new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

’tis the season to eat mandarins

In our home growing up, no Christmas stocking was complete without mandarin oranges. I don’t know if any other family has that tradition, but that was ours – along with piling into mum and dad’s bed to open the presents.

As the presents were being opened, once the initial excitement of seeing what everything was had passed, out from the recesses of our Christmas bag would come the mandarin oranges. And as we further explored our new acquisitions the oranges rapidly disappeared – taking the edge off rumbling tummies. Over the years, the one or two stocking-filler mandarins gradually become a whole bag tucked away in our stocking.

It struck me this morning how perfect they were for that. Have you ever considered the orange family?

If you were going to design a package to hold liquid, would you ever come up with the ‘orange’? Think about it. You have bag of juice, and you can unwrap it, and the liquid doesn’t go anywhere. You can break it into segments and the liquid still doesn’t escape. Then you can actually bite a segment in half and still the juice doesn’t leak all over the place – for the juice is contained in little packets inside each segment and only when they are burst does juice escape.

And the skin that covers the segments and that encloses the little juice sacks is tasteless – unlike the peel. Imagine what oranges would have been like if that skin had a strong flavour like the peel. You couldn’t have eaten them.

There is something about mandarins and oranges in general that reeks of design. It’s just too clever – and it’s almost as if they were designed with small children in view. They are perfect to hand to children in bed on Christmas morning or in the car when travelling – on the other hand when you give them a man-made carton of orange juice, they manage to spill it and get the juice everywhere!

For me it’s just another example of God’s incredible creative powers – after all, what biological reason is there for oranges to contain their juice that way? None that I can think of, yet it seems to be perfectly suited to mankind. And it’s not the only one – look at the variety of ways God packages juice. The apple, for example, is completely different – the juice is held in tiny cells distributed throughout the apple, so that even when a bite is taken there is no significant leakage.

Even our fruit bowl speaks to us of God, the wisdom of God, and of how God gives good things to his creatures.

We three kings of tedium are

The Americans have a saying when you ask them how they are, “Same old, same old” – meaning nothing much has changed. Christmas is a bit like that. Same old songs playing, same old carols, same old decorations, same old dinner.

I was talking to some fellow ministers the other day who find themselves taking round after round of carol services. They expressed something of the same sentiment – the same carols, the same readings every service, every year.

Then there is the usual outcry that society has removed Christ from Christmas; that Xmas is becoming more and more commercialised, and nobody stops to think about what it is all about. I suspect that it’s all related. Imagine that every year you went to a birthday party for a one year old – the same one year old every year. The first year or two it would hold its excitement, but after that you would start to get incredibly bored with it. You know precisely when the music is going to stop in “Pass the Parcel”, you know who is going to spill their juice all over the table, you know what will be in each present as they are opened, and the reaction to each present. A every year it would be the same – a sort of Groundhog Day for birthdays.

It strikes me that Christmas is the same. If your only contact with Jesus is the little guy in the manger – how utterly tedious it must be. Every year, there he is – same old story, same old carols about a kid in a cattle trough and three kings.

The problem is that Jesus has grown up, and we don’t let him. In our minds we’ve kept him as a baby. We’re forever stuck in a time warp, looping around endlessly on the same old things. And we get bored.

Why do we do it? After all what can be more amazing than the all-knowing, all-powerful, triumphant, creative, loving, wise, pure, sovereign, merciful, gracious, patient, compassionate and glorious God coming into the world on a mission to rescue and restore? How can that be boring?

The problem is that we don’t want Jesus to grow up – because when he grows up he makes demands of each of us. And we don’t like that, so we prefer to pretend that he is always in a manger, and then we find him boring. It is we who are the kings of tedium, not him. The solution is not found in working hard at celebrating the ‘real meaning’ of Christmas with more enthusiasm, but in getting to knowing this majestic grown up Jesus the 364 other days in the year.

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is this Christmas’s fantasy epic blockbuster. It’s part one of Philip Pullman’s blockbuster trilogy His Dark Materials and it hit the screens last weekend. It has attracted a bucket-load of publicity, mostly for the strongly anti-Christian message of the books.

It’s a fantastically well-made film; it has a great storyline – full of excitement, drama and adventure. Pullman has set out to create a parallel story to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles with talking animals, beautiful witches, giant airships, epic battles and all the rest.

The gist of the story is that in this world your soul walks beside you in the form of an animal. The authoritarian Magisterium are kidnapping children and surgically separating them from their souls in order to keep the kids good (allegedly). The heroes, not surprisingly, want to keep their ability to choose what they want to do, and set out to rescue the kidnapped children – led of course by a child with a magic golden compass that provides answers to all life’s questions. It all culminates, as always, in a battle between good and evil.

It’s spellbinding stuff and kids will love it. Pullman is a brilliant author. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Pullman’s parallel world is one where things are turned upside-down. God and the church are the bad guys. Pullman hates Christianity; he once complained about the Harry Potter series, “My books are far more subversive. My books are about killing God.” That isn’t seen at all in this first film – the problem isn’t so much there, rather it’s in the next two, where the heroes kill off God.
The Golden Compass ends with the heroine heading off to rescue others, leaving the story unfinished and viewers hungry for parts two and three. And that’s where the explosive stuff happens (especially in volume 3).

So parents need to be careful about seeing
The Golden Compass and then unthinkingly giving their kids the rest of the series of books.

Of course biblical Christianity is not about to be toppled by a film, nor by a series of fantasy books. Yet we need to be informed about what authors are seeking to do with what they write. And we need to teach our children to think critically about what they are watching or reading – whether it be the
Simpsons, the ads on TV, the music they listen to, the whimsical Miracle on 34th Street (where God is compared to Santa!), or The Golden Compass. Sometimes instead of stopping people doing things, we need to teach them to think and evaluate what they are taking in.

And although he is wrong about many things, Pullman is right to criticise authoritarian churches, cults and leaders who expect people to believe without questioning or thinking, and who use authority in an oppressive way.

That, of course, is not biblical Christianity – Jesus spoke with authority, but was not authoritarian. The gospel is even better than the fiction. Jesus was the child who grew to be the rescuer of mankind and the restorer of souls. Freedom is not found by ‘killing God’ but by turning to him. It’s then that we find freedom and forgiveness for our souls.

Special Service in Milford: Living in God's Masterpiece

Donegal’s a great place to live. One of the questions often asked by my well-meaning northern acquaintances is, “Have you settled in yet?”, even though we have been here seven years. If we haven’t settled in yet, then there must be a problem!

Donegal is simply glorious in its scenery. The rugged mountains, the barren heather-covered hills, the long sandy beaches. I love the time of year that we’ve come to the end of – the low afternoon sun casting its long shadows, bathing everything in a golden glow. I love that crispness to the air – cold enough to see your breath, but not enough wind to blow the cold deep into your bones. I love the autumn colours of the landscape as the sun brings them out – the greens of the fields, against the blue of the sky, the golden browns of the trees just before their leaves fall.

Now it’s getting somewhat colder, and the place to be is inside. So, wearing my other hat – that of minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church, I invite you to come to a special service we’re holding to praise God for his work of creation. The conservation folks at An Taisce usually have an annual service, and this year they’ve asked us to host and organise it for them; we’re delighted to do that and would like to broaden the invitation to everyone.

The theme of the evening will be “Living in God’s Masterpiece”. One aspect of the evening will be a journey of praise through the book of Psalms looking at Psalms which celebrate God’s creative powers. But there is much more to creation in the Bible than the Psalms – the wonder and beauty of creation is a theme that stretches from Genesis to Revelation. And we’re going to take a brief high-speed tour through the scriptures stopping to look at some of the highpoints of God’s creative work as we go.

We’d love to see you there on Sunday 9th December at 7.30pm at Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church on the Kilmacrenan Road, Milford.

“The spacious heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim his handiwork.”
Psalm 19:1

It’s in the stars

The basic fundamental message of your existence is to be found in the stars. No – not your horoscope; the shiny little dots up in the sky. For centuries people have tried to read the stars, to read meaning and significance into their constellations, and movements.

When was the last time you stood and gazed at the stars?

The other evening I found myself outside in the cold clear crisp moonless night. Above me with startling clarity, scattered across the vast dome of the night sky were thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. I had seen the stars before, I had stood and gazed at them and been amazed before, but this time was different. Was it the number of the stars, was it the stillness of the night, was it that I could see the shimming dust cloud of the Milky Way stretched out in its band across the heavens? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I know in my head that these aren’t tiny pinpricks of light, but immense orbs of flaming light, many times bigger than our sun, and that as we gaze at them scattered across the dome of the night sky that it is not a dome of sky above us, but the vastness of space in which these colossal giants hang. Perhaps.

All I know is that I found myself standing gazing upwards for a long long time. The vastness of the universe struck me with a new force. My smallness in the face of such infinity.

The Bible sums up this glorious masterpiece in five simple words, almost a ‘by the way’ tucked into the account of creation: “He made the stars also” (Genesis 1:16).

So what do they tell us?

Author John Piper answers this question: “God made the universe so big and man so small to tell us something about himself. And he does so because he wants us to learn and enjoy the truth that he is infinitely great and powerful and wise and beautiful. The more the Hubble Telescope sends back to us about the unfathomable depths of space, the more we should stand in awe of God. The disproportion between us and the universe is a picture of the disproportion between us and God. And it is an understatement.”

The stars tell us that we are very small indeed. The stars tell us that there is a being out there who is infinitely great. The stars tell us that our significance can’t be found within us, but only in a relationship with the being who created everything, including the stars.

That’s what we need to know from the stars – if you find your ‘stars’ telling you that you can find a significance without any reference to the One who made the stars, then there is something wrong.

The Secret

Oprah loves it; it was outselling the latest Harry Potter book, and it caused consternation amongst book buyers when they’ve found empty shelves where this book should have been.

If you want a new job, or a gorgeous girlfriend, this is the book for you.

The Secret by Rhonda Byrne is currently no. 4 in the Eason’s bestsellers list. Fundamental to the book is ‘the secret’ – the law of attraction: if we think negatively we attract negative things, if we think positively we attract positive things.

Let me say that there is a grain of truth in this – there always is in error, that’s what makes it believable. We all know that if we think lowly of ourselves that affects our bearing, our health, our confidence, and a host of other areas. But Byrne is saying more than that: “Nothing good or bad can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts… There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.”

The whole idea is hugely attractive to us because we all like control. We want to play at being gods. But it’s hugely mistaken, hurtful and destructive.

The Secret has nothing helpful to say to the victims of evil. According to it, if we have experienced evil, we have somehow brought it on ourselves. Not only is that untrue and unhelpful, its logically incoherent. It gets into a tangle because it makes us the reference point of right and wrong, instead of having some universal standard. Think of the paedophile who implements the teaching of this book in order to get what he wants. Now, if he wants what he wants to the point where the universe has to comply, how can that abuse be a result of the victim’s negative thinking? The universe had no choice but to give the abuser what he wanted.

The Secret endorses and spiritualises selfishness. Byrne warns against speaking to people who are suffering illness or misfortune in case we begin to think negatively. We aren’t to make sacrifices because sacrifice reinforces a belief in doing without, rather than getting all you can. We are always to place ourselves first.

The Secret defies rationality. Are we able to eat what we want and just think ourselves thin? Are we able to do without medicine and heal ourselves? Byrne even says that the law of attraction can grant immortality. Yet the people who teach this law seem to be ageing at the same rate as the rest of us.

The sad thing is that this book is doing so well, confirming people in their selfishness, and providing no real solutions for the deep problems of life. The reality is that we are not gods who control the universe; we need the God who is in control. The answer to our problems isn’t a self-centred secret; it’s a Jesus-centred solution. Without him we are only dust, but with him we can become sons and daughters of God. Without him we can have no self-esteem; with him we have God-given esteem. Without him we remain guilty; with him the past can be forgiven, the present transformed and the future filled with hope. And that’s no secret.

Make me perfect

Its not often I get a chance to sit down on a Tuesday evening and watch the TV. Last week I caught the tail end of a show called “Make me Perfect” – apparently it’s been on for a year or more – all about getting the ultimate make over.

Not only does the participant get her hair, wardrobe and make-up done, she also gets liposuction, her face and body further remodelled, and her teeth made right. Accompanying all this is a day or two of psychological help to enable the subject to overcome the shock of the transformation, and also to overcome the low self-esteem she had.

My wife hadn’t seen it either, and we sat together in open-mouthed shock. Not shock at the processes – although that was part of it; but it was the extent to which this woman was banking on this to change her life that was saddening. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t someone who had been born disfigured, or been horribly scarred as a result of an accident – I can see purpose and kindness in resorting to surgery in such circumstances.

But what saddened me the most was that she was counting on it to really change her, and it couldn’t. Who she is is still the same whether the outside shell changes or not. She gets up and looks in the mirror, and sees her new face and body, and now everyone likes her – how does that help her self-esteem? Now she’s as likely to worry that “They only like me because of my looks, not because of who I am”. The sad thing about the programme is that, instead of helping people, it actually compounds the mindset that caused the problem in the first place. Do we really want to be valued for our appearance? Or is there not a hunger for something more than that?

Added to the hunger for significance is the hunger for deeper change. All the liposuction and reconstructive surgery in the world can’t remove the mistakes of the past, or deal with guilt, or change the attitudes of the heart that boil to the surface when we are under pressure – bitterness, self-pity, anger, jealousy, etc. What’s the use of being made perfect on the outside when you know things are a mess on the inside? You know yourself that you’re just a fake.

What use is it when the cost of getting the outside done is so high that most people can’t afford it? And it still doesn’t prevent the whole deterioration process kicking in again.

On the other hand, I know of a treatment that transforms us from the inside out, it gives freedom from the past, it deals with the guilt and the shame, it treats the symptoms of bitterness and anger etc., it banishes low self-esteem, it brings real and lasting change that doesn’t deteriorate with time. And it costs you nothing.

It’s the ultimate make over and it will result in being made perfect – both inside and out. Why settle for the shabby substitution of TV-land when reality awaits?

Given the all clear

This week has raised a spectre that will haunt some 20 women, and concern many others. Up to 20 women in Portlaoise may have been misdiagnosed and given the all clear with regards to breast cancer.

Then follows the usual saga of buck passing and blame avoiding, and talk of great plans to do it better. And at the heart of it all there are 20 women facing an uncertain future. If it turns out that they have cancer, what damage has it caused in the intervening period? And then there is the fear, of “What if it is now too late to stop it?”

For the next few weeks they will live in a form of suspended animation – wondering what the outcome will be. The trail of worry and anxiety, so easily banished by the first diagnosis, will resurface, leaving frayed nerves, short tempers, sleepless nights, and tearful quiet moments until a clear diagnosis is given. And even then will the worries really go? “Is this diagnosis trustworthy?” will be the doubt.

As a pastor my heart goes out to these women and their families, and I pray that they will receive the ‘all clear’. But as a pastor I see this also as a parable of what is happening on a far larger scale here in Ireland.

Myriads of people are under the impression that if they keep on living the way they are living – they will receive the ‘all clear’ from God. What they are getting, however, is a misdiagnosis from their spiritual teachers.

Like the woman who was told by her hospital to put some evening primrose oil on the lump on her breast, spiritual teachers are advocating similar remedies for the cancer of the soul. We are told that if we have our psychic forces balanced we will find oneness with the divine. Others tell us that if we balance out our bad with enough good that will cure the cancer of the soul. Still others feel that rituals will remedy the rot; and so they faithfully attend places of worship of whatever creed.

Faithful adherents accept the diagnoses, follow the advice and are satisfied that all is well, when it is far from well.

For me, as a pastor, I find this even more heart-breaking than the cases in Portlaoise. It is not just this life that is in the balance; the whole of eternity is at risk.

Whatever others say, or whatever the short-term benefits of the current advice, we need to be like the woman in Portlaoise who didn’t stop until she discovered the truth. We need to be sure that what we are banking on is based on the right diagnosis and is the right solution to the problem.

There is one God and he is the expert diagnostician of the soul. He tells us that the problem is that we are guilty of breaking his commands, and there is only one remedy. We need him to forgive us and transform us from the inside out. Only that way can we get the genuine and lasting ‘all clear’.

Mark Loughridge -

Drugs, Gangs & Violence: A Solution in the theatre?

Stabbings, drug related killings, crime lords ordering killings from their prison cells, inter-family feuds – these seem to be becoming part and parcel of life in 21st century Ireland. In the north, where paramilitaries on both sides once ruled, there are still signs of in-fighting and out-fighting. What’s the answer?

Rather surprisingly part of the answer can be seen in a production coming to the An Grianan Theatre in Letterkenny next Thursday (8th Nov).

‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ is set in late 50’s New York. It’s a city of gangs, drugs and violence where only the toughest survive. Certainly it is no place for a friendless Puerto Rican kid with a family he'd rather forget. When Nicky Cruz is initiated into the ranks of the notorious Mau-Mau gang, his craziness and skill with a blade make him one of the most feared figures in the city's underworld.

David Wilkerson is a country preacher in a comfortable parish. One night sitting in his study reading a magazine he comes across the account of a New York gang called the Dragons and how they brutally attacked and killed a fifteen-year-old polio victim named Michael Farmer.

The story revolted him. What on earth could possess him to go to New York to preach to fighters, hookers and drug addicts armed with nothing but a bible and the message of God's love? What happens when David finally comes face to face with Nicky Cruz?

The Cross and the Switchblade is a cracking story – I remember reading it as a teenager, and then reading Nicky Cruz’s story, “Run Baby Run”. But it’s more than a cracking story, it is one with implications for Ireland, and even for our town – where violence, drugs and alcohol take their toll, especially at the weekend.

This pulsating play toured to huge acclaim in 2000 and 2001 and was seen by over 12,000 people. This year they’ve made the production even better. The ‘Big Issue’ magazine’s verdict on the play was, “Stylish. Strong. Profound”. A BBC review says, “A completely unique production. Their message sinks in. A ‘must-see’ outstanding production for all ages and beliefs. Pure theatre at its best.”

Come along and see for yourselves this true story, and its implications for today.

Mark Loughridge –

Suicide: When Hope runs out

We are approaching a time of year – Christmas and the New Year – which has tragically become a time noted, not just for its joy, but also for suicide. And this county has seen its share of suicide in recent years.

Suicide is often seen as the only way out: the only way out of a miserable existence, the only way out of love’s shattered dreams, the only way out of pain, the only way to escape the hurt of the past or the burden of the future.

Left behind is a trail of grief, destruction and unanswered questions. All too often the refrain is, “If only we’d known” or “If only we’d done more.”

What can we do? What are the warning signs? How can we be of help?

In the third of our series of Autumn talks, Dr Andrew Collins, psychiatrist and Christian counsellor, will be dealing with this topic.

He will be dealing with the risk factors – what is it that we need to look for? He will be looking at various strategies for helping those struggling with suicidal thoughts. In particular there will be a section dealing with young people and the factors involved.

There will also be help and guidance for those affected by suicide, who face the feelings of guilt, anger and confusion that are part of the aftermath.

As a pastor, I see people in the Bible who have felt the same despair.

"I have had enough, Lord. Take my life.” Those were the words of Elijah the great Old Testament preacher. Job too wrote, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest.” An unknown troubled soul wrote in Psalm 13, “How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day?”. And in Psalm 116 another who knew the long dark nights of the soul wrote, “Death had its hands around my throat; the terrors of the grave overtook me. I saw only trouble and sorrow.”

God’s word does not paint a rosy picture of life. It deals with the harsh realities that we have to live through. But it does provide hope where hope is gone, and promise where there is only despair.

The song writer in Psalm 116 who wrote, “Death had its hands around my throat; the terrors of the grave overtook me. I saw only trouble and sorrow” also went on to write,

“Then I called on the name of the Lord: ‘Please, Lord, save me!’
How kind the Lord is! How good he is! So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith; I was facing death, and then he saved me.
Now I can rest again, for the Lord has been so good to me.
He has saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
And so I walk in the Lord's presence as I live here on earth!”

This life is not easy, but we do not have to live it by our own strength. We can have the almighty power of God to help us.

Dr Andrew Collins will be speaking on the topic “Suicide: When Hope runs out” on Tuesday 30th October, at 8pm in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road. You are all welcome to come along.

Mark Loughridge –

The Bible: Getting the Big Picture

A few years ago I got one of those photo-mosaic jigsaws for Christmas – you know the ones where a big image is made up of lots of little tiny images. What a killer! Probably the hardest jigsaw I’ve done. That type of image was in fashion for a while. You used to see them on advertising hoardings, and as you walked past all you could see were the individual images. You had to get away back from it to see the big picture.

So often it’s the same with the Bible. There are a lot of individual stories that we are familiar with: creation, David and Goliath, the birth of Jesus, his miracles, the crucifixion etc.. But how do they all go together? Or do they even go together?

A jigsaw is always easier to understand when you can see the big picture on the box. And so it is with the Bible. It isn’t just a collection of random unconnected stories. Even though it is a library of 66 different books, written by around 40 authors over the course of 1600 years in three different languages, there is a single plot line that runs through it from beginning to end.

Each of the small pictures, or stories, fits into this greater picture. Quite simply it’s all about the King and his Kingdom. Once you get the big picture then you can understand why each of the stories is included. For example, Jesus’ miracles are no longer just random acts of kindness, but each one displays in a different way the power of the King.

Have you tried to read the Bible and found yourself getting monumentally lost, and eventually setting it aside in frustration or boredom? That’s understandable. It’s a bit like trying to do a jigsaw without having the picture on the lid.

Over the next 6 or 7 Sunday mornings at New Life Fellowship we are going to be looking at this big picture, and seeing how everything fits into it.

If you have wondered what the Bible is all about, why not come along and find out for yourself? We meet from 10.15 to 11.30 in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

Grief: the pain that won’t go away

In 1992 REM released “Everybody Hurts”. Its poignant lyrics and plaintive melody struck a chord with many. The opening verse goes:

“When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone, When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on Don’t let yourself go, ‘cause everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes”

This life is full of hurt.

A family lose their son in a tragic suicide; a wife loses her husband after 40 years of marriage; a young husband loses his wife and child in an accident; a son loses the father whom he always worked alongside, would-be parents lose the baby they had been looking forward to, and for a few days we offer our sympathy, and then a few months later we expect them to be over it. But grief doesn’t work like that. And the pain remains long after the wake.

In Ireland we are very good at putting up masks, and hiding behind them, pretending everything is fine. But underneath lies a soul that is still raw. In Ireland we are not very good at dealing with grief. Men especially seem to think that grief is for women, the weak and the wains. Yet grief is an integral part of being human and living in a broken world. It is how God designed us. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.

As a pastor I find myself dealing with people at various stages in the grieving process. And it is a process. It doesn’t go quickly, despite the well-meaning platitudes of friends – “Time heals all wounds,” “Keep yourself busy,” or “You have to move on/get over it,” or the surprised, “I thought you’d be over it by now” when they find you in tears a year later.

And there are many ways grief hits us – it doesn’t just have to be through bereavement. The loss of a relationship, whether through divorce or separation, the loss of job, or health, or expectations for ourselves or our family can leave us feeling elements of grief. If we don’t recognise these we will store up resentment and hurt for ourselves which will come to the surface at some stage.

How should we react? How can we best help others? What positive steps should we take to turn our grief from being a downhill spiral that closes in on us and leaves us bitter, angry or lifeless, to an upward and outward spiral that realistically faces our loss, but yet also sets us free?

God has designed the grieving process to be part of the healing process, but we often need help to grieve and to help others grieve. To this end New Life Fellowship has invited Brenda Kelso, a specialist in Grief Counselling to come and speak on the topic this Tuesday evening (16
th Oct) at 8pm in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

Everyone is welcome.

Mark Loughridge –

Love is a verb

So a married couple from Bosnia who didn't realise they were chatting each other up on the internet are divorcing.

Sana Klaric (whose pen-name was ‘Sweetie’) and husband Adnan (pen-name ‘Prince of Joy’) spent hours in an online chat room telling each other about their marriage troubles. It wasn’t long before they were falling in love again.

The truth emerged when the two online lovers agreed to meet up in real life, and found themselves face to face with each other. What a momnent! Now they are divorcing, each accusing the other of being unfaithful.

According to reports Sana said, “I was suddenly in love. It was amazing. We seemed to be stuck in the same kind of miserable marriage. How right that turned out to be.”

Her husband Adnan, said: "I still find it hard to believe that Sweetie, who wrote such wonderful things, is actually the same woman I married and who has not said a nice word to me for years".

I don’t know what’s the saddest part – the hypocrisy of accusing the other of unfaithfulness, or the stubborn refusal to see that they could make it work after all, or the seeking of happiness in a relationship apart from the one your promised yourself to for life.

Contrary to popular myth, the love is not an emotion, but an act of the will. The word love is a verb, a ‘doing’ word as my school-teacher would have said. Love is not found when we follow our hormones, or our heartstrings, but love is developed when we continually act in a loving way day after day to another person. Certainly, love is not devoid of emotion, but emotion is not the driving force. If it was, marriage would be as unstable as our emotions – and that is what happens to those who make their feelings their guide.

What is sad about this couple is that if they had put the same effort into their marriage as they put into demonstrating their caring, wonderful characters to an apparent stranger, then they would have found their marriage transformed. But to do that you need to be able to repent and ask for forgiveness and give it – and that’s a gospel thing.

Depression, Grief & Suicide

We live in a part of the world that seems to see more than its fair share of the problems of depression, grief and suicide. Sometimes they are inextricably linked, with one of these issues leading to another. Sometimes they stand alone, and that burden is heavy enough to bear.

As part of our concern for the community we live in, New Life Fellowship has organised a series of public meetings where these three topics will be dealt with by professional counsellors. Over the last number of years they have spoken at meetings here in Letterkenny dealing with these topics, and they have been well received and people have found them helpful.

Everyone is welcome to come along. The meetings will be held in the Day Centre on Oliver Plunkett Road. (1st building on the right going up Oliver Plunkett Rd. towards Main Street.) Each meeting will start at 8pm.

Dealing with Depression – Thur 4th October
Dr Stephen McAuley - Psychiatrist & Counsellor

Grief: The pain that won’t go away – Tue 16th October
Brenda Kelso - Educational Psychologist & Counsellor

Suicide: When Hope Runs Out
Tue 30th October
Dr Andrew Collins - Psychiatrist & Counsellor

We live in a culture where these three issues are often swept under the carpet. We don’t like to talk about them. We sometimes don’t even like to admit that we have a problem. And we don’t know how to deal with them. Well-meaning but insensitive friends tell you to pull yourself together, and to get on with life. Yet it isn’t that easy.

These meetings are not just for those who are facing these issues directly, but for all who would like to be of help to a friend or family member who is struggling with them. We don’t know what the future holds, and unfortunately, the sad reality is that most of us will find ourselves needing to know more about these issues in order to be ready to help those who may need a friend to talk to.

As a church we long to see people finding hope, meaning and purpose in life again.

Mark Loughridge –

Memento Mori

• Colin McRae, his son, his son’s friend, and another family friend – killed in an helicopter accident.
• Two young men from Derry in the plane crash in Thailand – one killed, the other survived.
• A couple from Mayo killed in a car crash in England.
• Four killed on roads in the north over the weekend.
• Four young lads drop dead at football training.

As I watch these events unfolding, one thought keeps running through my head – For all our technology we can be swept away in a moment. It is a sobering realisation; yet rarely do we think about how precarious a position we are in. Death is the one subject that we don’t think about.

Yet we are mortal.

When a victorious Roman general was being paraded through the streets of Rome with the crowds cheering, a slave stood behind him in the chariot repeating the phrase “memento mori” – “Remember you are mortal.” In other words, don’t get carried away – you’re still flesh and blood and one day you will die.

That’s where our word ‘memento’ comes from. We use it to mean a souvenir that reminds us of a holiday. But in Elizabethan times a memento was a reminder of death. It was common to have a skull sitting on your desk as a memento, to remind you that one day you would die. Artists incorporated a skull into their paintings for the same reason. Clock makers usually had some Latin phrase on the clock face to drive home the same message.

Events like this should cause us to pause and think.

What person thinks about dying? It seems such a remote possibility that we push it to the back of our minds. If a young person thinks about death they are rebuked for being gloomy, and yet perhaps they are saner than all the rest.

Only four of the fifteen fatalities listed above were over 40. Of the eleven others, eight were under 16 years old. Death is the one great reality that we can’t escape; not think about it is the height of folly.

For all our advances in science and medicine our life still hangs by a thread. And one day we will die, and stand before God needing to explain what we did with our one precious God-given life.

It’s something we need to think about more. Perhaps it’s something we should say to ourselves each time we watch the news – Remember you too are mortal.

That’s why the song writer in the Bible says, “Let me know how fleeting is my life” (Psalm 39:4) and Isaiah writes, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field… The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever” (Isaiah 40:6-8).

It’s why Solomon writes, “Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps... For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:6-7).

Bourne Again?

(Based on an article by Mike Metzger at

Years ago I read the Bourne trilogy by Robert Ludlum – tremendous stuff, and it was great to see it hitting the big screen. The ‘big’ debate has been “Bourne or Bond?” – for me the answer is Bourne. For those of you not familiar with the story – its about a secret agent who loses his memory and discovers himself in a complex web of deceit in which he searches to find who he really is.

Why is it that the Bourne trilogy has appealed to so many?

Is it just because they are action-packed, high-speed films? Probably. I can’t claim much more than that. Yet, I think one of the reasons it is appealing is because in it you see a character grappling with doubts and uncertainties.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the
‘Bourne Identity’. One of the taglines for the film asks the question “Who am I?”. Bourne wrestles with his fragmented memory to find out who he is. In the second film ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ Bourne, whilst trying to stay alive, wrestles with the question, “Where did it all go wrong?”. The third instalment, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, finds Bourne pursuing the answer to “How can I escape what I am?”

These questions resonate with something inside us. That’s part of the draw of Jason Bourne – he’s wrestling with questions about life. He’s not like Bond who wrestles with nothing, other than bad guys and bikini-clad women.

The questions – ‘Who am I?’, ‘What went wrong?’, and “How can what went wrong be put right?’ – are the key questions for every human being to answer. I’m not about to suggest that the Bourne trilogy is a Bible in disguise – but I found it interesting that the Bible echoes these three questions and provides answers.

It doesn’t surprise me. Film-makers seek to find something that will resonate with us (and hence draw us to watch, and give them a bigger pay cheque), and the Bible sets out to answer the deepest longings of the soul – it doesn’t surprise me that these two often match up in surprising ways.

Starting with creation, the Bible addresses the question “Who am I?” and describes how life ought to be. We’re not far into the Bible when we find the answer to the question “What went wrong?” and we see what made the world the way it is today. It takes a little longer to get to the issue of redemption and the answer to, “How can I escape what I am?” and how can things be made better. And the Bible goes one further than Bourne (although the scriptwriters may yet seek to answer the question "Where will Jason Bourne end up?"), and answers the question, “Where will I end up?”.

Jason Bourne may seem larger than life, but his story reflects an even bigger story. The patterns of the cinema screen sometimes reflect the deeper realities of our soul.

How do you answer the questions Bourne raises?

Mountain Climbing

Someone said to me the other day about the different religions, “We’re all just taking different paths up the same mountain.” It sounds profound, it sounds magnanimous – but is it the case?

What if the mountain is too high for any man to ascend? What if it is too steep? If that’s the case what’s the use of religion? A moment’s reflection will show that the mountain must indeed to be too high – if we are seeking to be acceptable to God, and God is perfect, how then can we who aren’t perfect be acceptable to a perfect God? The mountain is just too steep.

But what if God isn’t at the top of the mountain? What if God came down the mountain so we wouldn’t have to climb? Well that would change everything, wouldn’t it? No point climbing if there is a much easier route. No point in climbing, because the further we climb, the further from God we get!

That’s exactly what the Bible teaches.

Real Christianity isn’t about trying to climb the mountain to God; real Christianity is about God coming down to us. That’s what Jesus was doing on the cross – paying for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. We need to turn from our own efforts and turn to Jesus, and put our trust in him to make us acceptable.

Poetry isn’t my particular thing, but I came across this poem that sums it all up:

O long and dark the stairs I trod

With trembling feet to find my God,
Gaining a foothold bit by bit,
Then slipping back and losing it.
Never progressing; striving still

With weakened grasp and faltering will,
Bleeding to climb to God, while He
Seemed not to notice me.
Then came a certain time when I

Loosened my hold and fell thereby;
Down to the lowest step my fall,
As if I had not climbed at all.
And as I lay despairing there,

Listen.... a footfall on the stair,
On that same stair where I afraid,
Fumbled and fell and lay dismayed.
And lo, when hope had ceased to be,

My God came down the stairs to me.

Religions may be about climbing mountains to find God, but Christianity is about God climbing down to find us.

In my opinion

I’ve found it – the ultimate argument clincher. You know those moments when you are embroiled in a discussion, and your friend is spouting fact after fact, and you can’t find a way of refuting the plain evidence. Fear not, for there is a way. You can win the debate.

You just have to say, “In my opinion…” or “I just think that…”.

Apparently it works. It must do, for I keep hearing it on the radio or on TV. Evidence has been set before a person, the facts have been stacked up, and then they sweep it all aside with, “Well in my opinion…”

I caught a glimpse of Oprah the other day – thankfully it was only a moment or two – and someone had been presenting their case, backed up with evidence and facts and figures, only for Oprah to say, “Well I just believe…”. She then went on to state her opinion without dealing with the evidence or refuting the other person’s case.

We would never do that when it comes to medicine. Imagine the scenario – the doctor has called you in, he informs you that having run all the tests, you have been diagnosed with some life-threatening illness. They have double-checked everything. The facts back them up. Your response is to say, “Well you might say that, but my opinion is that I am fine.”

Unfortunately opinions don’t change facts.

It seems as if people think that an opinion is something holy, it dare not be touched, argued with or shown to be utter nonsense.

Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that entitlement brings a responsibility. Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that their opinion is accurate, well thought through and well informed, if they are going to offer it as a voice that deserves to be listened to.

For the sake of a rational, sensible society we need to get out of the ‘my opinion is better than yours’ mentality of the TV talk show. We need to cultivate our God-given ability to think and to reason.

And why is a pastor writing about this? Because time and time again people air their opinion on matters religious, opinions that bear no relationship to the facts. And it saddens me because their eternity hangs in the balance of their opinion. I ask them what they have read to bring them to that conclusion, “Oh nothing, I just think that…”. So this is a plea, not just to think before you speak in general, but specifically to find out before you form your opinions on matters of great spiritual significance. Biblical Christianity has nothing to fear from investigation. It is not a haven for the unthinking, but a satisfying well for those who wish to think deeply.

After all, it is God who invites us saying, “Come let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18)

Page 3 or not Page 3?

So the 'Donegal on Sunday' thinks it will reach a whole new range of readers if it includes a Page 3 girl. ‘Readers’ is, perhaps, not quite the word though!

Of course the paper will rush to defend itself saying that she was covered up, but even that is a bit generous. She’s not so covered that she would walk down the street dressed like that. (Some of you will by now be asking the obvious question – How does he know? The answer is simple – I asked my wife to look.)

So what is the problem with a semi-clad girl lounging on the third page of a newspaper – or for that matter in any ad, or photo opportunity?

Sex and sexuality are tremendously good gifts from God. He has designed the female body to excite and arouse, and he has also designed a safe environment of trust and security for that to be enjoyed in – marriage. It is for both the man and woman’s benefit that he has designed it that way.

Let me give you some considerations:

1. A scantily clad woman lying on bed reading a book encourages men (and young boys) to think of women in terms only of their bodies and the bedroom, when there is so much more to women than sex.

2. It encourages the tendency in men to mentally undress women by reminding them of what they would see if they could. I’m sure none of the editors would be overly impressed if you said that you had been visualising their wife or daughter semi-clad, yet they willingly subject women to this for a few extra sales.

3. The newspaper’s eager invitation for wannabe Page 3 girls to make contact fosters the view amongst young women that they are valuable only if they are pretty, and only for as long as they are pretty. The whole concept makes women subconsciously measure their worth by this unrealistic standard of models. The editors’ hunger for a higher profit adds to the low self-esteem many women feel.

4. The Page 3 mentality adds to the dissatisfaction men feel with their wives when their wives don’t satisfy them as visually as the girl on Page 3. It encourages men to look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction – actual or virtual – instead of committing themselves to their wives (recognising that they themselves aren’t quite the Adonis she once married or hoped for).

5. While not a prophet, I would be willing to forecast that this is only the thin end of the wedge – the increase in sales brought by the hoo-haa about Page 3 will quickly tail away unless there is something more stimulating.

6. Finally, it reinforces a mindset that the temporary and fleeting, in this case looks and figure, are more important than values of lasting significance, such as wisdom, graciousness, kindness, gentleness, discernment. This fixation with the superficial blinds people to the deeper issues of life, such as their relationship to God.

The Bible tells us that women are made in the image of God – that means there is a dignity and an honour accorded to each of them. ‘Page 3’ demeans that image bearer of God, and demeans the men who look. It turns women into chunks of meat, and men into slavering animals. That is not how God intended it to be.

I would say this to the 'Donegal on Sunday', to its readers, and to young women everywhere, sexuality is a good gift from God – treat your sexuality (not just sex) like a fine wine kept for someone special, and not like cheap beer you hand out to all and sundry.

Rules of the Road

So we’ve all been issued with a free copy of “The Rules of the Road”. Ours arrived in last week, but it was only today that I got round to opening them.

I’m sorry to see them being issued—that means that I wont have marvel at people pulling onto roundabouts in front of me, or stopping on the roundabout to let me on to it. No more will people think that green means ‘Go’ and red means ‘Go faster’. No more will people think that that fancy little stick on the side of the steering column is for hanging their Magic Tree air freshener on; instead they will use it to let others know what direction they are turning. No more will people ignore the specially prepared place in the middle of some roads where you can pull into when you are turning right, so that you don’t block the traffic.

Alas I will miss the quirks and foibles of my fellow drivers. And doubtless they will miss mine. The ‘Rules of the Road’ will fix it all. A driver’s life will be idyllic and peaceful, even in the traffic jams which snarl up Letterkenny.

That’s if it’s made it out of the plastic wrapper it came in.

Go on, have you opened yours yet? Be honest—or is it still sitting on the kitchen worktop? Sure we all know what’s in it—what would we need to read that for?

It’s funny that no matter how bad a driver we are, the problem always lies with others. In our own minds we think that we aren’t that bad. We can always point to someone who is worse than us—“You think I’m bad, should see my great uncle Horatio!”

That’s the flaw in giving everyone a copy of the Rules of the Road—no-one thinks they need it. I know, because it’s the same with Bibles. Most homes have one, but when was the last time you cracked it open? Is its spine still in pristine condition, like the day you got it? Perhaps it’s sitting on the shelf in a cupboard right beside the “Rules of the Road” which you got years ago when you did your driving test—that special shelf where important-but-never-to-be-looked-at books are kept.

Doubtless if we read it we’d find that there’s part of our lives we’ve been using to hang a Magic Tree air freshener on which instead has a much more important role to play. For example, our conscience. What is that little voice that nags at us and tells us something is wrong? Is it something that we hang a few good deeds on to freshen up our lives a bit, or did the manufacturer put it there for a greater purpose?

Or we’d find that the symbol which looks like a crossroads sign has a significance far beyond anything we ever imagined.

You’ll need to crack open God’s ‘Rules for Life’ to find out.

Plague of Plagues

In 2001 foot and mouth disease made us like a nation under siege. Police and army patrolled the borders. Vehicles were turned away. Everywhere you went there were mats down at doorways, soaked in disinfectant. Marts were shut down, imports and exports were hit, tourism suffered. Lives were lost as farmers despaired.

Who can forget the TV pictures of mountains of dead animals heaped up and set on fire, flames climbing heavenwards, a column of smoke rising high into the sky? All around the horizon was dotted with similar pillars of smoke.

Now it’s back.

It has the farming community terrified; the potential for loss is staggering.

Yet it seems so innocent—a few cold sores on the faces of animals. What could be so bad about that? Then we hear that if even the slightest infected particle comes into the country the results could be disastrous.

If you ever wanted a picture of the seriousness of sin we’ve had one this past week.

Sin is like foot and mouth disease. Except worse—it is the plague to beat all plagues. And yet it seems so innocent, a bit of ‘harmless fun’ at times, perhaps a flash of anger here or a pang of jealousy there, perhaps a few thoughts we wouldn’t be keen on others knowing, but sure what’s the harm? Sure there’s worse—murder, rape and the like—we don’t do those; we’re not that bad.

But to God it’s like the difference between being a wee bit infected and a big bit infected. You’re still infected. Even the smallest breaking of God’s law shuts the doors of heaven tighter than a cordon around an infected farm. Seemingly innocent, yet fatal.

Could you imagine people coming to the border and wanting to cross saying “Yes, but we’re only a little bit infected, ah go on, let us in”? Not a hope, not a chance. Or try taking an infected animal onto a local farm to see the reaction.

Transfer the scene now to heaven. The rules have been made equally clear. What chance will you have of getting in?

The experts in farming tell us that the future of the industry hangs in the balance. Outbreak could be calamitous. The bible is God’s expert witness on sin. It says we are all born infected, and add to it daily. Our future hangs in the balance, and the balance is already tipped against us. We are on the wrong side of the scales. In short, we are doomed, like the animals on an infected farm.

We deserve to be thrown onto the fire, but God offers to do what we can’t: remove the infection, give us a new start, make us clean in his sight and keep us clean, so that there can be no doubt about our entry into heaven. Will you take up his offer, or stay infected?

Woodpecker Proof

A postcard adorned with all sorts of birds arrived the other day from friends on holidays in Australia. It put me in mind of something I came across about woodpeckers some time ago. They really are amazing creatures.

The woodpecker spends its days spiralling up tree trunks looking for insects. To do this its feet need to be a different shape from all other birds, its legs need to be different, and it needs special stiff tail-feathers to prop it in tight against the tree.

The woodpecker pecks at a rate of 16 times a second, that’s twice as fast as a submachine gun, so its head is travelling twice as fast as a bullet. The rate at which its head comes to a halt as it hits the tree is 1000 times the force of gravity (1000g). Just to put that in perspective – an astronaut is subject to 4 times the force of gravity (4g) during take off; and 6g-9g is enough to destroy a person! The woodpecker survives because it has an especially reinforced skull and beak.

Joining the beak to the skull is a shock-absorbing system that is vastly superior to anything we humans have ever invented. To keep this high speed kango-hammer under control is a finely tuned inbuilt gyroscope to make sure that it doesn’t hit the tree at an angle and rip its beak off.

And then once it has the holes bored in the tree it has a hugely long tongue to remove the insects.

The woodpecker looks like it was designed to do what it does do. What it does do it does very well. It’s just one example from nature that shows how evolution can’t work. Why can’t it work? The woodpecker can’t evolve step by step because all these component parts need to be there for the woodpecker to function at all. If any one of these factors was not present then the woodpecker would be a complete disaster: there’d be lots of beakless, brain-damaged, starving woodpeckers about.

In the Bible Job says, “But ask the animals and they will teach you. Or ask the birds of the air and they will tell you. Speak to the earth and it will tell you. Or let the fish of the sea tell you. Every one of these knows that the hand of the Lord has done this.” - Job 12:7-9

All of nature shouts at us of the presence of a designer; to believe that it all just happened by chance requires a blind faith – faith that goes against all the evidence. Personally I find it much easier to have faith in creation than in evolution.

Harry Potter and the Serpent Crusher

At midnight last Friday a publishing phenomenon 14 years in the making came to its climactic conclusion when the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series went on sale.

JK Rowling has created a world crammed with adventure, mystery, tragedy, romance, and above all magic. At the heart of the story is the struggle between good and evil, compellingly personified in the characters of Harry and Voldemort. Voldemort is one of the most powerful dark wizards there has ever been. All that stands against him is a boy, whose power to destroy the Dark Lord was foretold in prophecy. They both grow in power, building up to the final confrontation.

All tremendously exciting! And escapist nonsense of course – just what we need to while away a few hours over the summer. But what if it were true?

I’m not suggesting that there really is a dark wizard called Voldemort, or that there is a parallel magical world. But it’s interesting how gripped people are by the storyline of the Harry Potter books, without realising that the storyline of the Bible is very similar. I’m not trying to ‘christianise’ the story, but if people think the fictional story of Harry Potter is gripping, then how much more should they be excited about the plot of the Bible.

Here’s another prophecy. A prophecy that goes back to the very dawn of our race; written down in the book of Genesis. It is a prophecy spoken by the voice of God himself in the Garden of Eden: The LORD God said to the serpent, "I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

One day a man mysteriously described as “the seed of a woman” will crush the head of the serpent. We usually talk about the seed of the man – but there’s going to be something unusual about this man’s birth. It’s as if a human father won’t feature in his birth, just his mother.

And this man will be given the task of destroying the serpent who tempted the first humans to sin. He will single-handedly put an end to the Prince of Darkness. But did you notice how this will happen? The man will crush the head of the serpent, but in the process he will be terribly, agonisingly wounded. He will stamp on the serpent’s head, but even as he crushes the life out of the serpent, the serpent will strike at the man’s heel and sink its fangs deep into the man’s flesh. The serpent is destroyed, but at a terrible cost to the serpent-crusher.

Voldemort and his Death Eaters try to kill Harry Potter, believing him to be the boy the prophecy refers to. Likewise the serpent knew that this little baby was the one who would crush his head, and so he tried to destroy him first. He sent King Herod to kill all the baby boys born in the Bethlehem area. The serpent did his utmost to destroy the serpent-crusher before he could even grow up.

You’ll have to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to find out how that prophecy is resolved – “Neither can live while the other survives.” Either Voldemort or Harry.

But we already know how the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 was fulfilled. It happened 2000 years ago, in Jerusalem, on a cross. Jesus, the long-awaited serpent crusher defeated the Devil when he was nailed to a cross and died. He suffered excruciating physical agony, but infinitely worse than this was the horror of bearing God’s punishment for the guilt of all the sins of all his people in every age.

JK Rowling has written an exciting story for us. But it’s just a story. The Bible is real and we are characters in its story. We have a far more deadly enemy than Lord Voldemort, but we have an infinitely greater hero than Harry Potter to look to.

(Adapted from an article by Rev. Warren Peel - with permission)

On Popes and Pronouncements

So the Pope thinks that Christian denominations outside Roman Catholicism are not true churches. In layman’s terms – we’re not quite Christian. And there seems to be a right old furore over it.

Oddly enough I don’t have a problem with it. I disagree, but from where he stands it makes perfect sense. The Pope is a man who understands the very simple law of non-contradiction which, in this pluralistic, don’t-ever-say-anyone-is-wrong age we live in, is often ignored.

At the heart of the whole thing lies two very different views about how we relate to God and find forgiveness. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that you are saved by a two-pronged approach – you need both Christ (with his work on the cross) and the Church (with its rites which you must perform). One alone cannot save you: it takes both. On the other hand, evangelical Christianity teaches that it is entirely by Christ that we are accepted. He has accomplished everything necessary for salvation on the cross.

The two ideologies are fundamentally opposed. One says, “Christ+Church,” the other says, “Christ alone”. Both cannot be right.

If the Pope is convinced that he is right, then by definition I (and other evangelical Christians) must be wrong. If I believe I am right, then I must believe that he is wrong about how we relate to God. The dangerous game of ecumenical confusion played by others has obscured areas of grave concern for our souls. The truth is we do not all believe the same thing, and people’s souls are at stake. The Pope recognises this, and expresses his spiritual concern. As a pastor concerned for people’s souls, I appreciate the Pope’s frankness on this issue.

Why is there such an outcry then? The Pope is only stating what has been recognised by committed people on both sides for centuries.

The problem arises because we live in a world where the greatest ‘sin’ is to think that anyone else is wrong. Yet this kills off all intelligent discussion. And ironically those who are horrified at the Pope (or me) for saying that the other side is wrong, will rise up on their high horses to tell us, “You are wrong. It is wrong to tell people that they are wrong.” In a previous generation that was called hypocrisy – now it passes for tolerance.

How are we to decide such issues? Perhaps the wisest course is to see what God himself says. Through the apostle Paul, writing to a group of people who were saying that it wasn’t enough to have faith in Jesus you must also perform certain rites, God says,

“After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” – Galatians 3:3

Carbon Offsets & God

So at the weekend we had the Live Earth musicfest, calling us all to save the world by being more energy efficient. Perhaps like me the event more or less passed you by – although it did strike me as odd that we should be called to conserve resources by putting on events that required thousands of people to travel to them, performers to trek across the world with all their kit, and countless thousands/millions to turn on their tv sets – all consuming more energy.

But there was a solution to all of that – ticket prices were being used to purchase carbon offsets. This was a reasonably new phrase to me until a couple of months ago. A carbon offset is when you are unable or unwilling to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by your lifestyle, you then pay for the reduction of gases elsewhere – you can pay for trees to be planted, or wind-farms to be set up.

So if you’re unwilling to change you can pay for someone else to change. Or if someone else is being to environmentally friendly you can buy some ‘friendliness’ off them, apparently.

Of course it doesn’t really make much sense – it seems like just another tactic to get money – albeit for a good cause. Certainly, it is good that people can at least offset some of the damage they do by sponsoring environmental causes elsewhere. At the end of the day you are still guilty of ruining the environment. The fact that you pay for it not to be ruined by someone else somewhere else doesn’t really excuse you.

The reason it appeals to people is that it doesn’t require any real change on their part. Yet the idea that lies behind carbon offsets is one that is very common in people’s thinking. It’s the idea that although I have done something wrong I can undo it by doing some good, or by asking someone else to credit some of their goodness to my account.

Environmentalist George Monbiot draws the comparison with the system of buying and selling indulgences in the Middle Ages. People believed they could purchase forgiveness for their sins instead of actually repenting and not sinning anymore. They also believed that various saints had done too much good, and that God would shift some into your account, to offset your sin.

As Monbiot says about carbon offsets, “carbon offsets are an excuse for business as usual with regards to pollution”. It’s the same with the idea that we can borrow someone else’s good to make up for our own error, or that we can sin and then offset it with a few good deeds.

The problem lies in the fact that God demands perfection, so it’s not possible to ‘over-perform’ in some areas of life (eg. church attendance, prayer, charity work) to make up for underperforming in other areas. The principle of offsetting only works if the resources exist to completely neutralise the effects of the offence. And we just don’t have what it takes. Only Jesus does.

He lived the perfect life, and amazingly God offers to offset his life against ours. We have no other viable option – church attendance, prayers, etc. simply don’t offset at all. Only Jesus does. He’s the ultimate offset.

"God needs to update the Bible"

At least that’s what a caller to Shaun Doherty’s show said recently. He then went on say that he expected God to apologise for the mistakes that were in it and revise it for today’s needs.

Setting aside the claim that there are mistakes in the Bible – which is often claimed and never substantiated – I’d like to know what needs updated.

Perhaps the caller thinks that God’s word needs to be brought up to date with respect to women. It is often seen as misogynistic. Yet the Bible gives women a far higher status than they have in most of the world today. And in marriage it demands the ultimate level of love from husbands – that they love their wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. What woman doesn’t want to be loved in such a self-sacrificial way?

Perhaps the caller thinks that God’s word needs updated with regard to human sexuality. After all, one man and one woman for life is seriously outdated, is it not? But it’s not as if people in Bible times didn’t know about casual sex, homosexuality and adultery, yet God saw his rules as appropriate for such a society. Interestingly the facts and figures show that a one-man one-woman marriage is the best option for stable societies and the bringing up of children.

Perhaps the caller thinks that since we know so much more scientifically now, we should update God’s word. But what science would he have it updated it to? Scientists are constantly changing their theories, and finding that so-called ‘universal truths’ aren’t universal. Also the Bible has yet to be shown to hold one single unscientific statement.

Perhaps the caller thinks that the Bible needs to be updated to take into consideration our information age and all its temptations. Yet what lies at the heart of society’s problems? It’s the heart of people – and our self-centred pleasure-seeking lunging after status, sex, wealth, excitement and success. Exactly the same problems the Bible has been dealing with for millennia. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

God’s word is in need of no update – it’s eternally relevant.

I suspect the caller, like many who make similar statements, is looking for a convenient excuse so that they can disregard God’s word and don’t have to pay attention to God’s demands on them. It’s not that God’s word has been tried and found wanting, instead people have been tried by God’s word and found wanting, and they don’t like it.

The Forgotten Side of Parenting

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once fell into conversation with a gentleman who believed that children should receive no formal religious instruction: they should, rather, be free to choose their own religious faith upon reaching a suitable age.

Coleridge did not disagree, but later invited the man into his rather unkempt garden. "You call this a garden?" the visitor exclaimed. "There are nothing but weeds here!"

"Well, you see," Coleridge replied, "I did not wish to infringe upon the liberty of the garden in any way. I was just giving the garden a chance to express itself and to choose its own way."

No matter what well-meaning sociologists claim, a child is not born morally and religiously neutral, as if all they need is to be left to their own devices to grow up untainted and noble and wise. If you just let a child go with their natural tendencies they will become destructive and self-destructive. Watch a 3-month-old child in a rage – they’re mad enough to kill you, but they only weigh 10 pounds and not 210 pounds!

The Bible teaches that children are born with an inherent inclination towards doing wrong. And so that’s why Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4 “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.’

It is not enough to “not exasperate” them, we are to have a positive input into their spiritual and moral upbringing. We are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord”.

What does that mean? It means that, since we have brought people into the world who have an eternal soul that will go to either Heaven or Hell, God holds parents responsible for teaching their kids about him, and about what he requires, and about what Jesus has done for us. It means letting them see that wrong is wrong and will be punished. It means letting them see that God is not just Holy, but loving and has provided Jesus to pay the price for our sin.

This is part of what the “training and instruction of the Lord means”.

Practically, it means that we should be reading the Bible to our children, teaching them to pray, taking them to a church where God’s word is taught and explained. But of course we’ll not want to do that unless we have a right relationship with God ourselves. For otherwise we’d be hypocrites telling our children to be interested in something we aren’t interested in – and that would exasperate them, which we are commanded not to do.

The answer is found not in simply following God’s instructions for parenting, but in following the God who gives them. God has commissioned parents with a challenging but eternally significant role. How will you respond?


(With a hat-tip to Doug Wilson whose article this one owes a lot to.)
Christianity has come under sustained attack recently from a string of books. Richard Dawkins contributed The God Delusion, Sam Harris Letters to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens God is not Great.

A central theme running through the books is a moral indignation. They point the finger at religion in general, and God in particular, and say indignantly, “Religion causes all sorts of evil; religion poisons everything.”

Although I don’t share their opinion, I’m slightly confused as to why Dawkins and Co. should mind things being ‘poisoned’. According to their view, all we are is a pile of goo that has evolved, and the world belongs to those who survive by whatever means. Allegedly it the ‘survival of the fittest’. If that’s the case (and I don’t think it is) what problem is there in poisoning everything, if it allows your perspective to survive?

There is a deep inconsistency in their position. To say that something is wrong you need to have a standard of right and wrong – which is precisely what Dawkins and Co. don’t have. Once you deny the existence of an absolute God who sets standards, you can’t start claiming that there are absolute standards. Where do they come from? Dawkins and Co. have only their idea of what is right and wrong; why should their idea of right and wrong be right? It’s just their opinion.

Yet they persist in branding religion as ‘immoral’. Where do their categories of moral and immoral come from? They have to borrow the idea from God himself.

For them, it’s like suspending an argument from an invisible skyhook. To deny God they have to acknowledge God’s categories. It’s the intellectual equivalent of standing on top of the Eiffel Tower and looking out over Paris and proclaiming that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t exist because you can’t see it. To make your denial you had to use the Tower itself!

Such is the folly of atheism – and that’s why as a pastor these books don’t shake my faith, nor do they need to shake any Christian. And that’s why they can’t give confidence to anyone who wants to deny God. The case against God is yet to be made.

Daily Bread

They say a picture tells a thousand words. A new book by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio called “Hungry Planet” certainly does that. The bulk of the book comprises photographs taken during visits to 30 families in 24 countries for 600 meals in all. You get to see what the family ate in a week and how much it cost, as well as other interesting facts like their favourite foods.

How much do you eat in a week? How much does your family spend on food in a week?

Jesus taught us to pray "Give us today our daily bread". Bread was the basic necessity of life: bread and water. And yet we get so much more than the basic necessities - we get dessert too. Yet how thankful are we? Consider the variety of foods available to us – yet we often complain and we waste food.

Jesus also taught us to pray, "Give us today our daily bread." Our prayers are so often self-centred. How often do we pray this prayer? And yet how seldom do we do anything for their benefit.

Here's a couple of pictures from the book mentioned above that give pause for thought:

UK food family

Great Britain: The Bainton family of Cllingbourne Ducis
Food expenditure for one week: £155.54 or $253.15
Favourite foods: avocado, mayonnaise sandwich, prawn cocktail, chocolate fudge cake with cream

Chad food for family

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
Favourite foods: soup with fresh sheep meat

More than Conquering your Circumstances

Two old men were sitting watching a heavily loaded van making its way across an old bridge. The bridge croaked and groaned under the weight. As they watched, a starling landing on top of the cab, and immediately the bridge collapsed in a cloud of dust. One of the men turned to the other and said, “Heavy wee thing, that bird.”

Sometimes it’s not the big things in life that get to us, it’s the collection of little things that mount up, and soon you feel up to you neck. And perhaps you find yourself lying awake at night and your mind is racing with the circumstances you find yourself in, and it gets to the point where you are on the verge of panic.

Perhaps it’s the kids, they’re playing up, and you just don’t have the energy for this. Perhaps it’s bills coming in, perhaps it’s reports coming home from school of disruptive behaviour, perhaps it’s worries about a job, work isn’t coming in, or too much work is piling up. Perhaps it’s losing your job, and how then are you going to provide?

Perhaps it’s just that you are caught in a pattern you can’t get out of – you can’t seem to break free. Perhaps something has you addicted and you can’t break free. Perhaps choices you made have left you in a hopeless situation. Perhaps you have been dumped into your circumstances by others, and you are left there and you feel you are floundering, just keeping afloat and no more.

Is there hope?

We can’t always change our circumstances – despite what Oprah and the positive thinking gurus say. But the Bible teaches that we can be changed in our circumstances. In other words we can live in the same circumstances, but with a radically different mindset, and more importantly with the strength of God working in us and through us enabling us to cope. And often it is as he changes us that God does what we can’t do, and changes our circumstances.

The Bible also teaches that those who put their trust in God find that he controls their circumstances for their good. That gives a strength and a peace amidst the turmoil. And, although it doesn’t always happen, often he does lift us out of our circumstances and transform both them and us.

On Sunday evening (10th) we’ll be looking at what the Bible has to say this on topic in greater detail – ‘More than Conquering your Circumstances’. It’s open to anyone. It will be held in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road, Letterkenny at 8pm. Why not come along and hear more?

Promises, Promises

So the election is over, the posters are coming down – although a lot more slowly than they went up – and the post-election shuffling and bargaining has begun. Who will end up making up the government. Who will be Fianna Fail’s partners? Will they have partners?

And already the newspaper cartoonists have poked fun at how fast the election pledges will fail. Promises made for this investment, and for that development, promises made for changes in health or education. Promises made on local levels for new this and improved that.

And the public knows that much of what was promised is outside the power of the politician to achieve. They know that although a person might want to do something, party policies or national demands may make that promise undeliverable.

I find it fascinating that men and women who expect us to regard them as people of integrity make so many promises in the run up to elections that will never be fulfilled.

The upshot of it all is that we become sceptical of promises. We doubt when people hold out the hope of a better future. We’ve been there too often, only to be disappointed. And not just with politicians – but with advertisers, or some new programme of weight loss, or confidence boosting, or investment, or pyramid selling. All have promised to change our lives for the better. Yet here we still are.

And we become calloused and cynical.

The problem with all of these is that no guarantee of success is provided up front. We have to invest before we see results. But there is another promise giver – one who offers a hope and a better future, one who always keeps his word, one who has nothing to gain from our allegiance, one who pays so that we don’t have to.

He promises peace, He promises strength, He promises never to leave us, He promises to accept us when we come to him. How do we know he will keep his promises? Simple; the apostle Paul writes, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Paul is saying, if you want to know whether God will keep his promises all you have to do is look to the cross of Christ. For there God provides the evidence up front that he is serious when he promises. He will provide no matter the cost to him. He pays so that we don’t have to. Trusting in God is a foolproof investment because, unlike politics, the results are already in place.

Although God’s promises are far beyond what we can imagine we mustn’t let our scepticism stand in the way of trusting Jesus.

Getting Past your Past

If you had an opportunity to plan your life – would you be who you are now? Who we are is, in part, the result of the actions and influences of others.

That’s fine if only good has happened to you. But since we live in a broken world there are many who have been shaped by situations and circumstances that have left deep scars across the surface of their souls. It might have been abuse, bereavement, absent or distant parents, alcoholism, drug dependence, or countless other factors.

We only get one life. It doesn’t seem fair that the actions of others in time past can mar and ruin who we are.

Perhaps this is you, and you’ve tried to hide from the past, but you know that it doesn’t work.

It’s possible to live with the past, and yet not cope with the past. It gnaws away at us. We become trapped, thinking that we have to remain victims.

In Ireland we are very good at putting up masks, and hiding behind them, pretending everything is fine. But underneath lies a soul that is still raw. The past is real; it cannot be changed. Yet it can be conquered.

Our past might define us, but it doesn’t have to defeat us.

But how?

As a Christian, and as a pastor I believe that there is an answer. The Bible offers help to the hurting, so that they can emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis of their past. God makes a promise to hurting people: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

What great words: hope, future, prosper. The hope that the Bible holds out is of a God who sets us free from the shackles of our past, who takes our past and uses it for good in us and around us. Not only does he rescue us from our past, but he rescues our past as well. The years we thought were lost are turned around and made into something profitable.

More needs to be said, and I will be speaking on Sunday evening (20th) on what the Bible has to say about ‘More than Conquering your Past’ at the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road, Letterkenny at 8pm. Why not come along and hear more?

‘Me first’ driving

Donegal drivers do this great thing – usually if they’re going slowly they’ll move over to let you past. It’s courteous and makes for great driving. I wonder though if it is on the way out. Several incidents of rank impatience I’ve witnessed have made me wonder.

There’s a school at the top of our road and just the other day I was leaving our estate and got caught up in the school-run mayhem. The road was in danger of gridlock as people tried to bore their way through the mass of parked, stopped and weaving cars. Given that there was no hope of getting anywhere I sat back a bit. Then as things moved a little I noticed that if I (and the cars behind me) moved over slightly it would clear the way for cars coming towards us and ease the whole situation.

Accordingly I moved to my left a little once the car in front had moved on. However instead of following suit, the cars behind me stampeded like a herd of lemmings into the gap only to find that they had well and truly snarled the whole thing up. It’s called ‘me first’ driving.

I was coming up to the road works on the road to Kilmacrennan last Sunday, and as I arrived the lights turned red. Several cars in front went through on the red. Now when I’m at the other end of that it gets up my nose; sitting on a green light with hoards of impatient motorists coming towards you. So I stopped, only for several cars to pull out from behind me and tear on through the red light. Now I like to get to where I’m going as quickly as anyone else, but why should I put my preferences above others’ safety, or others having the right of way on their turn?

It’s all too easy to point the finger at boy racers for the problems on the roads, but the selfishness of any one of us certainly doesn’t help matters.

It’s symptomatic of the ‘me first’ culture in which we live. We mightn’t see ourselves as bad people; we might pride ourselves as being decent and respectable. But what happens when we don’t get our way? When the little idol of self is hampered by someone else do we get angry, or impatient, or feel sorry for ourselves? Do we feel that we have the right to have our wants satisfied?

We might keep a lid on it at times, but at other times, such as when we get behind the wheel, our sense of self-importance pokes through. It isn’t pretty. And it is at such moments we see ourselves for what we truly are. Unfortunately that is the real ‘us’.

Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs, “As a person thinks in his heart, that he is” (23:7).

Give us today our daily bread

First it was the power going off, then the water, then the power again. Then our car broke down. It doesn’t take much to bring everything grinding to a halt. What do you do when the electric goes off for a couple of hours? What do you do when the water stops running?

It’s funny how easily we are reduced to nothingness. So much of our homes run on electricity. You think when the power goes off, I’ll just go and phone so and so, only to find that your new digital cordless phone doesn’t work. So you think, “I’ll just sit down with a mug of tea and a good book,” but of course there’s no power for the kettle! And then proud of your creativity you think, “I’ll use the microwave to heat the water”. Nope.

We fancy ourselves as great independent people who can cope with life, but the reality is that we’ve become so dependent on progress that we don’t know how to cope when it all breaks down.

I’ve just started preaching on the Lord’s Prayer on Sundays. One of the phrases in it is, “Give us today our daily bread” which covers much more than bread – all the necessities of life – but seems obsolete in a day and age of supermarkets. After all, we earn the money with which we buy our food, and we drive to the shop in our own cars, and we cook the food ourselves. Why bother asking God? Yet don’t the recent problems with water and electricity show us that it is just as relevant 2000 years after Jesus taught it? God hasn’t become obsolete, just because we have moved a step or two away from the raw materials. Instead of reaping our own corn and grinding it for bread, or walking to the well and drawing our own water, we have it all ‘on tap’ so to speak.

Yet when the supply chain is interrupted we find ourselves at a loss. We find we aren’t as independent as we thought – and that we can’t even cope with a few shortages. Our progress hasn’t made us any more independent; it has only blinded us to our reliance upon God for even the simplest things in life.

We need to get back to seeing the need to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s humbling, but better to be humble than find God having to humble us for our arrogant self-reliance.