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Thursday, 18 August 2011

Parasites into Pearls

Joy and Tears, or only Joy?
Today some "A level" students will be filled with joy, others with tears. Some will thank God, others will wonder why. The differences are understandable, but actually both (I am thinking of believers) should rejoice. In point of divine fact there is no difference between the earthly categories of 'fail' and 'succeed': God is sovereign in both cases.

The trouble with our man-centred approach
Our real problem with all disappointments, whether exam results or job loss, is that we are viewing things from a small, human perspective. What we mean by joy is "what I wanted happened" and what we mean by tears is "what I wanted did not happen." If we take a larger and frankly God-centred approach, the question becomes "what does God want for me?" And Providence provides the answer: if we pass the exams or not, God's will is accomplished.

The example of Dame Cicely Saunders
God led the Christian woman who started the modern hospice movement through disappointments. Key moments of sadness were the very moments on which her career hinged. She went to Oxford, but the war put an end to studies and so she had to change direction. She met and fell in love with a Polish man who died in pain and so learnt about pain in the closing days of life. Without these 'disappointments' perhaps there would be no modern hospices.

Our God reigns
And so, whatever the trials we face, pure joy should be our settled, prayerful and reasoned  response because we know that God is King. And as King of the Universe, and king of our lives too, he turns parasites into pearls, our disappointments into his divine appointments.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Primary and Secondary Truths

To some folk the very idea of there being primary and secondary truths is anathema and smacks of compromise! "Everything in the Bible is true, so how can you say some is primary and some is secondary?"

And there is something to be said for this view, for all Scripture is God-breathed.

The source of the problem
The problem is not with Scripture, the problem is with us. The problem is that there are - in the wisdom of God - some truths that every believer understands as central or fundamental, and there are other truths on which they find they disagree with their brothers and sisters. For example, all believers believe that Jesus is returning one day, but exactly how he is returning is a subject on which they differ.

So a believer who says "all the truths in Scripture are primary" is simply saying, "all the truths I believe are primary". I think we can all sniff pride here.....

We - even as believers - are fallen sinners. And there are many factors that play into our understandings of secondary doctrines, such as pride, what books we've read, what preachers we've listened to, what backgrounds we've come from - even our ability to think and reason.

We're not to blame Scripture - indeed there is only one set of truths there - but there is not one believer on earth who is the perfect interpreter of Scripture (remember we don't believe in popes?)

Ways to discern primary from secondary
This is no new debate, of course. The early church fathers wrestled with it and came up with creeds in an attempt to codify the central indisputable truths.

One way to discern a primary truth is how often it is repeated in Scripture. For example, that God is the Creator of the universe is stated so frequently that to deny it is to be a heretic. (You will notice that I did not add created the world in 6 24-hour days - why? Because on detail Christians - real ones - are genuinely divided).

Another way to discern primary truth is this: sometimes the Scriptures themselves say "this is of first importance". Take for example 1 Corinthians 15:3, "For what I received I passed onto you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day..." People who deny that Jesus died for our sins, deny that he was buried and died, deny that he was raised from the dead are heretics. It really is as simple as that.

A third way of discerning primary truth is to ask what the church has held down the ages. We are not on our own, we are privileged to be in a long line of believers stretching back 2000 - no more - years. What did they believe? Creeds are not irrelevant.

The so-what question
Once we have discerned primary from secondary the hard part begins. Because the only conclusion to such a process is to love and cherish all those who hold to these primary truths and treat them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

For some this is too great a cost, and so they resort to "all my truth is the truth" "there are no secondaries" which helps them to justify living in their ghettos and not bothering with their "wacky" brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Why you must never trust a Scientist......

....when she talks philosophy, morality, ethics or God.....

The Altar of Science
In our Western culture we place scientists on a pedestal and nigh on worship at their altar. Why?

Reason One: we have benefitted from the great advances that scientific endeavours have bequeathed to us. I am glad to be in a modern hospital rather than a Victorian one. And should my last days be ridden with disease, I will thank God for the advances in drugs which will enable those days to be largely physical-pain free. (And I thank God for Dame Cicely Saunders for pioneering the new hospice movement).

Add to medicine the wonderful advances in communication and transport and all the other ways in which our lives have been enriched by scientific discoveries. Science is worshipped because it has made life more comfortable.

Reason Two: it is said that scientific knowledge is the most certain knowledge we possess.  What I think is meant is that ten different scientists working to verify a particular theory in different labs are likely to come up with the same answer. Compare that with ten ethicists working on a moral problem. But this is no credit to science, it is credit to the created world which works in an orderly way; gravity works in the same way in Germany as it does in Indonesia or England. And the kind of knowledge on which science can be so sure is almost irrelevant to our day to day community lives.

Reason Three: ever since the Enlightenment (the narrowing we should call it - and of course the Enlightenment is just proud human nature codified), knowledge has been prized in and of itself, and those who have lots of the stuff are honoured because of that. The high priests of a knowledge-based culture are those with knowledge. Who possesses lots of knowledge? Scientists.

Reason Four: loud high-priests. Amidst the scientific community are religious priests and philosophers who, to perpetuate their religion have put on the sheep's clothing of science. They use science as a weapon (thinly disguised) to propagate their religion, normally some form of atheism. We're thinking guys like Dawkins who are philosophers first (not good ones of course) and scientists second, but who parade as scientists claiming to have come to their religious views in the lab. Of course tis other way round.

Put all together these explain why many Westerners bow at the footstool of sacred science and listen to everything that scientists say.

Why you shouldn't listen to Scientists
When they talk about operational science we ought to listen and thank God for the remarkable discoveries they are making. We should be of course skeptical and questioning, but they are likely to be right on how cells work, new insights into matter and so on.

But when they talk about historical science (trying to work out what happened in the past) or ethics (how we should behave)  or God, we should stop our ears.


Reason One: Just read a little bit of the history of science or the philosophy of science. All the big stories change with time, so why hitch your wagon to a star that will most likely fall one day?

Reason Two: Big stories (e.g. evolution, cosmology) must start with presuppositions which no-one can prove, because (not rocket science, this) we weren't there. Anyone who has done mathematical modelling will know how sensitive outcome is to initial conditions. To put it bluntly, you can model anything perfectly if you tweak the initial conditions.

Reason Three: Big Stories not only start with scientific presuppositions, they also start with philosophical presuppositions. The notion that no intelligence was involved in the evolution of living things is a dogma asserted against all the evidence to the contrary!

Reason Four: When finitude faces infinity, all it can do is select. Human beings are simply incapable of assimilating all the data to hand. All they can do is pick a fraction of it. Result? What bits you pick will be shaped by your prejudices. We're into conspiracy theory territory. This is exactly why conspiracy theories work - from a massive bank of material you mine facts which suit your theory. President Bush, don't you know, blew up the twin towers. I'm serious it can be proven with many, many 'facts'. Evolution, didn't you know, is true. I'm serious, there are tons of facts supporting it (it's just that the ones that don't support it are left out in the cold). 

So thank God for the comforts science brings, but smile at the nice men and women in white coats when they tell you how to behave or what to believe. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Why words are never enough

Words in a postmodern culture
I remember a class at Sheffield University. The class was considering different forms of 'criticsm' (a word that sounds harsh, but in some settings simply means 'interpretation'). Being a scientific block-head, I was there to broaden my education and learn something about literature. We were being taught a technique / philosophy called "deconstruction", now probably consigned to the history dustbin, since we are talking 1991.

Deconstruction, a daughter of postmodernism, says, in effect, that any piece of writing has within it the seeds of its own destruction: a text fights with itself, can be deconstructed: words can't and don't say much. All part of the modern attack on words, on truth, blah, blah, blah.

The wonder of words and The Word
In spite of the highfalutin ramblings of post modernism, words are wonderful, and they remain the most basic way we communicate to one another. So important are they that God has communicated to us in words, in a Book, the Bible.

And so important is the idea of "word", the incarnate Son of God  is called "the Word". No Christian should be found on the side of postmodernism's dislike of words.

But words are not enough
But words are not enough. Can you imagine communicating to a loved one only through words on a computer screen? It's how some romances start, but that's the point, start. Why only start? Because communication is much much much more than words. Two people falling in love want to be with each other, smile at each other, laugh with each other, and much of that stuff is beyond word.

We know that words are not enough because the Son of God chose to come into the world and communicate by shared life, pain and joy. He could have communicated just through words, but he chose to communicate through a life lived before and with the Twelve and others.

A heritage from the knowledge culture
In my evangelical tradition (Reformed-ish) we rightly give great emphasises to words. But I don't think we give enough emphasis to non-verbal communication. Our charismatic and pentecostal friends by contrast give much attention to that form of communication. They put up their hands in worship, express emotion far more freely, speak in tongues they know not, are affectionate with each other and smile alot.

I don't think our limitation to the verbal is Biblical, I think it's cultural. We are products of the knowledge culture (university education, books, essays, more books, more essays).

Tired of lonely words
Sometimes I get so tired of words alone. Just recently I understood why a little bit more. A convert from China spoke of the contrast between what the communist party churned out and what they saw in Christians. They said that they were tired of words, but saw in the church the love of Christ which attracted them to Him.

Chairman Mao - Words - Little Red Book - Words - words, words. Tired of words. But then they met Christians who did not assault with words, but expressed love.

Unless words are accompanied with something non-verbal - love - they are little more than an irritating noise (the Word says this in 1 Corinthians 13).

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Why small is beautiful when it comes to church

Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher
The British economist E Schumacher (British with a name like that?) argued against the conventional economic wisdom that big is beautiful. Can you apply this philosophy to church life?

Why Big is the Preferred Option in the World
But first, why is big so desirable in the world? First, Big means Power. A man who runs a business with 1000 employees has more power than a man who employs a mere five. And like it or not, people like power. Second, Big means Fame. Why have we heard of Coca Cola and McDonalds? Because they're big. Third, Big means Rich. The guy who employs five may be doing well, but the man who takes a slice of 1000 wages will be richer.

So in the world Big means Power, Fame and Dosh. 

Why Big is the Preferred option in the Church
For the same reasons? (Is there a prophet in the blogisphere?) A big church means power and influence! A big church gives the pastor and its church a name and fame! A big church rakes in more money and can employ more staff to bring in more people to bring in more money to employ....

The price of deliberately staying small (by dividing / planting) is just too great. You are unlikely to have much influence. You will be ignored by the Christian press who work in the same way as the secular media - they go for the big names. You'll be ignored by your denomination / grouping. You're likely to struggle financially, because small numbers means small budget. 

And so, since we are deeply influenced by the "Big is Beautiful" philosophy, we are unprepared to even consider small as a deliberate option. Small = death.

Perhaps I am being a cynic. But knowing my own heart and having sat in one too many ministers fraternals, I don't think I am that far off the mark. And frankly, if these are the secret motives for big church, they are nothing more than sinful worldly thinking of the 1 John 2 kind: "the cravings of sinful man - the lust of his eyes - the boasting of what he has and does."

Upside down Kingdom Logic
But since the Gospel turns upside down the thinking of the world, perhaps this very thinking itself is topsy turvy. Perhaps the best way to grow the kingdom is actually to aim to be small! Perhaps by insisting that churches remain small by splitting when they get too big, the interests of the kingdom are best served. Here are some reasons I believe this to be the case... 

Why small is beautiful in the church
For one thing, the small church is more organic than organisational. An organism is living, informal, dynamic, free and divine. An organisation is man-made, formal, constrained. 

For another, small churches require the use of every gift.  In large churches (unless you badger, bow-beat and on occasion torture!) people can always say "someone else will do it" - and they are right! In small churches every-man ministry is not necessary.

A third reason for small churches is that they feel more like a family than a crowd; a place where everyone knows one another. If I could have a pound for everyone who looks back longingly at the first days of a young church plant with fondness  now that the church is X00 strong, I'd not be rich but I'd have a fair few quid in me pocket.

Fourthly, small churches encourage ownership, rather than pewship. This is 'my community to which I am committed', rather than a faceless congregation who just happen to have the best preacher in town!

In the fifth place, Oh what silly billies we are!, small churches grow by conversions much faster than larger churches - why? If for no other reason evangelism is not a tag-on activity but a survival strategy!  (And small churches are able to adapt to culture and change must faster than large ones). Isn't that what we are actually after?

So why do some churches refuse to plant and play big ball? Sometimes its a constraint placed on them by their buildings. A congregation of 50 can't support a building that seats 200. Isn't this a case of the cart before the horse? Sell the Albatross and meet in a school instead! Sometimes it is fear? Sometimes its pride? 

But what about preachers who attract a crowd?
The argument is sometimes used that if you have a Spurgeon in town shouldn't that congregation naturally expand to fill the giftings of the man? But is a church a preaching centre? Should a church really revolve around one person's gifts - an emphatic no. Is it really possible to be the family of God and large? Wouldn't it be better if the man preached at four smaller sites? Used his time to train others rather than all that energy to preach the 'big sermon'?  In my experience 'preaching centres' are not churches at all - they may have a small 'church' at the core, but the rest are passengers - or better described, joyriders, who as soon as the big fella goes melt away, making succession a nightmare.

And what about the numbers in Acts?
What about them numbers? 3000, 5000, "a great many"? There are features of Acts that are unique (by definition beginnings are unique: you can't be born twice for example - remember that Nicodemus conversation?). Unique because this was the apostolic age in which God was founding something new. Big numbers along with spectacular miracles demonstrated God was powerfully and uniquely at work. 

The place to look is not Acts but the letters. And here, there is not one pip squeak about numbers. No church is commended for being large and no church is condemned for being small. Numbers are simply no necessary reflection of kingdom growth (in fact we all know from the Old Testament stories that numbers are often a mark of the enemy's reliance on strength, a la prophets of Baal v. Elijah).

Lost in the blogisphere.....
But this message will get lost in the blogisphere because "The Establishment" in any denomination or grouping of churches  can't encourage small (they'd be out of a job), and they got in because they were once leaders of (numerically) big congregations.

So you, my dear reader, consider just how privileged you are to read this message (!) - for you won't read it anywhere else. Why don't you thank God when you go to sleep tonight......