Thursday, December 10, 2009

letter to an evangelical atheist

Dear Evangelical Atheist, of the kind that broadcasts anti-religion in all possible spheres of communication,

YOU DO NOT HAVE A MONOPOLY ON REASON. Your self-satisfaction with your own powers of deduction is truly awe-inspiring. Your belief in atheism's potential to save the world from irrationality and boredom is, ironically, irrational in itself, and not all that tempting. In my opinion the increase of atheist dogma spouted in all public forums over the last decade or so is far in excess of anything the Church or other religious bodies or individual Christians have "forced" on New Zealand society.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Why God is amazing, #256

Okay. So. This is what has happened tonight in our flat which gives me one of those lovely shivery feelings of "My goodness, God is really looking out for us!" Looking out for us in every aspect of our lives, not just the big "important" stuff.

1) I spent some birthday money my grandmother gave me on a new vacuum cleaner, which our flat sorely needed, as our old one had basically lost all sucking power. This enabled me to vacuum all living areas and my room in time for my birthday party a few days ago, and it enabled the other girls to vacuum their rooms.

2) I decided on a whim the other night not to leave my new vacuum cleaner in the laundry, where it was a little bit in the way, and moved it into my room.

3) This afternoon (and this is going to sound like a bad thing) our washing machine clogged, and flooded the laundry, also sending some water out into the kitchen and the bathroom. We had to mop up these rooms, leaving them sparkling clean, and we also tidied up the numerous Things that were lying around the laundry, leaving it neat and sort-of-spacious-looking.

4) A couple of hours later, there was a knock on the door. It was the woman who will hopefully be our landlady next year. She had rung up our current landlord (who has a grudge against us because we had to take him to court) for a reference, and he had said that we were too messy - which is, by the way, a very unfair statement and not borne out by his overall experience of us. She liked us when she met us, viewing her rental property, and decided a good idea would be to turn up unannounced and ask to view our current flat, to see if we really are as messy as our landlord says. Knowing that a) all our rooms were clean because we had a new vacuum cleaner, and b) we had just mopped kitchen, bathroom and laundry, we happily showed her around!

So, somehow, I removed my new vacuum cleaner from a room that was going to flood the next day, without knowing this was going to happen. Somehow, an "accidental" flood that caused a minor inconvenience for us actually ensured that our flat was sparklingly clean and well-kept when our possible landlady arrived.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

now I know in part, then I shall know fully

A very ponderous old man at my church stood up yesterday and gave us a rendition of a little poem which I'm not going to try and reproduce here, but went something along the lines of this: If Jesus came to visit your house, would you try and hide all the magazines, TV guides, books lying around and make it look like your Bible had pride of place?

Okay, so I get what he's trying to say, but all I could think of was how excited I would be to see Jesus.

Monday, October 12, 2009

God and suffering

What heartbreaking news. Two-year-old Aisling Symes. One week missing. One child's body found tonight in a gutter in West Auckland.

Last week, the tsunami in Samoa. Earthquakes in Indonesia. Floods in the Philippines. Et cetera.

In September, me, my friend, visiting Auschwitz. It happened a long time ago but time does not diminish the horror of what happened.

Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
tear out, O LORD, the fangs of the lions!

Let them vanish like water that flows away;
when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted.

Like a slug melting away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.

It's times like these that I am thankful for a God who is just and who will punish the evil.

But it's times like these that I feel I have to justify the title of my blog. How can a God who lets these things happen possibly be nice? The Psalm I quoted; why doesn't God always answer this prayer? And I'm never going to have a definitive answer for this.

I will be thinking about this over the next while and I will try to say something that does not sound incredibly trite and easy. At the same time I will not deny that I feel, overwhelmingly, that God is GOOD.

Monday, October 05, 2009

turning the other cheek

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well." Matthew 5:38-40

Sometimes I wonder if we, as a Church, really take Jesus seriously. Or if we really want to implement his ideas in our lives.

I've had a lot of conversations lately that involved situations I was faced with, or other Christian people were faced with, which centered around a "difficult" or "dishonest" person who was trying to take advantage of me or them, sometimes in very small and insignificant ways, sometimes in much more significant ways. And I mentioned this principle, spoken from the very mouth of Jesus, as an example of how, perhaps, we should behave.

These are some of the responses that have followed:

- Jesus didn't mean we have to become doormats.

- It's not "loving" to give way to people all the time, because they'll just learn to rely on people always doing that for them.

- Jesus was talking about "evil people", not every-day relationships.

In response, I would acknowledge the grain of truth in these arguments. We would not, for example, give our children everything they ever asked us for, because it is definitely not loving to allow them to grow up spoiled and greedy.

But I wonder if we are in danger of explaining Jesus' words away entirely, treating the Sermon on the Mount as an amazing example of theological radicalism, and removing the need for it to be applied to our lives. We should not deceive ourselves - they are radical teachings - and Jesus meant every word. I don't think any of us will ever be able to live up to them, but shouldn't we at least acknowledge the desirability of this?

Monday, September 07, 2009

high church

I'm on a learning curve. A Church of England learning curve. Okay, so I actually attend an Anglican church at home, on Sunday evenings, but it's a student church and VERY "low church" - actually quite similar to the church I've grown up in, with its emphasis on Biblical teaching and meaningful singing.

Then the denomination I've grown up in (Open Brethren) has always been inherently anti-high church and grew out of a protest at the ritual and repetition of Church of England services. We don't DO glitzy churches or strange clothing or incense or liturgy or anything along those lines. We just don't. It's not so much a strong opinion anymore, as it used to be, it's just how we do it.

Since I got here (England), the only churches I have attended have been high church.

Carshalton All Saints, the local church which I have been attending with the family I am staying with. This is high church (though not exceedingly) - we attend the children's service, but it's still all liturgy and some very traditional hymns with pipe organ accompaniment. A bizarre experience when kids are running round, bursting into tears, talking noisily, playing in the aisles - actually kind of nice. It's strange for me, though, getting used to the idea of getting splashed with water as the vicar walks down the aisle splashing it at people (and I still haven't found out why), while going to take the bread and wine and having it placed in my mouth for me seems like a weird invasion of personal space.

Then on Sunday I attended Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral. Standing as a procession of choristers and a whole bunch of ministers parade in behind a big gold cross, sitting, standing, repeating, singing (which was fun), chanting, listening to passages of Scripture read out with a solemn "Here ends the lesson" afterwards - the only familiar thing for me was the sermon. In that glorious setting, though, it all seemed to fit. I can't say I felt any closer to God than in my boring little church building at home, though, or the school hall where our campus church meets. The only exception was the absolutely spinetingling pipe organ which was obviously played by someone really good, and which swelled up to fill the whole, enormous building at the conclusion of the service. Wow.

When I think of these two churches, and compare them to my only experience of Anglicanism at home - I realise how varied the Church of England is. And in the past I would have been tempted to say, my type is better. I still prefer my comfort zone. But I am starting to see how ritual could suit some people, and how the words they repeat every Sunday could mean just as much, or more, to them than the "freer" atmosphere of the "low church" or the nonconformist denominations. I don't know. In future, anyhow, I will try not to judge.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chagall in Chichester Cathedral

Based on Psalm 150:

Praise the LORD.
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power;
praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sounding of trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
praise him with tambourine and dancing,
praise him with the strings and flute,
praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.

Praise the LORD.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


I would consider myself an encouraging person. When I realised, in my late teens, how much a single compliment meant to me, or an attempt to build me up and strengthen me to persevere, it occurred to me that other people probably felt the same way. From then on, I've really made an effort to be someone who notices other people - that girl who looks a bit hesitant because she's got a new hairstyle and isn't sure whether people will like it; the person who was absolutely terrified about the public speaking they just did... and to give them genuine and helpful praise. If I notice that someone is looking particularly nice or something like that, I'll tell them, not just keep it to myself, especially if they're someone who doesn't usually get a lot of compliments.

But this weekend I got a card from one of my favourite older people at the church, who I've known pretty much since I was born, and who has The Gift of Encouragement (and a lot of other gifts too). She basically said that when I go away on Thursday for a couple of months (to Europe, eee!), I would be missed. Not because of my super-stunning good looks, or my musical prowess, or anything like that. :) But because of something in my spiritual life in the church that she thinks has been developing.

I just found this really encouraging. What she was encouraging me in is something I've struggled with for a long time and I have been making a real effort, but still don't feel like it comes naturally to me. For her to notice and encourage me to persevere... well, it means a lot.

And I started wondering - I pride myself on being an encouraging person, but do I really give out spiritual encouragement? Compliments on the way someone looks are not exactly the be-all-and-end-all of encouragement, especially as a Christian. I don't mean to stop giving them, but I feel challenged to do something more than that.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

believing Thomas

I have a soft spot for the apostle Thomas. In case you need a reminder, this is his most famous appearance in the gospels:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"

Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
John 20:24-29
I find this one of the more moving and amazing post-Resurrection stories. And I identify with him. I feel like someone who has been not reluctant to believe but innately skeptical, yet Jesus has overwhelmed all that and I have thrown myself at his feet, pronouncing him my Lord and my God. Moving from intellectual assent to a personal faith.

Now, this is why I sort of resent the fact that Thomas is henceforth referred to as "Doubting Thomas" by most Christians. "Don't be a doubting Thomas!"

Actually, I see Thomas as a model to emulate, much like any of the other apostles. Were any of them especially admirable around the time of Jesus' death? Did ANY exhibit great faith in Jesus' plan? Peter, especially - does anyone call him Denying Peter? No, because the resurrection came, and his life turned completely around. He became a man on fire who shared the gospel with thousands and thousands of people, stopped only by a torturous martyr's death. It is utterly inappropriate to call him Denying Peter, because he was forgiven, and he changed.

Judas, on the other hand, is still called the Betrayer, because he never recovered himself from that act.

Thomas, then - the Thomas who went off into the world, into India according to church tradition, and who died a martyr's death much like almost all the apostles - deserves a break. Thomas' 'flaw', like Peter's, was overcome by Christ, and Thomas became a warrior for the early Christian church. He should be remembered for his belief, not for the doubt which was a crucial part of his personal journey to belief.

Friday, July 03, 2009

learning a practical internet-based lesson

You know those blogs like this one, Debunking Christianity, or forums for religious debate on the internet? You know how it's really tempting to join in the mud-throwing or to defend yourself from the mud-throwing?

Do. Not. Bother. Just don't. That's my Lesson From The Week.

First of all, it's embarrassing, when you see people whose side you are on just behaving foolishly. Either making arguments that are stupid or that completely miss the point, or being MEAN. I hope I'm not being too biased when I say that in my experience, name-calling is a fundamental part of the anti-Christian approach. This can be as obvious as something like "idiot", or it can be more subtle - on "Debunking Christianity" this week, it was "nitpicker". No need to explain why exactly someone shouldn't pick nits in his argument, just the name itself is enough to pull forward a negative image. Anyway, we can take it. We are told to expect persecution; a few names thrown at us is not exactly being fed to lions. Just get over it and respond in a mature and respectful way, which is so much more persuasive an argument for Christianity than any logical rabbits we can pull out of our hats. Unfortunately, while Christians generally aren't the first people to do this, the temptation is just too strong once the mud starts flying, and we retaliate in kind all too often.

Secondly, people on these forums don't get that there is more to an argument than logic or cleverness. And it is impossible to convey that over the internet. I've seen some people respond to Christians on this forum: 'Go away and learn some elementary philosophy and theory of ethics, and then I'll listen to you.' Okay, so academic knowledge can help someone's argument skills. But do we really have to be so pretentious as to believe that unless you've got a DEGREE IN PHILOSOPHY you can't hold religious or anti-religious beliefs? Surely there are better ways to spend our time.

Thirdly, the people whose opinions you are questioning do NOT want to have a reasonable debate. They haven't entered forums or blogs like this in order to hear both sides of the story, just as we probably haven't. And if you disagree with someone they approve of, they're not going to listen to you. They will either ignore you, or completely misinterpret your points (which happened to me), twisting your words to make it sound like you are arguing something completely different. Then when you clarify your position, they won't give an inch, instead diverting the argument down some road which is irrelevant to the topic at hand (while not necessarily a bad argument in itself).

Fourthly, this gets really frustrating, and polite, respectful argument becomes nearly impossible. Just the act of disagreeing is quickly interpreted as an aggressive act, not merely an observation. No matter how hard you try to remain dignified, your words can be interpreted differently. This is because you have chosen an internet forum for this debate. Subtext is impossible, irony flies over heads, and people who are used to fighting everything will read everything you write in that light. Unless you fill your comments with emoticons or explain in parentheses every time you say something that you don't mean it in a negative light, you just can't convey meaning like you can in spoken language.

Fifthly, in little comment wars on blogs - well, you can pretend the other person is just some text on a computer. They don't have a background, or a family, or wisdom, or experience. You can't see them or look them in the eyes when you tell them that you think they are wrong, and as hurtful as it can seem, they don't realise the effect on you when they insult you or call you names. In effect, unless you have had a lot to do with someone over the internet, you don't know them, and you don't care. Result: snarky, painful, rude, horrible debates.

So. I've learnt my lesson. Instead of listening to people argue about why God allows suffering, why don't we go out and actually do something about suffering? Instead of wasting our time trying to convince or de-convince people who have already made up their minds, who live thousands of miles away from us and don't want to talk to us, why not talk to the people who are actually around us?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Red Dean

I've been thinking about Faith and Works lately, and the arguments which the modern Church has about them. My whole take on the issue: faith is the crucial cornerstone of Christian belief and attitude. That doesn't minimise the importance of works, and people who say you have to emphasise one or the other are building a false dichotomy. They can and do go together. However, it is not enough to entice people into Christianity by telling them it's all about loving one another and doing good. It is impossible to love your enemies or to do good to your enemies without first accepting that we have all sinned, and that God has forgiven us all. Faith in Christ's sacrifice and resurrection comes first.

Anyway, that's my current opinion.

And it's slightly influenced by some of the sources I've been looking at for my research - which is about British worldviews of the Soviet Union, and how they developed and were challenged over the period 1928-1943. It's a dramatic period, and I can see why many people really wanted Soviet Russia to succeed in building Utopia. But the wishful thinking of these people led them to ignore or excuse extreme brutality.

Especially interesting to me as a Christian are the Christians who supported the Soviet Union and tried to make excuses for it. Hewlett Johnson, who was the Dean of Canterbury in this period (nicknamed "the Red Dean"), is the most famous example of this. I'm currently reading his book The Socialist Sixth of the World.

"Unquestionably the material results [of Russian industrialisation] are astonishingly great, and may well be envied. The moral results are still more striking, and cannot be obscured by all the mistakes and crimes which from time to time have caused triumph to Soviet enemies and sadness to Soviet friends."

Johnson's whole argument is: Okay. So the Soviet leaders are atheists who believe that religion is the opiate of the masses. But they are fundamentally Christian, because they want to provide for everyone equally, economically, and raise the masses from illiteracy and poverty. This is what Christ would have wanted, and Christ laid the most emphasis on this.

A more specific example of his theory, perhaps? Here's one quote:

"The vast moral achievements of the Soviet Union are in no small measure due to the removal of fear. Fear haunts workers in a capitalist land. Fear of dismissal, fear that a thousand workless men stand outside the gate eager to get his job, breaks the spirit of man and breeds servility. ... Christian moralists are right in their attack on fear. To remove fear is to release energy. ... 'Fear not' was a word constantly on the lips of Christ."

So basically, a) Christ told us not to fear - it's irrelevant that he told us not to fear precisely because of God's control of the world, which is a matter of faith. Johnson is twisting Christ's words. Christ never told us that fear itself is just wrong - he said it's a waste of time for the Christian because of our faith in a God who cares for us. Not because of our faith in a government that will provide job security.

b) The only thing to fear is the loss of a job. This ignores the numbing fear that millions lived with in the Soviet Union, the fear of not being quite enthusiastic enough, the fear of making some mistake of theory that results in purge, the fear of the NKVD knocking on your door in the middle of the night, the fear of disappearing into exile or death.

Finally, in perhaps one of the more ridiculous sections, he says: "They are working for a common good that seems to me essentially Christian in its morality, however much they may deny the fact."

Looking back from the vantage point of the historian, we can see just how wrong Johnson was. To be fair to him, he didn't know the extent of the Terror in Russia. But he knew enough, and what he didn't know was often because he didn't want to know. Because, in theory, the Soviets promised economic freedom to the masses, he thought this was enough to make them Christian in morality - faith in God was unimportant, or at least not as important as works. This was shortsightedness.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

getting it

I've been struggling with the concepts of predestination--which I believe in--and free will--which I also believe in--for a while now. Does God simply pluck a few lucky individuals out of the masses, and bestow on them the ability to sense him? Or do we find him? I have a feeling there is an element of both, but that it's mostly weighted towards God's call and God's power.

However, I still believe that salvation is open to everyone. God is not willing that any should perish; God so loved the world; whoever turns to me I will never cast out; and so on and so forth. And if we are willing to ask, seek, and knock, I believe God has chosen us.

Regardless of my tenative conclusions on this subject, I've noticed something that is perhaps a part of this. Several people I know who have grown up in Christian families, who have perhaps even seen themselves as believers for a period of their lives, have amazed me in their lack of understanding of the beliefs of those of us who still believe. I would have thought that being an eyewitness into the workings of a Christian family would have given them a certain insight into how Christians live/think... but no.

I don't want to be specific with examples in some cases, but it involves things like assuming that unmarried Christian couples would already be sleeping together, or practical things like that, that seem pretty simplistic to figure out if you're aware that someone is a Christian.

Other cases it's been matters of interpretation. Brooke Fraser, a Kiwi singer who is a Christian, has released a couple of albums of music that is not quite overtly Christian - but I would have thought you'd have to be pretty stupid not to pick up on the overtones. However, someone heard these lyrics, from a song which is about asking God to throw you a "lifeline" in the seas of life:

Wake up feeling convicted 
I know something's not right 
Reacquaint my knees with the carpet 
I have to get this out 
'Cos it's obstructing you and I 
Dry up the seas that keep us parted

This someone, who had lost the faith not all that long ago, thought that Brooke, when she sings "reacquaint my knees with the carpet", was talking about how she'd been abused as a child, by someone who would drag her knees over the carpet! Uh... no.

These aren't that hefty as examples, but: Have you ever found this, and been surprised by it, in ex-Christians or people who have been pretty clued up in Christian life? That even though they've had huge experience of Christians and the basics of Christian life and so on, they just don't seem to get it? Is it possible that getting it is a gift of God, and some people just don't have it?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

guess what? I'm happy

I have come to the startling realisation that I am really, really happy. 

For a long time I've thought depressed = interesting. Being happy, especially in the College of Arts at universities, is frowned upon. Happy people go and become engineers or nurses or mathematics teachers or plumbers; the great philosophers, artists and novelists of the world are drawn from a pool of sad, angry people who, paradoxically, form groups based around the mission statement "we are loners whom no one understands", and sit in cafes bemoaning the world with eyes like dead fish. Insight is seeing how horrifying everything is, and being sort of okay with it or resigned to your inability to do anything about it, unless it all becomes too much for you and then you die.

I remember last year someone saying to me that they got depressed quite often but they didn't really want to be happy all the time because that's boring. They actually have a playlist on their iPod, a playlist of music that encourages a depressing state of mind. Of course, who am I to suggest their masochism is needless? In fact, I have behaved very similarly in the past, in the mistaken belief that I should feel more sad. At the same time, I look back now and think that perhaps they are wrong. I definitely believe that I don't have to be embarrassed about being happy.

Joy doesn't mean that I'm never sad. My mum comes into my mind a lot at the moment, and I miss her very much, and wish she was around to give me the advice and support I didn't always take advantage of when she was alive. I see things on the news almost every night that are downright depressing and make me wish that Jesus would just come back RIGHT NOW and sort things out. Nothing about my future is clear, and it's sometimes scary.

But there's something irrepressibly happy within me. I can never milk my sadness to full effect; opportunities to make people feel sorry for me never last long, because someone will say something funny and laughter will bubble up - actually, I'll probably end up laughing at myself. I'm happy - and it's all because of God.

Besides, being a happy person doesn't mean you ignore the troubles of the world. I tentatively believe that people who like drowning in depression over the state of the world do exactly that - drown - and nothing more. Happy people want to spread the joy; they are the active ones who will fight the tide of sorrow and not give up.

What I am not saying: Only Christians can be happy. I know that's not true. But I do think that my happiness depends on something constant, someone I can trust. And I know from experience that hard things will happen and yet somehow I will still be happy. It's something underlying, not a superficial overlay. The only thing that can threaten it is drawing away from God, as I found out over last summer.

It sounds supremely arrogant, and it doesn't sound very sophisticated. I hate it when people say precisely what I am saying, especially when they say it as an instruction - i.e., you're in a church, act happy! even though you've gone through an absolutely hellish time, you should be happy! So I am not saying this as an instruction, but as a self-expression - I have been surprised by joy, in the words of C. S. Lewis, and no one can take it away from me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

light relief

Someone forwarded me a list of Christian pick-up lines. Some were just silly, but some made me laugh out loud, even if they were a little cheesy, so... I couldn't resist sharing them!

- I didn't believe in predestination until tonight.
- You are so unblemished that I would sacrifice you.
- I believe one of my ribs belongs to you.
- I went on a beach mission but all I ended up doing was mission you.
- Hey... I would work seven years for your sister... but I would work seven more years for you.
- Hey, good looking, Ecclesiastes 4:11.
- Can I buy you a non-alcoholic beverage?
- Did I just have mud rubbed in my eyes?
- Your hair is like a flock of goats descending from Gilead.
- How many times do I have to walk around you to make you fall for me?
- Let's say, hypothetically, you were married. I would send your husband to the front line against the Amorites.
- Feel free to meet me on the threshing floor.
- It would be my honour to present you spotless on the last day.
- Me. You. Song of Songs: the remix.

And finally:

- Look, you're nearly 22. Most Christians are three years into marriage by now... just settle for me.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
Epitaph for Helen Joy Davidman Lewis, wife of C. S. Lewis

This year, I didn't really make a big deal out of Easter. The church I attend in the mornings and which I've grown up in has always been a bit suspicious of ritual etc., being a little or a lot (depending on how you see it) anti-establishment. Not that it sees Easter as wrong; it just doesn't make a big hoohaa about it. The idea being that we should remember Jesus' death and resurrection all year round. We might mention that it's Easter in a service on Easter Sunday, and we may vaguely theme it around resurrection, and we used to have services on Good Friday combined with other churches in the area - but we don't go too overboard on it.

I also managed to get sick, so part of Friday and all of Saturday were spent either throwing up (not that you wanted to hear that) or lying in bed wishing I could just go to sleep or something.

So I hardly thought about it today. I didn't even eat Easter eggs, being in my post-sick state not really wanting to eat anything chocolatey ever again. (Don't worry - it won't last.)

Until I got to my evening church, where one of the pastors got up to welcome us all near the beginning, and said a few quick words about the fact that it's Easter, and what it means. He read the poem I've quoted above which was written by C. S. Lewis about the death of his wife.

Suddenly it dawned on me to remember what Easter means for me. Easter is not just the remembrance of a long-ago event that has been remembered and ritualised by the Christian Church for centuries. It is this:

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. ... "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:19-22, 54-57)

I thought of my mother, and how much I miss her. What hope would I have if there were no Easter? Easter is not some sort of a memorial to a dead hero. It is the living hope, passed down to we who believe today, that if Christ could be brought through death to eternal life, united with those he loves, then he can bring us through death too, uniting us with himself. Thank you, Jesus.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ethics and Christian music

So being one of the people who sorts out music at my church, I've become aware of the CCLI licensing group. Up until now my father (who also sorts out music and who is the treasurer of the church) has absolutely refused to get a CCLI license ever since he looked into it a few years ago and I've always thought this was typical of my father who just has to find a problem with everything. :)

Recently I voiced the opinion to him that we should get a license for the music we use. We have two hymn books for which the copyright is already sorted, but we've never added all that many new songs into the mix. Now, however, the number of new songs is growing and I was a bit concerned that we weren't being ethical.

He proceeded to tell me all the problems he has with the CCLI system.
Firstly, it only covers you using the words of a song on an overhead projector or powerpoint. You have to buy a second license if you want to photocopy any of the music for other musicians.
Secondly, you don't actually get any music out of it. You still have to buy sheet music, or write it down yourself (which I have been doing for the last few years given that the Christian music industry seems to have decided that it's perfectly reasonable to sell people "sheet music" that consists only of guitar chords).
Thirdly, you have to tell them every week exactly what songs you have sung. This is an incredibly stupid system for churches like ours; we have something called "Open Worship" in which anyone can stand up and ask for a song. We don't know what we're going to be playing until seconds before we play it. It's a time-consuming thing to make a church do, especially a church like ours with already stretched resources.
Fourthly and fifthly and sixthly, there were a whole lot of other points he made which I can't remember, but actually sounded quite reasonable.

It made me start wondering what in fact is the best thing to do. Not getting a license leaves us open to lawsuits etc, but getting a license is just a pain in the neck and doesn't actually solve any of our problems.

I also started wondering... CCLI licenses are talked up as the "ethical" option but really how ethical is it to demand that small churches without resources jump through hoop after hoop? Whenever I find a new song for the church I have to buy either a CD of it or an MP3 file, and, if it's available, I have to buy piano music as well. My money is going to the musicians who write it and I find it a little offensive that it's implied that if you don't buy a license you are somehow robbing the musicians and leaving them destitute.

I also think Christian copyrighting can be extremely suspect. I've bought books of sheet music sometimes that have included songs like Amazing Grace, which have a big © 2002 at the bottom, as if they belong to whoever printed out the music. Under that reasoning, the fact that I write my own piano arrangements of some of the more modern music means I could start selling it as my own.

Anyway (and this is the biggest issue for me), whether it's ethical or not, how Christian is it to hold the threat of lawsuit over other Christians' heads? As if there's nothing problematic about walking into a church that is praising God in song and treating them like criminals?

I know that it's not for me to order Christian musicians to provide free service for other Christians. It should be a personal decision, not forced. However, all of us Christians are living in the world but we are not of the world. Why, exactly, have some people decided that copyright law is a crucial part of Christian ethics? What happened to the principle of doing the right thing and serving God's people without expectation of reward? I think a strong case could be made that Christians who serve in music ministry are a bit like missionaries who don't demand money from the church but depend on God's provision. God's provision is not in forced payments from reluctant Christians, but in gifts offered freely and generously in recognition of missionaries' needs.

When thinking about this issue, I can't help but think about Keith Green, who refused to ask for money for his recordings and concerts. And yet God provided.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

man on fire

You may remember that a while ago I said I was having issues weighing up the God of the Old Testament who instructed the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, men, women and children, and the God who seems much less foreign to me, the God of love.

Well, for the first time since then, I've read something that actually ventured to weigh up the two without sounding like a massive cop-out. It's on one of my new favourite blogs, Stuff Christians Like, and here is the link. When I started reading, I thought - huh? Keep reading and I think you may be surprised.

Monday, February 16, 2009

a bundle of parallel thoughts

1. I don't know what I am being called to do with my life. I keep meeting missionaries or hearing them speak and feeling like there is such singleminded passion there, kept under singleminded control... It drives my life and my current direction into stark contrast as a mix-up of ideas with no real mission. I don't know what I am being asked to do and it would be nice to know there is something. I don't mean I have to preach standing on a box in the Amazon rainforest or deepest Africa or something. In fact, I know that's not my path in life! But hearing people who work for agencies like Wycliffe Bible Translation... it makes me wonder whether I made the right choices when I gave up on Linguistics, or decided it was silly and self-indulgent to study Biblical Greek. It's not too late to go back, but then again I don't think I want to, and maybe my task is to be right where I am. I don't know!! Does anyone? All I can do is pray that God will lead me, and that I won't simply continue just to walk through open doors in the assumption that God opened them for me.

2. Meanwhile, I am undergoing a new regime in my behaviour, and it is astonishing me. After my crisis described in an earlier post ("my testimony"), I've been really happy, and also really determined not to slip into apathy again. One of my steps has been to start reading the Bible every day. In the past I've thought it made most sense to follow where the Spirit led, in a way, and just read whatever I felt like. A nice thought, but I've come to know myself a bit better and have accepted that I need discipline and routine - or the Bible reading just doesn't happen. So I bought a book called For the Love of God, by D. A. Carson, the theory being that if I have paid for something I will feel bound to use it! This follows one of those read-the-Bible-in-a-year programmes, and also has a reading written by Carson for every day. So every day I read a chapter of four different books. At the moment, I am six days in, having just read Genesis 6, Matthew 6, Ezra 6, Acts 6. I am amazed. Even on the days when I read a bit carelessly, things have just gone much more smoothly. The old temptations still turn up but I just don't want to act on them anymore. They're not that interesting. I am hoping this lasts and so I am determined to continue with the Bible reading.

3. No specifics here, because it's someone else's private matter, but I am feeling incredibly sad because someone I care about a lot, I have heard, is getting a divorce. I feel so guilty for hearing about this via the old 'don't-pass-this-around-to-everyone-but...' gossip. And I feel so miserable for this person who very obviously adored their spouse not too distantly in the past. And I know this is asking too much of anyone but I had hoped that this person and their spouse were the one exception in an environment of failed marriages. It's been hanging over me like a depressing cloud all day and all I can do is pray for him/her and hope that their faith in God gets them through this.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Let's all pray for Australia at the moment, in its deadly struggle against the fires currently rampaging through certain tinder-dry areas, which have already claimed 84 lives and destroyed whole towns. In a cruel twist, the floods in the north have sent crocodiles into the towns, who are also claiming lives.

Pray that if any people have been responsible for starting the fires, they will be caught and stopped quickly.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

keeping the faith...

... by sitting on mountain tops.

I've been away. My other blog describes it, in much detail, but for me the highlight was climbing a mountain in Fiordland. We walked up through the most beautiful ferny forest and then burst out from the treeline into the mountains. Once at the top, nothing could be seen for miles but mountains, and all I wanted to do was sit on my rock and absorb it all.
Being a modern woman, I know that heaven isn't physically up, but still, sitting on top of a mountain makes me feel closer to God. It's a sensual experience; I simply don't have time to rationalise or overanalyse anything; my head is too full to think of anything. Paradoxical? Maybe. But I think there's a reason the ancients worshipped God on his mountains.
Sometimes I feel like I have glimpses of eternity, like for a fraction of a moment of a flash, I can see God in all his bigness - but I can never grasp it. On the top of a mountain, the sensation reverses itself. There is a long, drawn-out awareness of God around me and within me, but I can't even explain what I am seeing. I don't care about all my questions anymore, I just want to praise God.
And then I drag myself away, and I walk down the mountain. Every little plant, every leaf is bright and good and I like to go slowly and take it all in.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
Let the desert and its towns raise their voices;
let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops.
Let them give glory to the LORD
and proclaim his praise in the islands.
Isaiah 42:10-12

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

nature, red in tooth and claw

I've been thinking about nature recently. Nature with a capital N, I suppose. Don't worry, I'm not going to launch into a glowing account of fluffy bunnies and cute little ladybirds. I'm thinking more of "nature, red in tooth and claw". Or the Nature that you hear about on the news. It's hard to avoid thinking about it, actually, at the moment.

We've been having a lot of deaths, near-deaths, and accidents in New Zealand lately. It's summer, it's beautiful, and it's deceptively dangerous. Every few days there seems to be something else in the news. One woman has been missing for over a week on a tramping track and is probably dead, two men were crushed when they ventured too close to the Fox Glacier and tons of ice fell on them, one man died and another only just survived when they were stranded on Mt Cook for days in a howling blizzard, a child drowned while waterskiing, a boatload of two adults and three children were lost in raging seas for a day, and more. The world seems so small now, and humans so big, that I think we forget to take Nature seriously and these sorts of things happen.

We are tiny little insignificant beings caught in huge forces and if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we are defenceless. It is amazing how quickly we wither when we don't have the tools of civilisation any longer.

And although I'm not going to equate Nature with God, these thoughts echo some of my other developing thoughts. I've always considered God as good because he should be, almost as though I set the rules for what is good and what is not. If he does something I don't understand, I disapprove or try to ignore it, thinking of God as bound to my notions of good. In the past, people might explain some of these issues to me by asking "Who are you to challenge God?" And I would think, well, that's all well and good but it's not exactly a rational argument, and, well, it's not very nice. An authoritarian God seems so different from 'gentle Jesus, meek and mild'.

Perhaps I underestimated God, like we underestimate Nature.

I do still think that God has no choice but to be good; his nature is intrinsically good and that cannot change. However, for the first time I've learnt to take their point. Considering God and his awesome power, displayed in a much lesser extent in the sweeping power of Nature, which he created... well, maybe I've learnt a little more humility. I've learnt to see the point of people like C. S. Lewis, who described Aslan, the Lion who symbolised God in the Narnia Chronicles, as "dangerous", or "not a tame lion". The God of the Old Testament, so terrifying that we could not bear to look upon him, is a crucial part of the nature of God that I've only just learned to accept.

And at the same time, I haven't lost any of my idealism. To think that such a God loved us, when really he could have annihilated us with ease and no one could have stopped him - that God came to us, humbled himself, died for us... Although it seems a paradox, maybe in order to really understand the Cross, the ultimate sign of God's love and closeness to us, we also need to recognise God's BIGNESS and POWER and SCARINESS.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

my testimony

Here it is, the promised testimony-of-sorts. I found I had a whole heap of expectations of what a testimony is supposed to be like and this doesn't really slot into them - in fact, it's more like a normal blog post. But it feels more to me like the message I need to say than any "I was born in 1986 to a Christian family" sort of testimony. Here goes.

I haven't really written anything of substance on here for a while, because if I was honest, I was afraid someone I know might read it and think differently of me, and if I lied, I knew whatever I came out with would be hypocritical. I've actually already managed to be a hypocrite and liar on my other blog, when I wrote that the "spiritual course of up-and-downs" I've been through this year had left me stronger.

Actually, I've been having a really hard time. And this is the first time I have admitted it to anyone. The shame of it felt too much to bear on my own and yet the shame of it held me back from confiding in anyone. Everyone I know seems to have such a joyful, exemplary Christian life whereas I am a failure. I have all the book-knowledge; I can put on my special voice and argue free will over predestination. I also actually believe it all. But! I want to do things that God doesn't want me to do, and although I guess I've always struggled with this it suddenly all crept up on me in the last month or two and I could think of nothing but what I wanted to do. I even came to the firm decision that I was going to do this, although I knew it was a bad idea, I would regret it, and it would make things even harder for me in my faith - maybe draw me away from God permanently. A big change, because in the past, even if I was having what Christians like to call a "dry patch", I always firmly believed I would never lose my faith. In a way, I just stopped caring, a few weeks ago, or even trying to pull myself away from it all.

I felt like here I was, wanting these things, letting them take me over, paying no heed to God - and somewhere, far away, my spirit was crying out for help, even though I didn't want it to. Thank you very much, God, but I don't want to be drawn out of the Slough of Despond. It was my body first, from now on, then my soul, and my spirit a clear third.

In all fairness, I decided, I should give my spirit a chance. Its last chance. Even if I didn't care so much about myself now, I did care about my father, and my family, who I didn't want to grieve by going off the deep end.

So I made a few token gestures. In the past I had found a prayer group with some of my closest friends incredibly helpful - friends whom I didn't mind being honest with, even if I lost Christian-cred because of it. So I emailed them all and started organising a prayer meeting with a few of them for this year. But this is unlikely to start at least for a month or so, and by this time I was losing it.

All the while I avoided looking at myself, because I knew I hated what I saw. I am everything, at the moment, that I never wanted to be, and most of all a hypocrite. I haven't done what I have set out to do, yet, but I've never believed that the deed alone makes us sinners. The very fact that I have set out to do something wrong makes me a sinner, not only helpless, but determinedly helpless. I have never had any patience with people who change the Bible to suit what they want to do, and I knew that it was either a case of choosing to turn my back on its teachings, or to give up the path I was about to set foot on. Reject it entirely or accept it all. The fact that I was very close to giving it up made me despise myself as a weakling.

I don't know how to describe what happened next. However, I can say that I wondered why God wasn't fighting harder for me. I was aware that I was being tossed around by the devil and wasn't putting up much resistance, but isn't a spiritual battle meant to be tougher than this? Then the following things happened:

Last night
I listened to "Rock of Ages", sung by Chris Rice. This is the most played song on my iPod but I hadn't listened to it for a couple of months, maybe because it's like an arrow into me.
One verse of it in particular:
Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to thy cross I cling
Naked, come to thee for dress
Helpless, look to thee for grace
Foul, I to the fountain fly
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

Suddenly, old feelings came flooding back on me. I had felt helpless before, but never this much, and I have certainly never felt this "foul". A strong word but entirely appropriate.

This morning
I was in a bad mood all morning at church, reluctant to talk to anyone. Just before I left, though, my old Sunday School teacher, a woman who quite possibly has a heart the size of Canada, and a freaky spiritual instinct, came up to me, asked me how I was, blah de blah de blah - all lies on my side, of course. Finally: "You know, the Lord has had you in my mind rather a lot for the last couple of weeks."

That was all. No forcing of confidences. But I'm sure she saw a shocked look in my eyes which I quickly hid and was confirmation enough that no, I wasn't just fine. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that God has been fighting for me and it wasn't just me on my own versus the devil.

I went along to my church on campus, skeptical that I would hear anything new enough to shock me. A speaker, Chris Greene from London, spoke on the servant king of Mark chapter 10, who said:
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his
life as a ransom for many.

Not exactly words I haven't heard before. Although the talk wasn't the same old same old, it did repeat the old gospel message... that we, the scum of the earth, have been given the gift of life by a Saviour who loved us so much, so undeservedly, that he died for us. That, like blind Bartimaeus who asked only for mercy, we too can receive sight. That sin is a stranglehold for which Jesus paid the ransom. [You can listen to the sermon here if you would like.]

I will always be shocked by this when I am least expecting it. We sang a song, this one by Stuart Townend, and there was a verse I couldn't sing because I was all choked up and it would be too embarrassing to collapse into tears in front of an entire congregation.
When I'm stained with guilt and sin,
He is there to lift me, heal me and forgive me,
Gives me strength to stand again,
Stronger than I was before.

Why do I forget this? How do I manage to be shocked every time by the depth of God's love? This God we're talking about is the God who has limitless power, who could snuff me out with the lift of a finger - the God who chose to die, so that he could know me.
So with every breath that I am given,
I will sing salvation's song.
And I'll join the chorus of creation
Giving praise to Christ alone.

So now I am:
A little humbler.
A little happier.
A little more determined not to fall away.
A little more grateful to God.