The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

Christians are required to love Muslims

Christians are required to love Muslims.

And with those six words, I’m probably starting a riot among my friends on social media. Especially the Americans.

Yes, 9/11 happened. Yes, the perpetrators called themselves Muslims. Yes, a large number of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations of the world actively persecute their national Christians in one form or another. Yes, Iran’s leadership consider America (and by extension the West in general) to be their enemies. Yes, all of that.

Even so, Christians are required to love Muslims. What part of “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” did you think was optional? Did you think the parable of the Good Samaritan was told the way it was because Samaritans were really great people who loved the Jews?

Unlike most of the people spewing anti-Islamic rhetoric into my Facebook news feed, I’ve actually lived overseas in a Muslim-majority nation. I’ve been in a mosque. I’ve had Muslim friends. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert as such, but I can talk about what I’ve seen and experienced.

The country in question was in no way without its problems, but the people were almost without exception courteous and hospitable to this Western Christian in their midst. Hospitable to a fault, actually; the local tradition basically considered guests to be an expression of Divine trust and favour. You can be trusted to take care of guests properly.

I was there when 9/11 happened. I saw it through television reports in a majority-Muslim country.

No-one celebrated. The news coverage wasn’t “see how the Great Satan has fallen”; it was shocked disbelief that anyone could be evil enough to do such a thing.

Over the next couple of months, the streets around the US embassy filled with flowers for blocks in every direction.

My American wife (only she wasn’t yet my wife at the time) only had to let it out that she was an American for the sympathy to pour out.

-We are so sorry.

-Did you lose anyone?

-Are your family ok?

-We hope you find the evil people who did this.

-We are with you.

-We are all Americans today.

They weren’t doing this because someone told them to. They weren’t doing it because they were rebelling against some kind of Islamic tyranny. They were doing it because they were decent human beings and it’s what you do.

I’ve seen the clip that always gets played when people want to tell me the Muslim world was celebrating at 9/11. And I mean “the clip”; I’ve only seen just the one. It was somewhere in the Middle East, not where I was. And what I noticed about the clip was not that people were celebrating and dancing, but how few in number they seemed to be and who exactly it was that was celebrating.

What I saw was a group of no more than 50, and probably around 20, composed entirely of little old ladies and children. People who, not to put too fine a point on it, probably didn’t know any better. And only ever that one clip, which has somehow entered the American public consciousness as “the Muslim world were all partying in the streets”.

Well, I never saw them doing that, anyway.

Every time I make a comment about Christians needing to show love and respect to Muslims, I get a barrage of comments telling me how “they hate us”, “they want to kill us”, “they hate Israel”, “you hate your wife and daughters”, etc. I’ve seen people posting ignorant memes that “Muslims have contributed nothing at all to world civilisation”.

Enough.

Yes, there are Muslim fanatics that hate America and/or Christians. Tell me there aren’t Americans and Christians that hate them. And we have far less excuse, because their religion does not command them to love their enemies. Ours does. In my experience, most of them just want to get on with their lives and don’t hate Americans at all.

But they can read, and they can see, and they can hear. They hear our claims that Christians love everyone, and they can see America emplacing entry bans on people from Muslim countries. They’ve also heard our claims that “America is a Christian country”, which reinforce their pre-existing beliefs shaped by the fact that places like Iran and Saudi Arabia really are Muslim countries in terms of the national and legal structures of the state being Muslim. That’s the way they tend to interpret our claims of Christian countryhood; they think that there’s no difference between the actions of the USA as a nation and the actions of the Christian church.

Many of them get frustrated by the church’s apparent blinkered support for the State of Israel. This is a thorny issue replete with biases and half-truths and unclarity on all sides including mine, and I don’t want to say a lot about it right here, but the fact is that many Muslims think we believe that the State of Israel can do no wrong, ever.

That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. Note that I didn’t say that was an accurate belief, just that that’s what they think.

I’m not even going to dignify “you hate your wife and daughters” with a proper response. It’s a deliberately contrary-minded, ignorant comment that equates loving Muslims with support for the fanatics’ agenda. I’m a Christian and I love my sisters and brothers in Christ, but that does not mean I support the perverted agenda of every cultist who’s ever claimed to represent the True Church.

And “Muslims have contributed nothing to world civilisation” is, if possible, even more ignorant. In the period of the Crusades, the Muslim world were far more advanced than the Christian nations, particularly in science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. While the Christians were struggling to do simple arithmetic using the unwieldy Roman numerals, the Arabs had a place-notation that we still use today in modified form. It’s not for no reason that we call them “Arabic numerals”. Muslim astronomers like Avicenna (ibn Sina, to use the proper form of his name) made observations of the heavens that wouldn’t be equalled in Europe for hundreds of years. And well into the 1600s every European court had its Arab or Moorish (ie black North African Muslim) physician, because the Christians were dangerous incompetents more interested in bleeding you than healing you. Most of what Western Christian and post-Christian scientists have discovered about science builds off of work done by Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages.

But even if they were just as ignorant and stupid as we are, still we would be required to love them.

It is, after all, one of the commands of Christ. How can we claim to be obedient servants of the Lord Jesus if we obey everything except the bits we don’t like? If we love only those who love us, how are we better than demon-worshipping pagans?

We’re commanded to love our enemies. There’s no listed exception clause that says “but if they hate your country then you don’t have to”. There’s no exemption for people that don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God; in fact, the focus is specifically on those who do not believe. The ones who were persecuting and spitefully abusing when Jesus said those words were pagan Romans, many of whom thought the Jews were too troublesome to live, and the Christian sect of Judaism was even worse.

If we are going to call ourselves His followers, we do not get to pick and choose who we love.

We don’t have to support the agenda of the radicals. We don’t have to decide that they’re right in what they believe. But we do have to love them.

This begins with being respectful. Being friendly. Taking the time to get to know the alien and stranger in our midst, about whom even the Old Testament Law was quite firm: “do not despise an alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt”. Find out what help they need. Act like a good neighbour. It’s not rocket science.

They aren’t robotic avatars of The Islamic Threat, or whatever you think is driving them. They’re just people, like you and me. They have kids that they want a better life for, they have sports fandoms and hobby interests, they mistrust the secularising influences around them just like many Christians do. God made Selim just like He made Simon, in His image and likeness. God loves Aisha just as He loves Alice. Muslims really aren’t that different from you and I. Just people whom God loves and wants to come to a better and deeper knowledge of Him, made in His image just like me.

And Jesus commands us to love them. Hadn’t we better be about it?

Liturgical Musings

My church upbringing was in a denomination that didn’t have a lot of time for formal liturgy. I don’t mean that our worship services were completely spontaneous and unstructured; there was a formula or pattern to these things and we followed it. You might call that an informal liturgy, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of formulaic responsive recitation or reading. “Lift up your hearts” “We lift them up to the Lord” or “May the peace of Christ be with you” “And with your spirit also” didn’t have a place in our services.

The closest thing we had to a liturgical formula was that the pastor would frame our participation in the Communion with I Corinthians 11:23-26:  Paul’s explanation of what’s supposed to happen in the living ritual. And that was his personal practice, not a denominational custom or mandated liturgy. Oh, and we’d usually end our services by saying “the Grace” to one another: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.”

With this background, naturally as a teen I was a little suspicious of formal liturgies. How can worship be genuine, it was reasoned, if you’re just going through the motions of reading or reciting the same old stuff every week?  How does that really touch wherever you are right now?

As an adult with a vastly broader church experience, I look at this reasoning and see a lot of missing the point. I’ve seen some of the drivel that some people unfortunately come up with when left to their own devices. It’s like people writing their own wedding vows: some people do a good job and create something both personal and meaningful, others shouldn’t have been let near the process without close editorial supervision. You never know what you’re going to get.

Beside that, it’s rather arrogant to assume that anyone worshipping with the aid of a formal liturgy is only going through the motions. And by implication, all “free” and “spontaneous” worship is always pure and genuine.

Real worship isn’t what your mouth is doing so much as what your heart is doing. I can remember plenty of completely spontaneous “times of worship” in which I was just going through the motions, pursuing an emotional high and not the Lord. In certain circles you look really spiritual if you’re willing to dance up and down the aisles – and I’ve done that from sincere and insincere motives – but there’s no place for any feelings of superiority over those whom God meets in quietness and stillness and the reading of time-honoured words.

So I’ve made my peace with liturgy as an adult, more or less. I think one of the main driving forces in my personal reconciliation with formal liturgy was spending several years in Charismatic-type churches and watching them botch Christmas by seemingly failing to acknowledge Our Lord’s birth in worship. When you fetishise not using hymns, apparently that means you can’t sing Christmas carols either, not even the ones replete with truth like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. And so Jesus’ birthday gets sidelined and ignored by His own church.

Sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Anyway, what most liturgical-type churches do really well is the church calendar. It’s an entirely different mode and model of a worship service, in which any one service is conceived as being part of a larger, ongoing flow of service through the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, Pentecost and right around to the end of what’s called “Ordinary Time” and the start of the next cycle. The focus seems more long-term and ongoing than immediate and “today”.

Ideally, we should be able to find a way to have both. There’s a place for spontaneous worship that breaks out of stale patterns and finds God at work in ways that no-one expected. The Holy Spirit doesn’t tend to like it when our formulas become so all-encompassing that He doesn’t have any room to do something different, but sometimes even our “free and spontaneous worship” just becomes another formulaic straitjacket for Him. Dancing before the Lord can be a wonderful expression of liberated devotion to hHim, or it can be someone looking like a prat because they think on some level that God can only really meet them in a place of emotional high.

These days, I approach a liturgical formula like “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” “It is right for us to give thanks and praise” and I think “you know what? It is right”. And that’s a truth you don’t often encounter outside of a liturgical-type worship service. Much of the formal liturgy is written the way it is because it expresses certain truths that have withstood the test of centuries.

Oh, some of it’s dross. Often the bits that have been generated by people meddling with the originals in the name of “updating” them, in my experience. And unless you’re careful to maintain a worshipful heart, just mouthing words will do you no good at all. But that’s true whatever our corporate worship services look like.

 

Eyes Off The Waves

It’s already five days into 2017, and I’m still not ready for it.

Christmas was our first Christmas in our new home, and while I was concentrating on that, New Year sort of snuck up on me.

Most years I’ve spent some time in prayer and have some idea about a direction for the New Year, but this year, nothing. When my wife asked me on New Year’s Eve what I wanted from the upcoming year, I thought about all the craziness of 2016 and said “to survive it”.

Surviving is a pretty low bar, though. And if I’m honest with myself, I want more than mere survival.

But as for more precise direction? Not a clue.

The New Year feels a bit like standing at the top of a precipice; political weirdness in both my country of origin and my country of residence make the future a decidedly uncertain and unresolved thing. Hope seems in short supply. All bets are off; anything could happen. Look at the past year.

Maybe that’s the focus. Developing the sort of Divine confidence and expectation of God’s goodness that really does laugh at circumstances.

It would be easy to get disheartened. The less said about current politics, the better, but I have to say that I worry about the anti-reason, anti-fact, anti-truth nature of what appears to be current politics. And it’s conservatives who claim to believe in absolutes like truth I mean at least as much as liberals who claim to believe in relativism.

As someone who places a high value on truth, I find this disturbing. Fact is the least form of truth, and if we can’t even agree on what the facts actually are, then Pandora’s box is standing open and all the demons that have ever troubled Mankind are loosed upon the world.

In that kind of environment, Biblical Hope is a powerful weapon. The confidence that God is still good and hasn’t dropped the ball, regardless of my personal situation.

Like the Apostle Peter, here we are in the unnatural position of standing on the water in the middle of the storm. The winds are howling, the waves mount up like jagged cliff-edges. The other followers of Jesus are back in the limited safety of the boat, afraid of the storm themselves and even more afraid of doing what Peter did. The invitation to fear is everywhere. It’s reasonable to be afraid; that’s what reason tells us to do.

But there’s Jesus, holding onto my hand as I call desperately for salvation. Eyes off the waves, son, back onto Me. I’ve got this. I’ve got you.

The One who raises up kings and dethrones them – as messy as that gets when rule is for life and dynasties matter – is still Sovereign of the universe. The One who promised to build His church with no people or empire on earth to provide shelter and support for us – and then did so – is still Lord of all the earth.

These aren’t even very big waves compared to what the early church experienced. The persecution still hasn’t begun in America, despite the occasional rumour to the contrary.

I talked a good line through 2016 about God’s Kingdom being our paramount concern, about how these light and momentary trials reveal how small our view of God is, about how vital it is for us to act like followers of Jesus towards Muslims and other people who do not trust Him for salvation.

Now it’s apparently time to prove it.

I need to keep my eyes off the waves and on the Lord enthroned over the flood. I need to act with kindness and grace even to those believers who I deep down think are bringing the name of my God into disrepute. I need to have a large enough and Biblical enough view of my God that it puts these momentary troubles into proper perspective.

How Silently, How Silently

Every year, as the season of Advent progresses, I find myself focused on a different aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the amazing faith it took to embrace her part in the Lord’s plan.

Some years it’s been Joseph and what it takes for a man to be father to the Son of God.

A couple of years ago it was the giving of gifts and the Lord’s generosity.

Last year it was connecting the First Coming to the Second.

This year, I think the focus might be on the hiddenness of it all. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.

Anyone who’s been around the process of giving birth ought to be aware that this is a bit of a conceit, rather like “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”. Jesus was, in fact, a real human being, a Baby for all intents and purposes just like every other baby, with real tears and real wails of distress. And He didn’t come into the world without pain, either.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that the birth of the King-Messiah wasn’t in an imperial palace and heralded with trumpets.

The world, as it is wont to do, was focused on the lives and times of the rich and great. Augustus Caesar was on the throne in Rome; the Roman puppet Herod the Great ruled in the province of Judea. His building projects expanding Temple Mount and building the Herodion palace were fairly recently completed, monuments to himself and to human ideas of greatness.

And in a small village in the very shadow of Herod’s fortress palace, a couple of poor teenagers displaced by the great Caesar’s tax census laid their newborn in a feeding trough to get him off the floor of the barn.

The Son of God, the promised Deliverer and King, possessing more intrinsic greatness than every ruler or potentate that history has ever called “the Great”, born into the equivalent of a refugee camp for displaced persons in a conquered province, to a couple of teenagers from the very bottom of the economic ladder.

In the shadow of “Make America Great Again”, it’s… challenging.

Jesus’ homeland had no military power. It was occupied territory, under the sandaled heel of the empire that invented crucifixion as a means of execution and which came up with the terrifyingly simple Pax Romana: “Do not fight, or we will kill you”. The Romans were good at killing people in job lots.

And in this conquered territory, Jesus was born in a small village. Today we tend to exalt country life as a lifestyle to strive for, but back then it was the cities that were the places everyone wanted to live; they were the safe places where you could live out your life without so much fear of bandits or thieves. In terms of how we think about different types of places, Jesus was born in an urban ghetto.

Not only that, but He was born not to rich, powerful people but to the poorest of the poor. The “pair of doves or two pigeons” sacrifice for a firstborn that Joseph and Mary made to fulfill God’s Law was the very least sacrifice for the very lowest income bracket. Today, Mary and Joseph might not be earning enough to even pay income tax; back then, they were being shunted around like pawns on a chessboard by those who demanded their taxes.

Herod’s greatest self-named monument to his own glory, the palace at Herodion, was visible from Bethlehem, but what a difference! Swimming pools and gardens in the rocky Judean wilderness, all constructed on a mountain effectively built by Herod’s engineers, Jesus’ human family would probably have looked too scruffy even to live in the servants’ quarters.

Born in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. And you’d only be staying in the inn to begin with if you had no family in the area to stay with. Both of them being “from the house and line of David”, where were their relatives? It seems Joseph’s decision to obey the Lord and marry Mary anyway may have caused his relatives to disown them.

And so comes the King of the Universe. So very silently that even the Magi almost missed it. Not in a palace, not with trumpets. His birth proclaimed to shepherds – a profession so unskilled that it was frequently left to dozy children, of so little status that even farmers looked down on them. These are the fast-food restaurant workers and tollbooth attendants of the ancient world.

It’s appropriate. The Kingdom of the Messiah is fundamentally inverted compared to what humans value. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn…” in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Paupers, widows, tax-men, revolutionary terrorists, women and children exalted, the devout, God-fearing good folk of the Pharisee movement castigated and insulted. By the time of the early church, towns were screaming in panic that “the people who have turned the whole world upside-down have now come here!”

A Kingdom for the weak, the disadvantaged, the poor, the marginalised. Losers, misfits, the ugly and the unsuccessful, those who couldn’t make a go of it in the Roman world’s system. Led by a homeless man who had a political revolutionary among His inner circle and whose followers would institute a communistic economy among themselves, based on giving and sharing rather than buying and selling. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Tremble, o world.

Thankful

As disturbed as I have been at the prospect of a Trump Presidency and as saddened as I feel at the Evangelical community who voted for him in battalions, thankfulness seems to be thin on the ground this year.

However, thankfulness is one of those rare things whose true extent we only discover as we give voice to it, so the current political state of affairs seems like all the more reason to discover the true depth of my gratitude.

Here goes…

I’m thankful first and most of all for the fact that my Lord thinks I’m worth dying for. I am in awe of the value He sets upon me, and I have become conscious this year of just how high that value is.

I am thankful for my beautiful wife and lovely children. I’m thankful for our continued good health, especially when so many people I know are wrestling with long-term illness, cancer, diabetes, and so on. Thank you, God!

I’m thankful for the new home that we moved into this year, thankful to no longer be beholden to landlords and tenancy agreements for a place to live. I’m thankful for the provision of the Lord to make this possible and for the comfort in the present and the potential for the future that our house represents.

I’m thankful that we still live in a country in which we are free to worship God (or not) in the way we believe He wants. I’m thankful that Jesus Christ’s church in America is not undergoing persecution – no-one is denying us the right to worship or requiring that we do so in certain ways; no-one is throwing stones at our children just because we believe, or denying us employment to try to force us to give up our faith. We have complete freedom to trust in the Lord and to tell others about Him. That’s pretty wonderful, when you think about it.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I talk a lot about not putting faith in the political process to bring about God’s Kingdom; now I get to live it out. I’m thankful that the Kingdom of God truly is bigger than what manner of man sits in the Oval Office, greater than the course of a nation and stronger than my fears of how this might turn out.

I’m thankful that grace and truth really are stronger than hate and fear. I’m thankful that we don’t have to fight our battles according to the flesh, even more thankful that the battles we’re called to aren’t really ours to fight, but the Lord’s.

I’m thankful that God has not given up, that He is still at work through even the darkest of circumstances to bring people into the Kingdom of His wonderful light. I’m thankful that I get to be a part of that, and thankful that the results don’t all depend on me and my effort.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to celebrate this wonderful holiday, which is not only more resistant than most to being commercialised and ruined, but which gives me a whole four day weekend to spend with my family. Given that I normally work six days a week, this is not something to take for granted.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

We’re Under Attack

Christianity in America is under attack. A coalition of pro-abortion activists, LGBTQRGBetc fanatics, hardcore atheists, Communists, liberals and secularisers is currently persecuting and threatening to wipe out Christianity in America.

Or so we’re told.

It’s apparently the reason so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. According to this article and many like it, they consider the left an existential threat to the faith.

Personally I think this is a lot of fear-mongering guff. I’ve seen enough of the world to know what real persecution and attack looks like, and America, you ain’t even close.

People claiming to be Christians still constitute a massive supermajority of the US population, and even evangelicals are a sizable portion. Ok, the actual percentage of people who take that profession of faith seriously may be tiny by comparison, but if we were really being persecuted it wouldn’t be safe to call yourself a Christian if you weren’t going to be serious about it. The government doesn’t consider the followers of Jesus Christ to be dangerous seditionists. No, not even Obama’s government. He wouldn’t have claimed to be one if that were the case – and he did, in the runup to both his elections. No-one is being jailed or killed just because they call Jesus their Lord. No-one is throwing stones or taking pot-shots at our kids because of what we believe. No-one is forbidding our churches to open their doors or forcing us to worship in secret. No-one is denying us access to government help or anything like that and using our faith as a reason.

Christians are warned in the Bible to expect opposition and even persecution. But we in America really are not being persecuted. Not right now, and God willing we will not be for a long time yet.

To me, a lot of our persecution complex looks like the temper-tantrums of a community who’ve been told that they can’t have their own way all the time.

There are Christians and Muslims and Jewish people and atheists and Buddhists, Baha’i and Mormons, Hindus and pagans and everyone else too in American society. America has had a diversity of religious opinions ever since there has been a United States of America; it’s one of the most genius parts of the US Constitution. The government can’t tell people what to believe, and no one church or religion can tell the government what laws to pass. Everyone is free to believe whatever they like and to try and convert others to their viewpoint by any peaceful, noncoercive means.

Since I believe that followers of Christ have the best answers to the great questions of life, the universe and everything – or rather, Jesus does, even if His followers are lunatics sometimes – I have nothing to fear from this marketplace of ideas. Christianity doesn’t need anyone to protect it; it’s like what CS Lewis said about the Scriptures. “Defend the Bible? One might as well try to defend an uncaged lion.”

If we get the truth out there in a way that people can really understand what we’re saying, the Holy Spirit will do His work and people will trust their lives to Jesus Christ. Well-informed followers of Jesus aren’t going to become Muslims if they really know the One who is the Truth.

The people of Jesus the Messiah in Iran, of all places, are now the fastest-growing church in the world. We don’t need to be afraid just because the government does something we don’t like.

No, LGBTQetc people don’t like us very much. Tell me they don’t have reason, solely in our behaviour as a community without going into matters of doctrine. I still can’t see that the Bible approves of homosexual practice for followers of Jesus, but I cannot and will not approve of the unloving, spiteful behaviour of some Christians towards people of that community. They’re people God loves, made in His image, regardless of what I think about what they’re doing. You think your gossip or greed or self-righteousness or idolatry of wealth or whatever is any less a sin?

We’re followers of the Prince of Peace, the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, the One who instructed us to love our enemies otherwise we’re no better than demon-worshipping pagans. We ought to be better than the hateful spite some of us direct against those we disagree with.

Besides all that, isn’t politics the wrong forum for trying to bring spiritual change to the nation?

You think that fallen human beings are going to stop being wicked just because we legislate against wickedness? You think passing a law banning something is enough to change people’s hearts? What about your guns, O right-wing Christian? You make the argument that banning guns won’t get rid of them but will only drive them underground, but you want to ban certain behaviours and think that will work. This is double-mindedness. You can’t legislate spiritual change.

The nation will change spiritually when people come to Jesus and acknowledge Him as their Lord in truth and with actions, not just in words. We can achieve this only through fervent, heartfelt prayer and proclamation of the Good News about what Jesus has done for us, in all humility and grace.

I’ve heard Christians say things like “God will send revival if we overturn Roe vs Wade”. This is tosh, and we ought to know it. Genuine spiritual revival is a sovereign work of a merciful God at His discretion, and the only prerequisite that matters is that His church, those who call on His name, humble themselves, seek His face and turn away from their own wickedness.

It’s not about society turning away from godless liberalism or whatever human face you put on the enemy. It’s about you, personally, and me, personally, turning away from our little white lies and our whitewashing of certain forms of evil and our personal greed and our personal impurity and our personal arrogant pride and so on. It means we have to own our own personal crap: we can’t fudge or generalise to make ourselves feel better.

We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the high call of God to which He has called us. None of us truly deserve to take the name of Christian, “little Christ”. Real revival has always begun not with a political movement but with the church of the Lord Jesus Christ falling on our knees and getting serious about living for Him. Revival and a restoration of the church to the wider society will only come when we do that.

Christians can’t assume an automatic prominence of our own viewpoint any more, but that doesn’t mean we’re an endangered species. “Existential threat”? Please; how can mere human legislation extirpate what our Lord said the very gates of hell would not be able to hold out against?

Is our view of our Saviour truly that weak and pitiful? Do we truly have so little sense of the true strength of our God that we believe we have to do His job by politicking? If we try to fight to preserve and protect visible public Christianity in America, we will lose, because we are fighting the wrong battle with the wrong weapons. If we truly want to demolish strongholds of the enemy, we have to use the true weapons of our warfare, which are “not carnal”. Not of the flesh, not the way the world does it. No barrage of Facebook memes or tweets or angry hostility or political campaigning: heartfelt prayer, personal repentance, real holiness of lifestyle, graciousness. Love God and love other people. All the rest is commentary.

Those are our weapons. And all the powers of hell tremble when we take them up.

You think “the evil liberal agenda” won’t wither like a snail in a fire, faced with genuine compassionate love from those calling themselves by the name of the Master? You think “the evils of reactionary conservatism” can stand up to people acting with real love for them despite what they believe? You think the devil’s politics stand a chance? What does it matter if abortion remains legal, if we have such a spiritual revival that no-one wants to take up that option?

If we’re under attack, the mastermind behind it is that foul spirit called the devil. I’m sure he’s laughing at all the wasted energy we’re expending counterattacking the wrong targets. The human ones. The ones he’s duped into being his puppets. Put whoever you think fits into that category, but be aware that someone else probably thinks you should be there.

Yes, we’re under attack, but not in the way you think. The war is spiritual, not political or social except at second hand. The appropriate weapons for the true battle are found in the Scriptures, in prayer, and in the character of Christ. Facing temptation to greed? Give generously. Being reviled? Speak positively in return. Under attack with lies? Hold unswervingly to the truth and trust your reputation to the Lord. All sorts of accusing lies were told about the early church by the pagans, too, but they didn’t reply in kind. Guess who won in the long-term.

What I’m trying to say is that spiritual warfare isn’t just some weirdly mystical exercise of naming and shaming various unclean spirits. It’s right here and right now, every Christian, every point of decision. Am I going to act in loving obedience to my Lord or selfish rebellion? That’s the fight that’s ours to fight.

It’s war, people. And we need to stop shooting at the POWs the enemy has taken.