Christmas Wishes

22 12 2007

I was listening to ‘The Jeremy Vine’ show on Radio 2 yesterday when he played ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the American satirist, Tom Lehrer. It was written in 1959, and although a little cynical does sum up some of what’s worst about this season of the year. Here’s the first two verses:

Christmas time is here, by golly,
Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with hunks of holly,
Fill the cup and don’t say “when.”
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens,
Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens,
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

On Christmas Day you can’t get sore,
Your fellow man you must adore,
There’s time to rob him all the more
The other three hundred and sixty-four.

In spite of all the glitz, glam, excess and enforced gaity of this Christmas season, my prayer for you as readers of this blog is that you might know God’s peace and grace at this time of year; that you might grasp the Truth behind the trappings – Christ has come, He has been born of a virgin, He has died as our substitute on Calvary, and has risen from the dead. He is mighty, and He is able to save all who come to Him by faith and repentance. Now that truly is something worth trusting, and something worth celebrating.

May God bless you over this period. After a short Christmas break from blogging I’ll be back with some more posts and ponderings. Thanks to those of you have read this blog faithfully throughout the past year and Merry Christmas to you!!!


The Perfect Gift for a Catholic Friend

21 12 2007

I’ve just finished reading Ray Galea’s book Nothing in My Hand I Bring. It truly is an excellent little volume, which would make a very thoughtful and beneficial gift to Roman Catholic friends.

Galea writes as something of an insider. He was brought up in a Maltese Catholic family in Australia, and had a happy upbringing. His is no spectacular story of hard hearted Catholicism or abusive priests, but one of a good childhood in a community of love and openness. However, at university Galea came into contact with the Gospel and came to saving faith in Christ alone. This left him with a problem: could he continue within the Catholic church as an evangelical believer, or would he have to face the painful process of leaving the Church in which he had been brought up? This led him to analyse the differences between his upbringing and the Truth of the Gospel to which he had come. Those meditations are set out in this book, and they make for thrilling reading.

Galea assesses the variety of Catholic belief across the world, before laying out the reasons why he had to leave the Church of his upbringing once its teaching had been held up to the light. He achieves this by looking at ‘Christ and the Mass’, ‘The Bible and the Church’, ‘The Way of Salvation’, ‘Grace’, and ‘Mary’. Each of these themes forms a chapter, and they are penetrating to read. Galea pulls no punches in his assessment of the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time maintains a respectful, loving tone in his writing.

As someone who grew up within evangelicalism in Northern Ireland I would often hear it said from pulpits and amongst people that they hated Catholicism, but loved Catholics. As a child I was confused by this statement, as it seemed clear to me from some of the invective that was used about ‘the other side’ of the community that the love and hate ratios were out of kilter. In reality I was brought up in a situation where the communities were polarised, and where there was mutual suspicion and antagonism. The model for ‘love Catholics, hate Catholicism’ that I witnessed in those days didn’t work – and was, in its worst extreme, expressed through some of the dreadful deeds and statements which have made the Province of Northern Ireland notorious.

For me, Galea does actually manage to achieve this balance. He will not draw back from stating where, and how badly, Rome is in error; but never once does this come across as being vitriolic, resentful, or sectarian. For this reason I value the book highly, both as a means of educating evangelical believers about the teachings of the Catholic church, and as a means of reaching the hearts and minds of those who come from a Roman Catholic background.

A sample from two sections of the book will show the balance that Galea achieves:

‘The truth is, I find it hard to remain cool about Catholicism, because as a newly converted Christ-follower looking hard at my Catholic heritage, I kept running up against painful but unavoidable contradictions. At almost every point where Catholicism taught something distinctive, the effect of the teaching was to undermine the person and work of the Christ I had come to love, and wanted to honour and serve.
This upset and disturbed me. It still does’

‘One thing I’m hoping that this book hasn’t done is inspire you to corner unsuspecting Catholics and beat them around the head with your new-found insights into Catholic theology. It does us good to remember that, like Paul, we preach Christ crucified and not some anti-Catholic message. This won’t mean that these issues shouldn’t be explored – there will be a right time and place for doing just that. But if we are going to argue for “grace alone”, we should speak with grace alone as well – that is, with gentleness, respect and love’

I heartily recommend this book to all, and particularly to those within the Roman Catholic faith who have questions about the differences between what they believe and evangelical Christianity. If you fit into this category, and are living within Ireland or the UK, please send me an email via the address in my sidebar and I’ll send you a copy free of charge, and with no obligations.

The Timmy Brister Challenge

19 12 2007

I love the works of the Puritans, and am trying to gradually build up my knowledge of their writings. Over at his blog, Timmy Brister has issued a challenge and invitation to read a different Puritan paperback each month throughout 2008. I for one am signing myself up, and would love to hear from anyone else who plans to as well.

Timmy’s post on this challenge, and the list of books can be found here.

Bah Humbug! C.S. Lewis Style

17 12 2007

Ben Witherington has an excellent compilation of quotes from C.S. Lewis on the topic of Christmas. You can read them here.

Living with a Lion

15 12 2007

As Christians we don’t tend to talk much about doubt. There are probably many good reasons for this, but often it can leave those who struggle with this dreadful problem in isolation and despair. With regard to depression, Winston Churchill once famously said that it was as though he lived his life with a black dog following him. Living with doubt is a little more like being stalked by a lion (1Peter 5:8).

I write this post as one who has lived with the problem of doubt on more than one occasion in my life. For me there have been two kinds to wrestle with: that of doubting my faith in general, and that of doubting that I truly belong to God. Both are a wretched state of affairs. For those who have never encountered these problems it is difficult to describe the effects of doubt. It is an all consuming issue, which might arise with no apparent reason. For me it has rarely been the playground polemics of devils like Dawkins which have brought me down, but more the erosive effects of living as a believer in this world. It has rarely been a condition that I have been reasoned into, and even more rarely can I be reasoned out of it. Doubt affects everything. It wastes worship into a shrivelled shell of formality; it renders meaningful relationships with other believers redundant; it smudges the words of Scripture in the mind and heart and shakes the foundations of one’s whole interpretative take on the world. I could write more, but no amount of vocabulary can portray how doubt dampens the heart and soul.

I don’t often write personal posts on this blog, but I have good reason for putting this one online. You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that other people wrestle with this lion every bit as much as I have done in the past. From my pastoral experience I know that there are countless Christians who at one time or another find themselves floundering, wondering what they believe, or if they are truly accepted by God. I want this post to simply say: you are not alone, and there are ways of dealing with doubt which limit its destructive effects.

At one time in my life I couldn’t sense or see the prowling lion of doubt until he had declared himself with roar and show of teeth. I was off-guard and unsuspecting, and found myself quickly pinned to the ground in fear and anguish. Such attacks of doubt seemed sudden, symptomless, and took weeks (if not months) to recover from. I would go along joylessly, enduring the motions of Christian living and ministry, trusting that soon the lion would leave me alone. It was a horrible feeling to fall victim to such a ferocious enemy.

Over the past few years, however, I’ve become a little more proficient in catching the lion’s scent, and fending him off before jaws and claws are all that I can see. I’ve learned to recognise that he has certain behaviour patterns which, while powerful, are entirely predictable. He likes to attack when I am weary: when I’ve been busy and active in ministry and work, or when my sleep patterns have been disturbed. He will often use distraction, perhaps waiting in the long grass of wandering thoughts, or else he keeps himself in the cover of legitimate enjoyment of media and secular arts, waiting for just the right moment to make himself known. The most common characteristic of his attacks are that he often waits until I’m isolated (shunning fellowship with others) or not listening to the Lord as I ought(when reading the Word becomes a routine) and then pounces with deadly force and timing. All of this is merely personal – he may attack you at differing times, or in different ways.

What can be done against such an enemy? My strategies are simple, and yet in God’s grace have been effective in keeping me from major maulings:

1. Catch the scent early:
this has been a process of recognising the very first symptoms of the lion’s approach. This means living with a consciousness that doubt and difficulty could be around the next corner and asking that 1Timothy 1:7 might be my testimony. The lion never sleeps, and it is worthwhile everyday to make doubt one of the temptations which we ask the Lord to protect us from in our prayers.

2. Rest and regroup: I’ve noticed a connection between tiredness and trials of this kind. When I deprive myself of sleep or rest (even in the the work of ministry) the lion is sure to be on the prowl.

3. Read ’em and reap: human remedies for doubt can have a limited effect, but I find there is no replacement for God’s Word and good reading. Talking to some friends might make them doubt us, or even worse doubt God or their own salvation. Talking to other more stable friends (or our minister) can be hugely beneficial in getting things off our chest, and out in the open. But there are a number of books which I keep in the gun cabinet for when I catch the scent of lion. A Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and a few others are kept constantly on standby.

4. Avoid lion territory: there may be certain programmes, newspapers, books, or forms of music which indulge doubtful feelings. These can leave us wide open to the pain of this problem, and ought to be studiously avoided. There is a whole world waiting with open jaws, hoping and trusting that we might teeter between its teeth – there is no point in making oneself into spiritual bait!

I don’t know whether any of the above resonates or is of benefit to anyone else, but I thought I’d share some of my thoughts in the hope and prayer that those who are dealing with doubt might find some fellowship and help at their own point of darkness. The lion is strong but he is not supreme. He cannot be cornered or caught, but he can be kept at arms length.

POSTSCRIPT: it must be the week for blogging about doubt. Libbie has an interesting post on the same theme over at her blog. Click here to have a read.

Birthday and Deathday

12 12 2007

I recently turned 30, and so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about time, age, and the purpose of life. I had thought that I might post something last month on the day of my birthday, but decided against it at the last. The following post by Noel Piper (wife of Pastor John) says so much more than I could have about the days that God has given us.The words ‘From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny‘ spring to mind. Read the article here.

The Antioch Factor Pt.2: Farewell Pastor Paul

10 12 2007

They were two church leaders you couldn’t afford to lose…

One was a natural born pastor, an individual so given to the encouragement of other Christians that no one bothered to call him by his proper name – preferring instead to nickname him Mr Encouragement. He had a pretty impressive CV: effective small group work in a fledgling church, vital consilidation ministry in an interface area, one to one discipleship with difficult new disciples, and a reputation for generosity which would have turned any financial advisor a little green around the gills.

His companion’s background was no less impressive. He came from a city of culture and had studied in the very nerve centre of academic prowess in his given discipline (his supervisor was a household name in intellectual circles). He had an exciting testimony, with one of those ‘road to Damascus’ stories which stirred its hearers to the recesses of their souls. He brought to his ministry a profound grasp of biblical theology, hermeneutics, and pastoralia. He had also proven himself to be reliable with finance and demonstrated a level of personal accountability that was formidable.

Both of these men had settled in the same church, and had been co-opted on to the leadership team. They were bound to have brought stablility, humility, and vitality to the young church which they were leading, and been indispensable staff members and mentors for the Christians there. Now, unexpectedly, and some might even say tragically, they were moving on, moving out. These two leaders had received a ‘call’ away from local church ministry to ‘the mission field’. The remarkable thing was not that they had been called, nor that they were following obediently, but that their church was delighted with their decision, and sent them out with their full blessing. Little did the fellowship of God’s people know that they were unleashing a mighty ministry force upon the world; one which would be instrumental in seeing the Gospel advance right around the world, and whose influence would be felt millennia later.

The church was Antioch and the workers (surprise, surprise) were Barnabas and Saul. It is easy to read Acts 13 without grasping the pain and price attached to these two men being sent to serve in other lands. It is easy to imagine that their circumstances were different or less difficult than those of the contemporary church, or that this portion of Scripture cannot be directly applied to our own situation in the twenty-first century. This is what we always tend to do when the book of Acts gets a little uncomfortable…

But the truth is that the church in this area in New Testament times has set a sterling example for those fellowships which have followed in history. They epitomise (and gave birth to) the ‘Antioch Factor’ that I am propounding in this short series – that is a willingness to release local workers for global ministry, even when this hurts the ‘home church’ situation. They have proven to posterity that release can sometimes be right in ministry terms, and that the effectiveness of local ministry can be magnified by global generosity.

A number of features define this Antioch Factor. One is sensitivity. Acts 13:1-3 is a deeply moving passage. Here we see a local church (either in leadership or congregational terms) worshipping the Lord. Their seeking of the Lord is characterised by deep earnestness as they corporately covenant to fast, looking in faith to their Lord. In the midst of this meeting a voice is heard. It is not the voice of man or of committee; it is not the articulation of a wider world policy. The Holy Spirit Himself is speaking. His word is clear, concise, and costly: ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’. The Holy Spirit has called these men, and now He is calling the fellowship in Antioch to confirm that calling, and set these men apart. The church is sensitive enough to hear the Holy Spirit, and not to crowd out His counsel and command*.

The Antioch Factor is also marked out by selflessness. Here are two of the church’s most vital workers, and they are willing to send them out to work around the world, without any seeming hesitation. V3 is so rich. They don’t hastily paste together a response to the Spirit’s words; rather they fast and pray a little more, and then simply lay their hands on these men and send them out. V4 demonstrates the import of what has taken place in this simple act of sending: ‘so being sent out by the HOLY SPIRIT’. Here is the local church in step with the Holy Spirit for the spread of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

As we look at the Antioch Factor in action in the next number of posts in this series, it will be clear that what happens in Acts 13 powerfully adumbrates the actions of countless other churches throughout the centuries, right down to our present day; fellowships who have freely sent their pastors and key workers with heavy but willing hearts. These are groups of God’s people who have sensitively and selflessly made men and women available for cross-cultural ministry, when the easier, happier option would have been to have kept them ‘at home’ for the benefit of local ministry. Bound up in all of this are the biographies of those who were willing to be sent, to suffer severance from the comfortable and familiar for the furtherance of God’s kingdom.

We will see that all of the individuals to be surveyed in coming months were the kinds of local church leaders that congregations could not afford to lose in human terms, but whom they could not afford to keep in spiritual terms; people whom the Holy Spirit had set apart to serve on different continents, in different cultures and countries, for the honour of Christ.

*We have been richly blessed to belong to an ‘Antioch Factor’ church. Armagh Baptist have embodied all of the sensitive and selfless attitudes that I am highlighting here, and we praise God for them.