Tuesday, April 27, 2010

David Simpson of Macclesfield

At the moment, I'm doing some reading about the great evangelical preacher David Simpson of Macclesfield. Here are some quotes:

Away then, my brethren, with all party names and uncharitable distinctions. Let the only name of which you are ambitious be that of Christian, and the only religion after which you aspire be that of the Bible. Let others talk about sects and parties. Let others dispute about principles and doctrines, but let it be our daily aim, study and endeavour to grow more and more in humility, in meekness, in knowledge, in love, in gentleness, in goodness and benevolence...

(at the controversial opening of Christ Church)

Brisk, solemn, lively tunes are best adapted to awaken holy affections... Such words, such tunes, such singing as leaves us dull, stupid and languid, answers no valuable end whatever. They are neither pleasing to God nor profitable to man.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bits and Bobs - Drugs and Spiritual Experience, Contraceptives

There's some interesting research here about the ways in which some drugs can give people emotional experiences similar to those experienced in worship.

From the point of view of experience, it seems it's impossible to tell the difference between drug-induced and "natural" mystical experiences. Both are powerful. Both enable people to enjoy a transcendent moment. Both seem capable of transforming people so that they feel a greater sense of empathy for and unity with other people—what most people would call love.

That doesn't surprise me at all, because we're made as single entities - we don't have a separate bit of us labelled "soul", so you'd expect that any feeling that can be experienced as a result of something genuine can also be created by drugs or by other forms of artificial stimulation. And though experiences are important and useful, at the end of the day, the key question is one of truth and reality. Is the God we experience real and true? That's why discernment is important.

Meanwhile, Albert Mohler poses some interesting questions about the effect of the contraceptive pill on society. Personally, I suspect things would have turned out much better if its use had been restricted to married (or just about to be married) women.

John Piper argues that the cross has a benefit for unbelievers as well, in this case because it secures common grace and gives them time to repent.

A Christian psychotherapist discusses the problems caused to society by pornography.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Christians is good for thinking about some of the qualities that help us tell others about Jesus.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Meaning of Life - Psalm 30

Psalm 30

I used to do a fair bit of theoretical physics. And one of the things that theoretical physicists are especially interested in is finding a theory of everything - one theory which explains all the physical phenomena we see in the universe.

I think David would agree with them that there's one dynamic underlying everything - one basic principle which the universe runs on. But David wouldn't look for the answer in quantum field theory or superstrings. For David, the single dynamic underlying the whole universe is this - worship. Everything that happens to people, everything that God does, according to David, is somehow because of worship.

Maybe that seems a bit weird to you, but bear with me.

The way that most people think most of the time is that worship is a response - God does something amazing for us, so we praise and worship him. And that's what happens in v1-3. David praises God for rescuing him from the grave and from going down into the pit. It's interesting that in v2 he uses "O Lord my God" rather than just "O Lord" like in v1,3. It's kind of an intense awareness of God's closeness to him, and the fact he doesn't use that language in v1 and 3 makes it stand out all the more in v2.

Then in v4-5 we get a slight development. Here, David generalises his own experience to the rest of the nation, and tells them that they can praise God because of what he has seen God is like, and that his love is so much stronger than his anger.

In verses 6 and 7, David develops this theme to describe his own individual situation. His security comes only from God's favour. We may think that mountains stand firm on their own, but it's only when God wants them to. When he hides his face, it doesn't matter how strong the mountain is, it won't stand firm. So why does God show his favour sometimes and hide his face other times? It's not just capricious, as we see in v8-10.

David calls to God for mercy - he recognises he needs it. But it's really interesting how his call is motivated, because it isn't actually about him. David knows that he isn't the centre of the universe, but doesn't then make the mistake that we so often make and assume that everyone is the centre of their own universe. David knows that God's glory and worshipping God is what it is all about. So his prayer for deliverance is motivated by the fact that he knows he will be praising God when God delivers him. Why does David want God to spare him? So that he can praise God for his faithfulness. Prayer motivated by a desire for God to be worshipped.

David doesn't worship because he has been saved, he is saved so that he can worship. Worship is so big and important that it's even behind the doctrine of salvation.

And we see the same again in v11-12.

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.
Psalm 30:11-12, NIV

Why did God save David and clothe him with joy? So that his heart could sing to God and not be silent.

Quick application. Have we been saved? If so, we've been saved so that we can praise God?

Do we want to be saved? Why?

Do we recognise that the underlying dynamic of everything that happens in the universe is God's praise? Are we willing to make that the underlying dynamic of everything that we do?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Cranmer on Common Worship

Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules... and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.
Thomas Cranmer, Concerning the Service of the Church (1549)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some Ways in Which British Politics is Broken

The Voter Power website is good at illustrating some of the problems with the British electoral system. Essentially, votes in small marginal constituencies count for far more than in large safe ones. (HT Bishop Alan)

Another issue is the whole clash between constituencies and parties. Realistically, most people vote for the party they want to win, but who they elect is a local representative who may or may not have anything to do with the area and may or may not be competent. When there is only a fairly small parliamentary majority (as in the Major government), the identity of the MPs matters quite a lot, but is largely irrelevant to the electoral process.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister is elected on a very small set of issues, but then proceeds to implement their policy across a whole range of issues. Topics like abortion and the death penalty are strongly emotive, but we don't get an opportunity to choose either way.

Most of the time, the British system works like an elected 5-year dictatorship, with decent representation for the communities who voted for the dictator (because those MPs are in the government), and less good representation for those who didn't (because those MPs are in the opposition). Of course, the communities don't have much say in which individual represents them, just which party. And that seems kind of dumb.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Absolutely Brilliant Photo

From here - worth thinking up captions. Mind you, most of them would probably involve around puns on "bear", so maybe not.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Politics and the General Election

I figure I ought to do at least one post on politics...

Contrary to people's impressions of me when we get talking about politics, I've voted for almost all the major parties, and a few minor ones as well! And a lot of that is because the issues I think are the big ones aren't even on a lot of radars.

For example, the biggest issue for me almost every time is abortion. Because I think that abortions are killing human beings - whether or not it's exactly on a par with infanticide is largely irrelevant - I think it's very important that we as Christians should stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed, in this case the unborn. So I have difficulty seeing how Christians can vote Lib Dem (as they're usually the most pro-abortion of the major parties). Having said that, I've voted Lib Dem at least once in a local council election... But abortion just isn't on most parties' radar. So even though I'll often vote for the most pro-life of the candidates standing, the Conservatives are the most pro-life of the major parties and I'd expect the most a Conservative government might do is reduce the limit from 24 weeks to 22 weeks.

I don't think any of the people with a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister are in it because they want to serve people - they're in it for what they can get out of it (in terms of power, prestige, etc). However, even then, there's a difference between aiming to be in power in 6 years' time (likely to mess stuff up) or to be thought of as a good Prime Minister in 50 years' time (likely to do a better job).

And that's why I'll probably be voting Conservative this time. That and the fact I have moderately strong leanings towards small-statism, which does at least seem to be an issue in this election.

It's worth adding that if it wasn't for their policy on abortion, I might well be supporting the Lib Dems.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bits and Bobs - Cremation, Autocracy and Creationism


Russell Moore has written an interesting article on cremation. I'm still not convinced either way about cremation, even (or perhaps especially) after presiding over a fair few. My worries aren't to do about the question of resurrection - it's to do with the attitude to humanity, the importance of the physical body, and respect for the dead. Moore concludes:

Sometimes the “culture wars” that really matter aren’t the ones you’re screaming about with unbelievers in the public square; they’re the ones in which you’ve already surrendered, and never even noticed.

Church Autocrats

On a not intentionally connected note, Mark Meynell has written about how church autocrats work. Interesting, true to my experience, and a worthwhile checklist for ministry.

As I may have mentioned before, one of the main things I've learnt from coming through some quite traumatic leadership experiences in Christian circles is that godliness is the most essential quality for leaders, especially humility.

Evolution Argument Gets Worse

Once again, possibly connected is this really sad bit of news. Bruce Waltke, who is a seriously good Bible scholar, has left his job at the Reformed Theological Seminary after a video he made about evolution attracted a lot of hostile attention.

In an earlier version of this post, I incorrectly stated that he was sacked (sorry!). RTS's comment on the issue is here, but from my POV the seminary should have stuck by him if they thought he was right to be allowed to say what he said. They try defending their corner by saying they're a confessional seminary. Confessional in the sense of sacking someone who doesn't believe something the Church has always agreed on (like the divinity of Jesus) - fine. Confessional in the sense of not sticking up for a seminary professor who points out the intellectual and apologetic difficulty of taking a popular but contentious line on the interpretation of one Biblical passage - mad and bad. And I thought RTS was meant to be OK...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

School of Theology 3

The third School of Theology session was a Bible overview from the point of view of God's promise to Moses.

Audio available here, powerpoint here.

Shortened audio (CD length) available from the church office.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Bits and Bobs - Livingstone and legalism

John Piper quotes David Livingstone:

For my own part, I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . Is that a sacrifice which brings its own blest reward in healthful activity, the consciousness of doing good, peace of mind, and a bright hope of a glorious destiny hereafter? Away with the word in such a view, and with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.

The Telegraph had an interesting article about Christians fleeing from Iraq.

And Mark Driscoll describes how to become a legalist:

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Stupid Journalists - Scrabble Rule Change?

During my time, I have known the real-world situation underlying quite a few news stories. And I can't remember a single one where the story has been reported accurately, except where they've just copied a press release. And even then, they sometimes manage to mess it up (and sometimes the press release wasn't completely accurate anyway).

I remember one case where a pupil of mine had followed someone else's instructions to make a robot which could sense when it was about to hit a wall and stop in time. Or it could have done, if the motor was powerful enough to move it. Cue a carefully worded press release suggesting that it could be made into a robotic guide dog (i.e. given a pretty awesome AI, more powerful motor, etc), a news sensation erupted, including an invitation to go on daytime television to demonstrate it.

However, this story just about takes the biscuit, and the BBC news website is far more trusted than their actual journalistic integrity warrants. Of course, they hadn't checked the story with the manufacturers, and here is the true story. If you can't be bothered checking the links - BBC report that the official rules of Scrabble are changing massively. Actual truth - a new game is being released which is a bit like Scrabble.

HT to Ben Green on this one.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Rowan Williams

Rather bizarrely, I found myself chatting to Rowan Williams recently. I suspect he is both more theologically orthodox, and more passionately concerned with personal holiness than a lot of his critics either are themselves or give him credit for, as well as working much harder.

Of course, that doesn't mean he's a master of soundbites. He's a very bright guy, and a very knowledgeable guy, and he tends to assume that other people can keep up with him. Oddly, if he talked down to people more, he might be easier to understand, but at the cost of being a less nice person.

Compare the following two quotes. Rowan Williams is more accurate, even "sounder" and closer to being comprehensive. But Rico Tice's is a better soundbite.

We are more wicked than we ever realised, but more loved than we ever dreamed.
Rico Tice, Christianity Explored

The human condition is more serious and more terribly damaged than anyone wants to hear; but the resource of God's self-emptying love is greater than we have words to express.
Rowan Williams, Easter Sunday 2010

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Mark Ashton

I've just read that Mark Ashton has died. Mark was my vicar for four years in Cambridge. A great man of God, a really good preacher, and someone who, more than anyone else I know, really thought through how church should be done to reach people and bring glory to God.

Here are some words he wrote for his church magazine last year.

I have realised what a very great privilege it is to know that I do not have much longer to live (unless the doctors are completely wrong!). We, all of us, have an invisible sell-by date stamped on us, and I guess we would all live slightly different lives if we knew what that date was. I am convinced that I am fortunate to know that I need to get myself ready for departure.

I think there are three things that means for me particularly: (1) I need to fight sin more fiercely; (2) I need to tell others about Jesus more clearly; (3) I need to look to Jesus more and more with every new day.

Knowing that it will not be all that long before I am removed forever from the presence of sin means that I should tolerate it less and less in my life now. It has no place in the presence of God and I need to prepare myself for that.

I know the reference of dying just before Easter day wouldn't have been lost on Mark.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
Romans 6:5, NIV

Atheists Saying Sensible Things

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, said: “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse.”

Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner and one of the organisers of the Protest the Pope demonstration at Westminster Cathedral last weekend, came to the defence of a Christian street preacher who was fined £1,000 in Glasgow for saying that homosexuality was a sin.

Shawn Holes, a Baptist from America, was charged with “uttering homophobic remarks” in a breach of the peace that prosecutors said was “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

Mr Tatchell said: “The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive. Just as people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should have the right to criticise homosexuality.”

All from here (HT: Anglican Mainstream - though don't bother reading it, as the rest of the article is rubbish).

Of course, I don't really think that Christianity is in decline in Britain. As far as I can remember, I have been part of a church that was shrinking only for a period of about 15 months, which was while the church I was a member of was between vicars.

What we are seeing is a decline (especially in cities) of the older culture which was massively more nominally Christian than the newer cultures are. We're seeing decline in churches that don't know how to do evangelism or be culturally relevant or that have lost confidence in the power of the gospel. We may well be seeing the death of the massive nominal fringe that churches have had for so long, and we're certainly seeing a decline in the influence of Christianity on mainstream culture. But I don't think any of that implies we're seeing a decline in Christianity per se.

Having said that, it's great to see Dawkins and Tatchell making so much sense.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Google Translate for Animals

Google Translate for Animals. Finally!

(PS - note time sig)

You Can Change - Tim Chester

This is just about the best book I've read on the subject of changing the way you think and act. It's certainly the number 1 book I'd recommend to people wanting something on that sort of topic.

Tim Chester starts from a well-thought-through theology of who people are and why we sin. He avoids the usual pitfalls of legalism and saying that sin doesn't really matter. He really questions and challenges our motivation to change in a really helpful way. Brilliant.

Here are some quotes:

For all eternity your past experience of evil will enhance your eternal experience of glory.

Listen to Ed Welch: 'Perhaps the person is mad at himself for repeating the same sin over and over again. This is actually a veiled form of pride that assumes he is capable of doing good in his own power. He is minimising his spiritual inability apart from God's grace.' Jerry Bridges claims: 'God wants us to walk in obedience - not victory... We are more concerned about our own victory over sin than we are about the fact that our sins grieve the heart of God.'