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C – H – R – I – S – T – M – A – S

Dear friends,

December is definitely the hardest month to write the church bulletin letter for – after all, what can I say about Christmas that I haven’t already said? What does Christmas even mean?

Consider                            Church                                               Christians
How                                    Hesitantly                                         Have
Ridiculous                         Redirects                                           Repented
It                                          Intrepid                                             In
Seems                                 Shoppers                                           Sackcloth
That                                    Towards                                            Thinking
Many                                  Marks                                                 Mary
Adore                                 And                                                     Ate
Santa                                  Spencers*                                          Shellfish

Somehow I don’t think it’s either of those. What about this one instead?

Celebrate
How
Redemption
Is
Safeguarded
To
Many
Afflicted
Sinners

I think that is a better summary of the message of Christmas! This is why it’s the season to be, not just jolly but cheerful, because God has heard our cry and come down to redeem and rescue. The birth of Jesus is a major event in God’s plan of salvation: the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, has finally arrived!

We say it every year, we sing it every year (and yes, I do love a good carol!), but it still needs proclaiming loud and clear: a Saviour has been born to us, and he is the Messiah, the Lord!

Happy Christmas!

PS: I’m sorry I can’t get the letters to align properly…

* For my non-UK readers: Marks & Spencers is a big chain of relatively expensive department stores. Other department stores are available.
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On Reading Lewis (and Other Old Books)

Some months it’s harder than others to know what to write about. So when it was time to write my November letter for the local parish magazine, on a whim I googled “C S Lewis November”, and discovered to my delight that Lewis was actually born at the end of November, 1898!

Anyone who has heard a few of my sermons will know that next to Jesus, C S Lewis is probably the person I refer to most often. For over 30 years I have been reading and rereading his books, and many of his nuggets of wisdom have lodged themselves firmly in my mind.

Lewis is probably best known for the Narnia chronicles, but much as I like those stories, it’s his theology books that have influenced me the most. Which is quite funny, seeing as he wasn’t a theologian by trade, and some of his most powerful expositions are cast in story form (including, but not limited to the Narnia books).

I don’t agree with everything he says, but that’s not a big problem: it just helps me to see things from a different perspective, and forces me to analyse why I don’t agree.

Most of Lewis’ writings were published in the 1940s and 50s, which of course means that some issues that he addresses are no longer relevant, but the unbelief he so skilfully exposes and disarms hasn’t gone away. And the way he deals with any topic is still inspirational: he brings both humour, psychology, Bible knowledge and a sharp intellect to bear on them. That should really be my aim, too – and why not the aim of every preacher?

Lewis wrote an essay about reading old books, saying that one way Satan deceives us is by making each generation act as if there was nothing to be learned from the past, whereas reading “old books” (by which he meant medieval or even classical authors) will help us question even our most basic presuppositions, the ideas we share with all our contemporaries without even realising.

Ironically, Lewis is now in the same category: he died before I was born, and it would be easy to disregard his writings as just “old books”. But we mustn’t: his clear and analytical defence of the Christian faith is still sorely needed, and one good way to learn that skill is by reading books (old or new) that show us how it’s done!

Remembering Forwards

Our two months of remembering the Reformation are over, and we’re nearly half-way through the month when you’re supposed to remember both the fallen and a certain gunpowder plot … and of course our monthly communion service is meant to be “in memory of me” (i.e. Jesus, in case you weren’t sure).

Seems to be a lot about remembering and looking back, and there’s nothing wrong in that. But we mustn’t get stuck in the past; Christianity is about much more than just remembering a person or a historical event. Christianity is much more forward looking than that (and no, I’m not just talking about looking forward to Christmas…)

A Christian band in the 80s had some words of wisdom about this:

Sometimes it’s good to look back down
We’ve come so far, we’ve gained such ground
But joy is not in where we’ve been
Joy is who’s waiting at the end.

The journey is important; in this world we are given ample opportunities to put our faith into practice, and we should of course remember what we’ve learned along the way. But ultimately it’s the goal that matters: the new Jerusalem, our full redemption, and meeting Jesus face to face. Nothing in this life will be more exciting – so let’s always remember to look forward to that!

Did God Really Say…?

Do you remember what the serpent said to Eve in the Garden of Eden? Don’t worry about the fact that snakes don’t normally speak (this wasn’t any old reptile), but think about what it said:

“Did God really say…?”

Ever since, that question has haunted humanity, and it’s behind most aspects of mankind’s rebellion against God. Ever since that day, we have preferred our own ways to God’s, and our own solutions to the problem of sin.

One such solution is the age-old “earn your salvation” – if you do more good than evil, if you make sure the scales are tipped the right way, your shortcomings won’t matter. Most religions are based on this idea in one way or another; but it falters on the fact that one good deed doesn’t undo the consequences of a bad one, and neither does it deal with the underlying problem of our inherent sinfulness.

Another popular solution is to simply deny our sinfulness: let’s just proclaim that human beings are basically good and our failures just “hiccups”, not symptoms of an underlying disease. This means God will be happy to accept us no matter what – after all, there’s nothing much the matter with us…

Both of those positions fall foul of the litmus test: what has God really said? He has said we are sinful, and need radical heart surgery to remove not just the symptoms but the root of our sinfulness. He has said that we can’t do anything about it on our own: we are totally unable to solve the problem of our rebellion and sin. He has said that just trying your best won’t be enough.

But he has also said that he himself would deal with it. The very day Adam and Eve sinned for the very first time, God promised to send a deliverer. That promise was repeated and refined over the centuries, until Jesus came to die on a cross, the unexpected but glorious fulfilment of the promises.

God has said sin has consequences, but he will provide forgiveness through the blood of Jesus. He has said he will give new life to all who accept the forgiveness Jesus offers. He has said he will give his Holy Spirit to his children, so that they can live lives pleasing to God. He has said that he loves us and wants to be with us forever.

God has spoken; the only question is: are you taking him at his Word?

We’re the Church – What Do We Do Now?

Ever wondered what the main purpose of the church really is? Well, the answer will depend on what you mean by “church” – if you’re thinking of the building, the answer is simply: “to provide a meeting place for the church”.

Because the church is of course not a building, it’s the people who meet in the building (or in other places). And the main purpose of the church is given in 1 Peter 2:9: “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light”.

Basically, we’re here to give praise to God. That’s our primary calling, our primary mission in this world. But there are of course different ways of doing this:

Singing our praise and adoration.

Proclaiming the gospel, so that more people may come out of the darkness into his Kingdom of light and life.

Living lives that glorify the Lord by reflecting his love and extending his compassion and justice to suffering people all around us.

It’s obvious that we can’t do this in our own strength – we have to be empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But don’t worry: we the church are God’s people on earth, tasked with doing his will, and he has given all of us the Spirit without measure, so we can live our lives for the glory of God, fulfilling our purpose in this world. So let’s just get on with it!

In Defence of a Sad but Helpful Rule

I guess I’m either daft or naïve (or both), but I fail to understand why people are so upset about the Graham / Pence rule about not being alone in a room with a person of the opposite sex.

When I was a missionary abroad we always followed the same rule, and it made perfect sense to all of us, men and women alike. I never understood it to have anything to do with seeing women as “something to protect oneself against”, as some seem to understand it – if anything, it’s meant to protect women against men, since we are all potential predators (which obviously also isn’t true).

As a church we are required by law to have Child Protection Guidelines in place; they include no adult ever being alone with a child. That does not in any way mean children are the source of the risk, or that all adults are dangerous to children; but still, there are some adults that are dangerous to children and therefore children need to be protected against potential predators!

Obviously it would be better if no such safeguards were ever needed, but since we know that there are people who abuse others, and we don’t know beforehand who that might be, it makes sense to have safeguards that apply to everyone.

This protects women against the few (although far too many) men who might try and take advantage of them; it’s very true that if you need this kind of rule to stop you from abusing women you are a horrible person, but since we don’t know beforehand who that applies to, we have to have rules that prevent everybody from abusing others. It would surely have been better if Weinsten had not had a chance to abuse women, even if that meant not knowing he would have done it if possible?

As a side effect, the rule also protects everyone against people with a grudge (there have been sad cases of teacher’s lives being ruined by false accusations). As the burden of proof in these cases is rightly on the accused (you have to start by believing the victims!), it makes sense not to put yourself in a situation where false accusations could be launched.

So I really don’t understand people who criticise the Graham / Pence rule. I try and apply it myself – not because I’m likely to try and harass anyone, and definitely not because I assume all women are going to try and seduce me, but because humans are sinners.

On the road, we don’t know which driver is going to be reckless, so we require all drivers to have insurance. At the ATM we don’t know who might try to steal our wallet, so we shield your PIN from everyone. It’s the same principle, and I fail to see how it could in any possible way be seen as part of the problem.

 

500 Years of Reformation

After our church’s bicentenary last year, you may not be aware that 2017 marks another important anniversary: it’s 500 years since Martin Luther unwittingly kick-started the Reformation – and the world has not been the same since.

Some people seem to think the Reformation was just a cause of unnecessary church splits and strife; although that is true in so far as Luther never intended to split the church, it definitely wasn’t unnecessary – people’s eternal salvation hung in the balance!

Still, you may wonder why we as Baptists should remember and celebrate the Reformation – I had a Twitter conversation in August about that very question. But even though the Baptist movement has spiritual roots from long before Martin Luther, it was the brave German monk whose resistance made it possible for anyone to read the Bible and oppose unbiblical traditions wherever they found them.

History is what made us what we are, and the reformation is part of our history. So this autumn we’re going to take a good look at what Luther said and did, and why it still matters 500 years later. And if you’re worried that it’s just going to be even more boring than usual, don’t despair – the spiritual and theological battles of the time are anything but, and the end purpose will always be to help us glorify Jesus and know the truth which sets us free. Which of course was exactly what Luther was after!