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Musings

I just can’t forgive myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do we shape technology or does it shape us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s worth it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Checklist for Genuine Christianity

I got a new set of earphones recently for my iPod. Looking at the reviews on Amazon I kept seeing the warning ‘Beware of fakes’. So wondering whether mine were genuine I went looking and came across a website that did photo comparisons between genuine and counterfeit earphones. After looking at the telltale signs I was satisfied that mine were the real deal. But not everything that says Sennheiser on the outside is Sennheiser on the inside.

That applies to Christianity too. There is such a wide variety that hangs out under the umbrella name of Christianity that it can be hard to know what’s genuine. Turn on the satellite tv stations and there are several religious channels; walk through most towns and you will be confronted with different churches; different groups may arrive at your door—all these claiming to be Christian. On top of that, the broad ethos of our culture is allegedly Christian.

But not all that comes under the brand name of Christian is in fact Christian. All of this makes for confusion on a vitally important subject. What are the hallmarks of genuine Christianity? How can you be able to tell if what you are hearing or seeing is the real deal? Here’s a checklist of some (not all) of the telltale signs of genuine Christianity.

1. It’s about Jesus Christ – not surprisingly Christ-ianity is and should be about Christ. But surprisingly he gets sidelined, or just simply replaced in many churches. Although Jesus may get a mention, other topics eg. health, wealth, behaviour, social issues get the lion’s share of the attention, or other religious or biblical characters receive more focus. Genuine Christianity is all about Jesus.

2. It’s about what Jesus did at the Cross – Jesus didn’t come primarily to be a good example or a great teacher. He came to die so that we could be forgiven. It is at the Cross that forgiveness is found, not in anything else—eg. keeping rituals or rules.

3. It’s about salvation being a free gift, not a reward for good behaviour. This is the acid test of genuine Christian teaching. The Bible teaches that we aren’t good enough to impress God—even our best and most religious acts fall far short. Salvation is something that God accomplishes and offers to those who will acknowledge that they are sinners, accept his gift of forgiveness and put their trust solely in what Jesus did at the cross.

These are only three, but they should help you assess what you are hearing. Make sure it’s the genuine article.

Meditation: Finding a new Spirituality

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Chopra advocates it saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastic Paddies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychic’s nightmare headline

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

“Axing came out of blue, says radio psychic”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terminological Inexactitude

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

A 21st Century Addiction

(by Jonny McCollum)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming of a dry Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




That man Thierry Henry again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who wants to live forever?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liquid Sunshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons from a cleg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitting Snooze

(By Robert McCollum)

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

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

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


Searching for God

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

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

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

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

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

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




Religion vs Gospel

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

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

Let me illustrate it with a series of contrasts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’d swear it was Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Self-Esteem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Predictions for 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for a Christmas Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Neverland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A forgotten classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Collision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing the point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that describe you?

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

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

July's Verse - Green Gates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Message in a bottle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Summer Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great god of Education


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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Truth, lies and acceptance

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

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

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

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

It appears honesty does pay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Angel-maker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen online at www.newlifefellowship.ie

Embracing Guilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ER and the power of a guilty conscience

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

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


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

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

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

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

Is Google God?

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

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

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

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

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

A friend of mine has had the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The irony of an open mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Snow Cows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

’tis the season to eat mandarins

In our home growing up, no Christmas stocking was complete without mandarin oranges. I don’t know if any other family has that tradition, but that was ours – along with piling into mum and dad’s bed to open the presents.

As the presents were being opened, once the initial excitement of seeing what everything was had passed, out from the recesses of our Christmas bag would come the mandarin oranges. And as we further explored our new acquisitions the oranges rapidly disappeared – taking the edge off rumbling tummies. Over the years, the one or two stocking-filler mandarins gradually become a whole bag tucked away in our stocking.

It struck me this morning how perfect they were for that. Have you ever considered the orange family?

If you were going to design a package to hold liquid, would you ever come up with the ‘orange’? Think about it. You have bag of juice, and you can unwrap it, and the liquid doesn’t go anywhere. You can break it into segments and the liquid still doesn’t escape. Then you can actually bite a segment in half and still the juice doesn’t leak all over the place – for the juice is contained in little packets inside each segment and only when they are burst does juice escape.

And the skin that covers the segments and that encloses the little juice sacks is tasteless – unlike the peel. Imagine what oranges would have been like if that skin had a strong flavour like the peel. You couldn’t have eaten them.

There is something about mandarins and oranges in general that reeks of design. It’s just too clever – and it’s almost as if they were designed with small children in view. They are perfect to hand to children in bed on Christmas morning or in the car when travelling – on the other hand when you give them a man-made carton of orange juice, they manage to spill it and get the juice everywhere!

For me it’s just another example of God’s incredible creative powers – after all, what biological reason is there for oranges to contain their juice that way? None that I can think of, yet it seems to be perfectly suited to mankind. And it’s not the only one – look at the variety of ways God packages juice. The apple, for example, is completely different – the juice is held in tiny cells distributed throughout the apple, so that even when a bite is taken there is no significant leakage.

Even our fruit bowl speaks to us of God, the wisdom of God, and of how God gives good things to his creatures.



We three kings of tedium are

The Americans have a saying when you ask them how they are, “Same old, same old” – meaning nothing much has changed. Christmas is a bit like that. Same old songs playing, same old carols, same old decorations, same old dinner.

I was talking to some fellow ministers the other day who find themselves taking round after round of carol services. They expressed something of the same sentiment – the same carols, the same readings every service, every year.

Then there is the usual outcry that society has removed Christ from Christmas; that Xmas is becoming more and more commercialised, and nobody stops to think about what it is all about. I suspect that it’s all related. Imagine that every year you went to a birthday party for a one year old – the same one year old every year. The first year or two it would hold its excitement, but after that you would start to get incredibly bored with it. You know precisely when the music is going to stop in “Pass the Parcel”, you know who is going to spill their juice all over the table, you know what will be in each present as they are opened, and the reaction to each present. A every year it would be the same – a sort of Groundhog Day for birthdays.

It strikes me that Christmas is the same. If your only contact with Jesus is the little guy in the manger – how utterly tedious it must be. Every year, there he is – same old story, same old carols about a kid in a cattle trough and three kings.

The problem is that Jesus has grown up, and we don’t let him. In our minds we’ve kept him as a baby. We’re forever stuck in a time warp, looping around endlessly on the same old things. And we get bored.

Why do we do it? After all what can be more amazing than the all-knowing, all-powerful, triumphant, creative, loving, wise, pure, sovereign, merciful, gracious, patient, compassionate and glorious God coming into the world on a mission to rescue and restore? How can that be boring?

The problem is that we don’t want Jesus to grow up – because when he grows up he makes demands of each of us. And we don’t like that, so we prefer to pretend that he is always in a manger, and then we find him boring. It is we who are the kings of tedium, not him. The solution is not found in working hard at celebrating the ‘real meaning’ of Christmas with more enthusiasm, but in getting to knowing this majestic grown up Jesus the 364 other days in the year.

www.newlifefellowship.ie

It’s in the stars

The basic fundamental message of your existence is to be found in the stars. No – not your horoscope; the shiny little dots up in the sky. For centuries people have tried to read the stars, to read meaning and significance into their constellations, and movements.

When was the last time you stood and gazed at the stars?

The other evening I found myself outside in the cold clear crisp moonless night. Above me with startling clarity, scattered across the vast dome of the night sky were thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. I had seen the stars before, I had stood and gazed at them and been amazed before, but this time was different. Was it the number of the stars, was it the stillness of the night, was it that I could see the shimming dust cloud of the Milky Way stretched out in its band across the heavens? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I know in my head that these aren’t tiny pinpricks of light, but immense orbs of flaming light, many times bigger than our sun, and that as we gaze at them scattered across the dome of the night sky that it is not a dome of sky above us, but the vastness of space in which these colossal giants hang. Perhaps.

All I know is that I found myself standing gazing upwards for a long long time. The vastness of the universe struck me with a new force. My smallness in the face of such infinity.

The Bible sums up this glorious masterpiece in five simple words, almost a ‘by the way’ tucked into the account of creation: “He made the stars also” (Genesis 1:16).

So what do they tell us?

Author John Piper answers this question: “God made the universe so big and man so small to tell us something about himself. And he does so because he wants us to learn and enjoy the truth that he is infinitely great and powerful and wise and beautiful. The more the Hubble Telescope sends back to us about the unfathomable depths of space, the more we should stand in awe of God. The disproportion between us and the universe is a picture of the disproportion between us and God. And it is an understatement.”

The stars tell us that we are very small indeed. The stars tell us that there is a being out there who is infinitely great. The stars tell us that our significance can’t be found within us, but only in a relationship with the being who created everything, including the stars.

That’s what we need to know from the stars – if you find your ‘stars’ telling you that you can find a significance without any reference to the One who made the stars, then there is something wrong.

www.newlifefellowship.ie

Love is a verb

So a married couple from Bosnia who didn't realise they were chatting each other up on the internet are divorcing.

Sana Klaric (whose pen-name was ‘Sweetie’) and husband Adnan (pen-name ‘Prince of Joy’) spent hours in an online chat room telling each other about their marriage troubles. It wasn’t long before they were falling in love again.

The truth emerged when the two online lovers agreed to meet up in real life, and found themselves face to face with each other. What a momnent! Now they are divorcing, each accusing the other of being unfaithful.

According to reports Sana said, “I was suddenly in love. It was amazing. We seemed to be stuck in the same kind of miserable marriage. How right that turned out to be.”

Her husband Adnan, said: "I still find it hard to believe that Sweetie, who wrote such wonderful things, is actually the same woman I married and who has not said a nice word to me for years".

I don’t know what’s the saddest part – the hypocrisy of accusing the other of unfaithfulness, or the stubborn refusal to see that they could make it work after all, or the seeking of happiness in a relationship apart from the one your promised yourself to for life.

Contrary to popular myth, the love is not an emotion, but an act of the will. The word love is a verb, a ‘doing’ word as my school-teacher would have said. Love is not found when we follow our hormones, or our heartstrings, but love is developed when we continually act in a loving way day after day to another person. Certainly, love is not devoid of emotion, but emotion is not the driving force. If it was, marriage would be as unstable as our emotions – and that is what happens to those who make their feelings their guide.

What is sad about this couple is that if they had put the same effort into their marriage as they put into demonstrating their caring, wonderful characters to an apparent stranger, then they would have found their marriage transformed. But to do that you need to be able to repent and ask for forgiveness and give it – and that’s a gospel thing.


Bourne Again?

(Based on an article by Mike Metzger at www.claphaminstitute.org)

Years ago I read the Bourne trilogy by Robert Ludlum – tremendous stuff, and it was great to see it hitting the big screen. The ‘big’ debate has been “Bourne or Bond?” – for me the answer is Bourne. For those of you not familiar with the story – its about a secret agent who loses his memory and discovers himself in a complex web of deceit in which he searches to find who he really is.

Why is it that the Bourne trilogy has appealed to so many?

Is it just because they are action-packed, high-speed films? Probably. I can’t claim much more than that. Yet, I think one of the reasons it is appealing is because in it you see a character grappling with doubts and uncertainties.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the
‘Bourne Identity’. One of the taglines for the film asks the question “Who am I?”. Bourne wrestles with his fragmented memory to find out who he is. In the second film ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ Bourne, whilst trying to stay alive, wrestles with the question, “Where did it all go wrong?”. The third instalment, ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’, finds Bourne pursuing the answer to “How can I escape what I am?”

These questions resonate with something inside us. That’s part of the draw of Jason Bourne – he’s wrestling with questions about life. He’s not like Bond who wrestles with nothing, other than bad guys and bikini-clad women.

The questions – ‘Who am I?’, ‘What went wrong?’, and “How can what went wrong be put right?’ – are the key questions for every human being to answer. I’m not about to suggest that the Bourne trilogy is a Bible in disguise – but I found it interesting that the Bible echoes these three questions and provides answers.

It doesn’t surprise me. Film-makers seek to find something that will resonate with us (and hence draw us to watch, and give them a bigger pay cheque), and the Bible sets out to answer the deepest longings of the soul – it doesn’t surprise me that these two often match up in surprising ways.

Starting with creation, the Bible addresses the question “Who am I?” and describes how life ought to be. We’re not far into the Bible when we find the answer to the question “What went wrong?” and we see what made the world the way it is today. It takes a little longer to get to the issue of redemption and the answer to, “How can I escape what I am?” and how can things be made better. And the Bible goes one further than Bourne (although the scriptwriters may yet seek to answer the question "Where will Jason Bourne end up?"), and answers the question, “Where will I end up?”.

Jason Bourne may seem larger than life, but his story reflects an even bigger story. The patterns of the cinema screen sometimes reflect the deeper realities of our soul.

How do you answer the questions Bourne raises?

In my opinion

I’ve found it – the ultimate argument clincher. You know those moments when you are embroiled in a discussion, and your friend is spouting fact after fact, and you can’t find a way of refuting the plain evidence. Fear not, for there is a way. You can win the debate.

You just have to say, “In my opinion…” or “I just think that…”.

Apparently it works. It must do, for I keep hearing it on the radio or on TV. Evidence has been set before a person, the facts have been stacked up, and then they sweep it all aside with, “Well in my opinion…”

I caught a glimpse of Oprah the other day – thankfully it was only a moment or two – and someone had been presenting their case, backed up with evidence and facts and figures, only for Oprah to say, “Well I just believe…”. She then went on to state her opinion without dealing with the evidence or refuting the other person’s case.

We would never do that when it comes to medicine. Imagine the scenario – the doctor has called you in, he informs you that having run all the tests, you have been diagnosed with some life-threatening illness. They have double-checked everything. The facts back them up. Your response is to say, “Well you might say that, but my opinion is that I am fine.”

Unfortunately opinions don’t change facts.

It seems as if people think that an opinion is something holy, it dare not be touched, argued with or shown to be utter nonsense.

Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that entitlement brings a responsibility. Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that their opinion is accurate, well thought through and well informed, if they are going to offer it as a voice that deserves to be listened to.

For the sake of a rational, sensible society we need to get out of the ‘my opinion is better than yours’ mentality of the TV talk show. We need to cultivate our God-given ability to think and to reason.

And why is a pastor writing about this? Because time and time again people air their opinion on matters religious, opinions that bear no relationship to the facts. And it saddens me because their eternity hangs in the balance of their opinion. I ask them what they have read to bring them to that conclusion, “Oh nothing, I just think that…”. So this is a plea, not just to think before you speak in general, but specifically to find out before you form your opinions on matters of great spiritual significance. Biblical Christianity has nothing to fear from investigation. It is not a haven for the unthinking, but a satisfying well for those who wish to think deeply.

After all, it is God who invites us saying, “Come let us reason together…” (Isaiah 1:18)

Rules of the Road

So we’ve all been issued with a free copy of “The Rules of the Road”. Ours arrived in last week, but it was only today that I got round to opening them.

I’m sorry to see them being issued—that means that I wont have marvel at people pulling onto roundabouts in front of me, or stopping on the roundabout to let me on to it. No more will people think that green means ‘Go’ and red means ‘Go faster’. No more will people think that that fancy little stick on the side of the steering column is for hanging their Magic Tree air freshener on; instead they will use it to let others know what direction they are turning. No more will people ignore the specially prepared place in the middle of some roads where you can pull into when you are turning right, so that you don’t block the traffic.

Alas I will miss the quirks and foibles of my fellow drivers. And doubtless they will miss mine. The ‘Rules of the Road’ will fix it all. A driver’s life will be idyllic and peaceful, even in the traffic jams which snarl up Letterkenny.

That’s if it’s made it out of the plastic wrapper it came in.

Go on, have you opened yours yet? Be honest—or is it still sitting on the kitchen worktop? Sure we all know what’s in it—what would we need to read that for?

It’s funny that no matter how bad a driver we are, the problem always lies with others. In our own minds we think that we aren’t that bad. We can always point to someone who is worse than us—“You think I’m bad, should see my great uncle Horatio!”

That’s the flaw in giving everyone a copy of the Rules of the Road—no-one thinks they need it. I know, because it’s the same with Bibles. Most homes have one, but when was the last time you cracked it open? Is its spine still in pristine condition, like the day you got it? Perhaps it’s sitting on the shelf in a cupboard right beside the “Rules of the Road” which you got years ago when you did your driving test—that special shelf where important-but-never-to-be-looked-at books are kept.

Doubtless if we read it we’d find that there’s part of our lives we’ve been using to hang a Magic Tree air freshener on which instead has a much more important role to play. For example, our conscience. What is that little voice that nags at us and tells us something is wrong? Is it something that we hang a few good deeds on to freshen up our lives a bit, or did the manufacturer put it there for a greater purpose?

Or we’d find that the symbol which looks like a crossroads sign has a significance far beyond anything we ever imagined.

You’ll need to crack open God’s ‘Rules for Life’ to find out.

Carbon Offsets & God

So at the weekend we had the Live Earth musicfest, calling us all to save the world by being more energy efficient. Perhaps like me the event more or less passed you by – although it did strike me as odd that we should be called to conserve resources by putting on events that required thousands of people to travel to them, performers to trek across the world with all their kit, and countless thousands/millions to turn on their tv sets – all consuming more energy.

But there was a solution to all of that – ticket prices were being used to purchase carbon offsets. This was a reasonably new phrase to me until a couple of months ago. A carbon offset is when you are unable or unwilling to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions caused by your lifestyle, you then pay for the reduction of gases elsewhere – you can pay for trees to be planted, or wind-farms to be set up.

So if you’re unwilling to change you can pay for someone else to change. Or if someone else is being to environmentally friendly you can buy some ‘friendliness’ off them, apparently.

Of course it doesn’t really make much sense – it seems like just another tactic to get money – albeit for a good cause. Certainly, it is good that people can at least offset some of the damage they do by sponsoring environmental causes elsewhere. At the end of the day you are still guilty of ruining the environment. The fact that you pay for it not to be ruined by someone else somewhere else doesn’t really excuse you.

The reason it appeals to people is that it doesn’t require any real change on their part. Yet the idea that lies behind carbon offsets is one that is very common in people’s thinking. It’s the idea that although I have done something wrong I can undo it by doing some good, or by asking someone else to credit some of their goodness to my account.

Environmentalist George Monbiot draws the comparison with the system of buying and selling indulgences in the Middle Ages. People believed they could purchase forgiveness for their sins instead of actually repenting and not sinning anymore. They also believed that various saints had done too much good, and that God would shift some into your account, to offset your sin.

As Monbiot says about carbon offsets, “carbon offsets are an excuse for business as usual with regards to pollution”. It’s the same with the idea that we can borrow someone else’s good to make up for our own error, or that we can sin and then offset it with a few good deeds.

The problem lies in the fact that God demands perfection, so it’s not possible to ‘over-perform’ in some areas of life (eg. church attendance, prayer, charity work) to make up for underperforming in other areas. The principle of offsetting only works if the resources exist to completely neutralise the effects of the offence. And we just don’t have what it takes. Only Jesus does.

He lived the perfect life, and amazingly God offers to offset his life against ours. We have no other viable option – church attendance, prayers, etc. simply don’t offset at all. Only Jesus does. He’s the ultimate offset.


Daily Bread

They say a picture tells a thousand words. A new book by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio called “Hungry Planet” certainly does that. The bulk of the book comprises photographs taken during visits to 30 families in 24 countries for 600 meals in all. You get to see what the family ate in a week and how much it cost, as well as other interesting facts like their favourite foods.

How much do you eat in a week? How much does your family spend on food in a week?

Jesus taught us to pray "Give us today our daily bread". Bread was the basic necessity of life: bread and water. And yet we get so much more than the basic necessities - we get dessert too. Yet how thankful are we? Consider the variety of foods available to us – yet we often complain and we waste food.

Jesus also taught us to pray, "Give us today our daily bread." Our prayers are so often self-centred. How often do we pray this prayer? And yet how seldom do we do anything for their benefit.

Here's a couple of pictures from the book mentioned above that give pause for thought:

UK food family

Great Britain: The Bainton family of Cllingbourne Ducis
Food expenditure for one week: £155.54 or $253.15
Favourite foods: avocado, mayonnaise sandwich, prawn cocktail, chocolate fudge cake with cream

Chad food for family

Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23
Favourite foods: soup with fresh sheep meat

Promises, Promises

So the election is over, the posters are coming down – although a lot more slowly than they went up – and the post-election shuffling and bargaining has begun. Who will end up making up the government. Who will be Fianna Fail’s partners? Will they have partners?

And already the newspaper cartoonists have poked fun at how fast the election pledges will fail. Promises made for this investment, and for that development, promises made for changes in health or education. Promises made on local levels for new this and improved that.

And the public knows that much of what was promised is outside the power of the politician to achieve. They know that although a person might want to do something, party policies or national demands may make that promise undeliverable.

I find it fascinating that men and women who expect us to regard them as people of integrity make so many promises in the run up to elections that will never be fulfilled.

The upshot of it all is that we become sceptical of promises. We doubt when people hold out the hope of a better future. We’ve been there too often, only to be disappointed. And not just with politicians – but with advertisers, or some new programme of weight loss, or confidence boosting, or investment, or pyramid selling. All have promised to change our lives for the better. Yet here we still are.

And we become calloused and cynical.

The problem with all of these is that no guarantee of success is provided up front. We have to invest before we see results. But there is another promise giver – one who offers a hope and a better future, one who always keeps his word, one who has nothing to gain from our allegiance, one who pays so that we don’t have to.

He promises peace, He promises strength, He promises never to leave us, He promises to accept us when we come to him. How do we know he will keep his promises? Simple; the apostle Paul writes, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Paul is saying, if you want to know whether God will keep his promises all you have to do is look to the cross of Christ. For there God provides the evidence up front that he is serious when he promises. He will provide no matter the cost to him. He pays so that we don’t have to. Trusting in God is a foolproof investment because, unlike politics, the results are already in place.

Although God’s promises are far beyond what we can imagine we mustn’t let our scepticism stand in the way of trusting Jesus.

‘Me first’ driving

Donegal drivers do this great thing – usually if they’re going slowly they’ll move over to let you past. It’s courteous and makes for great driving. I wonder though if it is on the way out. Several incidents of rank impatience I’ve witnessed have made me wonder.

There’s a school at the top of our road and just the other day I was leaving our estate and got caught up in the school-run mayhem. The road was in danger of gridlock as people tried to bore their way through the mass of parked, stopped and weaving cars. Given that there was no hope of getting anywhere I sat back a bit. Then as things moved a little I noticed that if I (and the cars behind me) moved over slightly it would clear the way for cars coming towards us and ease the whole situation.

Accordingly I moved to my left a little once the car in front had moved on. However instead of following suit, the cars behind me stampeded like a herd of lemmings into the gap only to find that they had well and truly snarled the whole thing up. It’s called ‘me first’ driving.

I was coming up to the road works on the road to Kilmacrennan last Sunday, and as I arrived the lights turned red. Several cars in front went through on the red. Now when I’m at the other end of that it gets up my nose; sitting on a green light with hoards of impatient motorists coming towards you. So I stopped, only for several cars to pull out from behind me and tear on through the red light. Now I like to get to where I’m going as quickly as anyone else, but why should I put my preferences above others’ safety, or others having the right of way on their turn?

It’s all too easy to point the finger at boy racers for the problems on the roads, but the selfishness of any one of us certainly doesn’t help matters.

It’s symptomatic of the ‘me first’ culture in which we live. We mightn’t see ourselves as bad people; we might pride ourselves as being decent and respectable. But what happens when we don’t get our way? When the little idol of self is hampered by someone else do we get angry, or impatient, or feel sorry for ourselves? Do we feel that we have the right to have our wants satisfied?

We might keep a lid on it at times, but at other times, such as when we get behind the wheel, our sense of self-importance pokes through. It isn’t pretty. And it is at such moments we see ourselves for what we truly are. Unfortunately that is the real ‘us’.

Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs, “As a person thinks in his heart, that he is” (23:7).