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Baby Loss Week - a tragic disconnect

Last week was Baby Loss Awareness Week, with Saturday being a International Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Day. I had been wondering why the profusion of news items: UK MPs sharing their stories of loss in the House of Commons; an item about a Garden of Stones in County Armagh featured several times on my Facebook feed; and I turned on the radio on Saturday to hear a series of heartfelt stories. Interviewers and newsreaders alike were empathetic and sensitive, gentle and gracious.

And I was confused. Not simply because I didn’t know it was Baby Loss Awareness week. Not because I don’t know something of that intense pain of losing children to miscarriage and watching someone you love deal with a level of sorrow that, as a man, I can’t fully enter into, nor fathom its terrible depths. I know that pain—and it deserves all the tenderness and empathy and sensitivity we can muster.

I was confused, or more accurately, baffled. Baffled by the ability of the media to portray so sensitively, deal so tenderly, and acknowledge one week that what resides in the womb is a baby, while the previous week, and this succeeding week they will argue for the purposes of Repealing the 8th Amendment that it is a clump of cells.

Suzi spoke of Eli, “We found out at 21 weeks that Eli was sick, he was stillborn at 31 weeks.” She has had beautiful imprints made of his tiny chubby hands and feet, cast in metal and framed. “I felt, and still do feel numb, I have come home from the hospital with empty arms and don't know what to do with myself.”

Sarah lost her baby, Grace, only 14 weeks into her pregnancy. “I had already bought a comforter to bring her home from the hospital and was so excited to have her… the pain of grief was excruciating.”

Not once, did an interviewer say, “Sure it was only a clump of cells”—thankfully they had more humanity. No-one challenged the title “Baby loss week”, yet that is the very thing that is being denied day in day out in the abortion discussion—that it is a baby that is being lost.

UK MP Will Quince spoke of his son who was diagnosed with the rare chromosomal disorder, Edwards’ syndrome, at his 20-week scan. He told the Commons that his son was “an incredible little fighter” who eventually lost his life in the last moments of labour.

I love the way he spoke of ‘his son’—something all the accounts have in common—the absolute recognition that they lost a son or daughter. And not once did a reporter, or presenter ‘correct’ this—deep down we know that’s what we’re dealing with, a real human being.

Yet the same House of Commons, which was moved to tears, also legislates for the termination of such ‘incredible little fighters’. And this same son could have been aborted under the guise of the criminally misnamed ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’ provision currently being considered here in Ireland. I wonder if the MPs saw the incongruity of their tears? Their hearts are better than their heads; but tragically their heads made the laws.

The sensitivity with which baby loss week was handled was utterly commendable, but how quickly will we see a return to the denial of life in the womb? Was all that sensitivity simply crocodile tears, or is there a tragic disconnect in our minds? We need to keep the dots joined up. We can’t be a nation that grieves the loss of babies in the womb and simultaneously denies that what is in the womb is a baby. Yet that is what we are in danger of doing.

Christian Compassion in a For/Against World

Another mass shooting takes place in the States. More innocent victims lie sprawled, dead and injured. Over the years of writing this column I have written about far too many mass shootings, and sought to provide Christian commentary on them. This time I want to let one group of Christians provide their own commentary.

American fast-food chain Chick-fil-A is famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) for being founded on Christian principles. In their 70 years they have stood over their policies of not opening on Sundays and being pro-family—even when the latter has meant boycott and hate for their lack of support for same-sex marriage.

Simplistic media-driven narratives paint them (as they do every other Christian) as narrow-minded, hate-filled bigots—re-naming them ‘Chick-fil-hAte’. Anytime they do anything that offends our easily offended culture, hash tags pop up all over the place. New York’s mayor claims they spread a message of hate.

So what happens when a gunman runs amok in a gay nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday morning?

Chick-fil-A, famous for not opening on Sundays, and vilified for its support of biblical marriage, opens up its doors on a Sunday to provide free food for those helping in the aftermath of the attack on a gay club.

Staff went to the Orlando branches and fired up the grills on Sunday. They cooked up hundreds of their famous chicken sandwiches, brewed dozens of gallons of sweet tea. Then they loaded up their vehicles and went to the shooting scene and the blood donation centre, to distribute the food to law-enforcement officials, medical personnel, and to all the people who had lined up to donate blood. All free of charge.

All I can say is well done. Chick-fil-A weren’t the only ones to provide such help, but in people’s expectations, they were perhaps the unlikeliest. Yet this is what Christian principle and compassion looks like—not the simplistic for/against attitude portrayed by the media and others. I don’t have to agree with you to care for you. Chick-fil-A gets this. Whilst the owners don’t approve of the lifestyle of many of the club goers, they recognise every one as made in the image of God, and as a neighbour to be shown compassion to.

Yet there seems to be little room in modern minds for this sort of nuance. It’s all or nothing; either I agree with you and therefore love you, or I disagree with you, and therefore must hate you. Christianity has no time, nor room, for this sort of shallow thinking. Christians owe their very salvation to a saviour who abhorred our God-rejecting ways, yet volunteered to come and show compassion to such an extent that he would even give his life to rescue the very people whose actions he loathed.

Jesus Christ teaches his followers to do the same.

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

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.

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).

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.

Counting Chickens

There are few things that bring a deeper sense of satisfaction to Irish rugby fans than beating England. Except thwarting English Grand Slam dreams. Apologies to any English readers—but that’s just the way it is.

Ireland’s barnstorming 24-8 defeat of England on Saturday, ended England’s dreams of their first Grand Slam since the World Cup winning year of 2003.

Only one thing makes it better—I just saw a video today that Nike had prepared in the event that England would win. It was part of a whole advertising campaign, planned to burst onto screens at Waterloo, Kings Cross, Euston and Charing Cross train stations at the final whistle. Commemorative T-shirts with 'Grand Slam Champions 2011', the one-word mission statement 'Onwards' and a red rose also had to be shelved. Or perhaps just binned.

A Nike spokesman said: "We commissioned a celebration T-shirt and a video featuring the players, as we obviously need to plan ahead… perhaps the lesson is to be less optimistic in our internal communications."

In other news—the BBC website has an item announcing “A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction”. Apparently the option on census forms to indicate that you are ‘not affiliated with any religious group’ is gaining in popularity, and statisticians are using it to predict the decline and death of religion. I was somewhat disappointed that the article didn’t give a specific deadline because I was hoping that Nike might produce another set of bin-able commemorative T-shirts for the event!

Both items bring to mind Mark Twain’s response to his premature obituary notice, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

Jesus said that he would build his church and that even Hell itself wouldn’t be able to resist the spread of the gospel. So while the number of those who show an external or nominal adherence to various religious entities may be on the decline, Christianity itself will not die out. Jesus has guaranteed its existence until he returns, and he has a good track record of keeping his promises—including coming back from the dead.

And if you are looking for a winning side to celebrate with, you can do no better than to trust in Jesus. Christians are not waiting to see if he will win, for he won at the cross. The final whistle has gone. All that is happening now is like that moment after a match when one side hasn’t heard the whistle and plays fruitlessly on seeking for a victory they can never have. Christians are waiting for him to step out onto the pitch and to lead his people in their lap of victory. And you have an opportunity to join the winning side while there is time.

Anything else is counting chickens before they are hatched.

Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Just last month it was New Zealand, now this week Japan suffered catastrophic damage at the hands of an earthquake and tsunami. Tens of thousands are dead or missing, entire towns have been wiped out, nuclear reactors are dangerously unstable.

One again we are saddened at the colossal loss of life; once again we extend our sympathy and our resources. And once again the perennial question raises its head: Why does God allow such events to happen?

Often suffering is preesented as an argument against God—how could there be a God when this happens? Yet when we read the Bible we see that suffering isn’t a surprise, but is part of God’s on-going judgment on, and wake-up call to, a world that refuses to listen to his more gentle voices—the voices of creation, conscience, Christians, preachers, God’s word, and even the voice of pleasure. If the Bible promised happiness peace and geological stability then we would have a case against God—but it speaks of quite the opposite.

That’s not to say that Japan was any more deserving than anywhere else—Ireland for example. The question isn’t why did it happen to New Zealand, Haiti or Japan, but why didn’t it happen to us?

We make many wrong assumptions: we assume that God owes us happiness when in fact he owes us judgment for we have lived on his planet, defying and ignoring him; we presume that mankind is innocent when in fact we are guilty. A more humble and biblical question is not, “How can God allow suffering”, but “Why does a holy God put up with us for so long and allow so much happiness in our lives?”

What if God had continually warned and spoken to mankind, urging them that there is more at stake than simply this short life, and that there is an eternity to be gained and a Hell to be avoided; and what if, despite his repeated warnings at increasing levels of volume, nobody listened; what would we expect him to do?

Each of these disasters is a mini reminder that God is serious when he says that he will judge sin, that he will not continue to let us plug our ears with the pleasures of life in order to drown out the warning voices.

Events such as this should not cause us to stand erect and proud, shaking our tiny fist at God, but cause us to fall to our knees in humility and ask for forgiveness for we too deserve judgment. That was Jesus’ response when asked about a similar situation:

“What about those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:4,5

What way would Jesus vote?

In the midst of the constant election news bulletins and political analysis, there is one key issue that has largely been overlooked. How committed are the parties to upholding our constitution?

You probably weren’t expecting that question, given the title! Yet it is an important question. The introduction to the constitution is interesting. It begins: “
In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from whom is all authority and to whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and states must be referred, We, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ...”

This introduction sets the framework in which our Constitution sits. It is a foundational acknowledgment as to how our nation is to be run and it recognises that neither the Taoiseach nor the government have ultimate authority. Jesus Christ has. This is entirely consistent with the Bible, which describes Jesus as king over all the earth. He is the creator, and it is the duty of men and women everywhere to obey his wise instructions.

But sadly this key section of the constitution is ignored, to the detriment of our country. We ought to value the decrees that Jesus has given us. They're for our good. They protect the vulnerable in society – the unborn, the poor, the widowed and the sick. They legislate against behaviour that blights Ireland today – greed, exploitation and drunkenness. And they uphold one of the key building blocks of a functioning society – the family.

As individuals, we have a key responsibility next Friday. The ordinary person has an opportunity to shape the future of this country. We need to vote wisely. The key issue facing this country is not the economy, nor the state of our hospitals or schools. The most important issue is how our potential leaders respond to the authority of Jesus Christ.

We should elect those who take their constitutional obligation seriously – who recognise that God’s word is important for governments. We should compare candidates and their policies to the Bible's teaching. Are they in favour of liberalising abortion, or do they want to protect the most vulnerable? Do they favour the wealthy and influential, or do they defend the weak? Do they uphold marriage as between one man and one woman for life? Do they show themselves to be people of integrity in their private lives?

Our constitution has the finest foundation of any modern country, because it understands who is in charge. Let us do our best to cling to this rich heritage.


Gary Moore – Legendary Guitarist

I was saddened to hear on Sunday evening of the death of former Thin Lizzy guitarist Gary Moore. Moore was a maestro on the guitar, bridging a vast array of musical genres. He played, not just superbly, but with what is rare in many rock guitarists—emotion. He could make the guitar weep, and you with it. His playing, particularly of his epic guitar solos, seemed to reach deep inside you and connect. There was something cathartic about it. Like David playing the harp for Saul (see 1 Samuel 16) his music had the power to smooth the troubled heart.

His instrumental piece The Loner, is a masterpiece, superseded I think only by ‘The Messiah Will Come Again’. If you haven’t heard either, go and look them up on YouTube. As you would expect, when I first saw the title ‘The Messiah will come again’ I was intrigued and poked around on the web. Roy Buchanan, one of the unrecognised guitar greats, originally wrote the piece. Buchanan struggled with an alcohol problem and the lyrics he speaks before launching into the guitar solo reflect something of his inner turmoil:

Just a smile, just a glance
The Prince of Darkness
He just walked past
There's been a lot of people
And they've had a lot to say
But this time I'm gonna tell it my way:

There was a town
A strange little town, they called 'The World'
A lonely, lonely little town
'Till one day a stranger appeared
And their hearts rejoiced, and the sad little town was happy again
But there were some that doubted; they disbelieved, so they mocked him
And the stranger, he went away
Now the sad little town that was sad yesterday
It’s a lot sadder today.

I walked in a lot of places I never should have been
But I know that the Messiah, he will come again…

I don’t know what engulfing bleakness Buchanan experienced that caused him to write this, but, intentionally or unintentionally, it hits the nail on the head. The cathartic cleansing and hope that he, and later on Moore, pump into the subsequent guitar solo is found not simply in music, which can provide only a temporary and superficial relief, but is found completely in the Messiah that the closing line speaks of. When we know we’ve walked in a lot of places we never should have been, cleansing and forgiveness are found in the Messiah. Jesus. When the blackness engulfs us, or when the broken sadness of this world hits us, hope is found in trusting the Messiah who will come again to put all things to right.

We need not simply to let music soothe the trouble within, but to look to the God who gave us Moore and Buchanan for fuller and more lasting comfort. So I thank God for Gary Moore, but I thank him all the more for the Messiah who will come again.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Marriage-lite

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.

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.

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).


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.


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.

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.

Apparitions at Knock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 days away from being human

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brothel in Letterkenny?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Jackson: Yearning for Paradise Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face transplant theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Sainthood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Judging Susan Boyle, or judged by her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Living in a world of unfairness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



Future-proofing your kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Three little words

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Under no circumstances admit you were wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that too hard for us to say?


Growing up too fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.newlifefellowship.ie

A touch of realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these gods can do for us what the one true God can. And sometimes this God lets us see how needy we really are—he brings a touch of realism to our lives. That’s why he taught his followers to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”. It is a constant reminder that we are not independent, but very dependent. Our progress hasn’t made us any more independent, it has only blinded us to our reliance upon God for even the simplest things in life.

We need to get back to admitting our need and praying about it: “Give us this day our daily bread”. It’s humbling, but better to be humble than find God having to really humble us—far more than he has done to date—for our, often proud, self-reliance.

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

Listen online at www.newlifefellowship.ie

Googling “Escort agency Letterkenny”

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would a pastor say to everyone else?

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

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

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

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

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

Shattered Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not half greedy enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The price of life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Affairs – Good for marriages?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me highlight three other mistakes:

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

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

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

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

The Cellar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torch Travesty

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

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

And there lies the irony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does that even need to be stated?

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

What happens when it all falls apart?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


New Sins?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Guilty Genes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live ____________?

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

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

“Long live Bhutto”

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

"Long live Bhutto" — bang — dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.newlifefellowship.ie

The Secret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.newlifefellowship.ie

Make me perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.newlifefellowship.ie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Loughridge – www.newlifefellowship.ie

Suicide: When Hope runs out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Mark Loughridge – www.newlifellowship.ie

Grief: the pain that won’t go away

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

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

This life is full of hurt.

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

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

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

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


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

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

Everyone is welcome.

Mark Loughridge – www.newlifefellowship.ie

Memento Mori

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

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

Yet we are mortal.

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

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

Events like this should cause us to pause and think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 3 or not Page 3?

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

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

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

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

Let me give you some considerations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plague of Plagues

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

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

Now it’s back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Serpent Crusher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Popes and Pronouncements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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