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The Cost

We see the athlete atop the podium clutching their gold medal, a broad smile covering their face, eyes sparkling. Unless we personally know them (or others like them), we don’t see the pain-etched grimaces, the rain-sodden training, the iron-willed discipline of diet and denial, the countless hours perfecting technique.

All we see is the sweetness at the end. The cost is hidden from us.

So it is with an old familiar song—one often sung at funerals or whose opening line adorns idyllic pastural scenes. The 23rd Psalm, or ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’, has brought comfort and encouragement to many over the 3000 years since it was written. Its lines have been quoted in songs from artists as diverse as Pink Floyd, Megadeth, U2 and Coolio amongst others.

Yet the sweet comfort of Psalm 23 comes at a great cost. And nowhere is that cost set out more clearly than in the preceding Psalm which starts off with the poignant question: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22 is an astonishing prophetic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth written 1000 years beforehand, even hundreds of years before the Persians and then the Romans developed crucifixion. It is accurate right down even to the detail of the gambling for his garment.

I was reading both psalms this morning and something struck me which I had never noticed before. Virtually every line of comfort in Psalm 23 is paralleled by a line of cost in Psalm 22.

Consider the truths which are possible and the cost of them:

  • He is always with me [23:4], because He was forsaken [22:1]
  • He is with me in the valley of death [23:4], because He Himself entered it alone [22:1]
  • I am provided for in the midst of my enemies [23:5] because He was abandoned to his enemies [22:12,13]
  • My cup overflows [23:5] because His cup was empty and he cried “I thirst” [22:15]
  • I have everything I need [23:1] because He had everything taken from him [22:18]
  • I lie down in green pastures [23:2] because He was laid in the dust of death [22:15]
  • My soul is restored [23:3] because His soul was given over to the sword of judgment [22:20]
  • I will fear no evil [23:4] because He is the one who has been surrounded rather than me [22:16]
  • Goodness and mercy will pursue me closely all the days of my life [23:6] because He took my faraway-ness and my forsakenness fell on him [22:1,11]
  • I can say ‘forever’ [23:6] because He said ‘forsaken’ [22:1]

Psalm 23 is the answer to the Son of God’s haunting question captured in Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer is: so you and I could say, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.

However, these sweet truths are not automatic. We need to turn to the saviour of Psalm 22 before we get the blessings of Psalm 23. We need to acknowledge that we were far off and deserved to be forsaken forever, and ask him to pay the cost to rescue us and to provide us with all of this rich comfort.

Next time you find yourself singing Psalm 23—consider the cost.

Baby Loss Week - a tragic disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Compassion in a For/Against World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ teaches his followers to do the same.

The Late, Late Show

(By Stephen Steele, working with New Life Fellowship)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A time for justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Brennan - Clonmel

Missing the Point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examine your disbelief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intelligent life out there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom at a Price

(April’s Verse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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