Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 5: Parched - Overwhelmed - Misjudged?

Day 5 - See the point...
Further thoughts on Ps 42&43 (with the help of John Goldingay)

Throughout these two psalms the pattern has been: a venting of the frustration and pain felt; the application of the mind as the situation is put in its bigger context – i.e. he had known joy before and he will know joy again. Throughout the psalmist repeatedly argues himself back to the place of trusting in God – he reassures his soul that hoping in God is not folly.

If all this seems a grim picture of struggle, a see-saw of hope and depression – then take courage because we are following in hallowed footsteps. Jesus Himself walked this path...

Jesus was parched: ‘I thirst’ (Jn 19:28). Thirsty for water, yes. But supremely experiencing the unimaginable holocaust of God’s withdrawal, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Mt 27:46).

Jesus was overwhelmed: ‘Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say’ (Jn 12:27); ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’ (Mt 26:38).

Jesus was misjudged: taunted with the voices of accusation: ‘He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him’ (Mt 27:43).

In Psalm 22 – that great ‘Messianic Psalm’ – there is a little space in my Bible between v21 and v22. Up to that space the psalm is an expression of despair and a plea for deliverance. After the space it is a psalm of praise celebrating vindication. But in that little gap – Jesus died.

We may not physically face death in our struggles – but sometimes just as hard is accepting that our struggles may not end before part of our old self is put to death. To end our posturing, our pretending, our self-seeking – and simply to put our hope in God. Jesus (a) died for the sins of others so (b) that they might die to self and live in Him. We love the first bit – we generally find the second a harder proposition! ‘No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (Hb 12:11).

God is in control – he has promised to transform us into the image of His Son. He will move heaven and earth to do so. There is nothing that God has not harnessed to work for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28) – even our adversity. Our circumstances are never purposeless. So ‘soul’ why are you so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, My Saviour and my God’

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 4: Parched – Overwhelmed – Misjudged?

DAY 4: Take heart...
More thoughts on Ps42&43 (inspired by and taken from John Goldingay).

Sometimes children will misbehave just to get attention. It reveals something deep within us – we fear feeling ignored more than feeling uncomfortable. Bereaved people can often fear the very notion that they might one day no longer feel distraught – the grief itself is ‘cherished’ as giving one last tangiable sense of connection to the departed. We hate the thought that that might be lost as well.

The psalmist reels under the sense that God’s hand is against him – but yet the very fact that God is dealing with him at all (that is, He is not indifferent) gives a form of comfort. There is no doubt who is responsible for the situation: ‘your’ (42:7b); ‘your’ (42:7d). Nothing happens without God’s permission and will.

‘For even God’s hostility is a mark of his involvement…Even God’s rejection is an indication that he bothers. It provides a basis for conversation. It is one better than being ignored.’ *

So even our troubles are an indication that God is interested in us – our lives are significant to him – he is working on us. The psalmists often feel God is absent and they are shut off from him. But heaven’s apparent silence never extinguishes their prayers – it provokes them. How wise God is.

So we rail and we wrestle, we cry and we contend – we engage. Faith is never more real because the odds are never so great. But we can take courage because our very trials demonstrate that we have God’s attention – and because we know He is good we can, no matter how many times we go down fight back up, saying to ourselves: ‘Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God’ (42:5,11; 43:5).

*J Goldingay, Songs from a Strange Land' (IVP 1978), p36

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day 3: Parched - Overwhelmed - Misjudged?

DAY 3: Think it through…
More thoughts on Ps 42&43 inspired by and taken from John Goldingay.

The book of Lamentations is based on acrostic poems (in Hebrew). So that every letter of the alphabet is systematically used as the writer pours out his anguish. It has been noted that this makes the expression of grief both thorough but also constrained. So that while the grief is fully laid out – it is not endless – it has a limit.

The psalmist, as we have seen, doesn’t hold back on expressing his frustrations – but equally he knows there is a time to move on. Even as he vents his emotions he applies his mind.

The Past (42:4)
He remembers days gone by – good days, times of joy and spiritual health. Such recollections were ‘no doubt, a bitter sweet experience’. On the one hand such memories could just make his present situation all the more painful – but on the other hand it reminds us ‘that the present situation is not permanent. It had a before, and (as we shall see later) it will have an after’.

Perhaps we look back to better days – days of joyful service, excitement about church and Christian activities, days when being a Christian seemed full of promise. In times of darkness we may be tempted to think that even those days weren’t really real – that we were kidding ourselves even then. But they were real – they did exist – it was like that.

The bad thing about good things, and the good thing about bad things, is this: they both come to an end.

Talk to yourself…
Just as he praised God back then the psalmist (although not quite there yet) tells himself that one day he will know the delight of praising God again: ‘Why are you downcast, O my Soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, My Saviour and my God.’

The repeated refrain of these two psalms centres on the psalmist talking to himself (42:5,11; 43:5) - articulating to himself spiritual truth. It is the sermon we must preach to ourselves – ‘come on, hang-in there, God understands – he is not trying to crush me, he is on my side (Rom 8:31). To defiantly assert that one day this will pass and I will stand in the place of joyful praise once again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Day 2: Parched - Overwhelmed - Misjudged?

(Further thoughts on Ps 42&43 – taken from & inspired by John Goldingay’s, Songs from as Strange Land, (IVP 1978).
DAY TWO - Let it out...

I’m Parched (42:1-3)
We wait and wait and wait – for the breakthrough, for the experience, for the moment when God will at last come crashing in. We tire of staggering like people chasing mirages in the desert – ‘my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?’ We feel we are running on empty – like climbers (to switch metaphors) gasping at thin air on a high peak. It is exhausting.

I’m overwhelmed (42:6-7, 9-10)
The image is now of gushing and crashing waters – but they are neither thirst quenching or refreshing. These are the waters of chaos that engulf downing people. Everywhere we turn another wave seems to swamp us. Robert Harris in his latest novel describes a man ‘not so much out of his depth as no longer able to see the shore’ – we know that feeling. We cry, as the psalmists did with pain, anger and weariness, ‘Lord give me a break!’

I’m misjudged (43:1-2)
‘At first it was ‘I can’t get to God’ (42:1-2); then ‘God has forgotten me’ (42:9); now ‘God has abandoned me’ (43:2). We feel out on a limb, disconnected – we can’t do it ourselves and it’s not as we’d hoped. The pain & humiliation is all the more accute because we wonder if we have been fools – we could have understood our circumstances if we had thrown in the towel with God – but really we didn’t. The (unspoken) accusation of others, ‘Where is your God now?’ – is all the more cutting because we are asking ourselves the same question. Why? (42:9a) – Why? (42:9b) – Why? (43:2a) – Why? (43:2b)

‘The psalmist has his longings and his frustrations, his distress and his hurt, his resentment and his anger; he does not hide them.
And it is before God that he gives expression to them. This is not merely an emotional catharsis, like crying one’s heart out in an empty room, or losing one’s temper and taking it out on the cushions. It is more adult to say what one feels to the person one regards as responsible, and the psalmist is not afraid to do that. He does not hestiate to be quite straight with God. He assumes that God is big enough to take it and loving enough to asbsorb it.’

Monday, August 25, 2008

Parched - Overwhelmed - Misjudged?

A walk through Psalms 42&43...
DAY ONE - the verses.
'most of Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us'
'God does not seem to make his presence felt. He seems difficult to find.'*

'I'm parched' (42:1-3); 'I'm overwhelmed' (42:6-7, 9-10); 'I'm misjuged' (43:1-2)

Psalm 42 (NIV)
For the director of music. A maskil of the Sons of Korah.
1 As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and
6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers
have swept over me.
8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life.
9 I say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?"
10 My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
11 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

Psalm 43 (NIV)
1 Vindicate me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation; rescue me from deceitful and wicked men.
2 You are God my stronghold. Why have you rejected me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?
3 Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.
4 Then will I go to the altar of God, to God, my joy and my delight. I will praise you with the harp, O God, my God.
5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

*Quotes: from John Goldingay, Songs from a Strange Land (IVP 1978)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Having a laugh...

The new Edinburgh ‘Comedy Festival’ is attracting comment….

‘When I first performed as a comedian at the Assembly Rooms back in 1997 there was a very large and healthy comedy scene that had been snowballing rapidly since the previous decade… Through the Nineties and into the Noughties that snowball became an avalanche.’
(Jackie Clune, Observer Review, 8th June 2008)

‘…this is the first year ever in which comedy has outweighed theatre – 32 percent of the total 2088 acts, versus 29 percent.
(Mark Monahan, Daily Telegraph 18 August 2008).

‘Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.’ (Ecclesiastes 7:3)

Comedy it seems is becoming increasingly dominant in popular culture. It has been dubbed the new ‘rock n’ roll’. So whereas the pathway to being cool and famous for those growing-up in the 60s & 70s was to get a guitar and join a band – now it’s to get a tight set of observational anecdotes and a mike. Comedians sell out vast stadiums at £25 a ticket. Digital TV channels show endless sitcoms and the hippest shows are those that make us laugh. Our appetite for the humorous is apparently insatiable.

A friend of mine commented on a well known Christian conference that many of the speakers would have held their own on the stand-up circuit. Talk after talk was jammed with content that kept the listeners laughing in the aisles. Indeed, my friend said, one of the main teachings of the week was that ‘we needed to laugh more in church’. The message was that church ought to produce a feel-good factor – thus the best kind of pastors, like the speakers on show, will make their congregations chuckle.

Now, of course, the purpose of church is not to glory in dourness or to create a ‘fun free’ zone in people’s lives. Godly humour is a gift, a wholesome & natural part of life – so Christians need not fear it. The Bible often contains irony designed to raise a smile*. However, food is also a God-given gift – but too much of a good thing can be a very bad thing. So laughter, if it starts to become the benchmark of a ‘good service’, can become a real danger.

Most churches in my limited experience have got the balance about right – but the pressure is there – entertain and the plaudits will come, give serious challenge and the response will often be more muted. So the insecure church leader thinks, ‘more funnies! – that’s what people like, that’ll make my ministry appreciated’. The tragedy being that the serious challenge is more often what we need – our life is a battle with sinful flesh and woe betide us if we are allowed to forget it.

The Bible knows the value of both laughter and seriousness – and it is the latter it gives a premium too (Ecc 7:1-6). So we need to be on our guard – the trend in culture is ‘make me laugh’ – and like all such trends it will push at the doors of our churches. Yes, let’s enjoy the gift the humour in church. Let’s not think that uptight joyless gloom is the stuff of authentic spirituality. But equally let’s not equate Biblical worship with wit, joy with jokes, or leadership with light entertainment.

*I would state the humorous element of the Bible no more strongly than this. I have heard some preachers present the Bible as almost a divine joke-book in defending their use of humour - a classic example, I think, of overstating your case.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tim Keller @ Google

Great apologetics talk by Tim Keller to the staff at Google in California.

You can find this and other good stuff on Paul Rees' Gospel Growth Blog.
For more on Tim Keller & 'The Reason for God' see HERE & HERE

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lakeland's Legacy

Perceptive piece by J. Lee Grady on the tragic debacle of the 'Lakeland Revival'.

Life after Lakeland: Sorting out the Confusion

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mind Games

As a Christian do I believe what I believe - simply because of my upbringing and cultural setting?

This was a question (or perhaps accusation) poised to John Lennox from the floor during his debate with Christopher Hitchens. It has also been raised in a related post on my blog.

This is the thinking that says: 'You are a Christian because you were taught to believe in Christianity - however, had you been brought-up in Saudi Arabia you would probably be a Muslim and believe just as passionately in that'. After all there are few converts to Christianity in Mecca.

The problem is, of course, that that argument works both ways. Because you yourself have to admit that if you are indifferent / lukewarm / sceptical about 'faith' and the existence of God, it is probably just because you were brought up in a home and/or country that culturally has those same type of attitudes (e.g. C21 Britain). That is, your point renders you as unable as those with faith to come to any objective conclusions about such matters.

If you protest, 'No I was brought up to believe that God did exist but through a process of reason and investigation came to the conclusion this was false' - then you have to concede - that the notion that people are inevitably prisoners of their upbringing & culture doesn't actually stand up (you have personally disproved it).

You therefore must extend to others the recognition that they too are capable of examining their beliefs, and coming to reasoned conclusions about their validity - albeit you may disagree with them. To do other is set-up atheists as somekind of uber-intelligentsia - while depicting those who come to other conclusions as feeble-minded and intellectually inferior. A sinister proposition indeed!

Another piece on this subject can be accessed HERE.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On 'Mars Hill' Edinburgh

'The New Europe should prefer the New Atheism' - debate in Usher Hall, 9th August 2008.

Hosted by James Naughtie, Dr Christopher Hitchens & Prof John Lennox (Oxford University) debated the motion above. Thus ensued 90 minutes of very interesting and high quality discourse. Hitchens - urbane, carrying the constant whiff of disdain for the world around him, well read, and fascinating on his analysis of trends. Lennox - warm, with keenly structured arguments, and wonderfully unashamed to use the Bible and talk freely about Jesus.

It was the latter point that heartened me most - a man of the intellectual calibre of John Lennox, sitting in the ancient city of 'Enlightenment' thinking, surrounded by the savvy sophisticates of Edinburgh's Festival - who was clear and unembarrassed to speak of final judgement, miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Throughout the debate it was the mention of Jesus and references to the Bible that brought forth scornful tutting, heads thrown back in dismay, and incredulous yelps.

Yet above all it was the mention of the resurrection, just as it had done at Mars Hill in Athens, that aroused the greatest sneers. Hitchens, smiling as if he couldn't believe his opponent could be so tactically naive, responded with the words, 'Well I don't usually need 5 minutes to disprove the resurrection!' Laughter. Although interestingly he then said nothing more about it. This was Mars Hill - the Gospel regarded as the foolishness of fools.

For Lennox it would have been easy to stay on the 'safer ground' of philosophy, ethics and epistemology - that is, stuck to those areas deemed worthy of debate by the world's intelligentsia. But here was a man, praise God, who knows that his most powerful weapon, in bringing down the strongholds that oppose God and the Gospel, is to declare Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Just as at Mars Hill where the Gospel was regarded by many as foolishness, it is nonetheless for those who believe the very power of God for salvation. Lennox was a great example of knowing that apologetics could only take the Gospel so far - what people ultimately need to hear is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Saviour of sinners, and the one by whom God will judge the world as testified to by his resurrection.

Of course much of the other ground was covered as well, (let's pray for people like John Lennox who are able to defend the Faith in the public square), one such example was...

At the end each had 5mins to sum up - Hitchens was second so had the 'last word'. His piece de resistance (rather cunningly left to the end so that it couldn't be responded to) was: 'As an atheist is there anything immoral that I am compelled to do?' His answer: 'No, there nothing immoral I'm compelled to do by virtue of my atheism. However, if I hold religious belief can you think of anything immoral I may be compelled to do?' His answer: 'You've already thought of one haven't you!' Ta da - the curtain comes down (so to speak).

Now the obvious responses to that are:
1) that true religion is perfectly moral therefore it could not compel me to do anything immoral;
2) if God exists then atheism is intrinsically immoral - as it denies the source of your very life and tells a lie about reality;
3) if God does not exist then it is a meaningless question anyway - because the very terms 'moral' and 'immoral' just become expressions of personal preference.

Beyond that, however, I was trying to think (responding in Hitchens' terms, Pr 26:5), of an example of something immoral that atheism does compel someone to embrace/do/believe. The best I can do (and it's a bit of a mouthful) is - '

The immorality that atheism compels me to embrace/do/believe is that I need not be moral'.

Or atheism forces me to be immoral because it forces me to believe that I need not be moral.

Any other suggestions? Please post....