Friday, 30 January 2015

The church of the new start

I was up North a couple of weekends ago and met an old friend, a Baptist pastor. We got talking about my tangled spiritual (and unspiritual) journey over the past six years and I said to him that I had found myself at home in the Salvation Army simply because here I have found a community that genuinely accepts and offers a new start to a wrecked life. He said, "You couldn't make a better recommendation of any church than that."

I want to be careful; my experience of the SA is not wide; I dare say that maybe not all corps and communities are equally grace-driven. Nor am I saying that such attitudes of acceptance are unique to the Army; the very friend I was speaking to has been consistently full of grace over the years. 

But I do think that a "new start to the wretched" is built into the Sally's DNA in a special way. What applies to the addicted and the down and out applies to the disgraced pastor too. I am not talking about being coddled (how William Booth hated "coddling"!) or pushed into being something I shouldn't be. I am talking about acceptance. 

I know what it is to be accepted on paper, but to be looked on as a weird pariah. I know how the "fruit of repentance" that people are looking for needs to be long term after a long term sin. I know that those who know me personally, who sat under my ministry, or whom I have hurt most, will never see me the same way again. I know that there are deep issues. 

But I also know that the coolish shoulder is not limited to those I have hurt personally. The honest testimony of what has happened is enough to repel some, while others fling their arms wide. And I have found a lot of wide-armed welcome in TSA. 

All churches need to look hard at their foundation in grace. I have written before about the current tendency to see grace as an almost spineless acceptance which doesn't challenge to change. Real grace ain't spineless - but it is real and not just a concept on paper. As my son said in a previous discussion on grace, quoting a recent preacher at his church, talking about the parable of the Prodigal Son:

"I think there's lots of theological reasons why people don't come to church today, but could it maybe be this one as well: that too many people out there - they bump into the older brother before they get to the Father. Maybe that could be the reason."

The Salvation Army is at a crossroads. Never has the question of its identity been more acute. Its ecclesiastical eccentricities, its public perception as a charity, its mixed-source funding, its internal theological tensions, its particular stress under the external pressures of a postmodern, multicultural world - all of these things impact TSA in a special way as we approach the Army's 150th anniversary. 

It is easy to moan and criticise at such a time. But this new boy is thankful for the grace and new start that he has found here. Grace that comes from the Cross, grace that accepts, grace that embraces, grace that helps you to "go, and sin no more."

May that model of grace, as we find it in Jesus Christ, be the foundation and keystone for the next 150 years of the Sally Army. 

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Atrocities

We are reading through Genesis in the mornings. A few days ago we arrived at the account of the rape and mass murder in Shechem, in chaps 33 and 34. I wondered aloud how many people ever preached on it - and then remembered that I had. I dug up the notes, and here they are, rewritten in places, but substantially as preached in Haywards Heath on 25.1.93. Some of it seems resonant today. And if it seems packed with material and LONG - I guess it was! And pleased be warned: these themes are genuinely shocking and unpleasant,  and may be very disturbing to some.  

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Genesis 33:12 - 34:31

1     The Bible deals with atrocities

The Bible speaks into the real world - not a cosseted, comfortable, cotton-wool protected world. This is not fairy tale stuff - or at least not the stuff of sanitised, Ladybird book fairy tales. 

At the time these horrible events took place, Dinah was somewhere between 7 and teens in age. A young girl - perhaps only 12 years old or less. 

That, tragically, is the real world. A 12 year old was raped on Thursday night in Stockport. Young teenagers have been among those raped systematically in the struggles in Bosnia.
The Bible talks about things like that. It speaks into a world which may seem far from Haywards Heath, but which is real enough. 

Shechem was not a very big place - but I guess we will not be far out if we imagine around 100 bodies piled in and around its houses.

That is the real world.

This week they dug up more bodies of massacre victims in Bosnia. Over the last weeks we have heard of murders and massacres, deaths by famine or disaster all over the world.

The Bible talks about things like that.

A Bible with these bits removed is not the whole counsel of God. 
A Bible with these bits removed is not God's message to a sinful world. 
A Bible with these bits removed is a fairy tale. 
A Bible with these bits removed cuts no ice in the real world.

One reason why Christians have made and are making so little impact is that we have seen fit to censor the Bible. We have emasculated the whole counsel of God. We have left out the nasty bits. We have cut off God's message from the world we live in. We have doctored it for nice people. Ultimately we have even grown embarrassed about the idea of judgement and hell, and we have therefore weakened the message of the cross. Our task is not simply to  "Tell them of God's love" but to be real. 

Censoring the Bible does not work. Let's leave these bits in. We think too much of protecting our children - or not embarrassing ourselves. We don't think enough about preparing them to live for God in a terrible world.

2     God's people are affected by atrocities

Dinah was of Jacob's family. She was part of God's people. She was raped.

Such things happen to God's people. Such things happen to christians. We are not immune. We are not guaranteed an easy ride.

We must be careful not to give the impression that we are. "Jesus will take care of me." As a child would read it, in the straight-forward sense, that is a confusing and dangerous half truth.

We believe in God's constant care and watchfulness over us. We give thanks for every token and example of that care - and some examples are amazing. But we know that his way for us is perfect and he will not cease to care and watch over us, even if he sees fit to lead us through atrocities, persecutions or death. Hebrews 11 makes quite clear that faith can lead to... and through... death at sword point and worse. 

Yes, Jesus takes care of me - but that doesn't mean that I will not die in a road accident today. We must never give children the impression that it does mean that. 

3     God's people commit atrocities

The supreme ugliness of this passage is that it is the people of God who commit the worst crime in it. The rape of a member of Jacob's family is horrible, a vile crime, but it then becomes the prelude and excuse for what is to follow, as committed by his family. 

Dinah is raped. She is, from our perspective, just a child. The crime against her is wicked and inexcusable. But there is even worse to come. I know it is pretty horrible to speak of degrees in such things, but if comparisons can be made at all, this awful event is not even the "worst rape" in the Bible. Dinah escapes with her life, and with Shechem wanting her as his wife. In the story of Amnon and Tamar his "love" immediately turned to hatred after the event. In the sickening story of the Levite's concubine in Judges, she lost her life after a whole night of systematic gang rape and abuse. By comparison, if such can be permitted, Dinah's awful experience is less. 

What follows is the destruction of a whole community, the innocent along with the guilty. The men are slaughtered; women and children enslaved. The property - even on dead bodies - is plundered. It is one of the most sickening episodes in scripture.

Shechem was not one of the Lord's people. Levi and Simeon were. 

Sadly, this was not the last time that God's covenant people sinned against him by saying or doing atrocious things against other human beings.

From the Crusades to Northern Ireland, from Luther's antisemitism to the mutual slaughter in Rwanda (which occurred after this sermon was preached. Ed.) people who claim to believe in Jesus have said and done things which have led, directly or indirectly to slaughter.  

4     What leads to atrocities?

We can highlight two factors here, though it is by no means a full list.

a     Sinful anger and vengefulness

We can see that working itself out through the story in various ways:

i     It was unfair

The reaction was out of proportion

ii    It was treacherous

They pretended to make a treaty with the people of Shechem. They broke it.

iii   It was blasphemous

They used the sign of God's gracious covenant as a tool for treachery. They divorced the sign from its meaning. Then they used the sign to kill.
It would be like saying, "We won't join you unless you are baptised." And then drowning them in the river.

iv    It was premature 

cf. 15:16 The day would come when their descendants would be called by God to deal with the people of this land. It is not that he doesn't see crimes like this rape and plan judgement. He does - but that day was not yet.

Beware of vengeance in your heart. Beware of anger welling up and controlling you. Beware of a sinful hatred which calls itself "righteous anger."

Beware of a desire for "Justice" which actually goes beyond justice.

Beware of ever making your Christian convictions a cover for hate.

Beware of being quicker with justice than God himself. It is his to avenge. He has said he will do it. Do you not believe that Christ will come, and that all wickedness will be destroyed forever? Wait for him to act.

Stop attacking other people's wicked actions then, and look to the sin in your own thoughts, words and deeds.

b     Weak and Wandering Leadership

Jacob's immature lads, brought up in a climate of jealousy, suspicion and scheming at home were really chips off the old block. It could be argued that their actions could be laid at Jacob's door, for his persistent failings as a father and family leader.

i     Was this a wrong move?

Should Jacob ever have stopped at Shechem as he did? Probably not.

He once again deceived Esau in order to be there.

He had been called to return by the God of Bethel (31:13) and that is where God tells him to go immediately after this incident. (35:1) He is in the wrong place for too long. Like Lot before him, that spells trouble.

How many parents have ended up putting their children into situations of grave temptation because of their own lack of spiritual forethought?

ii    When he should act, there is no move at all!

When trouble starts, what happens to Jacob? He seems to be struck dumb. All the negotiation is left to his sons. Spinelessness seems to have gripped him again. 

His inaction is really wicked, for he is the only person who could have restrained his sons from their plan. He should have negotiated for justice from a position of strength through faith in his God. After all, he has had the experience of the amazing turn-around in his relationship with Esau. God could do that again.

The end result of Jacob's folly and inaction is that the family of promise are once again in peril. (v30) How many times has that happened? How many times has God bailed them out after one of their periodic lapses? This time the people of the whole country - the promised land, remember - have good reason to throw out the people the land has been promised to. Such is sin.

Notice how neither passive inaction or the white heat of vengeance actually brings justice about. Neither is consistent with God's true justice at all.

5     Atrocities are Inexcusable, but not Unforgivable

This event cast a long shadow. Even to his dying day, Jacob could not forget it, and Levi and Simeon lost out because of it. (49:5-7)

But Jacob and his family are not God's people because they deserve to be. They are his people because of his gracious love. And so the Lord comes to Jacob, and gets him back on course again. (35:1) And it is God who deals with the problem of the danger to his chosen people. He bails them out again. (35:5) And Jacob and his people respond to God's love and are renewed spiritually. (35:2-4)

We must be frank and blunt about the sins of God's people. They are tragic, and they cause a lot of trouble. Not least, they bring God and his gospel into disrepute. 

But it isn't sinlessness that makes us the people of God. It is his grace. If we are honest, who among us has not thought of and longed for vengeance at some time - perhaps as terrible a vengeance as that of Levi and Simeon?

Such thoughts and even actions are inexcusable for the believer. But they are not unforgivable. Let us then draw near to him, and receive his forgiveness again.

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I wish I had listened better. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

FGM, Political Correctness and the BBC

Orla Guerin reported on today's conviction of an Egyptian Doctor for his involvement in Female Genital Mutilation. As part of her coverage of the background to the case, she said: 

"Campaigners say that ending the mutilation of young girls is also dependent on persuading families to abandon a long-held tradition, which many believe - wrongly - is a religious duty."

What on earth does she know? That word "wrongly" is ignorant and arrogant and driven by an agenda which makes no real effort to engage with what any actual people really understand by religious duty.

In the circles in which I was brought up, religious duty could include not having a cooked lunch or kicking a ball on a Sunday, singing three hymns in a service rather than four, or wearing a dark suit to the beach. Nowadays, I tend to think that all of those concepts of "duty" were wrong,  in the sense of being without any basis in the Scriptures. The people were mistaken in their sense of duty, but they were sincere, and I think that really only an insider who understands their culture and submits to the same scriptures is qualified to make any judgement as to the religious necessity or not of their "duty". 

Around the world the variety of "religious duty" is extraordinary. Dietary oddities, taboos and commitments, every kind of bodily mutilation - nothing is surprising. Some great cruelties are practised as religious duties, whole social systems have been raised up on the foundation of a religious world-view - life is religion for most of the world, most of the time. 

The Western world, as exemplified by David Cameron, Orla Guerin and her BBC colleagues, is stuck up a creek without a paddle. The commitment is to say that all religions are helpful, loving and positive, and that nasty stuff, from machine-gunned journalists to genitally-mutilated girls, does not therefore have any root in religion. This politically correct orthodoxy necessitates the kind of nonsense contained in that word "wrongly" - religion = good, FGM = bad, therefore FGM is not a religious duty. 

What cannot be allowed, cannot be contemplated, cannot be countenanced or breathed, is that some religion is false and nasty and destructive and bad. FGM is horrid, it is wrong, it is cruel. And for some sincere people, it is a duty that genuinely flows from their faith. 

Their faith is wrong. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Why care? The theological foundation of social action

A friend of mine who has worked in development work in TSA for a number of years said to me a few months ago that he felt he didn't really have a theological basis for what he was doing. My impression is that he has dipped a little into various theologies, principally of the more Progress or Liberation type, but he has never felt that he has a coherent and comprehensive understanding from which to work. Specifically, I think he has never been strongly exposed to the broader evangelical history of social action nor its theological base. I believe that the SA, with its glorious history of social action, needs to rediscover its own theological roots in just this area, and so to place evangelism and social action in close coordination within the Army's holistic mission. 

You don't need a Liberation Theology to have a holistic vision for social action. The Christian social reformers of the 19th Century would not have agreed with an LT reading of, say, Exodus, and yet their call to social action WAS grounded in their classic, evangelical theology. What are the distinct elements of such a theology as it touches on social, compassionate and developmental issues? In one sense a "holistic" vision is one where all thought-streams are interconnected, so that every aspect of theology has a social outworking, but I think it is possible to identify three key theological taproots of evangelical social concern.

1) The Image of God: Common humanity flowing from common humanness. 

We recognise and honour the image of God in every human being. This image is present and underwrites the value of human life after the Fall - it is present in all, regardless of gender, age, colour, class, age or ability. Admittedly, among the various lines of discussion regarding the nature of the image of God, it has been an evangelical stream - the Lutheran - that has tended to say that the image was lost completely in the Fall, but Reformed theology, with a few exceptions, has argued for a damaged and yet still present image, which is still the basic measure of human value. This position has dominated British evangelical theology.

The logic of this, once seen, or allowed, is inescapable. If the measure of human worth resides outside of ourselves, in God himself, then a respect and honour is due to one another which precludes all racism, sexism, classism and ageism.  And how can I allow my fellow image-bearer to starve, be mistreated, abused, trafficked or killed? 

In honouring all human beings as being made in the image of God, I honour the One who is THE image of the invisible God - the Man for whom and by whom all things were first made. This leads to the second point...

2) God's kindness and compassion in Jesus Christ

In a broken world under judgement, social concern is motivated by - we might say made possible at all by - the grace of God in Christ. The human race has fallen - we are corrupt. At one level we don't deserve any good. Hunger and pain, struggle and failure, chaos and unfairness, are all woven into our lives. But what God has done in Christ means that we cannot adopt a "grin and bear it" approach. He has shown kindness and mercy and condescension when we were dead in our sins. He has stooped to help us. We live in a helped world. 

This help has come to us holistically. Though the centre and goal of Jesus whole ministry was to PREACH the gospel of forgiveness of sins and then to BE that gospel through his dying and rising, nevertheless, along the way of the Word and the Cross, he did good at the most practical level. Maintaining the spiritual message of the Cross at centre is totally consistent with vigorous attempts to ease the physical burden of our fellow human beings because that is exactly how Jesus demonstrated his love as he travelled along the same road. If sin is the cancer and suffering and injustice are the symptoms, I will not take my eyes off the need for a cure from sin, but I will want to help with the symptoms. I will recognise that to preach the message of forgiveness to a man with an empty stomach is to deny the love at the very heart of the message I preach.

It is striking how the NT letters, as they come to practical application, repeatedly bring us back to the cross of Jesus as our motive.  Love your wife, give to the poor, be kind and tolerant towards each other in the church, submit to your boss - all these and more are to be driven, for the Christian, by a constant awareness of God's love in Jesus.  Amongst all the rediscoveries of which the church is in need, the rediscovery of the link between Cross and lifestyle is amongst the most important. 

3) The coming age of Christ 

The gospel of Christ is more than simply a spiritual message of forgiveness in itself, of course. In justification we hear the verdict of the future judgement day brought into the present; that great "Not Guilty" is the opening fanfare of our entrance into eternal life, and eternal life is enjoyed now and forever, in a new world which the scripture presents consistently as physical and solid. 

The future world will be a place of justice and peace, of integrity and prosperity. All that is corrupt and unjust in the present system will be swept away into the rubbish bin of eternity. Some Christians, including some evangelicals, have tended to say, "Well - that's for the age to come - no need for us to do anything now." I think the opposite - we are to live as citizens of the coming kingdom. This world may be passing, it may be destined for judgement, and yet it is groaning for its future redemption and we cannot live as if it had no value at all. The powers of the age to come have already laid hold of us, and we have to demonstrate the values of that age in the here and now by pursuing the same goals. We are to show the characteristics of the future reign of our dear King, Jesus, in this age. Indeed, it is precisely the certainty of his coming justice, of judgement in the light of the transcendent moral values of this King, that makes the pursuit of justice in the present evil age so utterly imperative. 

One of my favourite characters from British church history is James Montgomery the hymn writer, who gave us the carol "Angels from the realms of glory".  He was imprisoned on more than one occasion for his radical, socialist-leaning views. He cared passionately about the plight of the poor, and helped in the fight against the slave trade. All of that was rooted in his Moravian spirituality - the same source that John and Charles Wesley had drunk from so deeply. My favourite hymn of his is the well-known paraphrase of Psalm 72...

1. Hail to the Lord's Anointed,
great David's greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.

2. He comes with succour speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.

3. He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before him on the mountains,
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.

4. To him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
his kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.
The tide of time shall never
his covenant remove;
his name shall stand forever;
that name to us is love.

That is eschatological hope, clearly breaking out into present social concern. 

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I am not rejecting every insight that has come through Liberation Theology. I am saying that a broad-based commitment to social action was built into the Christian movement way before LT. In the Salvation Army there are many who have a genuinely deep love for Christ, and a deep love and concern for people, which have been come into being through a traditionally evangelical but theologically impoverished preaching. As those who are involved in social action look for a deeper foundation, they seem to be offered mainly non-Evangelical models. We need to go back to our roots, with greater confidence that we have what we need in classic Evangelical thought.

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For a helpful and thorough historical and theological survey of the relationship between Evangelism and Social action in the SA, please see here. I think it ends up a tad too positive about the impact of post-modernity, but I think the authors may not have been aware of (or imagined) the way that post-modern thought would invade evangelical theology over the last decade.


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Demise of Page 3

So the Sun has pulled the plug. No More Page 3 has won the day. It sure wasn't "creeping sharia" as some people seem to seriously think.

But what has really been won??

1) Any bloke will tell you that a bikini or lingerie picture can be just as erotic and objectifying as a topless shot. The problem is not simply the toplessness (though progress is welcome!) but the use of sexually titillating images of women as a form of acceptable ultra-soft-core porn. Other papers, including The Mail, are just as bad as the Sun, though some make more attempt to disguise the cheesecake as news.

2) It is necessary to define the porn as "ultra-soft core" because of the real reason that Page 3 has stopped. I think it is because of the availability of porn. For most of its 44 years, Page 3 was the sexiest thing most blokes could see without having to resort to some potential embarrassment at the newsagents - The Sun being "acceptable". Over the last 20 years it has become easier and easier to access ever harder-core porn at no expense and low risk of discovery - Page 3 thus became anodyne and unnecessary. That is what Murdoch's "old fashioned" really means - in a world where ten year olds regularly watch film of people actually doing it, who needs Page 3?

Battle still on!

Friday, 16 January 2015


In a recent post, I referred to the two threads of judgement and salvation that come together in the gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism by John. It strikes me that the "threads" concept is such a powerful tool for understanding the Bible, and yet one which is not always appreciated.

To use that particular example, and explore it a little more deeply: the synoptic gospels refer to Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40 as they describe John's ministry. In Mark 1 the two passages are actually glued together, and introduced as if both by Isaiah, but on looking closely they are two quotes. The NIV does the work for us with carefully separating punctuation:

Mark 1:2-3 ... as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:“I will send my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord,make straight paths for him.’” 

What is striking is that the two verses quoted are the sections of the two passages which are most alike, and Mark weaves them into a virtually seamless whole.  But when we look at the context of the two verses, the contrast is stark: 

Malachi 3:1-5 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. 
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. 
Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 
“So I will come to put you on trial. 
I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers,
against those who defraud laborers of their wages, 
who oppress the widows and the fatherless, 
and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, 
but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty. 

Isaiah 40:1-5 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God. 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 
and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain. 
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 

Both prophets speak of a voice or messenger, preparing the way for the Lord's coming. But that is their only point of similarity: Malachi's coming is terrifying, full of burning judgement against immorality and hypocrisy; Isaiah's is full of comfort and the assurance that punishment is done with. 

I don't know, and I don't know if anyone knows, whether any thinker or movement had put those two texts together before Mark did, but what is clear is that in drawing them together and making quite obvious that he sees them as referring to John and (more importantly) to Jesus, Mark is "doing theology" on a grand scale. He is joining threads, linking themes from past revelation and affirming that they both come to fulfilment in Jesus.

Those two threads, Judgement and Salvation, go way back, of course. At the very beginning of the Bible we see them under different names - they are Cursing and Blessing, which seem to alternate as themes in early Genesis. It is only as the universal nature of the curse of judgement is revealed in practice that blessing becomes inextricably linked with salvation - blessing can only be experienced when the curse is lifted, when sin is paid for, when judgement is removed. This is why Isaiah 40's promise of comfort is because sin is paid for - in the context a reference to exile, but illustrating a broader principle. 

Ultimately we may say that God has only two ways of dealing with the world: salvation and judgement. Extend those into eternity and you get the names Heaven and Hell.  The gospels draw those themes together and say that Jesus is God's agent in bringing both; he is Lord of both. 

The point is that there are many such threads, of greater and lesser prominence. Others could include the Presence/tabernacling of God with his people, or sacrifice, or the Son of Man, or the Shepherd, or the Servant, or the Messiah, or the Rock, or the Word, or Wisdom. It is the gathering of these threads into an interwoven whole in the coming of Jesus that constitutes a specifically Christian reading of the Old Testament. We could go so far as to say that whoever brought together the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the Terrifying Messiah of Psalm 2 invented Christianity. And the evidence is that this was Jesus himself.  

Contemporary criticism has often dismissed the idea of any unity of thought in the Bible. We are told that the book is a collection of incompatible theologies, and that any idea of an overarching theme or truth is an unworkable construct. Such an approach, it seems to me, rides roughshod over the Bible's own awareness of its internal diversity and yet its affirmation of unity. The New Testament's testimony to Jesus is precisely that he is the One in whom all those diverse and apparently opposing threads come together.