The Cult of the Extraordinary

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(The above is a sadly typical image, representative of most of what I found on the internet when doing an image search on this topic. The thirst to be extraordinary, it would seem, has produced reams of images and “inspirational” quotes telling people never to settle for the ordinary and that they not only deserve to be extraordinary but also to be treated in extraordinary ways by others. This thirst for significance is exceeded only by the delusion that fails to recognise that most of us – nearly all – are ordinary people who live ordinary lives.)

A number of articles have appeared lately in newspapers and on blogs regarding what might be called “the cult of the extraordinary”.

One woman wrote that growing up in the 1990’s, she was told that her generation was special. They were the most enlightened and most privileged, and the world was their oyster. They could do whatever they wanted. They were made for extraordinary things.

As it happens, she become a mother and a wife, and now spends her days doing housework and occasionally writing a blog. But, she writes, a voice goes through her head sometimes that what she is doing represents a failure in comparison to what she might have done.

For instance, when she is arguing with her husband, a voice says to her, “You could have been something, but now you’re just a wife”. When she does the dishes, the voice says to her, “You could have really done something, but now you’re just a mother”. When she writes a blog article that nobody reads, “You could have done something, but now you’re just writing a blog everybody ignores”. And on and on.

What is interesting about this experience is that it was echoed in the same week in the Guardian newspaper. There, the writer described the tremendous internal pressure young people – especially those raised in the 1990’s or early 2000’s – feel to be extraordinary. Somehow that particular message has been conveyed to young people, probably through a variety of mediums: schools, entertainment, television shows, video games and so on.

It is a popular message, to be sure. “You can do anything you want to do and your life can be whatever you want to make of it“. But this is a destructive message not only because it is untrue, but also because in trying to make it true (or living as if it were true) places a person in an impossible situation. Nobody can suck the savour out of life at each moment. Nobody is able to live in a constant exhilarating whirlwind of accomplishment.

Something in our culture has transmitted a deep inward pressure within people to have an extraordinary material existence. The serial television show probably plays a role in this. Watching a cast of zany characters doing impossibly exciting things every evening, and then multiplying this by many orders of magnitude (for there are many such shows), might indeed contribute to a warped sense of possibly.

Those warped possibilities really are a parody of reality. For instance, the idea that all relationships and romance should be mind-blowing leads people to conclude that a partner they harmonise with but do not have “chemistry” with must be inadequate and unsatisfactory. The same goes with career. Since one’s career “must” be amazing, filled with every escalating achievement, a person who finds themselves doing a relatively simple job must conclude that it is unsatisfactory. If you’re not a CEO or a lawyer defending high profile clients, or a presidential aide, then something must be wrong!

Perpetual dissatisfaction results from the cult of the extraordinary. The dissatisfaction arises, largely, from the belief that there are other options out there which are better, more satisfying, and more remarkable than one’s current circumstances. Sometimes, of course, that may be true. But much of the time it is needless discontent.

The cult of the extraordinary and the attendant belief that our lives should be extraordinary and amazing, can be explained primarily as the result of an absence of a Christian worldview. A perspective grounded in Christ clearly recognises that the only truly extraordinary things are the Lord himself and the works of his hands. We are not therefore summoned to be extraordinary, although it is certainly the case that some people may live exceptional lives. Rather, we are summoned to be filled with, and immersed in, and awed by that which is truly extraordinary: that is, Christ himself. And Christ alone.

It can be a great liberation to be able to say, “I’m ordinary and unimportant and insignificant, but I worship and know a Christ who is extraordinary, truly important, and wholly significant. And that is sufficient adventure and accomplishment to last a lifetime. It is riches beyond comparison. It is more than I could ever deserve apart from God’s amazing grace. To him be glory and praise!

Ordinary People.Extraordinary GOD

9 Ways to Prepare for the Coming Persecution – Are You Ready to Suffer for Christ?

There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on the blogosphere, on evangelical forums, and in sermons preached around the world regarding the coming persecution.

It is clear – at least to growing numbers of us – that persecution in the hitherto Christian-friendly West is not merely a future possibility. It is now inevitable. The question is no longer “if?”, but “when?”.

It is painfully obvious that the culture around us has reached a critical point. There is growing active hostility toward the gospel. This is an important distinction. The hostility is no longer passive, but an active, energetic, determined and confident opposition to all that falls under the banner of Christ.

And this hostility and immorality has fallen upon our culture with amazing speed. Any comparison between a hundred years ago to today reveals the difference that a mere hundred years can make. A mere hundred years. Just one century! Think of it. There are people today that are over a hundred years old. Those people have witnessed during their long life span the catastrophic transition of our society from a predominately Christian one, to a post-Christian, virtually pagan one. And this tidal wave of rebellion and godlessness shows no signs of slowing. It is increasingly expanding around the ever-shrinking moral residue of Christian thought and practice.

The general moral attitude of 1916 is as different from that of 2016 as night is from day. To illustrate this, compare these two covers from the fashion magazine Vogue. Both come from the April issue, but one was published in 1916 and the other 2016:

The cover from 2016 is regarded as modest by community standards today. Yet, in 1916, it would have been considered a scandalous and immoral portrayal of a woman. In fact, it would probably have been deemed pornographic and titillating.

The Atlantic magazine has published a beautiful set of historic photographs of New York City, including several of beaches and public swimming pools. Take a look at them, and consider the attire of people in different contexts. There is an entirely different atmosphere of modesty on display there from what we would expect in 2016.

And it is not just fashion that has experienced a tectonic shift. It would have been unthinkable, a hundred years ago, for there to be any such thing as same-sex marriage. There was even widespread efforts to combat alcohol, much less the constellation of drugs that now plague our cities. Consider that in 1919, prohibition of alcohol in the United States became a constitutional amendment as a consequence of the enormously successful temperance movement. Even in countries outside of the United States, temperance movements were influential and widespread. Below is a picture of temperance pledge signed by a young Australian in 1916.

Note the influence of Methodism, which was once such a force for social improvement. Methodism promoted godly living with unashamed vigour and passion. It makes it all the more remarkable that Methodism – or, at least, what is left of it – has lapsed into liberal theology, homosexual marriage affirmation, and every other contemporary trend. It marks the sad eclipse of its former strength with a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.

Temperance

In our generation we have to acknowledge that the secular programme is winning. Evidence of this abounds in every direction. For example, the list of unsayable truths grow ever longer. Hate speech codes are refined to punish people for uttering words, which as Orwell told us in 1984, is the ultimate tool to stop the thoughts that give rise to them.

Adjectives like “bigot”, “intolerant” and “[something]-phobic” are now dangerous accusations, and with a little more time, the accusers will be given the legal force to punish those who are so described. Churches that uphold the scriptures and God’s teaching regarding godliness are vilified and increasingly threatened with state censure.

The sexual revolution will result in the dismantling of democracy as we have known it, because it must. In fact, this process is in full swing already as the freedom of speech is gradually eroded to protect the sexual revolution. This is inevitable because sexual passions are enormously strong and always wreak havoc against the weak. They acquire galloping strength and pervasiveness when unrestrained by law, by marriage, and by the unified recognition of a community that sexuality must be practised according to the commandment of our Creator.

Discard God and a pornographic society results. There have been many pornographic societies like this in the past. For example, some of the monuments and works of art uncovered in Pompeii are so indecent that they have been stored out of public view in a chamber in the British Museum ever since.

Yet in our time, the unleashing of sexual forces on a scale unknown even to ancient pagans will prove to be so destructive to families, to children, to stability, to the economy, to politics, and to virtually everything else. In all such societies the greatest victims tend to be women and children. And minorities who speak out against it become targets.

The time will be upon us soon in the West when faithful Christians will be persecuted for the stance we take. The suffering will be real. We shall need to learn to live with less; and we shall need to find greater joy in Christ and the Heavenly Realms. The church will thin out. But it will more brightly illumine this world than it has perhaps for many a decade.

We need to get ready while the sun yet shines. What can we do? Here are seven things that I believe a person can do to get ready for coming persecution:

  1. Develop a soldierly discipline in our spiritual march: get serious about deepening one’s communion with God. Learn to pray as on a battlefield. Learn to pray regardless of cold or heat; summer or winter. Learn to pray in all environments. Listen to Leonard Ravenhill’s teachings on prayer. Read up on the Puritan’s practice of prayer. Imitate the Lord Jesus’ example of prayer.
  2. Intercede for the suffering church: Learn to offer up “spiritual sacrifices” in prayer for the suffering church. Use what wealth one has to support the suffering church (i.e. Voices of the Martyrs). Be active in giving to those who suffer now. It may well be that we shall receive one day our offerings back again from those we have nourished today. Be generous in giving to others. “He who gives to the poor shall lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27). “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord, and the Lord shall repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17).
  3. Learn and memorise the scriptures: The day will come when they may try to take your Bible. But as the persecuted saints of the past have so often reminded us, they cannot take the scriptures that are stored up in one’s mind and one’s heart. Many a saint has languished in a cold, damp, filthy dungeon with no script, but has drawn great comfort from reciting the word of God deeply hidden in their heart. The word of God brought the creation into existence; the word of God will nourish his faithful servants until the final fulfilment of all things.
  4. To the best of your ability, get debt-free as fast as possible: The state will enforce some of its censure of Christians, but part of the new tyranny is that it is predicated on a shared set of beliefs throughout the community, and therefore is self-enforcing by the society around us. Speak up and you may lose your job. Your employer will do the work of threatening you or silencing you. Speak up and you may be taken to court and be fined. The work will be done by someone in the community indignant that you have opposed the darkness, and they will film you and report you to the police.

    Under such conditions, indebtedness becomes a powerful tool the world can use to get our compliance. There is real pressure to compromise or remain silent when we know that we might not be able to make the bills if we hold the line for Christ. While time permits, therefore, get the debt under control (ideally, live debt-free) so that there can be greater liberty in the coming evil days. It may even be better in the circumstances to come to live in a small and simple abode without debt, than to be indebted in a McMansion.

  5. Be prepared: It may sound paranoid – perhaps on the level of the infamous “preppers” – but it is not unwise to have a bag prepared in your house for a speedy flight, whether this is due to terrorism, to government persecution, or just a natural disaster. The bag should contain some emergency food, medical supplies, batteries, torch, candles, matches, perhaps even a sleeping bag and essential documents.

    When the Romans besieged Jerusalem and slaughtered much its population in 70 A.D., Eusebius, an early church father, notes that the Christian church at Jerusalem had evacuated before the outbreak of the war, in obedience to a revelation (Book 3, Chapter 5:3). They were, every one of them, spared. In fact, according to the Eusebius, Jerusalem was treated as if it were utterly destitute of holy men – which of course it was, since its entire population of Christians had left it. He writes “the judgement of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men“.

    What is the point? The point is that the Christians at Jerusalem were prepared to leave the city in accordance with what our Lord prophesied in the scriptures, and perhaps even in response to a supernatural revelation given to that faithful church. They believed the Lord; they stood ready; and they went. Be prepared to flee!

  6. Get a passport: In the Old Testament the saints were not unafraid to relocate even to different countries when it seemed wise to do so. If things get bad in the local region, it is wise to keep a valid passport ready so that one may do precisely that and leave for a city, for a region, or for a country that is somewhat more friendly to the gospel (though they be in short supply even today). “You will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes“.
  7. Cultivate deep love and fellowship with other believers: You should know enough fellow believers and be on such good terms with them that you could have a clandestine service under a bridge at midnight if you needed to. The days will come when believers will need to depend on each other, and will need to suffer together. Be serious about fellowship. Be serious about friendship with God’s people. Be serious about loving other believers.
  8. Support immigration into our countries from non-secular lands: We can slow the rot by supporting the immigration of non-secularists into our countries. People who believe in God – even if their religion is not true Christianity and therefore false – still possess a sense of moral responsibility that a secular population does not. The more these people are allowed into the community, the harder it will be for secularists to pursue their agenda.

    Of course, we cannot ever find common cause with non-Christians, but the presence of people who at least have a sense of reverence and fear of God is surely far better than those who have no respect for the Almighty at all.

  9. DO SOMETHING!: Preach the word, in season and out of season. Not everyone may have the courage to do street preaching (and not everyone is called to it), but anyone can give out tracts. Buy a load of them and place them in letterboxes throughout the community. Run a blog. Make gospel videos on Youtube. Write letters to Members of Parliament or Congress imploring them to uphold righteous standards. Write letters to the editor of the local newspapers. Raise godly children. Invest serious time into training and teaching your children the word of the Lord. Be deliberately and consistently joyful in your workplace. Put your talents to good work. Volunteer in the community and perhaps drop a word in season about the Lord. Read your Bible in a public place. Leave a tract in a library book.

    Whatever you do, do something to build the kingdom. Don’t just be a bump on a log trundling off to church and developing nothing more than swollen head full of knowledge that never makes a difference to anyone else. Be salt and light; be kind; be compassionate; be strategic in how you labour for the Lord.

The Brewing Civil War within Roman Catholicism

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I follow conservative Roman Catholic blogs.

It is fair to say, that I follow very conservative Roman Catholic blogs. The sort written by conservative priests who look fondly back to Old Rome – to the days when the liturgy was in Latin and ecclesiastical discipline within the ranks was iron.

These are the people whose slogan is “save the liturgy, save the world”. Yes, to all the Protestant readers who just fell off their seats, you read that correctly.

This is Rome Catholicism of the Tridentine Rite. This is the Rome Catholicism of arcane medieval mysticism. This is a Rome Catholicism that has been almost forgotten, except in small – but admittedly growing – pockets, where people desperately wish to re-barnacle their religious life in esoteric rituals that were stripped away by Vatican II.

One of the things that has become really, really clear is that there are two utterly incompatible views that now co-exist in Roman Catholicism. The liberal wing are… well, essentially theistic soft secularists, if such a thing can be imagined. They pretty much follow the culture on issues like homosexuality, feminism, abortion, environmentalism, same-sex marriage, and the whole worldview. You can find Catholics within this wing who criticise their own church’s stance on these issues. You can find large numbers of Catholics who even actively and enthusiastically embrace these elements of the culture. For instance, there are entire branches of orders of nuns who are essentially leftover 1960’s radical feminists. They go about crusading for political purposes.

But, to the other extreme, there is the conservative wing. These Roman Catholics largely live in the past, venerating historical Popes and cardinals, and glorying in a very traditional worship that consists of little other than elaborate and ornamented ritual. They reject the minimalist contemporary design of modern churches – which are often built according to zany postmodern designs – and approvingly point to articles in magazines in which pastors describe how they have transformed their parishes by installing pews, altars, candles, and all the other furniture of a heavily-liturgical religion.

(The fact that there is such a palpable thirst among modern Western populations for a deep link to the past and a desire for continuity with history, could be the subject of an entire book. Unfortunately for the poor benighted souls turning to liturgical religions like Roman Catholicism, the tradition that they are told goes back to the New Testament is often only about 500 or so years old. Most of the “apostolic tradition”, along with its attendant rites and rituals developed in the medieval period. To be deeply rooted in God’s work in history, one must turn to the pages of scripture).

Each wing denounces the other. An excellent illustration of this – at least in miniature – is found in the running clash of purpose and perspective between a very popular blog operated by the Roman Catholic priest, John Zuhlsdorf, and the National Catholic Reporter. The National Catholic Reporter occasionally prints insinuations or commentary that would reflect unfavourably on Zuhlsdorf’s website and views, characterising them as unloving or harsh. For his own part, Zuhlsdorf declares the National Catholic Reporter to be “un-catholic”. In fact, Zuhlsdorf usually refers to this publication as “fishwrap” or “the National Schismatic Reporter” and holds in low esteem the liberal Roman Catholics who comment there.

Both parties have convictions utterly removed from the other. The NCR seems hopeful for some changes on the issue of woman’s ordination. They seem to take the view that there is a possibility of having women deacons. Zuhlsdorf, for his part, is implacably opposed to women’s ordination.

Whatever we might think on the issue – and, we, evangelicals and Reformed would typically side with Zuhlsdorf on this issue – the fact remains that these are opposing viewpoints, held with extreme conviction and passion. And both seem to have emerged within Roman Catholicism at the same time and in high volumes. It bespeaks a collapse of church discipline at some point in the line. For how else could two opposing camps emerge in the one communion?

But, this is only the tip of the iceberg! Most of the folks supporting women’s ordination would necessarily (eg. it is necessary to hold these beliefs in order to arrive at their position) have very non-traditional views of the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Catholic Church and their supposed “teaching magisterium”. They necessarily hold non-traditional views on apostolic tradition. They necessarily repudiate the past example of their own church as repressive, archaic or opposed to women. Indeed, one of the Youtube videos put out by one of these groups has a woman in mock papal attire singing, “Don’t listen to St. Paul… I can lead the way” and a woman dandying her baby wearing a shirt that reads “Mommy for pope”. In other words, Zuhlsdorf – to a certain extent – is right. These people have no theological relation to the theological universe of what once called itself Roman Catholicism.

Another example of this breakdown is seen in Ireland, where the decay of Roman Catholicism is now an unmistakable fact. Here is a country that has a long history of being a Roman Catholic stronghold. A country where 73% – nearly three quarters of the population – claim to be Roman Catholic. Yet in the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage, 62% of Irish voters approved a constitutional change to allow people to marry without the distinction of sex.

Assuming that the 25% of the population who are non-Roman Catholic all voted in favour of this change, it would mean that 37% of the Roman Catholic population also voted in favour of same-sex marriage. And this contrary to the advice, teaching and instruction of their own clergy and church! (Although, to be honest, any fair assessment of the political campaign conducted by those affiliated with Roman Catholic Church would surely indicate a fair degree of apathy. The impression I received, at least, was that their heart was just not in it. The secular perspective had already quite clearly won – at least, according to the vote statistics – even within the Roman Catholic community long before the referendum took place.)

You can find these sorts of inroads into Roman Catholicism at every point. And most troubling for the conservatives, the secular viewpoint seems to be held by a growing number of bishops, cardinals, and priests. Many of these come in for regular excoriation from the conservative wing . On the other hand, the conservatives lionise other of their hierarchy as if they were celebrities. These cardinals and bishops receive rock star treatment because they celebrate the mass in Latin or they are fighting back against the ambitions of the liberal half of the church.

Now enter the Pope.

For all the unbiblical Roman pretensions that the Pope functions as an authoritative unifying figure, the reality is the inverse. Nobody could say with a straight face that Pope Francis believes what his medieval (or even early 20th century) predecessors believed given his remarks on a range of issues. He continues along the lines set by previous Popes who proclaim a social gospel to outsiders and a religious practice to insiders so lacking in discipline as to render it almost indifferent to the manner in which they choose to live. Among Francis’ encyclicals is the entirely forgettable Laudata si’, or the “Green Encyclical”, which was about the environment and sustainability. In Francis’ speech to the Congress, he mentions Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln but does not once make reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.

In so doing, he merely follows the example of other post-Vatican II popes, like Pope John Paul II, who was certainly no great evangelist either. When addressing the European Study Congress, Pope John Paul II spoke much about “Christianity” and even mentioned “Christ” once, but his focus was not where the conservative Roman Catholics would have placed it.

It is categorically impossible to imagine the Apostle Peter – whose authority Roman Catholics claim for their pope – if presented with the chance to address the representatives of the most powerful nation in the world, or a congress planning a trans-continental constitution that would govern 500 million people – would fail to present the fullness of the message of the good news of Christ our Lord.

But the Popes reflect the Roman Catholic Church’s culture. True there is a bit of a lag before certain cultural trends and elements get represented in a pontificate, but it shows up sooner than later. Popes are increasingly political-correct beings and mealy-mouthed, never being entirely direct. Each subsequent pope differs substantially from the one before and thus the entire Roman church is in a perpetual condition of division. Half of them will cleave now unto this pope, and the other half will cleave unto that one. Francis is beloved by the liberal Catholics, just as Benedict XVI is beloved by the conservatives – some of which freely admit to shedding tears over his resignation.

Of course, nearly every Roman Catholic holds to Pope John Paul II whose genius for more than thirty years involved the careful placation of all wings of the church by granting to each a measure of what they sought. One month he would pound the arms of his throne and thunder down the old dogmas, gladdening the heart of the conservatives. A few months later he would make a ringing declaration about women or some other group, and bring pleasure to the liberals. But in retrospect, I think it will be seen that Pope John Paul II’s seemingly stable pontificate, solved nothing. In fact, he oversaw the unravelling of the discipline and authority of his church, the continuation of the 1960’s experiment. His pontificate will be seen to mark the further degradation of the belief and allure of the (non-existent) continuity the religion claims for itself.

One could go on. The fact that there is such a staggering variety of religious orders – some liberal and some conservative – each existing side-by-side within the tent. We could examine the rot within Roman Catholic educational institutions, producing generations of Roman Catholics who are probably mostly theologically liberal. We could consider the resurgence of conservatism within many seminaries, coupled with the fact that the overall number of priests is low and shrinking. But time constrains me.

Bottom line: this state of affairs cannot continue forever. One wing will dominate eventually, or there will be a permanent schism. Many conservatives have already thrown in the towel, declared most of the post-Vatican II popes to be heretics, and have run off to sedevacantist movements and the SSPX, who generally believe that the Seat of Peter is empty and there is no legitimate pope.

It is fantasy to imagine the staunch, Tridentine, “Latin Mass” conservatives winning this battle. In fact, their efforts are more likely to accelerate a schism since so many of them actively believe that their Tridentine mass is more legitimate than the Novus Ordo mass which is the common global Roman Catholic practice.

Certainly, the wing that shall be most badly affected will be the conservatives for whom the Pope and bishops and priestcraft is pivotal. Their entire faith is built on it. They have been taught that their church, when manifested in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is infallible and miraculously safeguarded from error. The ructions to their faith when they realise with the passage of time, that the old Roman Catholicism is beyond revival, will be painful to bear. The conservatives are desperately placing their hope in the next pontificate. Pity them, should the next pope be another Francis. Their demoralisation will be complete.

We must keep our eyes open for these troubled souls, the recipients of a dreadful medieval corruption that enslaves and mesmerises with the false claims of historicity. We must aim to always be ready to offer to these people the gospel – for there can only be one. This gospel is the one that they have never heard. The pure gospel that elevates the Great High Priest, Christ Jesus. A gospel that speaks to the heart and redeems it by the sovereign power and grace of a compassionate and holy God. A God who does not come seeking for the utterances of empty phrases and repetitious prayers. Who does not look for hail Marys and penances. Who does not justify us based on our merits or our works. But a God who revealed himself fully through his Son; who regenerates men through his words – alone infallible and inerrant – and who sends his genuine Spirit as the down payment on future glory.

A God who once spoke words that are much applicable to these burnt out, tempest-tossed, misused, and exhausted Roman Catholics:

Come unto me, all you who labour and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn about me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you shall find rest for your souls. 

Sunday’s Exhortation: Blessed from Before all the Ages

Glory

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Ephesians 1:3-4)

St. Paul’s letter to the churches at Ephesus begins with what could only be described as an “outburst of glory”!

For twelve amazing verses Paul plunges into the ocean of blessings given to the believer. He surveys the scope of the glorious future of the believer and the definitive work of God. This definitive work of God, as we shall see, is to save the believer from coming wrath, to make the sinner righteous, and to fit him for readmission to paradise.

The starting point for Paul is praise – which is the natural response of any heart that has been properly brought into the light of Christ.Offering to God thanks and praise is the supreme duty of every human creature. For this end we were created. For this purpose we were saved, that we might evermore show forth the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9).

The man was formed with a mouth and eyes, ears and a mind so that he could indeed “shout to the Lord” in ceaseless joy and thanksgiving. Given the high point of man’s origin, it is a dreadful indictment on the human condition that these instruments that should have been wholly given to praise, are debased and misused. The world abounds in eyes that long to look upon iniquity; ears that delight in gossip and slander; mouths that frame lies and profanity; minds that contemplate evil. Indeed, one of the evidences of salvation is that the man begins to use his very being for praise and thanksgiving again.

Effects

Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they have been given “every spiritual blessing in Christ“.

Immediately, this phrase brings a division between the believer and unbeliever.

To the person dead in trespasses and sins and estranged from God, this is not an impressive statement. “Spiritual blessings,” says the unbeliever, “sound theoretical, abstract and not real. They are second class blessings. I want earthly blessings. I want the blessings of prosperity, and health, and fame, and a big house, and my morning cup of coffee. These are what I consider real blessings. You can take these so-called spiritual blessings and keep them!

An unredeemed person cannot begin to understand the motives of the great saints who were put to the sword, lived in caves and holes in the ground, who went about in animal skins, were sawed in half, and wandered through the earth in “order that they might obtain a better resurrection(Heb 11:35). What madness is this! To live a life of misery solely to obtain some ethereal spiritual blessing in the hereafter? Insanity! I’ll take my pleasures here and now, thank you very much!

But to those who know the reality of God, these blessings are not second class, neither are they insubstantial. Rather the spiritual blessings are the best blessings of all.

These are not abstractions. Not in the slightest. Rather these blessings have tangible and concrete outworkings in a person’s life. Everything is affected. The manner in which a man chooses, thinks, loves, desires, dreams, labours, prays, spends his time, and reckons. The blessed believer lives on a wholly different plane of life flowing with divine life and glory.

What does God offer through these blessings? Nothing less than readmission to paradise. Our first parents were expelled from Eden in Genesis 3 and every human being since then has lived in a shadow world that is a pathetic parody of what we were created to experience. But in Revelation 22, the redeemed reenter paradise. There they take up eternal residence where the river of life, the tree of life, and the city of God exist in the endless illumination provided by Christ himself.

JerusalemNew

This is what these spiritual blessings point to: to gaining a sinless condition where there are no longer any barriers between man and his Creator. And, in losing his sin, man looses the plague and curse of sin. He is freed from death, sorrow, separation, loneliness, sickness, and misery. He is renewed and can look forward to endless trillions of years of life. Elevated into a world of love.

In the fourth verse, St. Paul takes us on a journey – soaring through space and time – back past Bethlehem, back past the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, past Moses, Abraham, Noah, and even back beyond Adam himself. Paul launches us into the time before Genesis 1:1, when, before the creation of the world, “God chose us in Christ“. Before the universe was called into existence; before Christ formed the spiralling galaxies; before the stars began to shine and the sun rose on the first day, God selected a people for paradise.

A select people! Therefore anyone who savingly meets with Christ is operating under a principle that is more ancient than the ground beneath their feet. To be lifted into glory – not because the sinner is better than anyone else, or had a particular upbringing, or some special exposure – but because God ordained an eternity ago that the sinner would meet with Jesus. And not only meet with him, but to behold his glory and love – like Moses, to “see him who is invisible” – and be brought into communion with him forever.

 

Sunday’s Exhortation: Sharing the Fellowship of Suffering

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I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11)

Here the Apostle gives true voice to his heart and expresses the desire of an authentic disciple. To Paul, nothing mattered but Christ. Indeed, he had just finished describing how he counted every attainment as rubbish for the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ”.

As a young man, Paul had been a rising star with all the advantages of the world. Undoubtedly born to a well-to-do family, he possessed coveted Roman citizenship, and studied underneath the greatest Rabbis of the period. By the age of 20, he had earned the ancient equivalent of two PhD’s in theology.

By his own assessment, he had been “advancing in Judaism” far beyond his peers. No doubt there were people who spoke of this marvellous, energetic, zealous young Pharisee as a potential candidate to become a ruler of Israel and one day ascend to the Sanhedrin Council. He was going to go far in the intellectual and religious world. “We must keep an eye on this man!” A glittering career as a reputable Rabbi lay before him, and some people may have even gone so far as to predict that he might one day become High Priest.

Then he met with Jesus on the Damascene Road.

Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus

 

Paul lost everything thereafter. He was penniless. He was in and out of prison, at other times running in fear of his life. He was beaten with whips and beaten with rods. Sometimes he was cold and hungry. And doubtless there were people who looked at his life with amazement and astonishment.

You gave up your money, your career, your reputation and for what? What do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus.

Yes, “only” Jesus. That is how unbelievers (and Satan) will attack a person when they suffer for Christ. “You’ve given up [insert loss] and what do you have to show for it? Only this Jesus“. Sometimes that unworthy thought can even occur to a person within their own heart, yet the gospel – saturated in divine reality – tells us this is not so. Christ Jesus is not a mere consolation prize or a second-class inheritance to the really valuable earthy stuff that is surrendered. Rather, Christ is THE gift. To fail to see this is to fail to know him.

To share the sufferings of Christ gives a man fellowship with him and knowledge of him, which is perhaps why St. Peter writes “rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ” – which is not only counter-cultural, but also deeply alien to the normative human experience. Something divine and supernaturally spiritual must occur deep in a person’s heart for them to be able to rejoice in suffering. How is that even possible for a human person? How? Because Christ meets the sufferer.

What were the sufferings of Christ?

1. Rejection: Christ was rejected by men, but rejected as he held out the hand of fellowship, friendship and salvation. It is hard enough to endure rejection from mere acquaintances or colleagues, it is harder still to endure rejection from people for whom we mean to do good. For people to whom we wish only to offer love and friendship.

2. Knowledge: Not only did the Lord have to endure rejection, but, in his divinity he knew all things and all hearts. He knew every single mind. Thus he preached mercy to crowds of people he knew full well hated him, spoke against him, and even meant him harm. There is suffering in displaying love toward people we know to be our enemies.

3. The “unfairness” of his mission: Of course, God does not ask anyone to do anything unfair or unreasonable, since his will is eminently sensible when considered in the light of facts that only God is able to fathom. But in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled to shoulder the penalty for other men’s sins, did that thought ever occur to him? “Why must I suffer such deep agony for other people – why can’t they be responsible for their own sins?” A natural sense of justice must surely have tempted the Lord to allow people to suffer for their own iniquities. After all, they committed the sins.

4. Physical agonies: The agonies of the whip and of the cross, of the soldiers beating him, of the crown of thorns, of the indignities heaped upon his person, and the insults and spitting. These sufferings were terrible indeed, for they fell not upon the guilty, but upon the only innocent man who has ever lived on earth.

Meditating on the many sufferings of Christ will be deeply instructive, for he will join us in our sufferings if we intend to suffer in love, as he himself did.

Coup d’etat in Turkey

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News is filtering in of an attempted coup d’etat in Turkey. According to the news, an attempted military takeover involved the use of helicopters – some still commandeered by the rebels – and jet aircraft flying over Istanbul. About 60 people have been killed, although it seems that pro-government forces are gradually making progress in restoring control over the capital.

It demonstrates a number of things:

1. Civilisation is fragile. It does not take a great number of lawless people to bring a nation to a standstill, and situations like this where anarchy reigns (even temporarily), provide ample opportunities for lesser rebels to make hay while the sun shines. If you look at the crime statistics following this attempted coup, I am almost sure they will register an increase. While the police are battling to save the government, thieves and other assorted villains can do as they please. Yes, civilisation is fragile.

2. Turkey’s admission to the EU is likely to be regressed by a long time, if not forever. Public opinion in Europe was always strongly opposed to Turkey’s accession to the European Union, although the leadership of the project have always been in favour.

Turkey has been strung along for a long while now. They have been promised admission if they make necessary social and political reforms – in other words, to make Turkey align more with the pluralistic, democratic culture of Europe.

Reforms all seem rather superfluous at this point. A country that cannot control its own capital from militants, whose leader has sought to prosecute journalists across the EU for writing disparagingly about his conduct, and a regime that has some seriously awry priorities in relation to the Kurds and ISIS, does not make for a cracking good candidate.

Quite apart from Turkey’s prospects in joining the EU, I wonder whether this coup represents another nail in the coffin for the European Union in more ways than one.

France Terror Attacks

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Although details remain somewhat sketchy regarding the attack in Nice, France, it seems likely that this has been yet another Islamist terror attack, this time in a manner distinct from previous attacks. The most notable feature of this act is the use of a heavy vehicle and, from what we are told, grenades and firearms.

As depressing as these horrendous attacks are, the commentary that follows is generally not uplifting either. In our information saturated times, people are quick to jump onto social media and the comboxes offering condemnations and radical solutions.

People emote rapidly in 2016. In fact, people generally feel through issues rather than think through them. And so we are witness to a welter of anger, sorrow, confusion, and a desire for a target to blame.

We also get to see how terror has become a new normal among many people. Within hours of the attacks, a group of Americans were joking on a major news site about the need for “truck licensing” – this being a reference to gun control laws which are inevitably discussed after attacks that use firearms. And so terror on this scale is now no more than a blip for many people. Its impact is gone. Sad to say, terrorists in the future are probably going to need to dream up bigger demonstrations than merely 80 dead people to drill through the fuzzy conditioning that is now setting in.

During such situations where horror and superficiality abide side-by-side, Christians must always seek to live as a different breed of people. St. Paul reminds the Church that Christians are not to function on the same basis as the world. Christians should not think with the same mental tools – the ideologies, politics, and patterns – as unbelievers, and therefore should not emote or behave like unbelievers. Christians are “children of the day”, not of the night, and therefore see things from a perspective of clarity and purpose denied to the unbelieving world.

How should we process such terror?

1. Repent. 

The Lord Jesus Christ was told one time (Luke 13:1-3) about a terrible massacre orchestrated by the Romans in which Jews had been slaughtered while offering sacrifices in the temple. Their deaths must have been especially brutal, because it seems that their blood had mixed with that of their offerings on the altar. It is not inconceivable that their bodies had been literally thrown onto the altar to burn together with their sacrifice.

It was a horrific act of barbarity. One could even call it state-sponsored terror, since these executions probably took place outside of the rule of law and were probably calculated to intimidate the local Jewish population.

The Lord’s response is instructive:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

It is easy to condemn the perpetrators of horrific violence and to demand that they be brought to book. In fact, that was probably the reason this particular group of Jews had passed the news to the Lord. Was he going to condemn the Romans? Was he going to promise that the wrath of God would surely fall upon the head of the Procurator, Pontius Pilate? Would he promise instantaneous heaven to the deceased?

Actually, no. Although God’s punishment for evil men is certain (something that Jesus taught frequently), the Lord’s focus was upon the spiritual condition of the living. It is easy to condemn outrageous barbarity when it breaks out in the world. It is easy to imagine – as some people have – that the French have been a more wicked nation than others, or that the people participating in the parade were probably “godless atheists”. It is easy, in the midst of horror happening to other people to thereby fail to see that we too are in need of constant repentance and forgiveness, and we too have no idea when or how our life will come to a close. “The end of all things is near“, warned St. Peter. And indeed it is, for each person individually, if not for the world.

The question that hangs in the air, therefore, is not why do atrocities happen to “good” people. But why, on a planet full of rebellious, disobedient, sinful men and women, has God’s wrath – a cosmic truck full of cosmic grenades, so to speak – not landed upon the whole human race? For all are deserving of God’s wrath.

When encountering terrorist attacks, therefore, our first instinct should be toward greater repentance and greater zeal to do what is right in the sight of God.

2. Avoid radical ideological “solutions” – see a Sovereign God at work

It is too easy to jump on an ideological bandwagon and imagine that sharp, speedy, radical action will solve the problem of evil human hearts. “Ban Muslim immigration”, for instance, is a common refrain. People talk of rolling back the religious freedoms that also safeguard the Church, foolishly imagining that secular governments empowered to tackle Muslims will never, one day, come for us.

Muslim immigration brings into deeply secular countries – who have for several generations tried to shrug off God and live in defiance to his law – a new dynamic that secularism cannot cope with. It is shaking up the political and social certainties that many people arrogantly feel have been settled. It is putting a dent into political correctness, and “safe spaces”, and multicultural radicalism, and even knocking holes in anti-Christian sentiment. Trying to build a new, hedonistic and materialistic society without any reference to God and without any basic moral compass, is being seen for what it is: an increasingly brittle structure that cannot endure reality from the outside.

Secular philosophy cannot function in the face of another culture that comes with theistic certainties and an aggressive policing of them. Same sex marriage, advocates, for instance, have primarily gone after Christian cake shop owners, but so far, there have been very few (if any) cases of them tackling Muslim cake shop owners who also refuse to make wedding cakes for homosexual people. Why? Because Muslims are an identity group that must be honoured by secularists, yet that same group often holds views that are inimical to feminism, multiculturalism, and the sexual revolution. Most Muslims repudiate the whole liberal, secular package. In fact, Muslim values and identity logically create a tension in secularism that is not resolvable. For, on one hand, secularism must continue to allow Muslim immigration, yet on the other hand those very immigrants carry with them beliefs that are opposed to secularism on nearly every single possible level.

Gasp! That’s dreadful! Surely, as good Christians, we must salvage our secular states who have done so much to eliminate God and his Son from national discourse? God forbid. We owe a godless state no more than the first Christians owed a pagan one: payment of our taxes, obedience and respect to secular rulers insofar as the realm of society is concerned –  the Church is never to be in the business of leading a revolution – but at the same time, we are under no obligation to protect that which is visibly rotting away. Thus, these social changes should be viewed as good news for people who fear that liberalism of morals, politics, institutions and social beliefs will continue forever.

(Obviously, terror attacks are not committed by the majority of these immigrants, and therefore we should not paint them all as potential terrorists.)

As immigration continues, and as the Church has largely failed in her mission to go to “them”, we are in the blessed condition of having “them” come to us. And Muslims are far more interested in Christianity than secularists are, hence the substantial conversion rates witnessed in Europe.

So it is not all bad, and God is in control.