Monday, April 16, 2018

Facebook's Alt-Church Fail

In a speech last year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted the social network he founded to perform the role that once used to be played by churches. He suggested that with the decline of churchgoing, “people now need to find a sense of purpose and support somewhere else." Sounds very noble and high minded, doesn’t it? The Church of Facebook, presided over by the geeky gods of silicon valley. They monitor almost every activity of their flock and then sell the valuable data they have gathered to advertising companies so they can flog us more stuff. It’s about connecting people, you see. With retailers. Friendship has become a commodity. And then there’s the sinister manipulation of social media for political ends.

Facebook’s mission statement is to, “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But the social network is no substitute for the church. Online you can keep your ‘friends’ at a safe distance. Interact with them on your own terms. You can make sure they only see your best side, ‘Here’s me having a happy life, doing fun stuff. Hope you like my holiday snaps.’ If someone gives you grief on Facebook, you can ‘unfriend’ them with a click of a mouse or quick jab at a screen. 

Church means committing yourself to forging a community with a group of people with whom you meet on a regular basis. Actual flesh and blood people who are just as flawed and imperfect as you. They’ll get to see you at your best and worst. The frictions that come into any relationship between people have to be managed by giving and receiving forgiveness. You can’t just ‘unfriend’ your brothers and sisters in the faith. Doesn’t work like that.

The Christian faith isn’t meant to be a solitary pilgrimage to heaven. Jesus said, ‘I will build by church’. And by ‘church’ he did not mean a building, but a gathering of people who believe in him and follow him together. When Christians meet their sense of purpose and support deepens. The worship of the gathered church includes seeking God in prayer, singing his praises, hearing the Bible read and its message proclaimed, and eating the Lord’s Supper together. That’s right, eating a simple meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ death upon the cross for our sins, and in hope of his return in glory. You can’t livestream, or download the Lord’s Supper, or ‘like’ a photo of other people doing it. You have to be there. And so the bonds of community are strengthened.

The church that gathers also scatters, seeking to follow Jesus in every area of life. Churches serve the wider community, running parent and toddler groups, visiting the elderly, running food banks, and so on. However much ‘virtue signalling’ we do by ‘liking’ worthy causes on social media, there is no substitute for giving practical help to actual people.

Facebook no doubt has  its uses, but Mark Zuckerberg and the gods of silicon valley can’t claim to have built a world wide community with a sense of united purpose. Hardly. They’ve just found a way of monetising us and our mates. But God has  gathered a global family of people from all nations and backgrounds. He hasn’t created this community in order to exploit it. No, God so loved his people that he was willing to give his Son to die upon the cross that they might be forgiven and become his children. That’s the church. Believe, belong.

*For Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh & News & Views, West Lavington 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Quiet Place

It's a post-apocalyptic world. Townships are deserted. Stuff is left on shop shelves for foraging survivors. Survivors like the Abbott family. Husband and wife Lee and Evelyn (real life couple John Krasinski and his wife Emily Blunt), their daughter, Regan and sons, Marcus and Beau. 

Their world is a quiet place because sound means slaughter. Nasty crab-legged, Alien-headed creatures stalk the earth in search of prey. Their favourite food is human. They see nothing, but hear everything. 

Anything for a quiet life. The alternative is death. But the Abbots have an advantage. Regan is deaf. (played by real life deaf actress, Millicent Simmonds). Hence, the family is used to communicating in sign language. 

But it's difficult for the youngest child, Beau to fully understand the need for silence. When the family heads into town, foraging for meds, the little lad takes a toy rocket from the shelf of an abandoned store. A noisy toy rocket. Dad removes the batteries before the family returns to their farmstead home. Unnoticed, Beau  reinserts them and switches the thing on, with fatal consequences. 

If trying to keep an inquisitive toddler safe is tricky, imagine what it might be like when mom gives birth. In a bath. With 'all ears' monsters prowling the house, alert to the tiniest sound. Hubby's off fishing, so no hand to squeeze. The slightest whimper could prove deadly. And then there's the challenge of keeping the newborn quiet. Talk about ratcheting up the tension. 

Lee returns to find mother and baby safe and sound. Evelyn asks, "Who are we, if we can't protect our children?" It's the question all parents of younger children ask themselves, alert of the dangers of the world. In that sense the film is a parable on the perils of parenting, real and imagined. Evelyn makes her husband promise to guard their brood at all costs. He does. It will cost him.

Lee is no feckless, responsibility-shy modern man. Resourceful, strong and tender, he takes on the traditional male roles of provider and protector. Must have been reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Mum isn't to be messed with, either.

Along the way the film explores the themes of guilt,  forgiveness, love and sacrifice. Before meals the family hold hands and bow their heads. Seemingly in silent prayer. "Deliver us from evil"? See here for a helpful TGC review. 

The parts are convincingly acted, so you care what happens to the characters. The tenderness and tensions of family life contrast tellingly with the mortal dangers that lurk outside (and sometimes inside) the sanctuary of home.

It's scary. The enforced silence of the Abbott household and sparing use of sountrack music mean that the slightest noise is likely to make you jump. No popcorn crunching or drink slurping in this film, please. Breathing should be kept to a minimum.

Will wholesome family values and the power of prayer prove a sufficient antidote to the chaos of a ruined, monster-infested world? Go and see for yourself. Just don't make a sound. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Ten things on the Son's submission and the Trinity

1. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in divine being and glory.

2. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not identical persons. Each has unique individualising properties. The Father is unbegotten as to his person, the Son as to his person is begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit as to his person proceeds from the Father and the Son. No person receives the divine being from another; each is 'autotheos', or God in themselves. 

3. Each divine person indwells the others and is indwelt by the others in an eternal interchange of loving communicative action. 

4. According to the witness of Scripture there is an order of persons in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This order is reflected in the external actions of the Three, by which all things are of the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. 

5. The persons are not reducible to their relations or their functions in the economy of redemption. The Son is not the Son because he submitted to the Father in becoming man. As the eternal Son he is of the Father as to his person, and God in his own right. 

6. The internal as well as external acts of the Trinity are undivided. The divine decree of redemption is an expression of the singular will of the Triune God. The Son became man in submission to the decree to which he himself was party, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. 

7. In the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity, the Son is the electing God with the Father and the Holy Spirit, the elect One who was appointed to be sent into the world as man by the Father and through the Spirit, and also the One in whom the elect were chosen for salvation. 

8. The economic Trinity communicates the immanent Trinity. If God as he is for us does not truly disclose God as he is in himself, we are left with an unknowable Deus absconditus. With that in mind, it was reflective of the order of persons in the Trinity that it was decreed that the Son as opposed to the Father, or the Spirit became incarnate. It seems especially fitting that it was the Son, as the image of the invisible God who became human in the image of God, in order to redeem us by his blood. 

9. The Son did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but took the form of a servant and came in appearance as a man because he was in the form of God, not although he was in the form of God. For the God in whose form he was is the self-giving God of love and grace. In stooping to become one us that he might be lifted up on the cross to atone for our sins, the Son revealed the very heart of Yahweh, the God of the covenant, Exodus 3:14, John 8:28, Philippians 2:5-11. 

10. The Son's willing submission to the divine decree and humble obedience to his Father, even to the death of the cross, provide an example to believers as we seek to follow the Servant King in the whole of our lives; in the home, in church, and in the wider world. Submission leads to exaltation. Down is the only way up, Ephesians 5:22-33, Philippians 2:1-11, 1 Peter 5:5. 

Saturday, March 31, 2018

In brief: Easter in Pisidia

Friday: "though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed." (Acts 13:28)
Saturday: "but he whom God raised up did not see corruption." (Acts 13:37)
Sunday: "But God raised him from the dead" Acts 13:30)

Friday, March 30, 2018

Easter: The Biggest 'April Fool', Ever?


This year Easter Sunday coincides with April Fool’s Day. Over the years there have been some famous April Fool hoaxes. My favourite is probably the BBC’s  spaghetti tree broadcast. Some people were taken in and believed  that pasta grew on trees. A close second is the Beeb’s feature on a colony of flying penguins. You’d think that having Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, rather than Sir David Attenborough fronting the programme was a bit of a giveaway, but it does look pretty convincing. Look it up on YouTube.

But was the biggest April Fool hoax ever the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead, leaving his tomb empty? The resurrection story is one of the most contested facts in history. Fake news, or what? As with any historical claim, one thing to consider is the reliability of the eyewitnesses. By ancient standards the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb weren’t reliable at all. Their testimony in a court of law was worthless. Why? Because they were women. Chauvinistic, I know, but that’s how things were back then. If the Gospel writers wanted to fabricate the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, why make women key eyewitnesses? It is testimony to their honesty that all the Gospel accounts record that women were the first to see that Jesus’ tomb was empty.

It took the empty tomb and personal encounters with the risen Jesus to convince the apostles that he was alive from the dead. His original followers thought all was lost when Jesus was crucified and then laid to rest. The last thing they expected was to see him again. And what they saw was no dream, or vision. Jesus said to his followers, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” The disciples had forsaken Jesus when he was arrested and crucified. In the wake of his death they hid themselves away in case the authorities come for them too. But soon after we find them boldly telling everyone who would listen that Jesus had risen from the dead. Many of the apostles laid down their lives for that claim. Which at least suggests that they genuinely believed it. The word for witness in Greek is ‘martyr’. The apostles were martyrs who testified that Jesus was alive. Who would knowingly die for a lie?

The Gospel accounts invite our careful scrutiny. Look up Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24 and John 20 on The credibility of the eyewitnesses is a strong argument that Easter was no April Fool’s hoax. It happened. Jesus laid down his life for the sins of the world and then rose from the dead. This is not ‘fake news’, but Gospel truth. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9).

* For Trinity Parish Magazine, Dilton Marsh and News & Views, West Lavington

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart by Catherine Haddow

10Publishing, 2017, 126pp

We live in an age where feeling has trumped thinking. People are told to, ‘follow their hearts’, or ‘do what feels right to them’. I can scarcely think of worse advice. For, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9). The emotions of fallen humanity are not to be trusted. But neither are emotions to be discounted. In his great work, The Religious Affections Jonathan Edwards argued, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” He defined “affections” as,

all the exercises of the inclination and will… either in approving and liking, or disapproving and rejecting, so the affections are of two sorts; they are those by which the soul is carried out to what is in view, cleaving to it, or seeking it; or those by which it is averse from it, and opposes it. Of the former sort are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence. Of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief, and such like

Our ‘affections’ reveal our inmost desires; what we delight in and what we dread, or despise. As Catherine Haddow puts it, “Emotions are mirrors of the heart”. When we ‘let rip’ at someone for some trivial offence, the state our hearts is revealed. The unwitting irritant has touched something precious to us, disturbing our selfish preoccupations. If we view the future with fear and foreboding because we cannot control it, our lack of faith in God’s sovereign care is likewise disclosed.

Most of us experience a certain amount of emotional turbulence, ranging from extreme grief to ecstatic joy. Usually we trundle along somewhere in between those two poles. Sometimes people get stuck in the negative end of the emotional spectrum. Anger, anxiety and misery prevail. We call it depression.

People suffering from depression may be referred to a counsellor for sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This ‘talking treatment’ has its uses in helping to correct distorted thinking and disturbed emotions. Haddow draws on the insights of CBT, but also seeks to bring biblical principles to bear. She proposes a ‘tbH’ model, deploying an approach that addresses ‘thoughts, biology, behaviour, and Heart’.

The mind of a depressed person may become dominated by anxious, fearful thoughts. That, in turn, may make them feel nauseous when under pressure – a biological response. To avoid feeling that way, the sufferer will alter their behaviour to evade what they perceive as stressful situations. They begin to move in ever decreasing circles. But all this says something about the Heart. Perhaps the person in question is seeking security elsewhere than in God? In that case, they need to bring their heart to trust him as their refuge and strength. Their distorted thinking needs to be corrected in the light of God’s Word. Then they may know his peace that relieves us of soul-sapping anxiety, Philippians 4:6-7.

Haddow devotes chapters to ‘The sneers’, ‘The fears’, and ‘The tears’, applying her ‘tbH’ model to each type of negative feeling. The book makes for a searching read. The writer probes our hearts in the light of God’s word that we may see the things that often lie at the root of our disturbed emotions; pride, control-freakery, and a festering sense of loss that refuses to acknowledge that what the Lord has given he may also take away.  

I found the book useful for my own spiritual life. But it also has value for pastors and indeed all believers who are trying to offer guidance and support to people with emotional problems. Helpful direction is given on how to counsel such friends with understanding and biblical honesty. Haddow offers no pat answers, or silver bullets, but her ‘tbH’ approach provides a useful framework for biblical counselling.

It is refreshing that the author does not wrap counselling in a shroud of professional mystery. She urges the usefulness of the ordinary means of grace; church life, exposure to the Bible read and preached, prayer and the Sacraments.  But, contrary what Haddow says on p. 110, we are not to trust in the means of God’s grace to put him in the ‘driving seat’ of our lives. We are to trust in the God who works through means in order to impart all needed grace to his suffering people.

Jonathan Edwards said of the Ministry of the Word, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth”. Edwards wanted his people to know 'joy unspeakable and full of glory' in their Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Some of the Lord's people, however, find themselves cast down and emotionally broken. 

Jesus, the Servant of the Lord par excellence confessed, ‘The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.’ (Isaiah 50:4) Emotions: Mirrors of the Heart is full of sound, scriptural instruction on how to minister to believers with emotional difficulties. In one way or another, we all find ourselves in that camp. May this work be widely used to help afflicted Christians recover the joy of their salvation. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

In brief: the Spirit of life

Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg recently said he could not become a Christian because bodily resurrection is against the laws of physics. He is right, it is. Our hope is not based on the laws of physics, however, but the laws of pneumatics. As Paul said,"For the law of the Spirit (pneuma) of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death." And again, "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness." (Romans 8:2, 10) 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In brief: repentance and faith

Repentance is our 'no' to sin against God. Faith is our 'yes' to forgiveness of sin from God.

In brief: the Spirit of Judgement

The same Holy Spirit who convicts the world of sin and judgement, in assurance echoes the verdict of heaven upon believers: "justified".

Monday, March 12, 2018

From plight to solution and back again

The view we take of the plight of human beings in sin will affect our understanding of salvation as the solution to sin.

If sin is a trivial problem, it requires only a trivial solution.

Is sin is serious, it demands a serious solution.

A Pelagian view of sin requires only a Socinian Jesus; a human example to show us a better way.

An Augustinian view of sin demands a Chalcedonian Jesus; one who is fully God and fully human in one person, dying in the place of human beings to put us right with God.

The same applies if you argue from solution to plight. If it took the death of God incarnate to save us from sin, then sin is the most weighty problem we will ever face. A problem that outside of Jesus has no solution.

Biblically speaking, Matthew 1:21 only holds true because of Matthew 1:23.