This has been a very hard and sad letter to write – but it does seem the right thing. Rather than give further explanation or input, I’ll just leave it to speak for itself. It was sent to the church council over the weekend and is now going out to the All Souls church family. Read more
Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on the highly pretentious sounding ‘dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry’. Don’t be put off (although in fairness, I have to say I was quietly pleased by the alliteration there) because the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve chatted with folks, the more I think there are some crucial things to discuss. This is certainly not the perfect analysis nor last word. But I hope it will at least present something of what troubles me these days. Read more
I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more
I’ve no evidence to back up this claim, but I strongly suspect that those who have the news on 24/7 will go mad. Simply because 99.9% of news items (which usually consist in the urgent rather than the important) are bad – and when taken in such large doses, they can propel one into the deepest of pits. Or perhaps that’s just me. Anyway, we need antidotes, things that bring joy, delight and perhaps even a little dose of optimism. In other words, things to be grateful for.
Notice how none of my list involves spending much (if any) money. Which says something in itself, does it not…? Read more
The proverbial ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ could have been minted especially for Lev Mishchenko, one half of the extraordinary couple at the heart of Orlando Figes’ Just Send Me Word. Before completing his science studies in Moscow, he was whisked away to the Nazi front. Soon after, he was captured and spent considerable time as a German POW. As a German-speaker, he was able to make himself useful – though he resolutely refused to become a German spy. That wasn’t enough to prevent him from being convicted as one on his release – for which his sentence was death, commuted to 10 years hard labour in Siberia. Read more
It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts. Read more
I am SO grateful to Frankie who suggested I read William Styron‘s piercing and affecting ‘memoir of madness’, Darkness Visible. It was back in July that I ordered it, but only this last Saturday when I read it. It is brief – only 80 pages or so – but gripping. I read it one sitting. It felt like a compulsion – but I know that I will return to it, with greater patience and scrutiny. It was only published in 1990, but is now a classic of its kind. Deservedly. Read more
Given the deeply traumatic nature of this book’s subject, this word seems entirely incongruous. But I can’t it out of my head as I try to sum up Emma Scrivener’s new book. And that’s the word beautiful. This is not because of a superficial or white-washed treatment. Far from it. In fact at times Emma is searingly, wincingly honest. And as she writes, we weep. Read more
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more
It seems that mental health issues have been making headlines. The House of Commons even debated it a week or so ago, and Michael Wenham responded with a great little piece on EA’s Friday Night Theology. “Tell it how it is”, he simply concluded. And bizarrely enough (without the slightest inkling it would coincide so much with public square events), we had our next Christians Facing Issues service planned for last Sunday on the very issue. Having tackled all variety of things in the past (the Credit Crunch, Celebrity culture, Pornography, Euthanasia etc), this time our theme was Facing Up To Depression.
Last Sunday, I was doing the next bit in our current little series on 2 Corinthians, and had the wonderful, and yet far too familiar (for many) passage of 2 Cor 4:16-5:10. It’s one of Paul’s great articulations of genuine, realistic Christian experience in a crazy and sometimes hostile world. Read more
It is a rare gift indeed to be able to evoke the confusions, perceptions and wonder of childhood from the perspectives of adulthood. And it is a gift that Ian Cron clearly possesses. His recent memoir (self-deprecatingly subtitled ‘of sorts’), Jesus, My Father, The CIA and Me, is a wonderful, life-affirming account of a deeply troubled and agonised family – but it is wonderful because it demonstrates hope in some very dark places indeed.
And for that reason alone, it is a book I would thoroughly recommend. Read more
It’s an ambiguous title. It can mean two very different things. Either I can’t stop myself (e.g.I have little self-control when it comes to resisting temptation, whatever that might be) or I can’t rescue myself (and I’m stuck). It seems to me that western culture is in denial about both. Control and autonomy are our post-Enlightenment mantras (in the name of personal freedom of course). And much to our frustration, neither are truly attainable. Read more
I can’t now remember why I was there, but back in early 1989 I had a couple of hours to kill in Oxford (it was probably on a trip to get things sorted before going up to university). And I popped into Blackwells (left) one of the great meccas for all bibliophiles (though it has been knocked off my perch of personal favourites by Daunt Books in Marylebone High St).
I wandered around for a bit, and then noticed that there was quite a throng. I’d no idea what was going on, but in the great tradition of British (and Russian) shoppers, I saw the queue and so joined it. And it so happened that it was leading to a book-signing by the great Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya. I knew absolutely nothing about her, nor her circumstances. But nevertheless, I dutifully waited, purchased and had signed – here’s a pic of my copy of her small anthology Pencil Letter.
It’s hard to imagine the dark days of the cold war now. But when I had my book signed, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still months away and unimaginable. She was exiled in the mid 80s and speaking up for those still suffering back home – hence the book tour. I subsequently discovered that before leaving Russia, she was a courageous dissident and Christian believer – despite the fact that she ended up in a notoriously horrific Soviet labour camp, in which she suffered terrible malnutrition, torture, and nearly died.
Fortunately, she had learned how to memorise and write in such circumstances from the master Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She would use bars of soap, matchsticks and constant repetition in order to sustain her creative impulses and dutifully record the atrocities while enduring the camp’s so-called ‘small zone’. To give a taste, here’s the title poem from this book, written in the KGB cells in Kiev while waiting for her trial in November 1982. It lasts for several pages, but here is the opening section:
I know it won’t be received
Or sent. The page will be
In shreds as soon as I have scribbled it.
Later. Sometime. You’ve grown used to it,
Reading between the lines that never reached you,
Understanding everything. On the tiny sheet,
Not making haste, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, when the hour that’s passed
Is all part of the same time, the same unknown term.
The word stirs under my hand
Like a starling, a rustle, a movement of eyelashes.
Everything’s fine. But don’t come into my dream yet.
In a little while i will tie my sadness into a knot,
Throw my head back and on my lips there’ll be a seal,
A smile, my prince, although from afar.
Can you feel the warmth of my hand
Passing through your hair, over your hollow cheek.
December winds have blown on your face…
How thin you are.. Stay in my dream.
Open the window. The pillow is hot.
Footsteps at the door, and a bell tolling in the tower:
Two, three… Remember, you and I never said
Goodbye. It doesn’t matter.
Four o’clock… That’s it. How heavily it tolls.
Anyway, I was stimulated to take down her book from the shelf when leafing through Steve Turner’s poetry again the other day and came across this poem about her. Wonderful. A great homage to a great poet.
We beat her
and she lost weight
She lost blood.
She lost consciousness.
But she never lost hope.
She never lost poetry
And she was never lost.
You must have to beat real hard
to get the God
out of these people;to still the noise of heaven
in their hearts.
This is a review I’ve just written for Themelios, out next month. Tim Chester is an old friend who writes with great clarity and compassion. His is not an easy book – it is not an easy subject. For many in our culture, the very notion of why one might actually want to live porn-free seems utterly ridiculous. It’s as harmless an activity as riding a bike or reading the newspaper. But for others, it impairs relationships and even destroys marriages. This is not a neutral business.
We desperately need there to be some countervailing voices out there who are not shrill, self-righteous or smug. Tim’s voice is none of these things, for which I’m hugely grateful.
It is a brave man who talks openly about sexual sin. It is an even braver one who writes a book about it! But Tim Chester now has an established track record of writing well-crafted, profoundly theological but deeply pastoral books. This book, specifically tackling the blight of pornography head on, follows naturally from his 2008 publication, You Can Change. That Captured by a better vision is needed and timely should not be in doubt. The statistics for pornography usage and the sex industry’s profit margins are truly terrifying. Porn’s repercussions (for users, for those involved in the sex industry and for society as a whole) hardly bear thinking about. Its pervasive presence amongst Christians is the western church’s vast, unspoken secret – in one survey quoted by Chester, it is suggested that out of every 100 adults, twenty-five men and ten women are struggling with regular porn use (p. 11). Yet, despite its prevalence, it is a problem of such shame that it is confined to the shadows and never properly addressed.
So how to tackle it? That is the painful question for pastors who minister to such people, not to mention those who themselves struggle. The age-old resort of the well-directed rebuke, or naming and shaming, has never worked. Many caught up in pornography are wracked by crippling shame as it is, but that is barely enough to halt their indulgence. Furthermore, such an approach falls headlong into the trap of legalism, which can never bring transformation (only pride and defeat or both) and which is fundamentally incompatible with the authentically Christian gospel of grace.
This is something that Chester understands deeply – which is precisely why he is able to navigate so successfully through this pastoral minefield. His tactic seems to be as much about displacement as it is pastoral diagnosis. As his quotation from an anonymous article makes clear, porn addicts ‘need something more than mere information: they need to be wooed by the true and pure lover that their heart secretly seeks.’ (p. 76)
Chester is determined to offer precisely that. This does not, of course, mean he is afraid to provide important information or to speak very frankly (as he warns in the introduction) – a topic like this demands straight talking. He thus rightly begins, in the first of his five sections, by piercing porn’s façade of consensual pleasure and ‘harmless fun’. He ruthlessly exposes what the sex industry actually does to people at every level – his list of twelve reasons to give up porn is brutal in its trenchant but indisputable analysis. It thus easily achieves his aim to make pornography abhorrent.
Fortunately, however, this is not the book’s exclusive agenda – as the title suggests, Chester has a far more encouraging and inspiring concern. He wants to move us from abhorrence to adoration of God, with its resulting confidence of forgiveness and determination to battle sin. He has sought to understand, at a deep level, what insecurities and idols cause people to get hooked in the first place – and then proceeds to expose why the gospel is both infinitely better and far more compelling. Especially powerful was his articulation of the new confidence brought about by a believer’s justification in Christ. He nicely applies the apparent paradoxes of this divinely-granted status: we are freed by Christ to be free, we are cleansed by Christ to be clean, we are made holy so that we can be holy (pp. 90-94). As he says, ‘battling porn in our lives is not an exercise in denying pleasure. It’s about fighting pleasure with greater pleasure.’ (p. 76) ‘So with every false promise of porn there is a true promise of God. Whatever porn offers, God offers more.’ (p. 51)
Along the way, some inevitable pastoral conundrums need handling with care. What of the struggles of those who are not married? Chester tackles this, though probably not as fully as some might hope for (that is the remit of other books). Still, he makes clear how great the gospel compensations are for all, married or not. Or what of those who are in Christian leadership and struggle in this area? He was especially sensitive here. He does not pull his punches and explains how detrimental porn can be for ministry. Yet he reminds us that ‘using porn doesn’t disqualify you from serving God. For one thing, you were never qualified in the first place!’ (p. 87) This is something everyone in ministry needs to hear, porn or no porn. His advice is to keep battling but earnestly look to Christ for our righteousness.
Chester’s writing is always lucid and biblical but, in this book, his compassion is even more evident (as it needs to be). He makes frequent use of personal testimonies and experiences, from other books or from the anonymous research he carried out. These ground the book in reality.
Above all, though, the book is encouraging! I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by that; but I was. The presenting issue of the book is a crucial and painful one, and his critique and analysis are relentless. Nevertheless, I found myself swept up by a refreshed enthusiasm and excitement for the gospel as he spoke with relish and delight about the grace of God, the glories of Christ and the wonders of sex in its right context. To my mind that clearly demonstrated he had fulfilled his aim of capturing us with a better vision. I certainly was.
It just so happened that Anne Jackson, who’s blog I regularly read, has made a video for XXXChurch talking about her addiction – very honest, down-to-earth and helpful.
The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.
But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).
Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.
But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.
It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”
This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:
The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.
This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.
(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)
Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…
A number have been asking about the song I played at the end of my talk Sunday evening at All Souls. So voila.
This is probably admitting a serious gap in my musical appreciation, but I knew next to nothing about the singer, Pierce Pettis. A friend only gave me this album on Friday, and I hadn’t had the chance to listen to it until Sunday afternoon while doing final prep on Luke 7:36-50. This song leaped right out at me and fitted the bill perfectly.
Something for the Pain
Pierce Pettis (from the album: That Kind of Love, 2009)
This time you might be cured, you think,
but you’re not sure what of,
Life is a mystery we don’t have time to solve,
Transcendental meditation, accidental medication,
A lot of things can sure screw up your brain,
Let me give you something for the pain.
Well, you can go to church on Sunday,
You can put on your best clothes;
but God always sees you naked,
with all your sins exposed,
Yeah, down here with the savages,
in a world of freed Barabbases,
Where nuns carry guns to protect themselves from rape,
Oh, let me give you something for the pain.
I can’t make the bad stuff go away,
but I can offer shelter from the rain,
And the wind that blows the candles out,
well, it also fans the flame,
Let me give you something for the pain.
And absence makes the heart grow fonder,
until the heart explodes,
And out beyond the wild blue yonder,
space is dark and cold,
Yeah, but distance is the aphrodisiac
that keeps the sailors coming back
to siren lovers calling them by name,
Said, let me give you something for the pain.
You can’t make the bad stuff go away,
but you offer shelter from the rain,
And the wind that blows the candles out,
well, it also fans this flame,
Oh, let me give you something for the pain.
Let me give you something for the pain.
You can get this and other songs on iTunes here
William Cowper is a hero of mine (and one on whom I’ve posted briefly before) – a Christian believer who persevered despite being plagued by the most appalling depression and mental afflictions. Through it all, he was able to compose some of the most piercing, faith-inspired poetry ever written.
So it was nice to see him make an appearance in this Holmes’ book, though.
Cook’s sober book (A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World in 1777) caught the public’s imagination. The poet William Cowper, tucked away in his Buckinghamshire vicarage at Olney, and permanently trembling on the bring of disabling depression, found extraordinary relief and delight in imagining the great voyage southwards. To explain his sensations, Cowper invented the idea of the ‘armchair traveller’: ‘My imagination is so captivated upon these occasions, that I seem to partake with the navigators, in all the dangers they encountered. I lose my anchor; my main-sail is rent into shreds; I kill a shark, and by signs converse with a Patagonian, and all this without moving from my fireside.’
He travels and expatiates, as the bee
From flower to flower, so he from land to land;
The manners, customs, policy of all
Pay contribution to the store he gleans;
He sucks intelligence in every clime,
And spreads the honey of his deep research
At his return — a rich repast for me.
He travels, and I too. I tread his deck,
Ascend his topmast, through his peering eyes
Discover countries, with a kindred heart
Suffer his woes, and share in his escapes;
While fancy, like the finger of a clock,
Runs the great circuit, and is still at home.
from Age of Wonder (p51)
I simply love Cowper’s coining of the ‘armchair traveller’ (long before the concept was modified (and debased!) for sports broadcasting); it’s made all the more poignant by the realisation that he was so debilitated by his mental afflictions that he could never have travelled even if he’d wanted to.
Doesn’t the phrase just capture the joy of reading perfectly, though…?