What is ‘Christening’? Five Facts!

On Monday, Prince Louis will be christened at the Chapel Royal in St James’ Palace (the picture above is from Charlotte’s christening in Sandringham a couple of years ago). It promises to be a lovely day and occasion – but do you know what christening actually means?

1. Christening = Baptism

These days ‘Christening’ has become something which only happens to children: children are Christened and adults are Baptised. But actually ‘Christening’ means the same thing as ‘Baptism’ – they aren’t two separate things. Baptism is the word which is used in modern Bible translations and that’s the word I’m going to use during this blog.

2. Baptism is an essential part of Christian initiation

Baptism has been an essential part of becoming a member of the Christian faith since the very earliest days of the church. But, according to theology tutor Tony Lane, it is only one of four things which happen in order to become a Christian. The other three are: repenting of sin, faith in Jesus, and receiving the Holy Spirit. These are things which should all happen in order to be a full member of the Christian faith. Baptism is a visible, outward sign and symbol of the other three things happening.

3. Baptism symbolises cleansing

We use water to cleanse every day – from doing the washing up to having a bath or shower every day. Water is used in baptism to remind us that we need cleansing ‘on the inside’. 1 Peter 3:21 says, “this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience towards God.” The Bible teaches that each one of us needs to be cleansed from our sins, and the water of baptism is a symbol of the inner cleansing which God can bring.

4. Baptism symbolises death and new life

Water can be a dangerous thing as well as life-giving. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6:3, “all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death”. Baptism is a symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ. Christians believe that, just as Jesus died on the cross and rose again to new life, we too must put our sinful selves to death and life a new life with his power. Being baptised by full immersion is a powerful visual symbol of death and new life.

5. Baptism is only the beginning

In most protestant churches, such as the Church of England, baptism does not automatically make someone a Christian: this is especially true of children. We baptise children in the trust that they will come to share the same faith as their parents in due course. Proverbs 22:6, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

In our church, we run a course called Essentials with parents before baptism to ensure they understand the Christian faith and are able to teach children – by their words as well as their example – what it means to follow Jesus.

I hope this has helped you to understand something more about baptism, or christening! This post originally started life as an idea for a video, but it didn’t quite happen in time – maybe one day I’ll be able to make it and I will link it here…

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The lost art of Catechism

Catechism (n):

  1. an elementary book containing a summary of the principles of the Christian religion, especially as maintained by a particular church, in the form of questions and answers.

In our church we regularly run courses for people who want to find out more about the Christian faith. In the past we’ve run Alpha, and more recently we’ve started running Christianity Explored. By the grace of God we have seen a number of people come into the church over the last few years, partly as a result of these courses. In my home group at the moment we have a number of folks who have only come into church in the last few years and I’ve had a chance to get to know them pretty well – and get to know their needs, spiritually speaking.

What I’ve been finding is that people who come into faith these days are coming from a background of virtually no knowledge about God, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, etc. There is just simply no background knowledge of the Christian faith. Everything has to be built from the ground up, which takes time.

The realisation that I’ve been coming to is that we need to rethink the way that the church disciples new believers. Sunday services are a good start – but we’ve found it’s tough to encourage people to come when there are so many other competing demands on time. Church is a big commitment – a commitment which is absolutely worth it, for sure – but I think it’s hard to understand just how significant it is for people to make that commitment. According to some research I read recently, even those who are committed will come twice a month – something which we see in our church here. Is twice a month enough to understand the Christian faith? And even if someone comes more – sermons are not generally designed to teach faith in a systematic way. Church services are a good start but they’re not enough!

Bible studies are usually the next step. And for good reason: I have benefited so much over the years from them – but again, they have limitations. What I’ve found in my home group these last few years is that the newer Christians have actually struggled more with Bible studies because they do not have the Christian worldview to go along with it. Understanding the Bible takes time and effort, and in particular one needs to understand the ‘big picture’ of the Bible and its theology alongside the individual books and chapters. The two feed into each other – growth in one leads to growth in the other.

So the question in my mind is: how can we, as churches, focus on being intentional about teaching a Christian worldview? Especially for new believers – who have heard nothing but the world preaching to them for their whole lives. To put it another way, how do we best equip people coming from a background with virtually no Christian understanding to come to a mature faith?

Bible study will get you there – but it will take time if you work your way systematically through books of the Bible. There is an alternative, which has been used by the church for centuries but has fallen somewhat out of favour these days: catechism (or catechesis, but let’s not complicate things). A catechism is a series of questions and answers designed to teach the faith, which are designed to be learned by members of a church – in the Anglican tradition, the catechism was designed to be used before confirmation. (There is a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, but we’ve never used it in our church and I think most churches don’t use it).

The idea is that it teaches believers a kind of ‘Christian basics’ course, which covers things like who God is, the Bible, the ten commandments, the creed, etc. It’s a (relatively) short summary of the Christian faith. Tim Keller says: “classic catechisms take students through the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.” It is, in other words, what all believers – but especially new Christians – need to get going in the Christian life.

Personally I think that revising the catechism format for the 21st century would be a great way of discipling believers to face the problems of a post-Christian world. That’s not to say it should replace Bible study, but rather complement it.

I’m not the only one saying this – and, in fact, I was very heartened to see that one church has produced the New City Catechism. This is a catechism which is taken from a number of classic catechisms but updated for the 21st century – you can read it all online or via an app, alongside a few paragraphs of explanation. There are 52 questions and answers – one per week over the course of a year. (Not too taxing!)

Personally I think this is a great idea and I’m going to try and start using it at every opportunity. I’ve actually started vlogging my way through the catechism, if you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – here’s the first video (the introduction basically says just what I’ve said here).

Learning doctrine has been immensely helpful for me in my Christian life – not simply reading the Bible (although that is essential), but putting the pieces together. The catechism is an excellent way of starting to do that. If you’ve not done it before, I would urge you to give it a try.

Can we be optimistic about 2018?

Happy New Year to all my blog followers! Seeing as my last one seemed to be received well, I decided to do another vlog message thinking about the subject of whether we can be optimistic in 2018. Given that the world is in such a mess at the moment – the bad news seems to be relentless – can we be optimistic about the coming year? This is my answer.

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:

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.

Review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

tawdeI’ve just finished reading “The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist” by Andy Bannister. The book is subtitled “or the dreadful consequences of bad arguments”, and that’s a pretty good summary of the book: examining various arguments made by writers such as Richard Dawkins (who else?) and the like to see whether they stand up. The point of the book is not to demonstrate the truth of Christianity per se, just to demonstrate the issues contained within the arguments made by these atheist writers.

The thing which makes this book stand out for me compared to the multitude of other books which have been written in response to Richard Dawkins and the so-called ‘New Atheists’ (not that they’re particularly new any more, but still): the scope. What this book does is distil a number of arguments and try to deal with the precise objection in each case. In many cases, he presents arguments in a clear and concise way, and they are well illustrated: for example, each chapter starts with an imaginary (and usually humorously absurd) conversation to introduce the topic.

For me the real strength of the book is its analysis of the logical arguments: Bannister is able to boil an argument down to its precise form and then examine it to see whether it stands up. I’d go as far as to say that this is the best book I’ve read from that perspective (although I haven’t read very many, so that’s not really much of an accolade). But I think too often Christians simply leap to the defensive when someone comes up with questions, rather than saying: “Well, let’s take a step back and look at the question itself. How would that logic work in other situations? Are you being consistent?”

I would recommend this book to a Christian who wants to be strengthened in their understanding of apologetics, or to an atheist who wants to examine some Christian answers to their objections. I think it would be hard to find a book which examines so many arguments so comprehensively and clearly – it’s very understandable.

The only downside? The constant footnotes! There are plenty of humorous footnotes throughout the book, but personally I found them something of a distraction. It’s a matter of personal preference, though – you don’t have to read them.

(Although, my blog is footnoted in one of the footnotes – brownie points to anyone who can name which post. It’s not the reason I read the book though – I haven’t seen a penny of royalties. Not one…)

One of the problems with the so-called ‘New Atheists’ is that they are strong on rhetoric but weak on actual argument. I hope this book is widely read and helps to illuminate the problems for many people.

Thinking about Halloween

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

What is the big deal with Halloween? Why is it that some people – most of them Christian – get so upset by it?

I’ve been thinking about it a bit over the past few days. At church last week, someone made a comment about it from the front, and that generated a certain amount of discussion on Facebook. Halloween is one of those things which different people have very different opinions about, and I wouldn’t like to prescribe any particular opinion as “the” Christian opinion.

However, I will admit to being quite uncomfortable with Halloween, and – given that it’s a subject I’ve never blogged on before – I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts on it. So, what’s the big deal with Halloween? Why does it make me uncomfortable?

Firstly, a personal anecdote. A couple of weeks ago, we went into a store in Clacton to buy a two-year-old a birthday present. It was a general, family-friendly store, and I was carrying Lydia (my two-year-old daughter). As we walked in, the very first thing we passed as we entered the shop was a display with some gruesome Halloween costumes. I’m sure you’ve all seen the kind of thing – masks and costumes made up to look as horrible as possible – Zombies, the undead, creepy things – all that kind of stuff. And as I was carrying Lydia past it, I did wonder whether it was really an appropriate display for a two-year-old to be looking at (fortunately she didn’t notice). I don’t think I’m a prude by any manner of means, but I do think some things are not appropriate for children and many Halloween costumes really push the limits of what is acceptable. Even if those costumes were designed for older children, you can’t prevent younger children from seeing them (e.g. older siblings, at school etc.) For the last few weeks we’ve been taking Lydia along to a toddler group at a nursery, and over half-term at that nursery they’ve been running a Halloween-themed club. Apparently every activity is Halloween themed. This is far from uncommon – in fact it seems to be the new norm. Even the youngest children are exposed to it.

Secondly, I have a problem with what Halloween actually is. Most people defend Halloween as being “just a bit of fun” – I hear this time and again when talking about Halloween. But the thing is, “just a bit of fun” is not a reason to do something. There are a lot of things which are “just a bit of fun” which might actually be harmful – such as ‘banter‘. The point is, to my mind a festival like Halloween needs to say something positive to justify its existence rather than simply carrying on because it’s not bad enough to stop doing. With a festival such as Christmas or Easter, it’s obvious what those times are supposed to be celebrating: there is, if you like, a positive message. But with Halloween – what? Scary stuff is good? Let’s all have a big laugh at witches, ogres, monsters, etc? However you want to cut it, I think Halloween simply does not say anything positive, which causes me to question its existence.

Thirdly, following on from that – doesn’t Halloween actually work against pretty much everything that we teach kids for the rest of the year? We want to teach children good values, we want to teach them about goodness and love, that good overcomes evil, to be polite to others, not to participate in things which are wrong, etc. It seems to me that Halloween, as it is today, turns all that on its head. Trick or treat, for example: when else would we tell kids it’s OK to knock on a complete stranger’s door and ask them for a treat… or else? (And yes, I know that’s not how most parents do trick or treat, but still.) Some kids go to Halloween parties made up with big scars etc – isn’t that simply disrespectful to those who bear wounds and injuries, or with physical deformities? Is it right to be teaching kids that physical deformity and scars are “scary” and should be mocked and ridiculed? Those are just a couple of examples, there are more.

Fourthly, and as a Christian I think this is the most important thing for me, I believe that evil does actually exist. And actually, I wonder whether this may be the heart of the matter. 1 Peter 5:8-9 says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” The Bible is clear that the Devil and evil do actually exist, not just in a philosophical sense. There are many testimonies of those who have experienced evil in a fairly personal way – Nicky Cruz’s books spring to mind (especially ‘Devil on the Run’, where he talks about his parents who were occult healers). Someone at my old church grew up in a missionary family in Africa, and had more than a few stories to tell. Christians are warned explicitly against consulting with mediums and the like (e.g. Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:9-13). Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Given all of this – why would we even want to have anything to do with evil, regardless of how light-hearted it supposedly is?

Christians, by contrast, are exhorted: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). We are to set our minds on the things of God, good things, things which are pure and help us to grow in holiness. I can’t see that Halloween helps us in that goal.

A few years ago people used to wear “WWJD” bracelets – What Would Jesus Do? Although I think it’s not always helpful to think of things in those terms (Jesus was the Son of God, after all, he could do things we couldn’t or shouldn’t do) – but I do think it might be a helpful question to ask in this situation. Would Jesus dress up as a burn victim for Halloween? Can you imagine him laughing as he painted on fake scars? You know, I just don’t think I can. That’s not to say I think Jesus would have avoided going to Halloween parties – he hung around with sinners all the time – but I don’t think he would have “celebrated” Halloween.

Finally – I appreciate that this is not an issue which Christians completely agree on (if you want a different perspective, have a read of this from the Good Book Company). And, as I hinted at in that last paragraph, I wouldn’t advise Christians to avoid Halloween parties. That’s not to say I would advise going to Halloween parties – I’d just say, use your own godly common sense and wisdom. But I just wanted to share why Halloween, as a festival, makes me uncomfortable, and why I think it’s worth at least pausing for thought before diving in.