Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spurgeon - Lectures to My Students - Quotes on Prayer and Many Words

I recently finished reading one of the absolute classic books on ministry - C.H. Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students. Of all the books I've read on ministry, it is one of the very best and certainly one of the funniest! It's also just about the only book I've read on sermon preparation which gives about the right amount of weight to the importance of prayer... It's so good, in fact, that I may well do a mini-series of quotes from it!

Here are some on prayer and the dangers of too many words.

slovenly, careless, lifeless talk in the guise of prayer, made to fill up a certain space in the service, is a weariness to man, and an abomination to God. Had free prayer been universally of a higher order a liturgy would never have been thought of, and to-day forms of prayer have 110 better apology than the feebleness of extemporaneous devotions.

Fine prayers are generally very wicked prayers. In the presence of the Lord of hosts it ill becomes a sinner to parade the feathers and finery of tawdry speech with the view of winning applause from his fellow mortals.

Never fall into a vainglorious style of impertinent address to God; he is not to be assailed as an antagonist, but entreated with as our Lord and God.

Verbiage is too often the fig-leaf which does duty as a covering for theological ignorance.

The art of saying commonplace things elegantly, pompously, grandiloquently, bombastically, is not lost among us, although its utter extinction were "a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Praying is the best studying.

My brethren, it is a hideous gift to possess, to be able to say nothing at extreme length.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Hurt Locker

I missed this one when it was at the cinema, but I aim to watch all the films that won the "Best Picture" Oscar.

It starts with the quote

"The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

And the whole film is basically an illustration of that.

It follows the story of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq towards the end of their time there, with all sorts of hard-hitting encounters between them and Iraqis.

I wouldn't say it was a pleasant film, or a nice film to watch. It isn't something I'd especially like to watch on an evening in front of the TV. But it's a really good film, and a thought-provoking one.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sex and the Pope

There's a really interesting article by Peter Hitchens here about people's response to the Pope's visit. It's well worth a read - here's the section that struck me most...

The special condemnation reserved for the Romish church also suggests, absurdly, that such horrors never took place, or were covered up by, liberal secular institutions. They did, and have been. Yet this is never advanced as an argument against the secular liberal state (and it would be a bad argument, if it were).

The sex scandal is not, as it happens, the real reason for the anger directed against the Bishop of Rome. If it were, then the undoubted case against the Roman Catholic hierarchy could be made without all the puce-faced exaggerations, straightforward lies and total lack of proportion which infect it. It is overblown precisely because it is not the true issue, but a pretext.

This is what it is really about: the sons and daughters of the sexual revolution, the inheritors of 1968, are actively infuriated by anyone who dares to suggest that their behaviour in their personal lives might be, or might ever have been, selfish and absolutely wrong

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Give Me Only My Daily Bread

How would you feel if you got a pay rise? My guess is that you'd feel pretty happy, because pay rises are one of those things that people just like. Surely the only way that anyone could be sad at getting a pay rise is if they were expecting an even bigger rise!

But that's actually a reflection of the culture we live in – a culture that just accepts and assumes that money is good. So in the financial news, we read things like “Richard Branson is worth £3 billion”, as if the amount of money that people have in some way reflects how much they are actually worth. And even though Christians don't always go that far, we've still been far too influenced by the culture around us, and not influenced enough by the Bible. And that goes for me too.

So when we read words like Agur's prayer in Proverbs 30, it comes as a counter-cultural breath of fresh air.

Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, 'Who is the LORD ?'
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God.
Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV

Agur prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”

There are two things we can learn from this short prayer.

Firstly, poverty and riches are both dangerous.

It's worth being clear on what we mean by poverty and riches here, because people mean different things by the word “poverty”. What Agur means is being so poor that he is tempted to steal so that he and his family have enough to eat.

That sort of poverty is dangerous, says Agur, because he'll be tempted to steal, and that would dishonour God. And generally, I think the church has understood that one. We want to help people who are that poor, and we see that it's a good thing to pray that we wouldn't be that poor.

So what about being rich? Agur uses “rich” to mean “having enough money that we don't have to consciously depend on God for what we need to survive”. Now by that definition, I guess almost all of us are rich. I know I am. I've got enough money and skills and I'm in a rich enough country that realistically I don't need to worry about where my food is coming from.

But that need to depend on God was built into the very way the Promised Land worked. Here's Moses speaking just before Israel enters the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 11.

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
Deuteronomy 11:10-12, NIV

Egypt is a flat desert country with a big river going through it. So to grow plants, you need to dig ditches for the water to get through. To stay alive, you work and trust yourself, and if you work harder, you can get rich. But Israel wasn't like that – it was lots of hills and little streams, so you needed to trust God for the rain. Hard work didn't mean as much, and it was harder to get rich. What mattered most was trusting God. Being part of God's people was tied up with leaving Egypt, the land where you worked for your food, and living in Israel, the land where you trusted God to bring the rain.

But if you're rich, says Agur, you can start feeling like you don't need to trust God. You can even say “Who is the LORD?” which is what the King of Egypt says when he won't let Israel go. He thinks you get where you are by hard work, and he's rich so he doesn't trust God and doesn't even recognise him. That's the danger of wealth – that we stop trusting God.

Why is it that in general, the richer a country is, the less we see God moving and the less of his power we see at work in the church? Why is it that the churches in Britain where God seems to be doing the most are full of students or immigrants, neither of whom have any money? Isn't it because by and large, we are rich, so we've stopped trusting God? We don't see the danger of wealth, so we fall for the trap.

Everything else in life, we see that you can have too much as well as too little. We know that too little food is bad for you, and too much food is bad for you as well. We know that too little exercise is bad for you, and too much exercise is bad as well. Well, too little money is bad for you, and too much money is bad for you as well.

We aren't jealous of people who've had too much food, are we? And we aren't jealous of people who have had too much exercise. So why should we be jealous of people who have too much money? Shouldn't we be sorry for them because they will find it harder to trust God?

What about those who can't help being rich? Well, here's Paul writing to Timothy.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19, NIV

Those of us who are rich should remember and take care not to be arrogant, and not to trust in money, but to trust God who gives us everything we have. If we are rich in this age, says Paul, well are we rich in good deeds and generosity? And will we be rich in the age to come?

Those of us who are rich now need to be very careful that we invest in the kingdom of God – in the age to come – so that we can take hold of the life that is truly life. Because otherwise we're going to be the poor ones. We need to remember that our wealth is just something that is going to pass away, so we need to use it wisely and well now.

You know, people have done a lot of research about whether money makes you happy. And what they have found wouldn't have come as much surprise to Agur. They found that when people are very poor, the more money they have, the happier they are. But once people have enough money to survive, having more money doesn't make them any happier. Too much money is dangerous, and it doesn't make you happy.

And as Christians we know that true satisfaction doesn't come from money – it comes from knowing Jesus and being known by Jesus, from loving God and knowing that we are loved and accepted by God.

We all know that the happiest people we know aren't the richest, so why do we still so often aim for money?

But if money is dangerous, what should we aim for? This brings us on to the second point we can learn from Agur. Godliness is more precious than gold.

Look at v9. What does Agur actually want? What does he actually pray for? He prays that he won't have too little money, because then he'll dishonour God. And he prays that he won't have too much money, because then he'll forget God. What Agur really wants is to love God more, and to value God, and to trust God.

Agur wants godliness, because he knows that godliness is more valuable than gold. So we should aim for godliness too, the way that a lot of society today aims for money. We should aim for what will help us be closer to God, and what will help us love God more.

Aim to have enough money that you don't have to steal, but not so much that you'll trust your bank account rather than your God, and if too much money is a problem for you, then give the rest away.

Don't go for the job that pays the best; go for the job that will help you be the most godly. Don't go for the more comfortable house, go for the house that will enable you to use it the most for God's kingdom, because godliness is more valuable than gold.

And what does it mean for our prayer lives? What can we learn from Agur's masterclass in prayer?

Well, what do we pray for? Do we pray that our friends and family will get good jobs, or do we pray they will get jobs that help them to be godly, even if that means they'll be struggling financially?

Do we pray that we would be comfortable, or that we would be holy? When people are in pain, do we pray that they would be free from pain or that they would learn to trust God more through their pain? Don't get me wrong, it's important to pray for healing, but it's far more important to pray for godliness.

We pray for the poor, and for poor Christians, who struggle to survive. Do we pray for rich Christians who will struggle to keep on trusting God?

Are we willing to pray “Lord, please don't give me a pay rise if having more money will stop me trusting in you?”

Are we brave enough to pray, as Agur did, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

Folk Religion

Round where I live, there's a pretty strong belief in a folk religion. The beliefs go something like this:

  1. Everyone, well, except maybe the really bad people, goes to heaven when they die.
  2. Heaven is probably disembodied
  3. The main attraction of heaven is meeting up with everyone we know and love
  4. In the meantime, those who have died are “looking down on us”.
  5. This is “Christianity”
  6. Celebrations in Christianity are having a christening for babies, a church wedding (optional), and a Christian funeral, as well as turning up to stuff at Christmas and occasionally Easter. After all, that's what you learn about in RE. There might be more beliefs about Jesus and stuff, but they don't really matter and all boil down to this.
  7. Anything more is optional, and is nice for those who need it as a support or to help kids learn about stuff.

Every single one of those beliefs is, of course, wrong.

It's also peculiarly resilient as a system of belief. In large parts of England, people question it and reject it. Those are the parts I've been better trained to reach. But here, by and large, it remains unquestioned by most people. But it's resilient because people won't change their ideas unless they're explicitly contradicted and argued and shown the truth. Merely preaching about the importance of stopping to think doesn't help when they just stop to think the same wrong things over again.

But contradicting some of those facts makes only a tiny amount of difference - I mean, what good would it do them if they change their minds to think of heaven as resurrected rather than disembodied, but still hold onto their universalism and the highlight of heaven being other people?

Other facts are ones that the church often acts embarrassed about – the fact that the Bible clearly teaches that some people (and not just the really bad ones) are going to hell, for example. And that's almost certainly inappropriate for talking about at a baptism or funeral which are the only occasions these people come to church.

Which means it's back to preaching the importance of responding to God...

Friday, September 10, 2010

Burning the Qur'an?

There's a big row about some American nutter who decided to burn a Qur'an and then decided not to, but lots of Muslims rioted anyway.

And there's something about the whole story that I just don't get. It's obviously big enough for world leaders to intervene...

Most of the Muslims I know and have known have been reasonably intelligent, socially moderately normal people. There were a few oddballs, but I know plenty of non-Muslim oddballs as well. Most people in poor countries I know and have known have also moderately normal.

So is there something about Muslims in Afghanistan that means they stop maturing at about the emotional maturity of a stroppy teenager?

Or is it a normal, mature and sensible human reaction to riot and kill people because some silly chap on the other side of the world bought a Qur'an with his own money and then set fire to it? And let's be honest, he didn't set fire to it, and the one he would have set fire to was probably only an "interpretation" of the Qur'an (i.e. translation), which the Muslims don't even think is holy.

I'm a committed Christian, and have a very high view of the Bible. And to be honest, if someone down the road bought a Bible and set fire to it, or used it as loo roll, I don't especially mind - they can do that if they want to. I might like to have a chat with them about why they felt that way, but they're free to do it.

I am fully aware that people blaspheme God, and say all kinds of nasty things about him, and disrespect him in all kinds of different ways. Now I disagree with them, but I figure that God is big enough to deal with that himself.

So what is going on? Is there a new thought police in town? Do Afghan Muslims have an emotional age of 13? Is the God they believe in too small to look after himself? Or is the media whipping up a storm in a teacup to sell copies?

I don't know, but there's something odd going on...

Monday, September 06, 2010

All the Old Gods

All the old gods haven't gone away - they've just changed their names a bit.

There's a line which I hear quite a bit when we talk about idolatry - something like this. "In the old days, idolatry was much more obvious because you'd worship Thor or Jupiter or someone. But now it's harder because it's much more subtle."

I've been thinking about that a bit over the last few days, and I disagree.

In Roman times, for example, you'd worship Bacchus, god of wine in two ways. One was going to the temple of Bacchus, and the other was partying and eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine and getting drunk. Except often what you did when you visited the temple of Bacchus was parting and drinking.

Or you'd worship Venus, goddess of sex, in two ways. One was going to the temple of Venus. And the other was ritualised pursuit of sex for its own sake. And sure enough, at the temple of Venus there were loads of ritual prostitutes who "helped" people seek sex.

I think we do exactly the same today, except without naming the gods. We still worship Bacchus, and Venus, and others.

Plato's Academy, in many ways the prototype for the university, was built around a temple to Athena, goddess of wisdom (known to the Romans as Minerva). And in the same way, a lot of people at universities today still worship her.

We worship the old gods whenever we pursue sex, drunkenness, wisdom, knowledge, sporting prowess, fitness, anything, for its own sake or for its own enjoyment rather than for God's sake. As St. Augustine wrote:

He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.

And one of the great things about Roman religion was that it wasn't fussy or exclusivist. It was perfectly happy with people worshipping Bacchus one evening and Venus another, then taking a trip to the temple of Athena. They weren't fussy about what the gods were called, and were happy to identify them with foreign equivalents. They were fine with people worshipping whatever and whoever they wanted, as long as they let them get on with their own business and devotion to their own gods.

And where other cultures were happy to go along with that, Rome just tended to assimilate them because of its greater cultural output and power.

Where the problems came for Christians was that God claimed exclusive allegiance. Christians could not just go to the temple of Venus for a quick fix of casual sex and then go home as normal. They couldn't burn incense to the emperor when they started claiming their place in the pantheon. And they said that other people should abandon their worship of all the old gods, which was seen as far too exclusive.

Sound familiar?

Friday, September 03, 2010

God, Stephen Hawking and the BBC

The currently most-read article on the BBC website has this headline "Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe". As a Christian who has studied a fair bit of physics, I'm going to discuss that. Quick summary of my conclusions: Hawking has got it a bit wrong, but the media are over-sensationalising it as usual. And in the process, they are providing a massive amount of free advertising for Hawking's new book.

It's worth pointing out that I haven't read Hawking's article, because it's behind the Times' paywall, or Hawking's book, because it hasn't been published yet. But at this stage of his career, Hawking is far more a populariser of ideas than an original thinker, so I've got a pretty good idea where he is coming from on this...

The BBC quotes Hawking as writing:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Science and Religion

It's worth explaining a few things from these quotes. Firstly, Hawking's philosophy of how God acts in the universe. Hawking seems to have a kind of "God of the gaps" idea going on here - he only sees it as "necessary to invoke God" when there is no other explanation for something.

Of course, Hawking isn't stupid enough to go down the classic God of the Gaps line. He'd probably draw a distinction between when it is "necessary to invoke God" - i.e. when there is no other explanation for something, and when it is possible to invoke God - i.e. when there is an explanation for something that includes the possibility that God is behind it. The Christian answer - that science describes the way that God chooses to run the world - would be treated as when it is possible to invoke God rather than when it is necessary to do so.

Hawking is still wrong though. Rowan Williams is better (quoted on the front of the Times Online today):

Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence.

In other words, Rowan Williams (correctly IMO) asserts that God's existence and action is necessary for science to keep working at all. God and Science aren't competing explanations for the same phenomenon.

Of course, the journalists seem to have even less understanding of this, and think that because Hawking says it isn't necessary to invoke God, he's denying God was involved at all. That's partly because it sells more papers or gets more people looking at the website, and partly because they don't have sufficient understanding of the topic to report accurately on it.

Creation and Quantum Fluctuations

The other thing that is worth explaining is what it means for Hawking to write that "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."

In quantum physics, things do sometimes just appear out of nowhere, and then vanish again. But when they do, the total amount of energy involved multiplied by the time they last for has to be less than about 10^-34 Js. So an electron / positron pair, for example, could only last about 10^-21s - one thousand billion billionth of a second. And something bigger would last even less long. So we don't see them very often and they don't usually make much difference to the universe on a big scale.

But that is the only known way of getting something out of nothing. So if the universe wasn't created - it just happened - that's the only known way for it to happen. The problem with that of course is that the universe has lasted quite a while - roughly 14 billion years. Therefore, in order for this theory to work, it needs to have almost exactly zero total energy.

The only known way of having a sufficiently large amount of "negative energy" is through gravity. Imagine that there is a lump of rock a very long way from the Sun, and it isn't moving. Now imagine that it falls towards the Sun, and in doing so it speeds up. It has clearly gained kinetic energy because it is moving. At a year 7 level, we'd say it has converted Gravitational Potential Energy (GPE) to Kinetic Energy (KE). But at the start, its total energy was zero, and at the end its KE is positive, therefore its GPE must be negative.

It's often asserted in astrophysics circles that Black Holes have zero total energy, because all the negative GPE cancels out the positive energy from their mass. And therefore it is possible to get something out of nothing if the something is a black hole because it has zero total energy. On the other hand, I've done a masters course in astrophysics, and I've never once seen that calculation done, or even referenced. Personally, I don't believe it, and I believe it even less when it comes to saying the universe as a whole has zero total energy, but am happy to change my mind if given a good reference that doesn't just assert it.

If it was true, it should mean that you get black holes popping into existence and staying there quite often, and we don't see that happening.

But the idea here is that many cosmologists think that that is what happened with the universe - it popped into existence as a kind of unstable black hole with zero total energy that then exploded. And that's what Hawking means by saying that gravity allows the creation of something from nothing.

(Images from NASA)