Monday, 26 April 2010

Persecution is complex 2

So how should we respond to renewed intolerance towards Christian thought and practice?

I believe that Christians should prepare to challenge the current order with a two-pronged effort: that of personal witness and public ministry. I’ll tackle personal witness today, but it’s important to maintain the combination.  We are all expected to provide an arresting testimony to the transforming effect of salvation in our lives. It’s not always spoken first. It is our tacit commitment to deliver outstanding work, to earn our keep, provide for a family and to submit to the demands of difficult employers that will silence the critics of the gospel.

Peter said, Give every man that asks of you the reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15) I would suggest that, in many cases, it has been partly the lack of meekness and fear that has increased the level of hostility and discrimination in the workplace. What is meekness? The Greek word is used to describe a broken colt, i.e. one that can take a bridle. Consider a horse in a dressage event: there is amazing power and amazing restraint. So meekness is treading carefully. It is characterized by a measured, thoughtful deliberate response, rather than a heavy-handed reaction. In our public discourse, we can be uncompromising, but this is contrasted with gentler, approachable personal empathy. We can count on God to not only intervene in our debates and confound our critics, but also to convey His grief over their moral failures as if they were our own.

I recently went into MacDonalds for breakfast and used their free Wi-fi service. Since my laptop battery was low, I plugged into an outlet. The cleaning lady saw the socket and informed me in an imperiously loud voice that I was not supposed to use their electricity, since my equipment was untested on their supply. ‘Free Wi-fi, not free electricity’, she bellowed and pulled my plug from the socket. In some establishments, I know customers can use an available socket. I simply said, ‘Oh, I see’. For the first time in a long time, I was at a loss for words. Her tone was almost derisory and caused a small stir. I felt that her response did not fit the level of infringement. What a pity that she decided to make an example of me!  It was an error, but she could have called me aside and explained the unstated policy. Meekness and respect were replaced by a brusque and slighting attitude.

Whatever your role at church, your responsibility at work is to be a credible witness to the power of Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less. The command to preach is the fulfilment of an essential Christian ministry, but your employer doesn't pay your salary to do that, it’s paid to honour their side of the contract of employment, so honour yours by working hard. If you want to preach, then pay for it yourself by employing your own resources and time. Even Paul, a full-time apostle, reminded his converts of his labour saying ‘You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions’ (Acts 20:34). Of our attitude to work, he says, Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; (Eph. 6:6) So do we ‘slave for Christ’ by volunteering to undertake the most challenging assignments, or do we avoid added responsibility at all costs?

I can go further. Christ said, But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44) Imagine listening to the problems of our worst detractors, and not just our allies. It might be that a difficult colleague is facing a tight deadline, a bereavement or redundancy. Would you decline help, sending a card or offering a listening ear just because you found out that he criticized your work as unprofessional or recommended you for disciplinary action? Would you just brace for the next insult and turn the other cheek? Paul says, Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. (1Pet. 3:9). Paul lived by this ethic, We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it (1 Cor. 4:12).

Surely this approach would arouse more curiosity than wearing a cross to work, or distributing Bible tracts. ‘What’s changed you? Why would you lift a finger to help me?’, they might well ask.

Consider also our use of discretionary time. Peter states, For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you (1 Pet. 4:3,4) The early Gentile converts avoided participation in the sensual excesses that characterised idolatrous ancient Greek cities like Corinth and Ephesus. Today’s idols include the narcissism of ‘retail therapy’, racial idealism, ‘irreverent’ humour, the unhealthy diet of ‘sleb’ gossip, ruthless ambition, reducing women to sex objects, the workaholic obsession to achieve our property and wealth aspirations. These things don’t consolidate Christian faith or commitment, so I have to challenge myself to avoid them on a daily basis. Paul warns us, Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things comes the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience (Eph. 5:6)

What about money? Do you provide financial support to elderly relatives, or are you preparing to hammer your credit card at the summer sales? Paul said, ‘If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ (1 Tim. 5:8)

Where does your monthly salary go? Is it largely committed to paying off the debts incurred for big ticket creature comforts?  Let me be clear, three years ago, I owed over £20,000 on credit cards and loans. It’s now just over £2000. I now know how to manage my income, but I’m still a learner. I’m also learning to save to help others. As Paul said the reformed ‘must work hard and do what is good with his own hands, so that he might earn something to give to the needy. (Eph. 4:28)

So these are all practical ways in which we can maintain our effectiveness as the salt of the earth. In the last part of this series, I’ll look at the second front of our battle, that of Christian ministry.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Persecution is complex 1

The outcome of recent court cases are cause for concern among professing Christians in the UK. In the medical field, a nurse made a claim for discrimination after losing her job for refusing to remove a necklace with a crucifix pendant. The hospital contrived a Health and Safety issue. On appeal, the court found in favour of the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital Trust. She was demoted to a desk job.

Strangely, the Trust Risk Register 2009 noted of the same trust, Failure of Junior Doctors recruitment process with positions remaining unfilled. Patient safety compromised. Breach of EWTD (European Working time Directive) legislation. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he accused the Pharisees who ‘strain out a gnat and swallow a whole camel’ Matt. 23:24

Another nurse was suspended without pay for offering to pray for an elderly patient. This was in the absence of any patient complaint. Apparently, the offer of prayer was deemed to ‘promote causes that are not related to health’. She was finally reinstated after the case gained national attention and a petition campaign was launched by the Daily Telegraph. In spite of this, homoeopaths, osteopaths, reflexologists, acupuncturists, T'ai chi instructors, art therapists, chiropractors, herbalists and aromatherapists can all operate freely under the aegis of the Primary Care Trust. I’m not sure who has the discretion to decide that T’ai chi is more therapeutic than prayer.

There are also two cases that I’m aware of in which registrars were given the ultimatum of either demotion to an entry level post or dismissal for refusing to register homosexual civil partnerships.

In Glasgow, a visiting American street evangelist was preaching. He was challenged on his views regarding homosexuality and Islam. He was later arrested on charges relating to breach of the peace, sectarianism and homophobia. Considering the prospect of spending up to eight weeks in custody awaiting trial, the preacher chose to plea bargain for family reasons in order to avoid further detention.

Slowly, but surely, the curtailment of Christian expression is on the rise and all in the name of tolerance. You can wear a t-shirt boldly inscribed with a foul, contemptuous misogynist slogan. You can mount an atheist poster campaign on buses and suggest that offended Christians should be more ‘secure’ in their faith. You can shout crude, sickening racist epithets at an open-air comedy event. But when Christians decry sexually deviant behaviour in public, they can be arrested on charges of ‘racially or religiously aggravated disorderly behaviour with Intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress’. The result is a criminal record and up to 2 years imprisonment. Don’t forget that your job and family commitments may lapse as you await trial. Yes, of course, we should preach the love of God and Christ and Him crucified, but make no mistake that the early Christian leaders publicly denounced sexual immorality and idolatry.

The whole framework of this area is an extension of harassment and anti-discrimination legislation under which personal liberty takes second place. In each case, the definition relies upon the ‘reasonable person’ rule, i.e. ‘would a reasonable person in possession of the same information think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other?’ The prosecution only has to show a reasonable cause for alarm in the ‘victim’. And yes, it’s the magistrate or jury who’ll decide what’s reasonable. It’s not a defence to say that any personal offence was unintended. The presumed ‘victim’ can even buy an online injunction against your public ministry for £100.

Perhaps redefining hell as a slow, cosy fireside chat with God will keep the prosecutors at bay, but for how long?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Empowerment or enforcement

I hear a lot of modernists take issue with someone they call, The God of the Old Testament. How strange, given that the solemn affirmation of Moses, Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one’ (Deut. 6:4) is reiterated by Jesus as part of the greatest commandment to love God. Although His policy towards His creation may be deployed gradually over many centuries, God Himself is immutable.

‘God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?’ (Numbers 23:19). So it’s surprising when liberal churchgoers contradict this in defence of a more relaxed ‘inclusive’ attitude, as if ostracism of a perpetrator were a greater sin than the vice itself. They cite that Jesus was silent on homosexual and transgender issues, as if He should have pre-emptively singled out these debates for 21st century Bible readers. God knows what paedophiles would make of His ‘silence’ on child abuse.

Of course, we could make a tiny leap of inference to realise that His pronouncement that, ‘whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Matt. 18:6) might also relate to those who abhorrently gratify themselves by plundering childhood innocence.

The main development in God’s policy towards Man from the Old to New Testament is the transition from enforcement to empowerment. The most any law can do is to contain disobedience. Mankind is self-willed. The promise of prosperity for good behaviour and sanctions against evil cannot overcome our selfish desires. Without empowerment, we are being goaded against our will.

Direct moral empowerment from God is promised with the New Testament outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to be under grace: to move from enforcement to empowerment.

‘For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:

And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.’ (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God promises an amnesty from sin that clears the way for all of God’s people to experience a personal first-hand insight into the knowledge of God. The Christian life doesn’t just begin this way, it’s meant to continue in this way. Eternal life is the knowledge of God through a personal relationship with His Messiah Jesus. It is the unending relationship of deliverance and worship that culminates in the first resurrection and rapture of the saints. ’But whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (John 4:14)

Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, You worship you know not what, we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4:22) Historically, the truth about God is revealed in His Old Testament relationship of intervention and deliverance among the Jews. Worship declares and demands an accurate knowledge of God. Yet, Jesus contrasts this with a more personal depth of revelation that supersedes the corporate worship of Israel. It is the personal intervention of God in the individual lives of believers: ‘But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.’

God reveals Himself through His Son’s direct personal intervention and deliverance in the believer’s life. However, it is supernatural  intercession of the Holy Spirit that unites with our human spirit to respond at the depth of sincerity that the Father seeks. ‘The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:’ ; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered and he that searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.’ (Romans 8:16, 26, 27)

This is empowerment, rather than enforcement. Paul’s constant fear for his converts was a return to enforcement. He hated the externalised imposition of detailed rules and regulations rather than a broader level of moral guidance. He states, ‘Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loves another hath fulfilled the law. For this, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, You shall love thy neighbour as thyself. Love works no ill (causes no harm) to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’ (Roman 13:8). I might add that Paul could have also said by inference, You shall not lust, since he declared, Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, You shall not covet. (Romans 7:7) Yet, In spite of the clear message of Jewish history that enforcement did not work, the Judaizers wanted to impose all of the Old Testament externalisms from circumcision to dietary and Sabbath-keeping regulations on non-Jewish believers. I should add tithing to this list.

So how does empowerment work?

Jesus tells a man with a withered hand to perform a personal impossibility: Stretch forth your hand (Matt. 12:13). The man was healed because:

1. The man wanted change. His withered hand made him a pariah, excluded from full participation in his community.

2. The man believed that Jesus had unrivalled authority to do in him what had never been done before and that He wanted to.

3. The power to perform the impossible was embedded in Jesus’ immediate command, or word.

These three steps are central to the New Testament experience.

1. You are challenged by a parallel to your own life in reference to scriptural instruction. This arouses a desire for change.

2. You rely on Jesus' unrivalled authority as Lord of heaven and earth to overcome even your own weakness of resolve and self-contempt: ‘And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24)

3. The power of the Holy Spirit is aroused in us by the Word of God. Thereby, God combines insight, prayer and supernatural intervention to transform you to perform the impossible and overcome your shortcomings and vices.

For these three reasons, genuine faith means that we have no more excuses for not overcoming our vices. And if we continue to excuse modern vices by citing immorality as an Old Testament concept, it’s not genuine faith.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Avoiding the message of Easter

Make no mistake, I have no problem with the resurrection. It’s central to divine justice and Christianity. However, far too many concentrate on seasonal, rather than timeless messages. Modern-day Sadducees (no angels, no spirits, no resurrection) still want to apply forensic methods to disprove an essentially historic event. I guess you could make a name for yourself by hypothesizing that Henry VIII was illegitimate and therefore challenge the legitimacy of the entire Royal Family, but to what ends? Probably to foment anti-monarchist contempt. Equally, those who challenge the historicity of the resurrection, start with a bias against any authority beyond their own self-exonerating ‘pick-and-mix’ morality.

We know that every member of Jesus’s band of followers lost faith after his capture and fled. It just doesn’t make sense that they suddenly find unflinching courage in the face of Roman tyranny and death. Jesus was presented by the Jews of his day as a threat to the Roman occupation. The cross was a gibbet used to make an example of those who defied Roman authority. If we accept that a Roman guard (that faced death for failure) was posted at the tomb site, surely it would be in the interest of Roman tyranny to produce Jesus’s mangled, beaten body. How fanciful and self-serving to believe that they missed this opportunity to destroy the Messianic hopes for good. No-one can believe that they were that charitable to the Christian cause.

I can understand what John meant when he stated, ‘If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater’ (I John 5:9). As part of a jury, we’ll send a man to prison for life on the statements of two or three witnesses. Even in cases where forensic evidence is incomplete or inadmissible. We’ll happily accept that, according to scientific theory, light is both a wave and a particle and even that there are multiple universes. We’ll even accept that the laws of physics could be bent, sorry, ‘adjusted’ to validate the modern theories of the universe’s origins.

I might add that we’re not campaigning outside of the offices of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), considering the failure and expense of the Voyager mission in its efforts to find alien life in the farthest reaches of the solar system. This extravagant waste of resources could be channelled into solving more immediate human problems, such as world hunger. But blind faith in science throws more taxpayers money in this direction. However, mention the resurrection and suddenly there’s a rush to put Christianity under the microscope.

If you want to want to believe that Stalin and Mother Theresa were both equally judged by death, never to face future reward or retribution for their actions, then I can’t stop you. But I don’t think you can use science to shore up the double standard that makes it easier to accept commitment (albeit financial) to the notions of science fantasy, rather than the witness of Christian history. Besides, our innate sense of moral equality (i.e. conscience) demands further final accountability that only the resurrection can satisfy.

So finally I'm here in cyberspace. You-church is the start of a para-church organisation which fulfils a mission to offer a broader experience of fellowship and moral challenge to existing churchgoers and those who have fallen out of regular Christian fellowship.

Central to this challenge is 'real-world' engagement. While it's great to discuss moral abstractions, each blog post will end with practical challenges.

This site and my current efforts to share the Good News are self-funded. I believe that we should follow Paul's example, who said, 'I have coveted no man's apparel'. I consider it a privilege to go out and work and earn a decent living. Should I ever move to full-time ministry, I still intend to earn my living by some means, other than a collection plate.