The Virtue of the Lie
In 1950, in Leningrad, I visited the Hermitage in the company of a few Polish friends. We had a guide (a deputy director of the museum, as far as I can remember) who was obviously a knowledgeable art historian. At a certain moment - no opportunity for ideological teaching must be lost - he told us: ‘We have in our cellars, comrades, a lot of corrupt, degenerate bourgeois paintings. You know, all those Matisses, Cezannes, Braques and so on. We have never displayed them in the museum but perhaps one day we will show them so that Soviet people can see for themselves how deeply bourgeois art has sunk. Indeed, Comrade Stalin teaches us that we should not embellish history.’ I was in the Hermitage again, with other friends, in 1957, a time of relative thaw, and the same man was assigned to guide us. We were led to rooms full of modern French paintings. Our guide told us: ‘Here you see the masterpieces of great French painters - Matisse, Cezanne, Braque and others. And,’ he added (for no opportunity must be lost), ‘do you know that the bourgeois press accused us of refusing to display these paintings in the Hermitage? This was because at a certain moment some rooms in the museum were being redecorated and were temporarily closed, and a bourgeois journalist happened to be here at that moment and then made this ridiculous accusation. Ha, ha!’
Kolakowski’s punchline is magnificent (emphasis added):
Was he lying? I am not sure. If I had reminded him of his earlier statement, which I failed to do, he would simply have denied everything with genuine indignation; he probably would have believed that what he told us was ‘right’ and therefore true. Truth, in this world, is what reinforces the ‘right cause’ ... The cognitive aspect of this machinery consists in effacing the very distinction between truth and political ‘correctness.’ The art of forgetting history is crucial: people must learn that the past can be changed - from truth to truth - overnight. In this manner they are cut off from what would have been a source of strength: the possibility of identifying and asserting themselves by recalling their collective past.
Privilege, Oppression, Intersectionality and the Church
Both sets of terms are designed to stack the deck one way or the other. The negative terms are all loaded: nobody self-identifies as a politically correct cultural Marxist, or actually advocates victimhood culture, or champions identity politics, and although there is such a thing as critical theory, precious few people who use the term negatively have ever read much of it. The positive terms are loaded too. If you are not woke, you are still asleep. If you don’t want social justice, you must want social injustice. If you are not Antifa(scist) or antiracist, you are a fascist racist. And so on.
To complicate things further, key terms are used in completely different ways. Both groups want equity and justice, but one group sees this in terms of outcome (eliminating the gender pay gap, or ethnic disparities in university admissions), and the other sees it in terms of opportunity (making all positions available to all people, even if that means more men become CEOs, more women become primary school teachers and more Asians get first class degrees in Maths). Both groups want diversity, but one group wants diversity of identity (sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation), expressed through representation, while the other wants diversity of ideology (religion, class, political affiliation), expressed through freedom of speech. The word “privilege” may be the most neutral word we have available, but given that the many of the key spokespeople on all sides are as privileged as each other, that doesn’t solve the identification problem either.
With no commonly agreed labels for what we are talking about—which is partly a function of novelty, since much of this discourse has sprung up in the last decade—the conversation is difficult.
I. The Context
An awful lot of what I’ve just said would have made little or no sense to any of us ten years ago. (It still makes very little sense to many of our global brothers and sisters, of course; I’m writing very specifically written in the context of the Anglophone West in 2020.) The language and jargon is new, the dramatis personae are new, and the consequences of getting it wrong are, if not new, at least dramatically inflated. The sheer speed at which opinions are moving—at least if you read the broadsheets, as opposed to listening to the conversations in your local barber—are dizzying. We could call this the Nicky Morgan phenomenon, after the former Education Secretary who voted against gay marriage in 2013, decided she was for it in 2014, and was seeing opposition to it as possible evidence of extremism by 2015. When opinions are changing that fast, and that dramatically, it is hard for the church to keep up with the issues, let alone offer a wise response.
Standing at the end of the decade, we can already see how much things changed in the three central years, 2014-16. The first same-sex marriages in the UK and then the US, following the decision in Obergefell vs Hodges; the sudden switch from gay rights to trans rights, embodied (literally) by the appearance of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner on the front page of Vogue, and fuelled by boycotts and policy announcements about mixed sex bathrooms; the killings of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, the Ferguson riots, and #BlackLivesMatter; the collapse of Syria and the migrant crisis of 2015; the Charlie Hebdo attack and the debate about free speech and Islam that followed; the socially divisive Scottish independence and Brexit referendums; the election of Donald Trump; the sudden emergence of “safe spaces” on university campuses, alongside a spike in references to trigger warnings, secondary trauma, cancellation, call-out culture, and no platforming; and the accompanying rise in temperature whenever these issues are spoken about. Many in the West, whether Christians or not, found the rate of change exhausting. Me too.
Yet like all sudden transformations, this one had been decades or even centuries in the making. In some ways, paradoxically, it is the fruit of Christian theology. Christianity has a built-in moral imperative towards emancipation, freedom for the captives, and dignity for the downtrodden, and it comes not just from Jesus’s teaching (“the first shall be last and the last shall be first”), but from his incarnation (“he has thrown down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek”), and above all his crucifixion (“he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, and humbled himself to death on a cross”). If truths like that are believed, preached and acted upon for long enough, it can utterly transform the moral imagination of a civilisation, with dramatic implications for the dignity and human rights of women, children, foreigners, slaves, the colonised, and anyone whom society has treated as less than human. The elevation of victims is a specifically Christian phenomenon; if you aren’t sure about that, you can just read Homer. As such, what some would dismissively call “victimhood culture” is actually the result of Christian anthropology, even if it has now taken on a life of its own, and reached some conclusions (for instance on sexual ethics) that conflict with Christian teaching. The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
We can also tell the story very differently. We can trace it back to the three major idols of human history (money, sex and power), and the three founding fathers of modernist thought who correspond to them (Marx, Freud and Nietzsche). The Marxist thread insists on a basic division of the world into oppressors and oppressed, exploiters and exploited, and calls all oppressed peoples to unite and revolt against their oppressors. The Freudian thread, in which the suppression of sexual urges is the cause of numerous social problems, eventually leads to the transgression of almost all sexual taboos, the consequent decline of the traditional family, and ultimately any sexual constraint that causes a therapeutic difficulty for anyone, including biological sex itself. The Nietzschian thread starts with the observation that humans are motivated by the will to power, and ends up with Michel Foucault arguing that power is the essential feature of all human relationships. (Foucault still exercises an astonishing influence in the academy; he is currently the most cited academic in any discipline.) If you put all of that together, the world looks like the graphic above.
II. The Challenge
All this is challenging for the church for a number of reasons, some of which we have touched on already. The terminology is slippery, confusing and hotly contested. Things are moving so fast that it is hard to keep up. In some cases we are being asked to accept ludicrous ideas that are self-evidently false. We may therefore be tempted to ignore it, especially since it is mostly concentrated in cities, universities, journalism and antisocial media (at least for the moment), although on balance it is important that we don’t.
Some of it, to be fair, is risible. Men can become women, but white people cannot become black. Asians can become British, but Brits cannot become Asian. Identity matters more than ideas (“you only say that because you’re a …”, “speaking as a …”, etc), until the ideas are unpopular enough, when suddenly they matter more than identity (which is why Peter Thiel is dismissed as no longer gay, Kanye West as no longer black, and Germaine Greer as no longer a feminist, all for expressing ideas that are regarded as beyond the pale). It is no problem for Jamie Oliver to own a chain of Italian restaurants, but for him to serve jerk chicken is cultural appropriation. Authors and actors don’t want to be associated with JK Rowling because she believes sex is real and women menstruate. Schools need parental permission to give a child an aspirin, but not to start treating boys as girls or girls as boys. Unemployed white men in Hartlepool are privileged; a Harvard-educated black multimillionaire, not so much. Inequality is always a result of injustice, except when gays earn more than straight people or Asians earn more than everyone else. Biological males can win medals in female sports and be imprisoned in female prisons, even if they have a history of sexual assault. Howls of oppression are fiercest in the most privileged communities on earth, namely elite universities in rich, Western countries. We could go on. Presented with things like this, the best response is somewhere between a raised eyebrow and a splutter of laughter.
Less absurd versions are available, and they require more critical reflection. In a helpful paper, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer highlight various “potential conflicts” with Christian theology which may emerge: i) the idea that gender is a social construct; ii) the tendency to reduce truth claims to power plays; iii) the relativist epistemology, whereby a particular sort of lived experience is required for a person to understand the reality of something; iv) the relationship between gender and justice, such that Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is regarded as irredeemably oppressive; v) the collapse of individual responsibility before collective privilege and/or oppression, resulting in all (say) white men being guilty of oppression by belonging to a certain group, and the children being visited with the sins of the great-great-great-grandfathers. Tim Keller, in an excellent article sketching biblical justice and its secular alternatives, offers a related critique, arguing that what he calls critical theory is i) incoherent, ii) simplistic, iii) undermining of our common humanity, iv) in denial about our common sinfulness, v) incompatible with forgiveness and reconciliation between groups, vi) dependent on a “highly self-righteous performative identity,” and vii) prone to domination. Both articles are well worth reading in more detail.
All of this might seem easy to debunk and/or dismiss. But milder and more plausible versions affect the Western church in all sorts of ways. A few examples spring to mind:
Vulnerability and Victimhood. Vulnerability is prized far more than it used to be among church leaders. No doubt all of us have discovered that to some degree in our preaching: people increasingly come to thank us for our honesty, openness, authenticity and courage when we disclose areas of struggle, and some of us have even written books about it (ahem). Some of this is good, reflecting the need for pastors to live lives of integrity and accessibility in front of the people they lead. But we need also to be wary that vulnerability not slide into victimhood. There is an important difference between boasting in weaknesses which would seem to disqualify us from ministry, as Paul does, and disclosing things for the purpose of earning people’s sympathy and thereby qualifying us for ministry, as often happens today. The line may not be clear, but the temptation should be.
Diversity and Tokenism. Is it important to pursue diversity? Most of us would instinctively say yes, for biblical as well as cultural reasons, and probably work harder than we used to at diversifying our leadership teams, conference platforms and even promotional videos in contextually appropriate ways. But things are complicated. It is easy for tokenism to slip in, whereby we want to diversify the platform without diversifying the power. This almost always makes things worse, because it convinces the majority that there is no problem (the “I have a gay friend” defence), and the minority that we are papering over the real issues. We may also prize visible diversity (sex, ethnicity) over invisible diversity (class, education, marital status): we try to avoid photos or websites featuring all male or all white faces, but don’t notice invisible diversity anything like as much, even if at a cultural level it matters more. (Whom do I have more in common with: my black fellow elder who went to a redbrick university and works in an investment bank, or a single white guy who left school at sixteen and works in an Asda on Tyneside?) So it is crucial to ask why we want more diverse teams, platforms and panels, and then apply our answer as consistently as possible.
Progress and Decline. On the basis of most criteria, the contemporary West is just about the richest, safest, most comfortable, most healthy and most educated society in human history. We are far less likely than any of our ancestors, and plenty of our contemporaries, to experience violence, pain, famine, destitution, war, slavery, plunder, genocide, the violation of our rights, or what most civilisations would think of as oppression. Yet we are also more likely than almost any generation before us to lament how awful everything is, especially when we are trying to make political points: the inhumanity of our public policy, the degradation of our hospitals, the violence of our speech, the oppression of our education system, the brutality of the free market, the death of democracy, and the like. It is a version of Moynihan’s Law: the better things are, the worse they seem. It happens on both the left (poverty, racism) and the right (religious liberty, family), and both of them are visible, if not rampant, in the church.
Patriarchy and Eldership. Is patriarchy bad? The cultural answer is obviously yes. Patriarchy is oppressive, and leads to toxic masculinity, harassment in the workplace, pay gaps, rape culture, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and a multitude of other evils. Increasingly this would be the answer in the church as well, sometimes for very defensible reasons (#ChurchToo). But again, things are complicated. Israel was a patriarchy. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were patriarchs, and the nation was led by male kings and male priests. The apostles were all men. The New Jerusalem is a bridal city defended by twelve walls (named after men) and twelve foundations (named after men). The Christian gospel is one in which a faithful husband fights for and rescues his bride from impurity, captivity and peril. And what is eldership if it is not rule by fathers, with the most privileged people—older, theologically literate, respected and usually married men—charged with oversight of the whole community? For better or worse, the church has always been guarded by fathers with authority. The devil hates it. His attempt to make patriarchs the enemy of justice is resoundingly unbiblical, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t at risk of swallowing it.
Privilege and Theology. Should this article—or for that matter my next book, or next sermon—be dismissed as simply another example of white, male, straight, married, cis, rich, educated, Eurocentric privilege? Yes and no. Yes: I am among the most privileged people in human history, and nothing shows that quite so clearly as the act of writing an article about privilege. And you can tell, because I am treating this whole subject as an abstraction, without the pain that comes from being bullied for my sexuality, stopped and searched for my colour, excluded from the room for my sex, or constrained by a disability. But also no: since writing on anything is a function of privilege, requiring money, time, space, physical ability, literacy and education, we cannot dismiss privileged authors unless we are going to stop reading altogether. (The most oppressed do not write books, op-eds or even tweets, because they are too busy trying to survive.) So although we need to take a person’s privilege into account while considering what they say, it is not an objection to taking their argument seriously. If anything, it is the reason we are able to read what they think in the first place.
If we are not already, all of us will face some version of these challenges in the next few years, from its most generous form (do you think it would help you to have a single woman’s perspective in that discussion?) to its most odious one (like the charge that David Cameron experienced “privileged pain” when he lost a disabled child). Many in our churches are well down the track already. It is also the context in which our children, young people and students are being catechised, both formally at school and informally online. So it is worth considering how to respond.
III. The Response
There is a balance to be struck here. We don’t want to be ostriches, ignoring the issue until it goes away. But nor do we want to catastrophise, bewailing every new development as yet more evidence that the West is going to the dogs, and frantically running seminars on the dark menace of critical theory / cultural Marxism / political correctness / grievance studies / identity politics / victimhood culture. (Some of our American brothers and sisters have gone down this route, and so far the fruit has not been very positive.) Instead, let me suggest four things that will help us.
1) Thankfulness. One of the results of being Spirit-filled is that of “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father” (Eph 5:20), which implies that we can find something to be thankful for in everything, a diamond from God amidst any amount of rough. In this case it is easy. As we have touched on already, the defence of the oppressed is a biblical non-negotiable, and would not have emerged in our culture were it not for Christianity. (Ancient Greeks and Romans did not worry about the employment rights of women or migrants drowning in the Mediterranean; some cultures today, less shaped by the gospel, still don’t.) Its current version may have forgotten its Christian roots and got a bit carried away in some areas, but the status of women, children, the poor, slaves, migrants, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities is immeasurably improved relative to two thousand years ago, and in many cases relative to fifty years ago, and this should make us thankful. Addressing the ongoing menace of racism is vital. The last ten years have made sexual abuse harder rather than easier. The provision of gender-neutral kids toilets results from the same instinct as the provision of special needs schools—the desire to be as accommodating and inclusive as possible to vulnerable children—even if I think the latter is wonderful and the former is bonkers. In the grand scheme of things, if we could choose our problems, this would be a decent one to have.
2) Discernment. We often think of discernment negatively, as the art of spitting out the bones within the fish, but there is a good case to be made for seeing it positively: the process of finding all the best fish amongst the bones. Here, once again, there is plenty of good to be found. “Intersectionality” might be a novel bit of jargon with a lot of dubious application, but its central insight—that discrimination based on sex, race, class and so forth overlap—is obviously correct; most of us would see it in the story of the demonised slave girl in Acts 16, for example. In contemporary Britain, black women clearly do face obstacles that neither black men nor white women face. The church has discriminated against gay people, in our language, our humour, our pastoral application, and even our theology (holding the line on gay sex while moving it dramatically on divorce, for instance). Both the reality and the denial of white privilege are ubiquitous in Britain, and are just as visible in the church as elsewhere. So is class prejudice. So is ageism. Intersex people and those with gender dysphoria do struggle in ways that most of us cannot imagine. Our historical narrative is indefensibly Eurocentric, especially in the church. Single and infertile people are treated like second class citizens in many contexts, again, including the church. Those who do not experience all these challenges—like me—invariably are far slower to see them, regard them as significant enough to require action, and take appropriate steps to respond.
3) Fatherhood. Despite the anti-patriarchal rhetoric, there is widespread awareness in our culture of the need for fathers, and of the damage that fatherlessness can cause, especially in the least privileged communities. Research continually highlights the consequences for education, prosperity and crime that flow from growing up without a father; the bizarre result is that “fathers” are valued by the very same people that like to sneer at “married middle-aged men,” even though the two groups are identical. God’s created order runs deep. For all the concern about toxic masculinity, people know that fathers are different from mothers, and that the father’s contribution is particularly important to the development of healthy young men, and that everybody flourishes when those with strength and power use it in love for the good of those in their care, rather than being passive or inert (or disappearing altogether). That is important for us in our practice of eldership and apostleship, since speaking of elders as fathers makes male eldership seem much less arbitrary to people. It is also important for discipling young men in a society that tells them men are dangerous. Training them how to be fathers, spiritually as well as biologically, can be a surprisingly acceptable way of affirming their God-given masculinity.
4) Jesus. Some of us probably thought of it when we saw the intersectionality chart at the top: it is striking how many of the descriptions in the bottom half applied to Jesus. Poor, single, working class, Jewish, from a colonised people; not English-speaking, attractive, European, prestigious or white (if we allow anachronisms for the moment). It has always been part of the gospel that Jesus was born in a Bethlehem stable rather than a Jerusalem palace, died in humiliation and agony, and was strung up on a tree like a lynched and mutilated victim. No one has suffered more injustice, or experienced more oppression for less reason. Victims everywhere find solidarity with this man. Yet Jesus Christ is not just the paradigmatic example of a victim who experienced unjust suffering; he is also the paradigmatic example of unimaginable privilege being used to serve and save those without it. Even as he is being flogged, he is upholding the universe by the word of his power. He remains fully God as he takes a towel and washes the disciples’ feet. As such, he presents a profound challenge to anyone who thinks that privileged people cannot lay it aside and confront injustice—as well as to anyone who thinks that, since privilege is a gift from God, there is no particular need to use it on behalf of the oppressed. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:5-7).
Why Religion Is Awkward For Secular Humanists
Alister McGrath makes a brilliant point that I’d never thought of in The Great Mystery: The very existence of religion is rather problematic for secular humanists.
Secular humanists will often blame God—or as they’d see it, the belief that there is a god—for the ills and evils in the world. They also view God as a fictional creation, arising from the minds of humans. But put these two beliefs together and you’ve got a problem: the idea ‘of God and religion as human fabrications leads to the conclusion not that religion corrupts an innocent humanity, but that corrupt human beings create a religion that is just as evil and degenerate as they are’ (p.166).
So secular humanists get caught in a rather uncomfortable position. The more they criticise religion as the root of all our problems, the more they admit that humanity is actually the root of all our problems, and that isn’t a conclusion that they tend to be too keen on. Criticism of religion is really criticism of humanity.
McGrath drives the point home rather effectively by slightly rewording Dawkins’ famous description of God:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction, created by equally unpleasant human beings who were jealous and proud of it; who were petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freaks; who were vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleansers; who were misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bullies; and who created their gods in their own image.
The reality of course is quite different. When the Bible is understood carefully, the God of the Old (and New) Testaments is not the sort of God that would be created by flawed and sinful humans (hence why he contrasts so starkly with the gods of other religions). The God of the Bible is far better than anything we could ever come up with.
Blind Alleys and Wrong Turns
The first is the one that the UK government – along with most of the rest of the world – is pursuing: try to prevent anyone from catching the virus in the first place and when case numbers increase impose local lockdowns and other restrictions, much as we’ve seen in the past couple of days.
This strategy has the advantage of preventing people from getting sick and dying, and it limits the risk of the health service being overrun. Yet the costs to our national mental, social and economic health are huge – and people are dying as a result.
The alternative strategy is unthinkable for any government (certainly democratically elected ones) because it appears too callous: attempt to shield the most vulnerable but other than that remove all restrictions and let the virus run its course. The advantage of this would be that it would give us the best chance of the virus quickly evolving towards less virulence and becoming simply another cause of the common cold. The disadvantages are obvious: that many could get sick and die and the health service be overwhelmed. The potential short term pain is too risky to allow for the possible long term gain.
Because the first strategy is the only one our leaders are currently able to contemplate it looks like we are going to be stuck in the twilight zone indefinitely – trying to get back to ‘normal’ but constantly thwarted by restrictions we have to follow. (Is anyone taking the Prime Minister’s ‘Moonshot’ testing plan seriously?) Unless, as some are suggesting, the virus has already burnt itself out, the only way out of this will be the much hoped for vaccine. Unfortunately, the development of this is by no means the given that many people assume; and even if it were, rolling it out too quickly could actually do more harm than good (as explained here).
All of which is rather depressing.
A particular challenge is the psychological impact of reimposed restrictions after a taste of freedom. I highly doubt that if her school were closed again my daughter would rush back to online learning. And if, having started physical gatherings, our church was told we could no longer meet I think it would be very hard to move everything online again. Sure, it would be easier technically than it was in March, because we now know how to do it. But I’m not sure how enthusiastically we could embrace it.
This is a reason why some churches are still being cautious about beginning physical gatherings. But this is running up a blind alley in order to avoid a wrong turn. For how long can you sustain a congregation with nothing but virtual meetings? Lots of my friends are reporting a very significant drop off in engagement and attendance already. How might things look by Christmas?
All of which seems rather hopeless.
Like Job, probably lots of us are at the place where we’re saying, “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long-winded speeches never end?” (Job 16:1-3).
What are we to do? What are pastors like me to do? Probably the best thing is what God commanded of Job: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 40:7). It is almost inevitable that we are going to take what end up looking like wrong turns at this time. Be manly about that. Our own lack of knowledge and power is being cruelly exposed, but, “I know that God can do all things; no purpose of his can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
In God, there are no blind alleys or wrong turns.
A Short History of Racism
The history of racism goes back further in time than the records humanity possesses. The ancient Egyptians ... may or may not have been negative about Israelites, depending on how literally you believe the book of Exodus; but they certainly had condescending views of other peoples such as the Asiatic Hyksos, who for a time conquered the Nile Delta; they mocked the ‘gross’ appearance of the corpulent, steatopygous Jtj, Queen of Punt (roughly, Somalia), and were not very complimentary about her husband’s subjects either.
The early Arab conquerors of al-Andalus, Spain, looked down with contempt on the Berbers who accompanied their armies, treating them as second-class citizens, along with Jews and Christians, even though these Berbers had accepted Islam. If we want to play the game of skin colour, it is quite likely that many of the Berbers were whiter with bluer eyes than their Arab masters.
And the slave trade within the Indian Ocean brought hundreds of thousands of black African slaves to the heartlands of the Islamic empire, resulting in a massive slave revolt in 869 that started in Basra and carried on for fourteen years, threatening the survival of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad. Zanzibar, under the rule of the Sultans of far-away Oman, was the nineteenth-century capital of this horrible trade. 35,000 African boys sold along these trade routes are said to have been castrated in Coptic monasteries each year, of whom ten per cent survived.
… it is not difficult to find racism far beyond the lands inhabited by white people. Among the most pernicious examples is Japanese racism towards Koreans and Chinese, at its worst in the famous Rape of Nanjing in 1937. To this day, Koreans living in Japan change their name to a Japanese one to avoid the denigration and discrimination that many of them experience. White Europeans were also the butt of Japanese racism.
The marvellous folding screens that portray the arrival of Portuguese or Dutch ships in Japan, made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, often portray the Europeans as monkeys. The Oranda Kapitan, ‘Captain of Holland’, was subjected to ritual humiliation on his annual visits to the shogun from the tiny ghetto off Nagasaki where the Dutch merchants were confined. And the Ainu population of northern Japan has literally been pushed to the margins and has shrunk to a mere 25,000 people.
Then there is racism within sub-Saharan Africa. The modern history of Rwanda testifies amply and horrendously to that, though it has been argued that the distinction between Hutus and Tutsi was imported by their Belgian colonial rulers. Within the Belgian Congo, the Pygmies have often suffered at the hands of their neighbours. But there is plenty to report further back in time, as the Bantu population displaced the original San or ‘Bushman’ population of the southernmost parts of the continent. More to the point, the trans-Atlantic trade in African slaves was fed by African rulers who passed on captives from neighbouring peoples. By and large they avoided selling their own brethren.
The Aztecs were not keen on their neighbours and exterminated large numbers in ritual human sacrifices. The early Gypsies may well have moved out of India because of caste discrimination, which is not very different from racial discrimination. Nor can one ignore white-on-white racism, whether against European Jews or Slavs or the Irish, just to give some major examples. It is therefore a sad and horrible truth that every continent has experienced racist persecutions before as well as after the age of the European empires. Quite possibly the first Homo Sapiens played a big role in the disappearance of the Neanderthals.
In other words, racism has a long, complicated and tragic history. Lest we forget.
This Isn’t The Mountain Top You Were Looking For
OK, it’s not exactly what one usually means when one thinks of mountain-top experiences. They are usually something we long for, hunger for. They speak of transcendence, being caught up with the Lord in ecstatic communion. Not trapped in a liminal state between disaster and a new normal.
But that is exactly what the first recorded ‘mountain top experience’ was like.
It is tucked away in Genesis 8:3-4:
At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.
The initial crisis - 40 days and nights of rain - had passed, the water had gradually receded, and here were Noah, his family and a lot of noisy, smelly animals, stranded on a mountain top. Little did they know that they would remain there for a further seven months before God finally told them it was safe to come out.
Can you imagine what it must have been like?
I think we all can, to some extent. Waiting… waiting… trying to get on with life - mucking out the stables, pens, coops and cages; feeding the endlessly hungry animals, birds and reptiles; sloshing out dirty water, bringing in clean water; rinse. Repeat.
The frustration. The futility. The fear that this might be it - we might be trapped here forever, doomed to a Sisyphean eternity of vaguely unpleasant, fundamentally meaningless tasks.
Peter relates the preservation of Noah in the ark to baptism - passing through waters that don’t in themselves cleanse you, but are a sign of the fact that you have been saved through righteousness (in our case, the righteousness imputed to us by Christ).
I’m not aware of any biblical interpretation of the meaning or purpose of the time spent in the ark after the rain, but if the flood waters are a symbol of baptism, what if hanging around on the mountain top corresponds to life after baptism? We have been brought safely through the flood, but we are not yet in the glorious new life that has been promised. Our salvation is now and not yet; the danger is passed, but the destination has not yet been reached.
That was also part of the thrust of Sunday’s sermon - stay awake! The Master will return. The glories he has promised us will come to pass.
Meanwhile, be diligent about the tasks he has assigned to you up here on this mountaintop in this boatload of sheep and goats.
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Moynihan’s Law: The Better Things Get, The Worse They Seem
It holds true in numerous areas with significance for today’s church. For instance:
Politics. The fieriest (and most destructive) protests against fascism to be found anywhere in the world today are in Portland, Oregon, which is probably the most left-leaning, hypertolerant, unfascist city in the entire world.
Religious Freedom. It is hard to think of a nation with more religious freedom than the US. It is also hard to think of a nation where the violation of religious freedom is talked about more loudly, or weaponised politically more often.
Economics. When people in the Middle Ages, or the ancient world, were genuinely starving for lack of food, people hardly referred to poverty as a problem (because it was taken as a given). People talk about it far more in contexts where absolute poverty is all-but-eliminated.
Education. Complaints about oppression, exclusion and injustice are loudest today in the most privileged environments in human history: elite university campuses in the world’s richest countries. This point is central to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind.
Apologetics. The less a generation has experienced suffering, the more likely they are to see the problem of suffering as a reason not to believe in a loving God. This is why C. S. Lewis encouraged people to “reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were first preached, and long practiced, in a world without chloroform [= anaesthetics].”
Pastoral Care. The same is true pastorally. People in our generation have probably had fewer genuinely traumatic experiences than any generation before us (whether we measure it by plagues, invasions, stillbirths, World Wars, or whatever it is), yet references to the trauma we have experienced, and the therapy or pastoral care we need as a result, are greater now than ever before.
This does not mean we should dismiss what people are saying, or roll our eyes at the snowflakes, or anything patronising like that. But it might prompt us to respond with gratitude in unexpected ways. It might incline us to pay closer attention to areas where few people are complaining (I originally wrote a few suggestions in here, but it might be more helpful to reflect on what you think they are), and not just areas where everyone is (see above). And it may mean that we need a bit of historical context before responding to the cries of our own generation with panic, or blind obedience, or both.
If I type “educate yourself race” into my Google search bar, I am met with book lists compiled by Hello magazine, Variety and Glamour. They include titles like White Fragility, How to Be an Antiracist and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. There is no acknowledgement of the fact that these authors’ anti-racist projects run directly up against each other, nor that many of history’s most important anti-racists would strongly disagree with their recommendations.
The message seems to be that there is a set of uncontested facts about race, and anyone can find them with the help of a how-to guide. So long as you are willing to follow a preordained path, you can walk a straight line from A to B, coming to understand both your unearned privilege and how to make up for it.
But even a cursory glance at America’s intellectual history makes clear how false this presumption is. The disagreements between American anti-racists go back centuries: there were angry letters between William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass. Furious exchanges between W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin exchanged critical essays. Martin Luther King, Robert F. Williams, Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X engaged in vigorous debates.
All these heroes explicitly disagreed with each other about how to move America towards a better racial future. Their work ought to be a reminder that any attempt to educate oneself about racism must involve understanding the conflicts between those who have sought to eradicate it.
Among contemporary intellectuals and activists, you have to look a little harder for disagreement, if only because an orthodoxy is quickly taking hold of many of our mainstream institutions. But even today, there are black economists—from Thomas Sowell to Roland Fryer—who strongly disagree with the depiction of our current reality laid out on those reading lists. And there are many black sociologists—from Orlando Patterson to Karen E. Fields—who vehemently disagree about what an anti-racist America would look like.
Those who plaster the phrase educate yourself across their timelines make the pompous presumption that only they could possibly have the right opinions. There is an irony in the fact that many of those who claim to be suspicious of grand narratives and objective truths have such faith in a stringent, absolutist picture of racial education. And it is tragically ironic that they use their adopted slogan to corrupt the essence of independent learning.
When Sacrifice Is No Hardship
What would cause fishermen like Peter, James and John to walk away from the biggest catch of their lives and leave it to rot - or to profit their rivals - on the shore?
Andrew Haslam preached on the Mark 12 passage last Sunday, and explained that there were 13 offering boxes in the temple courts, twelve of which were designated for the different types of offering required by the Law. The thirteenth was for freewill offerings, given out of the overflow of people’s hearts. It seems that this was the box the widow was giving into, in this Passover week.
The rich were giving out of their plenty, but she gave abundantly out of her lack. It was a sacrifice, but Andrew pointed out that when we are sacrificing with the right attitude, when we are giving as a response of thankfulness for God’s goodness to us, when our sacrifice is truly worship, not just empty ritual, giving all we have doesn’t feel like a hardship. It feels like joy.
This reminded me of the passage in Luke where Jesus called the first disciples. God brought it to my mind a few months ago, and it has just been hovering there without really finding a place to land until now.
As the story opens, Simon Peter, James and John are sitting by the lake mending their nets. They had fished all night and caught nothing. They must have been wondering what they would say to their wives. The discouragement of working all night and having nothing to show for it, in a world where that would seriously impact their livelihood, must have been crushing.
Then Jesus came along, borrowed Simon’s boat as a floating stage from which to teach the crowds, then gave Simon an enormous catch of fish - more than two boats could hold. He lavished on Simon more than Simon could have dreamed of, enough to provide his family with security, with some money they could save up against hard times, enough for a few treats, perhaps.
And yet, having sat close to Jesus and heard his teaching, Simon didn’t hesitate to leave behind the abundant blessing of Christ, for the sake of following Christ himself.
Picture that - Simon’s boat and that of James and John, filled with fish to the point that they had been in serious danger of sinking, pulled up to shore and abandoned. Leaving their families with even worse prospects, as not only was there no income that day, but there would never be again. What would be the equivalent for you? What would it mean to have everything you ever wanted handed to you on a plate (totally legally and morally). What would it take for you to give it all up?
And this doesn’t just refer to financial wealth, either. Consider Hannah, desperate for a child, pleading with God for years, then handing the child she was given back to him and walking away. Consider Paul on the road to Damascus - at the top of his game, a zealot of zealots - walking away, turning his back on everything: his position, his reputation, his pride.
As the writer to the Hebrews shows, over and over - Jesus is better. Jesus is better than everything else we put our hope in. Jesus is better than getting everything we ever wanted. Jesus is better than riches beyond imagining, than our families, our children. Jesus is better.
To give him our all is no sacrifice. It is the gateway to abundant joy.
Keeping It Real
Then this remarkable post about Piper and others who live in his neighbourhood.
Written in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the riots that followed it describes how,
Almost nothing fazes him [Piper] or his wife, Noël, who have been living in a modest house in the under-resourced neighborhood since 1980. They know what to do if they hear gunshots (call 911 and then see if they can help), how to clean up a dozen hypodermic needles from the front porch (use a broom to sweep them up without touching them), and how to scare off someone breaking into your house (open the door and yell at them).
The article concludes,
After 40 years in the neighborhood, Piper would do it all again. “I really believe that preaching the whole counsel of God decade after decade in a way that grows a life-giving church—mingled with regular calls to do crazy things for Jesus, undergirded with big-God theology, and an example of urban presence—makes a big difference.”
Piper’s commitment to Jesus, the church, and the community he serves is compelling and challenging. He hasn’t taken the easier path and moved to the suburbs or developed a lavish lifestyle out of all those book sales. There is an integrity and genuineness about Piper that feels almost unique among church leaders of his renown.
That Piper is such an outlier is tragic. It’s also a reminder that being less high-profile is no bad thing. Who really wants the pressure and publicity of leading a megachurch or leading a globally known ministry? The very thing that many ambitious young pastors desire too often becomes a curse.
Well done John Piper. Well done for keeping it real all these years. Keep on going!
The Answer to Loneliness?
Loneliness is a serious and growing problem. The stats are pretty heartbreaking. One study found that 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely—that’s just slightly more than the population of London or the entire population of Austria. We often think of loneliness as a problem primarily affecting older people, but research published this year suggests that younger men in individualistic societies are the most likely to be lonely. And this is a serious matter, the effect of loneliness on physical health has been shown to be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity, increasing the risk of death by 29%.
Recognising this problem, some scientists are now asking, ‘Can loneliness be cured with a pill?’ The proposal isn’t actually quite as it sounds. The idea, at the moment at least, isn’t to produce a pill that will completely end the experience of loneliness. Some researchers are proposing the use of a hormone that would reduce the anxiety caused by loneliness in the hope that this might bring individuals to a position where they would be more able to work through what might be underlying their experience. Another idea is to use oxytocin, the ‘love hormone’, in an attempt to accelerate the impact of therapy to help loneliness.
Could such treatments help? Perhaps, in a limited way, but I think that we, as Christians, have something to offer that is far better than any pill or hormone. In the gospel, we have the resources to truly tackle the growing problem of loneliness.
The Gospel Response to Loneliness
The gospel allows us to truly connect with others. In Jesus, we are fully known and yet simultaneously fully loved. This is a most wonderful but also most surprising truth. We tend to be acutely aware of the things which make us unlovable and so we find it hard to believe that we could be fully known and fully loved, but the gospel makes that possible. God knows us fully—even better than we know ourselves—and yet, because he has placed us in his son, he loves us fully.
Because this is true, we can be open with others, allowing them to know us fully because we know that we all have unlovable parts and yet, in Jesus, we are more loved than we could ever imagine. We can be open, vulnerable, and honest because we know that our identity is not rooted in a fake version of ourselves that we might try to present to others and in their opinion of us, but is rooted in what God says of us: we are his children. This allows us to have relationships where we are fully known and yet fully loved.
The gospel also gives us the resources to journey through other factors that might make it difficult for us to deeply connect with others: the grief of loss, the pain of rejection, the trauma of abuse, and many other experiences. Where we struggle to connect with others, the gospel brings us into a relationship that is a safe context in which to work through that struggle.
Not only does the gospel enable us to connect with others, it also calls us to do so. The gospel comes with new relational opportunities and responsibilities as we are birthed into a new family. Being a lone ranger isn’t an option as a Christian. We become part of a family in which we are called to love and to be loved, a family where deep friendships, shaped and empowered by the gospel, are formed and nurtured. In the midst of a radically individualistic culture—arguably one of the roots of our loneliness problem—the church should stand out as a community of interdependence.
And, of course, we don’t just have ourselves to offer, we also have Jesus. Now it isn’t true that if we have Jesus we don’t need anyone else; God has made us with a need for relationships with other people as well as with him. But it is true that friendship with Jesus can make a difference in our loneliness. Dane Ortlund summarises this beautifully in his treatment of the friendship of Jesus in Gentle and Lowly: ‘[Jesus] offers us a friendship that gets underneath the pain of our loneliness. While that pain does not go away, its sting is made fully bearable by the far deeper friendship of Jesus’ (p.120).
As church families, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the goodness of the gospel by building communities where every person can be known and loved. As we look around at a lonely society, we can be confident that we have good news and we can offer hope. A pill won’t bring a lasting solution to the loneliness epidemic, but the gospel could.
We’ve Been Here Before: Lessons from the Church’s Responses to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919
While these times are truly unprecedented to us, a look back in history shows that in many ways these times are completely precedented. A century ago the world faced another deadly pandemic - the Spanish Flu. Like today, nearly every person and facet of society was affected by the deadly disease and the resulting upheaval to daily life. And just like today, churches had to respond quickly. Newspaper articles and church records from 1918-1919 reveal that there are stark similarities to how churches responded to the pandemic a century ago.
1. (Most) churches shut down
As state and local governments began to comprehend the scope of the crisis in their jurisdictions, they called for churches to shut down (along with schools, theaters, etc.). Some churches remained opened in defiance of local orders. Most churches were shut from early Oct. 1918 to early December 1918, while some cities had bans on public gatherings until January 1919. The research is unclear about how churches dealt with the ‘second wave’ of infections in 1919.
2. Churches quickly improvised with “home worship”
Churches provided sermon notes and hymn notes and worship materials during the shutdown. Some local newspapers printed sermons in their editions. Pastors provided theological framework for this time as extended Sabbath and a way to disciple one’s family.
3. New technology was quickly utilized to connect safely
Telephones were the Zoom of the day! Homebound people used the phone to greater degrees to connect during the shutdowns at the end of 1918. Home telephones were becoming more popular in the 1910s, but the infrastructure was limited so cities urged citizens to limit their telephone use to emergency only as to not overload the system.
4. Church leaders called for an end to the ban on church gatherings and defended the church’s role in promoting the well-being of the community
There are several examples of church leaders calling for an end to government bans on gathering beginning three weeks after bans were put in place. A Catholic clergyman in Baltimore pleaded on the vital role that churches play in the community by saying, “I am told that a number of calls upon our physicians are simply the result of nervousness, or the consequence of alarm. This might be considerably allayed by the reassurance of religion, and discreet words from our priests given the people in church.”
5. Services were amended for greater safety
A Catholic Bishop in Detroit stated they would be “willing to have their edifices fumigated between meetings, to cut the services to 45 minutes, to employ special ushers, who would eject persons who coughed or sneezed and to require all worshipers entering a church to wear influenza masks” if their city allowed them to reopen.
6. Some argued that banning of church gatherings was a violation of the First Amendment
Many church leaders went to court to argue that the First Amendment right to ‘peacefully assemble’ was violated. Courts by-and-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons and for government entities to reasonably enforce those bans.
7. End times were predicted
Church leaders were predicting that the pandemic would usher in Jesus’ return.
8. Tithes & offerings went down
Appeals to continue giving and to resource a benevolence fund were called for. Church leaders appealed to their congregations for giving and sought to help those who had been affected financially. The Southern Baptist denomination called for a “A 75 Million Campaign” in response to the pandemic. While they fell short of that goal, their combined giving towards missions was 10 times higher than it was in any previous year.
9. Outdoor services were held as a response to government bans
Some churches pivoted quickly to outdoor services, some to the ire of local authorities.
10. Church leaders were divided about reopening and “grumbling” was common
Not all church leaders and churchgoers were in the same accord about church reopenings and “grumblings” among Christians ensued.
11. God’s protection of people against the disease was called into question
One D.C. pastor provided this response, “The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run into danger, and expect God to protect us.”
12. Pastors were extra busy
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin newspaper reported that church closures did not “leave the city’s pastors with any surplus of leisure on their hands. With the faithful encouraged to engage in home worship and read sermons published in newspapers, Protestant and Catholic clergy were instead devoting more of their energy to pastoral care and sick calls.”
Sound familiar? Playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” In this precedented time, there are direct applications we can and should learn from the church’s response 100 years ago:
1. God has been here before
He has led his people through pandemics (and famines, persecutions, wars and natural disasters) before. Decisions church leaders are making today are fraught with challenges and often greeted with hostility; yet in these perilous times we can trust that God is building his Church, sanctifying his people and drawing men and women to himself. His mission has not changed, but our means to fulfill that mission must adapt. For every unprecedented decision we face, let us rely on the faithfulness and wisdom of God.
2. ‘Necessity is the mother of innovation’
Rather than viewing online services, Zoom prayer rooms and outdoor gatherings as a necessary evil until we can go back to ‘normal,’ look for how God is using these forums for gathering and evangelism and seek to implement these innovative opportunities into the future.
3. Avoid conspiracy and end time theories
Those who lived 100 years ago had greater cause to predict Jesus’ return. Between 1914-1918 over 20 million men died and another 21 million were injured in WWI. The war ended in a stalemate and as the armistice was being signed in November of 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic which would eventually kill 50 million worldwide was already lethally under way. End times theories predicted during that time were obviously disproven. Remembering that can help us heed Jesus warning that “concerning that day [of his return] and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mat. 24:36). The Lord calls us to eager readiness, but predictions and conspiracies seem to bear little fruit.
4. “Give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17)
The world is watching the church (even more so online). Paul commends that we “give thought,” so let us take seriously our thoughts, words, deeds and posts to ensure our witness is honorable to Jesus and his Bride. More than ever we need the Spirit’s power to replace our grumbling with gratitude, our frustration with grace, our impatience with patience and our bickering with brotherhood.
5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17)
Church and state tensions have been confounding for Christians for millenia. As each church leader today seeks to faithfully apply the teachings of Jesus, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our times, let us remember that Jesus himself was a victim of the Roman government’s brutal attempts to stamp out Christianity. Jesus’ resurrection proves that a government, no matter how extreme in their tactics, can ultimately not thwart the forward progression of the gospel. With an assured faith let us pray for our government leaders, honor them and as my pastor, Alan Frow says, “use civil disobedience as a last resort rather than a first response.”
(An earlier version of this post appeared on the Roots & Wings blog.)
Saving Our Sorry Souls
This isn’t very surprising: anxiety about the virus itself, worries about employment and income, family stresses, the effects of social isolation, and so on, will all doubtless have contributed to worsening mental health. The concerning thing is how badly equipped we are to respond.
Writing in The Spectator, Melissa Kite makes these observations about sitting in a greasy spoon café and looking at ‘a typical English row of shops’ (it’s worth quoting at length):
It was a rundown block consisting of a betting shop, a hairdresser, a charity shop, a chemist, an off-licence, a tattoo parlour and, right at the end, a ‘wellbeing’ clinic, which I took to be a place selling methods to undo all the damage done in the other places.
It is dawning on me that something is awry about the way we are opening back up after lockdown.
Let me try to explain as follows. The betting shop was open, the hairdresser and tanning salon were open, the off-licence was open, the tattoo parlour was open and the greasy spoon caff was up and doing, coating organs with fat.
However, the wellbeing emporium was locked. Telephone for an appointment via video link.
If you go through a list of what you can and can’t do in this country right now you paint a grim picture of what has been achieved by this virus…The worst of everything is now freely available and being sold with enthusiasm, no risk too great, while the things we need most to save our sorry souls are being carefully rationed.
Churches are just about open for worship but there is no singing. No singing in church, but you can have a man pierce your skin with a tattoo needle.
The pubs are all open, and crammed full, with people pressed up against each other spitting beer into each other’s faces. But should these people hit the bottle hard enough, which they certainly seem to be, they can’t go to an AA meeting.
With the exception of barely half a dozen meetings at a handful of church halls in London, alkies have nowhere to go other than Zoom…But obviously it’s too risky just to sit people on chairs two metres apart so they can talk. This is the unbrave new world we live in. I didn’t like the other one much but now I realise how ungrateful I was.
Churches should definitely feel the sting of this. Yes, there is lots of great stuff we can do online. At my church we have launched a series of courses on Zoom designed to help people build resilience and navigate life effectively. Many churches are doing similar things and there is no doubt being online enables us to connect with and help people we otherwise wouldn’t. But what many people wrestling with mental health issues need – what all of us need – is meaningful physical presence with others.
Perhaps I should have been less surprised that there have been people new to the church at every physical gathering we have had since starting to meet again six weeks ago.
The pandemic has been terrible but before it struck there was already much talk about an epidemic of mental health issues sweeping our nation. Before the pandemic we were in the UK averaging more than 11 suicides per 100,000 of population. That works out at around 18 suicides a day. I doubt that figure has reduced during lockdown.
Yes, we need Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and wellbeing clinics to be open. But most of all we need churches that are engaging in our communities, bringing hope and life where there is so much death and despair. Let’s not ration ‘the things we need most to save our sorry souls’. We can’t leave it to the pubs and tattoo parlours: churches, open your doors!
Polyamory will probably be the next frontier in sexual ethics. (It will be a close-run thing between polyamory and sex robots. The two may actually come to prominence at the same time, whether in parallel or partnership.) It’s a topic we need to start thinking about now.
Acceptance and practice of polyamory are already on the rise and will probably move quickly. As with earlier stages of the sexual revolution, storytelling will play a key part in bringing polyamory into mainstream acceptance. This has already started in series like You Me Her and the BBC’s Wanderlust, and this year the BBC has offered another poly drama, Trigonometry.
The BBC 2 series tells the story of Kieran and Gemma, a couple who take in a lodger, Ramona (known as Ray), to help ease their financial pressures. (Be warned—the rest of the post will contain big spoilers about the series!) Over time, all three characters develop feelings for each other. At first, they are unsure how to handle this, but gradually they accept their feelings and enter into a relationship. By this point, Kieran and Gemma are husband and wife, and so Ray becomes their mutual girlfriend. The later episodes of the series follow the throuple as they navigate the complexities of their relationship and come out to their friends and family.
The portrayal of the relationship might not be what you would expect. Trigonometry portrays what we might dub ‘new polyamory’, not the free love of a sectarian community, but a relationship that probably looks quite like most contemporary secular relationships, just with an additional person. At the heart of new polyamory is not sex but love. (That’s not to say that sex doesn’t feature prominently in the series. It certainly does.)
As we seek to think about polyamory from a Christian perspective, there are several elements of Trigonometry that are worth reflecting upon.
The early episodes of the series portray the trio’s growing desire for each other. While they do wrestle with what to do with these desires, as viewers we’re given a clear sense that the desires will be unstoppable, like a cart hurtling downhill, picking up speed. The outcome is presented as almost obvious, with just social convention standing in the way. Social convention is really the only framework available to them as they seek to evaluate their desires, and social convention is easily overcome by a bit of courage and safety in numbers. The three eventually conclude that these conventions aren’t necessary and that their attraction to each other is too strong to be resisted. The formation of the throuple is presented as the obvious and only available option.
But this is a very dangerous way of handling desires. If desires are all but unstoppable, how can we criticise the person who ignores the need for consent when their desire for sex isn’t being met? And if social convention is the only way to test the legitimacy of a desire, what happens when the dominant group in a society set a convention that allows them to act on desires most people would see as wrong? In this approach to ethics, it’s the powerful who get to dictate what is moral, and later generations then sometimes look back in horror at the desires that were allowed to be fulfilled.
The reality is, we all accept that there are some desires that are not good and must be controlled. And the only safe way for us to evaluate our desires is to have an external authority that gives definition to what is right and wrong, life-giving or destructive. Kieran, Gemma and Ray never stop to consider whether their desires might not be the best guide to finding their best life, and of course, in the fictional world of the series, the writers will give an outcome that suggests they are. Would things work out so well in real life?
Directions of Conformity
One of the threads of the narrative in Trigonometry explores the reactions of the trio’s friends and families. Unsurprisingly, most are rather unsure when they first learn of the new relationship.
This raises the issue of conformity. At this point, if the friendships and family connections are going to be maintained, one side will probably have to conform. In times gone past, Kieran, Gemma and Ray would likely have conformed to the expectations of their friends and family and suppressed their desires. But, as you’d expect in a modern narrative, in the series, it’s actually the friends and family who have to conform to the trio’s desires. On the whole, they do so, but Gemma’s brother struggles to accept the relationship. Inevitably, therefore, he’s presented as a slightly unpleasant, angry, and unenlightened figure. This is a classic modern heroic narrative. The heroes are those who follow their hearts even when others reject them. The baddies are those who question whether the heroes should be following their hearts.
Again though, we all know that our hearts are not a good guide. Is the serial killer who follows the desire of his heart to kill lots of people a hero? Are those who think he should have suppressed that desire the baddies? If not, why not? Obviously, this isn’t to say that conforming to what others think is always right. That would take us back to the social conventions we’ve already dismissed. If we want to know how to live, we need an external authority that knows what’s best for us and to which we can all conform, regardless of our desires or the opinion of others.
When we first meet Kieran and Gemma, their relationship is struggling. Shift work means they barely see each other, financial pressures are getting to them, and cracks are beginning to show. But when Ray arrives and three form a relationship, the tone changes. For Kieran and Gemma, getting a girlfriend saves their relationship.
This is a common idea in poly dramas and among supporters of polyamory. Opening relationships up to additional partners can save a dying relationship.
I can’t help thinking this is a bit naïve. Relationships have issues because we as humans all have issues. Adding another person might help detract from those issues for a time, but chances are they’ll just surface again later. And of course, they’ll be more issues to arise because each new partner will bring their own issues with them. Adding more people won’t save a relationship in the long term. Filling a flowerpot with more flowers doesn’t deal with the weeds. Weeds have to be removed at the roots.
The Inconvenience of Biology
The ending of Trigonometry included a few surprise twists. (Again, major spoiler warning.) Earlier in the series, we find out that Gemma is unable to conceive children. Or so she thought. Much to her surprise, in the final episode, she finds herself to be pregnant. This poses the trio with an interesting situation. Kieran and Gemma have both contributed to the creation of this new life. They are now not only united by marriage but biologically by a child. Ray, of course, has no biological link to the baby.
Gemma’s unapproving brother sees this as obvious proof that the relationship is a bad idea and makes this very clear. To the viewer’s surprise—or at least to my surprise—Ray comes to agree and quietly removes herself from the relationship. I found this fascinating. Even secular people can see that biology orientates us towards and unites us into relationships between one man and one woman. We think we can create any relationship formation we want to, but simple biology would seem to point in a different direction. (This is one of the reasons why we need to reclaim the role of procreation in biblical sexual ethics.)
But then the final shock twist comes in the last scene. We hear a heartbeat, we see an ultrasound picture, the camera pans, and we see Gemma, Kieran—and Ray. The end. There’s no explanation of what has changed. No explanation of how the relationship will function with the imbalance of Kieran and Gemma being united by marriage and parenthood and Ray just being the live-in girlfriend. We are simply left to cheer at the implied happy ending as our heroes ignore not only social convention but also the inconvenience of biology.
Polyamory is coming, in many ways it’s already here, and it’s probably here to stay. All the evidence suggests that polyamory will become widely accepted and that may happen fairly quickly. It’s time for us to start thinking about a Christian response. Stories like Trigonometry will be a powerful influence on the world around us, but every story will also reveal the problems with polyamory. We need to learn to spot those problems and to present the world with another story. A story that is true, good, and life-giving.
On Christian Obedience
Perhaps it is just that I lack the courage of my convictions. Under UK guidelines there are a number of exemptions to wearing facemasks, including if doing so causes ‘severe distress’. Arguably I could claim that one, because wearing a facemask does distress me – partly because I believe it to be a futile gesture, mainly because of the terribly detrimental impact it makes on interpersonal communication. But I think by ‘distress’ the guidelines probably mean experiencing a panic attack rather than the kind of angst I feel. Whatever, in the current climate it would take a brazen moral strength not to wear a mask: we are herd animals, and it is very difficult to go against the herd.
A more positive reason for me conforming to facemask wearing requirements are my convictions around offering obedience to the governing authorities. This is also tied to the sense of responsibility I feel as a church leader – that in my position it is important I am seen to be setting a good example. For the last fifteen years I have often taught classes on Christian ethics and in those sessions have emphasised how Christians owe the state our respect, honour and obedience. We are called to be model citizens, regardless of how we might personally feel about whichever political party is in power at the time and the decisions they make. So if the state asks us to wear facemasks we should do so. End of. We are free to lobby government to change laws with which we disagree, but we are not at liberty to disobey those laws.
Yet when teaching on the relationship between the church and the state I always end by saying that there does come a time when Christians should resist the state. The negative examples of when the church has failed to do this are legion – the obvious standout examples of the last century being the way the majority of the German church acquiesced to the Nazis and those white churches that supported apartheid in South Africa. Who would disagree that their failure to resist was simply a failure? But how do we define where the line is drawn beyond which we should say ‘No!’ to those in authority?
Answering this question from within the broadly Reformed tradition in which I stand my answer runs like this: that it is God’s intention that human authorities should govern in a God honouring way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way, ‘Government, like all created things, is designed and directed towards Jesus Christ. Its goal is Jesus Christ himself. Its purpose is to serve him.’ This means we have an obligation to speak out when government acts in a way that fails to serve Jesus. The church should resist any move by the state which might directly or indirectly suppress the freedom of the Word of God, because if we are not free to declare the Word of God then we are not free to intercede for the state, and we would fail in our first responsibility towards the state, which is to pray for it. Christians would, in fact, become enemies of the state if, when the state threatened their freedom, they did not resist!
The obvious biblical example of this was when the Apostles were commanded not to preach about Jesus, and responded by saying, “Should we obey men or God?” (Acts 4:19).
When government seeks to curtail Christian freedom – whenever it starts to dictate what churches may and may not do – it damages itself and should thus be resisted. This is expressed in the Barmen declaration, the classic document of Christian resistance to the state, written in response to the Nazification of much of the German church:
The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
So what of facemasks?
In a context where we are still free to proclaim the gospel it might seem that we have not yet crossed the line where we should disobey the state. We can still put our messages online. I’m not going to be arrested for posting on this blog. We are now permitted to gather again.
And yet, and yet…
We are still not permitted to sing praises to God when we gather, even from behind our masks. I don’t know how we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper when we are masked. I haven’t yet worked out how we baptise people and adhere to social distancing rules. This is serious. And any failure of Christians to grasp how serious is a theological issue rather than an political one.
It does feel as though the decisions the government has made are significantly limiting, if not entirely preventing, us from ‘delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.’ So is it time to resist? Is it time to remove the masks?
I’m not there yet. At the moment I’m still being obedient - and if someone were to refuse to wear a mask in one of our gatherings simply out of stroppiness we would ask them to leave. To do otherwise would feel a huge step. But I think it’s time to at least start debating the question.
What do you think? Why are you obedient?
Looking Death in the Face
Of course, the sting of this joke is that it is true. You. Will. Die. The death rate has never shifted from 100%.
For all our contemporary educational achievements the ability of the general population to read statistics and assess risk is notoriously low – a lack of numeracy which is unlikely to be improved by the long gap in education caused by schools being shut for much of this academic year.
A poll conducted across a number of countries reveals the extent to which people overestimate the impact of coronavirus. In the UK people think that 7% of the population have died from the virus – which would represent around 4.5 million deaths rather than the 46,000 there have actually been. In the US the estimate is put at a staggering 9% death rate, 225 times the real number. If true this would mean around 30 million deaths from covid in the US – which would be 22 times the number of Americans who have died in all conflicts since 1775.
That’s statistically significant.
So the number of covid related deaths is much lower than is generally thought, but still, the fact that tens of thousands have died should cause us to look death in the face. Death is all around.
In a ‘normal’ year the UK would expect 70,000 people to die from respiratory diseases, 140,00 from cancer and 160,000 from heart disease. (It is also salutary to consider that last year England and Wales saw the highest number of abortions performed – 207,000 – since the Abortion Act was introduced in 1968.)
I have had pushback from people when listing the many things that are likely to kill us: that somehow it is ‘disrespectful’ to say it when people are dying of covid. But then why are the daily updates on covid-deaths not disrespectful of those (a far greater number) dying from other causes? Pointing out that you are more likely to die of heart disease or a traffic accident than covid is not to deny the reality that covid kills people – rather, the reality of this should be something that forces us all to look death in the face, not shy away from it. Something’s going to get you: death comes to us all.
The biblical writers don’t shy away from this reality. Of course, the Bible was composed in eras when death was much more obvious than it is in our sanitised age. People died younger, of nastier diseases, more publicly. Yet the Biblical approach to death is not fearful but hopeful, leading the apostle Paul to write extraordinary things like these:
We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:21-24)
Death comes to us all, but for the Christian the hope is always of resurrection:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
Covid might just get you, though it will almost certainly be something else. But whatever the cause of your mortal demise, faith in Christ means being able to look death in the face. Death comes to us all but the hope of resurrection is glorious!
Preaching the Gospel in the 20s
The gospel is unchanging. In every time, every place and for every person, the gospel is the power of God for salvation. And yet times, places and people do change, and sometimes, in light of these changes, we have to find new ways to communicate the gospel.
The changes in Western culture over the past few decades have been huge. The dominant culture is no longer significantly shaped by Christian beliefs. A majority of those who aren’t followers of Jesus have absolutely no understanding of real Christian belief. They are not the dechurched (with some past church or Christian experience) but the unchurched (with no past church or Christian experience). They are not atheists influenced by Dawkins. Many are actually very spiritual; they may believe in God or some concept of the divine and are probably quite open to ideas about the supernatural. They are less likely to be radical rationalists who are happy with the idea that life is meaningless and are likely to be interested in the big questions of life.
These are all generalisations of course, but I think they are true enough to say that the context in which God has placed us to preach the gospel is somewhat different to that of a few decades ago where we were pushing back against new atheism but could usually assume some level of Christian preunderstanding and a concept of guilt and sin.
How do we preach the gospel in this context? I think one approach is to show how the gospel can answer the questions people are already asking. There are certain questions that are just human – almost all of us will ask them at some point. There are others that are linked to the particular preoccupations of our time and place.
I recently attempted to tackle two of these questions in a way that might connect with those who are not yet followers of Jesus. My hope was to show how the Christian answers to these questions make more sense, are more beautiful and more life-giving than the secular alternatives, and then to share the gospel in the key of each question (all in under 20 mins). I don’t claim that they are perfect, but I found the exercise of tackling the questions with this aim really helpful. Maybe you will too.
Question 1: Why on earth am I here?
I think this is a human question, something all of us will ask at some point in our lives, or at very least it’s a question that we can all agree it is worth asking.
Question 2: How can I be true to myself?
This is a question that is particularly prominent in our day and age, especially among younger generations.
THINK 2021: Peter Leithart, Theological History, 1&2 Kings, and the Post-Christian West
Perhaps the richest attempt to do this is found in 1&2 Kings: the account of how Israel went from prosperity under a united monarchy to the disaster of idolatry, division, and finally exile. It is a story that, beyond the gripping tales of Elijah and Elisha, many Christians do not know very well (or preach from very often). But it is also a story full of pointed warnings, dramatic victories and gospel hope. If we read it carefully, it gives us more than a narrative of what happened to Israel. It gives us a way of thinking about what has happened - and what is happening, and what will happen - to us.
And that is what we need to make sense of our own era. The last five hundred years have seen dramatic transformations in the Western world, and the pace of change does not appear to be slowing. We need to understand our times. We need a prophetic account of our story, in which God’s perspective on human history shapes ours. We need theological history.
So in July 2021, we are going to bring together Peter Leithart, 1&2 Kings, and the history of the post-Christian West, and see what happens. Peter is President of the Theopolis Institute in Alabama, and the author of dozens of books and commentaries (including one on 1&2 Kings, which I regard as the best commentary on any biblical book I have read). He is also an incisive and near-polymathic interpreter of contemporary philosophy and culture, which makes him an ideal speaker for this topic. I will host the conference and speak a bit myself, and there may be a guest appearance or two as well.
Practically, the conference takes place in London from 6-8 July, starting at 3pm on Tuesday and finishing at lunchtime on Thursday (lunches and evening meals are provided), and costs £150 per delegate or £225 per couple.
Come. Take time. Be refreshed. Think.
West African Worship in the Tenth Century?
So the idea that we might have a picture (see above) of Central and West Africans worshipping Jesus, dated to the tenth century and beautifully preserved on the wall of a Nubian cave, is fairly exciting:
This nativity painting contained typical images including Mary and child, shepherds, and angels. However, to the right of Mary and the baby Jesus is a unique painting of Africans worshiping the birth of the Saviour wearing animal crest masks and loin cloths and holding percussive instruments. It is believed that these Africans may have belonged to the Bambara tribe which later occupied much of modern Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal. This painting represents early evangelisation efforts from the Nile Valley Christians of Nubia to cultures further south and west in the African continent. The gospel had already been spreading along the Nile River from Egypt to Nubia and then Ethiopia. This painting represents the continued spread of the gospel from Africans to neighbouring Africans.
For now, experts are not sure how to read the inscriptions in Old Nubian that you can see in the picture. Nor are they sure whether these are Bambara people (though it seems likely), nor whether they (and the gospel they believed) ended up in what is now Mali, Niger, Ghana or Senegal. But, as Bantu puts it, “this painting raises the intriguing potential of Western and Central African Christians before the advent of Western colonialism.”
Are You Becoming a Transhumanist?
Technology may be reshaping us so that we will readily accept the philosophy and practices of transhumanism and posthumanism. That’s the basic thesis of Transhumanism and the Image of God by Jacob Shatzer, and I think he’s right.
Shatzer isn’t putting forward some wacky conspiracy theory about Silicon Valley’s bid to take over the world; he’s actual reasoning from the reality of discipleship. (Hence the book’s subtitle: Today’s Technology and the Future of Christian Discipleship.) Drawing on the idea that we are primarily lovers and that our loves are shaped through our habits (citing James K.A. Smith, of course), Shatzer argues that our use of technology has the potential to change us in deep ways even without our awareness. As he puts it, ‘Humans make tools, but tools also make humans’ (p.37). This reality provides a key way for Christians to evaluate technology. We shouldn’t only assess what new technology does or how it does it, we should also assess what it will do to us as we use it.
When we assess modern technology in this way, we find that technology tends to draw us into liturgies of control that teach us to value control as the ultimate good. This valuing of control is a key tenet of transhumanism and posthumanism and so we may be being primed to accept these philosophies without even knowing it. As Christians, since this liturgy of control clashes with the biblical vision of the good life, we must learn to become aware of how technology is shaping us, make decisions that will manage this shaping, and engage in counter-practices that will orientate our hearts towards love of God and love of our neighbour.
After the opening two chapters, which outline Shatzer’s approach to the formative power of technology (ch. 1) and offer an introduction to transhumanism (ch. 2), the next three chapters explore some key elements of transhumanism: morphological freedom (ch. 3), augmented reality (ch. 4), and artificial intelligence and mind uploading (ch.6). Each of these chapters defines the element and explores its place within transhumanism before offering a critique. For each, Shatzer also looks at the ways the practices many of us are already engaged in may be preparing us to accept the more extreme expressions of these elements in transhumanism. These sections are enlightening but also slightly unnerving.
The subsequent chapters explore four big questions that are raised by the use of modern technology: What is real? (ch.6); Where is real? (ch. 7); Who is real? (ch. 8); Am I real? (ch.9). Each of these chapters offers an exploration of the way technology is changing our answer to the question and then reflects on how Christian themes and practices can offer a counterbalance.
I found every part of Shatzer’s book enlightening and engaging. He engages with an impressive range of writers and offers some very insightful analysis. If there is a weakness to Transhumanism and the Image of God it is probably in the discussions of Christian counter-practices since these tend to be weak on concrete, applicable ideas. However, the final chapter (ch. 10) goes some way to making up for this, offering four very practical counter-practices and four small steps every Christian can take to better evaluate and engage with technology.
I expected Transhumanism and the Image of God to increase my understanding of transhumanism and to equip me with a good Christian critique of the movement. It has done that, but even more it has caused me to think about my own use of technology and the influence it has in my life. This, to me, is an example of the best type of book, one that has helped my understanding, will hugely influence my teaching, and has equipped me to become a better follower of Jesus.
THINK 2020 Sessions Now Online
Did God Cause the Coronavirus?
So was it? And did he? And what do we make of God if what John Piper says about him is true?
Let's road-test this conclusion by comparing it to what the Bible teaches us in the first chapter of the book of Job.
The book of Job is one of many ancient writings that philosophers refer to as a theodicy. The Greek words theos and dike mean God and justice, so a theodicy is an attempt to put God on trial for all the suffering in the world and to vindicate his righteousness. A theodicy is an attempt to answer the dilemma which was expressed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
“Either God wishes to take away evil, but he is unable; or God is able to take away evil, but he is unwilling; or God is neither willing nor able to take away evil; or God is both willing and able to take away evil. Well then, if he is willing and unable, then he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, then he is malevolent, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, then he is both malevolent and feeble. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, then where does evil come from and why doesn’t he rid the world of evil?”
Almost two thousand years later, the English philosopher David Hume was still struggling with the same dilemma:
“Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
The book of Job is one of many ancient theodicies, which gave an answer to this dilemma. It attempts to answer the big question which many of us have been asking throughout our present coronavirus crisis. But the book of Job differs fundamentally from all the other theodicies. For a start, it is much longer. The book of Job never tries to offer us glib answers or easy short-cuts through our pain and confusion. It never tries to fob us off with clichés or with the cheery quotations that clog up many of our Facebook feeds. It insists that we must go on a slow journey through the land of suffering if we want to emerge on the other side with answers real enough to answer a dilemma that has taxed the greatest minds in history.
An even bigger difference is that the book of Job never tries to make excuses for God. It doesn’t try to dodge our questions or to blame somebody else for what happens in the world. The Dispute Between a Man and His Soul (Egypt, c.1850BC) ends without giving the man any real explanation for his suffering. His soul simply promises to try a little harder to make him happy. The Dialogue Between a Man and His God (Babylon, c.1650BC) sounds in places like the book of Job (“A young man was weeping to his god like a friend, constantly praying … I do not know what sin I have committed!”) but it also offers little in the way of real explanation. The man’s idol never explains why he is suffering. Once he feels better, it simply warns him, “Now you must never forget your god until the end of time!”
The same is true of The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer (Babylon, c.1300BC), where a man loses his possessions and his health, while remaining convinced he has done nothing to offend his god. When he recovers, he attributes his healing to his idol but remains none the wiser for his pains. He never advances beyond the confusion he expresses early on in the poem: “I wish I knew what was pleasing to a god! What seems good to oneself could be an offence to a god. What in one’s heart seems detestable could be good to one’s god. Who then can grasp the reasoning of the gods?!” The sufferer in The Babylonian Theodicy (Babylon, c.1000BC) fares even worse. We are not even told that his god delivers him. His complaint that “Those who neglect the god go the way of prosperity, while those who pray to the goddess are impoverished and dispossessed” evokes some sympathy from his friend, but it is met with stony silence from heaven.
The book of Job is fundamentally different from all of these pagan theodicies because it never seeks to dodge our questions and or to make excuses for the Lord. Although there are clearly forces at work in Job’s life that exonerate God, the writer never uses them to downplay God’s role in the drama. He makes it abundantly clear that the Lord is the one who is in control. He tells us unequivocally in Job 1:12 that “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’”
The writer could have passed the blame onto Satan. After all, a literal reading of verse 12 makes it clear that the hand behind Job’s suffering isn’t God’s. It is Satan’s. “Look, everything he has is in your hand, but on him you shall not stretch out your hand.” Yet the writer never tries to use this to disguise the Lord’s own role in Job’s sufferings. He deliberately ignites our sense of outrage by recording God’s conversation with Satan in the most unflattering of terms. When the Lord asks literally in verse 8, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?”, the writer makes the two of them sound a bit like the callous company directors who wreck Dan Ackroyd’s life for the sake of a wager in the movie Trading Places. It is Satan who is at work here, plotting evil against the innocent, but the writer is honest with us that the Lord could stop him in a moment.
The writer could also pass the blame onto Job. After all, he is part of a human race which has given Satan legitimate authority to inflict suffering on the earth. Had there been no Fall, there would be no suffering. Whenever we point the finger at God, we are therefore pointing three fingers back at ourselves. We see this in 1 Kings 22:19-23, which echoes these verses in Job, where the Israelites reject God’s truth and decide to embrace lies, so the Lord grants permission to a deceiving spirit to go out and lead them astray. The Israelites reap what they have sown. They get what their deeds deserve. But the writer of the book of Job doesn’t use this principle to make excuses for the Lord. He reasserts in verse 8 that Job is entirely innocent. Satan, the Great Accuser and Fault-Finder, can find no legitimate grounds for any accusation in the life of Job.
Instead of blaming the Devil or humanity as a whole, the writer emphasises the Lord’s sovereignty over all the suffering that befalls Job. This courtroom scene portrays no clash of equals. The Devil’s very presence betrays that he knows, deep down, that he can only act on God’s say-so. The way he sulks about Job’s worship betrays that he lacks God’s omnipotence. The way he has just returned from a reconnaissance mission throughout the earth betrays the fact that he lacks God’s omniscience and omnipresence too. Even when he receives permission from the Lord to torment Job, it comes with very strict parameters. He is like a dog on a leash. In the words of Martin Luther, he is “God’s Satan”. He is a defeated foe, who knows he will never be permitted to tempt one of God’s children beyond what they can bear. He is like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo complains to Gandalf, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”, the old wizard gently replies: “Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand … For even the very wise cannot see all ends … My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.” In the same way that an act of Gollum’s wickedness enables Frodo to succeed in his mission at the end, the Lord only gives the Devil enough rope with which to hang himself.
Based on the book of Job, at least, John Piper’s statement rings entirely true. The writer does not try to dodge our question about why the Lord allows suffering in our coronavirus-blighted world. He makes no excuses for him. He doesn’t hide behind the Devil’s wickedness or the fact that we have given him legitimate grounds to work his mischief in our world. He simply asserts that God is wise enough to use Satan’s evil actions to perform his greater good. He simply assures us that, at the end of time, when we see things far more clearly than the brief glimpse we are given in these verses, we will worship the Lord for his wisdom and confess that what Romans 8:28 says is true: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
God is so good that he can use great evil for an even greater good. Admittedly, from where we find ourselves right now in the story, it seems pretty hard to grasp what that good might eventually be. Many of us have had COVID-19. Some of us have friends who have died. Most of us have been caught up in the economic hurricane. All of us have experienced the pain and loss of months of lockdown. And yet, in the midst of our suffering, the Lord invites us to find our comfort in his total sovereignty over all that has happened to us. Since God permitted the coming of the coronavirus, we can rest assured that we will see the wisdom of God’s judgment vindicated gloriously in the end.
I can’t quite see yet what that vindication will entail, but then I couldn’t see how sparing Gollum would help the Frodo to succeed in his mission the first time I read The Lord of the Rings either. Nor could I see why God would let the Devil strike down Job the first time that I read the Bible. There’s a lot that I don’t see about God’s wisdom in the world. But what I do see from the book of Job is that John Piper’s conclusion brings genuine comfort to us all.
“The coronavirus was sent, therefore, by God … It is a bitter season. And God ordained it.”
This blog has been adapted from a chapter Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Job: Why Does God Allow Suffering?”.
Epicurus died in 270BC, so most of his writings are too ancient to have survived. We know that he wrote these words because he is quoted by Lactantius in c.315AD in his treatise On The Anger of God (13.20-21).
David Hume wrote this in 1779 in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
For more on how human sin gave the Devil legitimate authority over humanity, see Luke 4:5-7, John 12:31, John 14:30, Ephesians 2:2 and Ephesians 4:27.
This conversation between Frodo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey takes place in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (1954).
Fat Supplies in the Office
One of the things that gets slightly ignored in the argument about productivity is this. During lockdown, we all lived of our fat supplies (if you see what I mean). We built up human relationships with our colleagues that enabled us to speak to each other, but obviously as time goes on, those atrophy. And if you think about what we know about creativity, and where good ideas come from, they come from spontaneity: people talking to each other, people having discussions, people making breakthroughs. That is why you have the cluster effect in economics. And I think there is a real danger to the UK economy, which is heavily dependent on London as a global hub in so many ways: if that London cluster loses its lustre, and its ability to generate ideas and innovation because you’ve not got people bumping into each other and spontaneity and all of those other things, that is going to be very bad for the UK economy in the long term.
My office is seventy miles from my home, so in some ways lockdown has been pretty convenient. But offices are places to build up relational and creative fat supplies (as well as being critical for new staff to integrate, make connections, learn the ropes, and get useful things done). Worth considering.
Is Old Testament Law Good To Women?
I've been reading through the pentateuchal law recently, and if I'm really honest, there are points which make me wince. Prominent among these are some of the laws relating to women. I'm sure I'm not alone in this instinctive discomfort.
How should we handle this sort of instinctive reaction? I think my response has two parts.
First, I recognise that the problem almost certainly lies in me and not in the God-given law. I start with this assumption because everything I know about God—and supremely what he’s revealed through the sacrifice of his son—tells me that I should expect his law to be good, just, and life-giving. I therefore need to explore why I’m having this reaction.
There are two ways in which the problem can be at my end. It might be that my priorities and my understanding of what is best are different from God’s. In these cases, I need to challenge my own assumptions and bring them into line with God’s truth. But sometimes the problem isn’t in my existing beliefs but in my understanding of the law. My instinctive discomfort is sometimes a very good thing. If my understanding of the law and its implications pits it against key principles that are right and good and which I should value, then my reaction is good. But I can’t stop there, I also need to seek to better understand the law.
And this is where the second part of my response to this instinctive discomfort with some of the Old Testament laws comes in. I have to do some work to better understand the law. When we read the Old Testament we are like tourists overhearing a conversation among locals. The potential for misunderstanding is huge, and so we have to do some work to learn to understand the conversation as a local would.
One thing that has really helped me to hear the laws about women more like a local than a tourist is a discussion between Preston Sprinkle and Sandra Richter. Sandra is the Robert H. Gundry Chair of Biblical Studies at Westmont College and her discussion with Preston provides a brilliant introduction to how we should approach difficult laws as well as some excellent explanations of some problematic examples, including Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and Deuteronomy 21:10-14. It’s well worth an hour and a bit of your time.
Book of Genesis (Matt 1:1; Gen 2:4; 5:1)
Son of Abraham (Matt 1:17; Gen 12-26)
Joseph the Dreamer (Matt 1:18-25; Gen 37)
King kills children (Matt 2:13-15; Ex 1-2)
Deliverer rescued, flees, leaves Egypt (Matt 2:14; Ex 2)
Deliverer returns to the land (Matt 2:19-23; Ex 3-4)
Prophet announces judgment (Matt 3:1-12; Ex 5-12)
Passing through the waters (Matt 3:13-17; Ex 14-15)
Temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11; Ex 17-19)
Assistant leaders appointed (Matt 4:18-22; Ex 18)
Teaching delivered on a mountain (Matt 5-7; Ex 20 - Num 10)
Crowds leave the mountain (Matt 8:1; Num 10:11)
Healing of leprosy (Matt 8:2-4; Num 12:1-16)
Ten miracles (Matt 8-9) versus ten plagues (Ex 7-10) and ten rebellions (Num 14)
Opposition from Jewish leaders (Matt 9:34; Num 16)
Sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36; Num 27:27)
Commission of twelve apostles/spies into the land (Matt 10:1ff; Num 13-14)
Instructions for mission (Matt 10; Deut 1-26; Josh 1-5)
Rest provided (Matt 11:25-30; Josh 11)
Jesus as David (Matt 12:1-28; 1 Sam 15-21)
- Compassion, not sacrifice
- Showbread on the Sabbath
- Persecuted by leaders
- Exorcisms by the Spirit
Jesus as Solomon (Matt 12:42-13:52; 1 Kgs 8-10)
- Queen of Sheba
- Greater than Solomon
- Speaks wisdom in parables
- Old and new treasures in the house
Murderous king and queen: Herod/Herodias (Matt 14:1-12) and Ahab/Jezebel (1 Kgs 19-21)
Jesus as Elisha
- Departure of John/Elijah (Matt 14:1-12; 2 Kgs 2)
- Multiplied loaves (Matt 14:13-21; 2 Kgs 4:42-44)
- Miraculous floating on water (Matt 14:22-33; 2 Kgs 6:1-7)
- Sidonite woman’s child is healed (Matt 15:21-28; 1 Kgs 17; 2 Kgs 4)
- Food miracles (Matt 15:32-39; 2 Kgs 4:38-44)
- Greater than Elijah (Matt 16:13 - 17:13; 2 Kgs 2-10)
- Disciples/Gehazi cannot heal (Matt 17:14-21; 2 Kgs 4:29-31)
- Bizarre miracle (Matt 17:24-27; 2 Kgs 2-10)
Move into Judea (Matt 19:1; 2 Kgs 11)
Triumphal entry (Matt 21:1-11; 2 Kgs 9)
Cleansing of temple (Matt 21:12; 2 Kgs 10-12)
Jesus as Jeremiah
- “Den of robbers” (Matt 21:13; Jer 7:11)
- Withered fig tree (Matt 21:18-21; Jer 8:13)
- Vineyard parable (Matt 21:33-46; Jer 12:10-11)
- Temple sermon (Matt 23; Jer 7, 26)
Olivet sermon (Matt 24-25; Ezek 8-11)
Exile and Death
- Blood of the covenant and remission of sins (Matt 26:28; Jer 31:27-40)
- Rejection of the innocent prophet (Matt 26-27; Jer 26)
- Suffering servant (Matt 27; Isa 53)
- Gall, cup of judgment and abuse from passers-by (Matt 27; Lam 1-5)
Resurrection (Matt 28; Isa 25-26, 54-55; Ezek 36-37; Dan 12)
Commissioned by the king (Matt 28:16-20; 2 Chr 36)
To Meet or Not to Meet
There’s no doubt that the current situation creates plenty of scope for tensions and division. Some are racing to get back to normal, think the world got shut down for the sake of a cold, and cannot understand the caution of others. Those others fear a second spike, reimposed lockdowns and the possibility of succumbing to the virus themselves. In these circumstances it is easier to think badly of others than well of them. (Brett McCracken’s comments on this from earlier in lockdown are still about the most helpful thing I have seen.)
These dynamics are at play within local churches. Some church members think public services should be getting back to normal while others consider it irresponsible to meet in this way. Friends of mine in those regions of the US where meetings are permitted but facemasks required have sorrowfully told me about the divisions this is causing in their congregations, between those who obediently wear masks and those who refuse to.
There is also the potential for division between churches. If a church up the road from you opens its doors when you haven’t what does that communicate? I’m already hearing stories of church members hopping between churches because they prefer the approach to reopening of another congregation to that being followed in their own.
So, what should we do?
The arguments against reopening are strong. As things stand at the moment – in the UK at least – we are permitted to gather, with as many people as a building can contain while maintaining social distancing; yet the restrictions imposed on those gatherings are substantial: no singing, no voices raised above a low level, limited opportunity for socialising and chatting before or after services, expectations around hand washing/sanitising and cleaning, the complexity of children’s ministry, the elderly and those shielding not meant to attend… Is it really worth the bother?
But the arguments for opening are also strong. As one Anglican friend who has restarted his Sunday services put it to me, what does it communicate if people can go to the pub for a pint and to the hairdressers for a trim but the churches remain closed? Yes, we’ve all been reminded during this time of the spirituality of the church: that the church is not a building. But we have also been reminded that we are meant to meet together, as living stones of a spiritual house, and it is weird when we don’t. Don’t our communities need to see that the church is still in action?
As well as the practical issues, the decision of when to reopen will reflect the theology and ecclesiology of a local church. For example, those who think online communion an oxymoron will probably be quicker to regather than those who consider it a legitimate option.
Also highlighted is the difference it makes whether or not a congregation owns a building. For those who meet in rented facilities the decision has been taken out of their hands.
At my church we’ve made the decision to start gathering again. We did a test meeting on Wednesday evening, with around thirty of us there. We had led prayers and a message that was recorded to be shown in our online service this Sunday. It felt a bit odd but also wonderful to be together. And it was a huge relief to me to preach to some living people rather than just to camera for the first time in four months. We’re doing another gathering like this next Wednesday and from there deciding whether to ramp things up with more mid-week gatherings and maybe something on Sundays too. We’re also in the process of surveying the congregation about their preferences on all this.
Predictably, our survey is showing a split in opinion – even within our leadership team, even within marriages. Some want to meet, now, others want to continue online until we can meet with fewer restrictions. All of which simply illustrates that there are good people on both sides of the argument – and how key it is we each recognise the goodness of others, even if they disagree with us.
I read Titus 3 this morning. It gives us a helpful framework for how we approach all this,
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.
Meeting or not meeting, let’s be faithful to that.
Cities of Anxiety
What Jesus says here is not wisdom from most perspectives. Don’t be anxious. Think about birds. Look at the grass. No wonder so many have read the gospel as the story of a first-century flower child, an ancient hippy, a Cynic. He seems to be telling us to get out of the rat race and spend out time chasing butterflies. And he does seem to be doing a bit of that. His instructions depend on the fact that a new world has erupted in the midst of the old. A new kingdom and a new king are being heralded in the midst of the corruptions of worldly kingdoms, a new city in the midst of the old cities. The Old City is a city of anxiety.
For Jesus, anxiety is not just a feeling or emotion that we privately experience. It is that. But it is also the organising principle of a world, a structure and a regime, a master and a power. Anxiety is the ether of the world outside the kingdom of God. Anxiety keeps the stores open 24/7. Anxiety keeps the highways busy until the wee hours of the morning. Anxiety keeps people working late at the office. Anxiety is what builds the skyscrapers. Anxiety is what drives consumer spending.
Anxiety is driven by a very simple insight, the insight that we are limited creatures, and the particular fact that the future sets the boundary of our limitations … If you know that you can’t manage the future, and yet you try to manage the future, there can be only one result: anxiety. This is the way of the world, and it’s what drives the Gentiles to “eagerly seek” food, clothing, drink, success, and all the rest.
Jesus invites us into a new world ... And the kingdom which is God’s future world arriving in the present is not driven by anxiety but by trust, because within this kingdom we know that the future is secure. We know that God has everything under control. We know that God is our heavenly Father who will care for us. Jesus’ wisdom is wisdom only if that is true.
- Peter Leithart, The Gospel of Matthew Through New Eyes, 157-159
I’d never really thought of that word, ‘remembrance’ before. I just dismissed it as a weird, churchy way of saying ‘memory’.
Then I read this, by Rachel Wilson (whose husband occasionally writes on this blog ;-) ):
To remember means literally to re-member. To take the disparate limbs of our memories and reconstruct a coherent body, and to do so in a way in which makes sense (to us at least).
As Christians we bring not just our own individual memories (the painful and the haunting, the joy-filled and the mortifying) to this re-membering exercise but we are also invited to fit these memories within a far bigger story, a communal memory.
Did you hear the lightbulb click on?
To remember is to put the broken pieces of the body back together again, but not just to do it in our own, fallible, individualistic way, but to join the pieces together with all the remembrances of the saints through the ages. And in fact, with the remembrances of God himself:
Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and his remembrance, his love is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love and we remember. The Church, in its separation from “this world”, on its journey to heaven, remembers the world, remembers all men, remembers the whole of creation, takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.
(Seen in a tweet by Charles Meeks, quoting from For the Life of the World by Radner and Schmemann.)
Jesus’ body, like the bread, was broken, and in some mysterious way, as we divide it among ourselves, and eat it, remembering, we participate in putting it back together again, in restoring God to his rightful place in our hearts, and working towards the time when all things are restored, when Christ’s body at last dwells together in unity.
So yeah, I’m looking forward to church reopening and the body (re)building act of communion being possible again.
Salvation in Esther 9: Israel, Xerxes and Us (Guest Post from David Shaw)
The Book of Esther clearly identifies the salvation of God’s people as its primary topic. But in these last chapters, more is in play that often goes unspoken. Alongside the salvation of God’s people, you also have the (admittedly temporary) salvation of Xerxes and his rule of the Persian Empire. Follow along with me working backwards through the text of Esther to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
We are told in Esther 9:6–10 that 800 men within Susa’s citadel were killed. That is, there are 800 men within the corridors of power who had sided with Haman’s edict and were committed to the destruction of the Jews including Esther and Mordecai. Why does this matter? Well, Esther is, of course, married to Xerxes. So, if after 9 months––the time it took for Haman and Mordecai’s edicts to come into effect (see Est 3:7; 8:9–14)––you’ve chosen to side with Haman and go after the Jewish people, you’re also going up against Queen Esther and the Prime Minister, Mordecai.
And if you’re aiming to take out the queen and her right-hand man, you aren’t going to stop there are you? You can’t buddy up to the king after killing his wife and much-favoured PM! Put simply, a coup d’état is in the works. The end game is that Haman’s co-conspirators are going after Xerxes and his throne. The attempted genocide of God’s people is a step along the way to seeing Xerxes removed from power and almost certainly killed. The narrative of Esther provides clues earlier in the text that this is indeed the case.
Esther 6, for example, presents Haman exposing his own royal pretensions by expressing a desire to wear the king’s robes and ride the king’s horse (vv. 7–9). Taken together with the death of 800 citadel men who enacted Haman’s edict (Esther 9), and it’s not a stretch to suggest that before his death, Haman had built an allegiance that would back him for the crown.
Now for the irony: our introduction to Haman (Esther 3) finds him seeking the destruction of the Jewish people by getting in king’s ear: “There is a certain people dispersed…in all the provinces of your kingdom who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from . . . all other people . . . and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them” (v. 8). However, as the narrative unfolds, it is the Jews whom Haman had suggested “it [was] not in the king’s best interest to tolerate” who, by defending themselves, ensured that Xerxes’ was saved and that his rule would endure. This point is of a kind with Mordecai’s own efforts to save Xerxes earlier in the narrative (Est 2:19–23).
In other words, it is the people of God’s successful fight for survival that ensures the survival of Xerxes’ own reign. And if you are faced with Xerxes or Haman to rule over you, you’d take Xerxes every time. He may be fickle, but he’s less likely to kill you any time soon, especially with Esther as his queen, and Mordecai at his right hand. All of this might lead one to wonder, therefore, if Haman was involved in the plot to assassinate Xerxes back in Esther 2. The narrator doesn’t say, but the prospect is tantalizing.
As such, we can say legitimately that the victory of God’s people over their enemies leads not only to their salvation, but also the salvation of Xerxes and his empire (at least for the time being).
It is also worth adding that in the 9 months during which the edicts of Haman and Mordecai hang over the Persian Empire, all the people were faced with a choice: should they side with Haman, or should they side with Esther, Mordecai, and the people of God? Will they wage war, or pursue peace? It is a liminal space between the edict and its enactment, between judgment and salvation.
Judgment is found in opposing God’s people and his chosen mediators (in this case, Esther and Mordecai) while salvation and redemption is found in granting one’s allegiance to God’s mediators and his people. Haman’s fall and Mordecai’s rise hint at the victory of God’s people to come. As such, nobody who dies in the battle of Esther 9 is innocent. Each person had 9 months to determine the side on which they would fight. Those who chose to stand with Haman by taking up arms against God’s mediators and his people shared in his tragic fate.
In closing, the kind of choice that faced the Persian Empire during those 9 months is analogous to that which Moses articulated to Israel in Deut 30:19: “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”. Strangely enough, this is the same question that every person must answer for themselves when presented with the gospel of Jesus. Like God’s people in Esther, our own lives are lived in that liminal space between judgment and salvation. God has provided a Mediator in Jesus who gave his life for our redemption and desires our allegiance. The question that remains is, will we grant him that allegiance?
Until seeing it in Bruner’s commentary on John (which, BTW, is terrific: you should read it) I don’t think I had ever previously spotted that the only person who brings sight to the blind is Jesus. We have accounts of eyes being opened to see angels (2 Kings 6:17) and of the seeing made blind (Acts 13:11) but no Old Testament prophet or New Testament apostle gives sight to the blind. Only Jesus does that. And more than that, healing the blind is the miracle Jesus performs more than any other.
Perhaps we can assume that the blind were healed when the apostles did ‘many’ (Acts 2:43) and ‘extraordinary’ (Acts 19:11) miracles. If so, did Luke simply forgot to record this or is something else going on?
Bruner quotes Barrett’s observation that, “mankind is not by nature receptive of the light. Man is spiritually blind from birth.” Perhaps the fact that only Jesus is recorded as healing the blind is intentional: scripture pointing out – for those who have eyes to see it – that Jesus is the only one who can deliver us from our blindness and bring us into the light.
That seems the likely explanation to me. But it also reminds me that no matter how often one has read it, there are always things in scripture that remain unseen and waiting to be discovered. Jesus, open our eyes!
Discipling Young People On Gender
How can we help children and young people to navigate the changing understanding of gender in our society? What does it look for us–whether as parents, church family, youth leaders, or pastors–to care for and disciple young people on the topic of gender? Well, perhaps surprisingly, I think a recent article in The Guardian can help us.
Earlier this week, I posted some reflections on non-binary gender identities, drawing on the opening article in The Guardian’s new series, Genderqueer Generation. The article shares the words of four teenagers who have all come to identify as non-binary. In the process, it highlights several areas on which we can focus in order to help our young people.
The Centrality of Identity
Identity is central to conversations about gender. As I observed in my previous post, non-binary gender identities are an example of internal identity formation and they therefore display all the problems of an internal identity.
It is vitally important that we talk about identity with our young people. We need to help them to understand Christian identity, to see why it is so good and life-giving, and how to live it out. Our young like people–like the rest of us–are already being discipled on the topic of identity. Every day through social media and popular media they are being told how to discover who they are and how this will allow them to find their best life. Those narratives will always fail to deliver. We have the true narrative and we need to help that to be more influential in their lives than the culture’s narrative.
The Influence of Stereotypes
Several of the young people interviewed in The Guardian reveal the influence of strict gender stereotypes on their experience and their thinking. ‘Until I was seven, I loved dresses and glitter and sparkles and everything. And then something changed. I don’t know what it was. I was like, I hate girly things. I hate the color pink.’ ‘For me, I like the color purple, I like some things that are traditionally feminine, but I also like my hair short.’
Young people often recognise themselves as non-binary through their discomfort with strict gender binaries. In a sense, this isn’t surprising. If you feel that being a man or a woman is about how you feel, there’s not much other than gender stereotypes that can be used to measure your gender. The problem, of course, is that these stereotypes are exactly that–they are just stereotypes. They may be true in many cases, but they’re not true in every case and are not intrinsic to being a man or a woman (as a quick look at other cultures or back through history will reveal).
If we want to help our young people, we need to avoid unnecessarily strict gender stereotypes and we need to talk about the given nature of our gender as something given to us by God, not something we have to attain through our tastes or our actions.
The Influence of the Internet
In three of the four accounts in the Guardian article, the internet plays a significant part. This is a very common thread in the stories of those who identify with non-binary identities (and those who identify as transgender in their teens without having experienced childhood dysphoria).
A repeated pattern in such stories is a vague awareness of discomfort with one’s gender, perhaps through failing to fit gender stereotypes, for which the internet then provides language and a conceptual understanding. This is seen in the young people’s own words: ‘I didn’t know at all what I was experiencing or doing until I had the internet to give me the words to describe it.’ ‘The internet had a big role in me discovering myself.’
This raises important points about safe internet usage. Parents should think carefully about how they ensure their children’s safety on the internet and should make it a normal thing to be talking with their young people about what they are engaging with online. Youth groups can also help teenagers to understand that all of us are shaped by what we read and see online and that we should therefore seek to be wise about what we engage with.
What’s also striking in the accounts of the young people in the article is the way they talk about the internet being the only place they could go to for information and answers. ‘I feel like the internet tells us stuff that we can’t learn in real life. People never hesitated to explain stuff to me even if I asked the dumbest questions.’ Young people are desperately looking for places where they can ask personal and difficult questions and where they can be honest about what they’re experiencing. We need to create these kinds of environments in our families and our churches so that young people don’t see an online community as the only place they can turn.
The Importance of Community
The importance of community is another point that comes through in the young people’s accounts. ‘Online, I felt understood. I felt helped.’ The importance of community is often prominent in the stories of LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ experience can be isolating since fewer people are able to understand it from personal experience and since people do not always feel comfortable to talk about their experience.
If we want to help our young people, we need to create communities where people can truly know they belong and where it is safe to talk about their life experiences. We should be uniquely equipped to do this. The gospel has the power to unite people who are otherwise completely different–we become united as children in the family of God. The gospel is also the key to a community where we can be honest and vulnerable about what’s going on in our lives. We may not always be able to understand through shared experience, but we can do our best to understand through listening and through the humility that seeks to learn from others.
Our young people are already being discipled on the topic of gender. That reality is unavoidable. The choice we have to make is whether we will leave the world to be their teacher or whether we believe the true Teacher offers a better way.
On Structural Racism
I take the second view. Christians, of all people, should know that evil is held in place not just by the flesh (the sinful self), or even the devil (and associated demonic powers), but also by the world: the structures and systems of human power that perpetuate injustice, idolatry and immorality. It seems clear to me, for instance, that contemporary Britain is not just comprised of individual men and women who are idolatrous, or sexually immoral; our systems, structures and institutions promote idolatry and sexual immorality, in a way that is often tangential to or independent of deliberate human agency. The same is true of injustices, including racial ones. Christians are not saying this because we have been influenced by Marx. Marxists are saying it because they have been influenced by Christ.
This is not to say that everything which gets attributed to structural racism has been correctly, or adequately, diagnosed. Nor is it to agree with every use of the term (a point which should not need making, but in the current climate it apparently does). It is simply to say that there are evils in this world that are not reducible to the conscious decisions of individual people, and that this is as true when it comes to race as it is in every other area. And since it is so easy to get mired in disagreements about terminology, when what matters is the reality, I thought I would try to unbundle some of the realities that are being referred to by a term like “structural racism”, in the hope that it would make things slightly clearer. Here are five.
1. Institutional racism, or “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” An excellent post on this appeared on Ian Paul’s blog a couple of days ago, drawing from the MacPherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. If you’re not sure what it is or why it matters so much, it’s well worth reading.
2. Unconscious bias. A classic example that was reported yesterday: a new study shows that football commentators are more likely to refer to players with lighter skin as intelligent, hard working or having quality, and more likely to refer to players with darker skin as possessing power or pace. It might sound trivial, but it reflects an assumption that light-skinned people are clever and creative, and dark-skinned people are merely strong and fast. Nobody (so far as I know) is suggesting that the commentators in question are consciously prejudiced against black people, but that is exactly the point: you have all sorts of biases you are not aware of.
3. The legacy of historic injustices. A fountain of documentaries and movies on this subject has been made available, often for free, over the last few weeks (for instance, on iPlayer, Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America, James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro, David Olusoga’s Black and British, and Stephen S. Thompson’s Sitting in Limbo). The best brief summary I have seen of how historic injustices continue to shape us today, albeit in an American context, is this little explainer from Phil “Veggie Tales” Vischer:
4. Racialised assumptions. Again, this was summarised just a couple of days ago in a superb (and excruciating) thread from Anthony Bradley. Bradley is a full professor with four academic degrees and ten books to his name, and he lives in one of the most progressive cities in the world (New York), yet he is repeatedly taken for a delivery driver or equivalent because of his skin colour - and by people who, presumably, would regard themselves as not being remotely racist. (As it happens, I had a conversation with a Christian just a few days ago who admitted to making exactly the same assumption in his own neighbourhood.) In Bradley’s case the phenomenon is (by his account) pretty harmless, but it isn’t when the same thing happens in the justice system, or in education (sometimes called “the bigotry of low expectations”), or representation in the media, or whatever else.
5. Intentional racism. On top of all these is the overt, explicit type of racism which we immediately think of when we hear the word. Many of us, myself included, like to think of this as largely a relic of the past, but we will quickly be disabused of this idea by conversations with a few black friends, or scrolling through the more sinister parts of antisocial media (not recommended), or even listening to the comments made at football matches.
It may be that you think “structural racism” isn’t the best term for this. That’s OK. But the reality is still there, whatever we call it. Many people in our congregations face it on a daily basis. And they shouldn’t have to.
Understanding Non-Binary Identities
The cultural conversation on gender is fast-paced. One of the developments in the last few years has been the increasing popularity of non-binary gender identities.
These identities (such as non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid etc.) are adopted by those who don’t feel they fall clearly into either side of the gender binary. In this way they differ from those who identify as transgender, those who feel they fall on the opposite side of the gender binary to what their body may seem to suggest. (Christians are yet to really wrestle with the growing prominence of these non-binary identities, although Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky’s Emerging Gender Identities, due for publication this summer, promises to be a helpful starting point.)
This week, The Guardian has started a new series called Genderqueer Generation which seeks to highlight ‘the experiences and perspectives of non-binary and other gender-nonconforming young people’. The opening article in the series offers insights from four teenagers on how they came to identify as non-binary.
There’s lots we can learn from these accounts. In this post, I will draw on the article to briefly highlight some useful insights about non-binary identities, and in a subsequent post I will reflect on how these insights might help us as we seek to care for and disciple children and young people.
A contrast between non-binary identities and transgender is that gender dysphoria is often not present in non-binary identities. This is important in understanding non-binary identities, and therefore important to being able to respond well.
Gender dysphoria is the medical diagnosis that can be given when an individual experiences significant distress because of a disconnect between their internal sense of gender and their biological sex. (Or in the language of the DSM-5: ‘between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender’.) Most who identify as transgender and who seek to transition experience gender dysphoria, but many who identify with non-binary identities do not.
This is highlighted in the Guardian article in that none of the accounts speak about gender dysphoria and the young people don’t seem to have experienced the sort of distress that is a key diagnostic criterion for gender dysphoria.
This fact should shape the way we engage with those who adopt a non-binary identity. It is important to not assume that those identifying as non-binary are experiencing gender dysphoria or that they believe they have been born in the wrong body. In personal relationship and conversation, our first response should always be to gently ask to hear more of the individual’s story to better understand them.
Like transgender, non-binary identities rely on a form of internal identity formation: identity is rooted in internal feelings and desires. This can be seen in the words of the young people in the article. ‘It’s my identity. It’s how I feel. It’s not how you feel.’
The accounts in the article all seem to root their identities in what they find inside themselves. One describes this as a process of ‘self-discovering’. We should note, however, that some people are happy to create their own identity through making their own decision about who they are, without any clear reference to an internal feeling. This is one of the more recent steps in identity formation. Not only is identity not dependent on what the body or anyone or anything else says, but it’s also not dependent on the internal self. Identity can be created rather than discovered. This is an important nuance that requires a different response. Again, getting to know an individual’s own story and self-conception is so important in being able to respond well.
Problems with Internal Identity
Since these young people have adopted internal identities, it’s not surprising that their accounts reveal several of the problems of internal identity.
A simple problem is the extreme subjectivity of internal identity. The young people’s words reveal that the only evidence for the accuracy of their new identity is in how it makes them feel. ‘I thought … that feels so much better.’ ‘I investigated and realized that using they/them pronouns works the best for me.’ ‘I’m just gonna do this thing and see if it feels better.’ This is a problem because knowing who we are is really important. A good, solid, stable sense of identity, and the self-worth it brings, is vital to thriving in life. And our identity speaks to us about how we can live out our best life. It matters that we get identity right, and our own subjective feelings of an identity being a good fit are a shaky foundation on which to build something so important.
The young people also show how unstable an internal identity can be. Far from being static, an internal identity is always liable to change because our feelings and desires change. Since a solid, stable sense of identity is so important this is a potential problem. Several of the accounts reveal how unstable internal identities are: ‘I switched labels a lot’. ‘Non-binary is a good label for me right now.’
Finally, the accounts reveal the uncomfortable pressure that is produced by the need to discover one’s identity internally and to be sure of that identity and then to live it out. One of the saddest statements in the article comes from River: ‘I haven’t come out to my family… I’m scared to tell them about it [in case] in a couple of years I don’t feel like calling myself non-binary anymore and I have to do the whole thing again’. This is an 18-year-old who doesn’t feel they can be honest with their own family about a big part of their self-experience because of the pressure to discover who they are and to get that right. Internal identity puts an unbearable weight of pressure on people. It’s not good news.
But thankfully, there is good news. There’s good news of an identity which is given, not discovered. An identity that doesn’t change and that isn’t subjective. An identity that doesn’t put pressure on us, because everything that is needed to make it a reality has already been done by someone else. In the midst of identity confusion, we, as Christians, have the good news that can bring bring true freedom.
How can some of these insights and others from the accounts of these teenagers help us as we engage with young people in our families and our churches? These are the questions I’ll seek to answer in a subsequent article.
Well, That Didn’t Last Long
There is concern that having 500,000 people on the beach will lead to a spike in the virus – though the more immediate dangers were sunstroke, drug and alcohol abuse or getting into a punch-up.
At the same time all this was going on a large group of Travellers set up camp in our local park. This happens every summer and always provokes fury from residents but the ire seemed particularly fierce this time. Everyone has gone lockdown crazy.
At the start of lockdown I initiated a neighbourhood WhatsApp group. It’s been great. We’ve got to know who lives nearby like never before and there has been a lot of neighbourly help and encouragement going on. But with the arrival of the hordes from out of town the tone and volume of messages on the group started to get out of hand; and now a whole bunch of people have left the group as they didn’t like the tone and volume.
It only lasted three months. But then the human capacity for breaking good things fast has been much in evidence ever since the garden of Eden. Combine run of the mill human self-righteousness, three months of lockdown, a couple of boiling days and sweltering nights, and things are well set to get tetchy.
I don’t think I’m responsible for policing the opinions of my neighbours but I do feel responsible for having started the group, and am sorry that it is now splintering. My aim was to strengthen the neighbourhood, not create a platform for new animosities to form.
That’s the trouble with social media, and a reason why I came off Twitter and Facebook a couple of years back. People tend to say things online in a way they wouldn’t when face to face and every opinion quickly becomes an argument rather than a debate: no-one’s mind is changed; positions become more entrenched.
All this makes me increasingly aware of my own need of grace. How am I going to be good news to my neighbours if I’m not being shaped by the good news myself? I love what Paul says to Timothy about this,
The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:14-15)
On an objective scale we might not rate Paul as the worst of sinners but the extent of the grace he has received makes him feel the extent of the sin from which Jesus has delivered him. That’s self-righteousness dealt with. That’s a gospel to proclaim.
Lockdown won’t last for ever. The virus will pass. The sun goes away and with it the crowds from London and Birmingham from the beaches of Bournemouth. But the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus remain. Grace, abundant grace, now and forever!
George Floyd’s One-Month Anniversary: How Christians Can Serve This Cultural Moment
In the initial heady weeks of protest, I think most Christ-followers got behind the moral truth that black lives matter. Good. But protesting is easy. Effecting lasting change isn’t. The question that has occupied my mind daily for the last month is, “what is one thing that every Christian can do to be part of the solution?”
Finding an answer has not been easy. Just when I think I can embrace a particular argument or socio-political solution, a new blog or book comes out explaining why I shouldn’t. If such-and-such is my premise on race, then it will come back and bite me when I want to argue about sexuality and gender. If I use such-and-such a phrase, I am propagating Marxism. If I use another phrase, I am a right-wing nut case. If I acknowledge white fragility, then I confirm that reality; but if I deny it, my denial proves I suffer from white fragility! If I object to looting and violent protest, I am missing the point. If I wink at it, I am sanctioning lawlessness.
When I wear my responsible-Christian hat, I know that the gospel is the only lasting hope for social and racial health, and I want to channel all my energies in that direction. When I wear my responsible-citizen hat, I know that governments are commissioned by God to protect the weak, so I want to challenge my energy into social reform. The Church seems better at reconciliation. The World seems better at justice. How do I engage in both? “Hug and make up” is not enough. But will anything be enough? Damned if I do. Damned if I don’t. Confused. Despairing. Paralyzed.
So, I want to suggest a way forward, an answer of sorts. It is not the total answer, but it is a significant part of the answer. Most importantly, it is something every Christian can do, and I think we should do. Here it is:
Make friends – proper friends – with someone of a different ethnic reality to you.
Theologically, friend-making (especially with the goal of understanding, loving, and healing) is an undeniable part of the Second Commandment. It is also how the gospel spreads, and the gospel is the only lasting hope for racial justice and reconciliation.
Sociologically, a grass-roots movement of cross-ethnic friendships must raise the tide of racial understanding, justice, and reconciliation in society. Laws need to be amended. Structures need to be adjusted. But these changes will not happen, at least will not happen peacefully and productively, without an expanded matrix of cross-ethnic friendships.
Christians, if there is one thing we can do by the grace of God, it is friend-making with people who are different from us. In Christ, this is our super-power (2 Cor. 5:18, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 2:13-19).
What if we all developed a decent friendship with a person of another ethnicity over the next year? Intentional cross-ethnic friend-making is where our call to be faithful Christians, and faithful citizens intersect in this cultural moment.
Does the challenge sound too simple? Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?” – 2 Kings 5:13
Identifying Our Ingrained Idolatry
Now imagine it with no monuments, no commemorative plaques, no statues.
There would be no Trafalgar Square, no Nelson’s Column. No Cenotaph ringed with poppies. And that’s just on one street.
There have been plenty of posts on social media recently about the tearing down of statues, many of them cautioning, ‘If they come for the statues, they’ll come for the living next.’
I haven’t known quite what I think about it all though. Of course I don’t think we should put up monuments to really bad people, but where do we draw the line?
A tweet by Hannah Anderson yesterday was the key I needed to unlock the conundrum. ‘Welp,’ she wrote, ‘after last few weeks, I’m never going to read OT phenomenon of “tearing down the high places” the same way again.’
Of course we, enlightened (post-)moderns that we are, don’t build and worship Asherah poles or other tall posts to our false gods like those primitive, superstitious sinners! No, but we do raise men (and sometimes women) up to honour and celebrate them, their achievements and all they have done for us…
It reminded me of my underlying concern about eternity. There’s going to be a new Heaven and a new Earth, right? Naturally I’m going to want to live in the new London. I mean, imagine London filled only with believers! There would be no crime, no vandalism, no graffiti. No need to fear walking home alone at night. No cyclists jumping the lights and whizzing through the pedestrian crossings when you’ve got a green man!
But, utopia though it sounds to me, I’ve been honest enough with myself to realise that many of the things I enjoy – plays, museums, Trafalgar Square – will almost certainly not exist – at least in the form I know them. Will there be theatre in heaven? Happy, heart-warming stories with no sin or conflict would struggle to draw the crowds, I suspect. Museums, galleries, statues, open spaces and blue plaques that celebrate wars, conquests and human achievements will be redundant – we won’t even need all those paintings of the Madonna and Child or the Last Supper (even the ones with more authentic black and brown faces), once we’ve got the risen Lord to gaze upon.
All of which has revealed something ugly that I’d rather not have discovered – I struggle to believe that a city that truly glorifies God could be good, interesting or worth visiting. I feel a visceral reaction at the idea of some of those things being taken away. It turns out I love some of the trappings of sin more than I love God’s glory. Anything I hesitate to give up in favour of God is, by definition, an idol.
I can see the wisdom, now, of the Bible’s prohibition on making ‘graven images’. No one put up statues of Lord Nelson, Florence Nightingale or Winston Churchill with the intention of worshipping them as gods, and yet, it was because we believed that they had won great victories or achieved great things for us and we wanted to give them lasting honour and glory. ‘Here is the One who saved you from the French, who healed your diseases, who defeated your enemies’ (pace Ex. 32:4)!
In case you were wondering, no, I don’t support the criminal destruction of public property (or of private property, for that matter). And I’m not sure where I stand on the removal of statues by the proper authorities. I think there is a case to be made for humbly removing monuments that perpetuate or celebrate division and discrimination. In our current febrile atmosphere that might well lead to every statue being quietly removed. In thinking about the kingdom we long to see ‘on earth as it is in heaven’, that might be no bad thing – though let us be mindful of Jesus’ admonishment, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone’.
Now you may be thinking, as I’ve seen people say on social media many times, ‘But we need our statues and our monuments. We can’t deny our history, even with its flaws. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Yet the descriptive plaques on a statue don’t give the full details - they can’t. And they are not erected to give a full and rounded view of the subject’s character. They are raised solely to glorify and uplift, to say ‘This is a person worthy of honour. His/her flaws were as nothing to his/her greatness’.
Stories passed down by faithful chroniclers are far more effective pointers to history’s errors and evils than statues can ever be.
Pay attention to the things that upset you. Do they fill you with righteous anger because they are an offence to God? Or do they threaten something that you hold dearer than God intends you to? What areas of ingrained idolatry is God pointing out to you in these extraordinary days?
I’ll leave you with an extract from a poem by TS Eliot, brought to my attention in this twitter thread by Elizabeth Oldfield:
Can you keep the City that the LORD keeps not with you? A thousand policemen directing the traffic Cannot tell you why you come or where you go. A colony of cavies or a horde of active marmots Build better than they that build without the LORD. Shall we lift up our feet among perpetual ruins? I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary, I have swept the floors and garnished the altars. Where there is no temple there shall be no homes, Though you have shelters and institutions, Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid, Subsiding basements where the rat breeds Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors Or a house a little better than your neighbour’s; When the Stranger says: ‘What is the meaning of this city? Do you huddle close together because you love each other?’ What will you answer? ‘We all dwell together To make money from each other?’ or ‘This is a community?’
How Revolution Happens
There’s an incident, which creates a burst of anger, which gains momentum, which creates hope and a movement is formed. Buoyed by some early successes, the movement grows in confidence and overreaches itself, which provokes a backlash, as the vested interests of the status quo angrily reassert themselves. The silent majority begin to turn against the movement, at first quietly and then later very publicly. It is this resistance from the great group of undecideds that eventually spells disappointment and failure for the would-be revolution. Take a look at most of the failed mass movements in history and you will see this same script re-enacted. This is the script for how revolution fails.
But this blog is more positive. It’s about how revolution happens. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and of a new awareness of white privilege in Western nations, I want to plead for us to learn the lessons of history so that the Black Lives Matter movement will not end in failure.
Movements lose their momentum when they build their foundations on sand, on the fickle ground of public opinion or of temporary outrage or of a sudden surge of emotion – things which build momentum quickly but which lack the strength to maintain momentum in the face of the many storms that lie between a movement and a revolution. When a movement is built on anger, it stalls when that anger subsides. When a movement is built on the outrage created by a news cycle, it is diluted and dispersed when a fresh news cycle turns people’s attention onto other important things.
I am desperate for the Black Lives Matter movement to achieve lasting change in our societies. I am excited when I read my Sky News feed talking about the American and British search to find “atonement” for its past and present “racist sins”. This is part of the revival I have been praying for. But because I want the movement to result in revolution, I feel I need to point out that its existing foundations cannot carry it that far. Appeals against ‘injustice’ and for ‘equality’ will always flounder in the face of vested interest unless we can learn the lessons of history and found our appeals for structural change on the far firmer ground that has turned momentum into revolution many times.
The English Revolution of 1642-49 failed because it was not based on an enduring insight of theology. After only eleven years as a republic, England restored the monarchy. King Charles II was invited back and within less than five years he was oppressing the people of England every bit as much as his beheaded father had before the English Civil War. It took another mass movement, in 1688, to produce a lasting revolution through the English Bill of Rights. This time around, instead of trying to build their revolution on the shifting sands of public outrage, the English built it on the solid rock of Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15. They argued that England must be fundamentally changed because God had created every Englishman and woman in his own image.
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
“Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:15)
The American Revolution paid attention to its English lesson. The success of George Washington and of his Continental Army did not lie in the harnessing of outrage or of violence, but in the harnessing of ideas. The American Revolution was build on the solid rock of this this same principle from Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15. It declared that independence from the motherland was necessary to prevent the defacing of the dignity of those who had been created in the image of God. The Declaration of Independence, signed on 4th July 1776, outlined rights to which every human is entitled under “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The French Revolution of 1789 was not a religious movement, but it learned from the English and the Americans. It was not the first attempt at revolution in France, but it was the first successful attempt, because it was built on this same biblical principle. We must not miss the way in which a riot by the poor people of Paris won the widespread support of the silent majority of Frenchmen by appealing beyond its own anger and outrage and emotion to a reassertion of the simple statement in the Christian Scriptures that we are all created in God’s image and that we therefore all deserve to be treated with the dignity that has been conferred on us by the Lord. In the Declaration of the Rights of Man, issued a month after the storming of the Bastille, “The National Assembly recognises and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man.” The French Revolution would have been another failed riot about bread had it not dug its momentum deep into this firm ground that converted the undecideds. It moved from momentum to revolution when its objectives became, not temporal, but the assertion of “an inviolable and sacred right.”
This is also how the slave trade was ended in the British Empire. Alongside the black protesters, whose forgotten role has very helpfully been reasserted by the Black History movement, were white protesters such as Josiah Wedgwood, whose famous badges drew on Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15 to proclaim the fundamental question: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
This is also how slavery was ended in America, when Abraham Lincoln and others drew on the fundamental theology of the Declaration of Independence to assert that every black American had as much been created in the image of God as any white American. It is also how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to overturn America’s segregationist views. Don’t miss the echo of Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15 in Dr Martin Luther King’s great call to revolution:
“All men have something within them that God injected … Every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: There are no gradations in the image of God. Every man, from a treble white to a bass black, is significant on God’s keyboard precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man. This is why we must fight segregation.”
That’s how revolution happens. It is why I am appealing to every supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement to build the foundation for its call to racial equality, not on the shifting sands of anger, or of public outrage, but on the solid rock of this tried-and-tested theology for revolution. Only this insight is strong enough to turn the silent majority into wholehearted supporters of change, instead of the defensive reactionaries whose alienation has so often proved fatal to enduring revolution.
This is also why I am calling on every Christian of influence to speak out the teaching of these Bible verses into their part of the battlefield. We are not merely called to add a Christian voice to the international choir that is currently calling for change. We are called to give the movement the only true foundation that can turn mere momentum into real revolution, and that will ensure that our societies are still labouring away at long-lasting change long after the initial fury has subsided.
Let’s build a firm foundation for this movement from Genesis 1:27 and Job 31:15.
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
“Did not he who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?” (Job 31:15)
Dr Martin Luther King spoke these words in a speech on 4th July 1965 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
To find out more about the influence that Job 31:15 had on Josiah Wedgwood, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and the other great opponents of systemic racism in the past, see Phil Moore’s new book “Straight to the Heart of Job - Why Does God Allow Suffering?”, which has just come out in bookstores.
End the Lockdown
As of yesterday shops in England reopened, tomorrow Premiership football restarts, and later this week my wife will be in school teaching a class – and projecting her voice – over 15 pupils at a time. Yet I am not allowed to perform a wedding, even though it would be possible to do so with only half a dozen people in the room. It is not just me: these inconsistencies are causing growing frustration in churches across the land and it needs to change.
A couple of observations about this.
First, my guess is that the government is being cautious about allowing weddings because to most minds ‘wedding’ = ‘mass party’. And mass party means booze and dancing and a disintegration of social distancing. Fair enough.
Secondly, this only serves to underline the diminished view of marriage that now prevails in our society: that a wedding is not much more than an excuse to throw a party. But those of us who believe that ‘this is about that’ take a very different view. Marriage is not merely a personal, romantic, decision. It is a covenant contracted in the sight of God, intended to mirror the relationship between Christ and his church, and a societal good that is at least as much about the health and wellbeing of the community at large as it is about the couple themselves. There are couples in my church who are wanting to enact this – why should they have to wait to do so while lines form around the block for Primark, our beaches and parks are packed, and schools reopen?
Lockdown has created the largest restriction on religious freedom our country has experienced since the Act of Toleration was passed in 1689. We’re good citizens. We’ve kept to the rules. We’ve cancelled our services, wrestled with the technology and gone online. We’ve been the first responders in caring for the vulnerable and creating neighbourhood groups. It’s time to allow us to carry out weddings. The wedding lockdown needs to end.
Abortion: Learning from the Numbers
I’m not a numbers guy. Numbers don’t usually excite me, and they don’t usually upset me. But there is one set of numbers which always moves me and often leaving me at my desk in tears. They are numbers which speak of lives lost when they have barely had a chance to begin and of traumatic experiences which will likely mar the lives of those left behind for many years.
This week, the UK Department of Health and Social Care published their annual report of abortion statistics for England and Wales, sharing the figures for the last calendar year. In some ways, numbers are the worst way to engage in a conversation like this. When we discuss abortion, we’re not talking about numbers, we’re talking about lives, lives inside the womb and out, some lives just beginning, some which feel they’re falling apart, lives of babies, lives of women, and lives of men. But while the conversation is about more than numbers, the numbers are revealing and might help us to ask some of the right questions.
The Overall Numbers and the Question ‘Why?’
In 2019, there were 209,519 abortions carried out in England and Wales. A small number of these were for non-residents of the two countries (2,135), but the number for residents means that 18 out of every 1000 women aged 15-44 had an abortion last year.
The abortion rate in England and Wales began to drop in the late-2000s but has been rising over the last few years (16.7 in 2017, 17.4 in 2018, and now 18.0 in 2019). The 2019 rate is the highest seen in England and Wales since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967, and the total number of abortions is also the highest for any single year since 1967.
This is the first point at which we should pause. We should pause and ask ‘Why?’ I don’t have immediate answers to this question. There are many plausible suggestions, and I’m not sure it is an easy question for which to give a conclusive answer. But it is a question we should ask.
Even those who see nothing wrong in the act of abortion should agree that this is an important question to ask. While there is great controversy over research into the mental health impacts of abortion, there is agreement that, in some cases at least, abortion has a negative impact on mental health. This means that even those who don’t see the need for concern for the fetuses should ask this question out of concern for the mothers.
Abortions for Mental Health
The vast majority of abortions in England and Wales are carried out before 24 weeks and justified by the conclusion that continuing the pregnancy would pose a greater risk to the woman’s physical or mental health than a termination. In 2019, 98% of abortions fell into this category. In almost all of these (99.9%), the risk was officially classified as ‘mental disorder, not otherwise specified’ (F99 in the ICD-10’s classifications).
The lack of specificity here is worrying–potentially the classification could be used to cover a very broad range of situations–but the general fact that this is almost always the reason for an abortion, is something we should pay attention to. The abortions taking place around us are almost never because of an imminent threat to the woman’s life and are rarely, although, as we’ll see, occasionally, because of concerns over the health of the baby.
If we want to help those with unplanned pregnancies to see a different way forward than abortion, we need to offer them the chance to explore their options. We should also be on the front-foot in looking for ways that we can offer help aimed at minimising any potential negative mental health impact of the pregnancy. This is the sort of great work that many pregnancy centres, such as those supported by the Pregnancy Centres Network, do across the country. They are a great way of putting into action a Christian response to these figures.
Abortions for Fetal Abnormality
A small but significant number (3,183) of the abortions in 2019 where performed because of fetal abnormality which posed a significant risk of the child being ‘seriously handicapped’. Of these, 66% took place at over 15 weeks, and 275 at or beyond 24 weeks.
This section of the Abortion Act is controversial because of the ambiguity over what constitutes being ‘seriously handicapped’. It is also rightly controversial because of the implications that it has for children and adults currently living with disabilities. If we say that the life of a living human being in the womb is not deserving of protection and preservation because of a disability or genetic condition, on what basis do we say that the life of a child or adult with the same illness or disability is worthy of preservation and protection? Acceptance of abortion in such cases leaves some members of society in a vulnerable position.
This is another point where we need to step up and act. A new Bill seeking to end abortions which are justified on the grounds that the child has a cleft palate, cleft lip, or club foot, all of which are treatable conditions, has recently been introduced to parliament. We should support this bill in prayer and encourage our own MPs to support it.
We must also offer support to parents who receive heart-breaking diagnoses about their child, weeping with them over the loss of hopes and plans they may have harboured for their child, and standing with them through practical support as they learn to care for their child for as long or short a time as they have the privilege of doing so.
Abortion and Deprivation
The 2019 statistics show that abortions are far more common among women living in deprived areas. The abortion rate among women in the most deprived areas is twice as high as that among the least deprived.
Again, we should ask ‘Why?’ Some research suggests that the most common reason why women chose an abortion is lack of the necessary finance to raise the child. A report published last year suggested that the introduction of a two-child limit for support through child tax credit and universal credit has forced some women to consider having an abortion. This economic factor could explain the disproportionately high abortion rate in the most deprived areas of England and Wales. If this is the case, it is questionable whether we can speak of these abortions being ‘a woman’s choice’. For many women abortion may not be their personal choice but, in practical terms, their only choice.
This is another set of situations where Christians should be on the forefront of a response, both in continuing to work for the eradication of poverty and the inequalities that often underpin it and in finding ways to offer practical and financial support to mothers who feel that abortion is their only option because of financial limitations.
Protest and Plausibility
The reality of abortion and unplanned pregnancies is complicated. We must avoid simplistic answers, but we must speak. It is because the numbers are not just numbers that they demand a response. But our response must be broad. We cannot respond in protest only. We must also respond by working for plausibility; the plausibility of a world where abortion might be available, but it’s never a necessity, and ultimately it becomes unthinkable.
I Could Have Been A Trans Activist
I’ve been reflecting recently on how Christians should view trans activists. The catalyst for this thinking has been Sharon James’ short book, Gender Ideology: What Do Christian Need to Know? I had high hopes for the book after reading several glowing reviews, but as I actually read it I found myself feeling rather torn.
There is lots of good in James’ book. The very fact it exists is good; I’m not aware of any other popular-level treatments of the topic. We have a number of books offering a general Christian response to transgender (for example, Yarhouse, Roberts, and Walker), but there has always been a need to take a closer look at the underlying philosophy. This is what James does admirably, in less than 130 pages of clear, accessible, thoroughly researched, and well-referenced text–quite an impressive achievement.
Leaving aside a few quibbles on specific details, I think I would agree with almost everything James writes. And yet, I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable as I read.
My most significant concern was with James’ approach to the activists who promote gender ideology. The book portrays the activists as if they are a group of evil masterminds who are scheming to do as much damage and harm to vulnerable children as possible.
It strikes me that this attitude is quite common among Christians. We’ve learned to show love, compassion, and welcome to those who identify as gay or transgender, and yet when it comes to the promotion of the ‘LGBT agenda’ many Christians speak as if we’re engaged in a battle with evil human enemies who are deliberately trying to wreak havoc and destruction. Love, compassion, and welcome seem to go out of the window and our primary concern suddenly becomes our freedoms, our children, and even our rainbow.
But I’m just not sure that the activists are such an evil group or that this is the way we should respond to them.
Understanding the Activists
In Gender Ideology, James suggests that to understand gender theory and the activists that support it, we have to look to the Yogyakarta Principles. The Yogyakarta Principles seek to apply human rights to the areas of sexual orientation and gender identity. James asks of the principle’s publication, ‘Was this simply an effort to make sure that minority groups should not be badly treated?’ To which she offers a strong answer: ‘No. The Yogyakarta Principles presented a radical LGBT charter.’ She also notes that the principles would class several elements of biblical teaching as ‘discriminatory’.
In a sense, it is true that these principles are ‘a radical LGBT charter’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that in producing them the authors weren’t trying to protect minority groups from bad treatment. We might think they have gone about it in the wrong way, but we have no reason to assume that wasn’t their aim. The preamble of the principles states clearly that they are a response to the fact that ‘violence, harassment, discrimination, exclusion, stigmatisation and prejudice are directed against persons in all regions of the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’. The authors of the principles may be mistaken, their ideas may even be dangerous, but they sound like they are trying to do a good thing. They don’t sound like evil masterminds plotting to harm our children.
I don’t question the conclusions that James and others reach about the falsity and danger of gender ideology. I do, however, question whether this common attitude towards trans activists is helpful or Christian.
Is it helpful?
Arguably, the attitude is not helpful. Portraying your opponent as having evil motives when you have not provided evidence for this fact creates an inevitable sense of ‘us and them’ and can easily breed self-righteousness.
It also isn’t an attitude that is likely to foster fruitful dialogue. While books such as Gender Ideology probably aren’t aimed at trans activists, they are also not teaching their readers a good posture from which to engage with activists if the opportunity arises.
Is it Christian?
I also feel the attitude is decidedly un-Christian. Christians who take this position often place an admirable emphasis on the importance of truth, and yet sadly that doesn’t tend to extend to exploring the truth as to why activists promote their ideology. The assumption seems usually to be that there’s something malignant in their motives, but isn’t it equally possible that they really believe it to be true and believe it will help people? Even if they are wrong (which I think they are) and a strong case can be made to show that they are wrong (which I think it can), isn’t it possible that their motives are still good? Is it right for us to accuse them of evil intentions before this has been proved?
It also feels like an un-Christian attitude because even if the activists are working from evil motives, aren’t we meant to love our enemies and to pray for them? On the topic of gender ideology, Christians are not the only people speaking up in opposition, and yet our response can often be largely the same as that of non-Christian opponents. Shouldn’t we be showing a different way? Even while opposing wrong and harmful ideas, we must respect the dignity of activists as bearers of the image of God and we must pray for God to break into their hearts and their thinking.
But one thought more than any other dominated as I read James’ book and as I reflected on Christian attitudes towards trans activists. It was the famous phrase, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. That is true for every one of us, but perhaps I feel it a little more keenly than some. As a person whom some would describe as a sexual minority and who experienced a level of gender dysphoria as a child and then ongoing discomfort with my gender into adulthood, and as someone who loves to read and think and wrestle with big ideas, I am probably a prime candidate to hear and absorb and embrace gender ideology. It is the grace of God to me, that he has called me away from the ways of the world and into the true freedom of his ways and his gift to me of my identity as a man.
Our attitude towards the activists has to be impacted by the fact that we could easily have been one of them. We have no claim to superiority or self-righteousness on this score. As we read about such confused and damaging ideas, we should grieve over the brokenness of the world, we should act and pray for the protection of the vulnerable, we should pray for the rescue of those who believe and propagate such untruths, and we should give thanks to God for his grace to us. For there but for the grace of God go I.
Had it been otherwise, then no one would ever have got woke.
So writes Tom Holland at the end of Dominion.
Today, as a statue of Robert Baden Powell is removed from the quayside in my town and as JK Rowling fights for her online survival having said that “people who menstruate” are women, Holland’s observation bears careful reflection.
The thesis of Dominion (a similar one to that made previously by Larry Siedentop) is that values such as liberty, human rights and equality are by no means self-evident or universal – rather they are entirely Christian in their origin and dissemination. Without the belief that all are created in God’s image and Paul’s assertion that, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” we would have no basis for believing that racism or slavery or sexism are wrong. Without biblical revelation a Nietzschean – or Roman – assumption of the right of might makes far more sense. The irony is that no matter how distorted the most extreme woke-demands might be, they are utterly dependent on Christianity for their existence.
This should give us confidence. In Christ we have the grounds for feeling the pain of the suffering victim and for rejecting racism, sexism and inequality. And we have the grounds for calling people to truth, as distorted versions of human personhood constrain and diminish, rather than enlarge us.
The basis for the values our society holds are grounded in Christianity. It is the call of the Church to demonstrate that it is only in Christ that these values can be truly understood and lived. Without the gospel we might be woke but we won’t be free.
Evangelism in Lockdown
An hour ago I sent out a tweet asking for ideas, and got some great responses which are well worth reading. But I was blown away by this three minute video from Roger Carswell, not just because of his track record over decades - sharing the gospel with someone every day for fifty years or so is pretty impressive - but also because of the way he has adapted his approach in lockdown. What an inspiration:
Pastoring and Posturing
Here are four questions that I think might help us.
1. Am I prepared to do what costs me something, like giving up money or power or time, as well as doing what costs me nothing, like tweeting or making a brief statement? (Take a pointed example from the last few days: the difference between Arsenal’s response to the racist killing of George Floyd in America, which costs them very little, and their response to the racist killings of the Uighurs in China, which would cost them a lot more.) If not, then either I am not really prepared to do what I believe, or I am not really saying what I believe. Either is bad.
2. Would I still say this if the people who applaud me for it and the people who despise me for it swapped places? All of us, I suspect, care more about the praise of some people than others. If I value the affirmation of X more than Y, I am far more likely to say something that makes X rejoice and Y complain than vice versa. (Someone on Twitter compared me to Satan last week, for instance. But because the context was criticising President Trump, I felt affirmed—and if I’m honest, even a bit smug—rather than offended.) Would Ben and Jerry’s have made their statement if it had caused offence to the people who praised it, and praise from the people who were offended by it? Would you, Quintus? Would I?
3. Do I speak up about justice issues that are less socially encouraged, acceptable or even fashionable in my circles? Or am I reserving my prophetic denunciations of injustice for topics that will go down well? (If you’re not sure, read Amos and then come back to it.) So, for instance, some of us are more likely to speak up about racial justice than abortion, and some of us are more likely to speak up about abortion than racial justice, not necessarily because of the priority or urgency of the issues—we may care deeply about both—but because of the likely reactions of those whose favour we seek. Clearly we will be shaped by both world events and proximity in choosing what to say when, and rightly so; I’m talking about our balance over the course of (say) a year.
4. Am I saying this it in faith, or in an attempt to be justified by works? Honestly, I have done both. I have said things in faith that God will use my words to bless, strengthen, equip and challenge people; I have also said things because I want to be seen as righteous (or woke, or courageous, or empathetic, or wise, or whatever it may be) in the eyes of others. Deep down, only I know which is which. But it is only the former that bears fruit. For we hold that a person is justified by faith and not by wokes.
I hope that’s helpful. If you’re looking for people who do this especially well on a whole range of subjects, so you can learn from them, check out Hannah Anderson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Tope Koleoso, Duke Kwon, Beth Moore, Jackie Hill Perry, P-J Smyth, Karen Swallow Prior and Kevin DeYoung.
The Disembodiment of Lockdown
One of the impacts of lockdown is that many elements of life have moved online. Work, friendships, theatre, church, even sight-seeing and holidays are now online experiences. Many of these virtual alternatives are real blessings in our current situation, but as time goes on, we are becoming increasingly aware of their limitations, and that is revealing an important point about embodiment.
The move to the online world takes away the physical, bodily elements of many activities, and often we find that removes something important about the experience. Meeting new work contacts online without being able to shake their hand leaves the meeting feeling almost incomplete. Gathering with friends online is a great way to catch up with their latest news, but many of us find ourselves longing for the bodily experience of a hug or of just being together in the same room and not having to talk. Online church is a huge blessing, but there’s a sense of something missing when we can’t raise our voices together in song and can’t participate in the shared loaf and cup. And online travel, well, it just isn’t the same. (Google Earth is great, but I’m still missing being able to visit London!)
All of these things reveal the fact that we are embodied people. We are not just a non-physical spirit or soul that lives in a fleshy container; we are embodied beings, and our bodies are a key part of who we are. When our bodies have to be excluded from so much of our daily experience, we begin to notice the loss.1
This is particularly noteworthy since embodiment often isn’t very valued in contemporary culture and even, sometimes, among Christians. Dualism between the physical and non-physical parts of a human is alive and well in the world around us.
We see it in transhumanism and the idea that we might one day conquer death by existing forever as mind clones (a way, it is claimed, of preserving the non-physical, once the physical is no longer able to function). We see it in sexuality, where the physicality of the body’s orientation towards procreation and the sexual complementarity of male and female is often overlooked and ignored. We see it in support for abortion, where the physicality of the living human being in the womb isn’t deemed enough to warrant the protection of that being. Something non-physical – personhood – has to be present to ensure the right to life. And we can see it in many popular Christian conceptions of eschatology, where we think our ultimate hope is a disembodied existence as a soul in heaven, overlooking the better promise of embodied, resurrection existence in a new creation which comes after any sojourn in a non-physical intermediate state.
Perhaps the experience of a quasi-disembodiment which many of us have tasted during lockdown could be a helpful tool to remind ourselves and others of the importance of our bodies. Having lived through lockdown, the idea of our loved ones being preserved as a mind clone might seem less appealing. Perhaps it won’t sound quite so crazy to suggest our bodies are important in ethical matters about sex and life and death. And perhaps when we think about our future, it won’t be our temporary stop in heaven which is most exciting, but the day when the body and soul are reunited, when we are once again embodied beings, and we live forever in a perfect new creation with one who loved us and became embodied for us.
- 1. It is interesting to speculate whether some of us are compensating for the reduction in embodied experiences during lockdown by prioritising embodied activity in the form of physical exercise. Contradictory surveys and reports have appeared over the few months of lockdown, but a weekly survey commissioned by Sport England has produced some interesting results. While the percentage of people saying they are doing less physical activity than before lockdown is broadly speaking similar to that of those saying they are doing more, the percentage of people saying that physical activity is more important during lockdown is consistently high (between 58-64% over the eight weeks of the survey so far). No doubt this is because of considerations of physical and mental health—both of which suggest the importance of embodiment—but I can’t help wondering if there might also be something deeper going on here.
From ‘World in Union’ to ‘Every Man for Himself’
This has been writ epically large with the death of George Floyd.
On a far less consequential, but nonetheless revealing scale I’ve witnessed it in my town as the extraordinary weather the UK has enjoyed brought tens of thousands of people to our beaches – thousands of whom left mounds of rubbish on the sand, while obnoxious jet-skiers made life misery (and dangerous) for other water users, and fishermen cast lines where they would inevitably become entangled in swimmers and paddle boarders. It was dog eat dog for a parking space and social distancing a fanciful memory. Not so much #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter as #MeFirst and #ImTheOnlyOneWhoMatters.
This perhaps gives us an insight into the longer term post-corona impact and the challenges it will bring. My sense is that we are going to see a classic Gaussian curve: around twenty percent of people will be too locked in anxiety to emerge from their homes, even when any risk from the virus has been demonstrated to be essentially nil. But a corresponding twenty percent will respond to increased freedom by behaving in reckless and selfish ways and pursuing as many experiences as they possibly can. The sixty percent in the middle will have to learn how to live with the outliers, and it won’t be comfortable.
This will operate at a societal level with, on the one hand, demands upon mental health services ratcheting ever up while on the other crime and antisocial behaviour spirals. It will affect the church, too.
Those of us who are in pastoral ministry will need to learn to handle this divide. It will be demanding pastoral work to care for and encourage those who are fearful of emerging from lockdown. And it will be demanding pastoral work to challenge and win those who bail out of church life because they want to spend every weekend doing something ‘more fun’.
Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonian church are incredibly apt:
And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 )
Once more, as throughout this crisis, it is time for the church to show her mettle – and to demonstrate to the world what following a Saviour who went to the cross really means. Courage and forgiveness. We’re going to need both of those.
Hard To Believe Anyone Would Be So Stupid
Twelve miles or so later, they saw the same car, hood up, stranded at the side of the road. The same driver, no less bemused than the first time, and even more agitated, was pathetically grateful when they pulled over again. You guessed it: he was in such a hurry for his business meeting that he had decided to skip the service station and press on in the dim hope that the gallon he had received would take him to his destination.
It is hard to believe anyone would be so stupid, until we remember that that is exactly how many of us go about the business of Christian living. We are so busy pressing on to the next item on the agenda that we choose not to pause for fuel. Sadly, Christian leaders may be among the worst offenders. Faced with constant and urgent demands, they find it easy to neglect their calling to the ministry of the Word and prayer because they are so busy. Indeed, they are tempted to invest all of their activity with transcendental significance, so that although their relative prayerlessness quietly gnaws away at the back of their awareness, the noise and pain can be swamped by the sheer importance of all the things they are busily doing.
- D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 111-112
But I don’t think we give Martha enough credit. I don’t think we see her the same way Jesus does.
First of all, I’d never noticed that the story above begins:
“...Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.” - Luke 10:38
It is described as Martha’s house, even though I’ve always assumed the sisters lived with Lazarus. That would seem to be more normal for the culture. Yet the home is considered Martha’s, and she seems to have taken the initiative of inviting Jesus into their home.
In that culture, it would have conveyed great honour on Martha to have this great teacher choose to accept her invitation. (As it would today if, say, the Queen chose to visit your home.) Jesus honoured Martha from the start, and Luke, scrupulous with the facts, made sure that was clear.
Then, Martha took her complaint not to her sister, but to Jesus himself. What a lesson that is! She may have grumbled and griped for a while - I’ve always pictured her huffing and sighing and clattering dishes in the kitchen, just as I would have done - but when push came to shove, she wasn’t afraid to go and talk to the Lord about what was bothering her. She didn’t bottle it up and give Mary an earful when all the guests had gone. She didn’t moan about her to the other women in the kitchen. She took it to the source of help.
We don’t know whether this was Jesus’ first encounter with the family or if they knew him well already. Either way, in this patriarchal society where women were expected to quietly serve the menfolk then fade into the background, Martha felt able to speak up directly to the Lord.
And she very perceptively identified what was really bothering her - it seemed like Jesus hadn’t noticed how wonderful she was being. It seemed like he didn’t care.
“Don’t you care?” she asked. But then immediately realised that couldn’t be it. “Since I know you do care, tell her to help me.”
“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replied, his very public correction softened, I imagine, by this double use of her name. He pointed her to her error, saying, “Mary has chosen the good portion and it will not be taken away from her.”
And Martha went away chastened.
But Martha was a thinker, as we shall see. Yes, she was a doer, she is very active in everything we read about her, but there were deep waters there, too. As we see when we next meet her, in John 11.
The death of Lazarus
First of all, look at verse 5:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Mary doesn’t even get named. She was named earlier in the passage, and identified as the Mary who was to break the jar of perfume over Jesus’ feet, but here we see Martha once again taking precedence. It’s like God didn’t want us to miss that Martha was loved. She hadn’t been put aside at that earlier mealtime. She hadn’t blown her chance when she chose service over sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus loved Martha.
Then we see one of the oddest uses of ‘so’ in the whole Bible:
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
He loved them so he waited when they wrote to him in distress?! That doesn’t sound very loving. Until you see what happened next.
“When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him [up and doing, again, while Mary sits!], but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
Then look at this:
“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”
I’m picturing this like a film scene, the pivotal moment, where whatever the person says next, will determine the outcome of the whole story. There’s a pregnant pause. Jesus looks into Martha’s eyes, and all the angels in heaven crane forward, brimming with anticipation as to what will happen next.
Jesus never asked a question to which he didn’t know the answer. If he asked, it was to teach something, to draw out of his interlocutor some truth that they had not recognised, or given voice to. So he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” and as she looked at him, and felt him waiting for her answer, she found, miraculously, that she did:
“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
There were very few people in Jesus’ adult life who had grasped that. John the Baptist had, Peter had, Legion had. But it wasn’t something everyone who knew him was sure about. But Martha the thinker had obviously been paying attention, even while she was cooking and cleaning. She had heard his teachings, and had no doubt heard about all his signs and wonders, and she’d thought about it all. And now it was time to pull all the threads together and come to a conclusion.
In that moment of deep grief, face to face with the one who she thought had let her down, everything clicked, and she knew the truth, and put her trust in it.
I imagine Jesus smiled, pleased with her, proud of her for thinking through what so many learned men had missed, and coming to the right conclusion. Was this why he had waited for two days before going to Bethany, because he loved Martha and he wanted to give her this revelation of himself?
What a precious, wonderful moment.
And there was nothing more to be said. So she went to fetch her sister.
When Mary got to Jesus, she opened with exactly the same words, but she uttered them from her typical, Mary-ish, emotional position in a sobbing heap at his feet. And Jesus also wept.
With Mary he engaged emotionally, meeting her at her point of need. But with Martha, the one who most of us write off as ‘just a cook’, he engaged intellectually, theologically. How many men at that time took the effort to engage with women’s brains? I just love the way he treated her as someone worth talking to, someone who had depths that had rarely had an outlet. Depths few others, probably, had seen.
The anointing at Bethany
Martha is only mentioned by name on one other occasion, and it is a tiny, fascinating detail.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” - John 12:1-2
We know from the parallel passages that this meal was given at the house of Simon the Leper. Lazarus was clearly a guest, and here was Martha, serving again (and Mary, in the next verse, at Jesus’ feet once again, making a big, dramatic, emotional display).
But why was Martha serving? Had she not learned her lesson?
What do you think?
I think it’s a hugely encouraging detail. This time we don’t see her rushing around, frazzled and annoyed with Mary. Nor does Jesus rebuke or correct her. As a woman, this was probably the only legitimate way she could be near Jesus at a meal time [though a friend informs me that to have women serving at a big important meal like this would be very counter-cultural]. I suspect too, that for big, special meals like this, the neighbours would often come in to help with the cooking and serving. But what I find most helpful is that Martha didn’t take Jesus’ earlier correction as a blanket statement that she should never serve, but spend all her time in studying the scriptures and pondering Jesus’ every word. It’s not so much about what you’re doing, as the heart and attitude you’re doing it with.
The lesson we can often take away from the first story is that serving is wrong, that doing things is at best a distraction from the ‘best’ thing, and at worst trying to justify yourself by works instead of faith.
But tasks do still have to be completed. Serving teams need volunteers (at least, when the churches are open they do!). Families need to be fed. Homes need to be cleaned. It is not more godly to sit around hoping someone else will do the work while you sit and meditate on God’s word.
I think Martha was able to serve without resentment by the time of the third story, because she no longer had anything to prove. She didn’t have to make sure Jesus (and everyone else) knew how hard she was working. She didn’t need to vie for Jesus’ attention, or to be afraid that Mary was worming her way into Jesus’ good books and leaving her out. There was no competition left for her to lose.
She knew Jesus was the Messiah, and she felt seen, known and respected by him. And that knowledge gave her the freedom not to worry about the opinions of man any more. She was free to be herself, to serve as she loved to serve, to think as she loved to think, and to rejoice in the honour Jesus received from Mary without a twinge of jealousy.
Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.
This post originally appeared on my blog under the title ‘Seeing Martha’ (the new title was provided by Cristiano SIlva on twitter, who found the word I’d been looking for).
Responding to a Traumatic Week
I have spent much of the week wondering, with every new story making it harder to put into words what is happening. But even when we don’t know what to say - and I certainly don’t, even now - I think there are several things we can do, so that our confused sorrow not become an indifferent silence. Four in particular occur to me.
1. Grieve. We call injustices “grievous” for a reason: they are supposed to be grieved. We are meant to lament, to express sorrow about tragedies like these, without instantly turning them into a solution (we just need to do X) or a debate (let’s wait and see the facts about Y). There is a time to mourn, whether privately, publicly or both. This is one of those times.
2. Learn. White pastors like me, by and large, will be watching these events from the outside, trying to empathise, rather than experiencing them as something happening to our community, as many in our congregations are. One thing we can do is educate ourselves. We need to understand why things are like this, not just in America but in the UK and elsewhere as well. A couple of years ago I pulled together a bunch of resources I’ve found helpful, to which we can add Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and Ben Lindsay’s We Need To Talk About Race, among others. This thread from Thabiti Anyabwile, posted just a few hours ago, is another excellent example. Learning helps.
3. Speak. You might think that it goes without saying that murder is wrong, that police brutality is a problem, that racism is evil, and that the combination is an abomination. It might feel so obvious that it is not worth verbalising. But there are two reasons you should anyway. The first is that there are plenty of Christians, especially in the West, for whom the events of the last week represent isolated incidents with no underlying pattern of racism in society as a whole, and who are already responding to the situation with what-aboutery and yeah-buttery. The second is that silence, especially from those in the majority, is one of the weapons the enemy has historically used to keep white supremacy in place. Articulating your outrage, grief or prayers can challenge the first and directly confront the second.
4. Pray. I hope this is too obvious to need mentioning, but it might not be. We need to pray, publicly and privately: that God would find a way of bringing comfort to the victims’ families, righteousness into the public square, wisdom to those with civic responsibilities, peace to the cities that are threatened, and justice at both individual and structural levels. If you run out of words, pray in languages. Use the psalms. Try to articulate what you would pray if it had happened within your family - and then remember that, in a very powerful sense, it actually has.
There are many other steps that it may be appropriate to take as well. Giving. Protesting. Campaigning. Voting. But for now, grieve, learn and pray. And don’t lose hope.
This is being played out at a global and national level in arguments between politicians, journalists and academics. (Jennie posted so helpfully yesterday on this subject.) I’ve witnessed it in my own town too, as the beach has been crowded and social distancing widely ignored, while others stay at home and lament those who are behaving as if COVID-19 didn’t exist. It’s a tension we will also be discovering in our churches. And like arguments in the UK over Brexit and in the US between Republicans and Democrats, this is one that has the potential to get ugly.
The most read post the past couple of weeks over on The Gospel Coalition site has been Brett McCracken’s outstanding, ‘Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You.’ This is the most helpful article I have read on how Christians should act towards one another at this time.
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 4)
Wesley confessed that “Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason” – but he pointed out equally that “Others have utterly disregarded it.” He argued that the Devil doesn’t mind either extreme, just so long as we fail to grasp why God calls his people to fast before him. The Devil fears fasting because he knows, perhaps better than we do, that fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven.
I have left this fourth motive till last in this four-part mini-series of blogs on fasting, because it flows out of the other three great motives that the Bible gives us for fasting. We have a tendency to assume that all of our prayers are heard equally in heaven, and that fasting is therefore unnecessary. However, Scripture tells us that this simply isn’t true. God’s call for Christians to fast flows out of the thinking behind the many Bible verses which inform us that all prayers are not heard equally in heaven.
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:15).
“The Lord detests the sacrifice of the wicked, but the prayer of the upright pleases him … If anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable” (Proverbs 15:8 & 28:9).
“Confess your sins to each other … The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:18).
“Husbands … be considerate as you live with your wives … so that nothing will hinder your prayers … For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:7&12).
That’s where fasting comes in. It does not win us any ‘merit’ with God. That’s the satanic counterfeit of true fasting, where people try to turn a means of living grace into a dead work. Fasting is not a Christian form of hunger-strike, in which we twist the arm of an unwilling God. It is a God-given aid through which we change our hearts towards him, not his heart towards us. Fasting helps us to come before God and to receive the finished work of Jesus with a pure heart. When the Lord warns us in Isaiah 58:4 that “Fasting like yours will not make your voice heard on high”, he is encouraging us that true fasting will make our voices heard on high! He is calling us to embrace the first three motives that I have already outlined, so that, through fasting, “You will call, and the Lord will answer” (Isaiah 58:9).
Biblical fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting expresses our delight in the Lord. For all the reasons that I outlined in the first blog in this mini-series, it communicates to God that we love him more than the fleeting pleasures of this world. We love him even more than we love our own bodies. We long for his glory to be revealed in us and in the world around us. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting,” the Lord urges us in Joel 2:12, because it is one of the tools that he has given us to concentrate our full attention on him. Fasting enables us to do what God calls us to do in Jeremiah 29:13-14. “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you.”
Biblical fasting also helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting helps to activate humility and repentance. The Lord detests pretend obedience and every other form of hypocrisy. He explains in Zechariah 7:13 that “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called I would not listen.” For all the reasons that I outlined in the second blog in this mini-series, fasting therefore is a powerful aid towards integrity. It is a God-given corrective to the pride that makes believers say one thing and do another. It humbles us before the Lord (Psalm 69:10, Ezra 8:21). It helps us to feel deep grief over our sins (Matthew 9:15, Joel 2:12). It enables us to embrace the truth of James 4:6-8. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble … Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
Biblical fasting also helps our prayers to be heard in heaven because fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons. Prayer is warfare. It involves wrestling with principalities and powers which are quite unwilling to vacate the areas of the world that have fallen into their clutches. If it took Daniel twenty-one days of fasting to achieve breakthrough in his prayers for the Jewish nation (Daniel 10:1-3&11-13), then why would we imagine that similar struggles are unnecessary for us to see breakthrough in our own? We must never forget that when we cry out to the Lord against our Enemy (Luke 18:3), that Enemy is standing in his courtroom in opposition to us (Job 1:6, Zechariah 3:1). For all the reasons that I outlined in the third blog in this mini-series, fasting helps us to confront the forces of darkness that stand against us. It enables us to plead the blood of Jesus in heaven’s courtroom so that our Enemy loses his grip on the world around us. That’s why it’s so vital that we rediscover what fasting is for.
Andrew Murray likens fasting to firing our very selves at the Enemy in prayer. “Fasting helps to express, to deepen, and to confirm the resolution that we are ready to sacrifice anything, to sacrifice ourselves to attain what we seek for the kingdom of God.” Arthur Wallis adds that “In giving us the privilege of fasting as well as praying, God has added a powerful weapon to our spiritual armoury. In her folly and ignorance the Church has largely looked upon it as obsolete. She has thrown it down in some dark corner to rust, and there is has lain forgotten for centuries.” If we are willing to pick up this weapon, the Lord promises us that it has lost none of its former power. It is still mighty to demolish strongholds.
If the evil King Ahab fasted and found that even his prayers were heard in heaven, then shouldn’t we consider fasting too? (1 Kings 21:25-29) If the bloodthirsty pagan citizens of Nineveh fasted and found that even their prayers were heard in heaven, then shouldn’t we consider fasting too? (Jonah 3:4-10)
In the face of the coronavirus crisis; in the face of the unprecedented economic and social traumas that are yet to be felt fully; and in light of the many Gospel breakthroughs that could be ours in the midst of this shaking of nations, shouldn’t we consider fasting? If not now, then when?
“Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord … ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning’” (Joel 1:14 and 2:12-13).
“So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23).
The quote from John Wesley comes from his ‘Sermon 27’, on Matthew 6:16-18.
The quote from Andrew Murray comes from ‘With Christ In The School of Prayer’ (1895).
The quote from Arthur Wallis comes from ‘God’s Chosen Fast’ (1968).
How Should We Respond to Injustice and Incompetence?
As the restrictions began to lift, though, the stresses and tensions began to boil, and the criticisms to flow. Finding out that while we were making distressing, burdensome, life-changing sacrifices, one of the Prime Minister’s key advisers was violating his own rules was the last straw, and the social media vitriol bubbled over.
Meanwhile in the US, yet more stories of brutality and injustice against black men hit the news cycles.
How should Christians respond when authority figures – be it someone at work, a national leader or an official body like the police – act unjustly or unwisely? In particular, how should we speak, write or tweet about them?
Here are some questions to consider:
1) Will it help?
What are you hoping your words, written or spoken, will achieve? Do you want to change the situation or merely to express your feelings about it (or to show that you think ‘correctly’ about it)?
Venting your anger on social media or to family/friends/colleagues may help you feel slightly better temporarily [Narrator: It won’t], but will it change the situation at all? Will it move a step towards bringing justice or preventing the injustice from happening again? Will it change anyone’s heart, mind or actions?
Expressing yourself in anger will not excise the anger from within you, but simply fan its flame. And if it is met with agreement, that will inflame you further, while if it is met with disagreement, that too will stoke the flames and make them blaze more strongly. But if all that is produced is an interior furnace, it will just increase your feeling of impotence and injustice. What’s more, you will have spread that fired-up frustration to those around you, robbing them of peace and denying them the opportunity to douse the flames and channel their energies into something more productive.
Consider what outcome you are looking for and whether this method is likely to be at least a stepping stone towards achieving it. Many of the tweets I’ve seen about the killing of George Floyd do pass this test. They are expressions of grief, and calls for eyes to be opened and racism – institutional, personal and casual – to be ended.
If you do need to ‘get it off your chest’ before you are able to engage more calmly, write it in a letter you will never send or, better still, in your journal, with God as your acknowledged audience. Then put it aside and walk away (from both the letter and the anger).
2) Will it point people to Jesus?
Yes, I know God gets angry and Jesus got angry. Is yours the righteous anger of a holy God against those who profess to love him? Jesus only directed his anger at religious authorities who were making it harder for his people to worship him, or people who were desecrating his temple.
To see how we should respond to secular authorities we need to look rather to Paul, who never sounded off about the injustices of Rome in his letters or speeches, but who constantly, kindly, passionately pointed his opponents to the God who loved them and sent his son to save them. It wasn’t that he wasn’t bothered by injustice or persecution, but he saw the bigger picture. He knew that the way to bring justice and peace on earth was not to write letters and drum up support and petition the leaders to be nicer. Rather, his goal was to point the unjust to Christ and given them the opportunity to be transformed.
3) Is it loving?
Jesus taught us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us. Paul told us to respect those in authority. Yes, it is important that we act justly, and seek justice for the oppressed, but think back to point 1 – is what you’re planning to say/tweet/post going to help? Will it make any progress towards bringing justice in the situation you are seeing? If the person it is about read it, would they know you love them? Do you love them?
1 John 4 tells us, “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” “But,” you may be thinking, “how could I love someone like that, someone who did something like that? They don’t deserve it.” Neither did we. But God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners – while we ignored him, rejected him, mocked him and denied him – Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Here’s an interesting Bible study to do sometime: find out what Jesus and his followers (and the biblical writers) thought of rulers like Herod, Caesar, Nero or Pilate. What adjectives did they use about them? How does that compare with how we speak about our leaders?
4) Does it show faith in God?
Romans 13 tells us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” This is one of the hardest verses for us to get our heads around. I can’t begin to grasp how it could be true that God institutes wicked leaders. I can’t fathom how he can be sovereign AND good AND allow – let alone cause – this to happen.
But I choose to believe that God is in control. I can see his hand at work in the midst of terrible situations throughout the Bible, and have experienced his sovereignty over the details of my own life. I know that this world is not the full picture, and that the primary goal of a believer is not to bring peace on earth, but to give glory to God. That is why the ‘great cloud of witnesses’, whose example Hebrews points us to, were able willingly to submit to the persecutions and tortures meted out on them – they knew that this world was not their home, that the goal was not to live a quiet, easy, prosperous life on earth, but to see God glorified, whatever it took.
If we believe that God is in control, and that he sees and cares about the tiniest of sparrows, how much more does he care about this situation? Why not ask him to show you his perspective on the injustice you are seeing? Look for where he is in the picture. What is he doing, and what is he asking you to say or do? How will his name be honoured, exalted and worshipped in this situation? Is that your greatest concern?
We need to remember that people are watching us. Friends, family, colleagues, strangers. In real life and online we are witnessing to them about who God is, what he is like, and how he has transformed our lives. If they read your twitter feed, listened to your conversations in the staff kitchen, saw what you had posted on Facebook, would they see the difference that faith in a sovereign, loving, powerful, just God brings, or would you look just like everyone else?
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 3)
That’s why I’m writing this mini-series of blogs to help us reflect on what the Bible teaches about fasting and on its crucial importance during crisis periods in Church history. In the midst of perhaps the greatest crisis of our own lifetimes, I want to help you rediscover the role that fasting plays in rolling back the oppression of the Devil and in ringing the Gospel bell of freedom over our troubled world. In these four blogs, I am outlining the four great biblical motives for our fasting before God:
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
In one of the most famous Old Testament chapters about fasting, God explains that the purpose of our fasting is to “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Isaiah 58:6). Jesus echoed this when he returned from forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness to declare in the synagogues that now “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:14-19).
What happened next was remarkable. Jesus made good on his promise by delivering people from demonic sickness and oppression with a simple word of command (Matthew 8:16, Luke 13:10-17). The evil spirits cowered before him and snivelled their abject confession that they were powerless to resist him (Matthew 8:29-31). Deliverance became such a major feature of his public ministry that when Peter sought to summarise what he had witnessed, he told people “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
Not everyone who witnessed this spotted the link between the ease with which Jesus pushed back the Devil and his demons, and the forty days and nights of fasting that he had spent preparing himself for public ministry. On one occasion, even his closest disciples had to ask him to explain the obvious difference between his successful encounters with demons and their own frequent failures. His reply was disarmingly simple: “This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21 and 9:21).
The Apostles evidently took this teaching to heart. They recognised that Jesus had called them to be with him so that they, too, could push back the work of the Devil in the world (Mark 3:13-15). They could achieve this by basking in his own anointing before the Day of Pentecost (Luke 9:1-2 and 10:17), but when he ascended back to heaven their own fasting began. Jesus had predicted this for them – and for us – when he asked in Matthew 9:15, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” As a result, we discover, especially from the life of the Apostle Paul, that fasting became a frequent feature of apostolic ministry (Acts 9:9, 13:1-3, 14:23, 27:9). We mustn’t miss the link between the amazing ways in which they healed the sick, delivered people from demons and planted churches in pagan cities, and the way in which they fasted before the Lord.
It’s all about spiritual authority. We have been given complete authority by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20), but the truth is, the way we live our lives is a bit like the story of the two men struggling with a massive sofa on the staircase of an apartment building. After sweating and struggling for a long time, one of the men exclaims: ‘It’s useless – we’re never going to manage to get this sofa down the stairs’, to which the other man replies, ‘Up the stairs? I thought we were trying to take it down the stairs!’ When we fast, we confront the civil war that rages within our hearts. Although we speak commands in the name of Jesus, there are aspects of our own lives which still refuse to submit to that name. When we fast, we declare war on our own sinful nature in the name of Jesus. We demonstrate that we have switched sides completely. We are ‘all in’ for Jesus, even if it means resisting our flesh, and as a result we find that we are much more able to operate with his authority. The Devil and his demons can smell hypocrisy a mile off, but they cannot resist the type of integrity that is expressed through fasting.
This is not dualism (the false belief that our soul is good and our flesh is bad). Nor is it asceticism (the flawed idea that we can bear spiritual fruit through the harsh treatment of our bodies). Those are two counterfeits of biblical fasting that the Devil has invented because he is so scared of the real thing. It is simply to recognise that our body wants to dominate our spirits, whereas Scripture commands us to bring our body into glad submission to the Holy Spirit in our spirits. The Puritans put it this way in The Church of England Book of Homilies in 1562: “[Fasting is] to chastise the flesh, that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought in subjection to the spirit.”
The Bible warns repeatedly that our fleshly appetites seek to dominate us and to lead us into sin. We can see this very clearly in verses such as Genesis 3:6 and 9:20-21, Exodus 16:3, Numbers 11:4-5 and 21:5, 1 Samuel 2:29. Psalm 78:29-31 and 106:15 – the list goes on and on. The New Testament explains that the Holy Spirit wants to empower our spirits to bring our bodies to full submission to Jesus as their new Master (Romans 13:14, 1 Corinthians 6:12-13 and 9:27, 2 Peter 2:19). When we grow lazy in subduing our body’s constant desire for food and drink, we become weak in fighting off all other temptations too. When we learn to bring our most basic appetites into submission to the Lord Jesus, we find ourselves strengthened to resist all other forms of temptation too. When we submit the whole of our lives to Jesus as our new Master, we suddenly find that the Devil and his demons lose their power to resist our commands, which are now spoken with real integrity. We discover the link that is made in James 4:7 – “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
I believe that we are living through a crisis period in Church history in which believers need to be able to pray with greater authority than they have experienced before. I believe that the forces of darkness – so evident at work behind the coronavirus – need to be pushed back by an army of believers who have learned to speak the commands of God with absolute integrity. I believe that we need to do more than admire Rees Howells and the small group of intercessors, whose powerful prayers famously helped turn the tide of the Second World War. We need to walk the same path that they did.
When Rees Howells started to fast, he was surprised by the civil war raging in his own soul. “I didn’t know such a lust was in me. My agitation was the proof of the grip it had on me.” But after defeating the enemy on the inside through the name of Jesus, Rees Howells found himself able to rout the enemy on the outside through his prayers in Jesus’ name. Our own generation stands in need of such believers, who, through fasting, have learned to push back the Devil and his demons.
1) Not all Greek manuscripts of Matthew 17:21 and Mark 9:29 contain the words ‘and fasting’. Debate still rages over whether ancient ascetics added those two words to bolster their own practices, or whether pleasure-seekers removed those two words for the same reason! Thankfully, there are enough other Bible verses about the link between fasting and spiritual warfare for our understanding not to rest on these two verses alone.
2) Quote taken from Norman Grubb’s short biography “Rees Howells: Intercessor” (1952).
A Thousand Generations
And now it continues down the line, through me and my brother to his children, and hopefully, in time their children, and their children…
But what about me? Does the line stop with me, simply because I never had children? It could, if I let it. I could receive all the wonderful blessings of this heritage and of the faith and let them fill my cup and stay there. That would be tragic indeed.
But it needn’t.
Mum wasn’t the beginning of my Christian heritage on her side, it stretches back through the teacher who was bold enough to organise a trip to hear an evangelist, and further, to whoever introduced that teacher to Christ, and whoever introduced them and so on and so on, back to Abraham (Galatians 3).
The Bible teaches that we – all believers everywhere – are members of one family. We are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, all because of our faith in Christ. We didn’t just receive an individualistic salvation, but were adopted into a new family, and given the name of that family. The blood relationships we have are still real, but they are secondary to the covenant relationship we have in Christ.
I may not have physical children, either by blood or by legal adoption, but I am richly blessed with spiritual children – the people I witnessed to at school, at least one of whom is still going on in the faith; the people who have come to faith through missionaries I support; the people in my sphere of influence who maybe didn’t come to faith through my witness, but have been helped to stay on the path and to grow into the next phase of spiritual maturity.
When I listen to the UK Blessing (or this Makaton version), I am not excluded from that wonderful section about God’s favour being upon me and my family and my children and their children…for a thousand generations. I don’t have to put on a brave face, and try to be happy for those to whom it applies. No, I can sing it with joy, receiving it as God’s faithful promise to me.
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:1-3)
God’s favour is not only upon those who are already favoured in the world’s eyes, or who conform to the culture’s expectations, or who have already received the desires of our hearts. His eye is on the widow, the orphan and the outsider. He sets the lonely in families (Psalm 68:6). His blessings are abundant and his promises are good. He is for me. He is for you.
How are you online?
In the case of my own church, it feels that eight weeks into lockdown we have got a reasonable grasp of how to do online services. What we do is getting better week by week as we learn new skills and means of communication. It’s certainly not perfect, but it seems to be serving church members well and is well enough done to be able to invite the non-churched to watch without worrying they will be immediately put off. It looks, though, as if we are going to have to keep doing this for quite some time – so there’s plenty of room for improvement.
How about your church? How are your Sundays? How are you most effectively utilising Zoom? What online initiatives have worked well? What do you need to change?
Don’t just keep doing what you are doing. Keep asking the question.
How are you planning?
In the UK it looks as though we will be allowed to have some kinds of physical gatherings after July 4th – but those gatherings will be severely restricted, and July 4th is still six weeks away. That means we still have six weeks of doing what we’re doing and it means we have six weeks to get ready for what comes next: how far have you got in planning for what that might look like?
Life will be far from back to normal and churches will be having to navigate doing some things physically, at a distance of 2 meters from one another, with other things staying online. Even as so much remains uncertain we need to be intentional in preparing ourselves for all this.
How are you resting?
For many of us, the first phase of lockdown has been incredibly busy. Learning those new online skills and working hard at creating new patterns of pastoral care and connection has been all-consuming. My hunch is that when we come through the tight lockdown restrictions things will get busier again, not easier: doing life with some physical proximity but social distancing measures in place, having to maintain online provision, pastoring people through corona-PTSD, remaining alert and ready to respond if a second wave of the virus necessitates another lockdown, and so on, will give us even more to do.
So while we need to be busy these next six weeks planning and preparing for the next phase we also need to be busy resting in order to build reserves of energy for what comes next.
That applies to us personally but this experience has also created opportunities to think about how society as a whole might get better at resting. I’d love to see a return to a restriction on Sunday trading hours: wouldn’t we all be better off with one day of the week which is not consumed with consumerism? (There is a UK petition to Parliament to this effect here – though hardly anyone has signed it yet.)
Of course, there are many other corona-questions but those three seem essential ones to me. What are your answers?
Post-Christianity and Cold Feet
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 2)
So here’s the question that I’m asking in this moment of coronavirus crisis. Now that even our most brazen politicians have begun confessing that the problems that are facing us are too difficult for governments to solve, is God calling his people to respond with a fresh season of fasting together before him? How big do the challenges to our healthcare, to our economy, to our children’s education, and to our churches need to become before we rediscover fasting as a mighty weapon in the Christian arsenal?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand why talk of fasting is unpopular these days. Like you, I’ve read all about the ancient ascetics and the medieval monks who turned the life-giving practice of fasting into a dead work, attempting to curry favour with the Lord through the harsh treatment of their bodies. I get why many believers today have filed fasting away in their minds as something unknown, unnecessary and undesirable. That’s why I am writing this mini-series of four blogs to invite you to blow away the cobwebs from the Scriptures that encourage us to fast in times of crisis. I believe that God is calling you and me to a fresh season of fasting, amidst of the greatest crisis of our generation.
In the first blog in this mini-series, I took you to some Bible verses which teach us that the primary motive for our fasting ought to be its benefits to God, rather than its benefits to ourselves. Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord, our desire to reconsecrate our lives to him and our deep longing for a greater revelation of him. In the remaining three blogs, we will look at the other three great motives:
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Fasting often accompanies prayer, but it is itself distinct from prayer. It is more than merely ‘prayer plus’. It serves a mighty purpose of its own. It is a powerful aid to our humility.
The Bible warns us that a full stomach physically invariably leads to pride spiritually. The root of Sodom’s sin was not sexual perversion, but an excess of food. “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” (Ezekiel 16:49). The sins of the Israelites were also rooted in their full bellies. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger … to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes out of the mouth of the Lord … Be careful … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied … your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3&11-14). Those of us who live in prosperous, well-fed and spiritually lukewarm nations need to take this lesson from Israel’s history particularly seriously. “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me” (Hosea 13:6).
It isn’t hard for Christians in the West to trace their nation’s rejection of God’s Word back to its relative prosperity. Nor is it hard for us to trace the rapid growth of the Church in many nations of the Global South back to the poverty of those nations. But when we fast, we go further than mere commentary on the effect of full and empty stomachs on other people. We make an active decision to empty our own earthly bellies for a season in order to increase our hunger for the things of heaven. We voluntarily embrace the path of poverty and lack in order to feast, instead, on the promise of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
King David understood this. He tells us that “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). Ezra understood this too, proclaiming “a fast … that we might humble ourselves before our God” (Ezra 8:21). Fasting is a God-given corrective to the pride that so easily infects the heart of any well-fed human. It is a powerful accompaniment to prayer, but it is also powerful on its own. “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:6-8).
The Bible also explains that fasting has a second, similar significance for the believer today. It was a major element of the elaborate mourning rituals of Israel (1 Samuel 31:13, 2 Samuel 1:12 & 3:35). As a result, the Israelites would often fast as an expression of their grief-stricken repentance, demonstrating to God the profound sorrow that they felt about their nation’s sin against him. Samuel led the Israelites in one such fast of repentance in 1 Samuel 7:6. Ezra fasted in this way personally (Ezra 9:3-6 & 10:6) and he went on to lead the returning Jewish exiles in a similar national fast of repentance (Nehemiah 9:1-2). Even the wicked King Ahab and the pagan citizens of Nineveh fasted to humble themselves in repentance when warned about the judgment of the Lord (1 Kings 21:25-29 and Jonah 3:4-10). On each of these occasions, the threatened crisis was averted. If even out-and-out idolaters enjoyed the benefits of fasting, why wouldn’t we do the same during our own coronavirus crisis today?
I know that Christians in the past have treated fasting in the same way that Muslims treat Ramadan – as the accrual of ‘good deeds’ to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favour. I know that fasting has frequently become a source of pride to its practitioners (Luke 18:11-12). I know that medieval priests taught that fasting is a ‘penance’ that can top up what is lacking in the work of Jesus on the cross for us. I despise that false teaching every bit as much as you do, but the remedy for abuse is never disuse, but rather proper use. We mustn’t allow the mistakes of others to rob us of the powerful tool that God has given us to activate deep humility in our hearts and to express sincere repentance for our sin.
We mustn’t miss the way that Jesus, shortly after teaching his followers about “when you fast” (not if you fast), uses “fasting” and “mourning” as interchangeable and equivalent terms (Matthew 6:16-17 and 9:15). Nor must we miss the link between this teaching about fasting and his earlier promise that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). We cannot afford to allow the misguided legalism of others to blind our own eyes to that fact that fasting remains a mighty channel of God’s grace towards those who believe the Gospel.
John Wesley encourages us fast primarily for the Lord’s sake and secondarily as an expression of our humility and repentance towards him: “Let it be done unto the Lord, with our eye singly fixed on Him. Let our intention herein be this, and this alone, to glorify our Father which is in heaven; to express our sorrow and shame for our manifold transgressions of His holy law … Let us beware of fancying we merit anything of God by our fasting. We cannot be too often warned of this; inasmuch as a desire to ‘establish our own righteousness’, to procure salvation of debt and not of grace, is so deeply rooted in all our hearts. Fasting only a way which God hath ordained, wherein we wait for His unmerited mercy; and wherein, without any desert of ours, He hath promised freely to give us His blessing.”
I believe that God is calling us to rediscover the forgotten blessings of fasting as part of our response to the present coronavirus crisis. In the final two blogs in this mini-series, we will look at Scriptures which teach us that our fasting pushes back the gates of hell and makes our prayers heard in heaven. But you don’t have to wait for those blogs to start doing what the Lord commands in Joel 1:14 and 2:12:
“Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord … ‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’”
The John Wesley quote comes from his ‘Sermon 27’, on Matthew 6:6-18.
In Praise of Brainwashing
I’ve been thinking about brainwashing recently. Many people would look at my life and say I’ve been brainwashed. I was brought up in a home where a certain set of minority beliefs were presented as true. I have adhered to the core of these beliefs for as long as I can remember and have never really had a time when I’ve rejected them for an alternative way of viewing and living in the world. These beliefs cause me to live my life in a way that is not only different from but seems outright weird to a majority of my peers. And to top it off, I’m so committed to these beliefs that I spend my life thinking about them and teaching them to others. On a popular definition of brainwashing, I think I probably qualify.
I began to realise this as I reflected on the concept of formation outlined by James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love. As I thought through his suggestion that we should shape our corporate worship and our home life in such a way that it forms us into people whose loves are directed in a certain direction, I was struck that many people would see this as brainwashing, particularly when the idea is applied to parenting.
But then I realised that if Smith is right that all of us are constantly being formed by unexamined cultural liturgies – and I think he probably is – then all of us are constantly being brainwashed. My situation is no different; it’s just that fewer people have been brainwashed into the beliefs I have. Those who hold to majority beliefs are no less brainwashed than the rest of us.
The key question, then, is not whether we should allow ourselves to be brainwashed (or whether we should brainwash our children) but who or what we should allow to brainwash us and into what loves and beliefs. There is good brainwashing and bad brainwashing. The key is distinguishing between the two.
So why am I happy to have been brainwashed into Christian belief and why do I continue to actively pursue that brainwashing (or formation, as Smith would more gently put it)? I think there are three cumulative reasons, in the form of three questions that should be asked of any belief system.
Is it coherent?
To be worth adopting a belief system needs to be coherent. The issue here isn’t whether it is true or whether we want it to be true, but whether it could work if it were true.
Is it good, beautiful, and life-giving?
This question helps us think about whether we want the belief system to be true. It might be coherent but unattractive and damaging. We want to be shaped by beliefs that will do us and others good.
Is it true?
This is obviously the most important question. Does this belief system align with reality? Does it make good sense of what we already know to be true and of how we experience the world?
I’m happy to have been brainwashed into Christianity because I have examined it and found it to be coherent; I have experienced it to be beautiful and life-giving, and I think there are very good reasons to believe it’s true.
In reality, of course, I’m not a Christian just because I have received the right sort of brainwashing. No amount of brainwashing can bring life to one who is dead. Ultimately, I’m a Christian because of what the Father has done in me through his Son and the Spirit. The brainwashing is just part of how he has worked and is working in me. But I now realise that when someone suggests I’ve been brainwashed, I’ll be able to confidently say, ‘Yes I have, and I am so grateful for that.’ I’m sure it will prove to be a great conversation starter.
Is God Calling Us to Fast? (part 1)
A few years later, when the American colonists began their revolution against British rule, one of the first rulings of the Continental Congress was that the revolutionists ought to do the same. A national “day of public humiliation, fasting and prayer” on 20th July 1775 helped the ramshackle Continental Army to defeat a global superpower. Another similar day of prayer and fasting, called by Abraham Lincoln on 30th April 1863, helped to preserve the Union and to sound the death-knell for slavery.
So here’s my question. In our own moment of coronavirus crisis, is God calling us to fast? Few of us would doubt that God is calling us to pray, but is he also calling us to salt those prayers with fasting? I am not expecting Queen Elizabeth or Boris Johnson or Donald Trump to call a national day of prayer and fasting any time soon, but should we be taking the initiative ourselves? What is the biblical practice of fasting all about anyway, and what role ought it to play in our response to what is perhaps the greatest global crisis of our generation?
I know that talk of fasting is unfashionable these days. I know that it tends to be viewed among evangelicals as archaic, ascetic, outdated and unnecessary. But I also know that Jesus fasted, that the Apostles fasted, and that many of the people who have seen the greatest Gospel breakthroughs throughout Church history have been men and women who fasted too. I therefore want to reflect on this challenge seriously and over the next few days I want to help you to do the same. In this mini-series of four blogs, I am going to summarise what the Bible teaches about fasting and about its crucial importance for the reversal of disaster and for the revival of nations.
In these four blogs, I will outline the four great biblical motives for our fasting before God:
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
Motive 2: Fasting expresses our humility and repentance
Motive 3: Fasting pushes back the Devil and his demons
Motive 4: Fasting helps our prayers to be heard in heaven
Motive 1: Fasting expresses our delight in the Lord
This has been the biggest eye-opener to me as I have studied what the Scriptures say about fasting before the Lord in times of crisis. If I am honest, I have tended to approach the subject with an attitude of self-centredness. I have tended to ask, ‘What good would fasting do to me?’, and I wonder if that’s the very reason why I need to fast. When the Bible talks about fasting, it confronts the Christian consumerism that leaves many Christians consumed with themselves. It warns us not to fast primarily for our own benefit and pleasure (Isaiah 58:3). It calls us, instead, to fast with the kind of fasting God has chosen – as an act of worship and of ministry to God (Isaiah 58:5-6). Motives matter massively, so the personal benefits of fasting need to take a firm second place to the benefits to God. He will ask us, as he asked in Zechariah 7:5: “When you fasted … was it really for me that you fasted?”
Luke 2:37 tells us literally that Anna “worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer.” Acts 13:2 echoes this when it tells us literally that the leaders of the church in Antioch “ministered to the Lord, and fasted.” Fasting is therefore first and foremost an act of worship, the forgoing of food for a season as an expression of our delight in the Lord’s presence and a proclamation that we prize his love more than bread, wine and the other tasty comforts of our tables (Psalm 63:3, Song of Songs 1:2, John 4:32).
Fasting is an expression of our renewed consecration to the Lord. It echoes the fasting of the ancient Nazirites (Numbers 6:2-3) and it responds to God’s call in Joel 1:14 and 2:15 for us to “Sanctify a fast” or “Set apart a fast” as a crossroads moment in our well-fed lives during which we can turn our backs on the path of living for self and set our feet firmly on the path of living for him alone. I understand the dangers of asceticism, and we will examine them in the other blogs in this mini-series, but I wonder if the reason for our neglect of fasting is rather more basic. We are more attached to the things of this earth than we like to admit. We are too wedded to this world to deny ourselves the things of earth as a way of expressing our devotion to the things of heaven.
Jesus began his three years of public ministry with forty days of prayer and fasting (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13). During those forty days, he overcame the temptation to fuel his soul with this world’s food, to fuel his ego with this world’s praise and to fuel his ministry with this world’s strategies. As a result, he returned from his days of fasting “in the power of the Spirit”, equipped to partner with his Father against the world for its redemption (Luke 4:14).
Paul and Barnabas also began their missionary journeys with a season of fasting (Acts 13:3). They renounced their attachment to the things of this world in order that they might prove worthy servants of God as they went on mission to the world. After seeing phenomenal fruit on their first journey, they appointed elders for each of their church plants by leading those new leaders in similar seasons of fasting (Acts 14:23). You might have read those Scriptures many times without noticing the importance that they place on fasting, so go back and read them a bit more slowly. Jesus taught his followers about “when you fast” – not if you fast – and he clearly expected it to be something that they would do often as they partnered with his Spirit during the period between his ascension to heaven and his triumphant return (Matthew 6:16-17 & 9:15).
Fasting has often been associated with receiving renewed revelation from the Lord. Scripture tells us that when “I, Daniel … turned my face to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting”, the angel Gabriel appeared and told the prophet, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:2-3&21-22). In the same way, the Apostle Paul talks about his frequent periods of fasting just a few verses before recounting his “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 11:27 & 12:1). In this present global crisis, we dare not reduce the gift of prophecy to mere personal encouragement. We need to rediscover it as the unveiling of what God is doing through world events all around us. We must press against the doors of heaven, through fasting, until the Holy Spirit ushers us inside and reveals to us what is happening in the control-room of history.
In the next blog in this mini-series, we will examine some of the personal benefits of fasting. But let’s linger for a moment on the primary benefits of our fasting to the Lord. Let’s acknowledge that one of the biggest reasons why we need to rediscover the biblical practice of fasting is to help us surrender to God, to help us worship God, to help us reconsecrate our lives to God, and to help us seek fresh revelation of God and of God’s work in the world.
Let’s rediscover what previous generations of believers have understood about fasting: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen … Then you will call, and the Lord will answer … Then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land … Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins.” (Isaiah 58:6-12)
On Being “Yoked With Unbelievers”
The short answer is: I don’t think Paul was thinking about business partnerships, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Paul didn’t live in an entrepreneurial, capitalist society, and the distinction we have between being a business partner, an employee, a supplier, a customer (or even a slave!) simply didn’t exist in the ancient world. His main point of application was the withdrawal from idolatrous practices (6:14-16), as we also see at length in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but we know he was also concerned with marriage (1 Cor 7), the infiltration of sexual and financial norms into the church (1 Cor 5-6), and various other things that he writes about in both letters. If we want a real world case study of how the “yoked with unbelievers” principle works in a tangible situation, the best one might be the example of buying food in the meat market and eating in a private home (1 Cor 10:23-11:1): feel free to participate as long as nobody’s conscience is violated, it doesn’t lead anyone into idolatry or sin, and it can be done to the glory of God.
Applying this text to business partnerships is more a question of wisdom than law, I think. If my Dad had started his business with two unbelievers instead of two Christians, it probably would have made the Christian ethics of his company far harder to instil, and it would almost certainly have been an unwise decision. Investing in a large multinational company alongside many non-Christian owners—which technically is the same thing, on a far smaller scale—is something we all do, directly or indirectly, and I think that’s fine. Exactly where the line is takes wisdom, and should be triple-filtered through Paul’s principles: conscience, idolatry and the glory of God. That’s a starter for ten, anyway.
Lockdown & Singleness
Livestreaming in Lockdown
“There MUST be a way” for churches to help care homes
I love a challenge.
I have these nagging and insatiable “can I make it happen?” thoughts, and quite frankly, lockdown has been a hotbed for them. I’m pleased to say that only one has been sofa-related. So far.
One evening after a late supper, my husband and I thought it would be an ideal time to embark upon a room redesign. By 1am, the all important sofa swap was the final piece of the puzzle left. Now. We’ve done this before. Many times and we know that you can measure a sofa, a doorway, take into account it’s legs and the height of it’s back but really, there is no way of knowing if it will fit unless you give it a go. My husband swears by talking to it when we hit the peak of the challenge. Encourage it. Cheer it on. Whisper sweet nothings if all else fails.
In our 17 year marriage, this was to be our biggest sofa debacle yet. Possibly enhanced by the time of night and the shear lunacy of moving something quite this big through something quite that small. It started promisingly and we managed to get it out of room one and into the hall. But then quickly came the wedge. The dreaded wedge. Because as anyone who’s ever moved a sofa knows, it’s all about angles. There were obstacles on all sides, including the two of us. But my favourite phrase at this point, the one that cannot be silenced in a situation like this is “there MUST be a way.”
In normal times, the Truth Be Told project visits care homes with 0-4’s and their parents and along with residents, we tell stories, sing songs and are family together. When they started to close their doors to lock down long before the rest of us, I had hoped that we’d be back visiting those care homes again in no time at all. I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of the situation and how my intergenerational, church-led project for the most vulnerable in our communities would possibly be one of the last puzzle pieces of normal life to be slotted back into place.
Unlike the rest of us, care home residents are familiar with the kind of social isolation that we’re getting just a tiny taste of now. In fact, studies have shown that they are twice as likely to be severely lonely as older adults living in their community. This generation are also well accustomed to being separated from loved ones. They may have said goodbye to their children being evacuated or they may have been that child themselves. Times of unprecedented upheaval are no stranger to them either. Simple weddings, lack of supplies and government imposed restrictions are all too memorable.
With my favourite phrase always resonating, I have been sure that with enough lateral thinking (or “to-me-to-you” in sofa language) “there MUST be a way” to continue to bring joy, hope and life to this precious generation, even now in their darkest times. After all, there was no stopping Jesus was there? No temptation too great, no authority too powerful, no stone too heavy.
The good news is, there are many ways. I’ve been talking with a number of care home chaplains, activities coordinators and carers about the needs of residents and staff at this time and beyond. Despite the physical restrictions, churches, their families and communities can do much to help. Our website and this free resource for churches gives you specific guidance and suggestions so please do take a look and do what you can.
I still don’t know how long it might be before we are able to physically be with our older friends again. And there will be residents who are never reunited with us as their days aren’t numerous enough. But what I do know is that “There MUST be a way” to continually pursue the purpose of Truth Be Told. To remind everyone that they are invited to belong through His church, God’s beautiful display of family, of intergenerational love and devotion.
No matter how incompatible the measurements, there really is no sofa too big and no doorway too small.
Should we theologize about Covid-19?
In the early days of the pandemic, pragmatism was king. Many of us who are church leaders immediately switched into reactive mode. The times necessitated tearing up the old playbook and developing a host of new practices to care for our people. Carving out time to step back and reflect on the meaning of events was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
But now things have moved on. Many of us have systems and processes in place that are working reasonably well, subject to the vagaries of the internet. As innately curious creatures with a high view of the sovereignty of God it’s natural that our interest should wander to trying to make sense of what’s going on. Like the sons of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, we don’t want simply to survive in these times; we want to understand them. We yearn to know what the pandemic means.
The result is that theologizing is going on everywhere. I recently attended a meeting with other pastors (on Zoom, of course) in which a seasoned and much respected Christian leader spent some time developing his thesis that the pandemic is a clear instance of divine judgment. At the other end of the spectrum, Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh for Tearfund assert that Covid-19 is all our fault, and “any suggestion that coronavirus is some kind of divine judgement is fundamentally at odds with God’s character.”
Others speculate that the pandemic is the harbinger of revival, or preparation for a wave of persecution that’s coming to the western Church. Believers who were previously circumspect about pinning theological significance on world events have no such qualms about sharing their insights into
Covid-19. In recent years, notwithstanding a handful of notable exceptions, church leaders on these shores have held back from theologizing about events happening on the world stage, but this feels different. This feels epochal. Biblical, even.
Each time I hear someone make a definitive pronouncement on the meaning of coronavirus it prompts an obvious question in my mind: “How do you know?” Who of us can claim to be on the inside track of the divine mind? The fact that Bible believing Christians are coming up with opposing interpretations of the pandemic only exacerbates the problem. Does anyone out there really know what’s going on?
In his Genesis commentary , Walter Brueggemann notes that the first to practise theology in the Bible is the serpent. Adam and Eve were called to live lives of loving obedience before God, but the serpent engaged the woman in theologizing about God. Previously God was a Person to be obeyed and trusted; now he became an object to be analysed and interpreted. The narrative of Genesis 3 teaches us many things, but here’s a lesson we can all too easily miss: the danger of being so theologically minded that we’re of no heavenly (or earthly) use.
One of the most significant texts on the dangers of speculative theologizing is the Book of Job. Here Job’s comforters thought they understood perfectly what was going on but their theological pronouncements served only to rouse Job’s frustration and, ultimately, God’s anger (Job 42:7-9). The mistake made by Job’s friends was not to think that an explanation for this specific instance of suffering didn’t exist; it was to apply, in simplistic fashion, a theological framework that was inadequate to the complexities of the situation. All those inclined to theologize about our present-day pandemic-caused suffering, take note!
Where does this leave us? Are we really to accept the notion, following N.T. Wright, that “it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain”? Is there no way we can ever ascribe divine intention to events happening on the world stage? But is not this precisely the kind of “theologizing” that we find in the scriptures? The authors of the Bible apparently had no misgivings about calling out those instances where they perceived God’s hand at work in the world, in mobilising armies, raising leaders to power and sending plagues on the earth.
Putting aside the issue of whether any of us can claim to receive revelation at the same level as the authors of scripture, there is an important point raised here. We need to be on our guard against two extremes: overzealous interpretation of historical events on one hand, and excessive circumspection on the other. The problem, as I see it, is not with the practice of extrapolating from current events to arrive at a theological interpretation per se. It’s with moving from one to the other in a way that is definitive and simplistic. When we yearn for meaning, it’s alarmingly easy to try and explain everything in a single stroke. The result is that we place an excessive degree of confidence in our way of seeing things and closed to the existence of real complexities in the world. It’s not that we’re wrong; we’re simply holding to a framework that’s inadequate to the situation.
So, beware the dangers of theologizing. In the final analysis, it’s more important to deal with our current situation than to understand it. One old pragmatist put it well:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
- This is a guest post from Andrew Sampson, pastor of Grace Church Truro.
What is The Gospel™?
The Wisdom of Cleanliness
A few weeks ago I reflected on the possibility that our experience of the coronavirus pandemic might help us to better understand the Levitical laws on ritual purity and to apply to our own lives the lessons they are designed to teach. Interestingly, it seems that the findings of moral psychology might support the wisdom behind the ritual purity laws.
The ritual purity laws were most likely given to the Israelites to teach them about the holiness of God and their need to be holy in order to maintain relationship with him. Though the laws were not about moral issues, they were designed to be a constant reminder to the Israelites of the importance of moral purity for those who live in relationship with God. Seeking to remain ritually pure would have encouraged Israelites to seek to be morally pure.
It seems that, unsurprisingly, there was great wisdom behind these laws. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt discusses the way that our embodied nature can influence our moral intuitions (our preconscious moral responses). One aspect of this influence is seen in a correlation between cleanliness and moral purity. Haidt offers three examples of studies which have demonstrated this correlation (pp.71-72):
[S]ubjects who are asked to wash their hands with soap before filling out questionnaires become more moralistic about issues related to moral purity (such as pornography or drug use).
People who were asked to recall their own moral transgressions, or merely to copy by hand an account of someone else’s moral transgression, find themselves thinking about cleanliness more often and wanting more strongly to cleanse themselves. They are more likely to select hand wipes and other cleaning products when given a choice of consumer products to take home with them after the experiment.
[S]tudents at Cornell University [were asked] to fill out surveys about their political attitudes while standing near (or far from) a hand sanitizer dispenser. Those told to stand near the sanitizer became temporarily more conservative.
There is a correlation between physical and moral cleanliness. When we are physically clean, we are more conscious of the importance of morality and more eager to be morally clean.
In ancient Israel, ritual impurity didn’t always correspond directly with physical uncleanness (which is why the language of purity is better than cleanness) but no doubt for those living under the laws, to be in a state of impurity would have felt somewhat comparable to being physically unclean. This would be particularly so for those forms of impurity which were linked to things which are physically unclean. This point would also have been stressed in those forms of impurity which required ritual washing as part of the process for returning to a state of purity. If the research Haidt cites is correct, this ritual washing would not only have been teaching the Israelites about the need for moral purity but would also have been shaping their intuitions to incline them toward moral purity.
Thinking about our situation, it is interesting to consider whether the increased emphasis on hand hygiene will also be having an effect on our own moral intuitions!
A Puzzling Pauline Paragraph
Paul’s goal in this paragraph is simple: he wants the Corinthians to grow up. Having a childlike innocence with respect to evil is a good thing, but in their thinking they need to stop being children and start being adults (20). The child/adult comparison has already appeared twice in this letter (4:14; 13:11), and in the second of these it contrasted maturity with immaturity, which is what it does here. By running after the gift of languages without regard for the edification or understanding of anyone else, the Corinthians are being childish, like a toddler so obsessed with enjoying their toys that they never think about anyone else.
Then comes the quotation from the Old Testament (Paul sometimes says “the Law” to refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole), which makes sense of what Paul is doing (21). It comes from Isaiah 28:11-12, which is a passage pronouncing judgment over unbelieving Israel, seven centuries before. Because of Israel’s sin, Isaiah says, God will judge them by speaking to them through foreigners who will rule over them—Assyrians, then Babylonians, Persians, and eventually Greeks and Romans—in languages that they do not understand. Prophecy, meanwhile, will reassure them of God’s continued presence among them, not least through Isaiah’s own words.
So when Paul says that “tongues are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers” (21), he is talking about a sign of judgment. He is saying that the experience of being spoken to in languages you do not understand serves to emphasise your distance from God, like it did for Israel. It creates a sense of alienation in the hearer—in contrast to prophecy, which emphasises how present God is. So by speaking in uninterpreted tongues in the church, the Corinthians are (unintentionally) pronouncing judgment over one another. They are making people feel further away from God, and from each other, rather than closer. If you have ever been in a meeting where everyone is speaking in tongues and you don’t, you may know what that feels like.
A clue that we are on the right lines here is the word “so” (oun) at the start of verse 23. If we take the phrase “a sign for unbelievers” as a good thing, which we should embrace, then that little word “so” makes no sense: Paul is saying completely different things in the two sentences. But if we take “a sign for unbelievers” as a sign of judgment, which we should avoid if at all possible, it makes perfect sense. Both verses are trying to prevent the Corinthians babbling away in languages that nobody understands, because it will make Christians feel judged by God and alienated from one another (22), and because it will make unbelievers think they are all crazy (23). Prophecy, on the other hand, is edifying to believers (3, 5), and has the capacity to convince unbelievers of their sin, expose the secrets of their hearts, reveal the presence of God, and cause them to fall face down in worship (24-25).
8 tips on working from home
Many will attest that I’ve been self-isolating for more than a decade. So, while this is perhaps a little too late to be of much use to anybody, I thought I’d share a few tips on working from home that are especially relevant to those living with noisy little people...
1. If you have kids, control the noise. Buy some earplugs. And maybe some noise cancelling headphones. I use both and play white noise through the headphones that are placed over my earplugs. That’s what it takes to block out three kids and an extroverted spouse.
2. Agree expectations with your spouse (or whoever you live with). There are hours in the day when I need to be left undisturbed, even if I’m with everyone else (we live in a flat). Agree this up front. Otherwise, even if you can’t hear the grumbling, you’ll sense the death stare.
3. Keep office hours. I once heard Don Carson pass on a maxim he learned from his mother: ‘Work hard, play hard, and never confuse the two.’ I often remind myself of that when I’m tempted to procrastinate in the day, or work at night.
4. Build a routine. There’s something very liberating about structure. I love routines, and though I change them quite often, I have found a routine helps me to get on with stuff I might otherwise neglect.
5. Go for walks. Apparently, it’s good for you! Walking will help you be more creative as well as just feeling happier. You need the sunlight. You need the blood flow. And, if you’re doing creative work and you get stuck, stepping away will actually get thoughts flowing again.
6. Block the internet (if you can work without it at all). I have used internet blocking apps (like Freedom) for a long time now. I set aside portions of the day to be disconnected and it helps a lot. In terms of your phone, you can turn off wifi and mobile data (you’ll still receive calls), or put it in another room.
7. Take regular, scheduled breaks. It’s super-helpful, especially when you’re tackling something quite daunting (in my case, sermon preparation) to know when you’re next going to pause. When I fail to do this – imagining I’ll be more productive by powering through – I find the hours slip by and I feel more and more groggy, and get less done.
8. Cut yourself some slack. If you get into a guilt cycle, things will go from bad to worse. If you love Jesus, then remember that he is your justification. He wants you to live a fruitful life, but that’s not necessarily the same as being busy. Ask for his help. Repent. Repeat.
For Pastors: The Importance of Being Absent
There is a spectrum of how people treat church leaders, ranging from dismissive to dependent. Neither of these extremes is healthy. We should be bang in the middle. Philippians 2:12-18 gives us a great portrait of Paul helping the Philippians be neither dependent or dismissive of him. From this passage, here are four things I do to help our people stay in the middle of the spectrum:
1. Think “drink” and “food”
Paul borrows an Old Testament image of sacrifice in which the major offering was the food offering, accompanied by a lesser drink offering. Paul says they are the food offering, and he is the drink offering. This is vital: I think of myself as less than our people and our church. I think of myself as a bridesmaid, not the Bride. Isn’t it terrible when bridesmaids try to make the day about them rather than the Bride?!
2. Team preaching
Although I do the majority of the preaching, I deliberately do not do all of it. This is not primarily because I need a break, but because our congregation need a break from hearing me, whether they think they do or not. They need to learn to drink of God’s word through different straws, not just the PJ-straw. They need to have God’s Word as the constant, not God’s-Word-and-PJ as the constant.
3. Team pastoring
Paul stresses that God himself is at work within them (v.13). The captain of our pastoring team is Jesus. He does the bulk of the pastoring. I will often say to someone needing care, “I am happy to add my faith to your faith in Jesus” or, “I am happy to stand with you as you look to Jesus for strength” or, “Here is what I think you should do, but you digging into Jesus is the critical success factor.” I want the after-taste of every pastoral encounter to be Jesus.
Paul also stresses their role in pastoring themselves: “work out your own salvation” (v.12) and “do all things…” (v.14). I try to teach people to speak to their souls like the psalmist did (Ps. 42:5); to fan their God-given gift to flame (2 Tim. 1:6); and to rouse themselves to worship, prayer, Bible-reading, and other spiritual disciplines. The virgins at the wedding in Matthew 25 needed their own oil. Each of us needs to bear our own load (Gal. 6:5).
Paul is equally clear in the importance of his (the leader’s) role in pastoring them. Crucially, he loves them (v.12 “beloved”)! And he works hard for them, running, laboring and being poured out for them (v.16-17). And he is not scared to tell them the tough stuff. He unequivocally calls them to obedience, holy living and holding fast to God’s Word (v.12-16). Therefore, I try to be confident and faithful in discharging my pastoral responsibilities.
Elsewhere Paul calls for us to pastor one another. (Gal. 6:2, Col. 3:16). In a healthy family, not only the father’s voice is heard, nor is fatherly care the only type of care that is given. Mothers, brothers, and sisters need to join in. When people come to me for help, I regularly connect them to others to receive advice and care. I never say, “I am too busy so…” Rather I say, “So and so is going to help you better than I could, so I am going to connect you with them.”
I think my Texan friend, Bob Roberts, coined this phrase, meaning a blend of local and global. In addition to local voices, I deliberately keep our church aerated with voices from outside our church, and keep our church aware of the outstanding things other churches and leaders are doing in other places. This keeps anyone from thinking that our church (or me) are a “big deal.” Jesus is the big deal, and his worldwide church is magnificent!
Bearing God’s Name
‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’ (Exod. 20:7). It’s a commandment we know well, but what does it actually mean? Most assume that the command prohibits the use of God’s name as a swear word, but in her book, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Carmen Joy Imes offers a different reading which might also help us to better understand the whole of the Ten Commandments.
Drawing on her doctorate research, Imes suggests that the answer to understanding the name command starts with a new translation of Exodus 20:7: ‘You must not bear (or carry) the name of Yahweh, your God, in vain, for Yahweh will not hold guiltless one who bears (or carries) his name in vain.’ The language of bearing or carrying is a good literal translation of the verb nāsāʾ (elsewhere in Exodus, for example, is it used of the people lifting bread dough (Exod. 12:34), the chiefs bearing the burden of judging the people alongside Moses (Exod. 18:22), the carrying of the Ark (Exod. 25:14), and the bearing of guilt (Exod. 28:38)). But the meaning of bearing God’s name has been deemed unclear. To solve the problem, some concept of speaking is usually assumed, hence the common translation ‘take the name of the Lord’.
However, Imes observes that the bearing of names reappears in Exodus, not much later, when Aaron ‘bears the names of the sons of Israel’ on his breastpiece ‘to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord’ (Exod. 28:29). Here, to bear the name of someone means to represent them before another. Applied to the name command, this insight suggests that the command is a call to faithfully represent God to others. This fits nicely with Israel’s calling to be ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Exod. 19:6), representing God to the nations, itself an outworking of God’s promise that the election of Abraham and his descendants was ultimately for the good of the nations (Gen. 12:3).
Imes suggests that this understanding may help us to better understand the Ten Commandments as a whole. Viewing the name command as the second (with Exod. 20:2-6 all understood as the first command), she proposes that the remaining eight commands all flow from the first two. The first two commands – (1) worship only Yahweh, and (2) represent him well – are comparable to the classic covenant formula ‘I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God’ (Exod. 6:7). The remaining commandments are an explanation of what this looks like in various areas of life.
None of this means that it’s wise to use God’s name as a swear word, but it does seem a good way to read and understand a tricky text. To see how the theme of bearing God’s name then continues through the rest of the Old Testament and into the New, you’ll have to read Bearing God’s Name yourself.
Pastoral work is not unique in the challenges we face at this time. Every worker is having to learn new patterns and skills, and not all of that is fun. But for pastors who are used to being with people so much of the time, and whose leadership and reason for being is so people focussed, lockdown is an especially trying experience.
Rather than being a restful break from the normal round of meetings and commitments this time has felt pressured and fretful. How can shepherds really know what is happening amongst the flock when we are physically separated from them? It’s no wonder that emotions have fluctuated.
So as a pastor speaking to other pastors, my advice is to be patient: with others, with yourself, with the circumstances. Cut yourself some slack and give yourself some grace. Don’t be surprised when you have down days – those don’t disqualify you from your calling. Remember, we can trust the Chief Shepherd to care for his sheep. When you want to throw the video camera through a window or stamp on your laptop don’t worry about it too much – we’re all there with you! When one day blurs into the next and you’re not sure anything you have done has been effective (and are unsure even about what you have done) trust that the Lord is able to take your feeble efforts and by his mighty power produce good fruit from them.
As well as dealing with our own emotions and frustrations we are now at the stage where church leaders need to be giving serious thought to life after corona. We’ve all been sprinting like mad to adjust to the new reality but now need to turn our thoughts to how we emerge from this time.
For what it’s worth, here is an outline of how I’m working this through with my team.
We’re thinking about three phases:
The Response phase. This is from the start of lockdown through to mid-June by when (in the UK at least) we are likely to see some lifting of current restrictions.
The Recovery phase. This is the six months from June through to the end of this year.
The Reconstruction phase. This is the twelve to twenty-four months from January 2021 to December 2022.
(This short video helpfully explains more about these three phases.)
For each of these phases I’m looking at what we can expect and plan for in five areas:
1. Physical meetings. What gatherings will we be able to have in this phase? How will they be organised? How will they be different from what we were previously doing?
2. Congregational psychology. What are the likely emotions of the church going to be in this phase? What impact might economic changes make? In what ways are work and leisure patterns likely to change? What will be the attitude towards authority?
3. Technology use. How can we use tech most effectively in this phase? What new tech uses we’ve initiated in the first phase should we develop and carry forward into the later phases? What tech use should we draw back from? How can we help church members use technology in a healthy way?
4. Team dynamic & focus. What ‘philosophy of ministry’ conversations do we need to have? How are we doing team meetings in this phase? What new thinking do we need to bring to the table for this phase?
5. Community engagement. How can we most effectively serve our city in this phase? What ambitions should we have for community influence and service? What partnerships do we want to strengthen? What are we dreaming for?
Pastor, it’s a trying time, but you have work to do! We will come through this. We can come through it stronger.
Corona & Creativity
We are also having to think creatively about how we ‘do church’ at this time. Two of my daughters have taken over the kids ministry at our church and got very creative, producing a 25 minute video each week to run alongside the other things we are putting online. Obviously, I’m extremely biased, but I think they’ve done an awesome job. It’s amazing how creative you can get with some basic equipment, a few props, vivid imaginations, and the stimulus of the gospel story.
Take a look.
Read this outstanding book
Born Again This Way, by Rachel Gilson, may be the best yet.
Subtitled ‘Coming out, coming to faith, and what comes next’, the book is described on the Good Book Company website as “A rich portrayal of living faithfully and happily as a Christian with same-sex attraction, that paints a compelling picture of discipleship for every believer.”
I loved Rachel’s critique of our culture’s insistence that your sexuality is the most important thing about you, that if you’re not having sex - with whatever consenting adult you are interested in - then you can’t be happy or free, or even really alive.
I loved her careful searching of the scriptures - and not just the ones that explicitly mention romantic relationship, but the full sweep of the scriptures - to put sex, romance and other earthly desires in their rightful place, and to put God in his - seated on the throne, high and lifted up, worthy of all our praise.
I particularly loved her insights into what the image of the church as the family of God means for those who are single (whether same-sex attracted or not). It means safety. It means intimacy. It means close relationships with people of both sexes and of all ages that are “chaste by default”. (Page 76 alone is worth the price of the book. So, so good.)
I loved the way she sought to reclaim the word ‘intimacy’ from the romantic and sexual connotations we have been brainwashed into understanding it as.
And I loved that all this richness, depth and truth was told in a very easy, readable manner, incorporating her (slightly unusual) story and the different experiences of some of her friends. And all in 144 pages.
If you know anyone who is same-sex attracted and want to gain some insights into the sorts of things they might be wrestling with (though Rachel takes pains to point out that everyone’s experience is different, and for the most part sexuality issues aren’t the only, or even the biggest, things they are thinking about on any given day), this book will be a huge help. I’m assuming that if you are same-sex attracted and want to know what the Bible, God and his people really have to offer, it will be hugely helpful to you, too. And if you are or know someone who is single, married, widowed, divorced or separated, it will be hugely helpful to you, too.
In other words: buy this book. Now.
I received a free review copy of this book from the publishers. A positive review was in no way required.
This review first appeared on jenniepollock.com
Elders are Bridesmaids
I once took a wedding where it was pouring with rain and muddy outside the church. I was moved watching how the bridesmaids selflessly got wet and muddy to ensure that the Bride didn’t. They were clear in their minds that the day was about the Bride, not them. They were resolute in their endeavour to present a clean, dry beautiful Bride to the Groom, even if they got grubby in the process.
About a week later I preached a message entitled “Elders are Bridesmaids.”
The Bride we serve belongs to Him. We are stewards of the Son of Man’s wife. And, one day we will give an account to God for how we stewarded our responsibility as maids to his Bride (Heb. 13.7).
Learning to Bear Loss
Is your heart more like a cup or a set of balance scales? According to this brilliant Twitter thread by Scott Swain, it’s more like the scales, and that fact has some very important implications.
You should really go and read the thread, but in summary, Swain argues that we often apply biblical exhortations to situations of sorrow in an unhelpfully because we fail to reckon with the way the human heart works and the reality of life in this age of redemptive history.
If we view the heart as being like a cup, then we’ll think that negative emotions need to be displaced by good emotions and we’ll use biblical exhortations to encourage each other to enact this displacement. However, this approach overlooks the fact that some negative emotions are completely appropriate responses to situations we’re experiencing. It also overlooks the fact that life in this age of redemptive history will always include sorrow.
Balance scales provide a better metaphor. Biblical exhortations are counterweights to bring balance to the legitimate experience of negative emotions. The exhortations help us to bear the negative emotions, rather than to displace them.
A Needed Message
This strikes me as such a helpful and needed clarification. Over the last few years, with the help of a Christian counsellor, I’ve worked through some deep-seated pain which often led to seasons of depression. One of the things this has most made me realise is how badly Christians often handle emotions. We are quick to assume that all negative emotions are inappropriate and should be overcome by just accepting what the Bible says and trying harder. As Swain notes, this completely overlooks how emotions work and indeed how they are given by God as a gift to help us. Emotions are warning signs. I was aware of my frequent seasons of depression long before I was aware of the pain I was carrying around with me.
This faulty understanding can often come out in our preaching and our pastoring. At one point in the midst of my journey, a well-meaning encourager told that as hard as it might be, I just needed to listen to the truth of God’s word and not anything else. I might feel like the product of my circumstance, I was told, but I’m actually not. For me though, the painful reality was that I really was the product of my circumstances, and I was experiencing completely legitimate pain and sorrow over those circumstances. Telling me to ignore what I was feeling and to just listen to God’s word wasn’t what I needed. I needed to engage with those feelings to be helped to find healing and I needed to experience the word of God bringing some balance to the emotions I was experiencing as I journeyed through them.
A Message Needed Now
Swain’s thread is applied specifically to our current experience of the coronavirus pandemic. And he’s completely right that this is a lesson particularly relevant to the current moment. However we look at it, this is a season of loss. Loss of freedom, loss of physical gatherings, loss of health, for some even loss of loved ones.
The reality of lockdown brings real loss for all Christians. The fact that we can’t currently gather in person is a real loss and it’s one which we should feel. As pastors and church leaders, it’s right that we seek to do everything we can to continue church life in some form, and it’s right that we try to bring some peace and reassurance to people by showing that we are still able to be the church at this time. But we shouldn’t downplay the reality of the loss we are experiencing. If we ignore that loss and send the message that the sort of gatherings we can have at the moment are a perfectly suitable substitute for gathering in person, we’re downplaying the importance of any future physical gatherings we will have (and running the risk that no one will bother coming to them!)
For everyone the reality of lockdown brings loss as our freedom to meet and interact with other humans is limited. As one friend recently commented, this situation is inherently dehumanising. It’s cutting us off from something which is vital to human flourishing – embodied community. It’s understandable that we should find this time difficult. In fact, it’s more than understandable, it’s right. It’s the fitting response. I’ve found that realisation oddly comforting. When I’m struggling with lockdown, I’m not failing, I’m being human.
These experiences of loss also provide us with an opportunity. Perhaps one of the greatest opportunities we have right now is to learn how to handle loss well. For many in the prosperous, privileged, protected West, that will be a new experience, but it’s one which will make us more human. Here’s an opportunity to learn to grieve, learn to lament, and to place the word of God on the scales of our hearts to help us bear the loss.
Image credit: castinstyle.co.uk
More Cameras (perhaps), More Lights (probably), More Action (definitely!)
The first video gives advice on how to prepare your heart and message for preaching to camera, and then how to deliver it. The second is an incredibly helpful walk through of the kinds of equipment available and how to use it: from filming with a smartphone to setting up a basic home studio. If you’re trying to preach to camera but feeling a bit stuck or overwhelmed, or just need some more advice to help sharpen things up, I can’t recommend these two videos highly enough.
If you want to invest in some kit here is what PJ recommends.
FOR SMARTPHONE ADVANCED VIDEO
FOR A BASIC HOME STUDIO
Does Life Have Meaning? Four Possibilities
1. It might be that neither individual lives nor human activity and history as a whole have meaning in the narrative sense.
2. It might be that human history as a whole has no meaning, but individual lives do.
3. History as a whole might possess some kind of narrative sense, but individual lives might not.
4. It might be that both individual lives and human activity as a whole have some sort of narrative meaning.
Answer (1) is the bleakest answer, but probably “the safest and most familiar answer today, at least in elite circles.” It is the answer of naturalism, atheism, scientism and materialism, as articulated by men (and they are usually men) like Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, and perhaps most starkly Bertrand Russell: “The whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”
Answer (2) is the answer of what Smith calls modern paganism: the conviction that an individual’s life has objective meaning, even if the overall shape of global history does not. This is where the “spiritual but not religious” and “religion without God” views fit in, alongside sophisticated advocates like Ronald Dworkin, Anthony Kronman and Luc Ferry (although the latter admits that his search for “transcendence without immanence” is given a major problem by the fact of death).
Answer (3) is the response of Hegelianism and Marxism: “history in its vast sweep is like a grand master’s chess game that will culminate in some splendid victory - the classless society perhaps, or the final triumph of reason; individual human beings are merely the pawns who are pushed about.” Taken on its own, my life does not have meaning, but when seen within the context of the whole picture of universal progress, it does.
Answer (4) is the answer of Christianity, an answer which it provides by grounding objective meaning in a transcendent reality and a world to come. In a sense, Christians agree with the absurdists that this world does not make sense in and of itself; Wittgenstein’s remark that “the sense of this world must lie outside the world” sounds theistic, if not explicitly Christian. As Chesterton’s Father Brown quips, “We are here on the wrong side of the tapestry … The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else.”
The two answers that are obviously consistent here are (1) and (4), with the most apparently implausible being (2). But (2), “modern paganism”, is also the default approach in the contemporary West, and Smith’s book is an attempt to understand it, explain its roots, and account for the protracted “culture wars” between paganism and Christianity which have lasted since the days of the Caesars.
His explanation, in short, is that paganisms ancient and modern locate the transcendent within this world, and therefore can tolerate or accommodate any belief system that broadly agrees, no matter what its specific details. But Christianity (like Judaism and Islam) locates the transcendent outside this world, appealing to a source of meaning and authority beyond it, and thus defies and subverts certain pagan norms, including those around sex, commerce and public symbols; it cannot therefore be assimilated into a fundamentally pagan system. The last century in America, for Smith, has marked a gradual transition from (in T. S. Eliot’s terms) a Christian society to a pagan one - from a society in which the ground of transcendence is beyond this world into one in which it is framed within it - and this accounts for the increasingly shrill state of the public square.
Anyway: it’s a superb book.
Does God Want to be Known? Does Experience Matter?
The blurb says the book is for people asking the following questions: “Does God want to be known?”, “Does experience matter?” and “Does theology matter?” These questions are certainly addressed, and each receives a “yes” answer. But more than that, I offer a testimony: a testimony of the continuing desire to be a charismatic evangelical - to be that now - today. It is an account of theological and personal searching.
For me, the desire to be Christian gets stirred when I talk and read about theology and when I experience the love and power of God. It is Word and Spirit. Along these lines, the substance of the book is an account of three reasons for being Christian today. So from the introduction:
First, Jesus captivates me, particularly as portrayed in the gospels. I desire him as the living and breathing reality of God become flesh. Second, I have experienced what I take to be the love of God through encounters with the Holy Spirit. These encounters have arrested my attention and reconfigured my imagination. They have led to a fresh understanding of who God is: a present and living reality. Third, I believe God knows us and wants to be known today.
I explore these areas through interaction with a diverse range of theologians. These theologians lead us into wrestling with ideas that will provoke, inspire, challenge, and occasionally unsettle. In all this, I’m sure people will find something valuable. Sometimes things get heavy, but the focus remains firmly on God and Christian experience. Again, from the introduction:
...This book is really about God. Reasons for being and remaining Christian are given, but what I am getting at, in all hopefulness, is God. This is theology. I want to know God now. By, “now”, I mean in present experience. The knowing of God relates to things experienced, to questions we have.
Although at times I consider both evangelicalism and “charismaticism” critically, the conclusion of the book is deeply hopeful. Here’s a snippet:
The tradition still holds so much: A relentless focus on the chief character—Jesus; a fitting acknowledgement of his companion—the Holy Spirit; an openness to intimacy; to passion; to feeling; a trust in scripture that says we need not go beyond if we want God. Added to these things, is a vibrancy that says that God is doing something in us today, and wants us to do something.
What does a book like this offer? It merely serves as a reminder that we can trust in a God who is at work and wants to be known, even in these complex and uncertain days.
Leviticus Lessons From Lockdown
I’m currently reading through Leviticus. As I’ve worked through the laws on ritual purity (Lev. 11-14), I’ve been struck by some parallels with our current situation: a dangerous and contagious threat to the community, the requirement of periods of quarantine, the delineation of which places are and which are not safe, and even an affirmation of the importance of handwashing (Lev. 15:11)! These parallels got me thinking; perhaps our experience of the coronavirus pandemic can help us to better understand the laws for ritual purity.
In ancient Israel, there was a scale of three ritual states: the default state was purity (often referred to as ‘clean’), but in certain circumstances one could move down the scale into impurity (‘unclean’) or up the scale to holiness (‘holy’). Going down a step on the scale would happen through various circumstances (e.g. bleeding, some diseases, or contact with someone or something already in a state of impurity); while moving up the scale usually required ritual actions (e.g. bathing, changing clothes, offering a sacrifice, but sometimes just the passing of time).
Importantly, ritual impurity wasn’t about one’s legal status before God, so it wasn’t necessarily wrong to become impure. Being ritually impure didn’t necessarily mean you weren’t righteous, but it did mean you couldn’t come into contact with holy things or holy places. The reason that avoiding impurity and being cleansed of impurity was so important was because of the risk that uncleansed impurity might defile the tabernacle (Lev. 15:31).
It’s not clear and not stated why some things were considered impure and others weren’t, but the purpose of the laws is clear. The concept of ritual purity would have taught the Israelites about the utter purity and holiness of God and their need to be pure and holy to draw near to him (Lev. 11:44-45). Coming to the tabernacle required one to be in a state of purity, but even that wasn’t enough to enter the tent of meeting. Only those who were holy, the priests, could enter the tent, and only one who was most holy, the high priest, could enter the holy of holies. The fact that the purity laws affected many different areas of life taught the Israelites that their whole life needed to reflect the purity and holiness of God.
Ultimately, ritual purity was meant to teach the Israelites about the vital importance of moral purity: just as ritual purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God, so moral purity in all areas of life was necessary to draw near to God.
What does all of this have to do with our present experience? Well, I’m not sure that’s actually the right question. The question is not what Leviticus can teach us about coronavirus, but what can coronavirus teach us about Leviticus? Often, one of the best ways to understand Old Testament law and history is to try and think our way into the experience of the Israelites. In doing so, we begin to get a sense of how the things they went through and the laws they lived under would have impacted them.
We no longer live with potentially dangerous and contagious ritual impurity all around us, but we are currently living with a potentially dangerous and contagious virus all around us. We now know what it is like to be placed into quarantine. We know what it is like to live with the constant risk that we might come into contact with, as it were, ‘impurity’ or that this ‘impurity’ might infiltrate our house and render it ‘impure’. We’ve had the experience of being unable to go to certain places and to see certain people because of the risk that we might carry ‘impurity’ with us. Some of us will learn what it’s like to contract such ‘impurity’ and to have those who interact with us need to protect themselves from it. Perhaps these experiences can begin to help us understand a little bit of what it would have been like to live under the laws of ritual purity and to learn the lesson they were designed to teach.
As new covenant believers, we are no longer under these laws. The sacrifice of Jesus’ blood for us was so effective that we have been brought into a constant state of purity and holiness. We are now ‘saints’, ‘holy ones’ (Rom. 1:7; Eph. 1:1; Phil 1:1). But while that is our legal position, we are still called to live out that holiness in every area of our lives. The lesson which the laws of ritual purity were designed to teach is still just as relevant to us: ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:15-16; cf. Matt. 5:48).
Is The Church Half-Dead Today?
I am convinced that he is, so I have been working through the book of Jeremiah as I reflect on what the Lord is trying to teach us about the Church in these trying times. I have been asking myself whether we have used the past two decades wisely, and whether the Church in the West is in better or worse shape than it was when The Independent issued its dire prediction on 16th April 2000.
I have been reflecting on how we handle the Word of God in our churches. Are we more diligent in our Bible teaching than we were twenty years ago? Are we bolder in our proclamation of the Gospel than we were when a secular newspaper called out the problem of Church decline? Are those of us who are preachers spending more time on our knees giving God time speak his Word deep into our hearts, or are we even more busy with other things than we were in 2000? Jeremiah 23:21-22 issues preachers with a solemn warning and a glorious promise: “I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their own message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds.”
I have also been reflecting on how we partner with the Spirit of God in our churches. Are we thirstier for the Holy Spirit than we were twenty years ago? Do we make more room for him to move in our church gatherings, and do we place more emphasis on the paramount importance of every Christian being a carrier of the presence of God? Are we less transfixed by church-growth tactics and by the ministry hacks that are offered by the latest paperbacks than we were back on 16th April 2000? Jeremiah 2:13 issues us with another solemn warning and glorious promise: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”
I have been reflecting on how much we grasp the Mercy of God in our churches. Are we more aware or less aware of God’s promises to restore the fortunes of his people than we were two decades ago when The Independent predicted the death of the Church two decades from now? Do we talk more or less about repentance? Do we believe more or less in the possibility of revival? How much, in this coronavirus season, are we meditating on the Lord’s promise to his people in 2 Chronicles 7:13-14? “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send an epidemic among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgiven their sin and will heal their land.”
Like everybody else, I want the COVID-19 crisis to pass as quickly as possible, with a minimum of loss of life. At the same time, I believe that God still has things to teach us through the biggest disruption to the Church in any of our lifetimes. I don’t believe that The Independent newspaper was right. I am aware that the English writer Thomas Woolston predicted the demise of Western Christianity in 1710 - shortly before the great revival that came through George Whitefield and John Wesley! I am aware that the French philosopher Voltaire predicted the death of Western Christianity towards the end of the eighteenth century - shortly before the missionary movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced more converts to Christ than the previous eighteen centuries combined!
But I do not believe that such turnarounds are inevitable. As we arrive at the halfway mark in the final forty years that The Independent gave to British Christianity, I am convinced that God has given Christians all around the world a moment for reflection through this strange season that we are in. I believe that he wants to give us a half-time team talk about how we handle the Word of God, how we partner with the Spirit of God and how we lay hold of the Mercy of God.
How are you making the most of this half-time moment for reflection? What do you sense that God is saying to the Church in your nation?
Are We Standing on the Precipice?
The Precipice is unusual in its format, and the author is unusual in his actions. It is 468 pages long but the appendices and notes begin at page 243; so there is almost as much information in the half of the book most people won’t read as in the half that hopefully they will. And the author is an Oxford philosopher who is not only an ivory tower thinker, but who has spearheaded truly significant philanthropic initiatives, such as this and this.
The Precipice is profoundly troubling. Ord dissects the different existential risks we face and puts a probability on them killing us. It’s a relief to know the likelihood of being taken out by an asteroid is extremely low but Ord’s estimate of what an engineered pandemic or uncontrolled artificial intelligence might do is pretty scary. Overall, he calculates we have a one in six chance of rendering ourselves extinct in the next century. Read his reasoning and the case doesn’t seem overstated at all.
I hope Boris Johnson might be reading this book – or that at least some advisors close to him are. Ord makes a strong case that governments should be spending far more on ‘targeted existential risk interventions.’ At present we ‘spend less than a thousandth of a percent of gross world product on them.’ Ord argues that this should increase, ‘by at least a factor of 100, to reach a point where the world is spending more on securing its potential than on ice-cream.’ He suggests a global catastrophe might be the warning shot that causes us to adjust the attention we give to existential risk – perhaps Covid-19 will be that shot?
It’s certainly not all gloom and doom though, as The Precipice is extraordinarily optimistic. Swerve the Russian roulette bullet we’re facing and humanity could progress to unimagined – and unimaginable – achievements. This is where Ord gets into territory that will be familiar to readers of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: galactic expansion and dominance by a human species optimised for long life and pleasure.
With spellbinding imagery and mind-bending cosmology Ord describes how early in its history the human story could be: we are, in his estimation, in the adolescent phase of our potential lifespan, which is exactly why we are such a danger to ourselves at this point. Get through our teens (don’t cause a nuclear winter, engineer an unstoppable pathogen, or release artificial intelligence that replaces us) and we could have billions of years of development and joy ahead of us.
Because, in expectation, almost all of humanity’s life lies in the future, almost everything of value lies in the future as well: almost all the flourishing; almost all the beauty; our greatest achievements; our most just societies; our most profound discoveries. We can continue our progress on prosperity, health, justice, freedom and moral thought. We can create a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine.
Ord’s analysis is powerful and deserves the most careful attention – and action. But the picture he paints of what humanity might be capable left me feeling that in some ways The Precipice is a theology book in search of God.
I finished the book on Easter Sunday. The Christian hope is not that humanity might somehow save itself, and finally escape the confines of the earth to ‘fill with life’ the furthest reaches of the galaxy. Rather, we believe that because of the cross of Christ, ‘a world of wellbeing and flourishing that challenges our capacity to imagine’ is already guaranteed. The apostle Paul expressed this long before the existential risks we now face were dreamed of:
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
I don’t think Ord has seen that most vital part of the picture – but The Precipice has helped me to dream all the more of what it might look like. If there were anyone I could meet for a coffee right now (remember when we used to do that?) Toby Ord would be top of the list.
“We had hoped…”
So many hopes put on hold or crushed completely.
I love the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. You can really feel their utter dejection when they tell their mysterious companion, “We had hoped that [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). What depth of sadness is bound up in those few words.
But then, oh then, when he took the bread and broke it before them. When he handed it to them with hands bearing fresh, raw scars. When they understood, at last, what it had all been about.
‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?’ (v. 32).
How their feet must have flown as they hurried back to Jerusalem. How their hearts must have sung.
How they must have rejoiced together with the other disciples as they told them, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” (v. 34).
The pain, sorrow and disappointment had been real. Jesus really had died that agonising death. But his plan had not been defeated. It had been wonderfully, miraculously, triumphantly fulfilled.
He was the one who was going to redeem Israel – and not only Israel, but all the nations of the world. And he had done it. The price was paid. Our redemption was secured.
At times like this it is easy to think that God has somehow been caught unawares. That events have spiralled out of his control. Or maybe that our hopes, dreams, plans and loved ones are somehow collateral damage, unfortunate casualties of his wider purpose.
And so he gave us a sign to remind us – his body, broken, symbolised by the bread of communion. His blood, poured out, symbolised by the ruby red wine. Only by being broken was he able to be the bread of life. Only by being poured out was he able to reconcile us to the Father.
Sometimes tragedy and brokenness and pain are the only way to bring wholeness and healing and life. One day he will explain it to us, gently, tenderly. And our eyes will be opened and our hearts will burn within us as we see at last the glorious richness of his good and perfect plan.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
The Things We Are Learning
Distraction vs Rest
Things that we often do for relaxation are, in truth, not very relaxing – they are much more in the category of ‘distracting’. Life is often busy and painful and humans look for what will distract us from that reality, whether that’s Facebook, Netflix or cocaine. But these things are not restful. In lockdown we’re finding that too much internet, too much screen time, too much social media is leaving us more frazzled. I’m re-imposing some digital disciplines on myself: walk away from the screen; drink coffee slowly; sit in the sun; pray; rest.
Patience vs Hurry
We’re not used to having to wait in long lines outside supermarkets – it’s reminiscent of 1970s Russia. We’re not used to Amazon slowing it’s delivery of non-essential items. We’re having to learn patience – and not only when shopping. We’re having to learn patience with the members of our households, and with ourselves. For those with a high sense of responsibility and need to achieve this is a challenging time. I’m trying to lean into it: slow down; don’t stress; be at peace.
Zoom vs Meeting
Thank God for Zoom. From large online church services, to intimate small groups, it’s an absolute boon. But it is also exhausting. As Abby Ohlheiser writes,
People are coping with the coronavirus pandemic by upending their lives and attempting to virtually re-create what they lost. The new version, however, only vaguely resembles what we left behind. Everything is flattened and pressed to fit into the confines of chats and video-conference apps like Zoom, which was never designed to host our work and social lives all at once. The result, for introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between, is the bizarre feeling of being socially overwhelmed despite the fact that we’re staying as far away from each other as we can.
It’s Toughest for the 20s
When lockdown started one of the first things we did at a church leadership level was put together a list of all those in the congregation over the age of 70 and ensure they were receiving regular contact. What we’re now learning is that many of the older generation are already well equipped to handle this time. Many of them are all too used to living alone and not going out much. They already have well established relationship networks – they are used to making daily phone calls to check in on each other.
By contrast, it is the singles in their 20s who are struggling the most. This is the demographic who would normally be the most social and spend the least amount of time at home. They also often live in small flats rather than family homes with gardens. This time is agony for them.
The Pros & Cons of Being Telegenic
As we’re putting more things online we’re learning what has always been obvious: on a 2D screen the people who connect most effectively are the extrovert, young and beautiful. It might make sense for TV producers to favour these kind of people to present shows but it is a slippery slope when it comes to ministry. Even as we seek to make our church online presence as good as possible we need to remember that being telegenic doesn’t feature anywhere in the Bible’s qualifications for spiritual leadership.
Birdsong is Beautiful
One of the things I’m most enjoying about this new rhythm is sitting outside the front of my house in the morning, praying, drinking a coffee, and watching the sun rise over my neighbour’s roof. And hearing the birds sing. Normally the morning traffic would make this a very different experience, and the birds hard to hear. But birdsong is beautiful.
The Baptism Debate
What I found most interesting was the fact that both Derek and I defend our positions in ways that many would not, even when they share our conclusions. Paedobaptists have long taken different views on how to understand the role of faith in baptising infants, given that baptism occurs “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). Is that faith present in the church? The parents, a la Abraham/Isaac? The infant at some point in the future? The infant in the present (perhaps, as some would argue, as the purest form of faith there is)? Derek takes one view here, but plenty of paedobaptists would approach the subject differently.
Similarly, my defence of believers’ baptism differs from many Baptists’. Towards the end of this conversation I appeal to the simplicity of credobaptism: that repentance, faith, baptism in water, the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of bread and wine all apply to the same people at the same time, rather than (as paedobaptists believe) being separated by many years. But many of my fellow credobaptists would not agree with me here. Some Baptists give the Eucharist to children before they are baptised. Some think the gift of the Spirit is given months or even years after repentance, faith and baptism. Some think children can repent and believe at a relatively young age, but should not be baptised until they are adults. Some would baptise an adult whose cognition meant they could not understand the sacrament, but not an infant of an equivalent level of ability. Each of these positions seems strange to me - some of them appear less consistent than paedobaptism, in my view! - but I might as well admit that there is as much diversity amongst credobaptists as there is amongst paedobaptists, if not more so.
Anyway: see what you think.
Supporting Singles in Lockdown
I’m sure that all church leaders are currently very aware of those among their congregations who are most vulnerable, whether that vulnerability be from age, underlying health conditions, or mental health concerns. But I wonder whether there might be another vulnerable group which can be overlooked: singles, and in particular, single-person households.
The current lockdown presents some specific challenges to those of us who are single. For many of us, our relational needs are primarily met through our experience of family in the church community. This means that while many people will find that lockdown increases their opportunities for family time, for some of us it will have almost completely removed those opportunities. The situation is even more difficult for those who also live on their own. If they are not required to go into a workplace where they will see others, lockdown could mean almost no in-person contact with others.
So, in this context, how can church leaders look out for singles and those in single-person households? Here are a few quick thoughts.
Ask Your Singles
The first thing is simple but somehow not always obvious. To know how to best serve your singles and single-person households, pick up the phone and ask them how the church can serve them at this time. This is a good question for church leaders (and especially those who are married) to ask at any time but could be particularly needed at the moment.
Consider Single-Person Households in Your Online Activities
For most of us, church gatherings have now gone online. Give some time to thinking about how you can best include and serve single-person households through these gatherings. Two quick examples:
It’s good to acknowledge the different situations of those engaging with your online church activities but avoid talking about people being on their own. Rather than saying, ‘You can take part in this with your family or on your own’, try something like ‘You can take part in this in your household whether big or small’. The former suggests that those in single-person households don’t have family, which is exactly the opposite of the message we should be seeking to convey. We want our singles to know and experience that even if they are physically isolated at the moment, they are part of family.
When it comes to engaging with live streams, especially those which could involve group participation (e.g. prayer meetings), encourage people to invite those they know will be on their own to join them in their household via video call. Virtual presence will never be the same as physical, but this is a simple way we can invite people to experience being part of church family at this time.
Think About Practical Support
Those living in single-person households will often be more vulnerable because they don’t have people to look after them if they become unwell or to get supplies for them if they have to self-isolate. Make sure that single people know how they can easily reach out for help if they need it.
Also, help the whole church to know that it’s ok to reach out for help whoever they are. Those who are young and healthy shouldn’t feel they can’t reach out for help because they not recognised as a vulnerable group. Keep affirming that church is family, a family who are meant to help each , and who want to help each other. Do everything you can to make it easy for people to reach out for help.
Think About Relational Support
To help singles and those living on their own to feel relationally connected, think outside of the box. One single friend made the observation that on calls people tend to gravitate to talking at depth, but friendship is about so much more than talking. Think creatively about ways to spend time together making use of modern technology.
I’ve been enjoying a weekly online pub quiz with a group of friends via a group chat on WhatsApp. A friend has been using FaceTime to take people with her on her daily walks. Two single friends who were due to spend a Saturday together in London decided to still spend the day together via video call; they talked, ate, and went for a walk together. I’ve even heard of people offering to loan their pets to single people for a few days. (Obviously observing social distancing at the drop off!)
I’m struck that in so many areas of life, our current situation offers both challenges and opportunities. Perhaps the case of singles and single-person households is another example. Lockdown presents huge challenges for singles and those seeking to love them, but perhaps it also presents churches with an unprecedented opportunity to step up and be family for everyone.
Virtual Church, Football Matches and Marriage
I have actually been very encouraged by the conversation. In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to be. I had assumed that a combination of pragmatism, a low view of the sacraments, squishy ecclesiology and a desire to put a positive spin on things would lead people to insist that virtual church was just as good as the real thing. But almost nobody is saying that. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing it now, and finding that physicality matters in all sorts of ways we might not have noticed: the hug on the way in, the sound of other people’s singing voices, the sight of hundreds of hands raised, the tearing of the loaf, the taste of wine, the laying on of hands in prayer, even the smells of the venue and the congregation and the coffee all mingled together. But partly it’s because, for all our desire to use technology to reach as many people as possible, we have deep convictions about the church. So I can disagree with people over whether (say) we should have an online celebration of the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, but I can also rejoice in the candour with which they admit its limitations, and explain that this is exceptional, and clarify that it should never replace the real thing.
The local church, it seems, is more like a marriage than a football match.
A true football fan will always prefer watching their team live to watching them on TV. It costs more, and is colder and often wetter, and takes far more time, but there is no substitute for the atmosphere, the live experience, the shouting and singing and ooohing and aaahing. Having said that, there are plenty of people—dismissed by true fans as “armchair supporters”, but a large group nonetheless—who actually prefer the virtual experience. They like the comfort of their own home, or the pub; they like having the commentary, and the analysis at half time; they like the instant replays and varied angles, and being able to see things on the far side of the pitch. So far as they are concerned, it is just a different means of watching the same game. The first group might think that the second group are missing out on all sorts of important things, but they would be hard-pressed to deny that they are still watching the match.
No doubt there are some advocates of virtual church who see it in a similar way. The live service has its advantages, but given that some people will never set foot in a live service, we might as well advertise the possibility of experiencing the exact same thing from the comfort of your home. This, in my apprehension, is what I thought I would hear lots of people saying in the age of Corona. But by and large, they haven’t. People don’t think about the church like a football match, and they’re right.
They think about it more like a marriage. Here’s Tim Challies:
I spend a fair bit of time travelling … Through the marvels of modern technologies, I usually have the ability to not only hear [my wife’s] voice, but even to see her face. I’ve been to many spots in the world where there is no access to clean water, but full access to 4G internet—access plenty strong enough to allow us to FaceTime. Yet Aileen never worries that I won’t come home. She is never concerned that I’ll conclude FaceTime is good enough and decide to only ever stay in touch virtually. She knows that while FaceTime may be a blessing, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face time … Why is this? It’s because physical presence matters. There are certain things we can only do as a husband and wife, certain things we can only be as spouses, when we share the same space …
I am not concerned. I am not concerned that committed Christians will reject actual church for cyber-church anymore than I’m concerned that committed spouses will reject face-to-face time in favour of FaceTime. Just as healthy marriage calls for physical proximity, so does healthy church membership. Just as a husband and wife need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of marriage, Christians need to be together to carry out the purpose and meaning of church membership. Just as a husband and wife long to share space, church members long to share space. A camera and screen will do when necessary, but they are at best a shadow of the real thing. They may provoke gratitude in those times they are the only option, but they will also provoke longing.
I find that such a helpful analogy. Couples are still married when they are on FaceTime, but an entirely virtual marriage is not a thing. I actually think the metaphor could be extended, since both marriage and the local church involve physical expressions of union (although I’ve generally avoided making this point out of fear that someone will mischievously refer to it as Sex and Sacrament). And it is borne out in the way that churches I know are talking about virtual church in this moment. When the lockdowns are lifted, and we are finally able to gather again—whether in groups of ten or twelve, or in groups of hundreds—our first Sunday together will be quite something. I can’t wait.
Face to Face
That, on my early morning dog walk, I pass other dog walkers at a safe distance is appropriate but it is getting weird how guilty and furtive many people look. One of the unwritten rules of British social etiquette is that dog walkers greet one another. Now they scurry by, faces to the floor, avoiding any kind of engagement: as if even looking at another human being might cause them to catch or spread the virus.
I worry that once things are ‘back to normal’ (and how hollow that phrase is beginning to sound) we will have developed habits of social distancing that are hard to break.
The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred. In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all joyful sounds are banished from the earth (Isaiah 24:10-11).
Other than being in the streets crying for wine – though I suspect that is happening inside many houses – Isaiah gives an accurate description of our current state.
I keep having Zoom conversations with people in which we describe how exhausted we are feeling from too many Zoom conversations. Being online is tiring. I’m grateful for the technology, and already weary of it.
In our online service last Sunday I was speaking from 1 Peter 5. “Greet one another,” says Peter, “with a kiss of love.” That is a biblical command we cannot obey at present. I can’t kiss, hug, or handshake my friends and family via Zoom. Online we can have a simulacrum of reality but it is far from being the real thing.
This is why how we approach things like online services and online sacraments really does matter. I know some of my friends are taking communion online and it’s not an issue that I’m going to die for (though the fact that I have brothers and sisters who have died over the correct administration of the sacraments is enough to make me approach the matter with real seriousness and caution); but I want to develop good habits now, not embrace ones that train us to be socially distant.
Today is my twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. I’m glad I can see Grace face to face today. I’m glad we’re not reduced to Zoom. I want to experience social intimacy, not distance. I don’t want a simulacrum – I want the real thing.
So I’m calling my fellow dog walkers out! I’m not letting them scurry by but calling out ‘Hello’. I’m seizing opportunities to pause and share a few words. I’m trying to cultivate habits that will be healthy in the long run – for me, and my neighbourhood.
I’m committing to face to face.
John Wesley and Online Church
Cards on the table. I lead a church that has held online services for the past five years. During that time, there is barely a theological objection to online church that I have not had thrust in my face by its critics, so I have become rather used to ignoring them. However, there really
some serious questions raised by online church which I believe we need to grapple with together in this coronavirus season. My friend Matt Hosier argues that “To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.” So do we believe that, or do we not? If we believe it, then we need to be very careful over what terminology we use during this strange season for fear of changing our theology of church on the fly. The triumph of pragmatism over inner doubt has rarely been good news throughout Church History, which is one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul warns us in Romans 14:23 that “The person who doubts is condemned by his actions, because … everything that does not come from faith is sin.” On the other hand, if we truly believe that online church can be genuine church, then we can see this as one of the most important lessons that God is wanting to teach us about the nature of church during this coronavirus crisis.
In the early days of leading online church services, I was like a travelling salesman for Online Church, quick to trumpet its advantages and slow to admit any of its flaws. But its flaws are real.
Flaw #1 is that we are embodied people. Genuine relationships require genuine physical interaction. That’s why we find ourselves missing our loved ones, even at the very moment that we are Skyping and FaceTiming with them! It doesn’t matter how much we remind ourselves that our technology is wonderful – we still know that a certain something is lacking in our interactions with one another!
Flaw #2 is that the Christian sacraments are physical. When the Reformers broke away from the mainstream Church during the Reformation, they agreed on a definition of what Church is, and what it isn’t. The seventh article of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 defined the true Church as any place where “the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.” But how can we baptise people online? How can we share bread and wine with one another online? These are the kinds of questions that church leaders need to ask urgently right now, because if we haven’t got an answer to those questions then we haven’t got church at all.
Flaw #3 is that Online Church can foster inauthenticity and a lack of accountability. Christian fellowship, by definition, requires transparency. We are told in 1 John 1:7 that it is all about walking in the light with one another. It’s far too easy to attend Online Church as a Christian Catfish, pretending that you are a follower of Jesus while keeping the reality of your lifestyle far from view. The past five years of Online Church have really brought home to me why the twenty-ninth article of the Belgic Confession of 1561 added an extra stipulation to the Augsburg Confession. “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instated by Christ; and if church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin … then the true Church may certainly be recognised.”
If you are one of the many people who have challenged me over the years that Everyday Church Online isn’t really church, then it might come as a bit of a surprise to you that I’m admitting its three biggest flaws at the very moment when the worldwide Church is experiencing its online revolution. But let me continue, because I believe that Online Church really can be Church. I’m convinced that church leaders who think carefully can lead the kind of Online Church that truly pleases God.
1) Online Church can be real Church because we are spiritual people. Let me put it this way: If a person in your small group told you that they went online and engaged in a pagan worship service during which they bowed down to an idol, wouldn’t you want to challenge them in the strongest terms never to do so again? Of course you would. Then why should you doubt that worshipping God online is any less real? Idolatry online is as real as idolatry in person, flirting online is as real as flirting in person, and worshipping God online is as real as worshipping God in a church building. Jesus taught that true worship is much more about our spirits than about our geography: “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem … A time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).
Ah, but some people respond, it’s all very well connecting up with God through an online worship service but what about connecting in with one another? How can we worship God together when we are merely meeting online? Well, let me ask you: what does Paul means when he tells the church at Colossae: “Though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit” (Colossians 2:5)? What does he mean when he assures the church at Corinth that “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit … when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)? If Paul insists that his absence from a church building does not prevent him from participating in a worship service through the Holy Spirit – even without the aid of the internet! – then why should we? Besides, those who argue most strongly that Online Church lacks community seem to me to have a rose-tinted view of what happens each Sunday at our bricks-and-mortar venues. It is definitely possible to attend Online Church without embracing community, but so is it possible to attend a bricks-and-mortar building without embracing community by arriving late and scuttling off during the final song.
2) Online Church can be real Church because the sacraments can still be rightly administered. It may require a little bit of thinking to navigate this new world order, just as it did for the writers of the Augsburg and Belgic Confessions during the Reformation, but it’s not actually too hard to be creative. When a lady gave her life to Jesus through one of our services at Everyday Church Online, we flew her over to London from Germany so that we could baptise her in water and broadcast the event online. Last Sunday, I preached on the meaning of communion and invited people to eat bread and drink together at all of our online services. Communion can become routine and functional at our physical church services, so I found the online experience quite refreshing. I believe that the experience of Online Church is actually helping us to appreciate the physicality of communion in fresh ways.
We are discovering something that previous generations have known instinctively – that some people either cannot or simply will not step across the threshold of a church building. For centuries, church leaders have visited the infirm and the housebound to administer the bread and wine to them in their own homes. Online Church goes a step further. It reaches people who might not even receive a visit. When I think of the men from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia who have messaged the team at Everyday Church Online to tell us that they have given their lives to Jesus and to ask for advice on how to follow him, I am grateful for Online Church. When I think of all the Muslims and atheists and spiritual wanderers who have surfed their way into one of our services, I am grateful for Online Church – and I believe that Jesus is too. After all, he gets excited in Matthew 8:5-13 when he finds a Roman centurion who has faith that his prayers will heal a servant several miles away without his needing to travel there in person. I believe that Jesus is excited about this present revolutionary moment in Church History too!
3) Online Church is real Church because it can foster greater openness with one another. Although it is easy to pretend online, we all know how easy it is to pretend in our face-to-face interactions with one another on a Sunday. One of the great surprises of the internet era has been people’s willingness to start up conversations with strangers and to reveal their deepest thoughts to one another online. People who walk the other way when they see their neighbour in the supermarket feel no such social hangs-ups when they are online. People who refuse to engage with the prayer team at a bricks-and-mortar church service are willing to open up without inhibition to the prayer team at Online Church. If you don’t think the truth about people comes out on the internet, then you haven’t been reading enough blog comments. There is a reason why they were eventually switched off on Think Theology!
This is not the time for pragmatism, but nor is it the time to be purists, patting ourselves on the back for spotting the flaws of Online Church without spotting its amazing opportunity. I believe that this is one of the things that God wants to teach his Church throughout this strange and disorientating coronavirus crisis. I believe that we are living through a moment that is akin to one when George Whitefield and John Wesley discovered the enormous power of open-air preaching to take the Church into the streets and fields of eighteenth-century Britain. John Wesley confessed later that “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church”, but he soon came to the same conclusion as George Whitefield: “Blessed be God! I have now broken the ice! I believe I was never more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. Some may censure me, but if I thus pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.”
Blessed be God. He has broken the ice for us too. I believe that we will look back on these weeks as the revolutionary moment in which the Western Church became Online Church. People who were used to gathering together freely in person were prevented from doing so, and in that moment they discovered a whole world outside their walls that was waiting for them to step outside.
I believe that the Saviour who told his followers to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel” (Mark 16:15) is overjoyed with what is happening with his Church around the world today. Because the internet is no longer a den of robbers, a safe haven for gamblers and porn addicts and binge-watchers of boxsets. Instead, it has become a house of prayer for all nations.
The John Wesley and George Whitefield quotes in this blog can be found in John Wesley’s Journal (31st March, 1739) and in George Whitefield’s Journal (17th February, 1739).
Camera, Lights, Action
Still Homo Sapiens
As the current pandemic progresses, one of the things which is becoming more and more unavoidable is the reality of death. Each day the death toll rises, both in our own country and globally. While most of these deaths are hidden – sadly sometimes even to family unable visit those quarantined in hospital – the growing presence of temporary morgues (in ice rinks, aircraft hangars, and refrigerated vans) is making the reality more visible.
With each daily reminder, I’ve found myself thinking about what this reality can teach us about ourselves. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari puts forward the thesis that with the dawn of the twenty first century humanity is entering a new stage in its existence: having largely dealt with the three problems which have always preoccupied us – famine, plague, and war – we are now free to explore higher aims – the slowing or even eradication of aging and death, and the maximisation of pleasure and happiness. It is a journey, he suggests, from Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) to Homo deus (‘god man’).
The current pandemic probably doesn’t actually disprove Harari’s claim about plagues. Though the figures are high and rising, the global response made possible by our information and technology resources probably will ensure the overall outcome is less devastating than it could have been. Harari himself has offered some interesting reflections on coronavirus and how we might best tackle it as a globalised world.
Nevertheless, for most people, the current situation will be shaking our very modern confidence in humanity’s power to be in control and our belief that (at least until old age, cancer, or heart disease gets involved) we have the power over life and death. This will be unsettling for many, but perhaps it brings with it some opportunities.
Learning to Grieve Well
Many of us in the modern West don’t handle death well. In some ways this is understandable. Death is not something we are forced to confront very often. Many of us will be fortunate enough to live several decades of our lives before we experience the pain of someone close to us dying. Likewise, many will live many decades – perhaps even sometimes the entirety – of our lives without ever seeing a dead body. And with the ever-rising age of average life expectancy, our own death always feels far away. The result is that when death breaks into our world, we often don’t know how to handle it well – we don’t know how to grieve – and we don’t know how to face the reality of our own mortality.
Some of these factors will become increasingly less common as the weeks and months go on. The sad reality is that many of us may lose someone we love and a number of us will be forced to come face to face with the reality of our own mortality. But herein lies an opportunity, and an opportunity which, as followers of Jesus, we are uniquely placed to take up both for ourselves and for others.
We, of all people, should be able to grieve well and to help others to grieve well. In some ways, against the background of an atheistic worldview, grief doesn’t make a lot of sense. Death is the one thing we can all agree is utterly universal; it is the most expected of events. If human life is just the result of a long chain of random genetic mutations and natural selection, death is just the expected continuation of that process. If consciousness is simply a complex set of algorithms and the firing of neurons, not a lot is actually lost when someone dies.
And yet the reality is, we all know that grief is real and natural, involuntary even. The death of someone who was close to us can be one of the most painful experiences in life and is often accompanied by the sense that, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’.
And of course we know that that’s right. It shouldn’t be like this. There shouldn’t be pandemics, there shouldn’t be coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be death. But we know why some things are as they shouldn’t be, and we know that one day all things will again be as they should be, and we are invited to be a part of that. All of this means that we can grieve well and help others to do the same, knowing that the expression of the pain we feel is right and fitting, but also knowing where we can find hope to bring comfort and strength as we grieve.
Learning to Handle Mortality Well
This season will also give us an opportunity to learn to freshly recognise our own mortality and to handle it well. For some – those most vulnerable - this realisation will feel very acute. For others – those deemed less high-risk – it may be less acute, but the increasing prominence of death around us will still have the same effect.
Again though, we are uniquely positioned to handle this reality well and to help others to do so. This is an opportunity for us to think on death and the hope we have in the gospel. It’s an opportunity for us to examine our fears and to seek peace from them through the application of the word and through the work of the Spirit. And it’s an opportunity for us to hold out the truth that death is a disarmed and soon to be defeated enemy (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Rev.20:14; 21:4), that there is one who can deliver us from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15), and that through him, it’s possible to die and yet live (John 11:25).
Learning That We Are Still Homo Sapiens
The prominence of death is also an opportunity to be reminded and to remind others that we are still Homo sapiens and not Homo deus. Though we have been endued with reason, intellect and even wisdom, wonderful gifts which help us to tackle something like coronavirus, we are not God. We are the creatures, not the creator. All our problems started with the desire to deny this truth (Gen. 3:5), and to this day it continues to be our core problem (Rom. 1:18-25). Here, then, is a lesson whose importance can hardly be overemphasised. And here we are with an opportunity to learn it and teach it again.
Does Corona Mean Communion on Your Owna?
Bobby Jamieson (who is one of the smartest guys I know) says a simple no.
That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).
But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.
So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.
Physical presence is not an optional extra in the Eucharist. It’s not a “nice to have.” It is an integral part of what the Lord’s Supper is. I can remain married to my wife when I am abroad, and we can still do many of the things that marriage involves remotely, but there are some things we cannot do without being physically present, and they matter. The sacraments—visible signs and seals of the covenant—are like this, for the reasons Bobby has just given. (It seems to me that the recent CT article defending “online communion” does not address these arguments at all.)
In a more detailed article from an Anglican perspective, Ian Paul (also no fool) says similarly: “What does all this mean for ‘online church’? That the whole event of celebrating the Lord’s Supper is something that can only be done at the gathering of the whole people of God, since the reception by them of the elements is integral to the meaning of the whole event.” Again, I agree.
The question, then, is what we should do in the meantime. Bobby’s answer is simply to wait: “Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.” Ian’s answer is that we may be able to share bread and wine as Christian households, while recognising that what we are doing “falls short of the full sharing of Communion together in a church building.” This latter idea raises all sorts of questions (what about people who live on their own? what about people whose families do not believe? should we include unbaptised children? etc), but it does have the advantage of being what the Jerusalem church did in “breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46, though admittedly in larger households).
Notice, though, that this is not an argument for taking the Eucharist while looking at a screen because physical presence doesn’t matter. It is the argument that physical presence is so important that the context of the Eucharist can change, from a whole congregation to a household, based on who else is in the room. This is where I differ from Bobby, I think; he maintains that the whole church must be gathered for it to be the Lord’s Supper at all, whereas I think (based on the Jerusalem church alone) that this is overstating it, and that smaller gatherings of believers can share Communion as long as they share a common loaf and drink a common cup, in faith, with thanksgiving. This is the main context in which house churches have shared the Lord’s Supper for decades.
Having said that, those smaller gatherings draw their meaning (as Ian points out) from their association with the gathered, church-wide sacramental meal, and should not become substitutes for it when we are once again able to gather. If that means that some of us cannot celebrate it for a few weeks or months, because we don’t live with any other believers, then we should look forward with eagerness to the day when we can—like a married couple separated by work, or war—and enjoy that experience all the more when the time comes. And while we’re at it, we should spare a thought for the old Scottish churches that only celebrate the Eucharist once a year. Literally: Crumbs.
Wendell Was Right
Probably they have been far less affected than most of us. The Amish policy of self-sufficiency with large families farming their own land must give them unusual resilience. Most of us are urban, and even if we wanted to (and I really would quite like to!) adopt a more Amish way of life we lack the skills, opportunity and land to do so. But there are surely things we can learn from their model of household resilience.
For decades Wendell Berry, the American essayist, poet, farmer and campaigner, has been warning us of the dangers of selling ourselves to big farming, big business and big politics. In his essays and novels Berry paints a picture of what could be – self-sufficient households living simply, without debt, and in cooperation with their neighbours: communities where there is a real ‘membership’, with every citizen known and looked out for, and a mutual sense of shared responsibility for the health – political, economic and familial – of the whole community. He has also painted the flipside: land degraded by careless agriculture; relentless ‘growth’ fuelled by ever-expanding debt; the weakening of social cohesion; and an enslavement to the consumer society which masquerades as freedom.
As Andrew pointed out the other day, “households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory.”
There are plenty of memes flying around about the pressures this is bringing. I especially enjoyed the one of a mother who had gaffer-taped her child to the floor as she tried to get on with some work. But these pressures (and jokes) aside, the recovery of the household presents a real opportunity for society as a whole and the church in particular. Resilience to plague and disaster is greatest in households who are best able to look after themselves, in cooperation with other such households.
I’m trying to work out what this might look like in the urban environments where we live: digging up our lawns and growing vegetables instead might be part of the answer but certainly isn’t sufficient for true resilience. Here are some ideas I’m mulling over.
We need local political resilience. For years, in the free West, we have asked the question, ‘What would it be like to live in a society where the authorities prevent believers from meeting together?’ Now we know. A few weeks back it would have been inconceivable that we would soon be living under martial law, but that is essentially what has happened. I believe the government is acting with the best intentions, with the best knowledge available to it, but the staggering power of the state is still alarming: that schools and businesses can be shut, church services closed, and movement outside the home curtailed is extraordinary. What if a government decided to take such steps for less benign reasons than the current ones? Having discovered its own power, can we really be confident that government might not want to flex the same muscles again?
The best way to protect against the tyranny of an over-powerful central state is by the existence of robust local politics. By ‘politics’ here I mean polities – not just local mayors or councils that have real clout, but communities who are able to organise and stand together. The irony of the Amish is that they stand outside mainstream politics, and yet their polity is strong. The church should not be political but she is a polity. We need to find ways in which churches exercise their political resilience – and that will need to be worked out by resilient households that compromise resilient local churches.
We need local economic resilience. In this time of crisis many of us have suddenly found ourselves dependent on small, local, businesses in a new way. The corner shop has assumed a new importance. The local butcher we haven’t used because he is more expensive than the supermarket has started to attract more custom. In the UK local highstreets have been dying – don’t we feel the need of them now? Perhaps coronavirus is a wakeup call to us that we need to develop resilient local economies rather than relying so heavily on the global one. What part might churches play in encouraging this?
We need technological resilience. Tech is our tool and a very useful one at this time. But as I posted on Monday, there is a real danger that our increasing dependence on tech at this time will lead to our greater enslavement by Big-Tech: something that will weaken rather than strengthen our resilience. Even as we are all using tech more we should be making plans to reduce our dependence upon it. Once this crisis is over what platforms, programs and practices will we ditch? To be truly resilient we might better use our time learning how to service a car ourselves, or keep chickens, or build a wall. Churches have a part to play in this as even while we move so much online we should be pastoring people in how to live without being permanently connected. This is essential for our own health and wellbeing, but it is also a good strategy for developing resilience – what if next time around it is not a virus that gets us but a global internet glitch?
I think Wendell has been right all along. Certainly not on everything, no, but on the big picture, yes. We’re not all going to replicate the Amish but we should all learn some resilience. That will need to begin in households. It should be demonstrated in local churches. It could be what keeps us alive.
When Corona Makes Us More Like the New Testament
Households are becoming the basic social unit of the church. Social, and often legal, limitations on contact mean that we now think of ourselves fundamentally as members of a household rather than as individuals, for probably the first time in living memory. We take exercise as households. We identify as households for the purposes of meals, socialising, leaving the home (if applicable) and healthcare. We even (gasp) worship as households. No doubt they are almost always much smaller than their first century equivalents, but that’s an interesting development.
There is a renewed focus on caring for the poor and the elderly. In the New Testament, we continually run into churches and apostles obsessing about serving the poor and caring for widows. The plight of the most vulnerable is not just something people think about sometimes; it is uppermost in their thinking. And today, thanks to the grim disparity in survival rates between the young and the old, the healthy and the sick, we are facing a nationwide (even worldwide) return to that position. Ordinary people make daily life choices on the basis of what will help, or harm, the poorest and most vulnerable in society; churches circulate the practical needs and prayer requests of people who, in normal times, might not always receive such attention.
The role of the pastor is changing. In many churches, pastors spend a good deal of their time running things: Sunday services, rotas, programmes and initiatives, volunteer teams, and so forth. (I often think of Eugene Peterson when he first heard his pastor friend utter the phrase, “I run a church.” Peterson writes that although it was decades ago, “I can still distinctly remember the unpleasant impression it made.”) Now, however, after the initial flurry of confusion and activity—how exactly are we going to do Sundays when nobody can leave the house?—the role of the pastor has become much more traditional. Find out how people are doing. Care for them. Connect people together. Pray for them. Rinse, wash, repeat.
There is a renewed focus on prayer, for the simple reason that there really isn’t very much else we can do. When we feel invincible, we don’t pray so much. When we feel helpless—how else are we going to get out of this without masses of people dying?—we realise our intense need of God’s deliverance. When you couple that with the previous point, you get both the incentive and the opportunity to pray, as Phil wrote so beautifully last week based on the life of James Fraser.
We are experiencing the suspension of plenty. Perhaps the largest cause of social distance between the New Testament church and me is abundance. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am thirsty, I drink. For many (although not all) people in the West today, including most readers of this blog, there is a breezy assumption that we will always be able to access enough to eat; Tesco is our cornucopia. Yet in the last two weeks, thanks to panic buying and self-isolation, I have been praying the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, for real, for the first time in my life. Rachel and I have been looking in the fridge and the cupboards carefully, knowing that we won’t be able to restock them for five days, and rationing our staples accordingly. People are giving items that are hard to find, whether toilet roll or eggs or something else, to people whom they know will struggle to buy them. We are all thinking more carefully about how we use our money, our time and our space than we usually do. The temporary suspension of plenty is reminding us of the constraints that have applied to almost everyone in history. (It is also showing us how sinful and selfish we quickly become if we don’t think our family will have enough, and that might prompt us to be a bit less condescending towards our ancestors’ failings, but that is another story.)
Don’t let a good crisis go to waste, as they say. There are things to learn here, if we have eyes to see, and they can help us when (God willing) this crisis is over.
Dark Clouds & Silver Linings
Here are six areas where I’m reading the weather.
The pros and cons of technology
That we can phone, message, email, Facebook, Tweet, Hangout, Zoom, FaceTime, Skype and Insta each other is terrific. I’m incredibly grateful for the way technology is enabling us to fill some of the gaps, stay in contact, and stream church services. At the same time a cloud to this silver lining is that we become increasingly tech dependent. We’ve all been glued to our screens the past ten days and that isn’t healthy. When we are through this the big tech companies are still going to want to mine our data, track our movements, nudge our spending, commoditise us and sell to us. During a time of famine Joseph reduced the Egyptians to slavery (Genesis 47:21). We need to be careful that we are not made slaves of Big-Tech.
We also need to be alert to the reality that ‘online church’ is not church! I’m very thankful that we can put sermons, songs, and other resources online to help people at this time. I know there are real evangelistic opportunities on the internet. But true church is about the people of God physically gathering together, ‘greeting one another with a holy kiss’, taking the bread and wine, looking each other in the eye, and loving others despite their – and our – strange or irritating habits. We must beware falling into the trap of thinking that gathering together is one option among many for ‘doing church’ – that you can just as well do it sitting on your sofa with a phone in one hand and a coffee in the other. That approach will produce consumers, not disciples.
It is already becoming apparent that those who are doing ‘online church’ best are those who are most used to physically being together. Our student group had a successful virtual lunch on Sunday – but that was a fruit of them doing actual lunch together every Sunday. To claim that online church is really church is as silly as claiming that watching Bake Off is the same as making and eating a cake.
Another danger is that as we put things online we develop an unhealthy obsession with how many clicks and views we get. It would be wise to remember how in recent political campaigns those whose worldview was dominated by Twitter and Facebook have been mystified when come election night their side lost. It is not necessarily those with the loudest voice who make the biggest impact.
When this is over we are going to have to re-learn how to connect in more human ways. This, again, will be an opportunity for the church. We will have a responsibility and opportunity to show people that real community is bigger than a screen and more meaningful than an emoji.
A new neighbourliness
One of the most remarkable developments of the last few days has been community groups springing up in street after street. We now have nearly 40 of our neighbours in ours and there is a level of communication which would have been unimaginable two weeks ago. In many places Christians are taking the lead in this – as we should, because we understand community. This is a great opportunity for us! The challenge will be to maintain and build on what is now happening once the immediate crisis is past. We will need to move beyond the superficiality of a WhatsApp message and into the reality of people’s lives.
As neighbourhood support groups are being formed we’re seeing ways in which local communities can support one another in the way more distant government cannot. One of my neighbours has organised a local fishmonger to deliver to our street. I’ve put in a bulk order for flour with a miller I know. Teachers in the group are giving help and advice to parents with kids at home. I heard of another group where chicken eggs were being bartered for loo roll. Even as the global economy takes a battering perhaps we will find ways to strengthen local neighbourhoods and economies.
My brother-in-law in Buenos Aires told us that for the first time in a long time the skies above the city are blue as pollution levels have dropped. When the crisis is over are we really going to go back to how things were before or will we have learnt how to treat the planet more kindly? And might it be that the emergence of Covid-19 finally compels the Chinese authorities to close down the live animal markets that were the origin of the virus – as they were of SARS previously. As well as reducing the likelihood of future viral epidemics this could greatly reduce the global trade in endangered species. Ironically, a zoonotic disease could be great news for global ecology.
When our kids were small we would read the Bible and pray together at breakfast. As they grew older and schedules more complex this pattern of family devotions began to slip until we weren’t doing it at all. Now we are back – praying and worshipping together daily in a way we never have before. If you’ve never had a pattern of family piety it might not be easy to start, but if you can’t start now, you never will. My hope is that in my church (and around the globe) there is a recovery and renewal of families coming together in the word and in prayer.
A purified church
One of the downsides of a time like this is that it brings out the charismatic crazies. There are some truly weird and wonderful things being promoted from certain corners of the church. Peter tells us that “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). My prayer is that what we are going through will cause some of the dross in the church to be burned off. As the falsity of what some are preaching is exposed a refined and purified church can emerge that is ready to witness the truth of the gospel and welcome people into God’s house. Who knows? Perhaps God is using this time to prepare us for revival.
Keep reading the weather!
Fear and the Power of Why
We’re living in a time when fear is prominent and prevalent, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been reflecting on the reality of fear and how we should handle it. As I’ve done so I’ve been struck by the power of one simple question, ‘Why?’
Why Am I Afraid?
Fear is an emotion, and emotions should always lead us to ask questions.
It’s easy to dismiss our emotions. Many of us are trained to view them as annoying distractions, part of the reality of life post-Fall. Emotions suddenly appear out of nowhere, getting in the way and pulling us off course. With this view, our response will usually be to ignore or suppress them. In Christian circles, such a perspective can lead to statements like, ‘Don’t listen to your emotions. Just listen to God’s word.’ What such a statement overlooks is that our emotions are there to help us know how to best listen to God’s word.
The truth is, our emotions are signposts, signposts to our thinking and to our loves. Our emotional reactions flow from the things we believe deep down and the things we love deep down. They are not random, spontaneous occurrences that appear out of nowhere, they are a window into what’s really going on inside us. It’s for this reason that we should respond to our emotions with questions, and in particular the key question, ‘Why?’.
This is all true of fear. Asking the why question of our fear helps us to truly understand what’s going on, and then we can know how best to handle it.
In this way, fear is a gift to us. Sometimes asking questions of our fear will show that it is well placed and should motivate us to action. I’m crossing the road and I realise that a car has just turned onto the road and is hurtling towards me. I feel afraid. I’m afraid it will hit me. I’m afraid it will hurt. I’m afraid it might kill me. This is good fear, fear which will motivate me to action: I’m going to run across that road!
But sometimes fear isn’t good. Even this week I’ve been examining my own fear. I’m low risk for being seriously affected by coronavirus, and yet I realised I was feeling fearful about the idea of becoming seriously ill and even dying. I began to ask myself ‘Why?’. I know that death isn’t the end; I know that for the believer death is gain, so why? As I questioned myself I realised my fear was not of dying, my fear was of missing out on the coming years of my life. So again, I asked myself ‘Why?’. I was sobered by the answer: Doing the things I enjoy in this life for a few more decades seemed more appealing than being with Christ. Now, the things I enjoy doing are good things, but they’re not as good as being with Christ. I don’t want to desire my earthly activities more than Christ, so my fear highlighted to me an area of my heart I need to work on. My fear wasn’t good, but by examining it, I found an area for growth.
So, if you find yourself feeling fearful at this time or you’re interacting with someone who is, ask a gentle question: ‘Why?’ The feeling of fear is a gift which can help us.
Why Should I Not Be Afraid?
The why question is also helpful when we’re considering what the Bible says about fear. It’s true that time and time again, God says to his people ‘Don’t be afraid’. But when he says this, he’s not just saying, ‘Ignore that pesky, distracting emotion’. He’s saying, ‘You don’t need to fear, because the thinking or loving behind your fear is faulty’.
And we can know this by asking the question, ‘Why?’. Most of the time the command to not fear is accompanied by an explanation. This explanation isn’t designed to make the command even stronger (‘You should do this because of this!’); the explanation is designed to explain the power which allows the command to be fulfilled (‘You can do this because of this!’) The biblical commands about fear encourage us to apply truth to the realities that are underlying our fear. They are deeply pastoral gifts to help us. When we read them, we should always ask ‘Why?’ and look for the accompanying reason. In the reason, we find the power.
These two why questions actually work together: by asking why we’re fearful, we can find the root of our fear, and then by asking why God commands us not to be afraid, we can find the promise or reality which will help us to reshape our thinking or our loving which will, in turn, cut off our fear at the root.
So as we face the fear of the current crisis, one way we can equip ourselves is with a simple but powerful question: ‘Why?’
Sabia-Tanis: Holy Creation, Wholly Creative - A Response
To complete this series interacting with the multi-view book Understanding Transgender Identities, here I offer a response to the final chapter, 'Holy Creation, Wholly Creative: God's Intention for Gender Diversity' by Justin Sabia-Tanis.
Justin Sabia-Tanis makes a helpful contribution to this conversation by drawing from his own experience of living with gender dysphoria and undergoing gender transition. Particularly valuable is his attempt to help readers think their way into what it might be like to live with gender dysphoria through an imaginative exercise (pp.209-210).
I agree with his focus on working towards the wellbeing of transgender people and his call for Christians to recognise the need to respect the full personhood of transgender people as those created in God’s image (p.216). I also appreciate the way he highlights the disproportionately high rates of poverty among the transgender population and condemns Christian organisations who have refused help to transgender people who find themselves in difficult situations (pp.220-221).
While Sabia-Tanis expresses an admirable concern for the wellbeing of transgender people and rightly calls on Christians to treat trans people with compassion, I would question the form that Sabia-Tanis seems to believe this compassion should take. While it is generally true that ‘[c]ompassion argues that we allow people to receive medical treatments that will alleviate their suffering’ (p.217), we do first have to consider the morality of any such treatments. This is something Sabia-Tanis fails to do. In fact, he bemoans the shift from treating transgender as an issue for medical and pastoral care to an issue of morality but offers no argument as to why this shift is wrong. I would argue that all three perspectives are important.
In arguing for the acceptability of gender transition, Sabia-Tanis cites his own experience as evidence, both his sense of God’s calling ‘to set out on a journey between and among genders’ (p.204) and his experience of transitioning as ‘absolutely life-affirming and life-giving’ (p.205). Later, he notes that many who have transitioned ‘testify that we feel that God has affirmed our decisions’ (p.216). Nowhere, however, does the chapter engage with biblical texts (such a Deut. 22:5 and 1 Cor. 11:2-16) or theological perspectives that argue against the acceptability of transitioning. His perspective seems to be shaped only by a subjective experience with no evidence that this has been measured against Scripture.
Sabia-Tanis also argues in favour of gender transition by rejecting suggestions that there can be any positive aspects to suffering. This being the case, he suggests that any possible means of alleviating suffering should be allowed (pp.218-219). However, this is a distinctly unchristian position on suffering. Though we often don’t ultimately know why God allows suffering and might not be able to directly trace the good it does, the biblical witness consistently sees suffering as able to do good to us (e.g. Mark 8:34-36; Rom. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Pet. 1:6-7).
In challenging the idea that transitioning should be considered as a moral issue which could be sinful, Sabia-Tanis suggests that we should ‘reorient the question from one of sinfulness to a focus on a person’s relationship with God’ (p.208). However, this is a false dichotomy. It is precisely because of the desire to have a good relationship with God in which we are honouring him with our bodies that we should consider whether transitioning is moral. Having a good relationship with God, however that might be defined, cannot be used as a justification for any and every action we desire to take. Elsewhere, Sabia-Tanis talks of God accepting those who keep his word (p.204). What does it mean to keep God’s word in relation to our gendered identity? This question is never really explored.
The starting point for Sabia-Tanis’ chapter is his argument that gender falls on a continuum. He offers arguments from the natural world and from the Bible, but both sets of arguments face serious problems.
When considering the natural world, Sabia-Tanis notes that there are some plants and animals which are hermaphroditic and some which change sex. However, neither of these phenomena are comparable to gender dysphoria or gender transition. Hermaphroditic organisms could offer a parallel to some intersex conditions, but they cannot prove that hermaphroditic biology in humans reflects a good and deliberate diversity. It is noteworthy that Sabia-Tanis says there are some ‘species’ of plants and some ‘categories’ of fish of whom this is true (p.199). In these cases, hermaphroditism is not a rare occurrence as it is in humans but is a standard characteristic of the species. Organisms which change sex cannot be claimed as evidence that gender transition is part of creational intent since the form of change is very different: in plants and fish it is through natural means and for the sake of reproduction, in human gender transition it is through invasive medical intervention and, if anything, harms rather than assists reproduction.
The biblical arguments for gender as a continuum are also unconvincing. The argument that the binaries in Genesis 1 are not absolute (e.g. dusk occurs between day and night) cannot be successfully applied to humans for several reasons. Perhaps most important among these is Jesus’s affirmation that God created humans as male or female so that one-man, one-woman marriages might take place (Mark 10:6-7; Matt. 19:4-5). Thus biological sex is a binary structured around the procreative sexual union of a man and a woman. Looking to Genesis 2, Sabia-Tanis suggests that v.18 shows the creation of woman was to solve the problem of loneliness rather than to create separate genders. However, there must be more to the narrative than this or God could have created a human who was identically sexed to Adam. The fact that he doesn’t, thus facilitating the reunion of man and woman in the one-flesh union of marriage (Gen. 2:24), is significant in the Bible’s theology of sex. Finally, arguments from the positive acceptance of eunuchs in Isaiah 56, Matthew 19 and Acts 8 are not directly relevant to the question of transgender as eunuchs were considered to be biologically male, though unable to father children, and so are, if anything, a parallel to intersex conditions, not to the experience of gender dysphoria or gender transition.
Taking a step back, there seems to be something of a tension between the two main points of Sabia-Tanis’ chapter. He starts by making the case that God has created gender to be a continuum and thus gender variations are good and should be embraced. However, his second point - that transgender people should be allowed to transition as an expression of compassion and love for neighbour in the face of suffering – seems to undermine the idea that the continuum is good, both in its focus on suffering and on the affirmation of transition approaches which move one closer to a certain end of the continuum. It might fairly be asked, if gender is a God-given continuum, why do some seem to suffer because of their position on the continuum and why should there be a need to move oneself to somewhere else on the continuum?
Sabia-Tanis’ aim in this chapter is admirable: to wrestle with the reality of gender dysphoria and offer a truly compassionate Christian response. I fear he fails in this aim, however, because of an overreliance on subjective experience, some flawed logic in the arguments employed, and weak readings of the biblical text.
To The Elders
I’ve just been praying with my flesh & blood family and feel prompted to write to you - my brothers in Christ. This is such an extraordinary time and I’m sure you are all feeling pressure and strain. I’m very conscious of the pressures on each of you and know we will all be feeling the demands of the day in different ways. Certainly, I have been feeling quite overwhelmed and all kinds of questions about how we are going to deal with the known and unknown consequences of this crisis are weighing heavily on me.
But, it is exactly at a time like this that we need to remember who we are: we need to remember our calling. We are the elders of Gateway Church. This is a huge privilege - and a real responsibility. We are on a war footing and we need to remember we are called to be men of war. The civilised veneer our society normally lives under means we can forget this in normal times, but we are called to a fight, and we must be fighters (Eph.6:10-12).
Here are three areas in which we must commit ourselves to the fight:
We should always be prayerful and labour in prayer for the flock, but we don’t always feel the urgency of this. Now we must! We need to fight for our people - we need to fight for their spiritual as well as physical protection. We need to fight for their survival - when we come out of this we want there to still be a church to lead. (Phil Moore did a brilliant post on this.) We need to fight for them to remain faithful. We need to fight in prayer for them to not give into fear but to be good witnesses at this time. How and when we pray will vary according to our temperaments and timetable but we need to be seen to lead the church in the charge of prayer. How can we ask others to commit to prayer if it is not seen that we are so committed? Of anyone in the church we should be the last to say we were too busy to pray.
Sometimes we can forget that we are called to be pastors. In normal times we tend to spend a lot of time organising programs and events and can end up managing systems more than we care for people. Now is not that time! Let’s fight as pastors - working hard to engage with and encourage our people. Let’s care for the flock Jesus has entrusted to us.
This is a fight! Our prayers and our pastoring are to have a protective effect for the church. We are called to be a shield to others. We’re called to take the bullet for others. We need to fight for God’s protection to be over God’s people. People are anxious, confused, irritable - we must fight for their hearts and for them to live in God’s grace at this time. This is where it gets real: all the things we have taught, sung, prayed - now ‘the tested genuineness of your faith’ (1 Pet.1:7) needs to prove its mettle.
This quote from Mark Sayers should set the tone for us at this time: “An era is over. Of hot takes, and distractions, of self-focused leadership and endless naval gazing. War time leadership is here. Let’s step into the new phase with holy fire to lead like lions of the Lord. Revival comes wrapped in strange paper. Let’s not miss the gift. We will look back on these months to come as utterly defining of our lives, of our churches, of our nations.”
Yes! Let’s be lions of the Lord!
And we need to dwell on how Paul & Peter charge elders to fight for their churches:
1 Peter 5:1-4 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Finally, practically, we need to find ways to stay connected together. Our phones have all been red-hot with messages the past few days - the last thing we need is more information overload. But we do need to stay connected, and to talk and pray together.
I’m grateful for you men. We have done well together in a time of peace. Now is a time of war. Let’s stand together, in Christ, and prove we are the men we would hope to be.
The Corona Virus Experiment
As I write this blog, Christian leaders all around the world are facing up to two great challenges that are unprecedented within their lifetimes.
First, due to government restrictions aimed at slowing down the spread of COVID-19, most church leaders find themselves unable to gather those they lead into church services for the next few Sundays. Second, for the same reason, most church leaders are looking at diaries that are full of cancelled meetings. For decades - even for centuries - the predictable answer from any Christian leader to the question “How are you doing?” has always been “I’m busy.” Now, for the first time, Christian leaders actually have time on their hands. Stressed? Of course they are, for these are definitely troubling times. But busy? Not so much, to which I say wow - just wow! Take a moment to sit back and to savour this rarest of smells in Church History. A Church whose leaders have time on their hands. Enough time on their hands, in fact, for us to be able to run a little experiment together with the Lord.
The challenges that church leaders are facing for the next few weeks may be unprecedented for the Western Church, but it is not unprecedented in Church History. The great missionary James Fraser found himself in a very similar position when he began to preach the Gospel to the pagan Chinese villagers of Lisuland in the first half of the twentieth century. Lisuland lies several hundred miles west of Wuhan, in the foothills of the Himalayas, so James Fraser very often found himself unable to reach his converts in the most mountainous areas. Winter snowfalls made it too dangerous for him to gather them together in church services. At first he was frustrated and even angry with God, who could easily have held back the snowfall to enable his church services to go ahead. But as he prayed, James Fraser became convicted that God was in the problem - it was a challenge of the Lord’s own making. The Lord wanted him to conduct an experiment on behalf of the Body of Christ. I believe that God wants to turn us back to James Fraser’s experiment right now.
James Fraser worked out that it would take him three to five days to conduct church services in the highland villages of Lisuland - one or two days of travel up into the mountains, a day of gathering together, and then one or two days of travel back down again. He therefore decided to find out: What would happen if I decided to spend the time that I would have spent gathering with these Lisu people praying for them instead?
For James Fraser, this was more than just a throwaway tweet on social media. It wasn’t an oh-so-radical piece of church-leader virtue-signalling. Nobody knew, or much even cared, how a missionary chose to spend his time in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was between James Fraser and God alone, but he gave himself to his experiment completely. He prayed for three to five days for each of the highland villages instead of visiting them. Then, once the spring sun had melted the snow, he climbed the mountains to discover what had happened. No scientist can ever have been so eager to examine the petri dishes in his laboratory.
James Fraser discovered that his converts in the highland villages had prospered during the winter months in which he had found himself unable to gather them together. In fact, as he met with them to hear about their winter Bible reading and their isolated prayer times, he came to the remarkable conclusion that his converts in the highlands of Lisuland had grown far more during the winter than his converts in the lowlands - the converts that he had been busy visiting and gathering all winter long. He recorded his conclusion: “If two things stand out clearly in my mind, they are firstly how ‘foolish’ and ‘weak’ our new converts are, and secondly that God has really chosen them.” Thereafter, he was determined never to fret when he could not gather people, but always to seize it as a God-given invitation to pray for people instead. “If I were to think after the manner of men, I should be anxious about my Lisu converts - afraid for their falling back into demon worship. But God is enabling me to cast all my care upon Him. I am not anxious, not nervous. If I hugged my care to myself instead of casting it upon Him, I should never have persevered in the work so long - perhaps never even have started it. But if it has been begun in Him, it must be continued in Him.”
James Fraser never knew the full results of his prayer experiment. Many missiologists trace back the enormous revival that has swept through China in the past fifty years to the revival that began amongst the highlanders of Lisuland during the winters when he stayed at home and prayed.
As a Christian leader, I feel a little stressed right now that I am not going to be able to gather together in person with the people that I lead for the next few Sundays. I’m busy pastoring many of them via email and social media, and I’m busy preparing online services so that I can serve them well over the next few Sundays. But I’m challenged that I can do far more to serve them than to take my pastoral overbusyness online. God isn’t just encouraging me to transfer my face-to-face meetings into Skype and Zoom conference calls for a season instead. He is inviting Christian leaders all across the Western world right now to rethink the whole of their ministry and to trust him that their inability to gather people to them for a season is an opportunity for them to gather themselves to God on behalf of the people.
Charles Spurgeon preached that “Prayer is the slender nerve which moves the muscle of omnipotence.” By God’s grace, let’s therefore embrace the next few weeks as an opportunity to experiment together and discover how much this is true. Let’s not fritter away these precious days of pastoral isolation. Let’s use them in such a way that we can look back in days to come and recall the lessons of the Western Church’s great Corona Virus Experiment in Prayer.
Quotes in this blog are taken from Eileen Crossman’s biography of James Fraser, which is entitled “Mountain Rain” (1982) - pages 133 and 198.