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June 25, 2008

Being good, Doing good – National Prayer Breakfast 2008

by quaesitor

A very long time ago, Paul wrote these words to his mate Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (TNIV, Titus 2:11-14)

Now I’ve talked about these words on this blog before, but they were buzzing around my mind yesterday morning, during the National Prayer Breakfast in the Houses of Parliament. It was my first chance to go and was a fascinating experience. Very glad to have gone. It is run by the cross-party group, Christians in Parliament with a number of other groups. The proceedings were hosted by the chairman, Gary Streeter MP, a Christian MP from Devon.

Normally, they have some big name speaker at these dos – 2008’s was different and was based on the theme of ‘All over the world, God’s people are going about doing good.‘ Now that was perhaps a bit of a funny theme for something that was meant to be focused on praying for this nation – and the other slight qualm I had was that for the many non-Christians present, it could have felt like merely Christian propaganda saying “Hey, look at us, aren’t we Christians doing wonderful things”! Having said that, the 4 people focused on were indeed truly inspiring, and they certainly put our complacent comforts to shame: an Indian filmmaker now running an orphanage in Mumbai, a British woman caring for homeless in central Asia, a Sierra Leonean running a woman’s refuge out of her home, and a British woman running a crisis pregnancy centre in York.

But how do we do good?

But the highlight for me was the pithy summary by Gary Streeter (right) at the end when he described what his prayer for our nation was. I’m not sure i got it exactly, but it went something like this:

My prayer is that as a nation we would shift from being obsessed with looking good and feeling good, into a being a nation that is concerned with being good and doing good.

That is spot on, in my opinion – and it would i think provide a great core prayer for the nation. The question, I suppose, is how on earth people will become good and do good. You can’t legislate to make people do good; you can’t even simply bring people up to be good. For religious legalism, in the end, can only actually oppress not liberate. Remember what Paul said about the Colossian false teachers when they propagated their own form of legalism. He said that their teachings ‘indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence(Colossians 2:23). In the end it is only divine grace that can change a life. Divine grace is what this nation needs so desperately – and when we have tasted grace, we’ll be almost desperately eager to do and be good.

But there’s the challenge. For if we have tasted it, are we ourselves now eager to do and be good? Paul’s use of those words to Titus use such a wonderful phrase – because it isn’t clenched or restrictive – it doesn’t even begin to define let alone limit what that good might look like. What is clear that it cannot just be about reading your bible, praying and telling people about Jeuss before you ‘go to heaven’, crucial and essential though they are. Jesus clearly had his priorities – but they never excluded the general good.

Some may suggest i’ve just contradicted myself. Haven’t you just said, Mark, that what this nation needs is divine grace? Surely that means a message? True – it can never mean less than a message. But it MUST ALSO mean far more than a message. For it means lives transformed by grace that transform through grace. By doing good and being good. This means different things for different people – politics, arts, sports, business, charity work, parenting, caring for elderly parents – etc etc etc etc. But it is something that we should be eager for

A Surprising impact on Reading

In our secularising culture, faith-based groups are the great bogeyman. What’s their agenda? Aren’t they just trying to convert people? Don’t they just want to control people? Well, that is a negative spin on things. But of course, every group, secular or not, wants to propagate its own worldview. That’s fine. That’s what a public square is all about. But don’t discredit faith-based groups just because of their worldview. If you do, you might find disastrous consequences.

A friend of mine, Tom Rout, recently told me about some fascinating evidence of this in his home town of Reading. Every council has a Local Strategic Partnership (LSP), which aims to work and coordinate with projects from the voluntary sector. Every council has around 100 different government-set targets that it must meet in areas like crime, health, education etc. Without the voluntary sector, these targets would be impossible.

But here’s the surprise. A few months ago, in Reading, the LSP held its annual open forum.

  • 52 voluntary sector groups had stalls
  • 32 groups were faith-based group
  • Of those 32, 30 were Christian.

That’s almost 60% – and that’s just the ones who held stalls. For an idea of what some of them do, check out Impact Reading (which lists 26 of them). It’s easy to disparage, ignore or scorn (and the media has and does). But it is a simple matter of verifiable fact that the people of God, all over the world, are going about doing good. There are plenty of believers who are not – and they are a cause of concern and even embarrassment for the gospel. But please don’t choose to overlook those who are.

And Lord Hattersley has not. There is something in what he says here (which i also quoted in a post from May 07):

It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night. The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.

Final Highlight

The African Children’s Choir were on hand to do their thing at the NPB yesterday, but for me the highlight in the end came from the fact that there we were – 600 people – singing two great songs:

  • Be Thou My Vision
  • In Christ Alone

reverberating around this awesome, incredible, ancient building (see Westminster Hall right). So much has happened here. So much has been said here and done here. But for all that, what a place to affirm that ultimately it is in Christ alone that our hope is truly to be found.

_______________

By the way if you like that rather cool word cloud of Titus 2, Wordle is a free website that generates them with a nice range of variables! As timewasters go, this is an eminently useful and important one.

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