Speaking of church

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lampstands.'”
Revelation 2:1

[To the church in Smyrna] “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) …”
Revelation 2:9

[To the church in Laodicea] “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realising that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Revelation 3:19

These verses from Revelation demonstrate a couple of important things about church – that church is all about Jesus, and that church appearances can be wrong.

Firstly, church is all about Jesus being present. In Revelation, the image of seven stars and seven lamps symbolise the seven churches. No church is defined by its building, its programmes, its leadership, … It’s a church because Jesus is there. Take away Jesus and you have no church.

But secondly, church appearances can trick us. The church in Smyrna was described as poor – yet Jesus’ point of view was, “but you are rich”. The church in Laodicea was very confident that they had everything, and more than enough. But Jesus’ words could not be more different: “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked”.

So how should we speak about churches? I reckon we speak in two ways: one way for our church, another way for other churches.

Talking about other churches: humility

The way to speak about other churches is with humility.

We have good reason to speak about other churches – it’s not gossip! I want to hear about churches. I try to listen and remember what I hear about churches. If I know someone moving to a new town, I want to be able to say, “Hey, when you move, try out Church X.”

On the flip side, it’s a great help to know if a church might be going astray. If I meet someone from there, or they move to my area, this knowledge gives me a head-start on what issues to be wary of, and what conversations to have.

And yet …

And yet appearances can be wrong. Reputation might be inaccurate. So while I argue that we can talk about other churches, we must be humble. In others words, we admit that we don’t know everything – only Jesus does – and we might be plain wrong.

Talking about our own church: not humility

But when we speak of our own church, let’s drop the (false) humility. If we are part of a church, it should be because we are convinced that Christ is with us by his Spirit. A church with Jesus lacks nothing.

In short, we know our church as a real and living church because of the presence of Jesus – no matter what the appearance may be.

So let’s speak up confidently!

Let’s forget the, “We’re not doing much. Nobody really knows us. You’re probably not interested in this, but I’ll invite you anyway …” Instead, we remember that Christ walks among us!

Nano story

Write Around the Murray is an annual festival in Albury. With writers. And writing competitions.

One competition – excellent in particular for schools – is the Nano Story. Fifty words, exactly, and including a theme word. The 2016 word: forget (or a version of it: forgets, forgot, …).

I entered. I tried something tricky, which didn’t really work. Can you spot it?

“Remember”, you said, “Always.”
We lie in a little, create moments.
“Promise lasting joy with me no matter what. Forget dreams – others exclude.”
“I will.”
“Won’t you accept our word: memory fails that mind – yes, you.”
Bereft. Sadness. Temporary denial.
Time destroys. Immense the truth they never heard, “I forget.”

My hint if you’re interested – you could perhaps call this story tidal.

30 second prayer lesson

Here’s the lesson: learn what God calls true blessing, and ask for that.

An example from inside the Old Testament. Early on, while Moses is still alive, the Lord tells Moses to pass on a message to the priests.

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you:
the LORD lift up his face upon you and give you peace.”‘
(Numbers 6:23-26)

Later on, Psalm 67 takes this instruction and makes it a prayer.

May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
your saving power among all generations.

The psalm is not word for word – it’s not a magic incantation! But the blessing from Numbers is definitely in the mind of the psalmist.

If God says something is true blessing, we can be sure he wants to give it – and that he wants us to ask for it. Give it go in your prayers.

 


 

Review: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

A Reformed Approach to Science and ScriptureA Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith A. Mathison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thing about buying a book that really is a book is that you get a sense of what kind of book it wants to be. A 600 page treatment is a different beast from an 80 page piece – neither is necessarily better, but the aims will differ.

With an ebook, this is harder. And, perhaps, easier to be disappointed. ‘I thought this was going to be in-depth, but it’s only a brief guide.’ Or, ‘I just wanted something simple, not the history of the universe.’

So let’s explain the intangibles of this book. A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is a big title, huge. Science! Scripture! Reformed! Wow. Yet it’s not broad, deep, and exhaustive. It is a short work, so does not aim to cover all things.

Even more important, it’s not even really trying to be a reformed introduction to the philosophy of science. (Which I thought it might be – my mistake.) Instead, it is an expansion on some comments made by R.C. Sproul. At a conference, Sproul was answering the question, ‘How old is the universe?’

Sproul’s answer is wonderful. He did not merely indicate young or old, but in a few sentences touched on science, Christianity, and the relation between them.

The answer is quoted in full (tidied up a little for publication purposes). Sproul notes some of the issues:
* The Bible does not state how old the earth is, but some hints suggest it’s young
* Science has plenty to say that is relevant: expanding universe, astronomical dating, etc
* All truth is God’s truth, scripture and nature
* God’s revelation in scripture is infallible as also God’s revelation in nature is infallible
* We know times when natural revelation has corrected the church’s understanding of special revelation
* Nonetheless, that which is definitively taught in the Bible is never overthrown by science
* That is, scientists can be wrong, theologians can be wrong, and we privilege neither
* In conclusion: ‘I don’t know how old the earth is.’

This book by Mathison expands on these points. It has some theological points (eg, Augustine, Aquinas). It has some history (eg, Calvin and Luther on the geocentrism). It does not have much science or philosophy of science.

The crux of the book – and of Sproul’s answer – is the double infallibility of God’s double revelation, special and natural. This is, I think, both the strength and the weakness of the book’s argument.

It is strong, because it highlights the unity of all truth in God. Let God be true, though all men be liars (Romans 3:4). The saying catches it nicely: all truth is God’s truth.

Yet there are problems with the book’s argument. I think these are in the theological terminology used, as well as it’s application in the book. Imprecision is introduced: it does no real damage to this book’s argument, because it has a narrow focus. But such imprecision is problematic if it flows through the (huge) scope of science-theology understanding.

The problem: Mathison persists in speaking of natural revelation, when I think he would do better to speak of truth.

In speaking of natural revelation, Mathison has in mind the knowledge of God accessible to all humans through creation. As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, this knowledge is about God, and it makes us without excuse, because natural revelation cannot save. He helpfully quotes and alludes to Romans 1.

But the book then slides from this knowledge about God to science, without any reason put forward for the connection. Yet it is not evident that knowing more about the planets’ arrangement adds anything to natural revelation. We know more truth, certainly, but no more about God.

In other words, Mathison makes no convincing argument that the theological category of natural revelation also applies to science.

This imprecision has other effects. I note just one – the use of infallible.

Mathison return more than once to a group of seminarians asked two questions by Sproul.

“How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hands. I then asked, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” No one raised his hand. It’s the same God giving the revelation.

Two helpful and provocative questions to put! Natural revelation is, indeed, infallible – it does not fail but achieves its purpose. The purposes of natural revelation succeed: people of faith praise the Lord (Psalm 19:1), and rebels against God find they have no excuse (Romans 1:20).

Infallibility is a term of theology, and relates to God’s purposes in his revelation. But Mathison, having assumed a tight link between natural revelation and science, has thereby partly imported infallibility into science, where it does not belong.

Now, that’s a long discussion about being precise in terminology. So let me emphasise this: I think this work well worth reading. Have a read, think well, and thank God that all truth is his.

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Egalitarian ways to hurt women

Mere Orthodoxy has a long, worthwhile read, Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character”. The topic is, simply, female characters in movies. Less simply, and more accurately, it’s about how today we publicly talk about men and women.

The piece nudged me into writing this much shorter post about a thought I’ve had for a while – that ‘egalitarian’ moves to help women often undermine women.

Taking the lead from Mere Orthodoxy, we can see this at work in movies and TV shows. Modern video drama has to have dynamic, active female leads. Any category of film needs such women – be it kids’ flicks, teen stories, or adult drama.

These women will, often, be aggressive, rebellious, problem-solvers, sometimes reckless, gifted in combat … winners on all fronts. And they help women, it seems, by breaking the stereotype.

Except that they don’t break type at all.

Look at that list above. It’s as stereotyped as they come – it’s the (formerly) male pattern of dramatic behaviour. That is, for women to have success, they need to become more manly. How does that free women from oppression?

The supposed sin is in thinking there are two ways of being human, male and female. It’s beyond thought now to suggest that men and women are are different enough to be distinct. But the new orthodoxy suggests there is but one way of being a successful human –  and it’s the manly way.

The Mere Orthodoxy piece notes the change in Disney Princesses.

Within the kickass princess trope lurks the implication that, to prove equality of dignity, worth, agency, and significance as a character, all of a woman’s resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits simply aren’t enough—she must be capable of putting men in their place by outmatching them in endeavors and strengths that naturally favor them, or otherwise making them look weak or foolish.

If equality means its not enough to be a woman, then equality has a problem, don’t you think?

And it’s not just the movies. Consider the sexual revolution. As a generalisation, the sexual revolution has produced an ethic that promotes wide-ranging experimentation and minimal commitment. Men play that sexual game, and women are ’empowered’ to do the same.

But that game is the stereotypical dream of the faithless male roué: easy and frequent sex, with no cost. The sexual revolution makes it easier for men to fulfil that dream, and tells women that it’s wonderful that they can be the same.

Welcome to the glory of freedom, where your equality is defined and measured by being a user, a Lady Casanova!

So we see a double insistence that women copy men: positive and negative. Movies urge the more positive characteristics, and the bedroom is where to copy the negative and selfish.

This places some expressions of egalitarianism in a mixed-up place: a good aim (honour women), with a poor method (be more like a man), based on a wrong idea (men and women are the same).

What should a Christian do? I’d say we should hold firmly to the right idea, and let methods and aims flow from that.

So, for instance, the biblical teaching honours the complementarity of male and female. There is difference, without separation. Male and female in Genesis 2 are both required, and not interchangeable – a reality that the Bible never abandons. The idea matters, because truth matters. As to a method of living out this reality … well, I promised a short piece – so that’s for another day!


 

Quick review: Captured by a better vision

Captured By A Better Vision: Living Porn FreeCaptured By A Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The prevalence of pornography in our electronic age is an important matter for the whole of society, and even more so for Christians who know that sexuality is a wonderful gift from God that can be awfully twisted into ugliness.

Chester is not all about ‘a technique’ to stop porn in one’s life. But he does not mock techniques, either, but places them in a better whole-of-life context. Use the skills (like accountability software, etc), but use them as tools in the bigger picture of life with Christ.

Chester’s five broad topics are, in my words: hate porn, love God, trust God, actively avoid porn, get help. As is clear, there are reasons why, and there are tips how. And both are important.

Chester quotes extensively from people who completed an on-line survey for him, and this illustrates his points nicely while introducing a chatty feel to parts of the book. This complements the parts which are more solid sections of thoughtful argument.

I have a few criticisms, but none of them are major.

    • Though a shortish book, about 160 pages, I think it could have been edited a bit more. The chapters seem to have long introductions before getting to the major point. And those intros don’t always really tightly connect to the main point, in my view.

 

    • Chester acknowledges that porn is a problem for both men and women, and can be expressed in ‘non-porn’ ways (like romance novels, or underwear junk mail). But I certainly had the sense this book was more about blokes with porn problems. If there was some editing out (above), then the book could edit in more on women’s experiences of porn.

 

  • Chester takes the line of Genesis 2:18 – that it was not good for the man to be alone – to mean he was lonely, needing companionship. That’s a tempting preaching point, believe me!, but is probably not the point of the text.

 

But to finish with negatives would be way off – this is a good book, on an important topic, written with gospel-shaped truth, which shows love to all touched by the damaging scourge of pornography.

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If you want to be a leader, be negative

But if you want to achieve something, be positive.

Influence is easy when you’re a critic. Dissatisfaction spreads like an infection. Look at the way of social media – posts get shares if there’s a government to complain about, a group to parody, or an opinion to twist. Likewise, the comment section of on-line news items is the best place to find new and creative insults (within the flood of predictable and misspelled old insults).

But it’s not just the on-line world. I’ve noticed that ‘negative vibes’ get traction in almost any group: sporting, community, workplace. Unlike physics, negative attracts negative.

If youpath want to be negative, the great thing is that there are two ways to choose. The obvious way is to openly complain, ‘Our manager has no idea about the work we do.’ Not bad for beginners.

The second way, and far more elegant, is stealth. Say nothing, but be a black cloud hanging over the group. No gossip, lies or statements, just a grumpy attitude. It’s almost guaranteed that people will catch your infection. And they will go with you in negativity. Congratulations, you’re a leader!

Therefore if your desire is to lead, the easiest option is to carp and criticise. If you want influence – and nothing more than influence – be a cynic. People will follow you, you will be an individual of influence.

On the other hand, if you want to make something happen, you will need to be positive. You will need to communicate a direction and a pathway ahead.

It’s positive to say, “We’re going to make this orchestra even better,” or, “We can get some more funding for this charity,” or, “Let’s use more of the skills in the team.”

This involves leadership, but not leadership for its own sake. It’s leading for the sake of the team, for the sake of others. Leading is tool for love.

 


 

Non sequitur

This article from my local paper is about the Labor candidate for the federal seal of Indi. It’s a political free swing for the candidate, because it’s on same sex marriage (SSM), where opposition is forbidden.

The candidate’s opponents might be grumpy about the easy run he gets, but I am more interested in the incoherent argument. The conclusion in no way matches the points made: a classic non sequitur. It runs like this:

  • Eric (the candidate) has two mums. These mums have been together since 1980
  • One mum, Roslyn, was turned away from IVF in the early 1990s
  • Consequently, Roslyn went to Canberra for IVF, having to lie to get in. She had twin boys
  • The family was nervous about schooling, but “right through school there was never any issue”
  • Nowadays, things have changed and same-sex couples do get into IVF locally
  • The two mums don’t want to marry
  • THEREFORE Eric thinks the campaign for SSM very important

One of these points is not like the others.

The whole article makes it clear that the situation today, as understood by this lesbian couple, is accepting. Medicine, school, and society provide the safety they need. They are not in danger, nor excluded, but fit in well.

So, I would expect, the conclusion is that there is no need for changes in marriage law. Redefinition of marriage – which I argue is a great risk – is simply unnecessary.

But no.

On the basis of everything being fine, legal change is necessary. Couldn’t there be just one question from the journalist testing the strength of argument? Obviously not.

 


 

 

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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