Do We Really Believe Love Wins?

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In the wake of last week’s decision in the US to legalise same-sex marriage the world of social media lit up with rainbows and the hashtag #lovewins. Reason got left at the door while everyone jumped on the party bus. But the fact is no-one really believes #lovewins. If they did we’d encourage the legalisation of incestuous or polygamous relationships – if love really wins why would we tolerate one form of ‘love’ and not another. Because we don’t really believe that every expression of ‘love’ is legitimate or properly called love. All of which forces us to ask the most basic question (one I feel as though I have to keep asking all the time in helping people wrestle with these issues): On what basis do we determine right or wrong? Here’s 6 options that happen to spell TRIBES (easy to remember):

T – tradition. What’s the traditional position on an issue? Chesterton said tradition is the only true democracy because it gives a vote to our forebears. But what if tradition stops women voting or encourages slavery?

R – reason. Let’s do that which seems reasonable and evidence based. But what about those things you can’t do an experiment on – the nature of ‘love’ for example.

I – intuittion. If it feels good do it – classic hedonism. But what if that which feels good to me causes harm to you, and the denial of pleasure to me causes me distress. What then? Who’s desire for pleasure wins?

B – I’ll come back to this one shortly

E – experience. We’ll determine morality based on experience. But again, what happens when my experience differs from yours. Who’s experience is more valid?

S – society at large – democratic morality. But what if say 51% of the populace want x and 49% want y. Is right and wrong differentiated by 2%?

Seems we have a problem here. None of the above are a sure-fire way to determining morality. Perhaps a combination of them will get us so far but even then it all feels a little shaky doesn’t it? I missed out ‘B’ – stands for Book – as in a holy book, like the Quran or Bible for instance. Many people determine their morality based on a religious text. But what if it’s wrong, and they all contradict one another don’t they?

Our problem is that we do our morality from within rather than without. What I mean is we determine right and wrong from within our closed universe all the while trying to determine where ultimate morality may lie. What if someone had come in from the outside of our time and space universe to answer these sorts of questions for us. That’s the unique claim of Christianity – that Jesus came in to our world to tell us about life, death, right, wrong, and lots besides. So actually the Christian view of the book is inextricably linked to the man Jesus Christ.

Epistemologically speaking that means the Christian basis for morality is qualitatively different from any other. That’s why we look to the Bible to determine moral questions and not ultimately to tradition, reasons, intuition, experience or society at large. As useful as they might be, they can also be severely flawed. I know this isn’t a popular or majority view and, if you’re not a Christian I know you’ll disagree. And of course then there are the plethora of interpretative questions and issues to wrestle with in properly understanding the Bible’s teaching on any one issue. The key question is where does your ultimate authority lie, and why? At least stop and think about how and on what basis we determine our morality. Because when we really stop and think, anything other than a Christian epistemology is like building your house on sand. And morality based on dodgy foundations may not, in the end, be loving at all.

Augustine on Tough Conversations

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As I mentioned last week I’m trying to work my way (slowly and deliberately) through Augustine’s City of God. I’m sharing some snippets here as I go, so here’s one on the importance of having those difficult conversations:

“we hesitate to instruct, to admonish, and, as occasion demands, to correct, and even to reprehend them. This we do either because the effort wearies us, or we fear offending them, or we avoid antagonizing them lest they thwart or harm us . . . At times, one hesitates to reprove or admonish evil-doers, either because one seeks a more favourable moment or fears that his rebuke may make them worse, and further, discourage weak brethren from striving to lead a good and holy life . . . some, fearing to offend, shut their eyes to evil deeds instead of condemning them and pointing out their malice . . . they fear that a possible failure to effect reform might jeopardize their security and reputation. It is not that they are convinced that these latter are an indispensable means for the instruction of men. They are merely victims of that human infirmity which loves the flattering tongue and earthly life, and which dreads the censure of the crowd . . . For this reason, overseers or rulers are set over the churches, to reprimand sin, not to spare it . . . He is blameworthy if he fails to do this out of fear of hurting feelings or of losing such things as he may licitly enjoy in this life, but to which he is unduly attached.”

– Book 1: Ch. 9

Leader, Here’s Your Most Important Job

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I met up last week with a guy who looks after the small group ministry in a larger church. Today I simply want to link you to a great article he sent me. It’s challenging, exciting, and potentially transforming. It’s written by a guy who did a PhD to find out what the difference is between good small groups and great small groups. He looked at over 3000 small groups in 200 churches and found one consistent practise which made a big difference. His research was focused on small groups but I think his findings can be applied more broadly. So, if you want to find out what the secret sauce is click here now:

http://www.smallgroups.com/articles/2010/small-group-leaders-most-important-job.html?paging=off

Augustine on Adversity

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I’ve just started working my way through Augustine’s City of God (Vernon J. Bourke’s abridged edition). It’s generally reckoned to be Augustine’s greatest work so I think I’m going to post some of his nuggets here as I come across them. So here’s nugget number one:

“A good man is neither puffed up by fleeting success nor broken by adversity; whereas a bad man is chastised by failure of this sort because he is corrupted by success . . . For in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush, and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not in what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.” (Bk 1. Ch. 8)

A Modern Day Parable of the Tenants

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There was once a man who owned a beautiful estate which he, and his family enjoyed very much. One day the man had to travel overseas for business and wouldn’t be back for some time. He entrusted the care of the estate to his children. They were welcome to have parties and invite others as long as they observed some basic rules.

In the days and weeks which followed many came and stayed at the estate enjoying all it had to offer. But after a while the children began to worry about what their friends might think of their father and his rules. They loved their father and they wanted their friends to love him too. But some of his rules seemed a bit old fashioned and out of date. They talked, reflected, and decided that some of their father’s rules reflected his own generation – a different era where attitudes were different. So they changed some of those rules (or removed them all together) to bring them up to date. Some of the rules were difficult to understand and they figured that if their father were there he wouldn’t mean them quite as they read, so they edited or removed those too. And some of the rules at first glance seemed a bit stern – a bit unaccepting if you will – so they found new ways to explain what they really meant. After all, the important thing was to get their friends to come and enjoy the party, and love their father for his generosity as much as they did. No-one wants to do that if their are too many rules or the landlord seems a bit fuddy-duddy.

And so one day the father returned to find his estate not quite as beautiful as he’d left it, and to find that people had ignored the rules he carefully gave. Of course those dwelling on the estate were a bit surprised to find the landlord not at all like they imagined him – not at all like the children had presented him. He was a bit more conservative and a lot less liberal than they’d been led to believe. The father they so admired didn’t, as it turned out, exist. The trespassers were quickly removed much to their dismay. They hadn’t meant to break any rules. The children simply hadn’t told them the whole picture. The children would later have to give their own account to their father.

A few of the new estate dwellers, however, were allowed to stay. They’d been tucked away in a little room. They had read the rules for themselves and decided best to keep them. They were labelled old fashioned kill-joys – ‘if only they had the imagination to see what the rules really meant’ said the rest. But they held fast. They read the rules. They considered why the father might have given them. They didn’t understand everything and wondered about this or that. Yet they decided it was the landlords estate, and he probably knew better than they did why the rules were for their good. So while the disobedient children were allowed to stay, it was the faithful estate dwellers who were now entrusted with its administration.

And those who didn’t mess with the landlords rules lived happily ever after.

Keller’s 5 Cultural Narratives

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I followed with interest some of the ‘Basics Conference’ that happened in Ohio last month via the website and twitter feed. They had the privilege of learning from Ali Begg, David Robertson, and Tim Keller. In one of Keller’s sessions he outlined five cultural narratives that are prevalent in the contemporary mindset. I thought they were useful and insightful so I’ve noted them down for you as follows (the bits in brackets are my labels, not Tim’s):

  1. The Identity Narrative (individualism) – ‘be yourself’
  2. The ‘Truth’ Narrative (pluralism) – self-authorizing truth and morality – ‘only I can determine right and wrong for me’
  3. The Freedom Narrative (liberalism) – ‘I must be free to live my life and express myself how I want’
  4. Science and Technology Narrative (a sort of positive spin on materialism?) – ‘religion keeps you from all these good things that can help’
  5. The History Narrative (modernism; add 1-3 in to the mix gives post-modernism) – ‘history/tradition is bad; new is good’

Tim’s material shares similarities with that James Emery White in The Rise of the Nones, and I think his insights are pretty much spot on for much of our culture. The challenge for preachers is to identify these various narratives and get to work on the subversive fulfilment of them.

What do you think? Is he missing any? Are they all equally prominent? How might we address them?

As always I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Singing As Serving

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In churches few things evoke opinion faster than music. Over the last week I’ve unexpectedly had a number of conversations with different folk on this subject. Last Monday evening we had an evening to thank long term members of our church. In asking them their concerns modern loud music came out quite high. Then, on Saturday, I caught up with a mate who has been studying in the states with the Sovereign Grace music guys and he had some interesting thoughts (more of which below). And on Sunday evening at church our sermon was about music and singing. Given the force of feeling I thought I’d share the helpful insights of the friend I saw Saturday.

Perhaps the most useful thing my friend pointed out (which I haven’t before seen so clearly) was the idea that in church singing is serving. Yes, serving God in the sense of praising him, but also an opportunity to serve one another. He reminded me that almost everywhere else we go we get to choose what music we listen to – radio, YouTube, Spotify, the car, the bath, your iPod – you choose what you want. And so it’s perhaps no surprise that we often end up consuming churches and their music in a similar fashion. But, as my friend said, if we’re the body gathered then there should be something completely different going on. It should be an opportunity to serve someone else by singing what they want to sing – and taking great delight in their pleasure. I don’t particularly like One Direction but I put the CD on in my car because I do like the pleasure it brings my daughter. Someone somewhere once said that the ideal church music situation would be where young people were championing the tastes of the old, and the old were championing the tastes of the young.

We all too often come to church wanting the sort of music, songs, style that we like, we want, we would choose. Perhaps instead we ought to be serving someone else by seeking to sing the things they love. Can you imagine what it’d be like if everybody acted like this. Me neither!

Francis Schaeffer on Art

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On Sunday night our pastor, Ray Evans, talked about how Christians engage with art. He cited Shaeffer’s work Art and the Bible in which Schaeffer helpfully outlines the ways Christians should view and evaluate art. Here’s a few quotes, the last one being especially helpful I think:

“How should an artist begin to do his work as an artist? I would insist that he begin his work as an artist by setting out to make a work of art.”

“We are not being true to the artist as a man if we consider his art work junk simply because we differ with his outlook on life. Christian schools, Christian parents, and Christian pastors often have turned off young people at just this point. Because the schools, the pastors, and the parents did not make a distinction between technical excellence and content, the whole of much great art has been rejected with scorn and ridicule. Instead, if the artist’s technical excellence is high, he is to be praised for this, even if we differ with his world view. Man must be treated fairly as man.”

“I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.”

“As evangelical Christians, we have tended to relegate art to the very fringe of life. The rest of human life we feel is more important. Despite our constant talk about the lordship of Christ, we have narrowed its scope to a very small area of reality. We have misunderstood the concept of the lordship of Christ over the whole man and the whole of the universe and have not taken to us the riches that the Bible gives us for ourselves, for our lives, and for our culture.”

“What kind of judgment does one apply, then, to a work of art? I believe that there are four basic standards: (1) technical excellence, (2) validity, (3) intellectual content, the world view which comes through and (4) the integration of content and vehicle.”

I think this last quote is particularly helpful. In essence Schaeffer is saying you can appreciate a work for it’s technical excellence, while disagreeing with the worldview portrayed. Similarly, just because the worldview is right, it may still be poor art under criteria 1, 2, and 4. If Schaeffer is right (and I think he is) then beauty, art, aesthetics matter at every level, and evangelicals in particular need to recognise the lordship of Christ over these areas and begin to engage at a much deeper level.