new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

The need for realism

What will it take to exit this coming year in a better state than we enter it, either personally or as a nation?

Aside from all the talk about pulling together and reigniting our sense of community, it seems to me that something else is needed—realism. In many ways we have been living in a bubble of unreality for a long time, burying our heads in the sand with regard to a host of issues—personal, national, economic, religious and social. We have kidded ourselves that the emperor’s new clothes really have covered over our nakedness. And we will continue to muddle through the mess for another year unless we face reality.

Let me pick out several areas where reality needs to hit home.

Financial Realism – Just after the budget there was a man on the news lamenting, “We might not be able to afford a foreign holiday this year”! – ok so I know that we’re not all like him, but we have become used to a high standard of living. Our eyes are bigger than our wallets. Pleasure has become a right to be enjoyed whatever our finances, not something to be saved for. A previous generation knew how to live within their means, but we have lost this.

Moral Realism – As a nation we are good at papering over the cracks. We think that problems can be solved with a jovial slap on the back and a touch of blarney. We lack integrity; saying one thing and meaning another, making promises to save face that we have no intention of keeping, saying whatever we think the other person wants to hear. Little thought is given to honest self-examination or to identifying our flaws and seeking to develop and grow. We live in a fantasy world where we are the heroes and everyone else is flawed. It’s time we faced reality—we can’t fix others, but we can at least look at ourselves. The solution for the nation starts with the individual.

Spiritual Realism – Here too we can live in a fantasy world, a world where we each have our own beliefs, thinking them equally valid. This cannot be, they cannot all be right. And sadly it is our departure from spiritual reality—by which I mean biblical truth—that has led to a lack of realism in other areas. Without a penetrating and fixed standard of right and wrong, morality bounces about on a wave of pragmatism—what works for you and doesn’t hurt too many others. When we leave God out, something else like pleasure, money or reputation becomes the driving force, and once again we find ourselves in a mess. We need to hear the blunt and honest truth about us from God’s word, and we need his salvation from our guilt and from ourselves. Only he can change us into the people we ought to be, and ensure that we are better at the end of 2011 than at the start.

Christmas myths

We play a game in our household at this time of year—with Christmas cards, storybooks or TV programmes. It’s called “Spot the mistakes in the Nativity story”. I don’t mean mistakes in the Bible—but in the popular retellings and perceptions that go with the Christmas story. Here’s a few of the common misperceptions:

- No room in the inn? This myth is understandable, since some Bible translations say ‘inn’. However, the Greek word means ‘guest room’. Jews tended not to stay in inns, but houses often had a guest room. Since Joseph had family in Bethlehem, there was probably no space in their guest room, and so they had to squeeze in with the family—not much privacy or comfort for a pregnant woman.

- Jesus was born in a stable? Sorry, but bang go all those lovely images of cattle lowing and oxen looking on lovingly at the little mite in the trough. Families often kept their animals in the house for safety, but on a lower level. Feeding troughs (mangers) were built into the change of level. The animals were probably kicked out and the lower level given over to Mary and Joseph. The manger, cleaned out, would have been an ideal place for the baby—being both convenient and warm.

- Mary gave birth the night that they arrived? "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" (Luke 2:6). It sounds more like they arrived some time beforehand. Joseph wasn’t stupid enough to make a long journey with a heavily pregnant woman.

- Three kings came to visit? Matthew doesn't give a number. And they weren’t kings. Instead they were magi—advisors to kings, not kings themselves. Also it isn’t likely that they arrived at the same time as the shepherds. Jesus seems to have been somewhere between one month and two years, and Mary and Joseph were living in a house, not a stable (Matthew 2:11)!

- Jesus was born on 25
th December? The exact date of Jesus' birth is unknown, but December 25th is unlikely. Nor was it in 1 AD. The first time his date of birth is mentioned isn’t in the Bible, but late in the second century, as November 18, but even that's not certain. Jesus must have been born before 4 BC, because that's when Herod the Great died. The date ‘25th December’ comes from a pagan feast that was ‘christianised’ by the later church.

Many others could be mentioned, but what does it all matter? In some ways not a lot, because it isn’t the Bible that is being disproved, but man-made distortions. The central fact hasn’t changed, God came into our world as a little baby in the humblest of circumstances—this was the start of his great rescue plan for mankind. Yet in another sense it does matter—for too long we have got into the habit of paying more attention to what we are told about the Bible and its message, rather than what the Bible actually says. We can listen to preachers mything the point, yet we don’t check to see for ourselves what the point actually is. It isn’t so important when we look at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but it is crucial when we look at the other end—his death. To misunderstand it is to misunderstand everything.

A WikiLeak world

Even with the snow I’m sure few of you have missed the steady news concerning the website WikiLeaks. There have been revelations about topics as far apart as China’s thoughts on North Korea, the Vatican’s reaction to the Irish abuse inquiry and many others.

Some information it seems downright irresponsible to leak, some just embarrassing. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, which gathers all this information and makes it publicly available, says that it aims to create a culture of honesty:

“WikiLeaks means it’s easier to run a good business and harder to run a bad business, and all CEOs should be encouraged by this… In the struggle between open and honest companies and dishonest and closed companies, we’re creating a tremendous reputational tax on the unethical companies.”

That sounds a great idea, if only a tad naïve—how long will it be before false leaks are faked to bring down honest companies, or to incite international difficulties?

There’s something intriguing about knowing what was said behind closed doors at the Vatican, or in embassy buildings. We like to know what goes on in secret, especially if it concerns us. There is such a lack of integrity in our society that what is said in public is vastly different from what is said in private. We say one thing to people’s faces, and another behind their backs. How great it would be to know exactly what was said just after we had turned away. That’s the WikiLeaks moment.

And yet, as our politicians are always finding out, it’s far harder to play this game. If you are a person of integrity you don’t need to remember what you said and to whom, because it’s what you’ll say again. However, if you are in the habit of saying one thing in public and another in private you have to remember all of it, and keep it tightly managed. In a WikiLeaks world, one slip and you’re gone.

All of this is a reminder of the God who sees what is done in private as well as public, and of a day when everything done and said in secret will be broadcast before all mankind. On that day we all will have to answer for everything we have said and done, for our hypocrisy and two-facedness. On that day it will also be ‘one slip and you’re gone’. Now is not the time to try to hide our guilt before God, or to try harder to be ‘decent’. We need to own up to our guilt and seek his forgiveness. And then we need to ask him to make us into men and women of integrity.

The Welcome Humbling of a Bailout

I suspect that most of us are fed up hearing about the financial circumstances of our country, and of bailouts in particular. The figures are so astronomically huge that it’s almost easier to bury our heads than to get our heads around them. Maybe it will all go away? I don’t think so.

How humiliating for us to have to accept such a bailout from Europe for our own stupidity, greed, corruption and incompetence. After all, we are Ireland, the land of the Celtic Tiger, the land that had finally come of age, but like a child who thinks they can ride without stabilisers a little too early, we have come a cropper.

Now here we are with cap in hand, our pride in tatters. And yet I say this is a welcome humbling. What could I possibly mean?

It has been a year when it has become evident that our political, financial and religious leaders have failed us on a massive scale. We need help far more than we realise. The problem with Ireland is not the government, or the banks, or even the church. Those are only symptoms of a malaise that lies much deeper. It is the problem of the heart. True, it doesn’t always show as badly in everyone, but then not all of us have had the opportunity of power or wealth to let the weeds grow as wild, but the weeds are there nonetheless.

And if it has taken this series of calamities to cause us to realise this, then it is a welcome humbling. For it is now that we are in a position to rebuild and to grow. But that growth starts not at government level, nor with finances, nor institutional church structures, but with each of us before God.

Our hearts need changed or we will just end up back here again in some shape or form. And here is where the good news is. Ironically, it comes in the form of a bailout. However unlike the financial bailout, which is a misnomer because we have to pay it all back, God’s bailout is a genuine one. His has no interest fee. He offers to cancel our debt of sin, and pick up the price tag himself. That’s what the crucifixion is about. And he offers to change us from the very depths of our hearts.

Our land needs this humbling time. But it will only be good for us if we turn to God and humble ourselves before him. We need his bailout, his cancelling of our sin and guilt. Playing with financial bailouts, while necessary, is only alleviating the symptoms, the sickness of the heart remains.

This could be the start of something truly great for Ireland.

So many interpretations?

One of the objections I hear from time to time about the Bible runs something like, “There are so many different interpretations, its hard to know which to believe”, or “That’s just your interpretation”. Sometimes it comes from genuine uncertainty, and sometimes it seems more like a throwaway defensive answer.

Yet in both cases there is generally a common denominator—the idea of the Bible being a vast fog of mixed up interpretations has kept them from actually reading the Bible.

This is sad, because for the most part the Bible is clear and interpretation isn’t an issue. Granted there are some passages which are complex—we would expect that when a complex God speaks into a complex world; there are some passages that require a knowledge of the culture and customs of the day; but vast chunks of it are startlingly clear.

They require no interpretation; they speak for themselves. They are as capable of being understood by a child, a housewife, a working man, as a trained clergy. They just say what they say—much like a stop sign or a direction sign at the roadside. We don’t dismiss a sign warning of a dangerous bend, saying, “I don’t know what that’s about, there are just so many possible interpretations.”

For example, these are fairly clear:

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” – Romans 3:23

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” – Romans 6:23

Jesus said, ”I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except by me” – John 14:6

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” - Ephesians 2:8-9

I don’t know what has caused this—whether it is preachers and clergy wanting to impress with how they alone are able to understand and interpret the scriptures, or a fear that the ‘untrained eye’ might make a complete mess of understanding something. Whatever the cause, the upshot is that the ordinary person feels incompetent to look at the Bible. This is a tragedy for it has removed God’s word, its powerful life-giving message, its wonderful promises, its unambiguous warnings, and its crystal clear hope, from people, leaving them dependent on others who often talk around scripture, rather than letting scripture talk for itself.

The truth is that the things we need to grasp for eternal life are sufficiently plain, not a matter of interpretation. Other issues may need deeper thought, but the main things are the plain things. If we read the plain things and believed them, they alone would radically transform our lives.

Forgotten English, Forgotten Man

Chankings - What are ‘chankings’? Or what about a ‘coffee-wit’? Or ‘roorback’? I got a ‘Forgotten English’ desk calendar one Christmas, and it has been a source of all sorts of weird and wonderful knowledge.

So many words have fallen out of use. ‘Chankings’ turn out to be the parings of apples or other fruits. ‘Coffee-wit’ is a wonderfully descriptive phrase for someone who gossips over a cup of coffee. A ‘roorback’ is a false allegation for political purposes - perhaps we should resurrect the term!

This ties in with a programme I saw one night about a man called William Tyndale. He was the man who brought the Bible into English so that the ordinary man and woman could read it for themselves. It was fascinating. Tyndale lived in the 1500’s when the dominant church of the day had forbidden people to have the Bible in their own language—apparently God’s word wasn’t for everyone, just the spiritual elite. Tyndale translated it from the original Greek and Hebrew—no easy task in itself—all the while being pursued across the Continent.

He was a brilliant man who had great command of the English language and a profound effect on it. We all quote Tyndale's words without knowing it. He was a master of the pithy phrase In his Bible translation, Tyndale coined such phrases as: “let there be light,” (Genesis 1); “the powers that be,” (Romans 13); “my brother's keeper,” (Genesis 4); “the salt of the earth,” (Matthew 5); “Eat, drink and be merry,” (Luke 12); “signs of the times,” (Matthew 16); “a law unto themselves,” (Romans 2); “filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3); “fight the good fight”(1 Timothy 6).

Several times he had to invent new words to convey the meanings; “scapegoat,” “peacemaker,” “mercy-seat,” “loving-kindnesses” “tender-mercies,” “long-suffering.” These words didn’t exist in English until conceived by Tyndale.

For this great work Tyndale was hounded and eventually captured, tried and burnt at the stake by the Church authorities. In 1856, the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death, the Times newspaper editorial described him as a figure seldom remembered. Today he is largely a forgotten man. Although his impact on the English language is still visible to this day, that is not what Tyndale wanted. He gave his life so that “the boy that driveth the plough would know more of the scriptures”. Not only is he a forgotten man, but the book he worked on, the Bible, is largely forgotten too. Having given his life to get the Bible into the language of the ordinary man, what would he think of us today who have Bibles and yet seldom open them?

Cashless Banks

I was in a bank the other day with a friend. I settled into one of the comfy sofas while he carried out his transaction, only for him to come over with a bewildered look on his face saying, “They don’t do money”. Somewhat surprised at this turn of events in a bank I approached the ‘cashier’ who explained that they were a cashless bank—I knew things were bad, but surely not this bad. But the best was yet to come—“If you want to lodge money, you need to go to the Post Office”

“And where do I go to get money out?” I asked.

“Oh you need to go to Dunnes, they’ve an ATM at the back.”

Ok, so I think I have it, Post Office to lodge money, Dunnes to get money out, and the bank for… nice sofas and a nice lady to talk to—I wonder if they do coffee?

I understand the thinking behind it—outsourcing the more costly, less productive aspects, to maximise efficiency and profits.

But the banks aren’t the only ones at it; rather staggeringly churches have been at this game for years. Where we now have cashless banks, we have had Christ-less churches for much longer. What do I mean? Simply put, there are churches right across the religious spectrum where Christ is rarely preached. He may be given a passing nod, in the manner of a long gone founder figure, but he is not preached about, his great work of salvation is not explained and his great offer of forgiveness is not held out week by week.

Churches have been turned into some sort of a social club, whose main purpose is to maintain a cultural identity. Christ has been lost; his message is ignored and even disliked.

And what mystifies me is that there are people who genuinely love Jesus who persist in attending such Christless churches. At least my bank, for all its faults, hasn’t lost sight of its main purpose, it still looks after my money, if not the cash aspect. But these churches have eviscerated themselves of their very heart and soul. Why stay there? The church is not primarily a mission field; it is where Christians go to get fed so that they can go out to tell people about Jesus. If where you go on a Sunday is a treasureless chest with little more than cultural cobwebs keeping people together, then I implore you to find a place where the preacher reaches weekly into the great treasure chest of scripture and brings out the riches of Christ for you to enjoy.

“Therefore every teacher who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” – Matthew 13:52

A cashless bank can still handle our finances, but a Christless church cannot handle our souls.

God, the universe and Stephen Hawking

Since I’m out of commission at the moment here’s a piece by a friend of mine, Prof. David McKay:

“Stephen Hawking has done it—he’s proved there is no need for a God to explain the existence of the universe. Forget Richard Dawkins and the rest of the amateurs. Here is one of the greatest living physicists stating definitively that ‘It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going’. In his latest book The Grand Design, he considers the great questions ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist?’ His response is that a vast number of universes spontaneously created themselves out of nothing and, with so many universes on offer, one happened to have exactly the conditions necessary for the evolution of human beings.

Hawking’s explanation is ‘M-theory’. Don’t ask what ‘M’ stands for—even proponents of the theory don’t know. I would try to explain M-theory to you, but the spectacle of the blind leading the blind is not edifying, and ditches are a constant hazard. The bottom line for Hawking is this: ‘According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law’.

Don’t be fooled, M-theory may sound impressive and complex, but is as full of holes as a block of Swiss cheese. It’s worth noting that other world-class physicists have raised serious doubts about M-theory, and Frank Close, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, has stated, ‘I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God-debate, either pro or con’.

Irony of ironies, M-theory itself is not and, it is admitted, may never be open to testing. The multitude of universes of which it speaks cannot be observed, but we ‘know’ they must be there. Haven’t Christians been lambasted for speaking of God in such terms? In fact M-theory doesn’t qualify as science, even on the definition of Hawking. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is not science.

Dawkins and Hawking’s disciples say, ‘Religion is a matter of faith, science is a matter of fact’. Yet a theory that asks you to accept multitudes of undetectable universes springing into existence spontaneously sounds very like a demand for a blind leap of faith, and a bigger leap than belief in a personal Creator. Also, scientific laws describe what happens, they don’t make anything happen, not even the spontaneous creation of universes.

The fact is that such theories are simply ways of avoiding what is staring every human in the face: the universe is a testimony to the existence of a Creator. The apostle Paul wrote: ‘what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:19-20). Physicists, cosmologists and others are seizing on M-theory and similar proposals because otherwise the evidence for fine tuning and design in the universe could suggest the hand of a Creator. Much better to opt for the unprovable and untestable than to submit your mind to divine revelation and lay aside your rebellion. M-theory – more nonsense on stilts.”

October’s verse

As I sit to write this column I’m awaiting eye surgery—by the time you read this, I’ll probably be out of the operating theatre. Several years ago I suffered a detached retina, and eventually lost the sight in one eye. In January the other retina started to tear, this time however they were able to repair it, but at a cost. Over the year my eyesight has diminished considerably and this latest surgery is an attempt to restore better vision.

All this is by way of introduction to this month’s verse on the calendar which we gave out at the start of the year. The verse reads:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18

In my circumstances the truth of this verse hits home with extra force, but yet it is true for every one of us.

It’s nice to see the colours changing on the trees, the rich reds and golds of autumn; it’s nice to see the twinkle in my daughters’ eyes as they get up to all sorts of mischief; it’s nice to see Ireland thrash England at rugby. But these aren’t the most significant things in life.

The things that really matter can’t be seen. It’s so easy to focus on the things that we can see—people, job, possessions, status—to live for them, and to let them determine our peace or happiness. The problem is that these things, including people, are temporary. And if we base our happiness or contentment on them, then our happiness and contentment will fluctuate and waver as they come and go.

When we fix our focus on what lasts, and the verse means nothing less than Jesus Christ and eternal life, then, even though the temporary things come and go, our contentment and peace remain steadfast. That’s because, for the person who has placed their salvation entirely in Christ’s hands, nothing can take away either Christ or his gift of eternal life.

So that challenge to each of us is this—Where is your focus? Oftentimes it is times of hardship that reveal to us where our focus really lies, where we look must for our happiness and sense of identity. Are we hanging our happiness on that which is transient, fleeting and passing, or in that which lasts forever and is rock solid?

I can assure you that the treasure of having what can’t be seen far outweighs the wonder of what can be seen.

To Beatify or not to Beatify

This past week saw Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain. The reaction to his visit covered the whole spectrum of opinion, from euphoric delight to outright opposition with probably the majority of people in Britain adopting the middle ground of indifference. One of the main reasons for the Pope’s visit was to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, the former Church of England minister who, in 1845, joined the Catholic church. This is the penultimate step in Newman being canonised and declared a saint. As such he then can be venerated, and can be prayed to.

The event makes sense in a religious framework where the better you do, the closer to God you are. And the closer to God you are, surely the more likely God is to hear your prayers than the prayers of an ordinary follower. The idea is appealing, perhaps because we see an ordinary person doing really well and receiving this sign of ultimate acceptance, or perhaps we feel that God would never hear our prayers directly, so its good to have someone saintly to pray on our behalf.

Interestingly though, when we look at the Bible we see that every true Christian is a saint. It is not the privilege of some elite class, who have lived especially holy lives or done notable good deeds. Instead the Bible teaches that it is Jesus who makes us saints (literally holy ones) when we stop trying to build up our own holiness, and accept the holiness that he is offering as a gift. Dressed in this holiness we are then forgiven and able to stand before a Holy God. In Hebrews 10:10 we read, “we have been made holy (made saints) through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.”

This is the stunning truth that comes from Jesus’ work on the Cross. If we ask him to take away our sin, and to cover us with his holiness we are declared saints (holy) from that moment on. As a saint every Christian has the privilege of speaking directly to God, their loving Father, in prayer. They don’t need any other intermediary.

Because of Jesus, the Christian is as close to God as it is possible to be. And because of the great change the that Jesus makes, the Christian then seeks to live a holy life. The Bible’s truth is magnificent –God makes ordinary, everyday people his saints, giving them direct access into his presence. It is not an event in the future that we aspire to, but a present reality for all who trust in God’s Son.

On Koran burning

Let me state from the off—Terry Jones, the Florida pastor with the bad moustache who wanted to burn a copy of the Koran, is a publicity-seeking fool. His actions were foolhardy, unloving, inconsiderate and unchristian. I might disagree with the Koran, but deliberately insulting a religion is no way to win people to your belief.

His actions were rightly condemned by all who cluster under the umbrella of Christianity—liberals, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals—as well as those outside it.

However, one issue never seemed to be addressed, only assumed. Why was it so dangerous? We all understood the consequences—riots, soldiers shot, people killed. Why should those be so inevitable? If what world leaders were saying was true, then the main problem isn’t just the actions of an American lunatic, but also a religion with a sizeable proportion of people who react violently because of such a lunatic.

It is simply not enough to say that all religions have their extreme factions. In Christianity the extremists are a tiny minority on the fringe and they threaten to burn the Koran. With Islam, the extremists are much more predominant and burn not only bibles, but churches and even Christians.

There is a great divide in the face Islam presents to us. Many of us know gentle caring Muslims—often working in hospitals—who are appalled by the actions of those who are more extreme. But there is that other face to Islam, one that is not a tiny minority like the extremists that inhabit the fringes of Christianity, but one that claims such a sizeable following that world leaders live in fear of it.

Just as no thinking Christian can ignore the violence of the Crusades and the Inquisition—both of which find no basis in biblical teaching—so, no thinking Muslim can continue to ignore the challenge of Islamic violence. Why is it that a religion that claims to be about peace engenders such violent hostility?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the difference between Jesus and Mohammed. Mohammed is a prophet-teacher, and Jesus is a saviour. A teacher must be listened to, and honoured. Jesus came, not primarily to teach, but to be insulted, mocked, and even crucified in order to save people. Facing mockery is at the core of Jesus’ work, and so he calls and equips his people to bear insult and even death in order that they might win their enemies. Their salvation doesn’t depend on them fighting for the honour of their teacher, but in them accepting the gift of their Saviour. It mightn’t seem like much, but it changes everything.

September’s Verse

Which number 1 hit has the oldest lyrics?

It’s The Byrd’s version of Pete Seeger’s
"Turn! Turn! Turn!”—which takes its lyrics from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-9), written by King Solomon 3000 years ago.

Seeger wrote it as a folk song, The Byrd’s made it rock, and it has been covered by a variety of artists including Bruce Springsteen, and Belle and Sebastian; appearing too in the film
Forrest Gump.

Perhaps you remember how the song opens:

To everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

There is much misunderstanding about these verses, with their repeated refrain “a time to…” often interpreted that there is a time and place for everything, that life balances out. This view is a little too sentimental and idealistic, paying scant attention to the context and lyrics.

The context is a contrast between the relentless, heartbeat-like pounding of the phrase
“a time… a time… a time” and “But God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (3:12). Solomon is saying that our lives are bound by time, yet there is that inner awareness that we were made for much more than time. So the lyrics aren’t a piece of joyous optimism—there have been hard times, but good times are around the corner—instead they are a melancholy reflection on the brevity of life.

But Solomon doesn’t stop where Seeger and others stop quoting him, he goes on to hold out hope. And that is what this month’s verse is all about:

“I know that everything God does will endure forever” (3:14)

If God has set eternity in our hearts, and all he does lasts forever then there is hope for us. But we need to recalibrate our lives and get our focus off the things that are bound by the limits of time—job, wealth, health, status, etc—and get our priority set on the things that last forever. That means the things that God is doing—he is in the business of building a kingdom where one half of the lyrics—sadness, war, hatred—will be banished forever, and the other half will be seen in glorious technicolour, without the threat of time running out.

Do you feel that creeping sadness that comes when you realise that all you have done in life is passing away—then set your hearts on what God is doing, for there you will invest in something that lasts forever.

August’s Verse

Sometimes I have a problem with Bible verses. That’s a strange thing for a pastor to say, but it’s true. In particular I have a problem with verses that are dislocated from their context. These appear scattered over cards and calendars, bookmarks and billboards. For some verses it doesn’t matter, for they are self-contained nuggets—take the very famous John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s more or less self-contained—it tells you all you need to know. Other verses, when dislocated from their context, start to sound like fortune cookie promises, for example:

“God is love” – does that mean he won’t punish sin? Is he only love, or is he also Holy?

“With God all things are possible” – For whom? What sort of ‘all things’?

Such verses are part of an organic whole; they cannot be wrenched from their place and expected to have a life of their own. We need to know who the promise applies to, and what conditions are attached.

This month’s verse is like that:

“The eternal God is your refuge” Deuteronomy 33:27

Who doesn’t want a refuge? This world is a place of storms; storms of doubt, fear, illness, tragedy, heartbreak and many other storms. We need a place of refuge—one that outlasts all those storms, including that great final storm of death and of judgment. So it is a great relief to find that this particular refuge is eternal, for it is found with the eternal God. That also means that the refuge is a personal one, not a case of finding a cold dark cave to shelter in, but rather a warm and tender father to stand guard over you—always.

That sounds fantastic, and it is—if it applies to you.

As it turns out, when we look at the surrounding verses, this isn’t a blanket promise to all, but rather a specific promise to God’s people. This wonderfully comforting statement of eternal refuge is true, but it needs you to first ask God to make you one of his people through Jesus. In fact, that’s what John 3:16 is saying—he perished so you could have an eternal refuge, once you put your trust in him. Once Jesus is your saviour, you will find God a refuge from life’s storms.

Proposition 8—whose rules?

Last Wednesday, US Federal judge, Justice Vaughn R. Walker struck down California’s ruling that marriage is between a man and a woman, rather than same-sex couples. He radically redefined marriage saying that, “Gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage”.
What are we to make of all this?

Proposition 8 had been voted into law by a clear majority of voters. But in one audacious act of judicial foot-stamping, California’s voters were told that they had no right to express their opinion. A single unelected judge nullified the will of the voters of California as expressed through the electoral process. In a series of startling ‘findings’ the judge arbitrarily, without counter-argument, swept aside the arguments of centuries and cultures, as well as the evidence of secular research which demonstrates that both children and society suffer when marriage is redefined. Apparently the judge knew better.

Defending the judicial overriding of the people, the New York Times argued that “there are times when legal opinions help lead public opinions.” In other words, there are times when people aren’t sufficiently informed to know what is good for them, and it takes the wiser heads of the law to help and guide. I would agree. We only differ on whose legal opinion counts.

Is it the opinion of a fallible judge, swayed by internal bias and the pressure of lobbies, or is it the opinion of the Creator God who made us, knows how we are made to operate, and who legislates for what is best?

In a single moment, Justice Walker, both grasped and failed to grasp the point. He grasped that a judge sometimes has to overrule the desires people, but he forgot which Judge. At the end of the day we will not stand before Justice Walker to give an account of how we lived our lives, but before the great Judge of all the earth—and it will be no defence to say “I didn’t like your laws”.

The issue always comes back to “What do we base our opinions on?”—on popular opinion, personal preference, ‘the media says’—often choosing whatever one best suits our purpose. Or do we choose the fixed and timeless standard of God’s word, which has both the power to confirm us and challenge us, not simply saying what we want it to say.

The reality is that the civil partnership legislation both here and in California is a thumbing of the nose at God, and is a damaging path for any society in the long-term.

Why do men hate going to church?

Some churches have a dearth of men—their pews are populated by women and children, giving the impression that Christianity is only for such. In some churches the men are present in body, but not in mind—you can tell by the vacant look in their eye. They are there perhaps because they have to be, or perhaps in order to protect some vague notion they have of their cultural identity.

In other churches men are present in equal measure to women and children, with their heads switched on, and anticipation in their faces.

So what makes the difference?

I could answer it in one word—Jesus—but I need to unpack what I mean.

Men like heroes, manly men who do great deeds. Too often Jesus is portrayed as a slightly effeminate hippy with long hair and deep soulful eyes—all languid and limp. I don’t know where this comes from, for it certainly doesn’t come from the Bible. As a middle-eastern man he would likely have been short and stocky, with swarthy skin. Long hair was forbidden, and “he had no beauty to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2). He was gentle and kind, but his bravery, courage and passion are often left out. The Jesus of popular culture is a victim accidentally crushed by the vicissitudes of a cruel world. Who wants to follow such a figure?

Such a figure rightly gathers the pitying focus of soft and tender souls. But do men want to sit around and pour out pity? Is this what following Jesus is?

This is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible out-manned every man that has ever lived. His death was not accidental, but a deliberate act of self-sacrifice in order to provide rescue for everyone (man, woman and child) who would put their trust in him.

Not only so, but he rose triumphant out of the grave, like the warrior king that he is, having defeated death itself. The Bible tells us that this great King calls men and women to follow him into the new Kingdom that he has made theirs through his life, death and resurrection. He is not looking for your pity but for your allegiance.

That’s the sort of man that is worth finding out about and following.

Why is it that men hate going to church? Because too often they don’t meet the Jesus of the Bible. They are presented with an object of pity, and pity will not motivate men to follow—but the real Jesus does.

A Day of Rest

The sound of silence, rather than the throaty roar of engines and the screech of tyres, settled over Donegal a couple of weekends ago. The final stages of the rally were cancelled as a mark of respect following the tragic death of Thomas Maguire from Co Meath, on the Knockalla stage on the Saturday.

That was the right and proper decision, I applaud the organisers for again having the decency to put respect for life before the spectacle of the event, and my sympathies go out to the Maguire family.

That Sunday evening in our fellowship we were considering the Bible’s teaching that God has given us Sunday, or the Lord’s Day, as a day to be set aside for him. He gives us that command for our physical and spiritual welfare. Since he made us, he knows best how we should live, and he knows that our ultimate joy is to be found in relationship with him. That’s why he calls us to set aside a day for spending time with him. It allows us to refocus and to recalibrate our thinking from the events of this world, with its passing joys, to the ultimate joy of knowing God, the maker of all joy.

As such, God is not attempting to be a spoilsport when he calls us to give one day to him, instead his concern is for our happiness.

Whenever Adam and Eve rebelled against God they broke this relationship for all of us. It took the intervention of Jesus, his death on the cross, to restore the possibility of this ultimate peace and joy to mankind. And because of his great triumph, although the Jews had been commanded to keep the seventh day sacred, the focus shifted to the first day, the day of Jesus’ resurrection, to help us remember his death and victory.

Something in us knows that in the face of tragedy, a rest from the regular activity is appropriate, as the events of the rally demonstrate. We rest to honour and to commemorate the person and their life. How much more is it appropriate then to rest when the person is not just human, but divine, and his life was lost in order that we might live, and his greatest goal in giving his life was that we might enjoy a right relationship with God. And if the earthly pinnacle of that relationship is found in giving a day to specifically enjoy this relationship with God, what are we saying to Jesus when we just continue with our own pleasure instead?

The rally organisers didn’t trample the memory of Thomas Maguire, but too often we trample over the very day given to remember Jesus and what his life, death and resurrection mean.

In the name of the Cup

It’s finally here. The moment men all over the country have been waiting for. The 2010 World Cup is about to kick off. Football fans across the world eagerly hope that their country will triumph. Girlfriends and wives worldwide resign themselves, once again, to being relegated to second place throughout the competition. Economists expect that each English goal after the group stage will benefit the economy by £126 million, and if they make it to the final, a whopping £2 billion.

As if there wasn’t a high enough burden of expectation on the poor boys’ shoulders, they have to save the economy too!

It will be interesting to watch how the drive for World Cup success will impact players and fans. I’m old enough to remember the ’82 finals and desperate Algerian fans waving money at German and Austrian players who played a mockery of a final group game, ensuring that they both went through and Algeria went out. Sportsmanship will be sacrificed. Players previously regarded for their skill or honesty will throw it aside because winning means more—we all remember Thierry Henry and Diego Maradona for the wrong reasons. We’ll see players dive, fall over, and roll around crying in a manner that would embarrass most girls, in an effort to gain penalties and free kicks.

All in the pursuit of success.

Perhaps too, you remember the tragic case of Andrés Escobar, a Colombian player, who was shot and killed after his own goal in ’94, which caused gambling losses to several powerful drug lords.

All in the name of the Cup.

Of course it would be all too easy to point the finger at these overpaid, over-groomed stars of the ‘world’s greatest game’. For something drives each one of us—it’s just a question of what. It might be success, decency, reputation or standing in our community, it might be money, security, relationships, love, sex, power, acceptance, influence—the list is endless.

We all live in the pursuit of something—very often self. We may not go out and shoot those who get in our way, or who mess up our plans, but how do you react when something gets in the way of your dreams? Or to what lengths are you prepared to go to pursue your dreams?

We need to ask ourselves, does what we pursue make us better people? Or does it cultivate pride, deceit, anger, resentment, fear, or anxiety? They are indicators that we have a wrong primary goal. We are made to pursue something, but unless God takes the first place, then ultimately our desires will either defeat us, disappoint us or dissatisfy us. And en-route we will find some of the above character traits growing in our own lives. When be put God first and live for him, all other things find their rightful place, and he will not disappoint, defeat, or dissatisfy us. And as we follow him, he will change us for good.

What are you living for?

No need for gobble-de-gook

June’s Verse
I remember hearing of an elderly lady who heard some great learned man lecturing; afterwards she greeted him enthusiastically, “That was wonderful, I didn’t understand a word of it”!

It’s easy to do—to listen to something that’s over our heads, to feel inadequate, and to assume that it must therefore be wonderful. Sometimes it may well be, sometimes it isn’t and yet we can assume that the fault lies with us, since they must know what they’re talking about.

Perhaps you’ve read stuff from some of the new age variety talking about balancing energies with the universe, or the self-help books advocating claiming your own inner peace, eg. “When I claim my personal power then I can be at peace. When I am at peace I have the strength to claim my power”, or perhaps it’s from religious writers or preachers, and you’ve been left wondering, “I didn’t understand the half of that, but it must have been good”.

It doesn’t just happen when we don’t know much about a subject either. Prof. Scott Armstrong, of Pennsylvania University, did an experiment in which an actor posed as Dr. Myron R. Fox and delivered a lecture of ‘double talk’. He used material from a
Scientific American article, mashed together with contradictory statements, things which didn’t follow logically, and an assortment of jokes and meaningless references to unrelated topics. The audience of professionals reported (through anonymous feedback) that “they found the lecture clear and stimulating.”

Why is it we do that? Why do we assume that if it is to be true or helpful it must be beyond our understanding?

There are issues about which it doesn’t really matter, but the issue where we often listen to unclear or even contradictory messages is that of eternal life—how does a person get to Heaven?

This month’s verse from the calendar answers this question in part. Many followers were abandoning Jesus, and he asks his disciples if they are going to go too, they reply:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” – John 6:68

These men knew that there was one place to get the answer; they knew that it was from Jesus. They knew that listening to his words, understanding them and trusting them was the key to eternal life. It’s not something to sub-contract out to preachers or gurus of whatever stripe, we need to go to Jesus, and to his words. Perhaps that’s why God has given us four accounts of Jesus’ life and words in the Bible. Let me encourage you to read them. It is to him that we must go, not to people who may impress us with their many words.

Meditation: Finding a new Spirituality

I see Deepak Chopra was speaking at the National Concert Hall last week. There was an interview with him in the Irish Times.

For those of you who don’t know who Chopra is—you mustn’t watch enough Oprah where apparently he is something of a favourite!—he is a medical doctor with Indian roots who has written 55 books on the mind, body and spirit.

It’s interesting that he has come to Ireland—it doesn’t surprise me, for we are ripe here for his message.

We live in a strange time—the more postmodern and technological we’ve become, the greater the yearning for spirituality of some description. It seems that the human psyche is hardwired for some sort of spiritual input.

People say of themselves, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. This reflects the disillusionment people have with the established religions, particularly Christianity. They look for something that connects, something that has personal meaning and not empty forms or rituals.

In such an environment it is not surprising that eastern practices like those advocated by Chopra take off.

But are they really the answer? Take for example the increasingly popular practice of meditation.

Chopra advocates it saying:

“Meditation allows you to go past your mind and get in touch with your spirit. Eventually, it means the loss of fear and a gradual discovery of your true self.”

Meditation is commonly seen as an emptying of the mind, seeking a point where you are thinking of nothing, and so at true peace.

This stands in complete contrast to what the Bible talks of when it deals with meditation, transformation and peace. In Romans 12:2 Paul writes “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. Biblical Christianity is intensely mind centred. It isn’t about finding peace by “going past your mind” but by filling it with something.

Meditation requires something to meditate on—It is when we grasp and think through the implications of what Jesus Christ did in history in his life and at the Cross that we can find peace, hope, power, and forgiveness.

What we need to find is not so much our true selves, but a true relationship with God, for that will change us, beyond measure.

Is meditation the answer? Yes, but not the emptying of our minds but the filling of them with the deeply satisfying unchanging truths of God’s word.


Across Europe, more and more couples are shunning marriage in favour of “registered partnerships”. This has been particularly notable in France, where the number of people applying for these partnerships each year is closing in on the marriage figure. So why is this legislation proving so popular?

In short, because it provides the benefits of a traditional marriage while eliminating the drawbacks.

What are the benefits? It's summed up by a French lady who recently entered into such a partnership.
“We just wanted to pay less taxes.” At least she's honest.

And what drawbacks does this arrangement manage to eliminate? In a word, commitment. Rather depressingly, advocates are quick to talk up is the ease with which these partnerships can be dissolved. Another key feature is the emphasis on “honesty and openness” at the expense of sexual fidelity.

Surely there's a problem here? This outlook is extraordinarily self centred – it's all about what “I”, rather than “we” can get out of it. “I want to enjoy tax breaks and a financial improvement But I don't want to be tied down - if my partner begins to bore me or loses their looks then at least I can disappear into the sunset.”

Not only is it self centred, it's also short sighted. Traditional marriages based on mutual commitment and sacrifice are surely far more satisfying and enjoyable, nevermind offering a far more suitable environment for raising a family, and greater assurance about the future.

Marriage is a gift from God, who delights in giving his creation good gifts – it's there for the good of mankind to bring happiness and delight, and to form the basis of stable family life. More than that, it also acts as an illustration – it shows us God's unfailing commitment to his people. He won't abandon us because he grows tired of us or because he finds a newer, better model. It shows us what God means when he describes himself as faithful.

Sadly, we're all to quick to abandon God's designs and do things our way. We dismiss the Bible as outdated and irrelevant. We think that in the 21
st century, we know better than primitive people from a by-gone era. But we're only hurting ourselves. By ignoring God we ignore his wise counsel and the great gifts he has created for our good.

200 days

Ever heard of Paul and Rachel Chandler? You probably have, although you might not recognise the names. They're the couple who were kidnapped by Somali pirates last October. That's right – last October; as I write this they're in their 200th day of captivity.

Originally the pirates demanded a ransom of $7 million, although reports suggest they'll accept a fraction of that. However, that doesn't seem to matter as the British government is not prepared (at least officially) to make payments to kidnappers.

Obviously the Chandler's family have a very different point of view; they're prepared to pay whatever it takes to set the couple free. Perhaps at this point you're asking yourself the question – how much would I pay to secure my loved ones freedom?

Hopefully none of us ever find ourselves in that situation. Few of us can understand the anguish those involved must be facing as the months go by. However, according to the Bible, all human beings are held captive and in a predicament every bit as serious as the Chandlers. You see, God demands that payment be made for all our sin. That may sound cruel, but it isn't – it's the just and fair thing to do. God is simply too pure to ignore evil.

So what does it cost to pay for our sin? Blood has to be spilled, because God takes sin seriously. The good news is that the same God who demands payment also offers to provide it. That's why Jesus was sent to earth – to die in our place. Jesus Christ described himself as a ransom. He offers himself as payment.

This is an offer that is made to everyone, regardless of background, ethnicity or class. It's up to each individual to accept or ignore the offer.

Sadly, we have a tendency to try and pay the price of freedom ourselves. We go through life doing good and trying hard in a desperate bid to make up for our mistakes. But that's not enough – blood has to be spilled.

It comes down to a simple choice – either we pay this colossal cost, or Jesus pays it for us.

It's remarkable that the totally innocent one is prepared to pay the price for our wrongdoing. It would be a real tragedy for anyone to miss Jesus' offer and pay the price themselves.

Death—An unwelcome guest

May’s verse
It has been a week when, once again, we have had to face the intrusive spectre of death. When it is the death of a broadcaster who spoke to you in your own home or car every day somehow it seems more real, more immediate.

I suspect that the very nature of Gerry Ryan’s passing unsettles people because it was so ordinary—as I write this, the post-mortem results aren’t out—he didn’t appear at work, and was found dead in his home. It could have been us.

Once again we are reminded that we are more fragile and mortal than we perhaps care to think about. And although we are surrounded by death daily, there is something about it that should outrage us. We have to hold together these two realities: we will all die, and it is not natural.

Why do I say that it is not natural? Death is an intruder, an unwelcome guest in the universe. There is something deep inside us that rebels against its presence. We have a fundamental sense that this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. But is that just wishful thinking, a deeper echo of some primitive superstition that modernity hasn’t washed away?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ stands as proof of a life beyond the grave. And along with that, in his life he performed a series of miracles, establishing his credentials as the Son of God, but also demonstrating that he had the power to make things ‘the way they are supposed to be’. His resurrection and his raising to life of others are an indicator that death is not going to have the final say.

This month’s verse put it this way:

“Christ Jesus, has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” – 2 Timothy 1:10.

What great news! Death has been destroyed, the intruder defeated; life and immortality are available. It doesn’t mean that Christians escape dying, but it does mean that for them death has lost its sting. The Bible talks about all men being raised, but only some to eternal life, for others it will be to eternal punishment.

This month’s verse tells us how to find such life. It is through the gospel of Jesus Christ that life and immortality can be had. That ‘gospel’ is the good news that Jesus offers to take your punishment in total, so that you can have life the way it’s supposed to be on the far side of death. Will you accept his offer?

Plastic Paddies

“I'm part Irish”. Have you ever heard this expression? Sadly I have. Part of me always wonders “Which part of you is Irish?”

I used to work in the public records office in Belfast – a dull, drab building packed full of old maps, will calendars and baptismal records. It was a quiet place, intended for study, but every so often the silence would be broken as someone from thousands of miles away arrived to “find their roots”.

Frankly I've never understood this desperation to be classified as Irish. Some of the people I met would be hard pressed to name the four provinces, never mind the 32 counties. Some would struggle to differentiate between Wicklow and Glasgow.

And yet their “Irishness”, was obviously important enough to them to spend a few hours looking through dusty books.

We see this fixation with being Irish in the massive St Patrick's day celebrations across the pond. Major cities suddenly become awash with green as leprechauns take to the streets and tricolours are waved with pride. You could easily mistake Boston or Chicago for Dublin or Galway.

But, there's a problem. The vast majority of people attending these parades aren't Irish. Admittedly most revellers don't claim to be; they just want to party. But those who do call themselves Irish often have a tenuous link to the country at best.

Sure, they act like they're Irish, but that doesn't change anything. Every year on 17
th March, the world is full of “plastic paddies”.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter. Their claims may be fanciful, but they aren't hurting anyone.

Far more serious is our tendency to hastily label ourselves as Christians.

How would you define a Christian? Someone who goes to worship services? Someone who has been baptised? That's not how Jesus defines it in the Bible. According to Jesus, being a Christian is all about having a relationship with him.

Going to church and doing good don't make us Christian any more than wearing shamrocks or drinking Guinness make us Irish.

Christianity isn't about a list of rules. It's about what Jesus has done for us and the loving relationship he has made possible by dealing with his people's sins once and for all.

C-ash from Iceland

Writing in the Letters section of the Irish times, Míceál Bolger humorously notes:

“Britain and the Netherlands demanded cash from Iceland, but overlooked one small detail—the Icelandic language does not contain the letter C”

Humour aside, who would have thought that our highly technological society could so easily grind to a halt? We are so used to making our plans—today we will go here, do this, then go here—and so used to them working out mostly without hitch, that we forget that we are not the omnipotent creatures we like to think we are.

In Job 37:5-7 we read:

“God's voice thunders in marvellous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. He says to the snow, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the rain shower, ‘Be a mighty downpour.’ So that all men he has made may know his work, he stops every man from his labour.”

While it is ash rather than snow, God’s voice is certainly thundering as the ash circulates above us, disrupting travel. Many who made ‘definite’ plans have been frustrated and forced to take refuge in airports. God has once again stopped a large cross-section of humanity from its labour.

It’s not the first time this year that God’s voice has thundered, stopping man in his work, forcing us to rearrange our plans. Prolonged freezes, unexpected snowfalls, heavy rain, earthquakes, now the eruption of a little-known volcano, and modern man is seen to be not so self-sufficient.

Over the last number of weeks I’ve been preaching on the Old Testament book of Exodus. There we read of God bringing one of the world’s superpowers—Egypt—to a shuddering halt. He had warned and warned, but they refused to listen, and so he sent an escalating series of disasters to get their attention. The events of the last few months strike me as something similar.

As the 20
th century closed and as the 21st century has progressed, we have placed unbounded faith in ourselves—despite all evidence to the contrary. A myriad of wars, a society creaking towards chaos, a global financial meltdown—man is not such a great arbiter of his destiny.

God has been shaking the foundations of our beliefs, whether it be in religious institutions, or in our own abilities. He has been trying to get our attention. What should we do? We need to give him our attention!

We need to humble ourselves, turn from our proud self-sufficiency to him, before he needs to turn up the volume another notch to get our attention.

Psychic’s nightmare headline

Ok, so I know that newspapers like to make their headlines as punchy and provocative as possible, but the whole story bears this one out. From last week’s Independent:

“Axing came out of blue, says radio psychic”

According to the paper, “PSYCHIC Una Power, who hosted the 'Psychic Zone' programme on Dublin's 98 since November 1996, said she didn't see it coming when the station's management abruptly cut her hours and then cancelled the show after 12 years on air.”

While it’s not nice to see someone lose their job, does anyone else see the supreme irony in this whole thing? “I didn’t see it coming” – isn’t that the whole point of her job, to see what’s coming? Surely if anyone should be unsurprised at losing their job it should be a psychic! Perhaps she didn’t read her stars that morning—“Beware of nasty men in suits who say it’s all over”.

It reminds me of the incident when Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of The Sun, found the newspaper’s astrologer had been recycling his predictions; he sacked him with a letter that began: “As you will no doubt have foreseen...”!

It’s easy to poke fun, but for many this is a serious business. People genuinely believe this stuff is true; they base their lives around the predictions and unfounded ramblings of these soothsayers.

But why do people pay any heed to this stuff? I think part of the reason is the failure of modernity’s promises—of a life that can be lived without beliefs in external powers. And part of the reason is the failure to leave the pagan past behind.

Life isn’t simply about what happens from day to day. Something deep within us tells us that we are made for more than that, that there is has to be meaning in the random events of daily life. Modernity has no answer, so people reach for the ancient mystical remedies.

But the answer isn’t to be found there either. The answer is to be found, not in irrational, impersonal superstitions, but in a rational, personal God, who appeared in time and history giving sufficient evidence of the truth of his claims. And with him we find meaning to the seeming randomness of life, guidance for the difficult decisions of life, and a certainty about the afterlife. Unlike any astrologer, nothing comes out of the blue to God. And unlike any astrologer he offers to give his own life so that your future can be secured.

Terminological Inexactitude

(by Jonny McCollum)
An average person lies 4 times every day according to a recent survey. That’s 1460 lies each year. Truthfulness seems to be an all too precious commodity in our society.
It’s apparent in the North, where they’re gearing up for an election. Smiling candidates will soon look down from virtually every lamppost, TV schedules will fill up with coverage of debates, and column inches will be monopolised by analysis of key events.
So have the people across the border been gripped by election fever? In spite of media fixation, most people have little interest in the whole process. Voter apathy is becoming clear.
If there was an election in Ireland next month, how would you feel? Would you be determined to see Brian Cowen keep his job? Would you be excited by the prospect of change? Or would you be utterly indifferent?
Few of us get excited about politics and it’s easy to see why. Politicians have a serious image problem – they’re simply not trusted. The public perception is of men and women who are quite prepared to lie, backstab and cheat their way to power if necessary, with each candidate being more deceitful than the last.
In fact, many euphemisms for lying have been conceived in the world of politics – have you heard of someone being ‘economical with the truth’? Or telling a ‘terminological inexactitude’? Lying is part and parcel of politics.
Our view of politicians is mirrored in the rest of society. How much do you trust your neighbours? What about workmen and salespeople? Can you trust your own family? Undoubtedly there are many honest people living in Donegal, but we find it hard to believe others. We’ve had our fingers burnt too many times.
Thankfully there is someone we can trust. In the bible, God doesn’t use wordy expressions to try and justify deceit; he condemns it as strongly as possible. He hates lying because it goes against his own character – he is 100% truthful, 100% of the time.
When God makes a promise, he always keeps it, even at great cost to himself. We see a startling reminder of this each Easter as we think of Jesus dying on the cross. We can have total confidence about our salvation, not because of ourselves, but because of God’s character.
"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:13)

April’s Verse - Calvary – the Key that unlocked the door

What is Easter about? We know that it’s about Jesus and a cross—but what was it all for?

Throughout the Old Testament God set up a series of elaborate visual illustrations to teach us important lessons about himself. Some of them centred around the temple, sacrifices and the High Priest. In the temple was a room known as the Most Holy Place. It symbolised God’s place. It was closed off—God was utterly separate from his messed up creation.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the people of God gathered at the temple where the High Priest offered a sacrifice for their sins. Then the High Priest, as the people’s representative, would enter into the Most Holy Place. Outside the people waited with bated breath. Would he/they be accepted or would he be struck down? Then, when the priest stepped out into the sunlight, they knew that everything was alright. God had forgiven their sin based on the sacrifice of another.

And that was only for their unintentional sins, because all through the year when they had broken God’s law they had to make the appropriate sacrifice for that sin. This was the catch-all sacrifice.

That’s how many people still think that we relate to God today. When you sin you need to make it up to God, either with sacrifices appropriate to the sin, or some general catch-all service. But how do you know if you’ve done enough?

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a simpler system? If there was a sacrifice so great that it covered all your sins, no matter how serious, so that you didn’t have to keep going back? The point of all those Old Testament illustrations was to create that very longing in us—a longing for a better way.

April’s verse comes from the book of Hebrews, a book dedicated to explaining that Jesus is that better way:

“He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption”
– Hebrews 9:12

It talks about Jesus entering, like the old High Priest, into God’s presence, with a sacrifice of such stunning worth—“his own blood”—that it would provide a forgiveness that would last forever. Calvary has unlocked the door to the Most Holy Place. Jesus brings us right into the presence of God. Elaborate sacrifice is no longer needed. Instead, Jesus has obtained the redemption (freedom from judgment) that we need. What we need to do, is go to him and ask him to pay for us so that we can have this great redemption.

7 days with the 7 sayings

Although Easter comes around every year, there is something in us 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 on a rough wooden cross, amidst his agony, Jesus utters seven densely packed sayings. Dying words usually are important, all the more so when, as in this case, it takes colossal effort to hoist your body up to breathe and hence to speak. Each saying is a window on the crucifixion, revealing its meaning and significance.

These seven sayings demonstrate his mercy, forgiveness, his 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.

Last year we produced a CD based on these seven sayings with a brief reflection on each one. Perhaps you got one through your door. If so, why not have a listen to it again this Easter? If you would like a copy of the CD please get in touch, or you can listen on the internet at our website. Just go to and click on the ‘7 Sayings’ button on the left.

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.

Author Garrison Keillor recalls family Thanksgiving dinners, where Uncle John usually asked the blessing on the meal. He thanked 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.

Gendercide - The war on baby girls

In 1990 it was estimated that 100 million baby girls were missing—victims of abortion, infanticide or neglect—sacrificed by parents who wanted a son. The Economist magazine (and website) has a chilling and sobering investigation of this phenomenon present particularly, but not exclusively, in many Asian countries.

A father is present at a birth in his home, sees his firstborn—a daughter—and cries in disappointment “Useless thing”. A midwife drops the baby into the slops bucket, head first. A journalist is restrained as she tries to intervene, her protest of “That’s a living child” is met with “It’s not a child, it’s a girl baby…girl babies don’t count.”

China has its one-child policy; there is a Hindu saying, “Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden”—but it isn’t simply traditional preferences for sons, or draconian one-child policies that fuel this slaughter.

Also tied in is imaging technology which allows you to know the gender of your unborn child. Doctors in India have been using the sick but catchy slogan, “Pay 5,000 rupees today and save 50,000 rupees tomorrow” (the price of a dowry). In one hospital the only girls born after ultrasound scans were those mistakenly identified as boys, or who had a male twin. Technology, which has been lifesaving in some places, has become a death warrant for unborn baby girls in others.

Nor is it confined to the East. The preference for small families and the widespread ease of abortion in the West has left the door wide open for gendercide—the targeting and destruction of a baby simply because of its gender. Last year Sweden legalised the practice of sex-selection abortion, but in how many other places does it happen unofficially? It is a natural extension of the so-called ‘pro-choice’ argument.

This has serious consequences. In the next decade China is looking at 40 million young men for whom there are no brides, almost twice the number of all young men in France, Germany and Britain together. Since young males commit the majority of crime and violence, and since marriage has been a taming and settling ground for them, sociologists fear that these millions of men will prove a significant problem.

In addition, female suicide rates in these countries are higher than anywhere else—many feeling unable to live either with the failure to produce a son, or the knowledge that they have aborted or killed their baby girls.

What does God think of all this? Is he indifferent? Often in scripture he is described as the God of the fatherless—an idea that includes any helpless child. Male and female, both created in his image, are equally valuable to him. He is also a God who will come in frightening judgment on those who slaughter the innocent (Psalm 10, 94). He is not indifferent—he will judge, in his time. In the meantime he holds out the offer of forgiveness through his Son (who, ironically, people cast aside like an unwanted baby because he doesn’t fit in with their agenda).

A 21st Century Addiction

(by Jonny McCollum)

Sometimes you think you’ve heard it all, and then the news manages to shock you further.

A South Korean couple were arrested last week by police investigating the death of their 3-month-old daughter. This helpless girl died of malnutrition due to being neglected by her parents who are part of a growing number of “gaming addicts”. They fed their daughter only once a day, in between marathon gaming sessions at an internet cafe. In a tragic irony their time was taken up nurturing a virtual girl on an online role playing game.

Surely this is just an isolated incident? Sadly not. Recently two men died after playing online practically non-stop for 50 and 86 hours respectively. It's hard to comprehend how something as harmless as a computer game could have such devastating consequences.

Here's a worrying thought – could we turn on the news in the future and hear of such a death in Donegal? Admittedly those three cases were extreme, but increasingly young Irish people are struggling to deal with this particular obsession.

I've read first hand accounts of the dramatic impact these games have had on people's lives. Self-confessed addicts explain how every minute of every day can be taken up with these games, with time spent meeting friends, studying and even washing or eating being pushed to the side to make way.

I've read of “gaming widows”, whose relationships have been ripped apart as they tried and failed to compete with a computer screen.

What drives someone to devote hour after hour to something so obviously unproductive? One theme keeps raising its head – escapism. In the virtual world we can be outrageously talented and stunningly beautiful. It's a place without dead end jobs and unfulfilling relationships. It's not hard to see the attraction.

We are surrounded by hurt and suffering. For some, their very existence is characterised by hopelessness. We may not have an interest in computer games, but we do like to divert our attention. This may involve gazing at the TV, playing sport or retail therapy. We have our different ways of getting away from it all.

Surely there's a better solution. Is being distracted from the bad stuff the best we can hope for? Instead of running away from the hopelessness of this broken world, perhaps we should turn to the one who sacrificed everything to give us hope.

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” – Jesus

March's Verse

Do you ever look over life with regret? So many things you wish you could have done? Abilities you have never had the opportunity to develop, or even discover? Perhaps you feel that you haven’t had a fair chance at life, or that you have so much more to give, or opportunities you’ve missed out on. Perhaps responsibilities for children or aging parents have placed restrictions on you. Or perhaps your life has been irrevocably shaped by wrong done to you, and you look painfully back and wonder what might have been. Or it may have been sickness, or accident, or… the list is endless.

That sense of
‘the way things could have been’ can sneak over us if and when we get a moment to daydream. There’s something deep inside each of us that longs for there to be more to life than there is.

Or perhaps you have looked at moments in your life, moments of deepest pleasure, and wished that they would go on forever. But they either fade away into everyday life, or are rudely interrupted.

And we long for more. Is that longing just the tail-end of wishful thinking, of long forgotten but cherished dreams? I don’t think so. I believe that that longing is a God-given longing.

We weren’t made for a few short years. We were made for something grander, something richer, something more noble, for a time and a place where there would be no disappointment, no sickness, no cutting short of days.

This month’s verse tells us:
“God has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

It isn’t wishful thinking; that longing is a God-given echo of what we were made for. We were made to enjoy an unending life in perfection. Every joy in this life is an echo of that perfection, every moment is a reminder to us of the unbroken stretches of eternity that lie ahead.

Next time you’re enjoying something beautiful, and find yourself thinking “I wish this could go on forever”, or next time you find yourself thinking “I wish I had another chance at life” – then remember forever is on offer.

That raises the question: Are we ready for that eternity? There is only one way to be ready—through Jesus, the eternal one who came into time and had pain placed in his heart, so that we could have eternity and joy placed in ours. Do you know him?

Money to burn

(by Jonny McCollum)
You’re stranded on a ski lift over 30 feet in the air and night is approaching. No-one knows that you’re stuck, and you have no mobile phone. As night arrives the temperature plummets to -18 degrees and the situation seems hopeless. If you jump, you’ll probably break your legs and freeze to death; if you stay on the lift you face a battle against hypothermia. What would you do?

This is exactly the situation Dominik Podolsky, a German snowboarder faced in the Alps recently when the ski lift he was riding was shut down for the night. As the hours went by and his cries for help went unnoticed he tried a different method of communication – fire.

Mr Podolsky had a lighter and several paper handkerchiefs, which he burned in a bid to be spotted. No-one noticed. Next, he burned a series of restaurant bills and business cards, but to no avail. Finally, with his limbs beginning to go numb, and as he struggled to stay awake, he began to ignite the cash from his wallet.

Six hours after getting stuck, the 22 year old was eventually rescued, but not before the fire had consumed the last of his money.

His story had a happy ending, but it came at a cost. In order to ensure his survival, Mr Podolski had to make a difficult sacrifice. If you were in his situation, could you bring yourself to burn your hard earned cash?

Of course you could! 120 euro is a small price to pay for life. All of us would take the steps this snowboarder took, because only a fool would value their wallet above their life.

But maybe we’re not as rational as we like to think. According to the Bible, we’re stuck, night is fast approaching, and doom is imminent. Yet the hope of life is held out – but often we miss it. Why? Partly because we value other things too highly. Our problem is that we have put ourselves and our interests above God. We need to reverse that and accept the offer of forgiveness that Jesus holds out.

The offer Jesus makes is literally a matter of life and death, yet it can be crowded out by the busyness of life. It’s a real tragedy that many never give this offer the consideration it deserves.

Perhaps we can value our wallets (or anything else) above our lives after all.

Chasing bubbles

I wonder how Jerry Flannery feels today. He's been looking forward to the 6 Nations for months, he's put in hours of backbreaking work on the training field, and after 2 matches his involvement may be over. All because of a split second of madness. As I write this, Flannery faces the possibility of a lengthy suspension ruling him out of the tournament.

And what about Welshman Andy Powell? His drunken antics on a golf buggy have brought a premature end to his campaign. I'm sure these two men would love to turn back time and put things right. They'd give anything to be able to walk out for their country next weekend, but they'll almost certainly be absent.

A very different absence caught my eye during the first round of matches. Euan Murray sat out Scotland's opener against Wales, not because of injury or ill discipline, but out of choice. The Scottish prop voluntarily sacrificed the opportunity to play for his nation because it's match was on a Sunday. Murray put his religious convictions above his country and his career.

Why would someone who has dedicated so much of his time to the sport spurn the chance to do what many of his peers can only dream of? Let's hear what Murray has to say. Speaking to the Guardian, he said:

“Ultimately rugby's not what fuels my happiness in life”

This man has tasted success and experienced the prestige, wealth and glitz that are part and parcel of being a prominent sportsman. And what's his verdict? They're like shiny bubbles. Murray explains:

“They're bubbles that appear perfectly spherical, all the colours of the rainbow. They're bright and shiny and light as a feather, and you chase them because it's good fun, but the minute you get them they burst and they're empty.”

We're fixated with chasing the dream – we want fame and fortune, we want to be popular, we want to be the best. Most of us will never fulfil these desires, and even if we do history tells us they won't bring lasting happiness. For that most elusive dream we need to look somewhere else.

Where can we find real happiness? In the same place as Euan Murray. Jesus Christ, died so international sportstars like Euan Murray and average joes like you and me can find a happiness that nothing can take away, and that outweighs all the shiny bubbles this life has to offer.

February’s Verse

(By Jonny McCollum)
Nostalgia’s a big business. The internet is teeming with clips of kid’s TV shows from decades gone by, websites dedicated to yesterday’s toys, and campaigns to resurrect seemingly-forgotten confectionary.
Sometimes it’s nice just to remember how things used to be. For many, childhood was a happy time: free from bills, hassle and responsibility. But things change.
Change can be unnerving. Ask anyone who’s recently moved to a new area. Ask the thousands of people who have lost their livelihoods because of the changing economy. Ask the countless patients who have received devastating news from a doctor.
It’s a fact of life – things change. Our deeply held dreams and everything we hold dear can be shattered in the blink of an eye. Perhaps that’s why we’re so nostalgic – at least nothing can take away our precious memories.
Where can we turn for help when things change for the worse? To our politicians? They’re always changing. So often they get a taste for power and a generous expenses account – and the position changes them.
What about our families? In an ideal world they would love us unconditionally and always look out for us no matter what. But this isn’t an ideal world. Divorce rates tell us that much. Sadly, even our nearest and dearest can change to become almost unrecognisable from the people we used to know.
Where can we turn then? The verse on the calendar this month offers some hope.
“From everlasting to everlasting, you are God (Psalm 90:2)”
The writer of this song looked back through history, he examined the evidence, and he reached a conclusion – “God hasn’t changed. In years gone by, He was faithful to His people, and He is still faithful today.”
Several thousand years have passed since this song was written, and the world has been transformed. Yet God is still the same – He still loves His people, He still has their best interests at heart and He still keeps His word.
In fact, we have even more cause than the writer to celebrate God’s faithfulness because we know even more about His love - Jesus Christ was born into this world to be a servant. He gave His life to serve His people and to rescue them from the devastating effects of sin.
Things change, but God doesn’t. What we need then in a changing world is a relationship with the unchanging God through Jesus Christ.

When Tragedy Strikes

It was a weekend of tragedy in the county, not least on the roads. Firstly, let me extend sympathy to the grieving families in Carrigart, Ramelton and Bunbeg. But such is the nature of life that by the time this column is printed heartbreak and hurt will have been stamped indelibly across the lives of others.

Where do we find help when tragedy strikes? Let me point you to the familiar words of Psalm 23, also known as ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’. If you have a Bible near to hand I would encourage you to read them. I want to comment simply on three phrases.

“He makes me lie down … He restores my soul” – Tragedy tears us apart and leaves us broken and hurting in the innermost recesses of our lives. Sleep becomes difficult, a place where memories haunt us and our tears are the loneliest. The ancient songwriter tells us that God is a God who restores souls. What beautiful imagery – it calls to mind an artist tenderly and carefully piecing together a damaged masterpiece. There is a God you can go to who will restore your soul with such care and tenderness, and in doing so you will find peace even to lie down and sleep.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … you are with me” – Part of tragedy’s agony is the loneliness it brings. Each person affected feels the pain differently, and so even within a family people can feel isolated. The songwriter tells us from his own experience that in the dark valleys of life he has found a companion, a guide who has been there before, and who knows the hurt and the pain and the loneliness. He is pointing us to Jesus Christ, the one who has gone right through the valley of death and who offers companionship in every dark valley.

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” – In these words we see a God who provides strength and sustenance even in the hardest of times. When the enemies of pain, loss and grief surround us the songwriter tells us that God will provide from the deep resources of his strength.

In this ancient song we find that although the pain does not magically disappear, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, offers to come to us in our loss and to go through it with us. Whatever your hurt I pray that you will look to and find help from the God who restores, who accompanies and who sustains.

January’s Verse

Happy New Year!

Like last year, our church has been giving out a calendar around Milford. It’s our way of saying Happy New Year and pointing you to God’s word. This year’s calendar is all about eternity, and the life which God gives which is eternal life.

There’s something deep inside each of us that longs for there to be more to life than there is. Perhaps we feel that we haven’t had a fair chance at life, or we feel that we have so much more to give, or that there are opportunities we’ve missed out on. And we long for more. That longing is a God given longing, and over the course of the year we will be exploring it.

January’s verse is one of my favourites. It’s found in John 10:28, where Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”

What I like about this verse can be summed up under three words: gift, certainty, safety

Gift: Jesus says that this great longing in our hearts for more, for a life that is the way it is supposed to be, is met by him. He gives it as a gift; that means it isn’t something we earn, or even deserve. It’s not what church you’re born into, or what religion, or how well you behave that gets you eternal life. Instead it is a gift that Jesus gives—other places in the Bible tell us that he gives this gift to those who come to him in sorrow for sin, and trusting him for his gift of eternal life.

Certainty: As we become increasingly aware of how uncertain our world is we long for a certainty about life. This life that Jesus offers has a colossal certainty about it. “They will never perish” – this isn’t directed at super holy saints, but at anyone who comes to him. Certainty isn’t the product here of pride, but of trust in his great gift. Here is the offer of eternal life that is a cast iron certainty, not a tenuous hope.

Safety: There is something touching about seeing a young child completely at ease in their father’s hands. They may be balanced seemingly precariously on their father’s shoulders, but the child is happily bouncing along giggling, because they know that their father is holding on. That’s the imagery evoked by these words, “no-one can snatch them out of my hand”. Its one of safety, and because the life is eternal it is eternal safety. But more than that, it’s a safety in this life for eternal life. He will keep us safe until we get there. Nothing can snatch those who have put their trust in Christ out of Christ’s hand.

Let me invite you, if you haven’t already done so, to come to Jesus seeking forgiveness and asking him for this gift of eternal life. Ask him to transform you, and to give you this new life that changes, not only our future, but changes us in the present.

Living with Abuse

With the publication of the Murphy Report at the end of 2009 the ugly subject of abuse was once again in the spotlight. But clerical abuse is only the tip of the iceberg. 29% of abuse victims are abused by close family, and 60% are abused by someone close to the family. The problem is far wider than often we want to recognise. And more people are wrestling with the trauma of abuse.

An article this length is too short to give detailed help on living with abuse, but let me say 3 things:

Justice: Something deep within us yearns for justice. We can’t simply let the past be past, and move on. Or forgive and forget, as some would put it. But confrontation is rarely satisfying; following the legal channels rarely provides long-term satisfaction. So where do we turn to, particularly if forgiveness hasn’t been sought, or the hope of earthly justice is gone?

What if you could have confidence that one day justice would be done? That is the assurance God gives. God is a God of justice who will open up the great records of our deeds, who will leave no evil unpunished. He is a God who will demand the full price for every wrong act. Though it is delayed, it will come. Trusting this enables you to deal with the resentment, and to know that you can leave it in God’s hands. He will deal with it.

Meaning: Memories linger and resurface unbidden. Part of the reason is that the mind is searching for meaning and purpose in the pain. Talking to someone is good because it helps allay fears, and it can put to rest troublesome questions. Discipline is also required to keep our minds from jumping back constantly into the same old tracks. But yet, where do we find meaning in it? Can we find a good purpose amidst the pain? As a pastor, the only place I can point to is to God’s word where we see that God has the power, and the willingness to bring good out of the bleakest of situations. We need to keep taking our minds there.

Cleansing and Acceptance: When we have been sinned against it leaves a stain on our lives, something that often makes us feel dirty and second rate. Not only that, but at the heart of much abuse lies the issue of insecurity, the desire to be wanted and loved—and after abuse, the feeling of “Who would want anything to do with me?”. The insistent and wonderful answer of the Bible is that almighty God offers to cleanse us not only from sins that we have committed, but from those committed against us. And he wants us, and will accept us and love us, not as second-class citizens, but as his own precious and beloved children.

Much, much more could be said, but these are pointers to where I believe the deepest and most lasting help can be found.

Abuse - A future for Faith?

The publication of the Murphy Report on the awful abuse perpetrated and subsequently covered up was the third in a line of long reports that have rocked our nation. What are we to make of these?

First of all, we have to say that there is no place for such abuse, and no place for covering it up in any part of society. We’ll look at help for the hurting next week, but prior to that we need to look at the implications for faith. One reaction would be to have nothing more to do with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Yet that reaction, understandable though it is, would be hasty.

As a contributor to RTE’s
Frontline programme commented perceptively, “Ireland has got so caught up in religion that it has forgotten its Christianity”. That says a lot in a few words.

Part of the problem perhaps has been the confusion between what is called Christianity and genuine Christianity. Much of what passes as Christianity is merely religion in a Christian dress. Religion is based on us doing our best to please God through a variety of rituals. The essence of genuine Christianity that we are saved, not because of what we do, but solely because of what Christ has done for us. Belief in this is profoundly humbling.

Belief in the other leads to all sorts of problems: it creates an aura of fear, where the secrets of salvation are held by an elite few, where they become powerful, and blessing is at their say so. That amount of power is then open to abuse. It has been thus since the temples of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Incas.

The Bible is unequivocally condemning in its critique of such religiosity. Just as it is condemning of those who use their religion to hurt and abuse others. Jesus warns those who cause little ones to stumble with regard to God that it would be better for them to be taken out and drowned. He castigates those who use their power to whitewash over all manner of evil within:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence… You are like whitewashed tombs… How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23).

Part of the solution, therefore lies not in the abandonment of religion, but in the embrace of genuine Christianity. When Martin Luther King Jr. confronted the racism endemic in the church-dominated white Southern states, he did not call it to abandon its Christian principles. Instead he called them to be
more Christian, rather than less Christian, to be more true to what the Bible says.

We are chronically unaware of what the Bible really teaches, and so, in part, what we need to do is to return to real biblical Christianity. There we will find safeguards; but also Jesus Christ, who brings ultimate hope, justice and cleansing.