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.
I am not really a sunbathing enthusiast, but I do know that if I wanted to be, then I would have to go out of doors and expose my skin to the sun. If I did want a tan, however much I desired one, it would not happen by staying in a darkened room and simply trying hard to get one. I am pretty certain that it would not work either, by praying very hard for the sun to come indoors where I am instead of me going out to where it is.
I do understand that even in a darkened room, whilst the sun sustains me and its warmth permeates my whole environment, just because one aspect of its work reaches into that sort of situation, it does not mean that all other aspects will as well.
I am very grateful to God that wherever I am, even in the darkest spiritual period of my life, his presence and power will sustain me. However, there are some aspects of his work, which will only happen if, by faith, I walk out of that room and consciously and deliberately expose myself to the full blaze of his glory. Paul says in two Corinthians chapter three that it is as we look at the Lord with uncovered faces, the glory coming from the Lord transforms us into his likeness.
Some aspects of God’s work, especially his transforming work in us, happen as we expose ourselves to him, and they will not happen when we hide away, even though we may be trying hard or even praying hard to make it happen. We are encouraged to enter boldly into God’s presence in order to find grace and mercy to help in time of need. The transforming power of God comes from the risen Christ upon his heavenly throne. It is from there that he sends his Spirit to make the work of his Passion effective in the lives of his people on earth. If we shrink away from the exposing light of the Spirit we will not change, just as the sun will not tan us if we hide away from it.
There is only one sun which sustains our world, but the effects of the sun itself, and its light and heat are all different in the ways they function and relate to the various aspects of our needs on earth. There is only one God, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit have clear differences in the way in which they relate to us, God’s people. One of the increasing areas of confusion in the churches is how we are to respond to God who is Trinitarian, clearly one yet also clearly three.
A blog of a few hundred words is hardly the place to try to develop a right understanding of the Trinity for it is a mystery. However, it is perhaps the place to sound an alarm, that a lack of right understanding of the Trinitarian God we worship, may be part of the reason why so many of us are not seeing the growth in godliness that we long for.
We may always benefit from the light and heat of the sun even when we are hidden from it, but we cannot receive the ultra violet rays needed to give us a tan unless we expose ourselves to it. In like manner, God’s providential grace will benefit us even when we are hidden from him, but his transforming grace requires us to actively open ourselves to him in expectant faith.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but one of the puzzling things that has crept into some churches over recent years is the strange habit of welcoming the Holy Spirit into meetings. Now of course, I am as pleased as anyone to know that the Holy Spirit is present with us when we meet together. However, the Bible assures us that he is always present at those times, and even when we are not meeting together. If we are truly part of the body of Christ, then we are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit both individually and corporately all of the time.
I struggle to get my head round the idea, seemingly implied in this new habit, that when I meet with other Christians, the Holy Spirit somehow leaves us at some point before we get there, and then waits outside until we ask him in. Perhaps I have misunderstood what people mean when they pronounce a welcome to him, but it seems an unusual practice, to welcome someone who has been with us all the time, and who will stay with us when we leave. And if, by some strange (indeed impossible) phenomenon, we were actually separated from the Holy Spirit, then it seems to me that it would be more fitting for him to welcome us back than the other way around.
I can certainly understand people being grateful for the fact that the Holy Spirit is present, and I can appreciate a thankfulness for those times when we may experience that fact in a greater measure than at other times. However, our awareness of his presence is not actually any indication of the reality of his presence (I suspect most of us are unaware of him being with us when we sleep).
I find this practice doubly confusing because it also seems to imply that the Holy Spirit is ‘out there somewhere’ hanging around waiting to be invited in. Jesus taught that when we drink from him, then the Holy Spirit will flow out from us. We are filled with Holy Spirit as a consequence of our union with Jesus (he used the illustration of us as branches attached to him and drawing life from him as the vine). There are times of special manifestations of the Holy Spirit (mentioned both in the Bible and through history) when he is described as ‘coming upon’ or in terms of wind sweeping in, but these are special times. The day by day and week by week work of the Spirit, often described as ‘walking’, originates in and is mediated through Jesus, as we live in union with him.
Perhaps we should be cautious about introducing habits and terminology that do not exist in the bible and which have not been used by Christians throughout history until the last few years. If we do decide to introduce something novel into the way we talk about God, it would be helpful to folk like me to perhaps explain what we mean by it, or maybe even to check out whether we are getting into a habit that is actually a bad one.
I have just been browsing in the latest edition of Plough. It is only published quarterly, which means that I have enough space between issues to forget just how good it is. Each edition therefore tends to have an element of surprise when I re-discover its excellence. Without question, it is the best magazine I know of.
Though I rate it very highly, I sometimes disagree with substantial parts of it, or if not actually disagreeing, simply fail to agree through lack of knowledge and awareness of the subject matter. In addition, much of the content is beyond my experience and outside my general areas of interest.
So what is it that draws me to it as the one magazine that I generally read from cover to cover? Its content is Christian, at least in the main – though perhaps sometimes only vaguely so – and it does not appear to be either evangelical nor charismatic. It covers an extraordinary range of subjects – even in a themed issue. Where else would you find an interview with a Coptic Archbishop, an article on welding and another on cryptocurrency, nestling next to a reflection on being a mercenary and a memorial of Jean Vanier working lovingly with severely disabled people? Reflecting on the reasons why I like this magazine, I find myself coming back to one word. Integrity. As I understand it, integrity means firstly that it has the quality of being honest, and secondarily that it has strong moral principles. There is invariably a total absence of hype, that extravagance of self-promotion which characterises so many publications. Also, there are no adverts. It only continues to exist because those who read it believe it worthwhile supporting, or, more pertinently, because those who publish it believe it worthwhile investing their time and money to do so.
In the recent issues of Plough there is a quote from C.S. Lewis’s school tutor advising him only to say what he meant – and nothing more or less. That finds a strong echo in my own heart – something I long for and endeavour to do, though realising it is something I often fail to achieve. However, Plough does manage to achieve this on a surprisingly consistent basis, and that may be the thing that contributes most to its integrity and to its consequent attraction.
My experience and understanding of Christianity is at variance with much that I read in the magazine, but I cannot help drinking in the complete lack of hypocrisy, which permeates its pages. Whatever else we know about Jesus, surely no one can question His love of honesty and openness, and it is that, rather than what I would consider doctrinal correctness, which I find so stimulating about this publication.
It is published from conviction and not for profit, by the Bruderhof, a group of Christians living and working together in full community. If you want to check it out for yourselves, visit www.plough.com
It is not particularly easy to explain what a dilettante is. The Oxford dictionary includes the definition: A person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.
A couple of hundred years ago it was generally applied to gentlemen and ladies of financial means who pursued an interest in something, usually enthusiastically, but without the need or desire to have a commitment to it. Over the years, it has mainly fallen into disuse, but when it is applied to someone, it tends to highlight an apparently enthusiastic involvement, which lacks any real depth.
When Jesus began His ministry of healing, exorcism and teaching, large crowds followed Him wherever He went. Their enthusiasm and interest could not be doubted. They were attracted both by the man and what He said and did, and they took delight (the true root meaning of a dilettante) in all the spectacular and miraculous events that were happening. However, as Jesus unpacked the truth of who He was and what would be required of anyone who decided to stick with Him, many of the crowds melted away.
It seemed that there were two aspects of Jesus’ teaching that made Him a far less attractive proposition to the once eager crowds. The first was His insistence that His hearers could only obtain life by eating and drinking his flesh and blood: superficially, an understandably repellent concept, but one which in reality focussed on union with Him as the only source of spiritual life. The second was His equally insistent demand, that anyone who wanted to be his disciple, must first be prepared to lay down and discard their own life.
A dilettante may get very enthusiastic about all that Jesus has done and continues to do, but they will draw back from any real commitment to truth and discipleship.
Many churches have at least some aspect of their activities focussed on an appeal to basic human nature. Some churches actually gear up a substantial amount of what they do in order to attract folk on that basis. The style of music, family events, messy church, aesthetically pleasing ceremonies or whatever, seemingly put together to appeal to the natural man or woman. If they are successful in drawing people in, and they often are, generally they will end up with dilettantes rather than disciples.
There is little wrong with seeking to be pleasing on a natural level. The problem comes when that is the focus of the appeal. Often, such a church will end up being mono-cultural with like coming together with like, gathering those with common interests. However, if a church is founded on sacrificial union with Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection, it will embrace a range of styles and activities that will reflect the variety of people drawn together; but the drawing will not be based on any one or more of those styles and activities, but on Jesus Himself.
At heart, a dilettante will be a fair weather follower, primarily concerned with what they can receive rather than with what they can give. A disciple however will want to serve their master come what may.
St. Ignatius of Loyola summed up the nature of discipleship when he said:
“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labour and not to ask for any reward except to know that I am doing your will.”
If we struggle to say an amen to that, perhaps we should consider whether we are mere dilettantes rather than disciples.
I once spent a summer working in a restaurant for £2.50 a week. It was a very long time ago when I was fourteen, but even then it was not much money. The owner of the restaurant was from Cyprus but he did not serve Greek food – very English fish and chips and real solid puddings. He allowed me to eat as much as I liked, so my low wage was off-set by triple helpings of steamed syrup suet sponge with custard and ice cream.
I am not aware that the time there had any impact on my life, so why I remember that and forget so many other things is a mystery.
Memory is a selective thing, not least in the matter of recalling conversations between husband and wife. I can remember a set of facts quite differently to the way my wife, Catherine, remembers them. It is probable that one of us is right, but which one of us? Ah! – That is another mystery.
There are a very few individuals with exceptionally good memories, but for most of us, we need some method to help us – whether on screen, paper or knots in handkerchiefs. That is one of the reasons why we need to keep coming back to our bibles. Most of us easily forget what it says, and we end up relying on someone else to tell us. The problem is that they may have forgotten just as easily as we have. Now, I do believe in the need for leaders such as pastors and teachers in the Church, but not as substitutes for what we should be checking out ourselves.
God has promised that He will teach us through the Holy Spirit writing things on our minds and hearts. One of the most effective ways He does this is by enabling us to understand the bible when we read it. It is very helpful to have good leaders in the Church, but their main responsibility is to teach us how to learn directly from God rather than them acting as a go between. A good teacher will teach what the Holy Spirit is already saying, so that our response will be, ‘that’s just what I have seen’. In this way, it will be a confirmation of what we are already getting for ourselves. This does of course put the responsibility on us to make sure that we are in right relationship with God and continually drawing on the life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. If all of us in Church do this and share what God is showing us, we are more likely to grow both individually and as a group.
One of the worst things that can happen, is for a leader to convince us that we are not able to receive from God ourselves, and that what we need to do is just listen to them, support them and do what they say. In her book ‘The Liberty of Obedience’ Elisabeth Elliot states that “Decisions must be made in the integrity of one’s own heart before God – with an unselfish attention to our brother’s good and the glory of God.” When we have to respond to the questions God puts to us at the judgement, it will be insufficient to say ‘I never really came to grips with what you said Lord, but this leader said this, or the other leader said that and I thought it best to just follow them and not to try and understand for myself.’
You may be surprised how many problems happen to churches because a leader spends so much time trying to build a good church, that he or she goes astray in their own life. Some of the other people will probably pick that up, but if they are used to simply playing follow my leader, then the whole church can break up, dry up or go off the rails. But we do have a responsibility to remember to the best of our ability, and most of us will only be able to do it well if we both rely on the Holy Spirit and keep going back to the bible.
In conversation with some friends in London recently I heard of three local churches that appear in real danger of serious decline. Located within a few hundred yards of each other, one has a superb building complex but only around 15 elderly people in the congregation. They share a minister with one of the other churches (of the same denomination) which has an adequate building and a reasonable size congregation but without a lot happening. The third church (belonging to another, but very similar denomination) has a fairly strong ministry team, quite a lot happening, but a building that is not very suitable. A pooling of resources could result in a very good building, a fairly large congregation (easily accommodated), a broad ministry team and, from the sale of the other two buildings, enough money to finance outreach and ministry for years to come. Of course we know it won’t happen, but why not?
Any business that had three branches which functioned on a similar basis to the three churches would of course go bankrupt very quickly. Based no doubt on a desire for profit the business would almost certainly consolidate its assets, subordinating the discomforts of change to the overriding aim of making money.
Churches are not motivated by profit and neither should they be, but surely we should ask the question as to what might actually be the motivation that would enable them to subordinate the discomforts of change to work for the greater good of God’s kingdom. That is of course assuming that we do believe that it is for the good of the kingdom to utilise resources in the best possible way, rather than being plainly inefficient and in danger of death.
The strange thing is, that if each of us were to be asked whether we put the kingdom as our priority, we would probably say yes, whilst however maintaining practices that to an outside observer, may appear to plainly contradict that.
An exercise that might be provocatively helpful to us would be to actually put down on paper the benefits that accrue to the kingdom of God by remaining separate compared to the benefits of working together. It is the sort of things that businesses do, but I suppose that some of us would consider that too worldly.
I worked in a bookshop for many years and generally when a customer had bought a book I offered them a paper bag to put it in. Quite a number used to decline the offer with a comment such as ‘No thanks – let’s save the rainforest.’
Now I have a background in the paper industry and I was involved in buying and selling woodpulp for several years. I also worked for a time in a paper mill, which manufactured paper both from virgin pulp and recycled materials. Although I rarely did so, I could have explained to a customer in some detail that the chances of their paper bag having come from wood originating in a rain forest was essentially nil. (Not to mention the fact that the book they were buying probably contained a couple of hundred times as much woodpulp as their bag did.)
By far the majority of paper made in the UK uses raw material from sustainable, managed forests where the trees are harvested in a cycle, in much the same way that we would plant, grow and harvest wheat or barley. The only real difference is that the cycle takes place over a longer period.
What I have learned though, is that many people are much more comfortable holding onto something false but which feels good – we are saving the rainforest by not using a paper bag – than they are taking time to find out the actual facts of a matter.
I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but this happens in church life as well. For instance it is very common today for people to refer to singing and playing musical instruments as ‘worship’ in spite of the fact that there is only one place in the whole of the bible where music and worship are even mentioned in the same verse. Even a cursory bible study on worship will quickly show that its primary meaning relates to sacrificial service to and honour of God – not to singing about it. When I have mentioned something along these lines, the response rarely includes a willingness to consider facts, but nearly always centres on the need for me to accept popular thinking (even if it is inaccurate) and not to upset anyone by saying something controversial.
It is understandable that the world increasingly embraces truth on the basis of what an individual determines it to be, rather than on any external evidence. This is the inevitable outcome of existentialism which has been increasingly filtering down into our corporate consciousness, especially over the last ninety years or so. However, the church should be actively resisting conformity to the world. We have a responsibility to understand truth as it is presented in the bible and not to re-define it on the basis of what seems popular or appropriate to us.
When Jesus was on earth, he cut right across many of the accepted teachings of the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Perhaps we should consider which of our church teachings he would cut across if he were with us today.
If most of us were to be perfectly honest, there are probably some people whom we would rather not forgive and be reconciled to.
Sadly, those towards whom we retain an irreconcilable attitude may have once been very close to us. Friends, family members: parents, children, siblings, husbands and wives – or ex husbands and wives. We probably should not be too surprised about this, as the first recorded murder in the bible was of one brother who murdered his other brother, and throughout history, family feuds have gone on for generations.
Of course, ongoing animosity also occurs between strangers; especially when one has committed a crime against another, or where two groups – gangs, tribes or nations – perpetuate hatred for no other reason than some perceived differences between them.
The problem for those of us who seek to be followers of Jesus, is that a refusal to forgive others – whoever they are or whatever they have done – is one of the few things that disqualifies us from receiving God’s forgiveness for ourselves. Probably the most commonly known and regularly prayed prayer, usually termed ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, is very explicit about the matter: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Just to make certain that his followers understood this to mean exactly what it appears to mean, Jesus went on to say very clearly, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their sins, neither will your Father forgive your sins”.
I have come to the place of taking that very seriously. As far as I am aware I no longer hold anything against anyone, and this has proved to be a very positive experience. Not only has my assurance of God’s forgiveness toward me grown stronger, but I have found that God has been warming my heart a little towards those with whom I could take issue if I followed my own natural inclinations.
As I have considered the matter, it has struck me afresh how churches often seem to crop the gospel and leave out some of its vital elements. In recent years, I cannot recall hearing any gospel message that has included the need for reconciliation with others, the emphasis tending to be on the need that we have for forgiveness. We do need forgiveness, but as our forgiveness is dependent on our forgiving others, it seems to me that our need to forgive should take precedence over our need to be forgiven.
One of the things I have observed about the issue of forgiving others, is that unwillingness to do so is not necessarily connected to the magnitude of what needs to be forgiven. It is more understandable when someone struggles about reconciliation after infidelity in marriage, physical or sexual abuse or even murder, but sometimes long-term enmity can arise from no more than an imagined slight or a small disagreement. However, Jesus never differentiated between small sins and large ones. It is the fact of refusing to forgive another that disqualifies us from receiving God’s forgiveness, whether what needs to be forgiven is no more than a misunderstanding or the most horrific pre-meditated abuse.
That may seem to be unfair, until we grasp that God will forgive us regardless of the level of our sin, and the condition of forgiving others is simply on a similar basis to how he forgives us. It is always God’s will to forgive, and in our prayers we pray for his will to be done, so forgiving others essentially means that we align our will with his. Very few of us will achieve the ongoing ability to forgive others without first surrendering our will to God’s will, but when we do that unreservedly, we will find that he will enable us to do what we previously considered neither possible nor desirable.
When Paul was on trial before Festus and King Agrippa, his arguments were becoming so persuasive that Agrippa responded to Paul, “You almost persuade me to become a Christian”.
Agrippa was an interesting person. He was around ten years old when Jesus was born, and King Herod, who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem at that time, was his grandfather. Although his family were Edomites, through alliances with the political powers of the day, especially
the Romans, they became the royal family in Israel. Astute politicians who often resorted to violence, they were always aware of the fragility of their position and so they worked hard at relationships with the Jews, especially the Sadducees. Agrippa was considered to be very well informed in Jewish
matters and he appears to have had a genuine respect for the Jewish scriptures. Paul goes so far as to say to him “King Agrippa, Do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” It was to this statement that Agrippa responded that he was almost persuaded to become a Christian.
At that time in the Roman Empire, most people would have been religious to some degree or other, though the focus of their beliefs would have ranged widely from rank idolatry or paganism through to true worship of the living God. Amongst this hotch potch of beliefs, it was not uncommon for people such as Agrippa who were racial outsiders to Judaism, nonetheless to have some measure of belief in the God of the Jews. Some Romans, Greeks and other nationalities even made regular visits to the Temple in Jerusalem where they congregated in the court of the Gentiles. Most appeared sincere, but they stopped short of actually converting to Judaism, which would have allowed them to join in the Jewish temple worship and be recognised as God’s people.
Though remaining outside of Judaism, the more serious of these Gentiles who believed in the true God began to be known by the name of ‘God-fearers’. The bible terms Cornelius in this way, and the Greeks who came up to the feast at Jerusalem and who wanted to see Jesus were almost certainly the same as well. When Jesus threw out the money-changers from the temple, it was from the area set aside for these God-fearing Gentiles that he ejected them, and he did so because the area was to be called a house of prayer ‘for all nations’.
Jews, and subsequently Christians, have never found it easy to know how to relate to God-fearers. They are not part of God’s people, and though some remain outside, others clearly have the potential to be converted and come in. Sometimes we resist those who seem to be close to the kingdom, like some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we embrace others who, like Agrippa, align themselves with a church because it suits them to do so, but who are only almost persuaded to become Christians and stop short of actually committing themselves.
The problem appears to be that we respond to an outward alignment to an organisation and not to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in hearts and minds. So, if someone is part of one of the respectable old denominations or an apparently flourishing new one, we give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them as Christians, though they may be very far from it. On the other hand, those who are perhaps exploring on their own or via a slightly odd group, or a sect such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are treated with a great deal of suspicion and actively shunned, even though God may be at work drawing them to himself.
It is not easy to get it right. These days I find myself becoming more convinced that many within the churches, including some clergy and those in positions of responsibility, are no more than almost Christians who are not actually part of the people of God. On the other hand, whilst recognising that they may not yet have entered the kingdom, I am warming to and praying for, those who have an active, serious, committed faith, which may as yet be incomplete.
My daughter told me that she recently preached on the subject of disagreeing well.
I suspect that for many today it is a lost art, or maybe an art that was never learned in the first place. Jewish rabbis at the time of Jesus would have been well instructed in the matter. That doesn’t mean that they would have always come to right conclusions nor that they would not have had some very heated arguments, but in the main, they would have taken time to investigate and understand positions that differed from their own. Rabbis held in high esteem tended to be able to argue against themselves from the positions of those who disagreed with them.
Unfortunately, it is quite rare today to find people who know how to listen to, hear and understand a position that is different from their own. Indeed it is increasingly common to counter any disagreement with an aggressive attack on the character of the one who voiced it, rather than presenting a well thought through case as to why it might be wrong. The descent into existentialism in the world encourages and facilitates such responses, but they should not be part of interactions between Christians.
Though sometimes avoiding the extreme of character assassination in response to a disagreement, Christians seem to have achieved tolerance by the simple method of declining to engage in any ordered discussion where disagreements might exist. Though having a different result to some of the conflicts in the world, this position has the same roots in the world’s embrace of existentialism. Whereas some come to the conclusion that everyone (else) is wrong, others have tried to insist that we can all be right and that it is therefore bad form to point out areas of disagreement.
One of the booklets I have written is “Why Evangelical Anglicans Should Not Baptise Babies” It has been written out of the conviction that the baptismal practice of Evangelical Anglicans is wrong, not out of any animosity toward those who engage in such a practice. I worked in a church in partnership with an evangelical Anglican minister for ten years and I have very warm memories of that, but I still believe, that on this point, he was in error. Regarding the booklet, my greatest disappointment has not been that a well read, well informed Anglican has refuted the points I raise, but that I have met a fairly solid refusal to engage in discussion about the matter. I recently had the opportunity of a brief conversation with a Church of England Bishop and I asked him if it would be possible for him, or someone recommended by him, to have a look at the booklet and give me some feedback. He declined to do so himself and suggested that others would be too busy to do so either.
I also had an email exchange with the editor of a series of small books primarily aimed at Church of England clergy. He remarked that he thought my book ‘Interesting’, but seemed reluctant to say anything further than that.
I am aware that I am as fallible as the next person and that it is possible that I may have misunderstood the Church of England position on the matter, but my work is a serious, conscientiously researched piece of writing which raises some genuine concerns. I would love to have someone disagree well with me. Agreement would of course be better, but good disagreement is healthy and would be nearly as welcome.
So if any one of you is a theologically informed Anglican, who can spare the time to respond to what I have written, I would really appreciate that. The booklet can be read online for free, or ordered from me in hard copy via the Books section of this website.