new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

What's in a name?

The other day I was reading about a group of missionaries who were working among the natives on one of the islands in the south Pacific. They soon discovered that they weren’t the first English speakers to have been on the island. It turned out that many of the natives had been given English names. Well, not names as we would know them; their parents had obviously picked up a few phases and liked the sound of them so much that they called their children by them.

One man was named ‘Tinned Fish’ and another ‘Second Gear’!

Usually we aren’t too bothered with what our name means. Patrick means ‘Noble’. Eoin and Sean mean ‘God has blessed’. Megan means ‘Strong’, and Naimh means ‘Bright’. We may or may not live up to our name; our parents would have found it hard to guess how we’d turn out.

In the bible, however, we find some people who were given a name that described something of what they would become. The one that springs to mind at this time of year is Jesus. Why was Jesus called Jesus? It was actually a fairly common name. Many young men would have been called Jesus after the great Hebrew general Joshua. Jesus is simply the Greek version of that name. But there’s more to it than that. In Matthew 1:21 we read what God said to Joseph when he told him what to call the child whom Mary was expecting:

“You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

When we name a child, we may hope that they will live up to their name somehow. But when God named this child, he did so knowing that Jesus definitely would live up to his name. God tells us that Jesus came to rescue people from the power and destruction of sin. Sin is the big problem that has plagued the entire human race ever since Adam & Eve first disobeyed God. Their sin got us all into a terrible mess and ruined the relationship that we have with God. That’s true for all of us, whether we like it or not.

So what is Christmas about? It’s all in the name – it’s about Jesus, the one who came to save us from the destiny of punishment and separation from God that we all have coming to us. It’s about the one who came because we could not save ourselves. It’s about God providing the solution, the rescue package, himself. God is saying that there is hope. If we want to be part of it then all we need to do is ask him.

Not only is Jesus the one who rescues us from judgment – he is the only rescue option. For centuries the Jews had looked forward to the one who would rescue them, they had asked over and over again, “Is this the Saviour?” They had named their babies in the hope that this was the one. But now God takes away any uncertainty – this is
the one. “He will save.” It won’t be anyone else – only him.

There is an absolute certainty in these words of God. “He
will save”. God does what he says.

But we need to ask him. “He will save
his people”. Not everyone, just those who’ve asked.

What’s in a name? Eternity - yours, for the asking.

Coming Soon – December’s Verse

We come to the end of this year’s calendar which we gave out last year along with the Baptist church in Letterkenny. Each month a verse has dealt with the theme “Who is Jesus?”.

December’s verse is from Revelation 22:12: “Behold I am coming soon… I am the Alpha and the Omega.”

It seems somewhat appropriate that at a time of year when we remember Jesus’ first coming that we are reminded about the return of the King.

Although, given that 2000 plus years have passed this his first arrival, you might be inclined to think that ‘soon’ is a bit of a misnomer. Does it mean ‘soon’ like a husband means it when he’s asked when he’s going to fix the broken cupboard door—“Soon”—meaning a fairly vague indeterminate period of time governed by having nothing else better to do?

God isn’t like that—the return of Jesus isn’t like some irksome chore that he keeps putting off. Instead it is the pinnacle of his great plan of salvation. The word that is translated ‘soon’ would better be translated quickly, or suddenly. The idea is not so much that the time between his first and second comings will be brief, but that his return will be sudden, surprising, swift, unexpected. In other words, it will catch many out.

But what’s all this business about Alpha and Omega?

Sometimes people say, “Christianity is OK for you, but it’s not for me. You can believe it, but I’ve got my own beliefs.” That would be fine if the final day of reckoning was like an airport check-in hall, with all the different religions each having their own check-in desk, with their own little deity and his staff seeing to those flying with them.

Alpha and Omega refer to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet—it is a way of saying that Jesus is the A to Z, he takes in everything. He’s the first and the last. He is not simply the letter A, and some other religion is G or Q or Y. He is the all-encompassing one, with whom all mankind will have to deal. He is coming back. And this time it won’t be as a baby—it will be as a judge.

So as we think (or don’t think) about the first coming of Jesus, we need to think about the far more significant second coming of Jesus. People don’t like to think of judgment, it sounds awfully harsh, but the reality is that Jesus came the first time to offer to bear our punishment, to offer a way of escape. If he comes and finds that we have failed to accept his offer—we leave him with no alternative.

“Behold, I am coming soon”

Searching for a Christmas Card

I spent nearly half an hour looking for a Christmas card for my wife on Monday. It’s a remarkably hard thing to get the right card – especially when you rule out the crude ones which no man in his right mind would give to his wife, suggesting that he is only interested in her for one reason!

And when you have done that, what are you left with? Plenty of variety of shape and size—but all the card writers this year seem to have eaten from the same bucket of sentimental goo. It might nourish them, but frankly it was more likely to turn my stomach, never mind cause my wife to laugh uproariously at me for spending €6 on it.

You know the sort of turgid stuff they write “My dear, the first moment I set eyes on you, I loved you with all of my soul” – what sort of shallow numbskull would ever say that to his wife? It’s just a polite way of saying “Your looks are all that matter to me—I care not for the beauties of your character, the gentle way you deal with others, the wisdom you display…”

And then they usually end up saying something like, “I love sharing every moment with you, and will do for all eternity.” Could you really give that one? I’d be afraid my wife would call to mind all the moments in the past year when I was far keener to watch the rugby, the football, or read a book than to share that moment with her. It might be dangerous for a relationship to send that card!

I haven’t browsed the “To my husband” section for obvious reasons, but I presume they are of the same ilk. Unless of course those cards are written by women—then they might say something more perceptive.

I think I’m looking for the sort of card that says, “You’ve put up with me again for another year—I don’t know how to thank you, but I love you even more than I did this time last year.” Just a Christmas card that’s honest—not one that sounds like a fairy tale, that paints me as Prince Charming!

But maybe that’s really what people want—a way of keeping up the pretence about themselves; a little piece of card to put a nice warm fuzzy glow on everything for a day or two before we have to get back to reality. Is it just papering over the cracks?

Perhaps we should ask what does the Christmas card I send to my wife/husband really say about me? Or perhaps are we too afraid to face up to ourselves? You see, the Bible encourages that sort of self-assessment. God sees behind our masks. Shouldn’t we have a peek too? The Bible knows that, although we will find out that we are far worse behind the mask than we realised, God’s solution is more radical than simply papering over the cracks. When we turn to him we find hope of transformation that starts inside and works out.

Growing up too fast

Over the last number of years the demarcation line between what is ok for a twenty-something, a teenager and a pre-teen has become increasingly non-existent. Liz Hurley turned out at some event wearing a t-shirt with “Porn Star in Training” emblazoned across it, only for a chain of shops to market the same sloganed t-shirts at pre-teen girls.

And now things have dropped to a much lower age category. Shoe company Heelarious are producing miniature high heels in pink satin with a choice of diamante or leopardskin trim. They’re aimed, not even at toddlers, but at babies up to six months.

It doesn’t end there. Apparently you can also get miniature biker jackets, tiny Ray-Bans and baby designer handbags.

Whether it is dress (or lack of it), or make-up or accessories, there is an increasing sexualisation of children. Of course that’s not what mothers and retailers are aiming for; they see it all as harmless fun, turning the kids into little mini-me’s. What little girl hasn’t wanted to dress up like their mother, or put on mummy’s make-up? That’s always been part of growing up, but it was always part of fantasy, of dressing up and playing—not part of getting ready to go to the shops, or to next door’s birthday party.

This sexualisation of children—witness the extreme examples of pole-dancing kits for preteen High School Musical fans and Etam’s thongs for nine-year-olds—is staggeringly naïve. If someone abducted a child and made them dress like that and perform pole-dancing for him we would castigate him for being a sick weirdo, and demand that he be put on some sort of offenders register. But it seems acceptable if parents do it, or marketing gurus dream it up.

At the same time that we are increasingly conscious of strangers looking at our children, we appear to be increasingly foolish in how we let our children appear and act.

And what are we saying to our kids—that they aren’t acceptable unless they have this stuff, or look a certain way? That we’d prefer it if they were grown up rather than letting them be little children? That they are really just another one of our toys for us to play with?

We mourn the loss of innocence, the hurry to have a boyfriend/girlfriend, the rise in teenage pregnancy, the increase of sexually transmitted diseases. Now I’m not laying all that at the door of a pair of miniature high heels for babies, but rather at the mindset that produces them, and at the mindset that buys them and the host of other things mentioned.

Children are a precious gift and we need to be wise stewards in how we bring them up. We need to pay greater heed to what is aimed at them, and guard them from growing up in paths we don’t want them to start down.

A touch of realism

It’s all the rage these days—“the credit crunch”, “the downturn in the economy”, “the tough times in which we are living”.

A programme on tv the other night made me smile—they were talking about the discount supermarkets Lidl and Aldi, and one of those interviewed said something like, “Well maybe I’ll have to consider shopping there now that times are tougher”. What!—no more shopping at Mark’s and Spencer for your fruit and veg?! How catastrophic!

Now I know that isn’t characteristic of everyone—some are really struggling. But there is perhaps a touch of it about many. People are finding that they are no longer able to afford two cars, or a large flat-screen tv, or a mid-winter holiday to the sun. We’ve come a long way in Ireland since the bleak years of several decades ago. But has it all been for the good?

We forget that compared with much of the world we are still colossally well off. My cousin and her family live in Mali, and when they talk about having to tighten their belts until the rainy season comes, they mean it literally. In many parts of the world, talk about hard times and financial woes means having next to nothing, living off one meal a day—the same menu for months if not years.

Most of us haven’t even begun to experience real hardship. Yet there are those who have genuinely found life turned upside-down, their job gone, financial commitments soaring and having to count every penny. It isn’t a matter of where they shop, but what they’ll shop with. They are experiencing something much closer to real hardship.

What answer is there for us whether we are genuinely struggling or just having to economise a little more?

Part of the problem has been that we see ourselves as independent people who can cope with life, but the reality is that we are always dependent on some god to bail us out—our money, our abilities, our job etc.

None of these gods can do for us what the one true God can. And sometimes this God lets us see how needy we really are—he brings a touch of realism to our lives. That’s why he taught his followers to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”. It is a constant reminder that we are not independent, but very dependent. 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 admitting our need and praying about it: “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s humbling, but better to be humble than find God having to really humble us—far more than he has done to date—for our, often proud, self-reliance.

Those who do this find themselves on the receiving end of God’s caring promises, “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing… My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” (Psalm 34:10 & Philippians 4:19)

Listen online at

Living in Neverland

I came across an article recently by Professor Carl Trueman in which he compared his grandfather’s generation with this present one. Here are some illuminating excerpts:

“If the poverty and hard work of my grandfather's era left men middle-aged at thirty, the ease and trivia of today's society seems to leave us trapped in a permanent Neverland where we all, like so many Peter Pans, live lives of eternal youth. The world of my grandfather was evil because it made him grow up too fast; the world of today is evil because it prevents many from ever growing up at all.

“The answer is not a naïve, nostalgic hankering for a return to an era of poverty and cruel hardship. Rather it is surely obvious: we need to put aside childish things and start acting like adults.

“Pascal put his finger on the problem of human life when he saw how entertainment had come to occupy a place, not as the necessary and momentary relief from a life of work, but as an end in itself. When entertainment becomes more than a pleasant and occasional distraction, when time and income become devoted to entertainment and to pleasure, when sports teams become more important to us than people—even the people to whom we are close—then something has gone badly wrong.

“The frothy entertainment culture in which we live is a narcotic: not only is it addictive, so that we always want more; it also eats away at us, skewing our priorities, rotting our values as surely as too much sugar rots our teeth.”

There is little doubt that we have had it easy over the last few years. We have become an entertainment-based culture with a proliferation of nite-clubs popping up all over the country, and ever more ingenious entertainment systems available for our homes. People have had more money to spend, and less inclination to save it.

Yet the shallowness of much of what is on TV, or escapism in its various forms or a live-for-the-moment mentality creates its own shallowness in our personality. Ed Welch in his book,
‘Depression: A Stubborn Darkness’, writes “While prosperity allows us to hide, hardship peels off masks we didn’t even know we were wearing.”

We have staved off hardship with a cocktail of money, drink, drugs and pleasure, and it has left us worse for the experience. A person may look 45 but still have the character of an adolescent. Where do we go?

We do not rejoice in hardship for hardship’s sake, but only because it shows us the futility of the things in which we are investing our lives in. Perhaps this current economic crisis will remind us that as long as we invest in that which is fleeting we will remain trapped in Neverland. The only way to grow up is to seek to invest our lives in one who will give us the strength to weather the storm, and who shows us what is ultimately valuable.

The ancient writer put it like this: “Why should I fear when evil days come? Man, despite his riches, does not endure. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves. Like sheep they are destined for the grave… But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” (Psalm 49)

November’s Verse

Some of you may still have on your walls the calendar we gave out last Christmas. If you do, you should now be looking at this month’s verse which reads:

“Jesus said, ‘I am the way the truth and the life” – John 14:6

It wouldn’t be a very popular truth in the post-modern world we live in. The popular view of truth can best be summed up by the title of the Manic Street Preachers’ fifth album, “This is my truth, tell me yours”. It expresses the familiar sentiment of, “That’s true for you, but it’s not true for me” or “That’s ok for you, but it’s not ok for me”.

It is in itself a rather vacuous phrase. Truth is not a personalised thing. It can’t be ‘MY truth”. It can only be ‘Truth’. Truth is truth. Opinion of course is relative and personal—and utterly worthless unless based on facts.

The inclusion of the word ‘the’ is equally offensive to our modern ears. In today’s western world it is not acceptable to say that there is only one way to God. Those who like to think of themselves as sophisticated and worldly-wise refer to our “different traditions” and knowledgably proclaim that they are all essentially the same.

Of course this is awfully patronising to those of differing religious beliefs who know that each of the major religions is mutually exclusive—each makes its own unique truth claims; all cannot be right. They understand that this sort of apparently broadminded statement is a closet insult—because it refuses to take seriously the claims of your religion.

Those who are happy believing essentially nothing would far rather reduce all other belief to a mishmash of nonsense because it means they don’t have to contend with direct truth claims like Jesus makes here. This sort of thing makes them uncomfortable. It’s far easier to appear magnanimous and broadminded, and that looks good. It doesn’t take any real intellectual effort—you don’t need to know anything about any religion; you don’t have to investigate the competing truth claims.

The irony is that the majority of the world is quite happy with the idea of competing truth claims. They know what to do with them—evaluate them to see which makes sense. However it is here in the western world, where we pride ourselves in our science and knowledge, that we refuse to investigate these truth claims and come up with some sort of stumbling side-step about all ways being equally valid.

We need to recover our intellectual integrity and take Jesus’ claim at face value and start to investigate it. Enough of these claims that we are all on the same pathway. There is only one pathway. Jesus claims to be it.

The question is: Do you believe him? If not, why not?

For those who are looking for the answers to life’s questions, looking for peace, forgiveness, acceptance, let me assure you that you will find them in Jesus. Come and investigate him. Come and trust him. He is utterly reliable.

Googling “Escort agency Letterkenny”

So it would seem that escort agencies are finding a market here in Letterkenny. A couple of years ago I wrote an article for the paper on the theme entitled “Escort agencies, Call girls and Jesus”. I posted it on my website as I did with all the newspaper articles at that time.

Consequently when people go to Google and type in something like "escort agency letterkenny" among the hits will be the article I wrote. I suspect it isn’t my article they are looking for.

Over the last few days there has been a marked rise in people ending up on my website having gone searching for escort agencies in Letterkenny. I can only assume that corresponds to an increase in people searching for such services.

What has a pastor to say about
prostitutes coming to Letterkenny? Maybe more to the point, what would a pastor say to the prostitute?

I’d say, “You are too valuable to sell yourself in this way. There’s a far greater purpose for you. Come and find out about Jesus and find cleansing, forgiveness, acceptance and that far greater purpose.”

What would a pastor say to the man who uses the services of a call-girl? I’d say exactly the same. What Jesus offers is a better and longer lasting delight than the fleeting pleasures of a one-night stand. Don’t make sex your god—it can only offer an anaesthetic to the real problems of life. On the other hand Jesus is the real God who offers you forgiveness, cleansing, freedom and transformation.

What would a pastor say to everyone else?

I’d say we’re kidding ourselves if we think that escort agencies coming to Letterkenny are the cause of the problem. They only go where there is a demand. The problem doesn’t lie out there with escort agencies, the problem lies within.

And it may be much closer than we think. It lies in our own hearts. True, not everyone would use the services offered. But we each have our own ways of ignoring God and his rules. We classify our own ways as acceptable, but the things others do that we find offensive we call unacceptable. But to God they are all unacceptable.

Within each heart lies the seed of every sin. And until the problem of the human heart is dealt with we’ll have escort agencies, prostitution, and people willing to pay for sex. And if it isn’t call-girls, it will be something else that springs out of the human heart—drunkenness, lies, greed, marital unfaithfulness, bitterness, etc—all of which wreak their own havoc in more subtle but equally destructive ways.

Ultimately there is only one way to deal with these problems. We need a new heart that is wired to following God’s ways. Only Jesus can bring about that change.

The answer for all concerned, from the call-girls to the punters, to every one of us is simply, “We need the fresh start Jesus offers.”

Look Who's Irrational Now

There’s an idea out there that anyone who believes the Bible is some sort of backwoods, superstitious, irrational thicko who seems to have missed the fact that we have progressed from the Middle Ages into the 21st century.

The prevailing opinion amongst many is that we are to be more sophisticated and rational now. Indeed, those who have cast aside the shackles of religion are seen as the forebears of a brave new breed of mankind, whilst those who cling to their beliefs in a man who died on a cross and rose again are seen as those who would relegate the race to the dim recesses of ignorance.

With that in mind I was intrigued by an article I came across online in the Wall Street Journal. It makes the case that biblical evangelical Christianity promotes a greater degree of scepticism about superstition, the paranormal and the occult. Let me quote some of the article:

‘What Americans Really Believe,’ a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology.”

The survey was carried out by the Gallup Organization and asked American adults a series of questions. The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

“The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won't create a new group of intelligent, sceptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that's not a conclusion to take on faith—it's what the empirical data tell us.”

The survey showed that instead of Christians being more gullible, it is those who are casting aside the truths contained in the Bible that are.

Interestingly, this increase in superstitious belief was also found where churchgoers attend churches which are less attached to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible.

But the stand out point for me is that in this age when we have had more education to a greater level than before, matched also by a great departure from adherence to the Bible, we are seeing not a greater level of rationality, but a far greater degree of gullibility.

The great cry of the secularists is that we need to move on; I ask what is it that you wish us to move on to? A quagmire of senseless and pitiful superstition, where your starsign is meant to govern how you live, where people hug rocks to find harmony with mother earth, where people try to contact the dead, and where the power of positive thinking/speaking is seen to be ‘The Secret’ of living?

Look who’s irrational now?

Years ago GK Chesterton is reputed to have said: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” This survey would seem to bear this out. But I would also say to Christians reading this: Be rigorous in investigating what you believe—don’t you fall for superstitious nonsense or unsubstantiated stories either.

Shattered Dreams

The story of Daniel James has been in the news this last week. The 23-year old rugby player was injured when a scrum collapsed on him during training. He dislocated his spine and was paralysed from the waist down. Unhappy with his “second-class existence”, as his mother termed it, he travelled to Switzerland in September to an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland where he ended his life.

The whole issue of assisted suicide is one fraught with emotions. Only the hardest of hearts could watch someone suffer and not wish to see an end to their suffering. So, although suicide is never the answer, I wish to tread carefully amongst the hurt.

The problem in this case is not simply one of suffering but of perspective. Hear Daniel’s mother again: “He was not prepared to live what he felt was a second-class existence”. The first half of that sentence is the key, not the second half—“He was not prepared”.

All he had hoped for had been snatched away from him. The dreams he had of playing the sport he felt he had been made for were shattered. What was there to live for? He wasn’t prepared to live for less than what he had dreamt.

This is a bigger issue than simply Daniel James. It’s bigger than the issue of assisted suicide. It’s for all of us, and how we cope with life.

The problem is not living, it’s the goal we have for living. If we take our lives and build them around something—an activity, a person, a relationship, or a dream—when that dream does not materialise we have to face the question: What will we do now that our hopes have gone?

Are we prepared to keep going? Or will we give up?

Our world has interwoven our identity almost inextricably in with what we do. And if we do not succeed at doing it, then we are nobodies. The young man who weaves his identity around his girlfriend; the business man who gets his identity from his success; the woman who gets her sense of worth from her children; the young girl who gets her acceptance from her peer group or her looks.

What drives you? Where do you get your identity from? What do you do when that thing from which you get your identity fails you? Where do you turn?

None of these things are built to carry that sort of expectation. If we build our hopes on something or someone we run the risk of not being prepared for failure. We may never reach the stage of contemplating suicide, or perhaps we may, but we need to build our lives around something that can carry our expectations whatever comes.

I know of only one such option. Every hope, dream or aspiration will condemn us if we fail it, and everything we look to will hurt us if it fails us. There is only one secure place to build your life around—one who will not fail you, but will give strength to cope when life falls apart. And when you fail him he offers to die for you. Almighty God is the one who can carry the weight of that expectation.

There is more to life than the here and now. It is those who have their perspective located outside of the here and now who will be best able to cope with the disappointments of the now.

Perhaps you are struggling with pain, physical or emotional, or with the disappointment of shattered dreams, which make life unbearable, let me encourage you to put your trust in Jesus, to build your life around him. In him you will find strength, meaning, purpose and significance that enables you to cope amidst the hurt. Please contact us if you would like to talk.

A timely 2700 year-old word

I came across this in my Bible reading the other morning and thought I’d share it with you. People wonder what is going on in this current economic crisis. I can’t give you the definitive answer, but at the very least I think this is part of it. It’s from the book of Isaiah chapters 2 and 5:

The Lord Almighty has a day in store
for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
and they will be humbled,
for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,
and all the oaks of Bashan,
for all the towering mountains
and all the high hills,
for every lofty tower
and every fortified wall,
for every trading ship
and every stately vessel.

The arrogance of man will be brought low
and the pride of men humbled;
the Lord alone will be exalted in that day,
and the idols will totally disappear.

Men will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from dread of the Lord
and the splendour of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.

In that day men will throw away
to the rodents and bats
their idols of silver and idols of gold,
which they made to worship.

Stop trusting in man,
who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?

Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.”

So man will be brought low
and mankind humbled.

Certainly it is without argument that the great nations of our day are being brought low, that those who have set their security in trading, or in property are being humbled, and that we as the celtic-tiger nation have made our silver and gold into idols.

Could it be that God is humbling us to show us that we have been treasuring the wrong thing? Money cannot do what we most need done – it doesn’t heal the hurt in our souls. Only God can do that. We need to humble ourselves as a nation and as individuals, turn to God in sorrow and humility, and ask forgiveness for replacing him with something substandard.

There is a richer treasure to be had, as Isaiah says later on in chapter 33

O Lord, be gracious to us;
we long for you.
Be our strength every morning,
our salvation in time of distress.

He will be the sure foundation for your times,
a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.

1 in 7

I was down at my parent’s house last week and had a nosey through the Newsletter newspaper. Nestling at the bottom of the letters page was a brief letter signed by my two brothers and some of their friends. It read simply, “We wholeheartedly support the statement from 50+ evangelical Christians in the local game who are opposed to football on the Lord’s Day.” They added their names along with three others who play for the same club.

It was in response to the IFA’s decision to play football games on Sundays. Although commonplace in the UK and here in Ireland, this had been a no-no in the north. Why was that?

It’s because for years they’ve taken seriously God’s word which commands that one day of the week be given over to him. It’s one of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.” (Exodus 20:8-10)

As with all of God’s commands it comes out of kindness and love, not an effort to make life miserable for us. He knows that we need to take a break. He knows that we need to be protected from those who would have us work all the hours available—often ourselves! He wants us to take a break from work, study, and even play.

But God is not simply concerned that we take a break and rest. When he calls us to set aside one day in seven as holy—it means devoted to him, not devoted to us, or our sport. Not a day of rest centred on us, but a day of rest centred on God.

He knows that we need to take our nose off the grindstone and look up, and that we need to do it on a regular basis for we are far too inclined to forget that we are made for eternity. And so he tells us to take a day in the week to focus on the upward dimension of our lives. And we need this, not just for ourselves, but for our children – they need to see that work and play aren’t the only things in life, but that there is a God worth giving a whole day to.

Yet we tend to think we have done a noble thing if we give him an hour on a Sunday, before doing what we want with the rest of the day. And in some cases we can do Sunday’s hour on Saturday evening so that we can have the whole day for ourselves. I’m not convinced that this is what God had in mind when he said to keep the Sabbath day—not hour—holy.

Of course, to enjoy setting aside a day for God, you need to have reason to be delighted with God. That can only be found when you have personally experienced the forgiveness Jesus offers.

And if the very thought of giving a whole day to God exasperates you at the sheer waste of a day, that perhaps indicates the need to take your nose off the grindstone and take time to reconsider what your priorities are and should be.

So this is not a call to some antiquated practice that has no place in the modern world, but something that is even more essential in the live-for-now, frenetic-paced world we live in.

Those five young men who penned the letter finished it with the promise God makes to those who delight in his day,

“If you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord’s holy day honourable… then you will find your joy in the Lord” (Isaiah 58:13-14).

Not half greedy enough

Over a year ago I wrote an article entitled “Money will spit you out”. In it I said:

“Money is a cruel master. It will ultimately disappoint. And when it has sucked you dry it will spit you out, either broke, or dissatisfied with all your toys.”

I’m not claiming prophetic powers, for it was plain that it was only a matter of time before everything fell apart. Nor am I saying somewhat sanctimoniously, “I told you so”.

Yet what are we to make of the current economic downturn? Are we just to sit tight and hope for the best?

What is the little downward sloping line on the investment charts and the currency markets saying to us? It could be a lifeline. At the very least it is a gracious reminder from a loving God that money and possessions aren’t what life is all about. When things are going well we can fall into the trap of thinking that we are self-sufficient, that we don’t really need God.

And not only that—we are investing in the wrong stuff. We save for what perishes. We would pity a child who spent all his money on cream buns, hoarding them in a cupboard in his room. We know that one day he will open the cupboard to find a decaying mass of blue-moulded remnants.

And yet we invest in stuff that doesn’t last. Warren Buffet is one of the world’s richest men, and wisest investors—he has outperformed the stockmarket by 250,000 per cent over four decades. He has six principles that he applies to every investment. His sixth is that, “The investment must have attractive long-term prospects; an investment able to generate and sustain above-average returns over the long term.”

In shaking our faith in the financial securities of this world God is throwing us lifeline to reinvest in what has the most attractive long-term prospects. He offers forgiveness, eternal life, and best of all, Himself.

Ironically, our problem is that that we aren’t greedy enough! We settle for the short-term, low-return, unstable yields of this life instead of investing in the long-term, high-interest, rock solid return of the Kingdom of God.

The usual problem with greed is that it means that others have to do without, and that we can’t hope to enjoy all that we have in the time available. But what if God promised that there was more than enough for everyone who came to him, and he promised enough time to enjoy all that we got? Would such ‘greed’ be wrong?

Of course it’s not really greed, it’s having a right appreciation of the true value of things. And this investment has unrivalled long-tem prospects.

If we stopped the little boy buying cream buns, and showed him other more valuable and lasting investments? Would we be cruel or kind?

Likewise, has God brought this downturn, among other reasons, to cause us to re-evaluate what truly matters?

Having identified a great investment, Buffett then says that his ‘favourite holding period is forever’. That’s the sort of investment you want—one that you can bank on forever. And that’s what Jesus offers.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” – Matthew 6:19-20

September's Verse

Bread. Could you live on it?

I have a friend who lives on not very much else. I know the nutritionists among you are already coming up with all sorts of queries—where does he get his protein from? Where does he get his vitamins?

He does tend to spread the butter on good and thick. Other than that and a glass of milk, there’s not much more to his diet.

And he’s not fading away either—he’s strong, and can out-work his family on the farm.

In our modern world of multi-choice, multi-ethnic, multi-flavour foods it just seems a bit odd. Surely a person couldn’t survive on bread.

I suspect we are being overly western, and 20
th-21st century. Our surprise is perhaps more chronological snobbery than anything else. Bread has been a key dietary staple in many cultures across the world, and throughout time.

One article I read says, “Among some people, bread forms the chief article of food and often almost the entire diet, even at the present time. Bread of some description, whether in the form of loaves, biscuits, or rolls, forms part of each meal in most households. This fact proves that, with the exception of milk, it is more frequently eaten than any other food. A food so constantly used contributes very largely to the family's health if it is properly made.”

So perhaps we need to recalibrate our appreciation of the humble loaf, and all its variations.

Going back 2000 years with our better understanding of the centrality of bread, particularly its contribution to the welfare and health of the individual, we can better understand what Jesus was getting at when he said,
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry” (John 6:35).

Bread was what sustained them, bread gave life. And Jesus draws the parallel—I am the one who can sustain you, I am the one who gives life.

The Jews had been asking for a miracle—it was just after the feeding of the 5000, and in particular they wanted a repeat performance. They wanted more bread from Heaven. They were also harking back to the time in the desert when the people of Israel had been hungry and God fed them with miraculous bread. And Jesus says to them effectively “Look bread gives life, but the true bread of Heaven gives even better life. You are more hungry than you know, and I am that better bread that will satisfy your deepest hunger.”

He is. He still satisfies that deep spiritual hunger. Like bread, he seems deceptively simple, but he is deeply satisfying. And he gives a life that will cause us to live forever.

So whether you are eating plain loaf, or baguette, or naan, or soda, or wheaten, or malt bread—stop and think about there being a whole other life, and ask yourself “What is satisfying my spiritual hungers?”

The price of life

Sarah Palin, the US Republican candidate for Vice-President, has been all over the news for the last few weeks. One aspect about her that perhaps hasn’t hit the news here is that her 4-month-old son Trig has Down’s Syndrome.

In the US, 90% of the cases of Down syndrome diagnosed by prenatal testing each year are eliminated by abortion. When Sarah Palin found herself bearing a child with Down syndrome she decided to carry the pregnancy through. She celebrates him as “absolutely perfect” in the family's eyes, writing, “Children are the most precious and promising ingredient in this mixed-up world… Trig is no different, except he has one extra chromosome.”

With that in mind it is somewhat saddening to read of André Lalonde, the executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, who is reported as being concerned that “Ms. Palin’s widely discussed decision to keep her baby, knowing he would be born with the condition, may inadvertently influence other women who may lack the necessary emotional and financial support to do the same.”

Now we’re not talking cars here—as if the issue was, “Well we used to have a 4x4 Landrover but we didn’t have the necessary financial support to keep it, so we got rid of it.” This is a human being. And the governing factor apparently should be the parents financial or emotional situation before the little bundle pops out of the womb. What happens if their financial or emotional circumstances change after the said bundle arrives? Can you just get rid of them and say, “Well we simply didn’t have the necessary emotional or financial resources”?

In a sad irony yesterday’s news also reported that a Thomas Vander Woude died rescuing his 20-year-old Down Syndrome son from a sceptic tank. Jospeh had fallen in and his father rushed to the tank to get him out. At some point Vander Woude jumped in, submerging himself in sewage so he could push his son up from below and keep his head above the muck.

When rescue workers arrived, Thomas, who had been in the tank for 15 to 20 minutes, was unconscious. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

The newspaper rightly praised him for his heroism and self-sacrifice. But the world we live in would just have as easily consigned his son to a waste bin before he had even the chance to be born. Yet we know instinctively that this father was right.

Our problem is that we have cut our minds off from our moral anchor in God, but our hearts still have a tenuous attachment. And so we live like ping-pong balls batted around by conflicting and inconsistent values. We’ve lost our anchor, yet something deep within knows that there is a right and wrong.

And we will continue to applaud men and women like Thomas Vander Woude and Sarah Palin for their values and their sacrifice because deep down we know it’s right.

The answer is not to bravely forge ahead with where our doomed morality is taking us, but to step back to the security of God’s standards.

And there perhaps we’ll see the greatest irony of all. We are not the perfect beings we like to think we are, in fact we are more like those our world would destroy—born damaged, and inclined to jump into the sewage of life. Yet God doesn’t abort us, instead he came and got into the excrement with us and offers to lift us out. And in doing so, the Son of God gave his own life that we might live.

That’s the price of life—eternal life. And for those in the mess, or aware of their need of help, that’s where they need to turn—to the true hero who was willing to die so that we might live.

A life in tatters

Defrauded his brother (not once but twice), deceived his father, married twice (at the same time), had two mistresses, had twelve children to the four women, and on the run from his employer.

Having said that, his father tried to do him out of his rightful inheritance, his brother tried to kill him after the second fraud, his wives treated him as a piece of meat, his employer tried to diddle him of his wages, and his father-in-law gave him the wrong daughter (on purpose) at the wedding.

Sometimes we are a product of what others have done to us. And sometimes we have done things to others which have shaped them for the worse. We have been harmed, and we have caused harm.

Is there hope for the harmed and the harming? Where go you go when your life is in tatters?

The man described isn’t a modern day character, yet he could be. In fact he is from about 5000 years ago, and his name is Jacob. You’ll find him in the book of Genesis, and over the next number of weeks in New Life Fellowship we’re going to be studying Jacob. Or more particularly we’ll be looking at how God deals with such a mess of a man, and starts to untangle the mess.

And that’s encouraging for each of us because we need help to untangle the mess of our lives, and here is where hope is found. Hope is found in the God who untangles and rescues. Hope is found in the God who can forgive us for the harm we have done. Hope is found in the God who can take the harm we have suffered and turn it for good.

You see, God doesn’t ask us to tidy ourselves up before we come to him. He tells us to come just the way we are, and then he will start to do the tidying. God loves us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.

That’s what we see with Jacob.

Perhaps you can identify with Jacob, either as hurt or hurter. Perhaps you identify with some aspect of his life, but not all. Perhaps you don’t identify with Jacob much at all, but you know that you need God as much as Jacob did, albeit for different reasons.

Whatever the case we’d like to invite you to come along and join us for this set of studies over the next 6 weeks or so. We start this Sunday at 10.15 in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

Of Butterflies and Caterpillars

Did you know Letterkenny has a Butterfly Garden? It is the brainwave of the folks at An Taisce, and was officially opened last Thursday, beside the tourist office. It’s a place where suitable plants are grown to provide a habitat for butterflies to flourish in and around a growing town.

I’m a designer at heart. I studied architecture at university, and still dabble in various forms of design. One of the things that strikes me as I look at this world is how fantastically designed it is. And butterflies are an incredible example.

When you think ‘butterflies’, don’t just think ‘bright flappy things’—think of the two stages before that: the caterpillar and the pupa. There aren’t many other animals that go through such a complete change during their lifetime. Yet all the information for that transformation is built in right from the start in the little eggs just a millimetre long and a fraction of that wide. Inside is the information for all three utterly different stages.

The caterpillar has cutting jaws, perfect for chewing leaves. Its intestine and digestive glands are matched to this diet. The butterfly, on the other hand, has jaws no longer suited for chewing. Instead, it has a long probscis which enables it to drink flower nectar.

The caterpillar has eight stumpy feet. The soft soles of these feet adhere as firmly to the smoothest surfaces as their circular bristles cling to rough surfaces. On the other hand, the butterfly’s finely jointed long legs are capable of landing safely and clinging to blossoms which blow back and forth in the breeze.

When it reaches the end of its caterpillar stage it sheds its skin for the last time. But what now appears—the pupa—has almost no resemblance to a caterpillar. This motionless pupa has neither head nor legs.

Under this seemingly lifeless shell something quite unbelievable is happening. The old caterpillar organs, with the exception of the nervous system, begin to dissolve into smaller groups of cells, even to disintegrate into single cells. From this ‘cellular soup’, new and, in part, quite different organs begin to develop.

When you consider this rebuilding process, what strikes me is that everything is happening with the utmost precision according to an extremely cleverly programmed plan. Without it the jumble of cells would not develop into the beautiful butterfly.

New and functioning organs are constructed, which then collaborate and complement each other in a purposeful and error-free way to form a new and radically different organism—the butterfly.

Consider the colourful wings—their patterns are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation. That means that the position and colour of each of the countless individual wing scales is encoded in that tiny egg cell—alongside all of the other incredibly complex and intricate information.

This degree of miniaturization of information storage can hardly be imagined. To appreciate the technical difficulties, consider that the exactly symmetrical patterns on the wings developed while the wings were totally crumpled up in the cramped conditions of the pupal case. Yet when the wings unfold for the first time, you see the distinctive pattern unique to that species.

Stunning—why did God make it that way? There’s no great reason why he couldn’t have just made caterpillar and butterflies separately. But I think he did it for two reasons: one—to bring delight to many people, especially children. And two—to give us a picture of life, death and new and beautiful life after resurrection. Butterflies should make us ask about the life to come. For it is only with Jesus that we can emerge from the caterpillar phase into the glories of the new heavens and new earth.

The John 3:7 Man

I’ve been asked a couple of times in recent weeks what the guy with the John 3:7 banner at the GAA matches is all about. Or more particularly, what the verse is all about. You see him standing behind the goal on most of the televised matches.

The guy’s name is Frank Hogan, he’s from Limerick, and loves his Gaelic. The first time he displayed the John 3:7 banner was at a hurling match in Croke Park nearly 25 years ago. Since then he has carried the banner the length and breadth of Ireland to hurling and football matches. He is almost as much a part of the establishment as the game itself.

But why? The answer lies in Frank’s own story which I came across on a website:

Frank’s parents had six children. Like his three brothers and two sisters, Frank was baptised and confirmed. They attended church regularly. One day Frank was confronted with the fact that because of his sin he was separated from God, and church membership or sacraments couldn’t deal with the problem. These could not reconcile him to God and save his soul.

September 28
th, 1976 was a landmark day. Frank found out that getting right with God isn’t about belonging or performing; it’s about what Jesus did on the cross. He discovered that Jesus had died on the cross as his substitute, and by doing this had paid the penalty for his sins. At 11 pm, in the front room of his home, Frank turned from his sin and asked Jesus for forgiveness. He put his trust in Christ, believing that Jesus had purchased a pardon for his sins through His sufferings and death on the cross.

But what’s that got to do with John 3:7? The verse reads:
‘Jesus said, “You must be born again”’

The verse simply reflects what Frank found he needed to experience. All of us are like a soiled page before God. Our own efforts at cleaning only rub the stains in deeper. We need a fresh start, a new page to our lives. And this fresh start is not something that comes from within us, but something that comes from God. It is not something we work up in ourselves by effort or devotion.

When Jesus said “
You must be born again” he was speaking to a deeply religious man, and he was seeking to show him that his religiousness wasn’t enough. The problem is more deep rooted than we realise and therefore the solution has to be more radical than we first think.

‘John 3:7’ points us to the good news. It tells us that a new start is wonderfully possible. God can bring about a change of heart in men and women. Jesus can give you a new birth, a new start and a new life. He died on the cross to make the new start possible. He is alive today and can deal with your sin and give you a new start if you will admit your need and seek after Him, like Frank did.

When we turn from our disobeying or ignoring of him, and we put our trust in Jesus for acceptance and forgiveness—then we find God’s fresh start. And when that happens you want people to know. And Frank’s way of raising folk’s curiosity is to hold up his banner that points people to this verse.

Next time you see his banner I hope you will understand it better.

A forgotten classic

I was browsing through a collection of short essays the other day when I came across several by Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame. What intrigued me were the passing references to characters and incidents from another book by a different author. If I hadn’t already read that book I wouldn’t have understood the references.

I filed that away in the recesses of my mind until I was reading a DL Sayers novel “Clouds of Witnesses” where I found more references to the same work.

Then, like many things, once you see it in one place, you start to notice it in many places. Fashion magazines have taken their titles from it. Novelist John Buchan named one of his books after a character.

For a book that was written by an unschooled mender of pots and pans
Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan has had a remarkable impact. Bunyan wrote it in the 1670s whist in prison for preaching without a license—strange what you needed licenses for then! It is reckoned to be the most translated book after the Bible, and one of the most significant works of English literature.

References to Vanity Fair, to Sloughs of Despond, to Mr Despondency and his daughter Much-Afraid, Mr Linger-after-Lust, Mr Standfast, Mr Worldly-Wiseman, and a host of other characters, places and allusions crop up in many different places in literature. Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, CS Lewis and Enid Blyton, to name but a few, make reference to it in their writings.

It intrigues me that until recently this book was expected by authors to form a part of the mental frame of reference for their intended readers. Allusions were made to it on the understanding that you would be familiar with them. And yet now you could probably count on two hands the number of people in Letterkenny who have read it.

Pilgrim’s Progress is the original, the predecessor of such works as ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’,The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’. It tells the story of one man’s journey from a city facing destruction to a city of delight. It is the journey of Christian on his way to Heaven. It is packed with vivid and rich descriptions, some by now rather quaint. Yet with great insight Bunyan portrays many of the pitfalls of life, and where the answers may be found. And since no one life captures all of life’s experiences, part two of the book retraces the same journey through the eyes of the man’s wife and children, making the journey at a later stage.

Such is the vivid richness and delight of Bunyan’s writing that the greatest theologian of the day, John Owen, when asked by King Charles why he, a great scholar, went to hear an uneducated tinker preach said, “I would willingly exchange my learning for the tinker's power of touching men's hearts.”

In a world where far too many books are published and pass quickly into obscurity, let me encourage you to read this classic. It’s also a great book to read to your kids—I’ve just finished reading a children’s version to my 4 year old, and she loved it. Why not look it up in the library, or get a copy from the Open Door bookshop (beside Gleneany House).

August's Verse

Late in the afternoon of June 20, 1944, Admiral Mitscher of the US Navy had dispatched a bombing mission against the fleeing Japanese fleet during what became known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Aboard the USS Yorktown, Captain Jennings sat looking out into the darkness in front of the bow. It was pitch black and pilots’ fuel supplies were running dangerously low. First one plane and then another dropped into the sea from lack of fuel. At last the remaining planes approached the carriers. But in the darkness, the pilots could not make out which ships were carriers and which were not. Unless something was done many good men were going to be killed trying to landing the darkness. Slowly Admiral Mitscher got up from his seat and gave the order, "Turn on the lights."

These four words were deadly in meaning. Lighting up the fleet would enable the American pilots to find their way home, but it would also help Japanese pilots and submarines to find the US Fleet. Still, the Admiral believed that it was worth the risk. He had promised he would get the pilots home safe, and he was going to keep his word.

The ships quickly turned on all their lights. High in the air the pilots could not believe their eyes. One returning flyer described the scene as a “Hollywood premier, Chinese New Year's, and Fourth of July all rolled into one.” Here below them were dozens of ships with thousands of men aboard endangering their lives to save slightly over two hundred men and planes. Incredulous, but grateful, the pilots looked for their respective aircraft carriers, but it was confusing. This time Admiral Mitscher broke another rule. He sent the message, "Land on any carrier."

Quickly, pilots jockeyed for landing positions. Still planes had to ditch into the sea for lack of fuel. One pilot approached the USS Yorktown and as his plane caught the arresting wire and came to a stop, it died from lack of fuel.

Of the 40 planes the Yorktown had sent out on June 20th to attack the Japanese fleet, 14 made it back to their own ship, 13 landed on other ships, 11 landed in the sea nearby and their crews were picked up. 38 of the 40 had made it back to the ship. Figures were similar for the other aircraft carriers. All because of Admniral Mitscher’s order to “Turn on the lights”.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12)—this is something like what he was getting at. Except, he went one better. We live in a world where there are no safe places to land. He came and, instead of putting himself at risk to guide people home, he gave his life to guide people home, to give us a safe place to land. He took all the enemy fire so that there would be none directed at us.

Perhaps you feel like a pilot running low on fuel, and you are desperately searching for a place to land. Jesus says to you, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.”

Solar Collision

I came across a quote the other day that made me stop and think:

“The public display of one’s wrongs, one’s pitiableness, which would have seemed shameful, ignoble, and even disgusting before World War II, became in the 1970’s the distinctive American style.” (David Frum:
How we got here)

It struck a chord—ok, it might have taken a few decades for it to make it over this side of the pond. But how often do we see people displaying their wrongs and their shameful behaviour with no concept of remorse? Talk-shows abound with people queuing up to admit and defend all sorts of behaviour. Dirty washing is aired in public—and without shame. Formula One chief Max Mosley is less concerned about being caught in a sadomasochistic orgy than with there being Nazi overtones to it.

Rather than simply lamenting these changes, we need to understand why they happen.

Society, instead of being ordered around virtue, has become restructured around the self. The values we hold have become focused on ourselves and what works best for us.

There has been a shift from virtue (standards of right and wrong) to personal preferences. There has been a shift from character to personality. The focus used to be on character traits such integrity, kindness, duty, reputation; now we focus on being attractive, fascinating, outgoing, flamboyant etc. And people are famous because of their personalities, not because of their deep-rooted and admirable character traits, but almost rather for the lack of them.

The fascination with wealth and what we can buy, and the ever changing, reissuing, re-branding and updating of everything means that more and more we chase the tantalising dream of being with it. And so we commit ourselves to chasing valueless things, until our values become just as fleeting and changeable.

We have become self-absorbed and self-centred in our living. It all revolves around us. Magazines bombard us with articles focused one way or another on external issues such as looks, home improvements, fitness, purchasing holiday homes, etc. Look at how few people get involved in community association meetings or tidy-ups. Nearly everything we turn to accelerates this self-absorbed downward spiral. Is life all about me?

It’s as if everyone is trying to be the sun in the solar system, seeking everything to revolve around them. We want to be free to live how we want, regardless of how it impacts others. We want to be free to get what we want, regardless of others slaving in sweatshops on the other side of the world.

And when everyone wants to be the sun in the solar system, you don’t have a solar
system; you have solar chaos and collision. There can only be one sun in the solar system. And instead of the planets fighting out who revolves around whom, we need to acknowledge that there is one greater than us, and it is only when we order our lives around God that we can break this downward spiral.

It is no co-incidence that as we have lost sight of God there has been a loss of thankfulness. We have reduced everything to a consumer mindset, so why should we be thankful when we are only getting what we deserve. In becoming pre-occupied with ourselves, we think that we are the great providers. Yet we forget how much of life depends, not on what we can do for ourselves, but on circumstances beyond our control.

We are not the great gods we think we are, and we need desperately to humbly extract ourselves from our self absorption and lift our eyes upwards before our self-centredness implodes on us.

On being judgmental

I caught the tail-end of Highland Radio’s interview with Pastor Trevor Russell and Gareth Hayes of Letterkenny Christian Fellowship about their beliefs. I thought they did a good job of explaining and defending their faith, and supporting their answers from the Bible.

Having touched on a number of hot potatoes, the interviewer kept coming back to the claim that their Christianity made them judgmental.

It’s a claim often thrown at Christians—and sometimes justly. Christians can be guilty of looking down their noses at others—which is often what is meant by ‘judgmental’—and that is indefensibly wrong.

But that is different from what these guys were doing in expressing their standards of right and wrong. We all have standards of what we think is right and wrong—in that sense we are all judgmental.

However there is difference between having standards, and looking down your nose at those who don’t hold to the same standard. One does not necessarily follow the other. And in some cases a person feels ‘judged’ simply because another holds or expresses a different standard. We need to stop being such moral crybabies and have the courage of convictions, and enter into robust discussion as to the basis of our convictions.

The issue is not “Is Christianity judgmental”—for we all are—but “On what basis do we make our value judgments?”

This was clear in the interview. The interviewer clearly disapproved strongly of Christian beliefs which led to strong opinions about right and wrong. Let me say that again: He had a strong opinion/judgment about those who had strong opinions/judgments.

Do you see the irony? His own belief system made him equally judgmental to those who didn’t agree with him.

Christians hold to a defined standard of right and wrong set down by God. It is not arbitrary; it is fixed and universal because God is unchanging and universal. As creator he has the right to rule. But if you don’t have God, where do you get your standard of right and wrong from? It’s simply left to the prevailing climate of opinion which changes from place to place. Without a fixed standard it becomes an arbitrary matter of opinion, and why should one opinion be better than another?

The genuine Christian has a reason for what he believes and how he lives. He is seeking to be consistent with what he believes.

He knows that he is a sinner who can’t earn acceptance with God—so he has no reason to be proud of how he lives or to look down on others. He lives the way he lives because someone has paid for his sin, and because he takes sin seriously he wants to avoid it out of love for the one who paid for his sin. He knows the mess sin makes for others and the judgment that awaits them and so he wants to lovingly warn them that standards are not a matter of opinion, but that there is a God who judges.

And therein perhaps lies the crux of the issue—we don’t like the idea of a God who judges. And we don’t like being reminded of his fixed standards. Yet our only hope lies in a God who judges. If he turns a blind eye to sin then Heaven will be Hell. But instead he offers to judge Jesus in our place. Our only hope is to come to terms with the God who judges, and to ask that Jesus be judged and not us.

Missing the point?

I’ve read one or two books by Bill Bryson. He mostly writes travel books, but more often his books are about the quirks and oddities of the people he meets. In “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America” he writes of visiting the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pen name of Mark Twain. Twain, born in 1835, invented the well-known characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Bryson writes, “The house was a trim, white-washed house with green shutters, set incongruously in the middle of downtown.” It cost two dollars to walk around the site.

But Bryson found the house a disappointment. “It professed to be a faithful reproduction of the original interiors,” he writes, “but there were wires and water sprinklers clumsily evident in every room. I also very much doubt that young Samuel Clemens’ bedroom had vinyl on the floor or that his sister’s bedroom had a plywood partition in it.”

The house is owned by the city of Hannibal and attracts 135,000 visitors each year. Bryson was disappointed that he wasn’t able to actually go inside the house. “You look through the windows,” he says. At each window there was a recorded message telling about that room. As he proceeded from window to window he asked another tourist. “What do you think of it?” The friendly stranger replied, “Oh, I think it’s great. I come here whenever I’m in Hannibal – two, three times a year. Sometimes I go out of my way to come here.” Dumbfounded, Bryson replied, “Really?” “Yeah,” answered the stranger. “I must have been here twenty, thirty times by now. This is a real shrine, you know.”

They walked and talked some more. Bryson’s last question to the man was, “Would you say the house is just like Twain described it in his books?” “I don’t know,” the stranger said. “I’ve never read one of his books.”

Bryson was bemused. Visiting his shrine – but ignoring his books.

Bizarre, yet the man thought himself a true admirer of Mark Twain.

There are many people who take the same approach with Jesus. They go to church, but they never read his teachings. They might even enjoy going to church, and feel good about going. They might even stop and listen to the message, but there the interest stops.

Does that describe you?

It’s not enough. We need to go farther. We need to know Jesus, not just as an interesting historical figure, but as the living Son of God. We need to know more than facts about him, we actually need to know him personally.

PS. If you are interested in finding out more give me a call, drop me a line, or check out some of the sermons online at

July's Verse - Green Gates

The road ended there, at large spiky topped green gates with a big rusty padlock. There was nowhere for cars to go. It was a dead end. How many people turned down that road only to reach the green gates, and then to turn away in disgust at the road that went nowhere?

On later occasions when they came to the junction further back they knew to turn the other way; “There’s nothing down there,” they’d tell their friends, “We’ve been there before.”

We used to go there all the time when I was little. If you looked closely there was another gate at the side, to allow people in. Beyond lay a meadow where gentle streams gurgled and meandered their way through fields of standing corn. Crickets chirped, butterflies flitted about in the still of the summer afternoon, birds sang their merry melodies. It was there I learnt the names of the different birds as we watched them duck in and out among the trees. It was there we found a bird’s nest with its cache of little pale blue eggs, and my mum and I stood and marvelled at the way it was built into the hedgerow. And then there was the tree that had fallen across the river, where I watched my dad, the hero, balance his way across to the far side and back again. And we picked the ripest juiciest blackberries, until our fingers and faces and clothes were stained with the sweet juice.

Later when I was older, it was where I met my first girlfriend, where we went for walks in the rain and held hands.

But those who turned away from the green gates in disgust at their wasted journey, missed the delights of that meadow almost surrounded as it was by the busy suburbs of Belfast. They missed the peace and the calm. They missed the butterflies. They missed lying back amongst the grass and listening to the idyllic chatter of the crickets on a warm afternoon, with the clear blue sky, high above. Chances missed to be the hero, to taste the berries, to meet a first love….

And worse than that, they would tell others, “We’ve been there, to the gates, and there’s nothing to see. Don’t waste your time.”

If only they had looked closely they would have seen the meadow beyond. If in their haste, they had stopped, they would have heard the birdsong. It was there for all to enjoy, but only appreciated by some.

Some people think they have met Jesus, but they have only been to church. Some people think they have tried Christianity, but they have only been religious. “We’ve been there and tried that,” they say, “don’t waste your time.” They have been to the gates and turned away without a closer look, without stopping to listen to the sweet sound of forgiveness.

But those who really know Jesus discover a whole new world, a haven of peace, forgiveness, joy and contentment. That’s what Jesus means when he says,
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9).

Don’t assume you’ve been through the gate if you’ve only stopped and stood in front of it. Don’t miss out. He is the gate – the only way into a new life. But will you find it?

(Verses from the calendar given out by the Baptist church and ourselves)

Women bishops and other assorted arguments

The Church of England’s general synod has voted to allow woman bishops, despite the wishes of those of a conservative bent.

Part of the argument is that we live in a more enlightened age than biblical times, the world has moved on, and churches need to catch up with the times we live in—as opposed to living in the times someone else lived in.

This issue aside, the argument pops up often. It’s often heard on many topics whenever someone seeks to hold to a biblical viewpoint—whether it is on radio or TV talkshows, or in conversation. The topics range over many areas—marriage, sex, morals, homosexuality etc. And the argument runs vaguely along the lines of “The Bible was written a long time ago, things have moved on since then, we know more than we did then, attitudes have changed and really it’s time the Bible was updated.”

There seems to be a certain validity to the argument. After all, much of the Bible was written 2000 year ago, some up to as much as 3500 years ago. Times have changed, we do know more.

But there is a fly in the ointment, a flaw that highlights a degree of misunderstanding at best, and woeful man-centredness at worst.

The Bible doesn’t claim to be a book like any other book. If it was in the same vein as Hippocrates’
‘On Regimen in Acute Diseases’, we would expect it to be outdated and in need of revising. But the Bible claims to be a revelation from God—and since God is a timeless being He is more than capable of delivering a set of instructions that are relevant for all peoples in all times and in all places.

There is a certain irony that we, who are bound by time sit like little judges over God who is outside of time and declare that time has moved on, that he needs to move with the times. We bob along in the river of time, and yet have the temerity from our limited perspective to call out for change to the one who can see with a single glance the whole river of time spread out before him.

Therein lies the man-centredness of it all—and there is a pinch of arrogance to it. We assume that the knowledge we have now is right. But doubtless there will be opinions of ours which our great-grandchildren will howl with laughter at, as we do to the attitudes of those who have gone before us. Who is to say that our generation has it right?

Given science and society’s penchant for change, do we build our lives and our society on the shifting sands of current opinion, or in the unchanging and ever relevant word of God?

Message in a bottle

Apparently ‘spirit bottles’ are big business in Beijing these days. The Times reports that one store claimed to be selling more than 100 per day.

What on earth is a ‘spirit bottle’? Nothing more than an empty bottle with a label such as ‘Courage’, ‘Good Ideas’, ‘Unconditional Love’ or ‘Great Wisdom’. The sellers openly state that there is nothing but air in the bottle, yet people keep buying them.

One man browsing the shelf of bottles said, “If you are depressed and need to cry, or angry and need to vent, these spirit bottles give you the empty space you need. It is a concept that we really need right now.”

The biggest sellers in this are ‘Courage and change’ and ‘Sense of security’.

It strikes me as sad that in a nation mourning a massive loss of life this is their answer to trouble – buy an empty bottle and put all your troubles in it. Or buy an empty bottle and look to it for hope.

Then again, where do you look for hope when your country has effectively banned God? You can place your hope in human endeavour, but that doesn’t bring hope in the midst of disaster. It’s no surprise that the people of Beijing have nowhere to put their hope but in an empty bottle.

It would be easy to mock, yet we in Ireland have as many superstitions—whether they are in the old folk tales or in the new spiritualities that are doing the rounds. Bizarre empty bottles all of them.

To be fair, some would want to place biblical Christianity in the same category of wishful empty-bottle hoping.

The difference is that this bottle isn’t empty, and the proof lies ironically in something that was empty—the tomb. The resurrection of Jesus underscores the validity of Christianity.

How sad that men and women could be conned into placing their hopes in empty bottles of whatever unfounded superstitions or beliefs.

Ultimately there is no such thing as alternative spiritualities—just many empty bottles, and only one full one.

Imagine crawling into a shop from the desert—which bottle would you buy? One of the empties, or the one full of life giving water?

The only message of empty bottles is the emptiness of their hope. However, God in his rich mercy has given us a clear message from Heaven, not in a bottle, but in a person—Jesus Christ, who said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink… whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Some Summer Reading

Packing for holidays always means throwing in a few books—at least for me it does. It’s a good time to put your feet up, whether you’re on the plane or on the beach and get stuck in to a book.

So here’s a few recommendations from books I’ve enjoyed over the last few months:

The Reason for God – Tim Keller. This is a superbly reasoned discussion—certainly not an argument—for the existence of God. Keller encourages both believers and unbelievers to question their beliefs and their doubts, showing that popular reasons for not believing have their own problems. Keller is well-read, yet easy to read. He is clearly well-versed in many areas, yet he presents his learning with clarity and beguiling ease.

The Unknown Tour de France – Les Woodland. This has nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with cycling. And yet it’s not only for the cycling enthusiast. It takes in the history, the famous characters, and a host of obscure and amusing stories. Made up of fairly self-contained chapters, you can read one and leave the book down to wander off for an ice-cream before resuming your read.

Lord Peter - a Collection of All the Lord Peter Wimsey Stories – Dorothy Sayers. Sayers was a master of the detective genre. Anything by her is a joy to read. Here is a collection of short stories based on her aristocratic but likeable detective Lord Peter Wimsey. If you like detective fiction without all the blood and gore, you should check out Sayers.

Polishing God’s Monuments – Jim Andrews.
A true story of a young woman and her devoted husband who have faced a lifetime of mysterious, devastating illness. When she was young Juli Andrews contracted mononucleosis, which set in motion a bizarre series of events that culminated in her being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and eventually a horrifying accompanying disease known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. This is an affliction that left her unable to handle even the faintest smell of perfume or the chemicals used in inks and fabrics. Eventually she developed extreme sensitivity to light, to the chlorine in water and even to the presence of electricity, leaving her lying day after day in the cold and the dark.

The author is her father, a pastor who interweaves the account of his daughter’s suffering with his understanding of the Bible’s help for those who suffer. This is no cold theorising. He writes from the perspective of one who has seen suffering up close, and as one who has suffered by watching the afflictions of the ones he loves. His writing is both moving and profoundly helpful, bringing comfort and hope to those who are suffering and to their loved ones.

You should be able to pick these books up on Amazon easily enough. Happy reading!

Affairs – Good for marriages?

I came across an item in the Telegraph newspaper reporting on a book published in the States, When Good People Have Affairs by Mira Kirshenbaum.

The author argues that society has failed to have a sympathetic discussion of infidelity, and therefore the positive sides of cheating have been ignored. According to Kirshenbaum having an affair can be good for a marriage, but above all you must never admit it to your spouse, even when directly asked.

Her book is not aimed at “creeps” who think they can cheat with impunity, but at decent people who know they have made a mistake. “These people are suffering terribly and need to be relieved of their sense of guilt and shame because those emotions are paralysing,” she said.

It’s hard to know where to start with such an argument, but let’s shift it sideways for a moment. What if the above paragraphs had read:

The author argues that society has failed to have a sympathetic discussion of murder, and therefore the positive sides of murder have been ignored. Murder can be can be good for a society, weeding out the weak, the distasteful, and the vulnerable, leaving only the strong. “These murderers are suffering terribly and need to be relieved of their sense of guilt and shame because those emotions are paralysing”

It doesn’t work, does it? We’d never buy that argument. Ok, some would say the two things aren’t interchangeable, or even moral equivalents. But the reality is that her argument is based on post-event justification, rather than looking for any moral or ethical principles to guide us.

Let me highlight three other mistakes:

Kirshenbaum confuses the good which comes out of an event, with the good which justifies an event. It’s rather like saying, “I was drunk and crashed the car, severely injuring someone. But it put me off the drink for life. Therefore it’s ok to drink and drive—good might come out of it.”

She also writes off guilt as merely an emotion. This is short-term and ultimately unhelpful because guilt is much more than an emotion. It is more crushing than an emotion because it is tied to a reality. We did wrong—and that wrong needs to be addressed, not explained away. And to add to the guilt of infidelity the guilt of dishonesty is to pile up burdens that only eat away at us, or harden us into something callous and uncaring—neither of which is an attractive option.

A third mistake is that Kirshenbaum treats marriage as merely a social construct. The reality is that marriage is a picture of God’s never-fading, always faithful, unbreakable, never-dying love for his people. So when we dishonour marriage we are like vandals defacing what is meant to be a masterpiece. And God does not hold innocent those who do that. Guilt and shame are present because there is a God before whom we must stand, and neither Ms Kirshenbaum nor anyone can write off the guilt and shame that it is God’s prerogative to deal with. That is the height of arrogance.

And that leads to the real solution. The real solution is not to deny or hide the problem, but to bring it to God. Only he has the right and authority to forgive. And he has the power to bring healing and restoration to broken marriages.

The Great god of Education

Its exam time—that means great weather for the rest of us, while students sit in sweltering exam halls in various stages of panic and angst. It means stress and pressure for many, students and parents alike—parents of stressed children, and parents who wish their children were a little more stressed about the whole thing. The rousing speeches made by teachers at the start of the year—“These are the most important exams of your life”—now seem a tad over the top as some students have worked themselves into a frenzy of forgetfulness.

And in the midst of it all we have become educational snobs—valuing qualifications over wisdom, over practical ability. It’s almost as if you are a nobody unless you have a gone to university. The reality is that there are many jobs which you learn far better by going in at the bottom and working your way up through gaining far more experience than hours sitting in lectures.

I remember Tony Blair stating that it was his aim to have half the population of the UK going to university. I thought it a bizarre goal, because you can’t legislate brains into existence; all you can do is drop the standards of universities to match the ability of the top half of the population.

And so it is that we have made a god out of education. Education is valuable without doubt. But when we continue to press our young people into the one mould, we end up disillusioning them when they fail. God has not made us all the same. And when we make a god out of anything other than God, in other words when we train people to think something like, “This exam/degree/success defines who I am”, it has a nasty tendency to turn around and bite us.

If we make a god out of success in study, what do you do when you fail? Success is a cruel taskmaster. It doesn’t forgive. It beats us up when we fail it. It writes us off. And when we succeed it gives us unrealistic opinions of itself and pushes us on for more—until we find that success doesn’t answer the deepest longings of the soul.

I’m not arguing for a return to the dark ages. Education is valuable. But not everyone needs it to the same level. It is not the be-all and end-all. We need to see that when we make anything other than God the centre of our lives we end up dysfunctioning as human beings. It is when we place things in their proper relation to God that we are free to do whatever we were made to do, and free to fail and not be defined by it.

The reason for that is ultimately that Jesus is the only god who, when we fail, forgives us, accepts us and gives us an identity that is not based on our achievements—an identity which, therefore, cannot be taken away.

June's Verse - Which Shepherd?

On our calendar the verse for June is the words of Jesus:

“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)

Jesus, in saying this was picking up on imagery familiar to his listeners. But it also linked into their musical history in Psalm 23, which, for us, is perhaps the best known ancient song. How many other songs 3000 years old do you know?

I was thinking what Psalm 23 might be like if it had been written by someone today. It sets up quite a contrast with the original.

I am my own shepherd
I am always in need.
I stumble from one task to another,
bombarded by demands and mobile phones,
I don’t have a moment’s peace.
I wander in paths of busyness
seeking identity but never finding it.

When death casts its shadow over my life,
I crawl through the valley,
and I am afraid,
despite all my friends I am desperately alone;
all their gaiety
doesn't comfort me.

People around me trample over me,
in the rush to be first.
I anoint my headache with aspirin;
I drown my doubts in an overflowing Guinness.

Peace and contentment are strangers to me
most of the days of my life
and I will dwell in low self-esteem
for the rest of my life.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever.
Thankfully, although times have changed, Jesus hasn’t. And he still offers to be the good shepherd to all who come to him and put their trust in him. Shall busyness, or family, or work, or pleasure lay down its life for me? Can they bring ultimate lasting peace and contentment, a certainty of goodness and mercy?

Which shepherd do you have?

Truth, lies and acceptance

There was an item on the radio the other day about honesty in business, in particular in interviews and CVs. It seems that a high proportion of professionals don’t care much for the truth when it comes to advancing their careers. Dubious claims of degrees and promotion and false referees abound.

Joey Lyons of Checkback International, a pre-employment screening agency, said that 30% of all candidates’ CVs that come their way have some sort of fraudulent claim. When you bear in mind that only people applying for top jobs have their CVs screened by these people, that’s startling.

One employer told of how suspicions were raised when he had rung the referees of a particularly good applicant. So he then rang the company that the referees claimed to work for—the company had never heard of the referees themselves, never mind the applicant!

What is it makes people do that? Unsurprisingly the answer is that people want to stand out from the other candidates. Ironically one of the things Lyons says they look for is a CV that doesn’t stand out. These are the people who prove worthwhile in the long run.

It appears honesty does pay.

It would be easy to point the finger, but we need to ask how often do we tweak the truth so as not to disappoint others, or so that others will think better of us?

Try this – when you tell stories about yourself, how often do you come out on top? How often do the stories reflect well on your abilities, gifts, prowess, wisdom, strength, skill etc.?

How often do stories get embellished fractionally, just to let the light fall on us slightly more favourably?

Why do we do it? Isn’t it for some sort of acceptance or approval? We want people to think better of us than they might—whether it is in friendship, business, family or school. Whether we are business people, or children in the playground, we tweak the truth to improve our approval prospects, afraid that people wouldn’t like or accept us for who we are, or what we have or haven’t done.

Something in us wants to be accepted by those who matter to us. The irony is that embroidering the truth often leads to a hauntedness in our relationships—what if they find out what I’m really like?

We are wired for acceptance—yet painfully aware that we come up short. So where can we find an acceptance that doesn’t require a pretence? It’s found in honesty, not first of all with others, but with ourselves before God. When we are honest with him and find acceptance with him, we can drop the pretence and the façade of lies.

Ironically the truth sets us freer than the mask ever did. Free to be the person God made us to be. You see, with Jesus we find that we are worse than we ever realised, but can be made into something better than we ever dreamt was possible.

Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Cyclones & Earthquakes

“How could God let this happen?”
“This gives me further reason to doubt the existence of God.”

Christians may have problems answering questions about why things happen, but such events pose a bigger problem for the person who doesn’t believe in God, for they can’t even ask the questions. If there is no God, then there is no meaning to life. And it doesn’t ultimately matter if we are killed by a falling tree, or cancer, or mugged, or drowned.

If there is no God, then there is no point in asking questions. There simply would be no reason why anything happens. And there would be no standard of what is right or wrong, or fairness. But something in us cries out against such a belief.

CS Lewis wrote: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.”

It turns out that evil and suffering only make sense in a world where there is a God. In fact, if anything, they are evidence for God, not against.

Argument of course isn’t much help to those in the midst of suffering. But neither is cutting off the lifeline that is God. It is only with God that we have any hope of finding a resolution to tragedy.

Tim Keller writes in his book “The Reason for God”:

“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”

It is in going to Christ that we find comfort, but we find more than that. We find hope. Christ is no longer on the cross; he has risen. And the doctrine of the resurrection instils a powerful hope.

Keller writes:

“Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead, but alive. He cries ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ The answer of Christianity to that question is—yes. Everything sad is going to become untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. This is the ultimate defeat of evil and suffering. It will not only be ended but so radically vanquished that what has happened will only serve to make our future life and joy infinitely greater.”

This brighter future is found only in Jesus.

The Angel-maker

There was a discussion about angels on Highland Radio on Monday. Unfortunately I was standing in a shop that had it on in the background and didn’t get a chance to call in. It was really intriguing. Various callers talked about their belief in angels: about having a personal angel who turned up at just the right time, about what their angel was called, and how they talked to their angel.

It sounded great – to have this great being take such a personal interest in your life, to listen to your requests and to help you, to be there and never to leave you or forsake you.

Then it struck me – what do you need an angel for when you can have the angel-maker?

Almighty God spoke the angels into existence. They are creatures and he is the Creator. They are finite and he is infinite. He is all-knowing and they are not. He is all-powerful and they are not. He is all-present and they are not.

• He offers to have a close personal relationship with us.
• He then promises to hear and answer our prayers for our best.
• He promises that he will never leave us nor forsake us.

So why bother with angels when you could go straight to the top and have the angel-maker?

Of course my question could be asked in the other direction – What do you need the angel-maker for, when you could have an angel? If they are already offering all that, maybe we don’t really need him?

But there is one thing an angel can never do for you.

No angel will die for you. No angel will suffer God’s wrath in your place. No angel will answer for you on the day of Judgment.

And that is precisely what the angel-maker, the Lord Jesus Christ, offers to all who will come to him.

No angel can stand in your shoes on that day, because no angel went to the cross. In Jesus, God came as a human, so that he could take the punishment that humans deserved, so that he could stand in your shoes. And so the angel-maker outranks, out-saves, and out-performs the angels.

Why trust in angels, when only the angel-maker can offer what is ultimately necessary?

‘For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son”… And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”’ (Hebrews 1:5,6)

Listen online at

May's Verse

The calendar we gave out this year deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”. Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Each month we look at one of Jesus’ claims about himself. This month it is from John 8:58

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

At first glance these words seem simple and innocuous – perhaps even verging on the unintelligible. Surely Jesus should have finished the sentence with “before Abraham was born, I was” – meaning I have existed from before Abraham.

Was he just bad at grammar? Or is it the fault of the translators?

To the Jews of Jesus day this was not evidence of a poor education, but of a startling and boldfaced claim. You see, the phrase “I am” used in this way harks back to the way God introduced himself to Moses at the famous burning bush – “Tell them, ‘I am has sent you’”. God was saying to Moses that the always-existing one was sending him. What Jesus is doing is claiming to be that always existing one. He wasn’t simply in existence before Abraham like some angelic figure; rather he has always existed. Even the Jewish listeners understood this to be a claim to be God, for we are told in the next verse, “At this they picked up stones to stone him” – the penalty for blasphemy.

But what difference does it make to us?

There’s something immensely comforting to go back to a place and find it hasn’t changed, or to meet an old friend and find they ‘haven’t changed a bit’. That’s part of the comfort that lies behind the unchanging nature of Jesus.

Perhaps we wonder, “Would he forgive me?” We should listen to his words of forgiveness to Peter who denied him. He hasn’t changed. There is forgiveness for all who come to him in repentance like Peter did.

Perhaps we despair at circumstances. We should stand with the disciples in the storm tossed boat and look at the One who has just told the waves to be still. He hasn’t changed. He still calms storms. There is hope for all who come to him.

Perhaps we find it hard to trust Jesus. We should cry out to Jesus, “I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:23-24) and see Jesus do just that. He hasn’t changed. There is rescue for all who trust in him.

Perhaps we think it doesn’t really matter what we believe. We should listen to Jesus, “I am the way the truth and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). He is the unchanging one.

The Cellar

There is something morbidly compelling about the news from Austria of Josef Fritzl who hid his own daughter in a secret cellar and fathered seven children with her. We watch in stunned disbelief, and find ourselves wondering how on earth something like that could go undetected for so long. We wonder how on earth the children are going to adjust to the realisation that there is another world outside their bunker-like existence.

To be born into a situation and to know nothing else. To realise that there is another world beyond what you have ever known, to realise everything you ever thought of as normal was far from normal, to find out that you have actually been a prisoner when you thought you were free – it’s simply staggering.

And yet, perhaps, it’s not so unusual.

What if we were all born like that – except not in a literal cellar, but prisoner to a warped and distorted set of values that placed us at the centre of the universe and made the universe revolve around us? What if the way we naturally looked at life was wrong? What if the values we took for granted weren’t valuable? What if our view of life and the world was our cellar?

How often do we hear the phrase “Everyone’s doing it” as an attempt to define normality? But if we all live in the cellar what is normal for us isn’t actually normal.

It’s not enough to measure life by what we have experienced – where would that have left these poor children? They had never seen sky or daylight but that didn’t deny the reality of sky or daylight. They needed outside information. We need it too. We need something to tell us what is truly valuable, what the right values are to live by, where we have gone wrong, and how it can be put to right.

For we are all born captives to a human-centred worldview, a view that revolves everything around us. That’s our cellar. Into this cellar comes the outside communication that the universe is actually made by God and made for God – it is radically God-centred.

So we have a choice: we can either continue to live in the cellar, spinning in our own little personal orbits, or come up out into the light and live the way God intended us to live. It isn’t easy to make that transition from cellar to daylight, and that’s why God himself came down into the cellar to live for a while and to take us slowly and gently up into the “freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). That’s why we need to go to Jesus and seek his help in this radical realisation that we have been living with too small a purpose, in too self-centred a world. It’s just like being born all over again.

Looking for God in the wrong places

At the moment I’m really enjoying reading The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. It’s not often that a book arguing for Christianity makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, where Keller’s book has been for the last couple of months.

Keller has 20 years experience as a pastor among business elites in New York. He is well used to answering tough questions, yet his answers are gentle and winsome, choosing dialogue over argument. The Reason for God displays a breadth of knowledge of religion, history and philosophy, but Keller pulls it all together is a way that is clear and understandable.

I was reading this section last night and thought it worth quoting:

‘When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C.S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analysed with empirical methods. He would relate to us as a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that author chooses to put information about himself in the play.

‘Lewis gives us another metaphor for knowing the truth about God when he writes that he believes in God “as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

‘Imagine trying to look directly at the sun in order to learn about it. You can't do it. It will burn out your retinas, ruining your capacity to take it in. A far better way to learn about the existence, power, and quality of the sun is to look at the world it shows you, to recognize how it sustains everything you see and enables you to see it.

‘Here, then, we have a way forward. We should not try to “look into the sun”, as it were, demanding irrefutable proofs for God. Instead we should “look at what the sun shows us.” Which account of the world has the most “explanatory power” to make sense of what we see in the world and in ourselves? We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfil. We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things?

‘Christians do not claim that their faith gives them omniscience or absolute knowledge of reality. Only God has that. But they believe the Christian account of things – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration – makes the most sense of the world. I ask you to put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.’

Torch Travesty

So the Olympic torch goes on its way round the world promoting peace, harmony and protest. Some have tried to snatch the torch, others have thrown water bombs at it, some have refused to carry it, politicians have become embroiled in an ‘are-they-going-to-the-opening-ceremony-or-not’ debate, some have pleaded beseechingly for freedom for Tibet as they are hauled off by police, others have maintained that the West is the victim of an anti-China propaganda exercise.

An immense amount of effort has been put into making sure that this flame gets to China, that it stays pure. The importance of the flame, according to the International Olympic Committee, lies in the fact that it “transmits a message of peace and friendship amongst peoples.”

And there lies the irony.

The focus these days is on Tibet and the Chinese crackdown there. But there is a hidden travesty that is much wider, but less reported – the persecution of Chinese Christians.

• In March 2008 twenty-one pastors were sent en masse to labour camps.

• In March 2008 officials seized 11 teenagers at an 'illegal’ Bible study. They were held for 24 hours without relatives being allowed to visit them. Three were later re-arrested and sentenced to 15 days’ detention.

• A pastor, Zhuohua, served three years in jail in 2004-2007 for printing Bibles.

• Jailers in China crippled an elderly Christian prisoner after learning that he had brought 50 of his fellow inmates to Christ. Chen Jingmao, a 72-year-old, was so severely beaten that both his legs were broken. He now has to be carried everywhere. A source told China Aid Association that Chen was beaten because ‘his action, of bringing others to Christianity, had brought shame upon the Communist Party’.

Examples could be multiplied. A friend of mine who visits China speaks of having to visit churches in the dead of night so that they will not be disturbed.

There is an opposition to Christianity, and a persecution of it in China. If there is religious tolerance in China why do Bibles have to be smuggled in to the country?

And that brings us full circle to the Olympics again – the Beijing Olympics website says that “Each traveller is recommended to take no more than one Bible into China.”

Why does that even need to be stated?

In Ireland we have many freedoms – the freedom to meet for worship, the freedom to have and read the Bible, the freedom to believe what we want to believe. We shouldn’t take these freedoms for granted. Nor should we ignore these freedoms. We should make the best use of them we can. And pray and petition for those who experience a restriction of such basic freedoms.

April’s Verse

Within the Christian tradition there is a tendency to think of Jesus as the dying Saviour – for some he is always on the cross. There are images and statues and crucifixes all displaying Christ on the cross. Now, while this is a key aspect of what Christ came to do, it is not the focus.

Jesus did not come to evoke our pity or even our admiration at his suffering. He came to rescue a people who would then follow him in glad-hearted surrender. But you can’t follow a corpse.

He came to rescue a people so that they could joyfully live for him because they knew that he lived to transform them and take them to be with him. You can’t live joyfully for a corpse, not for the long run.

If we think only of Christ on the cross it fosters a kind of sour-faced guilt – look at what I have done. It keeps the focus on me and my sins. It robs us of the strength to joyfully live for him here and now.

That’s not how Jesus wants it – if he had, he wouldn’t have risen from the dead. Neither would he have appeared to John the Apostle and had him record for all time these words which appear on our calendar as the verse for April:

“I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever!” (Revelation 1:18)

The Christians that John was writing to were facing savage persecution, and Jesus knew that what they needed was a reminder that he was no longer dead but alive, and alive forever. And if he was alive forever then that meant that he would triumph, and that death was not the end. It is a relationship with the risen triumphant Christ that transforms Christianity from a guilt-ridden ensnaring religion to a joyful freedom-giving reality.

His triumph means I can triumph. His triumph means I can be forgiven. His triumph means strength for today. His triumph means I can defeat sin. His triumph means I can have hope. And that gives joy.

Yes, we must go via the suffering saviour on the cross and have our guilt dealt with, but we are not called to stay there. We are called to follow and live for the risen Christ in glad-hearted delight. “I was dead, and behold I am alive forever.”

(based on the calendar given out by ourselves and the Baptist church)

What happens when it all falls apart?

“The worst crisis (in finance) since World War 2” – that’s how one expert described the impact of the failure of the US investment bank Bear Stearns. Perhaps an overstatement, since we live in a world where ‘the worst’ is always something that revolves around us, and never something that happened a few decades ago.

Yet given the nature of the global village we live in, what happens in America will impact here. €3.5bn was wiped of the value of Irish stocks on an otherwise glorious St Patrick’s Day. Even before that the construction industry was feeling the pinch, laying off builders and holding off on new houses.

It might be the best thing for Ireland. We’ve not really had money before as a country. It’s new to us. We’re like little kids in a sweet factory – over indulging, grabbing all we can. And now it’s all about to blow up in our face.

The problem is that money is a substitute – our hearts are wired to seek something that will fulfil us and our needs and desires. Money looks like a likely candidate but it can’t take the strain. It will ultimately disappoint. And when it has sucked you dry it will spit you out, either broke, or dissatisfied with all your toys.

When we try to fill a God-shaped hole in our souls with a thing-shaped object there will always be gaps where dissatisfaction seeps through. We can plug the gaps with more money and things for a while, but then either something happens that money can’t mask or fix, or the money runs out, and we find ourselves standing with our lives in ruins around us.

And that might be the best thing for us, because it will take us away from what can’t fulfil, and point us to who can fulfil.

That’s why Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” – Matthew 6:19-20

So if it takes a recession to make Irish people realise that they have been selling themselves short, and to point them to a wealth that far exceeds and outlasts anything here, then it would be a good thing. But it would be good to learn that lesson without going through all that loss. What will it take for you to listen?

Jesus did not die to show us he loved us

I was reading ‘The Gospel Truth’ column to the right of mine in last week’s Post about the significance of the events of Easter week. What Father McKevitt said was right, but he left out the best bit.

The crucifixion does show us the wickedness of man and the love of Christ. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus didn’t die because a crowd of people plotted against him. Jesus didn’t die because Romans crucified him. Think about it. The one who raised the dead and calmed the storms could easily have come down off the cross. So there has to be another reason.

And to say he did it out of love for the Father, while true, doesn’t sufficiently explain it. Why did it matter so much for the Father that his Son die? What was happening on the cross if it wasn’t that some bad people killed a good man?

That’s the crux of the matter.

Jesus’ main purpose was not primarily to show us that he loved us, nor to be the victim of a tragic plot. In 1 John 4:10 we read:

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Here we are told precisely how it is that the cross displays God’s love. Jesus didn’t come just to love people; He came to save people.

Jesus stayed on the cross because he was paying (atoning) for the sins of his people. The cross was not a triumph of evil. It was the payment for the punishment that the sins of his people required. On the cross the Father poured out his wrath on the Son, so that the Son could hold out the offer of a wrath-free acceptance from his Father to all who would trust the Son.

The simple fact is – we are all rebels, and someone has to pay. On the cross Jesus offers to pay for your rebellion too. That’s what the cross was about. A Son who loved us enough to stand in our place. And a Father who loved us enough to pour out his wrath on his dear Son, instead of on us.

That’s what I love about the cross. That’s why this is the best bit. Jesus pays for my sin so that I don’t have to. And because of that I get to enjoy the Father’s love. The crucifixion is not some dark tragedy, it is a glorious moment to be celebrated and rejoiced in. Until a person can do that then they haven’t grasped what really happened.

To grasp it we need to do much more than participate in remembering the activities of Easter. We need to go to the Cross and ask Jesus to pay for us too, and to turn us from being rebels into loving, loyal subjects.

New Sins?

I see the Vatican has announced an expansion to the list of mortal sins this week. For those wondering what a mortal sin is: according to Roman Catholicism, it’s one which has to be confessed to a priest and forgiven before death, otherwise the perpetrator ends up in Hell for all eternity. They stand in a separate class from venial sins which don’t condemn us, but are accidental, or lesser in nature.

Traditionally mortal sins are those which breach the Ten Commandments – murder or adultery for example; or the “Seven Deadly Sins” – pride, greed, envy, anger etc. But now a whole new raft of sins has been added to take into account ‘advances’ in modern society. So now the list includes environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, accumulating excessive wealth, inflicting poverty and drug abuse and trafficking.

There will be some who will see this as a real damper on life’s party, and others who will ask what right has the Vatican to declare right from wrong.

But something else strikes me as I read the Bible – God is far more demanding than even this.

The God of the Bible doesn’t appear to have a category of little sins. Any sin damns us for all eternity. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). James, the brother of Jesus writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). And Paul writes, “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Galatians 3:10). Paul’s point is that you have to keep everything, not just the big stuff, in order to avoid God’s wrath.

“What on earth? There’s no way anyone can manage that!” That’s the whole point. The whole point of God’s law is not for us to draw up lists of what is a big sin and what is a minor peccadillo, but to drive us to despair. To the point where we realise that we haven’t a hope.

And when we reach that point of despairing hopelessness – there we find Jesus waiting for us to confess to him our sin, and trust in him for cleansing, because he is the one who died so that we could be forgiven. When we do this, then there is nothing for us to pay. He has taken all the punishment. That’s why Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

Embracing Guilt

Last week the column was way too long – so long that they hadn’t room for the last two paragraphs. Shame, because they were the important two. But I’ve no-one else to blame but myself. And at least I can rectify the situation this week.

I had been talking about an episode of the hospital drama ‘ER’ in which a well-meaning chaplain tries to help a patient struggling with a guilty conscience. The chaplain is of the opinion that guilt exists only in the mind. The patient won’t buy it – he wants “a real chaplain who believes in a real God and in a real Hell.”

And I commented – Without acknowledging a real God and a real Hell there is no help for those with a guilty conscience.

That sentence needs explaining, but that was the cut off point of the article. So here’s the rest (with a little expansion).

Why do we need God? And why does it not help to deny the existence of Hell?

Guilt is real. We know someone has to pay. There’s something in the way we are made that makes us know. It’s why we look over our shoulder when we’ve done something wrong. So it doesn’t help to deny the reality of guilt, or the punishment that awaits the guilty. It simply doesn’t answer the question. And more than that – it kills off the only hope of answer.

You see, the irony is that the solution to guilt is found in the very things that people want to deny in an effort to sort out their guilt.

The real God (Jesus) went through the real Hell (facing punishment on the cross) so that guilty people could come to him and ask him to accept them and forgive them.

The answer is not to run from guilt, but run to it, and embrace it. Accept it. Claim it as your own. Three of the most liberating words are, “I am guilty”. Once you acknowledge that to God, you are in a position to find the forgiveness that Jesus Christ offers.

He has been punished so that we might never be. And so he is the one we need to run to with our guilt. When we do, he says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

ER and the power of a guilty conscience

I haven’t seen the TV programme ER for years, but a friend drew my attention to a powerful scene in a recent episode called “Atonement”. It is between the hospital chaplain and an older patient, dying with cancer. He had been a prison doctor who administered lethal injections to those sentenced to death.

In one of the cases, after a young man was executed, a policeman was found to have framed the suspect. The doctor is wracked with remorse and wants forgiveness as he now faces his own death. The hospital chaplain is introduced and the dialogue goes like this:

: How can I even hope for forgiveness?
Chaplain: I think sometimes it's easier to feel guilty than forgiven.
Patient: (Looks confused) Which means what?
Chaplain: That maybe your guilt over these deaths has become your reason for living. Maybe you need a new reason to go on.
Patient: I don't want to go on. Can't you see I'm old? I have cancer. I've had enough. The only thing that is holding me back is that I am afraid. I'm afraid of what comes next.
Chaplain: What do you think that is?
Patient: (Looking more surprised) You tell me. Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?
Chaplain: I think it's up to each one of us to interpret what God wants.
Patient: (Flabbergasted) So people can do anything? They can rape, murder they can steal all in the name of God and it's ok?
Chaplain: No! That's not what I'm saying.
Patient: (Now agitated) What are you saying? Because all I'm hearing is some New Age, God is love, one size fits all crap. No! I don't have time for this now!
Chaplain: It's ok. I understand…
Patient: (Interrupts angrily) No you don't understand. You don't understand! How could you possibly say that? Now you listen to me. I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell.
Chaplain: I hear that you're frustrated, but you need to ask yourself . . .
Patient: (Interrupts again) No I don't need to ask myself. I need answers, and all your questions and your uncertainty are only making things worse.
Chaplain: I… I know you're upset…
Patient: I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness because I am running out of time.

It is a powerful moment. It highlights the reality of the power of a guilty conscience, and the inadequacy of shallow answers to such guilt. The reason that guilt has such power is because the guilt is real. That’s what I like about the Bible’s teaching about forgiveness – it deals with real guilt. And it deals with it in a real ‘blood and guts’ way.

Guilt is real. Hell is real. But sometimes in an effort to make God seem nice, people do away with the realities that provide real help. Without acknowledging a real God and a real Hell there is no help for those with a guilty conscience.

The real God (Jesus) went through the real Hell (facing punishment) so that guilty people could come to him and ask him to accept them and forgive them. And because of that he says, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

The Guilty Genes

Apparently the genes did it – or rather, do it. Apparently there is a fat gene responsible for making people fat. That’s according to research carried out at University College London. You may discern the note of scepticism in my tone, and you would be right. It’s funny how this gene-based obesity seems to turn up only in the well-off, fast-food guzzling, beer quaffing, chocolate munching, fizzy-drink gulping, calorie laden West (in particular the UK, Ireland and America).

Where are the chubby Lithuanians? Or the obese Egyptians? I spent two weeks in Nigeria, and didn’t see anyone who would be termed as obese. And I managed to lose half a stone, while remaining well fed and really enjoying the food. (Don’t get me started on a fantastic chilli and ginger dish we had.)

Have you noticed it’s always the genes – there’s a gene for homicidal maniacs, a gene for sexuality, a gene for road rage, for stealing, for drug taking. If we’ve got a problem, someone is sure to come up with a gene to pin the blame on. What did we do before we discovered genes?

People aren’t responsible for anything anymore. It’s always someone else’s fault, or even better: our gene’s fault. We see this desertion of responsibility in how people apologise – “I’m sorry I had a bad day”. Or, “It’s because of my background.” Or, “If I had more support I wouldn’t have done that.” When did you last hear someone stand up, admit responsibility, not make any excuses or qualifications, and apologise.

Now, I am well aware that there are factors that exacerbate a situation, and I’m aware that for a small minority of people suffering from mental problems things aren’t clear-cut. But the simple truth is that for the majority of us, we do what we do because we choose to do it. The problem isn’t out there, or even in our genes, such that we can evade responsibility. The problem is us. We choose to do what we do.

And that admission of guilt is the key to freedom. That’s the irony. People seek freedom from their problems by shifting the blame. The answer isn’t to shift the blame, but to welcome it. Because it is to those who acknowledge that they are the problem and that they are responsible, that God offers forgiveness for the past, and transformation for the present and future. Guilt is not to be evaded, but embraced. That’s the paradox of the good news Jesus brings: if you admit your guilt you will be declared innocent, if you strive for innocence, you will be found guilty.

Is Google God?

In today’s Independent (Tuesday 5th) the internet search giant Google cops some of flack for feeding young and careless minds with unsubstantiated facts. It seems as if teachers and university lectures are noting that much of what crops up in essays comes from the first few pages of hits on Google.

This would be fine, of course, if people understood that the internet isn’t exactly a source of verified accurate knowledge, and made suitable cross references and checks. But it appears not, and all sorts of nonsense and urban legends are surfacing in essays. It also appears that some haven’t the wit to change Americanised spellings into English ‘as we spell it this side of the pond’, thus giving the game away.

I have my own interest in Google. I have several websites and there are ways of knowing how people arrived at them. Many arrive via Google, so I get to see what they typed in to Google’s search box. Quite what some of them are looking for I’m not sure, as some of the following examples from searches that brought people my way demonstrate:

“people change frustrate wreck car disappoint wish”
“reasons actions dealing regular people caused everyday problems”

My personal favourite is “hairy loughridge” – what were they hoping to find?

A friend of mine has had the following:

“deceased birthday card” – is it the card or the person that is deceased?
“Where can I find poems of how a blood transfusion saved someone's life?” – do people write poems about this sort of thing?

Others seem to think that Google is some sort of god-like figure, like the Oracles of ancient Greece. Ask it any question and somewhere out there you will find an answer.

“Should I stay in my marriage or have an affair?”
“Where can I find self-esteem?”

Aside from the seriousness of the issues behind the questions I find it sad that people have to turn to a faceless machine to find an answer. Not only that, but when we do that we find the easiest answer, the one most people have taken (and shared on-line). And the easiest answer isn’t always the best. Of course it doesn’t need to be Google, we do the same with our horoscope, or with our friends – polling them to see what we should do, and often taking the answer from them which we want to hear.

Much better than Google is the heart-searching word of God. It tells it like it is, rather than telling us what we would like to hear. And the word of God is personal. Behind it lies a caring God who, unlike the faceless words on the computer screen, will be present with you in troubles and give you actual and real help through them.

As well as reading the Bible for yourself, you can listen on-line to sermons explaining and applying the word of God at - just click on “Sermons”

February's Verse

(From the calendar given out by the Baptist church and ourselves)

God said to Moses, “Tell them: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

This year’s calendar deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”. Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Moses had the same question about 3500 years ago. Out minding sheep, he saw a bush on fire – not an uncommon event in the desert, but the fire wasn’t burning itself out. As he investigated, a voice spoke to him from the flames, commanding him to leave his job and rescue the Israelites from Egypt.

Naturally enough you’d have questions, like “Why’s there a voice speaking from a flaming bush?” and “Who are you that the Israelites should listen?”. The voice answered in cryptic fashion, “Tell them: ‘I AM has sent you’.”

What sort of an answer is that? God explained to Moses that he was the great never-changing God who had always existed, who had promised to make a great nation out of Israel, and how this never-changing God was coming to make good his promise.

The name ‘I AM’ came to sum up that eternal, never-changing, promise-keeping character of God. Down through the centuries of the Old Testament the Jews treated the name with great respect, not even daring to use it for fear of dishonouring it.

Then there appears a man making great claims about rescuing people, about being the promised one. Naturally enough people want to know who he is. And in answer to their questions, he takes the long unspoken name and utters it about himself – “Before Abraham was born, I am” – John 8:58. Many of the Jews thought it was blasphemy, that he was a con artist. They ignored the evidence of his life and his miracles. He used the same power that was seen in the rescue from Egypt: he controlled the sea, he provided miraculous food for the hungry crowds.

We mustn’t make the same mistake. Jesus is the great never-changing, promise-keeping God who has come to rescue people and take them out of slavery and death to a promised land, just like he did so long ago through Moses.

The irony of an open mind

Every so often someone says to me, “I want you to read/watch this with an open mind”.

Usually it’s something that purports to tear out the very foundations of Christianity, and usually it’s got more holes than a Tetley tea-bag.

Yet this attribute of an open mind is held forth as some great virtue. Perhaps somewhere in the mists of time it was, but now it appears to be a refuge for those who don’t want to think for themselves, or who only want to think through half the issue. An open mind has become like an open bin – ready to accept any rubbish thrown its way.

The last thing I want to read or watch anything with is an open mind. I want to read or view everything with a critical mind – with all my faculties switched on, asking questions like, “Where did this come from? Why is he saying it? What agenda lies behind this? What evidence is there for it?”.

Of course it is equally unacceptable to come to things with a closed mind – the attitude of “I don’t care what evidence you have, what expertise you may enlist, I will believe what I believe in spite of it”.

The ironic thing is that often those who call for open-mindedness are fiercely close-minded to anything that calls into question their own viewpoint. The minute their conclusions are challenged with supported evidence they clam up and pull out the favoured defence of “You need to be more open-minded”.

It leaves you wondering, “What precisely are we to be open-minded to?”

We Irish are often guilty of these equal and opposite errors. We either throw off belief in anything to do with God, or we settle into an unquestioning blind faith. Both can be equally close-minded and both are equally dangerous.

Biblical Christianity can stand questioning; it can stand rigorous investigation. But to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, “Christianity has not so much been investigated and found wanting, as it has been assumed wrong and left uninvestigated.” The apostle Paul calls us to “Test everything, hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Snow Cows

I’m no expert on cows; one cow generally looks the same as another cow to me (I’ve probably just alienated the rural readers of this column!). But anyhow, unless they are different colours I don’t know enough to tell them apart.

Now what has that admission got to do with anything? Not a lot. Except that I was driving past a field the other day that was full of cattle, and I could tell that they were different from most of the others I had seen before. What was it that gave the game away?

They were all white. That was new to me. I’ve seen one or two white ones before, but I certainly haven’t seen a whole field full. But there they were, looking rather distinctive against the rich green of the field, like the first snowdrops of the spring.

Yet despite all their whiteness, even to my inexpert gaze I could distinguish different shades of white. Some were more a cream colour. Others were a slightly off-white, almost a grey tinge to their hide – as if they had somehow been drained of their colour. But compared to other cattle in other fields and compared to the surrounding green, they were all very definitely white. It reminded me of choosing paint. You go into Atlantic Homecare and ask for white, and they ask you “Which shade?”! I thought white was white.

Back to the cows. I didn’t see them when the snow was lying thick on the ground last week. I wouldn’t have minded seeing them in a snow-covered field, just to see how white they really are. I have a hunch that compared with the blinding white of the snow even the whitest of cattle would look distinctly dirty. They would prove no match for the pure white of snow.

Isn’t it a bit like that with us? We look at others and we think, “Well, I’m not that bad. I’m not as bad as so-and-so.” All round we think we’re pretty decent. But it’s only when we see ourselves against the sinlessness of a pure God that we realise how messed up we are. And that’s the standard that matters. ‘Mostly white’ doesn’t count. Only pure white counts with God.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are guilty of wrong. What hope have we then? None, if we’re trying to look clean by ourselves. But the great thing is that God offers to make us white like the snow. For free. If we ask him.

“Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” - Psalm 51:7

Long Live ____________?

The closing days of 2007 saw Pakistan thrown into turmoil by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. On the 27th December, on her way home from a political rally, as she climbed into her car, Bhutto died in a gun and bomb attack.

Seconds before the shots rang out she called to the surging crowd around her car:

“Long live Bhutto”

They were her last words. “She did not say anything more,” said Safdar Abbassi, her chief political adviser, who was sitting behind her.

"Long live Bhutto" — bang — dead.

And then? Then Benazir Bhutto found herself facing her maker and her judge.

My point is not to wonder about her soul, but yours. The only difference between Benazir Bhutto and us is a split second, a moment, a flash. That’s all that separates us from standing before our Judge. We don't know the time of the summons, but we do know that we won't miss our court appearance date by so much as a second.

“Long live me” – gone. Gone to judgment.

Yet we tend to live with the mindset of “Long live me!”. But we don’t know what the next moment holds. Solomon said, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring" (Proverbs 27:1).

Bhutto’s last words were a wish for long life; words that were, sadly, instantly shown to be futile. Who knows whether all of the readers of this column will be here in a year’s time to read it, or indeed, whether I will be here to write it.

So as another year lies before us like a blank canvas before a painter, take time to think about that day when you stand before the Judge to give account.

January's Verse

For the last few years, along with the Baptist church, we have given out a calendar at Christmas to quite a number of homes in the town. This year the calendar deals with the all important theme “Who is Jesus?”.

Many voices down through the centuries have made all sorts of claims and promises. Many voices in the present make their claims and promises too. They clamour for our attention, call us to follow, believe and commit. How are we to know which voice to listen to?

Every month a verse from the Bible sets out the uniqueness of Jesus Christ – the only ‘voice’ to live, die and rise again; the only ‘voice’ to offer to take our place before an angry God. Throughout the course of the year I intend to explain a little of what each month’s verse means.

January’s verse is found in Revelation 1:8, ‘“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”’

Sometimes people say, “Christianity is OK for you, but it’s not for me. You can believe it, but I’ve got my own beliefs.” That would be fine if the final day of reckoning was like an airport check-in hall, with all the different religions each having their own check-in desk, with their own little deity and his staff seeing to those flying with them.

If this verse tells us anything, it tells us that it will not be like that. There is one God, not many. He is all-powerful. He has been in existence, and will always be in existence. There were no gods in existence before him, and none have come after him. Alpha and Omega refer to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet – it is a way of saying that Jesus is before all things, after all things. He is the all-encompassing one, with whom all mankind will have to deal. He is sovereign. And he is coming back.

This verse also means that Jesus is what life is all about. Life is not about getting all you can, or even giving all you can. It’s all about Jesus – that’s what we’re here for. If our lives haven’t been about Jesus, then we aren’t ready for him coming back. Does he pervade your life in every aspect, or is he left on the periphery?

If you would like to know more, or would like a calendar, just get in touch.