Are You A ‘Fully Educated, Free Thinker Who Doesn’t Believe In Fairy Stories’?

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Many of you will be aware that Twitter is a wonderful way of sharing news and views across social media, listening to and engaging with debate – but it can also be a means by which people can easily fire off salvoes designed to ridicule, shut down and squash others with whom they disagree. One such example came in a discussion about religion and atheism generated by the popular and well know atheist Richard Dawkins. As the discussion unfolded, one atheistic contributor simply tried to lambast his religious ‘opponent’ with the phrase ‘I’m highly educated thanks. Far too free thinking to believe in your fairy stories’. The problem is of course that the implications behind this statement are simply wrong on so many levels, and yet tap into so many common misconceptions about people of faith (particularly Christians) by those who aren’t remotely religious.

Firstly, it implies that religious people can’t possibly be ‘bright young things’ with an education. They must be stupid to hold a religious perspective in the light of modern day science and ethics. How can you believe in a creator God who made the word in 7 days in the light of Darwin, ‘the big bang’ and evolution? Or in a loving God in the light of so much evil and innocent suffering? At first glance these questions may appear to be problematic, but in reality, they aren’t so difficult when one appreciates the difference between science and theology. Very simply put, one tends to look at ‘how’ the world is as it is, the other looks at ‘why’. This is why the dilemma between faith and science is often a false one, as evidenced by the large number of Christians with science degrees!

Secondly, the statement suggest that religious people are often brain-washed or blinkered in their thinking because of their religious faith and perspective. Of course this can happen in some extreme circumstances, but equally Christians believe that intellect is a gift of God. God has given us freedom of thought and mind and therefore he expects us to use it. Train and ‘prepare your minds for action’ says the Apostle Peter in his first epistle (1 Peter 1.13) and there is much encouragement in the scriptures about being wise and discerning. Ironically, a lot of so called ‘free-thinkers’ – simply don’t! They merely go with the flow and follow the fads and fashions of society without ever really thinking through the implications of their non-religious world view. They simply accept it as being bright, right, sophisticated and clever – but what if it isn’t?

Finally, the statement sarcastically implies that believing in God is rather like believing in fairy stories with the assumption being that it’s all made up, ‘pie-in-the-sky’, myth and legend. Surprisingly, the vast majority of Christians don’t believe in fairy stories either, so how can they be so sure that their belief in God isn’t unreasonable? Well, that’s because Christianity invites the individual to study the evidence – once one understands that the Bible is written in a wide range of literary genres (narrative, history, poetry etc) springing from a wide range of historical contexts backed up with historical data and eye-witness testimonies, then the evidence starts to speak for itself. Famous authors such as C.S Lewis (Mere Christianity) and Frank Morrison (Who Moved the Stone?) started out as committed atheists but found that upon close inspection the evidence for Christianity was overwhelming. From a Muslim perspective Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is another good example.

So I suppose the question is, are you as a fully educated, free thinking person willing to study the evidence?

Consider this! If someone could provide reasonable answers to your most significant questions and objections you have —reasonable to the point that Christianity seems true beyond a reasonable doubt—would you then become a Christian? If your honest answer is no, then your resistance to Christianity is emotional or volitional, not merely intellectual. No amount of evidence will convince you because evidence is not what’s in your way — you are!


The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. Psalm 111.10


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To Print Or Not To Print – That Is The Question!

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Let’s ‘print and be damned’ has often been the unsaid mantra used by journalists, newspapers and media outlets for many years, and is ironically said to have arisen from a statement uttered by the Duke of Wellington, when confronted with a letter threatening to reveal salacious details about an affair. The Duke would not give in to blackmail and so suggested that the publisher should print as he wished and therefore reap the consequences.

The consequences can be profound as we have seen from the recent case between Sir Cliff Richard and the BBC, when the High Court judge Mr Justice Mann ruled in favour of the singer and awarded him £210,000 in damages, agreeing that promoting unsubstantiated accusations against Sir Cliff and publishing sensational video footage of the singer’s home being searched when he was never arrested or charged, was a ‘serious invasion of his privacy’. In response, the BBC were considering an appeal, suggesting that not being able to publish the name of a suspect prior to a formal charge was a serious restriction of the ‘freedom of the press’ and would not be in the public interest. This overlooks the terrible hurt personally caused to Sir Cliff and the irreparable damage done to his reputation, coupled with the judge’s own conclusion that ‘no matter of public interest’ was served in this case. Although emotionally unable to comment on the steps of the High Court, Sir Cliff made it clear in his interview with ITV that he had no desire to curtail the ‘freedom of the press’ but to ensure that the privacy of the individual was respected until the point that a formal charge is made. After all, it is a fundamental principle of our society that all people are innocent until proven guilty and as Sir Cliff himself observed ‘freedom without responsibility is anarchy’.

It seems to me that although it’s right to promote openness and transparency, we all need to accept that this doesn’t give us an automatic right to know everything about every individual or institution. The problem is that we are all nosy, and gossip sells newspapers, and we simply can’t bear not knowing and this is where the dilemma lies – we expect to have everything laid out on a plate and become frustrated and disgruntled when it isn’t so. The BBC may have hoped that its reputation for rigorous journalism would be enhanced, but they forgot (or perhaps didn’t care) that it’s prize scoop came at the expenses of trashing the reputation of an innocent person.

Perhaps we should all remember that only God knows everything and that one day our lives will be judged by him as if it were an ‘open book’, but until then we need to live, love and respect each other with as much grace and dignity as we can muster. Doing ‘to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6.31), otherwise we will all have to suffer the consequences.


 “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6.8


The NHS, Brexit And The ‘Magic Money Tree’

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Sometimes I find myself feeling a bit incredulous! The Prime Minister has just announced a £20 billion pounds funding increase for the National Health Service (NHS) after Brexit, partly funded by tax increases and partly from money that will no longer be going to the European Union (the so called ‘Brexit Dividend’). On the face of it, this would seem to be good news, but immediately, the politics has kicked in by those who would wish to either undermine the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party or derail Brexit. Yes, I completely understand and accept that more should have been paid to doctors and nurses years ago; I also understand that merely referring to the controversial ‘£350 million per week’ quote painted on the side of the now infamous red Brexit bus is like ‘waving a red rag to a bull’ to some – but the point remains that this is still good news! Especially, when one accepts that according to recent opinion polls 66% (2/3rds) of the British public are in favour of paying higher tax to fund the NHS regardless of whatever may or may not come back from Brussels. Admittedly, during the election campaign Amber Rudd had accused Jeremy Corbyn of believing in a ‘magic money tree’ – a phrase which the Prime Minister herself had also used, but now (ignoring the inconvenient truth that the government has produced loads of new money via loans to business through its process of ‘Quantative Easing’) critics have accused the Prime Minister of ‘pulling a rabbit out of a hat’, of finding a ‘magic money tree’ after all, albeit through increased taxes and money that would have gone to the EU. However, putting Politics aside – why can’t we simply celebrate the fact that new money is going to the NHS in time for its 70th anniversary which is precisely what so many people have wanted, waited and called for, for such a long time? This is still good news! Or must it always be part of our human nature to criticise and complain?

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Ironically, it would seem so, for as the Christian can testify, the greatest example of good news being stifled by the politics of the day is perhaps the coming of Jesus himself! Which is strange, because for centuries having been conquered by a series of foreign regimes, the people of Israel were only too aware of the fact that they lived in a broken world, where ‘might seemed to be right’ and where their lives were not their own. Society was often cruel and unjust, and the lives of weak and the poor were often treated shamefully or neglected. What they needed, and what they longed for, was a hero, a Saviour, a Messiah who could lift them out of their suffering and save them from their plight. And of course, the biblical notion of salvation is a lot broader than we might imagine, for it refers not just to rescue and restoration – but to healing! Just like modern day clinicians, Jesus was not just concerned about the presenting problems but the underlying causes. In other words, he was concerned about the whole person! And for Jesus, the main underlying problem of the human condition spiritually speaking was – sin!

It was sin that spoiled people’s lives, their relationships with one another and their relationship with God, and it was because of sin that Jesus had come into the world, so that through his loving death upon the cross our lives could be profoundly changed, restored and healed when we put our faith in him. We would be saved! This is good news! Sadly, the politics of the day prevented many from appreciating what was happening before their eyes. May our minds and our vision be open to all that is good and praiseworthy.


“On each side of the river stood the tree of life …. and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22.2


 

‘In God We Trust’ – Or Is It The American President?

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In the light of Brexit, one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s most notable remarks was that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, but now that President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal, we are all left wondering whether a bad deal is actually better than a broken one? Naturally, the complexities of the issue are immense and the implications of pulling out of the deal with the Iranians very serious indeed, especially as it was generally believed that the Iranians were in fact ‘keeping their end of the bargain’. This was underscored by the vain attempt of several national leaders to keep Donald Trump ‘onside’ prior to his announcement.

Now of course, it’s very difficult for the common man to get any sense of what’s really going on behind the scenes or the ‘inside track’, but boldened by his recent success in North Korea, it appears that President Trump is playing a tremendous game of brinkmanship in an attempt to force the Iranians once again to the negotiating table in order to generate a new, better, more wonderful deal than the one previously negotiated under President Obama. Of course, if he succeeds then he will deserve the world’s plaudits, but if he doesn’t, then we will all have to girder our resolve as we come to terms with the consequences.

However, on a simple level one is left wondering ‘what do these events say about trust?’ How can we expect Iran (or any other nation state for that matter) to trust America if it can tear up its agreements at a moment’s notice? It’s slightly ironic that one of Donald Trump’s campaign slogans was Trust me! I’m going to make America great again!’. No doubt the President believes that this is precisely what he’s doing in keeping with his ‘America first’ approach but surely it will become much harder for other signatories or nation states to be so confident about US policy or the trustworthiness of its President!

Perhaps the US, which takes such pride in it’s Christian heritage, should pause and reflect upon its national motto which is stamped on the back of every two-cent coin, the simple slogan which reads ‘In God we trust’! The Spiderman movies may have brought to the public consciousness the thought that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, but the Bible also has a lot to say about the folly of those who look purely to their own strength, wealth and resources to get things done (see Psalm 52.6-7), whereas the godly man humbly appreciates that he can’t do everything in his own strength, but only with the wise and prayerful backing and support of others, trusting God as he does so. For trust needs to be cultivated and encouraged – it can’t be demanded. If you want people to trust you, you need to give them reason to do so. Christians will recall how Jesus encouraged his disciples to ‘Trust God and to trust also in me’ (John 14.1), but this wasn’t a blind sort of trust, ‘a stab in the dark’, it was a reasoned trust based on what they knew God had done for them in the past and what they could see Jesus doing for them now. His deeds gave his words authenticity. His whole life was one of integrity. People may break their word, but God never does and now, through the person of Jesus, God was keeping his Word, and fulfilling every promise, agreement and covenant that had ever been made. Let’s hope that in the fulness of time the American President will win a fulsome victory, but will it also earn him praise, respect – and fulsome trust?


“He who was seated on throne said, ‘behold I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” Revelation 21.5


 

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The Incredible Art Of Forgiveness

The Trial Begins Of Two Men Accused Of Murdering Stephen Lawrence

In the light of the recent chemical weapons attack upon the Syrian citizens of Douma, alongside March’s assault upon Sergei and Yulia Skripal when a Novichok nerve agent was used in Salisbury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world has sunk to a new low and that the world had become a much darker and dangerous place. What has become of our moral values, common decency and respect for human life?

In recent weeks, we have seen the American, French and British authorities take military action against those who use chemical weapons, but there have also been two incredibly moving stories which perhaps given the circumstance have not been given the prominence that they rightly deserve. The first was the comedian Patrick Kielty’s BBC documentary entitled “My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me”, exploring the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement as it reached its 20th anniversary. Patrick’s story is poignant as his own father was murdered by paramilitary gunmen during ‘The Troubles’ – men who were subsequent released from prison as part of the agreement. Patrick’s view was nuanced, because although he admitted that he couldn’t forgive the gunmen, he accepted that their release was necessary if there was ever to be reconciliation. He was stunned by an interview with Richard Moore, who as a child had been totally blinded by a rubber bullet fired at him by a British soldier – and yet Richard had forgiven his assailant and had made great strides to find him in order to say so, resulting in a lasting friendship. How could Richard forgive the soldier so?

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[Patrick Keilty carrying his father’s coffin in 1988]

This was followed by an amazing interview given by Neville Lawrence, the father of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose story has regularly been in the headlines for 25 years. Two men had been convicted of Stephen’s death and yet it’s understood that five were involved. Neville revealed how he had forgiven them all for the murder of his son. Like Patrick, Neville’s story was incredibly hard and painful, and described as a ‘life sentence’ that would never go away, and yet he had forgiven his son’s murderers. How could this be possible?

It seems that both Neville and Richard had discovered an ancient Christian truth which is that forgiveness is not dependent upon the perpetrator saying sorry or even being met with. It’s an act of the heart and mind which allows the victim to find peace, ‘to let go’, and won’t allow any anger, hurt or pain they feel to fester and become a well of bitter malice within them, which probably does nothing to bring about reconciliation, and may not even be known by the perpetrator, but simply mars and cripples their own life henceforth. It comes from a deep-seated understanding that you are not going to hold a grudge or allow hurt to define you. Naturally, this isn’t easy – and shouldn’t be remotely confused with ‘letting other people get away with it’ or not wanting justice. Neville Lawrence wants justice as keenly as ever he did – it’s just that he won’t allow his anger and hurt to corrupt and corrode his heart and soul.

True forgiveness isn’t ‘a trick of the mind’; it isn’t secretly hoping for revenge or holding on to resentment. It has to be genuine and is therefore both a true art and an act of grace. Whether forgiveness is or isn’t asked for, it certainly isn’t deserved – it can only be given. It’s therefore a beautiful thing – a gift, which allows the victim to find peace, and can wonderfully, occasionally lead to repentance and reconciliation by all parties.

The Christian will see clear parallels between this and the Gospel story – how our sin naturally makes us all perpetrators, leading to the death of Jesus upon the cross where he graciously and lovingly takes upon himself the punishment for our sins (justice demands it) so that we might be reconciled and freely forgiven by God when we turn to him in sincerity, faith and repentance.

The stories of Richard, Neville (and perhaps even Patrick, who began to wonder if he had actually forgiven his father’s murderers after all) demonstrate that by God’s good grace and mercy there is still a lot of love and light in the world – and the world isn’t quite as dark as it might be.


“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” Luke 11.4


 

Confronting Systems Of Power: A Message For Easter

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The news that a Novichok military grade nerve agent had been used against former Russian citizens Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4th March was a shock to all concerned. Since this potential threat to the British public could only be the work of a nation state, the situation was extremely grave. Therefore, once it was determined that Russia was responsible it was understandable that Theresa May as the British Prime Minister would act swiftly in response, ultimately expelling 23 Russian diplomats or “undeclared intelligence officers” with one week’s notice, alongside various other measures. This she said, “would fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come – and if they seek to rebuild it we will prevent them from doing so”. Naturally, it’s anticipated that Russia will retaliate but at the time of writing this letter it’s not known what their actions will be. For some, not knowing can lead to a real sense of fear and uncertainty – what can ‘little Britain’ do in the face of mighty Russia?

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Thankfully, many of us will gain comfort and inspiration from the pages of the Bible. The David and Goliath story of the Old Testament reminds us of just what can be achieved when one takes heart, puts one’s faith not only in God but one’s natural God-given ability to sling stones. Standing up to bossy tyrants always requires endeavour and the courage of one’s convictions.

When Jesus stood before the Temple in Jerusalem and said ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days’, the people standing next to him misunderstood, saying ‘how are you ever going to do that, it took 46 years to build this temple?’! But Jesus wasn’t referring to the physical temple he was referring to himself. Because he knew that you can’t confront corrupt systems of power without paying for it, and the systems he had in mind were the ‘principalities and powers of this world’ which are motivated by personal greed, power and abuse – in other words,sin’. Dark systems which ultimately only ever really lead to suffering, pain, death and despair. When Jesus says, ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuild it’, he’s talking about something new and unexpected that would happen after his death. He’s talking about resurrection! Yes, Jesus dies for our sin upon the cross, but his resurrection announces that God has not given up on us or this world because this world matters. Therefore, the way that we live our lives really matters, for every act of love, kindness and compassion that we undertake reflects the love of God for us in Christ, and nothing will be forgotten. For as Rob Bell, a Christian preacher and theologian observes, “resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality, embraced, graced and saved by God”. Therefore, the Christian knows that if you want to stand up to corrupt systems of power you need to be prepared to challenge it and say your ideals are not my ideals. I won’t and don’t recognise what you stand for. I don’t believe in the power of death, I believe in love, life and yes – resurrection!

A very Happy Easter to you all.


“Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Jude 1.21


In Search Of Heroes – Lawrence Of Arabia

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It was 1917 and the horrors of the First World War were truly etched in people’s minds. Initial optimism that the war might be over by Christmas had been well and truly blown away in the dark clouds of 1914. Things if anything were getting worse. The bravery of so many young men who fought for ‘King and Country’ was not in question, but the dreadful stalemate of events on the Western Front had come at a terrible cost. In fact, danger was not so far away for on June 13th 1917, London suffered its highest loss of civilian casualties as German airplanes bombed the city. The Americans had just entered the war and the British were desperately trying to make headway in the muddy fields of Ypres (more commonly known as Passchendaele) but were being repeatedly pushed back by German artillery. In September the British revised their strategy but made slow progress (a mere 1000 yards), but edged ever closer to Passchendaele. What the country needed most of all was hope – and some good news. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, General Edmund Allenby began an attack on Turkish defences which stretched from Gaza to Beersheba in Southern Palestine. The Turks began to retreat towards Jerusalem with the Allies in pursuit. They were aided by a group of Arab fighters led by T.E. Lawrence, an Arab speaking English archaeologist later known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Lawrence and his guerrilla fighting force had already captured Aquaba on July 6th. So, aided by the photographer Lowell Thomas, Lawrence’s fame began to spread as he was depicted as a hero in gleaming white robes who rode to victory on a camel, a warrior-prince of the desert.

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Lawrence’s courage and resourcefulness were not in doubt but his depiction as a British hero was a real morale boost to all those who had suffered so much back at home. Finally, General Allenby was able to march on foot into Jerusalem thus ending the four century reign of that city by the Turks. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George described the capture as a ‘Christmas present for the British people’. Finally, Passchendaele also fell towards the end of the year.

This Remembrance Sunday we will be remembering all those ‘heroes’ who have served their country in times of war and of great need. We will remember those with great stories of their own alongside those whose stories are largely unknown but who suffered much – with many paying the ultimate price. In truth, no act of war can ever be called a ‘good news story’, but we can remember with pride and gratitude all those ordinary men and women, who didn’t think of themselves as remotely heroic, but still gave so much, so that we might be free – whose exploits we gratefully remember and commemorate on Remembrance Sunday.

The Christian will be familiar with another quiet hero who rode into Jerusalem so many years before (not on a camel, but a donkey), who also suffered much and eventually paid the ultimate price by his death upon the cross. At first glance his death seemed to be the epitome of innocent suffering and vanquished hope – but, in reality, his death was the means by which the greatest victory of all was achieved, offering the greatest prize of all, to all those who put their faith and trust in him – life in all its fulness and the forgiveness of sins.

So, please join us this Remembrance Sunday as we commemorate all those who gave up so much for others in the context of the one whose life, death and resurrection brings the greatest hope of all.


“On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us” 2 Corinthians 1.10b


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