Sunday, December 29, 2013

Straight to the point...

Clear and challenging message to begin 2014 with. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Bad Santa?

Every December a former member of my church would mischievously take delight in pointing out that Santa was an anagram of Satan. It was all tongue in cheek but was designed to touch on some of the evangelical sensitivities around Christmas. Indeed there is often a delight in the broader culture in pointing out the pagan origins of many Christmas traditions. My barber, knowing I was a Christian, took great pains to explain to me that Christmas trees, Yule Logs and fairy lights are not actually in the Bible. I think he thought this might correlate to being faith shaking news to me. I was happy to reassure him that I was aware of these omissions and none of them undermined my confidence in Christianity or indeed my enjoyment of Christmas.

Indeed the very appropriation of old pagan symbols to Christian usage is an example of the Gospel redeeming all of creation and culture back for God. Now, of course, care is needed in this because not everything can simply be rebranded or helpfully turned back for good spiritual purposes. There are some things that are so antithetical to the Gospel that no amount of adjustment could make them acceptable to Christians – pagan sacrifices, for example, could never become Christian sacrifices because Christians could have no other sacrifice than the one final and forever sufficient sacrifice of Jesus. However, feasts and celebrations previously misdirected can surely become all the better once focused on the One for whom all praise and thanksgiving is due.  Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying, I'm fairly relaxed with Christmas trees and decorations!

Father Christmas, however, raises another set of concerns for evangelicals. Firstly, the element of ‘make believe’ regarding children. Some fear that if Christian parents participate in such pretence it will undermine their children’s faith in what they tell them about the Bible. The fear being that when the child inevitably discovers that Santa isn’t real – they’ll look at their parents and wonder if all the stuff about Jesus is fake too. I’ve never been too concerned about that – indeed I think you would only be really worried about that if you believed Christianity rested on essentially the same evidential basis as a belief in Santa Claus. I mean all the kids from non-Christian homes don’t discover the truth about Santa and conclude that William the Conqueror, their great grandparents, or the Moon Landings must be fake as well.

In practise my own approach, for what it’s worth, was to play along with the general story of Santa coming on a sleigh to leave presents (just as I’ve done with the Tooth Fairy and standing on cracks in the pavement), but to become agnostic on the subject of Santa Claus when asked specifically about his existence. Children are very apt at distinguishing between myth and reality, fact and fantasy, make believe and reality – it is a skill they quickly develop, as seen through their growing suspicion of things like Santa as they grow up. So when, about 5 or 6 years old, the inevitable questions are asked such as, ‘Is Santa real?’, my tactic is simply to reply with a rhetorical question and keep answering every question with a rhetorical question until they give up. Ok, a bit of a cop-out but the kids cotton-on pretty quickly and see it for what it is - a bit of childhood fun. 

Another objection to Father Christmas is his ‘be good or you’ll not get any presents’ ethic, something that is rightly pointed out as being a works based premise for receiving gifts and thus the very opposite of grace – the heartbeat of the Gospel. Well yes absolutely it is – but what a great opportunity to tell children exactly why Jesus is so much better than the world Santa represents. What a wonderful way to show why Jesus truly is the star of Christmas, why His coming is the greatest gift humanity has ever been given, and why our thanksgiving, praise and celebrations at Christmas can only ever ultimately be about Jesus.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!  (2 Corinthians 9:15)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

No Mean City

An article written for FIEC.

What do you think of when you think of Glasgow? In recent days probably the helicopter crash that took nine lives at the Clutha Vaults Bar, or perhaps the much spoken of Glaswegian spirit as the city responded to the tragedy. More generally if you think of Glasgow you might think: shipbuilding, the Old Firm, hard men, deep fried Mars Bars, the Commonwealth Games, the Gorbals, Billy Connolly…
Like all big cities Glasgow is a mix of the old and new, the good and bad, myth and reality - and all the above fall into one of those categories. Often missing, however, from such lists is Glasgow’s amazing Christian heritage. There was a time within living memory when Glasgow was described, without great exaggeration, as the most evangelised city on the planet.

Gospel heritage

In the 1930s the atmosphere of Revival surrounded the famous Tent Hall – a hub of fervent Gospel mission and activity that extended across the city in Mission Halls, Open Airs and street marches.  The great gothic Presbyterian fortresses that still stand on every street corner were commonly centres of great reformed and evangelical preaching. The 1955 Billy Graham Crusade at the city’s Kelvin Hall is still legendary; 15,000 people cramming in each night, some waiting up to four hours in the rain for a seat. A mission that produced among the many converts a whole crop of evangelical ministers.
Let Glasgow FlourishThis was a city whose civic motto was actually, ‘Let Glasgow Flourish by the Preaching of The Word and the Praising of His Name’. Sadly and predictably it is now shortened to include only the first three words. It’s incredible with such a background that the number of prominent conservative evangelical churches in Scotland’s largest city could today be counted on the fingers of two hands.
However, after decades of rapid decline, and the sense of paralysis that can bring to churches, there are signs that the Gospel is on the move again in Glasgow. There is an increasing openness among evangelical churches to work together and work is underway to set up a West of Scotland Gospel Partnership following the great example of evangelical churches partnering together in the East. Glasgow is the base for the Cornhill Training Course in Scotland which is helping train up a new generation of gifted Bible teachers. Additionally, there have been a number of Church Plants in the West End of the city (although the traditionally poorer East End is still largely bereft of strong evangelical churches).

FIEC in Glasgow

Strategically placed in all this are five FIEC churches – three in the city and two on the outskirts. Among the Glasgow tenements (sandstone blocks of flats) are Finnieston and Crosshill Evangelical Churches – both are reaching to ethnically mixed populations. Finnieston is a predominantly Asian congregation and Crosshill has contacts with large numbers of Eastern Europeans. A little further west along the Clyde is Yoker EC situated in what was once the heartland of Glasgow’s shipyards; an area now quite ‘run down’ with many social problems. Further out to the north and south of the city are Lenzie Christian Fellowship and Clarkston Baptist Church. These churches are situated in the generally better off commuter belt around Glasgow, where the social needs are less but often resistance to the Gospel is greater. 
The great strength of these churches is that together they represent the whole of Glasgow – the rough, the smooth, the Scot, the migrant, the better off, the poor. Together the FIEC family in Glasgow is a great picture of the diversity and inclusiveness of the Gospel – a Gospel for the whole city.  The hope and prayer is that this network will grow and be added to, providing even greater coverage and partnership for Gospel witness.
Just a few blocks away from the location of the Clutha helicopter crash is the site of the old Tent Hall.  Inside its main hall was a clock emblazoned with the words, ‘It is time to seek the Lord’. The tragedy was a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the need for Glaswegians to hear those words. Pray that Glasgow would again‘flourish by the Preaching of The Word and the Praising of His Name.’