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Happy Birthday U2

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I have a lot of time for Bono and I enjoy U2’s music, so I thought I’d say a few words to celebrate 40 years since their formation on 25 September 1976.

My first experience of the band was superficial, it was the early ’80s and while I was more in tune with the New Romantic movement, I became aware of this rock group producing pleasingly anthemic tunes accompanied by apparently meaningful lyrics. They remained in the background of the soundtrack of my life, occasionally bursting to the fore, for example with The Joshua Tree. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the spiritual message flowing through that album, but, oh my word, it was a great collection of songs.

As I look back at their career, I’m most impressed with the way they’ve managed to navigate the fine line between sacred and secular music, so that they can deliver the message of God’s love to millions of rock fans around the world who would otherwise never choose to listen to Christian music. Even the subtle message found in many of their songs can make an impact on the listener, who, if they choose to investigate further, will find a frontman in Bono who isn’t afraid to proclaim the gospel and his trust in Christ.

Sometimes the songs are explicit in their declaration of faith, while also acknowledging our brokenness and our need for salvation, like the two songs in this video.

 

You’ll find plenty of articles about U2 and their faith with a quick web search. Here’s one from Premier Christianity that was written in anticipation of their “birthday” and which traces how spiritual themes have been woven into their music over the years, far more eloquently than I could manage. For example,

When they reached number one in the US charts on 8th August 1987 with ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, radio stations across the world were ablaze with as succinct a theology of Christ’s cross as any hymn ever written: “You broke the bonds / And you loosed the chains / Carried the cross / Of my shame / You know I believe it.”

Remarkably, Christians missed the theological clout and actually wondered if the band members had lost their faith, distracted by the title. Philippians 3:12 is perhaps the biblical equivalent of what U2 were trying to say: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Please check out the links at the bottom of the Premier Christianity article for more evidence of a faithful and inspiring band.

High Priority

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“I’d like you to write down the three most important people in your life, in order.”

It was a deliberatively provocative way to start our latest small group meeting. I’d put my friends slightly off-track by announcing beforehand that the topic of the evening was ‘family’. I pushed them further in a particular direction by ‘admitting’ that I couldn’t choose between my two children, so I would allow them to group people together in the list.

I got what I deserved. The next few minutes were filled with discussions about how impossible (or at least painful) it was to rank people in such a way, and how to define ‘important’, but in the end it seemed that everyone had a list along the lines of “spouse, children, grandchildren” or something similar depending on age and marital status. There was no point asking the next two questions…

“How many of you put Jesus/God in your top three?”

“How many of you put Him at number one?”

Of course, if my preamble had been “This is a discussion about prioritising between God and family,” I would have expected them all to put God at number one, because that’s simply what you do – isn’t it?

In fact, when I had given myself this mental exercise a few days earlier it was outside of that context. Without much thought (but not entirely thoughtlessly), I had come up with the list “close family, best friend, Jesus”.

Jesus at number three?

I realised that there is often a conflict between the priorities I’d like to have and the priorities I demonstrate in my life, so I decided to talk about it in the group meeting, and I did some research on the Internet, because that’s simply what you do!

I read someone’s description of a sermon they once heard:

The pastor started the message by asking the congregation, “Why do you feel the need to skip church when you have family in town?” Everyone was cracking up because for anyone who grew up in the church, they knew that there was a grain of truth to what he was saying. The pastor went on to explain how churchgoers who attend regularly don’t see the big deal with skipping one Sunday to entertain family. He then compared this situation to Samson and Delilah and how Samson didn’t see the harm in just spending a little time with Delilah.

Is this is a fair comparison? I read the story in Judges 16, but I didn’t see the connection. There wasn’t the ‘skipping one Sunday’ thought in Samson’s mind, just a general lapse of wisdom. It made me wonder if that was the best example he could find to illustrate his point.

The pastor talked about how tithing can and does take a nosedive when our family needs money. He likened this to a lack of faith in God and an over reliance on your own financial means. The scripture he used to support this point was found in I Kings 17:10-16.

This is when Elijah asked a widow woman for a meal. She responded by saying that I’d like to but I am on my last meal and once I make it for my son and I, we are going to die. But God, speaking through Elijah said make a meal for me first and then make a meal for you and your son. Once she did this, she was rewarded with food for many days.

Do we have enough faith to put our family’s finances second and our giving to God first? This can be a real challenge. I tend to think that when it comes to money the most important thing is not to treasure it in your heart. If family, friend, or stranger has a need and you choose to help, surely God will be pleased, even if it means less is given in His house.

But if you consider the ramifications of putting God before family, we can’t get a more direct example than Genesis 22. Here is an abridged version, verses 1-2, followed by 9-12:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love – Isaac – and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’

‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’

God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his only son in obedience to the Lord. And then later God Himself sacrificed His only Son for our atonement. How far would we go, in giving up our family for God? Can you think of a sacrifice you have made – a decision made in obedience to God that hurt a member of their family?

It’s all very well having conversations about such matters between Christian friends, but sometimes it can be instructive to look at the question from a different angle. These are the words of somebody who wrote to Yahoo Answers. If somebody asked you this, how would you respond?

Something I’ve noticed lately from many Christians, & other adherents to Abrahamic faiths is that when asked what is most important in their life, they always say God, family, & something else. The reason I ask this is because usually they put God BEFORE their own family. I don’t mean to be rude, but I find that absolutely [expletive] crazy! No matter how religious of a person one may be, how can you possibly put God before your own family? I find that very disturbing, & believe that people like this are seriously sick in the head. I myself used to be Catholic but even during my time as a religious person, God came 2nd, my family came 1st. Does anybody else find it chilling that there are religious followers out there (many) who put family AFTER God? If their are people here like that, can you possibly explain this to me? If so, why is God before your very own family?

Several answers agreed with the sentiment of the original question, but here’s a different perspective.

L Williams, who founded a big insurance company to work on behalf of the consumer, said God first you second and everyone else third. It just seems to work, if you say, put your lover first, and they walk out the door, without your foundation laid right, your world crumbles. It is not so much about what I may feel is right and wrong, but what works and what doesn’t work.

So let’s read some of what Jesus said about family. Luke 14:25-27

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

On which Matthew Henry’s commentary says this:

Every good man loves his relations; and yet, if he be a disciple of Christ, he must comparatively hate them, must love them less than Christ, as Leah is said to be hated when Rachel was better loved. Not that their persons must be in any degree hated, but our comfort and satisfaction in them must be lost and swallowed up in our love to Christ, as Levi’s was, when he said to his father, I have not seen him, Deuteronomy 33:9. When our duty to our parents comes in competition with our evident duty to Christ, we must give Christ the preference. If we must either deny Christ or be banished from our families and relations (as many of the primitive Christians were), we must rather lose their society than his favour.

He said of his father and mother,
“I have no regard for them.”
He did not recognise his brothers
or acknowledge his own children,
but he watched over your word
and guarded your covenant.

Compare this to Matthew 15:1-6

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’

Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is “devoted to God,” they are not to “honour their father or mother” with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

And here is what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:8

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

I’ll conclude with another of the Yahoo Answers:

Putting God before the family does not diminish the love of family. Actually one would say that the love of family and statement of your love of God are one in the same, for who teaches us of Love. The family seems to come first for many, but without the understanding of the Great Love of God how could one have the full concept of loving, devotion to the family.

References and further reading:

https://thesuperspade.wordpress.com/2006/03/15/is-your-family-more-important-than-god/

https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110304004555AAgyZi1

http://www.gotquestions.org/putting-God-first.html

http://focusongod.com/Family-01.htm

http://www.blogos.org/christianlifeandgrowth/God-before-family.php

Does God Keep Score?

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A great article by Steve McVey. Please read…

http://www.stevemcvey.com/god-keep-score/

At The Crease

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I often ask God to speak to me. My requests become more frequent and more yearning as years go by. I try to filter out distractions like the world around me and my own myriad of thoughts, but most of the time I fail. It’s not a bad second best to rely on the ‘straightforward’ text of the Bible, and on the teachings I receive from various sources. And when I pray, although it usually feels like a monologue, I know that in my own description of situations and questions about them, in seeking to understand how to respond to life, God often puts the answer right onto my tongue or into my mind. But sometimes I don’t want to approach God with my own agenda, I just want to sit down and listen to what He has on His mind for me.

Sadly I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve experienced His direct intervention shaking up my thoughts. Probably I shouldn’t be sad. I should be grateful to have experienced any interventions at all, and I should be thankful for the way He ‘indirectly’ directs my life. I don’t have to feel His presence to know He is there, subtly guiding me, at all times.

Recently I’ve been redoubling my efforts to foster the right environment to hear His voice. Yesterday as I decluttered my mind and invited Him in, an image faded into view. I can’t be certain that it wasn’t my own idea, because I had watched my first live Test Match a few days earlier, and the image was a cricketer, but if it wasn’t God who put the image there, He certainly used it to remind me about some sacred truths.

cricket-1428978-2

Image credit: http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/shed-59131

 

The first thing I noticed was that he was a batsman. As I saw the protection he was wearing, in particular his helmet, and the bat which could be used defensively like a shield or offensively like a sword, I thought about the armour of God…

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:14-17

Then I saw that the batsman was surrounded by close fielders, which told me that the bowler – who I couldn’t see – was a spinner, and that his deliveries might swerve and bounce in any direction to try and fool the batsman…

Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men,
from men whose words are perverse,
who have left the straight paths
to walk in dark ways,
who delight in doing wrong
and rejoice in the perverseness of evil,
whose paths are crooked
and who are devious in their ways.

Proverbs 2:12-15

I had the sense, too, that this was not a specialist batsman. He was most likely a bowler who had come to the crease towards the end of the innings, and so was weak and vulnerable…

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:9-10

Ultimately, this batsman’s most likely aim was to keep up a strong defence, stand firm while his teammate tried to make the runs for victory or while his team sought to play out the remaining overs for a draw…

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.

1 Corinthians 16:13

I’m sure that if you’re a Christian who enjoys cricket you could find many more analogies between the game and spiritual life, but I don’t want to labour the point, rather just describe the thoughts that came to my mind immediately. Wherever the image came from, I’m thankful that God has used it to remind me about the patience, resilience, wisdom and strength He has given me, and my duty to use those gifts for His glory.

Reflections on Idolatry

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The man had been talking for twenty minutes about his life. He had been a successful international sportsman, a true success in the world’s eye, but behind the façade was a man struggling with addiction. A few years later he was living in a home for alcoholics with a mountain of debt. Then a former colleague introduced him to Jesus, and slowly his life turned around, until he was eventually able to build a village for dozens of orphans to find a new family, an education and a new hope in Christ.

And then he broke down in tears as he explained that God had told him to let go of the village and pass it on to the next generation of leaders, because it had become an idol to him.

This moved me to my core, and I’ve been thinking about idolatry a lot since that evening.

What is idolatry? It’s a hugely important topic, right at the heart of God’s moral law, in the ten commandments.

Exodus 20:1-4 (CEV)

God said to the people of Israel: I am the Lord your God, the one who brought you out of Egypt where you were slaves. Do not worship any god except me. Do not make idols that look like anything in the sky or on earth or in the ocean under the earth. Don’t bow down and worship idols. I am the Lord your God, and I demand all your love. If you reject me, I will punish your families for three or four generations. But if you love me and obey my laws, I will be kind to your families for thousands of generations.

The instruction is repeated often.

Deuteronomy 4:23

Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden.

A vast majority of the idols mentioned in the Bible are stone or metal figures – graven images – man-made sculptures worshipped like a god, in place of the true God who made man in His own image.

Occasionally, we see hints that there is more to idolatry than these physical false gods.

1 Samuel 15:23

For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.

Arrogance is like idolatry. To think yourself better than you really are, by implication perhaps to think yourself better than God? Relying on your own strength or wisdom instead of God’s is a sure sign that you have started to worship the idol of pride.

Ezekiel 6:9

Then in the nations where they have been carried captive, those who escape will remember me – how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices.

Their eyes have lusted after their idols. So an idol can be something we see and desire, rather than trusting in what God has provisioned for us, which may be unseen for now. And see how God grieves when we turn our attention away from Him. Do you think He grieves for Himself? Or for the damage we inflict on ourselves when we worship the idols of greed and lust.

Jonah 2:8

Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.

A succinct summary of an enormous problem. An idol is something that turns our eyes, and our hearts, away from God.

Isaiah 57:13

When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

And here is a truth. When we put our trust in anything above the Lord, we are trusting something temporary and flimsy, rather than our strong, faithful and permanent God. Those idols cannot help but let us down in our time of need.

Ezekiel 20:15-17

Also with uplifted hand I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land I had given them – a land flowing with milk and honey, the most beautiful of all lands – because they rejected my laws and did not follow my decrees and desecrated my Sabbaths. For their hearts were devoted to their idols. Yet I looked on them with pity and did not destroy them or put an end to them in the wilderness.

And here is a greater truth. Although our God is a jealous God, and He has commanded us to put Him first in all things, He understands our weakness, He pities us, and He loves us. When we turn back to Him, He restores us.

About ninety per cent of biblical references to idols are found in the Old Testament, and as I noted, they almost exclusively speak of worshipping graven images, but in Paul’s letters we can see the broader definitions that we glimpsed earlier. For example,

Colossians 3:5

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.

It’s clear that when we put anything of our earthly nature ahead of anything of God’s Holy nature, we have created an idol. And when we do so we endanger others as well as ourselves. When I read 1 Corinthians 8 in the context of these thoughts, I see some new insight beyond its surface meaning.

Now about food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.’ For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

What I see here is that even though, as believers, we know that God is supreme and almighty, we too can become accustomed to idols – they become part of our everyday life and habits – we lose sight of what we are doing. We need to become more self-aware, and more Christ-conscious, so that we can recognise the idols in our lives.

I also note that even though we know there is nothing to be gained or lost by “eating in an idol’s temple”, we can risk our weaker brothers’ and sisters’ understanding by doing so. Equally, if we practice any form of idolatry – by emphasising material gain, or by having a prideful attitude, just for two examples – we risk presenting a false picture of Christ to our friends, family or strangers.

We should spend some time in quiet contemplation, and ask God to reveal to us what are the idols in our lives. They may be objects, or people, or personality traits or behaviours – anything that may prevent us from living according to His will. When I talked about this with my small group the idols that were revealed included ‘busyness’, ‘shyness’ and ‘security’.

This isn’t about beating ourselves up and feeling guilty. It’s about identifying stumbling blocks so that we can start dismantling them and move closer to God.

Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Amen

All scripture is from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicized, except where noted.

A Reflection On Brexit

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I understand the reasons why the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Some of those reasons I can sympathise with, and others I simply can’t.

But what’s done is done. And what’s important now is that everyone in the country is gracious to one another, whether in victory or defeat. And in the longer term we have to be united in our efforts to support and lift the disenfranchised, the poor and the weak among us. And more than that we must be a light to the world, generous to those beyond our shores who don’t enjoy democracy, those who don’t live in peace, those who don’t experience freedom, those who can’t even turn to a food bank for their daily bread.

Many people argued that the referendum was about control, but no matter who won, God was always going to be in control. Both sides of the referendum campaign focused on fear, many people on both sides made their decisions through fear, and now the outcome is spreading fear in certain parts of the country and the world.

But while I’m saddened by the result, I refuse to fear the future. My faith is not in politicians or economists. My faith is not in the British electorate, whether or not they agree with me. My faith is not in the UK or the EU, but in Christ alone.

Swimming Against The Tide

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I recall an afternoon several years ago. As with most of my long-term memories the circumstances, themes and emotions are vivid, while the details totally escape me.

The afternoon in question I was driving some friends home after church, and there was a conversation that went in a direction I thought was inappropriate, and I said so. One of my friends responded with words to the effect of “Why are you being so holier than thou?”

I wasn’t trying to give that impression, I was only speaking honestly according to the prompting of my conscience.

This vignette was brought back to my recollection yesterday while reflecting on another incident, which had just occurred.

A dear friend had invited me to attend a presentation about a business opportunity. As I watched and listened it became clear to me that I was being sold a pyramid scheme. I told my friend I couldn’t deal with this company, and that she should walk away too, explaining that the business model was unethical and possibly illegal, and if she made money out of it, it would be at the expense of people joining the scheme later.

I told her that while there was nothing wrong with making money, as long as it doesn’t involve the abuse of other people,

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?
Matthew 16:26a

As a God-fearing woman I thought she would find my argument completely persuasive, but in fact she couldn’t understand or accept what I was saying. She didn’t accuse me of sanctimony, but all we could do was agree to disagree.

These situations remind me that even when we think we’re on the same page, we’re not always reading it from the same viewpoint, and our differences can reveal themselves at unexpected times.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but while we have this in common, our sins are not necessarily the same. One man may be generous with his money but fall easily into lustful thoughts. Another might show kindness to strangers but speak crudely and cruelly to his friends.

And our different weaknesses affect our interactions with each other in different ways. Perhaps we find it easier to notice (and judge) those sins that we feel immune to ourselves. Or maybe our awareness of our own faults make us more sensitive to those same faults in others

But even when we refrain from judgment, and just make known our moral position in a particular situation, we can cause discomfort or offence, often unintentionally.

It’s easy to see how a person of faith, who values God’s moral law above society’s, can often swim against the tide of popular opinion. We see it in the news regularly.

But it’s also true that scripture has so many nuances and possible interpretations – through which God speaks to so many unique individuals – that we can also find ourselves swimming against the tide of accepted wisdom: of our local church, of our denomination, or even of the worldwide Christian faith. This is how churches split, and it can also be how we as individuals become separated from our closest brothers and sisters in Christ.

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