Tag Archives: church

A heart formed of barbed wire

Opinion Peace

(A two-minute read)

Leaders need love more than they need to be liked. And, they need prayer even more than they need love. What’s more, they need to know you are praying for them.

I wrote a prayer for leaders a few weeks ago, noting that the Bible is clear that we pray for leaders, 1 even ones I think are in sin, or wrong theologically or preaching ‘a different gospel’. Maybe especially for those! I suggested there was a sermon to hand. Here it is. Don’t worry. It’s very short.

Reading the online debates about Christian leadership can be disheartening: what various religious leaders are or aren’t doing; if we think they are being good or evil; whether they’re preaching the true gospel, or a false gospel; whether they appear more interested in building a ministry than saving souls.

On one hand I observe these things myself. I agree with many points that are made. On the other hand, these debates challenge my ability to remain at rest.

I’m not saying you need to change what you do, or stop posting on social media. Rather, I’m making a confession myself, because I always need to preach to myself. After more than thirty years in journalism, it’s hard to resist weighing in with an opinion or ten. Perhaps the phrase ‘old habits die hard’ is the secular version of acknowledging that it’s all too easy to walk back into a stronghold, even one that was once broken.

Also, my opinions don’t move things in the spiritual realm. Instead they frequently generate strife and division. If there’s argument in a church scenario, the devil is present, chuckling and rubbing his hands. Opinions are the kindling that feeds the bonfire that brings down the church.

We must always reserve judgment until we hear from the Holy Spirit. We need discernment, and patience and time to sit with the Lord until we hear from him.

Noah landed on dry ground six weeks before he and his family left the ark. He waited for the Lord to give him permission. Patience is truly a virtue.

And so we pray all these things for our leaders, as well as for ourselves. Especially for ourselves. Repentance begins with me. Revival begins with me.

1. 2 Timothy 2:1-2 Therefore I exhort first of all that you make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone, for kings and for all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty,

Trinity engraving

A Majority of One

(A seven-minute read)

(Note: I began writing this several weeks before it was ultimately published. One week before posting, the Church of England, where I’m a member, voted up a proposal to allow church blessings of same-sex marriages. It was an incredibly divisive and unhappy debate over a sensitive and challenging issue for the church. I don’t touch on that here, but the conclusions are relevant for both)

The UK’s Census 2021 showed for the first time that Christianity is not the majority religion in England and Wales.

There’s been much hand-wringing about this, and the inevitable blame-throwing, analysis and discussion. It was an Outrage Of The Week.™ But it doesn’t matter, really. God didn’t come to earth as a human to win a popularity contest, but to save us.

This news filled some podcast time, some column inches and the continuously gaping maw of the 24-7 electronic news cycle. But only for a while. It won’t change belief or impact the spiritual landscape at all. Our short attention spans have moved on.

The world pays attention to emissions from the Outrage Machine™ instead of thoughtful discourse. Let’s engage in the latter.

Why I Am Not Fussed About This

What people say and what people do don’t always match. In large parts of the public sphere, we can claim we are one thing when we may actually be something else. A personal identity statement now can trump a created identity statement. It’s the ultimate self-love. It’s narcissism writ large. Because this belief system is so prevalent, some people who call themselves Christians may actually be confused about what it even means.

If Census 2021 had asked ‘Do you take up your cross daily and follow Jesus?’ or ‘Do you put more stock in what Jesus says than what the world says?’ (with definitions) the actual number saying yes would have been much smaller. And a large fraction of those answering ‘yes’ may still have been deceiving themselves.

If who I claim to be doesn’t necessarily line up with who I actually am, that’s okay nowadays. Men say they are women, and women claim to be men. Some people insist you address them as though they were actually an animal. Some nations are enshrining laws to protect these things. Pronouns have been hijacked from the grammatical standard to be wielded as weapons of political warfare.

Some Christians suffer from a spiritual language barrier.

Who Am I, Really?

Let me use a personal example about this mis-match between who I am and who I can claim to be. In my days of being actively and dysfunctionally alcoholic, lying about my condition didn’t make me normal. Or sober. But that didn’t matter, really. It build the fiction in my own mind that I was okay, that I was maintaining, that my life was acceptable and everything was under control.

None of this changed my ultimate reality, which was that I was dying by degrees from excessive alcohol consumption.

When I eventually got sober, I regularly and religiously attended AA meetings to say, ‘My name is Alan and I’m an alcoholic.’ But wait: I was no longer drinking; I was abstinent, and yet I took the label of alcoholic on myself, even though it didn’t reflect my ultimate reality as a sober person. It spoke of who I had been, not who I was.

Taking on that false identity helped me fit in with my new set. I used the language of convenience to signal that I was acceptable to my new tribe. That, I think, is what’s reflected in these census results. It’s called virtue signaling.

What an accurate term. People signal their virtue because they subconsciously realize they have no virtue of their own. This leads them to say and do the ‘right things’ so people will believe they are the right thing.

Whatever that current thing is.

What does this worldly confusion mean for me as a self-professed Christian? It should affect nothing in my life, unless I’m also confused about what it is to follow Christ.

If I attend church weekly, donate to charitable causes and say all the right things, can I claim to be a follower of Jesus? If my weekday self doesn’t match my church-going self, am I actually a Christian? I’d say no; I’m a pretender.

The Good, The Bad and The True

The good news: there would be hope for me, because I’d hang out with those who at least profess Christian faith.

The bad news: If I don’t move in God’s direction, He won’t move in mine.1 If I don’t respond to the love and salvation that God offers through Jesus, I remain a Christian In Name Only and am deceived and in darkness.

The true news: salvation is mine, but only if I receive it. Unless I’m a Christian in Truth, I remain on the bubble. Even in receiving salvation, I still have to live it to experience it fully. That can mean a harder life than the one I had before I was saved.

Welcome to Tribulation

Christianity is not the current thing. In fact, it’s becoming more out-of-style every day. Despite this, many people label themselves Christians to claim virtue. But when the going gets tough, as it will… well, we shall see what they say then. I pray that I remain true to my Lord Jesus Christ.

All of which is to say (in my typical round-about fashion): claiming to be a Christian doesn’t make me a Christian any more than calling myself Rover makes me a Border Collie, despite any xenogender proclivities I may harbor.

Finally, the Bible itself shows that this census report (like 95% of what we worry about) is unimportant. It’s not that the UK (or the US for that matter) can or should profess to be a ‘Christian nation’ so much as whether those of us here live like it. And those of us who are will face opposition, ridicule and worse.

From this corner, it’s very hard to claim that either my adoptive home or my birth home can make the claim.

Why None of This Ultimately Matters

None of this matters, really. Nowhere is the saying ‘the devil’s in the details’ more ironically apt than when discussing the nuances of Christianity. When we insist on details, we till a field for division, and that’s where we find the devil. Where we find Unity, we find Christ. It’s that simple.

Worry and anxiety remain for many of us, especially regarding the state of the global Church.

Three things to bring you hope

1. God always preserves a ‘remnant’: In those eras where the world seems to be unusually mad and institutions crumble, there always remains a group of loyal believers. We see this throughout the Old Testament before, during and after the Exile.

Perhaps the most well known example of this in ancient times is in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah is hiding in his cave, complaining to God ‘I alone am left, and they seek to take my life’ (verse 10 and again in verse 14). God’s response? ‘Still, I have preserved seven thousand men in Israel for Myself, all of whose knees have not bowed to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him’.

We’ve seen it throughout the history of the Church as well. Even in the most oppressed nations, a remnant remains. That’s because the ones given to the Son by the Father cannot be taken from Him.3

2. Human beings cannot destroy Christ’s church: The church belongs to Christ, not humanity.

Jesus said the church is his bride; it’s not our creation. Jesus said this about marriage: What God has joined together, man should not separate.4 It’s a metaphor. Christ will return one day for his bride, for a glorious church.5 He makes no mention of what it looks like, nor how many of us might be resident in it, nor who we specifically might be.

The encouragement here is to stay the course. Let’s avoid worldly conflict about it. God has had it in hand since before the world was created. Let Him continue to handle it. Don’t grab the wheel; you’ll crash the car.

Meanwhile, engage in the Great Commandments: Love God. Love Your Neighbour.6

3. God is ultimately victorious: No matter what we see around us, we should never fear. ‘So what do you think?’ Paul asked the Roman church: ‘With God on our side like this, how can we lose?’ 7

God is, after all, a majority of One, and His vote is the only one that counts.

1. James 4:8: Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.’
2. Jeremiah 29:12-14: Then you shall call upon Me, and you shall come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.You shall seek Me and find Me, when you shall search for Me with all your heart.I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will turn away your captivity and gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back into the place from where I caused you to be carried away captive.
3. John 6:37
4. Mark 10:6
5. Ephesians 5:27
6. Matthew 22:36-40
7. Romans 8:31 (MSG)

Alan from behind looking into the distance

Absence Makes the Heart Grow

This is based on material written for my recent memoir, The Lie Called Cancer but left out of the book.

(A three-minute read)

When the UK restricted everyone in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was considered a vulnerable person because of receiving cancer treatment in 2019. I was told to stay a home for twelve weeks and not go out, under any circumstances.

After a week of it, I was still saying Humph! Humph! about the idea of being medically vulnerable, but I’d get over it. It turned out it wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity to build my faith. It was not only an opportunity for me, but also for the church.

Now, in October, 2020, we are back into another round of restrictions. For many of us it continues to be hard, especially for those who have lost loved ones, are separated from family and friends, feel financial stress, or in a myriad of other ways have had their lives disrupted. At the very least, it’s continually annoying.

When everything in life is going bonkers, when what we count on crumbles, when it’s unclear what the next steps are, we can always count on the one unmoveable: Jesus Christ. I have faith that the long-term effects of these lock-downs will be good.

Lukewarm Christians, in it for religion not relationship, will either be winnowed out or lit on fire. Those of us already on fire will see our flames rise higher. The gospel will be preached. Christ’s kingdom will advance.

By being physically apart from one another, we’ll come to know deeply how much we need one another. Ironically, through separation, we’ll grow in intimacy. The church that emerges from this will be on fire for evangelism; we’ll have a fresh desire for prayer and intercession.

We’ll be eager to share the message of Jesus.

People will ask us, ‘What happened?’ and we will simply answer, ‘God was faithful.’

I’m in the book of Jeremiah in my annual cycle of reading. It’s such an excellent pairing – better than the right wine with a gourmet meal. It’s made for this lock-down season.

‘The Lord says, “Now I will show them my power; now I will show them my might. At last they will know and understand that I am the Lord.’ *

Let me be quick to say that I’m not suggesting that God is responsible for the outbreak of a new virus against which people apparently have no natural immunity. All such things are the work of the devil.

However, I believe God may permit these things to provide an opportunity for growth. He certainly steps into the middle of all such situations to continue His work.

As the aftermath of this crisis falls out, if we look at it through the lens of opportunity, instead of relegating it to problem status, His glory will be revealed. There will be events through this season that will demonstrate His power. At least for those who have eyes to see it.

Finally, let’s not think of it as ‘lock-down.’ Think of it as exile, like Israel’s exile in Babylon. Because good things always come out of exile.

* Jeremiah 16:21 (NLT)

Photo: Rachel Richards