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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Sermon: Wisdom And Folly

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and former leader of the Conservative Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20

It’s not often I would identify myself with Iain Duncan Smith MP. I certainly can’t square the recent benefit changes with his alleged support for social justice and his country house home. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but the only places I have visited at Sandhurst have been Marks and Spencer and Tesco.

But I do share the odd trait with him. The politically aware among you may remember how there was a huge contrast in personality between himself as Leader of the Opposition and Tony Blair, as the charismatic Prime Minister. At the 2002 Conservative Party conference, Duncan Smith tried to make a virtue of the difference. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he got to the House of Commons again, Labour MPs would put their fingers across their lips and say, “Shush” every time he got up to speak.

His quietness was derided, and that has sometimes been my experience in the church as well: a quiet leader can be derided. Either people want a larger than life minister or you find you have consistently made the same point in meetings, only for people at future meetings of the same committee to say that something has not been addressed.

Why tell you this? Do I want your sympathy? No. Well, not on this occasion. Our passage has a lot to do with the contrasts between wisdom and folly.  The first image of wisdom we have here is that wisdom is quiet, but folly is loud:

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good. (9:17-18)

There is no shouting, or aggression, let alone violence, that goes with true wisdom. It is quiet and gentle. It does not arrest you, it does not grab you warmly by the throat and shake you. It is the still, small voice of God.

I have told before the famous story about the former Liverpool football manager Bob Paisley, who spoke very quietly at press conferences. One day, a journalist asked him why he spoke so quietly. “I speak quietly, so that you will listen,” he replied.

Might it be that the words of wisdom are spoken quietly by God and by God’s people in order that we might listen? It would be nice and easy if wisdom were served up on a plate for us, brought to us by waiter service. But it isn’t. We have to go in search of it, tuning our ears in to its quiet sounds that frequently are drowned by the noise of sin in our world.

That means God isn’t just going to splash his wisdom everywhere. Yes, it is available to all, but it will only be found by those who have a heart to search for it. We must want his wisdom badly – badly enough to set out on a quest for it, determined not only to find it but to put it into practice when we finally discover it.

Now clearly some of this means we need to develop a dogged determination in our devotional lives to hear the voice of God. Yes, it does mean a regular commitment to a style of Bible reflection that is suitable to us. It does mean spending time in prayer. It does mean commitment to a small group as well as to Sunday worship, and so on. All these things I’ve mentioned before, and will continue to emphasise. It’s why I remain concerned at the findings of our worship questionnaire, where a number of people identified Sunday services as the only times they seriously engaged with the Bible. We just can’t do that and get away with it if wisdom is quiet. It’s no good giving up quickly on spiritual disciplines when we don’t immediately have a stunning experience of God. Like a lover, he woos us, but he also plays hard to get, because he wants us to be serious about him.

And that leads into the second image of wisdom the Preacher gives us: wisdom is rare, but folly is common. To take some representative verses:

As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are. (10:1-3)

A small bit of foolishness creates a big stink in society, says the Preacher, and fools parade their foolishness for all to see. It’s not hard to see that, is it? Some people seek the spotlight, but have very little of substance to offer society. Plenty of people who gain the dubious status of celebrity could fall into this category.

Or we have people who become famous and are thrust into the limelight, simply because of their abilities in one particular field, and who are then labelled ‘rôle models’ by tastemakers and cultural commentators for some questionable reason. Footballers who end up biting members of the opposition might be included here. It’s hard to know who is the more foolish: those who deem footballers to be rôle models, or fame-hungry sporting stars who lack the wherewithal to set an example.

When we live in a society like this, feeling outnumbered by a catwalk parade of idiocy, what are we to do? We bemoan the triumph of style over substance. We despair of how a little trivia becomes a major thing. Having spied the front page of a certain red-top tabloid this last week leading on the story of a boy band splitting up, because presumably they have a strong idea that is important to their readers, I share that same sense of exasperation.

But it’s never acceptable for the Christian to give up in the face of a folly-ridden society. It remains our missionary call to keep speaking the wisdom of God, whatever the odds. After all, according to the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God, and how can we not speak about him? How can we not see all the more clearly our society’s need of Christ when we witness the epidemic of foolishness around us, and are struggling not to become infected ourselves?

Yet it feels difficult to hang on and to remain consistently faithful when so much of what surrounds us makes it feel like we are paradoxically drowning in an ocean of shallowness. To that end, I find something that Graham Kendrick said over thirty years ago. He said,

“When the odds get too big, I just remember that Jesus plus me equals an invincible minority.”

Yes, we may be up against the odds, and things may not always be going our way, but as the First Letter of John puts it,

‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’

Ultimate victory belongs to Jesus. God raised him from the dead and made him king of the universe. Whatever direction things are going at present, that direction is only the short term. We know the long term outcome for all creation. We are on the victory side when we witness faithfully to Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.

The third and final picture of wisdom I want to share with you is this: wisdom is gracious, folly is wicked.

That sounds harsh on foolishness, doesn’t it? When someone is a fool, we either laugh at their idiocy or sympathise with their ignorance. But wisdom and folly are moral qualities in Scripture. Wisdom is not merely about intellect, and so in a week when the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins has topped a magazine poll as the world’s top thinker of the last twelve months, the Christian may accept the man’s intellectual abilities, but would never call him wise. After all, as one American theologian I know put it on Facebook this week,

his views on religion … are simplistic, ill-informed, and simply wrong.

Here is the part of the reading that makes this point:

Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness –
14     and fools multiply words. (10:12-14)

We are equally not exercising wisdom in the church when we use our knowledge or cleverness to put someone else down. We are using wisdom – the wisdom which ultimately is Jesus Christ himself – when grace is our theme and our motive. We show wisdom when we speak with grace about grace.

It is surprising how often grace is excluded from Christian conversation. After the recent convictions of Mick and Mairead Philpott for the killing of six of their children, I saw within a short time on the Internet Christians putting messages that they longed for them to burn in Hell. Where is the grace there? It is as if what we really think goes something like this: we are good, other people are bad, and we will get to Heaven because we are good. Nothing could be further from the Gospel, yet this lie goes round in church circles.

None of us would be here but for grace. The people we look down on in the church family are recipients of the same grace. The people in our society who commit terrible, yes, wicked acts, are in need of that grace. That grace is centred on the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is a divine foolishness that outranks human wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. It is indeed the wisdom of God.

We have said already that wisdom is a quiet voice and a minority voice. Well, nowhere more than here, where wisdom is characterised by grace is it a quiet, minority voice, even sometimes in the church. It is time to come back to the Cross, if we have strayed away. It is time to remember our experience of being humbled by love at the Cross. And when we recall our own humbling at the feet of divine love, then would it not be normal for us to begin extending that same grace to others within the church and beyond?

In a few minutes, we shall come to the climax of this service in the central act of gathered Christian worship, when we take Holy Communion together. Let our eating of the bread and our drinking of the wine this evening remind us of the grace and love God poured out for us in his Son.

Along with that, can we also recall that every Sunday is an Easter Day? Every week, the fact that the Christian church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday reminds us of the history-changing events we mark on Easter Sunday. God calls us back to that empty tomb constantly. For there we see the grace of God every bit as much as we do at the Cross itself. At the empty tomb, God by his grace and power transforms hope-drained people into hope-filled people.

This is the source of our life, our life in Christ. I pray that it will feed us, and – through us – feed others, too.

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Depression In The Church

Depression Please Cut To The Chase by darcyadelaide on Flickr

Depression Please Cut To The Chase by darcyadelaide on Flickr

The Daily Telegraph published a sensitive piece about the battle with depression fought by Katherine Welby, 26-year-old daughter of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Quoting largely from her blog, her faith shines through, but it is also apparent she has not always been treated well by the Christian church. God’s people don’t always stand by her, depressives fear what others might say, and churchpeople have to pretend everything is fine, despite a Bible filled with screwed-up people.

I am afraid I am not surprised by this account. Of course, I have known many compassionate Christians in the church, who may or may not understand illnesses some members of the church family have had, such as schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, or other conditions. But I have seen intolerance for the effects of medication upon sufferers. I have witnessed the damaging ‘Snap out of it!’ comments. I have come across a naïve reading of the Gospel which seems to think that simple belief in Christ will have an instant cognitive effect, and then we can resume the usual ‘happy ever after’ narrative.

It is awful that there is still a widespread failure to accept that depressive conditions are illnesses. I am not claiming the specialist knowledge that professionals in the field have, because I don’t have it, but I do know this. If someone contracts a commonly accepted physiological illness, there is usually compassion and concern. The failure to recognise mental health issues in a similar way is disastrous, for the way it not only involves a lack of understanding, it also causes a rise in judgmental attitudes. We are meant to be a community of grace.

I read a story that isn’t obviously related to this on Don Miller’s blog. Sarah Thebarge tells how, while suffering the ravages of radical treatment for breast cancer, she was travelling across her native USA by train when she came across a desperate Somali immigrant family. The father had left the mother to care for five young children in a strange land. Despite her own weakness, Sarah becomes involved in the care of this family:

God had loved me when my bald head and mastectomy scars made me feel unlovable. So I began to spend more time with the Somali girls, loving them when their stained clothes and broken English made them feel unlovable.

God had shown me that He was Immanuel, the God who dwelled with me — not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled. So I began spending most evenings at the girls’ apartments, sitting with them in their dark, cold apartment because their mom was worried they’d run out of money for food if she spent too much money on utilities.

‘The God who dwelled with me – not instantly changed or fixed me, but dwelled.’ Would it not be a beautiful thing if our churches could demonstrate that more with those who face depression and similar disorders?

Singles In The Church

Only The Lonely by Bandita on Flickr

Only The Lonely by Bandita on Flickr

A survey of single Christians in church does not surprise me at all. Single Christians often feel ‘isolated , alone and lonely’ in church. Single women feel they are seen as threats to married couples.

Why does this not surprise me? Because I was 41 before I married, and I experienced some of this. I was told that marriage was ‘the norm’, which made me feel abnormal. There were questions raised behind my back about my sexuality. To some extent, things changed when I began as a minister, because one of the positives about that was to find myself on the receiving end of many kind offers of hospitality. But I also heard married Christians say they did not think I would be able to help them – without a thought for all the single Christians who might feel that married ministers could not understand them.

I have reflected in the past that there is an assumption in the world that you are not fully human unless you are having regular sex. Since the church usually confines sex to marriage, that is adapted to a notion that you are not fully human unless you are married.

What are your experiences? Do you have some better examples, some stories of best practice?

After all, it’s ironic how often we don’t notice that our Lord and Saviour was single.

Happy St George’s Day

Scones

Scones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s 23rd April, doubtless some politicians are preparing some patriotic soundbites for us English. And isn’t it interesting that just by typing this post, WordPress suggested I tagged it with the words ‘David Cameron’?

People will celebrate with quintessentially English things, like warm beer or tea and scones. Flags are flying, and this is the day when we are proud to be English. We even have our own superhero now. For normally to be English is to be subject to perpetual disappointment (our football team), or to reach the top and fail to stay there (our cricket and rugby teams). And how dare those naughty Scottish Nationalists think of keeping our pound if they get independence!

I am not ashamed of my identity: I love being British and English. But there is one thing I would like the jingoists and the racists to remember today: George was the son of a Greek father and a Palestinian mother. So maybe the best way to celebrate would be with some houmous and a kebab. Dragons, beware, he comes breathing the fire of chilli sauce.

Oh, wait a minute: that’s the scene outside Knaphill takeaways late at night.

Can Ministers Say ‘No’ To A Need?

For some readers, there is an obvious ‘yes’ in reply to that question. But for others, there is a default assumption that ministers, like a broadband connection, are meant to be ‘always on’, and when the connection drops there is something wrong.

I raise this, because two separate web articles have caught my eye over the last couple of days. BBC News published a piece called ‘Clergy hide from constant callers‘, which was taken up in inimitable style by Archdruid Eileen of the Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley under the title ‘The vicar can’t speak to you now‘. The BBC piece details the strategies some ministry families have to deploy in order to get some peace and rest on a day off, even hiding in a back room with curtains drawn, watching TV. Others imply it’s part of the calling to the ordained life that you always respond. Hmm. I suppose that’s why Jesus took himself off alone at times? The article sadly only speaks about ‘days off’ rather than the more powerful but tricky concept of ‘sabbath’.

Then I found this piece by Charles Stone: ‘Are you a sleep deprived pastor? Take this test and find out.‘ Er, yes I am. Sometimes I accept it’s bad personal management. Other times it’s health issues. But on too many occasions it is work items that aren’t optional. Two days after Easter I was up until the early hours, completing my submissions for the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review. It’s an important piece of work, and I support it: our denomination is reviewing all child protection cases since 1950. The problem is, it is being phased across the country and I am in a region that was expected to do this work in a period running from two weeks before Easter to two weeks after Easter. Yes – our busiest time of the year, even more frantic than Christmas, and just the time when many ministers need a rest.

I have read articles about overworked ministers that tell us to take time off and get exercise. Yes, of course, but it’s not enough to tell us to do these good things. We need strategies. One involves having the mental toughness to say ‘no’. As I write this, there is a discussion on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about baptism requests, where families with no church connection approach a minister, expecting a specific date, sometimes even already having booked the location for the party.

But for some people, it’s bad form for a minister to say ‘no’. It’s also hard for us. We follow a calling into this work because we care, and care for others sometimes involves lack of self-care. We justify that as some kind of sacrifice. It can also be a cover for our desire to please other people rather than God, or perhaps even our fear that if we don’t please people they’ll have us moved on quicker than we wanted at great cost to our family. I suppose that’s a lack of faith – as also is the feeling that if we don’t respond, someone will not be helped when they are in need.

At other times, it just isn’t possible to say ‘no’, because all the things on our agenda are non-negotiables, and they can’t all be managed by forward planning.

So – if you are a minister, how do you cope with the demands? If you are a member of a congregation, how would you like your minister to handle this?

Sermon: A Common Destiny For All

Ecclesiastes 9:1-12

In the time from Margaret Thatcher’s recent death to her funeral last Wednesday, I have been involved in three funerals. We hosted a funeral at the church, prior to a burial at Brookwood Cemetery, because the chapel there was in too distressing a state for the family. We have had the funeral of a church member’s mother. I am preparing for another funeral tomorrow, too: I had taken an elderly lady’s funeral a year ago, but when her daughter died younger than most, her children asked for ‘the minister who conducted Granny’s funeral.’

None of these three people was famous, and certainly not like Mrs Thatcher. Yet they all share one thing in common with her, as we all do. Death comes to us all, as today’s reading in Ecclesiastes reminds us:

All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. (Verse 2a)

The same destiny overtakes all. (Verse 3)

“Lying here, she is one of us,” said the Bishop of London in his address, and while the trappings of a ceremonial funeral seemed designed to separate the grocer’s daughter of Grantham from mere mortals, death remains the great fact and great equaliser.

When you are younger, you may live as if you are immortal. As you grow older, reality dawns on you. It may come in the death of a friend or loved one; it may come as you notice signs of decay in your own body.  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes invites us to ask this question: how do we live well in the certain knowledge of death? I offer two main thoughts this morning.

Firstly, live life well. This seems to be the Preacher’s main advice in the passage:

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Verses 7-10)

You could easily interpret this along the lines of, ‘This life is all there is, so you might as well make the most of it.’ Even if you substitute the word ‘temporary’ for the word ‘meaningless’ as I’ve suggested in previous weeks, you would still be talking about ‘this temporary life’ and ‘all your temporary days’. It might boil down to little more than, ‘God has only given you this life, so get on with it.’

But that’s rather worrying, isn’t it? And this is one of those Old Testament texts where the Christian has to bring in the New Testament for a fuller understanding. Left on its own, this passage is not fully Christian. It needs filling out with New Testament revelation. Ecclesiastes reminds us of the finality of death and that we need to live life well before dying, rather than just wait for death. However, the story of Jesus Christ reworks this into a fuller picture.

What is that fuller picture? Simply put, it is one word: resurrection. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is far bigger than a promise of eternal life for all his followers (although I do not deny that!). It is the promise of a new world to come, a new creation where God makes all things new, just as he made the body of his Son new after crucifixion. It is the foretaste of new heavens and a new earth.

In other words, we are not dealing with some ethereal life, floating on clouds, playing harps. If harp playing is a requirement, then only one person in this congregation has an eternal future! Rather: it is a physical and material future, seen in the way the Risen Lord cooked and ate fish.

Therefore, to eat and drink, to love and to work well, as the Preacher suggests, are appropriate preparations for the life of the age to come. When we enjoy God’s good creation with thankfulness, we tune in to the coming age. When we love and when we work hard, despite the struggles they involve due to the presence of sin in this world, we tune into the life to come.

Sometimes we are tempted to think in life that what we are doing is worthless or pointless. ‘Why am I giving myself to this?’ we ask ourselves. We might even ask God the same question. However, that is where one of Paul’s greatest insights into the meaning of the Resurrection comes into play. It’s a verse that some of you know came to be very important to me during an extremely hard season in my life. It’s the final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle’s great chapter on the Resurrection. Just when many of us would expect him to point at the climax of his argument to God’s glorious future, he instead brings us back to this earth with a practical application:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Aligning yourself with God’s will ‘is not in vain.’ Death will not destroy it. Somehow it will be taken up in the work of building for God’s kingdom. If God has given you a task to do, there is an eternal purpose to it. If God has given you something to enjoy, then do so with gratitude and generosity, not with greed, for that generosity and gratitude is the grain of the wood in his kingdom.

Cover of "Dead Poets Society"

Cover of Dead Poets Society

But what is true is this: one day, the opportunity in this life to build for that kingdom will be gone. We have limited time, and as the Preacher says at the end of the passage, ‘no one knows when their hour will come’ (verse 12). So take the opportunity. Do you have an opening to good or to celebrate God’s gifts? Take it! Remember the slogan from the Robin Williams film from 1989, ‘Dead Poets’ Society’; ‘Carpe Diem’ – seize the day. In the face of death but with the hope ofresurrection, that is what the Christian will do in order to live life well, in a manner that pleases God.

Secondly, prepare for death. On the day of Mrs Thatcher’s funeral, Giles Fraser had an excellent piece in The Guardian entitled, ‘How to bury Margaret Thatcher’. If you saw a title like that by a left-wing clergyman like Fraser in a paper like the Guardian, you would probably expect something vitriolic. Not so. Fraser spoke how when he was on the staff of St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘Operation True Blue’, the plans for Mrs Thatcher’s funeral arrangements, were on the books all the time he was there. We know that Mrs T had made certain requests about her funeral, as indeed many more humble people do. But I am not talking about leaving a list of requests for the service – although I have to say that if you do so, it is helpful to your relatives after you have gone.

No: I am talking about preparing for our deaths in squaring our relationship with God in Christ, and all the consequences of it. Fraser tells of how last Sunday, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, Mark Oakley, told a story in his sermon about the funerals of Habsburg royalty in Austria:

As the funeral procession approached the closed doors of the Imperial chapel in Vienna, a voice from inside would ask, “Who is it?” The grand chamberlain would read out a long list of grand titles. The voice from the church then replied: “We know him not.” The chamberlain would try again, with a shortened version, and received the same reply. Finally, the chamberlain knocks on the door. Again comes the question, “Who is it?”, and this time, eschewing all pomp and ceremony, he answers: “A sinner in need of God’s mercy.” “Him we know; enter,” comes the reply.

Here is how we prepare for death: as ‘a sinner in need of God’s mercy.’ The Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes here as if there is nothing after death:

Anyone who is among the living has hope – even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun. (Verses 4-6)

However, as I’ve already said, the Christian has received further revelation, the revelation of an empty tomb, and we believe in a life to come, preceded by a Last Judgement. We do not intend to present ourselves before God, clutching a eulogy to our lives that exaggerates our good points and airbrushes the bad bits. We are not to be the Pharisee at the temple, telling God how well we have lived for him, but the publican standing at a distance, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Is that to be morbid and to be miserable? Is that to engage in what I once heard somebody call ‘worm theology’ – ‘O Lord, I am but a worm’?

No. It is to cast ourselves on the grace of God. I’m sure you know the old mnemonic for the word ‘grace’: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. In other words, we are forgiven through Christ’s death on the Cross and made new in his Resurrection.

Or put it this way. Here is a slogan I saw the other day on Facebook:

Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection.

We prepare for death by remembering that we are sinners in need of God’s gracious love in Christ. We are, as the late Brennan Manning called himself and all of us, ‘ragamuffins.’ If we come boasting of our good deeds, we shall only be exposed as the hypocrites we are.

There is no room for cover-ups. In his book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’, Manning tells of being in a group for alcoholics with a man who kept presenting his drinking problem as not too bad. However, the counsellor practised tough love and ruthlessly exposed his lies and deceit, even to the point of having left his daughter in a car on her own during freezing weather while he went on a bender for hours. The daughter developed frostbite and permanently lost her hearing. Only when the man had been brought to honesty about his sins and had put away his egregious attempts to present himself in a good light could redemption come.

It is the same with us before God. If we try to come as good people, decent people, valued pillars of society, God will not be impressed with us. But if we present ourselves as sinners needing forgiveness, and sinners willing to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, then just as the imperial chapel was opened to the dead body of Habsburg royalty, so the court of heaven is opened to the deceased pilgrim in Christ.

Church Killers

Following the post on signs of a dying church last week, here is a similar one: 20 Hidden Ministry Killers. I read this one especially when I realised it was written by George Bullard, someone whose work on the life cycle of a congregation I discovered on my last sabbatical. While in this new post Bullard sometimes has in mind churches that are even younger than many of the ones people like me minister in, nevertheless several of his twenty danger signs resonated with me.

Which ones connect with you? What other signs would you add?

Bombings – From Boston To Baghdad

Boston Marathon Finish Line.1910. Author: Unknown.

Boston Marathon Finish Line.1910. Author: Unknown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The news overnight of the bombings at the Boston Marathon is horrible. Many friends on Facebook are committing themselves to prayer for those affected, and asking others to do the same. As the FBI investigates and no organisation has boasted that they caused the carnage – sorry, ‘admitted responsibility’ – many are left devastated.

Other friends are saying, ‘Yes, but what about the far greater atrocities in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq yesterday? Not three dead, but thirty-one.’

Still others are saying, ‘Why distinguish? Pray for them all,’ and I agree with that. Death is death. Violence is violence.

But it has left me with questions about why our news media and our society are more taken up with Boston than with Baghdad. Do we react more to situations where potentially we have more connection? Americans are more like us than Iraqis are. The Boston Marathon (the world’s oldest – more than a century old) makes us think of the London Marathon, which is due this coming Sunday, and security measures there are being reviewed as a result. Many of us know friends who have run in the London event – I certainly do. Maybe a few of us have been runners there (not me). That brings the fear closer home. For Brits, it will certainly recall ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, along with the way they spilled over to the UK mainland. And as Americans will recall 9/11, we shall think of 7/7.

So does ‘compassion fatigue‘ reduce our ability to empathise with those for whom we lack that kind of personal link? And if it does, how can we recover compassion without becoming so overwhelmed that we are crushed and left in a state of inertia? Is it not important for Christians to love those we don’t know, as well as those we do (or feel we do)? Certainly, Jesus had words in the Sermon on the Mount about not just loving our friends. He meant we also needed to love our enemies, but can we not also extend that to the importance of loving those unknown to us?

What do you think? How do you believe we should respond to these atrocities?

The Second Coming Of Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley

Todd Bentley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He’s back. Plastered all over the God TV home page, with pictures, blog posts and a live feed. It’s just that he’s had to move a few miles away from Lakeland – to Durban, South Africa, for his latest ‘revival’, humbly called ‘The Great Awakening’. Yes, folks, the ever-modest Todd Bentley, whose trophy healing cases end up dead, is implicitly comparing himself with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards.

Of course, the publicity machine has had to be dragged out of the garage for this. There is a powder-puff interview with him this evening, and the God TV founders, Rory and Wendy Alec, have had some explaining to do. You see, apparently, they’re going to be persecuted for putting Bentley on screen again. That’s right, the secret police are going to turn up in the middle of the night and cart the Alecs off for interrogation under torture.

No, actually. They will not be persecuted. Other Christians will disagree and criticise. That’s not the same thing. Please stop using the word ‘persecution’ in this way. It’s utterly disrespectful of the suffering church throughout the world and throughout the ages.

However, we’re all right, because the ground has been prepared. The Alecs interviewed Bentley in January, and the controversial matter of his marriage separation, his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Jessa, whom he went on to marry, is all subsumed under a ‘David and Bathsheba’ motif. Jesus forgave Peter for his three denials, and told him to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. Is Bentley simply a case of someone with a besetting sin who keeps needing the grace of a loving God, in the manner I spoke of Brennan Manning? If I argue that Bentley remains in the relationship that arguably broke up his first marriage and could therefore biblically be said to be adulterous (even though in the eyes of the law he is duly married), then David and Bathsheba are invoked. However, in that case, Bathsheba’s first husband was dead (albeit bumped off at David’s behest). Shonnah Bentley is alive, although in the interview apparently her pastor gave a statement on her behalf, saying she has forgiven Todd and she endorses his on-going ministry. Does that make it right?

There is still the uncomfortable question of verification around Bentley’s ministry. I’ve linked to evidence above that many claimed healings were nothing of the sort. In the current ‘revival’ in Durban, there are alleged manifestations of gold. But no, that’s not enough: there are diamonds as well. So how about some independent testimony? They could pay the expenses of the outreach if they truly are diamonds. There is also a Wendy Alec prophecy, that names specific places which will be affected in the claimed forthcoming revival. You might think that would make things potentially verifiable: will these cities and nations be strongly impacted with the gospel or not? However, it’s a little too vague, even for that, because there is no time frame, apart from a general ‘It is time’ statement. If someone says, ‘Johannesburg has not been transformed, Bulgaria has not been touched’, it will still be easy to say, ‘It isn’t that it hasn’t happened; it just hasn’t happened yet.’

My gut instinct, then, is still to draw a clear line between a Todd Bentley and a Brennan Manning. Both of them, like all of us, are or were sinners in need of restoration, but I am more at ease with one than the other. I think you can guess which.

For those who want to see the whole interview, this seems to be it:

The Recession Is Hitting Everyone

Why, some people can’t afford to dine at The Ritz anymore.

Thanks to Sally Coleman, who posted this article on Facebook.