Browsing articles from "February, 2011"
Feb 26, 2011

One road, many gods? An article in today’s Guardian on faith in Birmingham

An interesting article in today’s guardian.

“Every time I see a mosque or a temple going up,” Rev. Bryan Scott says “I think, ‘That should be a church.'”

Feb 25, 2011

Revenge of Gaia? Christians and global warming – part 1

A few years back Greenpeace produced a leaflet that went as follows:

Planet earth is 4,600 million years old. If we condense this inconceivable time-span into an understandable concept we can liken the earth to a person of 46 years of age.

Nothing is know about the first seven years of this person’s life and whilst only scattered information exists about the middle span we know that only at the age of 42 did the earth begin to flower. Dinosaurs and the great reptiles did not appear, until one year ago, when the planet was 45. Mammals arrived only 8 months ago and in the middle of last week. Man-like apes evolved into ape-like men and at the weekend the last ice-age enveloped the earth.

Modern man has been around for four hours. During the last hour man discovered agriculture, the industrial revolution began a minute ago and during those 60 seconds of biological time modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise

He has multiplied his numbers to plague like proportions, caused the extinction of 500 species of animals, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant gloating over his meteoric rise to ascendancy on the brink of war to end all wars.

A human life in this timespan lasts a mere 18 seconds. Let’s not waste anymore precious time.

I wonder what you would say as a Christian if a Greenpeace spokesperson knocked on your door and pushed that leaflet into your hand.  As you sat down together over a herbal tea I guess that whilst you would disagree on much you would want to agree on that one statement of theirs:

Modern man has made a rubbish tip of paradise’.  We would agree that human beings really are to blame for spoiling a good world.

Human beings cannot escape the fact that together we have exploited the creation – harmed and abused it – plundered its resources, and so on. But as we munched on our carrot cake together we would want to help our Greenpeace activist to think a little bit further – for we would want them to see that at the heart of the environmental crisis is actually a spiritual crisis.

1.  Environmental crisis or spiritual crisis?

For the message of the Bible is that behind our treatment of this world lies a bigger issue – our treatment of God.  This world has been made by God and belongs to God.

‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.’ – Psalm 24v1

‘For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine’. – Psalm 50:10-11

If you’ve ever hired a car, maybe on holiday or something like that you know about the inspection.  To ensure that you return the car in the condition you received it before you drive off you walk around the car with the clip-board inspecting it – looking for bumps, dents and scratches.

But imagine that when you come to hire a car your luck is really in  – you are the first driver of a brand-new hire car – there it sits in pristine, mint condition, and you sign off the paper work.

You enjoy your holiday and a week later you return it – but as you hand the keys back you have to confess it’s not quite the car it was. You have to admit to being a bit reckless in the way you’ve driven it, a bit careless in how you parked it because the fact is that it is almost unrecognisable as the same car you drove away.

Now the damage done to the car is a real shame, and you’ve certainly spoilt the pleasure for future users by your selfish behaviour, hopefully you’ve not damaged the car beyond repair for future users. But the man at the Easycar counter will probably have a more immediate concern because the real offense is not against the car itself it is against the owner of the car. Easycar will seek some kind of recompense.

And that is the problem behind the problem.  That is why the environmental crisis is really a spiritual crisis. Human beings made in the image of God were given responsibility to rule over the creation. To bring glory and honour to God by making this good world fit for purpose – to display the goodness of God as we work it under his rule.

In Genesis 2 Adam is told to work the earth and take care of it. He is to develop the world by working it and conserve the world by taking care of it.  And we have failed in our duty.

So as we look at what we are doing to our world we need to remember that our problem is not so much our CO2 emissions as our  S-I-N emissions. When we damage our world by harming our environment we are sinning against God.

The BIG inconvenient truth is not that we are destroying the planet but that we are demonstrating our rebellion against God and our resistance to his rule.

As we grapple with questions of climate change and what on earth is really going on we need the creator to help us interpret the creation.

Jesus  said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? – Luke 12:54-56

Today across the world millions of pounds is being spent predicting weather patterns and evermore complex models are being written to try to forecast further into the future but Jesus’ warning is that it is possible to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky and yet not know how to interpret the present time. In the Palestine of Jesus day they knew that a westerly wind meant rain was coming  – as moisture from the Mediterranean sea carried by the clouds would fall on the land as rain. But southerly winds meant something different – heat from the desert was on the way and temperatures would rise. Yet without God’s word to interpret God’s world they could make no sense of Jesus.

But Jesus point is that it is possible to understand the world around you and yet miss the bigger picture – the fuller forecast. That’s why the church equipped with God’s word need to speak into the issues of our day. One church leader put it this way,  – the church is ‘to understand the events of earth and seek to address them with the message of heaven

James Lovelock and the revenge of Gaia

Lovelock is the author of The revenge of Gaia a book Andrew Marr described as ‘probably the most important book for decades’. John Gray in the Independent described it as ‘the most important book ever to be published on the environmental crisis’

Central to the book is the warning that our relationship with the world is a delicate, two-way or symbiotic relationship between humanity and the world.

It is a relationship that can work for good or ill. When we care for creation – the creation cares for us. Its systems are ideal for human flourishing and when we work with the world we are blessed by the world but when we abuse the creation we find that those very self-same systems act against us and so to speak creation pays us back in kind. But when we chop down a Continue reading »

Feb 24, 2011

Money has a power over us

I received a letter from my bank manager asking whether I could meet with him last week. Seeing your bank manager is like taking a trip to the dentist, you’re sure they’re both going to find a big hole and that they will come up with some pretty painful and expensive way to try and fill it.

When you read the gospels you find that Jesus has a surprising amount to say about money. It’s pretty high up on his agenda. But Jesus isn’t primarily concerned to tell us we’ve got too much money or too little, nor to advise us to spend it, save it or even give it away. He focuses in on money to show us that money and our attitude to it reveals  something much more fundamental about ourselves.

In the sermon on the mount Jesus says:

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Jesus wants you and me to recognise that money and the thought of what it might buy us has a certain power over us. One survey in the US asked people what they would do for a million dollars. Forty-two percent said they would be willing to spend time in jail, never see their best friend again, move permanently to a foreign country, or throw their pet off a cliff!

1) We all serve someone

The words are so familiar it’s easy to overlook the big surprise in Jesus’ words.  He doesn’t say you can either serve God or you can go out and have a good time. Jesus insists that your life is a life given in service of a master.

Such an idea runs counter to how we think of ourselves and how we would describe our lives.  We prefer the language of personal freedom. We like to say we’re in control and yet here is Jesus saying, to quote one friend of mine, ‘if you will not let yourself be owned by God you will be owned by something else’.

In describing life as a decision to choose who we will serve, Jesus is saying every human being serves someone or something in the hope that it will bring a reward. The think we serve becomes to use the language of Tim Keller our functional god. It’s the thing that has first place in our hearts, has the greatest call on our time, is the very thing that we are ready to sacrifice for (maybe even our pet for!).

What Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount is that for many people money is the thing we serve.  Money has a power over us and that means money calls the shots.  It has an authority over our decisions, it dictates our priorities, it rules our hearts and governs our emotions. So much so that we lose sleep when we don’t have enough, no matter how much we have we need more and we are even prepared to hate those who have more than we do.

Psychologist Oliver James’s book Affluenza highlights just what has happened to us as a result of serving money. He writes;

The great majority of people in English-speaking nations (Britain, America, Australia, Canada, Singapore) now define themselves through earnings, possessions, appearances and celebrity,

Materialism is to place our trust in money. To ask it to provide for us, to protect us, to make us happy and in return we promise to serve it.

But here’s the second surprise from Jesus. Not only do we all serve one master but it’s impossible to serve two masters.

2) We can’t serve two masters

Someone has to have the final say. Someone has to come first and Jesus says whatever that is is your God.  That’s why Jesus says no-one can serve two masters – it’s not that it’s quite a hard thing to do it’s because it is a logical impossibility.

You might be able to hold down two jobs, you can have two hobbies, you can share you’re love between two children but no-one can Continue reading »

Feb 23, 2011

It could only happen in America

Imagine you switched on the TV to find your pastor being interviewed by a member of the congregation on prime-time TV and that the interview lasted over 5 minutes and focused on the claims of Christ from the gospel of Mark! Only in America?

Tim Keller’s new book is called King’s Cross and subtitled ‘the story of the world in the life of Jesus’.  The book is based on a sermon series given at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Having listened to quite a few of the sermons from the series I’m looking forward to reading the book. What’s more it would make a perfect Easter present for any willing to take a closer look at the person of Jesus.

Feb 22, 2011

The relationship wrecker or what porn does to a marriage

The on-line edition of Time Magazine has a feature this week on the damage being done to relationships between men and women because of pornography.  It seems at last that the secular press is waking up to the realities of the consequences of life in a sex-mad culture and how the very thing God has given to bring us together (sexual intimacy) is pushing us further apart (sex without intimacy).

Countless men have described to me how while using porn, they have lost the ability to relate or be close to women. They have trouble being turned on by “real” women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse.

So writes the author of one recent book on pornography.

Tim Chester’s book Captured by a better vision exposes just how damaging pornography can be to our relationships and marriage in particular.

Not only have you committed adultery against your wife, but, as we’ve seen, there is every chance that porn has corrupted your relationship with her and your sex life. The secret that you hide from your wife will create a barrier in your relationship.

You will start to view sex with your wife not as the celebration of your love, but as re-enacted porn. What matters is no longer the relationship, but the performance. This means you may be committing adultery against your wife even as you have sex with her. That’s because you’re not really having sex with her, a person. You’ve reduced her to an object for your sexual gratification, or an actress in your sexual performance.

William Struthers in Wired for Intimacy: How pornography hijacks the male brain warns that even if you could stop consuming pornography your actions still have consequences.

Sexually acting out in response to pornography creates sexual associations that are stored as hormonal or neurological habits. These associations are seared into the brain.  These memories and fantasies keep [the man] in bondage and worsen the consequences of the earlier behaviour. It can prevent him from being truly present in a marriage, being more preoccupied with the images than focused on his wife.

And because of what pornography does to our brains it’s no excuse to reason but I’m not married. Chester comments,

It you’re not yet married, porn is a sin against your future wife. You’re also creating a set of expectations that bears no relation to real sex or real marriage. You’re storing up a database of images that will compete with your future wife. You’re gifting the devil, a reservoir of temptations to use against you.

And we’re kidding ourselves to think we’ll stop once we get married because the truth is that porn is NOT just a substitute for sex.  It’s an escape from reality, an addictive search for a legal high. The reality is that not only do men access porn after marriage but it’s mostly married men who access porn.

Chester again:

Using porn is a bad way of preparing not to use it when you’re married! Every time you use porn, you’re giving it more control over your heart. You’re sowing a bitter harvest for your married life.

Delayed baggage

I once heard someone describe the biggest threat to our marriages as coming from the unexpected baggage we bring into marriage. Maybe it’s the uncommunicated assumptions as to how the marriage should work, or how chores will be divided up.  Or perhaps it’s a bad-temper that is controllable in the context of going-out but cannot be disguised in the day to day of a marriage, or even an expectation of great spiritual character that begins to unravel under trial.  There again it could be porn.

What makes it more difficult still is that much baggage in the most important of all relationships is  not only unexpected but delayed on arrival.  Like flying BA the baggage tends to turn up sometime later. The baggage of porn addiction (whether through the temptation to continue or the way it has warped your expectations of sex or the images that stubbornly remain imprinted in your mind) may well not affect a marriage in the early days, weeks or months but over time as the initial euphoria of a giddy romance fades it can do untold damage to an otherwise healthy relationship.

But you were washed…

The great news for the Christian is that, whatever our past, the gospel is big enough to deal with our sin.

William Struthers writes:

Can someone retrain their brain to respond in an appropriate manner to sexual arousal? Most certainly, but this must be informed by the mandates of Scripture and the wisdom found in the body of Christ. This must be empowered by the Holy Spirit.

The process of sanctification is an addiction to holiness, a compulsive fixation on Christ and an impulsive pattern of compassion, virtue and love. This is what we are wired for. This is what we are meant for.

The reality is that we will rarely find the resources to heal the past and deal with the addictions on our own. Reading a book (and I would recommend both Chester’s and Struthers’ to you) or a blog post is almost always not enough. God has given us his spirit and his people to help us do battle against sin – we need each other to bring lasting change.

If you’re struggling with pornography (in the present or from the past)

What do you need to do now? Do you accept the need to cut it out of your life? Who do you need to speak to?

If you’re a pastor or church leader

Do you ever address the issue of pornography, directly? What could you do to foster an environment in which the men of your church can speak openly about this struggle?  What could you put into place to provide the accountability  and support for men to deal with their sin?

Feb 20, 2011

Getting the gospel into Christians

Tim Keller puts it this way: The main problem [in the Christian life] is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel.

The great news is that a growing number of books are putting this right by giving thoughtful, biblical practical insights into how we can and should put the gospel into practice in the Christian life. I’ve just really enjoyed Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey which is a model of how to take the gospel and apply it to an important contemporary issue. Another book by Harvey models how to work the gospel out in  a marriage, When sinners say I do tackling themes such as sin and forgiveness in the marriage.

Here’s a great summary sentence that highlights what a different book results from bringing the gospel to bear on a marriage rather than simply apply counselling techniques or observations from common grace.

What if you abandoned the idea that the problems and weaknesses in your marriage are caused by a lack of information, dedication, or communication? What if you saw your problems as they truly are: caused by a war within your own heart.

Without such biblical clarity, we have no context for the cross and no ongoing awareness of our need for grace and mercy.

In other words such books help us to see that grace is at the heart not just of our justification but our transformation and holiness and because they intensely practical books we cannot but see the difference applying ‘saving grace’ makes to ambition or marriage or any other aspect of discipleship.

I’m looking forward to reading a new book by Elyse Fitzpatrick Give them grace one of a number of great books demonstrating what grace-filled parenting looks like.  The blog of the same name is well worth a look

Feb 19, 2011

Is Atheism to blame?

As a result of my post yesterday, I received a number of mostly friendly tweets from ‘new atheists’ questioning whether Christianity really was the force for good in African society that the atheist Matthew Parris argued it was. Part of our debate centred on a fact I took as a given that soon became apparent was not shared by those who opposed me.  It was this: atheism, as a worldview, has stood behind the greatest atrocities and evil committed in the history of the world.

The new atheists I engaged with were quick to blame religion for all sorts of evil but could not see why I wanted to respond in kind when it came to atheism.  The response I met with was ‘no-one kills in the name of atheism’.

How does the argument work for the new atheist? It seems to be something like this, only allow a cause to be responsible for an act of evil where the action can be directly and immediately attributed to the cause.  Then and only then can the cause be blamed. So for example a terrorist who cries ‘God is great!’ as they detonate the explosive vest they are wearing clearly shows that religion is not great! But, so the argument goes, atheism does not stand behind acts of evil in that direct way so atheism is not a cause of evil in the world like religion.

But my new atheist friends have missed something in this attempt to exculpate atheism and it is this; ideologies may be rightly held to account where acts of evil are indirectly attributable to an ideology and especially where that belief has been consciously, consistently and even perhaps deliberately adopted by a regime or group or individual to justify acts of evil.

Now clearly it’s not enough to say because person A holds a belief B and that therefore their action C must have been caused by B. So it is conceivable that someone might claim to be a Christian and  commit murder and for someone to thereby try and tie the two together.  But of course it won’t work because Christianity calls murder a sin, Jesus called on his followers to be prepared to suffer injustice, to turn the other cheek, to NOT retaliate or seek revenge. Those who murder are no friends of God and certainly no followers of Jesus, they are guilty of identity theft! Rather they can expect nothing from him but condemnation for their sin. It has failed the consistency test.

But it is beyond dispute that atheism was a consciously adopted ideology that led to a number of governments to commit acts of evil that far outweigh any charge that can be leveled against religion (although please note I am not seeking to clear ALL religion of some sort of foundation for acts of evil merely demonstrate that atheism cannot be cleared of such a charge itself.)

Vickor Frankl was a survivor of Auschwitz. He wrote this:

If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drive and reactions, as a mere product of heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment – or, as the Nazis liked to say, “of blood and soil.” I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

So it seems to many that there exists an indirect but evident link between the nihilism that atheism tolerates (notice atheism does not in and of itself promote nihilism it merely tolerates it as entirely consistent with atheism) and the attrocities of totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.  This statement in no-way  suggests that all atheists are nihilists or that atheism must necessarily lead to evil merely that it allows it by creating an intellectual foundation through the sweeping away of categories of good and evil, right and wrong in exactly the way men such as Richard Dawkins and Kai Nielson as atheists recognise.

So Dawkins writes:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice.  The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence.  DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.

The philosopher Kai Nielson writes:

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view or that really rational beings unhoodwinked by myth or ideology need not be individual egoists or classical amoralists.  Reason does not decide here.  The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one.  Reflection on it depresses me.  Pure practical reason even with a good knowledge of the facts will not take you to morality.

And such ideology was used by those tyrants of evil to justify their actions as Frankl witnessed.  Hitler himself said:

I free Germany from the stupid and degrading fallacies of conscience and morality…We will train young people before whom the world will tremble. I want young people capable of violence – imperious, relentless and cruel.

So is atheism to blame?

In one sense the answer of course is ‘no’. Atheism does not tell you to murder your own people by the millions as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Kim Jong-Il have done but it’s tenets have been put to a perfectly consistent and logic use when used by regimes to  justify mass-murder as Frankl not only observed but was forced to endure.  A godless universe is one of ‘blind pitiless indifference’ one should not be surprised to find atheists using that reality to justify ‘blind pitiless indifference’ in their treatment of their fellow men.

Contrast that with Christianity.  No one can with any consistency follow the teaching and example of Jesus and commit acts of evil.

Feb 18, 2011

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God

Matthew Parris is a former MP and now journalist for The Times. In an article written for the newspaper on the 27th December 2008 he wrote:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi….It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do.  Education and training alone will not do.  In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

Parris is a journalist known for his refreshing honesty and this piece is a fine example. What’s not clear to me is, as an atheist, what Parris attributes the profound change in people’s hearts that he observes to and what therefore he means when he says ‘the rebirth is real.’  My prayer is that he and many others will not only recognise the life-change that alone the gospel can bring but see it for what it really is – the work of a gracious God.  My hope is that he will see and come to share the sure and certain knowledge that at the heart of this universe is a God of love who in his Son has loved us and through his son offers us life and peace, joy and hope and that this message is not just the need of Africa but the need of all nations.  That the gospel is the power of God to not only forgive sins but to transform people, societies and the world.

Feb 17, 2011

How did your day end? Martin Luther on good intentions that come to nothing

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering: Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that. Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to naught.

Martin Luther

Feb 17, 2011

How did your day start? CS Lewis on where the battle for your soul is won and lost

The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. and the first job each morning consists simply in shovelling them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. and so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

CS Lewis – Mere Christianity

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

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