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Dreaming of a dry Christmas

Dreaming of a Dry Christmas
(by Jonny McCollum, working with Milford church)

It looks like Ireland is about to have a white Christmas. How do I know? Because according to one ‘expert’, the last two were in 1999 & 2004 – five years apart. Which means that we’re due to have snow in 2009! Maybe someone should tell this ‘expert’ that weather doesn’t necessarily work like that.

Wouldn’t it be handy if the weather followed sequences like that? There would be no need for expensive meteorological equipment, because forecasting would be child’s play. Planning our lives would be much easier too and best of all, conditions would never take us by surprise.

If only we had known how wet November was going to be. We knew there would be rain (when isn’t there?), but few expected it to be the wettest November on record.

If we knew what was going to happen flood defences could have been improved and homes could have been protected. But sadly, we were taken by surprise. Rivers burst their banks and water gushed out of drains as streets were submerged and housing estates were cut off by torrents of water.

The effects of the floods were devastating. Thousands of people watched in horror as the floodwaters crept towards their homes and eventually forced their way inside. Many experienced the heartbreak of seeing their possessions ruined—furniture sodden beyond repair, carpets defiled by the foul water, electrical equipment destroyed.

Businesses were devastated too as shops, restaurants and hotels were gutted. In a matter of hours, massive investments and years of hard work were rendered meaningless. We ought to feel sympathy for those affected—for some, everything they’ve worked to achieve was wiped out as the waters made their presence felt.

We all ought to take heed; we don’t know what’s around the corner.

If we base our happiness or our sense of security on our possessions, our homes or our businesses we are heading for disaster. If they are destroyed, our lives come crashing down. In fact, Jesus Christ warns us about that very danger. There’s only one way to find lasting happiness and security and that’s by turning to Jesus. He won’t exempt us from the difficulties of this world, but he’ll give us the grace to cope and the promise of a world to come that’s free from hardship.

And unlike the weather, he won’t let us down.

December's Verse

I want to introduce you to a young girl, not that old, possibly about 14 or 15. She doesn’t come from a well off family, but she’s happy. The reason for her happiness is a young man. He’s noble, upright, honourable—and they’re engaged.

But her life has been turned upside-down. She’s pregnant. It’s the 1st century, and a deeply religious culture. There’ll be the shame of being pregnant before marriage and then the scorn poured on her when she explains, “It isn’t Joseph’s, this child came from God.” You can almost hear the laughter, the name-calling, the pained look in Joseph’s eyes. In human practical terms, Mary’s life had taken a severe downwards plunge. She could be stoned to death for adultery. At the very least she would be a social outcast forever.

Yet what do we see from this young girl? She sings—not an anguished lament for a lost childhood, but a song of praise. Surprisingly her song is not about her problems—it’s all about God, full of love and praise to God. Instead of turmoil, we see a song that reveals the spiritual strength of this amazing young girl.

The opening lines from her song are December’s verse on the 2009 calendar. The opening lines are startling,
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1:46)

Two things stand out here:

Firstly, although her life has been turned upside-down, Mary is thrilled. Why is that? She has grasped that the promised Rescuer, whose arrival has been waited on since the time of Adam & Eve, has come. At last he has arrived. The one to whom all the sacrifices, kings, prophets, rescuers—indeed the whole Old Testament—had pointed. The answer to the great problem of man’s guilt has arrived. Any wonder Mary is thrilled!

But the second thing we see is this: Mary, the one woman chosen out of millions, the extraordinary blessed one, acknowledges that she needs God to rescue her, to be her saviour. She knows that guilty people cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. But she also knows that there is hope, that God will rescue her and she has evidently asked him to do that for her—for she calls him “My Saviour”.

And if this wonderfully privileged girl needs a Saviour so do we. That’s what Christmas is about—the coming into the world of the Saviour—one who’ll rescue us if we ask him. Mary tells us that we all need a Saviour.

In Other News!
I want to give a mention to the Milford Inn’s Christmas Appeal this year. It’s about supplying presents to those children in our own community whose families are finding things tough. If you’re able to help out, drop in to the hotel and ask for Joanne. Well done to Joanne, Audrey and Caroline and all the staff at the hotel.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or

That man Thierry Henry again

What are your ambitions? I remember that question being asked in English class at school. What nonsense we wrote—one of mine was swimming the English Channel. I suspect we weren’t writing our ambitions, but seeking to impress the teacher.

The ambitions of children differ somewhat from those of adults. But perhaps only in terms of realism. Our ambitions become a little more in tune with our abilities (unless of course you’re on X-Factor).

Ambition is fine, but it has a nasty habit of springing surprises on us. Consider the now infamous Thierry Henry, footballing superstar, and now possibly seeking to switch to Gaelic football, except that he wouldn’t be welcome in Ireland. His ambition to get France to the World Cup finals took a nasty turn for the worse.

Ambition has a habit of narrowing us as individuals. We see our goal and only our goal. Other things that stand in the way become secondary—in Henry’s case, the rules of the game, sportsmanship, integrity, reputation etc. The result becomes all that matters. And it’s true not only for him, but also for us in all sorts of different ways. Consider the pursuit of something ordinary—a quiet evening in. Your aim is peace and relaxation, but your children aren’t aware of that! And in pursuit of your goal, you turn into a screaming threatening monster, resentment and fear is bred, and relationship damaged. Our ambition has blinkered us.

Ambition also has a habit of disappointing us; we get what we aim for, only to find out that it isn’t as fulfilling as we thought. Or we achieve success, only to be eclipsed by others.

Ambition brings fear and anxiety too—what if my goal doesn’t materialise? What if I get it and something threatens it?

Am I saying that we should all be spineless, ambitionless couch potatoes? Certainly not. But there has to be a way of having ambitions that doesn’t narrow us, disappoint us, or threaten us.

The answer is found in Philippians 3:10-11where the apostle Paul sets out his ambition in three strands. He wants to know Christ, he wants to be like Christ, and he wants to be with Christ.

Here is the greatest ambition anyone can have—to know and relate to the infinite God who created the universe, forever. Here is ultimate success. Here is ambition that lasts. Here is an ambition that will never disappoint, be taken from us, threaten us, or narrow us.

Instead, when we get this one right, then all our other ambitions fall into place, and we can enjoy the pursuit of them, whether we get them or not—because our happiness, security, identity isn’t bound up in them, but in who we are before God.

What is your ambition? And where will it take you?

Anonymous Calliope

Dear Calliope,

Thank you for your letter in response to a previous column, although since you gave no address, this is the about the only option left for response. In response to my claim that God is a master artist you raise what you imagine to be numerous “design faults, never corrected” such as earthquakes, tsunamis etc. I can only assume that you haven’t read much of this column before because I have written often on these sorts of issues, as well as others you mention.

You write, “If I were God I wouldn’t have the neck to ‘proclaim my handiwork’ when it is so lethally shoddy”. It is as a result of mankind’s ‘handiwork’ that it has become lethal. I don’t just mean that in the sense that we have damaged the planet physically, although we have, but the issue goes deeper.

The Bible teaches that the world was created perfect—without any such design faults. Man however decided that he would rather cast aside the authority of his Creator, and in doing so found out that he cannot both have his cake and eat it. He cannot throw off God’s rule and still enjoy all the benefits of God’s rule. As a result of mankind’s rebellion God subjected his creation to decay and struggle in order to help us see the painful reality that life without God is fragile and futile. They are not design faults; they are consequences of rebellion.

In short, the brokenness of the world is our fault, and is there to show us that we need God more than we realise. Even it we are the ones to blame, God himself has stepped into the brokenness in the person of Jesus Christ to provide the solution, but that solution isn’t simply the waving of a magic wand to take away the earthquakes etc. The solution starts much closer to home in the recesses of your heart and mine. We need to resubmit to the authority of God (by the way, the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is exactly the same, and there is no contradiction between him and Jesus, for they are one), and seek forgiveness for our own rebellion against his kind rule. Only when that is done can we look forward to seeing this broken masterpiece restored to its original form—with everything corrected.

Yours sincerely


PS – I know this doesn’t answer everything, but if you really want to discuss, then drop me a line, with an address.

November's Verse

(By Jonny McCollum – working with New Life Fellowship)

Ocean, Satchel, Apple, Pilot. What do these words have in common? They’re just a few of the weird and wacky names celebrities have given to their kids. And it’s not just celebrities who are up to it—a New Zealand couple weren’t allowed to call their child ‘4Real’ (apparently names can’t contain a digit) and they had to come up with a more conventional name. Their choice? ‘Superman’.

Why would a parent choose such a quirky name? Maybe it’s to prove a point, or perhaps it’s just to get attention. Most parents choose a name for more obvious reasons—some babies are named after friends or family. Some are named after singers or footballers. But often a name is chosen simply because the parents like how it sounds.

In some cultures names are deeply significant. Names aren’t chosen because of how they sound, but of because of what they mean. The name reflects the parents’ hopes and aspirations for their newborn child. It’s hard for us to grasp just how significant a baby’s name is in other cultures. 2000 years ago, Jesus was born into one of these cultures. So surely Joseph and Mary had a particularly difficult decision to make?

Not really, no.

Months before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph and gave Him instructions. The verse on the calendar this month contains one of these instructions.

“Give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

The message was clear—the baby was to be called Jesus. The name means ‘God saves’, and that’s exactly why Jesus was born. He was the saviour that God had been promising for thousands of years. This unborn child was the one who would save His people from their sins. He would deal with the guilt and the punishment that are part and parcel of doing wrong.

Often we can try to save ourselves from our sins—we try hard to be good so we can make up for our past mistakes. But we can never be good enough. We can never get rid of our guilt. We can only be rescued if we turn to the rescuer.

Jesus is the only person who can deal with our sins because he is the only one who has no sins of his own to deal with. Only Jesus can rescue us from our guilt. If we ask him to, Jesus will save us from our sins. It’s what he was born to do.

Special Service - God the Master Artist

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

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

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

The theme of the evening will be “God: the Master Artist”. One aspect of the evening will be a journey of praise through the book of Psalms looking at Psalms which celebrate both the Creator and the creation. But much more than looking at the creation, we will be looking at the artist himself—posing the question, If the creation is this fantastic, what must the creator be like? We are going to let scripture guide us on a take a brief high-speed tour of the universe, pausing to ponder the artist as well as the art.

We’d love to see you there on Sunday 1st November at 7.30pm at Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church on the Kilmacrenan Road, Milford.

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

Who wants to live forever?

Not me. At least, not the way scientists are trying to go about it. Scientist Ray Kurzweil claims that humans could become immortal in as little as 20 years’ time through nanotechnology. He’s not quite a nutcase; he has a track record of predicting new technologies.

He argues that the technology to replace many of our vital organs could be available by then. Already artificial pancreases and neural implants are available.

He writes, “I and many other scientists now believe that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogramme our bodies so we can halt, then reverse, ageing. Then nanotechnology will let us live for ever.”

“Within 25 years we will be able to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or go scuba-diving for four hours without oxygen.”

It still sounds pretty fantastic—ie. mostly fantasy—to me. It would certainly make the Olympics a non-event. And there’d be little need for performance enhancing drugs when we can all run like a gazelle.

Yet from time immemorial man has sought ways to find the elixir of youth and live forever. In more recent years those rich enough have settled for plastic surgery and looking like a youth until they die. And those richer still, and even more hopeful of scientific progress, have had themselves cryogenically frozen in the hope of a second shot at life at a future date.

Much and all as I enjoy life, I can think of few things worse than living forever in this world. This world is profoundly messed up, and for all the progress that science has made, it has failed to deal with the problems of the human heart. The thought of living forever in a world surrounded by selfishness, greed, evil, murder, dishonesty, etc is a depressing one. Despite the compensations of friends, family and pleasures, an eternal nightly litany on the news of abuse, violence, corruption and immorality isn’t a particularly appealing one.

I do want to live forever, but not here. I want a perfect world, one where the problems of the human heart have been dealt with. And that’s not a pipe dream. While it can’t be done by science, it’s why Jesus came to live and die here: to deal with the problem of the human heart, so that that longing that lies deep within us—the hunger to live for more than the few short years we have on this earth—could be fulfilled.

Apparitions at Knock

Last Sunday hoards of people descended on the Mayo village of Knock in response to a prediction made by Dublin-based clairvoyant Joe Coleman. He forecast that an apparition of the Virgin Mary would appear at 3pm. He made a similar prediction about an appearance near Dungloe last week.

Coleman claims he has had regular visions of Mary since 1986. He said regarding the predicted Knock apparition on Sunday, “She has told me she wants to make the biggest statement she has ever made on this earth.”

What are we to make of all this? Mary was undoubtedly a remarkable woman, ‘highly favoured by God’ as the Bible puts it. She was a young girl when she was landed with news that would turn her life upsidedown—in ways far from pleasant. She was to have a son, outside of marriage—an event in a time and culture where this was unthinkable. She is told that a ‘sword will pierce her heart too’—this son is going to bring great pain and sorrow to her. Yet she shows great fortitude and faith throughout.

But one thing she always does is to direct attention to her son, to step back from the limelight, and to keep him in it. She is presented in scripture as one who ‘ponders and stores things up in her heart’. Even when Christ ascended into Heaven and his followers were meeting in Jerusalem she still doesn’t push herself forward, she remains in the background. It would have been easy to try to claim status in that little group, but in her superb humility she doesn’t—for that would upstage her son, and his message of salvation. What a humility of heart.

I think this is significant, and bears thinking about. Her focus is not on herself, but always on her son. This is fully exemplified in words spoken at his first miracle when she turned to the servants and said, “Do whatever he tells you.” There she is, always directing the attention to Jesus.

And what is it he says? “Come to
me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.” It is Jesus who gives us rest. It is him we are to go to, and focus on.

What are we to make of these recent happenings? I think we should assess them by Holy Scripture’s own criteria. And I think that the biggest statement Mary ever made on earth was delivered somewhere around 30AD at Cana in Galilee, “Do whatever He tells you.” (John 2:5)

October's Verse

(By Jonny McCollum, working with New Life Fellowship)

Perhaps you’re familiar with the following scene – you invite some friends around for a meal, or allow a relative to stay the night while they’re in the area. Just before they leave they produce a gift; a box of chocolates, or a bottle of wine. And what do you say? If you’re anything like my parents you’ll probably instinctively say, “You shouldn’t have”.

What do my parents mean when they say that to guests? I suppose they mean, “We haven’t gone to a lot of trouble, we really don’t deserve this gift.” Yet I’ve never seen them give the gift back or refuse to take it. The whole “You shouldn’t have” line is something of a charade – a polite thing to say, but not strictly meant. They may say they don’t deserve a gift, but often they do. In some way, they’ve earned it.

The verse on the calendar this month tells us about a gift:

“The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What a gift! Far better than a tin of Quality Street or a bunch of flowers! God’s gift to us is life that never ends. More than that, it’s life that’s perfect – life that’s free from pain, boredom or sadness.

Unlike some other gifts, this is a gift we really don’t deserve. We’ve done nothing to earn this gift. In fact, the sentence immediately before this one in the bible says:

“The wages of sin is death”

We don’t earn this wonderful gift by being religious or doing good deeds. No matter how hard we try, we all sin. The only thing we earn by trying hard is death, because none of us are good enough to please God.

And yet God has given us a gift. But how do we get this gift?
Through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ experienced death so we can have life. Jesus Christ was punished so we don’t have to be. If we ask God for His gift then He will give it to us, because Jesus Christ has received the wages His people have earned.

Like all the best gifts, this one comes with no strings attached. There’s no small print. If we ask, God will give. And nothing can take it away again.

Liquid Sunshine

Forgive me for stating the obvious—It rained all summer. Farmers in particular suffered as silage cuts were delayed, fields turned into quagmires, crops got battered by rain, harvests were late, animals had to be kept inside. It was a tough summer for the farmers. Much and all as the rest of us were disappointed every time we opened the curtains to another dreich day—how much more those in the farming community.

These months are meant to be a delight, the warmth of the sun on your backs, working long hours—yes, but getting a lot done in the time. Not plowtering about in puddles and soaked through to the skin, day after day.

And then came two glorious weeks of sun. Typically it was in September when schools were back! Farmers were like men unleashed. Tractors roared across fields, crops were harvested, silage was cut. Roads were clogged with machinery—and somehow it was okay because we knew they had been penned up all summer. And we loved it too—not perhaps the wafting smell of freshly spread slurry, but the sunshine.

Like children let loose in a sweetie shop we got out our barbecues and barbecued for all we were worth, we sunbathed and crammed a summer’s worth of sunburn into a couple of weekends. We walked around lobster red, with pride. We wanted all those who had fled to the Med to see that we had had sun too.

One farmer said recently “I wonder how many people will stop and thank God for the sunshine?”

He’s right to ask that. It’s so easy to take these things for granted. But at the same time, I don’t think God’s desperately looking for our thanks; that would be to miss the point. The farmer went on to say, “It’s rained all summer—that’s all it took for us to be utterly helpless.”

That perhaps is the key thing. God doesn’t particularly want to teach us lessons in thankfulness, he wants us to see that we are not the great masters of our destiny that we like to think we are. For all our machinery and technology, a little rain left us helpless.

He doesn’t simply want our thanks, he wants us. He wants us to humble ourselves and cast aside the shackles of self-sufficiency and pride. Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, the rain was a messenger of mercy, reminding us that we need God more than we realise. And much and all as we hate the rain, we need to listen to its message.

2 days away from being human

A young mother watched her baby son die in her arms after doctors refused to help because he was born two days too soon and therefore ‘just a foetus’.

In October of 2008 Sarah Capewell gave birth to Jayden after 21 weeks and five days of pregnancy. But doctors refused her desperate pleas to place him in intensive care because medical guidelines state that under 22 weeks a baby is a foetus and does not qualify for intensive care treatment.

Doctors refused to even see Jayden, who lived without support for almost two hours before passing away. Midwives had told her “We just have to get you to 22 weeks”, but because the pregnancy was only 21 weeks and 5 days Miss Capewell was not given drugs to delay the labour or help mature her baby’s lungs. Doctors at in Norfolk told her she should consider the labour as a miscarriage rather than a birth.

When Miss Capewell pleaded with a paediatrician “You have got to help”, he replied “No we don’t”. Begging doctors to consider her son’s human right to life, Miss Capewell says she was told: “He hasn’t got a human right, he is a foetus” and so he was refused admission to the special care baby unit.

Sarah Capewell has now launched a campaign to change the national guidelines for NHS hospitals which state that babies born before 22 weeks have such a low chance of survival that no attempt should be made to save them.

Although there are many difficulties with premature babies, it seems that a key factor here is not how much effort we make to save, but how we really regard them. If we regard them as human, we will try everything. The sobering thing about this case is the unwavering attitude of the doctors to stick by a paper rule, rather than to care for the person in front of them.

One wonders how much the protracted debate in the UK over abortion and the consequent need to define at what stage a baby is viable, or even human, has had on the thinking of doctors, medical staff and even the population at large.

Life seems to have become a commodity to be traded, or a burden to be weighed, or something evaluated against ‘quality of life’. Instead we need to see life at whatever end of the age spectrum as a gift from God, and all human beings as made in his image. And we need to see life as not finishing when it ends here.

Holistic & Psychic Health

The Holistic & Psychic Health Fair is in Letterkenny this weekend. Now I have nothing against alternative forms of medicine – provided they are alternatives, in other words, provided they work.

And I’m all for people getting in touch with spiritual issues. As long as they go about it the right way – see John 14:6.

But I do hate to see people falling for all sorts of nonsense. GK Chesterton once said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything”.

I heard an interview a while ago with some exhibitors from a previous fair. One of them was a bonereader and did a reading on air. Someone in the studio chose an object from the bonereader’s bag, and the dialogue went something like this:

Bonereader: “This tells me that you have set or that you need to set some boundaries in your life. Perhaps in the area of emotions, or telling people you can’t come into this part of my life, it’s private. Would that be the case?”

Other person: “Yes that’s right”

Then the bonereader really warmed to the theme, discoursing on the benefits of setting boundaries in life. Another object signified “Completeness” – something in her life would draw to a close, something in relation to her setting these boundaries.

Now I have nothing personal against this lady, just the whole new age mishmash of nonsense that she represents – fortune telling, bone-reading, palm reading, crystal healing, etc. She happens to provide a good example. As I listened I wondered, “Do people really believe this stuff?”

It always starts off so vague. Who of us doesn’t need to set boundaries in their life? And of course there are always things drawing to a close in our lives—especially if you’re going to start drawing a few lines in places there weren’t lines previously. Apparently she charges €35 for this advice.

The serious side is that so many people take the advice of such new age gurus and put it into practice unquestioningly. At best it’s common sense that you don’t need to pay for, at worst it is the guesswork of a stranger who knows very little about your life.

On the other hand there are pastors in this town preaching something sane and sensible from God’s word every week, and you can come along and hear it for free. What’s more, God’s word is entirely relevant to everyone’s life, and is written by one who knows us individually and perfectly. Why not come along?

September’s Verse

“Every good and perfect gift is from above” – James 1:17

Some people might have the impression that Christianity is about being miserable—after all you can’t do this and you can’t do that. But stop for a moment and think it through:

God is not a dictatorial despot who ruthlessly rules his subjects, making endless demands. God is a Father, a heavenly Father who loves, cares for and understands every need. God is not in the stealing business. He isn’t out to steal our joy. He does not want to rob you of anything. Instead God is a giver. Christ came to give, not to get (Matt. 20:28). The call of Christ is “come and receive,” not “come and give up.”

Rather, God is so much for our joy that he wants us to stop chasing short-term pleasures that end up stealing our happiness and instead to live for long-term delight.

God has given us many signposts of his ability to thrill and delight. All you have to do is enjoy the multi-faceted flavours of an Indian meal, or marvel at the complexity of a snowflake, or savour the vibrant colours of spring flowers or autumn leaves, or thrill at the miracle of a new born baby, to catch the idea that God is not a God of misery.

Everything in the world that is good, beautiful and right comes from God.

As one writer says, “The devil never made a snowflake. He never made a baby smile or a nightingale sing. He never placed a golden sun in a western sky or filled the night with stars. Why? Because these things were not his to give. God is the creator and the possessor of them all and he lovingly shares these things with us.”

Of course, the question we need to ask is “Why did he give them?”

For enjoyment—yes! But also to create in us a longing for more—for more beauty, for more delight. Over every good moment or event in this life hangs the spectre of it ending and then of life itself ending. The best in this life is only meant to be a shop window to draw us in to find greater treasures. The greatest treasure of all is found, not simply in knowing the gifts, but in knowing the giver. And that can only happen through his greatest gift – the life and death of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

Recession 'Tip' No.1: Airbrush, not surgery

So you’ve come home from holiday, downloaded your photos to the computer, and as you sift through them you have that familiar feeling of disappointment—you’re not as young as you once were. Or as slim. Or as tanned as you would like.

So what do you do? Apparently, more and more holidaymakers seek to improve their pics by computer wizardy. According to an article in
The Times, “It may mean slimming an expanding midriff, lengthening the legs or plumping up lips. All will be done at the click of an airbrush rather than the flick of a surgeon’s scalpel.”

Obviously if you’ve a piece of hamburger relish stuck to your cheek, or one of your children is great in one photo and not another—a bit of airbrushing is a blessing. But
Snappy Snaps photographic chain says it has seen a 550% increase in the past year in people requesting work on their holiday snaps to make them look more attractive.

The airbrush was once the preserve of film stars, but advances in technology mean it is now available to everyone. Crooked teeth can be straightened and whitened. Bags under the eyes can be removed, wrinkles and frown lines eased and bodies can undergo a magical digital diet in which pounds disappear in seconds.

One delighted holidaymaker on seeing the results said, “Wow, that looks a bit weird now, not like me. But yes, I like it.”

“I like it”—it’s not really me, but it’s how I like to think of me.

Of course what happens when reality meets the image? When people look at your pics and look at you and say, “Boy you’ve really gone downhill since the summer?” And when old age comes and we take out our photograph albums we’ll gaze longingly at what we never were, and have to tell our grandkids, “This isn’t me”.

While it might only be a bit of fun in some cases, or tidying up in others, it’s also an indicator as to where we are really at. We’re obsessed with appearance, continually putting it over substance. And now it has become a parody of itself. It used to be that we accepted natural beauty over deeper character traits, that was bad enough. Then it was the fakery of enhanced surgical beauty, which hid a two-dimensional person behind its three-dimensional enhancements. Now it’s faked fake beauty, that doesn’t even exist outside the two-dimensional page.

But more than an indicator of fickleness, it’s an indicator of how much we want to hide from the truth about ourselves. And if we are prepared to do it for a few wrinkles, or inches, how much more will we do it about the deeper recesses of our hearts. Yet our only hope lies in absolute judgment day honesty about who we really are, not who we like think to think of ourselves as. You can’t airbrush your heart, it needs direct intervention by God to work beauty there. And to ask for that, we need to stop hiding from the truth. magazine coming your way

This coming week in Letterkenny we’ve a team of young people working with us at New Life Fellowship. One of the things we’ll be doing is distributing a magazine called Already several different churches have been distributing it in different parts of the county, so you may have come across it.

There’s a number of interesting articles in it. Dr Stephen McAuley writes on the topic of suicide. Sadly there are, on average, approximately 13 suicides per week in Ireland. How can we help? What should we say? Dr McAuley, who is no stranger to Donegal having spoken here several times on related topics, gives practical and helpful advice.

Another article that caught my eye was the story of a man who had struggled with various addictions, including pornography and alcohol. These are major issues for Irish society, yet they are symptomatic of a deeper problem which requires a deeper solution. The writer tells of how he found freedom.

Perhaps you’re interested in Angels, maybe even read the best-seller
Angels in my Hair by Lorna Byrne. There’s a piece which looks at what the Bible has to say about Angels, about the Angel-maker, and how we can have a correct focus.

What about the afterlife? Is there a Heaven, how do you get there, is there really a Hell? Much of what people believe is more fancy and sentiment than fact. But what are the facts? If there is life after death, surely this is something we need to take an interest in.

The recession should make us rethink our priorities, but how? Is it enough to simply streamline our lives, or is God trying to say something else to us?

Why not have a read? A number of free resources are offered and if you would like any of them, or if you have any questions and want to discuss them, please feel free to get in touch.

But if you don’t get a copy of the magazine in the next couple of weeks and would like one, give me a call or an email, and we’ll get one to you.

Brothel in Letterkenny?

So read the front page of Monday’s newspaper. It would be easy to just to roll your eyes and move on, but to pause and read the article is to get a glimpse of the hurt involved. The paper was tipped off by a woman who describes herself as a “humiliated wife” who wants this business to close “before more devastation is caused”. There is a world of hurt behind those phrases.

And even that isn’t the whole picture. The glib comment made by some that “at least they’ve the wit to charge” misses out on the fact that most prostitutes aren’t their own masters. According to one survey 80% to 95% of all prostitution is pimp-controlled. The weak and the vulnerable are preyed on. Some may enter it for easy money, but many for desperately needed money, or are lured or forced in. It has a devastating effect on those involved. One fourteen year old, describing the trauma of prostitution and its consequences, stated, “You feel like a piece of hamburger meat—all chopped up and barely holding together”.

Naïve television programmes portray the business as glitzy and that it’s about women being in control, but for the majority of women that imagery lies far from the truth. One writer says, “About 80% of women in prostitution have been the victim of a rape. Prostitutes are raped, on the average, eight to ten times per year. They are the most raped class of women in the history of our planet.” It is a brutal and eventually dehumanising business.

Naivety also plays its part among those who say, “This is just a bit of fun between consenting adults.” We need to ask “Just how consenting is the woman—or is she trapped in a lifestyle she can’t get out of?” On the rare occasions when that question can be addressed satisfactorily—such as a woman wanting to make extra money on the side—the question must also be asked, “What are the wider effects on society, in particular how men see and treat women?”

Prostitution is the end product of a greedy, self-centred society in which pleasure without responsibility has become the goal, where men get their pleasure without thought to the women involved. Sex has become a god to be worshipped and pursued at all costs.

And there is another involved party: God has something to say. The bad news is that he will hold guilty those who use and abuse women, and those who abuse his good gifts. The good news is that he is also a God who offers acceptance and hope to those trapped in the vicious circle, a God who offers cleansing to those despoiled by others, and offers forgiveness to those who have despoiled them.

(For those looking for more information and help, Irish charity Ruhama offers professional help in the practical issues involved in leaving prostitution behind. They can be contacted at or tel. 01 836 0292)

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

August’s Verse - Finding Rest

Have you ever watched white-water rafting? You see these fragile crafts hurtling down through some narrow gorge, through the rapids, passengers hanging on for dear life, looking certain to be upended and dashed to pieces on the rocks. And sometimes, you see a guy in a canoe sitting at some crucial point ready to spring into action to rescue some unfortunate once-upon-a-time passenger.

But look at the canoeist—although the river is rushing at a terrifying rate of knots, he seems to be completely at rest with little or no effort. He has found himself a spot behind some rock where the current is reduced to a quiet little eddy. And whilst raft and the river flash past, in varying degrees of control, he is at rest.

The scene reminds me of life. Sometimes I’m the one in the raft, hanging on for all I’m worth, as one thing after another crops up, certain that the point will come when I can’t hold on anymore. Have you been there? Life racing by, on the verge of being out of control, or perhaps past that point of no return where it is beyond your control. The time was when the pace of events was fun, but now you’re worn out trying to hang on. Even when you try to rest, your mind races, tumbling and turning from one thing to another. And all you want is rest, some rest—a moment of calm, a rock to shelter behind.

It’s for such occasions and people that Jesus once said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

He knows what it is like to be tired, to be hurting, to be alone, to live life with a crushing burden, to be rejected and despised, to be swept along towards a crushing destiny. He knows. And he offers to be that rock of shelter that gives you rest and peace, even amidst the storms. ‘Rest’ is one of the most beautiful concepts, and the rest that Jesus offers is deeper and longer than anything that can be found anywhere else.

How? Jesus says, “Come to me”; but note, he doesn’t say, “Bring me your problems.” “Come to me” is an invitation to come personally to Jesus, to enter into a relationship with him, not simply to use him as a problem-solver. And when you trust the King of the Universe because of his relationship with you, rest and peace is an evitable consequence.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

When tragedy strikes the Christian

“Where was your God when you needed him?” We live in a broken world, and those who put their trust in God are not exempt from that brokenness. Cancer strikes, accidents happen, depression lurks, tragedy falls on the believer as much as the unbeliever. And to some this seems as good a reason for rejecting God as any. If he won’t look after his own people, why believe?

As a pastor this is a question I face and will continue to face as long as I am in this broken world. I will have to look into the eyes of hurting Christians who seek both answers for themselves, and for those who question them.

And part of the answer isn’t very satisfying—simply “I don’t know.” I don’t know the specific reasons why God allows some tragedy to happen. But that lack of knowledge leads to a more powerful answer.

In life there are situations where, when we look back with hindsight, we see how great good came out of immense difficulty. There are other situations where we know enough at the time to know that it is worth it.

But tragedy doesn’t come with either hindsight, or with insight. What is the Christian to do when they have neither hindsight nor insight? God takes us to the bleakest, most tragic, inexplicable day in human history; one, that had we been there, we would have been like the disciples—beyond distraught. He takes us to the crucifixion. And in scripture God gives us the benefit of his perfect explanation, he gives us insight—and we see how it was for good. And then God gives us the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight—and we see how it has brought forgiveness, transformation, hope and salvation to millions of people.

And so when tragedy comes to the Christian, God says, “Trust me, the day will come when you will have both insight and hindsight into this situation, and you will see its purpose, and you will marvel.” But why should we trust him? At the cross we see that before he asks us to trust him with something monumental, he steps forward, and takes tragedy on himself. He doesn’t ask us to trust him where he has not yet been. And there he shows us, at his cost, that he will the tragic into something glorious.

And so the Christian fixes their eyes on the Cross and says, “I know that He transforms bleak tragedy and I will wait in trust for his explanation, for his trustworthiness is written here in his own blood”.

The Christian doesn’t base their love for God on his, as yet, unexplained dealings with them, but on his explained dealings with his Son for them.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at


I can’t believe because of … Religious Hypocrisy

With the publication of the report into child abuse in Ireland in May and its horrific findings, many will no doubt add this to the list of reasons why they can’t believe in God. This is a perfectly understandable reaction, and one which the guilty will have to answer to God for. Jesus warned in Luke 17:2 that it would be better for such a person, “to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin”.

It is not simply this report alone which gives people reason to doubt Christianity—it is one in a long line of offences attributed to those who claim Christianity as their religion. Add to that list the Crusades, slavery, racism amongst the ‘Christian’ southern United States etc.

Several answers could be given. One is that disbelief in God fares no better—it has spawned the atrocities of Communism with its long list of human rights abuses all over the world, and the awfulness of Nazi Germany to name but two. Violence done in the name of Christianity is terrible, and must be addressed, but societies which have abandoned religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it. A deeper answer than disbelief in God is needed.

A second strand to the answer is to recognise that there is a difference between real Christianity and what is often claimed as Christianity. Genuine Christianity results in deep change, and has been at the forefront of the righting of ills such as slavery and racism. God will be the judge of the hearts of those who claimed Christianity and carried out evil in its name—and there will be many to whom he says “'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:23). It would be a tragedy to reject Christianity because of frauds and yet to find yourself judged alongside them.

A third strand to the answer is to realise that the solution to these moral ills is not the abandonment of Christianity, but the embrace of it. The answer is to call the perpetrators to be more Christian, not less. The Bible condemns such behaviour in far stronger terms than any human has. This is what Martin Luther King realised as challenged those claiming Christianity whilst engaging in racism. He took the Bible and called them to live out what they believed—to be more Christian, not less.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

Lessons from a cleg

There’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore looking stupid. Some time ago I trod that line. Well if I’m being honest I never made it to the sane side. I went fishing with a few friends, although for all I caught I mightn’t have bothered with the licence. I could have stood on the bank enjoying the sun and the scenery for the afternoon without paying the €10. Ah well, there’s a fine line…

Anyhow, as I was standing minding my own business, not troubling the fish, seeking to look to the casual passer-by like an accomplished fisherman, something lit on my neck. Whatever it was it inserted a hypodermic needle and started to siphon off a fair share of my lifeblood. As I went to take action its cousin assaulted my ankle – thus giving me two large welts for the price of one. Clegs, horseflies, I don’t know what you call them, but they’re a real pain in the neck, or wherever they land. And wherever they bite stays itchy for days; the slightest touch sets it off again.

But if you have the patience you can see a sight that will bring a pleasurable sense of revenge. Apparently (at least 3 reputable farmers assured me of this) if you let a cleg suck for long enough, it will keep on going until it bursts! “Brilliant,” I thought, “what a stupid insect!”

Yet how many of us try to suck the pleasures out of this life, only for it to backfire on us for all eternity.

In prophetic-like fashion, with words that seem startlingly 2009AD and not 29AD, Jesus once told a story about a rich cleg—sorry—man. This man said to himself after a prosperous year, “I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

Just like the cleg inserting his needle and sucking you dry. And like you watching him expand until breaking point, God said, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:18-20)

Are we really here just to get all we can out of life? Remember the cleg.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

July’s Verse

“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish” – John 10:28

Sometimes a verse is so clear that it doesn’t really need much explanation. This is one of those verses. No word is hard, no concept is difficult to grasp. Yet this verse sums up all that is hard about Christianity.

Those opening words “I give”—we have a love-hate relationship with gifts. Often we love to get them, but only if we feel we deserve them, as if we have already earned it. Birthday gifts are ok, thank you gifts are grand, Christmas—we’ve earned those by what we give in return. But the gift that comes out of nowhere, undeserved, unasked for, makes us feel uneasy. Have you found that—we splutter, “You can’t possibly… I can’t allow you to pay…” or we make a mental note to find a way to pay them back.

Accepting gifts is hard work. Why is that?

I think it boils down to pride. We don’t like to feel obligated to someone, and we like to think we have earned whatever we receive.

Both these are deadly. Not so much when it comes to presents and gifts here—although it can be a little irksome. You know the person who can’t take something without having to respond with a gift. It defeats the purpose a bit.

But it becomes serious when it comes to what Jesus is offering. Here is a gift that we can’t make a contribution to. It has to be all gift. We can never earn or deserve it. To do our best to earn it doesn’t only defeat the purpose a bit, it defeats the purpose entirely and renders this gift ineffective.

We just have to accept, and that takes humility and a measure of desperation. I say ‘desperation’ because it takes us to have reached a point where we grasp that we really, really need this gift—like a patient needs a bone marrow transplant. The urgency comes out in the closing words of this verse—this gift saves us from perishing.

And what makes it all the more wonderful is that the giver guarantees the effectiveness of the gift.

“I give them eternal life and they shall never perish” – John 10:28

Michael Jackson: Yearning for Paradise Lost

Three weeks before his come-back tour was due to commence Michael Jackson, pop legend and troubled soul, suffered a heart attack and died.

His musical career stretched over 5 decades, he had the biggest selling album of all time. He scaled the heights of staggering success, and plumbed the depths of intense personal mockery.

It’s hard to think of a public figure whose sadness was more on display on recent years. Watching him change his race, his looks, his age, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

A man of immense musical ability, yet as a child he was the victim of his father’s desire for success at all costs. His childhood was taken from him in many ways and he spent much of his life trying to regain it. He yearned to be what he wasn’t and to have what he hadn’t.

He wasn’t particularly good at hiding his brokenness, and his attempts to find himself where evident to all as he yearned for the Paradise that he had lost, or perhaps the Peter Pan Neverland that he tried to build.

In many ways he was a tragic figure: everything that our culture worships—gifted, rich, successful—yet desperately unhappy, tortured and alone.

Not many have their brokenness as publicly displayed as Jackson, but many yearn for what they have lost, or for what they never had, or to be someone other than who they are. The brokenness of their lives is a daily reality for them. What hope is there if all the money and all the fame in the world can’t fix the hurt?

Ironically Michael Jackson wasn’t so far wrong. He yearned for a Paradise he had lost, a childhood he didn’t have. The answer was to be found in the true Paradise, and in becoming a child once more, this time a child in God’s family.

God is all too aware that this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Paradise, the solution to all our problems will never be found here. Instead God the Son came to provide a way so that broken men and women could find wholeness again. God the Son came so that we could be adopted into the Father’s perfect family and enjoy his care in this broken world until he takes us home to Heaven—Paradise regained.

The solution isn’t to be found here, but in Jesus Christ—that’s where we can find acceptance of who we are, strength to change, and hope for final and glorious transformation.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

Hitting Snooze

(By Robert McCollum)

Do you ever think much about the snooze button?  I imagine it is the next best button to that little morphine button they give to patients in the hospital.  And probably just as addictive.  For some, the snooze button on their alarm clock is possibly the greatest invention—a device we can hit while we are still half asleep so we can put off the ‘inevitable’—getting up and facing the music.  Not only can you hit it once, but over and over again—it is the ‘ultimate’ in procrastination.  Gone are the good intentions of the night before.  Everything is now all about those extra minutes.

Who doesn’t love to indulge a little in the snooze button now and then?  We set our alarm clocks a little earlier than we need to get up just so that we can hit the snooze.  
Not only do you get your feel good factor, but you then get to go back to sleep!  For 10 whole minutes! And how is that sleep?  Those 10 minutes are better than the 6 or 8 hours you might have gotten the night before.  You get to stay in that ‘half-awake, half-asleep’ place where you are aware you are asleep and everything is timeless. 
We can do the same with life—hitting the snooze button when a wake up call comes along. You know occasionally something makes us think about more serious issues—illness strikes, or a near brush with death, or a bereavement or an article in the paper. We are forced to think about what happens when we die… but before it gets too serious we hit the mental snooze button, and put it off for another time.
Those who keep hitting snooze on the clock miss out on the rest of the day. Likewise when we hit snooze on the bigger issues. You know that it is time to do something about your eternal destiny. Why do you keep putting it off?  You hear the alarm, but are you repeatedly hitting the snooze button and sleeping through your life? 

Wake up, get up and live it. Jesus came so that you may have life, and life to the full.

Whirlwind tour of the Bible

Have you bought a Bible recently? I was talking to Bobby from the Open Door bookshop, and he was saying that there has been an increase in the sale of Bibles over the last 6 months. Apparently it’s not just the Open Door bookshop either, Amazon report an increase in Bible sales also.

That’s great! However, in my experience, there is a vast gulf between buying a Bible and reading it. That’s not to say that people don’t have good intentions. But what usually happens is that they start at Genesis, enjoy it, and half way through the second book, Exodus, the going gets tough, and then they grind to a slow bewildered halt somewhere near the start of Leviticus. The Bible is then put up on a shelf, with shake of the head and a “What was I thinking?”.

Part of the problem is that the Bible is a library of 66 books, not simply one book. And so to start in and read from the beginning is like walking into a library and starting to read from the left hand side round to the right. It can be done, but it is hard going. You don’t need some secret key to understand a library, but what is useful is a librarian who can take you and show you how to use a library. Once we get our bearings we are freer to enjoy what is on offer.

The same is true of the Bible—it’s not as if there is a magic secret to understanding it, but it makes it easier if someone can show you your way around. What’s the main plotline? Who’s who? How does it all fit together? Does it all fit together? Where should I start?

When we know these we will find ourselves freer to enjoy what is on offer.

If that’s you and you want to find out more come along on Sunday 28
th when I’ll be giving a whirlwind tour of the Bible entitled “Getting the Big Picture”. Come and get your bearings and find out answers to some of those questions. The talk starts at 8pm in the Day Centre off Oliver Plunkett Road, and there will be opportunity for questions.

June’s verse

(by Robert McCollum)
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8

We all love getting presents. Be it Christmas, birthday, anniversary, any occasion will do—we love presents. And there seems to be something in us that enjoys giving presents. We like watching people’s faces as they unwrap their gift. The look on a child’s face on Christmas morning—priceless.

But imagine this scene. You have spent a great deal of time and money on just the right present for that special someone. You give them the gift, and they love it—brilliant! But to your horror, they pull out their wallet and count out how much they reckon it’s worth—as if to reimburse you. They want to pay you back! Somewhat insulted, you try to say, “It’s a present!”, but they press you to take something for it.

Similarly, God tells us that salvation is a gift. It is a present from God. Can you imagine how insulted God feels when we try to buy salvation from him? We try in countless ways to earn his favour. We break our backs to live good and decent lives in the hope that God will save us. But what if it doesn’t work that way? This month’s verse tells us we are saved by ‘grace’.

Grace is a great word in the Bible—it means ‘favour shown to people who do not deserve any favour at all’, or more simply ‘gift’.

God reaches down to hopeless people like you and me and he offers this free gift of salvation. Like a coastguard helicopter, he is encircling us, with the spotlight trained on every single one of us, urging us to grab the lifeline. He is offering a free gift. Do what we like, we can never save ourselves. And we desperately need saved. Left to ourselves we are floundering in murky deep waters. Some feel the strain and can barely keep their heads above water. Some are blissfully unaware of the danger they are in. Some on the other hand, are reaching out and grasping Jesus.

At the cross we see God’s grace. There Jesus took our punishment so that we could be offered a lifeline. We can be saved and put right for eternity solely and entirely by the gift—grace—of God. What a gift! Will we insult God by trying to earn it, or worse, by rejecting it completely?

I can’t believe because of… suffering

Flight AF447 went missing on Sunday off the coast of Brazil. As I write this reports of wreckage are coming in, and the 228 passengers and crew, including 3 Irish doctors, are believed to be dead.

Inevitably questions arise at a time like this about God and suffering. Understandably so—for if God is powerful enough to do something about it, why doesn’t he? Once again this column isn’t big enough for an in-depth answer, and I am aware that many who ask this question do so out of deep personal hurt. This is not merely an intellectual itch, but a cry from the heart.

I would say that it is partly because of suffering that I do believe. I find in the Bible the only credible explanation and solution to the problem. This broken world that we find ourselves in, with its prevailing sense of “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”, is this way because we are the way we are.

The problem isn’t with God, it’s with us. That doesn’t mean that there is always a direct correlation between a person’s suffering and their lack of uprightness. But it does mean that in a world where people choose to live for themselves rather than for God, we can’t expect the harmony that is promised when we live with God at the centre.

And because the problem isn’t at the level of disappearing planes or earthquakes, but is at the level of the human heart, that’s where the solution is concentrated. The Christian God isn’t uncaring or indifferent to our suffering. Instead he takes it so seriously that he is willing to get involved, not simply to track planes, or to empathise and comfort—although he can and does—but to provide the solution.

At the cross God gets involved to provide the solution at the cost of great personal suffering so that we could, not simply have comfort for broken lives, but ultimately have restoration to a life free from brokenness, hurt and pain—Heaven.

As Timothy Keller puts it, “Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”

We may not know the reason for suffering—but we know what the reason isn’t. It isn’t because God doesn’t care. To forsake God because of suffering is to forsake our only hope, comfort and the ultimate answer.

Can you go so far from God that you can’t come back?

(by Robert McCollum)

Charles Dickens described it as the greatest short story ever written. We know it as the ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son’, although it might be better called ‘The Story of Two Lost Sons’. It’s found in the Bible, in Luke 15. Here we find a surprising answer to our question.

A man had two sons, and one day the younger outrageously requests for his share of the family inheritance. In other words, “Father, I’d prefer it if you were dead!” He quickly leaves home with the money, wasting it all in an out-of-control lifestyle. It isn’t long until he’s living in the gutter—forced to get a job feeding pigs.

Jesus has painted the picture of the ultimate sinner. He is as far away from his father as he could possibly go. It is only now that the son realises what he has done. He has rejected his father’s love. Is there any hope?

He decides to go back and apologise. As he returns, his father spots him and sprints towards him, tears flowing down his face. For an elderly man to run in that society was considered extremely shameful, but he cares only for his son. He welcomes his son back with open arms—no questions asked.

Maybe you feel like this son—you’ve gone your own way, rejected God. God says to you, “Come back, I will receive you and welcome you back with open arms—no questions asked.”

But there were two sons. The other was furious when he heard his father had thrown a party to celebrate the return of his brother; he refused to join in. By doing so, he too brought great shame on his father. Yet Jesus says the father also went out to him to invite him into the party. The elder brother was also lost and needed the invite of his father.

Maybe you are more like this son. You think you are close to God but it’s a relationship of slavery rather than sonship. Elder brother lostness is much worse than younger brother lostness.

“Jesus Christ came to seek and to save the lost." (Luke 19:10) No-one is too far from God that they won’t receive a welcome, but you can seem so close to God to think that you don’t need a welcome. Where are you?

(You can download the full talk from under Sermons)

Face transplant theology

Last week Connie Culp made the news as the first face transplant patient in the US. She had been shot in the face by her husband. The shotgun blast shattered her nose, cheeks, the roof of her mouth and an eye. She underwent 30 operations prior to the face transplant on December 10, 2008. During a 22-hour operation 80 percent of her face was replaced with the face from another woman who had recently died.

For Connie Culp it is the promise of a new life, free from disfigurement.

It provides a modern illustration of a biblical truth. We’ve been studying Paul’s letter to the Romans on Sundays. He has shown that no-one is remotely able to please God, not by being good, or even religious. If our souls had faces, we would be badly disfigured.

No amount of religious or moral makeup can transform the effects of the shotgun blast of our faults. We need radical surgery—a complete soul-facelift, with a perfection and beauty supplied from outside ourselves. The Bible teaches that God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, is willing to be that donor for us.

When we put our trust in his perfectly lived life, instead of trying to patch up our own, his righteousness is given to us. It is this soul-facelift that we need. His perfect life is counted as ours to such an extent that when God the Father looks at a Christian it’s as if he says, “This person looks familiar, they look like my perfect Son, I will accept them.”

This is what the Bible means when it talks about being clothed with Jesus’ perfect righteousness, or being justified. It’s a magnificent truth—accepted, given a new life because of someone else. And it isn’t a cheap case of fooling God, because it is God himself who supplies the facelift that he requires from us. He is both the surgeon and the donor.

And it heralds, for all who accept God’s offer of acceptance based on the perfection of Jesus, a new life of hope and promise, ultimately a life free from disfigurement.

Reflections on Sainthood

By now the relics of Saint Therese have been and gone from Letterkenny. Reading about the life of Therese I was struck by her sacrifice, suffering and love. As I was thinking about saints and sainthood my mind turned to what the Bible has to say on the subject.

The word occurs nearly 70 times in the Bible and on every occasion it is used to refer to the ordinary followers of God. The apostle Paul uses it in his letters—addressing them to the saints at Corinth or Ephesus etc. Here’s the picture that emerges from the Bible of what a ‘saint’ is:-

• In the Bible a saint is someone who is very much alive. They send greetings, they receive letters, they form the congregations.

• In the Bible it is God who declares people to be saints. The word ‘sanctify’ and ‘saint’ come from the same Greek word. Sanctify means ‘to make holy’, and saint means ‘someone who is holy’. In Hebrews 10:10 we read, “we have been made holy (made saints) through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.”

• In the Bible a saint isn’t perfect – the people Paul wrote to had many problems, but what made them saints was the fact that God had chosen them, and he was working in them and making them holy. Instead of us having to climb up the ladder to sainthood, God reaches down and lifts us up, removing our faults until in Heaven we will be perfect.

• In the Bible a saint isn’t someone who does miracles, it is God who works the miracle in making someone a saint. Despite their badness, God set his love on them and determined to make them saints, that is, to make them holy. The great miracle is that God is willing to put our sin on his Son, and to take the perfection of his Son and put it on us.

So the picture in the Bible of a saint is not one of a special person, but one of a special relationship with God. How does this relationship come about, how do we become saints? We need to ask God for forgiveness, and ask him to make us holy.

For every believer whose trust is in God alone for salvation God has worked a miracle, he has declared them holy, he is at present making them holy, and one day he will finish his work. They are all saints.

May’s Verse

During the course of the next two months, you’ll notice another voice having a say in this column. Robert McCollum is training to be a pastor and is carrying out a summer placement with me. So as part of his training he’ll get to try his hand at writing this column every other week. Over to him:

Bank Holidays—you’ve got to love them. However, I can’t say that I was thinking exactly like that on Monday morning. I had, for better or worse, agreed to take part in a relay team running in the Belfast Marathon. So, on Monday morning, I joined 17,000 other crazy people in pounding the streets of Belfast.

Looking around the other competitors as I ran, I could see that most of them had prepared properly for the event and were carrying water bottles and energy drinks in their special running belts. Stupidly, I had nothing. I felt such a fool. My head went down and my pace gradually slowed. I was parched. My mouth was bone-dry. I knew I had quite a bit still to run. Then I saw the sign. There it was—a beacon of hope which gave me a sudden burst of energy: ‘Water Station ahead’.

That cup of water beats any other that I’ve had. That feeling of water quenching my thirst was simply something else. Re-hydrated, I could keep on going and finish my leg of the relay.

As I ran on, I was reminded of the calendar verse for this month:

Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 14:4).

Perhaps you too know what it is to experience desperate thirst. At that moment in time, you do not want a three course meal, or money, or a holiday in the Caribbean. Only one thing can satisfy you—a drink of cool, fresh water.

Perhaps you find that you are thirsting for something more in your life, something that will quench the longings of your heart. And maybe you have tried to fill that longing with all sorts of things, like money, holidays, alcohol, work, drugs or sex. Like physical thirst, only one thing can satisfy you—Jesus. He can quench the thirst of every soul. Ask Jesus to fill the void in your life, and you will never thirst again.

Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst”. (John 4:14)

I can’t believe the Bible because of … Miracles

From time to time I hear people give various reasons for not believing the Bible. Since I hold that the Bible is key for a right understanding of life I thought I’d try to answer some of these. If you have a particular reason, why not drop me an email, and we’ll try to cover it in the column.

This week’s objection runs like this: “We’re more scientifically advanced now and not so gullible as to believe in miracles.” Is it just the case that primitive people in Bible times were more easily fooled?

However, the New Testament era is much closer to us than the prehistoric era is to it. The people in those days knew that virgins didn’t have babies, people didn’t walk on water, calm storms with a word, nor raise the dead. They disbelieved and doubted as much as we would.

The whole point of a miracle is that it is outside of the regular flow of normal life. It is something that can’t be accounted for by the laws of nature. It is an interruption by a force greater than the universe. They are meant to shock us, to make us stop and realise that something or someone bigger than ‘mother nature’ is in control.

It is worth noting that miracles weren’t an everyday occurrence in the Bible—they are grouped at key moments when God wanted to make a point.

People don’t walk on water as a rule, or raise the dead, but if they are an all-powerful God what’s to stop them? If you are, as Jesus was, seeking to demonstrate your credentials as God, some extraordinary evidence is needed. He wouldn’t be much of a God if he couldn’t do miracles. To disbelieve the Bible because of miracles is like saying, “If there is a God who does God-like things, then I couldn’t believe in him.”

It’s a strange way to argue—it excludes the answer before the question is asked.

However this is not a call to be gullible. The Bible nowhere argues for naïve acceptance, rather that we use our God-given critical faculties to assess what we read. We are expected to be surprised and questioning, but not dismissing. In the reporting of the miracles, and the reactions they provoke we see evidence for the truth of the Bible, not reason to doubt.

Judging Susan Boyle, or judged by her

I suspect that by now most of you have seen the clip from the TV show Britain’s Got Talent, featuring a lady who wouldn’t fit into the usual categories of attractiveness, but whose voice took everyone by surprise—as if looks and voice are somehow linked. It’s been all over the web and TV stations around the world; celebrities have sent messages of support and her home has been besieged with media hounds.

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction of the press—rightly condemning the ‘looks’ driven culture in which we live. Yet it is one which they have created and fed with their incessant attention to beautiful people, diets and looks.

It’s hard to know whether we’re victims of our own shallowness, or of clever marketing by Simon Cowell and Co., or whether in true Disney fashion we just like the story of the Frog Princess. Or maybe we feel good about ourselves because we think, “Oh, those awful people sneering at that poor woman, I wouldn’t have made that mistake.”

So, I don’t know who was judging whom: was Susan Boyle judging the judges—exposing their shallowness? Or was Simon Cowell judging us—exposing our own shallowness and self-righteousness?

However the most poignant moment for me was found, not simply in the singing, but in the lyrics. This 47 year-old, single, unattractive woman, who lives alone with her cat, and who had a dream of being a professional singer like Elaine Paige, stood on the stage and sang:

“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

It seemed to sum up everything that had happened before our eyes—the plainness of her looks, the sneering reaction of the audience—life had killed the dream. Yet here was Simon Cowell, looking on benevolently in some God-like manner, about to resurrect her dream.

And for a moment on our TV screens we had a little parable of the hope that God offers to people who in his eyes are unattractive. And it’s not that he sees the good in us, but he sees all that’s wrong, and offers to rescue us anyway. He offers us far beyond anything we have dreamed, and a transformation beyond anything we could imagine. And best of all, unlike Susan Boyle’s recording contract, it will never end.

Just a note to invite you to a talk entitled “What are you banking on? What would happen if we applied good investment principles to our spiritual lives?” 8pm Sunday 26th, the Day Centre, Oliver Plunkett Rd, Letterkenny.

Searching for God

“I’m searching for God” is a phrase I occasionally hear, and sometimes wonder what the person means. At one level it’s perfectly straightforward—there’s a spiritual inquisitiveness, or a hunger to find out more. They’re aware that there is more to life than job, car, home, family, success, relationships—that we are made for something bigger than 70 or 80 years. That’s great, I wish that more were hungry for this sort of knowledge. If that’s you, let me encourage you to do a course like Christianity Explored to find out more about the God you are looking for. If you are interested, please contact me.

But sometimes as I listen to other people using the phrase I detect something else. My girls love to play hide and seek; one of them loves it so much that sometimes she hides when we’re not even playing the game. At some point we realise she is missing, and panic ensues until she’s found hiding in the wash-basket or some such place. That’s not what God is doing—hiding away, waiting for people to start looking for him. He doesn’t play hide and seek. You don’t need to look too far to find him.

What’s meant here when people say “I’m searching for God”, is that they’re looking for a god they like. They’ve heard about the God of the Bible but they don’t like what he says, and yet they still have that hunger for something greater to live for, or for an acceptance, or redemption greater than we can manufacture.

They’re caught on the horns of a dilemma—they want a God big and wonderful enough to be worth following, yet not big enough to make demands that we should follow. They want what one writer calls a ‘Stepford God’—named after the film ‘The Stepford Wives’. These beautiful wives did their husband’s bidding, never contradicting, but they turn out to be robots. That’s the sort of god some people are looking for—wonderful enough to please them, but undemanding enough not to require deep change. And such a god is as incapable of a personal relationship as one of the Stepford wives.

We need a God who isn’t a ‘Yes’ man, but one who is big enough to challenge us and tell us the way things are. When you meet that God, a God who is prepared to tell us truths we don’t like about ourselves, then you know you’ve found the real God and not a figment of your imagination.

This is the true God who reveals himself in the Bible—he isn’t hiding.

April's Verse

500 years ago Europe was shrouded in the darkness of religious superstition and fear. Then suddenly it was as if the curtains were flung back and the sunshine flooded in. What happened? One man rediscovered a truth that had been known for centuries, but had become obscured.

His name was Martin Luther. He was a deeply religious man, joining a monastic order, not so much to study, but to save his soul. He reckoned that if there was anywhere you could find salvation it was there. He was immensely diligent—he wearied his confessors with confessions lasting several hours, going into every nook and cranny of his soul.

He was a man acutely aware of the awesome purity of God’s holiness, and of his own sinfulness. He was terrified of God, especially of a righteous God. One passage in the Bible particularly puzzled him. Psalm 31:1 reads “Deliver me in your righteousness” and Luther wondered, “What does the writer mean ‘in your righteousness’, surely he means ‘from your righteousness’?” For Luther the righteousness of God was something to flee from. He spent his days trying to be righteous enough for a perfectly righteous God to be happy with him. He pored over the details of God’s law, seeking to keep it, failing, and despairing.

Then light began to dawn; he was lecturing on Romans 1:17 which speaks of a righteousness from God being revealed in the gospel, a righteousness that isn’t earned or achieved, but is by faith. And what he once saw only as a demand by God, he saw was also a gift from God. He saw that what God demands he also supplies. And in a moment he writes, “I felt myself to have been reborn, to have gone through open doors into paradise. Before the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet.”

This right standing before God is grasped, not by effort or obedience, but by trusting in what Jesus has done. And that brings us to this month’s verse:

“If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” (Galatians 2:21)

It comes at the same lesson Luther learned from another angle. If we could be right with God through being conscientious moral people, what on earth was Jesus doing on the Cross? No, the Bible teaches that he died to provide what no amount of law keeping could give. He died to take the place of people who had no standing with God, so that he could offer us the gift of his right standing with God.

7 days with the 7 sayings

Like Christmas and birthdays, Easter comes around every year, but it can be increasingly hard to focus on its meaning. Easter faces the danger of becoming simply a long weekend—an extended holiday.

Yet there is something in us that is drawn to the intensely majestic story of a man dying to save others. Gruesome as the crucifixion is, there is something magnetic about it and the events leading up to it—all the more as we find out what was going on. Why is it that this story of self-sacrifice gets more coverage than any other, for there have been many noble examples of sacrifice over the centuries?

Unlike other situations, something much deeper than self-sacrifice is going on at the cross. Its purpose and meaning can be seen in many places in scripture, but at the cross Jesus himself explains it. Suspended between Heaven and earth, amidst his agony, he utters seven brief, but densely packed, sayings.

These seven sayings reveal Jesus’ mercy, forgiveness, grace, the depths of his suffering, and his triumph. Central to these is his great cry of abandonment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which demonstrates that more than physical suffering was at stake here. He was being abandoned, so that we might never be abandoned. In essence they show us what salvation is about.

As a fellowship we’ve produced a CD based on these seven sayings. There is a reading, a brief reflection on one of the sayings, and a piece of music from the book of Psalms tying in with the theme of that saying. It’s designed to be used in the lead up to Easter, listening to one a day. Think of it as seven days with the seven sayings.

There’s a great line in a Garrison Keillor book where he recalls Thanksgiving dinners. Uncle John usually asked the blessing on the meal, thanking God for the food, for the blessings of the past year, but especially the cross. Keillor adds this powerful observation: “All of us knew that Jesus died on the cross for us, but Uncle John had never gotten over it.”

If Jesus is who he says he is, and did what the Bible says he did, then it’s something should think more and more about.

If you would like a copy of the CD, please get in touch. Alternatively, you can listen online at - just click on the ‘7 Sayings’ button on the left.

Religion vs Gospel

Ireland is full of religion. North and South are bunged to the gills with it—so bunged with it that, like a post-Christmas-dinner nausea, we often don’t want to hear or see another bit of religion. We want to move on from the old ways. Or perhaps, in these days of financial uncertainty, people find themselves looking back to the old ways once more, seeking to find security and hope.

Whatever the case, we need to recognise a difference between religion and biblical Christianity—or to use another phrase ‘the Gospel’. The two are radically different, as different as credit and debt, or as different as hire-purchase and gift.

Let me illustrate it with a series of contrasts:

• Religion is based on my performance
• Gospel is based on Jesus’ performance—his life, death and resurrection.

o Religion says if I obey, God will love me.
o Gospel says because God loves me, so I will obey.

• Religion sees people as either good or bad depending on how they live.
• Gospel sees all people as sinners who need Jesus.

o Religion depends largely on the family you are born into.
o Gospel depends on a new birth into God’s family.

• Religion has no hope for the really wicked.
• Gospel says you can’t be too wicked for God to forgive.

o Religion claims that my behaviour makes me acceptable to God.
o Gospel claims that God’s acceptance makes me behave better.

• Religion is about getting something from God.
• Gospel is about getting God—it’s a relationship.

o Religion sees Heaven as something to be earned.
o Gospel sees Heaven as a gift to be accepted.

• Religion sees hardships as punishment for sin.
• Gospel sees hardship as a means to grow in godliness.

o Religion ends in pride or despair.
o Gospel ends in humble joy.

• Religion brings an uncertainty about our standing before God.
• Gospel brings certainty based upon Jesus’ work.

Over the next few Sunday mornings we’re going to be looking at St. Paul’s letter to the Romans—a group of Christians who lived in Rome. Paul, himself once a deeply religious man but now trusting in Jesus, illustrates and explains the difference between Christianity and religion.

In doing so, he reaches deep into the hearts and lives of people, revealing to us the truth that we know—namely, that we are much worse than we like to admit. His purpose in reaching deep and casting aside the layers is to bring a profound and lasting healing, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation with God.

Our studies of the first three chapters of Romans will take us right to the heart of the problem with us as individuals, but also deep into the heart of God, where the solution is found. Why not come along at 10.15 on Sunday for a look at this ancient but ever-relevant letter, which has been changing lives for 2000 years? Or feel free to listen on-line at once the sermons are uploaded.

You’d swear it was Lent

A friend tells me that her work has a ‘swear box’ for Lent. In other words, if your mouth runs free and loose, you have to cough up some cold hard cash as a punishment. In an unusual twist she got them to recognise that throwing around words like ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ count as swearing. This is no minor achievement in itself, given how freely they fly in our culture.

I found it intriguing was that there was a lower tariff on blasphemy than normal scatological/biological swearing. Apparently it is a worse misdemeanour to speak wrongly of bodily functions than of God. It strikes me that there is something slightly out of kilter with that. I’m not arguing that we should find the scatological/biological swearing acceptable, but that we perhaps need to recalibrate our vocabulary, getting a sense of perspective.

I could get all precious and talk about how it offends me and others to whom the name of Jesus means everything. But that’s not the reason we need a rethink. It offends God. If I treated your name the way people treat his, you’d be upset. And so he warns us that we are not to use his name lightly, or in trivial, pointless ways—as a swear word, a space filler, or an exclamation.

People need to look at how they use and abuse God’s name, not because they cause offence to others, but because they are digging a monstrously deep hole for themselves. Out of concern for themselves they need to hear what God says:

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)

‘Guiltless’ isn’t the sort of thing you can buy off with a euro or two in a box, much less advance payment for a week’s worth. It’s going to take something much, much bigger—so big, in fact, that we can’t pay it; God has to offer to pay it for us. And that’s what Easter’s about.

March’s Verse

Have you heard people say something like “I’m a good Christian” or some other similar variant? I heard someone use it on Highland radio not so long ago. Ironically the phrase often precedes a statement which undermines the very faith they profess to hold. But it always makes me wonder what is a ‘good Christian’ anyway?

It seems to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the whole thing, and it’s this: No genuine Christian would ever describe themselves as ‘a good Christian’!

Let me explain why. The idea seems to be based on some sort of scale of performance—as if you were asked to rate your Christian performance on a scale of excellent…good…average…poor…dismal…does not apply. Or as if we were asked if we are good swimmers or not—“Oh I’m a good swimmer”. But Christianity is not a performance-based religion.

It’s not about what we do. And that’s where this month’s verse comes in. The apostle Paul writes to a group of Christians who are badly confused about what makes them right with God, and he says:

“A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)

This term ‘justified’ is a key term in the Bible. It means ‘acceptable to God’, having our sins forgiven—the way I teach children to remember its meaning is: “justified means ‘just as if I’d never sinned’”. And so Paul is saying here that a person’s acceptance by God is not on the basis of their obeying God, in other words, on their performance, but on the basis of something that Jesus has done.

You see, Christianity isn’t about our performance, for we can’t keep enough laws to make up for our breaking of God’s law. Try that with the traffic cops next time and see how you get on—“Oh please let me off speeding, I promise to keep the speed limit tomorrow and the next day”! We are meant to keep the law anyway; it’s not a bargaining tool! And the guilt still needs to be dealt with.

That is what Jesus comes and offers to do—to keep the law for us, and to pay for our breaking of God’s law. And so we can be acceptable in God’s sight, not by our law-keeping performance, but by relying on Jesus’ performance—both in his keeping the law and also his paying for our breaking of the law, for our guilt has to be dealt with.

Christianity is about accepting this offer, in other words, receiving it as a gift, a transforming gift. We don’t exclaim when we get gifts, “How good am I!”, instead we say “How good are you for giving me this”.

So a person who says, “How good am I” or “I’m a good Christian” or whatever variant of the phrase, sadly hasn’t got it. They are missing the point of Jesus.

A genuine Christian is deeply aware of how they disappoint God on a regular basis, and yet they gratefully and joyfully rely on Jesus’ life and death to make them acceptable to God. They don’t talk about being good, instead they point to Jesus’ goodness in giving forgiveness.

Living in a world of unfairness

• A yearly pension of £693,000 for the former boss of a bank which recorded losses last year of £24 billion.
• People investing for years in pension schemes only to see them crash and leave them with nothing.
• Banks pulling in loans on little customers while writing off colossal debts of bigger ones as ‘unrecoverable’.
• Bankers playing games with figures on paper, while mounting massive debts.
• Chairmen and directors creaming off profits while those at the bottom of the chain get ripped off.
• Developers and banks causing the problems, farmers and the man in the street left to shoulder the burden.
• Small businesses crushed out of existence because bigger ones wouldn’t pay what they owed.
• Faithful customers who regularly pay on time footing the bill for those who don’t.


Countless other examples could be given. It seems so unfair. What do we do? Four options are: join in, be indifferent, get angry, or despair.

Nothing much needs to be said about joining in. It’s just wrong.

Indifference is a self-centred response—“Me and mine are ok, so I don’t care about anyone else”. But it all changes suddenly when we find out that we are affected.

Anger is fruitless. We get angry and frustrated because we feel—rightly—that something should be done about it, yet we feel so impotent. Even at a basic level we have very little by way of comeback.

Or we despair, simply because we feel there is nothing we can do. What’s the point of trying to be decent and save, and invest wisely, and be a good consumer? And how are we going to cope with these difficulties? It leads to cynicism and a consuming bitterness that eats away at our souls.

Thankfully there is a fifth option. What does God’s word have to say? Psalm 37 is particularly relevant; here are some of its verses (although I’d encourage you to read it all):

“Do not fret because of evil men
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good…
Delight yourself in the Lord
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
The wicked borrow and do not repay…
those the Lord blesses will inherit the land…
For the Lord loves the just
and will not forsake his faithful ones.
They will be protected forever,
but the offspring of the wicked will be cut off.

The songwriter acknowledges that life is unfair, but the day is coming when all will give account—they will only get away with it for so long. God sees, and God takes note.

Instead of anger, he calls us to trust in a God who promises to judge all injustice, especially that which oppresses the poor and the needy (v14). Instead of despair he calls us to trust in a God who will provide for his people. Instead of joining in, he calls us to continue living justly, knowing that the time will come when God will reward our obedience.

But there is little point taking comfort in the fact that God’s justice will catch up with others, for it will also catch up with us—and so we need someone to bail us out, not a bank, but the Son of God.

The Myth of Self-Esteem

“Never criticise” is the mantra that we are all told these days when it comes to working with young people.

Teachers are told not to use red pens because it crushes the spirit. Instead of getting an ‘F’ for ‘fail’, you now get a ‘U’ for ‘ungraded’—as if that will make you feel better! All this because we want to wrap people in cotton wool, and shield them from the reality that there are some things they aren’t good at—in case we harm their self esteem.

Of course there is some truth in it—some have only known the harshest of voices and the sternest of criticism from those who should have been encouraging and loving.

But as often happens, we have swung to the opposite extreme, swallowing the whole sickly nonsense of self-esteem. We tell ourselves that it is more productive to shower ourselves and others with praise.

Yet psychologists have realised that it simply doesn’t work. Instead it produces people who only think that they are good at something, but are unable to take even the mildest criticism. The Dean of Education at Stanford University keeps a box of Kleenex in her office for students who, for the first time in their lives, receive tough feedback and can’t deal with it.

The conclusions of an in-depth analysis on self-esteem included the following: high self-esteem does not of itself earn children higher grades; it does not make people better at their jobs; humility, rather than self-regard, is a better predictor of who will make a successful leader.

Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, writes “After all these years, I’m sorry to say, my recommendation is this: forget about self-esteem and concentrate more on self-control and self-discipline.”

Interesting. That’s exactly what God says in his word.

“This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” declares the LORD. Isaiah 66:2

Then Jesus said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23

In my line of work I sometimes hear the refrain, “I have no self-esteem”, and it has often made me wonder. After all, we are only reconstituted earth, which lives in rebellion against its creator—what have we to be esteemed about? True esteem comes only when we realise our worthlessness, and guiltiness before God, and come to him seeking forgiveness. And then, when he forgives us and brings us into his family, we realise that we are more loved than we could ever have imagined. And that is where our esteem comes from. It isn’t to be found in ourselves—that is a modern-day version of the emperor’s new clothes.

Esteem is only worthwhile when it is realistic. And it is from God alone that we get a true sense of who we are.

“As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” - Psalm 103:15-18

Future-proofing your kids

All over the news this week has been the case of Alfie Patten and his girlfriend Chantelle Steadman who gave birth to a daughter Maisie. Why the fuss? Alfie is 13, and Chantelle is 15. Add to mix the fact that they aren’t even sure if Alfie is the father since she had several other partners.

Leaving aside the particular details of this case, how is it that parents can equip their kids for making right decisions? Is life simply to be a list of no’s or a catalogue of don’ts? Every parent knows that a ‘no’ or a ‘don’t’ is one sure-fire way to get kids to do something. Another option is to govern by fear—if you do this you’ll be for it. Or the more sophisticated version—if you do this you’ll make a mess of your life. It’s hardly the best approach to family relations.

Another approach is to govern by pride—we’re the such-and-such family, and we don’t do a thing like that. But this feeds a tendency to look down your nose at others.

Yet another approach is to think that if we give enough information to young people, they will make informed and wise choices. This too is staggeringly naïve—and has proved a startling failure with more information available than ever before about sex, drugs and alcohol and yet higher rates of teenage pregnancy, STDs, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

What is the answer? Last week at church we were looking at the mother of Moses and how, although she had him for only a few short years before Pharaoh’s daughter whisked him away, she managed to instil into him something which held him fast against all the temptations of the court of Pharaoh—the riches, the power, the women. She wasn’t there to provide guidance at every step. She wasn’t there to check up on him. So what was it she did?

She infused him with such an understanding of who God is and what God offers that for the rest of his life Moses could assess everything in the light of that. The book of Hebrews tells us that he refused to be known as royalty, that he walked amongst all the pleasures which money can buy and walked past them because he was living for something bigger.

Young people are hard-wired to be dazzled—the daily grind of their own and even their parents’ lives bores them. They look for something bigger and better than what they are currently experiencing. And a parent’s task is to do what Moses’ mother did and give our kids such a view of the greatness and glory and wonder of God, and of the joy that God has in store for those who delight in him, that they will pass by the distractions of this world and live for something bigger and better.

It will guard them from temptation, enable them to make wise choices, and equip them to live with balance, perspective and humility. Having a view of God’s greatness will move them (and us) to nobility. They will become people who live worthwhile lives because they have got hold of something worth pouring your life into. Your children need something worth living and dying for—and only one thing is that big: God.

February’s Verse

Evangelist Louis Palau writes: After an evangelistic luncheon, an elderly man slowly walked toward me. He introduced himself as a retired university professor once nominated for a Nobel Prize. As we spoke about God he said, “When I was a boy, I had faith, and then I lost it. Now it's too late. God will never take me back.”

“Professor, why do you say that?”

“Because I am so unworthy, that's why. I'm so unworthy.”

I assured the professor that God could take away his guilt—even 40 years worth.
That’s where this month’s verse comes in. It’s from Romans 4:7, although it is initially found in Psalm 32. David wrote Psalm 32 after committing adultery and murder, and a period of miserable silence when he tried to ignore his past. He writes,

“Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.”

‘Blessed’ means happy, thrilled, overjoyed. And here David is exulting in the clean sheet that God has given him. But how does he get to that happy state where the ghosts of the past no longer haunt him, where his past won’t rise up and accuse him?

He admits something we know from our own experience—“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away… my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” Hiding is not the answer. Sin needs to be taken care of. Either God covers it or we cover it up. There's a big difference. As Rudyard Kipling said, “Nothing is ever settled until it's settled right.”

But when God covers it, it's settled forever.

The solution is not to hide, to pretend we are better than we are, but to haul it all out into the open before God. That’s what David did, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”—and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Ps 32:3-5)

That’s the pathway to happiness. David found relief and happiness in knowing his transgressions were forgiven, his sins covered, and the Lord did not count his sin against him.

But why does Paul quote these verses in Romans 4? Paul has been speaking about the wonder of the gospel. He has been arguing that sin is not something we atone for by our good works, or by self-punishment—instead it is something God deals with at the Cross and that we accept as a gift.

In Romans 4 he says:
“People are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:
‘Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.’”

For troubled souls overwhelmed by their guilt, sin, and failure, few passages in all of Scripture can give peace like this one. Psalm 32 and Romans 4 offer the assurance of forgiveness that is found in Jesus alone.

Is the Bible against women?

One of the many popular perceptions about the Bible is that it is like all other ancient traditions—misogynistic, in other words it presents a view that women are to be despised and trampled on with little or no rights.

Whilst this may be true of many ancient societies, the Bible’s teaching on women was completely counter-cultural. It went against the flow. The gospel writer Luke noticed this too, and in his account of the life of Jesus he highlights the equality of women—nearly every major moment or parable or teaching has a male-female counterpart. For example: an angel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary, the parable of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep is followed by the woman looking for her lost coin, the healing of the demon possessed man is followed by the double healing of the sick woman and the dead girl. It is evident that Jesus had women amongst his wider group of disciples, an unheard of thing for a rabbi to do.

All this is by way of saying that the Bible doesn’t fit with the preconceptions, and over the next few weeks in New Life Fellowship we are going to be looking at lessons God taught some of the remarkable women of the Bible.

What do you know of Sarah? Or Miriam? Or Esther? Or Jochebed? Or Martha? Or what about Gomer?

I suspect that you’ll know quite a bit about some of those, but others perhaps not so much, and even those we do know will surprise us.

We’ve just spent a number of weeks at the end of last year looking at Jacob, and now it’s time to redress the balance somewhat. But what does this have to say to men? Is this a series where the men get to stay at home for a few weeks? Certainly not. It doesn’t matter whether we are looking at men or women or children in the Bible, because at a fundamental level the problems of the human heart are the same whatever gender or age you are.

Not only that, but when we look at the Bible we are never simply using it as a scrapbook full of examples—as if all you did was open its pages, find the person in a similar situation and seek to emulate them. That would be to miss the point in a most colossal way—yet that is how many people, including preachers, use it. No, the Bible is God’s story about his dealing with people, and so we are always looking at God and what we can learn about
him in his dealings with people. Since people haven’t really changed that much at the heart level down through the centuries, and since God has no need to change, being completely outside of time, we will find much that is relevant to us today.

So I’d like to invite you, whether male or female, to come along and to hear about these remarkable women, and more importantly their remarkable God. We meet at 10.15 on Sunday mornings in the Day centre off Oliver Plunkett Road.

Beauty Queens and World Peace

I’m reading a book at the moment called “A Quest for More” by Paul Tripp. I’ve only the first chapter read and already it has got me thinking. Tripp starts off the book with the classic scenario from beauty pageants the world over.

The beautiful girls parade across the stage, and then each is brought forward to the microphone to utter some deep cherished hopes for her reign as Miss Wherever. Usually it is something along these lines, “I want to work for world peace, and to solve world hunger, and to promote equality”.

We snigger and roll our eyes—noble goals, but so grandiose and out of reach.

Yet Tripp goes on, not to mock, put to point out that there is “woven inside each of us a desire for something more—a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day existence.”

Maybe that’s why we strive to do things that others haven’t—climb mountains or row oceans—or to invest ourselves in causes—political, social, sporting or whatever—to give us a sense of being part of something bigger and more significant.

That buzz you get from being there when your school won a final. Or from being part of a team refurbishing an orphanage. Or from voting in some historic event. Or from even watching the inauguration of the first African-American President of the USA. That sense of I was there, I was involved, I did that.

Tripp says, “We aren’t constructed to live only for ourselves. We were placed on earth to be part of something bigger than the narrow borders of our own survival and our own little definition of happiness.”

This resonates with me. We were made for something much bigger than mere existence. We were made for something great. Not necessarily to be great—for that would be arrogance—but to be involved in something that matters. We all want to matter.

Perhaps the beauty contestant isn’t so far off the mark after all. In that often mocked moment she has got something right—the desire to live for something big.

But where can that be found? There is nothing big enough or grand enough in this world to satisfy that desire. Ask the rich and famous. Tripp tells of one such man he came across who had everything, but complained “I have it all, why can’t I be happy?” Tripp writes, “he had constructed his own kingdom, indulged his every dream, met his every need… but he discovered it was an empty kingdom, and he was an empty king”.

The tragedy was not that he attempted too much, but that he had settled for too little.

It’s only when we look Godwards that we find something big enough and grand enough to live for. Something worth living and dying for.

Perhaps in these days when we are seeing the emptiness of possessions, and the futility of pursuing material goods, we need to rethink what it is that we are living for. And ask the question: Is it big enough?

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

Looking for a saviour in all the wrong places

As I write this on Tuesday the world waits with baited breath for the inauguration of Barack Obama as forty-fourth president of the United States. He is hailed as some sort of messiah, the bringer of hope, the solution to America’s, and hence the world’s, problems.

He’s young and charismatic—and he comes to the forefront at a troubled time. What colossal expectations perch on his shoulders. So much hype, so much anticipation; much of it seemingly placed there by a country seeking to atone for its racist past and heaping all its hopes, dreams and penance on this one man.

I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a sacrificial lamb.

You know how it is—we unrealistically place all our hopes on someone, and then when they fail to live up to this improbable ideal we turn on them with savage ferocity, disappointed far more at ourselves than at them, but not having the wit to realise it. Just like the English media does every four years when it finds that its football team aren’t world beaters!

And then starts the recriminations, the blaming, the finger-pointing, the criticisms.

We have looked for a messiah, and they have failed.

Brian Cowen and co. are getting it at the minute. The rugby team will likely get it by the end of the six-nations, for we’ll have looked at them to lift our spirits out of recessional gloom. And we’ll fire Declan Kidney for not being the saviour of Irish rugby and for failing to reverse the economic downturn.

Of course the reality is that we keep looking for a messiah in all the wrong places. And when it comes to the one who is the Messiah we look to him for all the wrong reasons.

We look to Barack Obama to solve the global financial crisis, to bring inter-racial harmony, to solve the crime problem in America, to deal with the carnage in Gaza and to bring peace to both Afghanistan and Iraq—tasks that lie more in the realm of what a god could do. Whether it’s our elected representatives or even our football or rugby teams, we look to them to bring about things far beyond their abilities. That’s unfair—that’s not what they signed up for.

On the other hand we look to Jesus for all the wrong reasons—to sort out our dodgy knee, to find us a parking space, to help us win the Lotto, to get us out of this fix or that. It’s not a Saviour we want, but a supernatural personal assistant/medical expert/lucky star. Then we blame him for not dancing to our tune. That’s unfair—that’s not what he came for.

Of course if he really is God, then he wouldn’t be fitting to our agenda, but calling us to fit into his. But we don’t like to think about that, and instead we persist with looking for saviours amongst our politicians or whatever other heroes we choose, and we dump the small-fry stuff on Jesus.

And when neither of them live up to our unfair, unwarranted expectations we hang them out to dry, proclaiming all along that we knew better.

If we really knew better, we’d look in the right place.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or You can read more or listen online at

Three little words

According to the Irish Independent, on ‘Today with Pat Kenny’ last Wednesday the general manager of the D4 hotel chain declared that all rooms were available at €20.09, including the penthouse “if you are lucky”.

“It's €20.09, our rooms per night. All our rooms, every single room,” general manager Sarah Curran said on Wednesday.

Unsurprisingly the hotels—including the Ballsbridge Inn and the Ballsbridge Court Hotel—were inundated. But apparently only a certain number of rooms had been set at the €20.09 price and staff turned customers away when they ran out of the preset rooms.

Ms Curran returned to the programme the next day and performed the usual trio of tactics we employ when caught out:

1. Play with the words. She said that when she said ‘all rooms’ she meant ‘all rooms marked at the €20 price’—which of course could mean one room in the whole complex!

2. Blame others for misunderstanding you. “Apologies if that's what was perceived.” Apparently it wasn’t her fault, but it was the perception of others.

3. Under no circumstances admit you were wrong.

It’s hardly fair to pick on Ms Curran, in fact we could have picked any number of celebrities, sportsmen, politicians etc who similarly fail to admit responsibility.

We hear these phrases all the time. “I’m sorry if you were offended”. “It was a misunderstanding”. “My behaviour was inappropriate”. We hear it all the time.

What we never hear is: “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” Instead we get all sorts of euphemisms, wriggling and rewriting of events.

Sometimes we get, “I would like to issue an apology” – maybe I’m being picky but if you would like to issue an apology then why not do it and say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” Occasionally we do get someone saying, “I’m sorry,” but they seldom admit that they were in the wrong. What they appear to mean is that they were sorry that they got caught. Other times we get, “I’m sorry if I’ve caused offence,” which again shirks responsibility, almost blaming others for being petty enough to be offended.

“I was wrong” – three little words, but perhaps the hardest to say.

Not only is it a vital lesson for life, its also the first step in approaching God. I was wrong. I have failed. Forgive me please. Or as the tax collector in Jesus’ parable said, “God have mercy on me, the sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

Is that too hard for us to say?

January’s Verse

Happy New Year!

As in other years the Baptist church and ourselves have teamed up to give out a calendar around parts of the town. Each year the calendar takes a theme; this year the theme is ‘God’s gift’. Each month’s verse deals with this radical idea that separates Christianity from religion.

Now perhaps you may feel I’m playing with words a little—isn’t Christianity a religion? Yes in one sense it is, yet this whole idea of ‘gift’ places it in a different category from all the other religions. This ‘gift’ idea produces a thoroughly different outlook—it changes how we relate to God, how we see ourselves, how we see our future, how we see others, how we see what we deserve or don’t deserve—but more of that in months to come.

Each month I plan to give a brief explanation of that month’s verse. If you haven’t got a calendar and would like one—please get in touch. January kicks off the calendar with a verse from Isaiah:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6)

Now if we are being honest with ourselves we know that meeting God is perhaps the last thing we want, for we’re not ready. There is much in our lives that would not impress him. So why start off the year with this call to seek God out? Surely it would be much better to call people to tidy themselves up and to straighten out their lives a bit before calling them to look for God?

That’s where one of the differences between religion and Christianity comes in. This idea of ‘gift’ challenges our natural patterns of thought.

One of the things about verses in the Bible is that they have a context—a home, with family who live alongside as it were, they belong to a place. We can’t simply rip them out of their home and look at them in a disconnected way; we need to see them in their natural environment. The natural habitat of this verse is a rich beautiful invitation from God to come to a feast, to come and enjoy what we cannot afford.

Listen to it:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Then we are told to seek him and search him out. What Isaiah is saying is this: There is a feast available with God (as opposed to the judgment we deserve), but we can’t afford it, but God himself offers to provide what we can’t afford. And what would cost us everything, he offers to pay. It’s a picture of the salvation that God offers, we couldn’t ever afford it, or earn it by being good enough, but instead he offers to pay—and that’s what happened at the Cross—God paid so that we could enjoy his gift.

That’s why we are to search him and come to him while he extends this offer, for like some of the new-year sale bargains this offer is time limited. As the verse says, “call on him while he is near” – there will be a time when he is not near. And so it is the right verse to put at the start of the year.

My Predictions for 2009

It’s that time of year when pundits of various stripes stare into their crystal ball and give us their insights for 2009. There’ll be everything from the well thought out pieces to the sensationalistic—some of which will prove right and others will leave their authors hoping that no-one will remember their folly.

Alas, in these days of the internet, folly retrieval is often only a click or two away. Witness these examples from such notable worthies as Bill Gates, Alan Sugar and others:

1. The iPod will never take off – Sir Alan Sugar in 2005
2. No need for a computer in the home – Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp in 1977
3. "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years" – Alex Lewyt, president of a vacuum company
4. TV won't last because people would, "soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night" – Darryl Zanuck in 1946
5. In 1933, after the first flight of the Boeing 247, a plane that could hold ten people, a proud Boeing engineer reportedly said, "There will never be a bigger plane built."
6. Nobody would ever need more than 640KB of memory on their personal computer– Bill Gates in 1981, allegedly.
7. Spam will be solved – Bill Gates, 2004.

I’ve got no crystal ball, but I have something much better—God’s word—so I’d like to make a few predictions based on it.

1. God’s word will still be surprisingly relevant to people’s lives, sadly many will continue to ignore it.
2. Humanity will not be wiped out by meteor collision, nuclear holocaust or anything else. The end of the world will only come with the return of Jesus Christ (not necessarily in 2009!).
3. Christianity will not die out—the good news of the gospel will still be proclaimed across the world, and accepted by many.
4. Difficulties will come on personal, national and international fronts, and the wise will see them as wake-up calls from God.
5. No-one will find that they are too bad for forgiveness from Jesus, although many will think that they are too good.
6. Pride will still lie at the root of every interpersonal problem—and the solution will still be found in placing ourselves in a right perspective before God.
7. The perpetual search for significance and identity will continue, and fail—yet true and lasting significance, purpose and identity will still be found in the eternal Jesus.
8. A fresh start and new strength will be available from Jesus, no matter what mess you’ve made of your life.
9. People will bemoan a loss of values, and continue to deny the foundations such values are based on.
10. There will continue to be a famine of hope and shattered dreams in this world—yet Jesus will continue to offer hope, forgiveness, acceptance, love and a future beyond our wildest dreams.

I wish you all a Happy New Year, and trust that you will find what God is offering to you in 2009.