Thursday, February 26, 2009

Memento Mori

Last Sunday, a friend of mine who had been at theological college with me died. He was 32.

As I reflect on the state of the Church in the UK, I think that one of our fundamental problems is that we forget we are mortal. I don't mean that anyone would deny it - I mean that we are not continually conscious of it in the way that past generations were. We hide from it, and we hide death away where we cannot see it. Christians I know hardly talk about it, even when they are the oldest generation and therefore most likely to be the next to die. We put off thinking about it until the doctors tell us we only have a few months to live, with the result that we only get a few months of life lived in the proper perspective, most of which is spent struggling with the pain of a terminal illness.

But as we see with Jade Goody, life lived in the knowledge of impending death is life that is lived much nearer to the full than at any other time. All of a sudden, she has gone from an object of ridicule to one of the most respected people in Britain, and what she says has gone from the ridiculous to the profound.

The Christian need not fear death, because we trust God. We have living inside us the Jesus who beat death in others, and who triumphed over death in himself. He promises that we have nothing to fear in death.

Moses, realising the reality of his own mortality, wrote these words:

Teach us to number our days aright,
that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Psalm 90:12, NIV

If we remembered that we were mortal, would we be spending all our time being entertained and seeking to be entertained? Would we be wasting our lives on things that make no difference?

And why should we, who are Christians and have no reason to be afraid of death, be complicit in the world's denial that we are mortal when it is perfectly plain to everyone that we are not? Why should we not be speaking about it and reminding people of the fact that one day we will die, that our lives are not endless and therefore we should not be living as those who have time to kill, but as those who should be redeeming the time from death?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Church Noticeboard

I've seen some odd church noticeboards in my time, but this one takes the biscuit...

It took me a few readings before I understood what it was even trying to say. And then, I don't see why that is a topic for a sermon; it sounds more like the the theme of an Oprah Winfrey episode...

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Mamertine Prison

We virtually stumbled across this when we were in Rome. We weren't looking for it; it doesn't get a big billing in the guide books. Yet it was one of the most moving places we visited. No cost to get in, but there was a box for donations.

I've done some reading on it since.

When we visited, there were two rooms. The first, was at modern basement level, which was Roman street level. Below that was another room, which could be reached by a staircase. In that room was a hole in the floor with a well in, a small altar, and a large iron door.

There was also a hole in the floor of the upper room with a grating over it. This hole became a skylight in the lower room.

However, in Roman times, the stairs did not exist. In Roman times, the lower room was a notorious prison cell, accessed only via the hole in the ceiling. It was famously damp - the spring made sure of that, and it was often flooded. The iron door was put in by the Romans. It apparently leads to a passage to the main Roman sewer, and allowed for the disposal of dead bodies.

It was in this cell that high-security prisoners were kept prior to execution. Christian tradition says that both Peter and Paul were kept there for a while before their executions under Nero.

The altar has an inverted cross on, because traditions records that Peter was crucified upside down because he said he was unworthy to die in the same way as his Lord. Paul, being a Roman citizen, was exempt from crucifixion, so was beheaded.

It is quite possible that this cell is the very place where Paul wrote this:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, NIV

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Signs in Rome

I've been in Rome for a few days. And as ever, there were some amusing signs. Here's a small selection...

This is from the Metro. I particularly like the bottom right one, presumably warning against getting your groin slammed into by the door, and the bottom left, which suggests the danger of getting your bottom caught in the door and carried along by the train.

This one is also quite amusing. I think it was from a demonstration or something...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Sorry I've not posted here for the last week - I've been on holiday, of which more later. In the meantime, here's my reinterpretation of a common series of TV adverts...

Buy Andrex - it's like wiping your bum on puppies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Walking Tall

Apologies if this post sounds a bit American...

Now there was a famine in the land—besides the previous famine in Abraham's time—and Isaac went to Abimelek king of the Philistines in Gerar. The LORD appeared to Isaac and said, "Do not go down to Egypt; live in the land where I tell you to live. Stay in this land for a while, and I will be with you and will bless you. For to you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions." So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
Genesis 26:1-6, TNIV

How would Isaac have been feeling if he'd taken this to heart?

He is living as a nomad in the land. His father was the one who knew God and followed him. But his father was dead, and his sons were squabbling. His eldest and favourite son didn't even seem to care much about God and his promises. We don't have much record of Isaac's feelings towards God - the Bible doesn't go into anywhere near the detail it does with either his father Abraham or his younger son Jacob. So here is Isaac in the land, and there is yet another famine.

But God appears to him and tells him that he will bless him, and he will give the land to his descendants, and even bless all nations through his offspring!

What sort of confidence would Isaac have had? What sort of love for the land, knowing that even though for now he was a wanderer, one day his family would own all of it? As he climbed a hill and saw the view and knew "God has given this to me", even though he didn't actually have possession of it yet?

But surely in Christ, we have an even greater confidence than that! We are those to whom he says "You will inherit the earth" and "Yours is the kingdom of heaven." We can look at the world and say "My Father made this, and he owns it, and one day we will inherit it renewed when we finally come of age." We need bow to no man; we are sons and daughters of the Most High God, made as his and bought back with the price of the blood of his only Son, with God's own blood.

So how much should we walk tall, and have confidence in this world!

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Software for Converting Things

I've been trying to solve a couple of filetype conversion problems over the last few days - I've come to what I am fairly happy are good solutions, so I thought I'd share them. I'm ok with buying software, but I prefer to use a free alternative if one exists and it's good enough.

First up, best software for converting paper in a scanner to PDFs. I was about to buy some software to do this (having tried out half a dozen demo versions, some of which worked well and others of which were useless - too slow and kept crashing). But then I thought I would try OpenOffice, which I use sometimes anyway. And it was better than any of them, and free. Except that for some bizarre reason it doesn't like rotating the page after scanning it. It will do horizontal and vertical flips, but not rotate through 90 degrees. But that feature alone isn't worth £25.

And yes, I know it's possible to scan it in via a graphics program, save it as an image file then insert it into a document, but I wanted something quicker. And OpenOffice is even quicker than scanning it into the graphics program in the first place.

Second problem, how to read MS Publisher files. I generally hate MS Publisher - it creates bloated files that you can only read with that exact version of Publisher - they don't do backwards compatibility well, and they don't make a reader for Publisher files.

The best solution was PDF Online, who will convert pretty much anything to a PDF (lovely file type, readable on pretty much anything, prints consistently the same). They do it as a free feature while advertising higher-featured file conversion products.

Friday, February 06, 2009

James 5 - praying for the sick

One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament in some ways is in James 5. Here's the NIV...

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
James 5:14-16, NIV

Any attempt to argue that this passage doesn't say that anyone who is sick will be healed sounds either like special pleading or like finding contradictions in the Bible. Of course, part of the problem is the translation, and pretty much no English translations manage the same nuances as the Greek...

Is anyone in you weak/sick (the Greek can mean either)? Let him call the elders of the church and let them pray on him, anointing with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the wearied / ill person (the Greek can mean either); and the Lord will raise him...

It looks to me as if the first bit is a general statement which is deliberately ambiguous. It might be talking about physical sickness; it might be talking about physical or moral weakness or weariness. And the promised help is salvation / raising, which might be talking about physical healing, or it might be talking about final salvation.

There is then a clear application to the case of people who are ill because of sin (for example because they rightly feel guilty, and the guilt has led to all kinds of stress-related problems), and they will be healed. By verses 19-20, the passage is all about bringing people who have sinned back.

My conclusion from this passage is that the passage itself does not promise immediate physical / medical healing for everyone who gets the elders to anoint and pray, except in the case of sickness that is directly due to sin. Of course, God still does sometimes heal physically and medically in other cases, but he doesn't promise here that he will do so. What is promised is something far better. What this passage promises is that God will sustain and keep his people going when they are weak and get the elders to pray for them, and that they will finally be saved and raised from the dead; if they ask the elders to pray for them then like this then no sickness or weariness or sin committed in the past can stop them from being saved.

Wisdom from Charlie Cleverly

Last night we had a question and answer session with Charlie Cleverly in college. Charlie has been greatly used by God in leading churches, in both England and France. Here are some of the things he said - slightly paraphrased, of course.

The most important thing for people going into the ordained ministry is knowing God, and spending time with him.

The most difficult thing when leading a successful church is to keep trusting in God and looking to him for guidance and direction rather than in management and administration.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

G.K. Chesterton - The Man Who Was Thursday

This is a remarkable novel. Written in 1908, it is one of the first examples of spy fiction as well as being what Wikipedia calls "one of the hidden hinges of twentieth-century writing, the place where, before our eyes, the nonsense-fantastical tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear pivots and becomes the nightmare-fantastical tradition of Kafka and Borges."

It's also a good fun story about philosophical anarchists who are trying to overthrow the world order, and a special group of philosophical police who are trying to stop them. It's about the relation between order and disorder in the world. There are quite a lot of twists in the storyline - I saw a fair few of them coming, but not all of them at all. But then, there are some bits which are dreamlike, and everything is really not as it seems...

It being G.K. Chesterton, there are some magnificently quotable quotes. Here are some of them.

We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals. We remember the Roman Emperors. We remember the great poisoning princes of the Renaissance. We say that the dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher.

It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.

the fear of the Professor had been the fear of the tyrannic accidents of nightmare, and how the fear of the Doctor had been the fear of the airless vacuum of science. The first was the old fear that any miracle might happen, the second the more hopeless modern fear that no miracle can ever happen.