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Sabbatical, Day 81: A Lost Day

On a schoolday my alarm is set for 7 am. Working from home and getting the children out of the door for 8:45, that’s fine.

This morning, though, I woke at 4:45. The reason? A fierce and vicious headache. I am occasionally prone to these, although less than I used to be. Sometimes, they are connected to the neck problem I have had since I was eighteen. However, osteopathy is progressively improving that these last few years.

Other times, they are connected to my slightly-higher-than-it-should-be blood pressure. Treatment for that is also reducing the frequency of those headaches, too. 

Debbie says I always get these heads after time out with her and the children, but that can’t be the explanation this time, as the school Easter break finished last weekend. How happy we were to get the monkeys back to school. They can squabble there!

Or, as I joked in a tweet this morning, punishment for blogging negatively yesterday about Todd Bentley and Rick Joyner. 🙂

I can joke about that, but so many people I encounter live as if every adversity is a punishment. How easily we say, “What have I done to deserve this?” Here are some preliminary sketches of a response.

Biblically, this is more complex thatn simple blame for our actions. There are strands in Scripture connecting moral misdemeanours with consequences. The Deuteronomic literature in the Old Testament is particularly strong on this. God is just: righteousness will be rewarded, sin will be punished. There are lists of blessings for the upright and curses for the unjust.

Yet that is only the beginning of the matter in the Old Testament. As one of my Old Testament tutors, John Bimson, memorably put it in a lecture in 1987, the forty-two chapters of Job are designed to answer one question: is there such a thing as innocent suffering? Their answer is ‘yes’. The book does not explain innocent suffering, it affirms that it exists and is mysterious. 

Jesus picks up this thread in John 9, where he encounters a man born blind. His disciples ask who sinned in order that he was born blind, him or his parents. It’s a ridiculous question, as if the man himself could have sinned before birth. Jesus detonates this nonsense and makes the innocent man’s suffering the arena where God will display his glory. There is innocent suffering, yes, says Jesus, but he develops the teaching in Job by saying that God can use it redemptively.

At the same time, what happens about the cry for justice? I have always found Psalm 73 an eloquent expression of this. The author spends the first half of the psalm lamenting the luxury and ease of the wicked, while the righteous suffer. It all changes for the author when he (?) enters the sanctuary and sees things from God’s perspective. There is a long-term picture, where evil people are placed on slippery slopes by God. This is given full eschatological rein in the New Testament, not with the judgment that all seems to be telescoped into ‘this life’ in much of the Old Testament (Daniel 12 excepted?), but with a picture of final and ultimate judgment. 

We also need to qualify the idea of innocent suffering. It is true in the sense that much suffering in the world is not a direct consequence of our sin. I don’t think something as mundane as my lousy headache was, nor are earthquakes and famines, despite the tendency of some parts of the Christian world to attribute blame rather quickly. We get caught in the crossfire of a broken world.

Yet in another sense none of us is innocent. All of us face God as sinners in need of grace. We simply need to resist the temptation to make easy linkage between particular suffering and certain sins. For although God will judge sin, and although sometimes, as C S Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world, the basic truth is that the God of holy love is calling us to find his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, I need to take some personal responsibility in order to avoid feeling rough tomorrow: I’m off to get some supper now before bed!

Sabbatical, Day 80: Rebuilding Trust; Todd Bentley’s Second Coming

A Christian businessman friend of mine, Dan Collins (his company is Fresh Tracks), twittered an article this morning that he had written for the website Financial World. Basically, he argues that if companies want to do well today, they should build a culture of trust, especially with their customers. He contrasts this to the woeful track record of banks, who have introduced cost-cutting policies at the expense of customer contact. Here is one striking story from the article. It appeals to me, because it refers to my native North London!

The example that first triggered this thought in my mind was a little restaurant in North London that was always full, predominantly with repeat customers.  Despite being quite a trek from the centre of town it was renowned around the world.  The reason being, there were no prices on the menu because there was never a bill at the end of the evening.  Vasos Michael the 4’10” diminutive proprietor didn’t ever give his customers bills for their meal, he simply presented a list of what had been served, including drinks and asked that the customers paid what they felt the meal was worth.  On the whole people rewarded his trusting nature by paying more than a comparable meal would have cost elsewhere and if someone abused the relationship by paying too little, Vasos wouldn’t hesitate to ask why, gaining either valuable feedback or the satisfaction of publicly embarrassing a miser.

I found it refreshing to read Dan’s piece today, not only because it was great to see a Christian friend writing something in the commercial world that is based on implicit Christian values, but because it made me connect with other thoughts.

For one thing, I’d put the breakdown in business trust earlier than Dan does. My father worked in the City for NatWest at the time of the financial ‘Big Bang’ of 1987, when regulatory practices were ‘reformed’. (Deformed, more like.) He always said that was the time when the old City ethic that a man’s (and it was generally a man, in the past) word was his bond. He saw time-honoured practices discarded recklessly by young bucks. That predates Dan – he’s too young to have been in the business world then, I think. But I’m glad to see him voicing these convictions, especially at a difficult time when businesses might be tempted to cut even more ethical corners to survive and prosper. Great stuff, Dan. 

But it connects with church issues, too. Only last night I was reading that Todd Bentley may be back in public ministry sooner than expected. There is a large piece in the Canadian Western Standard, which I found via Bene Diction and Richard Hall. Now while there is a certain cynical tone to the Western Standard article that I might find uncomfortable, it isn’t surprising when you consider what it has turned up. Two points in particular stood out for me:

Firstly, Rick Joyner, who is supposed to be overseeing Bentley’s restoration process, now claims that God is overriding that process in order to bring Bentley back into ministry sooner. Secondly, the Standard provides evidence that in its opinion shows Bentley denying the formal relationship they believe was undoubtedly established between him and the Revival Alliance. 

With regard to the second, I don’t doubt what the Standard are saying, but I think there was also an issue about what Peter Wagner and the others claimed was happening at Lakeland. It was a matter of considerable debate last summer whether Wagner said he knew Bentley well or not. (Here is what I wrote at the time.) 

But the first point raises big issues of trust for me, not dissimilar from what Dan Collins was writing about in terms of business practice. Sin, repentance and restoration to ministry are serious matters. When people have suffered brokenness for a long time (and it seems to be that Bentley has honestly admitted that), then my experience suggests that the quick fix is rarely right or healthy. There is good reason for the process to take a long time. Some will be cynical about the motives behind any attempts to rush Bentley back into the spotlight. I can understand that. We like the crash-bang-wallop approach to spirituality in charismatic circles (or should I say, ‘Bam’?), because we have been seduced by an instant can’t-wait culture.

I can’t help thinking it would be much more merciful to keep Bentley out of the public eye. No videos, no nothing. It would be kinder to him. Remember how Jimmy Swaggart tried to wriggle out of the discipline imposed by the Assemblies of God when he fell? It didn’t look good, did it? Neither does this. I am so not convinced that it is God who is accelerating Todd Bentley’s return, unless others can provide some strong evidence to make me rethink.

In fact, to me there seem to be particular reasons in Bentley’s case why the restoration process needs to be long and slow. (And, I should add, ‘restoration’ is not primarily about a return to public ministry. It is first and foremost about a return to good fellowship in the Body of Christ. Public ministry may or may not follow, but it cannot be a priority.)

The particular reasons revolve around the nature of what brought an end to his ministry at Lakeland, and his personal history. The issue appears to be one of deceit, and that suggests a lot of learned habits to cover things up over a long period of time. There was deceit over the relationship with the woman who is now his second wife, even if there was nothing physically inappropriate. That deceit must have been towards Shonnah, his first wife, towards the now-renamed Fresh Fire ministry, towards the local leadership at Lakeland, and potentially others.

Furthermore, Bentley had a conviction aged fifteen for sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy, along with other crimes based on his membership of a sexual assault gang. I don’t want to use the facts of those convictions in the way some of his opponents in blog posts have, to smear him, as if there were no such thing as forgiveness. I believe there is forgiveness for the worst of sins through the Cross of Christ. However, I would draw attention to the widespread experience of those who counsel sex crime offenders, especially those whose crimes are against children. Their regular testimony is that these people are astonishingly practiced in the art of deceit. Granted, Bentley clearly hasn’t reached the depths of many such people who so deceive themselves that they justify their behaviour, but they have to engage in serious deceit in order to cover up their deeds. It becomes ingrained.

That is why my own denomination will not anyone hold office who has been convicted of sexual offences against minors. Were Bentley to have been a British Methodist and not an independent, he would not have been allowed to minister in the first place.

Given, then, the likely history of deceit, it’s little surprise it came into play at Lakeland with the inappropriate relationship. This constitutes on the personal level the major breach of trust which Dan Collins laments in much of the business world.

There has to be a long journey back from such places. Real apologies. Deep repentance. New patterns of behaviour, tried and tested over a period of time. Attempts to make amends or restitution, if appropriate. And so on. Pastoral care is not a TV show. It is quiet and long term. That doesn’t seem to be happening here.

Perhaps, if I pursue this theme of trust, Rick Joyner and his colleagues would ask me to trust them. But I would struggle on this evidence. At best, I am concerned about the wisdom being shown in the ‘restoration process’. At worst, others will doubtless make more serious allegations about potential motives. I do not believe that what is being shown publicly presents the Body of Christ in a good light.

As on other occasions, I truly hope I am wrong. But to my mind so far, the evidence is pointing in a worrying direction.