Previous blogs and miscellaneous articles
This page will have all previous blogs on it. It will also have longer pieces that are too long for a blog, and miscellaneous items such as prayers and poems and reviews of books and other blog sites.
Initially, they will appear in a random order, but when they begin to accumulate – probably around the beginning of 2020 – we will begin to categorise them and also include our book titles within the category as well.
Voltaire had a keen, but non-military involvement in the 1756 battle of Minorca. Although supportive of the French led by the Duc de Richelieu, Voltaire was sympathetic with the defeated British Admiral Byng, who was executed for his failure to defend the garrison at Minorca, which had subsequently surrendered to the French. Byng, who had led a fleet of thirteen ships against twelve French ships, apparently had insufficient supplies, and was probably ill equipped by the British Government for the venture upon which he had been sent. However, the British public and numbers of those in authority, including the king, were incensed by the loss of Minorca, which was considered a key military base.
The obvious scapegoat was Byng, and a convenient British law allowed for the death sentence on any British officer who was deemed not to have fought sufficiently earnestly when engaged in an act of war. Byng was sentenced to death and subsequently executed.
In Voltaire’s novel, Candide, whilst keeping close to the true account of the matter, he gave a report of the execution without actually naming Byng.
“Candide and Martin touched upon the Coast of England, and what they saw there.
They arrived at Portsmouth. The coast was lined with crowds of people, whose eyes were fixed on a fine man kneeling, with his eyes bandaged, on board one of the men of war in the harbour. Four soldiers stood opposite to this man; each of them fired three balls at his head, with all the calmness in the world; and the whole assembly went away very well satisfied.
“What is all this?” said Candide; “and what demon is it that exercises his empire in this country?” He then asked who was that fine man who had been killed with so much ceremony. They answered,” he was an Admiral”.
“And why kill this Admiral?”
“It is because he did not kill a sufficient number of men himself. He gave battle to a French Admiral; and it has been proved that he was not near enough to him.”
“But,” replied Candide, “the French Admiral was as far from the English Admiral.”
“There is no doubt of it; but in this country it is found good, from time to time, to kill one Admiral to encourage the others.”
In writing this, Voltaire sought to focus the spotlight on the timeless absurdity of executing an admiral who loses a battle, especially when he had been ill equipped to engage in it. But it is not merely the folly of such an action that is highlighted, but the fact of unjustly punishing one person in order to discourage others. This is not of course an isolated instance. Many dictatorships characteristically demand a few (or many) executions from time to time, often of randomly selected individuals, in order to maintain a level of compliance among the populace. That is one of the marks of a dictatorship. It should not however, be a mark of a Democracy, or indeed of any just society that claims to rule by a code of righteousness.
It should always be a matter of concern in any Democracy, when laws or ‘guidelines’ encourage punishments which do not relate directly to an action or lack of action on the part of an individual, but which are passed merely in order to discourage others from acting in a particular way. This becomes doubly inappropriate when the punishment is not simply to discourage others, but when it also serves the purpose of making it appear that the right thing has been done when in fact it is quite the opposite.
I do not intend to list any such actions that are happening in our society today as they are becoming so increasingly obvious that it would become tedious to relate them. However if you do want to explore the matter further, a few youtube reports and interviews from Christian Concern would give you a good starting point.
I think one of the most poignant expressions in the bible is when the younger son in the parable in Luke Ch 15 v11 – 31, realises his true situation and starts the journey back home. It says: “And when he came to himself” or as some versions have it “When he came to his senses”.
If we try to analyse the character of the young man, we might come up with words such as foolish, bad or just plain silly, but however we describe him, there is a recognition that what he did was seriously wrong. It is harder to evaluate his elder brother. Reliable, regular, steadfast – possibly, but also morose and maybe jealous.
The interesting thing is that although the younger brother’s wrongdoing was far more obvious, and, by most human standards far more serious, in that situation he could still find a place that the bible describes as “coming to himself”.The bible acknowledges that he wasted all his inheritance on riotous living, which, if the older brother was right, involved squandering at least some of it on prostitutes. Left alone with the pigs, probably in some wood or wasteland, the younger brother had little choice but to contemplate what he had done. He was broke, hungry and bereft of human company, and in that condition he reflects on what he had become and the lost potential of what might have been. He “comes to himself”as if waking from a bad dream.
The fact is he cannot get himself out of his predicament by himself. No amount of wishful thinking or effort on his part will change the situation one iota. So he comes to a sensible decision “I will get up and go back to my father”. The decision is sensible because he cannot lose. He reasons that his father might take him on and give him a job along with the other labourers on the farm. But even if his father rejects him, he is no worse off than sitting starving among the pigs, for he can starve at home just as easily as he can starve away from home. We all know the happy ending of the story. His father does not reject him or take him on as a worker, but welcomes him back as a full member of the family. The only sad bit of the story is that the father’s grace to one son reveals the pent up anger harboured by the other son.
As someone who identifies more closely to the younger, rather than the older son, I am probably prejudiced, but it does seem to me, that realising and coming to terms with depths of failure and sin in life, enables a more joyful relationship with the Father, than is possible when concentrating on the sins of others from a place of supposed superiority.
It does seem that amongst those people whom Jesus spoke and ministered to, the most unresponsive were those who thought they were in the right, whereas the tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners heard him gladly. I do therefore admit to struggling with the increasing rules and regulations embraced by churches (often because of external societal pressure), which can restrict the participation of those who have mucked it up at some point in their lives. Such restrictions often deny the possibility of the real change made possible because of Jesus, and the reconciliation that he has accomplished for us with the Father.
It is perfectly understandable that as the world refuses to acknowledge the existence of Jesus or the Father, they conclude that real change is not possible. In the world’s agenda, there is no place for true repentance (a turning not merely a saying sorry) and consequently no place for reconciliation and re-instatement. Sin is pushed to one of two extremes: it is either legitimised and made acceptable, or it becomes so unacceptable that any measure of failure becomes a handicap for life. Both extremes are based on the denial of the possibility of change.
However the Church is not the world and Christian thinking must cut right across the world’s thinking. Wrongdoing should be treated even more seriously by Christians than by the world, but wrongdoing of any description can never be the end. Through the work of Christ applied in human lives by the Holy Spirit, a total change is always a possibility. This means, that whilst rightly recognising the need to protect and safeguard, children the vulnerable and the not so vulnerable among us, we must never lose sight that Jesus himself set out the ‘younger son factor’. In Christ, someone who has sinned in even the most unacceptable categories, may yet actually become a full family member again once they have come to their senses and been reconciled to the Father.
I do not think that I fit into a liberal, ‘softy’ category (I believe that there is some place in our justice system for both capital and corporal punishment), however I do also believe in the God enabled possibility of repentance and change. There is no doubt that the world is pressurising the Church to conform to its understanding of sin. We are moving in a difficult area, and there is no guarantee that we will get it right all the time, but whatever we conclude must be based on the bible and not on the world’s atheistic viewpoint.
My wife Catherine is the gardener in our family and she has a much greater awareness of nature than I. However, on one particularly sunny day recently when she opted to eat her lunch in the garden, I decided to join her. The recent weather – alternating very wet and very hot – has meant that our grass (I hesitate to call it a lawn) is not only growing fast, but has become home for a fairly wide variety of small wild flowers.
I tend to go barefoot around the house and garden, and it was especially pleasant to rest my feet in the unusually luxuriant carpet of three inch high grass and flowers. After eating, we just sat, enjoying each-others company and God’s world around us.
I say God’s world quite deliberately.
I am of a particularly unscientific mind, and I have never found myself able to understand the claims of some scientists, that the world we live in is the result of some form of random evolution. It has always seemed far more rational to me to believe in a Creator God, and as I grow older, I find myself increasingly comfortable in that position.
I do not grasp scientific fact very easily, but I have been much helped by some of the simple explanations I have heard recently. These explanations have not come from an evolutionist, but from a creationist who is one of the leading design engineers in the country. Prof. Stuart Burgess headed up the team that redesigned the cycle gearing for the world beating British team in the 2016 Olympic Games. Burgess is a scientist but not a biologist. He is an Engineer. It may be a surprise how many scientific engineers do not support the theory of evolution, and the reason is simple. Many designs in nature such as the human knee or the mechanism of a bird’s wing, only work in a fully developed form. Think of it in terms of a cantilever bridge over a river. Such a bridge can only work in its finished state: it cannot partially work or grow into a working model bit by bit. Scientists who are engineers, notice such things! When presented with the bone structure of the human knee and told that it developed in stages, the sensible reaction is ‘you have got to be joking’.
One thing that I do understand is how to play the odds. Brought up in a gambling environment, whilst I only rarely indulge these days, I do still know how to assess chance. I know for instance the rough odds of a lottery ticket winning the big prize. If you lined up the whole population of the British Isles from Lands End to John O’Groats, and then released a pigeon, there would be about the same chance of the pigeon crapping on you as there was of your ticket being the winner. As far as I can work it out, the random chances of many so called evolutionary stages, would be about as likely as the same pigeon coming back to target the same person, many, many times in a row without hitting anyone else. Not where I would place my money.
However, returning to my pleasant sit in the garden with my wife, I noticed a few bees collecting pollen from the clover dispersed among the buttercups and daisies. I then saw a couple of goldfinches near the birdbath. We may go several weeks without noticing any, then half a dozen or more will flit around for a while before passing on to who knows where. From deep within me stirred the instinct to give thanks, and I had nowhere else to go with it than to express it as thanks to God. It would have required a great deal of effort, including a denial of my own humanity, to refrain from responding to the creator for the wonders in creation.
I know that some Christians believe that God created by using evolution but I have never been able to grasp how that could work. I trust that I will be continually open to responding to the arguments of others, but I know that for the present I am very happy to adopt a place of rest as a committed creationist.
When William the Conqueror invaded our fair Isle nearly a thousand years ago, though his vital battle was at Hastings in Sussex, one of his targets was Canterbury just under fifty miles away. Though the defeated (and killed) King Harold was from Wessex, he had been the first King of England to be crowned in Westminster Abbey and his rule was widely acknowledged. The religious seat of power however, had long been established at Canterbury, and the church was powerful enough for William to give his attention to that ancient city.
When his army turned from Sussex to Kent, they met some valiant resistance with troops gathering from as far away as the River Medway to the North and West of the County. Though there was some spirited opposition, William’s army was stronger and more determined, and in due course William became victorious.
What might have happened though, if troops from the West of the Medway had fought with equal resilience as those from the East side of the river?
We will never know. However, since that time Kent has been a divided County. The brave, freedom fighters to the East of the Medway claiming the noble name of Men of Kent, whilst their weaker, less resistant compatriots to the West of the River being designated as mere Kentish Men. (Whilst one or two other theories of the origins of these terms have been proffered over the Centuries, no true man of Kent such as myself, would give them more than a passing glance.)
Not only was I born a Man of Kent, no more than a hundred yards from the English Channel, across which the last successful invaders had come, but I went to School in Canterbury. The school, founded only around a hundred and fifty years after William the Conqueror, took the name of Simon Langton, brother of the Thirteenth Century Archbishop of Canterbury, and was and is one of the oldest in the land.
With such a rich heritage behind me, imagine my chagrin to hear that one of the Corona viruses had been given the name of ‘the Kent’ variant. Surely, nothing could be more offensive than to designate a virus by the name of its place of origin? Having lived some seventy odd years with an (admittedly small) level of pride, and (much larger) fond memories of my homeland, might I not be devastated and deeply offended that the land of my birth is now considered no more than an appendage to designate a microscopic virus, especially when it is labelled no more than a ‘variant’.
You can understand my relief when I heard, that in order to avoid such offence, the Government of England decreed that the virus variants would be given letters of the alphabet so that there could be no suggestion that any County or Country bore any responsibility for their hitherto nominated namesake. (We must just hope that the Greeks are not offended that we have used their alphabet to designate the variants instead of the English alphabet.) Perhaps we should all be grateful that we have such sensitive and sensible people in power, who are willing to give their valuable time and our money to avoiding any possibility of offence.
No doubt, there will soon be official guidelines – or even laws, that outline what we may and may not call each other. After all, if what we call a microscopic bug is of such vital importance, how much more should we be reclassifying any person or thing that finds a given designation offensive.
Perhaps we should enquire whether there are any animals who are offended by their names. To start with, I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘the Guinea Pig’ or ‘the Hedge Hog’ objected to being called a variation of a pig. The poor ‘Warthog’ has a doubly offensive name, and is an actual member of the pig family as well. Might they not prefer to be known as ‘Guinea Kittens’, ‘Hedge Puppies’ or ‘Genetically Disadvantaged Bump Faced Bunnies’?
It is of course at this stage that I should say: “And then I awoke, and realised that it had all been a dream”.
But it isn’t, is it? We do actually live in a world gone mad.
Perhaps now is the time to pray more earnestly – ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
(I tried to think of a way to write sensibly about the recent, supposedly offensive, naming of covid virus variants, but I could not think how to rationally address such an irrational situation. So please bear with this poor attempt to do so.)
I do not generally take a great deal of interest in the news, but I have been trying to follow some of the reports about the Great Post Office Scandal. It is surely one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent history.
I am sure that the first reaction of many of us is to ask, “How on earth could it happen?” However, the reality of the matter is that such things are continually happening; just not on the same scale.
I encountered something similar recently when trying to sort out a safeguarding issue. In seeking to deal with a particular matter, I met with a refusal by those in authority to consider facts or to evaluate evidence. They also declined to talk to people involved. Apparently, there was a system in place. The system had been followed, a conclusion reached, and that was that. There could not be any possibility that the conclusion was wrong as, or so it seemed, the system was infallible. I was told that questioning the system displayed an unwillingness to strive for safeguarding excellence. I therefore concluded that safeguarding excellence was deemed to mean following the system without question.
Someone promoting such an attitude used to be called a ‘jobsworth’, which can be interpreted as ‘an official who upholds rules even at the expense of humanity or common sense’. In the earlier uses of ‘jobsworth’, it tended to be given to people who had a minor area of authority they rigorously enforced. Unfortunately, it seems to be increasingly true of people who have higher levels of authority as well. At times such as these I find myself revisiting “The Peter Principle”, an excellent book I have read several times.
Written over 50 years ago, it deals with the timeless principle that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. Thus a good carpenter may be promoted to foreman. If he is an incompetent foreman he is not demoted but remains a foreman. If he is a good foreman he may be promoted to being a team leader. If he is an incompetent team leader he is not demoted but remains in that job. If he is a good team leader he may be considered for a management position…..and so it goes on. This means that many, possibly most people are functioning at one level above their competence. I find the book strangely reassuring that my observations of blatant incompetence in the higher levels of most organisations may have some foundation.
A person promoted beyond their competence will be tempted to take refuge in the systems that support their job. Instead of exercising their authority with wisdom and understanding, they move to the default position of appealing to a system. This eases the uncomfortable burden of responsibility they have accepted. Even an incompetent person can tick the right boxes if they know what is expected.
Of course, there are some glorious exceptions of people at the top who have outstanding ability, but very often, they seem to be those who have actually built the organisation they head up. In such situations, incompetent leadership may not fully emerge until a generation or two after they have gone.
Small children may need some systems in place and even those of us who are older may enjoy the luxury of a minor quirk or two. When eating my dinner, I tend to separate the component parts and eat them one at a time. I have a friend who mixes everything up together in one big heap. It is permissible to do such things, but generally inappropriate to impose them on others. The real problem comes when we make the system or method, the absolute judge that overrules any question or observation from another perspective.
What happened in the Post Office Scandal, was that the management refused to allow the possibility that their computer system could be wrong. Once they had taken that position, it became necessary to discount any evidence to the contrary. In his book “Making Decisions”, the statistician Dennis Lindley makes the point that, unless dealing with a logical or mathematical conclusion such as 2 + 2 = 4, any assertion of probability should allow for a possibility, however remote or unlikely, that the probability may be wrong.
Such a position invites questions and challenges, and questions and challenges, even though sometimes irksome and annoying, are generally helpful. They either expose a weakness, which can then be addressed and put right, or they clarify and strengthen the original position. Either way that is a win win situation. Just sticking to the system come what may, opens up the possibility of everyone losing.
I do take very seriously Paul’s injunction to the Roman Church that they “should not be conformed to the world” (Ch 12 v 2). However, I do not believe that he means that we cannot learn anything by observing how the world carries out some functions. Jesus drew many parallels between secular behaviour and spiritual principles, especially in respect of farmers and shepherds. Paul likened believers to athletes and encouraged them to run as if they were running for a prize (1 Cor Ch 9 v 24).
For those of us who have come from totally secular backgrounds, some biblical images have little immediate meaning. In the world I came from, anything resembling deacons and bishops was completely outside my experience. Now I do believe in study and applying myself to learning what the bible means by such terms, but I would have found it much easier if someone had compared the church to the catering industry, and explained that the Greek word for deacon was commonly used of a barman or wine waiter.
One of the biblical words that appears to have lost all meaning in the church is ‘disciple’. A common word in Jesus’ day, disciple would have been readily understood as a pupil of a teacher, but with the added element of learning on the job. The same sort of principle that would have undergirded apprenticeships where someone signed up with a master craftsman in order to learn the trade.
Jesus never told the apostles or any of his followers to make ‘churchgoers’ or to ‘get people saved’. He explicitly told them to make disciples (Mat Ch 28 v 19). It seems to me therefore, that once we have become Christians through turning away from self to God, and have sealed that with baptism in water and Holy Spirit, our next step should be to become lifelong learners or apprentices. In other words – disciples. Becoming an apprentice has never been something for the fainthearted to undertake. It is generally badly paid, and involves hard work – some of which is probably menial, repetitious and boring. Even with a comparatively exciting career, such as a professional footballer, the apprenticeship may involve an undreamed of commitment to training in order to become a master of the game. Of course, many people will play football simply for the fun of it and in such cases, competence is an optional extra.
A question we might ask; is what model would Jesus use today to convey the nature of the relationship he wants with his followers? The apostles would have known that there was no such thing as a part-time disciple. Of course, even then there were adherents to religions who did not take it seriously and who hovered on the fringes of one movement or another. But Jesus did not die to gain part-time adherents who fitted in their commitment to him around more important areas of their lives. Jesus wanted disciples and he made it plain that discipleship would cost everything.
One of the problems we have today, is that sometimes there is no expectation that there will be any measurable growth in the people who belong to a church. Leaders are expected to keep the thing ticking over, but not to engage in a meaningful way with people in order to see them change and come into ministry themselves. It is accepted that the leaders must be committed, but allowed that everyone else is only committed to the level they choose, and that may be little more than a weekly attendance and a few pounds in the collection pot. I have been considering what possible names we could give to church leaders that would encourage a different understanding of their relationship with the church.
Looking around at the world, the two terms that would seem most appropriate to import into spiritual church life, are coach and trainer. Both these roles incorporate the concept of enabling and promoting growth in the person or persons being coached or trained. No football team would engage a coach without the expectation that there would be measurable growth and improvement in both individuals and the team as a whole. No one would join a team with a coach unless they were prepared to knuckle down to some exercises and practice that would result in change.
In the early churches, especially those within Jewish or Greek cultures, people would have understood the difference between someone who believed certain facts about Jesus and someone who made the decision to become a disciple of Jesus.
I realise that many churches today make the choice not to present Christianity as discipleship. The ‘welcome one and all’ philosophy which some churches pursue, often creates an attractive environment where people can belong before they believe (and sometimes never believe). It is often a successful method of seeing numerical growth, but not of making disciples. Whilst Jesus drew large crowds, he constantly laid down the terms of discipleship and he never tried to hang on to people who were not prepared to accept those terms.
In some countries, persecution of Christians forces people to become disciples or to turn their backs on their faith. I sometimes wonder whether it is the grace or the judgement of God that holds back persecution in our country. Surely, half-heartedness is a much greater threat to the kingdom than persecution.
Though I do think it could be good to recognise and promote a coaching ministry within the church, a change of name or title alone will do little. But we do need to recover not merely the concept of discipleship, but the practice of it. Can we really be New Covenant followers of Jesus if we do not have an expectation that he will be constantly working on us to change us?
It might be interesting to consider what could happen if a church were to employ a full-time coach instead of a pastor.
Along with many others, my friends and I are beginning to meet again in person as lockdown eases. We have been meeting on line, and whilst that has enabled us to continue with many things such as looking at scriptures and sharing testimonies, we have been unable to do some things such as breaking bread together.
I have been wrestling with the whole concept of breaking bread/communion/eucharist for a number of years, as none of the many ways that I have shared in this with others have appeared to me to be what Jesus wanted his disciples to do, or what the early church seemed to have carried out.
The problem is accentuated, because this apparently simple procedure can be done, and indeed is done, in a variety of ways with a variety of meanings. According to various church traditions, there are differences in many areas. I certainly do not have any pat answers, but I do have some questions.
1. Frequency? Some churches, especially those with a more liturgical position, may have communion on a daily basis. Those who do not make it a daily practice usually do so once a week or once a month. Some churches, especially those in the Presbyterian wing of the church, may only celebrate 1, 3, 4 or 6 times a year. Is there any clear biblical basis which undergirds any of these patterns?
2. Who may share in the communion? The Eastern Orthodox Church give communion to newly baptized infants but not to any person who does not belong to the church. Roman Catholics and Anglicans will allow any person to partake who has been baptized and confirmed in the denomination. Most Free Churches restrict communion to adults, but do not necessarily require them to have been baptized. Some make a point that ‘those who love the Lord’ may come and others make no distinction at all. Some churches have ‘closed’ communion for members only on some occasions and ‘open’ communion for anyone on others.
3. What food and drink should be used? Anglicans and Roman Catholics generally use separate wafers made individually (ie. Not from a loaf) and alcoholic red wine. In some high churches, water is added to the wine, usually cold water, but hot in some Orthodox churches. Methodists will not use wine but red grape juice. Some churches insist on matzos or unleavened bread (ie. With no yeast in it), whilst others use pre-cut cubes of a cut white loaf. Some churches endeavour to keep the symbolism of a loaf and so break a loaf in pieces, however, some of the churches which insist on a loaf will have it with Ribena or some form of blackcurrant juice.
4. How should the food and drink be distributed? Whilst having individual separated wafers, most liturgical churches will use one cup out of which everyone comes forward to drink. Baptists tend to do it the other way around. They often use a loaf which is pre-cut, then distributed and eaten when received, whilst then using individual cups, which are passed around and everyone waits so they can all drink together. The possible combinations of how it should be done are many and varied. I have seen bread and wine presented on fine silver, and also pint plastic cups of Ribena passed round with chunks from a fresh loaf on a plastic plate.
5. Does anything happen to the bread and wine that is used? Both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. However whilst the Catholics describe the change as transubstantiation, many (most?) Orthodox stop short of using the term and simply say that it is a mystery. Some of the reformers taught that Christ’s body and blood is mediated with the bread and wine so that anyone who receives by faith, does partake of Christ. Other reformers, and most Free Churches today, do not believe that any change takes place and that the bread and wine are aids to faith not vehicles of faith.
6. Does anything happen to the people who take bread and wine? Again the main difference is between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches and the Free Churches. If Christ is actually given and received, that must make a difference and communion is therefore compulsory for a Christian. If all that a person receives is bread and wine, then any difference that may occur is as a result of faith not the elements themselves. However, if nothing happens, what does Paul mean about people becoming sick because they do not participate properly?
7. How is communion an act of remembrance? The Jewish Passover meal was an occasion when God’s deliverance of his people was specifically remembered. It happened in the context of a meal and during the meal questions were raised and explanations given. Although it only happened once a year, the remembrance element was central and so people were actually reminded of what God had done. Though most Churches celebrate communion much more frequently than once a year, it is more often done as a ritual rather than something which provokes and answers questions. Consequently, those partaking will often have less understanding from their frequent participation, than the Jews did from their infrequent participation.
8. What does it mean to remember until he come? Passover certainly incorporated an act of remembrance, but it also looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was and is the Messiah who came, but having returned to the Father, he has promised to come again. As far as I am aware, very few churches of any type have any real focus on the second coming as part of communion. Should we rediscover such a focus?
9. What is the correct name and context for communion? Communion indicates a sharing together, Eucharist emphasises a giving of thanks and breaking bread was a common term for sharing a meal together. Usually, Eastern meals were, and in many cases still are, based around bread as the most common and basic food. Bread was life and to share bread was to share life. Jesus’ command to ‘do this’ was in the context of a meal. A question we need to ask is ‘Should his command be carried out as part of a meal, as an entirely separate ritual, or as something slipped into or tagged onto a church service?’
10. How does communion reflect the unity of the one body of Christ when it is done with so many variations, and often with the specific exclusion of others?
I am wrestling through many of these issues myself at the moment, but have found a strange reluctance amongst other Christians to talk about it or to reconsider their own particular way of doing things. I would be interested and open to comments from others on this.
“Though the fig tree may not blossom,Habakkuk Ch 3 v 17 – 18
Nor fruit be on the vines;
Though the labour of the olive may fail,
And the fields yield no food;
Though the flock may be cut off from the fold,
And there be no herd in the stalls –
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will joy in the God of my salvation.”
This short paean of affirming faith in God in the face of seeming evidence to the contrary, cuts to the heart of the matter as to how we respond to God in the face of judgement.
The land and the people of Judah were coming under judgement. The instrument of judgement was the Chaldean army, which was spreading out from Babylonia like lava spewing out from a volcano. Nothing could stop them, and such was their unstoppable power, that nations and cultures in their path were liable to be extinguished for ever. Through the prophet Habakkuk, God unequivocally confirms what he is doing.
“For indeed I am raising up the Chaldeans,Habakkuk Ch 1 v 6 -10
a bitter and hasty nation
which marches through the breadth of the earth,
to possess dwelling places that are not theirs.
They are terrible and dreadful;
their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves.
Their horses also are swifter than leopards,
and more fierce than evening wolves.
Their chargers charge ahead;
their cavalry comes from afar;
they fly as the eagle that hastens to eat.
They all come for violence;
Their faces are set like the east wind.
They gather captives like sand.
They scoff at kings,
and princes are scorned by them.
They deride every stronghold,
for they heap up earthen mounds and seize it.”
In the light of such judgement, how is Habakkuk able to say that, though everything fails, yet he will rejoice in the Lord? After declaring God’s judgement, Habakkuk also declares God’s remedy “The just shall live by his faith”(Ch 2 v 4)
Whatever the human situation, there is only ever one remedy; look expectantly to the Lord to fulfil his ultimate promises. The ‘just’ or righteous, are only ever just because they do not trust in themselves, but in the Word of God. Human failure is always the result of trusting in human ability.
As we listen to the news, we cannot but be struck by the continued emphasis of politicians and national leaders that they have things under their control and that they will sort out whatever situation or disaster prevails. All they need is a bit more time, a bit more money or a bit more cooperation and confidence from the rest of us. If they are people of good intention then they are deceived, if they are people of wrong intentions, then they are liars. In either case, our responsibility is to disbelieve them and to fix our hopes upon God.
Judgement is not the first reaction of an implacable deity, but the final response of a longsuffering merciful God whose people have refused to hear and receive the words that would have led to life. The scriptures say that judgement begins first at the house of God (1 Peter Ch 4 v17). If we acknowledge that the breakdown of society happening on a worldwide scale is indeed judgement, then we are in a better place than any to repent, get right with God and to put our own house in order. If we harden our hearts and imitate the worldly attitude that we have the capability to sort out whatever is needful, then we put ourselves in the frontline for judgement.
Habakkuk did not end his prophecy with words of confidence because he had any expectation that the Jewish nation would be able to overcome the Chaldean hordes: he knew that Judah would be defeated. However, he also knew that God had promised future deliverance and rather than trusting in present resources, he firmly fixed his eyes on the dawning of God’s approaching Messianic Kingdom.
When Paul was returning from one of his missionary journeys, he revisited churches on the way “Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts Ch 14 v 22). Paul’s intention was to strengthen Christians by emphasising the hardships they would face. Too many church leaders today are weakening Christians, by presenting a journey lined with the warm fuzzy feelings of aspiration rather than the hard facts of faith.
I have been meditating over the past few days on Martin Luther’s hymn “A mighty fortress is our God”. The language is a bit dated and obscure (it was written nearly 500 years ago), but the words resound with resolute faith in the face of adversity. Luther probably wrote this hymn in 1527 -29, at the time when parts of Europe were experiencing another outbreak of plague. The city of Florence reputedly lost a fifth of its population at that time. Pandemics, such as the present one with Covid 19, have been part of virtually all periods of human history; such periods are always opportunities to discover new depths of faith in God. May God give us the grace to respond and to return to him again with the confidence of a Habakkuk or Luther.
Re-reading some of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion this Easter, I have been struck again with the prophetic significance of the sign above the cross, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matt Ch 27 v 37).
Though all the gospels emphasise the kingship of Jesus to some extent, it is more clearly seen in Matthew’s gospel. It is in Matthew that we get the genealogy, which establishes Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham. Any rightful king of the Jews had to be descended from David – Herod was not even a full blooded Jew and was considered a usurper – and part of the messianic expectation was a re-establishing of the Davidic line. It is significant that Matthew includes the visit of the Magi, who had received a cosmic revelation of Jesus’ birth. It was their enquiry to Herod (the usurper) about Jesus (the true King), which provoked the massacre of the babies at Bethlehem.
However, it is as Jesus is brought before Pilate that his Kingship is highlighted. When Pilate asks the question of Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus affirms that Pilate is right. Even the soldiers cry out “Hail King of the Jews”. Whilst they did this in mockery, under the hand of God who brought all this to pass, their testimony, though given in loutish ignorance, is actually true.
The final testimony was the placard above the cross. It was usual for the crimes of a crucified felon to be written upon a piece of wood or parchment and nailed on the cross above their head, so that anyone passing by could see the reason for their death. Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had delivered Jesus to him out of malice and envy, and that there were no genuine offences which he had committed. We do not know what went through Pilate’s mind when it came to the time to declare his judgement to be written on the placard for Jesus, but whatever his reason for doing so, he caused one of the most significant prophetic truths of all time to be written there as a statement that would last for all eternity. “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”.
If Jesus had merely been a carpenter, even a carpenter who was the perfect son of God, his death could not have atoned for the sin of the world.
When Adam sinned, he did not merely sin as a private individual, but as the man whom God had created as the first and foremost – the king – of the human race. Adam was our representative head, who led humanity in sinful rebellion against God. Just as any national leader who declares war, does so on behalf of the nation he represents, Adam led us to side with Satan and oppose God, and there have never been any conscientious objectors who opted out. That is until Jesus.
But if Jesus had merely been a Jewish carpenter, even a perfect, divine Jewish carpenter, he would not have had the authority to declare peace with God and negotiate the appropriate terms of peace.
When Jesus Christ died, he did so as the atoning lamb, but also as the representative head – the king – of God’s people, and as the priest who (in the line of Melchizedek the king/priest of Jerusalem) was able to carry out his own sacrifice with all the legitimate authority of heaven and earth.
The one thing that Jesus could legally be accused of, was that he had accepted the rightful role of King of a fallen, sinful and rebellious people, and as such could legitimately be executed for their fall, their sin and their rebellion.
Oh the wisdom and righteousness of God! The death of Jesus as the second Adam who was both the last of the old order and the first of the new, fully satisfied those in leadership of the Jewish nation, it satisfied the law of Rome, which covered the then known world, and it fully satisfied the righteousness of God.
Now with Jesus as the firstborn from the dead, the king and representative head of God’s new creation, who can possibly lay anything against our charge when we submit to him and present him to God on our behalf?
You may recognise this as the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer published just over fifty years ago. I remember the vicar at St. John’s Church in Penge, South London, holding the book up in his right hand and recommending it to the congregation. I cannot imagine that many church leaders today would recommend such a book.
That is not because it is a bad book. It is because a substantial section of the church today would probably not only be unable to understand it, but more pertinently, would lack the motivation to work at understanding it.
Schaeffer was one of a batch of writers in the post-war years, who sought to stir the church to weigh and apprehend truth and then communicate it to others. His books were not an easy read. Desiring that his readers would grasp a past and present world-view of thought, he ranged through the history of philosophy and reason in a competent but not always easily understandable way. I did not read the book when the vicar recommended it, but some ten years later, I ventured into Schaeffer, first unsuccessfully, but then gradually with some real appreciation of what he was saying. It was not that I or others in the 1970s, were necessarily more intelligent than the generation today, but whereas we grasped that some good books needed working at, many of today’s readers appear to want all knowledge in pre-digested snippets from Wikipedia or a two-minute thought for the day.
I was a very unsatisfactory student at school. Outside of school I lived in an adult world (my parents ran a pub) where my honest interests centred on card playing and horseracing, and my less honest interests kept me hovering on the borderlands of trouble or possibly prison. I rarely read a book and my perceptive headmaster suggested that I leave his establishment at an early opportunity. God broke into my life in my twenty-first year and one of the first fruits of conversion was that I began to read.
I actually do not know where it came from or how God accomplished it in me, but I began to have a desire to study. I graduated from my teenage reading of Parade and the Daily Sketch to Calvin’s Institutes, the Works of Wesley and Whitefield, C. S. Lewis and the likes of Francis Schaeffer. What I discovered was that hard study was usually beneficial. It was not that I became a mind centred Christian: I was fully immersed in the Charismatic and New Church scene and often used to engage in impromptu street preaching outside St. Paul’s Cathedral or Charing Cross Underground Station. However, in the midst of all the experience and action based stuff, I discovered that God had given me an enquiring mind that wanted answers.
Since those early days, I have struggled to hold these different aspects of Christianity in balance in my own life, and to relate to them appropriately in the lives of others. However, I have been increasingly persuaded that, however many spiritual experiences we may have in meetings, it is not generally possible to grow beyond spiritual babyhood without some measure of applied learning in our bedsits or at our desks. The pathway to maturity is paved with hard work. Whatever else it may have meant, the word ‘disciple’ used by Jesus embodied the concept of a committed learner, and committed learning involves persistent application of all our gifts and abilities. This is equally true of practical and academic disciplines. I learned how to clean toilets when I worked in a care home and that involved as much applied care and attention as when I studied at college.
Fredrick Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury a hundred and twenty years ago said:
“The real student knows perfectly well, and it is the thing of great importance in practical life, that nine-tenths of all good work, whatever it may be, is what we usually call drudgery, has a mechanical character about it and requires nothing more than orderliness….. Nine-tenths of all good work is labour in which those who are engaged cannot feel any conceit at all; and the man of genius is distinguished from others mainly by this, that he sees, all through, what this mechanical drudgery is going to lead to”
Many of us today appear offended by the need to undertake anything that might be termed drudgery or, to use its present term, ‘boring’.
I suspect that the reason why many of us have not progressed beyond spiritual babyhood, may not be because of a lack of spiritual experiences, but from a lack of acquiring understanding of those experiences and applying that understanding to action in our lives. For those of us who are gifted to some degree in using our minds, such a course may involve learning from more mature disciples who have written down their acquired wisdom, and who have sometimes done so in a way that will require a real measure of hard work. Even the apostle Peter noted that some of Paul’s writings included that which was hard to understand (2 Peter Ch3 v 16), so it seems unlikely that we can expect to get everything we need served up in a pre-digested form. As helpful as Wikipedia is (and I use it a lot) it is no substitute for coming to grips with some of the great Christian thinkers and writers of past generations.