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Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Why we must read old books - especially biographies

Biographies: the bad and the ugly
If I had a dollar for every disappointing biography I have read, I'd be a millionaire! Here are the causes of the bad and the ugly....

(1) Some are just too long
If Matthew's biography of the perfect immortal Son of God contains just 18,000 words, perhaps that ought to set the bar for all other biographies? The point is, all we really need to know about a frail mortal can surely be compressed into a relatively small space. I have had to speed-read through a vast number of biography pages.

(2) Some are too "BBC"
A BBC biography is one written according to the moral norms of  today, today being the operative word. As a once-avid reader of Time Magazine and National Geographic I am astounded how much they, along with the BBC, have become children, not of age, decade, year or month or week, but of the moment. The character is judged by the fleeting morality of the moment and therefore the book is dated before it hits the deck at Amazon's warehouse.

(3) Some are just plain biased
Worst of all are the biographies which are just plain biased - either wittingly or unwittingly. I once read a biography of Van Gough that was more the psychobabble analysis of a human mind than a story of a life.

Christian biographies can be biased because they were written by people too close to the subject or because not enough time has passed for a proper assessment to be made. 

Perhaps the poorest biographies in this catergory are those written by unbelievers about believers! No-one can understand how a Christian ticks except a Christian. A recent example of this was a biography I read of the great James Clerk Maxwell written by an unbeliever who simply could not fathom what made the great man tick.  I have had to order another much older  biography, written by someone who understood the scientist's walk with God.

The marks of a good biography?
(1) Short!
No-one achieves that much in life, no-one is all that important. Short is not only good, short is best.

(2) Interesting!
Why write about them if there was nothing distinctive about their lives?

(3) Timeless!
Biographers must try to stand above the times in which they live and not judge their subject by the petty fleeting standards of the day. If they manage to rise above the times, there's  a good chance their work will be read in 100 years time - perhaps that's an aim every biographer should have in mind.

(4) Lessons!
What can we learn from that life  for ourselves today?

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Arguing with God in Prayer?

Our prayers are too lame!
Compared to the psalms, our prayers are pretty dull and lifeless affairs! "Help Lord!" (Psalm 12:1), "Why do you stand afar off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1) are more the urgent substance of psalmist's prayers.

Perhaps our prayers are dull by comparison, because our western lives are so easy by comparison?

Using Arguments to support a request
In this blog, I want to tease out one aspect of prayer from Psalm 16 - true prayer is not afraid of using arguments. I am not thinking here of disputation, "arguing with God",  but of using reasons why God should answer the particular request we are bringing.

Using arguments to encourage a response in someone else is part of any relationship. If a child wants something, they may think of a long list of reasons, or arguments, as to why mom or dad should give (in!). So we should not be surprised when the psalmist backs up his requests with good reasons to answer.

Keep me safe
The basic request of Psalm 16 is "Keep me safe." We are not told what danger the psalmist was  facing  for good reason. If it was specified we would feel upon reading the psalm, "that psalm doesn't apply to me." And so, it seems, the Holy Spirit has withheld mention of the specific danger so that we can apply it to ourselves: what saint has not at some time felt in danger?

So that's the basic request of this psalm: "Lord, keep me safe." And it is very clear by the end that the psalmist felt safe, " Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken."

But his journey to answered prayer began with arguments...

Why should God keep David safe? (verses 2-4)
David gives God four good arguments as to why he should answer his prayer....
  1. Because he has taken refuge in God (v.1). This is a good reason for God to take note - someone has come to him and made him their castle.
  2. Because he has no other good thing apart from God (v.2). The second reason God should take note is that God is number one in this person's life. 
  3. Because God's people are his number one people (v.3). 
  4. Because he has rejected all other helps (gods, v.4). There is a good practical reason for this rejection of other idols, to be sure - seeking the help of other gods, whether the mind, whether food, whether money, always leads to more, not less sorrow! Nevertheless, rejecting other gods, "puts pressure" on the Lord to hear this sold-out petitioner.
David rejoices in God's goodness (verses 5-6)
After using these arguments, we see faith rising! Of course the Lord will answer! He must hear me!  David is "feeling better!" He acknowledges that even though he is in a risky situation, he is in God's perfect location (verse 5-6). God has assigned him this lot, these pleasant fields - and he has thrown a delightful future inheritance into the bargain!

David stirs up praise (verses 7-8)
David tells himself to praise the Lord, the one who through the meditations of his heart counsels, comforts and helps him (verse 7). Praise leads to tremendous confidence (verse 8) - he knows he won't be shaken.

David is confident of future hope (verses 10-11)
David is confident not only in the present, but his newly blossoming assurance makes him confident of the future. There is a future for his present-dying body and eternal pleasures in heaven.

What a prayer!
David, who starts this psalm in danger, ends it with utter confidence, not only in the present but in the future. And where did that confidence start? With arguments to God as to why God should hear him.

Now, were these arguments for God or for himself? Did God send assurance in response to the arguments?  Or did assurance grow in his heart because as he listed the arguments one by one he himself became convinced that God could not fail to answer such a prayer? Either way, and probably some of both, David was moved from fear to assurance - through argument-filled prayer.