Monday, January 29, 2007

The Christian's Secret Stress-Buster

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Php 4:6)

Forget massages, hot baths, scented oils and the ‘Best Chill-Out Classical Music Ever CD’ – prayer is the Christian’s secret stress-buster.

I had a friend who had information about a very serious pastoral situation. Initially he wasn’t able to tell anybody else and consequently it was an enormous burden to carry. It was a case of sleepless nights and constant worry because of what might happen. When he was eventually able to share what he knew with someone else the sense of a weight being lifted from him was almost tangible.

Why? Because the problem was now shared – it was now longer just in his hands and was no longer just his responsibility. Even if the worst happened it was no longer all down to him to have done something about it. Indeed having shared the situation the resources for a solution were all the greater.

So it is with prayer. Our worries and stresses (family, money, work, ministry, health etc) need not be carried alone with the sense of sole responsibility and inadequacy that comes with that. Rather we are to pass on these things to God. He invites us to give over to Him the ultimate responsibility. We can hand these things over to God with the assurance that He now knows and it’s no longer all down to us. Prayer becomes a liberating experience – we can lift up our heads in the knowledge that we and God are now in this together. Yes we still have to make decisions and play our part but we do so connected to all the resources of God Himself. Having asked God we have the confidence that as our loving Father He will not give us a stone when we ask for bread (Lk 11:9-13).

It’s like a problem at work that is churning you up – so eventually you share it with your boss and he says, ‘thanks for letting me know, we’ll work on a solution together’. Oh the relief - the boss knows and has a share of the responsibility - it’s no longer all on your head.

Feeling uptight and anxious? Pray and relax a little.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The most important person in Greenview

Something to remember on Sunday.

Do nothing out selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Php 2:3-4)

Tom Wright records in his comments on Philippians an occasion when he was invited to a lunch with some well known public figures. The host said the grace and then added firmly: 'Remember the most interesting person in the room is the one you're sitting next to!'

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Saddam & the Death Penalty

So Saddam Hussein the brutal dictator of Iraq has met his end at the gallows. I have seen (I’m glad to say) only those parts shown on TV immediately prior the actual hanging. Even that though was a genuinely chilling spectacle – the handheld footage, the masked hangmen and the drab electric lit room. But most chilling of all was that a man was actually about to die – to cease his earthly life and to leave this existence forever.

For our political classes in Britain this was a particularly uncomfortable moment as for them the death penalty has long been taboo – the mark of less enlightened and more barbaric societies. However, faced with a catalogue of crimes as reprehensible as Saddam’s they were uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Even when some politicians did eventually speak out the concern was framed more around the manner of the execution than an outright condemnation of it in principle – a classic, dare I say almost humorous, example of this political fudging came from the spokesman for the Spanish Popular Party Gustavo de Aristegui: "The death penalty is not justice, it is vengeance, and so it was in this case. But nobody will miss Saddam Hussein."

Condemnation of Saddam’s execution in principle has come from, among others, certain churches. Some of the strongest criticism came from the Vatican. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all human life must be respected from conception until its "natural end." One churchman condemned the death penalty as immoral and that it violated the fundamental right every person has to life. One comment on a Catholic Church blog site stated: ‘i believe a state ordered execution is murder and i find nothing in life that tells me otherwise...’ (sic).

It does seem a little strange for the church to condemn the death penalty as ‘immoral’ – a term that implies something is transcendently wrong through all time and in every place. The Bible after all records that God Himself explicitly sanctioned the death penalty for a range of crimes in ancient Israel. Punishments that the New Testament affirms were entirely right and appropriate in those situations during that period – ‘every violation and disobedience received its just punishment’ (Hebrews 2:2). So hardly ‘immoral’. Indeed the New Testament itself, while not insisting on the Death Penalty being used, does give some hints as to its acceptability. The Magistrate is seen as rightly bearing ‘the sword’ to uphold justice (Rom 13:4) – the ‘sword’ being the ultimate sanction. Paul himself insists that if he had done anything worthy of execution he would not resist it (Acts 25:11) – no pleading about the ‘right to life’ there. Now these references in themselves don’t compel us now in the C21 to use the death penalty but do suggest that it cannot not be viewed as completely ‘beyond the pale’ in some moral sense.

But what about the ‘right to life’? This seems a strange one to me along the oft quoted line that capital punishment is simply ‘state sanctioned murder’. Firstly, ‘the right to life’ – so it is ok to lock up a person for their entire life just not to end that life prematurely. But what about the fundamental human right to ‘freedom’ that we hear about from many in the political class. Isn’t imprisonment a violation of that right. And while we’re on the subject isn’t imprisonment just ‘state sanctioned kidnapping’, fining someone just ‘state sanctioned theft’ and community service just ‘state sanctioned slavery’. In response I expect we would be told when you commit a crime you forgo some of your ‘rights’ – to move about freely, to keep all your money, to spend your time as you please etc. But what about the ultimate crime to intentionally and maliciously deprive someone of their life – what loss of rights can ever appropriately reflect the magnitude of such an act? The right to life itself seems to be the Bible’s answer.

Perhaps some in church are uneasy about the death penalty because of the eternal implications death has for an individual. To pass into eternity unforgiven, without having made peace with God through Jesus is a fate literally ‘worse than death’. Surely every minute a person has in which they might get right with God is to be guarded. To put to death someone who is unready to meet God – how could we ever endorse that? Apart from the implication that it might be alright to hang Christians but not non-Christians this thinking takes too much upon itself. Samuel Johnston famously remarked ‘nothing concentrates the mind like a good hanging’. People are apt at frittering away their lives without any sense of urgency about being right with God. But to know that the end is actually imminent – well if that doesn’t focus your mind on eternity nothing will. The moment of repentance is always now. Capital Punishment may actually do a great service for some in preparing themselves to stand before humanity’s ultimate Judge.

None of this is to say that Capital Punishment is straightforward or that there are not real issues about the possibility of mistakes etc. But perhaps the current aversion to the death penalty by so many is symptomatic of a loss of belief in the gospel – in God. This life is for many increasingly all there is – so it must be clung onto. Likewise if this life is all there is then compared to the strictures of imprisonment death may actually become a more attractive option. So for a society with little belief in the future judgement of God imprisonment becomes its means of seeking maximum vengeance and exploiting what it feels is its only chance to achieve some sense of justice.