Archive for July, 2009

Back from Paros!

July 30, 2009

Got back from Greece on Monday night… just managed to get back to my house and asleep before midnight. Paros was great, though on the plane home I realised how tired I was!

On the 14th, I flew from Heathrow to Athens to start the trip. It was my first trip to Terminal 5, and, despite the slating some people give it, I thought it was a really great building – easy to navigate and very elegant. I may have mentioned this to one of the BA staff and received a kind of “mmph” noise as a kind of anti-acknowledgement, but it was 5am in the morning when I checked in. Once in Athens, I met up with some of the other team members whose flight landed just after mine at the airport, and together we took the bus to the Clark’s house (the British family we were working with, whose job is working with Christian students in Athens). It made me very happy that the bus stop where we changed buses was called Evangelismos (Ευαγγελισμός) – I wish I’d got a picture, but there’s a really bad one here if you want. Once at the Clark’s we waited for the rest of the team to arrive, and had our first (of many) Souvlaki, which are a million times better than English kebabs (a measure of how good they are is that you can eat one in daylight, stone-cold sober).

The next day we combined sightseeing (the Ancient Agora, the changing of the parliamentary guard and the nearby park) with some briefing on what we were doing, Greek history and culture, Greek Orthodoxy, and Evangelicalism in Greece. We also met one of the IFES leaders in Greece, and a Greek evangelical student, who filled us in a bit more on what it was like being an evangelical in Greece. I had known how small the Evangelical church in Greece was before we travelled, but the statistic in Operation World doesn’t convey the isolation many evangelicals feel, nor how hard it is for them to feel excluded from much of their own culture because of the widespread attitude that non-Orthodox Christians cannot really be Greek. The evangelical church in Greece needs our prayers!

On the 16th, we caught an early-ish ferry to Paros. The journey took about 4 hours, and was mostly smooth, although we were among the last onboard and so didn’t get seats or shade! Regular application of factor-30 and some of our roll mats saved the day. On arrival in Paros we went to the campsite, unpacked and then went for lunch at a nearby Taverna. Greek food is pretty good, though not hugely varied. Lots of Chicken, Pork, Lamb (in Moussaka), Seafood, Aubergine, Olives, Tomatoes, Cucumber, Olive Oil and so on. We saved money and kept it interesting by ordering food for the table rather than individually, and sharing it around between all of us.

Deliciousness

Deliciousness

 That evening we began our mission proper by chatting to people down by the seafront, using a questionnaire to explore people’s beliefs about life, God, Jesus and so on. I met some Greek Albanians who were interested in what we were talking about, and one of whom admitted to having read plenty about the Bible but never having actually read any of it. I had hoped to meet them again and pass along a New Testament, but didn’t end up seeing them again. They’re students with computers though, so they should be able to read the Bible online, if they remember!

Over the following days we followed a similar routine, with team time in the morning after breakfast; some time before lunch around the campsite, and lunch out at a Taverna or Restaurant. In the afternoons we were either on the beach or at the campsite trying to build friendships with people that were around in the afternoon – I’m not one for much sun so chose the campsite option most of the time, teaching Dutch Blitz to backpackers of assorted nationalities! In the evenings, after tea, we went out to the seafront for a few hours before returning to the campsite and chatting to whoever was around.

Paros seafront

Paros seafront

The campsite was a good place for meeting people and talking about the gospel – people were generally friendly and a lot of them spoke English. If I’d learnt French rather than German I’d have been able to talk to the ones that didn’t speak English too… for some reason there was a succession of large groups of French (sixth-form-age-ish) students at the campsite. The French were interesting to talk to – I met a lot of “Catholics who didn’t believe in God” (to use their description), as well as more openly agnostic French people. Finding out that I studied Theology for my degree often invited the kind of questions I’d come to Greece to talk about – did I believe in God, and what did I think about the Bible, and did Jesus matter any more?

As well as French and Greek students, I also met a few Brits – a pair of students from Manchester on the third or fourth night who spent about two hours talking to me and another from our team in a seafront bar about pretty much everything to do with Christianity and who had some preconceptions challenged. We also met two great guys from Surrey who are off to university this September who were really interested in what we were doing and in finding out more about Jesus and his gospel, and who are going to hunt down the CUs at their universities when they arrive. They were among the few takers for sitting down for an hour in a café and looking at a bit of Mark’s Gospel; we decided that these studies need a bit more publicising next year, because when people turned up they were always great ways to show people the gospel!

Halfway through, we had a day off, which was both necessary and great fun. Ben, Mandy and I took the chance to stretch the “P” category on our driving licences to its most generous interpretation and hire some mopeds and go exploring around the island. Paros isn’t huge, so we were able to go round the coast to Naoussa for lunch, round to the other side of the island and then back through the mountain villages in the middle of the island in a few hours. It was amazing fun, and there wasn’t too much traffic. Highlights included the bit where we turned around in Lefkes and then all forgot that in Greece they drive on the right hand side of the road. For a few hundred meters. Good work.

In the second half of the mission, we were feeling a bit more tired, but still had lots of people around to talk to, particularly at the campsite. To aid the socialising, we came into possession of some Greek white wine… and I discovered what a wine snob I am, being instantly prejudiced against it by the fact that it came in a plastic five-litre bottle and, in some lights, resembled a can of petrol. It didn’t taste bad, but it didn’t taste good, if that makes any sense. There’s a reason Greece isn’t known for its wine.

moto_0123

The last time we went out to the seafront in the evening, it was the evening before Saint Anna’s day, and there was a big Orthodox celebration up on the hill outside Saint Anna’s church. There were lots of people sitting and standing in the courtyard, and several Orthodox priests singing a liturgy. I gathered that not all of the Greeks there understood the Greek that was being sung – it was actually koine greek rather than modern greek; a bit like walking into a church where Tyndale’s translation of the Bible was being read. It was a bit creepy, to be honest, if I’m allowed to say that! I don’t hold out a lot of hope that the millions of people who identify as Greek Orthodox really understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the experience reinforced for me the propriety of missions to “Christian” countries. The next day in the afternoon a few of us popped inside the bigger Orthodox church in town, the so-called “Church of a Hundred Doors”. One of the things we noticed was the pock-marking on many of the fresco-style icons; this is from a Byzantine practice where chips of paint would be taken from icons and mixed with the wine element in the eucharist. I decided that John of Damascus has a lot to answer for.

On the 26th, the time came for us to leave Paros and return to Athens. The crossing this time was a bit more choppy. We spent one more night in Athens, having a final souvlaki and watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding (even funnier when you’ve spent time in Greece!) before trickling off home on our various flights the following day. Athens airport isn’t as nice as T5, unfortunately, although the security frisk is much less thorough. That’s probably too much detail. My flight home was on time, and sitting in a window on the starboard side (thank you, online check-in!) I got an amazing view of central London as we came in to land, just as the sun was setting.

All in all, it was a really great missions trip, and I really felt we were doing a good thing by talking about the gospel with people in Paros. I’m not really sure what I had been expecting, but I was quite surprised by some of the meetings God lined up for us, both the interested people and the people who didn’t want to know. In many ways it has also confirmed to me that it is right to take the gospel to countries that have heard it before, in this case many years before Britain heard it; and to get people to read the Bible for themselves rather than just tell them “The Bible says that…” without trying to show them where or how or what it means.

Sunset in Paros

Sunset in Paros

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Off to sunny Paros!

July 13, 2009

I’m off to Greece at ridiculous-o’clock tomorrow morning, for two weeks, on the mission trip I mentioned before. So unless I can get some internet time when I’m out there, I won’t be posting for two weeks.

For those of you who are interested in praying for me/us, there is a Team Greece prayer calendar here.

What’s your C-factor? (Calvinism!)

July 11, 2009

Quiz here. This is a fairly lighthearted and unscientific quiz that covers not only the theological distinctives of Calvinism, but also attitudes to work, society and relationships. I got 81% Calvinist overall, with 100% in the “Beliefs” category, which sounds about right. I once came extremely close to ordering a T-Shirt from the web that read “Servetus had it coming” so clearly I’m too Calvinist for my own good…

(I don’t really!)

In fact, I found this quiz thanks to an article on BBC News: “Economic crisis boosts Dutch Calvinism”. Unfortunately, unlike the quiz which is actually pretty good at showing that the social and cultural aspects of Calvinism stem from the theology – i.e. taking the Bible seriously – the impression you get from the BBC article is that Calvinism is only about “hard work and frugality”.

Does Calvin espouse hard work and frugality? Well, yes, but in the context of “Christian liberty” as a response to grace:

“Certainly ivory and gold, and riches, are the good creatures of God, permitted, not destined, by divine providence for the use of man; nor was it ever forbidden to laugh, or to be full, or to add new to old and hereditary possessions, or to be delighted with music, or to drink wine. This is true, but when the means are presented to roll and wallow in luxury, to intoxicate the mind and soul with the present, and be always hunting after new pleasures, is very far from a legitimate use of the gifts of God. Let them, therefore, suppress immoderate desire, immoderate profusion, vanity, and arrogance, that they may use the gifts of God purely with a pure conscience … to learn with Paul in whatever state they are, “therewith to be content,” to know “both how to be abased,” and “how to abound,” “to be full and hungry, both to abound and suffer need” (Phil 4:11).
Institutes III:19.9

Calvin urges moderation in the enjoyment of the gifts God has given – knowing both that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1Timothy 4:4) but that immoderate use of created things can quickly become spiritually distracting or even idolatrous. To “wallow in luxury” keeps our attention on the present, feeds a theology of glory rather than a theology of the cross, and teaches us to ignore God.

But Calvin would have recoiled in horror from the idea that economic and social moderation is virtuous outside of its connection with Christ. Calvin’s motive for enjoining moderation and Christian liberty is to encourage Christians to glorify God in their living by enjoying His gifts without letting them eclipse Him. It is not even hard work done to merit salvation, but freedom given by salvation by grace to live for the glory of God. The motive is also (contra the BBC article) not political or to encourage hard work for hard work’s sake; it is theological, theocentric, God-exalting living completely informed by the unearned grace he has described only a few paragraphs earlier:

“…the law … leaves not one man righteous [and so] we are either excluded from all hope of justification, or we must be loosed from the law, and so loosed as that no account at all shall be taken of works… Therefore laying aside all mention of the law, and all idea of works, we must in the matter of justification have recourse to the mercy of God only; turning away our regard from ourselves, we must look only to Christ. For the question is, not how we may be righteous, but how, though unworthy and unrighteous, we may be regarded as righteous … when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God, as to the answer it could give, the confidence it would feel, if brought to his judgement seat, in such a case the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness.
Institutes, III:19.2 (emphasis mine)

If that excerpt had you nodding along in agreement, or even punching the air and saying “Amen!”, then you’re well on the way to being a Calvinist, no matter what you got on the quiz!

Seeing as I’ve stolen a cartoon from them, this is also worth a read: “Why I am a Calvinist” by C. Matthew McMahon.

Urban legends: and, can we please stop preaching them?

July 10, 2009

I’ve just been listening to an MP3 of a sermon (I won’t tell you who by!) from an evangelical church which used, by way of illustration, the story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending a letter to certain famous people saying “All is discovered: Flee now!”. Of course, they all fled. Great illustration of the universal guilt of humanity (Romans 3:10 etc.) … only, it’s not true.

This particular example isn’t so bad, because the power of the illustration does not come from its truth or not, but because it makes the point that everyone has things in their life which they would be ashamed of if made public, underscoring that we are all sinners, no matter how respectable we try to appear. But even so, I don’t think it is appropriate for Christians to repeat these kinds of urban legends as if they are factual – and if they do use them, to make it explicit that they are legends and not fact.

Other common urban legends I’ve heard from various pulpits include:

  • Charles Darwin recanted on his deathbed.
  • NASA scientists discovered a “missing day in time” caused by the events recorded in Joshua 10.
  • Spurgeon poured a pitcher of water over someone who claimed to be sinless to see their reaction (this one might actually be true… sounds like the kind of thing he would do)

Why shouldn’t preachers use urban legends and myths?

  • Because it makes it easier for non-Christians to charge Christians with deceit, or with not caring about the truth, so long as a story fits their cause. And if Christians are willing to repeat an urban legend they heard without checking up on the veracity of it, why should we not then assume the worst about their repetition of the gospel?
  • Because repeating a false story from the pulpit keeps the story in circulation, because more people hear about it, and they hear it from someone who they (should) consider reasonably authoritative.
  • Because a good sermon should derive its authority from the Word of God, and any other story can only ever be illustrative anyway – so if a particular urban legend is integral to the point the preacher wants to make, the point is probably not worth making in the first place.
  • Because it is very, very easy for people to check out the truth or falsity of urban legends – and undermines the truth of the rest of what the preacher has said when someone finds out that the illustration was not true.
  • Because truth matters, and what we say matters. James had a lot to say about the power of what we say; Jesus once said that human beings would one day be called to account for every careless word they have spoken (Mt. 12:36). God does not lie – and neither should his ministers.

Given the ease of checking urban legends out on the internet, and of recognising the “urban legend” genre by its literary form (cues such as vague references, having heard it before in a slightly different setting, being a little too pat to be true etc.) I don’t think Christian preachers have any excuse for using them. At the very least they should come with a huge health warning: “This story is apocryphal/probably isn’t true, but illustrates the point I’m making…”

What do you think? Are there circumstances where it is OK to use urban legends or stories we suspect to be apocryphal in preaching? Have you heard any others used recently?

More than one kind of privatism

July 8, 2009

Most Western cultures view religion as belonging to a “private sphere” rather than the “public sphere”. I’m not convinced this is the right way to divide up the world into spheres of life anyway, but I’ll concede it forms part of our thinking as modern Westerners. There are dangers with privatism in Christianity, but the biggest danger is not that the Christian voice is not heard in political life, but that we shirk our evangelistic responsibility. John Piper, summarising Jonathan Edwards (no apologies at all for the Americanocentrisms; God has called Piper to pastor a church in Minnesota!):

If there is a problem today with privatistic religion, the worst form of it is not with pietistic evangelicals who don’t care about block clubs and social justice and structural sin. The worst form is with evangelicals who think they are publicly- and socially-minded when they have no passion for millions of perishing people without the gospel that alone can give them eternal life, and without a saving knowledge of the Light who can transform their culture.
So the first message of Jonathan Edwards to modern evangelicals about our public lives is: Don’t limit your passion for justice and peace to such a limitied concern as the church-saturated landscape of American culture. Lift up your eyes to the real crisis of our day: namely,
several thousand cultures still unpenetrated by the gospel, who can’t dream of the blessings we want to restore. That is his first message.
John Piper, God’s Passion For His Glory (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998) pp.102-103.

William Penn, Conformity and the State

July 3, 2009

William Penn on why state-enforced Christianity is a bad idea, and the Civil and Ecclesiastical authorities ought to be separate:

There is not so ready a Way to Atheism, as this of extinguishing the Sense of Conscience for Worldly Ends; destroy that Internal Rule of Faith, Worship and Practice towards God, and the Reason of my Religion will be Civil Injunctions, and not Divine Convictions; consequently, I am to be of as many Religions as the Civil Authority shall impose, however untrue or contradictory; this Sacred Tye of Conscience thus broken, farewell to all heavenly Obligations in the Soul, Scripture-Authority and ancient Protestant Principles; Christ may at this Rate become what the Jews would have had him, and his Apostles be reputed Turners of the World upside down, as their Enemies represented them, and the godly Martyrs of all Ages so many Self-Murderers; for they might justly be esteemed Resisters of Worldly Authority, so far as that Authority concerns it self with the Imposition of Religion, because they refused the Conformity commanded, even to Death. And it may not be unworthy of Caesar’s Consideration, if from these Proceedings People are tempted to infer, there is nothing in Religion but Worldly Aims and Ends, because so much Power is abus’d under the Name of Religion, to vex and destroy Men for being of another Religion, that he hazards the best Hold and Obligation he hath to Obedience, which is Conscience; for where they are taught to obey for Interest, Duty and Conviction are out of Doors: By all Means let Conscience be sacred, and Virtue and Integrity (the under dissenting Principles) cherisht; Charity is more powerful then Severity, Perswasion then Penal Laws.

(The Continued Cry of the Oppressed for Justice…, 1675, pp.21-22)

Whether or not the American Revolution, commemorated tomorrow, was justifiable for North American Christians (John MacArthur famously teaches that it was a violation of Paul’s commands in Romans 13; David Barton defends the revolution as justified), I’ve found the discussions from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century nonconformists about the Christian’s relation to Government really interesting. They lived in an age where the State, while looking remarkably modern (in comparison to earlier conceptions of the State in the Christian era) retained the Constantinian role of adjudicating in religious matters by the establishment of a national church and the requirement that subjects attend Sunday services at an “official” church. Penn here objects that this is a path to Atheism, since religious observance will no longer be founded on the work of faith of God’s word in a person’s heart, but on civil injunctions. Legislating that all must have faith leads in fact to the loss of that faith, because it becomes founded on the will of man rather than the will of God. It also can foster a cynical attitude to that religion, since it becomes possible to make the claim that it only exists to legitimate the state and its excesses.

Penn also objects that “Christ may at this rate become what the Jews would have had him” – I think he alludes to the concept of the Messiah as a political liberator and ruler, which many of Jesus’ disciples clearly expected him to fulfil. In a sense, perhaps linking the Church to political power does this – it certainly undermines the claim of Christ that his Kingdom is “not of this world” and obscures the true nature of his Messiahship.

Obedience to Government in Romans 13 cannot be unconditional, nor does a Christian have an obligation to adhere to the official religion of the State, even if it should be compulsory. If such an obligation did exist, then, as Penn writes, persecution of the Apostles by the authorities would be justified, and the martyrs of Christian history would become suicides, since they died as a result of disobeying the State’s commands to conform to an established religion.