The New Monastics

coptic_monksThe New Monastics: not, as you might have imagined, a pop movement from the 1970s and 80s, but something which is happening in 2017 in the Church of England. Earlier today I noticed a post on Twitter announcing that the Diocese of Leicester were looking for a Prior of a ‘New Monastic Community’. This follows on the heels of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Community of St Anselm, which I believe has been going a year or two. It seems there is a general feeling in the CofE (and the wider church) that monasticism is a good thing and is what is needed in the church right now.

I find it somewhat ironic that this is all happening around the 500th anniversary of the reformation: Martin Luther had himself been a monk before becoming unhappy with issues in the church and posting his 95 theses. Luther was critical of the monastic lifestyle, as were his fellow reformers such as John Calvin.

I think it would be worth revisiting some of these arguments: it seems to be becoming a bigger issue in the church than it was in recent years, and it’s good to think these things through rather than simply assuming the status quo is correct.

Monastic communities are comprised of people who have in some way withdrawn from the world in order to focus on God and spiritual things – for example prayer, worship, Scripture, etc. Many monastic communities down through the ages have been ascetics, in that they have put aside earthly things (possessions and physical pleasures) in order to focus on spiritual things. It’s somewhat difficult to talk about ‘monasticism’ as a whole because there have been different expressions of it down through the years with different rules.

I have a number of issues with monasticism and I find it troubling that the CofE in particular seems to be going down this road on this anniversary of the reformation.

1. The ‘higher life’

One of the main presuppositions with monasticicm is that it is a higher or more spiritual kind of life than the kind regular people have. Taking oneself away from the concerns of the world so that one might focus on the Lord. In some ways I think this sounds eminently sensible and laudable, but for that exact reason I think it needs to be challenged.

In our home group, we’ve just started looking at Genesis 1-12. We’ve been discussing what it means for God to be our Creator – to have made a creation which is ‘very good’. Throughout history many people have tried to make out that the body / the world are bad things in some way – that we need to get past that to the real spiritual business. This is a kind of dualism – body = bad, spiritual = good, and it has no place in Christian theology.

One of the implications of God creating a good world is that we have to affirm the goodness of creation – fallen, yes, but good. This means that there is nothing more godly or spiritual about putting the bins out, changing a nappy or working at a desk than reading the Bible or praying. Mankind was created to be in relationship with God all the time. Paul said these words in Colossians 3, addressed to slaves but could equally apply to any employees now:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 1:23-24

“It is the Lord Christ you are serving” – those are amazing words, aren’t they? Think about the work that you do – ultimately it is not your boss, but Christ who you are serving.  Similarly – God has given us things to do in life: families, jobs, friends. God is sovereign over all things and we serve Him by being godly families, workers, and friends.

Monasticism has a certain appeal – getting away from normal life to be more spiritual. But I think it is dangerous precisely for that reason: it tempts us to get away from the bits of life where God does call us to be spiritual. God asks us to be spiritual in our normal lives, all of it – there isn’t a time when we’re not called to be spiritual! Day by day, hour by hour. As Paul says in Ephesians 6:18, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions”, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray continually.” Our whole lives are to be lived as an offering of thanks and praise to God, not just the spiritual bits.

2. Spiritual Growth

Closely linked with #1 I think is the idea that real spiritual growth happens when you get away from normal life and come instead to the spiritual life (even if temporarily). I also think this is one of those ideas which has a certain appeal but must be treated carefully.

The Bible never envisions spiritual growth happening (1) in isolation from normal life; (2) in isolation from the church community. One of the points of the Community of St Anselm’s Rule of Life is sanctification – the process by which the Holy Spirit works in us to make us more holy. I think the idea is that to take a year out to pray and devote oneself to the Lord in a particular way will help with sanctification. I’m not convinced by this.

One of the epiphanies I’ve had over the past few years about marriage is that marriage is designed to teach us to become more holy. If you’re married you are confronted by your flaws almost every day – especially when children are involved. You can’t live a selfish life and have a good marriage. The thing is, this is what you might call ‘active’ sanctification – you don’t have a good marriage by taking a year out from your spouse in order to devote yourself to prayer. You have a good marriage by asking for the Lord’s help day by day to help you overcome your innate selfishness – depending on him as his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Sanctification happens in normal life. Walking in step with the Spirit, being transformed by the renewal of our minds – these are things which happen as we walk with the Lord in our normal, every day lives. Michael Horton wrote a book called Ordinary a couple of years ago which I found really helpful on this and is well worth reading.

3. Community

The New Testament never envisages a Christian outside the church. Such a thing does not exist – believers are simply part of the church, and the responsibilities that entails. Being part of a church congregation is not an optional extra for Christians – something I try to impress upon families who come to us who want their children baptised! Christians have a responsibility to meet with their fellow believers and not to give up (Hebrews 10:24-25). If you read through the letters in the New Testament, you will see that the phrase ‘one another’ comes up again and again. Christians have a responsibility to one another – to encourage, teach, look after, befriend, and so on.

And the church is (also) the place where spiritual growth happens: as we hear teaching about Christ, hear the Word of God, pray, speak the gospel to one another, we become mature. A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by Glen Scrivener on evangelism through the local church. One of the things he said really struck me – evangelists can often be very hard on the church with people saying things like “The church is going to miss the next big move of God in the world.” His reply? “The church is the move of God in the world.” The church may not be perfect, but it expresses the wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10).

How does this relate to monastic communities – surely, the point is, they are communities? Sure. But what worries me is that they are new communities – taking people out of existing churches and forming a new community, new church, of likeminded people. I’m not sure this is how the church is supposed to be: the church is supposed to be comprised of all believers, not just a small subset of them.

When I was at theological college, I really valued my time there and all the conversations we had which you wouldn’t have in ‘normal’ church! But, at the same time, we were required to be members of a church outside the college – the college community was a bubble, and we were very aware of that. The college community had many strengths, but it was important to be part of church in its fullness.

I appreciate this is not an issue confined to monastic communities – there are some churches which would suffer from the same kind of problems – but I’m not sure of the wisdom in intentionally creating such a community.

4. Outreach

Every Christian has a duty to play a part in the great commission – to make disciples of all nations. I’m not sure that a community which is taken out of the world is going to do a good job at fulfilling that. The community of St Anselm talks about serving others – this is a good thing. But the message of Jesus requires us to do more than serve others in practical ways – we are to proclaim the good news of the gospel, to call people to repentance and faith. Are we to leave the world (1 Corinthians 5:10)? Or are we to call people to follow Jesus wherever we are?

Conclusion

I don’t believe, given these reasons, that monastic communities are a good thing. I think it would be very hard to justify a monastic community from the Bible – the standard picture really is church more or less as we know it today.

I want to proclaim to people in Great Clacton – and wherever else I am a pastor – you can serve God where you are now. You can grow as a Christian where you are now. There is nothing less spiritual about an ‘ordinary’ life – in fact, that is precisely where God has put us in order to serve Him.

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:17

Hymnology: Away in a manger

I’m going to level with you right of the bat: I’m not a fan of Away in a manger. It’s too romanticised, too cute for me. I think I did like it as a child, but as an adult – not so much. However, I have an issue with the carol itself which is beyond merely a matter of style – I think it flirts with heresy. The offending lines are these:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

What’s the problem with that? I know a little about babies, and I know that babies do cry. Quite a lot. There’s nothing wrong with crying – in fact, if a baby didn’t cry you’d be more worried. What I don’t like about this verses is that it suggests that Jesus was somehow not a ‘real’ human baby – he wasn’t a proper baby, he was some kind of ‘super-spiritual’ baby. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I do remember wondering as a child whether this implied that Jesus was different to other children.

The idea that Jesus was not a real human being is an ancient one, and it is a heresy known as doceticism (from the ancient Greek dokeo, which means to seem or appear – Jesus only appeared to be human). This is a very early heresy – in fact the apostle John writes about it in 1 John 4:2-3 – “This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Evidently some in the church John was writing to were teaching that Jesus had not come ‘in the flesh’.

So I’d like to use the opportunity to outline why it’s important that Jesus Christ came as a real human baby and not some heavenly apparition who just happened to look human. Irenaeus, a Bishop of the early church, wrote against doceticism. Here’s an except from one of his writings – Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:

The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death. […]

Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death? So then those who take away redemption from man, and believe not God that He will raise them from the dead, these also despise the birth of our Lord, which He underwent on our behalf, that the Word of God should be made flesh in order that He might manifest the resurrection of the flesh, and might have pre-eminence over all things in the heavens, as the first-born and eldest offspring of the thought of the Father, the Word, fulfilling all things, and Himself guiding and ruling upon earth. For He was the Virgin’s first-born, a just and holy man, god fearing, good, well-pleasing to God, perfect in all ways, and delivering from hell all who follow after Him: for He Himself was the first-begotten of the dead, the Prince and Author of life unto God

I appreciate this is not a simple passage and takes a little getting your head around. But I think the argument is quite straightforward.

The reason Jesus came was to save mankind from sin and death and to give life. Now, if Jesus wasn’t born – a genuine human birth – then he did not die a genuine human death. If he didn’t die, then he didn’t rise again, and if he didn’t rise again then he has not destroyed death. If death is not destroyed – then how can we gain eternal life?

Jesus had to become like us in order to save us. That’s the whole point. Jesus had to take upon himself human flesh to bring human flesh to God. Athanasius makes a similar point in On the Incarnation – only a man could identify with mankind and be united with them; only God could bring people to God. In Jesus, the God-man, fully man and fully God, we have the only one who is able to bring mankind to God.

So, this Christmas – and, indeed, all year round – it’s good to rejoice that Jesus was really and truly God, and really and truly human. One carol which does do a lot better in this regard is Once in Royal David’s City (apart from having a quibble with the line ‘Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as He’…):

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Jesus Christ was really human, like us. He knew tears and smiles, he can sympathise with us. This is the message which this beautiful video picks up on:

Responding to false teaching: Lessons from 2 Peter

A BibleI’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst evangelicals recently. I encountered it most recently in this blog post by Baptist minister and theologian Steve Holmes. This is how he puts it (you’ll have to read the full blog for the whole context):

No, I know Megan and Bill, I know that they call people to believe in Jesus. They are leading people on the highway to heaven (even if I presently think that they are fairly seriously wrong on at least one aspect of the nature of that highway).’

Sola fide. I have to stand on that. Because the Blood flowed where I walk, and where we all walk. One perfect sacrifice, complete, once for all, offered for all the world, offering renewal to all who will put their faith in Him. And if that means me, in all my failures and confusions, then it also means my friends who affirm same-sex marriage, in all their failures and confusions. If my faithful and affirming friends have no hope of salvation, then nor do I.

Steve puts it well, and I believe it’s an increasingly popular perspective. The argument seems to be that although traditional marriage is the correct interpretation of the Bible, other people teaching that same-sex marriage is right is not a really serious business. It’s not a salvation issue, certainly. So although Bob may believe strongly that the Bible teaches marriage is between a man and a woman, he doesn’t think Alice – who teaches that marriage is between two people regardless of gender – is not saved.

Personally I believe this is a disturbing trend, as I said at the beginning. I’ve already outlined on this blog why I believe evangelicals cannot agree to disagree on this issue, and I stand by what I said back then. But I’d like to add to that a little. Not long ago I worked through the book of 2 Peter with Peter H. Davids’ Pillar commentary. I’d like to share a few insights from 2 Peter which might help shed some additional light on this issue.

2 Peter is written in response to false teaching and false teachers. It seems that false teachers were teaching that the final judgement was not coming – perhaps it had already happened – and therefore there was no need to live a holy and righteous life. Because there was no final judgement to look forward to, there was no need to worry about restraining our sinful desires now.

Let’s take a quick tour of the letter to analyse what Peter is saying.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (Chapter 1)

God has given those who believe “everything we need for a godly life”. What does that look like? It is to “participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires”. Participating in the divine nature is a strange phrase. I believe it means ethically – participating in the divine nature by increasing in goodness and love (Peter talks about God’s goodness in v3), in contrast with the corruption and evil desires in the world.

So the purpose of the Christian life is to add goodness, knowledge, self-control etc. (vv5-7) to faith, so that Christians will not be “ineffective and unproductive”. But, we are warned, “whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”

So – a cleansing from past sin does not give us licence to sin in the future. Here, as we see in many places in the Bible, salvation by grace does not mean freedom to indulge our sinful desires. One of my go-to passages about grace and right living is Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…” The Hebrews 10 passage I referred to in my post about why we can’t agree to disagree also takes the same line: wilfully continuing to sin after receiving knowledge of the truth means all we have to expect from God is “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.

Peter continues in chapter 2:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

There were “false prophets” among the people of Israel – you can read about them in Ezekiel 13, for example. What did they do? They led the people astray – they said “peace, when there is no peace”. They prophesied out of their own imaginations. In particular, they led the people to worship false gods and did not see violations of God’s ethical commandments as being a problem. Peter says that, as there were false prophets then, there are false teachers “among you”. These were the people who denied the final judgement, who denied the need to live self-controlled and upright lives – and Peter says “their destruction has not been sleeping”. It’s possible that these false teachers even claimed that the Lord was ‘sleeping’ – that they would not receive the recompense for their wrongdoing. But Peter turns the tables and says that it is their destruction which has not been sleeping. What does he mean?

…if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

To hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgement – this is what Peter is talking about. And this is “especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh” – those who indulge in their sinful desires rather than restraining them.

The chapter finishes:

17 These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. 18 For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’ 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.

For such people – false teachers – “blackest darkness is reserved for them”. Why? They “entice” people escaping from the world back into sin (echoes of Jesus’ words in Mark 9:42?). Note that he uses the phrase “lustful desires of the flesh” – quite possibly having in mind sexual sin, it was as common back then as it is now. Sin is slavery (John 8:34), but if the Son sets us free then we shall be free indeed. To turn to Christ is to turn away from sin, to repent of evil desires and be freed from them. Yes, we know that anyone who claims to be without sin deceives themselves (1 John 1) – but sin is not a cause for celebration, but rather mortification and turning to Christ. These false teachers promise freedom but deliver slavery – just as Satan does. It shows who they are really working for (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The worst thing about this passage is, I believe, that false teachers are leading people to hell. I think this is the implication of Peter’s words here – that it is actually worse for people who have begun to turn away from sin, only to be misled by a false teacher and turn their backs on the way of righteousness.

False teaching is that serious. It simply cannot be tolerated in a church, a denomination, or any Christian organisation.

Peter closes out the letter by looking forward to the day of the Lord, which will “come like a thief” – unexpectedly. What does that mean for believers?

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Peter closes off his argument: because there will be a day of judgement, because there will be a day of wrath, because there is darkness reserved for the unrighteous – we ought to live “holy and godly lives”. God is not mocked. We look forward to the day when righteousness will dwell in the new heaven and earth. We look forward to the day when we will be righteous, and see the Lord face to face. We yearn for the day when sin is no more.

How can those who long for such a day continue to live in sin in the present? It’s impossible! Romans 6:1ff – we have died to sin, how is it possible to continue in it?

And, if this is the case, how can those in the church – thinking particularly about the Church of England but applicable more broadly – stand by and do nothing when the CofE is openly contemplating changes its teaching on matters of marriage?


I appreciate this post has gone on a bit (about 1600 words at this point!) but I’d just like to offer a few more brief reasons why I believe sexuality in particular isn’t something which we can disagree on.

  • I have rarely, if ever, encountered someone who is orthodox on everything except the nature of marriage. This could be because in order to affirm same-sex marriage you have to twist the Bible virtually out of all recognition (as I try to explain here). Interpreting the Bible wrongly in one area will lead to interpreting it wrongly in others – especially on a serious and core doctrine such as marriage.
  • As John Stott pointed out in The Cross of Christ, “sin is not a regrettable lapse from conventional standards. Its essence is hostility towards God.” Sin is not something which God simply shrugs his shoulder about – it is something which Jesus Christ needed to die for to bear the wrath we deserve. To continue in sin wilfully is not simply being wrong or mistaken – it is an act of aggression against God. If same-sex sexual activity is a consequence of our idolatry (Romans 1), then I think this is applicable in particular. God cannot simply overlook such hostility towards him.
  • Bible teachers should be held to a higher standard – James 3:1. Someone who holds the wrong opinion on marriage ‘in the pews’ is less of a danger than false teachers, who can mislead many. This is why I believe that the apostles were so hot on false teaching, and why I believe we must be today. So someone ‘in the pews’, so to speak, might hold the wrong opinion on same-sex marriage – but at least they are not misleading many others. I believe it is appropriate to instruct them gently (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But those who are responsible under God for shepherding Christ’s flock which he bought with his own blood will be held to account. When the day of the Lord comes, I don’t want anyone’s blood on my hands (Acts 20:26-27).

Brexit. Trump. Where do we go now?

Isn’t it strange that over the last six months or so, the nations of the USA and the UK have both had major votes which have exposed massive rifts within the country? I don’t want to draw the comparison between Brexit and the American election too closely, but the parallels are fascinating. In both cases the voting was close, and yet in both cases the winning side was seen by the losing side as lacking moral legitimacy. In other words, both Brexiters and Trump supporters are seen as ignorant, bigoted, racist, etc.

Whatever you think about Trump or Brexit, it is undeniable that the USA and the UK are now divided countries. Where should we go from here?

From a Christian perspective, I think it’s interesting that both of these events have happened in close proximity. They have many similarities – most importantly, perhaps, they both exposed an underlying reality about the division in their countries. How should a Christian understand this? How should the nation understand it?

The USA and the UK are both nations which have a long Christian heritage. Former Prime Minister David Cameron once said, fairly recently, that the UK was a Christian Country. And yet, over the last few years, many things have changed: our countries have drifted increasingly from traditional Christian morality. In particular, of course, in the last few years both the USA and the UK have enacted Same-Sex Marriage – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example the government are talking about sending Ofsted into religious contexts to combat ‘extremism’ – including (potentially) Sunday Schools. The USA and the UK have both moved well away from a traditional Christian understanding of the world, which I talked about after Brexit.

I believe Trump and Brexit are a ‘warning shot’, so to speak: God wants us to know that the USA and the UK – and other countries – cannot guarantee their good fortune and position within the world. Personally I believe that the success of the UK and the USA have largely been down to its Christian influence – I believe that the Christian faith truly does create community cohesion and knit society together in a way that nothing else can. We have been sailing on the back of that for some time now – but if we depart from the Christian faith, our status may well be taken away as well.

Recently I studied Joel – a very short book in the Old Testament – and the second chapter contains these verses:

‘Even now,’ declares the Lord,
‘return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.’

Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
and leave behind a blessing –
grain offerings and drink offerings
for the Lord your God.

 I believe these are words for the UK and the USA right now. ‘Return to me’, says the Lord. Remember who it was who blessed you so richly. Remember your roots. Don’t turn away – turn back to the Lord, and He will relent and bring blessing once again.

If we continue as we are, I suspect we will not continue to enjoy our privileged position in the world. God can humble nations as well as individuals. But if we turn back to the Lord, perhaps we will see real change for the good.

Hell and the church’s mission

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched.’

Mark 9:43-48

In one of our curate training days last year, we spent some time thinking about the church’s mission. What should we be spending our time doing? We had three speakers from different traditions come to talk to us, and we actually had quite an interesting discussion. One of the things which came up was – is the church’s mission simply proclaiming the gospel, or is it wider? To put the question a more practical way – does the church’s mission include practical help for people (such as food banks etc.)?

Unusually for a curate’s session we had a frank exchange of views and actually opened our Bibles and had something of a theological discussion. It seems that this is a pretty divisive issue amongst Christians: what should we as a church be doing with our time?

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of thinking about hell, and I wonder whether it may actually help the discussion about the church’s mission.

Hell is not something that we spend very much time discussing – in most Christian circles, and especially within the Church of England. I’ve been on quite a few CofE training things over the past few years, and I don’t think I’ve heard hell mentioned a single time (apart from occasionally in the hymns that we sing). What’s interesting, though, is reading the gospels through: Jesus talks about hell more than anybody. The passage I started with is a case in point. Jesus consistently warns people about the dangers of hell – in this passage, saying that it is better to go through life maimed but be rid of sin than to have your limbs intact but go into hell for eternity.

This has particularly struck me about the church’s mission because the church is the only institution in the world which really has eternity in mind. Many charities exist which care about people’s needs in this life. Only the church cares about their eternal future.

This is what Jesus is getting at in Luke 12:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Jesus is saying that our lives should ultimately be controlled by the fear of Him who holds eternity in His hands. Not in the sense of being scared of God, but an appropriate reverence for Him. Jesus is now the one who holds the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18). There is nothing, no hardship, no suffering, no bad thing in this life which will compare with an eternity in hell.

And that puts the church’s mission into perspective: food banks are a good thing. Looking after the poor and needy is a good thing. Of course they are. But, ultimately, if we give someone a piece of bread but don’t tell them about Jesus the bread of life then we haven’t really done anything to help that person. Jesus loved people, but he loved people enough to warn them about their eternal destiny.

This isn’t to say that the church should immediately stop doing anything which isn’t directly related to preaching the gospel! But what a church does should ultimately be controlled not by limiting its vision to temporal needs but by eternal needs. A church must always be reaching out – churches which do not reach out will die – but a church must always be reaching out with the message of reconciliation. This is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

The ministry which God gave to the apostles, and through them to the church today, is the message of reconciliation: being reconciled with God.

I believe that if the church keeps a Biblical understanding of the gospel – including hell – it will enable a healthy view of its ministry and outreach. If we forget that the gospel is all about salvation, we’ll focus our energies on trying to love people in the here and now. But if we keep our understanding of the gospel, that will control all that we do.

Let me finish with an example. At our church here in Clacton, we run a lunch cafe every Friday. The food is relatively cheap – it’s not run for profit, it simply runs to help the local community to get a decent meal at a good price. It is very much a community service – we do it because we love our community. At the same time – our aim with the cafe is not simply to provide people with food: it’s a good place to build relationships with people in the community, to advertise church events, and so on. In short, it is a part of the whole mission of the church – the ministry of reconciliation. We pray regularly for the cafe and ask for God to use it – and He has.

It’s similar with the soup run. Our church helps out with the soup run in Clacton, and – again – this is done both to help out the community, and also to get to know people, have conversations with them, and talk a little about Jesus. Apparently we’ve given out quite a few Bibles over the past few years.

To see the world in the light of eternity gives the church an appropriate perspective on ‘doing good’ and helps to maintain an evangelistic edge.

As a footnote, I found Melvin Tinker’s book Salt, Light and Cities on Hills very helpful when it came to thinking through mission – he talks about the passages often debated in these discussions and I appreciated his conclusions.

 

The trouble with contemplative prayer…

contemplation
An artist’s impression of Contemplative Prayer…

A few months ago, at one of my regular curate review meetings, someone asked me about my ‘spirituality’ and asked me what sort of thing I did – “such as contemplative prayer”. Up until a few years ago I’d never heard of contemplative prayer, but when I was at college I did a course on spirituality and this was one of the topics we covered. Then, yesterday, Ian Paul posted a piece on his blog about whether mindfulness is Christian. One of the things mentioned in the blog was – that’s right – contemplative prayer.

On that course in spirituality I mentioned, I had to write an essay about contemplative prayer and I thought it might be worth sharing a few things I learned while I was researching it. If you want my summarised version, it’s this: contemplative prayer is not Scriptural, potentially harmful, and I believe Christians should avoid it. Here’s why.

1. What is contemplative prayer?

Contemplative prayer, as I discovered, is virtually impossible to define – and it is utterly impossible to define concisely. This is what one writer says about it (from the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality):

What is desired is the opportunity simply to express to God one’s loving, hoping, trusting, thanking, in as few words as possible. These few words tend to be repeated many times … A time comes when a deeper desire is revealed to the person praying. What began as fragmentarily verbalized loving or thanking becomes more than anything else an offering, though without this self-giving being mentally considered or understood

Do you get that? Contemplative Prayer (hereafter CP) is about moving from external things (such as words) to the heart or soul of a person. The goal is clear. In the words of Richard Foster: “To this question the old writers answer with one voice: union with God”. Everything about CP is meant to move towards union with God.

There are certain characteristics which writers on CP usually mention:

1. Spiritual maturity. CP is something which everyone says is not for the novice. In fact Richard Foster goes as far as to say, “These are people who long ago walked away from the world, the flesh and the devil”. The idea is that we are all climbing up a ladder towards union with God, and you can only begin CP once you have climbed a certain way up that ladder.

2. Moving beyond words. CP is something which words are simply insufficient for. Thomas Merton wrote,”The purpose of monastic prayer [including Contemplation] … is to prepare the way so that God’s action may develop this ‘faculty for the supernatural,’ this capacity for inner illumination by faith and by the light of wisdom, in the loving contemplation of God … It is true that one may profit by learning such methods of meditation, but one must also know when to leave them and go beyond [my emphasis] to a simpler, more primitive, more ‘obscure’ and more receptive form of prayer.” CP is seen as ‘going beyond’ normal forms of prayer – this is highly significant.

In particular, this is often justified by appealing to God’s fundamental unknowability – that logic and reason alone are not enough for us to know God. There must be something more – in order for us to truly know Him we must leave words behind.

3. Moving towards the heart. CP seeks to affect not the outward person but the inward person: right to the very soul, our inner being. Because our heart does not use words, words are virtually useless in that context: the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says “Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love [my emphasis]. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus”. So some words may be useful to begin CP, but once you’ve moved into the silence – then God can really speak to you in a way He never could using actual words. The hope is that God will speak directly to the heart of the one praying.

A Biblical response

1. Spiritual maturity

The idea of moving towards ‘union with God’ is something that derives from neo-Platonic philosophy than from the Bible. Theologian Louis Berkhof put it like this: “Every sinner who is regenerated is directly connected with Christ and receives his life from Him.” See e.g. Jesus’ words in John 15:4 – “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” Once someone is united to Christ by faith, no prayer is more or less effectual and no type of prayer should be excluded from them. We do grow in maturity as Christians as we walk in step with the Spirit – however the moment a sinner repents and believes in the gospel, they are united to Christ by faith.

2. Moving beyond words

It is true that God is beyond our comprehension or imagination, God is beyond our capacity to express Him fully in human language. However, as Gerald Bray says, “The need to go beyond the limitations of the finite does not mean that the finite can be ignored or rejected. The fact that the human mind is inadequate to embrace the divine reality in all its fullness does not make its mental processes invalid or unreliable within the sphere for which it was created … God has accommodated himself to our limitations and made our relationship with him possible.” God is a speaking God. Jesus Christ has made God known – John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

To move beyond words is actually to denigrate the revelation of Himself which God has given us. The Bible is not a collection of thoughts about how people have thought about God – it is God’s word to humankind. In the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed”.

How do we know God better? As we understand His word better. How do we know God’s will better? As we understand His word better. How do we pray better? As we know more of God and His will: we do not pray to an unknown God, but our prayer is based on our knowledge of God and His purposes.

There was a discussion yesterday on Facebook about Ian Paul’s piece on mindfulness. I mentioned something about CP, and Ian suggested that there is a big Biblical theme about God being unknowable in the sense that our language is inadequate. He suggested that the Israelites at Mt Sinai was an example of that (the Israelites were told to stay away from the mountain, and only Moses could go into the cloud). However, it strikes me that this episode actually demonstrates the opposite: the unknowable God here was speaking – making Himself known. The issue was not Moses going up into the mountain, but with the people at the bottom who didn’t have God’s words who decided to make up a god for themselves… this is the problem with CP: without God’s words, without God’s revelation, it can easily turn into a form of idolatry.

3. Moving towards the heart

It is true that the heart is a fundamental theme in the Bible – for example Jesus’ famous words in Luke 6:45, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” The problem with us as human beings is indeed a heart problem.

However, the Biblical solution to the problem is not to go beyond words! The solution is to be transformed by the Word of God as the Holy Spirit works within us. Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” How can our minds be renewed without words? The Bible does not address our hearts directly – only the Holy Spirit can do that – but God’s word accomplishes His work (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Christian meditation is not about moving beyond words but filling our minds with God’s word, as Psalm 1 demonstrates:

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
    whatever they do prospers.

Ultimately our heart problem is a problem which can only be solved by the Holy Spirit. But as we understand more of God’s word, as we see more of His purposes and plans for creation and for us, we see more of His will and become more and more conformed to the likeness of Christ.

The potential harm of contemplative prayer

At the start I said that I thought that CP was potentially harmful. The reason is that a kind of prayer which doesn’t focus on words – i.e. based on God’s truth – is in danger of constructing its own truth. When you start looking beyond the objective truths of the gospel to the subjectivity of your own emotional state and ‘inner being’, you can run into problems. For example, if someone has depression I’d say the road upwards was not in seeking to have ecstatic spiritual experiences (part of CP) or attempting to focus on one’s own emotions, but rather by looking at one’s objective status before God as a forgiven sinner who Christ died for.

If in CP you move beyond what God has given us in Scripture, you can end up moving towards your own imagination – and that is a dangerous place to be. God does not condemn idolatry for nothing. And we know that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but principalities and powers – Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) – we must be discerning and careful that anything spiritual going on in our lives is soundly grounded in the truth and not in something potentially deriving from the father of lies.

As Christians we are encouraged to look not to ourselves or our own emotional states but to the objective truth of what God has done for us in Christ. We are never promised particular experiences in Scripture. We are simply told that if we repent and believe in Christ Jesus we will receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. That is something which is true regardless of how we feel, and it’s something we all need to focus on whether we’re feeling good or bad.

Hymnology: Dear Lord and Father of mankind

The hymn “Dear Lord and Father of mankind” is one of the UK’s most popular hymns. It is usually (in the UK at least) sung to a brilliant tune (REPTON) and its poetic lyrics capture many people’s imagination. It is a well loved traditional hymn and an established part of our repertoire. But there is one small question I’ve always wrestled with: what do the words actually mean? It’s more than a little puzzling! Is it truthful and helpful for congregations to sing?

One of the interesting things about the hymn is its history. The stanzas of the hymn are taken from a poem by an American Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier:

Entitled The Brewing of Soma, the poem dealt with various kinds of intoxication – by alcohol, drugs or fanaticism. Soma (a word later used by Aldous Huxley for the feel-good drug in Brave New World) was a sacred drink mentioned in ancient Sanskritic books of Indian religion. Whittier’s poem is prefaced by a quotation from Max Müller, the first professor of philology at Oxford, who had misty racial theories based on these immemorial rites.

Eleven of Whittier’s stanzas preceded the six retained for the hymn. They range over the Vedic hallucinogens, the dance of the Islamic Dervish and the trance of the medieval Christian flagellant.

(You can read the full poem online here – it’s not very long).

It seems that the poem itself is in the context of people inducing ecstatic religious experience by drugs or dancing and so on. In contrast, Whittier – a Quaker – believed that God was to be found in the stillness and quiet. This is fairly common Quaker belief, from the few Quakers I’ve actually talked to! The message seems to be – stop trying to find God in these strange ways, just be still and let God speak to you.

When you see it in that light, the lyrics are understandable. The whole thing is shot through with references to stillness or quiet: “without a word”, “the silence of eternity”, “deep hush”, “tender whisper”, “noiseless”, etc. It’s all about being still and letting God speak in the silence.

The problem is, I’m not sure this is really a very Christian idea. The song mentions Jesus once, where apparently he shared “the silence of eternity” with the Father. Jesus certainly withdrew to pray, although there’s no indication that he withdrew simply to enjoy ‘silence’ with God! The poem also has the line “speak through the earthquake, wind and fire” – a reference to 1 Kings 19, where God was in the small whisper rather than in the more dramatic events. But – God still spoke. You know, words.

The more I think about this hymn the more I dislike it: I disagree with the main idea – that in order to hear God speak you just need to be still. Yes, we don’t need frenzied dancing or drugs to communicate with God. But that doesn’t mean we can dispense with words altogether. (This is the same issue I have with contemplative prayer, although that’s a story for another time).

Sadly, I think – like Love Divine – this hymn should relegated to the history books.