Of Frogs, Water and European Persecution

17 07 2009

Living in another culture for any extended period is a strange experience. For me it has been a process of both being dulled and sharpened in terms of my perception of home. The dulling process has more to do with issues of visuality and sense – for instance I get surprised when I look at photos of home by just how green it all is. There is a slight tendency to forget the dimensions and essence of Ireland and the UK.

However, the sharpening process is what I’m more interested in for the sake of this post. Someone has quite astutely likened being in a culture to a frog in hot water. Supposedly if you place a frog in a pan and slowly boil the water around, it will not perceive the change until it is too late. If, however, you wait to place the frog in the pan until the water is boiling then it will notice very quickly and hop out! I feel like I’ve been out of the UK/Ireland pan for a while, and when I’m in touch with the seething waters of its religious/spiritual culture I feel the burn a little more keenly than when I lived in Ireland.

An example of this is the moral deterioration of law and culture in the UK. I praise God for The Christian Institute and the stirling work they do in terms of Christian advocacy. I receive a weekly prayer email from them, highlighting news stories of concern to Christians. This weeks reads like a tragically escalating barometer of what is happening in the UK. The headlines, centre around sex education in the UK encouraging more activity for teenagers, the steady stifling encroachment of ‘equality’ laws, the BBC’s pondering of whether ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio 4 should also include secular and humanist contributions, and an MP’s call to let Westminster dictate abortion laws for Northern Ireland.

The anti-Christian ball which began to roll in the UK generations ago is gathering momentum, and as I watch its slowly invasive trajectory into the arena of faith, practice and liberty of speech, from an ‘outsider’s’ perspective it looks as though persecution is not far away.

I write this from Peru, where the culture is utterly different. While this country and its evangelical church has much that it must address in terms of morality, integrity and witness, the issues affecting Britain, Ireland and Europe are not current here…yet. Postmodernism is present here, but more like a live culture in a lab than a pervasive influence on how people think (although that will be for a limited time only). God is still assumed as a reality by most people, and one is very free to share Christ with much less fear of opposition.

No doubt the clouds are gathering in Western Europe, and this will be both bad and good for the church. Bad in a material sense, in that the water in which evangelical witness has been slowly marinating will suddenly feel unbearably hot in the not too distant future. But it will also be good in terms of making the Church, and individual Christians come to terms with the fact that their faith is profoundly counter-cultural, and that it requires the virtues of honesty, integrity, courage and conviction.

And so I watch the UK and Ireland in a fast forward rush to moral and spiritual oblivion. How interesting it will be to watch the Church’s response from a distance, and to pray that the spiritual realism and resolve required for this hour might be found and exercised.


Humanism and Deathless Hope

28 11 2008

Last week we spent four days in Edinburgh, along with Carolyn’s Mum and Dad. It was a really refreshing break from box packing and deputation, and we have come home feeling refreshed and rested. I hope to post a couple of things from our time there (not least from Edinburgh’s rich repository of evangelical history) but one particular part of our visit captured my imagination.

In walking around Edinburgh Castle we entered the Scottish National War Memorial. More details can be found about this building here, but it was a moving experience to walk through the hushed halls of remembrance reflecting on those who had given their lives in bitter conflicts ranging across continents, decades, and now centuries.

One of the guides, named Paul, was fascinating to talk to. Born into a family with enduring military connections, Paul took the root of training to be a welder, before taking a temporary job at the memorial, which opened out into permanent employment. He is now studying part time for a history degree, and demonstrated a knowledge, passion and pride in his national history which was enriching. I enjoyed a terrific chat with him, ranging from the history of the building, to the hugely beneficial impact of Calvinism on world history…

One feature of the memorial which moved and intrigued me was a stained glass window within one of the chambers. It depicts a horseman (perhaps one of Revelation’s Four Horsemen), upon whose cape is emblazoned what appears to be a swastika! Incongruous as such a symbol might be in such hallowed halls there is a bitterly ironic background to this depiction. The Memorial was built in 1927 following the horror and terrible loss of life which World War I had represented for a generation. Amidst the aftermath there was a deeply harboured hope that this really had been the war to end all wars, and that such bloodshed and carnage would never be witnessed again. And this is where the swastika comes in…

Prior to World War II this motif was symbolic of hope rather than hatred, of an auspicious view of the future, rather than a aggressive extermination of other nations and races. The symbol, probably of Hindu origins, was meant to symbolise the possibility that human nature could prevail and ultimately find peace. The builders of the Scottish War Memorial included the ‘swastika’ in their structure as a means of expressing their sanguine perspective on how history would pan out in the wake of World War I. A few short years later Hitler and the Third Reich appropriated the symbol, and the rest is dreadful history.

As I stood looking at this feature it struck me that this is a powerful metaphor for the humanistic view of history. Believing ourselves to be capable of overcoming our faults and failures we assert our belief that mankind is moving forward, moving away from its savage roots, and advancing to a new day. In actual fact the very words we use to express such hopes return to mock us, and show us the insurgent depravity of our own hearts, minds, and wills. We are more profoundly vacuous in moral terms than we can possibly conceive.

Such sentiments did not die in 1927, nor in 1945, nor on September 11th 2001, but live with us today. Coming home tonight I listened to a live concert from London, as Keane’s new track ‘Perfect Symetry’ echoed around the O2 arena, and across the ether via Radio 2. Lead singer Tom Chaplin announced at the beginning of the piece that it is the best song they have written as a band, as it encourages us all to live in peace and love. The refrain of ‘Perfect Symetry’ is that we should leave behind all firmly held belief, all divisive doctrine, all thought of heaven or hell, and live lives which express harmony and help to all around us – apparently we live in ‘perfect symetry, what I do to others will be done to me’.

Somehow I doubt that anyone is singing along in Mumbai tonight…

ESV Study Bible: Why not?

26 11 2008

Last month the ESV Study Bible was published amidst widespread acclaim and euphoria. The combination of a modern formal equivalence translation and the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer in terms of notes and introductions has proven a winning formula – with the first 100,000 copies selling like proverbial hot cakes. So great is the interest in the release of this Bible version that certain bloggers have even posted photographs of them opening their new arrival!

Given all of the popular rush and flurry around the ESV it might come as a surprise that I’ve opted not to make a purchase. I thought that I’d share some of my reasons here, both as a means of raising discussion about study Bibles generally, and the ESV Study Bible more specifically. I’ve grouped them into two categories:

1. Personal Reasons
A Surplus of Bibles
At the moment we’re packing our home and life into cardboard boxes in anticipation of leaving for Peru. This has served to focus the mind and to distil a number of priorities. One of the really challenging things is a box marked ‘Bibles’ which is currently hiding under our study desk. These are editions of God’s Word which we have been blessed through in the past, and that we can’t bear to part with for a variety of sentimental reasons. (This is not even to mention the bag of other Bibles now going to the charity shop as well!)
Then there are the study Bibles! My brother and sister-in-law bought me a copy of the MacArthur Study Bible when I commenced my ministry in Armagh in 2002, and in this past year my father-in-law bought me an NIV Study Bible. Both of these are wonderful resources, and provide insights from differing perspectives on God’s Word.
In the light of all of these, buying another Bible represents a major decision which at present I can’t justify.

An Excess in Size
Everything is viewed by us with an eye to weight at the moment. Will it fit in a box? Will it add to our payload of goods being transported in January? The ESV Study Bible is simply ENORMOUS. This is not a problem if you’re keeping it on your coffee table or study desk, but for our needs it’s just a bit too big.

A Lack of Self-Discipline
Recently I’ve moved away from using a study Bible as my main Bible for daily readings. The reason is that my eye is too often tempted to the notes while I’m working my way through a passage, making it all too easy to accept the author’s ideas about the meaning of a difficult section, rather than taking the time to meditate, dig in, and find out for myself what the passage is saying. Such a temptation is basically inherent in the concept of a study Bible, and it takes a disciplined mind indeed to resist it. I now keep my study Bibles near at hand so that I can read through them at my leisure, at a time separate from my devotions. For an excellent post on this issue please see here.

2. Doctrinal Reasons
All of the foregoing is merely personal preference, and can (and perhaps should) be written off as such, but the doctrinal issues I have with regard to the ESV Study Bible are arguably more serious. It is incumbent on me to preface what I say here with a balancing statement: much if not most of what is located in the notes of this Bible will be of tremendous benefit to the reader and will deepen their love for God and faith in Him. In other words, I’m not writing the ESV Study Bible off completely. That being said, however, I still harbour a few concerns.

As bloggers began to receive their copy of the Bible in the post I read their reviews and initial responses with great interest. No-one can possibly give an exhaustive account of the ESV Study Bible’s benefits and drawbacks, given the quantity of time required to work through the biblical text and notes, but a couple of unsettling observations have been made about its Genesis sections. A sample can be read here. Among difficulties being identified are the lack of affirmation of six literal days of Creation, and the favouring of the flood of Noah’s day being a local rather than a global event.

The problems inherent in these positions are obvious. I’m aware that there is a division of opinion among evangelicals about how best to reads Genesis 1-2, and what is meant by the six days. I’m a literal six day Creationist and can see no warrant for moving away from that position in favour of a supposedly scientific position, but I can live with the differences which arise in interpretation in this regard. The issue of local or global for the Flood casts a much longer shadow across how one reads the remainder of the Genesis account, and the entirety of Scripture. Having gone through the notes in the ESV Study Bible on this whilst browsing in a Christian bookshop I was surprised to find that the reason for positing a local Flood are explained by the more ‘limited’ view that ancient people had of what constituted the whole world.

At best this teaching is partisan, at worst it is thoroughly unbiblical. In denying the global nature of the Flood are we not in danger of discrediting the statements made in 2Peter 3:5-7, where a universal flood is shown as proof positive of God’s impending judgement on all ungodliness? How do we account for the specificity of the narrative of Genesis 7, in which we are told that ‘the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered'(7:19)? Questioning this seems to place scientific concerns above those of plain biblical scholarship.

This is not to say that the ESV Study Bible is to be written off, or that it will not richly bless many who use it. But the problem with assertions like these in the notes is that many who read this Bible will not perhaps use a wealth of commentaries, or have the resources to balance the opinions given in it with that of other biblical scholars.

It seems a shame that what appears to be an excellent resource for Bible Study is somewhat sullied by such a controversial perspective in Genesis.

Abortion: Horrified by the Unfairness?

20 10 2008

Abortion is one of the only moral issues within our society to which the terms horrific and unfair can be simultanaeously applied without fear of exaggeration. On last night’s Westminster Hour on Radio 4 Labour MP Emily Thornberry used precisely these terms in relation to a bill which is of deep concern to evangelical Christians (and a host of others) in Northern Ireland at present. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill being debated in Parliament in this incoming week threatens to extend the act of abortion to Northern Ireland, thus breaking 30 years of immunity from the on-demand infanticide of the Mainland. The fact that the majority of campaigning on the issue within Northern Ireland is being undertaken by those outside of the Province is a particularly hard pill to swallow, in a distastefully immoral movement.

What was fascinating about Thornberry’s comments were that they were made in a pro-choice context, rather than that of pro-life discourse. She stated that most voters are horrified that women in Northern Ireland cannot have an abortion in their own country, and that it is simply unfair that the 1500 women who travelled to England for the procedure in 2007 had to pay for it privately.

The outrage expressed in such a statement is a good barometer of where Britain is in moral terms. How horrific that the extermination of children is not a convenient option for women in Northern Ireland, and how unfair that they should have to pay for destroying life – shouldn’t that fall to taxpayer after all…

The assertions of the pro-choice lobby are repugnant at the best of times, but for me as a new father they are tinged with darkness. Our daughter was born on 21st August after nine months of hope, prayer and expectation. We followed her physical development from her 10 week scan onwards, marvelling at each grainy black and white glimpse we gained of her. Arm buds became arms, the rib cage could be seen, her head and face became more visible at each appointment, and the little splashing heartbeat eventually made its way to our ears via a doppler scan. She rests in our home tonight, a miracle of God’s grace and creative power, and we praise His name for her. I have learned to love what pro-choice advocates see as a conglomeration of cells which ought to be at the mercy of a mother’s whim and a doctor’s signature, and have witnessed the ingenuity of how life is formed at first hand.

No one can tell me that on-demand abortion is ever right – and this does not merely spring from an over inflated paternal instinct. Scripture speaks with consistency and authority on the sanctity of human life (Exodus 20) and the humanity of unborn life (Psalm 139; Jeremiah 1). Abortion is the scourge of our national conscience, a horror beyond words, murder of the most helpless and voiceless. If we are to be horrified at unfairness, let it be reserved for those whose cries will never break the guilty silence of nation adrift from God, from morality, and from ethical common sense. Not for those who cannot access services which ought not to be available within the UK at all.

Please pray against the Bill being extended to Northern Ireland this week, and for groups such as The Christian Institute who are seeking to bring a reasoned evangelical voice to a debate evacuated of moral fibre. Pray that the debate on Northern Ireland will not see the light of day in Parliament, so that thousands of children might see the light of day in the future. How we need God to move in our nation, to bring us back to Himself, and to the dignifying principles about humanity which His Word contains.

Quiet Victory

28 07 2008

Over the past few months I’ve revived an interest in cycling – a hobby which had lain in the dust since my teenage years. The Newry/South Armagh cycle last month proved a good impetus to get on my bike again, and I’ve been sticking at it since. I’ve rediscovered the pure enjoyment of riding alone through beautiful countryside and the fulfillment of physical challenge. How long this new interest will last, I don’t know – but it is proving a great way of blowing off the cobwebs amidst the smog of Thesisville.

My renewed interest in two-wheeled life has coincided nicely with the Tour de France, although in not having digital TV I’ve been relying on Teletext and the BBC News Website. Yesterday Spaniard Carlos Sastre won the event, grasping victory through some scorching mountain stages, and a superb time trial on Saturday. In a sport which has been plagued by scandals over doping, and big egos, it is refreshing to read his sentiments in the wake of winning one of the most gruelling tournaments on earth – a 2000 mile ride across physically ruinous terrain. In the run up to the event I read an assessment of Sastre which said ‘he could well end up working as a top domestique for the Schlecks’, minimizing his chances of victory entirely.

In a world which is absorbed with the narcissistic cult of celebrity and social advancement it is wonderful to read about a sportsman who is understated, and who wants achievement and media attention to be focused solely on his sporting victories. His words on BBC news today were touching in their self-effacing honesty:

“I like to come to the fore on the bike and not in front of the cameras…but my life is not going to be turned upside down because I have won the world’s biggest race. I have always wanted to protect my family as much as possible. I have never liked to expose them. This victory is the most amazing page of my life but I will exchange no victory in the world for the tranquillity of my family.”


25 06 2008

John Simpson has a very interesting article on the BBC News Website, relating to Robert Mugabe’s ability to cling to power in Zimbabwe. For my part I think Simpson is too hard on Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition, given the dreadful inhumanity to which they have been exposed in recent days. Of chief interest, however, is the way in which the article describes Mugabe’s continued stay in office:

“His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been completely outmanoeuvred. The outside world, which mostly sympathises with him, can do nothing whatever to help him…It all adds up to a remarkable sweeping victory for a man who only three months ago seemed to be on the ropes. The moral is clear: never underestimate Robert Mugabe’s ferocious determination to stay in power, nor the ability of his political opponents to destroy their own case”.

How disappointing this turn of events must be for Zimbabweans, and particularly for the MDC, and how unassailable Mugabe’s position appears to be at present.

Just after reading Simpson’s sentiments, however, I turned to Scripture and to Spurgeon’s comments on Psalm 75:1-5. There a different picture is painted of power, one which holds God at the centre, and not men like Mugabe with their malice and manipulation. Spurgeon writes of God’s Sovereignty in exultant terms:

“Even now he is actually judging. His seat is not vacant: his authority is not abdicated; the Lord reigns evermore. Empires rise and fall at his bidding. A dungeon here, and there a throne, his will assigns. Assyria yields to Babylon, and Babylon to the Medes. Kings are but puppets in his hand; they serve his purpose when they rise and when they fall. God only is; all power belongs to him; all else is shadow, coming and going, unsubstantial, misty, dreamlike.”

I much prefer Spurgeon over Simpson, sovereignty over the schemes of man, God’s righteous providence rather than man’s random posturing. Even though chaos, financial freefall, and electoral farce appear to characterise Zimbabwe at present, God is still on the throne, achieving His purposes and storing judgement for those pretending to a power and authority which bear no accountability to Him.

Blessings from the Blackbirds

23 06 2008

Over the past weeks and months we have enjoyed applying Jesus’ injunction to ‘consider the birds of the air’. A while ago I was in our kitchen and noticed a female blackbird building a nest in our clematis at the back fence. This spurred weeks of watching as she incubated the eggs, and as the male and female fed their young scaldies in the nest. Last week we caught our first sight of the fledglings, and tracked their progress through them being fed by their parents in the shelter of the garden, until their final departure. It has been a special privilege.

As we have watched this wildlife journey unfold a number of spiritual lessons from these garden residents have emerged:

1. The importance of shelter: our clematis was a fairly unlikely and pretty inhospitable place to build a nest, but the female bird made it her home – content with even the roar of passing traffic and construction workers right behind where she was dwelling. What a lesson for us as we contemplate moving away from the place and the people which we count as home. God provided shelter for these birds in a location that to the human eye looked precarious, but provided protection and comfort. We don’t know at the moment where we will live in the city of Arequipa whilst engaged in language study, nor where we will live after that. This is compounded by thinking about our little one, and the importance of security and stability for them (God willing). Our God has gone ahead of us, and knows exactly where we will dwell – regardless of geography, we know that it will be in the shadow of the Almighty…

2. The unfailing provision of God:
no sign of sowing, reaping, or gathering into barns, but these blackbirds were fed abundantly day by day. It was glorious to see both birds return to their nest time and again with beaks full of grubs, so that their scaldies could have bellies full of grub. The provision didn’t fail, and even the rainfall brought worms to the surface of the soil – all sent by God. We have already proven this truth for ourselves. We have been living by faith during this year, and not once has God’s supply run dry. What a blessing that our ‘heavenly Father knows’.

3. The investment of life in God’s providence:
the adult birds, incubated, protected, and fed their young. Their concern was visible by the fact that the male bird resolutely refused to enter the nest while I sat in the garden – regardless of how long I waited, or how still I remained. The time came, however, for the birds to fledge, which meant that there was nothing for it but to leave the birds while food was sought for them. The providence of God kept them, and for all we know the providence of God may have allowed some of them to perish – but the birds had to simply leave matters to Him. How we need grace to do the same. Sometimes we get a controlling perspective on life, and want to work out how the future will pan out – all we can do is live the path He has for us, and leave the details and outcomes to Him.

4. The realisation of life’s passing seasons: nesting, incubating, hatching, feeding, fledging, all in a short period of weeks. A journey into life which in human terms seems so brief. And yet we are no different, we only have this one life, the journey is half spent before we come to appreciate its worth. What an encouragement to live every moment in the conscious presence of God, seeking to make our actions and attitudes count for Him.

We’re so privileged to have witnessed the lives of these beautiful birds, and we’re blessed to have been stirred by them to consider the goodness of our great God.