should.
On the other hand the stronger our discipleship and our love for Christ, the more natural it will be. We all enthuse about many things because we love them. To take a totally absurd example, I enthuse about watching my football team, Watford, and greatly enjoy taking friends and family along to watch them. My sisters aren't big football fans but they came along to keep me happy (and actually quite enjoyed it!) Or if you don't like football then think of a great restaurant or a fantastic box set. It is just so natural to enthuse about it to others. Being natural and enthusiastic about something comes because you have experienced something - let's say a restaurant -and you love it "That place is amazing," you say "superb food, great service, beautiful building, and excellent value for money". The more you experience the place the more you want to tell others about it.
Why don't we do the same? Two reasons I suggest. We don't experience enough. our love for Christ (I certainly include myself here) is tepid and half-hearted. He is like an "ok" restaurant which we are very familiar with but don't feel is radically better than other places to eat. We are lukewarm: which is a dangerous position to be in as the church in Laodicea found out. The answer is to go deeper into Christ, to know him more, to love him more. To make godly living or central focus as Robert points out. To be "per se" very different to the people around us. The more we are in Christ the bigger the difference. We need to be changed by the Holy Spirit so that our characters and lives are more distinctive. (How to do that is a big subject - I am simply pointing out its something we must aim at)
But there is another difference which Robert also establishes. If you enthuse about a restaurant or a box set nobody is going to mind. Even if you recommend a Japanese restaurant and your friend replies "Oh I really don't like sushi" no offence is taken. But to recommend Christ is to take a risk of causing offence. Christians should look and feel radically different. But in practice, we are not that different to or non-Christian friends and on top of that, we are also afraid of being seen as different. One of these handicaps would be serious but could be overcome. For example, if we are very similar in character to our friends but conscious that we need to communicate the radical nature of our faith, we might be accused of being hypocrites but the message would get through. Or the reverse: we were radically different but afraid to say anything: we would be forced to confess our faith even if embarrassed to do so. But the lethal combination of the two together - lives that are very different and a reluctance to do what Rico Tice calls "crossing the pain line" is killing us.
So I suggest we need to as per Peter address both issues - evangelism and discipleship - together. And one can only grow if the other one does. Right now we are I fear in a vicious circle where our lack of distinctive lives means we won't talk about our faith. What I suggest we need to do with God's help is to create a virtuous circle where little by little our lives become more distinctive and also at the same time we start to be much more willing to talk about our faith. In a way, it doesn't matter where you start on the "heads and tails" "evangelism and discipleship" sides of the coin. I say this as one danger with evangelism is that we give up before we get started because we are very aware of our weak discipleship. But evangelism even if done in a weak way will help our discipleship because it is an essential part of the expression of discipleship with others. My experience is that the more you do evangelism the more natural and fun it becomes. Your faith grows. You think "actually I can do this, however weakly and feebly". God honours even feeble baby steps of obedience to his word and the stronger the right leg becomes as we totter forward on shaky legs the stronger the left one will become as it follows it. We need to keep in step with the Spirit on the two legs - evangelism and discipleship.
Firstly to define terms evangelist is someone who proclaims (tells ) other people about Christ. There is one evangelist mentioned in Acts, Philip, and he, we are told, proclaims Christ. The “office” of the evangelist is mentioned in Ephesians. Whatever we think about its exact applicability today I think all Christians would agree from the Bible that some are particularly called to tell others in a public context about Christ. Such people can both be pastors and “lay” people doing this, though I'm focusing here on evangelism outside the context of a church service (which certainly should include pastors).
A lady called Caz Pinder said this which I think is helpful "Evangelists are just ordinary Christian people living everyday lives, serving the Church and the word of God and showing love and acceptance to others, while speaking naturally about Jesus from the scriptures. I believe that there is a spiritual gift of connection and a big passion to spread the gospel to non-believers." "Speaking naturally about Jesus from the scriptures" is tremendous!
All of us are called to tell others about Christ and this must be the place to start. If we feel called by God and aspire to tell others in a more formal setting then surely we must start by telling others in an informal one. In some ways, it’s more challenging informally as you have to generate your own interest rather than relying on others to invite people. The way I would suggest to do this is to invite people to read the bible with you, using https://www.theword121.com/but there are many other ways. Simply starting a conversation is the easiest way of all!
Then pray. By ourselves, we can’t move anyone by one inch nearer to the Lord. We absolutely must rely on the Holy Spirit. We can do nothing without Him. We must also realise our own sinfulness and weakness. For God to use us we need to suppress our ego. Especially so if we start to do more and more evangelism and become “popular”. Pride is a very dangerous trap.
Know the Bible - not "Bible bashing" style but so you know it so well and are so immersed in it that you can drop the word in to any talk almost without knowing it. Here the "naturally" comment above comes to mind. The more natural and seamless and less "clunky" we can make our Bible us the better.
Next, if you feel you are called by God to tell others more publicly (which is the focus of this article rather than 121) then ask your church for confirmation and advice. This is an excellent general principle: whatever God lays on your heart check it with the people who (should) know you best - your local church. Test your gift. Practice. For example, in your church, you could form an evangelism and apologetics group. We did that in our church and each person in our group took turns in speaking on a given topic. Each person then received friendly feedback on their talk. This also meant that everyone had to prepare in advance their topic by reading around the question. In general feedback from a friendly but constructively critical source is invaluable. Ask for one thing you can improve in content and one in delivery. A common area for improvement is reading your talk. My suggestion is by all means write out your talk as a safety net but try at all costs not to read it out. Speed is another common issue: neither too fast nor plodding and monotonous. Like most things in life, practice tends to make perfect (or at least improves).
Let’s assume then after all that you want your first opportunity to speak. Here are two suggestions as to how to start:-
The easiest place to start is your youth group (I assume you have one!). Teenagers provide fantastic questions and won’t hesitate to poke holes in your carefully prepared arguments. I suggest you start by canvassing the teenagers on what they want to talk about or questions that they find difficult to understand
If that doesn’t work try open-air evangelism. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on that but my father certainly was having done it every other week for 40 years plus. I observed him for many years and I would give the following advice:-
- Find a good spot, with passing pedestrians but not blocking anything
- A soap box or similar to stand on can be good
- Have a sign saying who you are - stress local church
- Take a group with you who can chat to people
- Be prepared to be heckled and in fact heckling can be good as if not too objectionable) it can draw a crowd
- Short and catchy content repetition is ok. Be as natural as you can. This is not like preach in church - its far far harder!
- Don’t harangue the crowd (this is one of my pet hates - I admire the courage of any open air preacher but some I hear are hectoring and aggressive)
We can certainly learn from others both in terms of reading books and watching others though we also need to be ourselves and not try and copy others' style. Different evangelists will give us different ideas. Books will give us good scriptural and philosophical underpinning to our arguments. There are many such books here is my recent compendium https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/4817780181858837735/8691215302072940965. Try and think of the question you dread being asked and read widely around books which attempt to answer it. (Or watch youtube clips on it etc whichever you prefer)
We particularly need today a more diverse range of evangelists. We need more working-class, ethnic minority, youthful and women evangelists. Nay Dawson has written about the last group here. https://naydawson.com/2020/07/08/encouraging-female-evangelists/
Now I appreciate that in my readership there is a range of opinions on women’s exact role in church but I’m sure we would all agree that regardless of what we think about that there are many opportunities in any case outside a church context. Take for example universities as Nay mentions as a good example in the article. It’s equally important to bring in other people who look different to what the audience may be expecting. Rather than someone like me, a young black working-class woman to take an example is exactly what a sceptical audience won’t be expecting.
How to move beyond these first steps? This is perhaps the biggest challenge. There is a problem I see most weeks: many churches longing to find speakers and new speakers longing to have the first step. It is a sad paradox.
One of the things I am working on is to revive “A Passion for Life“ which some of you may recall was a major evangelistic effort 10 years ago. One part of that we want to see revived is a list of recommended evangelistic speakers. Watch this space. Otherwise, I’d suggest for those wanting to speak to keep patiently seeking opportunities, in the first place in your local area. They may be small and insignificant opportunities but that’s ok - from tiny acorns come mighty oaks. Or to put it another way you have to do the village halls before you can play the West End. Word of mouth recommendation is the best way but it can be very slow. Ask well known evangelists for ideas and introductions. Pray. Post your talks on social media. God will find a way.
May God send us many more evangelists. I shall write next on how to speak evangelistically.
If I look at the churches reaction to lockdown and COVID I see two main reactions:
1. Legal and practical: what are the rules? Do we agree with them? How do we comply with them? Some of us feel strongly that they should be relaxed or even eliminated while others disagree
2. Theological: what does the Bible say about gatherings? Is online or virtual church still church? Can we take communion online?
These questions are legitimate and worth discussing.
However, I wonder if we are “missing the wood for the trees”. What are the new possibilities this disruption is creating and are we taking them? Or are we focusing only on compliance and risk and missing opportunities? Are we afraid of change or happy to embrace it?
I’m neither a lawyer nor a theologian and I’d like to take a different lens to view COVID through - that of business and how it responds to disruption as well as creating it. Now immediately I can feel many hackles raising - the last people we need telling us what to do are capitalists! The church is not a business! What about the Bible? Please bear with me.
What is like to do is look at how disruption creates opportunities for business, is a biblical concept and one that should actually appeal to Christians not appal us. I worry that we Christians are not only theologically conservative but conservative in a bad way - afraid to change anything and in danger of missing opportunities. I recall the famous lines about the Bourbons who returned from exile after Napoleon “having forgotten nothing and learned nothing”. Or my professor at business school who used to say “the only person who likes change is a baby with a wet nappy”
COVID may give us opportunities to profit from disruption and as far as we can even “embrace” it. Of course, it’s good to want to meet in person and “online” church is not the same as “regular church”. I signed the letter asking the government not to close churches again. Wanting to meet again as Christians in person is totally natural and to be encouraged.
But is that all we can learn from Covid? Isn’t there something new we can benefit from ? If God has in his sovereign will allowed this pandemic to happen then might there not be opportunities as well as threats? Our mentality I feel sometimes is inward looking and conservative in the bad sense of the word. Aren’t there things we can learn to do differently?
In business “disruption” in a strategic sense means when a new entrant with a completely different model enters a market. which it disrupts or is being disrupted by external forces, and over time defeats the incumbents who are slow to react. Normally this is because they don’t embrace the disruption as an opportunity but are too slow or unwilling to change. The classic example is Amazon and the Internet. Jeff Bezos was far sighted enough to see that this new technology was going to change everything. He left his well-paid job in Wall Street and moved to Seattle where starting with books he ended up building one of the biggest companies in the world. Bezos was willing to make huge personal sacrifices and be highly revolutionary in his thinking about what the new business model should be and how change opens up opportunities. His competition were wedded to their existing models and couldn’t respond.
There is something I suggest here we can learn from the children of the world as Luke tells us “The rich man had to admire the dishonest rascal for being so shrewd. And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.“ (Now it’s also true that Bezos was ruthless in driving the company and pushing his Employees- something I am not suggesting we copy. )
What is amazing though is to think of how many customers amazon has managed to gain in 26 years - around 200 million worldwide. And shipped over 5 billion items in 2019. Yet when amazon started in 1994 it had not one customer and has shipped not one item.
The issue here is much wider than to zoom or not to zoom. The issue is can we embrace change and learn to use it or are we unwilling to do that and miss opportunities? Are we instinctively turning inwards and not reaching out?
This embracing of disruption was also true of the early church. When the gospel starts to be preached in acts we see that it is highly disruptive. The authorities are aghast that the religious status quo is being disrupted and pretty soon a savage attempt to crush the new movement occurs. Stephen is martyred and the disruption caused by the bee movement intensifies. By Acts 17 Christians are labeled “the people who turned the world upside down”. We can note that being disrupted doesn’t make you popular! Jeff Bezos might have lost his home but early Christians lost their lives. Both though had a willingness to embrace disruption. Christians should love disruption because we believe that things need to change. We believe that we need a radical change.
So what might embracing disruption look like? I'm conscious that many leaders are working hard and tired and being asked to do too much already. So my suggestions more about attitude than doing lots of new things
Above all, I think it’s a mindset. It’s about the recognition for example that the Covid disruption brings many opportunities for the church. I have written about this elsewhere but most obvious Is that death and illness offer us a wonderful chance to talk about the Christian hope in the face of death. But also to show practical care and love for our neighbours friends and families - and maybe even people we don’t know in deprived areas of the U.K. and throughout the world. Disruption can be good and the status quo isn't always the answer.
Secondly that we need to think much more about the many people in our country who will be going to a lost eternity. Yes, it’s good to think about how we can care for the flock and get people back to meeting together. But what about those who weren’t going to come to church before COVID anyway and certainly won’t now? Why pre-COVID were we so reluctant for example to live stream church services? Might COVID open new ways of reaching those outside the church? Even now I sense a deep aversion in some places to doing this - “it might encourage people to watch at home who could be there in person.” Yes, that’s true but what about people with no particular belief who might tune in? Let’s see what happens. We seem to be risk-averse to trying new things. Try and see what happens.
Thirdly avoiding an overly cautious and risk-averse attitude towards technology. Yes, there are dangers (try watching “the social dilemma”!) but in my view, they are outweighed by multiple opportunities. Luther harnessed printing to power the reformation but in general, churches have not done the same with the Internet. Tragically the message mainly powered through new technology is not the word of God but pornography. Isn’t it possible to create a new hybrid model that enables God's word to spread through technology as well as in person? The two can work together. Technology offers so many chances especially to reach people who have no contact with the church. How much of the church budget is devoted to technology? Very little.
Finally, we need people who are risk-takers even buccaneers, willing to innovate and take risks. (And I’m not talking about virtual communion). We should look to steer resources to such folks, to take risks and be bold. For as Hudson Taylor said “faith without risk is no faith at all”
May God enable us to be also the people who turned the world upside down
Have you ever wrestled with the route to becoming a Christian? And if you are a Christian already, have you ever wondered whether you've "arrived" properly and whether you are in fact a Christian? These questions and the fears they invoke can sometimes make people into prayer-reciting robots. They can be made to feel that they need to satisfy specific requirements in order to believe that they're right before God.
One example of this is the emphasis placed by some Christians on the need for non-believers in Christianity, or those with a developing belief, who want to become a Christian, to pray to God by saying the Salvation Prayer, which is also called the Sinner's Prayer, in order for them to be converted.
This therefore begs the question: "Is there only one way to become a Christian and is it by saying a specifically-worded prayer?"
There are various versions of the wording in the Salvation Prayer and such a prayer can be said by an individual, either alone or in the presence of another person or in a group of people. It can be said in any setting at any time, or at an altar call in church, or during a small or large gathering of potential believers. Crusades, festivals and outreach campaigns often culminate in the offer to all those present to say the prayer.
There's nothing wrong with this whatsoever, absolutely nothing.
Becoming a Christian requires that one repents of all past sin and believes and trusts in God and Jesus. This needs to done with sincerity and conviction in order for it to be a genuine heart-changing experience.
The wording of the various versions of the Salvation Prayer usually covers these requirements. As such, the prayer has very helpful practical application in the life of the church and in Christian outreach and evangelism. It provides guidance to someone who'd like to make a profession of faith at a particular moment in time because they feel they're ready to make a commitment to becoming a Christian.
However, is it true that conversion to Christianity can be achieved only by saying a version of a specifically-worded prayer? Does one have to say a version of the Salvation Prayer? Quite obviously, the answer is "no". How can we confidently say that the answer is "no"? The reason we can say so is that the Bible doesn't stipulate that conversion to Christianity can be achieved only by the praying of a specifically-worded prayer.
Furthermore, pinning one's conversion to Christianity on a single prayer, said at a moment in time in one's past, or on a specific experience or ceremony, can actually sow doubt in the future as to whether becoming a Christian was dependent on saying the prayer in a particular way, or whether one had repented and believed properly at the time, as if there's a specific way to pray for repentance, a specific technique to believing, or a specific experience that needs to be gone through.
B) Biblical guidance
There is no support or instruction in the Bible for a specifically worded prayer as a requirement to be saved. Biblical examples of people coming to believe in Christ point instead towards acts of faith on the part of people who believed, as well as professions of faith and heart-felt belief. Some people were able to display this faith in the presence of Jesus, but many have done so without ever having met Him and yet they were, and are, properly converted Christians.
How then did the idea of the need to say a specifically-worded prayer come about? The answer is that people quite understandably may want to make a declaration of faith and commitment when they come to believe in Christianity, and the Salvation Prayer provides a way for them in which to do so.
The Bible does in fact provide support for a declaration, without however specifying that the wording to be used is the only valid way of making such a declaration. In Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 10, verses 9-10, he writes: "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."
Notice that Paul does not go on to say "And this is the only way to come to faith and be in Christ".
The fact is that millions of people have become Christians since the beginning of Christianity without saying a specifically-worded prayer. Some can't even remember when or how they became a Christian, but they consider themselves to be believers and they endeavour to live a Christian life.
However, many new believers are open to the idea of converting at a point in time by making a declaration of faith and find it helpful to say a specifically-worded prayer. If they want to do so, what should they do and say and how should they believe?
C) Prayer is essential, but no formula is needed
Firstly, they should be encouraged to fulfil the requirements for becoming a Christian without doing so in a way that makes their actions a "work" that needs to be done in order to be saved. Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, and this should be their guiding light. One doesn't need to know the intricacies of the gospel, simply knowing and understanding its basic message is all you need, as long as you know "the terms of salvation", as author Donald Whitney writes in his outstanding book "How can I be sure I'm a Christian". These terms are repentance for sin and belief in God and Jesus.
Secondly, in order to become a Christian, saying a prayer to God is essential. In order to establish a relationship with God, regular prayer is necessary.
The book of Acts chapter 9, verse 11, points to the fact that when one becomes a believer, one does need to talk to God. When Saul was in the very process of repentance and conversion, Ananias was told to ".....ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying."
The person praying must confess and own up to being sinful, repent of their sins, ask God for mercy and request forgiveness for their sins. They must also state that they accept and receive Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
However, no specific form of words is required, no prescriptive prayer, no one formula. The saying of the prayer itself shouldn't be ritualistic, nor should it be mechanistic or legalistic. There's nothing "magical" about becoming a Christian, and no specific ceremony or custom need be followed to become one, nor should there be any superstition about how to go about coming to faith. Christianity is above all this and it frees one from so many things, including any feeling that the observance of a specifically-worded prayer is a pre-condition for becoming a Christian.
D) Belief in one's heart is required
Thirdly, there has to be a movement of the heart. It must be a heartfelt experience. In Romans, chapter 10, verses 9-10, Paul states the need to ".....believe in your heart....." and that ".....it is with your heart that you believe and are justified.....".
How can we be sure that simply by believing in our hearts, God knows that we believe, without us actually telling God out loud in private or in the company of others?
The answer is that we don't have to specifically tell God anything, because He knows everything, absolutely everything, including what's in our hearts. After all, he's God.
"Heart" in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) was the seat of one's personality. It's what makes you you and me me. Therefore, when we say we believe in our heart, it means we believe in our whole being, i.e. our spirit, our mind, our will, our emotions and all our rationality put together.
We must believe in our hearts that God has the power to save us. God is more concerned about what is going on in our hearts than what we say. This means that we must believe in Jesus and what he has done for us and we must believe that God knows our hearts.
There is therefore no specifically-worded prayer that needs to be said in order to become a Christian. As mentioned above, becoming a Christian requires that one repents of all past sin and believes and trusts in God and Jesus. This needs to done in prayer and with belief in one's heart, and with sincerity and conviction in order for it to be a genuine heart-changing experience.
Some quotes from Christian authors John MacArthur and Donald Whitney about becoming and being a Christian are particularly helpful. John MacArthur, in his excellent book, "Saved Without A Doubt", writes: "Far too much has been made of isolating the moment by some formula, whether it be praying a prayer, signing a card, raising your hand, or walking down an aisle." And "I don't look for a past event to make my salvation real to me. I look at the present pattern of my life.....Focus on your lifestyle and attitudes instead."
MacArthur also refers to and quotes wording from the eighteenth-century treatise by the great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, writing that "In the very year Edward's treatise was published, popular teaching asserted that .....the only real evidence of true salvation is a feeling based on an experience - usually the experience at the moment of the alleged conversion. That teaching introduces the prevalent but erroneous concept that a person's true spiritual state is known by a past experience rather than a present pursuit of holiness. Edwards flatly contradicted that notion: "Assurance is never to be enjoyed on the basis of a past experience. There is need of the present and continuing work of the Holy Spirit .....[in] giving assurance."
In his book "How can I be sure I'm a Christian", Donald Whitney writes that "Assurance of a relationship with God should never be based upon an experience, a ceremony, the opinion of others, or something you have done. Reliance upon these things usually breeds doubt. You begin to wonder if you had the genuine experience, received from the ceremony what you should have, talked to the right people, or done quite enough. Faith in what God has done, however, produces assurance that's steadier and sturdier." And he also writes that the most important thing is to ask: "Do I have the signs of Christian life now? Do I love Jesus today? Do I trust in Christ as my only hope of salvation, rather than in my own efforts or in Christ plus my works?"
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Having cancer treatment is like entering a parallel universe in which everything is the same, but different. This is the case in general but is even more true in Covid because I was on my own. My dear wife came with me to 23 of my previous 24 chemotherapies and waited so patiently for hours in uncomfortable chairs while I sat in my padded chair and got the drugs infused. The last 6 though have been very different as no visitors are allowed in due to COVID . She kindly dropped me off by car each time and then one of my children, usually Nat and his girlfriend Amy, kindly picked me up afterward. But for the 7-8 hours, the whole process takes in between these two points I was on my own, disconnected from family and friends, though I could go out for a while if the weather was kind and sit in a nearby garden and catch up briefly with friends.
Actually, as long as I have my trusty Kindle I don’t mind too much being on my own and also there is always something to be done in terms of the treatment, drugs to be taken, infusions to be adjusted, so time passes fairly quickly. The staff are amazingly friendly and chatty, though not being able to see their face behind the masks and read their expressions also feels odd. But it’s a wonderful feeling to be reconnected with family at the end of the day. It feels like getting out of a (nice) prison! And finally, after the drive to Sevenoaks, I make it home and am content.
Loneliness, disconnection, and separation are of course endemic in the last few months. This morning at church we heard from my friend Roger Carswell (though the ending frustratingly got chopped due to technical problems!) the story from Mark below.
Here in brief is a woman who has been forcibly separated from everyone because of her unsolvable illness, which made her unclean and unhealthy and made other people unwilling to associate with her for fear of being contaminated themselves. She has searched everywhere for a solution and spent money like crazy but all this has done is bankrupt her. She has no peace and no hope. What a symbol of us and our society.
We may notice that in despair finally, she connects with the one person who can transform her. She is doubtful and afraid and tries to do her action in secret. She breaks the social distancing rules (for her very illness meant she shouldn’t have been in the crowd). No respecting the two metres rule! But however tentatively, hesitantly and fearfully, connect finally she does, touching the most distant part of Jesus’s physical presence, the trailing hem of his cloak, the very tassels that every Orthodox Jew was told in the Torah to have on the four corners of their clothing. Her doubt-filled and shame-filled, tentative, questioning action brings a wonderful and immediate answer.
She is an invitation today to us in our human situation to connect with the only person who can transform us and cure us of our fundamental problem - which is not separation from others, important as that is - as separation by our wanderings off from the Father God who made us. She has come home.
“A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”