Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Drugs and the Welfare State

Betel is a Christian community that helps people break their addictions to drugs and alcohol. They started in Spain, but when they branched out into England, they found that they were having very little effect. Until they banned people in their centres from claiming disability benefit. After the free supply of money, simply for being addicted to drugs, ended, the people had far more incentive to work and to come off drugs. And they could and did and do work - they were only "disabled" because they were always taking drugs.

Simply put, the way the welfare state is set up essentially subsidises drug addiction and makes it much harder for people to come off drugs.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Drug Dealers

I spent last week in a Christian community for recovering drug addicts, alcoholics, etc. It's called Betel; they do amazing work there.

One of the things that really struck me was getting to know some of the people there. Great guys, including a fair few who used to be drug dealers, gang members, who have spent a decent fraction of their lives in prison, etc. I think one of the things that really surprised me is that their motivations for doing those things were exactly the same as the motivations that drive "normal" people to do what they do. It was desire for acceptance, looking for meaning and satisfaction, etc.

They weren't outside the spectrum of normal humanity. They made understandable choices and in their situations, I might well have done the same, so might anyone else.

There are all kinds of implications from this.

For example, it strongly suggests the conclusion that drug dealing is symptomatic of a broken society rather than just broken individuals. The breaking of the individuals who deal and take drugs is a product and self-perpetuating cause of the brokenness of society.

But the conclusion I want to think about for now is that the real sin isn't the drug dealing. It's the motivations underlying it - the looking for satisfaction and acceptance in places other than Jesus. Everyone does it, just there are some ways of doing it that are socially very acceptable, and some ways which are not. Drug dealing is a socially unacceptable sin, and it is one which harms others, but I really don't think there's as much difference in terms of underlying motivations as we tend to think between a drug dealer and a typical career-minded professional or a university academic.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


It seems odd to me how in popular culture funerals have become an occasion to speak to the dead person. I'm aware that the popular mood (and quite possibly the default human position) is in many places pantheism, but I wonder how much of it is down to not learning Latin properly...

I'll explain. The traditional prayer for the departed goes something like this:

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

In Latin, the first half is requiescat in pacem, which is famously shortened to R.I.P. It isn't talking to the deceased person; it's actually a prayer to God, or conceivably if used by non-Christians, a declaration of what you hope will happen. Technically, it's a third person singular present subjunctive, meaning "may he/she/it rest in peace".

However, the practice of praying for the dead was suppressed at the Reformation, because of the abuse of the (false) doctrine of Purgatory. far as I can tell, it was a good idea to get rid of the doctrine of Purgatory, but a bad idea to suppress praying for the dead completely.

Anyway, my point is that the main way the prayer was then remembered by the general populace was via the inscription R.I.P., which then got translated as "Rest in Peace", which is a second person imperative, looking like it is talking to the dead rather than the Latin which means "May (s)he rest in peace". And so (this is the speculative bit) it seems possible that the traditional practice of praying to God for the dead turned into talking to the dead, in part because we can't speak Latin properly and in part because of the Reformation overreaction against Catholic excesses.

Yes, I'm being speculative as to the causation, and I can also understand why people would want to say goodbye to their loved ones. It does, however, seem ironic if this idea is true, that in rejecting the Catholic idea that it is possible to pray for the dead and ask the dead to pray for them, the Protestants ended up talking to the dead which the Catholics didn't.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Luther - Waiting for Grace

I have often been resolved to live uprightly, and to lead a true godly life, and to set everything aside that would hinder this, but it was far from being put into execution; even as it was with Peter, when he swore he would lay down his life for Christ.

I will not lie or dissemble before my God, but will freely confess, I am not able to effect that good which I intend, but await the happy hour when God shall be pleased to meet me with His grace.

Martin Luther, Table Talk

Friday, March 13, 2009


The other day, I came across this excellent site - Playmobible. It presents some modern evangelical Biblical studies research using the medium of Playmobile figures.

So far, there is David Instone-Brewer's work on divorce and remarriage, some discussion of the function of the tithe in the OT, an interesting discussion of the Bible's attitude to slavery and a re-telling of the Samson story which I'm not sure I agree with.

It's modern evangelical research. Some of it is controversial, some of it is less so. But it's really really well presented. It's a wonderful example of popularising theology...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

I preached on 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 three times last weekend. Sadly, I forgot my voice recorded, but this is roughly what I said...

Last year, just after the US Presidential Election, the Daily Telegraph ran a cartoon on its front page. In the background was the White House in Washington, with the lawns in front of it. And in the foreground, was a fountain in the grounds of the White House, with a little sign stuck in it. The little sign said this “Do not walk on the water.”

The reason that cartoon is funny is that we only tell people not to do things which it is possible for them to do. So we tell children not to step out into the road, or not to touch a hot saucepan or not to talk to us in that tone of voice. I taught in secondary schools for 6 years. Some of the teenagers I taught were quite naughty. But I never once told them to get down off the ceiling, or not to fly to the moon on giant pink rabbits. We only tell people not to do things if there is a possibility they will do it.

Which means that when we read today's passage, and see St Paul warning the church in Corinth that they should not receive God's grace in vain, alarm bells should be going off in our heads. Because if Paul is warning them not to, that means it is possible to receive God's grace in vain.

I'll say that again. It is possible to receive God's grace in vain.

This comes straight after one of the most glorious passages in all Scripture, where Paul tells us that he is compelled by Christ's love, that Christ died for all and therefore all died, that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God and that if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation.

Paul assumes that they've taken all of that on board. They are, after all, the Church in Corinth. Paul is preaching to the converted. And he warns them not to receive God's grace in vain. Literally, he says to receive God's grace, but not leading to emptiness.

You see, it is quite possible to go to church regularly, even to lead a church regularly and to do it in vain, leading to emptiness. It is quite possible to receive communion every week in vain. It is quite possible to believe that God made Jesus to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God, and if it makes no difference to our lives, then we are doing it in vain, into emptiness. That is why Paul urges them not to receive God's grace in vain, because it is possible to receive God's grace in vain.

In the second half of chapter 6, and on into chapters 7-10, Paul elaborates on what it looks like for the Corinthians to receive God's grace, and not to do it in vain. But for the rest of today's passage, we see what it looks like for Paul not to receive God's grace in vain, and how he goes about trying to persuade them.

But before we look at that in more detail, it is important to explain exactly what Paul is doing here. He isn't saying “This is what you need to do to earn God's favour.” He isn't saying “This is how we get into heaven.”

What Paul is saying is that God is offering us a free gift – Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring us to God 5:21. Or in verse 2 of today's reading, God says “In the time of my favour I heard you and in the day of salvation I helped you.” We can't earn God's favour or his salvation because he has already shown us his favour and accomplished his salvation. Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve. He died for us all, as 5:15 puts it. And as a result of that, God makes those who are included in Christ into new creations 5:17.

So what Paul is saying here is that it is possible to look like a new creation, but for it to be empty.

When I was a little child, I used to love Cadbury's Creme Eggs. And one year, I saw a Cadbury's Creme Egg easter egg. It was big, and it looked just like a massive version of a Creme Egg, with the same wrapping and everything. And the next year, my parents got one for me, and it was really disappointing. I had been expecting that the middle would be filled with all that sickly sugary goo that you get in Creme Eggs, but it wasn't. It was empty.

That's a bit like what God is saying here. If we are new creations, we should be new creations on the inside as well as the outside. It should really make a difference to our lives. But some people just look like the real thing – there isn't any real transformation where it counts – on the inside. They receive God's grace in vain – into emptiness. This isn't what we do to earn salvation or to make God like us; this is about what we do with the salvation that God is offering to us. Do we really receive it, and let it change our whole lives so that we are new creations through and through, or do we just take the outward show? And Paul is warning us and saying here that the outward show is no good. It is empty, and it leads to being empty and at the end of the day all that is left is horrible emptiness.

So what does it look like for Paul? In verses 3-10, Paul is telling the Corinthians how he goes about his ministry, and he does it partly to set himself up as an example, to show what it means to be transformed by the gospel. There's loads here, and I just want to draw a few things out.

First thing, it means endurance. We're English; we're pretty good at endurance. We keep going, sometimes we complain a bit, but generally we're pretty stoical. But that isn't the sort of endurance Paul is talking about here. Paul is talking about the sort of endurance that comes from knowing where he is going. It's what comes from 4:18 “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” It's not so much the slog of trudging through a marsh to get it over and done with, as the pain of labour, that mothers go through because they know the joy of seeing a new baby born. That's the sort of endurance Paul's talking about. It's like Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And Paul had to put up with all sorts of things because of Jesus – here he lists troubles, hardships, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger. It's that sort of endurance. And I don't think we're very good at it.

Here's an example. I used to be a secondary school teacher. And when I was just starting out one of the big issues I had to deal with was whether or not to talk to my pupils about Jesus. Probably the most common view I found among other Christian teachers was that it was unprofessional, that people might complain and I might even get sacked. Well ok. I will do the best job of teaching that I can, but am I willing for people to think of me as unprofessional, to have people complaining and even for me to be sacked for telling people about Jesus? Am I willing to endure that?

Are we willing to do things that are uncomfortable for the sake of Jesus, because of the amazing and wonderful glory of knowing him? Are we willing to welcome people into our homes, to speak to people we don't know, even to lose friendships for the sake of Jesus and because we know that in him we have received every spiritual blessing and we will one day inherit everything? Are we willing to endure? Sometimes I am; sometimes I'm not. But I know I should be, because I know in my head that what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal; I know that what I have in Christ is far greater than anything I can lose in the world, I just don't always live it out.

Second thing it means to be transformed by the gospel is purity. Verses 6-7. In purity, knowledge and kindness, in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love, with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.

Lots of people have puzzled over what it means to have weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left. I think it's quite simply this. We don't have any other plan. In my right hand, says Paul, I have righteousness. But if that doesn't work, in my left hand, I have righteousness. There isn't any room for me to hold another weapon. Paul doesn't have anything up his sleeves just in case. He is going to try loving people sincerely, with purity, knowledge, kindness and the Holy Spirit. If his church doesn't grow with that, he's not going to try gimmicks or tricking people. He's not going to try hiding from the world or lying to save his own skin. He's going to carry on preaching Christ and loving others sincerely. Yes, he might find different ways to use those weapons – he might find that it's the slaves or the widows who particularly need loving, or that the best time to preach is at night or in the early morning, but Paul isn't going to change the fact that he lives with righteousness and he works for God with righteousness. If there's a big recession, Paul isn't going to try some clever pyramid scheme or running off with the church's money. He is going to keep fighting, with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.

Why does Paul do this? Why does he keep going despite the situation. Why does he stick to only ever using weapons or righteousness? The answer is that as Paul points out, there's so often a tension between what we see now and what the eternal reality is.

So in verse 8 – glory and dishonour, bad report and good report. Would we rather have people saying bad things about us and God saying good things about us, or the other way round?

Genuine yet regarded as impostors. If it came down to it, would we rather have other people think we were genuine, but God knowing we were faking, or would we rather have people thinking we were faking, but God knowing we were genuine? Known, yet regarded as unknown. Would you rather be known by people or by God?

Dying and yet we live on. Blunt question. If it came down to a choice between this life or the next one, and we could only keep one of them, which would we choose? Jim Eliot, the American missionary and martyr famously said “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Do we live like that?

Beaten and yet not killed; sorrowful yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Part of what it means to be a Christian is acknowledging that what we see out there is not the ultimate reality. This outward life, the things we have in this world, the respect from people that we have in this world, is so insignificant that it isn't worth comparing to what we have in the inward life, to the blessings we have in knowing Christ, to the fact that we are new creations inwardly, to the amazing reality that we can have in part now, and will one day have fully if we are in Jesus.

I guess there are some people here who want to sit on the fence. I know that often I do. We want to have the old life and the new one. We want to receive eternal life without seeing that it involves dying to ourselves. And what I want to say to you, and to myself, today, is that we need to decide. Make sure that we do not receive God's grace in vain; make the decision that we are going to let God transform our lives by the recognition that if we are Christians this is not our home any more. We can endure anything in this life, because this life is passing away, and what we are receiving in Christ is eternal. And we aim only ever going to fight with weapons of righteousness. There is no plan B just in case being godly doesn't work out.

And we do this, not to earn God's favour, but because that is what it means to receive God's amazing grace, to recognise that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God, to live as God's new creations in Christ. This is what God will do in us, if we let him.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Interesting Houses

I've been quite busy over the last week or so. On Monday, I was looking at houses with a view to possibly living in them at some point. It's an odd thing to do to look round other people's houses, and I appreciate that we're all different, but here are some bizarre features I spotted.

  • Of the 5 houses I looked round on Monday, 3 had no sink in the toilet room. Ewww. (thinks - did I shake their hands?)
  • One had a recently redone kitchen, which was carpeted. Yes, a carpeted kitchen.
  • Two had no road access.
  • One had a living room which it was impossible to move a sofa into or out of unless it was in little pieces
  • One had the room which would probably end up becoming my study decorated in the theme of "Playboy".
  • One had been seemingly decorated by someone who got their Pritt Stick and their wallpaper paste mixed up
  • One garden featured a gnome riding a pig (ok - my girlfriend spotted this on photos I took).

Monday, March 02, 2009

University Challenge

I've been keeping fairly quiet about this so far, but I think I really should comment now. The Corpus Christi University Challenge team have now been disqualified from the series that they won.

Last year, I was captain of our college inter-collegiate quiz team, and we played against the same Corpus team that later won UC. They beat us, of course, but we gave them a fairly close match. I'm also the person who gets all the correspondance from University Challenge. It tends to arrive in December or January for filming the next summer, for broadcast the autumn and winter afterwards. So the Corpus team that won a few weeks ago would have been applying this time last year.

One of the perennial questions, which I usually have to scour the literature for, is whether you can only enter continuing students, or whether leaving student count too. Usually it's hidden away in a footnote somewhere that people have to be continuing students. In other words, if applying in 2008, they'd have to be students in the academic years 2007/8 and 2008/9.

Last year, the year Corpus entered and then won it and then got disqualified, I couldn't find that clause in any of the literature they sent me. We actually had a pretty good team - Corpus didn't beat us by a long way, and one of our students was leaving. I remember looking because I thought we'd stand a decent chance. But then it turned out that one of our key players couldn't make the filming dates, so I didn't bother entering.

In short then, I don't think that University Challenge specified that you had to be a continuing student that year. I think they just said you had to be a student at the time of application, which would make this whole situation somewhat farcical. I may be wrong; I may be misremembering stuff; that requirement might have been sent after application rather than before. But I certainly don't remember seeing it in the year in question, and I do remember looking for it.

Sermon on Isaiah 51-52

As some of you will know, the father of a close friend of mine drowned in a tragic accident on Saturday. Today I was meant to preach on Isaiah 51:1-52:12 to a congregation who know my friend. Here's the result.

Or download it from here.