Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Who are you?

11 February 2018

Some words grabbed me in a song we sang in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

woodworm floorboards 2

‘That’s who I am.’ I felt a deep satisfaction in that: the essential thing about me—my identity—is that I’m someone loved by Father God.

I’d been prompted to think about identity by a couple of Facebook posts I’d read the night before. One was from a woman who wrote, ‘First and foremost, I’m a feminist.’ How sad. Nothing wrong with feminism, of course; in a male-dominated society it can bring a needed balance. But it’s hardly worth making the centre of your personal identity.

Then I read a post by a man who had been in a local ‘gay pride’ march. He didn’t say so explicitly, but he gave the impression that, for him, his identity lay in his sexual orientation. Again, one can sympathise with gays who have suffered discrimination and feel the need to push for greater acceptance in society. But for your whole personal identity to be tied to this aspect of your personhood is, surely, a sad state of affairs.

In the West, we tend to find our identity in our job. Who are you? I’m a nurse. I’m an engineer. Our profession is probably one we have chosen, rather than one foisted on us by circumstances beyond our control. It suits our natural gifts. And we probably devote at least eight hours a day to it for a sizeable chunk of our lives. So, yes, it’s important. But can your profession truly be ‘who you are’? I don’t think so.

Others find their identity in some physical trait. I’m black, and proud of it. I’m Native American and proud of it. Nothing wrong with that either, especially if you have suffered discrimination and want to redress the balance. But it’s hardly important enough to make you say, ‘It’s who I am’, as if everything else about you is minor beside it.

The physical trait may be an illness or disability. I’m a diabetic. I’m a cancer-sufferer. I’m paraplegic. No doubt this is a major element in your life, so you might as well come to terms with it and, as far as you can, make the most of it. But to build your whole identity on such a feature—that’s can’t be right, can it?

No. All these sources of identity are unsatisfactory. Each one is like rotten floorboards in a house: they will hold you up most of the time but, sooner or later, they won’t be able to take your weight and you’ll end up, injured, in the cellar. Sure, being a nurse, a homosexual, a feminist, a black-skinned person, a diabetic or whatever is a major facet of your life, but if you make it the source of your very identity you’ll never reach your full potential as a human being.

You need a more solid floor to walk your life on. I’m convinced that, if you’re to reach your full potential, be at peace with yourself, and be of maximum benefit to those around you, there’s only one truth worth pinning your ‘This is me’ badge to. It’s what we sang to God in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

This is true for everyone, by the way, not just for committed Christians like me. Of course, if you don’t believe it, it’s not going to do you any good. Like the poor student who received a solicitor’s letter to say he’d been left a million-pound legacy by a distant relative he didn’t even know existed. He thought it was a con and continued to live like a poor student. It was months before he ventured to look into it properly, only to discover, to his astonishment and joy, that it was true. Then, and only then, did he begin to experience the benefits.

God is a good, good Father. And you really are loved by him! It’s worth investigating, starting, perhaps with a few tentative prayers. As a result, you could discover your real identity, find solid ground at last beneath you feet—and weep for joy.


Wart Treatment: the blight of ‘isms’

5 February 2018

The body of Christ has warts. They’re called isms.

I’ve seen lots of them. I was born into Methodism and grew up in Brethrenism, where they taught me Dispensationalism from the Scofield Bible. At university, I encountered the writings of the Puritans and embraced Calvinism, with its inseparable partner, Amillennialism. This taught me, of course, to despise both Dispensationalism and that alleged arch-enemy of thinking Christians, Arminianism.

wartLater, I flirted with Postmillennialism and got involved with what some called Restorationism. Finally, resisting the advances of (among others) Reconstructionism, Haginism, Wimberism and Classic Premillennialism, I settled on a brilliantly novel idea: I would just try to interpret the Bible sensibly and serve Christ. What a stroke of genius! Maybe I should patent it and market it as Christian Minimalism.

You’re thinking: ‘You pompous ass. It’s impossible to avoid isms altogether! It’s human nature to take even mainstream items of Christian faith, lump them together and stick some ismic label on them. Even good people do that. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Wear your “I’m a Baptist” badge with pride.’

No chance. Seriously, I’ve concluded that every ism must, by definition, be something less than fully-fledged, developing Christian faith. Have you noticed that while each ism is quick to line up supporting Bible proof-texts, it conveniently ignores texts that seem to say something different? Or it explains them away in what seems to me like elastic exegesis.

Take Calvinism, for instance. It maintains its ‘five points’ based on the acronym TULIP,[1] claiming that the five stand or fall together and forbidding us to pick and choose. But Limited Atonement sticks in my craw. It does the same even when they euphemise it as Particular Redemption. An estate agent can insist on describing a house as having ‘great potential’ but in reality it’s still a run-down property.

When I point out to Calvinists that ‘The Lord is…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’,[2] they tell me that ‘everyone’ means ‘everyone without distinction’, not ‘everyone without exception’. My reminder that Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’[3] prompts the retort that it depends what we mean by ‘for’. Certainly I have no business, they insist, to tell people indiscriminately that Christ died for them. Hmmm.

It’s the same with the Perseverance bit. Sure, it is God who saves, and no-one can snatch us out of his, or Christ’s, hands.[4]  But if ‘once saved, always saved’ is true, why did the Holy Spirit, in overseeing the compilation of the New Testament, include so many warnings about the dangers of falling away?

The sobering words of Hebrews six and ten apply, Calvinists say, not to the genuine believer but to the person who merely professes to believe. But that’s hard to swallow when he’s described as having ‘shared in the Holy Spirit'[5]. And if he’s liable to the ‘raging fire’ of God’s judgment[6] because he has ‘treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him'[7], in what sense did Christ’s blood sanctify him in the first place?

Yes, yes, I know the standard answers you’re going to throw back at me. I’ve read them all and studied them ad nauseam, and I’m still not convinced.

No, the whole TULIP thing is too simplistic, too neat and tidy for me. It forces on Scripture a scheme that’s less than Scripture and that tends to become a Scripture substitute. It’s an ism and a wart. Bishop Ryle was right when he observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.'[8]  For me it’s out with TULIP and in with CHRYSANTHEMUM—or any other long-named flower that gives scope for all those facets of God’s truth that can’t be made to fit a five-letter acronym.

‘Ah, so you’re an Arminian!’ you say. Not so. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’, for instance, doesn’t square with the New Testament’s promises of eternal security for the believer.

‘Oh, come on! You can’t have it both ways!’ Yes, I can, because that’s the way Scripture seems to have it. Like the twin lines of a railway track, divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation run a parallel course, meeting only in eternity and the mind of God. For now, I’m content to run my theological train along both rather than opt for the wobbly ride of any ismic monorail.

I’ll be a Calviminian. If I meet a troubled Christian who lacks assurance, I’ll remind him that Jesus turns away none who come to him. If I meet one who indulges in sinful behaviour without raising a hair, I’ll warn him that his salvation is in jeopardy and quote him Matthew 7:21-23. For myself, I’ll relax in the security of God’s sovereign love and grace that keeps me safe now and for ever, and I’ll hold fast to him as if it all depended on me.

This isn’t a new idea. John Newton, caught up in the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate three centuries ago, wrote that when preaching he tried ‘to keep all shibboleths and terms and forms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children, and if my hearers had not other means of information I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we talk a good deal about Christ.'[9]  Wise man.

And here’s another thing: our understanding of the Bible—where we tend to root our isms—is constantly growing and developing. Every ism takes a selection of biblical truths, as understood at the time, and sets them in concrete, leaving no flexibility, no scope for our grasp of God’s amazing truth to be adjusted. That’s never going to sit comfortably with people like me, who feel that, like the potter’s jar in the book of Jeremiah, our traditional ‘jar’ of received doctrine has been smashed beyond repair, and is being reshaped on God’s wheel into a new and more beautiful one.

Isms have another off-putting feature: they lock people into a sub-culture that’s a parody of fully-rounded Christian faith. Methodism, for example, locks its followers into John Wesley, Wesleyan doctrine, Wesleyan hymns, stewards, circuits and moderators, and I don’t want to get stuck in an eighteenth-century rut any more than I want to get stuck into a seventeenth-century Puritan one.

I don’t even want to get stuck in a twenty-first century ‘new church’ sub-culture. Once quite broad, this is rapidly narrowing to ismic proportions. Suggest singing one of Wesley’s hymns in some ‘new churches’ and they’ll laugh at you. Question the ear-splitting volume of the music group’s sound system or propose a period of quiet prayer and they’ll tell you—as someone once told me—that you’re going to be uncomfortable in heaven, because the silence there lasts only half an hour.[10]  Suggest that what is commonly called ‘anointing’ is often just hype and they’ll accuse you of not being ‘in the flow of the Spirit’.

I want to break out of denominational sub-cultures and just be a follower of Jesus. That doesn’t mean adopting the pious ‘I belong to Christ’ stance of the Corinthians[11] or becoming the sole member of a church of one. It means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Bible to me has also spoken through it to others—some of whom are long dead.

That’s why we need at least a nodding acquaintance with church history. Each new movement of the Christian era has picked up neglected Bible truths and handed them like a baton to subsequent generations. Tragically, we tend to throw away the baton of accumulated understanding and manufacture our own flimsy ism, running with it as if it’s the repository of all truth. Inevitably we end up in isolationism and triumphalism—though we never admit to either.

But there’s an end coming to all this. One day, praise God, the warts will all be gone, leaving the body of Christ a fit match for its glorious Head.[12]  Meanwhile, we can move things along in that direction. How? By refusing names and labels that mark us out as something less than disciples of Jesus. Let’s put Christ first and, by refusing any lesser loyalty, help turn Christianity’s isms into wasms.

Footnotes

  1. The Total Depravity of fallen humanity. God’s Unconditional Election of some to be saved. Limited Atonement—Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible Grace that draws the elect to Christ. And the Perseverance of the Saints, who will endure to the end because salvation is God’s work, not man’s.
  2. 2 Peter 3:9
  3. 1 John 2:2
  4. John 10:27-30
  5. Hebrews 6:4
  6. Hebrews 10:27
  7. Hebrews 10:29
  8. Quoted in N. Douty, The Death of Christ, p60
  9. Quoted in J. Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton, Lion, 1981/1996, p170-1
  10. Revelation 8:1
  11. 1 Corinthians 1:12
  12. Ephesians 4:15-16

A Grotesque Mismatch

5 February 2018

mismatchI once saw this in real life in a special hospital—a handsome young man in his thirties with the undeveloped body of an infant. I had to struggle hard to keep a grip on my reaction, because the grotesque mismatch made me feel suddenly sick.

It’s a good image of Christ and his church. Jesus himself is the Head and the church his body. He is fully-developed, mature and glorious; the church is ill-matched to the Head, stunted and deformed. It is deformed by superficiality, self-seeking, tradition, division and doctrinal imbalance.

God intends the church to mature and grow so that it matches the glory of the Head. The match will be complete at Christ’s return, of course, but God intends things to improve before then—and we Christians, who comprise the church, are responsible for working with the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Look carefully at these scriptures:

  • Ephesians 5:23  ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body.’

  • 1 Corinthians 12:27  ‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

  • Ephesians 4:11-16  ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

Are you doing your part?


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


Catching People: And I don’t mean fishing

24 January 2018

Sloths and bats hang upside down. Snakes slither along the ground. But the normal human position is to be upright. At ninety degrees to the earth. Vertical.

We walk that way and stand that way. Even when we sit or kneel, our head is the bit of us farthest from the floor. It’s normal.

fallover2From time to time, of course, we adopt a horizontal position. In sleep, for instance. As every overnight air passenger knows, sleeping upright is no fun. When you wake up over Cameroon with a crick in your neck, the thought of getting horizontal is powerfully attractive. Sickness, too, overrides the normal mechanisms that keep people upright. When they faint or collapse they end up horizontal.

And God can cause humans to leave the vertical position. His glory and power are such that even a glimpse can bring the strongest man to the ground. Ezekiel ‘fell face down’.[1]  John ‘fell at his feet as though dead’.[2] To fall prostrate—that is, face down, to hide one’s eyes from his glory—is the common reaction to God’s presence.

Sometimes this seems to be a choice. Just as in Bible times a visitor would deliberately prostrate himself before a king or other dignitary, it was natural to adopt that position before the King of kings. It’s not uncommon today, therefore, to see people prostrate themselves before God in times of worship, at least in churches that allow such freedom of expression.

At other times falling over is involuntary. The power of God touches a person and they go ‘out for the count’, as unconscious as a boxer at the receiving end of an uppercut. Oddly enough, people touched this way usually fall backwards, not forwards.

In recent decades we’ve seen a spate of backwards-falling in meetings as part of various times of ‘refreshing’. When it first began, people would suddenly keel over in their places, scattering chairs and scaring their neighbours. These, when they regained some composure, would make their friends comfortable on the floor, arrange their dress for modesty and stand aside.

Sometimes the leaders would invite folk to come forward for prayer. The lightest of touches on the forehead could have an effect like a bolt of lightning. I’ve seen people literally leave the floor, as if the carpet had been electrified, and crash down backwards in a sprawling heap, unconscious. In spite of hitting their heads hard, none seemed to suffer even a bruise. After a while they would ‘come round’ and stagger to their chairs having enjoyed an unusual sense of God’s presence.

To me, the saddest thing about all this was how church leaders so quickly institutionalised it. What undoubtedly started out as a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit ended up as another item in the church’s repertoire. Before, you could sing, pray, testify, preach, teach, prophesy, speak in a tongue, interpret a tongue, share a vision or bring an exhortation. Now, you could also call people forward to line up and be ‘ministered to’ and they would fall over backwards.

That can’t be right. The work of the Spirit, Jesus said, is like the wind: it ‘blows wherever it pleases…you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.'[3]  But church leaders built themselves a wind-tunnel. ‘The wind,’ they said, ‘will come from the touch of those who pray for the people, and it will blow those people over backwards, preferably within two minutes so that we have time to get round everybody.’

Gradually, the freshness and spontaneity of the Spirit’s work was vanishing. In its place was coming a pattern of learned behaviour, tutored by well-meaning but insensitive leaders.

A woman comes forward with others. She stands, eyes closed, expecting God’s touch. Everyone knows she’s going to fall backwards—that’s the system—so someone ushers her into a position that leaves two metres of clear space behind her. As a leader comes to pray with her, a ‘catcher’ moves in behind, hands lightly touching her waist to reassure her that she can fall safely.

If, after a couple of minutes, she’s still upright, leader and catcher alike become a bit tense. The leader feels he may have ‘lost the anointing’ and is going to lose face in the eyes of the congregation. The catcher, who likes to be kept busy, is willing her to fall over so that he can move on to the next person. The fact that God is sovereign and that she doesn’t have to fall over, or that she might fall forwards, or that it might happen in fifteen minutes rather than two, doesn’t seem to enter the equation.

Measures must be taken to help the Spirit in his work. The wind-speed in the tunnel needs cranking up by mechanical means. The leader begins to push the woman backwards. Sensing this, the man behind her stiffens for the catch. The woman takes a step backwards, a natural reaction to being pushed. That shortens the space behind her to a metre and a half. Now, if she falls, she’s likely to land on somebody else. The catcher frowns. He’s going to have to do a spot of clever manoeuvring here.

The pressure is not just on the leader and the catcher. It’s on the woman, too. Behind her is a congregation that has learnt the procedure. Everyone’s wondering why she’s still standing. The pressure for her to keel over voluntarily is enormous. She gives in. Yielding to the push on the forehead and secure in the knowledge of the catcher’s presence, she falls back, eyes still closed, and is laid out in the available space. The leader smiles. Another success. He moves on to the next person. The catcher smiles. Another one safely down. He too moves on.

But was this the work of God? Did she ‘go down under the power’? Certainly not. She went down under a power, but not the power of God. It was the power of peer pressure, the power of learned behaviour and the power of a push on the forehead. It was the synthetic power of the wind-tunnel. If the Holy Spirit showed up at all, he must surely have shown up grieved. But he is ‘the Spirit of grace’ and may well have dispensed a blessing to the woman simply because he loves to bless. If so, it was in spite of the wind-tunnel arrangements, not because of them.

How dare we toy with the Holy Spirit this way?

Much that has gone on in the name of the Spirit has been little more than sympathetic magic. When the rain comes, the worms rise. So we do a rain dance, performing actions that, by simulating the fall of rain on the ground, cause the worms to rise. But rising worms do not spell rain. When the Spirit comes, certain phenomena—like falling over—commonly occur. So we do a Spirit dance, with forehead-pushing and catchers. People dutifully fall backwards. But such antics don’t spell the presence of the Lord.

Let’s allow God to be his sovereign self. Scrap the wind-tunnel. Let’s just open the windows of our souls and let the wind of God blow where it wills.

And if you’re an official catcher, take my advice: resign.

Footnotes

  1. Ezekiel 1:28
  2. Revelation 1:17
  3. John 3:8

Bungalow Living: Rejecting dualism

24 January 2018

I’ve come across a disturbing trend: Christians who can’t cope—not with their own circumstances but with other people’s. For instance, someone today said about a chronically sick friend, ‘No, I never go to visit her. I just can’t cope with her condition.’

bungalowLet me tell you about this sick, unvisited friend. She’s an older woman who has spent most of her life in Christian service of one kind or another, including some years on the mission-field. Having developed cancer of the throat that destroyed her vocal cords, she has ended up with an electronic device attached to her throat that enables her to speak. But the sound is whispery, some would say quite sinister-sounding—and at least two of her longstanding Christian friends can’t cope with that.

Here’s another case. A retired couple decided to move house to be nearer their children. But a dead housing market meant that after several years they still hadn’t found a buyer, and they didn’t have the means to move without selling first. A well-meaning Christian brother wrote and advised, ‘You need to do what Jesus said: command the house to sell. That will clear the log-jam right away. You can start packing!’[1] When the couple informed their well-meaning friend that they had been doing this very thing for a long time, with no apparent change, the communication dried up. The friend couldn’t cope with it not working.[2]

And here’s another. When a young couple known to me had their first child, a son, it wasn’t long before routine tests discovered that the little boy had a birth defect: he was profoundly deaf. They prayed about it. They got the whole church praying about it, long and hard, but with no evident change.

Then the medical authorities informed them that a new technique had become available. A small device could be implanted into the child’s head. While it would not enable him to hear in the normal sense, it would move him a tiny step closer to being able to detect certain sounds and so provide a better chance of at least some aural communication. Most of the family’s friends rejoiced at the opportunity. But a few Christians said it would be a mistake to agree to the implant, because that would show a lack of faith in God’s power to heal. So when the implant went ahead, they cut the family off—they couldn’t cope with the situation. One such lady, who had been close to the family, now crossed the street rather than meet the mother and have to face up to the fact that God hadn’t healed the boy.

This is a shameful response, brought about by what I call two-storey living. These people have two distinct living-areas in their lives. There’s the ‘downstairs’ level, where everyday life takes place: going to work, painting the hallway, buying groceries, paying the mortgage, eating dinner. Then there’s the ‘upstairs’, which is ‘spiritual’. Here, you just quote the right healing scripture and healing takes place instantly. If you have a problem, you just ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ and he solves it for you right away. If you are short of money, you mention it to Jehovah Jireh[3] and, that same night, under cover of darkness, an anonymous person slips an envelope containing £500 through your letterbox. It always works. God says it will, so it must. It can’t not work. So when the going gets a bit rough downstairs, these folk take refuge upstairs where ‘rough’ doesn’t exist. Some in fact stay up there most of the time, reluctantly venturing down only when they need a sandwich from the fridge, or a couple of paracetamol.

This approach is a form of what theologians call dualism: two separate areas of experience, one in the physical world, the other in the metaphysical. Authentic Christianity has no place for it and has traditionally labelled it heresy. True Christian living calls us to abandon such two-storey living and move into a bungalow where there is no spiritual/secular divide, where everyday life and true spirituality co-exist in harmony, where the devil is God’s devil,[4] and where faith is robust enough to cope with anything—even God’s apparent failure to live up to his promises.

How does this apply to the lady who ‘couldn’t cope’ with visiting her one-time friend with the artificial voice-box?

For a start, she should be thoroughly ashamed of herself for her abysmal failure to show the Christian grace of caring. Then she should sort out her confused thinking that says, ‘Hmm. Betty is a good Christian woman. She forsook a lucrative career in the secular world in order to serve the Lord. She even suffered for the gospel while serving in a Muslim country. God must love her very much—certainly enough to reward her by preserving her health. But, oh dear, God hasn’t done it! I can’t square that with God’s love, so I’ll just stick my head in the sand and pretend the problem isn’t there. Unfortunately I won’t be able to visit the poor old girl, because that would be to yank my head out of the sand and see the grotesque problem yet again—and I can’t cope with that!’

You can apply the same approach to the person who can’t cope with the house-sale mountain not jumping into the sea as commanded, and to the pathetic woman who crossed the street rather than face the reality that the child of a Christian couple was profoundly deaf.

Fundamentally, these people all have a problem with God. They have him all neatly sewn up into a system whereby, provided they press the right faith-buttons and quote the Bible’s allegedly absolute promises with enough vigour and volume, God is somehow obliged to spring into action without delay and address the issue. Upstairs, he always does. But they can’t face the fact that in the real world of downstairs living sometimes—if we’re honest, often—God doesn’t do it. Of course, they have an escape clause to cover such eventualities: lack of faith on the part of the person who needs his help. It can’t possibly be God’s problem, so it must be a human one.

Now you shouldn’t kick a person when he’s down, yet that’s exactly what these mixed-up Christians do. Not only do they desert the poor woman with the voice-box when she needs Christian company most, they also tell her it’s her own fault entirely that she’s in that condition: ‘If you’d had faith, sister, you wouldn’t have got into this state in the first place.’ That’s going to make her depressed as well as sick. It is seriously unchristian.

Bungalow living means saying goodbye to all that unsanctified behaviour. It means admitting that we still live in an imperfect world, that there’s a ‘not yet’ aspect of the kingdom as well as an ‘already’, and that it can get messy downstairs.

Bungalow living means adjusting our view of God instead of turning our back on sufferers. Is God loving, good and kind? Most certainly; he has revealed himself plainly as such. Does that mean he is obliged to make our life a bed of roses? Absolutely not. He is working to a higher agenda than our personal comfort. Indeed, in the present age he often chooses to use suffering as a tool for maturing us and shaping us into a closer likeness to our Elder Brother. Facing up to these things is what real faith is about.[5]

At the great Messianic Banquet in the age to come we shall be able to feast to our hearts’ content on the goodness of God. There will be no delayed house-moves, no aural implants, no artificial voice-boxes there. There will be fulfilment, food and shalom for us all. But what about here and now? Happily, not everything is reserved for the future. From time to time the Lord, in his goodness, may grant us—as a privilege, not a right—a sample from his banquet-table, a tiny taste of the powers of the coming age—and no more.[6] Savour it when it comes, and stay real when it doesn’t.

And, oh yes—the dining room is downstairs.

Footnotes

  1. A reference to Mark 11:23.
  2. This was, at the time of writing, the situation my wife and I were in. There are some Christian people who avoided us because they couldn’t cope with the fact that God hadn’t yet opened the way for our relocation.
  3. This Hebrew name means ‘The Lord will provide’. It occurs in Genesis 22:14.
  4. An expression I first heard from the Canadian Bible teacher Ern Baxter. He meant that the devil, far from being God’s equal, is a created being under his control.
  5. Linguistic studies show that the New Testament word for ‘faith’ (Greek pistis) often means something more like the English ‘faithfulness’. So the notion of ‘having faith for something’—finance, health or whatever—needs at the very least to be balanced by that of ‘remaining faithful to God’ even when we can’t understand why he is allowing certain unpleasant things to happen to us and to our friends, and being honest about it.
  6. Hebrews 6:5

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