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Thursday, 18 October 2012

The best way to talk

Have we got it right: modern ways of talking?
In the church of Jesus Christ, love is the greatest; deep loving, understanding relationships central. It is out of these relationships that the world will see that we are followers of Jesus Christ.

But all relationships feed on communication, therefore how we communicate, affects our relationships. Are we in danger of using harmful, or at least inadequate, forms?

Ways we communicate
Many of our ways of talking are electronic: texts, phone-calls, e-mails, Facebook, Skype, and so on. But as helpful as these means are, they all fall short of the ideal.

God's method of communication
..... God sets the gold standard of communication. He has spoken to us through his Son, who is The Word. All previous ways of communicating, whether prophets or visions, are superseded by God's supreme Word to us.

What is so significant about God's ultimate disclosure was that it was personal, face-face. How do we know what God is like? We walk around with Jesus Christ through the Gospels and see him in action and through his words and actions learn what he is like.

God could have chosen to send down a set of gold plates from heaven with his words inscribed upon them, but instead he chose his Son, The Word, incarnated as a living, beating human being, to speaks to us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

God has spoken to us in glorious flesh and blood 3-D. 

Our template...
There is something about 3-D that trumps all the other forms of communication we use today, including blogging. For one thing, it is harder to misunderstand one another when we are in person. For another, it's "hard to hate when you get that close" (to steal a line from Harry Chapin).

I don't know what all of this means for we who believe, apart from the need to make face-to-face our primary means of communication, and other means very much secondary.

Stuart Olyott's "Don't phone me" plea
I will never forget a former pastor of mine, long before the days of e-mail and Facebook, telling his congregation not to phone him but to talk to him in person. He recognized that even a 2-D phone call (one up from text, for moods can be detected) did not match 3-D human communication.

Stop reading this blog and let's go for coffee at Caffe Bolero....

Friday, 12 October 2012

Myths for Breakfast and Myths for Supper too

Myths for Breakfast.......
I spent some hours yesterday morning reading "Exhortation to the Heathen" by Clement of Alexandria. In this second century book, the pagan convert to Christianity, Clement, exposes the absurd and impious myths of the Greeks. These myths had entered the cultural consciousness of the people and  provided the worldview from which people were able to answer where things came from, how they should behave, and so on. They weren't challenged by the populace but widely accepted.

But then Clement, who absorbed these myths as a child, gets converted to Christ who is the truth. And now he begins to question the myths he has been brought up on and here is the important bit - he exposes them for what they are:  absurd and impious.

He does a great service to his culture and the church.

..... and myths for Supper
Later that very evening, I watched Stephen Hawking's "Universe". And I was flabbergasted with how low-on-fact and high-on-philosophy/myth the programme was. I could not help thinking exactly what I'd thought that very morning, "What a bunch of foolish fables!"

Two thousand years hasn't changed the human heart.

And nor has science.

The central myth of the programme was that natural laws unaided by any kind of  external intelligence can produce the beautiful, complex and fine-tuned universe we live in.

But the evidence for intelligence - the need for intelligence to describe nature - has been pouring in over the last few decades, in Hawking's field as much as in other fields.

Take for example, the many physical constants in nature which are "set" at a certain, specific value. It turns out that you cannot alter these values by very much or there would be no universe at all. Like the cogs in a clock, a small change in a cog's size or number of teeth, quickly renders the clock useless.
This fine-tuning points to an intelligence.

The fables of today
Today, of course, our fables can't contain mythological men and monsters, they have to be clothed in science. But they are fables just the same for they are designed to explain where we came from, how we should behave etc., etc.

The real problem with these modern fables is pride. The idea that modern science/ scientists can answer all the questions of the universe.  Hawking revealed this hubris (probably unwittingly - which makes it all the more tragic) when he said:

                   "My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, 
                     why it is as it is and why it exists at all."

As if a mere puny small human mind can grasp the mysteries of the universe.

There is a great need for modern day Clements who will expose these empty myths for what they are, and save both the world and the church from their vacuous lies.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Eight characteristics of cultish groups: Beware!

The heydey of cults
When I was a teenager, it was common to be warned against cults like the Moonies, Children of God, JW's and Scientology. Today this warning is not heard sufficiently, even though Satan is as active today as he was in the seventies (...of course!!)

We need to be on our guard, however, not only against the overt cults, such as those listed above, but groups with cult-like characteristics. The New Testament warns us against what we might call cultish groups and individuals who will prey on the young and the vulnerable.

Hallmarks of a cult or cultish group
Here are some of the marks of a cult, or a group on its way to becoming a cult:

David Berg - leader of Children of God cult

(1) Cultish groups are run by strong personalities. If you are young and immature their commands can sound like "spiritual authority", when you've been around the block a few times you see it for what it is: wolfish behaviour. Take the example of Diotrephes who loved to be first (and only) in the church (3 John). Diotrephes couldn't stand the apostle John or any of the brothers hanging round his church, so he refused to have anything to do with the apostle John (yes, that's right, he would have nothing to do with an apostle of Christ!), and did not welcome other Christians.

Cultish groups are dominated by powerful (but ultimately insecure) personalities.

(2) Cultish groups actively seek out the naive and vulnerable. They may quite literally go from church to church looking for the weak and vulnerable. Here is how Paul warns us:

"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way.....Keep away from them..... By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people." (Romans 16:18)

When they are on the hunt, they do not speak to elders or pastors - these they studiously avoid (not least because shepherds are aware of wolves) - but seek out the naive and the vulnerable. Perhaps a young person full of zeal who they could easily deceive and twist to their cause.

(3) Cultish groups use flattery. Of course, none of us should be prone to flattery, for all of us should have a healthy view of ourselves which forces flattery to flow off our backs. In other words, should God ever be pleased to use us, we think it is nothing but amazing, since we know our sinfulness too much to think the blessing had anything whatsoever to do with us. But when you are young and immature, and someone says to you, "You are the most passionate disciple of Christ I've come across in years" or some such deliberate flattery, you have limited experience or self-knowledge to help you deflect the lies away. 

Good old John Bunyan warned us about The Flatterer many years ago, with these sober words:

A man approached them clothed in a light robe who asked them why they stood thus. When the pilgrims informed him of their predicament, the man said, "Follow me, for I too, am going to the Celestial City, and am well acquainted in these parts."
Accordingly, they followed him, for he seemed a pleasant man and was full of compliments and fine sayings.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, the road on which he was taking them turned away from the straight and narrow path; but being absorbed in listening to the fine things their companion was saying about them, they did not notice this deviation, and soon their faces were turned away from the Celestial City.
Suddenly, before they were aware of it, he led them into the compass of a large net in which they were so entangled that they could not, in spite of all their efforts, extricate themselves. Then the robe fell from the man, and they perceived he was a dark man whose name was Flatterer.
As they lay crying in the net, Christian groaned, "Now do I see myself in an error!"

(4) Cultish groups play nasty. Because they are not followers of  the Jesus who was filled with grace and truth, cultish leaders put no restraint upon their vitriol towards those who disagree with them. They freely damn all people who do not buy into their gnostic myths.  These leaders follow in the steps of the Pharisees, of whom Jesus said,"you travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15).

(5) Cultish groups have a powerful myth which supports their 'theology'. From the outside, the views of cultish groups look absolutely absurd. And indeed every 'doctrine' is very easily dismantled - they don't hold water, Biblically, theologically, historically or philosophically. But on the inside, supported by group-pressure, the myth seems powerful, even overwhelming. The myth works in the same way as a conspiracy theory works: in a large bank of 1000 pieces of data it is quite possible to select 100 pieces which can be used to support your view. All the other information of course is excluded or conveniently re-explained. But put 100 pieces of data together, and my it looks impressive, especially when it is reinforced by powerful personalities.

(6) Cultish groups are gnostic in theology.  A gnostic is someone who thinks that due to certain   knowledge they have acquired, they have become a member of an elite group of "Christians". The underlying problem with gnostics, however, has nothing to do with the supposed knowledge. The problem is always a spiritual, never a knowledge problem. And the spiritual problem is spiritual pride. All of a sudden they stand above all the other "compromising Christians" in the world. They may even tell you how much they have grown spiritually since they have acquired this knowledge and how poor they were beforehand. All of this is a delusion.  The apostle Paul deals with this error in Colossians 2 in a thorough way - he tells the gnostic (of whatever stripe) that he has actually lost contact with Jesus Christ. 

But Paul's words sound ludicrous to a cult member because....

(7) ....Cultish groups always think they are more zealous than others. Others compromise, they don't. And they boast about all the great sacrifices they have been prepared to make to remain faithful to the truth! They have lost churches, families, jobs and what nots. The truth is this: their zeal is without knowledge, and is more akin to fanaticism than holy zeal.They have lost friends through folly, not on account of truth.

(8) Cultish groups always separate from others. This is one of the chief characteristics of a cult - as soon as you become a member, you must sever all links with former friends. There are only two kinds of people in the world now, those who are in and those who are out. Those who are in are friends, those who are out, enemies.

Any group that bears these  marks is a cult, or on its way to become a cult.  

How should we respond to cultish groups?
(1) Warn fellow Christians. You will need to be specific if you are a church leader. Gather the flock and warn them.

(2) Do not engage with them directly. This is a great temptation but a grave mistake. People under bondage to a satanic suite of lies, are beyond logical argument. All that will happen is an endless string of unpleasant debates - be warned you will never win the debate. 

(3) Use spiritual warfare - pray. I had a relative who got caught up in the Children of God cult, in the sixties (David Berg was the cult leader). I remember the great pain of  relatives as they saw family members come under that powerful and satanic delusion. But the family prayed and he was delivered from the cult.

We have a God who is able to deliver his people from delusions, great or small. If you have a family member who has been drawn into a cult, it is probably best not to argue with them. So powerful is the delusion, they are incapable of seeing past it. In fact arguing will probably confirm them in their view that they are right (they are being persecuted) and confirm to them that you are an outsider. Gently warn, and then get on your knees and pray that the God who could humble Nebuchadnezzar and shatter his delusion, will deliver your loved one too.
See separate article on Gnosticism:
 "Gnosticism" old and new

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

The Wonderful Case of Johnny Lennox

Who is John Lennox?
John Lennox is a professor of Maths at Oxford, who is "at the top of his game." Until a few years ago he was largely unknown. But today he is fast becoming one of the world's top apologists for Christianity (a man who is able to defend the truth and explain the Gospel effectively in today's culture). He takes on all the big atheists and demolishes their arguments in a flurry of gracious responses. He is the author of four apologetic books, his first one "God's Undertaker" came out in just 2009.

Why call him "Johnny"?
I heard John Lennox speak recently and what struck me was his ordinariness. He walked on stage with trainers and loose-fitting shirt, covering an ample middle, no tie, no posh hair-styles, no attempt to be anything other than the ordinary, laid-back happy Christian bloke he is.

This in fact is the reason he is so effective. He does not need to put on a suit to hide who he really is. He does not need to hide behind some false image. He does not have to live up to some kind of pattern. He's just himself.

Lessons from John Lennox
I couldn't help think that we have something to learn from this gracious man of God:

(1)  Serve God faithfully, and in God's time, your time will come. Until around 2009 John Lennox was largely unknown in Christian circles. But in the background, he has faithfully served Christ, and just at the right moment, in his sixties!, God has given him a world stage on which to share the Gospel. Too many Christians want to succeed before their time. And boy do they make a hash of it! But if you wait, like Joseph, your moment will come.

(2) Be yourself. Many of Lennox's debating partners, whether Peter Atkins or Richard Dawkins are uptight and nervous - no wonder! - they have an image to preserve, a fan-base to please, a cause which hangs on them alone. None of this applies to Lennox, who knows he is merely a servant of the King, and while he wants to please the King, the King's cause does not rest on the small shoulders of one man.

(3) Listen to others. Lennox stands out as someone who is passionate to listen to the question, and the question behind the question. We too quickly think we know what the question is, but often we don't, for behind the question is the real question. Lennox suggests that if we talk more than 50% of the time, we haven't listened.

(4) Be honest about your views. Lennox does not pretend to be anything but a card-carrying evangelical Christian. He puts his cards on his table, rather than pretending to be what he is not. There is much to be said for this in an age where we can too easily hide our true colours for fear of ridicule or misundrestanding.

(5) WYSIWYG. I've already said this, but What You See Is What You Get with John Lennox. A professor wearing trainers, making no attempts to impress.

Listening to this brother in Christ reminded me more than once of Jesus himself, who, according to Isaiah 53:2, had nothing about him to attract us to himself. In an age of hype and image, we need more honest and more Christ-like men like Johnny Lennox.