The Chilcot Report and the separation of church and state

Tony-BlairHere I go finding links again! What has Chilcot got to do with disestablishmentarianism, I hear you ask? You weren’t asking that specifically? Well, here goes…

Amidst all the conclusions, recriminations and finger-pointing going on right now, what stood out to me was a comment by Claire Short, who was a member of Blair’s cabinet and was opposed to the Iraq invasion. She said that Tony Blair was determined to stand with George W. Bush on the matter and was convinced that going to Iraq was the right thing to do, thus leading to a preference for the intelligence reports that favoured that decision and a dismissal of other voices.

Something I bang on about quite a bit is ‘confirmation bias’ since it affects a lot of things we say, do and believe. We have certain convictions within ourselves that we hold to firmly. These are the sort of things we hold ‘sacred’ and would need to undergo a huge change in ourselves to abandon, or even question. When these things are challenged, we immediately become defensive, and try our best to seek validation for our beliefs, to the point that we choose to ignore glaring truths that we are faced with, just because they undermine these sacred things we treasure. While I describe myself as a definite ‘questioning Thomas’ who is always posing the questions others dislike or avoid (the childlike ‘WHY?’), I too have a degree of confirmation bias. It exists in us all. Acquiescing to such unpalatable truths is never comfortable.

So I can see how Blair fell into his own bias trap by making a gut decision before all the information was in and digested. Maybe he had Thatcher’s advice still ringing in his ears: “Great leaders lead by conviction, not consent!” That’s only true if you consider dictators and tyrants to be ‘great’! True democratic leaders recognise that they are not perfect, and are capable of making fallible decisions, so submit themselves to the rigours of democratic consent, and the voices of the dissenters. Only the bad ones surround themselves with ‘yes men’ (like George W. Bush). Admission of our fallibility is the starting point of the Christian journey, is it not? Blair counts himself as a religious man, so why did he ignore that basic belief at that crucial time of decision?

I see the results of this bias almost every day. My fellow evangelicals have a set of beliefs that spring from their faith, which they count as vital core parts of their faith. They believe a, b, and c, so then it follows that d, e, f,… right up to x, y and z must be true too. They post on social media about all these various things. I reply that they’ve latched onto a hoax or an exaggeration. 9 times out of 10, they react badly, and reject my claim, no matter how factual it is. Saddens me, since we all follow Jesus, who is The Truth. I cannot comprehend how holding on to something false has any positive effect for the holder, the hearer/ reader, or our faith (or society in general!)

And so this is why I maintain my core belief in the separation of church and state, as has been maintained in manywestminster-abbey branches of Christianity, not least the Baptist school of thought. If we allow any ‘church’ or any part of the Christian church in the world, to have political power, then certain convictions they hold will be subject to become state policy, and who is to say which convictions are right, and which are wrong? In a plural society, under the overarching belief… no! strike that… the overarching fact that not one of us is infallible (except The One), we all need to find common agreement on things.

My convictions of faith are mine, and I do seek to convince others that my faith is true, and convert them to following Jesus, but any decision I make in regards to politics or the society I share must recognise that many things I hold true are not so for others, and may even be unfounded! I know which things are certain in my heart, but even those are simply personal and not universal. Just surrounding myself with ‘yes men’ who concur with all my convictions will not change that fact.

Tony Blair failed as our PM right at the most important time we needed him to make a decision, simply because he had convinced himself of his motives. What does our scripture say about that?

Fools find no pleasure in understanding
    but delight in airing their own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)

Do not get me wrong; my values will always shape what I say, do, act, vote, lobby, campaign or petition for. However, I exist as one individual in a society of voices, and we will never agree on everything, so listening to those voices, and understanding them, is vital for righteous living, in my humble opinion.

Grace be with you.

50 shades of greed

greed1024x768I have always called for an even approach to sin. We need to define just what sin is (well, it’s the chapter I’m working through on my book right now, so maybe it’s just me!). Then once we have established that, we need an even-handed approach by not suggesting that any one sin is any worse in God’s eyes than another. I truly believe the 21st century church is guilty of such unevenness, and maybe the most prevalent example is the zero attention to greed.

I’ll not take the time here to outline all the Bible verses where it is condemned alongside the other ones we always hear decried from pulpits, like drunkenness, adultery, deceit, lust, nor do we hear the greedy person condemned alongside the sexually immoral or the slanderer, yet this is exactly what I read in my Bible! Here’s just one example:

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Eph. 5:5)

Did you notice that little hidden word there? Greedy! Just that it’s not exactly hidden, is it? Some preachers, who may be millionaires themselves, and are telling their congregations that they too can become millionaires just by faith in God, seem to miss it when they read from their Bibles to proclaim their truth. And I have never come across it as a sermon topic!

8103018019_e3eb272a7b

 

“This is my truth, tell me yours.”

 – Aneurin Bevan.

 

Problem is that we all have a truth that is ours alone, and we all like to find the scripture that fits that personal ‘truth’ and ignore the others. I have yet to meet anyone who genuinely does not do this – it is a human trait and is practically impossible to throw off and be 100% subjective. However, when faced with an overwhelming amount of scripture that repeats the same thing, we must allow it to shape our truth, must we not?

Recently much of our media attention has been directed at a book & film that just should not have amassed an overnight fortune for its author, since it is so badly written (from practically every review that has been written about it). I am not fuming jealousy at the idea of a bad writer getting all the money… no, maybe I am, if I’m honest enough; if this book of mine only makes one percent of what that book/film made, I could retire a very contented man! Nor am I accusing the author of greed – she could not have known just how much she would make from a piece of sleazy chick lit, and I am sure she must have some idea that she is no Shakespeare! It wasn’t her fault that our media moguls fawned all over it, and Holywood came calling! Reports are that it has outstripped even Harry Potter in book sales and film revenues!! Whatever you may think of the Harry Potter stories, very few would try to say that JK Rowling is a bad writer!

50ShadesofGreyCoverArtIf you’re still not sure which book I am referring to, it’s ’50 Shades of Grey’. Did you not even see my title? Now this is a book I have never set eyes upon, nor do I wish to, and I have no desire to see any more of the film than has been shown in trailers. Fortunately, a brave female fellow Christian blogger has read and watched it, just to be able to critique it properly, so I’ll take her word for it. She’s a good blogger and writer and I have no reason to challenge her opinion (and it is refreshing for once to not find a Christian voice condemning something without actually having looked themselves!).

 

JamieBlogHeader

Here it is if you wish to read it:

A Missionary’s Position on 50 Shades of Grey.

The basic conclusion is interesting; this is a book about a stalker! Had anybody else acted as creepily obsessive over the woman in the story as Mr. Grey, they would have had an exclusion order slapped on them! It is just bad, for our 21st century emancipated women – the poor woman in the book is the pawn of a control freak! Just why and how does the male protagonist get away with his behaviour? Because he’s a handsome billionaire!! He’s such a great man, so successful, so wealthy, so revered by society, he just couldn’t really be a nasty criminal type, or any sort of mentally ill wacko! Surely not! However, that is the problem: with everyone falling over themselves to promote this work of crass sordidness, and throw their investment money at it, is it any real wonder when it is billionaires who are the ones who like what the book is stating?

Can I be allowed to cast a stone? While I am trying to promote a ‘condemn the sin, not the sinner’ attitude, there are times when it becomes pretty clear that a stone or five could be chucked. For instance, were I to meet a man who had cheated on his wife about half a dozen times, I would be justified to say “you’re an adulterer!” No? Really? I would try to understand just why they would come to behave in such a way, if I could, and offer counsel if asked, but I should be safe to say; they are an adulterer! Likewise, I think I should be entitled to say to a billionaire “you’re a greedy person!” The aforementioned JK Rowling was a billionaire, but she has now given most of it away! If such wealth is such a burden, as some of them try to make us believe, then let us relieve them of some of that burden… please!

We have got to stop revering greedy people, as a church of followers of Jesus: He, as our example, had “no place to lay his head.” (Matt. 8:20). We are called to “not conform to the pattern of the world” (Rom. 12:2), so let us renew our minds and recognise sin where it lies and be the example of ‘betterness’ – just as we should not be sexually immoral, so we should not be greedy.

“But,” you may object, “this is just a work of fiction, that’s not true in the real world! Billionaires are not given any more respect than the rest of us. They don’t have any real higher ‘status’!”

Really? My reply to that is that you’re living in cloud cuckoo land! A judge once said “the rich get justice, the poor get the law” since they can always afford the best lawyers. If you have enough money, you can get one of them to go through your arrest report for drunk-driving and search for the smallest mistake that can see you avoid court! Still not convinced that there is a culture of reverence for the rich and famous? Why was it that many called for Paris Hilton to not be sent to prison for a crime she committed? Is that just stupid uneducated people? No, it occurs in the well-educated judiciary too: Read this news report and then come back to me and try to say we don’t have a major cultural problem that the church is failing to address!

1396212401000-wildc5-6ehdlb201ybix4mc8ky-originalI am not saying in any way that all super-rich people are like this lowlife, but I am saying that we have allowed ourselves to disassociate greed from any taint of sin or wrongdoing and have in fact allowed people who suffer from this sin to not only go unchecked but to be exonerated in churches as much as they are in society.

Grace be with you.

Let the light shine (brief thought on the gospel service)

My good friend who is a Presbyterian minister finally gave me an answer to a question I’ve had for a while, and it was how we managed to have Sunday Evening gospel services; when did they start? There is certainly no scriptural basis for having two Sunday services, yet most evangelical churches here in Northern Ireland stick rigidly to the morning communion service and evening gospel service, with the ever-present “invite someone along with you to hear the gospel!”

So how did it come about? Are you as keen to know as I was? He told me it was in late Victorian times here that in any town or village, churches were the first to get electric light and people would come at night to see this new marvel, and so ministers thought “well, now they’re here… we may as well share the gospel with them!” This may not be the case in other countries, but I’m confident you might find similar reasons.

I’m not sure about you, but I’ve noticed a big change recently. Numbers attending the morning communion were always less than the evening gospel service, even maybe as recently as ten years ago, but now that has been turned on its head. My brother-in-law is a Baptist pastor in Scotland and concurs it’s the same there, with one colleague of his seeing 200 in the morning, and 10 in the evening!! Yet still, if anyone dare suggest we change things and drop the gospel service or change the format, we are met with accusations of ‘watering down’ the message, or becoming ‘easy Christians’ – as if we are just meant to carry on regardless and suffer meetings for their own sake. A friend at Bible College did a field term in a church in England that held a full gospel service with a hellfire sermon, hymns, announcements, and a collection, and nobody but the pastor, his wife, and my friend were present! I kid you not!!

We don’t need to just ‘maintain’ the evening service, we need to make it attractive to non-believers. And I don’t think saying “we now have fluorescent lights!” will work.

Grace be with you.

Sympathy for the Devil

Yeah, I know! The Rolling Stones beat me to that title by a lifetime! I was originally going to title this “I think Satan gets a bum deal!” but something about that didn’t feel right.

Why do I think that? Well, he gets blamed for many things that have nothing or very little to do with him!

My son came to me with a video he came across about Satanic symbolism recently found… on an energy drink can! YES! I could not help but laugh, but not at him… I’ve been ‘around the block’ and seen it all… Proctor & Gamble… The Care Bears… Cabbage Patch Dolls… SpongeBob… Harry Potter… and that’s just off the top of my head! And who of our generation could ever forget backward masking? Though I did know a guy who turned his vinyl record player backwards by hand, and he did hear a message: “You are ruining your stylus!!

[For the younger generation: vinyl records were flat disks that rotated slowly and the stylus was the needle that ‘read’ the ‘memory’ on them.]

Ozzy Osbourne: The Prince of Darkness!! Huh? Have you seen his reality show? These promotions of the ‘dark side’ and the rebellious spirit that goes with it, flipping two fingers to the ‘establishment’ is just that – promotions! Marketing promotions aimed at a demographic, usually the younger generation. And such subtle (or not so subtle) images and ideas do work in advertising or else they’d be dropped.

Satan is showing forth his power over the world by getting his wee symbols on marketed products, yeah! And real witchcraft looks exactly like JK Rowling portrayed it in Hogwarts!

If you wish to go looking for symbols, it ain’t that hard. Only today I noticed one; if you have the new Candy Crush Soda game on your phone, look down at the lower left corner on the home screen – if you’re heavily into ‘Zionist conspiracy’ you’ll latch onto that one! No, I don’t see evil in these markings any more than I could hear ‘Hail Satan’ in “tsud eht siteb eno rehtona” or any other ‘wop woo ebb wah nyek’ sounding recording that those guys kept playing until I was supposed to say “Oh, I hear it now!” just to make them go on to the next church youth group!

Where do I see evil then? Where might the influence of the Devil be found? I see it in individuals and corporations who have ludicrous amounts of money yet spend half their life trying to avoid paying tax on their fortunes (which Jesus unequivocally commanded us!). I see it in politicians who care not one jot for the poor. I hear it when Bob Geldof swears, but not in those expletives: in the incredulity he has at how little major nations are giving to help beat the scourge of ebola! I see it in the relative apathy shown by our press at atrocities in our world when there’s a better headline about The X Factor or Big Brother – it’s only when there’s little to report on celebrities or wannabes that real news takes centre stage. And I also see the evil in wanting to promote bad news above even the slightest good thing that might be happening out there. No wonder Christians today think “it’s all getting worse!”

Now there is something to address: how much of this ‘evil’ is within our churches too? How many preachers promote forms of politics or certain politicians whose record may not be squeaky clean? Right away, I find myself reflective, and is that not how we are meant to be? Recognising the sin within ourselves? If I’m brutally honest, that greed that is so apparent in the billionaire is present in me too. Who would turn their nose up at inheriting a good amount of cash? The apathy that I decry is also right there when I find myself switching the TV channel over from pictures of suffering to see that comedy show.

What exactly is Satan’s role in the universe? What is his ‘job’? His aim? Is it not to ‘deceive the elect’? How did he tempt Eve in Eden? Was it not by saying that she could become greater than what God planned for her? He tempted her to take pride in herself, in her ability to decide between good and evil, and to find pleasure in being able to judge others. It is actually in that recognition of his intentions, that his aim is to get us to look at others’ sins and failings and not our own faults, that we can defeat him. If he wants us to be blind to our own limitations and our need for Jesus and his forgiveness, then surely each of us seeking to change ourselves first and foremost is the most efficient way to defeat him? I shall repeat myself again: Revival is never about them, it’s always about you!

On second thoughts… all those things that Christians love to find and point out, out in the world that show the extent of Satanic influence, all those symbols and children’s shows and pop songs, maybe they are actually his ploys! Carry on as you were…

Grace be with you.

 

P.S. Here’s a wee poem what I wrote as a younger me, many moons ago (forgive the limited blog formatting, please):

DARKNESS

When the darkness falls

The moon has gone

And the stars behind the clouds are hid,

The angel calls

My spirit on

And my anxious fears to death are bid

But will I stand

Against the tide?

Will courage fail me at the test?

Or fate demand

That flight will bide

And put my skittish soul to rest?

 

How can I know

If I’ll be strong

Before the day of judgement dawns.

Time will show

If I am wrong

To think I’m king among the pawns.

Through trying times

I’ll have to learn

To learn from every trial I face

And face my crimes,

Those crimes that churn

Within my darkest, hidden place.

 

The greatest voyage,

It is said,

Has to start with the first step.

But this wise adage

Has conveyed

A truth which in our minds has slept.

To beat the rise

Of evil

In everything I see

I must surprise

The Devil

By seeing the sin in me.

 

Shanky’s Hollow, Mourne Mountains

25/8/95

They barred ME?!!!!

Verses Cartoon

Just had to blog on this one! This morning I found myself barred from a Facebook page called ‘The Christian Left’ for expressing an opinion. This is a page I follow due to its desire to challenge mainstream theology and ‘Christian’ political opinion. I found there contributors with whom I generally agreed and concurred, but the odd occasion I would find a post that went against certain biblical truths I hold dear. I often engaged in these debates, as ever being reserved and polite, and accepted that I would not be in complete agreement with everyone who appeared on the page.

This is the impetus behind this very blog. I always like to challenge fellow believers to think carefully about what they believe, search scripture, ask themselves if what they believe is from their own convictions or their own reading of scripture, or from a denominational bias or the singular rantings of one preacher (or blogger, let’s not forget!).

I never expect to agree with everyone on all the finer points of my faith. There are good friends in my own church who believe in British Israelism – I think it’s one of the most laughable ideas I’ve ever heard, and I tell them so. If they believe it, they’re entitled to. There are many other things upon which debate will always rage, like whether we remain in the grave (soul sleep) or go straight to heaven on death – I’m totally unbothered, to be honest, I’ll get there eventually, whichever way it is. Yet some churches split over this!!

I have little time for ‘statements of faith’ since they invariably end up very lengthy and stray into fairly minor points that seem to state: “unless you subscribe to all our points here, we shall not fellowship with you”. I outlined what I think is important in a previous blog here.

My incredulity comes from an idea within myself that I am probably the most agreeable of theologians, taking points I believe are good and worthy of attention from all sides of opinion, from the Pope to the Puritans, even though I despise many doctrines within those various groups. I’m so glad that I’ve come to a considered opinion that many who claim the tag ‘Christian’ may well be my fellow brothers and sisters – in the end, only God knows [the Calvinist principle of the invisible church] – I have debated with many and found a kindred love for Jesus in people who belong to denominations I consider to be very dodgy; their personal experience is what counts. For me, theological points sit on a scale from very important, through ‘interesting’ to ‘meh!’ and I know myself which I give more weight to, and on that I rest.

I know that pages like The Christian Left have to do some barring. We all know trolls out there, and I’ve seen the usual abusive comments made by some (who very seldom can string together a coherent sentence, yet know how to spell all the swear words one could imagine), but for just saying “excuse me, but that article is doing the very same thing you accuse others of, in being selective and not addressing the whole issue, so making wildly false claims” I get barred from further comments and see mine removed!?

Considering such pages are meant to encourage alternative thinking, surely it is off the scale of irony? So I have to sing from exactly the same hymn sheet? (That pun was unintended, but so apt. Thank you!). Just more denominalisation, causing more division!

“Stop parroting their mantras! Just parrot our mantras and you’ll be fine.”

Grace be with you.

Revival: how I long for it (again), but am mindful of what I wish for!

[I started this blog some days ago. As I was writing it, our pastor brought a study on revival and prayer, even calling on a reading of 2 Chron. 7:14 in the same manner as mine here. I take that as confirmation of my post, though I am addressing the consequences of revival, not the methods.]

 

I have shared here before how I came to Christ at age 14, but spent my whole first year as a new Christian not setting foot across the threshold of any church building. This gave me a unique insight into my faith since I was shielded from so much of the cultural baggage that goes along with a ‘Christian upbringing’. The first church I decided to settle in was actually a Congregational church, yet one very much geared towards the youth, and that exercised the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Very unusual, yes. Yes indeed!

The youth within that church underwent revival! We hear that word bandied about churches a lot these days, and I always think “do you really know what you’re asking for when you pray or sing ‘send revival, Lord!’ or grasp what that means?” People tend to get some things about revival right, and some wrong. What is right is that it draws more people in; there were a number of new converts, and we saw the numbers of the youth quadruple in 2 weeks! But numbers is not what it’s about; it’s more about a turning of God’s own people to a new way of living and thinking. The oft-quoted verse of 2 Chronicles 7:14 needs to be looked at carefully, since it is seen as the blueprint for ‘revival’. Let’s put a slight emphasis on it:

“If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Here is where the first common mistake is made. Believers tend to look at the world around them and cry out “save them from their wicked ways, Lord. Send revival for this land!” Note the emphasis there. We become too busy looking at the specks in their eyes, when Jesus exhorted us to remove the planks from ours, before we can see well enough to remove their speck. Is that not what our Lord God is telling us? We need to turn from whatever it is within us that is wicked before he will ‘hear’ our prayers and act. I am currently reading an excellent book by Benjamin Corey; ‘Undiluted’ – a book recalling us to the radical message of Jesus that strips away the infestation of our modern culture that has weakened the church. We need to relearn how Jesus decried ‘holy people’ who only did and said ‘all the right things’ and encouraged people to be holy by seeing the sin within themselves and changing that. He spent more time with ‘sinners’ than with ‘saints’. He wanted to encourage them to become more than those ‘holy people’ they saw looking down on them.

The second most common mistake; people look forward to revival since they are convinced they will feel so good and righteous and nice and cosy. WRONG!!! The single, undeniable, most striking, unforgettable thing I experienced during that revival was conviction! That which Jesus sought to instil in us i.e. looking inwardly at our own hearts. I don’t mean feeling bad about saying a swear word or feeling some desire for something you should know better to avoid. I mean a reaction in your soul to even the most simple thought not in line with the Holy Spirit that keeps you awake at night, that does not allow you to sleep well until you sort it out, or make restitution with a person you wronged in some way. I found myself at that time doing strange things, like approaching a brother in church and actually saying, “Brother, I thought a wrong thought about you the other day. I think it came from some sense of jealousy, but it was just wrong. Forgive me!” This would be an internal thought hatched within my own ears that nobody knew about in the slightest. Nobody except God, and his internal monologue within me convicted me, to the point that I just had to go ask forgiveness. In so many ways this was painful and troubling, but it was also so purging. Like that gruelling training you do to lose weight and gain fitness that hurts your body but you just know you’re achieving something good.

Alas, the revival that we went through was not to last. I was at that church for less than a year, but within that time the minister and his wife managed to make it their mission to exact a humbling and submission from those touched by the revival towards them, not God! We can give it many labels, the most prevalent being ‘shepherding’ (which is strange since it is what ministers/pastors are called to do!); meaning a giving of an allegiance that should be reserved for God and God alone to a flawed church leadership (they’re all flawed) with no questioning or challenging of motives or methods. We went through a bad patch right after the good time, and though the minister’s wife had a dream about having to leave behind a well of blessing that would dry up to travel through a desert to a new spring, then a river, then an ocean of blessing, she herself chose to interpret that we were still to stay at the well and not move. At one external meeting for the choir, heated words were exchanged, but I determined to stay and sort things out. So I approached the minister and told him – I recall clearly the conversation as though it were yesterday:

“That’s great, Tim! So you’re behind me, then?” [I knew what he was implying]

“Mr. ______, I can’t be 100% behind any man. All I want to do is the Lord’s will.”

“I don’t want any of that! I want you behind me!”

“Right!” I said as I looked him square in the eye, then turned and walk out the door. I am not ashamed to admit that I went home and cried. This had become my home, my spiritual resting place, and at that tender age I was suddenly lost and spiritually homeless. I thank God that I had my own personal faith, grounding me firmly in my following of Jesus, not man. I was not a ‘yes man’ – never will be either! I thank God that he has given me the ability to walk alone and not be overly mindful of the walk of others – I can be concerned and pray for them but their problems don’t affect my testimony (most of the time!)

Revival is never about them. It’s always about you! Whether ‘they’ are non-believers outside the door, or fellow brothers and sisters across the pew, they are not your concern when you seek God, when you wish to experience his revival. Look at your heart, pray, and ask, as the Psalmist did, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51). Unfortunately, it may only take one person to withhold their heart from such examination to ruin any chance of revival (remember Achan!). This is maybe why it is so rare. Seek it yourself anyway, and you can only pray others come along with you. As I said, it’s about you in the end.

One of my favourite songs is ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd. Gilmour’s guitar solo is my ringtone, and though the song relates to drugs, his guitar is enough for me to get high! It means a lot to me, especially the closing words before that two-minute (far too short!) solo:

“When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.”

For many years now I have just sat in church feeling comfortably numb.