Many months ago I was visiting my sister and at her church we sang “This I believe” a song by Hillsong Worship based on the Apostles' Creed. The chorus stuck in my head and it popped back in today, here it is:
I believe in God our Father
Evil and the human suffering that goes with it is a strange thing to observe. With the constant news cycle there is no end to the evils that we read. Every day, every hour, new evil is uncovered, new evil that is really old evil, the same tired patterns endlessly repeating. It becomes a background to life and we become inoculated against caring because life is too short to take the time to feel the pain of everyone.
Then there comes an event of particular magnitude, evil beyond the usual and its as though all the unfelt injustice, all the unconsidered empathy, all the pain not shared, all of it gets rolled up into this one horrific event. The terrorist attack on Paris was such an event of particular evil, in a place not too far away, with acts of violence that given meaning to the word "senseless". The only purpose to cause as much human suffering as could be achieved.
The immediate response I had was to pray: "Lord Jesus, come back soon." For seeing such evil, how could I ever want to see such a thing again? Better by far that the world end, that Jesus returns, that this present fallen world is done away with. Even if there are 10 billion more of God's elect still to be saved, it seems better to have the world end now.
Why is the New Testament God so angry all the time? How can the Old Testament God be so loving? A common problem people have with the Bible is the disconnect between the loving and forgiving God of the Old Testament and the angry and wrathful God of the New Testament. How can one be so loving and kind and the other so cruel and capricious? The implication being, of course, that the Bible is completely wrong as a result of this seeming contradiction.
Let’s dive right in then and examine this disconnect between the New and Old. First up: the angry, wrathful, vengeful God of the New Testament. There’s no better to place to start than 2 Thessalonians, a book of the Bible which has proportionally more on Hell and judgement than any save perhaps Revelation. Take the following quote:
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” 2 Thessalonians 1 v 7 – 8.
Recently, I've had cause to think a lot about church. This is for the best of reasons - I'm really enjoying church right now. Moving to a new city and starting a new job has its hardships and a consistent high point of my week is attending Christ Church Bradford.
There are many reasons for this: the warmth, love and hospitality of other Christians, the solid preaching and teaching from the Bible, the richness of the prayers, the enthusiastic, if sometimes off kilter, singing (not that I can talk!). Mainly though, it is because I go to church and come away refreshed, feeling that Christ has ministered to my soul, that God was, in a very real way, present at the service. In a time and an age where the church gets a lot of bad press I think it necessary to stand up and say that church is often beautiful.
Naturally, I immediately worry that it cannot last. And in this last week two separate thoughts have joined together on this worry. The first occured mid-week at home group where we looked at the parable of the mustard seed.
"Again he said, ‘What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.’" Mark 4 v 30 v 32.
I used to think that the worst thing about Facebook was all the other people on it. To be fair, I still like to think that, and yes, in case you're wondering that does include you.
The number of pet hates I have is so great I've split them into two lists. Those that merit instant unfollowing and those that I tolerate but still basically hate. The former list is reserved for anyone who does those ridiculous gratitude challenges, people who take selfies of their six pack and any individual who posts more than three status updates in the one day.
My second list is a lot longer and includes in no particular order: pictures of meals (either home cooked or at a restaurant) - I've yet to see one which doesn't make the meal look both unappetising and a little pathetic. "Cute" couple statuses along the lines of: "isn't my [insert name here] totally amazing" or an abundance of couple photos. Quoting the Bible too many times, too many baby photos, too many clubbing photos, any attempt at the ice bucket challenge or any other viral charity campaign which people share so everyone can glory in their generous nature. Any status with the word "blessed" in. Sports related updates. Everyone who shared their degree result online. Anyone who "pokes" people - seriously, like, who does that? Anyone who invites me to play some stupid game. Anyone who posts those: "I took a quiz and got 100%" things. Oh yeah, and Guardian articles, Nationalist propaganda, Left Wing nonsense and Liberal theology. Pictures of drunken escapades. Pictures of fake drunken escapades. The "so and so such a babe" posts. The like this to win competitions. The sympathy craving posts. I could go on.
Now this is a familiar story, it has been told before, it will be told again and nothing will be learned in its telling. For those of you who don't know, Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church has been dropped by Acts 29 the church planting group set up by Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church. It is the latest chapter in a long and depressing tale which may one day be known as: "The Rise and Fall of Driscoll". If you are curious please consult the internet as I have no desire to repeat it's sorry chapters here.
It reminded me of Justin Bieber. Perhaps the six most tragic words in the English language. I have made no effort to follow the news about Mr Bieber but in this day and age news seeps into my head whether I want it to or not.
The story is the classic: young boy becomes very famous (I can't remember why), grows in popularity, grows in fame, grows in celebrity status, perhaps he is even the darling of the celebrity world for a while. And the fame goes to Mr Bieber's head, his behaviour becomes erratic, he is full of himself, he says stupid things, commits actions of dubious morality and eventually gets punched by Orlando Bloom. Fame turns to infamy, love turns to hate, adoration to insult.
Last Monday evening I attended a public lecture given by Tom Wright (also known as R.T. Wright), the ex Bishop of Durham and a lecturer at St Andrews University and as you might expect a very clever and able man. His lecture was on “How do we speak about God in a confused world?” which basically translated to the role of the Christian faith in public discourse. His lecture was almost brilliant. But the almost left me feeling troubled.
The brilliance was in his insight into modern culture and it's failings; the divinity of progress now that any conception of god has been removed, the failure of science-ism (hot air, resting on thin air, leaving us in mid air, as he wonderfully said) and the place of Christianity in Western society. His diagnoses was accurate but in describing Christianity as the solution he worried me.
The almost was in what he did not say. This makes it a subtle error but it has been my observation that often the most tricky errors are found in what is not said rather than what is. Before I get to the exact error of omission that was concerning I think it is necessary to say that Tom Wright is hardly the only one doing this. Indeed, he acts a figurehead for a broader church wide movement of not preaching the gospel as well as it should be preached. From my own experience I find it most common in evangelical charismatic circles but it is creeping into conservative circles too.
Some theological issues can be studied; others have to be wrestled with. The question of whether or not a man or woman who is saved will always be saved falls into the latter category.
We have two seemingly contradictory pictures in the Bible. On the one hand there are the commands to watch out lest we fall: "Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position." (2 Peter 3v17) or "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2v12). And there are example in the Bible, and from the church throughout the ages, of people who having once professed to be Christians, and seemed to walk with God, then turned away from it all.
And yet on the other hand we have the statement of Jesus: "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6v39-40).
We find a promise of Christ, that he will lose none of those given to him by the Father, seemingly at odds with both other verses in the Bible and our experience of seeing people fall from faith. This requires us to study further for a logic principle of the infallibility of the Bible is that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture.
One of the regrettable side effects of the Christmas season (aside from gross consumerism, adverts and a decreasing bank balance) is the ponderense of cheesy, quirky, or “modern” youtube videos shared on Facebook about the real meaning of Christmas by well meaning Christians. Being perverse, by nature and choice, I always want to share a video about what a wonderful man Scrooge was and how his economic model of thrift and austerity is a model to Christians everywhere. After all, an economist last year worked out that presents represent a 40% deadweight loss to society as the presents you buy for others cost more than the value you receive from the presents you get.
But such cynicism falls far short of my actual feelings about the Christmas season. Past my frothy misanthropic mask is a deep seated love for Christmas time. In particular, Christmas lunch. Maybe it's a sign I'm getting older but I look forward to lunch a lot more than presents. Think about it, presents can be for life (and that's not always a good thing) but a Christmas lunch really is just for Christmas.