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Archive for May 2018

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 14: Nearing the end of the Journey.

We are nearing the end of the journey anyway. Assuming that we do not have am unexpected heart attack or stroke or other unexpected grave illness, one day we shall discover that we are not the person we used to be. We do not move as quickly as we used to; we do not remember things as well as we used to; all sorts of stiffnesses afflict us; other people don’t seem to want to use us to do things as much. We are getting old. One day, now not so far away we shall die. This raises two questions: 1) how well shall we cope with the downgrade of our life; 2) what will happen when we die. This chapter is about the first of those, the next is about the second.

There has never been a better statement of how life downgrades than that in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes. Here it is together with some explanations:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”— (that is when life begins to be a bit of a struggle)
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop, (when your legs are not as strong as they used to be and your back is bent)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (your teeth fall out)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (your eyesight grows dim)
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades; (you hearing is not very good)
when people rise up at the sound of birds, (you don’t sleep so well)
but all their songs grow faint;
when people are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets; (you can’t take the risk you used to take)
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire no longer is stirred. (sexual desire has faded)
Then people go to their eternal home
and mourners go about the streets. (and finally you die)

Isn’t that brilliant? It must be about the best poetic description of old age ever written. Unless some accident or sudden illness takes us away that is what lies in front of all of us. Modern medicine means that in many parts of the world people now live far longer than they used to and consequently experience much more of the slow failing of one’s body than people used to.

But the fundamentally important question is what does it all say to us? What is the constructive part of the message of the writer and of the God who lies behind the writer?

To ask the question is equivalent to asking what the next verse after those means: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”, but even that is not a great deal of help because it is very hard to be sure what the Hebrew word ‘hebel’ that the NIV translates as ‘meaningless’ really means. Many translations, like the NIV, have gone for words like meaningless, or vanity or useless, which is rather odd since the writer clearly does not think that what he is saying is meaningless or useless.

Let’s go back to the basic meaning of the word which is that like a cloud on the top of a hill it is insubstantial, difficult to see through and wont last long. So now we are being told that old age is not an easy thing to get hold of, difficult to work your way through and wont last for ever – all of which makes good sense.

So What?


Looked at in isolation that all seems rather bleak. But it is different if we put it in the context the writer intended. The next few verses say:
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
And before we got to these verses we read this in the preceding chapter:
Light is sweet,
and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.
However many years anyone may live,
let them enjoy them all.
…. So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.”

Go for it, the writer says. Make the most of life, even when it is on the down slope. Don’t give up. Rejoice in your Saviour and all he has brought to you and promises still to bring.
Jesus said: “don’t worry about your life - what to eat, what to drink; don’t worry about your body what to wear. There’s more to life than food! There’s more to the body than a suit of clothes? Have a good look at the birds in the sky. They don’t plant seeds, they don’t bring in the harvest, they don’t store things in barns – and your father in heaven feeds them! Think how different you are from them! Can any of you add 30 cms to your height just by worrying about it? Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

So don’t worry away with your ‘What’ll we eat? ’ and ‘What’ll we drink? ’ and ‘ What’ll we wear? ’ Instead make your top priority God’s kingdom and his way of life and all these things will be given to you as well.”

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 13: Having A Balanced Worldview


It is quite possible to have the best of intentions in our thinking as to how we should be and what we should do and get it wrong. We need to balance our thinking. There are 3 areas often considered in this: Creation, Fall and Redemption, to which I would add a fourth although this is not so much a matter of balance as of movement: Progress (my name for it. It is more often called sanctification, but that is a difficult word.) If we over-emphasize or under-emphasize any one of these we can easily get in trouble.

First: Creation. It is because we know about, and understand Creation that we know how to live in our world. We understand people. I pointed out in the first of these studies how our Christian view of people is that we are made in the image of God, but fallen into sin (of which more in a moment). If we over-estimate Creation we think everyone is wonderfully good – and unfortunately they are not. Politicians, for their own benefit, often try to make out that everyone is good and all the world will be wonderful if it only follows their lead. We all know where that takes us! If we under-estimate Creation we think everyone is terribly bad – and they are not. Some preachers are so full of the consequences of sin they forget how wonderful the average person can be. We need balance.

Second: Fall. The exact opposite of the consequences of error over Creation are the results of the errors over the Fall. We must not over-emphasize the fallen-ness of men and women. To do that is to try to bolster our own self-image. The implication of what some Christians say is ‘you are fallen’, I am not’ so look how important I am! The platform or the pulpit can be a dangerous place. But if we under-estimate the effect of the Fall on men and women we make a grave mistake. This is where the creators of the great movements of human society have gone wrong. Communism in particular thought that everything would be wonderful once the situation had been initially tidied up. It didn’t work out like that and it never will work out like that. They didn’t take human nature into account.

Third: Redemption. The more obvious problems that can arise associated with Redemption occur when it is not sought. All too often people set out to sort themselves out and put their lives back on track when they should be looking for the work of the master of Redemption – the Lord Jesus. Redemption is not simply being saved from the consequences of all the sinful things we have done. The original of redemption in the Bible was the saving of the nation of Israel out of Egypt but there is no record that they had been particularly sinful before that. It was circumstances that had brought them to their sad condition of slavery in the brick kilns of that foreign country.

Similarly we may well need redemption out of circumstances that we have found ourselves in without being particularly responsible for them ourselves. Again and again when Jesus had healed somebody he said ‘go, and sin no more’, don’t keep looking back, look forward and be positive and different. This proper Redemption will only come to us from the Lord God through his Son, the Lord Jesus, not through our own endeavors. The way in which we may have too much redemption is not so obvious.

I think we can relate it to what Paul says in Romans 6: 1, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”. Can we say we are redeemed so we can go on doing what we like – the Lord will forgive me ‘that’s his job!’? Paul goes on saying ‘of course not’. So should we. We need to keep a careful balance between looking to the Lord for his forgiveness and doing our own part in it. Paul said, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose”. That is a thought that links in closely with the next area where we need balance

Fourth: Progress. It is fundamentally important that we do not stand still in the Christian life. In the last of his Narnia stories CS Lewis has all the characters in the stories approaching heaven and the cry that goes around is “further up and further in!” as they race up the steep way to their destination. That is a great watchword for all of us. We cannot, we must not, stand still in our Christian lives.

To do so is condemned by Paul: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly”; the writer to the Hebrews said: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”; Peter said “with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”. In fact most of the New Testament letters are devoted to exhorting the young Christians in the young churches to progress in their faith, both in their thinking and in their actions. So should we aim to do.

So What?


Aim for balance in your developing Christian life. Balanced thinking; balanced action. The first 2, Creation and Fall, are about balanced thinking. They are mainly about our thought life, our worldview. The last 2, redemption and progress are mainly to do with our actions how we turn our thinking into the way we live. But they are as much part of a good worldview, a Biblical worldview, as the others. It is all too possible to go blindly along as a Christian, attending church, taking the sacraments, trying to be good, doing some approved right things, without really thinking out what it is all about and letting the Holy Spirit take over our thinking and actions. Only that way can we become truly Christlike. Only that way can our worldview become truly as it should be.

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 12: Having A Good Worldview


The time has come to ask the awkward question: what sort of a Christian are you? In particular have you slipped in to being a one and six Christian – that is a Christian of a certain sort one day (Sunday) every week and another sort of Christian the other six days of the week. The word ‘worldview’ has become associated with challenging that type of thinking. As the very word suggests it refers to the way someone, you or I, thinks about the surrounding world. We all to a greater or lesser extent ask certain questions, including: how do we fit into this immediately surrounding world?

The challenge to the Christians in the very early days of the church was to say, “Jesus is Lord”. That meant not only that he was Lord of the Christian and the church, but that he was Lord of all the world, including the Roman Empire of which Caesar thought he was Lord. That was a very dangerous thing to say – but they said it. And that awkward question is still around.

The fundamental problem that tends to lie behind that question is this: am I, are you, as a Christian any different from other people who are not; except on Sunday when we go to church, teach in the Sunday School etc. and they do not? The question challenges us at 2 levels. The lower one is this: Does the fact that we are Christian affect the way we operate at work, in the home, at our leisure? Does it affect the level of honesty with which we operate? How we complete our expenses form? How much we avoid taxation? How much we take out of the company cupboard to use for our own private purposes? What sort of reputation do we have amongst our workmates? (In one job I had I followed a Christian that I kept on hearing about. He seemed to have succeeded in annoying everybody with his witnessing. What he did I do not know but it can scarcely have been a Christ-honoiring attitude. We are told we should be in the world but not of the world. He seemed to have been against the world!) If our faith does not affect these things we need to do some serious thinking about what should happen and then make the necessary changes.

All those things are at the lower level. They are all good and worthy questions but they are all add-ons to the deepest core of what we think, and say and do. We need to move on to the higher-level challenge. Here, of course, I have some considerable difficulties in saying anything that will apply to everybody that reads or hears this from whichever part of the world and whatever sort of culture they come. It seems to me there are two particular sorts of situation you may find yourself in. If you live in large parts of the world such as most of Asia, and parts of Africa and South America there will usually be no doubt of your answer to the question ‘am I any different from the neighbors’. You are - because you are Christian and they follow some other well-defined and strong religion. There is not a great deal I can usefully say directly to you. Hopefully you will gather something of value as I go on to talk to the other sort of people – those who live in those parts of the world where that distinction is much less clear cut because their world has been Christianized. Things are much more difficult in most of Europe, the USA, and other parts of the world where Christianity provides, or provided, the dominant culture. Because of the philosophical developments I mentioned in an earlier study these parts of the world are steadily becoming more secular, less Christian, less any other religion dependant, and are drifting slowly downhill.

We should not do our workday job, merely adding to it our life as a Christian as a somewhat separate thing. Our faith should so permeate our lives that we do our jobs in a Christian way. That is all very well to say to you if you happen to be a High School English teacher. What you say to the class, the way you behave, your views on the things you have to study with your class, should clearly be different from the work of the Marxist in the next classroom. If, however, you are a mechanical digger driver working on a building site it is very hard to see how you can operate your machine any differently from the Marxist in the next machine! You should be careful how you operate it; you should not swear at lunch break time etc., but those are things extra to your actual work behavior. It is not possible to do anything significantly different.

I wrestled with this problem myself as a Mathematics lecturer. 2+2 really does equal 4 whoever you. There was no obvious way my teaching of Mathematics was any different from that of the guy in the next lecture room. It is here that the world-view question becomes really important. Because we believe Christ is Lord – not just of us, but of all the world – we must acknowledge his Lordship in everything we are involved in. All I can do here is point out that there is a potential problem and exhort you to be aware of it and to think carefully about how you act in your work environment. Christ is Lord of all, not just the church, and our behaviour should reflect that fact at all times and in all places.

So What?

Here are some questions you need to ask yourself and work out what the honest answers are:

  1. In what ways does the fact that Christ is Lord of all affect my everyday work?
  2. In what ways should that fact affect my work that it does not?
  3. If there is a discrepancy between those 2 answers – how should I change what I do to bring my answer to 1) closer to that to 2)?

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 11:Journeying through the wilderness

Unless you are very fortunate you will discover that you have to travel through times of spiritual wilderness or desert. These are the times when your spiritual life seems to go dead on you, nothing goes right, you seem to be as far away from the Lord as it is possible to get, you just want to give it all up. It can happen to the best of us! Why should you be any different? But when that happens what can you do to get out of the hole you seem to be in.

On the whole Scripture is not a lot of use here. The reason is not far to seek. The people we read about in Scripture, or who wrote it themselves, tend to be those all action, all vigorous type that are not always quite like us. Paul is not much help. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Great – if you have got that far on the Way of faith, but not all of us have; or if you are that sort of strong personality – but not all of us are! To be sure, just occasionally Paul says something that might suggest he did struggle sometimes, things like “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” Do you agree that he does not sound all together happy when he says things like that?

If all the big guys of Scripture are not much use to us in the desert, then who is?
We might expect it to be the Psalms perhaps. Yet few of the Psalms relate to the wilderness experience that is wholly within us rather than caused by a breakdown between us and other people.
Only Psalm 107:4,5
“Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away”

This could be taken as referring to the sort of problem we would call a desert. And the proffered solution is people in verse 7, “He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle.” This, and all the other psalms probably reflects the much more social society of those days. We, in spite of all our communication technology, often feel much more isolated. Loneliness is a very modern disease in many societies. If we are the lonely one we have great difficulty doing anything about it. If we can identify someone else who is lonely we can do a great deal about it by befriending them.

Aside then from the Psalms and a few small comments here and there, the answer seems to come in only 2 places: Jeremiah and the Israelite journey through the desert. Jeremiah struggled a great deal with the tasks the Lord had set before him to do. And we can draw lessons from the experience of the Israelites as they journeyed through a real desert.

First, Jeremiah. He was only a village lad, who lived in a time of great political upheaval for his nation. He never did want to be a prophet. When it became clear to him that the Lord wanted him to be a prophet he said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to him, “Do not say, ‘I am too young. ’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.” Going around the country telling the leaders, including the king, things the Lord wanted them to hear but they did not want to hear was not an easy job, and a distinctly dangerous one. In fact he ended up down a well and was only rescued because one man was brave enough to ask the king to organize his rescue.

So it is not altogether surprising that he says:
Cursed be the day I was born!
May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
who made him very glad, saying,
“A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
with my mother as my grave,
her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
to see trouble and sorrow
and to end my days in shame?

This brings one difficult and important message to us. We are not the Lord’s people for our own enjoyment and improvement but because he is the Lord! Our whole culture – at least the one I live in – tells us everything we do should be for our own benefit. And it isn’t the only one to do so. The American Declaration of Independence talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Fortunately I know many Americans who have not really taken that pursuit of happiness to heart but have made the service of other people, and the Lord, their primary objectives in life rather than those self-centered ideas.

When we turn to the story of the Israelites travelling through the desert we find less worthy motives for being down. They had no sooner escaped the Egyptian army at the Red Sea than they started complaining when things did not go exactly the way they wanted them to. So we read, “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’” Perhaps that complaint was excusable; it was about water, never more necessary than when you are in a desert.
But then it wasn’t long before “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord ’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” That sounds very like there had been a lack of foresight in preparing enough food for the journey. And so the story goes on with them grumbling, complaining, and blaming poor old Moses for every little problem they encountered. Not clever!

So What?

Wilderness times will come to us at some time, as they came to Jesus. Some of them will not be our fault as they were not for Jeremiah. But some of them will be our fault as they very largely were for the people of Israel. Either way they will be for the same reason: we too need to be tested and hardened by some of our experiences. Of Jesus the writer to the Hebrews said “In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” And “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2: 10, 18).

So it is that Peter says, “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”  Which isn’t exactly about a wilderness experience but I am sure you will see why I quote it here.

In the wonderful passage of Isaiah 43, we read:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;”

That is not a promise that we shall avoid the rivers, or the fire, but a promise to be with us in those times of supreme difficulty. That promise is for us too. We shall have our difficulties but the Lord will be with us through them.
Thank you, Lord for all the good things you give me, but I do not follow you because of those good things but because you are Lord!

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 10: In A Time Of Great Changes - Part 2

As we saw in the last study we live in a time of great cultural change all round the world, which doesn’t make Christian life any easier for us! We have already thought a bit about what the first of those changes, which I labeled ‘philosophical’ is and some of the implications for the Christian.

The second major change is technological. Only 20 years ago when we lived in Pakistan we could only communicate with my mother in the UK by letter, except very occasionally and at great expense and difficulty by phone. Now if we were there we would be able to do so easily by mobile phone or over the Internet. Then we could only talk to someone if they were within speaking range unless we were both holding a phone anchored to a cord. Now we can talk at almost any separation if we both have mobile phones at our ears. Then if we wanted to know something new we needed to have access to a set of perhaps 30 large books constituting an encyclopedia; now, by computer, tablet or phone, we can ask across the Internet and get the information we want – and a great deal more information than the very best of encyclopedias could ever provide. Because I am over 80 years old I am not very good at these very new things in spite of the fact that I have been using computers for 45 years! My grandsons and granddaughters are exceedingly good at using these things. The world has divided into those who are good at the latest technology and those, like me, who tag along behind. And this too is causing an enormous change in the whole culture in which we live.

The obvious change is in the physical things like phones that we actually use. But the implications are far wider. Our whole manner and expectation about how we communicate with someone else has changed enormously. Not so very long ago (sorry – I am an old man!) communication was either face to face, over the phone, or by carefully written letters. In a work environment someone wrote or dictated to someone else writing the letter in shorthand and that someone else would type it out, get it checked and send it off. A great deal of time and care and consideration would go into the whole process. Now the person who wants to communicate sends an email, rapidly dashed off, perhaps without much care and consideration, and it joins the list of sometimes 50 to 100 emails the poor recipient gets in one day. He or she reads it and possibly forgets what it said or deliberately dumps it. So what was long, reasonably well considered and lasted for a time has become short, little considered and often does not last very long. The whole business of communicating has become so easy and so quick it is easy to regard it as of much less significance than it used to be. All this has changed, or is changing, the way we communicate with people and thus the way we think.

Television has taught us all to see things as much in picture form as possible and to hear only very short statements rather than considered arguments. Arguments do still exist on some TV programs, but how many of us actually follow them through as our chief method of learning?
No, we are all into short snappy stories. We do not actually realize how much we are now learning through stories. Of course, it has always been that way even when we did not realize what was happening. If a girl meets a fellow and thinks she would like to get to know him better (at least in the societies which allow such meetings!) she will often say to him something like “tell me about yourself”. By that she does not mean a list of all the things he has done such as he might put in front of someone he wants to work for.
No, she expects a lot of stories about his home life, things that happened in his family, episodes he was involved in at school and so on. How from this ragbag of odd incidents she will be able to form an opinion about him is very difficult to say, but that is the way we work.
Strangely and wonderfully that is what God has done in the Bible. That too is a very mixed collection of stories about all sorts of people telling us how and when people related to God. From those stories we learn about God though it is sometimes hard to see how our minds work and how exactly we build up a picture of God and his doings that way but we do. Until recently, we, in the West have tended to learn from scripture by analysing it under our own headings in a way that somewhat mimics how the scientist works and have rather ignored the story aspect of scripture.

So what?

As I said last time, without doubt we are living, and have to live out our faith, in a time of enormous cultural change occurring with a rapidity seldom if ever matched in recorded history. How should we react? Strangely, I think, in 2 opposite ways: we have to be negative about the philosophical changes and positive about the technological ones. We must resist the tendency to an extreme individuality, as I indicated in the last study, and accept the implications of the technological changes that are occurring. Let me explain.

1. Personally. We, particularly young people in the developed world, are starting to think differently. It is no good telling them they must think like us older people when their whole youth culture tells them otherwise. Not so very long ago someone in their early teens would dress like their father or mother. Now, since the development of a distinct youth culture, they no longer do so. Part of that change comes from the way we think, some of it from the new devices we now have: mobile phones, computers, tablets, mobile music devices etc. We, old and young, need to learn to be comfortable the way we are. If you are old it is no use wearing jeans, or doing your hair in the latest youth style. You will just look a bit silly. If you are young, you have to be young and not try to be something that you are not.

Our culture in the UK has been seized by a tidal wave of secularism (that is: deciding to not let any talk of God enter into any decisions at a personal, local or national level), much of it coming from the Marxist thinking that grabbed the university sector 50 years ago. There is a high probability that the same thing will happen in the USA – if it has not already happened in many areas. We have to conclude that the churches have failed to teach the Christian faith in any coherent way. Nice little homilies of pre-digested material in short sermons have not worked. Now the ‘in thing’ is user-friendly services. Services should be friendly but that must not be at the expense of a basis in good solid content.

2. In the fellowship. Here it is the older people who need to be very careful. It is all too easy to think that the way we ‘have always done it’ is the only right way. One researcher in the USA has recently suggested that the new generation will not listen or learn from traditional hour-long university lectures. The new structure is going to have to be 10 minute videos or talks followed by a period of discussion for 10 minutes or so before proceeding to the next video, and so on. If that is true where do traditional sermons fit in?

The trouble is that if a church tries to move to that style of presentation there will be howls of wrath from many of the older folk who much prefer to sleep comfortably through a traditional sermon! It will be hard to convince them that there is no Biblical warrant for their style of sermon (unless it be Paul’s over long talk at Troas which led to the death of Eutychus (Acts 20: 7 – 12) – but then we don’t want to die, do we?).

3. In the wider world. The culture I grew up in, and quite possibly you grew up in, has died and has been buried. Churches seem to attract people who do not want the church to keep up with the culture of their surrounding society. This is probably, at least partly, a defense mechanism. If their work situation forces someone to keep up with all the latest thinking they may find an old-fashioned church environment a welcome relief. If they do they will be totally ineffective in reaching the world round about them.

In summary then: it seems to me that we need to do a lot of hard thinking and praying about how we operate as the people of God. We need to think out what we should do as our culture changes with great swiftness, then we need to change, if necessary radically and perhaps to the hurt of many older people.

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 9: In A Time Of Great Changes - Part 1


It so happens that we live in a time of great cultural change all round the world, which doesn’t make Christian life any easier for us! I think we should think a bit about what those changes are and some of the implications for the Christian. This is going to take 2 studies to do; there are 2 main changes occurring which, to a greater or lesser extent, are affecting people all over the world. One of them is philosophical; the other is technological.

This study looks at the philosophical changes and some of their implications. The next study will look at the technological changes and try to say some useful things about the effects of the double whammy of the 2 of them together.

First then the philosophical changes. They have their roots in the Europe of the 17th century, some 300+ years ago. They were in part at least an inevitable result of the Reformation of 150 years earlier than that when the complete control of Christian thinking exercised by the Catholic church was partly broken into many pieces in the Protestant churches.

These changes are still a well-hidden but very strong influence on Europe and America, and through them on all the rest of the world. What happened, in very broad outline, was something like this: in those far off days the people of Europe started to query the idea that had pervaded the thinking world up to that time that God had the primary role in everything that happened and humans had little or no part to play in such things. They thought everything that happened was a matter of what God decided should happen. Then they started to think that we, men and women, could determine what happens by applying our brains to our observations of what goes on in the world we live in. If a great wave comes out of the sea and destroys seashore towns, killing many people, this is not because God decreed that this should happen in any immediate sort of way but because a great segment of the earth’s crust underneath the sea shifted, causing an earthquake, which, in turn, caused a tsunami. We know things like that because many people over many years have observed the things that happen in the world around us, thought about what they have seen, and drawn certain conclusions, most of them, but not all of them, correct as far as we can see. Of course, this raised the problem of evil – how could such things happen in a world of a good God.

The next step was to think that if we can understand so much of what goes on round about us then surely we can understand new things and start to organize the world better. All sorts of things happened as a result of that line of thinking. On the technological front much good was achieved. For instance, in the world of travel and transport across land first there were canals, then railways, then road vehicles, finally airplanes. In every other area of life there have been similar advances and we all enjoy the results of the inventions of these last few centuries.

Then in the 19th and 20th centuries some thought that we ought to be able to organize ourselves better, just as we can organize the machinery better (particularly if the people so thinking were in charge!). Nazi and Communist thinking were the right wing and left wing results of that line of thinking. Surely they thought, after a little initial trouble we, or some of us anyway, ought to be able to settle down to a better way of living. But they had forgotten that there is such a thing as sin, which affects all that we, individually and collectively, set out to do. Those experiments failed dismally at the cost of millions of lives. That basic reason why they failed, ‘sin’, was not understood then and is still not understood and taken into account by those who control nations. Now we have religious zealots thinking they can reorganize things into a much better shape by following their versions of a religion. They will fail for exactly the same reason.

Nowadays the thinkers of the West reckon that all those highly structured ways of thinking have failed so the only other thing that can be tried is to let everyone just be themselves, without rules and regulations. They think we are now good enough at things so we ought to be able to organize ourselves individually even if we make a mess of it collectively. So we have what is known as post-modernism, a curious title, which only says that this has come after modernism, the era of so much practical progress. In this, they thought, the individual, man or woman, ought to be, and is, quite capable of making their own decisions without any need of God or gods. The result of this line of thinking in the West is seen most clearly in the way man/woman relationships are now run. A lot of people do not now get married, preferring a loose ‘relationship’ instead. The obvious idea behind this development is the desire of each individual to keep complete control of his or her own life with no need to consult a husband or a wife or one’s children before taking the next, personally desirable, step. As yet the parts of the world where family life has long been stronger and there is a much less individualistic way of thinking have survived this particular change better than the West, but because of the current dominance of Western thinking over all the world they are moving in the same direction. This move from a collective way of thinking to a highly individualistic one in which only the personal “I” matters to the individual is the first great change we are now living through. Since it is about how people think the world should be organized I have labeled this a “philosophic” change.

So what?


Without doubt we are living, and have to live out our faith, in a time of enormous cultural change occurring with a rapidity seldom if ever matched in all recorded history. How should we react?

We must resist the tendency to an extreme individuality. Let me explain. This cultural change in our societies is addressed in scripture. The biblical record is neither completely for a corporatist culture (corporate means we all live in a tightly structured community) in which we lose our own identity in that of the group, nor is it completely for the sort of extreme individualism that is creeping through so many societies today. Right back as early as Genesis 2 we read that a man is to leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they become one flesh. They are to form what we call a nuclear family, not a vast extended family with grandmother ruling over daughter-in-law. This is an individualistic teaching. Many cultures break this rule.

On the other hand the 5th commandment says, ““Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you”. That is a corporatist and anti-individualistic teaching. There is a subtle balance required there.

The New Testament is similarly balanced. On the one hand we read that Jesus “saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John working in a boat. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.” Zebedee was very probably not best pleased if his 2 sons took this decision without consulting him as they appear to have done. But as Jesus hung on the Cross when he “saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” This is again a careful balance between when the demands of the Kingdom of God are more important than family concerns and when family must come first. Throughout the New Testament letters it is very clear that the new Christians were strongly encouraged to think about each other, support each other, pray for each other and care for each other. We are clearly to be individuals in community.

We are not to be covenant breakers. The idea of God as a covenant-keeping God goes right back to the early chapters of Genesis. God made a covenant with Noah that he would never again cause a great flood “to destroy all life”. He also made a covenant with Abraham, renewed it with is descendants, and later through Moses with the people of Israel. Each of these covenants was an unbreakable promise – unbroken by God although sometimes disastrously broken by the humans involved. Hosea says, “An eagle is over the house of the Lord because the people have broken my covenant and rebelled against my law.” The eagle was a carrion eating bird looking for dead meat! That refers to the Old Testament situation but it applies to us. If we seek to follow a covenant-keeping God we too have to be covenant keepers. That particularly applies in the matter of marriage.

Whatever our culture says about our rights as individuals to do more or less what we want, provided we do not hurt other people, we need to hold to the Biblical principle of the importance of every person, that we should only speak the truth to them and that we are to care very specially for the household of faith.

That is what the New Testament means when it talks about love.

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 8: The work of the Spirit


One thing that may be puzzling you is talk about who or what is the Holy Spirit. In fact he is a person so that should be ‘who’. There has been a huge increase in interest in how He works, What He does, and indeed What He is and means in the last 100 years. Not everything that has been said and written about Him is true to the Bible so we ought to look hard at what it says and thus sort out what is right and what is wrong.

First we need to look at what Jesus said, particularly in His great teaching address to the disciples on the night before He was crucified, about Him and His work. He began by telling them that He, the Holy Spirit, would be with them – and us, for ever. In John 14:16,17 He says, “the Father will give you another advocate to Help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.”
Jesus was the first advocate, a legal term for someone speaking on one’s behalf in a court of law. The Greek word here is tricky so it has been translated in many different ways; the main ones in English being: Comforter, Counselor, Helper or Friend. If you put them all together you will get something of the force of what Jesus was saying. He goes on to say in John 15:26, “When the Advocate comes, Whom I will send to you from the Father —the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—He will testify about me”. And in John 16:7–14, “I will send him to you. When He comes, He will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: about sin, because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgement, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; He will speak only what He Hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that He will receive what He will make known to you.” The first part of that is quite difficult to understand but the second part is clear – the work of the Holy Spirit in the first part is to tell the world, everybody, the truth about spiritual matters and the second part is to inform us very particularly about Jesus. Above all the Spirit is a teacher.

Secondly, Paul talks about the Spirit as the motivating and driving force behind all that the Christian does. So He says in Romans 8:2–6, “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us - that is you and me - who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on What the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” and he goes on to say in verse 9, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ”. In 1 Corinthians 2:10 he says “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.” The summary of all he means by these things is found in Galatians 5: 25 where He instructs us “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit”.

To summarize all that: as I said at the beginning the Spirit is the motivating and driving force behind all that the Christian does of a spiritual nature. He is also the informing source of all spiritual knowledge. It explains why it is a common experience that someone will hear many a sermon and talk about the faith and it makes no sort of sense until one day they become a Christian and it all suddenly makes perfect sense. That is the work of the Spirit flooding into the thinking, and the life, of the new convert.

The third work of the Spirit is to divide out amongst the believers in any fellowship, however small that fellowship may be, the different gifts that they need to carry out the work of “making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”. Paul says in Romans 12:6–8, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.” These are wonderful gifts both for the community of believers and for the wider community in which they live.

The fourth work of the Holy Spirit is in evangelism. John’s record of the life of Jesus says that in his first meeting with all the disciples after his resurrection Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”. That is both a tremendous privilege and a tremendous responsibility. This charge was given originally to the small group of disciples but it is valid for us too, as all John’s statements were designed for his own local church fellowship and thus for the wider church. It is our responsibility to asses the relationship of those outside faith to their sins and to the only one who can forgive sins and thus to call them into the Kingdom, or not.

The fifth work of the Spirit is in leading the Lord’s people in worship. Paul lists gifts that make this possible in 1 Corinthians 12:7–11 as follows: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He distributes them to each one, just as He determines”.
Those were the gifts of Paul’s day but we can add more for our day. For instance some now have the gift of leading worship with a guitar or a keyboard or other musical instrument. That is not a matter of simply being able to play the tune. Sometimes technically highly competent musicians lack the gift of leading a congregation well while someone, technically less proficient, can lead the worship in a wonderfully God honouring way. That is a Spirit given gift.
Paul tells us to, “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” But goes on to say, “I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” as a warning about being too concerned with such things. And that warning is very necessary these days.
There has been a great upsurge in interest in the more startling gifts of the Spirit in recent years. This is particularly true of speaking in tongues and the interpretation of them. Churches vary enormously in their attitudes to speaking in tongues. Some do not expect them to be used at all; others sometimes go so far as demanding them of every convert as the sign of true conversion even although Paul has made it plain that they are a gift for some – not for all.
I come from the former background so I am very wary of them – excuse my bias. This I would say: be careful. If you are in an environment where there is great excitement about tongues ask yourself ‘am I excited because I am in a big crowd of people who are all very excited, or am I excited because I am in the near presence of the Lord himself’. There is a difference!

So What?

As a Christian the Spirit is the Lord’s gift to you at the time of your conversion. Expect to have him teach you about Jesus, to be a strong active presence in your life, to grant you a gift, or some gifts, for the building up of the fellowship you are in and to grant you some gifts for the enrichment of your own spiritual life. As you develop these things in your life you will find that you can be truly said to be walking in step with the very Spirit of God himself. Enjoy!


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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 7: Organizing Your Devotions


This is a tricky one! It is very much a product of my own experience – failing to organize my own devotions for many years because no one told me how to do it. So it is a very personal argument I am going to present. Please, forgive me for that.

When we start along the Christian path there are plenty of people telling us how we should organize our devotions. The trouble is, or was for me, that they all seem to be written by those wonderful people who are full of energy all day long and have a great ability to organize that energy to good purpose. So they tell us we should bound out of bed at some unearthly hour in the morning; read our Bibles, and pray for an hour or preferably two; then proceed to breakfast and a full day’s work. Waaah! I just don’t operate like that. Perhaps you don’t either. Until I have had my breakfast my mind is out of gear. For you that early necessity may be the first cup of coffee – even worse! We are not all super-man or super-woman, are we?

So, if we are just ordinary, how should we organize our devotional lives?

I believe the answer is that we should think about it very carefully and construct a schedule that suits us in the sense that it is one that we can adhere to without too great difficulty even if it is not at all what the people who write books and articles on the subject say we should do.

Let me give you an example: I had been a Christian for very many years before I realized that by far the best thing I could do was to set aside one evening a week to spend reading my Bible, reading a good commentary on the same passage, thinking about it (the posh word is meditating), praying about all sorts of things and generally getting close to the Lord. The rest of the week my encounters with the Lord were, I must admit, rather thin and short affairs, fitted into the gaps in my very busy life. Sorry, Lord, but that is what worked for me. I was happy with it; I hope You were.

Do you see what I am driving at? Most of us, most of the time, are rather busy people. It may be a workload, not helped by emails and mobile phones. It may be that you are a mother with two pre-school age kids, in which case there are few or no gaps in your days at all until they are both horizontal and your spouse is home and has eaten. Even then you have to dodge the television and bury the phone if you are to get any peace and quiet. But space can be made if you stop and think about how it can be created. However busy we may think we are, however busy we actually are, there are gaps in our week. Your television set will be able to tell you how much spare time you really have!

The sort of personality we are deeply affects how we operate in this area. A few years ago we joined in a small group of 8 people, 4 couples, for prayer and mutual support. We managed to get into some deeper sharing than is usual in our culture. To our surprise we discovered that of the 8 of us, all of whom could have been counted as senior Christians, long on the road of faith, only 2 could claim anything like a well organized spiritual life with daily prayer, Bible reading and meditation. Both these 2, who did not include me, were people who quite clearly by the nature of their work were accustomed to a neat, well controlled and organized daily work experience and both had personalities that fitted well into that sort of situation. The other 6 of us were much more haphazard in our spiritual lives. 8 people constitutes a very small sample from which no statistically sound conclusions can be drawn, but it made me, and I think the other 5 non-achievers, wonder.

A good, God honouring daily prayer life does not come easily. Ever since that experience of the 2 and the 6 I have wondered when people talk about praying for this and that, whether they really do – if they are honest.

So much for the organization side of things. Now – what should we organize? Here are some ideas, not all of which you could reasonably use in one session. First: Bible reading. I am surprised at how many apparently senior Christians use comparatively ‘thin’ Bible study notes. They are a good way to start into the Bible (along with the Study Bible I mentioned earlier) but must surely rate as the ‘milk’ Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 3 and the ‘basic teaching’ the writer to the Hebrews talks about in Hebrews 6. Commentaries on the Bible will usually provide deeper things to think about and meditate on. We, my wife and I, find the NIV Application Commentary series very good in the way they not only explain the text but lead one’s thoughts forward to deeper understanding and meditation – all of which advice is dependant, of course, on whether you are in a position to get hold of them. Then, of course, there is all the material Dave puts into these Partaker notes, which are usually also deep and thought provoking (this particular series is not designed to do quite that) and will be available to you since you are reading this!

For prayer, again subject to availability, there are many sets of Prayer Notes provided by many of the mission societies and some churches and it is good to use them. My wife uses a book of fairly old hymns to lead her on in the way of Worship prayer and to avoid the temptation to make a time of prayer just a list of the things one would like to happen. Being a well organized person she has a bundle of Prayer Letters from various full-time workers on the Mission field and she reads and uses the top one of these each day before putting it to the back of the bundle.

So what?

It should be obvious by now that there are many things one can do by way of prayer. I haven’t mentioned things like the way some people say they pray as they drive the car to work (not for me!). There is great value in having one particular spot, a chair or a room, which is the place we pray. If closing your eyes to pray tempts you to go to sleep leave them open! You will have understood by now that what I am trying to do is to make you, and everybody else reading or listening to these notes, think about how you should go about your relationship with the Lord. There are many different ways of going about it and not everyone will use every way or the same way. We don’t all have the same amount of time or energy or the same sort of personality. There is no exact precise set of rules about how we should go about it in our Christian faith, unlike some other religions that make a great play about having everyone do the exact same things in the exact same way at the exact same times. Perhaps our way is harder – but true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ was never promised to be easy! And it shows up much more clearly what our faith means to us.

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith


Chapter 6: The Lord's Table


If baptism was difficult to talk about because of the many different ways different churches actually implement the Lord’s commands the Lord’s Table is worse! Again I will try to be even handed but my prejudices are sure to show! It is here, round the table, more than anywhere else, the Lord’s people are supposed to be together in unity. Paul got very upset when Peter started to divide the church at Antioch so that they did not all meet together at the same table. He was equally upset at Corinth when divisions became apparent as the church folk met to eat as part of the ceremony of the Lord’s Table. These days we cannot even all call it the same thing. Paul calls it the ‘table of the Lord’ and the ‘Lord’s supper’ in 1 Corinthians, so the Lord’s Table seems to be a reasonably neutral term, particularly as we may well not be eating at it at suppertime.

It is also called Holy Communion (meaning the fellowship meal), the Eucharist (meaning the grace gift), the Mass (meaning uncertain) or the Divine Liturgy (meaning God’s worship), the Breaking of Bread service, and various other names. But the name doesn’t matter. What does matter is the wide variation in content and in mode of celebration which lead to it being the most divisive of actions in the Christian church when it was meant by our Lord to be the great rallying point around which all his church would meet.

Instead of it being a great meeting point many churches restrict participation at the Table to their own members and members of a few other favoured churches. Paul would be very upset by that if he were around now!

Some have added to the simple ceremony that it was at the beginning, some have not, and that difference has led to all this division. The two extremes are represented by the places where these everyday items are thought to take on a special nature, rather baffling to those not fully versed in the mysteries they are thought to contain, and those where it is a simple eating of small amounts of bread and wine as our Lord said according to Paul.

Of the former I am not really very entitled to speak knowing little about the details. It seems to me that the whole business of claiming that the sacrifice of Jesus, once and for all on the Cross, is in some sense repeated at the celebration of the Mass or Eucharist is misguided. Is this done because it enables the churches that practice this mode to call their full-time ministers ‘priests’ and thus to give them a status they would not otherwise have and which is different and higher than that of the ordinary member of the church?

Maybe – but if so this is not in line with the whole tendency of the New Testament. The idea that this ceremony is a repetition of the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross comes from the interpretation of the words used by Jesus when instituting this rite “this is my body … this is my blood”. To enable the special bread and wine to be the body and the blood these churches teach that the reality of these things changes but the appearance does not, so that the body and the blood are really present and the bread and the wine are not. OK – but I am a simple soul who finds it difficult to get his mind round such curiosities! Sorry.

At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities is the simple service in which ordinary, not special, bread and wine or fruit juice are used. With this I am much more familiar. But this too is not without its difficulties. Some, too many, of those leading the service will say that it ‘is only a memorial’ when it is far more than that, and very often it is tagged on to the end of a service as almost an after thought which not everyone will stay to attend. According to Luke, but not Matthew and Mark, Jesus instructed his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” and Paul picks up the comment and repeats it.

So it is a memorial but surely that is not all the story. There has to be more to it than that. My own personal thought (not to be found in any commentary I have ever seen) is this: when we read something particularly inspiring, are deeply immersed in prayer, see a particularly glorious sunset, draw specially close to someone we deeply love, etc. we experience a lifting of the spirit, a surge of excitement through our whole being, that is hard to describe but wonderful to experience. That is what should happen when we are at the Lord’s Table.

It is the special surge of the Holy Spirit through our whole beings. It wont happen automatically – perhaps Jesus selected how we are to remember him like this so that it does not come to us easily – we have to work for it, fight for it, with all the spiritual intensity we can muster. I have a sneaking suspicion that it may happen more easily in the much more ornate and detailed experience of those involved in the Mass or Eucharist or similar service than it does in the far simpler services I am used to.

Whichever way we take the bread and the wine we must always remember one thing: this, more than anything else does or could do, is to remind us that the focus of all our thinking and doing is to be the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot comply with what Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” unless the giver of the flesh and the blood dies. We cannot live in the power of what he says, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me” unless he who was dead is alive again with vital, living, vibrant effect in our lives. Nothing else will focus our thinking so powerfully on our Lord Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection as this does.

So what?


Be sure that you participate regularly in this, the central, commanded, worship act of the Christian church. Don’t bother about who is leading the service. If no one is designated to do it – do it yourself. If you have no special elements use ordinary bread: leavened or unleavened, and the common drink off the table: be that tea or fruit juice or whatever. If you are female and your culture says the leader should be male and there is no man present it doesn’t matter – go ahead. If you don’t feel like it because things have gone wrong in your life don’t fail to participate, this is the very time that you need the strength of the Holy Spirit and he is specially around when we take part in this so simple ceremony.

The only requirement is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgement on themselves”. But don’t make that so strong a barrier that you do not participate. Ultimately none of us is worthy. Taking part regularly in this act is the Lord’s command. Obey.



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The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 5: Baptism


The mark of entry to the Christian faith is baptism so it will be something you will want to consider early in your life as a Christian. Sadly and most unfortunately it is a very difficult subject to write about because there are so many different ideas as to what baptism is, who should be baptized, who should do the baptizing and what it means when it is done. Some say that there is no salvation without baptism; some, at the other extreme, say it is only our declaration of loyalty to the Lord and mark of entry to the church. Some baptize babies as soon after birth as possible to make sure they are in the visible, earthly, gathering of those identified with Christ; others say that baptism is the sign of faith and therefore should only be administered to those of adult believing faith. Some demand that those who baptize be in a unbroken chain by the laying on of hands from the first apostles; others are happy that anybody be the baptizer. There is a wide difference of opinion about where the gift of the Holy Spirit fits into the scenario: is it only given at baptism, is it the only truly significant part of the whole thing, or what?

I cannot write about it without tending to give you my views on the subject – good or bad. They may, or may not, be appropriate for your situation according to where you live and the culture of your local church or fellowship. I will try to be evenhanded, honest.

The best place to start is the Bible and, in this case, the Acts of the Apostles with its stories of what happened in the very early days of the church. There we shall see what the apostles thought it was all about and how it should be used and they are more likely to be right than anyone else!

Obviously the first place to start is the event that followed Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Peter told those who responded positively to what he said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In response:
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day”.

We hear next of baptism in the work of Philip in Samaria, where the new believers were baptized but did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John visited the area, prayed for them and laid their hands on them.

By now we may well be thinking that apostles are necessary, and only they can ensure that the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanies the baptism and that this is the only way one can receive the Spirit. But in the very next incident recorded Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch himself and there is no mention of the Holy Spirit at all, yet the Ethiopian “goes on his way rejoicing” and strong tradition has it that he started the Ethiopian church, so he was not deficient in any way in his appreciation of the Triune God.

Paul comes next. He was baptized by Ananias, but only after he had received the Holy Spirit. Exactly the same order, first the gift of the Holy Spirit and then baptism is evident after Peter spoke to Cornelius and his friends; the matter of interest this time being that they are not Jews.

And so the story goes on. There is no set pattern that is the same every single time. The meaning for us is quite clear: there is no single set pattern that has to be adhered to every single time. We are at liberty to fit in to the culture in which we find ourselves, acting in a way that is appropriate for our situation, keeping the essential ingredients of what should be.

On a purely practical point: where does the water go? Some sprinkle it on the head only, some expect the candidate to be standing in water but not to go completely under the surface while their head is wetted, others insist on putting the whole body under the water. There are good arguments all ways. But in the light of the variety of practice evident in the stories in the book of Acts this must surely be a matter of no great importance.

Perhaps the point at which that advice is hardest to keep is in the matter of whether a baby should be baptized – christened as it is often called – or whether baptism should be reserved for the older believer who understands for him or herself what is involved. Part of the answer must lie in the difference between the more traditional societies where there is a strong corporate nature to life, expressed in the strength of the family bond and the tendency for son to follow father in the same trade, and the modern Western cultures which are much more individualistic in their thinking and where son or daughter are much more likely to take up a totally different trade or occupation than the parent. In the former the baptism of a new member of the family makes reasonable sense because of the assumption that as parent so child. In the latter it makes no sense that I can see!
It seems to me that the Biblical pattern associates baptism with the beginning of the Christian life and the gift of the Holy Spirit very closely. It doesn’t matter which comes first provided all three are present. It doesn’t matter who does the baptizing; there is no special efficacy in the action of the person involved.
Baptism has two aspects to it: one for the person being baptized and the other on the part of the Lord God himself. For the person involved it is a declaration of commitment, an identification with the Lord’s people and a statement of loyalty to them but above all to the Lord himself.

For the Lord it is a declaration that the person is now in covenant relationship with him, that he or she has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is now one of His people: as Peter put it “As you come to him, the living Stone —rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

What a magnificent idea! A living stone, part of a Spiritual house, a priest in that house and able to offer acceptable sacrifices to the living God. Wow!


So what?

 

It is to me a source of mystery that so many people are so reluctant to go forward for baptism after their conversion. To be sure many churches make a hash of it, either associating it too closely with church membership involving the capacity to vote in church meetings and therefore denying it to young people until they are ‘voting age’; or at the other extreme baptizing babes who can have no idea whatsoever of the glories they are supposed to be entering into.

Don’t be one of the reluctant! If at all possible, unless hindered by physical disability or prevented by a strongly antagonistic society, be baptized. The other really tricky question is whether if you have been baptized as a baby or a child without personal faith you should be baptized again on coming to true and full faith. That, I think, has to be left entirely up to you or the person under consideration.

Be happy and confident in yourself that you have done as the Lord said should be done when he told the apostles “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”.

Be baptized, be taught, obey.


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The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 4: Where To


So you are a Christian. Where are you going to is one obvious question with a partly obvious answer. The obvious part of the answer is: to be with Jesus in the second life after this life and after death. We will leave thinking about that to the end of these studies – the most obvious place for it to be. The less obvious answer is to the question: where to in this life? And that is much more difficult to talk about for several reasons. Perhaps the most important is that listeners and readers to this will come from all sorts of countries, societies and cultures all round the world. The dominant word in the Old Testament relating to all this is ‘wisdom’, being wise, but it scarcely figures in the New Testament for the individual believer. However let’s use it and, to some extent, add our own particular twist to what it means.

‘Wisdom’ is the art of living wisely and well. It is not about being clever, or intellectual in a worldly sense. It is perhaps about being wise and intellectual in a Spiritual sense, but not in a way that excludes anybody for what they are. The cleverest person in our fellowship may be full of wisdom, or may not. Some old person who never got far at school at all may be every bit as wise in the way he or she deals with the situations and the people they live in and among as anybody.

But before we get too far in to the subject let’s see what the Old Testament says about it. The book of Job is a good place to start. Not that he knew it all. He asks the very important question: “But where can wisdom be found?” and then goes on in his wonderful chapter 28 to puzzle over it.

“Where does understanding dwell?” he says,
“No mortal comprehends its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”;
the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be bought with the finest gold,
nor can its price be weighed out in silver.
It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir,
with precious onyx or lapis lazuli.
Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it,
nor can it be had for jewels of gold.
Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention;
the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.
The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it;
it cannot be bought with pure gold.
Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?”
A few verses later he says: “God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind
and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.”

At which point we might be tempted to think that Job did not know anything much of what we call science and that we have gained a huge amount of that sort of wisdom since. But he goes on: 
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.”

And now he is talking about the sort of Spiritual wisdom that is our birthright as Christians and is the purpose for which we live.
This is Old Testament truth and not quite what we find in the New Testament. Probably the most outstanding verse of the NT on the subject does not even have either of the words ‘wisdom’ or ‘wise’ in it. It is something Jesus said. Can you guess what it is I am thinking about? Here it is: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” In that one simple phrase Jesus answers all the puzzles of Job and the rest of the Old Testament. Let’s look at it in detail.

Jesus says he is the way, thus emphasizing that the Christian life is a journey, not a single event once in one’s life. Most people don’t think of their lives as a journey; they are only concerned with the next few weeks or months, or just possibly years in front of, them. They do not look far ahead and ask the question where am I going? What is my purpose in life? But, as I suggested previously, one of the main reasons for becoming a Christian is the desire to have a purpose in life and a goal to look ahead to. Those who have a purpose to their lives, at least a good purpose, tend to flourish a great deal more than those who just drift along, wondering always what tomorrow will bring but making no real attempt to fashion their tomorrow. There is no better purpose, better way, than following Jesus, than letting Jesus be our way. Which immediately raises the further question: how can Jesus be the way?

We can follow him. Not in everything since he went on to the Cross and the Resurrection. But in our own very small ways we can endeavor to follow the examples he set: reliance on God the Father, deep concern for our own progress in Spiritual matters particularly holiness and love, care and concern for other people particularly his people, and that integration into a web of relationships which can be the glory of our lives in this world.

Two things are necessary for us to progress in these matters: the first is to know Jesus as the Truth of God, using the written word to learn ever more of him as the Living Word; the second is to learn how to do this by reliance on Jesus as the true Life, the Life which alone can teach us the deep spiritual things we need to learn.
If we put all these things together holding Jesus in front of us as the Way, the Truth and the Life then indeed we shall be able to gain true Wisdom and to move far further forward than any of the Old Testament people were ever able to do.

So what?

Once again there are no further specific things we need to do beyond what I have already tried to describe. Read again that crucial verse John 14: 6, think about it, study it, meditate on it, and you will be starting well on the journey of faith, leaning on Jesus, walking in step with the Spirit, moving towards the day when you will see the Lord God and His Son, Jesus, in glory.

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The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 3: Early Days


What happens in the early days of our life with Christ? Or – what should happen? It is a common experience to feel a sense of great elation, of walking on tiptoe, of being almost outside ourselves, and all that is good and wonderful. But I can think of one difficult and dangerous thing that happens and two things that we should deliberately set out to try and make sure they happen – if at all possible.

The difficult thing, which is a common experience, is to be a particular target of the devil’s attacks. We can see this in the experience of Jesus. He was not converted; he did not have to start to follow himself! He was God and could be no closer to the Father than he already was. But he did have an occasion when this became clear, not only to him, but to all that knew him. I refer of course to the great event which was his baptism by John. Matthew records that: Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

All of which is very good and exciting – just like our experience when the hand of God touches us for the first time. But when we read on we discover that Jesus was immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil and had a very uncomfortable 40 days being tempted to use his powers to relieve his own discomfort, to demonstrate to others the huge abilities he had and to short circuit the whole uncomfortable experience that lay in front of him.
Our temptations may be quite different from his though we too in our own small way may be tempted to show off to other people the wonderful things that have happened to us.

We need to be careful and, hopefully, be well advised by other Christians and be swift to accept that advice. That is the immediate possible, or even probable, downside of setting out to follow Jesus.

There are two positive things we should do if at all possible as soon as we can. The first, which I have already hinted at, is to seek the company of other Christians who are now, in a new and more powerful way your brothers and sisters. That means joining a church fellowship as soon as possible. Not necessarily in the formal sense, but certainly in the practical sense. You are now a member of the family of God. You have been adopted into his family. It is a strange member of a family who never goes near it. Unless you are in a very isolated or dangerous situation be careful to seek out the people of God in your locality as soon as possible. I well remember a fellow, when we were in a Muslim country, who was hesitantly lurking at the back of our church as if he did not belong. Fortunately my wife saw how he was behaving and approached him. The first thing we did was ask him to chose a new Christian name by which he could be known amongst us to avoid any unnecessary conflict with his family and other people of the majority religion in that country. He was a very new convert who had been contacted by someone on the phone as he worked at a night time call centre and come to faith in Jesus. So it may not be possible for everyone who reads these notes to openly associate with a Christian fellowship. I am sure the Lord will understand that.

My second positive suggestion is perhaps even more difficult for some readers and hearers of these notes to do anything about. It is that, if possible, you should buy a good study Bible. There are many available in English these days. Some of them are general; others are specific being study Bibles for men or women with particular interests or teenagers etc. In the early days of a Christian life it is probably best to have a general study Bible so that you can slowly learn how the whole scripture fits together and have the more difficult words, phrases and ideas explained to you. Thus you will gain a good knowledge of Scripture without having to work too hard at it. (It will even give you something to read if the sermon gets too boring!) A good study Bible is the best way to start to learn what God says and will say to us. It is his word, his written word and enormously valuable. Through it you will encounter the living Word which is Jesus.

So three things: beware the devil’s interest in you; join up with a local fellowship of God’s people, particularly one which will enable you to talk with other people about your experiences and the scripture and learn from them; if possible equip yourself with what Paul called the sword of the Spirit that you may learn to fight well against the many temptations of life, to rejoice in the many promises that the Lord gives us in his Word and, above all, come to be in a living relationship to the living Word, the Lord Jesus.

So what?

This time there is no separate thing to do here. Those are three important things to do. If you asked someone else what you should do as a young believer you would probably get a different set of priorities. Never mind. Go to these – and the Lord will bless you.

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