Command & Control
On November 1, 1952 a thermonuclear bomb nicknamed Mike was detonated on an island in the Pacific.
“Mike was about twenty feet tall and weighed more than 120,000 pounds. The device was housed in a corrugated aluminium building on the island of Elugelab. When Mike detonated, the island disappeared. It became dust and ash, pulled upward to form a mushroom cloud that rose about twenty-seven miles into the sky. The fireball created by the explosion was three and a half miles wide. All that remained of little Elugelab was a circular crater filled with seawater, more than a mile in diameter and fifteen stories deep. The yield of the device was 10.4 megatons, roughly five hundred times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb.”
Mike was exactly the sort of weapon imagined by Oppenheimer when he recalled the words from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” It was a weapon that produced a kind of schizophrenia- the same thing that appalled those they were pointed at enthralled those doing the pointing. From that moment, mankind had the ability to destroy itself, what remains less well understood is that that statement had two meanings.
Eric Schlosser describes the history of nuclear weapons in his book Command & Control. In it he shows how dangerous the weapons were (and are) and how close the world came to nuclear disaster. The surprise for the reader is to see the many and varied ways this almost happened, and how much danger there was in the ordinary day to day storage and transport of these devices.
There isn’t room here to detail all of the accidents examined in Command & Control. Suffice to say the possibility of an accident leading to a nuclear catastrophe could be as small as a metal nut coming loose and creating a new electoral pathway to arm a bomb; a pilot forgetting to flick the switch to disarm a bomb after a practice manoeuvre, or a technician putting the wrong tape into a machine and so simulating a nuclear attack. And these kinds of accidents were happening all the time.
One might assume accidents would lead to new safety procedures but paradoxically the more accidents there were the safer the military felt. Every time a bomb fell out of a plane because a pilot pulled the wrong lever; every time a bomb was bumped, submerged or incinerated without detonation, the more confident the military became that an accidental detonation would never occur.
Schlosser’s incredibly well researched book makes the opposite argument- we escaped nuclear disaster, possibly even nuclear holocaust, by sheer, blind, good old-fashioned luck.
But Christians don’t believe in luck. We believe in a Sovereign God. And the more you read about near misses and narrow escapes, the more incredulous Schlosser gets about the ways in which a nuclear explosion should have happened but didn’t, the more you see how God’s sovereignty is not a theoretical debate but an essential part of reality.
Not that we want to be naive. Explosives detonated, plutonium was released into the atmosphere. Chelyabinsk in Russia is the most polluted place on earth after an explosion at a plutonium processing plant in 1957. Fires raged and people died putting them out and God permitted it all in his providence. However, the nightmare scenario never overtook us, the End of Days never came.
I suppose we read into things what we want to see. Those who believe we are alone in the universe will read Command & Control with horror. Those who believe God is sovereign will also read this book horrified at the thought of what could have happened and yet with some confidence that they know why it didn’t. Ultimately they will echo the words of the head of Strategic Air Command, General George Lee Butler, who said in 1991,
“I came to fully appreciate the truth . . . we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”
The other week I was trying to convince the congregation in church that the banquet was not boring. Remember the banquet in Luke 14? Jesus parable shows how the banquet is open to all and that the Kingdom of God is a place where all are welcomed and well fed. I tried to show them that the King is their happy host, moving round the tables, listening to their stories, accepting their grateful thanks and stoking their joy.
As we imagine the Kingdom, I said, let’s not confuse it with our occasional (or typical) experience of church. “We’ve all been bored in church” I said, “who hasn’t traced the brickwork, made anagrams from the verse on the wall or added up the hymn numbers on the board?”
And then I looked around; the two hymn numbers were 164 and 1. I was so ashamed, I hadn’t even given them something interesting to add up!
I guess most people reading this love a good sermon. We love a preacher to come and draw our attention to a passage of the Bible and show us something we’ve not seen before; like a guide in the art gallery pointing to one corner of a familiar painting and saying, “here’s the key that explains the whole picture- have you seen it?” Or a preacher to come and explain something we’ve never understood before; like a professor calling us back after class and offering to explain again how a combustion engine works or what DNA actually means. Or maybe just a preacher to come and cook a hearty broth. Like the rat in Ratatouille taking familiar ingredients, tossing them into the pot and producing something fragrant and warming that edifies us and “lets us go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.
Most of all we love a preacher to preach like a Sherpa. We love a man to come and take us from the plain on which we live, to the mountain. We love him to lead us step by step to the top where we can see the cross of Christ and the view beyond it.
Yes, we love a good sermon. But that’s just it isn’t it? We love a good sermon.
We believe in a good sermon. We believe in its power to lift the believer and floor the pagan. We believe in its power to strengthen the weak and humble the powerful. We believe that preaching is not lecturing or teaching or explaining or conversing. We believe it is God speaking, persuading, challenging and convicting. We believe preaching has the power to change the hearts of men and women and so change the world.
But you will admit that that isn’t your experience from the pew and from the pulpit it isn’t often mine either. Somewhere between the conviction a man has to preach, the preparation he undertakes and the moment he climbs into the pulpit, something goes wrong.
Maybe it is in the calling. Perhaps it is in the pulpit, but last week I had spent three days in London thinking about whether the problem is in the preparation. I was in Oak Hill and a man much like you, a pew dweller, challenged me and the students with me to think about the preparation I did and how I attempted to share the good news I knew with you.
There’s not much room to flesh it all out but one thing of interest was his understanding of the brain. He divided it into two and then three.
First, the brain is two. Top 10% is rational, bottom 90% is irrational. That’s not to say it is largely unreliable, rather that the 10% likes logic and facts and the 90% responds to feelings and emotions. That ought to strike us as interesting. We tend to preach (or hear) logical sermons but that is only reaching a small part of the brain and crucially is very bad at changing the heart.
Notice this though, the 10% is divided in half. On the right is the part that wants statements. Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s the economy stupid’ is a good example of this. (By the way, it’s the part that has been screaming while you’ve been reading this, “WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS POST? Give it to me in a sentence, doc!”) The left hand side wants logical explanations (why does C follow B follow A?). Interesting isn’t it? Even if a preacher only wants to preach ‘logically’ he has to preach to two different parts of the same brain.
But what about the 90%? That’s a different kettle of fish altogether. It’s the 90% that is most flabby and immobile and it desperately doesn’t want to change. That 90% doesn’t often respond to logic, it requires a different approach.
The 90% likes facts, opinions, anecdotes and metaphors. (It may have even noticed them in this article). The teacher in London called it F.O.A.M. By using them liberally in sermons the preacher can engage all of the brain instead of maybe 5%. It’s not saying we shouldn’t be logical or intellectually stimulating, just that we stimulate in different ways in order to capture the heart.
Think of it like taking a castle.
Some people smash at the door with a battering ram. They are trying to enter in the most direct way. That alone might work but it probably won’t. So others climb up onto the ramparts with siege works. By doing that they are thinning out the defences. Others catapult boulders and flaming objects over the walls into the courtyard. Still others undermine the walls in an attempt to crumble the whole edifice.
The preaching of the word needs to be like that. It’s not enough to merely state a fact or present logic. A variety of tactics take a castle and therefore the kingdom captive. And a variety of methods in preaching will lead to a surrendering of the will, a persuading of the mind and ultimately a fresh convert at the banquet of the generous king.
Here’s my challenge. Next time you’re in church adding up the hymn numbers or doodling in your notebook, have a look for some FOAM in the sermon. If there isn’t any, make an appeal to the guy when he’s finished (give him a chance to wind down first). Explain to him that you need more than just logic, you need some FOAM with your sermon.
Let’s get our teeth into #Suarez
Thanks to the internet the jokes raced around the world.
Luis Suarez decided to eat out at the World Cup!
He fancied an Italian tonight!
He doesn’t know the difference between Chiellini and Cannelloni.
Chewy Luis and the Blues.
Not sure who Luis Suarez is? Download the video of his greatest moments, it won’t take long it’s only three megabytes!”
Banned from football for 4 months? He’s bitten off more than he can chew
I could go on, with this material there’s a lot to get your teeth into.
I dare say you’ve heard all of this already. But amongst all the puns, photos, vine’s, tweets, quips, posts and spoofs, a more sombre opinion has been heard. I first heard it articulated by footballer turned commentator, Stan Collymore but it has been repeated by politicians, serious sports journalists and other po-faced spectators. It’s summed up in this article from the Independent,
“Suarez obviously has a problem that manifests itself, when he is frustrated that events are not going his way, by biting. But for this he needs treatment from whichever mental health specialist is deemed appropriate, not one of the severest bans in the history of the game.”
Did you spot it? Biting is not a nasty thing to do, it’s a mental health issue.
You see this a lot in modern life though usually in more serious crimes. The TV News shows a prison van turn up at the court; the accused runs inside with a towel over his head while the crowds bay for blood. Cue the high-minded commentator’s calls for understanding and a trawl through the life of the individual to explain the reason for the bad thing they have done.
I don’t deny mental health issues. I don’t deny people can do bad things because of mental health issues. But why do we assume that bad things are automatically mental health issues and that these can be counselled away? What happened to bad things just being bad things?
In the past, communities believed in evil. They believed that evil existed and that it manifested itself in the actions of individuals. Communities saw the evidence of it and dealt with its consequences; it was a natural and accepted part of the community worldview.
But evil doesn’t fit into our view of the world anymore. Today we believe in different gods. We believe in the god of money who enriches everybody he touches and improve not only their bank balance but also their behaviour.
And we believe in the god of education. What is the answer to underage sex? Education. What is the answer to drug abuse? Education. Child neglect? Education. Islamic Extremism? Education. Racism? Alcoholism? Twenty-first century Slavery? Education, Education Education!
But neither of those gods have delivered what we thought they would. And boy is it frustrating. The politicians and social activists who thought they could replace God with ‘gods’ have seen change (and much of it good) but not The Change they hoped for.
Because the central problem of evil cannot be bribed and it cannot be reformed. It lies within. It waits, whispers, convinces and connives; looking for its opportunity to hurt and destroy. It waits to steal or deceive to hurt or to abuse to cheat or to kill.
And no amount of money or education or in Suarez’ case, counselling can change that.
Suarez doesn’t need counselling. He needs Christ. He needs to know that the god of victory is not the god he should be serving. That the god of national acclaim is not going to gain true and lasting acceptance. That the sycophants around him who convince him that he is victimised are not the voices he should be listening too. And that a ban from his career, and a drop in sponsorship revenue is not the end of his world.
He needs to know that the true God accepts him win, lose or draw. That the true God loves him now and will love him when his club and country have moved on to younger stars. And that when Twitter has moved on to the next big story, the true God will still love him, will still forgive the sin in his heart and will help him smash the idols of this world.
That’s not counselling, that’s the gospel. And it isn’t only Luis Suarez who needs to chew over that.
"I studied theology in the Highlands Theological College in Scotland."
So goes my answer to the question, “What did you do for your degree?” I must have said it dozens of times in the years since leaving Dingwall and returning to Wales.
Occasionally I use the word ‘did’ instead of ‘studied’ and though it might seem pedantic, I realised recently that there is a huge difference between studying theology and doing it.
I was visiting an elderly man who had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Being in his nineties I suppose he might be considered ‘ready’ for that news and in a way he was, but not in the way you expect.
As we spoke it became clear that this man, while never having studied it in college, had ‘done theology’. In a very simple, though very profound way, he explained to me his understanding of what would happen to him when he died. There is nothing unique in this of course, lots of people have explanations for what will happen to them when they die, but this man had drawn his conclusions from the Bible and was glad to share them with me. He drew his inferences from Old Testament narrative and New Testament teaching and so did not place too much weight on one particular passage. He described his views with confidence but not overly so, allowing that he might be wrong but not allowing me to conclude that there was no way to be sure. Finally he wrapped it all up in the confidence that while he could not be sure of his interpretation he could be absolutely sure that Jesus would come, and take him to Heaven because that was Jesus’ promise and his faith was in his Saviour.
It was so helpful to spend time with someone who had done theology. Not merely studied, nor merely compared and contrasted, but actually used the Bible, the book of life, to see clearly what God wanted him to know.
Perhaps his example might encourage you to do these three things.
1. Do your theology.
The Bible is not there to challenge our intellect or inform us of history, it is there to make the Trinity and the work of the persons of the Trinity clear to us. The God who is Truth and Light and Love has given us his word in the Bible and he wants us to use it to know Him. Theology is merely the word we use to describe the means by which we come to know what we believe and why we believe it. So don’t be afraid to do theology.
2. Do your theology now
While you can see to read and have the capacity to think and pray, do you your theology now! Don’t leave it until the letter comes from the hospital or the redundancy notice from work, because, in those moments, your life will already be shaken. Instead know what you believe now, so that in those tough times you will be able to stand on solid ground.
3. Share your theology
Remember when Elijah felt he was all on his own in Israel but God assured him that seven thousand other believers still existed in the country? It was a wonderful boost to that lonely prophet. It challenged his view of the world and made him see that God was bigger, more powerful and far more gracious than he could imagine.
You can bring the same challenge to the people in your church, the christians in work, or to your family. Your friends and family live in a dying culture. It chokes on the post-modern toxin of faux-tolerance that says anybody can believe anything but nobody can know truth. Theology worked out and applied is a snort of pure spiritual oxygen in that suffocating miasma.
So wherever you learnt theology, whether in the pew or the prayer meeting, the house group or CU, the seminar or the seminary; dare to share! Dare to challenge, to profess an understanding, to know the truth. Dare because you know that iron sharpens iron, truth brings life to dead bones, and that Theology, far from being dull or dry, rouses and energises us to see more clearly God in his majesty and his eternal plans.
Who gets the Glory?
Parachute down into the centre of Pyongyang, North Korea and (in the seven seconds before you were arrested by hordes of North Korean soldiers) you would see giant murals of the beloved leaders of that Stalinist state. Or, were you to read the autobiographies of the first soldiers in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussain, you would hear of the gold bath taps and luxury of his palaces. Rummage around on eBay and it won’t take long to find memorabilia from the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the last century- busts and medals crafted to honour the dictators of Reich’s and Empires.
Dictators have always sought to affirm their position in the eyes of their people with titles and baubles. Partly this is to reinforce their authority and discourage opposition. But there is something else too. Initially at least, it is not hubris that has them commissioning statues and anthems, but a real belief that they deserve the honour and praise of their people. These dictators have often risen to power as liberators. They have often come to power on the back of popular support and so the models and murals are snapshots in stone or paint, immortalising those moments of popular praise.
I thought a lot about this recently as I prepared to preach on the Creation story. I wanted to point out that one of the reasons God has created the universe is for his own glory. But what can it mean, given our recent experiences to ask people to give glory to God? To invite them to subordinate themselves, to encourage them to look beyond themselves and give their praise to someone else while the footage of massacres and martial marches inevitably plays in their mind?
The fact of the matter however, is that God does not ask us to do anything unnatural. To glorify God for creation is profoundly natural because it is what we were created to do. Moreover, he is entirely worthy of worship. Creation on both macro and micro level is fascinating and breathtaking. To praise the artist who paints one masterpiece is justified but in that metaphor, God is the artist who has crafted masterpieces in a vast array of styles and methods, movements and materials. And it is not just his creativity that we praise but his commitment to that creativity. He clothes the flower and feeds the sparrow with as much diligence and care today as he did on the day of their creation. Of course he deserves our praise, thanksgiving and yes, glory.
By contrast those leaders who claim titles like ‘Supreme leader’ for themselves are merely plumbing the depths of the grossest idolatry. They greedily snatch at the glory which should be given to God and siphon off the praises due to him for themselves. Their titles, their claims and their motives are base and hideously sinful.
As with sex, food, work, entertainment and everything else, the act of giving glory has been marred by sinful men and women. It is tragic that words of praise to God should be even slightly linked to the men who goose-stepped down main street but that is the fallen world in which we live. We can only marvel anew that God would send his beloved and begotten son into such an ungrateful world to redeem the idolator, recover his depraved mind and restore him to the place where he can joyfully and humbly give glory to God.
Eau de Mouche Mort: For the smell that lingers
Recent reviews of a new anthology of letters written by Hugh Trevor-Roper came to mind today as I read this verse in Ecclesiastes 10,
“As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour”
Hugh Trevor Roper was a famous historian and very well respected. His work covered many fields but it was his knowledge of the Second War that was particularly lauded. One mistake at the height of his fame however, was to leave his reputation permanently tainted, like dead flies in perfume, with a bad smell.
In the early 1980’s Stern Magazine in Germany were approached with what promised to be a world exclusive. According to their source, diaries written by Adolf Hitler had been smuggled out of East Germany and were up for sale. Stern wanted assurances that they were genuine and needed a world renowned scholar to vouch for them. Hugh Trevor-Roper was invited to look at them and make a judgment on their authenticity. He did so, but with little time for reflection before the date of publication in Stern and also The Sunday Times. Even as the press conferences were being held and the print works fired up, Trevor-Roper was growing unsure but it was too late. By the time of publication, the diaries were found to have been a hoax and his reputation was permanently damaged.
20 years on, there have been attempts at rehabilitation, but the permanent stain on his reputation has remained with enemies able to snigger and ask “How could the expert have got it so wrong?”
It is a good example of what the Teacher was talking about in Ecclesiastes. A little folly, some hubris, a desire to so badly want something to be true it stops you asking the hard questions can lead to disaster. These motives can be excusable; understandable, even forgivable but in the stark analytical light, they come to outweigh a lifetime of wisdom and honour.
As Christians we celebrate God’s forgiveness and rightly proclaim God’s grace, singing, “As far as the East is from the West that’s how far He has removed our transgressions from us.” Nonetheless in front of our peers we sometimes have to live with very painful consequences. That is the reality of sin and life in a fallen world. Hugh Trevor-Roper is just one reminder of our need to step carefully, judge everything biblically and stay as close to our Shepherd as we can. Because when we walk proudly, act impetuously and consider ourself beyond danger we run the grave risk of bringing shame on ourself and dishonour on our King.
Lamenting the strange disappearance of the Christmas sermon
[The following was published in the January issue of The Treasury. It is specifically about the Presbyterian Church of Wales experience but may be of interest to others]
On the Sunday before Christmas I attended three services held in different Presbyterian Church of Wales churches.
In the morning we lit an advent candle, watched a nativity play, sang an antiphony and heard a talk about the swedish Saint Lucy.
The afternoon service was a traditional nine lessons and carols in which we declared at the end of each reading that it was “the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God”. The service concluded with a poem about Joseph.
In the evening carol service there were more readings, a video story and a short talk.
Each service was conducted with propriety and in a good manner. There was something to contemplate and opportunity to worship through the singing of carols. What follows is not a criticism of those fellowships. However it is an observation about what will happen if we continue to conform to the practices of other traditions without preserving what is distinctive about ourselves.
Reflecting on those services I am conscious of how much we have drawn from other sources, primarily the Anglican style. I accept that our reliance on ministers and lay people from other denominations will mean we are reliant on them for our worship services. Moreover, I don’t have a problem with Anglican worship at all, in fact I am in agreement with my wife when she says that no-one does Christmas like Anglicans.
But we are not Anglican. So why are we doing things their way and what does that tell us about ourselves?
We should say first of all, that if there is such a thing as a ‘global village’ then it is hardly surprising that its village church is a mixture of ideas and styles drawn from various traditions. Increasing travel, extended families living not just in different towns but increasingly on different continents, and access to the internet mean that our people know more about other church practices than in any previous generation.
A change is as good as a rest and diverse approaches to worship can refocus the mind and stimulate the heart of a believer. It is often just the antidote to a diet of hymn sandwiches so this is not a call to return to our old pattern. Indeed, even if it were, we would be hard pressed to articulate what that old pattern was. Non conformist services were not liturgical nor were they designed to build up to the eucharist so we cannot call for a return to that.
So where is the problem? If variety is the spice of church life and there are no traditional components to preserve then surely we can proceed with a spring in our step and our hats on the side of our heads. Well, not so fast. That we do not worship on Anglican lines does not mean we have nothing to preserve. Far from it. Our tradition is built around the preached word. It is by far the largest single component of the Sunday meeting. It requires the most preparation and is what most people are waiting for as they take their place in the pew.
Theologically it is how we believe we are fed as a congregation. Public reading and public prayer is integral to our worship bringing God to the people and the people to God. However it is primarily in the preached word of God that we believe he speaks to us and deals with us; chastising, rebuking, encouraging and assuring. It is his constant reminder too us of His merciful salvation, recalibrating a people that will always be inclined to forget His grace. Historically too, we see the powerful work of God that comes after the persuasive, passionate proclamation of God’s word. Revival and church growth have, in our experience been closely related to biblical preaching. Anecdotally too, we are more attuned to what preaching is than we might think. Try to define it and you struggle, listen to it and you can tell the difference between lecturing, posturing and preaching. We do not have a tin ear to preaching- hear it and we will be warmed in a supernatural way.
So, when we lose preaching, when we jettison it for something, anything, else we lose what we profess to be God’s chief mouthpiece to us. He can still speak to us of course, but this method, so clearly found to be biblical is cut off to him. Remember too, that we lose something crucial about ourselves. We lose what is theologically and historically the marrow of our connexion. Our heroes were preachers, our testimonies so often include preaching as the way we were saved or the means by which we grew. Lose that and we lose not only one of the means of grace but one of the key features that unites us.
Getting your Christmas List right
Christmas lists are great. They exist to make sure you get presents you want and equally to avoid getting things you don’t. But they have one fault. By their nature they preclude the possibility of a pleasant surprise on December 25th.
One of the best presents I ever had was a surprise. It was a football game called Tomy Super Cup Football. It was a noisy game, easy to break and (because of its miniature plastic footballs only slightly larger than atoms) prone to breaks in play if someone accidentally hoofed the ball out of the little plastic ground. Nonetheless my brother and I loved it. It became part of our lives and was the thing we turned to first every Sunday morning before church.
I have no idea how mum decided to buy it. I don’t remembers TV adverts or anything mentioned in Shoot Magazine. If it was in the Argos catalogue it would have been there with 500 other toys so how she came to choose it I don’t know. I’m just glad she did.
As I got older and more savvy I would put together lists of things I wanted. Bids would go in for football shirts, Walkman (walkmen?) books and CD’s and they would invariably be unwrapped on Christmas Day, so that the surprise gift became ever rarer. Good in one way, sad in another.
At this time of year we’re all about lists aren’t we? And we’re pretty good at them. Forget presents for a moment, the Christmas season is one long list of things we want to do. We start reading a Christmas novel, book tickets for a Christmas pantomime. We sit through school nativity plays mulling over what particular foods we will have on Christmas day. We buy our Christmas tree from our favourite farm shop so that we can hang our favourite decorations and we buy the Radio Times on the way home so that we can check the time of Christmas Downton. It’s like a personal advent calendar and some of us have it perfectly organised from first mince pie to last turkey roll.
Which is not to belittle Christmas tradition, only to note that on its own this season can become a mere repeat of Christmas’ past as we try to recapture the magic and wonder of long ago. Even a new addition to the schedule is only fresh once, quickly being assimilated into the roll call of Christmas traditions.
Instinct tells that this is inevitable. It’s why so many people say Christmas is ‘for the children’. They’re the only ones who have surprises to come.
But strange as it may seem, by turning to the source material for Christmas, by turning to the very first tradition and basis for everything else, we still find surprise, wonder and profundity.
That’s because Christmas is the time we refocus on the claim that God became a human being. 2000 years on, around the world churches and families still preach and profess that Jesus of Nazareth was the God-Man, born of a virgin, laid in a manger, fed and weaned and reared. The God-Man who would go on to live a life like ours in every way but one before dying on a cross and rising again.
The image, easy to picture, of a baby laid in a manger is familiar but still surprising. Can it really be that God was ‘contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man?
This Christmas, as you make your way through your list, make room for this question because it is vital to answer. If as is claimed God did come and dwell among us, that is staggering. More staggering still is his reason- he came to be with us. And if you haven’t yet asked the question ‘Why?’ you really should!
But what of the Christ follower? For you too, Christmas has its surprises. You may secretly tire of booming out Hark the Herald Angels Sing for the fiftieth year in a row or be able to lip sync the nativity readings as they’re read at the Carol service, but the central truth doesn’t stop being surprising and wonderful.
The God you believe in, the one people mock you for, is not a distant deity in whom you must believe without evidence. He has come. He has breathed the same air, run through the rain, sweated and puffed his way up a hill, laughed and cried and done a million other everyday things just as you have. He is hyper real, atomically and biologically the same as you.
And you who for whom Christmas is a sad time? For you who are lonely. What about the God you seek consolation from? He has journeyed from Heaven to Earth to prove to you that you are not alone. He is Love and he loves to comfort you.
And the God you trust in for Eternal life? Jesus has come to tell you about it. To promise you that he is the way to joy and happiness and eternal rest.
I had a surprise present once. It became something of great importance in my childhood and gives me happy memories. But those happy memories are all that remain. It is now slowly decomposing, mixed up in a rubbish dump somewhere in East Anglia. The story of Jesus though? That’s a truly surprising story. One that can change your eternal life forever. Doesn’t it deserve a place at the top of your Christmas list?
The First Indiana Jones
The road was bumpy and they carried precious cargo. The King had commissioned a removal party to bring up the box to the capital and when the king asked for something you did it and did it without dinging the product!
So it was to be expected that when the cattle stumbled and the cart lurched, Uzzah would instinctively reach out to support the ark. You would have done the same.
What happened next was not expected. Not at all. Uzzah collapsed. The others waited for a second. “Get up lad” somebody said. “What’s he doing” asked another. “Stop mucking about” added a third. They waited then gathered around him. Someone shook him, another listened for breathing, then white as a sheet whispered, “He’s dead”.
The account of Uzzah’s death frightened those who heard of it afterwards and has frightened bible readers ever since. The account (found in 1 Samuel 6) is particularly challenging to those of us who think they know what God is like. Our adjectives for God are loving, gracious and patient; the descriptions are of one who is full of second chances. None of which is easily reconciled with this story. In contrast those calumnies of the new Atheists, that God is intemperate and easily riled seem to originate here.
One suggestion long expounded in Wales is to say that the God of the Old Testament was exactly as described above but that in the New Testament all of that changed. It’s a suggestion but a wrong one. Nowhere in the Bible is this taught, least of all by Jesus or the New Testament writers. They speak of one true God, eternal and unchanging in his character. Any fair reading of the Bible supports the fact that God was loving and gracious to mankind from the moment of the fall. John 3:16 is just the most obvious proof text of that.
So how can we explain what’s going on?
What we need is context. Uzzah was not a mere removal man nor was he his task to merely recover a box. This was the first Indiana Jones and if this was not a lost ark it was certainly pretty much forgotten. The motive, to bring the ark back to the centre of public life, was a good one, one that expectant crowds celebrated.
Yet when the cattle stumbled Uzzah still died. So what, we might humbly ask, was God’s problem?
The problem was that the job was not done properly. The task of moving the ark had specific rules. Rules laid out and explained in the first books of the Bible, those we call the Pentateuch. Those rules and laws were given to demonstrate to the people the holiness of God and in those moments they forgot it. Such a thing is all to easy isn’t it? This holiness is striking. It is perfect and awe-ful. It is something which at times caused men to stumble, close their eyes, cry out and feel like dying. Yet we cannot say it is unforgettable, the disciples are only one example of that. God’s holiness is something we imagine we would always remember, yet even having experienced it quickly forget.
So the death of Uzzah was a message to David and the people of his day and remains a warning to us even now. God is holy and God is serious and we approach him flippantly at our peril.
And yet the death of Uzzah might sit uncomfortably with you. It was unfair, overly harsh, unjust even? If that’s the case, let me gently challenge you.
Uzzah was a man who lived thousands of years ago. You don’t know his family or anything else about him. Even if you feel passionately about him now you will forget him as soon as you finish reading this article. The only reason he exists in your knowledge is because God wanted you to know about him. HIs existence is recorded for one reason only and that is that people like you might know that God is not to be trifled with. His presence might at one time have been represented by a box but He cannot be boxed in or carried with you when you need Him. He was and is and will remain the Holy God of Heaven and the King of the universe.
Know this too. In his mercy he has made himself known to the world. Rather than living in darkness only to die and be judged he has shown the world a light. It is a holy light and a light of redemption. To cast Uzzah as a type of Christ, he died so that you might have a chance to learn from him and live.
Rather than spurn that chance by using it as an excuse to challenge God, see it as a timely and personal reminder to take seriously the Holy God and come under his love and care while you have the chance.
Treasury Christmas Guide 2013
[This was published in last month’s Treasury. It may still be of some use to those who like to cut things fine…]
Christmas services remain our biggest opportunity to bring people into our Christian community and share with them the exciting news that Jesus Christ has come into the world. For that reason we look for different ways to invite people to services and that often includes leaflets, tracts and gifts of literature. Below are some different resources that, if you get your skates on, can be bought and given out this December.
INVESTING IN PUBLICITY
Christian Publishing and Outreach are the first stop for posters, handouts, hymn sheets and other paraphernalia. NB Choose ‘humourous’ designs at your own risk. It is the publicity equivalent of the vicar wearing a musical Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer tie at the Cristingle!
SHARE THE GOOD NEWS OF CHRISTMAS (10 of Those)
An alternative to CPO is this set of resources from 10 of Those. For under £25 you can have, (deep breath) 50 door–hanger bags, ESV Outreach New Testaments, Christmas Edition, customizable invitations for a Christmas event 50 copies of The Good News of Christmas tract by Max Lucado an Instruction card and Reproducible church bulletin insert. It could be all you need this Christmas.
If you’re giving out your own invitations, why not include an inexpensive tract?
BORN TO BE KING by ROGER CARSWELL (Day One)
Roger Carswell maintains his ability to combine topical news stories with key gospel narratives with his new tract. Drawing simple and effective comparisons between the summertime birth of Prince George and the annual winter nativity, Carswell takes the reader from the manger to the cross in his winsome and personal style. This is well illustrated and has extended gospel readings throughout.
GIVING A GIFT
Lots of churches have something a bit more substantial to give away to visitors at Christmas. Although these will cost a few pounds, the right gift given with a smile could well be the opportunity for your friend to take away something really worthwhile. These don’t need to be festive but if you want a Christmassy option here are two to consider.
THE CHRISTMAS THINGAMABOB by MARK DEVER (10 of Those)
Mark Dever has succeeded in finding a brilliant introductory illustration that is worth the price of the book. Inviting the reader to think about why Christmas is important to them he takes us on from the manger in Bethlehem to the big question of John 7, Why did Jesus come? A book best imagined as the literary equivalent of curling up in an leather armchair with a gingerbread latte. My only criticism would be his peculiar spelling of Thingummybob.
CHRISTMAS UNCUT by CARL LAFERTON (The Good Book Company)
If Christmas Thingamabob is a gingerbread latte, Christmas Uncut is a box of mince pies. Far more self deprecating this book rips up the traditional nativity play and retells it as it really was. With seven scenes featuring the key characters it takes the reader from the run down stable to the rolled away stone and shows the significance of Jesus in a humorous and challenging way. Brilliantly set out and assuming no prior knowledge of the Bible I would recommend this not only as a Christmas resource but as a brilliant Christian apologetic.
THINK OF THE CHILDREN
There are loads of Christian resources for children this Christmas.
A quick hat tip to Professor Bumblebrains Absolutely Bonkers Christmas comic at 10 of Those, and also to the people at DayOne Publications who produce fantastic resources. However one book that could serve as a Sunday School prize or as a stocking filler for a grandchild is Bake through the Bible.
BAKE THROUGH THE BIBLE by by SUSIE BENTLEY-TAYLOR & BEKAH MOORE (The Good Book Company)
I admit I haven’t tested the recipes but this cook book for children looks great. It is beautifully made and presented and the idea, to use recipes to teach bible stories, seems a guaranteed winner.
Replete with Bible introduction and little prayers this is surely a great way of making bible conversations natural with children or grandchildren or even in a youth group activity or chapel cookery club.
There’s lots that’s available this year that we can’t cover here, but hopefully this has whetted your appetite and given you ideas for evangelising your community this Christmas.
TIPS TO REMEMBER
• Lots of publishing houses now offer further reductions for things bought in bulk. Get together with another church in your area and you could really good deals with the minimum of outlay.
If you are concerned about buying over the internet or sight unseen please contact the publishers/booksellers. They are incredibly helpful to deal with and are committed to doing what they can to getting resources into your churches.
• Be realistic. Lots of the stuff we share and give away will not be read or used. That’s the nature of our society. Equally though, our society is interested in attractive things- well presented resources will have a better chance of being looked at and followed up on.
• Remember everyone loves a free gift. It feels a big thing to buy something just to give it away. But the gift of a simple book is always appreciated and stands a good chance of being read in between the Queen’s speech and the Eastenders Christmas special.
NB: You can read The Christmas Thingamabob on a PDF free at bit.ly/GTVcXB
You can download Christmas Uncut for Kindle and iBooks for around £1.50
An interview about Bake Through the Bible can be found at youtu.be/-eoXEa9dYzQ
In a Roman Legion 5400 men would stand side by side ready for battle. They were part of the Imperial Army forming its heavy infantry. Legionaries were under strict discipline, heavily armoured and successful in battle. They were trained in defensive strategies, skilled at performing guerrilla manoeuvres and were lethal in attack.
So when a man from the Gaderene region is nicknamed Legion on account of his being possessed by demons it is not a joking matter. This is not one man grappling with temptation, it is one man invaded and conquered by a whole squadron of evil spirits, highly trained and determined.
You recall the story from Mark 5. Perhaps, when reading it you’ve assumed that this man was just a wrong ‘un who got involved in satanic things and opened himself up to a terrible experience of darkness. It’s possible of course, but the question then, is why would Satan send such a powerful attack on a single man?
The force of this attack, comparable in number to a 5000 man Legion, seems extreme even by the standards of our cruel enemy. Why deploy such forces when one demon could floor a man? Certainly our enemy is vicious and cruel and enjoys wreaking havoc on God’s creation, but in this moment, perhaps his objective was not this man at all.
In their book Name Above All Names, Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson argue that Legion was not the real target. The real target was a young preacher who would one day turn up in a Gadarene graveyard. That man, the Messiah, needed to be stopped and this would be the battleground. Here, on this day, manifested in one man, the forces of Hell would gather to stop the Christ in his tracks.
Previously, Satan had taken on the Christ in a face to face battle. It was not a fair fight of course, Satan had waited for the moment when Jesus was at his weakest. Only then would he dare to sidle up and with weasle-words try to worm his way into our Saviour’s affections. Of course he failed. So this new attack on a Gadarene beachhead was just another more forceful attempt to stop the advance of Christ and his Kingdom in its tracks.
And what do we see? Nothing. No fight at all. There is no horn that signals the start of battle. No hellish voice shouts ‘Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war’. Only the whimpering, feeble shriek of terrified demons, begging Jesus for mercy.
So far from being commonplace, this level of demon possession was unique to this time. Demonic presence increased in opposition to Jesus. And it explains why we don’t generally see such things today. We see reports of evil perpetrated and have experiences of Satanic attacks. But generally our enemy has a subtler approach. Nonetheless, there are times when he does attack us. And at such times it is good to remember that whether by horrific full frontal assault or sneaky rear guard action, his attacks cannot ultimately succeed. His power is gone because Christ has come. He was shamed by Christ in the wilderness, his armies were put to flight at the Gadarene graveyard and his head was crushed at Gologotha. How glorious those Christmas words sound when we sing.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
[You can currently download Name Above All Names from Amazon.co.uk for £3.02.]
Hallowe’en Trick or Treat
Anglican curate, Glen Scrivener made a video for 10ofthose entitled Halloween: Trick or Treat (H:ToT). It’s really well made and shows off not only Scrivener’s ability with a rhyming couplet but also an impressive ability on his part to walk and talk his way into the doorway of a church without bumping his head.
So before Hallowe’en turns into All Saints Day check out this video.
It occurs to me that this is more than just an explanation of a frightening festival, it is also a great example of how we should interact with people and communities; what we call Christian Apologetics.
So in Film Critic style, let’s go through the video scene by scene and, in deconstructing it, try to see how we can learn to do apologetics better.
1. The Spooky Start 0:00
H:ToT begins with typical Halloween stereotypes; the clang of a church bell sounds, as jerky limbed monsters stumble across a misty moor. Channelling Vincent Price, the narrator appears under what looks like a cowl and begins his Edgar-Allan-Poe-style narration with ominous tone.
2. The Twist 0:27
These aren’t spooky monsters at all! They’re children looking for a bag of sweets and have dressed up to get them. Viewing the scene through the eyes of a (Christian) householder we ask how we should respond to the cry, “Trick or Treat!”
3. The History Lesson 0:50
From home to church and, surprise surprise, there is a sound and solid reason for the festival. Those old Christians from pre Reformation times actually had a good reason for Hallowe’en. As Scrivener puts it,
On the cusp of the customary All Saints Day
The Christian kinsfolk made mocking display.
These children of light both to tease and deride;
Don darkness, doll down as the sinister side.
In preposterous pageants and dress diabolic,
They hand to the damned just one final frolick [sic].
You see with the light of the dawn on the morrow,
The sunrise will swallow such darkness and sorrow.
The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
4. The Gospel 1:23
Here’s the high point and it’s where the apologetics really kicks in. Hallowe’en has an association with the evil and macabre, but in reality will be ‘celebrated’ only by sweet seeking under 7’s. Some respond to this by recoiling at the horror; others respond with relish to the humour. It’s vital to see that neither of these responses is particularly Christian. Those who hold the former view may do so because of a heightened understanding of the demonic but their argument will seem heavy handed or incomprehensible to the pre school child standing on their doorstep dressed as comic book villain- they haven’t understood their context. By contrast the person who declares it all ‘just a bit of fun’ has failed to really think about the symbolism of ghosts and ghouls, darkness and night. Their response is merely pragmatic.
What H:ToT wants to do is reclaim the ghoulish and use Hallowe’en to show that Christ has put evil in its place. Hallowe’en is not a celebration of the power of darkness, it is a declaration that darkness need not be feared. When the Light came, the darkness fled in terror.
5. The Theology 1:45
I’ve watched this five time now and I still get goosebumps as the sun bursts in through the window. I’m guessing Scrivener got them too. The word play in his message is fantastic as he shows in 20 seconds, how Jesus has utterly triumphed, but it is his genuine belief and personal joy that is so enthralling. Apologetics cannot be merely about winning an argument, it has to be about the pleasure of sharing the Gospel in all of its goodness with those willing to listen.
6. The Reality 2:13
We finish back with the kids enjoying their Haribo and Scrivener draws his conclusions. H:ToT isn’t an encouragement to celebrate Hallowe’en. Nor is it an attack against it. There is no demand for everyone to take the same position. Rather, as a good apologetic tool should, it uses Bible, Theology, History and Context and asks viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Finally as the video concludes, notice the ultimate point of apologetics and engaging with the world. Notice, that a scary hood is pulled off the head of a child and he looks, utterly contented, at the messenger delivering good news. The kid trusts the speaker. It’s a great image of what apologetics should be about- sharing good news in such a way that, through the power of God, ugly masks can be removed and children can have peace with their Saviour and His Heavenly Father.
Hallowe’en is a weird occasion. We all have different responses to it. But as it becomes more entrenched in our national consciousness, let’s learn from H:ToT to make it just one more occasion when we take the opportunity to share the good news that is in us.
Can we learn anything from Reverend Poobalan?
The Revd Poobalan has been on my mind a lot lately.
Perhaps you read about him. He’s a minister based in Aberdeen who, one cold snowy morning, saw a group of Muslims queueing to get into their mosque for prayer. His church building was empty at the time and so he invited them in to conduct their worship in the Episcopalian church.
So, for a little while now, I’ve been thinking about what I would do in his position. I’m sure I would want to offer them a warm place to wait but would I, could I invite them to pray to their god?
Well, with a little investigation this story is not quite what it seems. It transpires that this was not a chance incident. There is plenty of ecumenical activity between these two groups and it seems Revd Poobalan is very keen to preach a universalist sort of message encouraging people to believe that all roads lead to heaven, all blind men are washing one elephant and so on and so forth. Change the radio station, turn the page in the newspaper, there’s nothing to see here.
But before we move on perhaps we can learn a couple of things from Revd Poobalan.
First, let’s applaud the man who sees people standing outside in the cold and welcomes them in. In Aberdeen that is probably a common site, but nonetheless he looked, saw a need, and offered help. It would be very uncharitable to criticise him for that.
Second, lets applaud his vision. Revd Poobalan comes from India and has seen religions coexist in the same communities. His vision is to see the coexistence of people in his new home as well. I am not a person who believes all religions are equal. I believe that Jesus Christ is unique in being the Son of God and it is only through relationship with him that we can know the one true living God.
But we should remember that those who do not know Jesus have, by and large not rejected him. They are in darkness having never seen or heard anything about Him. How can we write them off as those who have rejected the saviour? In fact what they may well have done is reject Jesus representatives. In the case of Muslims particularly, Christianity is sometimes synonymous with a history of violence and Western politics. For Christians with a heart for mission, one of the few tools we have at our disposal to repudiate that belief is kindness. Kindness disarms the most cynical and hard hearted person and Revd Poobalan exhibited it in abundance.
Now I may be wrong on this and I imagine this article may generate a bit of heat. Maybe you don’t agree with me and that’s fine, I’m not 100% I agree with myself either.
But, in the end what happened in Aberdeen was that a man saw other men and women and offered them warmth and shelter and a place to practice what was important to them. You might argue that he is not a Christian, given that he is so universal in his view of salvation, but if he is not, it only makes his actions all the more challenging.
Because Jesus command to us is to love the enemy, clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Glasses of water are to be given to the thirsty and coats are to be taken off and passed to those in need. Indeed when an enemy strikes us we are to turn a cheek to them rather than clench a fist.
Finally let’s pray that we might be given tough decisions like this to make. Because if we want to see men and women from every creed and culture coming to know their Creator and his Son we are going to have to get among them, love them and serve them. And that will inevitably lead to mistakes and compromises.
I believe God can cope with that. Can you?
When Preachers Boom
If you follow me on Twitter (@punditsfolly) or Facebook you will know that recently I was part of a Côr Cymraeg that won first prize in a local Eisteddfod.
If you’ve sung in a choir or perhaps a Gymanfa Ganu you will know it is a strange sensation learning to sing in a group. In a congregation there is freedom to do whatever you like as long as you’re not too self conscious but learning to sing a particular part is more difficult especially if you’re doing it with people you know. Our choir was made up of people from Ty Tawe where I’ve been learning Welsh for the past year. The people I was singing with knew me and so I felt the pressure of singing well and not accidentally deviating from the music.
To help me learn the part (it was the tenor line of Calon Lân) I recorded someone else singing it correctly and then sang along when I listened back. I still needed the confidence to sing in front of my peers though. That meant meeting every week for practice. Even then I was not truly confident. The temptation was to mime or sing quietly or maybe mimic the voice I had learnt from. But none of those would have brought a successful outcome. I needed to find my pitch and my range.
I needed to find my voice.
That process of learning the correct part, developing the confidence to sing in front of people and then belting it out reminds me of preaching.
Most men called to ministry want to learn the basics of the faith. They realise that on a soapbox in a public square they can say anything they like, but in a church, having received the trust of a congregation and believing they are called by God, they are restricted to preaching the Truth of God. It is just basic integrity.
To do that effectively a man will enrol on a training scheme or in a theological college and sit under the teaching of men he trusts. While there he will also practice his preaching. He will preach in front of his peers (and endure the often humbling experience of a peer review) and he will preach outside college in local churches to gain the confidence he needs to speak in public.
All of this is good. However there is one more thing to find. It is something we have perhaps failed to encourage in churches and in theological training. The minister needs to find his voice.
Let me give you an example to show what I mean. I was listening recently to a young preacher. I had heard him when he was a young apprentice and now a couple of years on I listened again. The difference was imperceptible at first but then came a moment when he wanted to emphasise something vital. To do it he used the word “Boom!”
Boom is used to describe a profound action done at a critical moment.
Boom is this centuries version of “When the rubber hits the road”
Boom is a young persons word.
And here “Boom” illustrated the the young minister had found his voice.
I don’t suppose he realised. He was taken up with the text and the message and the experience of preaching. And that is exactly the point. Where once he, inevitably and probably unwittingly, mimiced those ministers and teachers he admired, now he was confident not only in himself but more importantly in his message, to speak freely. He had found his voice.
If you’re a minister or a lay preacher there are lots of constraints on you. Time is one. People expect a sermon to fit a particular time and maybe you stretch the material to fill the time. Methods are another. Some people want themes others expect text by text analysis. Then there are those words of advice you received when you started out. Words given to mould you to a certain style which now feel like a strait jacket upon you. Ultimately people want you to have a voice with which they are familiar.
But look in the Bible and you will see that God’s prophets were all different. One was not cloned from another nor did they mimic what had gone before. They all needed to find their own voice if they were going to be authentic and therefore faithful. You need to be the same.
And to you who ‘merely’ attend church on a Sunday. May I respectfully ask you give your preachers space to experiment and try new things. If a sermon is shorter than normal use the extra time to think over what was said rather than comment on what wasn’t. Different language, new approach, fresh theme? Give him room to attempt something different, it may be he’s trying to find his voice.
And you know what you’ll say when he finds it? “Boom!”
To Harvard Business School;
"For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sport.”
Worth knowing for the next time you preach Matthew 25