Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How do you read your Bible?

I came across this quite challenging bit from JI Packer recently:

"So let us read the Bible - if we can. But can we? Many of us have lost the ability. When we open our Bibles, we do so in a frame of mind that forms an insurmountable barrier to reading it at all. This may sound startling, but it is true. Let me explain.

When you read a book, you treat it as a unit. You look for the plot or the main thread of the argument and follow it through to the end. You let the author's mind lead yours. Whether or not you allow yourself to "dip" before settling down to absorb the book, you know that you will not have understood it till you have read it from start to finish. If it is a book that you want to master, you set aside time for a careful, unhurried journey through it.

But when we come to Holy Scripture, our behaviour is different. To start with, we are not in the habit of treating it as a book - a unit - at all; we approach it simply as a collection of separate stories and sayings. We take it for granted that these items represent either moral advice or comfort for those in trouble. So we read the Bible in small doses, a few verses at a time. We do not go through individual books, let alone the two Testaments, as a single whole. We browse through the rich old Jacobean periods of the King James Version or the informalities of the New Living Translation, waiting for something to strike us. When the words bring a soothing thought or a pleasant picture, we believe the Bible has done its job. We have come to view the Bible not as a book, but as a collection of beautiful and suggestive snippets, and it is as such that we use it. The result is that, in the ordinary sense of "read," we never read the Bible at all. We take it for granted that we are handling Holy Writ in the truly religious way, but this use of it is in fact merely superstitious. It is, I grant, the way of natural religiosity. But it is not the way of true religion.

God does not intend Bible reading to function simply as a drug for fretful minds.

The reading of Scripture is intended to awaken our minds, not to send them to sleep. God asks us to approach Scripture as his Word - a message addressed to rational creatures, people with minds, a message we cannot expect to understand without thinking about it. "Come now, and let us reason together," said God to Judah through Isaiah (Isa. 1:18), and he says the same to us every time we take up his book. He has taught us to pray for divine enlightenment as we read. "Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law" (Ps. 119: 18). This is a prayer for God to give us insight as we think about his Word. But we effectively prevent God from answering this prayer if after praying we blank out and stop thinking as we read. God wants us to read the Bible as a book - a single story with a single theme. I am not forgetting that the Bible consists of many separate units (sixty-six to be exact) and that some of those units are themselves composites (such as the Psalter, which consists of 150 separate prayers and hymns). For all that, however, the Bible comes to us as the product of a single mind, the mind of God. It proves its unity over and over again by the amazing way it links together, one part throwing light on another part. So we should read it as a whole. And as we read, we are to ask: What is the plot of this book? What is its subject? What is it about? Unless we ask these questions, we will never see what it is saying to us about our lives.

When we reach this point, we shall find that God's message to us is more drastic and at the same time more heartening than any that human religiosity could conceive."

From JI Packer's God's Plans for You

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Do you need to kiss your wife in private if you have already said, "Hello", to her in public?

Or, Do you need to do your daily Bible reading when you are at a Christian camp or conference?

Here is something that I was asked recently - if you are at some sort of Christian teaching event (camp, conference, mission team) where you are already receiving a lot of teaching, do you need to spend time in personal, private devotions? Surely you are getting enough in the teaching.

I don't know what anyone else thinks, but my instinctive reaction was, "Of course you should still spend time with God in private." But I couldn't really think of a good strong reason. I knew that in my life, I felt I was copping out in not to spending time with God in personal Bible reading, prayer and worship - even when I was at a ministers' conference.

However, a day after the conversation had occurred (why is it always a day later you get these insights?!), the answer came to me. Or rather it wasn't the answer, but my wife that came. She came to see me while I was leading a church camp. We stood and chatted a while with everyone standing around, and we talked as a group, and I heard what she was saying.

But that wasn't enough. I wanted to talk to her by myself, I wanted to hear what she had to say, I wanted to tell her about my week, I wanted to know how she was, I wanted to spend time with her on my own. It wasn't enough that I had heard her speak generally to others, and even specifically to me in front of others. I wanted to talk to her and talk to her about personal things.

It dawned on me that our relationship with God is similar in many respects. Its not enough to take in the teaching - we should long to commune with our Saviour. I'm not suggesting that we seek private revelations from God, but rather that we need to spend personal time with him, even at conferences or camps.

It may be the case at a conference or a camp that we do put our regular Bible reading pattern on hold, and take the talks and use that to form the basis for our personal meditation. Or we can read the passages that we have been studying, or are about to study. Or perhaps we take what has convicted us and pray over it and apply it to our own lives.

In any case, I suspect that when we start asking questions that begin with, "Do we need to…" - then there might be a more pressing issue of perspective that needs to be looked at. If I have to ask myself, "Do I need to kiss my wife?" - then I know something's wrong! Why do we read our Bible and pray? Is it just for knowledge? If so, then there is no real need to read and study more when we are being well fed at a conference. But it's not about knowledge; it's about relationship. And any man who is content to say '"Hello" to his wife in public and not long to converse with her personally in private has missed the point.

I wonder are we missing the point sometimes in our relationship with God?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book Review - Sex Romance & the Glory of God by C. J. Mahaney

Sex - God created it, the world abuses it, and most Christians are embarrassed by it.

The way the world treats sex is like using a Stradivarius violin to hammer in nails - a thing of wondrous beauty misused and trashed beyond all recognition. For years Christian men have been sold a pack of lies by the media. We have lost the vision of what God intended in marriage.

CJ Mahaney's book returns us to the maker's instructions and restores a much profounder biblical perspective of romance within marriage as God intended it. He uses the Song of Solomon to illustrate how men should treat their wives. He puts the masterpiece of marriage back into its God-given frame, showing the significance of what marriage demonstrates - the relationship between Christ and his people. He calls Christian men to selfless sacrificial love, like Christ's love for his Church. He calls men to be leaders, a much-needed truth; and to be thoughtful caring servant husbands, possibly a more needed truth.

One of the great lessons repeatedly brought home is: "Before you touch her body, touch her heart and mind."

Too often men are more focused on their needs and pleasures. This is not what God intended in marriage - a selfless giving by each person. Mahaney then proceeds to illustrate what this means, and to help us men with the task of romancing our wives, and to develop marriages that go way beyond the physical side of the relationship.

This book is a must read for all married men. Some may find Mahaney's frankness startling, but he deals with this delicate subject without being crude or explicit. Mahaney's wife, Carolyn, has added an appendix, "A Word to Wives", which contains much of what we might want to say to our wives, but are afraid to.

I strongly recommend you read this book, and put his suggestions into practice so that in a world where marriage is unfashionable and often self-serving, we will be able to live God-honouring, God-glorifying marriages.

Men, buy it and surprise your wife. Ladies, buy it for your husbands.

Monday, August 22, 2005

A subject close to my own heart!

Here's a post that I might even print out and distribute to some people I know!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Food for thought - The power of images

(My local newspaper column. This post was inspired by this one by Doug Groothuis.)

Something has happened to the news. I wonder if you've noticed a change?

I noticed it on holiday when I was reading the newspaper. Then when I came home I noticed it on the RTE news; one report in particular stood out.

Towards the end of July there was a news report on the 6.01 evening news bulletin concerning vandalism of a parish church, school and community centre in Moycullen, Co Galway. Quite rightly, the whole tone of the report was one of disgust and outrage. Yet in the footage that accompanied this report the camera zoomed in and panned across the walls so that we could see the exact terms used in the sexually explicit and vulgar graffiti. We were left in no doubt as to what four-letter obscenities had been scrawled and sprayed.

Given that the newsreaders would not have been permitted to read what was daubed, why was it permissible to display it? As a father of a little girl I have no desire for her to grow up using such language. If my daughter was at an age where she could read, I would not allow her to read books with such explicit language - yet in the act of watching the news she would have been subjected to it.

Bizarrely, it was almost as if RTE news was doing the vandals work for them - the vandals had a message they wanted to convey and RTE happily conveyed it for them.

I don't think it's a one off either. It seems to be part of a growing trend amongst news reports to be more gritty (I almost typed 'grotty'!) and realistic. It used to be that we would see a distant shot of a body covered with a white sheet, now the camera often zooms in to show the blood seeping through. Close-up shots of injured bomb victims have become much more common in the newspapers.

I'm not convinced that just because an event has happened that I need to see it in graphic detail. There are some images that should not be shown. Not merely extremely gruesome images, but indecent things also. It might be news, but there are times when decency looks away. St Augustine wrote about this 1600 years ago in words that have a curiously modern ring to them:

"What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experience which evokes revulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd around to be made sad and to turn pale. To satisfy this diseased craving, outrageous sights are staged in public shows."

He goes on to describe such curiosity as a vice, a sin.

Images are powerful, and burn themselves into the memory for much longer than verbal descriptions. News broadcasters and newspaper editors have a responsibility to their public to choose wisely what they show. Because the more they show, the more they shape society. What we see influences how we think. The more filth and violence we see, the more desensitised to filth and violence we become.

And so far I'm only thinking about the news. This doesn't even begin to touch on the vast variety of other programmes and advertising, and their use of images.

But as well as there being a burden on broadcasters, there lies a burden on us as well to take care over what we look at. Mankind is made in the image of God, and certain images are not befitting to that dignity.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Food for thought - "Relationship advice"

I was preaching at a friend's wedding a few weeks ago. As part of the sermon I was encouraging them to read over and put into practice an article written by my own minister, Ted Donnelly. It had some really good advice, not just for newly weds, but for all people, for all relationships. So I thought I'd share it with all of you, for there is wisdom here for all of us.

"Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them" - Matthew 7:12

"Personal relationships seem to cause more trouble than anything else. Friendships are broken, families destroyed, drugs taken, and murders committed because of them. Efforts are made to provide guidance - clinics, books, and counselling. But nothing seems to do much good. People are so different, circumstances change so rapidly, situations prove so complicated. We almost despair.

Here, in one luminous sentence, aptly called 'the golden rule', is the Lord Jesus' recipe for personal relationships. Easily understood and applied, it has the touch of a teacher of genius. In the words of JC Ryle: 'It prevents the necessity of laying down endless little rules for our conduct in specific cases. It sweeps the whole debatable ground with one mighty principle.'

The golden rule is positive. It tells us not merely that we are to refrain from harming our neighbour, but that we are to do him good - not merely that we are not to rob, but that we are to give - not merely that we are not to murder, but that we are to save life. It is concerned and compassionate. And this is because God, who gave his only begotten Son, has been supremely positive in his dealings with us.

The golden rule is liberating. The common ethic 'do to others what they do to you' is enslaving, because it means that our behaviour is dictated by others. They act - whether kindly or otherwise - and we merely respond in kind. We become their mirrors, their echoes. But Christ offers a pattern of behaviour which is truly free. We choose to behave as God wants us to, irrespective of what others may do. And this freedom has its roots in the sovereignty of our Heavenly Father, who chooses to love us, not as a response to who or what we are, but out of his own free grace.

The golden rule is substitutionary. It demands an effort of the imagination. Whatever you wish that others would do to you - if you were in their place - do also to them. The employer, the husband, the wife, the parent, the pastor - all must ask: 'How would I want to he treated if I were in the position of my employee, wife, husband, child, church member?' - and then act on that basis. It is a fruitful approach to personal relations. And that is because it echoes the mighty reality at the heart of salvation. For Someone took our place, not just in imagination but in fact, on the central cross at Calvary. The golden rule is based on the self-giving of Jesus and to obey it is to walk in the steps of the Saviour."

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Book Review - The Big Picture for Small Churches

The Big Picture for Small Churches
John Benton
Evangelical Press

I was talking to someone recently and they were amazed to find out that I was the pastor of two congregations, and they oohed and ahhed over this, assuring me that this work was an amazing calling. Their face and enthusiasm changed somewhat when I told them that one congregation had 35 people out on a Sabbath, and the other about 12.

We live in a world that values only the big and the successful. As John Benton puts it, "a society that worships at the shrine of size." And let's face it, we are part of a small denomination with small congregations. When we look around us and the bigger churches in other denominations, even our biggest congregations look small. And it is easy to become discouraged.

It is for such moments and such congregations that John Benton has written this book. It is a wonderful little book and a timely corrective in a world obsessed with size. Benton reminds us that God is not obsessed with size but with the heart. And he goes on to argue that since God will not give his glory to another, a small congregation is perhaps better situated to be used by God. In a small congregation with little or no earthly resources the credit for success cannot be laid at the feet of "two little old ladies, a blind man and his dog", and so God is seen to be all-glorious. This is no spin job, but an outworking of biblical truth.

Benton outlines some of Satan's tactics in seeking to destroy small fellowships, before going on to set out five key aspects of church life that are attainable in any congregation, no matter its size: Quality presence, Quality welcome, Quality teaching, Quality hospitality and Quality prayer. Closing chapters on 'Heaven's Resources' and 'How to fight discouragement in a small church' make this an extremely helpful and practical book.

Benton doesn't beat about the bush, and he writes in a plain straightforward style. There is much practical pastoral wisdom here to recalibrate our thinking. It would be a great book for every church member to read - not just because of our size, but especially because of the five key qualities he sets out for churches. If we were putting these five into practice, things might be a lot different!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

A couple of reviews on Da Vinci Code books

(Sorry fo the absence - I was away leading a church camp for 13-15 year olds)

Most Christians, on this side of the pond at least, don't seem to realise how big Dan Brown's best selling novel, the 'Da Vinci Code', is. It is a publishing phenomenon - 36 million copies in print (as of August 2005), translated into 44 languages.

It is a very readable novel that combines a fast paced action thriller with a series of claims that undermine historic Christianity. True, it contains nothing that is new - many of these claims have been bandied about for years, but now everyone is reading them.

It is easy to read the book and dismiss it as nothing to worry about. But although there is nothing here to worry the believer, there is another, very real, danger. Someone once said, possibly Goebbels (Hitler's propaganda minister), "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it". Therein lies the danger of "The Da Vinci Code". Many people will read the Da Vinci Code yet never lift the Bible to verify the claims made.

Here is a fantastic witnessing opportunity for Christians. Next year the film will be released. Now is the time to get your head around some of the facts. Already it has been a topic for discussion in numerous places.

Here are a couple of books (a third book will follow later, DV) that will get you started. You only need to read one of them - that will give you enough to work from!

The Da Vinci Code on Trial
Stephen Clark
Bryntirion Press

Stephen Clark was a solicitor before becoming a minister. In this book he places a very different defendant on trial: Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code".

At 90 pages, this is a short, but very readable book that highlights many of the errors in the Da Vinci Code. It deals specifically with the aspects that relate to Christianity, and provides solid answers to many of the claims in the book. Areas outside of scripture and Christianity are largely left untouched, such as the Priory of Sion hoax. Clark also includes a chapter at the start giving an overview of the book, and its key claims.

Clark states his intention in the introduction:
"I wish to demonstrate that real Christian faith is passionate about the truth. Far from encouraging or confirming a closed mind, the exact opposite is the case: real Christianity engages the mind and intellect."
This is excellent and would also be suitable for giving away.

Cracking Da Vinci's Code
James Garlow & Peter Jones
Victor Books

At 240 pages this is a longer book than Clark's and covers the Da Vinci Code in more in-depth fashion.

Jones and Garlow have taken a leaf out of Brown's book and sought to interweave a fictional story throughout their book, in an attempt to personalise some of the questions that readers of the Da Vinci Code might have.

The strength of this book over Clark's is also its weakness: It has more detail and covers more aspects of the novel, and so takes longer to read. However it gives the reader a broader knowledge of the Bible's teaching on different topics, the history of the church, the reliability of scripture etc. Scattered throughout the book are sidebars that discuss some of the side issues raised by Brown.

Again this is an easy-to-read book.

It comes with a pull-out copy of Da Vinci's 'Last Supper' which is subject to many claims in the Da Vinci Code. Also included is a discussion guide. On their website they have provided an index to the book to make it easier to reference.

At this stage I am 'over read' on the Code - so don't buy any more than one of these, one is enough!