Meditations on M’Cheyne 2

27 07 2009

World Leader Eaten by Worms – Acts 12 (25th July)
Acts 12 is big picture teaching on the part of Luke, but as is so often the case we have a tendency to domesticate the application of Scripture. Many times when this passage is expounded the focus is on the prayer meeting for Peter that is mentioned in 12:5. It truly is wonderful that when God’s people prayed things turned around for the Apostle and it is astonishing that they were so flabbergasted by the fact that God answered (12:15-16). This does reflect our own unbelief in prayer, and it should serve as a rebuke to our lack of faith. But if I might be permitted to say so, this isn’t the main thing in chapter 12.

To simply draw this application and move on is something akin to spending all our time admiring an envelope, without realising that if we opened it there is a cheque contained within which would settle all of our financial worries for life! The context of the chapter is the church, but this is not all that Luke is seeking to show by writing of Peter in prison. This chapter is about persecution, about power, and about an omnipotent God whose hand moves history, whose power is unsearchable, and whose church will ultimately prevail – despite appearances.

Verses 1-5 introduce Herod, who is hounding the church and putting believers to death. The power described here is seemingly unassailable. With ‘violent hands’ James is captured along with some others ‘who belonged to the church’, and he is brutally killed. Martyrdom is a spectator sport for the ‘Jews’ (v3) and hearing the cheers from the crowd spurs Herod on to harder treatment for the people of God. Peter, in all his prominence, is captured.

It is so important when we think of this that we dispose of all of the flannelgraph images we have of these kinds of narratives in Scripture. This was a dreadful experience for Peter. He was seized, put in prison, and delivered to ‘four squads of soldiers’ (v4). In a cruelly ironic twist Peter would be offered to the Jews after the Passover – a Christian being sacrificed after the ceremonies of Judaism. There must be no mistake – these were dreadful days.

This is where the context of the church at prayer really matters. Look at this scene merely from the vantage point of externals – the Church is doomed. Herod with all of his heavy handed force is going to destroy God’s people, and he is going to do it by demolishing their ‘pillars’. ‘But earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church’.

God’s means of deliverance is nothing short of breathtaking. The dramatic entrance of an angel the night before Peter’s destruction, and their chain breaking, door opening exit from the midst of Herod’s military elite even caused Peter to think it was a vision – and the church to imagine that such an event couldn’t take place. How ironic that those who surrounded the Apostle to keep him from escape are themselves cut down by Herod’s hand, in his fury at Peter’s escape.

But this is not the only irony of this narrative. Herod’s power is so complete, so corrupt, so idolatrous, that when he is approached by the people of Tyre and Sidon and acclaimed for his god-like oration he accepts such praise glibly and obliquely. Herod has big ideas about himself. But God has even bigger ideas for history. How profound that this man with ‘violent hands’ with squadrons of soldiers, with absolute power is devoured by the lowest and smallest of creatures at God’s command. The king is overcome by the supremacy of God, and His absolute intolerance of all that stands to take His glory. You can imagine the headline in modern terms – ‘World Leader Eaten by Worms’.

But Luke is perhaps more interested in the punchline than the headline. Verse 24 states with kingdom shattering, Sovereign establishing, humanity abasing simplicity – ‘but the word of God increased and multiplied’. There has been a contest described over 24 verses, and God’s Word inevitably prevails, his helpless people victorious in spite of the human odds. The Church will be built and the gates of hell, and even less the threats of Herod, shall not prevail against it.

The parallels to our own time are obvious. Let us not insult the word persecution by rushing to apply this to Western Europe. Rather let our minds be drawn to places on our planet where the issues of Acts 12 are being played out with chilling reality. We could think, for instance, of North Korea where even the BBC are reporting the wholesale slaughter of Christians. The secular media reporting the public execution of a woman for distributing Bibles, and the detention of her whole family circle in a prison camp, gives us some sense of the profundity of persecution which is taking place within that secretive state. One feels that this might merely be the tip of the iceberg.

However, Kim Il-sung nor his son Kim Jong-il need not deceive themselves into thinking that their actions have gone unnoticed. Nor that the worship they gladly garner to themselves will remain unpunished. North Korea is a political conundrum that even major states like the US cannot unravel. But it is no mystery to God. His Word, His Gospel, His Church shall be prevail – regardless of how many gallons of Christian blood might flow through its streets. Every drop absorbed by Korean soil is marked, and it may be that even before eternity dawns the leaders of Korea might be consumed by the all prevailing purpose, power and dignity of God. If not then there kness will bend, their hearts will break, and their souls will be damned before the bar of God’s immaculate justice at the end of all things.

We have no need to fear that God will not master those who martyr His people. Although the human evidence might hint otherwise – God’s hand is at work to help the humble, and to humble the haughty. What a God.


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.

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.

Feminised Christianity

12 09 2008

The Daily Telegraph has a fascinating article today, dealing with the feminisation of Christianity and the rather unexpected effect which this has had – driving multitudes of women away from the Church, rather than the opposite being true. Jonathan Wynne-Jones strikes a tremendous balance in his writing on the issue, as well as unearthing some very disturbing elements in the teaching of those who are advocating female bishops within the Church. It really does make compelling reading.

Book Review: Every Second Counts

8 08 2008

Every Second Counts is the second volume of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, following on from It’s Not About the Bike, which chronicles his amazing recovery from cancer. Given my current resurgence of interest in cycling I borrowed this from the public library, and it has served as a safe haven from thinking about my thesis during the past week.

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France over a record breaking seven years (1999-2005), and in Every Second Counts he writes candidly about life in the world of professional athletic competition, life as a father of three, and life as someone who has managed to survive seriously life-threatening cancer. The style of the book is gutsy, honest and masculine, chronicling everything from how it feels to taste victory on the Alpe d’Huez to the emotions involved in the breakdown of a marriage relationship.

I found the book really interesting for a number of reasons:

1. Its breadth of application to life: Armstrong’s reflections on professional competition frequently serve as a metaphor for other issues and relationships in the human experience. It is nothing short of inspiring to read of someone standing face to face with impossible odds (be it in the cancer ward or in the midst of an aggressive peloton)and finding victory from the deepest levels of self-motivation and belief. It is a challenge to the way that many of us face adversity in any sphere of life.

2. Its direct application to ministry: although Armstrong has no room for Christian belief (see below) there are a number of episodes in the book which speak loudly to those in ministry. Whether it be the challenge of continuing to work and strive whilst being misunderstood and misrepresented by others (as in Armstrong’s drug use allegations), the blessing of striving in a team for the greater good (as in US Postals team tactics in the Tour) or of the loneliness of pursuing an ideal and calling in the midst of difficulty and demotivation. A grave warning from the book is of the danger of pursuing a good and glorious goal to the cost and detriment of family life. Armstrong’s unyielding dedication to cycling and the noble cause of supporting those suffering from cancer is ulimately blamed for the breakdown of his family. This is a salutary warning to those in ministry about pursuing their calling to the exclusion, and at the expense, of investing in those whom we love and who matter to us.

3. Its picture of a man on the run from God: I truly believe that this is where Armstrong stands spiritually. In a chapter entitled ‘Faith and Doubt’ he shares of how many times he has been asked by people at airports and other public places about his relationship with God. Armstrong is agnostic, attributing his recovery from cancer to good mental attitude and excellent medical care, and not God. He writes about painful and abusive experiences at the hands of his church deacon stepfather, who regularly beat him in private whilst maintaining an air of spritual respectability in public, and of how Christian faith can be a crutch for the weak, or a convenient cover up for the wicked. Behind all of this, however, is a deep respect for his wife’s devout Catholicism, and a hint of a belief in God which barely reaches the surface. As a mine for illustrations in Gospel preaching alone this chapter is well worth reading.

I really enjoyed Every Second Counts, and would love to read It’s Not About the Bike at some point as well. Armstrong’s book is an excellent piece of sports writing, high on action and adventure, whilst at the same time giving a fascinating insight into the human condition with all of its capacity for surprise and disappointment.


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.

Todd Bentley and the Dead Belfast Boy

20 06 2008

It’s not often that miracles make the news, least of all front page news, but yesterday’s Newsletter (one of Northern Ireland’s dailies) carried the headline: ‘Church Claims Teenage Miracle’. The story centres around Andrew Duffin, an 18 year old who was seriously injured in a car accident in May (he was a passenger in a stolen vehicle). Having been taken to hospital with serious injuries, including a ruptured bowel, Andrew ‘died’ during surgery for sixteen minutes, before coming back to life. Andrew’s father sent a message around a prayer network and firmly believes that his son was brought back to life as a result. Andrew, who didn’t believe in God, now says that he is going to change his life, having been given a second chance.

Pastor Brian Madden from the Elim Church in Tigers Bay, Belfast, is pastor to Andrew Duffin’s father, and was instrumental in the healing which took place. He had recently been to see American healer Todd Bentley, who is gaining renown for his own ministry of healing and supernatural signs. Pastor Madden himself admits to having been shocked by the events he witnessed in Florida which were ‘crazy’, but that God is at work in this way all over the world. It was Bentley’s prayer network which was engaged in seeking God for the miracle which has reportedly ensued.

For a secular newspaper, the Newsletter has managed to take a very balanced tone in their coverage of the story. They have spoken with those involved, and taken opinion from Rev. Stephen Williamson of Ballywillan Presbyterian Church who had been involved in healing ministry himself in previous days. The article ends with an open question to the readership of the paper – ‘Do you believe in miracles?’.

For me the question which arises from such an account is not ‘do you believe in miracles?’, but the much more difficult one of discerning what kind of movement Bentley is spearheading. I have no doubt that our God moves in powerful ways, I have no doubt (and have witnessed for myself) that he does intervene in the lives of his people, turning desperate situations into sources of hope and joy. But what of the individuals surrounding this ‘miracle’?

My chief concern is with Bentley himself. The briefest period of research into Todd Bentley on YouTube shows him to be at the farthest reaches of Pentecostalism. He speaks here on a vision he got of Jesus. Obviously not content with John’s portrayal of the Saviour in Revelation 1 he goes on to speak of Jesus having brown eyes ‘like Bambi’ and that the predominant colour surrounding the Saviour is pink – ‘the colour of love and emotion’. This pink Bambi-eyed Jesus is a far cry from the glorious vision of Christ which we have in God’s inspired Word, a kind of friendly soft-toy Saviour who doesn’t mean any harm to anyone: I think I’ll stick with John’s description. Bentley speaks here of getting a vision during a ministry meeting in Seattle. To cut a long (and rambling) story short Bentley enters a ‘pillar of fire portal’ and is transported to an ‘operating table’ in heaven, where angels in white coats (!) tie him down, cut him open and insert little boxes into him. God then speaks to Bentley, informing him that these boxes are ‘truth in the inward part’, that he doesn’t have 40 years to disciple leaders into maturity and that he is going to begin implanting 10 years of Christian maturity into people directly. It is a little like fast-track sanctification I suppose (my words, not Bentley’s).

All of this leaves me ice cold. Bentley routinely engages in extra-biblical fantasy, which transforms the transcendent, glorious depiction of Christ in Scripture into a tawdry conglomerate of tired 21st century images, most of them trivialising Jesus to the point of being pathetic.

When it comes to the individual ‘miracle’ of Andrew Duffin, I’d rather not speak too strongly one way or the other. When it comes to the ‘movement’ which is growing up around it, to the postulations of Todd Bentley, it seems clear to me that this is not biblical Christianity but a made-over, marked down version of the majestic message of Christ.