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Monday, 18 March 2019

Who is teaching your children (and who is teaching you)?

Tragic stories in the News
Not many months pass by without news of yet another teenager who has lost their way or even lost their lives due to influences unknown to their parents.

A child disappears to some militant group and the parents are absolutely shocked and totally unaware of how radicalisation took place.

Another teenager commits suicide and it is discovered that they took how-to "advice" from a website. Once again the inconsolable parents are totally mystified.

Less noticed, but just as tragic are sceptical doubts and philosophies placed in the minds of vulnerable teenagers through watching YouTube and the like.

Who teaches our children?
The question every parent must ask is "Who is teaching my child?" Or, perhaps before that, "Who do I believe is responsible for teaching my children?" If the answer to the second question is that parents bear the primary responsibility (not YouTube or the state) for the education for their children, serious action needs to be taken.

Christian parents are responsible for their children
There is no doubt, from a Christian point of view that parents are responsible for the training and education of their children, with the overall responsibility resting squarely, if not politically-incorrectly, on the shoulders of fathers:

"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4)

We may delegate the task of education to the state, but never the responsibility: that is always ultimately always the prerogative and responsibility of the parent.

That being the case, we are responsible, as parents, for knowing who is teaching our children, and this is where the smartphone comes into court.

FACT: It is impossible to know what our children are looking at, reading, or watching without some kind of accountability software on their phones.

Parents who trust their kids to watch only what is suitable, out of a menu of infinite, are kidding themselves if they think their child will only go where it is safe. A child is born curious and there is a big wide world out there with good and evil both equally available.

A Pastor's Advice
My advice is to encourage parents to have an open conversation with their kids about the blessings and dangers of the Internet. Then come up with clear guidelines which arise out of good reasons, well-explained and sensible.  And make sure that one of those guidelines is accountability software such as Accountable2You or CovenantEyes or the like.

But - of course - a parent that insists on accountability software on their kids' phones must load the app on their own phone.  It would be hypocrisy to demand the one and overlook the other.





Who teaches you?
The problem of who teaches our children is not limited to children, there is a much wider discussion to be had in the churches, as to who teaches adults. It is now possible for a Christian to gather around himself or herself "a great number of (Internet) teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2 Timothy 4:3). This will lead to folk turning "their ears away from the truth (through local pastors) and turn aside to myths." (verse 4).

The local church alone is the pillar and ground of truth. The Lord has appointed shepherds to watch over the local flock, and to feed it and care for it. It is our local pastors and elders - and brothers and sisters around  -  we should listen to and pay heed to, not internet preachers who are unknown, distant and potentially - for all we know - dangerous.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Born Believers - why children naturally believe in God

Against the Grain
Books that run against the grain of contemporary thinking are not easy to find, so when this book came out in 2012 it stood out among the approximately 2 million volumes published each year.

In a nutshell, the author says that little children are born hard-wired to believe in God. 

The author's case can be summarised as follows:

Step 1: Children are able to distinguish between agents and non-agents. Children know if "something" can organise, initiate, and bring order out of chaos - it knows if something is an "agent". A rolling ball is clearly not an agent, but the human being who rolled the ball is.

Step 2: Everything in the world is made by agents. Children realise that everything they come across in the home, shopping mall, grandma's house and playgroup, is made by an agent. Cars, prams, cups, ipads, chairs, absolutely everything is "made".

Step 3: Humans can't make everything. Little children realise the limits of human agents. Humans can only make artifacts, small things, limited things, relatively simple things.

Step 4: Therefore there must be a God. Because there are mountains and stars and planets and plants and trees and animals - which clearly weren't made by humans - there must be Another Agent who made them - there must be a God who made them.

Eminently reasonable and perfectly automatic!

The human brain comes pre-wired with forensic software
This "forensic" thinking is not taught to a child, it is prewired and perfectly naturally. God has given to every human being the forensic software which comes to all sorts of reasonable and logical conclusions such as the one above.

What happens when children grow up?
If this is the conclusion of little children, how do we explain the fact that as children grow up some of them reject God?

Some might argue that the simple forensic software of a child gives way to the more sophisticated software of the adult mind.

The Scriptures teach something very different. They teach that adults all know there is a God in exactly the same way that little children do. From the created world around them, their minds continue to automatically deduce the existence of a powerful and glorious God.

But they do turn away from that Creator God. They don't turn away from "gods" for they still feel the deep need for greater things in their lives, a greater "Something" that makes life worth living. This new replacement "Something" becomes family, money, hobby, pleasure, career - anything, in fact, "higher" which makes life worth living.

People do not turn away from "gods" - their lives are filled with "gods" - which the Bible calls idols. But they do turn away from the Creator God they know made the heavens and the earth. Why?

Here's the reason: to acknowledge that there is a Creator would have vast implications. They would have to obey him, they would have to thank him, they would have to consult him. And that is what they do not want to do. Their lives are in rebellion against God. The Bible calls this rebellion "sin." Because they do not want to change their lives, grown up men and women suppress the knowledge of God refusing to acknowledge him any more.

(This, of course, is dangerous to their brains, because they are damaging the logical faculties they possess. If you suppress the truth in one area of reality it is likely you will suppress the truth in other areas. If you wilfully deny the truth, you damage your ability to process any truth. Sure enough "Professing themselves to be wise they became fools." An amazing example of this is the widespread western view that chimps are clever. So determined are some people to prove that humans are just next in evolutionary line to chimps, they force themselves to believe that chimps are clever  in spite of all the evidence that chimps are chumps - or more to the point - that human beings rise infinitely above chimps in absolutely everything: only the wilfully blind cannot see this.)

Do adults believe in God? Yes, their reasoning faculties cry out just as much as when they were kids - in fact even more so. But they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

The limits of apologetics
For this reason, apologetics - the art of defending Christian truth - is very limited. It is necessary but limited. Only the almighty power of God can change the human heart from one of unbelief to belief.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

God and Science

Myths are stubborn to Facts
Modern Myths
Every culture in history has embraced myths of one kind or another. Stories (the modern jargon is 'narratives') widely believed by many but lacking in evidence. Strangely, myths are stubborn to facts: they are believed in spite of evidence against them!

In western culture few myths are more deeply ingrained than this one: God and Science are incompatible or enemies, or more commonly, that the latter has displaced the need for the former: Science is the new "God".

Where does this view come from?
For sure, one source has been the remarkable success of science and its daughter technology. We are grateful for the comforts that technology has brought to our lives from the cars we drive to the medicines we take. Why do we need God when we have Technology?

A second reason for this view is a false view of God. Some have regarded God as the One who can explain all the stuff we humans can't. As our understanding of the universe expands, so then, our need for this "God of the gaps" diminishes.

A third source of this view are a minority of scientists who have adopted "scientism" - the view that science can explain everything. If so, why the need for God?

A fourth source of this myth has been the efforts of a few writers to establish the myth, a habit begun by men like John Draper many decades ago, and continued by men like Richard Dawkins today.

Many believe that the fundamental reason for this myth is that science bolsters the refusal to accept there is a God. Mankind does not want to acknowledge there is a God to whom we are accountable and so it suppresses the truth about Him, and science provides a reason for unbelief: "I don't believe in God."

How the myth is wrong
There are so so many ways to demonstrate the error of this myth, but here are three for starters:

(1) The myth fails to explain for the origins of modern science
The pioneers of modern science were all "theists" who believed in God and for whom their belief was a motive for science. Newton, Faraday, Maxwell were all men of faith who never for one moment saw a discrepancy between believing in God and doing science.

(2) The myth fails to recognise that science goes only so far
Science deals with the material world, and that's it. It's success indeed has been in part due to it's determination to self-subscribe itself to the material world. It cannot talk about anything non material, and thus by definition cannot even speak about God, spirit, soul - nor even consciousness.

(3) The myth fails to satisfy
When I put on a kettle for a cup of tea, science can only explain the physical processes that led to electricity coming into the house, being turned into heat and thus boiling the water. It cannot account for my decision to have a cup of tea, the joy of drinking it with friends - the very reason I drink it with friends, and so on. When I put a CD on, science can explain the laser reading the pitted surface and the digital to analogue conversion and so on. It fails utterly to explain the sensation as I listen to Samuel Barber's adagio for strings.

Likewise, science can explain how the universe works (to a certain degree) but cannot explain why I am here, what I should do with my life, how to find meaning and how to find purpose. For all of the things that really matter in life, in other words!,  science is utterly unable to explain.

If you live near Worcester, England, here's where you can find out more:






Monday, 11 February 2019

The Gospel for a Religious Man

Henry Tanner
Jesus and Nicodemus - Henry Tanner 
Henry Tanner is one of America's most celebrated African-American artists - though at art school he was kicked out of class by his white class mates.

Among his famous drawings is one which depicts Jesus chatting with Nicodemus, recorded for us in John chapter 3. Tanner travelled to Palestine to catch the atmosphere of the meeting and came up with a picture of Jesus sitting on a roof, alone, with Nicodemus.

His painting helps us to understand one advantage of seeing Jesus at night - perhaps it was the only time, away from the crowds, when anyone could have a one-to-one with Jesus. After the crowds had melted away, there was time to give to Nicodemus, an earnest seeker after the truth.

Jesus used four simple illustrations from nature and history to help this religious leader understand who Jesus was.

"A New Birth"
Just as a baby experiences a radical transformation from life in the womb to life outside, so a dramatic change is required in the heart and soul of anyone before they can even see the kingdom of God. This change is nothing short of a supernatural miracle of God's Spirit. "You must be born again", said Jesus. All the religious knowledge in the world is not enough, God must perform a miracle in the human heart.

"A Wind"
This supernatural change happens by the power of God's Spirit in a mysterious way. Just as we feel the power of the breeze but cannot tell where it is going, so the hearts of men and women are changed mysteriously - yet with divine power, so that they become new creations.

"A serpent on a Pole"
To explain what would happen to Jesus at the end of his life, Jesus used an illustration from the history of Israel. During their desert wanderings Israel rebelled against Moses and God. God sent snakes to bite them and chastise them, but in his mercy told Moses to place a snake on a pole. Anyone who merely looked at the snake would be healed and live. In the same way, Jesus was lifted up on a cross so that he might bear the punishment due to us and grant to us the forgiveness of all our sins. All we must do is "look and live", believe and be forgiven.

"Light and Dark"
Nicodemus must have been puzzled by the vitriolic hatred of the Jews towards Jesus. Jesus explained why people reject the Gospel. It's not because of difficult philosophical questions - all of those puzzles we can try to answer. It's because men and women don't want to repent of their sins. Light has come into the world but men and women prefer darkness to light, because their deeds are evil.

These four illustrations and truths went deep into the soul of Nicodemus and he was transformed by the Holy Spirit. No longer afraid of being associated with Jesus he asked for the dead body of Jesus, public enemy number one, after he was crucified, to lay it in a tomb.

Religious men need simple truths, which the Holy Spirit is pleased to use to change the heart and mind and life.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Bearing (good) Fruit in Old Age

No-one grows old gracefully - automatically
For a number of years I preached, every week, at two different locations filled with elderly folk. And I know from first hand experience that no-one grows old gracefully, at least not automatically.

No-one, absolutely no-one.

Without the grace of God, older folk are - if anything - more difficult, more cantankerous, more stubborn, more proudful and lacking in grace.

Of course there are mitigating circumstances, one could be tempted to argue.

Such as the new physical ailments of the latter years, so well described in Shakespeare's  As You Like It:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


Or perhaps the loss of future hope and the perennial harping back to some supposed "golden age" (that never actually was quite so golden), so well described by Pink Floyd in High Hopes:

The grass was greener
The light was brighter
The taste was sweeter
The nights of wonder
With friends surrounded
The dawn mist glowing
The water flowing
The endless river


Or perhaps the loss of present purpose or worth on account of the young ages at which folk retire.

Add these up together, and you could so easily end up with a cauldron of disappointments, self-centredness and ailments which can boil over into anger, resentment - or that terror of all terrors - the root of bitterness which defileth many.

Without the grace of God, old age may not only turn into a second childhood it could become a first death.

The grace of God
But according to Holy Writ it need not be that way.

With the power of God's Spirit it is possible for a believer to grow old gracefully. I have in my mind many church members, both past and present, whose memories are a savour of life. Saints who both experienced the grace of God and expressed it in old age. Here is how it can be, taken from Psalm 92:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the Lord, they will flourish in the courts of our God.

They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The Lord is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

The first verse should apply to every saint of God, the second to those who in their old age remain close to the Lord, "planted in the house of the Lord."

Still bearing fruit in old age - still winsome saints who seek the wellbeing of others

Still fresh and green - still able to bend to the changes of the ages

Still worshipping - "The Lord is upright"

When I am old and Gray
I vow, by the grace of God, to be the greatest encourager in my local church
I vow, by the grace of God to be the first to embrace all good change
I vow, by the grace of God always to look forward and not harp on about ye mythical past

Friday, 1 February 2019

Be Inspired to Give!

More Blessed to Give!
In a money-grabbing world it's hard to believe that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). But the Lord said it, so it must be true.

And everyone who has given generously and sacrificially - not only of their money but of their time and energy and gifts - will know from experience the blessed truth of the saying.

Here are some inspiring stories of giving known to me, with names obscured for confidentiality.

Story #1 - The couple who put God first in their business(es)
A couple from the Midlands started out married life and business life poor. They scraped together enough money for their first mortgaged house and their first business. They belonged to a small church which owned a building and this couple decided to put God before themselves. When the church building needed curtains, for example, they bought curtains for the building before they bought curtains for their own house. And so it went on.

What was the outcome? God blessed their business. They ended up owning one business after another and used the profits to build the kingdom of God. They put the success of their business "empire" down to God's generosity and his faithfulness to his promises, such as "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you."

Story #2 - The retired couple whose jar never ran out
My second story is about an elderly couple who learnt to give sacrificially during their working life. They did not earn much money, they were converted in middle age and from that time onwards began to give. In their retirement they and those around them were surprised at how well off they were, still able to give generously, since their jobs had been so very ordinary. Once again, they put it down to God's faithful promises.

Story #3 - The young family who put God first
A young father with wife and three young children, laden with debts from the past and the higher living costs of a young family, decided to put God first in his giving. Instead of thinking, "I'll start to give once the kids have grown up and I have more money" he gave during the expensive child rearing years. What was the outcome? He paid his debts off much quicker than he expected and the family were better off than they ever hoped they might be.

Story #4 - The church planting couple whose financial needs were met "like a tap"
A couple church planting in the north of England for seven years. The small church was only able to give them a small amount - the bills of the church were always paid before the wage. Money came from the most unexpected sources. From unbelievers, from unknown people and trusts, from family members. Enough to live on. But here is the strange and supernatural thing - as soon as the family had a regular income those sources all turned off like a tap! The God who had moved hearts to give now switched off the Tap (or more likely directed the resources to others!) since the gifts were no longer needed!

Story #5 - The couple who reviewed their giving every year
A couple decided to review their giving ever year - and pledged to increase it % wise year on year. Some years they found they could go up by one % but other years they found they could not increase by more than a fraction of one % - yet they were determined to do it. One day that man wrote a book which made him a millionaire. What did he do? He was a pastor so he paid back to the church all he had ever earned from them. He kept his old car and his old house. He ended up giving away 91% and keeping 9%. What did he credit his sudden wealth to? God's faithfulness to his promise, and as he put it, "After faithful giving during many years of poverty, the Lord knew he could entrust me with money."

Story #6 - The couple who got a house
My last story is about a couple who through no fault of their own found themselves on the verge of homelessness. They cried out to God one night, but decided to tell no-one their need. The next day someone out of the blue gave them a gift of £1500 [around £2500 today], which the couple saw as a token of God's mercy. Two weeks later an acquaintance of the family called to find out in general how things were. And then out of the blue he asked how the accommodation needs were - he knew nothing about their specific need. When he was told of the need he promised to help out and in a few days time a cheque for £25,000 [£45,000 in today's money] arrived in the post.

Missionaries and Gospel workers could tell a thousand stories like this! And they inspire us to trust God and to give generously.

But most inspiring of all are the promises of God:

"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33)

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."(Luke 6:38)

"And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." (Matthew 19:29)

"Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness." (2 Corinthians 9:10)

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Christian Knowledge is different from Worldly Knowledge

Christian Knowledge
Christians grow as their knowledge - and their grace - grows.

Knowledge is an important part of the growing process.

But all too often the church has taken their understanding of  "knowledge" straight out of the secular Academy - knowledge is "a body of facts" -  when in fact Christian knowledge is a unique, unsual and most beautiful thing.

Here are some big differences between secular knowledge and Christian knowledge:

Christian knowledge is the personal knowledge of a Person, not of facts about a person
Peter says that we are to grow in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour. That's a personal kind of knowledge. I can know lots about the Queen but not know her. So too, sadly, I can know lots of facts and doctrines about Jesus but not know him personally.

Christian knowledge is acquired spiritually, not through mental capacity alone
Jesus once told someone that they had come to understand that He was the Son of God, not through a human teacher but directly from His Father in heaven (Matt 16:17). There is a supernatural quality about the learning process itself, God speaking and teaching us himself, by his Spirit. Nothing like this happens in the Academy.

Christian Knowledge advances through obedience
"I know more than all my teachers because I obey your law." (Psalm 119:100) God revealed to Abraham His will in step with his obedience. Until he had obeyed the first command, God did not reveal the second step. It is therefore impossible to grow in true knowledge unless one is growing in obedience. In the Academy, however, you can know more and more, irrespective of your lifestyle.

Christian Knowledge is much more like apprenticeship skill
An apprentice learns a "knowledge-&-practise skill", rather than a set of facts. Life and faith-knowledge are so inter-related that it is impossible to divide the one from the other. In the Academy you can attain a complete body of knowledge without it affecting - in the least - your life.

Christian knowledge is learnt from a person(s) life
"Follow me as I follow Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). We do not learn about Christ by sitting in a classroom - we learn about Christ by watching mature believers live, and listening both their words and watching their lives. This was the pattern of Christ and his apostles. By contrast you could learn a whole body of knowledge in the Academy without any reference whatsoever to the teacher's life.

Christian knowledge is learnt in community
In theory you could become an expert in some field of human knowledge on your own, with nothing to aid you but a text book, but Christian knowledge is learnt in community. The whole body is built up in maturity as each part plays its role (Ephesians 4). It is impossible to grow in any meaningful way as a believer without community.

Christian knowledge must be edifying
In the academy whether knowledge is helpful, useful, life-changing, gracious does not matter one half-hoot. But Christians have a rule of speech and hence a rule of knowledge: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification." (Romans 14:19) So knowledge is completely useless unless the person with whom it is shared is built up, encouraged, edified.

Christian knowledge stands apart from all other forms of knowledge. It has a few aspects in common with worldly knowledge, but in other respects it is in a class of it's own. 

The implications of these differences are significant...

Bible College?
Is Bible College the best place to learn and prepare yourself for ministry?  Sadly, because local churches have failed to establish Biblical and relational means by which they can impart Christian knowledge, these para-church organisations have grown up. But the church ought to be the only place where we train the next generation of evangelists and pastors and leaders.  To question Bible Colleges is of course to find yourself like Luther questioning the Mass - so entrenched are Bible Colleges in our present day church life. But they should be questioned and must be questioned.  Some Bible colleges have adopted learning methods that are as worldly as secular institutions.

Online learning courses?
Is it possible to truly grow in knowledge of Christ doing an on-line or distance-learning course? We might be able to pick up a few facts, but that is a million miles away from the full idea of "learning" in the Biblical sense of the word. 

Books?
We learn far better from people than from books. Through God's people, knowledge is mediated in its fullest sense. Our first instinct is all too often "I'll get you a book", whereas it ought to be "let's have a chat."

Discipleship
The kind of knowledge which causes us to grow is to be found in living and loving relationships in our local churches, in the same way that Jesus imparted knowledge.

"When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13)