Quick review: One Forever

One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ (Guidebooks for Life)One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ by Rory Shiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do I feel about this book? Answer: I wish I had a whole pile of copies to give to my Christian friends (as well as to non-Christians interested in this whole Jesus-business).

This is a short work, written after the material initially appeared as conference talks. So my rating is for that kind of book – a relatively quick but oh so important read. (It would be unfair to rate it for what it never tries to be.) One Forever is a book for any reader.

One thing I have found among all Christians, myself included, is the slip in grooves of language. Take the example of prayer. We know that he will always start, ‘Dear God’, while she says, ‘Loving Father’, and yet another invariably says, ‘Lord and Saviour …’ None of these are wrong, but words can lose meaning by being uttered without reflection.

The same is true, even more true, for the way we discuss our connection with God. I suspect one reason we become stale in our walk of faith is that we become stale in the descriptions we use for our walk of faith.

This need no be so. God’s word uses many beautiful colours and powerful patterns to describe how believers know God.

Being united with Christ is one such description. We should treasure it, and Shiner’s book is a tool to help us do precisely that.

Unity with Christ, or being ‘in him’, is a wonderfully all-encompassing description of the Christian life. One Forever, in eight short chapters delves into some of these. For instance, being one with Jesus in his death, or being one with Jesus in his resurrection, or being one with Jesus in his body.

I won’t include much more detail, because I don’t want to write one of those reviews which allows us to think: Great, that’s helpful and now I don’t need to read the book. Please do read it! And I think you’ll be encouraged by thee content, as well as the practical changes that follow a serious commitment to living in the light of union with Christ.


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Ashley Madison and the search for security

The folly of sin is when we flee from security in search of security. We run away from what’s good and justify it as the search for good. It’s a daily universal pattern. Sometimes this pattern becomes even more clear than usual.

Earlier this year there was big news for the customers of Ashley Madison – their personal details had been hacked and published on the internet.

This would be poor form for any online business, but was more nerve-jangling for these clients since Ashley Madison exists entirely to promote infidelity and sexual unfaithfulness. Who cares about credit card details once the whole world knows your secrets?

The irony of this hack is that it was a security breach of the company whose business model was to breach security.

Ashley Madison promote married dating (ie, cheating). They target people who have made promises to a partner, people who have also heard promises from their spouse.

Of course no marriage is perfect. Yet it’s wonderful that men and women seriously promise each other the security of life-long commitment, “until death.” That’s a basis for security!

But at some stage the clients of the Adultery Madison Ashley Madison opted for the fragile security of an on-line business. “Oh look”, they might have thought, “they have secure socket layer security. I will definitely trust that!”

And so the potential adulterer says farewell to the security of a spousal promise, and entrusts privacy to the security of the internet. Dumb choice.

That is like sin in the heart of every person. Just as in the Garden of Eden, where the man and woman lost the whole garden because they opted instead for the one banned fruit.

Or, in the Lord’s words through his prophet, “my people have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

The folly of sin: we run away from what we really want, under the impression that we will find what we want.

So Ashley Madison is a jolt to all of us, not only the individuals named.

  • It’s time to turn back from seeking good things in bad places.
    Repent of the adultery sites, of ‘financial security’, of looking as good as whitewashed tombs.
  • It’s time to turn back to the living water himself, Jesus Christ our good Lord.



Quick review – Compared to her …

Compared to herCompared to her by Sophie de Witt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good and very short look at the problems that follow compulsively comparing ourselves with others. Not all comparisons are bad, just most of them.

If comparison-itis is the negative, the positive is contentment, found only in the sure blessings of Christ. De Witt explains all of this around three axes: significance, satisfaction, security. These three, helpfully, crop up again and again as de Witt explains cause, effect and treatment of the curse of comparison.

This is a book aimed at women, with plenty of women’s voices quoted throughout, but I’d say it is just as valuable for men.

There is one omission, or neglect, that I consider worth comment. De Witt’s method appears to focus on understanding and comprehension (of ourselves, of Jesus, of the hope we have in God). But there is little – perhaps nothing – on trust, or faith. I would expect an explanation that confidence and contentment flow from trust in Jesus, not just comprehension.

Nonetheless, recommended!


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The Christianity of Les Mis

Les MiserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a huge novel. Imagine how much was left out for the stage musical. And imagine how much is left out in any review.

And I am also a leaver-out. Because, apart from enjoying the storyline, my reaction to Les Miserables is to ponder the kind of Christianity it presents. Everything else I will leave out.

This novel’s Christianity has high regard for Jesus, but not for the gospel. It loves the practice and consequences of Christianity, but not the heart of Christianity.

Consequently, I think, it is deficient. But more than deficient – this deficiency is also misrepresentation.

Time for some detail, to see if my impression fits the details.

Firstly, the high regard for Jesus. This is from the start to the end. The first primary character is a humble, servant-minded bishop. He lives on almost none of his stipend, in order to give it away – he copies Jesus. It’s the encounter with this bishop that transforms the life of Jean Valjean, Les Mis’ central character.

In the final pages, Jesus and the cross appear again. A crucifix features, with subtle significance, and Jesus is named as the true martyr.

But secondly, I think there’s no gospel. Jesus is good as an example to follow but no more. The bishop imitated and sacrificed, Valjean sacrifices too. Therefore they are demonstrated as real Christians.

They sweat and toil in efforts to copy Jesus. They do not seem to have any time to joyfully rest by faith in the grace of God’s forgiveness. There is no grace, and therefore no ‘faith apart from works’.

Valjean’s immense strength is physical, but I believe it’s also a symbol of his spiritual status – he’s a hero because of what he does. He’s an impressive man, and it feels like it’s all his own work.

It’s telling that the frequently-used divine name – the good God – is perfectly austere and distant. The God of the Bible is not Immanuel, God with us in the grace of Christ’s gospel. He is, rather, the mysterious force who ordains, and desires that we turn ourselves into good people.

Finally, this is not just a deficiency but misrepresentation.

It is perfectly possible to talk truly about God, but never possible to say everything about him. There is a point to God-talk, despite our limits! This is, we might say ‘deficiency but truth’.

Unfortunately, Les Mis is so lacking that the omissions twist God into a lie. The God of Valjean is not Father, gracious, forgiving, welcoming. He is instead austere, stern, and clinically pure. This God is not quick to condemn, thankfully – not judgemental over minor error. Yet neither is he the Abba, Father of Romans 8:15.

Going back to the plot, I think this deficiency drives one of the features of the novel. Valjean is decidedly committed to following his conscience (which is actually called ‘God’ at one point). But he remains disconnected from people, hiding facts and ‘protecting’ those he cares for. I think, in the end, Valjean’s relationships with people are all duty and not really love. In this, the hero relates to people just as he relates to God.

So, let’s enjoy Les Mis! It’s rightly a classic. And let’s enjoy the fact that it does not disparage God, but places him at the centre of concern for the miserable of the world. But do not be tricked – this novel does not present to us the God of the Gospel, the true God whom we meet by faith in the Lord Jesus.

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Optimism unbounded

Reading Les Miserables is a lot longer than going to the musical. And it’s full of a lot more (extreme!) detail, including heaps of politics and social theory. That makes sense, since the novel is about the underclass of miserable suffering.

Written in the 1860s, it often harks back to the glories of the French Revolution (1789, but not ignoring the violence of 1793), and Napoleon’s career. It’s not disdainful at all about Christian religion, either. But I’d say the real topic of the novel is the future.

Specifically, how good that future will be, because of human progress. The narrator thinks so. Characters in the novel think so too.

Here are the words of Enjolras at the barricades of 1832, a stirring ‘sermon’ on why they rebel:

Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then, there will be nothing more like the history of old, we shall no longer, as today, have to fear a conquest, an invasion, a usurpation, a rivalry of nations, arms in hand, an interruption of civilization depending on a marriage of kings, on a birth in heredity tyrannies, a partition of peoples by  congress, a dismemberment because of a failure of a dynasty, a combat of two religions meeting face to face, like two bucks in the dark, on the bridge of the infinite; we shall no longer have to fear famine, farming out, prostitution arising from distress, misery from the failure of work and the scaffold and the sword, and battles and the ruffianism of chance in the forest of events. One might almost say: There will be no more events. We shall be happy.

Well. How did that seem to you?

The long sentence of extended prediction, I think, contains a perfect description of what actually did happen in the happy twentieth century.

There’s a note of warning for us, especially if Christian.

One: never underestimate the serious problem of human sin, it’s not so easy to ‘fix.’ Two: never overestimate the importance of those who believe in progress.



John’s gospel signs

I finished a sermon on John 4:43-54 with a ‘take-home exercise in believing’: Find the signs of John’s gospel.

John’s gospel includes a number of signs, but he only numbers the first and the second. It is as if John says to us, “I made the first two easy for you, now you find the rest – pay attention!”

These signs (as I said in the talk) are not dead signs. They are living signs. Dead signs are like street pointers. Once you can find the street you forget the sign. Dead signs do their job once or twice, then disappear. They point 100% away from themselves.

Living signs, in contrast, never outlive their use. We meet Jesus precisely in the signs of John’s gospel. As we see and reflect on the sign we trust Christ – if we do it right.

So to help you in this take-home exercise, here are the places where John mentions a sign or signs. There can be signs where he does not use the word, so view this as a starting point.

2:11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

2:18 So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”

2:23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.

3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

4:48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

4:54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.

6:2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

6:26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

6:30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?”

7:31 Yet many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”

9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them.

10:41 And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.”

11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.”

12:18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign.

12:33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

12:37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him

18:32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

20:30-31Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

21:19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

(All verses quoted in English Standard Version.)

So what do you notice? How does this help you to know John’s gospel, and to trust Jesus?




Ministry and the art of motorcycle maintenance


It was the alternator

Apologies twice. There’s no motorcycle involved in this post, just a picture of my busted ute. Neither is there any reference to the famous Robert Pirsig novel – I simply could not resist.

Here is the honest headline: Christian ministry is more like fixing a car than driving one.

In Christian ministry, we want to go somewhere with people. The journey is from unbelief to trust in Christ and growing likeness to Christ. Ministry is all about helping others on this path, by announcing Christ.

As Paul said about Jesus:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
Colossians 1:28-29

So often we treat this trip as a straightforward drive. We think that all who enter the vehicle will end up and the right destination. The vehicle might be church services, or small groups, or some other programme.

Motor maintenance is messy. When the car breaks down, you have to get safely home. Perhaps there’s a tow truck involved. Or roadside patch-up repairs.

When back in the garage the process is still irregular. Thirty minutes while the other guy finds the special tool he just knows he bought. Two hours testing out one part of the engine – that turns out to have no problem anyway. More time scratching heads for further options. Wondering if there’s an expert around. And always getting your hands dirty under the hood.

And this is just like Christian ministry. The word of God is sharp enough to open us up (Hebrews 4:12-13). The scriptures equip us by teaching, rebuke, correction and training (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These things are messy.

Ministry uncovers guilt and broken lives. It teaches that on our own we’re all stuck in sin. It makes confession and repentance a normal part of belief. It shows that reconciliation is God’s way, though running away is more appealing.

Often also ministry has long periods of apparently nothing happening. There’s no conversion or no change to see. We look at one area of life as a big problem – but it was not so important after all. So we keep on, even if unsure about what is the real story in that life.

We feel inefficient and not able to make the difference and unsure of ourselves. But that’s perfectly fine – because the ability never lies in the person ministering. The ‘ability’ to minister always lies in God and his grace. And he will bring his children home. So press on!

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Acts 20:32




Violence, Christianity, & a local paper

For my own interest, here’s a small interaction of letters in my local paper, The Border Mail. Make of the exchange what you will. Yet we see that there’s easy opportunity to speak up and contribute. I was tempted to just dismiss the initial letter, but decided to spend a few minutes putting together a short response. I am glad for the openness to be printed, and I am glad that I said something.

And remember, someone will certainly get to speak – even if their arguments are laughably wrong.

May 18, 2015

Religion sows seeds of violence
DESPITE all the political facades and double talk, there is no legislation dealing with domestic violence.

In reality, the perpetrators of violent acts within the home are protected through a lack of law.

Let the point be clear, our politicians, our legal system has failed to take domestic violence seriously enough to legislate against it!

Why? Our Christian belief system says God is a male and white, man was made in the image of God, woman was extracted from the rib of man and must be subservient to him.

The apostles were all male and women have until recently been banned from higher order positions in the church; the Pope is male and always will be.

A man had the right to control his wife and even beat her up.

Surely this is where the seeds of domestic violence are sown.

For our politicians to legislate against domestic violence is virtually a breach of God’s words and orders of things as laid down through the Bible.

All contemporary religious institutions in effect support domestic violence through practised ideals that man is superior and in charge of woman.

In reality women are often treated badly in law when they speak out against domestic violence.

Boorhaman North

May 21, 2015

Some in church still in denial
ALAN Lappin (The Border Mail, May 18) is right. Religion, including Christianity, contributes to the scourge of domestic violence.

The teaching of female submission to males, the promotion of male headship in church, home and society, has contributed to violence against women.

The church, finally, is starting to acknowledge this issue.

Many men who uphold this traditional teaching are as appalled as any that it is misused to justify violence, but it is indisputable that views which disempower women and elevate male authority contribute to this problem.

Yet, Mr Lappin demonstrates a simplistic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on male-female relationships.

The Genesis creation story affirms that humanity was created in God’s image, stating “male and female he (God) created them”.

This establishes the unity and equality of men and women as image-bearers of God. Jesus’ remarkable acceptance of women and even St Paul’s writings, where he exhorts husbands to love their wives self-sacrificially, and his missionary partnership with various women, sowed the seeds for women’s full participation and equal status in both church and home.

Sadly, the seeds have taken too long to sprout and many church traditionalists continual in denial and discrimination. Male headship and female subordination make no sense in contemporary society.

They are outmoded, oppressive and harmful.

Anglican parish, Northern Albury

May 21, 2015

Alan, you are so far off track
ALAN Lappin’s letter (The Border Mail, May 18) on domestic violence is disturbingly wrong.

He first claims that there is no legislation for domestic violence. Please don’t believe him. Though we should improve laws, there is legal protection.

Then Alan goes on a bizarre tirade against Christianity.

In all the fine social groups I have been part of — education, sport, service, and church — churches are where I have heard greatest efforts to address domestic violence.

Christians follow Jesus, who gave his life to serve the lost and powerless. So protection of those in danger is natural topic to raise.

East Albury

May 23, 2015

Christ preached love for women
I AM writing in response to the letter of Alan J Lappin (The Border Mail, May 18) who laid the blame for domestic violence on the Christian belief system.

Christ was compassionate and respectful to the women he met and changed their lives for the better like no one else could.

Jesus accepted women when his society had cast them out.

Christianity does not teach that a man has the “right to control his wife and even beat her up” but, instead, a man is commanded to “love his wife as he loves himself” (Ephesians 5:33).

Christianity aims to uphold the rights of a woman and family relationships.

Domestic violence is a corruption of this and is condemned by Christians and Christianity.

West Wodonga


The ape and the lamb

I wonder which false theologians C.S. Lewis had in mind in this section of The Last Battle.

“Please,” said the Lamb, “I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash. They have a god called Tash. They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture. They kill Men on his altar. I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”

All the animals cocked their heads sideways and all their bright eyes flashed toward the Ape. They knew it was the best question anyone had asked yet.

The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.

“Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater! Go home to your mother and drink milk. What do you understand of such things? But the others, listen. Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now. The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing. Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. That’s why there can never be any quarrel between them. Get that into your heads, you stupid brutes. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”


Quick review: Roads were not built for cars

Roads Were Not Built For CarsRoads Were Not Built For Cars by Carlton Reid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so easily tricked into thinking that the way things are now is the way things always have been. It’s self-centred thinking, of course: My way is the way.

Roads Were Not Built For Cars gave plenty of blows against that approach, for which I am thankful.

This fascinating book gives much insight into roads, transport, and modes of transport – as well as the conflicts that arose as change occurred.

Reid writes about the United Kingdom more than any other place, the United States being a close second. Yet this focus is fine, because the UK and US patterns seem to exemplify what has been seen elsewhere.

That pattern is, in a word, domination. Motor vehicles have come to dominate transport (and transport history) in a way that unhelpfully marginalises all others.

The greatest surprise to me in this history is that roads stopped being public places. Sure, they’re (mostly) not private. Yet roads used to be social places: a mixture of pedestrians, neighbours, business, conversation, play, and some transport.

Cars, though, pushed all else away – onto narrow footpaths, into the new crime of ‘jaywalking’, etc. A common space has been usurped for one group. And it happens again each time I’m on a bike and a driver yells at me, ‘Get off the road.’

Even this famous video (https://youtu.be/IJfTa5SjDCY) of San Francisco in 1900 includes car trickery: one vehicle drives past the tramcar-mounted camera again and again, giving an inflated impression of cars on the roads.

Being freed from my own self-focus is helpful in two ways.

Firstly, it makes me watch out for the bullying inherent in power. Speed, motors, and human power tend to push others out. This can happen to me, and I can also be a perpetrator.

Secondly, it frees our minds to consider other ways of doing things. If it was not always so, then it need not always be so. I guess this idea is one of Reid’s aims, since he is a promoter of cycling – a promotion I heartily endorse.

On a different level, it’s clear how some grasp of history is a mighty tool. My Christian trust is in an historical faith. It matters if Jesus died and rose again, and it matters if he didn’t. These are the things we need to find out. And if convinced, as I am, constant attention to the real Jesus of history is a must. If the history of roads and cycling is important – and I think it is – how much more the history of Jesus and his followers.

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