new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

The Late, Late Show

(By Stephen Steele, working with New Life Fellowship)

100 seconds can make all the difference. Just ask your nearest Manchester United fan. That’s how close they were to winning their 20th league title last weekend, when a late, late goal from Manchester City changed everything. For City fans—some of whom had already left the stadium—despair was turned to joy.

However that dramatic turnaround is nothing compared to what happened in the final hours of a first century terrorist, whose name we don’t even know. We do know his story though, because of whom he died alongside—Jesus.

At one stage, this hardened criminal was cursing Jesus up and down—but then something changed. Maybe it was the sight of Jesus on the cross beside him, dying as no-one else ever had: punished, yet innocent; suffering, yet in control.

Luke records the 100 seconds that changed this man’s eternal destiny. In fact, it probably didn’t even take that long. What good works did he have time to do? How could he undo a life of criminality, and most likely murder? All he said was: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus response? “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

For Jesus, there are only ever two options: Heaven or Hell. This dying terrorist was given the absolute guarantee that he would be in Heaven. In this late, late show he had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. No time to turn over a new leaf or take part in religious rituals.

“Surely it can’t be that easy?” is our natural reaction. But no-one watching Jesus, and realising that he was suffering not just physical punishment but the wrath of God for sin, could call it easy.

The lesson from this dramatic transformation isn’t that we can leave getting right with God to the last minute. This deathbed conversion is the only one recorded in the Bible—to presume that we’ll suddenly have the desire and ability to turn to Jesus at the end would be folly.

However we do see what it takes for us to snatch victory from the jaws of the defeat of our lives. We need to do what he did, and hang all our hope on Jesus. If we turn from our rebellion and trust in him we can be as confident of closing our eyes on earth and opening them in Heaven as this man was when Jesus said: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Man City were lucky; you don’t have to leave it as late as they did.

A time for justice

A friend of mine wrote this piece recently—and I thought it worth reprinting:

There are so many people suffering at different levels and in different ways. The financial collapse of the country has affected the vast majority of Irish people—special needs assistants removed from schools, hospital wards closed, A&E units overflowing with people on trolleys for hours, families pressed to the limit of emotional endurance wondering weekly whether to pay for heat or to put food on the table, families so overcome that they leave the home they have saved and slaved for, people with pensions have seen their investments fall so low that they may have to continue to work for years to come.

On top of all this new taxes seem to appear with regular frequency—the property tax, septic tank fee, etc. Taxes are rising; services are dropping. The situation is nothing less than a national scandal.  Yet those that were elected and paid well to watch over our country have sailed off into the sunset with pensions and benefits that are breathtaking in their enormity.

These people, still in the middle of life, will live off the backs of others into old age with no shame. The bankers with their immoral pension pots add more anger to people’s pain. Our so-called leaders have emptied the cupboards as they left office. The new national leaders have no reason to point the finger at their predecessors and blame them—they were there and had expensive advisers; they knew what was going on. They are culpable to such an extent that should silence them as they impose hardship on the people.
 
What I am driving at is this—for the sake of natural justice and to instill confidence in us who will be paying for the giant waste and criminality for years to come—we as a people must demand and seek that those responsible be stripped of their pensions and benefits and that those who were criminally culpable should go to jail.

Rather than seeing them as leaders, history should portray then as figures of shame. How can we admire such corrupt and self-serving people? The elderly, the vulnerable, the needy, the average person is suffering because of this mess. Some have taken their own lives because of their financial burdens.
 
In the Bible we read: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” Ecclesiastes 8:11. 
 
This verse teaches us that others will do the same thing if the guilty are not punished. The attitudes of “If they got away with it, why shouldn’t I?” or “It’s coming off a broad back” are already all too common.

Justice should be pursued, for God is not simply a God who is interested in our souls, but who calls for justice to be done for the sake of the vulnerable and the oppressed.

But if it is not done here, then there is a sentence passed in the court of heaven that stands against them.  The Lord may be slow in executing the sentence but do not mistake the delay for indifference.  God’s delay may be misused by the wicked; they may continue thinking that they will get away with it, but be sure your sin will find you out and you will give an account for your leadership.

Matthew Brennan - Clonmel

Missing the Point?

(By Stephen Steele, working with New Life Fellowship)
(May’s Verse)

Have you ever expectantly watched a TV debate on an important issue, only to see the contributors spectacularly miss the point? In your frustration you feel like shouting at the TV – “a blind man on a galloping horse could see it!”

This month’s verse seems, on first glance, to be an example of Jesus completely missing the point. This popular young preacher has been teaching in a house that’s so packed that no-one else can get anywhere near him, when suddenly those in the room start to notice bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. As they look up, they begin to see a small patch of light which gets bigger and bigger. Eventually the hole is big enough for the four guys on the flat roof to lower down their paralysed friend on a stretcher—so determined are they to get him to Jesus.

The crowd wait with baited breath to see a miracle. But our verse tells us:

‘Jesus said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”’ (Mark 2:5)

What?! Here’s a man who can’t even move, yet Jesus doesn’t see his blindingly obvious physical disability as the first priority! Only after declaring him forgiven (to the outrage of the religious leaders), does Jesus heal the man’s paralysis.

If you could ask God to do one thing for you, what would it be? So often we see our biggest needs as physical health or relational restoration—perhaps a long-term illness, or broken relationship. But to Jesus, the biggest need of each of us is spiritual; we need to be cured of the most pervasive disease of all—sin.

The religious leaders’ outrage at Jesus’ blasphemous (as they thought) statement was partly because the words are easy to say—any charlatan could come out with them. But true forgiveness is always costly. When people wrong us, it costs us not to make them pay for what they’ve done. Forgiveness always costs.

For Jesus to say these five words cost him the ultimate price. He had to go to the cross, not just to suffer physically at the hands of the Romans, as many before and after him did, but to quench the wrath of God due us for our sin. The one who had created the universe by speaking a word, could not simply say ‘Let there be forgiveness’. A price had to be paid.

If you could ask God to do one thing for you, what would it be? Would it be the thing that cost him the most? Or are you content just to keep on asking for the things that cost him nothing?

Jesus came to this earth so that the words of our verse—“Son (or Daughter), your sins are forgiven”—could be true of you. Are they?

Fornication

This last week has seen a furore over the use of various f-words. One by radio presenter Ray D’Arcy in describing his opinion regarding the Catholic church, and the other, by Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin, describing consensual sex outside of marriage (fornication). In one, it was the use of a word deemed socially unacceptable, and in the other an opinion was deemed socially unacceptable.

Much amazement seems to have gathered around this so-called archaic word ‘fornication’—are we really to uphold such an ‘outmoded’ idea in 21
st century Ireland? Are we to keep sexual intimacy within the confines of marriage? Surely what you do sexually and with whom you do it are your own business?

For many Irish men and women the idea of sexual restraint is a throw back to the negative view of sex often promoted by the Catholic Church. However such a view of sex does not reflect the Bible’s own teaching which sees it as a good gift given by God to people for pleasure and procreation within the context of marriage. There is nothing stuffy or negative about the Bible’s view, in fact it is precisely because it values sexual intimacy that it seeks to preserve a proper environment for it.

Our problem is that, in response to too negative a view, we now have too low a view. We have been conned into thinking that sex is purely a biological function. That’s like saying that a Porsche is just a car. Many would like to believe that sex isn’t that special, more like an old Lada. But in God's eyes, sex is more like a Porsche than a Lada. It is valuable. It demands care. It is something precious. You don’t use a Porsche to race around the fields in!

That means that the right answer to a negative view is not to swing to another extreme—that of sexual liberty, behaving like a bunch of children let loose in a sweet factory—rather the right answer is to find what the Bible teaches and to abide by it.

Fornication might be a ‘religious’ word, but it is still a good word, and one whose concept we would do well to value.

However, the ultimate problem is that we don’t like authority; we don’t like the idea of God poking his nose into our lives and calling the shots. We think we are capable of running our own lives. That’s where the heart of the problem lies—we want to keep God at arms length, for emergencies, but we don’t want him to interfere in other matters. But if he is any sort of a God worthy of the title, he will know better and he will tell us how to live, whether we like it or not.

Our reaction to concepts like ‘fornication’ may tell us more about ourselves than we like to admit.

Examine your disbelief

I’ve just finished Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan—a superb book dealing with many of the factors which cause us to fail to see what we should see. It might be biases, an overloaded mind, emotional involvement, fear of change, money, the blind hope that a problem will just go away if we don’t look at it, failure to think outside the box—whatever the reason, there are many ways to miss the things we should otherwise see.

One of the most illuminating chapters was the final one entitled “See Better”. In it Heffernan seeks to outline steps we can take to counteract this tendency. Earlier she had told of Alice Stewart, a doctor who discovered a link between childhood cancer and x-raying pregnant women. Due to the medical establishment’s blind faith in this new diagnostic method they refused to accept her findings for 25 years, causing needless death and heartache to many. In the final chapter Heffernan identifies part of the strength of Dr. Stewart’s case:

‘When Alice Stewart conducted her survey on childhood cancers, she worked with a statistician named George Kneale… What is most interesting is how Kneale himself thought about his job. “It’s my job to prove Dr. Stewart’s theories are wrong. I am, in effect, trying to disprove her. Hence the strength of our long association.”’

Heffernan continues, ‘In his seeking for
disconfirmation, Stewart knew that Kneale protected her from potential blindness in her own thinking… Kneale and Stewart understood between them that the risk of losing their theory was outweighed by the danger of being wrong.”

We need to seek disconfirmation of what we believe if we want to guard ourselves from blindness.

I was struck by this recently as I surveyed my father-in-law’s bookshelves. He had recently passed away and had a strong faith in Jesus Christ. Yet his bookshelves displayed the most interesting range of books. About a third were to do with his faith; a third novels; but the remaining third were across a wide variety of topics—from history to politics to biography to science to mathematics. In this section were a host of books hostile to aspects of Christianity—from just about everything Richard Dawkins had written, to Christopher Hitchens, Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Hawking, the Gnostic Gospels, the Lost Gospel of Judas, and many others.

Here was a man who actively sought disconfirmation—not because he didn’t want Christianity to be true, but because he wanted to be sure it was. His faith was not a blind faith, but an informed faith.

I suspect that there are many who naively believe—both in Christianity and in scepticism. You need to seek disconfirmation. I find many Christians don’t actually know what they believe. And I find many sceptics equally guilty. Ironically sceptics can be just as guilty of blind faith. Will you take time to examine your belief or disbelief, rather than persisting in wilful blindness? For one there lies the risk of a wasted life, and for the other lies the danger of a lost eternity.

Intelligent life out there?

A friend of mine was telling me about an item on the radio recently about life on Mars. Apparently scientists studying Mars are excited about the arrival of ‘Curiosity’, the rover for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, on Mars this summer.

It will search clays and sediments in the Gale Crater for indications of past environments that could have supported microbial life. The question they are wondering about is: Could a record of fossil be trapped in ancient lake mud on Mars?

As part of the interview the scientist spoke of how vast the universe is. He illustrated it by saying that if you took all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world, and let each one represent 100 stars, then you would have an approximation of the number of stars in the known universe. His argument was that given there are so many stars, and some of them may have other planets, it’s quite conceivable that there is evidence of life on other planets.

Of course, if you want to go down the route of statistical probability, the question then becomes how likely is it that, having run all those permutations, life will happen to be on the planet just next door to us? What are the odds of having lifeforms on adjacent planets in the one solar system, never mind in the one galaxy?

But biblically speaking, what is an appropriate response? If all we are doing is seeking to expand the horizons of our knowledge then this is a useful, if somewhat expensive, adventure. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of knowledge. However there often seems to be an unspoken motivation behind these queries and hypotheses about intelligent life, or even any sort of life out there—if only we could prove life exists elsewhere, then we could move slightly further away from there being a God who creates. Ideally and ultimately it seems that some would like to find intelligent life which has created us, or which at the very least, has evolved separately without any story of a creator. That way we could put one more nail in the coffin of a divine creator.

And so, in the absence of any signs of intelligent life, we find ourselves scratching in mud for fossils of bacteria or the such like.

In the pursuit of knowledge—fine; but in the pursuit of godless-ness—it is faulty logic at best and wilful blindness at worst. Why scratch around in the mud of another space rock looking for tiny clues of extra-terrestrial life when there exists on our own rock an abundance of historical, personal, and societal evidence for an intelligent being who exists outside the confines of this planet?

Rather than abstract philosophical arguments about the existence of God I would recommend that you make Easter the starting point for examining the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Freedom at a Price

(April’s Verse)

There is a great scene in the 1992 film
The Last of the Mohicans. Set in the British-French-Native Indian conflicts in colonial America, the main characters Duncan, a British officer, and Hawkeye, an adopted Indian, both love Cora, the beautiful daughter of Colonel Munro. Cora however has eyes only for Hawkeye. In the final scene they have all been taken captive by the Huron tribe. They stand before the chief awaiting their fate. Since they don’t speak the tribal dialect the conversation is in French, understood by Duncan and the chief, but not Hawkeye. Duncan translates the chief for Hawkeye, and Hawkeye for the chief.

The chief declares his final judgment on the party—the dark girl (Cora) is to burn in fire for the sins of her father and his people (the English). Duncan and Hawkeye are both to go free. In desperation Hawkeye shouts at Duncan to translate: “No! Listen” (to Duncan) “Tell him I'll trade him! Me for her! Tell him!! (to the chief) “My death is a great honour to the Huron. Take me!”

Duncan turns and translates in rapid-fire French. The chief looks at Duncan. Hawkeye shouts “Did you tell him?” Duncan responds “Yes.” There is a long pause as both men look at each other, Hawkeye steps forward to be taken, but as the chief nods, the warriors seize Duncan and leave Hawkeye.

Duncan is tied with his arms outstretched and hung up in the flames. And Hawkeye realises that what Duncan has done is to give himself in place of Cora. He had deliberately translated Hawkeye’s words as applying to himself, saying, “Take me. Me for her. Take me!”

Out of love for someone who didn’t love him he said, “Take me”. And he dies in the fire so that someone who didn’t love him could be set free. He offers himself so that she could be redeemed.

And that is like what Jesus has done—in the words of this month’s verse:

“In him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7)

Out of love for those who didn’t love him, he stood before the judgment of God, and when the sentence should have fallen on us, he said, “Take me. Me for them. Take me”. And because of his death we have redemption—freedom. Our sins have been forgiven, our guilty record expunged, and justice satisfied.

However this is not a blanket payment, as the verse notes it is only ‘in him’ or ‘in relationship with him’ that we can have this privilege. There is great and full forgiveness available, but it is only in Jesus. Only he will go into the flames for you. And if you haven’t asked him, then you will have to face them yourself. But this Easter he says to you once again, “Come to me, trust me, and you can be forgiven and free. I will stand in your place so that you can be free from sin, judgment and Hell.”

Liar, Liar

The thesauri—I’m presuming that’s the plural of thesaurus—have been overworked as the Mahon tribunal’s report has come out and writers, journalists, politicians and commentators search for words that mean liar or lie without actually saying it. We’ve been treated to deceit, dissimulation, equivocation, fabrication, falsification, invention, mendacity, misrepresentation of the facts, prevarication, perjury, and untruths—but not ‘lies’.

My favourite is mendacity—the most obscure and least used of the synonyms, allowing users to appear intelligent, avoid the ’lie’ word, and smooth over the ugliness of the facts. Early on in my preaching days a learned gentleman gave me some advice: English vocabulary, he said, stems from two sources—Anglo Saxon and Latin. Use the Anglo Saxon rather than the Latinate words—don’t say something has a noxious aroma, say it stinks. It will paint more graphic word pictures and resonate with ordinary people.

Oddly enough ‘mendacity’ comes from a Latin root, as does prevaricate, equivocate, perjure, and falsify. ‘Lie’ is Old English of Germanic origin—blunt, unsubtle and straight to the point. Why not use it?

I understand that there are nuances of deceit that prevarication and equivocation capture, but at the end of the day they are all efforts to avoid telling the truth. To play with words, to know what a person is asking and yet to answer in a way that avoids the question—even whilst being truthful—is deceitful.

God’s word is clear when it comes to our speech. The commands are clear—“Do not lie. Do not deceive one another” (Leviticus 19:11). God’s attitude to deceitfulness is clear—“The Lord detests those who tell lies” (Psalm 5). The outcome is clear, at the end of a list of sinful practices we read—“…idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur” (Revelation 21:8). And in a passage about Heaven, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is…deceitful” (Revelation 21:27).

God allows no leeway when it comes to our speech. We are not to be like the man in Proverbs 6—“A scoundrel and villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart”. This is a man who says one thing with his mouth but indicates to those in the know that he means something completely different—strikingly relevant in a ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say nothing, you know what this brown envelope is for, but I didn’t ask you to do anything’ culture.

We may fume that the Mahon tribunal hasn’t been hard enough, that the guilty have got away with it, but one day they will stand before Him who hates deceitful men, and there will be no wriggle room before the piercing gaze of him who sees all truth. Equivocation and prevarication will be swept aside, untruths will be seen for what they are—damnable lies. And justice will be done.

But what of us? We may disguise the ugly truth with a collection of euphemisms—only a little fib, a white lie—but we are all liars. Our lies may not have the same impact as those of people in power, but what we see in them is still a reflection of ourselves. And until we recognise the ugly truth of it, we will find ourselves facing the same judgment they face. Thankfully, if we go to Jesus we can find forgiveness even for the blackest of lies (John 21:15-17).

I just can’t forgive myself

Sometimes when I’m talking with people about Christianity and forgiveness they shake their heads sadly and say, “I just can’t forgive myself”.

Popular psychology and self-help groups advocate this sort of thing. It sounds good, even helpful, but it’s far harder than it sounds. The more you grasp the seriousness of the mess you’ve made, the harder it is to find forgiveness in yourself. In fact, I would suggest that it is hard because the whole idea is wrong-headed for several reasons:

First: It has an inflated view of us. I can’t forgive me. Really, am I that important!? True, we are angry at ourselves for being so stupid, or misguided, or rash, or whatever to cause these circumstances to arise. The wreckage of a ruined life may lie before our eyes and we are filled with recriminations that we have done something so messed up.

But the Bible brings us down a peg or two. It teaches that we are sinners—so our sin shouldn’t surprise us. And it teaches that the real problem is that we have offended God far more than we have offended ourselves. We aren’t so important, we don’t need to forgive ourselves, but we need God to forgive us. Our sin and guilt should take us to the one who can forgive us. And once God has declared us forgiven, we can rest in the assurance that his opinion is more important than ours.

Second: It fails to understand forgiveness. It occurs between two people: the offending one and the offended one. Forgiveness happens when the offended party chooses to bear the cost or the pain themselves rather than ‘punishing’ the offender. So when we attempt to forgive ourselves it’s like switching a hot plate from one hand to the other and wondering why it still burns. That’s why forgiving yourself is such a wrong-headed idea—it doesn’t provide for the cost of forgiveness.

Let me suggest something much richer and far more helpful. Nancy DeMoss writes, “Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something God has purchased for you.”

If we will humble ourselves and admit that our guilt is directed at God and not ourselves, then we can turn to God and seek his forgiveness. He offers to pay the cost of forgiveness—to take the pain on himself—and to give us a fresh start. That’s what is happening at the cross: Jesus offers to take your sin and guilt and to take the punishment it deserves, so that the verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ can be declared by God over your life.

That “Not Guilty” or “It’s ok” is what we long to hear when we try to forgive ourselves, but we know we can’t declare it. But when God declares us ‘Not Guilty’ that’s a different matter.

And even better—those he forgives, he starts to help them to transform the mess into something beautiful. Self-forgiveness is a poor and shabby substitute for the real thing.

Behind the Mask

(March’s Verse)

How many people live in denial? Denial about how bad their finances are, their marriage, their health? Sometimes it seems easier to bury our heads in the sand than to do the hard work of facing reality and seeking to change it.

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Wilful Blindness’ by Margaret Heffernan which is full of examples of denial and the factors which lead to it. Some of the stories are shocking like the one from Libby, Montana, where bosses of a vermiculite mine knew for 30 years that the employees were dying of asbestosis and did nothing about it. Staggeringly the medical fraternity knew about it and took x-rays to study the disease without letting patients know there was a problem. And more staggeringly, the townspeople refused to accept the truth, and fought against getting help while family members sat on their verandas breathing with oxygen tanks.

From banks to businesses, to hospitals, from corporations to individuals, wilful blindness is rife. Heffernan writes, “You cannot fix a problem that you refuse to acknowledge.” But, she says, you will be held responsible for it. What’s that got to do with us? A lot, I suspect. There may be many areas of life where we are practising wilful blindness, some serious, some not so.

But first and foremost we do it with ourselves. The Bible tells us we are sinful, more sinful than we realise. Yet that is not a fashionable truth. We prefer to find a mask to hide behind—we are victims; we are not as bad as others; we do our best; we try to keep up appearances…

In his book ‘The People of the Lie’, Scott Peck says that the heart of sin is the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of our sin. We are simultaneously aware of our guilt and yet desperately trying to resist that awareness. Keep running, keep doing, keep up the appearances, whatever you do don’t stand still long enough to see yourself as you really are.

Cornelius Plantinga writes, “We deny, suppress, or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn and elevate what we know to be false. We prettify ugly realities and sell ourselves the prettified versions. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite… We make up reality as we go along.”

And the tension of living in denial is etched across our lives. How much stress, fear or anxiety is caused by living in the fear of the truth about ourselves? And all the while there is an easier option:

“He who conceals his sins does not prosper,
but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13)

God calls us to honesty with him for he is not fooled by our masks. If we come humbly with our masks off seeking forgiveness through Jesus, we will find mercy and also God’s help to change. Otherwise he will hold us responsible.

A Heart for Freedom

China’s Vice-President, and President-to-be, Xi Jinping has just finished a three day visit to Ireland. The letters page of the Irish Times has debated the merits of closer ties with a country whose human rights record is somewhat dubious.

I have just finished reading “A Heart for Freedom” the autobiography of Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. She ended up on China's most wanted list—not for criminal activity but for wanting dialogue and democracy.

Her story of growing up in China with her military doctor parents gives a fascinating insight into life there—and the twin pressures of conformity and shame that leave no-one wanting to buck the trends, to stand out and stand up, otherwise you bring shame on your family.

The story follows her to university and her involvement with some of the other key figures of the movement. The turmoil of the days of the protest is well captured, along with the infighting among the different student groups, the political intrigue, the panic at the end of the protests as the government resorted to military force, and her escape to the West.

Her quest for democracy and for a voice for the unheard finds itself interwoven with another tragic thread—that of abortion. Forced or pressured to have three abortions when she became pregnant before marriage and without a birth-permit, it was heartbreaking to see the ease with which she could have an abortion, and how much it is part of life in China.

It is in the States that her personal rebuilding starts, a rebuilding that incorporates coming from Buddhist inclinations to faith in Jesus Christ, dealing with misrepresentation by the media, a new marriage and with the guilt of her abortions. In the introduction she says that for many years she had tried to write this story of freedom, but it was only when she came to faith in Jesus that she found the missing piece of the jigsaw and everything fell into place, for her personally and in terms of telling her story.

This account is personal and passionate. She doesn't shy away from the difficult and troubling issues she faced. Yet one of the joys is that in her search for freedom she has found an ultimate and lasting freedom.

Her fight for freedom continues—although now she is a voice for others. Her organization, ‘All Girls Allowed’, exists “to restore life, value, and dignity to girls and mothers, and to reveal the injustice of China's One-Child Policy.” It’s part of her bigger dream to ‘bring God’s love to China’, to see others find the freedom she has found.

It’s a book that’s well worth the read. And to link back to the recent visit to Ireland, Xi Jinping’s father, a former member of the Chinese government, although retired, fell from favour when he condemned the use of violence to crush the Tiananmen Square protests. Perhaps his son will bring about reforms when he assumes the Presidency.


Faith and Lingerie

Now there’s an arresting title… rest assured it’s not about me.

Model Kylie Bisutti won the Victoria's Secret Model Search in 2009, beating over 10,000 other hopeful young women to the title. “Victoria's Secret was my absolutely biggest goal in life,” she says in an interview, “and it was all I ever wanted career-wise.” From there she started doing shoots for their catalogue and was on the cover of multiple magazines, “I hosted parties, dazzled red carpets, and got more attention than a girl could ever imagine (and loved every minute of it).”

Yet she has decided to stop modelling lingerie, convinced that God’s priorities for her life are more important than her desires. Here she puts it in her own words:

“…it was so much fun and I had a blast. But the more I was modelling lingerie, and lingerie isn't clothing, I just started becoming more uncomfortable with it because of my faith... I’m a Christian, and reading the Bible more, I was becoming more convicted about it.”

“I didn't really want to be that kind of role model for younger girls … looking up to me and then thinking that it was okay for them to walk around and show their bodies in lingerie to guys.”

“It was pretty crazy because I finally achieved my biggest dream, but when I finally got it, it wasn't all that I thought it would be. Just being married I wanted to keep my marriage sacred because divorce rates now in America are pretty high, and I want to do everything I can to keep my marriage special. My body should only be for my husband and it’s a sacred thing… I wanted to be the wife that God made me to be and the one my husband deserved.”

“So I stopped modelling lingerie and skimpy bathing suits. I told myself I would never be on a men’s magazine again, and I decided to be more modest in the way that I dressed. I don’t want to be known as a sex symbol. I desire to be known as a woman who fears the Lord.”

“The Lord… showed me where to find true happiness and self worth—how to be truly beautiful, which has nothing to do with external beauty, and most importantly how to truly live a life for Him and His glory and not my own.”

“Christ has totally reshaped and moulded my desires… I desire to show my husband respect in every aspect: the way I dress, act, what jobs I will take on. I now work with a brand that markets clothing as well as lingerie and I only model their clothing line... I’m so grateful for Christ’s mercy and grace and I am so passionate about now being a positive Godly role model, who lives for and fears the Lord.”

We live in a sex and appearance obsessed society, where young women are bombarded with the ‘truth’ that their value lies in their looks and that ‘sex sells’. Bisutti has found the truth—value comes from knowing Christ, and the body is a gift to be shared between husband and wife.

“I’m Offended, I’m Offended!”

“Bishop accused of incitement to hatred in homily” – so reads a recent headline. The Bishop of Raphoe, Philip Boyce, in a sermon delivered at Knock last August seems to have run foul of humanist John Colgan.

Whilst the bishop and I may not be on the same page on quite a number of issues I find myself in sympathy with him at this point. Following a claim that the sermon was an incitement to hatred, a file has been prepared by the Gardai and sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

What language did the bishop use? Did he urge his congregation to rage against the rising tide of atheism? To take pitch-forks against oppressors of the Catholic Church? Did he single out Mr Colgan for particular vitriol?

Apparently not. In two ‘offensive’ passages he referred to the Catholic Church being “attacked from outside by the arrows of a secular and godless culture” (whilst also identifying that the church was “rocked from the inside by the sins and crimes of priests and consecrated people”), and stated that “the distinguishing mark of Christian believers is the fact they have a future… they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness.”

Such is the level of the inflammatory statements!

Mr Colgan has received little support in the press, and even the commenters on the ‘Atheists and Agnostics’ forum on Boards.ie give short change—for example: “I get the smell of someone who is looking to be offended” and “Too much of both intolerance and taking offence in the world these days”.

Whilst there are many who identify the emptiness of Mr Colgan’s complaint, it is also indicative of where culture has been going for a number of years. People seem to feel they have a right to be unoffended by the opinions of others, that somehow others should only voice opinions that they like.

No-one likes offensive or degrading speech, but there is a difference between something being offensive in and of itself, and taking offence from something you don’t like. Just because you disagree doesn’t give you a green light to feel offended. Yet, as one cartoon on Boards.ie put it, today’s mantra is “I’m offended, I’m offended.”

We have lost the concept of tolerance in recent years—proper robust tolerance where I may disagree with your opinion, but I will respect your right to have it. We want to homogenise everything—everyone must have the same opinion, and it must be like ours. The problem comes when that doesn’t happen—what do we do? Do we shrug our shoulders and accept it; do we run away and cry into our tea, or do we seek legal force to make others think like us?

Uniformity of thought has a long and grim history in places east of here. Ironically it is the influence of Christianity in the West that has maintained the freedoms that allow a variety of voices—even secular humanist ones.

The Power of Guilt (February’s Verse)

Guilt is a powerful emotion. It brings with it a terrible fear—a fear that can be paralysing. Guilt can have many side effects—often seemingly far removed from our guilt; side effects that can range from anxiety about inconsequential things, to depression, to muscular and bodily pains, to a host of other areas.

Good treatment doesn’t simply deal with the symptoms but seeks to get to the root of the matter, but how do you deal with guilt for long past events? One way is to seek out those injured, apologise and make restitution. This is good, but not good enough, because we are still guilty in God’s eyes. We have also broken his law—a law intended to guard the people that we have hurt, and even though we make things right with them, we haven’t made them right with God. The guilt remains—and often we are aware of it niggling at us.

And what of those situations where we have done wrong, and can’t do anything to make amends, or having done so, still feel we can’t forgive ourselves—where do we go then?

The verse on the calendar for February points to the answer. Rather than just quote the verse, let me put it in its context. It’s from Psalm 130:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.


Guilt places us in the depths, but where do we go? We can try self-help, counselling, making amends, but we can never pull ourselves out of the pit successfully. We will still be guilty, and we know it. How so? Because there is One who keeps a record of our guilt, and to him we must answer.

Yet that line that speaks of God keeping a record of our sins is phrased as a question, not as a statement of fact. Why is that? Because God offers to set aside our guilty record and to offer us forgiveness instead. He offers us mercy, forgiveness, and unfailing love—three medicines that deal with the root cause of guilt and not merely the symptoms.

Where do we find this mercy? We don’t earn it, we ask for it from the one who offers to take our record of sin and guilt and deal with it at the Cross—Jesus. Is guilt plaguing you? Let it take you to him, for “with him there is forgiveness” (verse 4).

Do we shape technology or does it shape us?

Mobile-phones, texting, iPads, the internet, Facebook, blogs—we live in a communication rich age which brings many benefits. But as I said last week, quoting from one writer, “Technology wears its benefits on its sleeve—while the drawbacks are buried deep within”. So is all this so-called enhanced communication good for us?

Studies show that technology shapes us more than we realise. It has always been this way. Take a shovel for instance—useful for moving dirt, but in using it everyday we develop stronger arms and calloused hands. The tool helps us change the world around us, but it also changes us in the process. And this happens regardless of why you are digging the hole. In the same way, digital technologies change us, whatever we use them for.

One of the areas of change is in our attention spans. Many of us now live in a state of what is known as Continuous Partial Attention. Part of our mind is always tuned in to incoming communications—email, text messages, status updates, tweets, mobile calls—and not given to the task in hand. And often when that communication isn’t there we even feel deprived—how many times do you check your email, or phone even when there has been no incoming beep?

Our attention spans and our memory are being altered because our brains are being rewired. The neurons in our brains are constantly reconnecting and creating new pathways, adapting the brain to the way we think. Since the internet and various associated technologies encourage rapid, shallow thoughts that skim along the surface, the more we surf, text and Facebook, the more difficult it is for our brains to slow down and think deeply about important issues. We flit, we skim, we are easily distracted.

This is giving us something akin to ADHD according to Dr Edward Hollowell, of Harvard Medical School, an expert on ADHD. He terms it Attention Deficit Trait, and it has stark similarities to ADHD, with one exception—we impose it on ourselves with our infatuation with the digital world.

How long has it been since you’ve read an entire book? Why don’t you sit down and read one now? It’s harder than it used to be, isn’t it? We are becoming skimmers rather than readers.

This is concerning at different levels, but especially at the spiritual level. We are more than processors of information and consumers of sound bites. But how can we ponder and consider the deep issues of life such as guilt, forgiveness, life after death—truths about God’s world and God’s ways—if we have trained ourselves to think shallow thoughts?

Let me challenge you to deepen your thinking by taking time away from the digital world, and sitting down and reading slowly each of the four biographies of the life of Christ—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And maybe even note down some of the things you learn, for writing slows us down and helps us focus.

Did it happen if I didn’t tweet about it?

If a tree falls in a forest and no-one tweets about it (or mentions it in their Facebook status) did it make a sound?

I realise that this article may pass by the heads of some readers completely—those who still prefer the ancient systems of pen, ink and postage stamp; who use a phone for actually talking to someone; or that most passé of pastimes—face to face conversation. For you a tweet is what happens in the real world outside your window when a chaffinch chirrups. For you Facebook is a mis-spoken contraction of “Your face is an open book”—a useful metaphor back in the days when people met face to face.

However we now live in a different world—a world of enhanced communications. But is it? Certainly people are communicating more, but are they communicating better? Technology as one writer puts it “wears its benefits on its sleeve—while the drawbacks are buried deep within”.

One of the ironies of all this technology that is meant to aid communication is that it seems to be hindering it. What was Christmas like this year? Did it consist of people sitting in the same room poking at pieces of technology whilst generally ignoring each other? I saw a great cartoon recently of a husband and wife out for a meal. The wife has strapped her husband’s iPhone to her forehead, saying “At least this way I can pretend it’s me you’re looking at”.

One of the outcomes of texting is that people are less inclined to real face-to-face communication. Young people text each other whilst in the same room. I read of a young woman who was talking with a friend on her phone. The conversation became too emotional, so they hung up and texted each other. When asked why, the woman replied that she didn’t want the other person to hear her cry. Maybe our technology is not connecting us as much as we think?

Another outcome of all this increased communication has been the ‘shallowing’ of communication. A shallowing of conversation indicates a shallowing of ourselves. Many feel the need to tweet, or Facebook, every inconsequential detail of their lives—“I’m now eating a donut”!

It seems as if some feel that their lives aren’t validated unless they broadcast it—assuming of course that the rest of us want to know. Are we so convinced that the world revolves around us that we think people are interested in the minutiae of our lives?

People may know more about us, but they know more about less important things. This enhanced communication, ironically, ends up isolating us. When did you last have a real deep conversation with someone—one in which you got to know them better, were able to open up to them, or hear them?

Technology, for all its benefits, has tricked us into thinking we are at the centre of our worlds. We may well be, but it is a lonely centre. Into this environment a 2000-year-old message comes saying that we aren’t as important as we like to think, but that there is a God who is interested in the minutiae of our lives. If only we would stop to listen.

Who’s worth it?

Over Christmas I caught a programme about the top ads of 2011. Several things struck me. One—I hadn’t seen any of the top ten ads in 2011. Two—I mustn’t watch very much TV. Three—I ‘ll have to get my TV tuned since the reception is so bad on 4 of the 8 channels that I don’t bother watching them, and of the remaining 4, only 2 show ads!

However, one set of ads can be guaranteed to get under my skin, up my nose and wherever else. They have one of the longest running slogans—a slogan which recently celebrated its 40
th birthday. That means it has been annoying people longer than I have—quite an accomplishment.

The sight of another airbrushed, made-up and possibly botoxed face staring into the camera and intoning the magic mantra “Because I’m worth it” might just be enough to send me over the edge. And now, as if in an effort to convince herself, she has to say it three times! I refer to the L’Oréal ads, for those of you wondering from whence my angst originates.

L’Oréal is the largest cosmetics company in the world selling roughly 50 products per second and its slogan has become an internationally recognized catchphrase. It has been tweaked several times over the years, first to “Because you’re worth it” and then to “Because we’re worth it” and even to “Worth it”. (I sound almost as if I’m stalking it!)

Why does it get up my nose so much? I’m neither a miser nor a misogynist; I enjoy treating my wife, and feel she deserves to be well looked after and to look good. But something in me reacts against the celebration, albeit light-hearted, of self worth, for it captures the spirit of a culture which is self-indulgent, self-centred, and reclines in pampered self-esteem.

It makes me want to run a series of ads entitled “Hell—because I deserve it.” It might come with or without flames; in full colour or in sombre black and white. I haven’t quite decided. But each one would end with one of a series of faces, the first one mine, intoning “Hell—because I deserve it”.

I suppose it comes from the stark reality that I know I am guilty before God, and of myself I deserve nothing, not even good hair or supple skin. I suppose it comes from the fact that I look at the cross and marvel that God would send his Son to take my place, and I could never imagine looking at that blood-stained monument and saying “Because I’m worth it”.

A Christian is someone who is captivated not by self worth, but by Christ’s worth—who stands in grateful amazement that God would go to such lengths for them, even though they weren’t worth it or didn’t deserve it. Statements of self worth only serve to undermine that amazement and gratitude. And even if it is only for hair care products it still rankles!

Only Christ is worth it. Only he deserves all the attention, all the glory, all the acclaim.