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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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