Saturday, December 08, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

Here is the final part of my series of talks for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.  The link to the audio is at the end.

Talk Five: Teach it to your children

Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, replied: ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  This would have come as no surprise to the person asking the question.  Jesus was quoting from the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible and it was also part of people’s daily prayers.  The Bible continues by commanding that we teach these words to our children.

The education of children is a major part of my life and the life of my Church.  If, however, I judge the success or otherwise of what we are doing by how much it fulfils the command of the Bible, then I am forced to admit that we are failing terribly.  Failing, not because we don’t care about children and their education, we do.  But failing because we have got the focus of our education all wrong.  For the Bible, the beginning and end of education should be no less than God himself.  If children leave school not having learnt about God and not having had the opportunity to enter a relationship with him in the person of Jesus Christ, then as Christians we have failed no matter how much else the child may have learnt.

Sherlock Holmes, in one story, tells Dr Watson that you can tell what an adult is like by looking at their children.  It is also true that you can see what parents most value in their lives by observing what they want for their children.  What we prioritize in the upbringing and education of our children shows what we prioritize in our own lives.  The children are a mirror that reflects what is important to us and what really matters to us.  If we prioritize social standing and material wealth that will be reflected in the choices we make for our children.  If we prioritize knowing God and his commandments that too will be reflected in the choices we make and how we bring them up.  This, as they say, is not rocket science.

Given how we relegate God to the side-lines of our lives or, more often than not, ignore him completely, it is comes as no surprise that God does not play a particularly central role in the education of our children and the choices we make for them.  We will normally begin choosing a school for them, for example, by examining the school’s academic performance rather than asking what it teaches about God.

In the same way that the Church is tailoring its message in an attempt to make it more relevant and acceptable to the society in which we live, so too we Christians are tailoring the education we give our children to be like the education on offer in the society around us.  There is very little real difference in the curriculum pursued in church schools and that followed in any other school that children may attend.

But if God really is the one ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’, any education that leaves God out of it cannot be called Christian education.  Nor is any education that relegates learning about God to a few lessons of RE and a religious assembly each week - with perhaps the observance of a few festivals thrown in for good measure.  If we take God seriously, if we want to love him with all our ‘heart, soul, mind, and strength’, then we will want our children to do so as well.  This will mean radically revising our curricula to make God their central concern.  It means moving God from the periphery of our children’s education to its centre. 

The author Yuval Noah Harari has written: ‘If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.’  As the One who created the cosmos, it is only God who can give them the comprehensive view of life that they need.  I am not for one moment suggesting that children don’t need to learn to read, write, and add-up.  Nor that we should neglect teaching them about the world in which we live.  It is to suggest that, as we do so, we must do so as people who believe that as it was God who created the world, it can only be properly studied if we include him in the picture.

An old Catholic catechism asks the question: ‘Why did God make me?’  The answer it gives is: ‘God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.’ 

Knowing God should be central both to how we educate our children and to how, as adults, we live our lives.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of my fourth talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Four: Only the few

The nice thing about being God is that you don’t need anyone to believe in you.  By virtue of being God, you don’t need anyone or anything to validate your existence.  That is, by definition, what it means to be God.  So when, for example, Moses asked the voice from the burning bush who he should say was sending him to tell Pharaoh to ‘let his people go’, the reply he got was to tell them, ‘I Am Who I Am’ had sent him.  God is - whether people believe in him or not.

God does not need us, but the opposite is true for us.  We do need God.  I don’t mean that we need him in an emotional sense as we might need someone to love or to love us, although that is true too.  No, we need God in the literal sense that our very existence depends on him as does the physical world in which we live.  As St Paul said, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’.  

It is this dependence on God for our very existence that makes the idea that we should keep faith and science separate from each other so funny and ridiculous at the same time.  There would be no science without God.  God not only thought of the world the scientist studies in the first place, he brought it into being and, what is more, he keeps it in being as he does the scientist who studies it - whether he or she realizes it or not.

The reason why the Gospel message is so amazing is that despite not needing us, and despite everything we have done as individuals and as a race to either annoy or ignore him, he hasn’t lost interest in us.  More than that, he continues to love us and to offer us the chance not only of forgiveness for the mess we have made both of ourselves and his creation, but of knowing him and entering a relationship with him.  A relationship not simply of a creature to their creator, but of a child to their father.  Sadly, all too many of us don’t think it is worth the effort, and choose a cosy agnosticism rather than seeking him.  This agnosticism is no more than atheism by another name.  It is a convenient reason to exclude God from our lives.

Christians can get very worried about this.  God may not need anyone to believe in him, but we do.  We seem to need people to believe in God if only to reassure ourselves that we are not mistaken in our faith or because we need the approval that comes through popularity.  It is this, in part, that explains the present desire of many Christians to be relevant even at the cost of changing their message.

Christians, however, have nothing to lose by being unpopular and in a minority and everything to gain.  Jesus’ brother, James, said that to be friends with the society around us is to be an 'enemy with God'.  Having God as our friend is surely worth a little unpopularity and rejection?  

St Paul reassured the Christians in Rome who seemed powerless and irrelevant compared to might and splendour of Rome with these words: ‘If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?’  He continues to tell them that a little suffering - and he himself suffered more than a little - is ultimately of no consequence.  ‘Nothing’, he says, ‘in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

It is, of course, sad that people don’t believe in God.  Sad that they prefer to worship the creature rather the Creator.  Sad that they prefer material wealth to spiritual riches.  Sad that they think themselves clever not believing in God when all it shows is their foolishness.  But it doesn’t change anything, God still is.

On one occasion, Jesus was asked whether only a few will be saved.  It can feel like that at times, especially in the society in which we find ourselves.  The temptation is to doubt or despair or to change our message to make it easier for people to believe so that we won’t be so few and alone.  However, in his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against such an approach:

‘Enter’, he said, ‘through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

Believing in God may be hard in the age in which we live, yet God never said it would be easy.  But then, nothing worth having ever is.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of my third talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Three: Continuing without God

When I first entered the Church’s ministry, the Church had the reputation for often being cold and unfriendly; unwelcoming to newcomers.  I am pleased to say that this has changed.  Go to most Churches on a Sunday and the problem won’t be a lack of welcome.  If anything, you are more likely to be put off by the enthusiasm of the welcome you receive!  There is nothing insincere about this.  Churches genuinely want to welcome people and make them feel comfortable.  The cynic might say that this is because congregation numbers are falling and so churches are grateful for anyone who wants to join. 

While there might be an element of this in some cases, I think the motives are sincere enough, and most Christians believe that welcoming people is more than about increasing numbers.  The realisation that it is important to welcome people has gone alongside an increasing emphasis in the Church’s message on inclusivity.  If you go to Church on a Sunday, as well as receiving a welcome, you are likely to hear a message that stresses how Jesus reached out to all members of society; that he included all in his welcome whether they were rich or poor, high or lowly.  The Church, you will hear, welcomes people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, colour, social background, or sexuality - without distinction.

And again, this is sincerely meant.  The Church may not always live up to its ideal, but there is on the whole a real desire to do so, and most Churches would be very upset if they felt that they had failed to do so.  Nor is inclusivity limited to the initial welcome.  The Church has sought to reinvent itself theologically to meet the challenges of a secular society that has little time for God.  In addition to being inclusive in its welcome, it seeks to stress forgiveness, tolerance, understanding, open-mindedness, and social justice.  In any Church, you are as likely to find activities the purpose of which is to work for a fairer society as you are those to bring people to faith in God.

This welcoming inclusivity combined with a non-judgemental theology stressing social justice, equality, and fairness seeks to be the Gospel for the 21st century. An update of the Christian message to get away from the perceived failings of the past when, alongside a lack of welcome, there was much talk of sin and judgement alongside a failure to address social exclusion and unfairness. The new Gospel has been enthusiastically embraced across the Churches, and you are as likely to hear it on the lips of Catholic and Anglican bishops as you are Presbyterian ministers and Baptist pastors. The only problem with it is that it is wrong.

Wrong, that is, if the aim is a faithful presentation of the message of Jesus Christ.  The 21st Century Gospel certainly includes bits of Jesus’ teaching in it, but it is highly selective in which bits it includes.  So, for example, parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are popular.  And passages in which Jesus eats and drinks with sinners are freely quoted.  As are any in which Jesus shows a positive attitude to women and those discriminated against in the society of his day.

Parables, however, such as those in which the King comes and murders those who refused to welcome his son or where the people are thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth are not very popular.  And passages where Jesus speaks of judgement and the punishment in hell of those who refuse to accept his message are rarely quoted.  Nor are any where Jesus himself seems to discriminate.  There was, after all, very little gender balance in his choice of the twelve apostles.

In the previous two talks at this time, I have spoken of how people in our society have very little interest in God.  Many Christians seem to think that the best way to reach people in our society is by having very little interest in him ourselves.  Far better to come up with a message that addresses the concerns of the day and is in harmony with the political agenda of our time.  I am not questioning people’s sincerity, nor arguing for a return to the past – there were many failings, who could deny it?  But in seeking to welcome people, we need to have something to welcome them to.  And people are unlikely to be attracted to a watered-down version of something that they can get elsewhere.

It is time to bring back God.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

The link to the audio is at the end of this transcript of the second talk for RTHK's 'Minutes that Matter' programme.

Talk Two: We are all atheists now

Most people in our society are not atheists.  Instead, most people, if asked whether there was a God, would say that it is impossible to be sure one way or another.  This means that whether or not there is a God is simply a question that has no real relevance to them in how they live their lives and go about their daily existence.  If it is impossible to know, why waste time trying to find out?  For most people, the question of how to afford somewhere to live or which to school to send their child to are far more troubling and pressing issues than whether there is a God or not.

This is true even for those who are convinced there is a God or suspect that there might be.  Try taking this simple test: Imagine that it was suddenly announced that it had been conclusively shown that there was not a God of any kind; that the universe and the physical world as we know it just is.  What difference would that make to your life on a daily basis?

The answer for most of us is that it would make little or no difference at all.  It would have no impact on what we think and believe, who we enter a relationship with, how we bring up our children, what we eat or wear, where we go on holiday, or how we spend what little free time we have after doing all the things we have to do each day.  And this is as true for most Christians and theists, in general, as it is for those who belong to no religion, in particular.

We all know people who claim to be atheists.  People who are certain that there is no God of any kind.  We have all heard of famous celebrity atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who make a point of sharing their atheism and tying to convince people to join them in their unbelief.  But what is the difference between how an atheist lives his or her life and how a theist lives theirs?

For many churchgoers, being a Christian is mainly about subscribing to Jesus’ ethical teaching about how we treat each other as it is about anything else.  Much of the doctrinal stuff that clergy go on about in their sermons, frankly, just goes over our heads.  This is not for one moment to say that people don’t enjoy going to Church, or that the Church isn’t important to them, or even that they don’t find the idea of God reassuring.  It is just that God makes very little real difference to the choices and decisions they make in their daily lives.  Life would go on much the same without God.

Indeed, there is no reason why, with a little adjustment, the Church itself couldn’t continue without God.  After all, it’s nice for people to have somewhere to meet and socialize.  And who doesn’t like a good sing song?  All it needs is for the clergy to make a few changes to their sermons to focus on life in the here and now, and church life could go on much as before.  In fact, this is something that many clergy have done already.

Sermons are often no more than encouraging thoughts about how we should live our lives or else they are a poor parody of self-help manuals.  When they do get serious, the theme is more likely to be what we need to do to improve life in the here and now of this world rather than how we can obtain life in the there and then of the next. 

Am I being unfair and unduly cynical?  I don’t think I am.  The fact is that God has become in the life of many, churchgoers included, something of an optional extra.  Nice to have, maybe, but not really necessary.  Practically speaking, we are all atheists now.

St Paul wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then believers are of all people most to be pitied and, of course, for Jesus to have been raised from the dead requires that there is a God to have raised him.

Biblical Christianity is not simply about following those bits of Jesus’ teaching that we find nice or congenial.  Nor is it about belonging to a religious club with like-minded people; it is something that has God at its heart.  And God changes everything.  Furthermore, if the Bible is right, then the existence of God becomes something that, ultimately, no-one will be able ignore - whether we want to or not.

Minutes that Matter: Talk Two

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Minutes that Matter: November, 2018

I gave the talks for the Minutes that Matter programme on RTHK Radio 4 for Fridays in November.  This is the transcript of the first with a link to the audio on the RTHK website.

Talk One: Moving on

October 31 was for many Churches the day that they marked the European Reformation of the 16th Century, the 500th Anniversary of which has been commemorated during the past year.  The Reformation was about many things, but one idea stands out: the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  This is the belief that human beings are saved not by anything they do, but solely by the grace of God through faith.  Human works cannot earn favour with God.  As Luther himself put it, ‘If faith is not without all, even the smallest, works, it does not justify.’

This was an important insight and a corrective to much thinking at the time.  Pendulums, however, swing from side to side and this particular pendulum swung quickly to the other side with the result that the question for many protestants, who adopted ‘justification by faith as their core belief, was about the place human works.  If doing good works doesn’t count towards our salvation, what then is the point of good works?  And what to make of all those parts of the Bible that seem to suggest that they do make a difference and a very real difference at that?

For many Protestants, the answer was quite simple: either get rid of them or just ignore them.  For example, in the letter of St James, the writer tells us that ‘faith without works is dead’.  For St James, who, incidentally, was the brother of Jesus, faith is, of course, important but it has to translate into action.  For Luther, however, the mere suggestion that works were of value led him to dismiss St James’ epistle as ‘a right strawy epistle’ – as he famously called it.  This was unfortunate, and lead to people playing off St Paul, who was believed to teach ‘justification by faith’, with St James, who was thought to teach ‘justification by works’.

The argument over this, and related issues, continued for many years causing much division, bitterness, and hurt until the Churches came to their senses and saw that, in fact, both were true.  We cannot earn God’s grace and forgiveness, but having received it as a gift, we need to show it in how we live.  Or, as St Paul puts it, what counts is ‘faith working through love’.  The sad thing is that it takes more than the realisation that it has been a false argument to heal the divisions of centuries, and 500 years of division are not going to end any time soon.

The argument over how we receive the grace and forgiveness of God was an issue that needed talking about and there were problems in the Church that needed dealing with.  The argument and division that resulted is, however, something that Christians should both repent and be ashamed of.  Incredibly, there are still those who, not only are not ashamed of the division and hatred of the past, but who want to perpetuate it and continue to fight the battles of five hundred years ago.

However, while we perpetuate and even enjoy re-enacting the battles of the past, the world has simply moved on - as, indeed, to be fair, have most Christians.  Again, this is not for one moment to suggest that these issues are unimportant or those involved 500 years ago were not sincere in their faith.  It is to suggest that Christians need to realize that the issues that were so important 500 years ago are not issues today.  In the past, the issue that troubled people may have been how they could receive God’s grace and forgiveness.  It is, however, not so much an issue for most people in the present.  Even those nations that regarded themselves as Christian nations 500 years ago, regard themselves as such no longer.  They have not only moved on, they have moved away – a long way away from the Church and Christian faith. 

Most people in our society are not atheists who deny the existence of God, they are agnostics who think that it impossible to know one way or another.  And make no mistake, many who come to Church each Sunday are not paid up believers, they too are agnostics!

Christians believe that God is a God of grace who freely offers forgiveness to those who come to him in faith.  The challenge for Christians today is how to answer those for whom the question is not, ‘How can I, a sinner, stand before a righteous God?’, but whether there is a God to stand before.  And, perhaps even more challenging, for Christians to show that they have an answer that matters to people in their daily lives.  For it is one thing to believe there is a God; seeing how that belief affects us in our daily lives another altogether.