Friday, 21 December 2012

What Mike Tea Learned at Christmas 1975

Back in the 1970’s I worked in a famous gentleman’s outfitter’s in the High Street (I won’t name it because someone is bound to start singing and I don’t want you to do that) Back in the day it was all a woman could do to get her husband to go shopping for clothes once a year. This particular Christmas a young family came in to buy dad some clothes for the festive season before going on to toy shops and goodness knows what altogether.

I don’t recall whether they bought anything but I do remember a desperate wife and mother come rushing back into the shop, followed by her vexed husband and family asking if we had found some money she had dropped..

This was a time when credit cards were not common-place and debit cards hadn’t been invented. It was not uncommon for people to come into town with their money in cash and this is what they had done; a couple of week’s pay, bonuses, holiday money, all in a bundle and now lost at the very beginning of their adventure in the Christmas rush.

Well, we searched high and low but never found that cash and they went on retracing their steps and hoping above hope that some kind soul had found it and “handed it in” somewhere. During the rest of the day we found ourselves periodically going back to the search, looking under coat racks, searching behind counters, even looking in those places out of bounds to customers but nothing turned up.

The look of desperation on her face wrung our hearts that day, moved us to action, and I simply hope they found their money. I learned three lessons from that encounter, the first about life in general, the second about people and the third about me.

About life I learned that some things happen about which we can do nothing no matter how much we might want to do something. The lesson is that we should do what we can and not what we can’t. So often we get in our own way in a futile effort to change the past when the future is ready to meet us with fresh opportunities for growth and redemption.

About people I have learned that everyone, no matter their status in life, can be a moment away from calamity and disaster. An unkind word spoken in haste can be as devastating as a betrayal, job loss is often unexpected and frightening, the loss of all your Christmas money a week before the big day is certainly disastrous when it is all you have. The loss of a loved one…

A sudden turn in fortune can be devastating and people are much more vulnerable than a brave face and a confident step would have you think. We should stop assuming everyone else is alright and show a kindness, be a friend.

Every year when Christmas comes around I think of that family and their unfortunate mother. I learned about myself that I care and think about these things; that’s who I am. Life is too short to go around trying to be someone else. Find out who you are and be that person because that’s who you were made to be.

Have a Happy Christmas and, if you are into that sort of thing, resolve in 2013 to do what you can, not what you can’t, to remember that other people are vulnerable too, and to find and be who you are. You’ll save yourself a lot of time, make some new friends along the way and maybe even make a difference.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Best Tea in Carmarthen–The Old Curiosity

Carmarthen River TowyCarmarthen lays claim to being the oldest town in Wales. There are fabled links to Merlin, and certainly it dates back to Roman times. It stands on the banks of the river Towy and is the capital of the county of Carmarthenshire.

It is also my favourite place to go to get away, a place from my childhood, where I used, as a boy, to visit the cattle market in the town centre (now sadly moved out to nearby Johnstown – the cattle market that is, not the town centre).

In its place stands the inevitable shopping mall that makes at least that part of Carmarthen indistinguishable from any other town. Thankfully, most of the old streets and many of the old names survive.Carmarthen bridge Street

 

The winding little streets leading to and from the old town quay are there, Bridge Street (right), Quay Street where the museum used to be before it, too, moved out of town, and Blue Street where the bus station is today.

 

Water Street is where we would go to find Morgan’s Traditional Chip Shop for a slap-up meal of fish and chips with plenty of salt and vinegar (before the days when we all did our best to live forever), “Established 1934” it says over the door and I certainly remember it from the 1950’s and 60’s.

Carmarthen Old marketThis leads out to St Catherine Street and the old cattle market end of the produce market (left) where you could buy fresh produce at temporary stalls from farmers in for market day. The produce market has moved to its second new home in 30 years, a purpose built indoor affair I haven’t made up my mind about yet. It doesn’t give you the same panoramic view across the central market stalls that the old place had and lacks that old world, Heath Robinson charm.Time will tell no doubt.

Lammas Street is where we used to get off our Eynon’s bus to begin our exploration of the old town, and where we met the last bus of the afternoon home. There was a gentleman’s outfitters there many years ago with a huge Top Hat hanging outside to advertise its business. Although another business occupies the property the hat of fond Carmarthen Lammas Streetmemory is still there.

The street (right) is named for Lammas Day, a day on which the first harvest is celebrated. It falls on August 1st and is marked by bringing to church a loaf made from the first crop of the year. It coincides with the feast of St Peter in Chains, when St Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison is commemorated.

Carmarthen King Street

Speaking of St Peter, Jackson Lane leads up from the market to King Street (left) which leads from Nott Square at one end to Saint Peter’s Church at the other. St Peter’s is not far short of celebrating its 900th year and is a great building with a lively congregation whose avowed aim is “Seeking to know Jesus and to make him known.”

Carmarthen Old Curiosity 1

On that pleasant walk from Nott Square to St Peter’s is a wonderful restaurant, The Old Curiosity (right). On the wall at the back are framed pictures showing the shop when it was indeed an Old Curiosity Shop, filled with antiques, curios and books. The restaurant has kept that old world atmosphere and it is here that you will find what to my mind is the best cup of tea in Carmarthen – along with many more delightful treats.

Carmarthen Old Curiosity 3The menu is surprisingly broad for a small establishment and the food is really good. Nothing is too much trouble for the polite and helpful staff and whether you simply need somewhere to sit away from the bustle of a busy market day with a cup of tea and a snack or you are looking for a good meal to set you up for the rest of your day exploring this old capital Margaret (left) and the others will not disappoint you.

I do like Carmarthen and when I go there I always seem to find my way to The Old Curiosity restaurant in King Street. The tea is delicious – did I mention the tea?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Faith, Sex and the Tyranny of Political Correctness

There is now in the public mind, it seems, a right to not be offended and a right to take offence at just about anything with which you might disagree. A friend who recently left hospital after major surgery shared a disturbing account of how far this nonsense has gone.

After surgery she was put in a room by herself and, to aid her recovery and keep up her spirits, she played Christian music on a loop. She also had a prominently placed text to remind her that, “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

A nurse attending her lost no time in declaring, “I find that deeply offensive!” referring to the music and text. If she had said the music was too loud, it might have been understandable. If there had been complaints from other patients (she was alone in a room remember) it might have seemed reasonable to comment. If she had said the music was not to her personal taste it would have been a step too far but forgivable. But the only reason to comment it seems was that the person who had been charged with the care and welfare of a patient after major surgery somehow found Christian music “offensive.”

Where do these ideas come from? Where do people find the justification to insist others shut up if those people don't like what others are saying? How does playing Christian music become “offensive” and where on earth does a nurse get the notion that her right to not be offended by something so innocuous overrides her duty of care?

What if your home was burgled and the police made no secret of their being offended by your having a Bible on the coffee table? What if a doctor appeared reluctant to treat you because of a cross on your lapel? What if your employer penalised you for having firm Christian views?

Well, the last has already happened. In a remarkable and worrying case, a man from Bolton, England had his salary reduced by forty percent and was demoted because of comments he made on his Facebook page in his own private time. He won a breach of contract case against Trafford Housing Trust.

The trust argued he broke its code of conduct by expressing religious or political views which might upset co-workers. Astonishingly, they appear to have extended this policy to views expressed outside work, which brings us to the bizarre position where an opinion expressed by a private citizen, in his own time, to a limited number of people on Facebook is cause for discipline because it might, just might be seen by some co-workers who might, just might be upset by what they read and whose lives might, just might be blighted by a point of view??

Reading the trust’s official response two things stand out for me. The first is the way they have still sought to smear the name of Adrian Smith by opaque references to his “previous disciplinary record.” Has he been warned before for having and expressing traditional Christian views? They don’t say but the suggestions is put in the reader’s mind that this must be a thoroughly unsavoury character.

The second is in the way they seek to put themselves, by contrast, in a good light and to make Mr Smith appear awkward and un-cooperative. They state, “We had tried to come to a settlement with Mr Smith, which would have resulted in him receiving ten times the amount he will receive, but he chose to reject this offer." But Mr Smith made it clear that this was not about money but about an important principle. In a statement after the hearing at London's High Court he said:

"Something has poisoned the atmosphere in Britain, where an honest man like me can be punished for making perfectly polite remarks about the importance of marriage.

"I have won today. But what will tomorrow bring?

"I am fearful that, if marriage is redefined, there will be more cases like mine - and if the law of marriage changes people like me may not win in court."

He added: "Does the Prime Minister want to create a society where people like me, people who believe in traditional marriage, are treated as outcasts?"

You can hear his statement read out here.

Speaking of men of principle, it is ironic that Peter Tatchell, the prominent gay rights campaigner, has called the council's actions “excessive.” The irony is not that even Peter Tatchell thinks these actions excessive but in the fact that it is his activities and the activities of others like him over the years that has planted in the public mind this notion of a right to not be offended.

He and others have consistently taken up a position of apparently unassailable “Outrage!” at anything and anyone who disagrees with their view of the world. It is those people who win the argument by refusing to have the argument, who take up the victors position without having engaged in the battle for right and truth, and who shout down anyone daring to challenge or contradict – it is from these the idea of a right to not be offended comes.

Besieged by the hysterical voices of libertarians, council officials, employers, private businesses and others find it best to parrot what they hear than to risk giving offence to the bullies. Our society is being redefined under our noses and any and every voice raised in protest is shouted down, characterised as reactionary and prejudiced, and good is called evil while evil is called good – even when it comes to the caring professions it seems.

I am reminded of the words of George Orwell: “Liberty is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” Our liberties are being eroded and we need to raise our voices before our voices are silenced and everyone the loser for it.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Christian Men’s Conference Carmarthen

A wonderful opportunity is coming up for men in South Wales to get together and enjoy fellowship, challenging teaching and wonderful worship of the great God we serve. The Carmarthen Christian Men’s Conference is happening again on Ocober 20th 2012 and promises to be better than ever. With speakers Julian Thomas, the event’s organiser, Lewis Roderick and keynote speaker David Dando it is a great day with this year’s theme being STRENGTHEN YOUR RESOLVE!You can book by ringing 07817 679680 or by e-mailing julescpm@gmail.com I look forward to seeing you there.

Poster 2012

Thursday, 23 August 2012

St David’s Centre, Swansea: Stealing our Streets

St_David's_Shopping_Centre,_Swansea

Someone has finally woken up – or perhaps sobered up? - and realised what a carbuncle was foisted on Swansea in 1982 with the development of  St David’s Shopping Centre.

Perhaps the developers thought it would be regarded a gem but, like the aforementioned sore, it is red, painful to bear, ugly to look at and everyone wonders why it wasn’t removed ages ago.

Standing as a physical barrier between the magnificent Anglican St Mary’s Church and the lovely Catholic St David’s Priory Church and school it has been largely empty and continually moribund since some surely inebriated architect with a friend in the red brick business threw it up, declaring this the future of retail development. We can only hope he or she went on to make a career in drainage or demolition, saving future generations from the horrors of their vapid imagination.

The centre, along with the adjacent and now vacant Oldway House will be knocked down, at least in part, and ,Swansea will, in its place, be blessed with a “temporary” car park with a view to another, hopefully mQuadrantore imaginative, retail development.

I understand this might be an enclosed development and, while I give a big hurrah for the removal of the current eyesore, I an nervous about more of our city centre streets becoming part of a private business.

I wonder how many people have realised that, while places like the more successful Quadrant shopping centre [left], opened in 1979,  are all very nice Swansea citizens are effectively robbed of our streets when the centre closes and when it is open "normal" street activity is restricted.

Quadrant_Shopping_Centre, Inside

I wonder how many sit in the centre of the Quadrant [right] and realise that around them are streets, thoroughfares that are only public areas as far as the public are allowed to use them by the Council that “owns” these streets. Think of the normal activities you might expect to be able to be involved in on a street and count those activities no longer “permitted” here.

No smoking, no dogs, no bicycles, no games and, once it closes, no entry so you had better make your way around the long way to get from one end of the city centre to the other. Missed your bus? You might have caught it if you had been able to dash through Wassail Square [that’s it in the picture above] to the bus station. It is a trade off, of course, and most might be happy with it but the privatisation of public areas I suggest is something we should be concerned about, especially with plans for St David’s Centre.

Rather than enclosing another big area of our city, perhaps an extension of the Quadrant,  the property between St Mary's and St David's Priory Church would make a good, open second city-centre square around which shops could be fitted and without the now apparently ubiquitous giant TV spoiling our socialising. By incorporating them into this plan, the view from the one church to the other would enhance the city centre and open up what has for too long been an eyesore and obstruction, and a vital thoroughfare between the city centre and the Marina would remain.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Gay Marriage, Gore Vidal and a Flawed Flowchart

Homosexuality Flowchart

 

I recently saw this flowchart which appears to put a strong case for gay marriage using apparently irrefutable arguments referencing the Bible.  In fact the whole argument is flawed but the chart is useful, nevertheless, in that it puts together in one place some of the most popular and familiar arguments Christians hear.

I see these flow charts from time to time, they assert something or other about faith issues, but clearly reflect the prejudices of the person who created them. Of course, they are popular because they are pleasing to people who have already made up their minds and enjoy seeing their views represented in such an apparently "scientific" way. The Bible, that people like to quote selectively to make these things work, has something to say about that as well.

To suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Timothy 4:3)

The chart says nothing about the complexity of Old Testament laws, the distinction between the moral laws that are eternal and the cultic/cultural/societal laws that are temporal and specific to Israel. It says nothing about their purpose and practice, and it fails entirely to compare like with like. But then it wouldn't because that is not the sort of careful and scholarly comment intended. The point is to make the point by whatever means.

The chart’s author begins  with their conclusion then produces familiar enough arguments aimed specifically at making gay relationships look reasonable and good, and Christian arguments to the contrary wacky and even unbiblical - "Isn't it ironic, they don't even understand their own Bible?"

I have no problem with people who take the pro-gay marriage view, although I disagree profoundly with them. After all, we are blessed to be living in a liberal democracy, a pluralistic society that accommodates as many viewpoints as possible. But I do object to the way the conclusion is arrived at because it misrepresents the Bible and because it presents a mischievous, or at least careless, idle method, a method that is misleading and confusing. Let me demonstrate by addressing each biblical argument that the author claims to refute.

 

“The Old Testament says it is sinful to eat shellfish, to wear clothes with different fabrics and to eat pork: Should we still live by Old Testament Laws?”

So the chart informs us. The “obvious” answer on the face of it is "No,” since even Christians eat shellfish and pork and the reader is congratulated for arriving at this answer, being called, “part of civilised society.” Those who answer “Yes” are deemed, “sexist, chauvinistic, judgemental and xenophobic.”

But the Old Testament also says don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t give false testimony, don’t follow the crowd in doing wrong, don’t pervert justice or deny justice to your poor in their lawsuits. So by answering “No, we should not live by Old Testament laws” what does that make you? You see, it isn’t so straight forward.

This is because, as well as giving Israel eternal statutes, God also gave civil or national laws as well as cultic laws pertaining to the temple. The rule about mixed fabrics (Lev.19:19) is not nearly as wacky as it at first appears to a modern reader but is understood by some to be a living mnemonic to help Israel remember to not mix their culture and religion with the pagan societies around them (see Ezra 9:1)

Dietary laws too had religious/cultic significance as well as possible health applications. Some applications are obscure, lost in the mists of time because peculiar to one nation in one historical period. Moral laws such as correct sexual relationships are not cultural, according to Scripture, but universal and eternal.

So the answer to the question, “Should we still live according to Old Testament Laws?” must be a thoughtful, qualified and informed “Yes and No.”

 

 “God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve.”

The Adam and Eve argument is very misleading since it fails entirely to address the original point and changes the subject from the identity and gender of our first parents to the question of populating the earth.

It is true that the product of a healthy marriage is offspring but marriage is much more than a means of reproduction. Marriage serves as a picture of the relationship between God and his people (Jer.3; Ezk 16) between Christ and his Church (Eph.5:22-33). Being made “in God’s image” is to be made with the natural capacity for relationship.

As though to underline what sort of relationship God didn’t only make Adam and Eve, he made Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Boaz and Ruth, David and Bathsheba and Joseph and Mary. The list can be added to but what cannot be added to the list is any biblical example of God making “Adam and Steve,” the original point deceptively side-stepped in the chart. If we are going to have this discussion we must engage with what God says and does and not what we would like the text to imply.

 

“The Bible clearly Defines Marriage as One-Man-One-Woman.”

The argument is made that various models of marriage are to be found in the Bible including monogamy, polygamy, concubines, etc. Why not same-sex marriage? It is good to remember that some people are in the Bible as an example, some are in there as a warning.

The Bible is not, as some think, “a compendium of divine teaching out of which doctrine can be mined and pieced together in a systematic fashion,” as Timothy Ward points out in his thoughtful and well written book Words of Life – if you want to understand what Scripture is, and isn’t, I highly recommend Timothy Ward’s work.

The Bible is not a simple book of rules for living. Through poetry and prose, history and narrative, parable, statute, prophecy, apocalyptic writings the Bible doesn’t just tell, it shows. It can be said to proscribe, prescribe and describe and the mistake here is in confusing these.

Just because the Bible describes something – Jephthah’s vow for instance (Jg.11:34), or the wives of Solomon for example – doesn’t mean God prescribes what is described. In the case of Jephthah we have a salutary lesson in the folly of making rash and ill-considered vows, in Solomon’s the disastrous nature of polygamous marriages is demonstrated (1 Kings 11:4-10, c.f. 9:6-9)

God made Adam and Eve. If he had made Adam and Eve and Sarah and Emma, and Mary etc. then marriage as a picture of the relationship between God and his people would fail and man could with impunity go after other gods as he goes after other women. That idea is scotched immediately by the first three commandments (Exodus 20:3-7)

At the other end of the Bible we see again monogamy being taught and modelled.

“An Elder should be the husband of but one wife…” (1 Tim.3:2; Titus 1:6)

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife” (1 Tim.3:12)

We can safely conclude that  God prescribes monogamous marriage and the Bible describes man’s departure from God in doing otherwise. Homosexual relationships are, likewise, a departure from God’s purposes in creation.

 

“Because the New Testament says so”

It is mischievous to simply assert, as the author of this chart does, that “the original language of the New Testament actually refers to  male prostitution, molestation, or promiscuity, not committed same-sex relationships” - everything in this chart is an assertion and no serious attempt is made to engage with the complexity of the arguments, to give references or to show method.

None of the four gospels touches this issue it is worth noting. Neither do other important books of the New Testament, i.e. Acts,  Hebrews, Revelation. This doesn’t mean that Jesus and most New Testament writers hadn’t a problem with homosexual practice and an argument from silence cannot be reasonably made.

The significance of the apostle Paul’s references to homosexual practice is that he is “the apostle to the Gentiles” writing to Gentile congregations. These are congregations in places where what the Bible considers immorality is common, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian ethic firmly rooted in Scripture. Because of Old Testament law Christians from a Jewish background would already know the will of God  in relation to homosexual practice Lev.18:22 Gentile societies often had no such tradition to inform them. In other words, Paul would be almost bound to talk about this if anyone did.

The dispute over the Greek words used by Paul – whether they refer to prostitution, molestation, promiscuity rather than to homosexual practice in general – is the product of late, revisionist understandings of the text and not of historical, mainstream interpretations. One has to ask why revision is sought when long-established and trustworthy meanings are there to be seen. Is someone saying that today homosexual practice is acceptable therefore we must find another meaning in Paul’s writings?

The passages in question are sometimes misleadingly referred to as “a few obscure passages from the Bible” in a tone that suggests the Bible itself is pretty irrelevant so why should a few obscure passages trouble us? We will see if they are obscure.

Romans 1:26-27 is probably the most significant biblical reference and the only one that refers to both male and female homosexual acts.

“Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (New International Version)

Paul begins in v18 with wicked men facing the wrath of God, goes on to say that God may be known even by his creation but that men had turned away from God to idolatry and abandoned themselves to sinful desires and sexual impurity. “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” writes Paul. Homosexual practice is described here as the terrible consequence of the broader picture of sin and idolatry painted by Paul.

There is no comparison here between “legitimate” homosexual practice “in committed same-sex relationships” and illegitimate homosexual practice. There is just a round condemnation of all idolatry, shameful lusts and sexual sin, described at its worst as homosexual practice. And to reinforce the point Paul uses the same terminology as is used in the Old Testament, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” Lev.18:22

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (English Standard Version)

Here is a list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God because of their sinfulness. In the middle of this clear and unqualified list of sins some would make the distinction between “good” homosexuality and “bad” homosexuality but the passage makes no such distinction. It is also noteworthy that Paul writes of the Christians in Ephesus, “such were some of you.” In other words once they were but are no longer drunks, adulterers, swindlers; no longer homosexual.

1 Timothy 1:9-10

“The law is not laid down for the just but the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” (English Standard Version)

Here is a list of “the lawless and disobedient” and it is interesting that, in this passage, homosexual practice is not included in the general “sexually immoral” category, as though there was a distinction between moral homosexual practice and immoral, but it is treated separately as a wholly wrong activity of itself.

It is also significant that Paul here condemns enslavement. This answers the argument sometimes put that Paul condoned slavery and we wouldn’t agree with him on that so we can disagree with him on homosexual practice. Paul is also misrepresented on the question of his apparent misogyny.  But the New Testament shows that Paul worked closely with women throughout his ministry and they did much more than make the tea and mind the children.

The argument about women keeping silent, then, must have a different explanation than misogyny, perhaps addressing a local problem, perhaps even words attributed to Paul but penned by another. It is a point that is hotly debated but the evidence of the New Testament seems to show Paul recognising women in leadership. Again, it is not enough to caricature Paul, then dismiss him on issues that don’t suit your agenda.

 

“Because it Just Disgusts me, Dangit!”

What can I say? If it disgusts God, and I believe it does, then it should disgust me.

 

Conclusion

The argument is sometimes made that these defences of homosexual practice must be made to combat the horrible bigotry we see today. I agree, bigotry must be faced down at every turn. I would object to the charge of bigot being applied to people just because their views are not in sync with yours, or with  the spirit of the age.

Indeed, I would go further and say that Christians are specifically commanded not to be in step with the spirit of the age but to be in harmony with the Spirit of God. To embrace the spirit of the age is to embrace death, since that spirit will die and another, often contrary spirit will take its place, play its part for a time and, in its turn, die as well.

The whole appeal to "reason" by the author is in fact spoiled by the bigoted caricaturing of anyone who disagrees as sexist, chauvinistic, judgemental and xenophobic. If you're going to hate bigotry you should hate it wherever it raises its head, even when it says something that scratches you where you itch.

If we are to address this important issue in a way that takes it seriously and that engages with the Scripture, we might realise that the Bible is clearer than some would have us believe and that any argument against the Word of God must surely amount to more than the sloganeering that so often passes for robust argument.

Christians should be be encouraged to go back to the Word and learn to have greater confidence in its ability to speak clearly and with authority on the important issues that face us as Followers of the Way.

The recently deceased Gore Vidal, who knew a thing or two about these things said:

"There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices."

No doubt many red-blooded, “100% hetero” males would object to such an idea. I suggest, however, that the Bible prescribes monogamous, heterosexual relationships in marriage as normative and Vidal describes the dilemma of fallen men and women who are slaves to the impulses and practices of a fallen humanity until Christ delivers them from slavery and brings them back to what God always intended and to his kingdom of light.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

One of Our Authors is Missing

It seemed a good idea, a literary event to celebrate the e-book, to promote and encourage new authors and with established authors talking about their work and publishing experiences.

The promise of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 visitors at a prestigious local venue made the opportunity for my wife to talk about and promote her local history book Alina, The White Lady of Oystermouth, irresistible, so off we went.

You know when you turn up for a prestigious event billed as international in its reach with the promise of thousands and the birth of a new literary festival in the offing only to find you can park with ease right outside the event among a few dozen other vehicles? When you walk through reception wondering if you have come to the right venue because of the echoing silence and the absence of any substantial human contact beyond the staff waiting to check you in and take your money? Well…

Not being quitters and having come to check the place out for the “big day tomorrow” when Ann would speak we pressed on to our first speaker – whose talk had been delayed for an hour while the organisers waited, in vain it turned out, that more people would arrive.

We ended up hearing an interesting talk we believed had already taken place, all four of us, three who had turned up for the next speaker - and the next speaker; all in a room laid out with chairs for about 130 people. A handful of people joined us for the next speaker, who was also interesting and did well in the circumstances.

Not being quitters we went in search of food only to find that the only provision at this prestigious festival of international scope made was a burger van, an ice cream concession, a beer trailer and a mobile sweet shop. Now I am thinking, “Is it me?”

Having eaten a desultory lunch I went to the next speaker who didn't turn up. Mr Ruck had actually lost an author as well as an audience. It was astonishing but, not put off by abject failure, he continued to reassure people that "tomorrow will be different." On what basis he was able to make this confident prediction is beyond me. He clearly had no ticket sales to speak of, otherwise he would have said as much to reassure people.

As we sateating a desultory lunch  and regretting we hadn’t brought sandwiches I scanned the grounds, noticing that, not only were there more stall-holders but more security than visitors. It seemed there was little or nothing for them to secure.

Stall holders were looking increasingly panicked as the day went on with no visitors to be seen beyond the same few and increasingly familiar faces walking around. It reminded me of the Einstein quote, “Insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different outcomes.”

Nothing if not stoic we made our way to the next venue, finding it despite the poor signage, arriving minutes before the already delayed start and waited, and waited, and waited, two of us in a room set for in excess of 200 people. Finally another couple turned up and joined us in our vigil; we struck up a warm and friendly conversation and promised to keep in touch.

It turned out they had travelled 200 miles, not for the whole festival, but for this one, increasingly disappointing, day. They finally left for their B&B and to say they were disappointed would be an understatement; we determined to go and look for the speaker – the missing author.

A lone performer, with guitar and harmonica, bravely played on an outdoor stage before an audience of four or five, including we two author hunters and a staff member, while two small circus groups, in the absence of anyone else, taught each other new tricks, each apparently surprised the other was there.

Finding the organiser of this epic non-event we asked him where his author had gone. “Which author?” came the reply. We explained that we had been waiting for this speaker for some time, four of us – not exactly rent-a-crowd – only for half the audience, both of them, to walk off and the other half to go off on an author-hunt. He had no idea, absolutely none.

I said, “You’ve lost an author? How do you lose and author at such a poorly attended literary festival? He can’t exactly hide in the crowd.” Pointing out that, far from being 20,000 to 30,000 strong, his audience was no greater than a dozen or so, the food provision was doing nothing for his reputation, the stall-holders were in revolt and forming a posse, I remonstrated with him that now he had lost an author. He had actually lost an author!

“Let me find out,” he said, as though I had asked him if he stocked my favourite brand of coffee. It was one of those occasions that so wrong when it would have been so easy to get it right. I have been involved in conventions in different parts of the country for some twenty years and we made some mistakes but we have never lost an audience or an author, much less both.

This man, however, seemed  to be unwilling to take responsibility for his own show and seemed incapable of showing any concern for the disappointments of others. “This is a shambles,” I said, raising my voice. “You’ve lost an author for pities sake” However, he seemed to be talking as though this was a small wisp of cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky.

Well, I demanded my money back and we finally left the venue, wiser for the experience but poorer in terms of time lost in hours of preparation, in rearranging the whole weekend to accommodate this fiasco, and in emotional investment in terms of hopes raised and dashed and the frustration felt in watching a train crash of an event and being unable to do anything about it, not even reason with the organiser.

I have since heard that the stall holders were practically a lynch mob by Sunday lunch time, when the event was closed early “due to unforeseen circumstances.” Of three speakers on the Sunday, two had no audience while one had an audience of one.

I haven’t heard about the final fate of the missing author but I hope, for his own sake, he had the sense to see the event for what it was and sneaked off to somewhere where people are interested in e-books.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Jubilee–The Year of the Lord’s Favour

We have seen the consequences of man-as-king and seen how God called out a people and kingdom with God-as-king. God instituted the law of Jubilee to remedy the evils which accompany human society and government, to set a limit on unjust social relations. But Jubilee always had a future element to it, there was always a greater future hope in its promise of liberty, rest and restoration. Isaiah spoke of a messianic figure who would bring justice:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations... In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42: 1-2)

Later he describes this servant's mission:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD'S favour...” (Isaiah 61:1-2a)

In the gospels we read how Jesus returned to Galilee and that brings us to our reading “He went to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

'The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for

the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour'

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying...”

It was customary in those days to sit down to preach so they knew a message was coming, a message about the passage that had just been read. The atmosphere in the crowded synagogue is charged with curiosity. What is this carpenter's son going to say? You could hear a feather drop and every eye is fixed on him.

Does he remind them of the golden days, long gone now, when God ruled over his people, performed miracles, ruled with justice? He doesn't. Does he entertain them with bright promises about how at some future date those times would return as prophesied? Not that either.

Instead he speaks about the here and now and assures them, and us, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Today, while you are listening to me, the passage I just read to you has been and is being realised.

This is sometimes called the Nazareth Manifesto. If you want to know what Jesus is about then look at his manifesto as he himself gave it. “To preach good news to the poor...freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” To announce and proclaim the Lord's Jubilee.

When Jesus sat down on a mountainside to teach his disciples he began:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.”

Jesus' teaching was shot through with freedom, release, restoration and God's favour.

He told the story of the unmerciful servant who begged his master to be patient with him as he paid back the money he owed. His master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. But when the servant met a fellow servant who owed him money he demanded payment, refusing to be patient and had the man thrown into prison. His master heard what he had done and asked, “Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you?” and put him in jail. The economy of heaven demands mercy, generosity of spirit.

In the parable of the banquet he told of how wealthy guests found excuses for not attending the banquet to which they had been invited. The man who held the banquet sent his servants out to the streets and byways inviting the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame. The economy of heaven is inclusive, not discriminating according to status.

When John [the Baptist] heard in prison what Christ was doing he sent his disciples to ask him, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'

Jesus replied, 'Go back and report to John what you hear and see. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt.11:1-6)

When we look at the church in the New Testament we read:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to everyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:42-48)

The principle of Jubilee being worked out in the saved people who enjoy the Jubilee of God in Christ. The message they preached was one of repentance, turning back to God, looking for that day when God restores everything, as he had promised.

We have a king, a king of kings who has inaugurated a Jubilee, a day of salvation. He invites all who would to come, great and small, to know peace with God, freedom from the bondage of sin and an inheritance that will not fade or rust.

Meanwhile, Christians operate in a corrupt world as salt and light, declaring the day of salvation is here, Jubilee is here and men and women can now, through Jesus, be restored to right relationship with God. Can know peace, security and an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of King Jesus. And so we come full circle to the way it was meant to be and will be again, because he has promised it.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Jubilee–God as King

Last time we saw the decline of man into sin and what happened when man made himself king in God’s creation. We saw how God set about putting things right by calling out of fallen humanity a people for himself , a kingdom of priests.  A kingdom once more established where God would be king and a nation that would do things God's way.

The Perfect Storm of Sin

When Israel eventually entered the land of Canaan they came up against a society that was as far from God's original plan as it was possible to get. City-states, a feudal society with a powerful and wealthy ruling class. Canaan was the perfect man-as-king, corrupt society; the perfect storm of sin.

God warned his people, “You must not do as they do in Egypt,where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God.” (Lev.18:3-4)

God listed the sins of Canaan and said:“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is the way the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and laws.” (Lev.18:24-26)

God's commandments to Israel describe a reversal of man's tragic decline into corruption.

Where man had made himself king, God said, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Where man had rebelled against his parents God said, “Honour your father and mother.”

Where man had acted violently to kill his fellow man God said, “You shall not murder.”

Where man had used and exploited his fellow man God said, “Don't bear false witness, don't steal, don't covet what isn't yours, don't commit adultery.”

This was to be an egalitarian society in which all citizens enjoyed the same fundamental rights and privileges. Each was to have their share of God's provision and was not to be robbed of it. Individuals were not to get rich at the expense of others. Of course, with the best will in the world, Israel were still a fallen people who made sometimes foolish, selfish and destructive decisions and when sin raised its ugly head inequities and injustices still arose in Israelite society. It is these inequities that Jubilee was designed to eradicate.

Jubilee

Jubilee follows a cycle based on them number seven. You will be familiar with the biblical principle that we should treat the seventh day as a day of rest. How much we have lost of what was meant to be natural for mankind in our 24/7 society. It also followed that the land should lay fallow in the seventh year and get its rest. Then, on the seventh cycle of seven years, the 49th year, Jubilee was observed, a year marked by rest, restoration and release.

You see, during that half-century bad fortune may overtake a man and his family. They may make unwise decisions, fall into debt and sell their land in order to settle debts. If they have no land left to sell they may even sell themselves into service to pay a debt over a period of time. But here you would not sell your land outright because it belonged to the family and the tribe, to more than one generation and ultimately to God.

Since Israelite society was based on a fair apportioning of the land between tribes and then families within tribes it was important that God's provision in the land should be fairly distributed and any inequities corrected. If someone “bought” your land they were effectively buying the use of it and its yield over a specific time, that is between the time of purchase and the time of Jubilee when the land reverted to its original owner.

This was so important that God's prophets sounded stern warnings, “Woe, to those who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land” (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning's light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellow man of his inheritance.” (Micah 2:1-2)

The word Jubilee derives from the clamour of trumpets, jobel, that announced throughout the land the beginning of Jubilee. At Jubilee the land got its rest, it reverted back to its original owner, family and tribe, and any sold into servitude for debt were released back to their families. A time to remedy the evils which accompany human society and government, to set a limit on unjust social relations, a time of great celebration and the reason why we use the term Jubilee today to mark significant, celebratory occasions.

This is why some Old Testament books are full of tedious lists of who was related to whom and where they lived.

What does this have to do with us today, apart from being a lesson in historic Israel and a brief explanation of the word Jubilee?

The Year of the Lord's Favour

Jubilee always had a future element to it, there was always a greater future hope in its promise of liberty, rest and restoration. Isaiah spoke of a messianic figure who would bring justice:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations... In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.” (Isaiah 42: 1-2)

Later he describes this servant's mission:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD'S favour...” (Isaiah 61:1-2a)

Next we will look at this servant and discover why we have every reason as Christians to thank the Lord for Jubilee.

Previously: Jubilee – Man as King

Next: Jubilee: The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Jubilee: Man as King

Queen Elizabeth II was crowned on 2nd June 1953 and in that ceremony the Bible was presented to her with these words:

Our Gracious Queen: To keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Gospel of God as the rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.

Here is Wisdom, this is the royal Law, these are the lively Oracles of God.

What is true for princes is as true for everyone. This is the rule for the best life, the life we were made to have. Now we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of her Christian reign it is to the Bible we go to understand something of what that life looks like and the meaning of Jubilee.

Good Governance

If we were to trace our history of correct government we would go right back to the beginning, to Genesis, where God made man and placed them in a garden to work it and take care of it (Gen.2:15) We read there that, “God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number, till the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living creature that moves on the ground'” (Gen.1:28)

Those words “subdue” and “rule” have carried for some the meaning to exploit, as though it is all there for our benefit. Such a man-centred view of creation can't be found in the Bible. The opening chapters speak of heaven and earth, sun, moon and stars, birds and beasts and God is concerned for them all. If we understand him as the God only of mankind he is no longer the God of the Bible.

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.” (Gen.1:27)

Man is described as being made in God's image, in other words he is to reflect God's character. Subdue and rule, then, mean to act for the welfare of creation, its a kind of stewardship. This is sometimes called the Creation Mandate. This God of all creation is king and man is his regent; God's world governed in God's way by God's steward – mankind. This is important when we look at Jubilee.

Have it Your Own Way

Have you ever wondered what human society would be like if our first parents had not rebelled, if they had followed this pattern? Well, they did rebel, man decided that he wanted to be king of his own destiny, make his own decisions, rule his own way. CS Lewis said there are two kinds of people, those who say to God “Your will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Okay, have it your own way.”

But having it your own way has consequences and we see the consequence of that rebellion in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain, from jealousy, murdered his brother Abel and when God, the king, called him to account, “Where is your brother Abel?” he replied, “Am I my brother's keeper?

The LORD said, ''What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground.” Personal sin, born of jealousy and selfish pride infests the family.

The story of the flood begins with the account of mankind, increasing in number, going their own way, colluding together in sin, “Then the LORD said, 'My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is corrupt.” Shared sin now shows itself as mankind lived as they pleased.

Finally, we read, “The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was evil all the time.” Sin finally shows its true nature, reach and influence. It is naturalised entering the very nature of men and women.

God set about putting things right by calling out of fallen humanity a people for himself and said to them:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6) A kingdom once more established where God would be king and a nation that would do things God's way.

Next: Jubilee – God  as King

Coming up: Jubilee – The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Seeing What you Want to See–Priceless!

Here is a tweet I saw today:

“Tattoo of Leviticus 18:22 forbidding homosexuality: £200. Not knowing that Leviticus 19:28 forbids tattoos: Priceless.”

The accompanying picture (below) was of a tattoo carrying the biblical text Leviticus 18:22

Tattoo

Leviticus 18:22 clearly states:

“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. It is an abomination”

But what about the injunction in in  the next chapter forbidding tattoos? A clear example of selective use of the Bible text it seems, a charge often brought by supporters of “gay rights” who love to talk about shell fish, mixed fibres and other such exotic and seemingly bizarre subjects mentioned as important and forbidden in the Bible.

Leviticus 19:28 states:

“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD.”

A priceless mistake? I don’t think so. You see, the verse is not forbidding the use of tattoos as such but the mutilation of the body in worship of false gods – as in 1 Kings 18:28

“And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.”

The tattoos, likewise, were made as a form of worship. The error here is on the part of the person who has hastily tweeted the story without finding out what the Bible actually says. It is what happens when you stop listening as soon as you hear what you want to hear.

It is all of it about not being like the heathens, not joining in with, or adopting their abominable practices. God’s people are to be holy and that has always meant set apart for exclusive service to God.

Matthew Henry explains this whole section of Scripture very well:

A law against the superstitious usages of the heathen, Lev_19:26-28.

1. Eating upon the blood, as the Gentiles did, who gathered the blood of their sacrifices into a vessel for their demons (as they fancied) to drink, and then sat about it, eating the flesh themselves, signifying their communion with devils by their feasting with them. Let not this custom be used, for the blood of God's sacrifices was to be sprinkled on the altar, and then poured at the foot of it, and conveyed away.

2. Enchantment and divination, and a superstitious observation of the times, some days and hours lucky and others unlucky. Curious arts of this kind, it is likely, had been of late invented by the Egyptian priests, to amuse the people, and support their own credit. The Israelites had seen them practised, but must by no means imitate them. It would be unpardonable in those to whom were committed the oracles of God to ask counsel of the devil, and yet worse in Christians, to whom the Son of God is manifested, who has destroyed the works of the devil. For Christians to have their nativities cast, and their fortunes told them, to use spells and charms for the cure of diseases and the driving away of evil spirits, to be affected with the falling of the salt, a hare crossing the way, cross days, or the like, is an intolerable affront to the Lord Jesus, a support of paganism and idolatry, and a reproach both to themselves and to that worthy name by which they are called: and those must be grossly ignorant, both of the law and the gospel, that ask, “What harm is there in these things?” Is it no harm for those that have fellowship with Christ to have fellowship with devils, or to learn the ways of those that have? Surely we have not so learned Christ.

3. There was a superstition even in trimming themselves used by the heathen, which must not be imitated by the people of God: You shall not round the corners of your heads. Those that worshipped the hosts of heaven, in honour of them, cut their hair so as that their heads might resemble the celestial globe; but, as the custom was foolish itself, so, being done with respect to their false gods, it was idolatrous.

4. The rites and ceremonies by which they expressed their sorrow at their funerals must not be imitated, Lev_19:28. They must not make cuts or prints in their flesh for the dead; for the heathen did so to pacify the infernal deities they dreamt of, and to render them propitious to their deceased friends. Christ by his sufferings has altered the property of death, and made it a true friend to every true Israelite; and now, as there needs nothing to make death propitious to us (for, if God be so, death is so of course), so we sorrow not as those that have no hope. Those whom the God of Israel had set apart for himself must not receive the image and superscription of these dunghill deities.

5. The prostituting of their daughters to uncleanness, which is here forbidden (Lev_19:29), seems to have been practised by the heathen in their idolatrous worships, for with such abominations those unclean spirits which they worshipped were well pleased. And when lewdness obtained as a religious rite, and was committed in their temples, no marvel that the land became full of that wickedness, which, when it entered at the temple-doors, overspread the land like a mighty torrent, and bore down all the fences of virtue and modesty. The devil himself could not have brought such abominations into their lives if he had not first brought them into their worships. And justly were those given up to vile affections who forsook the holy God, and gave divine honours to impure spirits. Those that dishonour God are thus suffered to dishonour themselves and their families.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Power, Authority and Historical Perspective–Ascension

In the last post we began to look at how Jesus, before his ascension, prepared the disciples for the task of taking the gospel “to the end of the earth.” He offered them, many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3); He opened their minds to understand Scripture, giving them a biblical theology; He promised to send the Holy Spirit, giving them a spiritual dimension. To continue:

    4. He sent them out with power and authority. Paul Preaching

Jesus gave them authority to speak about all they had seen and heard him do. Here we have apostolic authority and an evangelistic programme. Our remit is to faithfully pass on the account of what the apostles saw and testified to. These are the people who can declare down through history,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)

These men are described in Acts 4 when they are brought before the Jewish authorities to account for having healed a beggar and preached Christ. “By what power or in what name did you do this?” they are asked. Peter replied, “It is in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.”

The Bible then says, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (4:13)

Wesley PreachingWe are not free to make the message in the image of our own impressions no matter how much cleverer, better educated we think we are, or how well developed our theology. There is no “that was then, this is now” dynamic in this story. What they saw and heard, what they testified to, we are charged to faithfully pass on. The writer of Hebrews wrote:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

This salvation which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb.2:1-4)

    5. They had been with Jesus and he had shown them his glory.

Having prepared them, taught them, empowered and commissioned them, Jesus showed them his glory. He was taken up from them and, we are told, a cloud took him out of their sight. But this was no ordinary cloud, no cumulus from the weather map, but a cloud of glory. The important thing about the ascension story is not the question of whether heaven is somehow “up there,” but about the fact that Jesus returned to his former glory, God left the scene in physical form and was to come to believers in spiritual form. Finally, we are told:Ascension - Rembrandt

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 'Men of Galilee,; they said, 'why do you stand there looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)

It is possible to be too earthly minded to be any heavenly good, but we can also be too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.  While there is nothing wrong with the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!” nevertheless we must be about the business before us. Some ask why it is we don’t have continuous mountain top experiences. It is because the work is in the valley and, like the disciples, we must return from the mountain top of whatever special experience God has been pleased to give us and get on with things, find a gospel focus. We can find that focus if we get these things into historical context:

  1. Jesus returned to heaven (Ascension)

  2. The Holy Spirit came (Pentecost)

  3. The Church goes out to witness (Mission)

  4. Jesus will come back (Parousia)

We are in the mission phase of God’s great plan for the redemption of creation and mission and discipleship is our focus until king Jesus comes to sum up the whole cosmos in himself. When the disciples returned from the Mount of Olives we are told, “They all joined together constantly in prayer...” We do not worship the book, nor do we adhere to the dead accounts of past events, but we treasure the account preserved for us and faithfully transmitted to our time. It is our task to prayerfully and faithfully pass it on until he comes.

Previously: To the End of the Earth – Ascension

Jesus Prepares his Disciples – Ascension

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Jesus Prepares His Disciples–Ascension

In the last post we saw Jesus give his disciples a task that would see the known civilised world hear about Jesus by the end of the century and Christianity become the official religion of empire within 300 years. How did Jesus prepare them for such a work?Caravaggio_emmaus

  1. He showed himself to them. Jesus' post-resurrection appearances were not simply magic tricks but were vital in presenting evidence of the reality of the resurrection. Luke describes these appearances as , “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3)

Paul tells us “he appeared to [Peter] then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time...Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared to me also.” (1 Cor:15:5-8)

During these times, we’re told, “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom.” (Acts 1:3) These were his parting instructions and what the disciples passed on to others, to us, are the words of Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus ascended the way he did? He had been appearing and disappearing miraculously for forty days. Why didn't he just go and not come back? I suggest it is because he wanted their focus to change. They were not to wait around for his next resurrection appearance but were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 1:4-5)

God had been with them for three years in the person of Jesus but now it is by the Holy Spirit that God was to dwell in his people. It is interesting to step back and take a panoramic view of Luke’s account. Luke began with the temple in his gospel, with the story of Zechariah, and now he ends his gospel story with the promise of a new, living temple. A temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Paul writes,

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?(1 Cor.3:16)

The Spirit would to come to make the church, the people of God, a living temple. Luke brings the church onto the scene with a clear picture of what church is; a blood-bought, Spirit-filled, kingdom-motivated new humanity. There are huge things of eternal consequence happening here. It is these great truths to which the disciples are witnesses to the ends of the earth. John wrote,

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” (1 John 1:1-3)

I wonder if we value as we should these first eye-witness accounts? Every time we read them they witness to us again.

2. He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, explaining that all that had happened was a fulfilment of what had been prophesied in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.  We see him do this with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:45-46)

Pocket Bible ElectronicHere we see Jesus cutting across their confusion over recent events and developing a biblical theology; it is written. Jesus peppered his teaching with “it is written” How can we be sure this message is true? Because God promised it of old, Jesus fulfilled it when the time was right, the disciples witnessed it and we are commissioned to tell the good news of it in the same power of the Holy Spirit and with the same biblical and apostolic authority; it is written.

His commissioning words to the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” apply to us and the message we are sent to proclaim is what is written by them, the message of Scripture. Every truth claim is brought to the plumb-line of God's written word. Every proclamation of God's word should be firmly rooted in Scripture and every promise on which we stand is found in the Bible and fulfilled in the wonderful events the Bible describes.

3. He sent his Holy Spirit, giving us a spiritual dynamic. What we have to share with the world isn't simply dry words, speculative philosophy, ink on paper, but the preaching of the Word is accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit that convicts sinners, changes hearts, forms new minds, makes a people new in Christ.Holy Spirit

When someone comes under the preaching of the word and finds themselves convicted by what they hear it is not the persuasive power of the preacher but the work of the Spirit that has brought conviction. When someone acts on that conviction and is moved to turn to Jesus the preaching informs them but it is the Spirit that moves them. When they confess their need of a Saviour and are born again it is the work of the Spirit not of the preacher.

When people challenge, “Where is this Saviour who is supposed to come again? Where is your God?” we can reply that God already dwells in his people by the power of the Holy Spirit. He has not left us orphans; we don't operate in his absence. The Bible speaks of the Spirit's power in Christians to witness effectively, for victory over sin, over Satan, and power to work miracles.

We will look again at power and authority and discover where we fit in this great scheme to redeem all creation and bring all things under one head, king Jesus.

Previously: To the End of the Earth – Ascension

Monday, 21 May 2012

To the End of the Earth–Ascension

AscensionThe pivotal point of history is the resurrection of Jesus. Everything that went before led up to this one defining event and all that comes after is viewed in light of it. The hope of the ages is realised in the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus. For every person looking for identity, purpose and hope the Cross and the empty tomb offer the answer. The apostle Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth:

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures … (1 Cor. 15:3-5)

He goes on in this same passage to declare that, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor.15:14) We may quibble over some points of doctrine and there will be secondary issues but if this isn't true, if Christ is not risen and only in this life we have hope, we are, Paul writes, “of all men to be pitied.” (1 Cor.15:19)

And to the Ephesian believers Paul sums up God's great plan in this way:

In the king, and through his blood, we have deliverance – that is, our sins have been forgiven – through the wealth of his grace which he lavishes on us. Yes, with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the secret of his purpose, just as he wanted it to be and set it forward in him as a blueprint for when the time was ripe. His plan was to sum up the whole cosmos in the king, - yes, everything in heaven and on earth in him. (Eph.1:7-10 Tom Wright, New Testament for Everyone)

So – What Next?

There is a plan and it is founded on that great work done on the cross of Calvary and the power demonstrated by an empty tomb. It is summed up in God's purpose to renew everything in King Jesus. So what happens next?

When it comes to the ascension we can treat it as a high point in what is otherwise a sort of hiatus, the time we are marking between the miracle of the resurrection and the drama of Pentecost. Nothing more than a signal in the story that Jesus has now gone back to glory, a waiting time. Indeed Jesus did say “Wait in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit comes.”

But so much more happened in the days leading up to Pentecost, indeed a full ten days before Pentecost the church already had been given an assurance of power to act, an authority to speak, a mandate to go, and a clear Bible message to share; clear teaching about “what next.”

I wonder how big is your vision of God's plan?

After all they had seen and heard the disciples' vision was still too small. As they stood with him on the Mount of Olives they asked Jesus “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were still thinking of a military and political restoration such as had happened before, when invaders had been repelled, when God's people brought back from exile once again inhabited the land free and unmolested. Jesus' answer tells us two things:

  1. It is not for you to know times and seasons.” How often have these simple but clear words been overlooked in some complicated scheme that plots days and weeks, months and years, and arrives at a date for the end of the world, only for the day to pass unremarked except for more embarrassing headlines about failed prophecy and wacky preachers? It is not for us to know but it is for us to turn to the business in hand. So what are we to do until that great day comes when he returns?

  2. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses...to the end of the earth.” The vision is much bigger than physical Israel.It was not about a plot of land in the Middle East, a discrete people group.  This was a greater vision than they could possibly have imagined. It encompasses the restoration of the whole of creation – to the end of the earth.

After the events of the Mount on Olives, the ascension, the disciples returned to Jerusalem we are told. And in an upper room just 120 of them met together, talked about recent events and prayed.

Today there are between 2.2billion and 2.6billion people in the world who self-identify as Christians. If you are fortunate to live in a free country you may be aware of many different churches in your town or city. Your own church, you know, is just one of countless churches around the world.

Put yourself in that upper room. Imagine a disparate group of people with no money, no influence, indeed considered outcasts after their leader had suffered an ignoble execution on a Roman cross. The fact of the resurrection would surely have given you incredible confidence, the promise of the Holy Spirit instilled great hope. But – to the end of the earth?

Are you ready for that, people most of whom had never left Israel? So unfamiliar with the end of the earth that they thought the Lake of Galilee was a sea? Are you ready?  Next time we'll look at how Jesus prepared the disciples for a task that would see the known world hear about Jesus by the end of the century and the whole Roman world accept Christianity as the state religion within 300 years.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Not Ashamed of the Cross

Yesterday I wrote about the Tyranny of Data Protection, today its about the Tyranny of secular Europe. Are you aware of the freedoms that are being stolen from under our noses? David Cameron, who hitched his wagon to the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, declaring, "We are a Christian country and should not be ashamed to say so," wrote to the European Court of Human Rights insisting, "In niether case is there is there any suggestion that the wearing of the cross or crucifix was a generally recognised form of practising the Christian faith..." No doubt, in his fractured world, both statements represent "the right thing to do." In the real world it is bizarre and very wrong to claim to uphold Christian freedoms but then move to deny those freedoms.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Tyranny of Data Protection

My neighbour, at the weekend, became concerned about the whereabouts of his ex-wife. Although they have a history that doesn’t exactly endear him to her, or her him for that matter, nevertheless for the sake of their son he keeps in touch. She failed to call her son as she usually does and he rang the local hospital to see if she was there. There are reasons for his assuming the worse that we needn’t go into but the hospital informed him that she had been brought in after a fall but had since been discharged.

Since she hadn’t turned up and was nowhere to be found he looked into it further to discover she had not been discharged but moved to another hospital some fifty miles away. It was when he rang the second hospital that his problems really began. Explaining who he was he asked if she was still at the hospital and enquired about her condition. They refused to tell him. Of course, you don’t want to go giving out someone’s private medical details to a voice on the phone but they even refused to confirm that she was there.

In the face of such mindless intransigence he rang the police, explained the position and, genuinely not knowing for sure where she was, reported her as a missing person. Problem solved you might think but no! The police rang the hospital, explained the situation and asked if the “missing person” was, in fact at the hospital. Hospital staff refused to tell them. “How do we know that you’re the police?” They were invited to ring the police station and ask to speak to the person calling them, thus establishing that they were the police. They refused.

Meanwhile, this poor woman lay in a coma, covered in bruises and with a drain in her head because of a head injury suffered after a serious fall. Her son is worried sick, his dad is tearing his hair out in frustration and a mindless adherence to data protection is preventing anyone resolving the issue. So much for the caring profession.

“If you want to establish whether she is here,” police were told, “you must come to the hospital.” For my neighbour this is a one hundred mile round trip with no guarantee that it won’t be wasted, along with time wasted when he might be visiting her in a possibly different hospital. The police had to go to the hospital and only then would the hospital staff confirm the woman’s presence. My neighbour finally visited, along  with his son, and is now able to ring the hospital any time he wants to get updates and discuss further visits.

Such is the tyranny of the data protection mania and litigation paranoia that infects our society today. I looked up the Data Protection Act and it doesn’t in any way prevent hospital staff making a reasonable judgement and deciding to confirm whether someone is in hospital. It actually says:

“Data must not be disclosed to other parties without the consent of the individual whom it is about, unless there is legislation or other overriding legitimate reason to share the information (for example, the prevention or detection of crime). It is an offence for Other Parties to obtain this personal data without authorisation.”

I am so glad that a law is in place to prevent some third party having access to my personal details (though don’t hold your breath, tonight’s Despatches on Channel Four has a different and hair-raising story to tell) but if I was lying comatose in a hospital bed and unable to give my consent I would hope someone would have the common sense to decide there was a legitimate reason for at least telling my family I was there. What if my neighbour wasn’t who he said he was? Who else would he be? A body snatcher? Surely the correct course is to give minimal information – “Yes, she is here in ward X” – then be prepared to deal with whatever comes of that.

This is what happens when Tony Blair and every minister and Prime Minister after him, reaches for the law to solve social issues. We’ve got to stop this madness and stop looking suspiciously at each other, because there are enough real villains out there without making villains out of family friends and neighbours, and we’ve got to start learning to trust each other and trust the sense we are meant to have been born with. We can’t go on allowing the State to tie us up in legislative knots, making us fearful at every turn.

Tories Reduce Surplus Population, Save Economy

Over the weekend we got the hardly remarkable news that in these austere times “Patients are being left stranded on trolleys for hours and forced to have treatment in corridors due in part to the loss of hospital beds.” We are also told that local health care is at breaking point. That is according to a report from the Royal College of Nursing. It took just two years it seems for this Tory-led government to get back to 1997.

When the ConDem coalition came into government in 2010 the media were falling over themselves to get a sound-bite about Tory plans to slash welfare. Someone finally collared some Tory culprit or another (Chris Grayling? Irritable Duncan Smith?) who insisted “I wish we didn’t have to make some of these decisions. I wish we had come into power in 1997. The Treasury was awash with money then.” Whoever it was I have wondered why more wasn’t made of that cynical sound bite.

Hands up all those who remember the social conditions in 1997. That’s right, schools were crumbling, public services were failing, old folk were dying of hypothermia in the winter, the sick were dying on ever-lengthening waiting lists and, yes, patients were spending hours on trolleys in hospital corridors – and dying there.

But “the treasury was awash with money.” That’s taxpayer’s money. That’s the money the Tory government insists the Labour government squandered after 1997 on schools, hospitals, public services and care for families, the elderly, the sick and vulnerable. But worry not, the way things are going it won’t be long before the treasury is awash with money again. They already have patients on hospital trolleys and the suicide rate among the disabled is rising significantly.

Soon their scheme will have worked its way out and the poor, weak and needy will have died, reducing the surplus population. Now where have I heard that before?