If Christian community is supposed to be compelling, why does it often suck?

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A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34f)

We were considering John 13:31-38 at Oldham Bethel Church on Sunday. We saw, in these verses, that God will ultimately glorify himself. The Father and the Son both glorify one another and we saw that we can do no glorifying of God apart from the Son. We saw that the very purpose of life was, as the Shorter Catechism tells us, to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But if the Son is the one who glorifies the Father, it means we can only glorify the Father – fulfilling the very purpose of our existence – if we are in the Son.

We also saw that the context of these verses was the going away of Jesus. As he is going, Jesus wants to leave his disciples clear instructions for when he has gone. This comes in the form of one simple, new commandment. The newness of the command isn’t in the loving of one another, which was commanded in Leviticus 19:18, but in the new standard set. Jesus did not simply say ‘love one another’ but rather qualified it with ‘as I have loved you’. The new command calls Jesus’ followers to the kind of humble service he has just exhibited in the washing of feet earlier in Chapter 13. Even more pointedly, a connection made in 13:37f, it is a call to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters as Christ laid down his life for us. It is a point John restates in his first letter: ‘ By this we know love, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’ (1 John 3:16).

That is the kind of love that Jesus commands of his disciples. It is the kind of love that is prepared to lay down our own lives for our fellow disciples. Just as Tertullian recorded the pagans of his day speaking about the Christians: ‘see how the love one another… how they are even prepared to die for one another’. That is the kind of compelling love that will cause people looking on to come to Christ.

Given all of that, we are forced to ask why are our attempts at community often so rubbish? If the visible love between Christian believers is the compelling apologetic that Jesus insists most clearly marks out believers from unbelievers, why do our attempts at creating community often look like utter σκύβαλον?

We work in an area of Oldham replete with Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. We long for such people to come to know the Lord Jesus Christ personally. But we often fail to contend with what we are actually asking of people. Leave you family, your community, everything you have ever known in order to join us for a meeting on Sunday, where few people spend any time together in the week and half of us don’t know what is going on with each other. Is that the sort of community Jesus was talking about that would compel unbelievers to come to Christ? I highly doubt it. It’s just not good enough is it.

If this is the compelling basis on which unbelievers will come to Christ, let’s ask ourselves some diagnostic questions:

  1. Would the people in your area – your friends, neighbours and community – say of you and your church, ‘see how they love one another!… how they are ready even to die for one another’?
  2. If you think that might possibly be true of you, what visible ways have you demonstrated the love of Christ to your fellow brothers and sisters this last week?
  3. If you offer anything in respect to #2, does it come anywhere close to fulfilling #1?

Far too often churches content themselves with parroting some form of the lie that holding meetings amounts to fellowship and compelling Christian community. It simply doesn’t. Jesus did not say, ‘by this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you attend a meeting together and are prepared to shake hands with people as they enter your building’. With all the will in the world, there is nothing inherently compelling about that. It is specifically our visible love for one another, expressed in real community, that compels people to consider Christ.

Larry David summed up our attitude most of the time:

I’d rather have thieves than neighbours – the thieves don’t impose. Thieves just want your things, neighbours want your time. I’d rather give them things than time.

Often, our love is no more distinct and no clearer than that of many unbelievers. Leave aside the laying down of our lives, we so regularly don’t bother to pray for each other and neither spend time together, share our money or things, and often don’t even eat with one another. Forget dying for one another, we don’t even live together in a particularly Christian way!

Jesus said this, of all things, would be that which shows the world we are his disciples. Not our meetings, not our evangelism, not our moralistic life choices, but our love for one another. Our visible, manifestly noticeable Christian community that expresses itself, not in loving feelings, but primarily in loving action even to the point of a willingness to lay our lives down for one another.

Can we be surprised when drug addicts don’t come into the church when they can get more community from their dealers? Can we expect Muslims to come to Christ when we are asking them to give up a close-knit community for a set of meetings where half of us don’t really know one another? Can we expect the world to come in and join us when we’re not even that bothered about spending time together with the people already in our midst?

Perhaps we need to take Jesus more seriously and contend with his words: ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. They can’t know it if they don’t see it; they can’t see it if we’re never present for them to see it; and, if it doesn’t work itself out in visible ways, it would seem it doesn’t exist at all. Do we perhaps need to rethink altogether the nature of Christian community and what it truly means to love one another as Christ has loved us?

For more on this, you can listen to Sunday’s sermon at www.OldhamBethelChurch.org.uk

The uproar over Lou Reed’s walk on the wild side encapsulates why progressive liberalism will fail

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Given that Lou Reed has been dead for nearly four years, and his song Walk on the Wild Side is 45 years old, it is somewhat surprising to hear that it has stirred fresh controversy. Nonetheless, the Guardian report that the song has been caught up in some sort of transphobic row in Canada.

They report:

The Guelph Central Student Association, a group at the University of Guelph in Ontario, apologised for including the song on a playlist at a campus event.

In an apology published to Facebook and subsequently removed, the group said: “We now know the lyrics to this song are hurtful to our friends in the trans community and we’d like to unreservedly apologize for this error in judgement”…

The Guelph student group promised to be “more mindful in our music selection during any events we hold” and added: “If there are students or members of the campus community who overheard the song in our playlist and were hurt by its inclusion and you’d like to talk with us about it and how we can do better, we welcome that.”

As anyone familiar with the song knows, it was indeed considered risqué on its release. Only, it was controversial because Reed pointedly wanted to “introduce people to characters they maybe hadn’t met before, or hadn’t wanted to meet”. The song references several of Reed’s “superstar” friends who were regulars at Andy Warhols New York studio, The Factory and makes reference to both prostitution and sexual acts. Most notably among the “superstars” in the song were Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling (the latter also referenced in Reed’s Velvet Underground song Candy Says), both famous transgender actors and friends of Reed.

It is not my intention to comment on the merits of the lyrics nor on the kinds of people the song is about. Let us not forget, the song is nearly 45 years old. Whatever controversy it may or may not have stirred on its release, there is nothing new in the lyrics. What is surprising is that the song is being deemed offensive to transgender people when it was written to include such people and describes people who were friends of the songwriter.

Two issues stand out. First, authorial intent has become subordinate to inferred offence. The song with which some have taken umbrage comes from Reed’s album Transformer (no prizes for noting the play on words here). Hal Willner, a friend of Reed’s who recently completed a reissue of his later solo work, said:

“this song was how the world first heard about these people. It’s a song about love. What else can you say?”

Despite the references to Reed’s transgender friends, and his obvious desire to introduce such people to a world, this means nothing when the listener infers an offensive meaning.

Second, it is clear somebody intent on promoting (to a lesser or greater degree) the existence of transgender people is now being attacked by the very people he intended to support.

The whole thing offers a snapshot of why progressive liberalism is currently eating itself. If offence is rightly to be determined in ear of the hearer – not the intent of the speaker – it seems there is hardly anything anyone might say that will not lead to a problem. How can it be reasonable to pillory someone for saying something offensive when the speaker neither had any intention to be offensive nor understands the nature of the offence caused? Alas, the hearer was offended so thus a grave sin has been committed.

The problem with this, of course, is that Reed was actually seeking to promote transgenderism (to some degree). He was speaking of friends he knew personally. None of this, of course, matters if subjective offence determines whether something is beyond the pale. What may once have been deemed misunderstanding becomes significant sin when authorial intent is meaningless. This will mean the death of almost any art form, all satire and all but the most bland pronouncements designed to be as inoffensive as possible. Often these media make points that, though the hearer would be in agreement if they got it, they misunderstand and thus become offended. Only because they don’t get it they are offended, and because they are offended the entire point gets shut down.

It was Jesus who said ‘If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand’ (Mark 3:24f). Progressive liberalism appears to be fighting itself. Germaine Greer – arch-deaconess of progressive liberal feminism – has come under fire for daring to assert that she does not believer transgender women are, indeed, women. The very premise of progressive feminism is now butting heads with the directly contrary premise of progressive transgenderism, with each undermining the other. The issue concerning Lou Reed – himself ultimately supporting transgenderism – is a step further on from that surrounding Greer. Germaine Greer never positioned herself as a defender, supporter or promoter of transgenderism [1]. Lou Reed is being attacked over a song that specifically intended to be supportive by the very people about whom he wrote.

Whatever you may or may not think about the issue at hand – whether you like Lou Reed or not; whether you support transgenderism or not; whether you share Germaine Greer’s view or not – this is just the latest example of how progressive liberals are killing their own movement. In the name of progressive tolerance, they are now showing no tolerance to those who were once doyennes of their cause. That is why progressives, of this sort of ilk, are doomed to failure.

Notes

  1. To my knowledge, she is not against transgenderism per se – having no problem with those who decide to undergo surgery – but does deny that male-to-female transsexuals are ontologically women.

A cautionary tale of greed

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A couple of days ago, the Guardian carried a story about Dave and Angie Dawes who had won £101m in the Euromillions lottery. The Guardian report that their son, Michael Dawes, took them to court, complaining that the £1.6m they had given to him was simply not enough. The article explains how the son and his partner managed to squander the money given to them in the space of one month, even giving some away to friends themselves.

Baffled by how the money could have been spent so quickly, and unaware that substantial sums had been given away by his son, Dave Dawes continued to transfer some funds to his son’s account. The Guardian report:

Michael took this as a demonstration that his father would cough up whenever asked, and this therefore buttressed his strange conclusion that his dad would financially support him for the rest of his life…

By March 2013, Dave and Angie Dawes called a family meeting and agreed to pay off some of Michael and his partner’s debts but that no more funds would be forthcoming…

Michael Dawes has not spoken to his father and stepmother since a falling out at her birthday party when he demanded £5m more and verbally abused Angie Dawes. He has also accused them of being arrogant and ungenerous of spirit.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of playing the Euromillions lottery (not a discussion I want to get into here), this story provides us with yet another cautionary tale about the love of money and the road to contentment.

I have never so much as seen £1.6m in one go. I think my attempts at saving have, at their peak, reached the heady heights of around £4k and were duly wiped out by the need to replace our car some years ago. Alas, we have since had to replace that car and didn’t have the money to even buy an old banger outright. Such has never really concerned me. Likewise, The “dream” of home ownership is a chimera for most of my generation and, to be frank, this has never really bothered me either. In fact, until Reaganomics and Thatcherism took hold, the idea that owning your home was a British dream was not as self-evident as we are commonly led to believe (see herehere and here).

I do not say these things wistfully, it truly doesn’t bother me at all. I have spent my life shifting from one rental property to another, both throughout my childhood and now as an adult with a family of my own. I have never known the supposed security of vast savings in the bank nor a home that I (or my parents) own. In fact, the example set to me by my family was largely one that suggested money in the bank means you have more than you need and thus better think about giving some of it away. I am sure I’m not as generous-hearted as many members of my family but it has helped me inasmuch as I am rarely anxious and troubled when I have no savings (which is most of the time).

The reason I share this is because I’m not convinced my set up – even if contentment levels about it may vary – is all that unusual for my generation. Millennials have a tendency to spent their money on holidays and travel, buying ‘experiences’ rather than homes and savings. The reason for this isn’t too hard to grasp. With most priced out of the housing market and rental payments so high that savings are not readily set aside on top, only those with wealthy parents have much hope of getting a foot on the property ladder. Given that for many such things are too far out of reach, they choose to rack up experiences instead. This is compounded when we consider that Millennials value authenticity and stories, which are more likely to be gained from travelling and are eminently cheaper to obtain than homes and savings.

It is this that puts into context the arguments of Michael Dawes against his millionaire parents. They shared £1.6m of their fortune with him and yet this was deemed ‘not enough’. Dawes jr demanded a further £5m from his parents. When they determined that this would not be forthcoming, arguments ensued, family ties were cut and now a rift exists in the Dawes family. Michael Dawes claims his parents were not generous of spirit; his parents claim they have shared their wealth among the family and even set up a charity. They were generous enough to give their son £1.6m – an eye watering sum the likes of which most people will never see in one go – and yet, it seems, it simply was not enough.

Jim Carrey put it well when he said:

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.

Contentment will never be found in the size of our income and no matter the value of your savings, things will never quite feel secure enough. As many investors will tell you, we’re only one Northern Rock away from losing it all. We may feel it’s safer than putting it on a horse, but how quickly we think too highly of our own insights and intellect, deceiving ourselves into thinking we understand markets and stocks. Many a pension – one time safety net for old age – are now worth less than the money put in. Homes have become the investment du jour but, as with anything, the bubble will eventually burst. Nothing can continue to rise in perpetuity. No investment is ultimately safe – even simply collecting on the interest from the bank carries some risk. And all of that is before we begin to think of the unforeseen costs and disasters that frequently befall us.

Note the words of Paul:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:6-10)

The road to contentment is not money but Christ. As Jesus himself said:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. . . . [For] your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” (Luke 12:22, 30–31)

Let Matthew Dawes stand as a cautionary tale. You may be in receipt of millions but, as Jim Carrey so powerful says, it will never be enough. The secret to contentment is hidden in plain sight:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
    and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make straight your paths.

Honour the Lord with your wealth
    and with the firstfruits of all your produce;
10 then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine. (Proverbs 3:5-6, 9-10)

Raising children spiritually in a single-parent context

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A few days ago, I posted an article on the number one reason young people leave the church. The point of the article was two-fold. The first, and main, point was to highlight that youth fundamentally leave the church because they are not really saved. That is, children who have grown up within the church, hearing Christian teaching and understanding the gospel do not drift away because of programmatic failure but because they have either failed to grasp the gospel or actively reject it. This main point was no comment on how well our children had been taught, it was a simple observation to focus our minds on the heart of the problem, if and when we try to solve it. The point was that young people leave the church because they aren’t believers (those that stay typically are saved) thus any solution to a drift away from the church must focus upon putting young people in such a position that they are helped to receive the gospel.

The second, but subsidiary, point was that the responsibility for teaching and training children about the things of Christ lay – not primarily with the church but – with the family. The specific point I was making was not about which member of the family ought to do the bulk of Christian teaching in the home. I was merely pointing out that the responsibility for raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord is given to the family, not the church. Nonetheless, there is a unique responsibility that lies with fathers at home. That is not to say (and, please note, I did not say) that mothers aren’t, or shouldn’t be, involved in teaching and training children. However, the Biblical language states that fathers are uniquely accountable for the spiritual welfare of their families.

It seems that my use of the Biblical language, and its emphasis on fatherly accountability, led to something of a backlash. The particular question raised was ‘what about single-parent families?’ In fact, the question wasn’t nearly so inclusive and concerned only single-mothers (I will charitably presume it’s because the Biblical language of fatherly accountability could include single-fathers). It is still unclear to me whether the thought behind the question was ‘am I uniquely accountable as a single-mother because my children’s father is no longer present?’ or, ‘are you saying my set-up is deficient because there is no father present?’, or, perhaps, ‘are you suggesting my children cannot become believers because there is no father to teach them at home?’. Let’s also not discount the distinct possibility I may still be entirely missing the point and misunderstand the question altogether.

Before I go on to offer some points on the above, it is important to make clear that none of these questions were within the scope of the original article. Whatever the answer to them, these are not pertinent to the point of the original article. I should also point out (and have sought permission to do so), I am not unacquainted with issues of Christian single-mothers raising children. My sister’s husband – who first left the Lord and subsequently left her – is on her own giving her son Christian input. I am neither so ignorant, nor pastorally insensitive, to have suggested my nephew now has zero chance of becoming a believer and her task is all but impossible in raising him. Aside from being untrue, it is simply not a point I would ever want to make. As she (rightly) noted during the unfolding Facebook furore, any potential of causing offence, ‘doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t talk about the way God intended things to be’. Rather, she offers a better way: look ‘at why it was said and the truth behind the comment’. This means engaging authorial intent rather than subjective inference.

Let me, therefore, make the following points:

First, in a world marred by sin, things will not always be as they ought. God never originally intended broken-families to exist. His plan was always for stable family units of both mother and father. This means, however we cut it, single-parent families were never part of God’s original design and are always the product of sin. Now, to be clear, that does not mean single parents have necessarily sinned themselves and are thus in their situation because of their own wrongdoing. Rather, just as death is an effect of sin’s existence in the world, broken families are a product of sin’s pernicious effect as well. Whether that is the sin of a spouse leaving for unbiblical and selfish reasons or a death in the family, lone parents are a sad consequence of the wide-reaching effect of sin in the world.

Second, we cannot ignore the Biblical language of fatherly accountability. We may not like it, it may offend us, but God does hold fathers particularly accountable for the spiritual welfare of their children. Although mothers clearly have a role to play in teaching and training, God has determined that ultimate responsibility for the spiritual state of entire families lies with the father. This means – regardless of the role mothers rightly play in teaching and training their children – fathers will be uniquely held to account for the spiritual state of their family.

Third, a question naturally follows: does God hold fathers accountable for the spiritual welfare of a family he has left? There is no Biblical evidence to suggest God relinquishes fatherly accountability if a man abandons his family and neglects his God-given responsibilities. What this means is that God will judge ever so severely those abandoning their responsibilities this way. The father continues to be accountable for the spiritual welfare of his family and he uniquely will be judged for it. If he has abandoned his family, scripture is quite clear about the severity of this behaviour (cf. Matthew 18:6; 1 Timothy 5:8).

Fourth, women left caring for children as single parents are faced with a huge task (as, indeed, are men in the same boat). The roles originally intended to be carried out by father and mother in functionally complementary ways now reside entirely with one parent. That this is not God’s original intention does not mean he is angry with the one left behind nor that he ceases to be gracious to them. That God expects fathers to be responsible for the spiritual welfare of children at home does not mean that single mothers are bound to raise godless children. It is only to say that their task is inevitably that much harder. It is a point so basic that it barely needs stating. Children from single parent families often struggle emotionally and have a tendency to suffer from a lack that would have been made up by the involvement of a second complementary parent. Just as this is true of social and emotional things, it is true of spiritual ones as well.

It is important to note at this point a couple of things. Just because this task becomes harder, does not mean it is impossible. Just as there are plenty of children raised in single parent homes who are emotionally balanced and socially well adjusted, so too children of believing single parents may well become believers. That the task of raising them and teaching them becomes harder, is not to say it is impossible. Just because there is a tendency to something, or a correlation in statistics, doesn’t mean it is an inevitability.

Fifth, God is both sovereign and gracious. Is not God primary in salvation? Didn’t Jesus say ‘none can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (John 6:44)? Clearly scripture encourages families and churches to put people into the best possible position to respond to Christ. Paul is clear nobody is likely to come to faith unless somebody goes and preaches the gospel. Likewise, the better the spiritual environment at home the more likely one is to respond to Christ. But let us not fall into the trap of presuming such things are inevitable. Enough stories exist of people coming to faith in extraordinary ways and, inversely, stories abound of children raised in godly Christian homes who ultimately reject the faith. That such things happen doesn’t change the fact there are general patterns that can be established.

This is significant for the discussion at hand because it is more likely for children to come to faith from a godly Christian home with input from two godly Christian parents. There is a general pattern that will bear this out according to God’s original intention. That is not to be read, however, as inevitable. Two godly parents may raise children who reject Christ. Two parents who have no interest in Christ whatsoever may find their children later becoming Christians. That there is a pattern, and wisdom in seeking to emulate those that typically lead to desired outcomes, there is no inevitability about such things. God is gracious and He can – and does – overrule.

Scripture does give wider instructions, directed at both parents, to bring up their children in the Lord. Much could be said of Hagar and Leah. Both women were married, but both were very much the second wife and not truly loved. Both found themselves with children and were, to all intents and purposes, tasked with bringing them up on their own. We could look to the example of Eunice and Lois, both commended by Paul. Nobody should deny the effect of a godly mother on her children. But acknowledging that doesn’t change that which God determines as his best intention and nor does it change the ultimate responsibility that he lays at the door of fathers.

The world is marred by the effects of sin and it is not as God originally intended it to be. That means we will inevitably find ourselves in situations that are less than God’s intended best. But we can nonetheless rest in his sovereign and gracious goodness. Yes, the task of raising children is harder in single parent families. Yes, there are statistics that mean the odds are not in our favour. Yes, God still holds fathers accountable for the spiritual welfare of families, even those they have abandoned.

Nonetheless, we have a God who himself is primary in salvation. We have a God who calls each one of us to faith, repentance and obedience to his sovereign good will. We cannot always control the circumstances in which we find ourselves. What we can do is seek to honour God in the situations he places us and rest in the knowledge that he will honour those who seek to honour him. Whether we have a family situation that is ideal or not, two promises seem worth noting:

  1. all things work together for the good of those that love him (Rom 8:28). Whatever the situation you are in, God will work it for your ultimate good by making you more like Christ through your circumstances.
  2. ‘Those who honour me I will honour’ (1 Sam 2:30). If we seek to honour the Lord in our circumstances, he ultimately honour us.

For the single parent, this means trusting in God’s goodness to make you more like Christ in your circumstances, whilst seeking to honour him in them, so that he may yet honour you.

What sort of people does Oldham Bethel Church need?

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As you may already know, Oldham Bethel Church is currently looking for an apprentice to join us for September 2017. You can find details of the role on the FIEC jobs board or the North West Partnership ministry opportunities page. We are also making appeals through our social media platforms and to churches with whom we are affiliated. The question is, what sort of a people does Oldham Bethel Church need?

We could talk about our small membership and how it would be useful to have a few more leaders and teachers. But we have at least two other men who can preach apart from me. We could talk about the fact we only have two elders (of which I am one) and how we want to increase the number on the leadership team. But we are already looking to bring somebody else onto the eldership and wouldn’t appoint anybody new to a leadership position quickly. We could talk about the evangelistic opportunities in the church and how we are engaging Muslims locally as well as seeking to reach others locally. But those works are already happening and there are several people in the church able to run them. Leading in any of these areas might be really nice, but what do we need as a church?

Principally, we need people who love the Lord, love his people and love the lost. We want people who will serve because they love Christ and express that service towards others. We need people who will open up their homes to others. We need people who will organise a social or a game night. We need people who will use their car to pick up those who have been scattered across the borough. We need people who are willing to take people to and from asylum hearings. We need people who will ring up church members and see if they want to hang out, or go for a bite to eat, and get to know one another better. We need people who have their eyes open and are willing to pitch in and do whatever needs doing.

If you’re a great preacher (or, like me, just a passable one), there might well be opportunities for you to exercise that gift. If you have led Bible Studies, there may well be a chance to serve this way. But, in truth, we need people who are willing to serve our community, love its people and share their lives. We need people who are hardy enough to sometimes fight against a culture in which these things don’t come naturally.

We long for people within the congregation to raise up to eldership. We long for every member of the congregation to handle the Word correctly for themselves. We want every member to learn to read the Bible properly and even grow up to be able to teach others. But we can teach those things. What we can’t teach is that gospel-centred, servant-hearted desire to build others up, to serve and to generally get stuck in. We want people whose hearts are geared towards Christ, his people and his gospel. We can train you to teach, but we can’t change your heart. It’s those people with the right heart attitude to the gospel that we so desperately want to attract.

We’re not after great preachers and Bible study leaders – though no doubt we will use those skills if you have them. What we’re after is people who want to build community and are willing to share their lives with others. We want people who want to talk about Jesus and who speak of him in their homes, cars and community. Before we let people lead Bible studies we want to see them speak of Jesus personally to others. Before we give anyone an opportunity in the pulpit, we want to see them show a desire to speak of Jesus outside of the church building (whether in the Open Air or just out and about locally). We want those servant-hearted people who will speak of Jesus both within and without the gospel community before we want preachers and Bible study leaders (cf. Luke 16:10).

If you are a gospel-centred, servant-hearted person who simply wants to serve God’s people and to build them up in a place where you will be used and valued, then we might well be the place for you.

For more information on the work at Oldham Bethel Church, or to register your interest in working with us in September, please get in touch and check out the information on the FIEC job board or North West Partnership ministry opportunities page.

Learning difficulties & mental health are different: why I am not heartened by Theresa May’s mental health pledge

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You may have seen Theresa May’s encounter with an angry voter in my old Oxfordshire stomping ground a couple of days ago. I should point out this sort of thing never happens in places like Abingdon. They have a Waitrose and everything.

You can watch what happened here:

Kathy Mohan seemingly wasn’t bothered about Abingdonian etiquette and so, as far as Theresa May was concerned, she was just another mental woman making a bit of scene. What the Tory leader never cottoned onto was the fact that Ms Mohan wasn’t talking about mental illness, as she repeatedly kept saying. Perhaps Mrs May took the clichéd view that it is a hallmark of them mentals to insist that they are not mental.

For Kathy, despite her DLA having been replaced with PIPs, all should be well because the Tories will put more money into mental health. That would be helpful except for the fact that Kathy repeatedly made clear she was asking about learning difficulties and not mental health. To keep insisting more money will go to mental health when confronted by someone with learning difficulties frustrated at a cut in benefit is a bit… mental.

You may feel I am bandying around such terms in a callous and unkind way, but they are terms I – unlike Theresa May – understand very well. For I do have a history of mental health issues – having had the pleasure of utilising Abingdon’s mental health service and enjoying the company of a whole bunch of mental patients in Oxford. You can read a little about that here if you like. Nor am I unacquainted with learning difficulties. Not that I have them, but I did encounter a variety of learning difficulties in my (albeit brief) incarnation as a secondary school teacher and I also have more than one family member who has dealt with them. So I am aware of the difference.

I do/did (depending on what you count as cured) have mental health problems. I do not have learning difficulties and never have done. Of those I know with learning difficulties – whilst some have suffered with mental health issues – they haven’t all. The reason for this is simple enough and is helpfully distinguished by Ian Birrell in the Guardian:

One has a reduced, or unconventional, intellectual ability that may impact on their entire life. The other has a health problem, which might be devastating and recurring but can often be treatable. The conditions, the challenges, the care needs are very different.

As Birrell rightly asks, ‘what hope is there that society will ever embrace the estimated 1.5 million people with some form of learning difficulty when even the prime minister – the person at the pinnacle of our public services – muddles them up with people with mental health problems?’

What is more, it brings home the sheer nonsense of telling someone with learning difficulties you are planning to pour more money into mental health services. It’s a bit like telling someone whose cancer treatment has been stopped that you intend to resolve their issue by ploughing money into orthopaedic surgery. There’s a chance you might get some crossover, but they are simply not the same thing and it isn’t going to do much to help the issue at hand.

The other problem, of course, is that the promise of ‘more money for mental health’ – even were that the appropriate response (which, I think we have established, it isn’t) – does absolutely nothing to tell you what they’re going to do with it. We can all pump more money into things, it doesn’t mean it’ll do anything to help.

The question isn’t whether more money is going in, it’s what the money will do and whether it is a valuable approach in the first place. For example, how does ploughing more money into amorphous mental health ‘things’ help anyone when you have abolished the student nurse bursary meaning that fewer mental health nurses will be trained? Likewise, how will pumping money into heretofore undisclosed mental health services help whilst giving nurses real terms pay cuts? This reduces the number of people who might consider going into the profession and increases the number of trained nurses leaving? Given that – excepting ECT – most mental health treatment is not delivered using expensive machines, how is Theresa May’s pledge of more money of any value?

More to the point, Ms Mohan made clear that she was not after more money being pumped into mental health. We have established the first, and most obvious, reason for this is that she was talking about learning disabilities. The second, and similarly clear, reason was because her DLA – that is the old in-work benefit for those people with disabilities – has been replaced by the ironically named Personal Independence Payments (PIPs).

It is ironic because, as the name suggests, in the pursuit of increasing independence they amount to a cut in DLA payments thus impeding independent living by drastically reducing your income. They have also become notorious for assessments carried out by private firms – themselves rewarded for reducing payments – who carry out their own medical assessments to ascertain if they believe you need PIPs. Just as Michael Gove announced that we had all had enough of experts, it seems that includes medically trained doctors writing notes indicating – contrary to the assessment of a Capita employee – you do indeed have a medical condition that requires considerable adjustments. Over two-thirds of decisions are overturned on appeal, suggesting that the private companies used to assess claims simply do not know what they are doing.

It is this that so exercised Ms Mohan and it was interesting that Theresa May simply had no credible answer for her. There was no promise of a return to DLA and no offer of support for people with learning disabilities. Instead she was simply told that there would be more money for mental health. That is no help to Kathy and of little reassurance to a long-term depressive like me. As answers go, it was all a bit mental.

It’s not a perfect theology of fasting we’re after; it’s any Biblical warrant

intermittent-fasting3

Yesterday, Tim Challies posted on why he believes it important to fast from real food rather than simply fasting from something like Facebook. You can read his article here. It is worth pointing out here that I really like Tim’s writing and have found it to be extremely helpful. He has been given a great platform that he uses excellently for God’s glory to build up others. I am grateful to, and for, him. I say this because I really mean it, not because I’m about to disagree with his latest piece (honest!)

I have previously written on why I don’t fast and specifically why I disagree with John Piper on this issue. There, I particularly landed on Jesus’ answers to John the Baptist’s disciples (in response to Piper doing the same). It should be noted in Matthew 9:14-17 the entire discussion revolves around the fact that Jesus’ disciples did not fast with Jesus making a case for why they didn’t need to do so. You can read how John Piper understands this here and you can see my areas of agreement and disagreement with him here.

My earlier article is worth reading because it answers more fully Tim’s early suggestion that Jesus expected his disciples to fast as a matter of course. Tim lands heavily on Jesus’ construction of ‘when [not if]’ and notes the similarity in Jesus’ instructions on how to pray. The obvious difference between the two, however, is that Jesus does specifically command us to pray, not only using when-not-if, but explicitly and repeatedly. The same cannot be said for fasting.

There is no more reason to take the ‘when you fast’ construction – given the lack of explicit command anywhere in the New Testament to do it – as an expectation Jesus’ disciples will continue to fast than to see it as a simple description of what already takes place culturally and why that practice is, in Jesus’ cultural context, often inappropriate. Coupled to his answer to John’s disciples, the latter reading bears more weight. This reading is furthered when we notice that Jesus’ main concern in Matthew 6:16 is not fasting per se, but the hypocrisy of insincere outward piety.

Tim argues:

I am convinced that much of our apathy toward fasting derives from our confusion about it. We do not understand why or how to fast and, therefore, we do not fast. Strangely, we seem to want to have a perfect theology of fasting before we practice it.

But the reality is we are not looking for a perfect theology of fasting before we’ll do it. What we want is a Biblical imperative. We want Christ, or the apostles, to tell us to fast because it somehow brings glory to God. We don’t mind if only one of them says it in only one place at only one time, but we do want it to be said. Even some evidence of an ongoing practice of fasting might be helpful, but it is mentioned only twice in the book of Acts.

Inevitably, we then have to contend with the descriptive/prescriptive tension of Acts and, additionally, note that both instances centre on the Jewish believers in Jerusalem (incidentally, the same church from whence the Judaizers arose). That is not to say we can draw no theological inferences from the Jerusalem church in Acts; it is simply to say that this doesn’t constitute a pattern. Moreover, it appears not to be a pattern that spread to any of the Gentile churches. Further, without any clear command, there is every reason to see this as a description of what the Jewish believers did in Jerusalem (potentially a cultural hangover of their Judaism) rather than a prescription for all believers.

Equally, Tim’s own explanations about the purpose of fasting are not drawn from scripture. There is simply no scriptural basis for arguing that fasting must ‘be long enough… to feel the weakness and hunger pangs that remind you of your weakness and your utter dependence upon God’. Likewise, his linking of fasting to prayer (typically the Old Testament approach when we read of fasting) is again not linked to scripture. We are instead given passages about continuity of prayer (which certainly is commanded in scripture) with no reference linking it to fasting. Could this be because there is no New Testament grounds to do so?

To be clear, I don’t think fasting is wrong – scripture never says don’t fast – but to mandate it we need something more concrete. I fear the arguments put forward on fasting – with scant Biblical warrant – would be given short shrift if advanced in the cause of any other semi-mystical practice. I agree with Tim that ‘prayer is a means of seeking God himself’, but what grounds does he have of asserting ‘and fasting is God’s mysterious but effective means of assisting that noble desire’? If scripture is sufficient in all matters of faith and praxis, ought we to insist upon what it eminently doesn’t? That way surely lies the road to error.

Tim is quite right that ‘you do not need to master a theology of fasting before you begin to practice fasting any more than you need to master a theology of worship before you begin to worship’. Indeed, one doesn’t need a perfect theology of anything to obey Christ. Nonetheless, what one does need is an actual command of Christ to obey. In fasting, it remains extremely hard to find that command.