Monday, 30 November 2015

You snooze, you lose

Have you ever had one of those days when you just wish God would show up, snap his fingers and work miracles? The people of Israel had about 500 years worth of days like that, groaning under the oppression of one tyrant after another. The book of Isaiah gives voice to their sentiments like this: “O that you would rip open the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you!” (Is 63:19).

The problem is that he answered their prayer. He showed up, in person, working miracles beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. But they failed to recognize him. In fact, they crucified him.

How could this have happened? The analysis of Jesus is that they were asleep on the job (Mark 13:33-37). Sure, they busied themselves with a variety of activities, including pious practices. But constant movement can lull you to sleep, like a baby on a long car ride. Asleep means unconscious. Unaware. Lethargic. For us as Christians, this means lip service is not enough. Making God a manageable part of one’s life is not enough. He demands to be worshiped, which is to say that He must take centre stage, be at the top of the priority list. We are not just to believe He exists, but to avidly pursue Him and his will for our lives.

And why is this important? Because Jesus promises to come again and this time it won’t be in a hidden way. He won’t be wearing swaddling clothes, but judge’s robes when He will judge the living and the dead. Advent first and foremost is a time to remember that he’s coming back and that we must be a bit better prepared for the second coming than the Israelites were for the first one.

Jesus puts it like this in Matthew’s Gospel:

‘As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 
For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, 
marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;
and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them away. 
That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man...
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. 

Amidst our celebrations and festivities, the question that should not be avoided during Advent is this – are you ready to stand judgement before God? If you are like most of us and not ready, then Advent is a great time to ‘wake up’ and start preparing as you seek the Lord in His Word, confess your sins, sing his praises and trust and believe in His Son Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh. Happy Advent.

Parish magazine article for the start of Advent 2015

Friday, 30 October 2015

Celebrating Halloween like a Christian

What does God think of Halloween? How are Christians to respond to all the spooky outfits, scary masks, witches hats that dominate the scene at this time of year? Should we simply retreat, batten down the hatches, avoid all shops and hope no one knocks on Wednesday night? Before answering that question allow me, to share with you my top tip, that I think is guaranteed to ruin any good party (never say that I am not a generous person)! So imagine the scene; you’ve arrived at a party – the venue is lovely, the music is playing, the food is fantastic, conversations are flowing, everyone you want is there and at this point in the party, no one has done anything silly or embarrassing. No one has been on the dance floor and made a fool of themselves, no has attempted to sing along to the music in a tone deaf way, no one has had too much to drink and started acting a bit silly. All told, everything is going well so far. Well here is how to ruin the party. Just wait until there is a bit of a pause, perhaps, after someone has cracked a really good joke and then raise your voice a little and say “I tell you what, this seems like a good time to speak about death!”

That would be it wouldn’t it? To wait until everyone is having fun, the party is in full flow and people are enjoying themselves and then mention the dreaded d-word: death.

Now here is the link with that anecdote[1] and Halloween. When you see the sorts of outfits that are sold in the shops and supermarkets at this time, isn’t it as if our society says ‘let’s have a party, a celebration, a festival, and use it, to talk about death’ – isn’t that what it’s like when you come across the scary, horrible-looking, death-imitating costumes in the shop aisles? Don’t they just scream “death” and remind us of this horrible enemy in our midst?

Well here is a first surprise as we return to our opening question of how are Christians to respond to Halloween. The first surprise is this – Christians (unlike the world/non-believers) have a good reason to celebrate Halloween by putting on scary costumes and joking about death etc because unlike the world we have a King, Jesus Christ, who has conquered, triumphed and overcome death. We Christians have a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who has experienced this horrible enemy death, but who thankfully has defeated it (Hebrews 2:14-15). As Paul asks provocatively in 1 Corinthians 15:55

Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?

His answer: thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who are united to this Jesus Christ have every reason not to fear death. Christians can look death in the eye and say “horrible though you are O death, one day... one day we will have the last laugh on you”. We Christians can mock death because even though we know that it is horrible and painful and sad, yet we can still laugh at it because we have a Saviour who has completely triumphed and defeated death. Christians need not therefore fear these scary costumes that appear at this time of year, and we should be free to mock death by wearing ghoulish outfits as a mock on this defeated enemy – death.

If you’ve seen the film Crocodile Dundee, you’ll know that there’s a scene where the main character, Dundee is walking home late one evening when he gets accosted by 3 kids wanting to mug him. The lead member pulls out a penknife and shouts “give us your wallet” and Dundee’s girlfriend in a bit of panic, urges him to respond quickly by giving the thugs his wallet. Dundee retorts by asking “Why?” to which she replies “because they’ve got a knife” And Dundee’s comical response is to say “That’s not a knife... here’s a knife” as he draws out a machete! And it’s a little like that with the victory accomplished by our risen, reigning Lord. You can imagine him looking at all the scary outfits which people don at this time of year and saying “You think that is scary? Wait until you see the fierce dragon that I had to fight. He is horrible and cruel and everyone he attacks loses. Everyone that is, except Me”.

Halloween then can and should be for the Christian a time to laugh. Not a fake, shallow, pretend laughter, but the kind of laughter which is filled with a certain hope that even though the present may be painful, even though the present may be full of tears and sadness, yet in Christ we are confident that our sorrows will be turned to joy.

Here is the second surprise related to Halloween. Modern day Christians should reclaim the celebration of Halloween, given that it was our forbears who encouraged people to wear scary outfits as a parody of death. Halloween as you may know was originally known as All Hallows Eve. It is the day before All Hallows/All Saints Day, when the Church remembers those who have died in the faith and give thanks for their faithful witness. All Hallows Eve therefore was (and is) an occasion to tease death by reminding ourselves of the wonderful hope of the final resurrection as we give thanks for those who’ve fallen asleep in Christ. The medieval Church thus encouraged Christians to wear frightening and death-imitating costumes not because they were morbid or because they didn’t have access to GAP or Calvin Klein but rather because they were confident that death had been defeated. Christians therefore wore horrible outfits not because of a lack of fashion sense but to satirize death and say to it, ‘you’re a loser!’ or more positively ‘we will win!’ This by the way is the reason that many old churches and some grand buildings have gargoyles. Have you ever wondered why someone would build a beautiful church with intricately designed mosaics, pretty stained glass windows, ornate looking furniture and then include unappealing and oftentimes scary looking gargoyles? Well the reason was simply to say to the congregation (and to the world) that though death may still be present among us (which is what these gargoyles pictured) yet in Christ, we shall overcome. In other words, gargoyles were a visual way of saying that the medieval Christians were not afraid of death.

It is reported that Woody Allen when once asked about death responded “I’m not afraid of death I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” How different for the Christian! This Halloween then, let us not fear... let us not fear the frightening costumes, let us not fear the knock on the door, let us not fear the future and crucially let us not fear death. And why not think of a tangible way (including perhaps wearing a scary costume?) to teach and share with your family and friends, that in-Christ, death is not the end!

[1] Taken from Lee McMunn’s Identity course, Session 4 “The God who comforts us” 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Does baptism make you a Christian? C.S Lewis replies...

“It is only the usual trouble about words being used in more than one sense. Thus we might say a man ‘became a soldier’ the moment that he joined the army. But his instructors might say six months later ‘I think we have made a soldier of him’. Both usages are quite definable, only one wants to know which is being used in a given sentence.”
— C. S. Lewis to Genia Goelz (March 18, 1952), Collected Letters, 3:172. Quoted by Justin Taylor in C S Lewis on Theology and Worship

In other words, Scripture teaches that baptism converts the sinner (see e.g. herehere and here) while at the same time saying that conversion is a pre-requisite for baptism (see e.g. herehere and here). Nevertheless,  I think Scripture's emphasis is clearly on the former given that it speaks unambiguously and in the majority of baptism making people Christians.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The pastor's most besetting temptations

The pastor’s most besetting temptations are anxiety and pride Anxiety determines the lives of many pastors. A family blows up over here; another member is terminally ill; the finances are looking weak: Every moment has its crisis, and the anxiety-driven pastor spends his time and energies responding to the crises. It’s draining because every encounter is a painful one; it induces cynicism, because pastors end up spending much of their time with the 15% of members whose lives are chaotic and very little time with the 85% who live healthy, harmonious, fruitful lives.

Pride is the other temptation, and is linked to anxiety. Pastors feel anxiety over the various challenges of ministry because they think they need to fix the church. If there’s a problem, the pastor is the all-purpose saviour.

So what's the solution? Find out here

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Bible is not a book for the faint-hearted

The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart -- it is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind. It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice -- it does not so much nibble at our shoe leather as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from the bone. It does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.

- Rich Mullins