Where fear belongs

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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 KJV)

The 23rd Psalm is one of the pieces of scripture I actually like in the KJV. Maybe it’s just because it has that poetic charm of familiarity, and the archaisms add to the poetry. This verse, though, came alive to me (forgive the pun) after I faced death myself. Modern translations render it ‘the darkest valley’, which is maybe more accurate, but what darker valley could there be but ‘the shadow of death’?

I blogged on my experience, My Journey From Death, very briefly, since recalling the memories of the time was too upsetting for me. This itself is ironic considering that I faced death square on and accepted it, with peace and a resolve, yet recollections of the time still induce strong emotions, very akin to fear. I knew at the time that I felt fear, but almost immediately, the fear was calmed by the hand of God beside me, and his reassuring voice, though I only heard five words! It was then that I realised that King David penned that Psalm from the experience of facing death, and not just as a poetic exercise. It’s not a prediction, it’s a testimony!

I’ve blogged on this before, where I maintained that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. For me, there are always two paths open for me when I face a decision: the path of faith or the path of fear. I do not believe they can ever reach the same destination. I have also cited it as a primary reason for my rejection of all the ‘end times’ nonsense around these days; I just do not like fellow believers living in abject terror of the world falling apart, and they really do this (despite their denials) every morning they wake up and switch on the news! Only once you step outside that mindset and leave it behind do you begin to see the prison cell that it is!

After_Earth_PosterI had a film recorded to watch by myself, since it was a sci-fi thriller, and Karen would not be keen on it. It was released in 2013, but since I hadn’t heard of it until it appeared on ITV2, I realised it might not be such a great film. Nonetheless, I’ll watch practically any sci-fi! ‘After Earth’ was not among M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest works, nor was it one of Will Smith’s greatest performances, but I’ll forego a film review here. The main theme of the film was actually fear, and how Smith’s character, Cypher, had learnt to be a ‘ghost’ to evade aliens who ‘smelt fear’ (yeah it was a bit daft!). He made a great statement, though, one which I had to rewind to listen to again, to analyse if it really was that profound:

“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present, and may not ever, exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me: danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

While there is a natural fear of things as we face them, like fire or standing at the edge of a tall cliff, this is simply a defence mechanism, and we need to have it to survive and avoid injury. What we are talking about here is that fear that thinks of what might happen and worries about it. Was Cypher correct in his evaluation? For me it’s most definitely yes. To live a life of faith, I must be of a persuasion that my Father God has all things in control for me and is working for my benefit in everything. I must not allow anything to cloud that surety (I’ll not say doubts since I already explained in that previous blog how they play a vital rôle in my growing faith).

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)

Therefore, my reality must be a world in which my interests are paramount to my heavenly Father, and any fear that this is not the case, is purely in my own mind, and the product of my own worries, not of God. This is exactly a direct command and reassurance that Jesus gave us:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? (Matt. 6:25)

In giving ourselves over to fears that are borne from worry about our future, we have slipped into that easy place of disobedience to the command: ‘do not worry’.

Grace be with you.

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Don’t let fear.

Jim-Hurst-3

 

I haven’t blogged in a while, I’ve been so consumed with my book; I even took my laptop when I went into hospital for my operation, so I could continue with it in between the painkillers. One thing I knew for sure in writing my book was that I would be setting on a quest for this ‘contentment’ and as such, would be facing trials of all kinds, in order to learn and apply lessons, first to myself, then to my readers. What I did not foresee was a trial that was so instant, yet so devastating, that I briefly lost my faith. Yes!

I have a framed poster on the wall of my study, of a rock climber on the wall of El Capitan in California, with a caption: “Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams.” I relate to it very well, since I was a keen climber in my youth. I never reached the truly dizzy heights of the likes of El Capitan (above), the Troll Wall (or even our own local Fair Head), or anything like that, but it was the very fear while climbing that gave it the ‘buzz’ that drew me to it. You ignored such fear and just climbed!

In life and faith, I have learnt to treat fear in the same way. I believe that as I reach for the things that I believe God wishes for me (and I’m not talking about material things!), then I should be as adventurous as a climber tackling a new climb. You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear. Doubt creates an opportunity for you to question and seek answers and rethink, regroup your thoughts and maybe even change your stance, and then God can reassure you and make your faith yet stronger, but fear…. that just paralyses your faith.

So it was that I was in a confused state after my second operation, coming round from anaesthetic in a place I had nightmares about six years ago; Intensive Care, the last place I’d ever wish to be, and everything left me. Well, not true, actually – God never left me, but my faith did, and if there is one major lesson I take from this personal ‘worst trial ever’ that I underwent, it is that fear is very powerful, and nothing can overcome it, except God alone. My ‘faith’ left me, but my faith is a thing that I construct around God, based on my life experiences, my doctrine, my church, my fellow believers, my own thoughts, but it is not God himself.

I have much to write on this in my book’s last chapter, and there is much to discuss, but for now, please recognise what things in your life you may think are of God, but are not. Even the most precious things, like my worship ministry, my church of supportive and loving brothers and sisters, my Bible, even my ‘faith’… all these things can easily become substitutes for my heavenly Father and his presence in my life. Hold onto HIM, and nothing else. Then when fear comes, you will have at hand the very thing you need to defeat it.

What fear(s) do you have that challenge you right now?

What thing(s) do you have that may well be holding a place in your heart that actually (maybe very innocently) exclude God from his seat there?

Grace be with you.

God is in control?

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This was a meme posted on a private discussion forum I was on with fellow church members during a discussion about a choice we had to make. My immediate, gut reaction was not one of “yeah, that’s right! Praise God!” that maybe many think I should have had. No, it was more of a “Hmmmm, not sure about this…” moment. It just didn’t add up for me.

I’m often finding myself commenting on some memes, just because I analyse what they state and come up short in my mind (see my previous blog on pride, for example). This is one of those that somehow shouts out to you a ‘truth’ that you want to grab hold of, but it really has little practical application, once you think about it. For instance, if your teenage child came to you at exam time and said they really didn’t want to revise and proclaimed this to you: “If God wants me to succeed, I can’t mess it up!” I think I could safely say you’d be quick to reply something like: “If you’re not going to be properly prepared for something, God ain’t gonna just bail you out!”

Wouldn’t you?

This could lead to a huge blog and/or debate about the sovereign will of God, which is a many-layered theological concept that has many differing views across it. I shall not go into length here, but if you apply this thinking to anything you do, your belief is actually more akin to an Islamic fatalism ‘if Allah wills it’ worldview. We Christians feel differently about this, otherwise we would not pray about things or intercede for others’ needs – we are asking God to do something he hasn’t done yet, so we believe we can affect and change his will. If you really think you cannot change his mind on things, then you deserve the label of ‘Hyper-Calvinist’ and you may as well just stop praying altogether. Look up the account of Abraham bartering with God over Sodom in Genesis 18 if you’re still not convinced.

One way such thinking can lead into problems is with ‘prosperity preaching’ that leads to a selfish Christian who thinks that nothing can harm them or go against their own desires and pursuit of things ‘if they only have enough faith’. This view of God’s will being discussed here leads to those who have plenty adopting the concept that God wants them to have wealth, and never consider any other reason for their fortune, like having certain privileges borne from their background. Or consider that God might have intended to allow them wealth for them to use for more than selfish gain.

Another way (again, selfish) is to see problems in the world as ‘beyond our control’ and leave it up to God to sort out, when he has commanded us in scripture repeatedly to get our hands dirty and take action to help others and change things around us when we can (a lot of this is symptomatic of the dispensationalist worldview).

Yes, I admit that what this meme may convey is that in ‘the grand scheme of things’ God has an overarching plan, and my life is in his hands and will not fall apart, but in my everyday living, my decisions, I still have a responsibility to act reasonably and soberly, and not do anything to jeopardise what goodness might come my way. It’s called free will, and it is what we invoke when we wish to defend God against the “your God is cruel and uncaring!” jibes of others. He gave free will to Adam and Eve, and he gave it to you and me. We can mess things up for ourselves.

Grace be with you.

[Cue for my favourite theological joke again (worth repeating): A hyper-Calvinist fell down the stairs. When he go to the bottom, he said “Thank God that’s over!”]

Why I hate testimonies!

This will conclude with what I have come to believe is one of the greatest faults within evangelical churches, which serves to actually undermine discipleship with Christ! In a recent discussion around two songs, both entitled ‘Take me to church’ I stated that just as I, as an imperfect individual, need to accept fair criticism, so also an imperfect church needs to do the same.

I am fairly certain I have mentioned this before in bits and pieces across all my previous blogs, but I’m just wanting to lay down something a bit more concrete. Yes, I do hate testimonies!

34 years listening to them and seldom not just wanting to fall asleep! Also getting to the point of missing our New Year’s ‘watchnight’ services because they’d be a total of four hours (with a welcome tea break, mind you) mainly full of… testimonies!

Not that I doubt the individual testimonies of my brothers and sisters! Nor that their own stories are unique and do testify to the saving grace of God. I just got tired of the same old, same old… [for those who maybe do not practice this cultural phenomenon, you are asked to speak before the church and relate what God has done in your life, how he saved you from the consequences of your sins, changed your life, provided for you, answered prayers].

Yes, they certainly can be valuable. I was even asked myself to testify for a Father’s Day service, and asked specifically to tell of how I was miraculously healed from a brain haemorrhage and stroke, and it is a story of how I faced death, spoke with God, received assurance that I’d not die in intensive care, and yes, I would see my grandchildren (first granddaughter born only two years later!).

So why and how do I find myself just hating them and dreading the next round of them? As with many religious things we participate in, they’re more cultural than scriptural  – just for example, where do our two services on Sunday come from? Testimonies that I hear tend to take on a pattern, human nature being what it is, and follow an unspoken, unwritten code and definition that people tend to fall into in order to fulfil the ‘criteria’ that make it what it is. I often hear preambles like “I’m honoured to be able to stand here and testify for my Lord Jesus” or clichés like “he died in my room instead” (which I somehow always hear as ‘room and staid’ since it might almost make as much sense to an unchurched person as the ‘proper’ one that rolls off our tongues!), or worse: “he’s now my own and personal saviour” since both ‘own’ and ‘personal’ mean the same thing, and create a redundancy, and I believe it to be a corruption of ‘my Lord and personal saviour’ and leaving out ‘Lord’ (whether intentionally or not) leads to a belief I shall come to later.

No, I end up purely anticipating a formula that sounds roughly like this:

“I’m honoured… [see above]. I was a terrible sinner. I was

a) raised in a Christian home,

or b) not raised in a Christian home but was made to go to Sunday school,

but I turned my back on all that when I grew up.

I lived a life of [insert various vices here. Common ones like smoking, drinking and going to pubs are fair enough, but feel free to add in ‘greater’ sins if applicable e.g. cheating on (or better, beating) your spouse].

I carried on in this miserable life until one day, I gave in to this guy at work/ friend from schooldays/ uncle or aunt who had been asking me incessantly about going to church with them, and I attended the gospel service. I was so moved by the message and felt God calling me. I raised my hand, said the sinner’s prayer, and now I no longer [smoke, drink, go to pubs… as applicable from above] and I’ve never looked back, even though that was x years ago. [END].”

[N.B. Add in a few clichés as noted above when describing your moment of salvation]

Many seem to almost revel in just how bad a person the testifier was before their encounter with Jesus, to the point that it can sound like a glorification of sin to me! I thought this was peculiar maybe to just my Northern Ireland culture but a bestselling book years ago was ‘Hell’s Angel’ by Brian Greenaway, an English believer who went around testifying to the violent life he lived in a chapter of bikers before becoming a Christian. He related in an interview how an old lady came to him after a service and said “oh I wish I had a testimony like yours!” Greenaway said that he felt like punching her in the face (yes, God’s grace takes time to work on some of us!). He could not believe that she’d been listening to how awful things were for him and still wish that she had experienced a similar life. There it was, a clear desire to have something terrible from which to have been ‘saved’ in order to lend kudos to one’s testimony! Heaven forbid we should have a boring one!

Yet no testimony should be boring! If we only were to recount to ourselves all the great things in which we have seen God’s work and hand in our lives, and what we have learnt along the way, it should never be mundane to listen to; that is, if we have a walk to recount…

1. I AM a sinner!

First point I wish to make about these ‘off the shelf’ testimonies is that they seem to talk about being a sinner until that day we changed and never went back to the ‘life of sin’ yet nowhere do I read of us achieving perfection this side of heaven! The righteousness we have is imputed to us through Christ’s perfection, once we accept him. We are just deemed righteous by God through Jesus. If you’re not sure what this means, look up those two words in a dictionary. It should be clear. We are all sinners and continue to be so. I have thought of my life as being suddenly changed in a flash, yes, that moment I accepted Christ as Lord and saviour, but I saw no instant change in myself. That has taken time and is still ongoing, every day, every year. Like that day 27 years ago that I made vows to my wife in love, and I became a married man, my life changed, but it has been a journey of ups and downs, good and bad, ‘for better, for worse’ with Karen that is still ongoing, and my marriage was not set down in concrete form on that wedding day. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve treated my wife, as has she with me, as has any married person. The same applies to the Christian life, and by focussing purely on that one day and stopping your testimony there, you imply that you have been a good saint ever since. This was not my experience; I was a well-behaved boy of 14. I’d done no more than a few detentions for not doing homework, looking curiously at certain magazines we found on a disused railway, and trying to light cigarettes with my best friend without puffing on them, and thinking it was just our luck to purchase a pack that were all duds! I can safely say I have been more of a sinner since my conversion than before. Hence why I can also not sing certain songs that talk of “sinking deep in sin, sinking to rise no more” or that “my life was full of sin and confusion” – that certainly is the experience of some, but not all of us, and so these ‘expected’ testimonies become the preserve of those who can declare such a life, leaving others feeling somehow short-changed. No, I am thankful that I have no real bad past to haunt my dreams and disturb my sleep. I got enough of that conviction when I experienced Holy Spirit revival (blogged here) – again; after my conversion!

2. We cannot keep ourselves

I saw a graph for usage of gym membership over the months of a year, put up on Facebook for a laugh. Of course, January has the highest peak, decreasing over the year to maybe a short peak before the summer months (must get back into that swimsuit!). We all know why. How many New Year’s resolutions last into February, really? I decided some time ago to stop making resolutions just once in the year because our nature will always disappoint us, and not just at the expected time (we do expect to break those resolutions sometime, don’t we?). I make resolutions when needed and if I don’t keep them, I just try again. Finding that it has been a mistake to put trust in our own nature to keep to it just makes the devil on our shoulder laugh while the angel on the other shoulder commits hara-kiri in dishonour! So it is with many new converts. Too many, I fear. When doing door-to-door work in my native East Belfast, which has a church on every street corner, I lost count of the people I encountered who said “oh, I tried all that church stuff and became a Christian x years ago, but I couldn’t maintain it.” This probably outnumbered those who said their reason for turning their back on churches was ‘other Christians’ which were numerous too! It is a wonderfully simple concept that I grasped early on; that it was nothing to do with my efforts but all rested on the finished work of Calvary and it was Jesus that kept me forever, forgiving me of all my sin repented of (in fact, I memorised 1John 1:9 before my salvation!), and not up to me to keep myself; I cannot do it, but he can, praise his name. This misconception has led to many making that ‘resolution’ to follow Jesus, only to fall at some natural hurdle, and say to themselves “well, I tried it, but I couldn’t do it. It’s not for me!” In other words, it’s for ‘religious’ people, for those of us who have the resolve to live like monks in a perpetual state of piety and self-denial. This is where I take a second issue with these ‘standard’ testimonies, since they only add to this confusion and misunderstanding, by inadvertently implying that once the sinner’s prayer is said, everything is rosy and we ‘live happily ever after’ – saying “I’ve never looked back” says that to me, that the testifier has had no problems following Jesus, and so a new convert who encounters issues in their walk is likely to feel themselves inferior and unworthy of Jesus; yet we are all unworthy (Romans 5:8). Were a testifier to say that they have encountered problems and doubts in their life since following Christ, and discuss it openly, my ears would most certainly prick up! But, no, testimonies are meant to be just all positive and gushing!

3. The story isn’t over!

A major problem that is present in most Protestant churches derives from where they came from. The first protestants opposed some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, and the general feeling, borne from Luther’s assertion that “the just shall live by faith alone” (Galatians 3:10-12) was that Rome had imposed an ongoing dependence upon the priesthood and their administration of sacraments deemed vital to a believer’s life. This was rejected since we are believed now to all be saints, as Paul addresses all believers in his letters, and each of us capable of coming to Christ on our own, serving him in our individual lives without meeting the requirements of any church or denomination (or church leader). I can safely say that you’d be hard pressed to find a protestant church that would deny this: whatever rituals or ordinances they may require of a member would be qualified as not vital to one’s salvation or relationship with Christ. However, from this stance comes a mindset that tends to reject any attempt to state how we need to serve Christ by good works (which our salvation is not dependent upon):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8,9)

even though in the following verse God fully expects them from us:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10)

Here is the problem I alluded to at the outset:

While salvation is dependent solely on Christ’s work on the cross, this does not mean that we have absolutely nothing to do for him! We can find the extreme doctrine that we need not worry about any acts of service after that initial decision, not even praying or reading our Bible (yes!). Thankfully, most evangelical churches will reject this nonsense, and preach that we must repent from sin and live righteously, but the call to ‘live right’ simply falls into trap #2 mentioned above. It implies, yet again, that one must make an effort to avoid certain things or behaviours, or the company of ‘sinners’ (even though Jesus sought to sit, eat and drink with them!).

No, new converts must be taught that our decision to follow Jesus is exactly that: we start following him! It is that simple, even though it brings many problems and dilemmas into our lives. Note that ‘the sinner’s prayer’ is found nowhere in scripture! Just saying it does not make you a follower of Jesus; your salvation may hinge upon the decision, but your earthly life does not just come to an end as you take up your selected pew and sit out the rest, waiting for death or his return! To me, many believers look like they’ve done just this, even with their personal pew cushions to comfort their long-suffering butt! Your salvation decision is a glorious moment, never to be repeated, but it is only the start of a long and wondrous journey, with just so much to learn. And like that one leper out of the ten, should we not go back to our saviour, fall at his feet and offer thanks, and seek to know just how we can thank and serve him? We need to make him our ‘Lord and personal saviour’! Did Paul not admonish us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? (Phil. 2:12)

Yes, I approach my life with such fear and trembling, since many times I have found myself challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. Remember when your parents scolded you for bad behaviour or a wrong attitude? A good child will feel remorse, and want to do better, and please their parents. So are we with God: let us take up our cross as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, listening intently to his words and trying to emulate him. You have problems with sin in your life? Welcome to the club! If you want a good lament on that read about Paul’s ongoing struggle in Romans 7. In that brain wrestle, he goes through the tensions that exist in churches and individual believers… surely we cannot just live an entire life of reliance upon Christ based on one event outside of our control? We must have something to live by, and this is what the law was given for, so… we must turn back to it for instruction on ‘right living’… but, that in itself held us captive to nothing but the knowledge of sin, and I find myself at war within my own spirit over this… how do I get out of it? He reaches his answer in the following chapter: we who have his Spirit within us, who experienced the change of heart at that moment and didn’t just mouth some words in a ritual, have this ‘law of Christ’ working in us, and indeed, his own work imputed to us, not just his achievement for our salvation, means that our striving is not required (not by works) but our acceptance of his perfection grants us victory:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4)

We can reject the idea that we need to religiously strive after our salvation and gain it on merit. Surely we can also refute the notion that it’s all about just one raising of a hand? Here’s my favourite word again: balance. The truth of our walk, The Way, which is actually him (John 14:6), is that beautiful middle choice of simple surrender to his will. My journey started not with a raising of a hand or a formulaic prayer, but it was a prayer, to a God I was not certain was there. His reply has never left my ears. As I complete this, I’m listening to ‘What a Friend I’ve Found’ by Delirious: “Jesus… friend forever.”

Grace be with you.

[As an aside, when I think about all the testimonies I’ve heard, another implication is that the only way to ‘win’ someone to Christ is to invite them to a gospel service. I cannot recall even one that said they found Jesus outside of this formula, yet there I was, praying for God to accept me, long before I set foot across a church door! Was I, like Paul, just one ‘abnormally born’ (1 Cor. 15:8)? Can we not witness in all areas of our life? The three people I have led to Jesus in my own life were not in such a gospel service.]

 

Brian Houston and Chrislam: my brief take on it.


I’m not going into a huge debate on this topic. I’m sure there’s already about ten million comments out there! What struck me when I listened to Houston was something I actually wonder has been picked up much. It comes down to my constant rant: be informed!

That applies to you too, Houston! You see, you said “way back in the Old Testament… we had Muslims…”

Point of information: Islam was founded by Muhammad in the 7th century, WAY past even the NEW Testament! A little bit of education hurts nobody, Brian!
Let me surmise that maybe, just maybe, you mean the Ishmaelites, known today as the Arabs. Yes, they were around then. They are also descendants of Abraham, but through his concubine Hagar, not his wife Sarah. Yes, they knew who Yahweh (the Great ‘I Am’) was (as did the captive Israelites in Egypt when Moses told them “‘I Am’ sent me!”). We even read in the account in Genesis 16 & 17 how it was Sarah who forced Hagar out of Abraham’s house through jealousy, but that God sought her out and commanded her to return to Abraham and made promises of blessing to her and then to Ishmael. Yahweh was known to all these peoples and their descendants, but of course, they all at various times turned away to other gods and served their own desires and agendas (including the Israelites many, many times!). So, IF you mean that, Brian, then we are in agreement; they have always really known who God is, now they all just need to come to an understanding of who exactly Jesus is.

What Muhammad did was to turn his people away from this one true God to worship yet another. We say “we worship God!” Muslims say “we worship God!” However, this does not mean the same god, as many on both sides would try to make us believe. Did this ‘same god’ who gave us his sinless Son to fulfil his whole law and redeem (and offer freely his forgiveness to) all who would come to him, then seven centuries later, decide to tell another bunch of people that they had to undergo all this religious law-keeping again in order to please him and maybe work for a chance of redemption? I think not!

Mr. Houston, we have a small problem here in Northern Ireland when we talk about you, since we have to ask if someone means “Hillsong Brian Houston, or local Brian Houston?” – we have a local Christian singer-songwriter here of the same name. Actually, I believe he’s emigrated to Nashville now but maintains links here! Point is; just because you have a namesake, this does not mean that you are him! Obviously! We need to disambiguate (distinguish which one we mean) before we talk about either you or the other Brian. So it is with ‘god’. Are you then still trying to say that both Christians and Muslims worship the same god?

IF that is what you mean, you’re talking rubbish! And you undermine everything that Jesus accomplished for me and you, since you suggest that there are other religious ways to obtain God’s mercy. Islam is a false religion! And shocker for some: so is Judaism!! As is also the attempts to take Christians back to law-keeping!

My God is nothing like this Muslim god, who demands ritual, works, religion, and a lifetime of blind devotion to a tiny hope that you might just do enough for him. My God gives generously of his grace to all who would only believe and trust him: He is generous and faithful, and loving and giving, and I am assured of his gift of eternal life. Now he simply asks such things from me as devotion, praise, prayer, seeking, working for him and his kingdom, and my regenerated heart responds to that positively. I give to God not because I fear I must, but because I know he loves me.

I shall choose to believe you were simply a bit confused about timelines and applied ‘Muslims’ anachronistically to the Ishmaelites, unless I hear you spouting heresy like this again, sir.

Grace be with you.

Don’t be the elder brother!

I recall a story I heard many years ago. It was related that it happened, but it may very well be an apocryphal urban myth sprung from a joke:

A man was known to a church to be very inconsistent in his ‘walk’ with Christ, and was often backsliding or falling away, only to come back every now and then and repent all over again. Then he turned up at a gospel rally and heard an altar call to come forward for a fresh ‘filling’ of the Holy Spirit.

He walked forward, hands raised, in tears, saying “Fill me, Lord! Fill me!!”

Then a voice was heard from the back: “Don’t Lord! He leaks!”

While we can laugh at it, a serious message is there.

As far as stories go, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the best ever told. It is many layered, and has rich characters and wonderful applications. I can only imagine how our Lord Jesus delivered it to his audience. Stephen King, eat your heart out! One of the characters given fairly little attention is the elder brother. He was the one who stayed on the farm and worked diligently and loyally for his father all those years the younger Prodigal was away. When he came in from the field after a typical hard day’s work, he asked what all the noise was. When told it was a celebration for the return of his brother, he just took a big huff and decided he wouldn’t join in.

You can understand his attitude, it was only human: “all these years I’ve been faithful and hard-working while he’s been off wasting his entire inheritance on a pathetic life and useless no-good friends, and he is the one to get the fatted calf, a robe, a ring, and a huge welcoming party!”

The father (that great and magnificent father who allowed his son to find his own way in the world, but still stood looking at the horizon regularly, praying for his son’s safe return) went out to entreat the elder brother [ask earnestly or anxiously] to come in and rejoice with them. His reply to his elder son was that he still had his inheritance – “all I have is yours”, but that the return of the brother who was once lost, once presumed long dead, was indeed a time for celebration. The elder brother’s problem was self-righteousness; he saw himself as ‘better’ than the younger, more loyal and faithful, and yes, he was! However, in the father’s eyes, they were both his sons. He could not disown or turn his back on the younger one, especially since he had returned in contrition and humility.

Jesus reinforces this principle of the kingdom (as all parables relate to spiritual principles) with the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The workers hired at the eleventh hour were paid the same wage as those hired earlier in the day, so those who worked longer grumbled about it. The vineyard owner asked them why they should grumble when they were paid the wage he agreed with them at the start; “Or are you envious because I am generous?” he asks them at the close.

This envy at God’s generosity is unbecoming of those of us forgiven of our sins and solely dependent on that same generosity of grace from him. If God decides to be gracious and generous (as we well know he is!) to another, who looks to us as if they are deserving of no understanding or allowance, who are we to question that grace poured out? Are we any more deserving of that grace just because we have been more faithful to God like the elder brother, or more religious?

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

You see, I believe that Mohammad was a typical ‘elder brother’ – he heard the gospel of Christ but rejected it. For him, vicarious atonement was just wrong; he didn’t like it. It’s the mainstay of the Christian faith, dependent upon the grace of God to allow Christ’s death on the cross to atone for all who believe in him. Mohammad was a pious and holy man, and he wanted piety and religious observance to be the means of salvation, so he created his complex religion with its five pillars and all the trappings that go with them. You must observe them all faithfully to be in with a chance of God’s favour. This proves that they do not worship the same God that I worship: my God is gracious and generous, and if he deems anyone that I may look down upon, in my pious pride, to be worthy of the same grace he gave me, so be it.

Why I accept the entire canon of scripture – in brief!

This is a quick reply to a post on Facebook, from a page that I largely agree with. 100% agreement with other believers is IMPOSSIBLE, unless you close yourself off into a community like the Amish (and even they have differing factions who apply different kinds of head coverings, etc.!).

The statement offered is that we follow Christ, and not Paul, to paraphrase. That goes down the same route as Marcionism (which has been mentioned). Marcionism is one of the foundations of right-wing free market thinking that I addressed before (see my post: THATCHER THE HERETIC), and its main failing is in cherry-picking which parts of scripture to read and which not. Marcion’s canon was practically all Pauline.

Such an error can go either way i.e. by rejecting Pauline theology. Once we start this, we end up deciding which little pieces of our faith can be accepted and which not. I could go to the extreme of acknowledging the Sermon on the Mount but not the account of Jesus’ words on the cross, since there were far more witnesses to the former than the latter!

I shall avoid any debate on the early church and their decisions on accepting the canon we have, Council of Nicaea, etc., etc. Far too involved. From a simple point of view of faith, I accept that my faith as handed down to me is in my Lord’s hands. I have received the scriptures. I accept them all. If there are apparent contradictions, then this is actually proof to me that they are not man-made nor ‘chosen’ by men, since such ‘inaccuracies’ would be ruled out by any ruling council or which sect of my faith was in ascendency at the time. The canon was selected (for the most part) on authenticity, not doctrinal stance. They were much closer to the time of the original documents and in a better position than centuries later, where we can only speculate ad infinitum.

The alternative to canonical acceptance is to just cherry-pick, as I said, and that leads you to making up your own religion as you go along. Why not just add in some words of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed….? Then you no longer have a right to call yourself Christian, if I am totally frank. You are entitled to your belief but you reject all of Christianity that has gone before us, good and bad. Create a new ‘one world faith’ if you like, but it shall be your faith and nobody else’s, for you shall not agree totally with anyone else. In reading all of scripture, I do find that the grace given by way of Calvary supersedes the OT law, covers it, and renders it unable to save; That is what Paul expertly defines in his writings – he completes the message of Christ. And yes, certainly, one has to allow context into reading, in order to fully understand, but rejecting whole tracts that we don’t like ignores how we can accept all of scripture, even interpret it in differing ways, yet still hold to the tenets of our faith as it is, not as we think it should be.

I too reject the bad things that Christianity is responsible for, but I do not shy away from allying myself with the faith in Christ that we have. Our final rule of thumb is scripture, and I strive (mainly in this blog) to highlight the parts of these scriptures that others seem to fail to read. We who attempt to do this, and point out to many, like the ‘religious right’ that they cannot just choose some verses and ignore others, cannot then blatantly go ahead and do the same thing by selective reading; such a stance could easily be labelled hypocrisy, and that is not a trait becoming a Christian – Jesus mentions hypocrites all through the synoptic gospels, so you can’t dodge that one!

Grace be with you.