Blog Archives

Thieving Christians

So where is our Christian witness compromised by double standards? James Emery White on Loving God in the Pub and the Christians who steal mementoes of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

On Not Assuming Too Much Knowledge

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Blake, the current Principal of Cliff College, give some seminars on preaching and mission. In one session, he highlighted the need for preachers not to assume too much biblical knowledge among congregations. The very next day I witnessed a preacher carefully elucidating from a congregation how many of them knew the story of wrestling Jacob. About ten per cent put up their hands.

Then on Monday came an email version of the latest Church and Culture blog by James Emery White, Communion and Coleslaw. He raises the same issue, but particularly among those newer to the faith. He includes a touching reaction from a new worshipper who was clearly unfamiliar with what the ‘Lord’s Supper’ is.

Thanks for the informative email.  I have been going to Meck for about a month now and I love it!  I have even talked my two friends into joining.  We are all thankful to be part of an awesome church with great values.  I do have one question.  I remember hearing about the first Wednesday of every month being a service with in-depth Bible teachings and a celebration  of the Lords Supper.  What does that mean? I understand the part about the Bible teachings but what is a celebration of the Lords Supper? Does that mean we all bring some  kind of food to share? I am planning on going tonight but I wanted to make sure I bring something if need be.  Any information you can provide with would be greatly appreciated!

What a refreshing reminder that is.

But how sad it is that we still have to give out page numbers to longstanding Christians to find Bible passages, because they still don’t know their way around the Scriptures. Not that biblical knowledge alone is a test of spirituality, but I find it moving to deal with young Christians where I can’t expect them to know stuff and sad to deal with many experienced Christians who know little more.

What are the causes? Is it bad teaching by those of us who lead? Is it a lack of passion for discipleship? Is it cultural pressures?

What do you think?

Covenant Service Sermon: The Renewal Of God’s Purposes

Deuteronomy 29:10-15

We come to our Covenant Service today, faced with a big problem. That problem is a word. The word ‘covenant’ itself. It is one of those words that has slipped from people’s language and understanding. So much so that our first task today is to ask, what is a covenant?

Consider how we used to use the word ‘covenant’, and why it has slipped from our conversation. In the days before Gift Aid was introduced in 2000, you had to take out a covenant with a charity if you wanted them to benefit from tax refunds on your giving. At one stage, the covenant lasted for seven years, then the commitment was reduced to four years. Now – in order to benefit those one-off gifts we make – you don’t need to be committed to the charity at all.

Another area in which we have previously talked about ‘covenant’ is marriage. And while I don’t generally believe the idea that many people go into marriage today casually, saying, “Well if it doesn’t work out we can always divorce,” I do think we have lost the notion of covenant. Marriage has slipped between two stools, due to experiences of pain coupled with a sense of personal rights. One stool is the idea of it as a legal contract, and hence we see the fashion for pre-nuptial agreements.

The other stool is how we cope with disliking people in a very individualised society where we have lost the notion that we and other people need forgiving. James Emery White puts it like this:

If relationships become too uncomfortable, we disengage. We change jobs, move out of a neighbourhood, find a new church or leave our marriage. We minimize relational life as portable and disposable.[1]

But to Christians, relational life is not portable and disposable. People are made in the image of God – even the ones we dislike. And they are just as loved by the God who brings forgiveness through the pain of the Cross.

A covenant, then, is a solemn and mutually binding commitment, framed by an understanding of love that is about commitment to the other party rather than self-fulfilment. That is why ‘the covenant of the LORD your God’ in Deuteronomy 29:12 is ‘sworn by an oath’. It is made by God’s acts of salvation for us, and we enter into it when we respond. Which is why in the same verse Moses tells Israel this is a covenant ‘which the LORD your God is making with you today’.

Just as yesterday we celebrated forty years of David and Arline’s mutual and continuing commitment in love to each other, so today in the Covenant Service we celebrate God’s commitment of love to us since the dawn of creation. He has promised unfailing love to us. He has kept that promise. He continues to keep that promise. And we enter into his covenant of love by our own solemn promises in response. Just as the Covenant in Deuteronomy was in response to God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt, so ours is a response to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

If this is the nature of our covenant renewal today, the first thing we need to do is meditate on our salvation. Let us recall the humbling gift of a baby in a manger. Let us recall the obedience of Christ. Let us remember his teaching and miracles. And let us focus on his sufferings and death, his conquest of his death, his reign at the Father’s right hand, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the promise of his return.

Then let us say – this God deserves my unswerving allegiance. And let us renew that commitment today.

But then there is a second question to ask about covenant in this passage: why does God make a covenant?

To answer this, let’s notice a misconception we sometimes have about God’s covenant with us, and our Covenant Service. When we say the Covenant Prayer, it is full of ‘I’ and ‘me’ language. ‘I am no longer my own but yours’. The modern prayer then follows with a lot of uses of the word ‘I’. The old version of the prayer, on which many grew up, uses ‘me’ a lot: ‘Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will, put me to doing, put me to suffering’, and so on.

And with language like that, it’s tempting to think that the covenant is between God and me. Well it is, and it’s essential that everyone makes their own personal commitment of faith and obedience to God in Christ.

But … God has bigger purposes. This is not just about me and my private relationship with God (as if it could be private). The ‘why’ of the covenant is this: God’s purpose is making a covenant is to form a people for himself. In Deuteronomy, God has the assembly of Israel together before him: leaders, elders, officials, men, women and children, plus the aliens in the camp (verses 10-11). It’s done together, because, as Moses explains in verse 13, the covenant is ‘in order that [the LORD] may establish you today as his people’.

God, then, uses his covenant to make and establish us as his people. We are to be a community of people, radically committed together to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church was never meant to be an accidental aggregation of whoever coincidentally turned up in the same building on Sunday.

And why is God so keen to form us into his covenant community? Because he made human beings to live in community, not isolation, and that has gone badly wrong due to sin. He calls us to be the light of the world together. He calls us to show how it is possible to live in committed love together in a society where break-ups, unforgiveness, prejudice and other diseases ravage people all the time.

No wonder God wants every part of the Israelite community before him for the covenant, and those not present are included, too. This is his serious project. It is the one plan he has had since Abraham. The reference in verse 15 to ‘those not here with us today’ is ‘not those accidentally absent but those as yet unborn’[2]. We may as Christians operate under a ‘new covenant’ in Christ, but the goal is the same: a redeemed community as a corporate witness in the world to God’s holy love.

So this morning, let us not see ourselves as private individuals in separate booths, renewing our covenant. Let us recognise that we are doing this together as the people of God for the sake of the world. Before we say the Covenant Prayer together, I shall say the words, ‘We are no longer our own, but yours.’[3] Let us renew our covenant, not only in terms of our personal commitment to Christ, but our commitment to one another in him, and our commitment together in his Name for the world.

A recap: we have said that the covenant is a solemn mutual commitment that God initiates and to which we respond. We have said that God does this in order to form a people for himself who will be a witness as a community to a broken world. Finally, a third question: when do we make the covenant?

Well, the simple answer is ‘today’, isn’t it? We renew our commitment today in this service. And our reading is littered with references to ‘today’. One commentator says:

The emphasis in this passage is upon the present (today is used five times), not in the sense that a new covenant was being initiated, but rather in the sense that the renewing of the covenant was a revitalizing of the relationship.[4]

‘Today’ is not just about urgency, frequency or regularity. It is about revitalising our relationship with God. How many of us could do with that? I know I could. I know what it is to go through spiritually dry seasons in my life. I imagine that many or all of you do, too.

But what do we do when we find faith dull, dry and uninspiring? Some just plod on and hope things will work out or change of their own accord. Others seek the latest religious fads and fashions. Or we might hold out for a dramatic spiritual experience.

There can be virtue in all those approaches. Sometimes, just to continue doing what we know is what we are called to do. On other occasions, new approaches to faith may help us. And it is also possible that the Holy Spirit may intervene in a powerful way.

However, sometimes the revitalisation that comes ‘today’ happens through basic decisions of obedience. Canon Michael Green, a well-known charismatic Anglican, hardly shy of welcoming dramatic spiritual experiences, once said that he knew far too many Christians who were refusing to get on with the Christian life until God did something extraordinary in their lives. He said they should just simply make the decision to obey Christ.

Let’s compare it to a marriage again. It isn’t always the flowers, the box of chocolates or the diamonds that make a difference. A dry marriage is watered when each spouse takes the trouble to think what their beloved would most appreciate them doing. That can win the heart and bring back the spark as much as anything else.

Today, then, may be the ‘when’ for saying another simple ‘yes’ to Jesus. ‘Yes’ to walking in his ways. ‘Yes’ to pleasing him – as Paul says, ‘Find out what pleases the Lord’, implying of course that if we find out what pleases the Lord, the natural thing is then to do what pleases him. Today, as we say another ‘yes’ to Jesus, it may just be that as we do so from the heart, it so delights the Lord that there is a new spark in our relationship with him.

So if the finely crafted words of our promises today are met by finely crafted acts of devotion and obedience, who knows what might be around the corner? As we respond to God’s committed love of us with our own committed actions of love for him, might we just see God renewing his purposes for the world in our neighbourhood? Might we then be on the brink of a renewal in our life and witness?

May the Holy Spirit so empower us that it is so.

[1] James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p140.

[2] Christopher Wright, Deuteronomy (New International Biblical Commentary), p287.

[3] Methodist Worship Book, p290.

[4] Peter Craigie, Deuteronomy (NICNT), p357.

On Youth And The Aging Of The Church

Trawling through the emails that accumulate while we are away on holiday is a massive task upon return. This time the inbox had inflated to 1400. It’s therefore a task I undertake in several phases over a period of days. That meant it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I saw one that had come in before holiday but which I had left: the fortnightly Serious Times Update from James Emery White. And his 30th July column was a great thought-provoker. Following a report on his own denomination, he ventured into the debate about why the Christian Church in the West is aging. He listed the usual suspects:

Some blame a secular society; some blame traditional approaches to ministry; some blame new forms of individualism that lead Christian young adults away from institutions in general; some blame the lack of evangelism.

Then he added something to the conversation from his own experience:

The natural flow of the church is to skew old. Left to itself, that is what it will do. It will age. You take your hand off of that wheel, and that is what will happen. This is not the only natural flow of the church. Left to itself, the church will also turn inward and become outdated.

He describes how he has seen this happen in churches previously (and still) seen as ‘hip’, including his own. He goes on to outline some of the intentional steps churches must take to model the importance of younger generations. Some of them are only applicable to larger churches with several people on staff. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults, platform young adults and acknowledge young adults. But even if some of these do not work in small churches with just the one minister (who may also be shared with other churches), White’s main theory is that churches must deliberately model the acceptance of younger generations by using them in leadership. It also means embracing some of their technology, an idea that greatly appealed to me!

And that’s where I thought it might be worth having a debate on this blog. No-one can doubt the problems many churches have reaching younger generations. While I am not sure White would necessarily approve of some positive discrimination or affirmative action description of his suggestions because I’m sure he’d still only want to hire and platform young adults of suitable gifting and character, should there be some kind of bias towards them? Would it help to invest a disproportionate amount of energy in young adults?

On the one hand I have seen churches where everything had to be tested by whether the elderly would accept it and could participate in it. If they could not take part, an event did not happen – even though there might already be other activities in the church programme that catered for older generations.

Furthermore, it was not so surprising to see the growth in the 1990s of youth churches, especially given that some of them arose out of historic denominations where the emphasis on tradition had alienated younger Christians.

But on the other hand, our wider society is arguably one biased towards youth and it could be said that by valuing the elderly, the church is making a prophetic statement about a marginalised group. Unless, of course, that is the only group the church is dealing with.

I have a gut feeling that White is telling us something important. What do you think?

Sermon: Pharisees, Disciples and Tradition

Mark 7:1-23

“Who has used up all the handwash in the bathroom?”

Debbie asked the question, but she knew the answer.

“I did!” said Mark.

We should be pleased that our son is very good at washing his hands after going to the toilet. It’s just that he doesn’t think one squirt from the liquid soap dispenser is enough. He doesn’t accept that with water its effects will multiply. So he pumps the dispenser about three times on each occasion.

Our only problem on hand washing with Mark comes when I have to take him in a public toilet and he thinks the electric hand dryer is going to be too noisy. Only one thing is allowed to be loud in this life, and that is his voice! So confronted by a noisy hand dryer, he may want to dry his hands on his t-shirt instead, and complain vigorously if I don’t do likewise.

It’s easy to read today’s Lectionary Gospel with modern eyes and think it’s a story about hygiene. In which case, we would be as offended as the Pharisees and the scribes at the actions of Jesus and his disciples. In a time when we are even more concerned about safe, healthy practices in our churches due to swine flu – witness Anglicans and Catholics not using a chalice for communion and some Christians not wanting to share The Peace – this story may seem even more disturbing.

But the background is different. The religious lawyers of Jesus’ day had taken the Old Testament laws, imposed their own interpretations on them, and then made those interpretations a binding tradition on all Jews. Washing your hands before eating bread was not about physical cleanliness but about  avoiding ritual defilement. And that seems to be something that never worried Jesus too much. After all, he shared table fellowship with ‘sinners’, making him unclean in the first place.

So the issue here is this: what shall we do with tradition? Is there still a place for it? Do we overturn it, like angry teenagers? What is its place, if any, for the disciples of Jesus?

What, then, is tradition? Put simply, tradition is the wisdom and truth that generations hand down to succeeding generations. Here’s an example. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, he speaks of passing on what was handed down to him. You could more literally translate it not simply as what was ‘handed down’ to him but as what was ‘traditioned’ (to coin a word) to him.

At its best, then, tradition is a good, helpful and even necessary thing. Truth and wisdom is handed down to us. Then it is our responsibility to hand it on to the following generations.

But because tradition is the means by which we hand something on, it cannot be the be-all and end-all in itself. If you like, tradition is a goods train, but it is only the train, and not the goods. What is important is that the goods get to their destination.

And that’s why when the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day made so much insistence on the regulations they had devised, they were putting all the stress on the train and not on the goods.

John Wesley said there were four sources of truth for Christians. They were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But he was clear that Scripture trumped all the other three. Tradition, then, for Methodists, has to be about the ways we hand on scriptural truth. If it faithfully conveys the biblical gospel, though, then tradition has done its job.

The problem comes when tradition gets ideas above its station. There was a story that illustrated this in the new issue of Christianity Magazine:

A church I know is dying from hypocrisy. And although I’m watching it from a distance, it’s still painful. The congregation is small, though very faithful, and the minister is a natural evangelist. But whenever someone is converted through an Alpha course or pub ministry they don’t stay in the church for long. The members soon show them that they are inadequate for their new faith: they know nothing about the depth and traditions of Christianity; the fumble their way round the Bible and prayer book; they don’t have the gravitas or decorum for respectful worship; and those who have children can’t control them properly. The old faithful, who are becoming fewer in number, can’t understand why the new believers don’t make more effort to be like them and to support the church like they do. They can’t see that they are suffering from that peculiar form of hypocrisy identified by Jesus – doing all the ‘right’ things for all the wrong reasons. And this results in repelling people from God.[1]

What are we to do, then, if we are to stop tradition being used to damage people, as Jesus clearly thought was happening in his day, and was obviously happening in the church I have just mentioned?

I think there are two measures we must take. I have hinted at the first, but to underline it, let’s return to the Bible passage. Hear the words of Jesus again:

He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’ (Verses 6-9)

Jesus quoted the Scriptures and accused his opponents of abandoning Scripture (‘the commandment of God’) in favour of human tradition. So our first remedy must be to place tradition under Scripture, not outside or above the Bible.

If we’re going to place tradition under Scripture, then we need to do two things. The first is that we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The second is that we then need to subject our traditions to biblical teaching, and ask whether they do indeed carry the Gospel into our world, or whether they contradict it.

That’s why I’ve spent much of the last four years urging people into spiritual discipline, including Bible reading. It may be using daily Bible reading notes as I do. It may be using our imagination to enter the situation and the characters as Ignatius of Loyola taught. It may involve persistent chewing on whatever grabs us in a particular passage. But whatever approaches we take, the bottom line is that if we are serious about following Jesus, we will be serious about immersing ourselves in the Bible.

Then, when we do, we can examine our traditions. Do they convey the Gospel on a two thousand year journey into today’s world, or do they turn ‘human precepts [into] doctrines’ (verse 7b)? You could raise a lot of embarrassing questions about the way we do church without a lot of difficulty. A lot of the things that consume our time or tie us down have very little to do with the Gospel and should be open to all sorts of criticism. Are we in danger of Jesus quoting the same words from Isaiah about us that he did about the Pharisees and scribes: ‘In vain do they worship me’ (verse 7a)? Would he tell us that we ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (verse 8), even ‘rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep [our] tradition’ (verse 9)?

So – the first thing we need to do is place tradition underneath Scripture. This means we soak ourselves in the Bible and then examine our traditions carefully in the light of the Gospel.

But I said there were two measures. It’s not enough only to place tradition below Scripture. Why? Because you will have come across those kinds of Christian who know their Bibles well but lob verses of Scriptures at others like hand grenades. You’ll know how people have been wounded by other Christians cutting them to shreds with the Bible. So while, for example, I hold a traditional Christian view that the only place for sexual relationships is in marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, I am also aware of the way homosexual people have been damaged by the church.

Our second measure, then, is this. Having placed tradition under Scripture we must then guard our hearts. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, says it’s a matter of the heart:

This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me (verse 6b).

Where were the hearts of those who criticised Jesus and his disciples? Far from God. It’s the danger we face, too. If we do not stay close to God, then it doesn’t matter whether we are issuing edicts of tradition or firing bullets of Scripture, if we are not in close and vital contact with God, we’ll achieve nothing for the kingdom of God, however zealous we are. More likely we shall cause pain and put people off church, rather like the elderly people at the church I mentioned earlier whose actions have driven new converts away.

So how do we guard our hearts and draw near to God? I am reading a book called ‘Wrestling with God’ by an American pastor, James Emery White. On Friday, I read the chapter entitled ‘The Distance of God’ where he discusses many reasons why people may feel far from God. By no means all of them are our fault, but he asks some people, ‘What are you doing to stay close?’ and suggests some basic activities that will draw us closer to God:

  • Are you praying?
  • Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
  • Are you involved in worship?
  • Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
  • Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
  • Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
  • If the answer to any of these queries is ‘no’, then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it. God continues to ask the question, ‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ (Jeremiah 30:21)[2]

Most or all of us are people who have begun a spiritual life, mostly many years ago. What is each one of us doing to develop it? We cannot be complacent. We cannot stand still – because we won’t remain where we are, we shall slide backwards, further away from God. There is great danger to our souls if we do not develop our spiritual lives. I have to challenge myself and say, just because I have followed certain spiritual practices for many years, am I still in a vital, living relationship with God, or have I drifted into stagnant water?

We are faced with a challenge, then: those who fail to nurture their spiritual lives become Pharisees. Not only do they waste away spiritually themselves, they hurt others by their harsh application of tradition.

On the other hand, those who do develop their life in the Spirit are disciples of Jesus. Feeding on Scripture and intentionally growing their relationship with God, they are like the image  in Psalm 1 of a tree by the water.

Which, then, are we: Pharisee or disciple? It’s our choice.


[1] David Instone-Brewer, ‘New Testament Scandals #9 Hypocrisy’, Christianity, September 2009, p52.

[2] James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p53.

Sabbatical, Day 45: The Gospel At The Post Office

You don’t go to our local Post Office when it opens on a Monday at 9 am. Not unless you need your benefits payment. The queue slithers out of the door and along the street. You’d better have something to occupy your mind.

For although our manse is on a prosperous estate, the nearest Post Office is across the park in a deprived area of town. It’s the only part of Chelmsford to have a tower block.

And, it turns out, you also don’t go there on a Tuesday at 9 am for the same reason. I know, I did that today. To keep things manageable in our small manse, Debbie sells toys, books and clothes the children have grown out of on eBay. She has sold about two dozen items in the last ten days, and I have been taking most of them to the Post Office for her. 

As I waited today, distracting myself with music on my MP3 player, I looked at the variety of people waiting. The tracksuited teenage couple with their toddler. Already, the mother was getting irritated by the child’s independent exploratory jaunts. The mother and adult daughter. Was one of them long term sick? The short, elderly lady immaculately turned out in a red coat far cleaner than any garment most other people were wearing. It was her public signal of dignity. The preponderance of up-to-date mobile phones, clutched by people whose demeanour suggested they couldn’t afford them.

And I thought, what is good news in a culture like this? I lived in such a place for eight years before moving here. Often, there was terrible low self-esteem there. People had been  rejected, dismissed and ignored by governments and commerce. You would have thought it were a simple case of ‘good news for the poor’.

But it wasn’t. For just as the good news is preceded by bad news as Wesley put it (preach law and then preach grace), there was the attitude that society owed them a living. 

Somewhere in between those two attitudes locally is something my local vicar friend Paul has described to me. His parish strides across half of our middle class estate and half of the deprived area. In one half, he has competent, educated, professional people who will volunteer for activities and get things done. In the other, he has people who either cannot or will not take the initiative to do things, because they swim in a culture where everything is done for them. Either they are disabled by that, or they have reason never to grow as people by taking more responsibility.

So what is the shape of the Gospel in such a place? I’m still wondering.


This made me laugh: British nurse told to ‘take English test’ before she can work in Australia. The Daily Mail has gone all morally superior over another easy target case of ‘political correctness gone mad’ (™) but it is crazy. However, it does make a change from the Mail criticising people in this country who can’t speak English. 

Anyway, Happy St Patrick’s Day to you. I commend May We All Be Irish by James Emery White as a suitable Christian reflection for the day.

A Six Word Life

Do read A Six Word Life by James Emery White. How would you sum up your life (or last year) in six words?


OK, here’s another round-up of links I found during the last week. Have fun.

A Theremin (remember Good Vibrations?) inside a Russian doll. (Via Mojo.)

A friend of mine once rewrote Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch as the Dead Church Sketch. But now we learn that the ancient Greeks pre-empted the dead parrot sketch.

Jesus spoke about lust as ‘adultery of the heart’. Now, a ‘virtual affair’ in Second Life has led to a divorce.

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 ponders great drum solos.

Remember the Johnny Cash song ‘One piece at a time’? Well, a Russian Orthodox church has been stolen, brick by brick.

Once it was pizzas looking like Jesus, now it’s Buddha bee hives.

You want a prayer movement – how about this? Artist creates ‘public prayer booths’ in NYC. They look like phone booths, apparently.

If only this were true: hoax New York Times newspaper proclaims end of Iraq war.

My father has a life-long interest in astronomy. Doubtless he will have been excited to read about the Hubble Telescope spotting a planet orbiting the star Fomalhaut and the planetary system discovered by the Gemini Observatory in Chile. (Both links via Personal Computer World‘s weekly email.)

Ruth Haley Barton has written on the loneliness of leadership: loneliness drives us to seek the presence of God rather than any notion of the Promised Land.

Unhappy people watch more TV. ‘TV doesn’t really seem to satisfy people over the long haul the way that social involvement or reading a newspaper does,’ says researcher John P. Robinson.

Go on, you want to make cake in a mug.

MyBloop – unlimited free online storage, max file size 1 GB. Via Chris Pirillo.

Twenty hated clichés. In contrast, here are James Emery White’s top five irritating Christian phrases.


Not being American, it’s pointless to a degree my expressing a preference between John McCain and Barack Obama. Except that the winner will be so influential on the UK and the world that it matters.

So I was pleased to read this open letter from James Emery White to whoever the victor is. It is the measure of a Christian attitude. It is so different from what I have read elsewhere from some Christians. Take Focus On The Family Action’s hysteria-inducing hypothetical letter imagining what the USA would look like in 2012 after the first term of an Obama presidency. (One reaction has been a bipartisan Facebook group opposing it.) Or whole blogs like Ohnobama. Or the incredible nonsense that Sarah Palin prophetically is Esther.

Now I’m aware that all the stuff I’ve denounced above is from one particular camp – the religious right. I know that filth exists on the left, too. Certainly Palin (while she cannot be a modern-day Esther – who was the king and who were the other concubines? :)) has been the victim of misrepresentation of her faith. One article on Huffington Post comes to mind. It is a mixture of genuine research and tangential ‘guilt by association’ insinuation.

And I know too that none of this should be surprising. It exposes the gulf between claims that people want high office in order to serve others and the reality that it is a grab for power. If you want power for yourself or whoever you support, you’ll adopt a ‘by any means necessary’ approach. 

Nor is this about a Brit wanting to have a go at Americans. Whatever our more reserved characters, we know enough about aggressive politics. PMQ, anyone? And neither Biden nor Palin have ‘done a Prescott’:

And my complaint isn’t about wanting to treat politics as if it doesn’t matter. It does. Christians can’t disregard it. Just concentrating on evangelism and dismissing a so-called ‘social gospel’ is sub-biblical.

Surely as Christians we can model something different for the world, where we are passionate about what we believe, even when we differ among ourselves, yet do so with humility and love. It seems to me that James Emery White’s tone models such a spirit.

I can sympathise with some of the reservations about Obama. I find his stance on abortion awful. (Although if I am to be pro-life – and I am – then that extends after the womb and takes in issues such as war and poverty, too.) I also have concerns about McCain. His tax proposals appear to favour the wealthy. (Yet on the other hand I think his stance as a Republican on green issues is noteworthy.) So it’s easy to see why Christians with particular areas of concern gravitate strongly for or against a particular candidate.

What, then, has made many Christian voices so indistinct in tone from secular ones? We have a regular problem in the church of being squeezed into the world’s mould, as J B Phillips put it. But are there particular factors either causing or exacerbating the situation?

I suspect that at least as far as the religious right is concerned, we ought to take a look at the ‘prophetic movement’. It’s been in play for several years, and led to the view that George W Bush was God’s anointed, and woe betide any Christian who disagreed. A British Christian friend of mine who works in the States with a charity that is developing drug treatments for people with AIDS couldn’t believe just how true the picture was of evangelical alignment with the Republican Party.

Yet that wasn’t going on so much a few months ago in this campaign, if I understand correctly. Disgruntlement with how McCain viewed certain issues dear to the Christian right’s agenda meant was surely a major reason why evangelical and fundamentalist churches weren’t holding voter registration drives with such enthusiasm this time. My hunch, watching from a few thousand miles away, is that it all changed when McCain announced Sarah Palin has his running mate. Not seeing that McCain surely thought of her for pragmatic reasons: he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat so as to bring a major Republican constituency into the voting booth, suddenly Palin was the person God had kept everyone waiting for. No wonder ‘prophetic words’ began to flow. (And, please note, I believe in prophetic words. But I also believe in testing them.)

Is it part of a lust to believe we are living in times that are comparable to biblical ones, and therefore they have to be graded as such by prophecies? Are these things some kind of sign taken to mean that we are in some sense more faithful to biblical spirituality? Are we just not content to get on with days of small things (Zecharaiah 4:10) and be faithful in a few things (Matthew 25:21, 23)?

Put this approach together with the ‘grab for power’ I mentioned earlier and we have a flammable combination that leads Christians to spend more time ‘praying against’ rather than the ‘praying for’ which White exemplifies.

I don’t wish to make it sound like White’s is the only sane voice around. That would be arrogant and ignorant. It didn’t take too long to find this sane post from Rob Harrison, a Christian Republican, arguing moderately in favour of the Grand Old Party, expressing deep reservations about Obama and explaining why he thinks Hillary Clinton would have been a better Democratic candidate. From a different stable comes Jim Wallis’ post, ‘My Personal ‘Faith Priorities’ for this Election‘. (Wallis has also called on James Dobson to apologise for the ‘2012 letter’.) I know Wallis is technically independent, but most of his faith priorities lean in Obama’s direction.

So it’s galling to keep hearing the nonsense when there are thoughtful voices in the debate. Somewhere a big section of us in the church has lost a grip on servant leadership and that we see through a glass darkly, not clearly.

There is something to be said for Derek Webb‘s view that you’ll never find ‘A Savior On Capitol Hill’

even if I don’t share what sounds like a cynicism in the lyrics towards all politicians. Nevertheless, it is a timely warning for all those who offer Barack Obama semi-messianic adulation or who see John McCain (but really Sarah Palin?) as God’s anointed.

Is it too late to hope for more Christlike tone as well as content to Christian contributions regarding the election, both in terms of an increase in quantity and a greater prominence to the careful voices that are in danger of being drowned out? It’s so close to the end of the campaign that for anyone to say this now is humanly a forlorn hope. I’d like to think it might be different in four years’ time. For that to happen, the church will have to have been chastened. That might mean a whole run of failed ‘prophecies’, but it would take a lot for even that to lead to repentance in some circles. My fear is that even something that goes against the grain will just lead to a reframing of them.

But you never know. We might learn humility one day.