Ask me

What help do you (actually) ask for from Christians?
What help would you like to ask for?

I enjoyed visiting churches while on holidays – I always do. One sermon got me thinking about what help we seek from people in ministry.

(By ‘people in ministry’ I particularly mean people who prayerfully teach God’s word. Employed preachers, Bible study leaders, Sunday school leaders, etc. These people are paid and unpaid, ministering formally and informally. They all lead us to the Lord’s word.)

The preacher shall remain unnamed – because he too was a guest and I do not know his name. He spoke on 2 Corinthians 5, and finished with a great set of ideas for putting into practice this part of God’s word.

  • Practise telling your own Christian story in a way that explains Jesus more than it glorifies yourself
  • Memorise helpful Bible verses to share
  • Learn a simple way to explain the good news of Jesus, a gospel outline
  • Get training in how to lead a Bible study for a person who is investigating Christianity

Great ideas! And a good encouragement at the start of a new year. Thank you, anonymous preacher-man.

This where my experience as a paid minister kicked in. I considered the things people ask me to help with. The list is long, and has a huge range.

  • Can you help us find more musicians?
  • I’m moving to the area, can you help me look for a house?
  • Can you alter my place on the roster?
  • Did you find my Bible after church on Sunday?
  • Can you conduct my wedding?
  • I’m about to have an operation but forgot to bring money – can you pay today and I will pay you back? (Only once!)
  • Can you help me move?
  • Can you witness me sign this government form?
  • Could you visit me in the hospital locked ward?
  • My son lives near you. Could you drop in to see if he is safe and OK?
  • Can you print my assignment?
  • Can you be my referee for a job/rental application?

It’s amazing to touch so many parts of people’s lives. I feel this as a privilege to accept, and a responsibility to honour with discretion and privacy. I don’t want these requests to stop. (If I can’t do them, I know how to say ‘no’.)

But what if people were limited to just four of five requests they could make? Or, to put it differently, what if I could specify the requests that I most want to hear?

If that were the case, my list would look like the conclusion to that holiday sermon. The requests I love to hear are these:

  • Can you pray for me?
  • Can you tell me more about this Jesus guy, I need to know about him?
  • I trust the Bible, can you help me with its teaching?
  • Can you help me grow in serving Jesus?

These requests bring a smile everyday of the week.

Since these are so important, my role is to make them happen more and more. That’s what ministry is. As for Christian maturity: that is the wisdom to ask for these things.

So go on – ask me!

 


 

Quick review: The search to belong

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small GroupsThe Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups by Joseph R. Myers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wavered between two options when it came to choosing a star rating for The Search to Belong. Because there are some powerfully helpful ideas, I considered four out of five. But everything else moved me towards two from five.

No matter which way I went, I knew that I disliked reading the book – even the bits I liked. So that decided the matter: **/*****.

What’s valuable: Myers picks up the analysis of Edward T Hall that society consists of four “spaces”: public, social, personal, and intimate. Each space has its own character, strengths, and modes of operation. And each is valuable in its own right, not as a mere stepping stone to the “really real” relationship of intimacy.

So, applied to churches, Myers urges readers to make sure people have room to relate in any and all of the social spaces. Excellent!

What I disliked does not undermine the benefit of those valuable thoughts. But what I disliked I really disliked. Some examples.

Myers has an ear for how people feel. He frequently speaks of how he felt in different situations. That’s a wonderful skill. But Myers turns how we feel into obligations: “people feel this therefore we must act in the following way.” There is apparently no possibility of people feeling the wrong thing, or entertaining awful desires.

Similarly, we are told people at churches can only lead themselves. “Only you can lead you.” It’s imperative, therefore that ‘leaders’ in churches get out of the way. They can supply a framework for people to grow, but must refrain from trying to lead people. The irony: Myers forcefully tells us – leads us – to the only possible truth, that there is no such thing as forceful leading.

The irony is one thing, but more significant to me is the biblical insistence that there are leaders (in church, home, and society) and that these leaders have God’s commission to lead. (See all the biblical language of authority and submission, to investigate further.)

For a third and final criticism, I think the book is a touch confused. In the first two chapters, for instance, Myers frequently spoke of the need to define connection, or community, or belonging. But I never found the definition. So I was not surprised to read a free interchange of terms: with loose definitions it’s easy enough to use any term that feels close enough. But that’s not good enough if you are trying to present a clear case.

My recommendation, then, is to read this book but to pare back the emergent packing and enjoy the thoughtful idea social spaces.

 


 

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Quick review: The mind’s eye


 

The Mind's EyeThe Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another enjoyable read from Oliver Sacks, this time on sight and the brain.

Seeing is not merely – or even primarily – a matter of the eye, but of the brain. The eye may experience all sorts of problems, and this book represents a number of them through the cases described. But Sacks’ work here is the written record of his fascination with perception, distortion, neural processing, face recognition, depth of view, three-dimensionality, imaging, and a number of related issues.

The longest chapter is on Sacks’ own visual medical problems. Naturally he has more information on himself as a ‘case’, but I suspect his greater interest in his own case led him to extend that chapter more than required.

This book is not, however, a clinical guide. It is more of an exploration of questions raised by various clinical observations. What is perception?, How does the brain cope with visual disturbance?, Can we truly communicate subjective experiences?

I love the way Sacks is fascinated with people – not diseases or pathologies, but people. It is in facing illness that he seems to detect the uncovering of character, of humanity.

Sacks’ writing also reminded me that we can’t assume much about the people we interact with, or that when we do we will often miss what is very significant for those people. The guy on the footpath might be struggling with one eye almost blind and a correspondingly huge blind spot to one side: it does not have to be that’s he’s a footpath hog. The workmate whose habits are a joke to the rest of the office might just be employing strategies to survive a visual degenerative condition that would paralyse us.

We simply cannot know what troubles people endure. So why not make allowances, and ask them, and make room for all the odd people of the world? After all, someone as high-functioning as Oliver Sacks was once numbered among such odd bods.

Sacks says, essentially, nothing about God-stuff. Yet he is not rude or dismissive of these points of view. He quotes extensively from at least a couple of Christian individuals (about their insight into blindness, rather than Christianity), all the while allowing that their trust positively shapes their experience.

As a Christian, I hope I can demonstrate such person-focussed interest and practice listening to people no matter what their views. And, again as a Christian, I am convinced that the reason we value such behaviour is due to Jesus and his summary of the law into the two love commands (Matthew 22:36-40).

It’s not that behaviour gets us to God. It is that when God got to us, he told us that trust has its behaviours. He/Jesus told us this, and we can be sure it’s a powerful truth – because in Sacks we have the example of a fine Western mind steered (perhaps unconsciously) by the words of Jesus.

For those of us who do follow Jesus, let’s deliberately show such gentle, inquisitive love.

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Acts 10 & the importance of preaching

Acts 10 is at a revolution point in God’s wonderful work. It’s where the news of Jesus goes directly to a non Jew. The whole world has direct access to Jesus by trust – always God’s plan, now fully revealed because of the completed work of Jesus.

And God’s revolution comes by preaching.

Proclaiming the news of Jesus often feels and looks unutterably weak. Yet many indications of Acts 10 show apostolic preaching to be God’s chosen way. (Brackets for verse numbers.)

  • Cornelius needs to hear the gospel, so God sends an angel (=messenger) who says: send for Peter (5). Why not let the angel talk? Because it had to be the apostle. This is extraordinary preparation to hear preaching
  • Peter experienced a disturbing vision from God to show that all people have immediate opportunity to trust Jesus (15). God could have given Cornelius this vision. This is extraordinary preparation for the preacher
  • When Cornelius sent for Peter, the go-betweens specified that it was to hear what you have to say (22)
  • Even more than that, Cornelius himself knew that Peter had been commanded by the Lord to speak (33)
  • Cornelius is scared of the angel (4), but tried to worship Peter (25). Mistaken worship, but a right assessment of relative importance
  • Cornelius’ crowd already knew about Jesus’ ministry (37). This is not information transfer. They needed Peter’s preaching
  • The apex of Peter’s sermon is that God sent people to speak about Jesus (42-43). Beforehand were the prophets, and after the resurrection Jesus sent eyewitnesses to preach and testify
  • It was while Peter was speaking that the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius (44)

The major amazement of Acts 10 is that the benefits from Jesus are poured out freely “even on the Gentiles” (45). But along the way we read plenty of reminders that God’s chosen method of saving is by preaching the apostolic message.

May we never lose confidence in speaking the gospel of Jesus.

 


 

Wrestle the devil

Ephesians is full of memorable passages and memory-verse favourites. It’s a biblical letter chock-full of the greatness of God and his great plans for Christ’s church.

A common favourite is 6:10-20, in which believers are told to dress in the whole armour of God. Why do we need God’s armour? Because our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil. Why struggle at all? So we may stand, firm and unshaken on the foundation of Christ.

It seems to me that each item of armour shows us two things. Firstly, how to be strong in the Lord. Secondly, where our weakness lies.

What follows is a short look at each of the items, and what they say about Christian strength and weakness.

The belt of truth
The devil is a liar through and through, says Jesus (John 8:44). His character is to lie. So to hold to truth is to hold to God. Truth is not only a weapon against evil, truth is victory in itself. The category of truth is wonderfully rich. It includes such joys as: God is the creator of all; Jesus is the saving Son of God; Jesus died and rose again in victory over sin; Jesus is the final judge of all humanity.

Each truth is a strong wrestling grip to defeat the devil. Therefore weakness is to be loose on the truth. To not know what God teaches us of his gospel is to choose weakness and danger. Any Christian unconcerned for doctrine, the teaching, and truth is a Christian in danger.

We can have the belt of truth, or we can be belted without the truth.

The breastplate of righteousness
Righteousness is of God (you can read about the Lord’s armour in Isaiah 59:15-18). Jesus saved his people in order that we share God’s righteousness. For believers, righteousness means saying no to angry sin, to greedy idolatry, and to immorality. Take the example of anger. In Ephesians 4:26-27, we see that we refuse the devil a foothold by refusing to turn anger into sin.

The devil hates righteousness. Therefore we become his prey when we go soft on righteousness. It’s not that (self-)righteousness saves us. It is that unrighteousness kills us.

Shoes of gospel readiness
The shoes that go and share the gospel of Jesus are a double-barrelled weapon in the battle against evil. Barrel one: love for neighbour invites that neighbour to forgiveness and eternal life. Barrel two: every person who then follows Christ is a loss to the devil, and is no longer following the prince of the air (see Ephesians 2:1-3).

In contrast, if we are Christians who refuse to share the gospel of Jesus, we’re like pacifist soldiers – dressed like an army, but refusing to fight. What a crazy waste!

The shield of faith
Faith is our deep personal commitment and pledge to the Lord whose truth we trust. Faith clings to God. God – being the rock – is life’s sure and stable foundation. We’re not pushovers when built onto Christ.

But weak faith is like trying to balance tall on one toe, with eyes closed, in a gale. It’s unstable and precarious.

The helmet of salvation
Salvation is safety. God promises his children protection. Specifically, we will not face punishment for our many sins because Jesus has already taken the punishment. The devil has nothing he can accuse us of.

So it’s a great battle weakness if we fall back from Jesus’ salvation and start to trust our own behaviour. When we choose our own works to save, we actually choose our own sins to condemn.

The sword of the Spirit
This sword is the word of God – God’s attack weapon against evil. Jesus grabbed the sword of the Spirit to defeat the devil in the wilderness, quoting the law of the Lord (Matthew 4:1-11). And when equipping the church, Jesus gave people who speak the word of God (Ephesians 4:11-12).

A Christian weak in the word of God is a soldier without a weapon. Enthusiasm will not cover that weakness. Such a soldier may be physically present, but unable to help the battle.

The armour of God is a wonderful gift from the Father. It is from him, and its power is his – that’s why the description concludes with extended call to prayer (verses 18-20). We accept the items as gifts, take them up, and then ask God to empower us as servants,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

 


 

Quick review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

The Atheist Who Didn't ExistThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is the only sure method for knowing things.

Faith and reason are opposed.

People believe in God because they’re needy.

Atheism is not a belief at all – it’s just non-belief.

You can discover goodness without God at all.

If you’ve heard statements like these then you and I are living in the same world. They’re relatively common in the so-called ‘New Atheism.’

But if you’re convinced by any of these statements, then you’ve been duped. These arguments, and others like them, are all bad arguments, according to Andy Bannister. Note the alternate title for his book Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

This book is all about the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. And written in an accessible and light style. If you like quirky British humour – and I do – then you’ll find it even better (as well as find plenty of jokey distraction in the hundreds of footnotes).

Bannister is a Christian, but this book does not aim to present the Christian Gospel, I think. The news of Jesus is there, in brief snatches (especially the last chapter on Jesus and history). But the aim of this book seems to be what comes before presenting the Christian message: to convince us that it is worth looking at the message.

That is, Bannister urges readers not to prematurely write off the question of God and Jesus. And if it’s Dawkins and his buddies who have convinced you not to go near the God question, Bannister’s warning is that you’re really a victim of empty argument.

So The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is apologetic and pre-evangelistic. Apologetic: for it gives reasons why it’s worth considering Jesus. Pre-evangelistic: because it opens the door to an honest reading of the Bible.

I loved the humour (except for Bannister’s disdain of goat’s cheese – he’s definitely wrong there). And I’d definitely give this book away to people entrapped by the empty arguments of Krauss, Dawkins, et al.

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Unlucky Friday 13th

This month includes a Friday 13th.

It also includes a Friday 20th, but that date never seems to get any special attention. Though difficult to spell, we are all aware of paraskevidekatriphobia: fear of Friday the thirteenth.

Christians are to be people who know the Spirit, but also know the foolishness of superstition. Christian preaching caused a riot, led by a silversmith who made lucky charms – he could see his business withering (Acts 19:23-41). Before Israel reached the land of promise, they were warned against charms (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

So I well know that Friday 13th is dumb.

Why, then, does it still register? Why does it always cross my mind that there could be an unlucky day, when I know it’s rubbish?

That’s not the only example. Without following the superstitions, I still note: when a black cat crosses my path; when there’s a ladder I could walk under; when Australian cricketers are on a score of 87. All folly – and all still in my mind.

I think this is a clear example of what each Christian struggles with: the persistence of sin and folly.

In Philippians 3, Paul warns against false teachers in church, those who would enslave us to laws and pride. Paul himself was the perfect candidate for such empty confidence, but he gave up all his ‘achievements’ in order to know Christ.

But note how Paul admits his ongoing weakness and failure. He’s not yet there:

not that I have already attained this or am already perfect

I do not consider that I have made it my own

I press on towards the goal

Do you struggle with sin? Does persistent error get you down? That’s normal! What’s not normal is thinking the Christian life is easy and always godly. Jesus will complete his remodelling of everyone who trusts him, but renovation is always messy.

So how about we use Friday 13th as a fun reminder. Let’s laugh at the folly of thinking one number can affect us (but only on a Friday), as we laugh at the folly of our own sin. And let’s remember to ‘press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’.

 


 

 

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History Of Nearly EverythingA Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson’s affable style can work for more than travel – science, it turns out, is just as whimsical and revealing as any other human activity.

When I first heard of A Short History of Nearly Everything I did not know it was about science. At a guess, I thought that it would be about the broad sweep of human history: empires and cultures and languages. Wrong!

Instead, it includes a history of science and current thinking on plenty of topics. The solar system and the universe, the weird world of the sub-atomic, continents that move around on an earth filled with hot liquid metal, dinosaurs and their bony evidence, the life of cells, the history of hominids, and much more (sorry, no steak knives).

In short, it a great example of popular level big history.

Bryson introduces this book as written by a science noob. Maybe that was true, but he hides it well with impressive chapters covering the whole sweep of many complex arguments. And, when possible, he tells us the fun details that – I believe – should be more central to all science education.

Some stories are old. I think people might be more interested in all the stuff Isaac Newton did if we mention the experiment of shoving a leather-working needle in his eye socket and jiggling it around to see what would happen (page 41).

Some stories are more modern. Did you know, for example, that the man who developed leaded petrol (thus spawning a very profitable industry who lied through their teeth about the ‘non’ damage of lead toxicity) also developed chlorofluorocarbons? Thomas Midgley, therefore, not only poisoned the air and earth, but also burnt holes in the ozone layer with a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide. (See chapter 10.)

Quite often the tales reveal a lot about the paradox of humanity. Take the story of a US songbird, Bachman’s Warbler.

…by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds.

As a vaguely science-interested guy, I only found a couple of slightly questionable parts to the book. I reckon that’s an acceptably low number of potential ‘errors’ for such a wide-ranging work, although I know my science knowledge is very limited. (But I was disappointed that Bryson seems to have gone for mythology of the famous but misrepresented debate between T. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.)

But some other reflections are in order. Particularly this: why is this book history, not science?

‘History’ makes the whole of physical reality a story, it seems to me, rather than mere events. Bryson never imposes a meaning on anything, he’s much too genial to force worldviews on people. But he has chosen a style that inherently assumes a story going somewhere – and this even when when (correctly) identifying that genetic modification and evolution as non-directional.

The Bible, of course, also has a history of everything: an extremely short history of everything, in one verse. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

I don’t believe Bryson’s book has any conflict with God’s book, in this regard. It’s just that God’s summary is even more concise. And God goes on to explain the story itself: the reason and purpose of creation, the why and who questions, and the answer to all questions in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).

It’s great to enjoy knowing some of ‘the all’. It’s essential to know Jesus, who is the one who ‘fills the all’ with life purpose and certainty.

 


 

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Not all desires are equal

Not all desires are the same.

Kind of obvious? Yes! But important in a world whose ethical arguments depend so much on desire. What rights rule today, in the western world? The right to self-determination, to self-expression, and to self-definition. Desire is all-knowing.

If I will it then it is OK. (The usual illogical caveat that follows is as long as it hurts no one.) And more than OK, if I will it then it’s morally required. Desires reign.

Proverbs 6 shows how false that is. The back end of the chapter warns at length about giving in to the desire for illicit sex: don’t go to the strange woman, the adulteress, your neighbour’s wife.

But in the flow of the argument, there’s comment about stealing food. Why? Have a look at these verses (29-32).

So [burned] is he who goes in to his neighbour’s wife;
    none who touches her will go unpunished.
People do not despise a thief if he steals
    to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry,
but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold;
    he will give all the goods of his house.
He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

In the middle of warning against adultery, here is a hungry thief. He steals out of poverty and hunger. His desire for food is reasonable. We understand, and we don’t despise him for his crime. But we still punish him.

Theft remains theft, even when driven by the understandable desire for food.

But the point is not that the thief will still receive punishment. Not ‘the thief gets punishment, so too will the adulterer’.

The point is this: theft driven by hunger (though wrong) makes sense, but adultery is just plain stupid. Adultery is always self-harm.

He who commits adultery lacks sense;
    he who does it destroys himself.

Proverbs compares two desires here – the desire for food, the desire for sex. The comparison is in the realm of wrongdoing (stealing and adultery). And the comparison tells us to treat different desires differently.

Now there are lots of ways we need to heed this point. It’s pretty plain that there’s a trendiness in pushing for same-sex marriage. And it would be easy for me to go there (‘just because two people desire sex with each other does not mean it is good, or needs state validation’).

But I’d prefer us to see that ethical difference between desires applies all over the place. Perhaps I – and maybe you too? – need to consider where I err in this matter?

We might think of:

  • Any sexual desire outside of committed, life-long marriage
  • The desire to enjoy alcohol
  • Longing to see more of the world
  • The desire to succeed in your chosen employment
  • The longing for a successful ministry
  • A desire to be well thought-of
  • The desire for physical or mental health, for self or a loved one

And on and on we could go. Again and again, I believe, our desires take us. Then our reasons and arguments follow along to justify what we want.

So let’s remember that our desires can take us into error. Even the good desire for food can go feral. Jesus (in the final verse quoted below) said to desire first what is truly first – God’s kingdom.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good;
the expectation of the wicked in wrath. (Proverbs 11:23)

Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

 


 

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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