Vicky Beeching – Undivided: The power and danger of stories

I’ve mentioned Vicky Beeching a couple of times on this blog, most recently discussing whether it’s right to say ‘Change or Die’ about the church.

Yesterday she released her new book, ‘Undivided’, which is her story of how she’s ‘come out’ as gay and Christian, and learned to embrace her sexuality.

As I’ve started with the YouTubing now, I thought I’d do a little video about why I think we should be wary of making the jump from her story to changing what the church has always believed about marriage.

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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.

Peter Adam on depression

I’ve been on a roll talking about mental health lately, so I thought I’d share this video I’ve just found (courtesy of the Gospel Coalition). It’s of Peter Adam talking about mental illness – in particular, his suffering with depression for 30 years.

It’s a very honest interview and well worth watching.  Three points jumped out at me:

  1. How helpful it was to know that the depression was not random or pointless, but that God was sovereign over it. In particular, Peter was able to give some ways in which God had been able to use his depression over the years to good effect. This doesn’t make a bad thing good, but makes me give thanks to God that he always uses evil things for good purposes in the end (Genesis 50:20).
  2. He says that mental health shouldn’t be considered a different kind of issue to others which people experience. We are all broken in all sorts of different ways. The church is a place where sinful and broken people come together to find forgiveness and healing.
  3. I really liked what he said about the church. Someone once said “The church is a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people.” I think this is true: sadly, a lot of churches are museums for perfect people – where the relationships never really get beyond the superficial. In my home group lately, I think all of us have begun to reach the level in our relationship where we are able to share what’s actually going on in our lives, to open ourselves up to being vulnerable. It has been immensely helpful for many of us to open up, share, pray for and support one another. The verse Peter mentions is Galatians 6:2, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Carrying each other’s burdens – a wonderful picture of the church.

I hope you enjoy the video, he says a lot of helpful things which are well worth listening to from someone with 30 years experience.

Follow-up on mental health

A few weeks ago I blogged about a Christian perspective on mental health. In that piece I started out by saying, “There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning.”

Well, today Glen Scrivener wrote an excellent piece on the Gospel Coalition website which I think is well worth reading as a sort of follow-up looking at how the gospel actually works in his and his wife’s particular example – dealing with anorexia. I said that there was plenty more to say, and I think this piece is an excellent complement to what I originally wanted to say.

I hope that this kind of thing encourages Christians to speak up more in the context of mental health. I can’t remember where I read this now, but last week I came across a quote, saying something like: “Christians can’t answer every question, but every Christian should be able to finish the sentence ‘only God got me through…’

Churches shouldn’t be museums of perfect people but hospitals for for the broken.

Glen finishes the article:

It’s always tempting to think these struggles are a departure from the trajectory you’re meant to be on. Life is meant to be an unbroken ascent into . . . wait . . . that’s a theology of glory, isn’t it? As theologians of the cross, we ought to know Jesus is at work right here and right now, even—and especially—in suffering. He’s willing and able to redeem us from all evil (Gen. 48:16).

We aren’t meant to sidestep or outwit this “departure” from our plans. The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25). Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Cor. 1:4). But whatever happens, you can let him handle those details.

So friend, receive from Jesus, get in community, look at your own sins, love your partner, and pray, pray, pray. Jesus enters the mess and says, “Here I am. Let’s engage right here, right now.”

A Christian perspective on mental health

Mental Health is the issue of the day, it seems. For example, the official charity of the 2017 London Marathon was Heads Together, a mental health charity started by Prince William, Catherine, and Prince Harry (you can see a video of the three of them discussing it on YouTube). Mental health is a big deal at the moment. The solution of Heads Together is to get people talking about mental health, which is fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes deep enough.

I believe that Christianity alone provides the deeper perspective on mental health which is lacking. But how?

Firstly, a quick caveat: this is, of course, not even close to everything that could be said when it comes to Christianity and mental health! There is far, far more to say and I just wanted to make clear from the outset: this is just the beginning. With that in mind…

1. What is mental health?

This is a pretty key question. The MentalHealth.gov website (a US government initiative) defines it this way:

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Emotional, psychological, and social well-being. That’s a pretty vague definition, isn’t it? It’s very difficult to pin down. What is well-being? Is it the same for everyone, or does it vary from person to person? This is the fundamental place where I believe the Christian faith makes a difference. Let’s think about the question: what is a human being ‘for’? Why are we here, what is our purpose? That makes a massive difference to the way we tackle and think about this issue.

Imagine a man from a remote tribe who has never seen modern technology before. Imagine this man picking up a smartphone and looking at it, trying to discern its function. It’s not heavy enough to be a good hammer, it’s not sharp enough to be a weapon, it doesn’t seem to be very useful! You can’t really assess its function without knowing what it is for. Once you know that it is for making phone calls and accessing the internet (etc), you can assess how good it is at those things and then if there are problems you can fix them.

Similarly with human beings. If you have no vision of what a healthy human being is, of what a healthy human mind is, then you will struggle to define mental health and struggle to fix it. Our view of what a human being is will determine both how we define mental health and how we go about healing it.

When I was at college, we studied pastoral counselling. We looked briefly at three different models of counselling:

  • Psychodynamic. This basically assumes that a human being is a product of their past experiences – if you can access the memories, access the past, you can identify what makes someone behave in the way that they do and then you can go about fixing it. For a while my wife had some counselling with a psychodynamic counsellor who kept trying to delve into her childhood and her past. I’m not sure that my wife found it particularly helpful!
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is the type of counselling which I believe has been adopted by the NHS. This is more of a ‘carrot on a stick’ approach – if you give someone the right carrot on the right stick, they’ll be able to change their behaviour – appeal to someone’s motivation.
  • Person Centred. This is the vaguest of the three I looked at – it seems to be about listening to and affirming someone until they feel better about themselves.

All of the above models of counselling explicitly assume a postmodern worldview, that is, they all assume that there is no ultimate truth. The only real arbiter of mental health is your own personal feelings about whether you think you are OK or not.

2. Who does the Bible say we are?

This is where the Bible comes in. It says that we are not products of random chance or blind evolution, or atoms floating around inside an uncaring universe. Psalm 24 begins:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Everything in the universe – including you and me – only exists because God created it. We do not belong to ourselves, we are not free agents – we belong to God. We exist by His will and for His purposes. If we get this wrong, we won’t get anything else right.

So what implications does that have for how we are supposed to live? Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was. He said there are two greatest commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

People often think of the second commandment while skipping over the first. Jesus said the commandment of first importance was to love the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind – with everything that we have. In other words, part of our primary duty and joy as human beings is to love the God who made us. This is fundamental to who we are.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism has as its first question: “What is the chief end of man?” (i.e., ‘what are we ultimately here for?’) The answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever”. Our primary purpose here is to glorify God and enjoy him. If we get that wrong, we will never even begin to get anything else right. As the author of Proverbs put it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7).

Someone once said, “everyone has a God-shaped hole”. I think that’s a bit simplistic but expresses something true about our experience: a life lived without God is a life lived without realising our true identity and purpose. We’ll never understand ourselves unless we grasp this basic truth.

But that’s not all there is to say.

3. What is wrong with us?

Mental health problems assume that there is something wrong with us – but what, exactly? And how do we solve it? As I’ve already said, there are various different ideas about human beings and various solutions on offer, but none of them get to the heart of the problem according to the Bible. As we just saw, Jesus said that what God has created us to do is love Him and love others. How exactly we do that is spelled out in the rest of the Bible – this is the purpose of the commandments, for example. But the problem is that none of us love God and love others as we should.

I’ve been reading through Calvin’s Institutes recently, and I came across a helpful quote just this morning:

… it is clear that keeping the commandments means not love of self but love of God and of our neighbour. Thus whoever lives as little as possible for himself, lives a good life. Conversely, no one leads a more disordered life than the man who lives for himself and who thinks only of his own gain.

This is a very helpful insight: the fundamental problem with each one of us is what the Bible calls sin. You could call it disordered self-love – we love ourselves more than we love God or other people. Call it selfishness, call it what you like, it’s a failure to live up to God’s standards of love.

Now, do you think a disordered life of self-love will be satisfying and lead to well-being? No, of course not. Without even trying I can think of many, many examples of people who have been ruined in this way – who have loved possessions, or money, or their career, or so on, too much. I see a lot of it in my work – people who have every material thing but are still desperately unhappy.

Now of course possessions, money, career etc. are bad things in themselves, but when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, it becomes destructive. A rampantly materialistic culture, for example, which encourages people to love things, will never be satisfied – you’ll never have enough to make you happy.

The Bible says that each one of us is a sinner, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and we all fail to live up to the life of love which God calls us to live. We are all guilty. However, there is a solution.

4. The solution: Jesus

Jesus was the one who lived a perfect life of love for us. He died the death that we deserve, the punishment we are due for turning away from God, and he offers us his life in exchange. Jesus can forgive us all our sin, can remake us, restore us, heal us.

Once we have accepted that God made us, once we have accepted that we are not as we should be, then we can fix our eyes on the solution that God has given us in Christ Jesus. All this makes it sound a bit clinical (Jesus is more than a ‘solution’), but I hope this starts to make some sense.

There’s more. Yesterday I was watching Mike Reeves on the reformation (part of this excellent series). He was talking about the puritan Richard Sibbes, and his work The Bruised Reed (that article is worth reading for a summary). One of his ideas is that all of our experiences, all of our ‘bruising’, should cause us to take our eyes off ourselves and onto Christ: because of God’s grace, demonstrated in Christ Jesus, we know that God’s love is shown towards us in everything that happens – even the difficult times.

I’ve really gone very quickly through all of this, and there is much more that could be said, but I want this to be a blog post rather than a book! So let me conclude by quoting just three hymns of the many which have struck me as I’ve been thinking about the issue of mental health from a Christian perspective.

Jesus! the Name high over all (Charles Wesley):

Jesus! the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Power into strengthless souls it speaks,
And life into the dead.

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds (John Newton):

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
and drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
and calms the troubled breast;
’tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary, rest.

How firm a foundation:

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

The core of what the church sings about is how we are saved, rescued, healed, redeemed – the Father has “lavished” his love on us (1 John 3:1) in adopting us as children through Jesus Christ. He promises never to leave us or forsake us, that all things will work together for the good of those who love him. This is great news, truly great news, which is worth shouting about – not just in mental health but in everything.

Postscript: ‘But what about…’

At the beginning I said that this wasn’t all that could be said about mental health from a Christian perspective. Absolutely true. I appreciate there will be many who have questions about depression, or anorexia, or other issues and I simply don’t have time to explain here how those things relate.

Just a couple of quick observations:

  1. All this is the ‘beginning’ – the foundation stone. The gospel is the cornerstone, without which nothing else will be right. It’s important to remember that just because more may need to be said about other issues, if the gospel is missing then whatever the solution is will be incomplete.
  2. Richard Sibbes’ work ‘The Bruised Reed’ (which I mentioned above) is very helpful on thinking about how pain and suffering work in the Christian life. It’s important to remember that God gives us difficulties so that we might turn to Him and walk with Him through them – He doesn’t save us from all of our issues, but rather uses them for good.

I find the work of the Christian Counselling Education Foundation (CCEF) very helpful, and more can be found on their website – in particular, it would be worth reading the book ‘How People Change’ by Lane and Tripp which outlines their the core of what they’ve about.

Thoughts on ‘The Strange Death of Europe’

I’ve just finished reading strangedeathofeuropeThe Strange Death of Europe by Douglas Murray. It’s not an easy read – it deals with an issue which we as a Western society do not want to talk about (immigration) – but I think it’s important to deal with these issues.

If you want to listen to him talking about the book and its main ideas, you can find a few interviews on YouTube such as this one.

I don’t want to review the book as such – please read it for yourself – but off the back of it I wanted to mention a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.

The main thing is: what gives a society a sense of identity? I think this is a hugely important question which is often overlooked in the UK. You have a group of people living together in a town. How can they get on with each other? You could list a few things: common language, jobs, values, etc. Values are important – we have to value certain things in order to get on with each other.

The government recognised this when it created “British Values” (which are, for the record: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty, and respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and those without faith). Those are all apparently British values which all children are being indoctrinated in – sorry – educated about at school.

The thing is, being taught about British Values at school doesn’t really give us a sense of identity, does it? It’s just “the way we do things round here” – without a coherent system of thought to back it up, they’re meaningless. This brings me to the question of religious identity.

In the past, this country has largely been held together by a broadly Christian worldview. It has permeated the monarchy, our government, our laws, our national institutions (such as the BBC), and of course an established church. Now this is all rapidly being demolished for a new secularist world where there is no place for religious belief. The best the government can come up with is some rather vague and not particularly convincing “British Values”.

Then Islam enters into the picture. The secular world simply has no idea how to respond to Islam. For most secularists, religious is an irrelevance. They seem to think most religions are more or less the same – they believe in a different ‘sky fairy’ but they’re pretty much the same (I talk about that more here). The problem is, religions are not all the same. British Values have nothing to say to someone who is a convinced Muslim.

Tom Holland did a documentary recently for Channel 4 called Isis: The Origins of Violence (at the time of writing you can still watch it on 4oD). In it he interviewed a Muslim (can’t remember who it was but it was someone important) who said that Western laws were not good because they did not come from God. He sincerely believed that Islamic laws were best because they were given by God and not man. (This is also the man who was somewhat evasive about condemning violence.)

How do you convince someone that our laws are good in those circumstances? 

It seems to me the only way is to actually demonstrate that our laws actually do come from God – from the Christian God, ‘the God who is there’ as Schaeffer put it. Secularism simply has no answer to orthodox Islam, it is impotent in the face of it.

What’s interesting about Douglas Murray’s book is that he identifies the problem (the decline of Christianity in the West) – but at the same time he believes that it is impossible to believe in Christianity now due to 19th century higher criticism (much of which has now been discredited).

I believe that the only ultimate solution to the problems we face – both personally and as a society – is the Christian faith. This is the social glue that helps to bind us together. This is the foundation of our society, the foundation of our morality and laws. This is the only way Western society can survive. My prayer is that God might send another revival as in the days of Wesley and Whitefield, or the Great Awakening in America. It has happened before, it can happened again. Lord, have mercy.

On not understanding Tim Farron

Tim Farron
Tim Farron (Source)

The latest thing which has prompted me to put pen to paper, so to speak, is Tim Farron. Specifically, his hounding by the media over whether he believes homosexuality is a sin. You can read some of the comments many media types have made in this Telegraph article, including Owen Jones labelling him an “absolute disgrace”.

The most interesting thing to me has been people’s reactions: some people have joined in with the shouting, but many have been more reticent. I think many people have been uncomfortable with the way that the media have gone after him for his personal views – why bring down a good man when his actions speak well of him? I’ve read two articles defending him, one by Jennie Rigg (chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems) and one – not surprisingly – by Brendan O’Neill. (I’m sure there have been others, I’ve seen similar sentiments expressed by various other people online).

The gist of their defense is: whatever Tim Farron’s personal views may be, in parliament he is a champion of LGBT rights – his voting record is excellent. In fact, according to the first article I mentioned: “He has said to me personally that when poly marriage is made legal he wants to be the first on the invite list to our wedding.”

So, Tim Farron is not a homophobic bigot. Right?

Hmmm.

I want to make a couple of points here.

Firstly, I don’t think Tim Farron should be labelled a ‘homophobic bigot’ or anything like that regardless of his voting on LGBT rights. These days the words are thrown around casually, but because someone disagrees with same-sex marriage does not make them a homophobic bigot. The traditional Christian teaching is that sex outside of marriage (that is, the lifelong union of a man and a woman) is wrong. This has been the understanding of our country for many hundreds of years. This is not homophobic or bigoted, it is simply believing what the majority of the world has always believed about marriage. If Tim Farron believes that, why should it not affect the way he votes?

It makes me uncomfortable that people seem to be saying “It’s OK – he’s one of us really. He may believes things in private, but at least he votes the right way.”

This brings me on to my second point. I simply don’t understand Tim Farron’s position here. If he does indeed believe the traditional Christian teaching about marriage and sex – why is he voting the way that he does? One article about Tim Farron says the following:

For Tim the liberal principles of tolerance and acceptance are essential. He never got in to politics to impose his morality on others but instead to be a witness and to carry out God’s call of loving our neighbour. (Source)

According to this article, Tim thinks that ‘loving our neighbour’ is what it’s about, not about ‘imposing [our] morality on others’. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing: It is not kind or loving to our neighbours to allow them to enter into sin.

One of the realisations that I’ve come to about sin over the last few years is that sin is not defined simply arbitrarily (i.e. sin is a set of moral rules which God just made up out of thin air to stop us having fun.) Sin is not loving God and not loving our neighbour. It has a bad effect on us and other people – it’s always the worst path we can take. Think about the ten commandments – adultery, for example. Adultery is not a loving thing to do. It wrecks homes, it destroys marriages, it does untold harm to children. It’s pretty obvious why that’s in the ten commandments, isn’t it?

And so, as a Christian who believes in the ten commandments, I don’t want my neighbour to commit adultery. Not because I think that makes them a Christian, but because I love them and want the best for them.

My understanding is that politics is about the common good – what is best for us as a country, and the citizens of that country. As a Christian, I have a particular idea of what the common good looks like. I believe God made us, and God knows what is best for us. I believe Christians, if they are to be consistent, should seek to be shaping society according to that ideal. Of course that doesn’t bring anyone into the Kingdom of God, only the preaching of the gospel can do that, but it is part of our calling to love our neighbour.

Same-sex marriage is, of course, one of the major areas at the moment where Western society is out of step with the church. I don’t understand how any Christian can be pleased about same-sex marriage. I can understand there may be a case for things like civil partnerships, but marriage – no. (I’ve talked about marriage before several times, see for example What is Marriage part one and part two – for a look at the harm it causes see a book released in 2016, Jephthah’s Children: The innocent casualties of same-sex parenting).

The point is, it seems to me to be double-minded to have a ‘private’ morality and a ‘public’ morality. Either something is sinful / immoral for everyone, or else it is not. I cannot impose my morality on other people, but Christians believe that what is moral is up to God – and He most certainly can and does ‘impose’ morality on everyone. Christians cannot be moral relativists: there is one God, and one morality for everyone. I believe Christians have a duty not to be silent on matters like this – not to hold a view in private but say another thing in public. (How else could we be salt and light in the world?)

So that, in a nutshell, is why I cannot understand Tim Farron.