Why I don’t wear ties.

I don’t wear ties (or suits) to church services, or really ever at all, except for weddings and funerals. I’ll even forego them for job interviews if I am sure it’s not vital to the position. I try to avoid jobs where I need to wear a tie all the time, as it would drive me to distraction. A good friend of mine, who is an ordained Presbyterian minister once asked ‘how does tying a knot around your neck make you look respectable?’ I think he was being rhetorical. I have never understood that myself. My father, who was a working-class man, joined the local golf club and played the game out of enjoyment. Once he got into that den of middle-class pretension, he underwent a few changes. The club discussed relaxing the rule of ‘collar-and-tie-only’ for the clubhouse, and he was dead against any change, saying ‘we don’t want to let any yobs join!’, to which I replied, ‘Dad, a yob with a tie is still a yob!’

And so I find the same attitude in churches, where believers think that you have to look respectable since you are entering the presence of the Lord. There is a whole debate about where the presence or the spirit of God resides: He is anywhere that ‘two or three gather in [His] name’ (Matt.18:20), so if I even meet up with a friend for coffee and discuss spiritual matters i.e. have ‘fellowship’ with them, should I not put on a tie? If someone attempts to argue that a church service is different… there’s no argument, sorry. It can never be different. ANY fellowship of believers is the same thing, regardless of the location. A church building, or meeting house, is no holier or more sacred than anywhere else. He resides in our hearts (Gal. 4:6; Eph. 3:17), and buildings for the facilitation of fellowship are just that; buildings. Nor is it showing any respect for the Lord’s table – it’s just a table! With plates of bread and cups of wine (or red coloured cordial). A friend of mine once heard an announcement in his church that they were not to go out the back door on Sunday mornings as it ‘showed disrespect for the table’! I would’ve overturned the table on hearing that, just like my Lord Jesus did when he was angry at REAL disrespect (Matt. 21:12). There are martyrs for the gospel, folks, who DIED because they maintained that the fittings of our communion service are symbols and nothing else! Let’s get real here.

Another question I often hear is ‘would you not wear a tie if you were going to see the Queen?’ Well, I make no secret of the fact that I’m no royalist, but let’s say I did go to see her for some reason; maybe I would wear a tie if it’s appropriate, I don’t know. BUT I am always tempted to ask back ‘are you comparing my precious Lord to that sponging Kraut in Buckingham Palace?’ though I know that would be an insulting comment to all Germans, not just her. However, there is NO comparison between anyone and Him; don’t try to make it, He is higher than a million royals or world leaders put together! Especially as, unlike us, our Lord does NOT look at our appearance, but our hearts (1Sam. 16:7; see also 2Cor. 5:12). In fact, we are exhorted NOT to adorn our appearance (1Pet. 3:3-4). We all know that, so stop trying to get around it. So why do so many think it’s important? I’ve always asked myself that, and the only answer I come to is that it’s just tradition (or TRADITIOOOON as in the Fiddler on the Roof song!). Something tells me I’ve said this before, but I cannot find it on previous blogs: there is nothing wrong with tradition, in and of itself; some can be good, and some bad, some neither. So how do we distinguish?

How often have you heard someone say ‘oh, I’d love to go to church with you, but I’ve nothing to wear!’? Too many people think that you have to dress up for it, and there’s the real rub. About 26 years ago, before I married my wife, we were walking back down our church car park to my car, and I heard a voice right behind me saying ‘thank you’. I turned around, obviously looking confused; what had I done? The man who thanked me explained: ‘I decided to visit your church this morning, and went and sat in the balcony, but everybody around me was dressed up, the men in suits and ties, and as I was just in my jeans and T-shirt I felt so uncomfortable. So I was about to leave, when you walked in, in your jeans, and sat opposite me. I felt fine then as I wasn’t the only one, and stayed, and I got a blessing. Thanks!’

As you can tell, I’ve never forgotten that.

Grace be with you.

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Parades!

Do you, like me, grow sick and tired of the parades issue? Or issues, since they never seem to end? I, for the life of me, personally, couldn’t care less if a lodge or band march or don’t march, nor if any residents anywhere manage to stop a parade, or not!

I remember one of the years we managed to escape the silly season and went camping on the west coast, but cut it short due to a gale force 8 Atlantic storm. On the way home, we turned on the radio to hear the news before we crossed the border. It was the height of the Drumcree fiasco, and we heard how tensions had escalated to the point that somebody had set fire to a house in which some Roman Catholics lived, resulting in the deaths of two young boys. NOTHING, NO ARGUMENT, NO ‘DEFENDING OF RIGHTS’ is worth a human life. For me, the issue of Drumcree was beyond arguing, by either side then.

Though I do take issue with believers who are caught up in this. There are some members of the Orange Order who declare their evangelical stance openly, as they should. In ‘standing up for their rights’, what does our Lord have to say to them?

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

– Matthew 5:39-41

 Excuse me? What was that again? Did He really say that? If we are facing an enemy who wants us to go a mile down a road, any road, we are not only to go that way, but to double it and go further!? Is this not clear enough? I can already hear the voices saying, “so we’ve to let these Republicans win? We’ve to just give in to them, surrender? After all the years of hard work we’ve done?” Emm, it seems that way, doesn’t it? Don’t start arguing with me, take it up with Jesus Himself, please.

‘Not my will, but yours, Lord, be done’ – is that not what we pray? Do we mean it?

Grace be with you.

The Unmerciful Servant

Now this is a matter which is not so much an Ulster thing, but a national problem: just this morning, the news revealed that our government has had to borrow another £600 million, stating that things like lowered North Sea oil revenues are to blame, all the while carrying on with their austerity program of ‘necessary’ cuts in spending. Now, if you or I went to our bank and asked for another loan of say, £600, on top of money already owed to them, what questions are they likely to ask us? Would one not be ‘are there any debts owed to you that you can call in first?’ It’s a reasonable question, isn’t it? IF we replied, ‘yes, Mr. X owed me £4,600 but I knew times were harsh so I told him not to bother paying it back’ what response would we expect? Suppose the bank knew that Mr. X was actively pursuing debts owed to him all the while?

I had a run-in with my long-time mobile phone provider, Vodafone, who managed to overcharge me by about £120! I wrote to them to say I wished to stay with them but only if they refunded £120 to me or at least offered money off my new phone or a reduction in my contract. They refused, point blank, so I left them and went to 3, which has turned out to be a good move so far. I determined that since they owe me money, I would not pay them my last monthly payment. Fortune favoured me in that the penultimate payment wasn’t taken simply due to a change of bank on my part. As far as I am concerned, they are still money up on me. Yet they still pursue me for £82 they say I owe.

What has this got to do with the biblical basis of my blog, you ask? Well, a long, long time ago, my Lord Jesus Christ told his followers many parables. One of these was of the unmerciful servant. You can find it in Matthew 18: 21-35. Please read it if you are not overfamiliar with it. Did you know that Vodafone have been let off, literally, with a tax debt of £4.6 billion, by our wonderful, merciful government (do you have a sarcasm detector?). YES, THAT’S £4,600 MILLION!! Now they think they should pursue me for £82.36!!!!? Amazing, isn’t it, that nothing has changed in 2000 years? I, for one, know exactly what my Lord would say to them. They shall be judged if they continue to go after such paltry sums. I pointed this out to them and their reply; nothing has changed, they shall still pursue me. THIS is evil; it’s simple, plain and obvious to any of us. They can avoid their staggering debt, but they think that every other person out there should pay them, even when they are morally wrong. And OUR government, charged with managing OUR money, have had to go ‘cap in hand’ as they say, and ask for another loan, on which WE shall pay interest, when all along, one MEGA company gets off with a humongous tax bill, when EVERY ONE OF US has to pay up our tax with no quibble. How dare our elected MPs decide this in such a completely unilateral way!!

Unmerciful servants, Vodafone, that’s what you are!

Grace be with you.

Ashamed?

Our Pastor tonight preached on Romans chapter 1, asking the question ‘are you ashamed of the gospel?’

Straight answer: no! I am not ashamed. Everyone who knows me (as far as I can ascertain) knows I am a Christian. At least they should know, I make no effort to ever hide it, and try to highlight it as much as I can, by both word and deed.

However, there is a thing called ‘guilt by association’. We use it to make a point that the company you keep can affect how people perceive you (which can form part of your testimony). Unfortunately, there are many who are seen by the world as purveyors of the same gospel I believe in, and I have no wish to be associated with them, like the ones whose politics are disagreeable to me, like Iain Paisley and George W. Bush (and the whole Republican Religious Right in the US), or who are seen by everyone as charlatans, like those who cannot help themselves when they get in front of a camera but to peddle their wares like their special bibles or CD recordings, or those who have disgraced themselves publicly like Jimmy ‘I have sinnnnned!’ Swaggart. Now let’s get something clear when we’re discussing Swaggart; there is forgiveness (which is the central foundation of this gospel of ours!) for all of us, Praise God, and that episode of his life is long gone (hopefully), but it was the way in which everything played out on live TV, and his disregard for spiritual advice in carrying on with his ministry with no break or respite for contemplation and penitence. THAT is how he is perceived by most people, rightly or wrongly, and that is my unease with him. (The fact that I worked in the Faith Mission bookshop in Belfast many years ago when the proprietor shipped in 144000 copies of his then 18 albums of his woeful teeth-grinding wailing that many thought was beautiful inspired singing, and played it in the shop all day everyday AD NAUSEAM has nothing to do with it. 😛 )

It is the above reasons that make me nervous and uneasy (but never ashamed) when people realise I am born again, saved, a holy roller, whatever. The only thing I will NOT let people call me is ‘good living’!!!

Grace be with you.

Jesus v. the Pharisees

One of the first times I remember having an opinion all to myself that seemed distinct from what the preacher was saying from his pulpit (and receiving loud ‘amen’s from the congregation for) was in a church I had settled in after about two years – a fairly small church to the east side of Belfast. I had not attended any church for the first year after my conversion, choosing to sit in my bedroom every night and go through my NIV bible, with 3 separate books of bible notes, absorbing all I could from it, and trying to learn what this new faith in Christ really meant to me. This is probably why and how I am so opinionated! Or maybe it’s just in my nature that I always find myself challenging assumptions and presumptions. Opinionated is a very negative word in most contexts; it implies that someone is stubborn and unwilling to concede to others. In most cases, admittedly, it can lead to the most infuriating confrontations anyone can have: someone who is ‘never wrong’ is just impossible to deal with, and trying to converse with them usually just causes nothing more than frustration and anger. The book of Proverbs has many warnings about not engaging with fools, and these are not necessarily people of low intelligence, but those who will not take instruction, or who choose to live a life contrary to scripture.

However, are we believers not meant to be opinionated? Does not the apostle Paul admonish you and me to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind”? (Romans 12:2) – one of my favourite verses! This is not for us all to change our ‘minds’ to be as one, following a doctrinal decree. Rather, it is a singular charge to each of us to renew our mind and allow our thinking to be transformed. So I seek to follow this, and try to use my intelligence, experience and knowledge to make sure I am thinking as I believe God wants me to, not as everybody or anybody else does, however ‘great’ I may think of them in spiritual terms. Too often I hear believers say “we believe…x, y or z” – wait: WHO believes this? Shouldn’t it be I? Just because your minister or pastor says so, you follow along like a lapdog? Yes, many denominations have doctrinal statements and these are self-evident in establishing an agreed creed to which all adherents can concur, but beyond this determination of basic truths, there can be accepted dissent. I have heard of churches splitting over such unbelievably trivial doctrines like soul sleep i.e. whether we pass straight to heaven when we die, or we await, sleeping in the grave until the return of our Lord. Who cares? We shall all get there in the end, so let’s not fall out over the timescale!! In the face of eternity, what is such a matter?

So, there I found myself, not that long in this church, enjoying the worship and the sermons from the pastor, who was a great preacher of the gospel; souls were saved. Then one evening he started ranting about the world and its temptations and how a believer should not be a part of it. Yeah, preach it! He got a chorus of ‘amen’s. Then he said, “and if you have friends in the world, you shouldn’t! ‘Come ye apart’ the holy book tells me. You should have nothing to do with them!” More amens followed, but I sat there, cogs whirring in my brain, and it came to me: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’ Then Jesus told them this parable:” (Luke 15:1-3). Jesus goes on to relate the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, illustrating how he came to save the lost, not the righteous; something he often made clear (Matt. 9:13, 11:19, Luke 19:10). The Pharisees even accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard after they observed him with these… can I call them ‘profligate wretches’? (Matt. 11:19).

So was this pastor of mine right to decry associating with unbelievers? Or was I right in discerning a Pharisaical attitude that Jesus met with and dealt with by NOT changing his behaviour or his friends?

Grace be with you.