Here and There, Week 1 2017

My friend Jon Brown took this beautiful photo of me being prayed for last weekend

If keeping a Sabbath sounds like a miserable thing to do, get some perspective from Joshua Gorenflo on what this command from God is really about.

I love Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels, and this consideration of them alongside her autobiography, by Patricia Snow, sheds new light on them.

Anne Jolis tells how her local parish priest blessed her at a time of terrible sadness.

Was Orkney the most significant place in the British Isles five thousand years ago? The BBC series, Britain's Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, has a lot of interesting stuff among the usual documentary bluster.

Finally, if your arms are shorter than mine, you might find this way of changing your duvet cover helpful, if not life-changing...

Proverbs versus President Trump

May God have mercy on us all. Many people around the world will express a sentiment along these lines as Donald Trump becomes President of the United States of America this week.

A long time ago, as Trump began to make headway in his seemingly-unlikely campaign to become the Republican candidate for the presidency, I was reading through the book of Proverbs. This is perhaps the most practical book in the Bible, defining and describing what godly character looks like, and what it doesn't. Proverbs contrasts the wise person with the fool, admonishing the reader to get wisdom and avoid folly.

Unbidden, Trump's face and antics began to appear on every page. It was almost uncanny how particularly and spectacularly he fails the basic biblical tests of character in Proverbs, and how he revels in doing so. It would have been comical to me - as well as none of my business as a citizen of another country - were it not for Christian leaders in America approving of and even anointing Trump to be their representative.

Now, not as many evangelical Christians voted for Trump as we've been led to believe, and leaders like Russell Moore have spoken with courage and righteousness against what has happened. Of course I know that people, and therefore politics, are messy and complicated, and I'm aware that Hillary Clinton had plenty to discredit her to the conscience of a Christian voter. But the ungrudging nature of Trump endorsements, the lack of caveats or regrets expressed by men who should know better demands comment. I leave those comments to the book of Proverbs, of which these are just a sample...
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (6:16-19) 
When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (10:19) 
Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool,
but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding. (10:23) 
Whoever belittles his neighbour lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent. (11:12)
The vexation of a fool is known at once,
but the prudent ignores an insult. (12:16)
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion. (18:2) 
A fool's lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating. (18:6) 
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a simple babbler. (20:19) 
A wicked man puts on a bold face,
but the upright gives thought to his ways. (21:29) 
Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble
is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips. (25:19) 
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips. (27:2) 
There are those who are clean in their own eyes
but are not washed of their filth. (30:12)
So Proverbs points at the fool with disdain: and I saw Trump. And as I saw him, day after day, I began to notice how often I was noticing him - and this concerned me. I don't read the Bible looking for anyone in there except God, and the person who I'm most concerned with warning and rebuking from its instruction is me. Proverbs itself tells me to do this, but too late I realised that I had fallen into a trap. Remember a few moments ago as you read those Proverbs, how you nodded along, maybe even laughed wryly as you saw Trump's character laid bare? Here's the sting:
Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him. (26:12)
I am still convinced that those Christian leaders who happily endorsed Trump were wrong, by the terms of God's own book. But I also know that congratulating myself for recognising this puts me in more danger than a fool. May God have mercy on us all.

Staring out of a wall

He sits between a full-length portrait of King Charles II of Spain in all his royal finery, and a full-length portrait of an unnamed woman in nothing but her natural finery, so you would be forgiven for missing him, but I still remember the shock of seeing him twenty years ago. Miss Robinson took our A-level history class here to show us some culture, and when I walked into this room in the National Gallery, he looked so real that I almost thought he was sitting there in person.

He is Archbishop Fernando de Valdés, and the great Velasquez painted his portrait, possibly after his death. Maybe that explains how threatening and slightly disconcerted he looks. He does not look like someone who has ever expressed joy in his life, which is sadly inappropriate for a Christian leader.

Returning to his gaze after a long absence, I was grateful for the power of artists and the generosity of a teacher who bought some ambivalent teenagers down to London to see wonderful things.

The Christmas Crowbar

I wonder if you’ve seen the Christmas crowbar at work in the last few weeks? You use a crowbar to force a gap or opening in something, which is helpful, but the Christmas crowbar is used by companies to force you to think about their products at Christmas even when those products don’t really have anything to do with Christmas…

I saw a poster the other that began, “This Christmas, upgrade…” Now, what might you want to upgrade at Christmas? Your TV for festive movies? A computer or phone for contacting distant relations? The Christmas tree lights? No! “This Christmas, upgrade your mayonnaise to Hellmann’s.”

Look at the advert above, which brazenly claims that pickles are the fourth-most essential Christmas food item! Not Christmas pudding, chocolates, mulled wine or mince pies – not even mayonnaise. The concluding line, “It wouldn’t be Christmas without them” implies that I have never had a Christmas, given how completely uninvolved pickles have been in my celebrations.

But my winner for the Christmas Crowbar challenge 2016, the most tenuous product link I’ve seen so far: mulled spice-scented toilet rolls and bleach.

You might feel sorry for their marketing teams, but they’re just so shameless they lose any sympathy I have for them. They’re trying to squeeze something in where there’s no space for it.

2016 has space for Christmas

I think 2016 has plenty of space for Christmas, in fact it’s desperate for it. So much that seemed certain has been shaken and shattered. From the unusually high number of celebrity deaths to the discovery of Zika; terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, Istanbul and elsewhere; the war in Syria, and violence and injustice everywhere. The Brexit vote has shocked many, and Trump’s election victory many more, and these are just the things big enough to make the news and close enough to us for us to notice.

2016 is desperate for Christmas. Not for another mad rush of buying more things, nor forced cheerfulness which pretends everything’s OK for a couple of days, but for actual Christmas, the Christmas story you find in the Bible. It isn’t a sweet sentiment to warm your heart: it’s got harsh edges of misunderstanding, malice, and murder – it is equal to the times in which we live. It isn’t even meant to be an inspiring story to encourage you to live a better life. Christmas is the news that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. Though we had shut Him out – and we all do this through ignoring, disbelieving, rejecting, going our own way and then complaining at Him when things go wrong - though we had shut Him out, He crowbarred Himself into our world. And a baby was born in Bethlehem.

Jesus is God’s crowbar

Could anything be less crowbar-like than a baby? My 10-week-old niece is incredibly floppy and flexible, she can fall asleep in any position, at any combination of angles of neck, back, arms and legs. But within the soft flesh of the newborn Jesus is God’s unbending resolve to be with us, to rescue us, the break the mess and death which we’ve seen so clearly ruling our world and ourselves this year.

Jesus is God’s crowbar, a more subtle tool than we might imagine. If God had come to us in all His glory, blasting the doors of the world off with the full force of His majesty, none of us could have got close to Him. So, He came as one of us, and we sing at our carol services, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” He’s too glorious, too great, to be comprehend – let alone approached – unless He covered Himself with flesh like us. Now we can see and understand what God is like: loving, forgiving, certain, self-sacrificing, unconquerable.

Jesus is God’s crowbar, a more fragile instrument than we would have chosen. He is famous for His weakness, from being a vulnerable baby to a man hanging on a cross, gasping His last breaths. Yet it is only through this life lived among us as one of us, and His death for us, that we can approach God.

Leonard Cohen, one of those who died this year, put it like this: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I’m saying that Jesus is God’s crowbar who makes the crack, forces it open, and He is God’s light shining among us.

That idea of light breaking in is something you find again and again in the Christmas story. Isaiah 9 promised it: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” It’s what the shepherds experienced when a dazzling crowd of angels appeared to them in the middle of the night. It’s what the wise men followed to get to Bethlehem: a new shining star in the heavens. And, though it’s a lot later in the story, not for nothing does Jesus rise from the dead at the dawn of the day. God makes a crack in everything; His Son, the light, comes in.

How will you respond to God breaking in?

Maybe you’re like one of the shepherds, with absolutely no expectation or interest prior to this. They didn’t have time for religious stuff, their focus was entirely on doing their job – looking after the sheep, and staying warm. Normal, everyday life. But suddenly something happens that causes them to leave the sheep behind. Because when God breaks in, everything has to change.

Perhaps you’re more of a wise man or woman. You have been searching for the truth, looking out for what is good. Maybe this mess of a year has helped you see the promise of progress for what it is: a baseless hope that’s a hostage to fortune. You’re exploring, you want to know more, you’ve got questions that demand answers. It might feel like a long journey but I promise you that it is worth it when you follow the signs that have been given. Because when God breaks in, our searching has its destination.

Or maybe the character in the story who most fits with you is Herod. (Of course no-one is going to volunteer for this association!) He was the king in the land, successful and powerful but never secure. When he heard about God breaking in, it felt destructive and dangerous: it was like a light being switched on first thing on a dark morning, assaulting your eyes. His trust in himself, in his own abilities and efforts, was under threat. He didn’t want to see it, he didn’t want it to be true, so he closed his eyes and his mind to what God was doing. Because when God breaks in, everyone has a decision to make.

God won't crowbar Himself into your life but there are times when He knocks loudly on our door. Whether this is an unexpected interruption, or a long looked-for answer; whether you want to hear it, or it threatens to ruin your life, please explore this for yourself. You can keep your focus festive by seeing which of Glen Scrivener's Four Kinds of Christmas you associate yourself with, you could ask a Christian friend why they believe what they do, or you could get hold of a copy of one of the eyewitness accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and see Jesus for yourself.

This change Jesus brings and begins now is why there are so many people around the world singing carols with joy and confidence, whatever is going on in the world and their lives. He has broken in to our world and is with us. We have hope now and forever, for He has lived with us, died for us, and lives again eternally.

Whether you have as many pickles and as much mayonnaise as you like over this Christmas period, whether you’re feeling shaken or you’re starting to see the cracks of the crowbar breaking in, I wish you a very happy Christmas.

The Joy of Giving

Not the reality

Imagine a box full of wonderful things, many of which themselves contain even more wonders. The more you open, the more there is to be found. I think giving money away to people, churches, causes, and organisations, is like this: it opens up entire worlds of truth and blessing to the Christian who gives as God would have them…

God gave you His Son
This isn’t a guilt trip, just a fact (John 3:16). You live in and because of His generosity.

You will be reminded of Who the money belongs to
How much of your money do I think you should give away? Well, I don’t think it’s your money at all.
“The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1)
“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2:8)
“What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)
Whatever you have, it comes from God. Even if you were paid it as a salary for work that you did, who gave you the opportunity and ability to do that job? The people who give you money are God’s means of Him giving you some of His money. This means that you are not an owner but a steward of God’s resources, accountable to Him for what you do with all of it. The worshipers in 1 Chronicles 29:14 got it right:
“For all things come from You, and of Your own have we given You.”
It’s why God gave you what you have
Realising that what you have belongs to God, the question to ask becomes: What does God want me to do with what He’s given me? Glad you asked:
“You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way.” (2 Corinthians 9:11)
God will bless you (and not curse you)
Is a cursing really on the cards? Well, that’s what Malachi 3:10 says when God addresses His people who aren’t giving to Him:
“Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:8-10)
Now, Christ has taken our curse (Galatians 3:13) but the force of the point is not blunted by this. As someone I heard once said: surely it’s better to live with 90% of our income and God’s blessing, than with 100% of it and His curse?

Giving releases you from trusting in money
Generous and cheerful giving fatally weakens any grip that money has on you, because you’re actively choosing to live with less. If you hold on to money, it will hold on to you. You’ll never feel like you have enough, you’ll always worry about what might happen. Cheerfully let money slip out of your hand and experience a sense of freedom that no bank account total will ever give you.
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
Giving puts money in its place: a tool given by God to you for provision, for yourself and others.

Makes you aware of your wealth
Most westerners are wealthier than 99% of all the people who have ever lived, I would guesstimate. Giving helps you realise that God has given you more than you need.

Prepares for handling more money well
The billionaire philanthropist John D. Rockefeller reflected on how it was that he could give away such vast fortunes in his later life, and concluded:
“I never would have been able to tithe the first million dollars I ever made if I had not tithed my first salary, which was $1.50 per week.”
A biblical principle is that when we show ourselves faithful with a little, God will entrust us with more. If you give from a little, God can trust you to give from a lot.

It’s good to have less
… for those of us who are very rich (which is almost all of us). God wants us to be content, and learning to live with less will help us in this:
“Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
Those are some serious dangers avoided by giving away more of what you have!

C.S. Lewis makes a fascinating point about working out how much we should give:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures excludes them.”
Considering that we’re following in the pattern of the God who gave His only beloved Son for us, this makes sense. It also forces us to care less about possessions.

God will prove Himself
“You shall not put the LORD your God to the test,” says Deuteronomy 6:16, and Jesus quoted this to the devil when He was being tempted (Matthew 4:7). Except, there is one area in which God invites you to test Him:
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Malachi 3:10)
Here’s the deal: give to your Lord, and then watch Him give back! This principle has been abused by many a thief posing as a preacher, but God said it so we can’t ignore it.

God isn’t a machine whose output is directly responsive to our input, He’s a Father who loves to encourage His children in His ways. When you give generously, it opens your eyes to His work in your life. I never get tired of experiencing this, realising that God has provided in response to my giving. It’s one of the clearest ways He shows Himself to me, proving Himself. I know so many Christians who have stories of Him doing this – sometimes indirectly and other times with exact amounts that have been given away and then miraculously reimbursed, as it were.

God will be glorified
“For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:12)
When you show that God matters more to you than what the world treasures, when you show that He is real and caring, you are showing that God is glorious.

Giving does good
This point is obvious, and is where most charities start when they try to motivate us. There are people in desperate need of help, and your giving can do them good. Through our giving, Deb and I pay for a Bengali girl’s upbringing and education, we give comfort and resources to persecuted Christians around the world, we translate the Bible into languages in which it hasn’t been read yet, we offer shelter and long-term help to homeless people in our city, we preach the gospel and plant churches and develop leaders and run ministries for kids and students and the elderly, and many more things than we’ll ever actually know until the Day when we see and understand all things. We don’t have the time or ability to do most of these things, but through our giving we get to be involved in them.

Your heart will be connected to others
Giving is a tangible expression of support: you are involved much more than if you simply wish someone or something success. Paul speaks of the Macedonian Christians giving to others from out of their own poverty, “begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Corinthians 8:4).

Put your heart in the right place
Jesus knows how we work: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) You put your money when your heart is, and so where you put your money is where your heart will go to.

God will reward you
You may be horrified at such selfishness in an article that’s meant to be about giving, but Jesus is fine with appealing to our best interests:
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4)
Paul thinks the same way:
“And in this matter I give my judgement: this benefits you… The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Corinthians 8:10, 9:6)
God will reward you: maybe now, definitely later. Which leads us onto…

Send your wealth ahead
Again, Jesus doesn’t blink at what might make us blush:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)
Paul agrees once more:
“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Earthly investments rise and fall with the circumstances of life, heavenly ones do not. Seriously, do you want to keep hold of that money in uncertainty for a few decades at best, or guarantee it for countless millennia to come? It’s really up to you. As Randy Alcorn puts it: “You can’t take it with you, but you can send it ahead.”.

What exactly “treasures in heaven” mean, we don’t know. But it sounds good, doesn’t it? Among other things, I believe that we will speak to people in Heaven who will say to us, “I’m here because you gave. You gave so that a church was started, and I heard the gospel preached there, and God saved me, and now I’m here with Him and you. Thank you.” Come to think of it, I will be seeking out people I don’t currently know with something similar to say to them. These are riches we cannot lose.

You will be in harmony with Christ
Giving is being like Jesus:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)
It’s fun!
You get to go on giving adventures with God, sharing His love and joy with those in desperate need, and then also seeing Him bless you in ways so specific they’re hilarious – how can getting yourself a slightly newer phone, another jumper, or an extra coffee compare with this?
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Buy this book: He Was And Is And Is To Come

Having to leave Newday 2015 early, I missed the debut of He Was And Is And Is To Come as a spoken word sermon by Stef Liston. As good as the recording of it is, the publication of this book opens up the wonder to a wider audience – now none of us need miss out.

Stef’s words are complemented by Dan Jones’ amplifying illustrations. It’s a glorious combination of poetic force with added colour, warmth, depth. It would take you about ten minutes to read this book straight through but you would have missed the many opportunities to pause, smile, stare in wonder at the truths being wrought so well, and offer prayers and even shouts of praise.

The content is nothing less then the story of the world, the Bible’s story of eternal God making and saving His creation. This is made poignantly personal without ever becoming individualistic, and it holds to an evangelical standard of truth without ever losing its creativity and vitality. These are rare combinations but I know that Stef is a rare guy.

Don’t be mistaken into thinking that a fully-illustrated book would be for kids only. Firstly, it’s more mature than that - Newday is an event for teenagers and there are a couple of references here to dark experiences. Also, you probably need a more childlike faith, and this beautiful book could help you with that.

You can buy He Was And Is And Is To Come here, and watch how it begins here.

Poppies and poppycock

The Daily Mail fighting for decency again.

Three brief observations about the current spleen-venting over England and Scotland's men's football teams not being allowed to wear poppies when they play each other on November 11th.

Fifa rarely gets anything right, but in this case I agree with them. If you let British teams commemorate British wars, you cannot prevent Russian, Serbian, Iranian, or any other country whose conflicts you might feel awkward about, commemorating theirs. "We" might all "know" that this isn't the same as Russia celebrating its annexation of Crimea, but that's a distinction likely to be lost on most people around the world.

Secondly, if you are going to commemorate conflict, why do you need to wear something to do that? Have we not developed any other forms of communication in the past few millennia of civilisation that we could use at the game? The FA would not be contravening Fifa's laws, I think, if it held a two-minute silence before the match, after showing videos of soldiers' stories. They could arrange for the players on both sides to come on to the field as a mixed company rather than two separate teams, showing that our freedom unites us more than anything can divide us, and the players could then give a guard of honour to veterans. War poetry could be read. A hymn of thanks could be sung. The crowd could hold up a poppy collage. All the revenue generated by the game could be given to the Royal British Legion (the England players always donate their appearance money to charity, incidentally). None of this would require the wearing of a poppy on the pitch during the game and yet we would be remembering together. If none of that will do because something must must MUST be worn, the players could all get poppy tattoos, if their employers really care so much.

Finally, could everyone calm down? With every (daily) outbreak of hysteria we act more like toddlers than adults, crying and screaming like we are being tortured when what has actually happened is that someone has disagreed with us. We are so free, why act like we are in chains? In a different mood, perhaps, at 11am on the 11th, the nation could stop what it was doing and silently, privately give thanks, then continue their day.

Trinity tweets

Not like this, or like anything else

Fred Sanders is a theology professor at Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute, and author of Embracing The Trinity. He recently tweeted a series of notes from a talk he did at his church's youth group about the Trinity, which I found very clear and helpful. I've put them together here without edit or comment:

Deut 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD, but the things that are revealed belong to us & to our children" applies to the Trinity.

Since God has revealed to us in the Bible that he is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, the Trinity is something he wants us to know & grasp.

Trinity: Don't chop up the Being (divide into three gods) or mix up the persons (confuse the Father with the Son or Spirit).

OT: God said through the prophets that he would send his Son the Messiah, & his Spirit. So the OT looks forward to the Trinity.

NT: Apostles looking back on the time when Jesus & the Holy Spirit came. So the NT looks back to the revelation of the Trinity.

John 1:1-3 has identity ("was God"), relation ("was with God"), and a starting point before the starting point of Gen 1.

Matt 28:18-20 has oneness ("the name") and threeness (F, S, & HS), which in Anglo Saxon is Thrynnysse, & in Latin is Trinitas.

2 Cor 13:14 has 1 one work of Gospel salvation worked by the 3 persons of the Trinity: grace of Christ, Father's love, Spirit's communion.

Everybody craves illustrations of the Trinity. Okay, fine. But I've got 3 rules about Trinity illustrations you should bear in mind:
1. Nothing's quite like God.
2. Illustrations mingle helpful & hurtful tendencies.
3. Incarnation & Pentecost need no illustrating.

Tritheism: More like tri-again-theism.
Modalism: 3 masks for 3 tasks, 3 modes for 3 moods.
Subordinationism: God & company.

2 main analogies for Trinity:
Psychological: God is like a complex person.
Social: God is like a very close family.

The Trinity is not a distraction from the gospel, but a super-condensed explanation of it.

Week 42 miscellany: singleness, cycling madness, working class world, refugees welcomed

Wandering along the beautifully autumnal Water of Leith, we stumbled upon Redhall Walled Garden. A lovely place and an excellent project.

J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy has got plenty of praise for its description of white (non) working class America. Scottish church planter Mez McConnell adds to this with his reflections on the British equivalent. Mez shares some of his own childhood experiences, which are distressing, but also the life-changing hope of the gospel.

What happens when Syrian refugees are sent to Aberystwyth? Tom Rowley reports on the kind of story we need to hear and celebrate more often.

One of my weird talents is preempting what the sports commentator is going to say next. Adam Hurrey explains why it's not that difficult, given how cliché-riddled sport is.

My friend Andrew Bunt has done the best job I've ever heard on giving Christians a theology of singleness. Vital viewing for singles and marrieds, I would suggest:

Danny MacAskill has made another video of him doing ridiculous things on a bike. At one point I wondered if he was going to jump over a shark but this is great fun:

A Theology of Vegetarianism?

Could reading the Bible change what you eat? I was recently asked for my thoughts on what the Bible says about vegetarianism, especially in relation to how the food industry treats animals. I thought about this for longer than I’d expected and came to a conclusion that wouldn’t have been anticipated by anyone who knows my eating habits: Deb and I are now eating much less meat. As in, we’ve essentially stopped cooking meals with meat in them. (We’re eating a lot more grains because my taste buds are nowhere near to accepting a mushroom in place of a burger.)

This is voluntary decision rather than a conviction that the Bible commands us to do this, because it doesn’t. We’ve found the most powerful argument to be that meat production is pretty terrible for the planet (to say nothing of the animals involved), which is contrary to the call on God’s people to use the gifts He gives us wisely and respectfully.

A decision like this can seem extreme and is usually taken with no space for compromise (hence veganism). That’s not how we’re doing it. We haven’t completely removed meat from our diet, we’ve reduced it. In the same way we have (ethically dubious) smartphones because they’re extremely useful – but we don’t upgrade them all the time. Not many of the clothes that we buy are ethically sourced but we try to find items that are, we don’t buy more than we need (need being a relative term, of course), and we pass them on to charity shops and fabric recycling if we’re done with them. This kind of pragmatism seems necessary for most people most of them time, I think, if we’re to get anything else done.

If you want to have a more thorough think about this, here’s a theology of optional vegetarianism based on four questions:

  1. Do animals have rights?
  2. What gets eaten in the Bible?
  3. What shall we eat now?
  4. How shall we eat?

No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.

1. Do animals have rights?

Most advocates of vegetarianism would suggest that animals have rights, but the Bible emphasises something else.

Animals are made by God, so they have inherent dignity. The creation account tells us that everything God made was “good” (Genesis 1:25) but the arrival of humans causes an upgrade in God’s assessment to “very good” (1:31). Why the change? Because humans are made in God’s image (1:27) and are given the His very breath (2:7). We are unique. When Adam meets and names all the animals on earth, he realises that there is nothing else like him: if he is to have a companion it must be Eve (2:18-23).

This sense of difference is confirmed by what God tells humans to do:
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (1:28).
We are God’s stewards, He has given us the planet to form and fill, care for and enjoy. Animals belong to God (Psalm 50:10-11) and are our responsibility, as Genesis 1:30 implies when it notes God's provision of food for them, reminding us to ensure that they are well fed. None of this suggests that animals that have rights, but that they are the responsibility of humans.

That the death of animals is not necessarily evil is shown by the story of Cain and Abel: the animal sacrifice offered by Abel to God was acceptable to Him (Genesis 4:4) but the murder of Abel by Cain is an abomination (4:10-12).

The principle of “animals good, humans very good” continues throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law states that animals should be rested on the Sabbath along with all humans (Exodus 20:10), and be fed as they laboured in the fields (Deuteronomy 25:4). Proverbs notes that one of the characteristics of a righteous person is that they look after their animals (Proverbs 12:10). There is, however, far more detail and significance to the laws which describe how people are to treat each other.

Animals matter as everything that God has made does, but people matter more than anything else in creation:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26)
If you’re a vegetarian who buys clothes and other products that are made by exploiting people then your priorities are the wrong way around.

2. What gets eaten in the Bible?

a. Original creation

Genesis says that the first humans were vegetarians:
“Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
The most simple explanation for this is that where there is no sin there is no death. Soon after sin enters the world, animals die. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the first ever clothes – made by God to cover Adam and Eve’s shame after they sinned – were leather (2:21).

Sin infected all of creation: food immediately became difficult to produce and gather (3:17-19). This struggle is made worse as sins works its evil in human hearts, and it is this combination that creates bad food production processes. The farmer and the farmed are polluted.

b. God’s people in the Old Testament

God extends the range of man’s diet in Genesis 9:23 to include meat (no reason is given for this), and He directly provides meat for people to eat in Exodus 16:12-13. Old Testament Israelites were given land to tend and crops to herd, which they were to acknowledge as God’s loving provision to them. Plentiful animals were a sign of God’s blessing (Deuteronomy 28:4) as they were a valuable commodity. Preparing a meal with meat in it was a way of honouring a guest (Genesis 18:1-8) or celebrating (especially the Passover, Exodus 12).

When establishing how Israel was to live, God distinguished between meat that was “clean”, which they could eat, and that which was “unclean”, which they were not to eat (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14). This was less about hygiene and culinary preferences than it was about displaying God’s holiness by marking out His chosen people as distinct among the nations.

Animal sacrifice (described in Leviticus 10 and elsewhere) was a key part of the Jewish religious system because sin is so serious that only death can atone for it. Blood is very significant in this, so the Law forbade consuming an animal’s blood but allowed the priests who sacrificed an animal to eat parts of it afterwards (Leviticus 17:11, 6:26 respectively).

These principles of holiness and right sacrifice were in Daniel’s mind when he refused to eat Babylonian meat (Daniel 1:8-16). His acceptance of vegetables instead was probably because the meat would have been sacrificed to idols, and was a symbol of the Babylonian king’s ownership of him. Daniel worshiped and trusted the God of Israel only, and is blessed for his faith. This story is not a lesson in the nutritional sufficiency of vegetables but in the sufficiency of Yahweh.

c. God’s people in the New Testament

We know that Jesus ate lamb (Luke 22:7-16) and fish (Luke 24:42-43). He miraculously provided meat on more than one occasion (Luke 5:1-11, John 21:1-14). His first disciples had no qualms about eating clean meat (Acts 10:9-16) and eventually realised that He had taught them that all foods were clean (Mark 7:14-19).

The New Testament has several extended discussions about eating meat but these are always in the context of greed or idolatry, rather than animal rights (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Romans 14). As in Daniel’s day, animals sold at the Roman markets were often sacrificed to gods, and prayers of thanks to those gods would be made at meals. Christians were concerned about whether eating meat would make them partakers in idolatry, especially given that many of them were recent converts from those religions. This is the setting for every carnivore’s favourite Bible verse, “the weak person eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:2). Those with fragile faith should avoid anything that seems hazardous to them.

Paul was convinced by Jesus that all foods were clean (Romans 14:14) but he chose what to eat depending on the circumstances of the meal: would it encourage his fellow diners that Jesus is Lord, or not? With the confidence of Christian freedom and the urgency of Christian mission, Paul doesn’t care what is put on his plate, so long as he can talk about Jesus during the meal (1 Corinthians 10:33)!

While he is flexible in what he eats, Paul is rigid in his condemnation of those who would ban others from eating certain foods, and who thus put limits on the freedom Christ has won for us:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
This is strong language and has to be taken extremely seriously.

d. New creation

Christians live with a taste of the glorious tomorrow on our lips.

The image of a meal is used to describe the return of Jesus, when He will bring Heaven fully to Earth. It will be like a feast (Isaiah 11, 25), a banquet (Luke 14), a wedding feast (Matthew 25). The new age will begin with the marriage supper of Jesus and His bride, the Church (Matthew 22, Revelation 19:9). This sensory metaphor is significant: we will live on the physical earth, we will have real bodies, we will eat real food. Jesus will have made all things new. All of creation is yearning - groaning even - for this day when it becomes what it was always meant to be: fully glorious and free from corruption (Romans 8:19-22). Only then will food production be perfect.

Sin and death will be destroyed. Isaiah 11:6-7 gives us a vision of new creation harmony in which naturally antagonistic animals are reconciled to each other (“the wolf shall dwell with the lamb”) and carnivorous animals such as lions and bears eat grass.

What exactly will we eat? The basic principle for understanding anything in the new creation is: like now, but incomprehensibly better and without sin. In Revelation 22:2, John sees “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” Isaiah 25:6 talks of “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” That “marrow” is not the vegetable but the tastiest of meat.

However literally you want to take these accounts, they are clearly making the point that God will provide wonderful food for us. They could also be suggesting that in the future perfect circumstances this won’t involve the death of animals.

3. What shall we eat now?

The Bible is clear that everything on the table is allowed, but there are questions we can ask that might cause us to limit what we eat:

a. Spiritual health

Question: Given that self-control is a work of the Holy Spirit in us, what you are struggling to say no to? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with gluttony and a lack of self control than vegetables, though it is not the only food that tends to be abused by us. Gluttony is one of the most tolerated sins in the western church, despite Paul’s insistence that he would not be mastered by anything, including his stomach (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). In a culture that loves to consume and have more than its fill, refusing to do so can be a powerful statement of what we ultimately delight in: God Himself. As it happens, I’ve found not eating meat to be remarkably easier than I first feared, and I think it's helped my general discipline.

Question: Given that joy is a work of the Holy Spirit, what can you receive from God with joy and thanksgiving? (Galatians 5:23)

My answer: Meat is more associated with enjoyment and blessing than vegetables! Of course it isn’t the only food that causes joy, but as Paul forbids forbidding food (1 Timothy 4:3-4) and encourages us to relish God’s generous gifts to us (1 Timothy 6:17), eating meat can be legitimately celebratory. Perhaps eating less if it will increase the joy of the occasions when you do. The New Testament principle would seem to be: eat whatever is set before you with a smile on your face and thankfulness in your heart.

b. Physical health

Question: What helps your body be in a good condition so that you can serve God and others well? (2 Timothy 2:4-6, 1 Corinthians 9:27)

My answer: Health experts advise that we eat more vegetables, fruits and grains, than meat. Meat can be a very efficient source of energy, it can also cause poor health if eaten to excess.

c. Social health

What might cause the reputation of Jesus to suffer because of your behaviour? (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 7, 8:13, 1 Timothy 3:3)

My answer: Jesus warned His followers that they can’t win: whether they abstain or feast they will attract criticism (Matthew 11:18-19). In some cultures, refusal to eat what you are offered is deeply insulting, and Christians should use their freedom to accept another’s preference rather than impose their own, in order to win a hearing for the gospel. We want to convert people to Christianity, not our diet.

d. Creation health

Question: What best cares for all of creation? (Genesis 1:26-31)

My answer: There are methods of food production that are uncaring towards animals and damaging to the planet, and people can be harmed by these in a number of ways too, thus failing all the creation responsibilities God gave us in Genesis 1-3. On the other hand, technological progress has made food cheaper and more accessible to people than it ever has been, and it is possible to farm animals sustainably and respectfully. Once again we should note that the problems in this category aren’t unique to meat. Jay Rayner’s book, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World, gives a useful, if very sweary and blasphemous, account of how complicated this all is.

Although I’ve made both sides of the argument in each category above, I think these questions can be answered to give you legitimate reasons to eat less meat, or not to eat meat at all. Deb and I have decided to change from a typical pattern of one meat-free evening meal a week to maybe just one meaty meal a week. We had already tended to buy fairly-traded meat and other foods that are carefully and sustainably farmed, but we are now being more consistent in this. For us, the decision was based almost entirely on the issue of caring for creation.

Will my choosing to eat less meat and only buy responsibly-farmed meat change the agriculture industry? That’s not my business, I’m just here to live faithfully before God.

Where does this stop before having to run your own farm or becoming a vegan? I go back to Paul’s point about not being mastered by anything (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). Our diet won’t define us. We certainly won’t tell people who are inviting us round to dinner that we prefer vegetables (I don’t!), and we want to offer our guests food that they will enjoy. If we’re eating out and the meat is declared to responsibly sourced, so much the better. If it isn’t, well I decide what I feel like. This liberty is, I think, more important for Christians to maintain than constancy in diet.

4. Conclusion: how shall we eat?

Surely above all we should eat with thanks (Acts 2:46). With every meal we are given, God is showing His love to us by providing for us: acknowledging this stirs gratitude and happiness.

Whether you decide to eat anything or refrain from some things, remember that the choice you’re making is secondary to your responsibility to love and bless people. If your decision to not eat meat makes someone else’s life more complicated (if they are cooking for you, for example), then why not rather bless them by accepting what they make for you, rather than telling them what you will and won’t eat? I say this as a fussy eater.

Paul reminds us that “food will not commend us to God” (1 Corinthians 8:8). This is important to remember because people often grant themselves moral worth (and look down on others) based on their dietary choices – and yet a Christian’s only credit comes from what Jesus did on our behalf. Whatever we eat, we do not prove ourselves to God with it. This is better news and more sweet to us than our favourite meal being served.

Whatever goes into your stomach, make sure that your heart is full of worship:
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).