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April 14th, 2013

Fasting

The Christian life is a life defined by joy. However, it is also a life marked by discipline. Just as in any human relationship we must discipline ourselves to enjoy that relationship fully, the same is true of our relationship with God.

Fasting- abstaining from food for a period of time- is such a discipline.

Fasting is a funny one as there is no explicit command in the Bible to tell us that we must fast. However, it is just assumed that we will do it. Jesus begins his teaching on fasting with the words- ‘when you fast…’ not ‘if you fast’ (Matthew 6:16) and it is a practice that Bile heroes in the Old and New Testament thrived off- Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Paul, even Jesus himself.

If you’ve not heard my sermon on this, download it from the website, but this blog post should go into a bit more detail on the practical ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of fasting.

Why should we fast?

Maybe the best way to answer this question is to ask why people in the Bible fasted. Here is a non comprehensive list:

1)     To seek God’s guidance (Judges 20:24-27, 2 Chronicles 20:3-4, Matthew 4:2, Acts 13:1-3)

2)     Repentance (Joel 2:12-14, Jonah 3:5, Nehemiah 9:1-2, Daniel 9:16-19)

3)     Seeking answer to specific prayers (2 Samuel 12:22-23, Ezra 8:21, Joel 1:13-14, Esther 4:3)

It is clear in both the Old and New Testaments that fasting can be practised wrongly as well. It shouldn’t be directed towards people, to impress them or make you look very pious (Matthew 6:16-18), it shouldn’t just be performed as a religious duty just because it’s the done thing either (Zec 7:4-5) and just because you’re fasting it doesn’t mean that you can stop obeying God in other areas! (Isaiah 58:1-11)

Basically, the kind of fasting God rewards does not just involve going without food, but it involves a specific attitude: a desire for God.

In Psalm 109, David describes one of the times when he is fasting (109:10), and his motivation is clear:

‘My eyes fail,
looking for my God.’ (Ps 109:3)

 True fasting, it seems, is not fasting done to impress people, not even fasting done primarily to get stuff off God, it comes from a deep desire for God himself.

And this is the result of true fasting, as Isaiah makes clear in Isaiah 58:9:

‘Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.’

 This is the amazing thing about fasting, its reward is the most valuable thing of all: the presence of God. Hearing his voice saying that He is right here by our side.

So you’re sold? Good. But how do we do it?

How should we fast?

I’ll break this down into a few other questions to help:

1)     Does a fast have to be a food-fast?

Fasting is nearly always going without food in the Bible. People often ask though, ‘can I fast something other than food?’ Of course you can. You can do or not do what you want (within reason) and taking a break from things like television, music, social media sites or computer games might be a good idea sometimes. However, I’d encourage you that if you want to fast to do it the way the Bible suggests. I’ve always found that there is something about going without food that complements seeking after God. There is something about physical hunger that mirrors the spiritual hunger we feel (or want to feel) when we fast.

2)     What counts as food though?

Is toothpaste food? What about a milk shake? How about chewing gum? Soup? Muslims fasting during Ramadan won’t let anything pass their lips and some Christians seem to get themselves in a similar state of legalism about fasting. Basically, you don’t have to fast and the manner in which you fast is largely up to you. This is a matter of your heart to seek God, he is much more concerned about your heart than whether you inadvertently swallow a fly or start munching a biscuit because you forgot you were fasting.

For me, I avoid things that I would normally count as food and be reasonably relaxed about the types of drink I have. I would adopt as many breath freshening methods as possible as well (if you don’t know why, try fasting and breathing on people at the end of the day, you’ll soon find out!)

 3)     What should I do while fasting?

I have fasted for several days in my life that I am almost certain have had no spiritual benefit at all. Some have been spent working so solidly that I forgot to eat, other times I was ill! Not wanting to sound repetitive, but fasting is not just an external action, it is a way of seeking God. Therefore, I would doubt the effectiveness of fasting and simply missing lunch and dinner to put in extra time at work.

Prayer is fasting’s perfect partner, but I would also spend time reading God’s word when I’m fasting and spend other time quietly, listening to the Holy Spirit’s voice. Remember fasting is about seeking God. One of the reasons its helpful is that it frees up time to do just that.

I find it helpful to extend my morning quiet time instead of having breakfast and to go for a walk during my lunch break and sometimes at dinner time as well to pray. Not eating can actually free up about 2 hours of your day; my advice would be to use this time wisely.

4)     How long should I fast?

Again this is up to you. Some people suggest starting by just fasting one meal, but again there is no biblical precedent for this. An averagely healthy human being can go at least 3 weeks without food without suffering any lasting damage, so a day is not going to kill you! Its not easy though. My advice would be to start with a day. There may never be a need to do a longer fast or you may feel like you want to fast for longer next time.

5)     How often should I fast?

Fasting is not something we do to tick off our Christian bucket list. It is a practice that we have up our sleeve to do whenever we feel prompted by the Spirit. Some people find it helpful to fast one day every week, and that’s fine. I avoid this, as it can become legalistic and when I’ve done this before I’ve tended to end up fasting mainly because that’s what I do and not to seek God urgently for his presence. I fast when there is something particularly pressing to pray for, or when I really need God’s guidance. I’m glad that as of today I can add a new reason to this list: when my church gathers together to pray and fast together!

Will you join us this week, on future prayer and fasting weeks and build this joyful discipline into your life too? If you do, avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve mentioned, Jesus promises that the Father will reward you. Yes, he promises it. Check out Matthew 6:18 if you don’t believe me.

Oh yeah, one more thing, stock up on some tasty breakfasts as well ;)

Categories: Central Point Tags: ,

Margaret Thatcher and the myth of pitiless indifference

April 12th, 2013

They say you will always remember where you were when you found out that Princess Diana died. I was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of a mate’s house in London.

I wonder if the same will be said for Margaret Thatcher. On this occasion though, perhaps I should have paid attention to what was said to me at that moment, rather than my exact location. Upon hearing the news, the very next thing that I was told was: ‘Its probably best to avoid facebook for a few days.’

Wise words. Sadly unheeded.

The most controversial/divisive/polarizing (etc, etc) British Prime Minister of the 20th Century certainly lived up to her tabloid headline legacies if my facebook chums are at all representative of British society.

It’s quite disorientating when you’re used to a stream of ‘lol’s’, hilarious cat pictures and amateur weather reports to suddenly have to deal with words like ‘genocide’ and ‘odium’ and, in some cases, status updates that go on for over 500 words.

There was passion. There was vitriol. There was a smattering of sentimentality, but even that was executed with feeling. People really care about this woman’s life, even if they hated the woman herself.

And what was missing? Well, on Monday there weren’t many ‘Keep Calm and carry on’ spoofs, 90s music videos, nor even the usual plethora of half eaten sandwiches  that people so kindly photograph and instagram for me on a daily basis. The banality and trivilaity of 21st century existence suddenly exploded into real human emotions. It was like people came alive again on Monday 8th April.

I know what you’re thinking. Its what I thought too. It all goes to prove that God exists, doesn’t it?

Oh, that’s not what you were thinking. How embarrassing! Well, let me explain my train of thought then.

According to the prevalent philosophies of our age, we really shouldn’t get so worked up about things. There is no such thing as moral evil that we should take offence at, and actually no such thing as moral good that we should celebrate and take pride in. At a popular level, a moral life is one in which you listen to your heart, hold on to what you believe or follow your dreams. Underpinning these pearls of wisdom, are the slightly more sophisticated ideas of 20th century moral philosophers.

AJ Ayer argued just before the Second World War that all morality was totally subjective. Statements like ‘giving to charity is good’ and ‘murder is bad’ are essentially just expressions of people’s opinions along the lines of ‘I like Marmite’ or ‘I’m not overly fond of the colour mauve’. In effect then, Bob Geldof is no better than Anders Breivik. They simply have different tastes.

Jean Paul Sartre, writing at a similar time, redefined a good life as a life lived with force and vigour, devoid of any objective moral checks. According to Sartre, I define my own meaning and my own morality. The most important thing is to make sure that I use my freedom to act with commitment and passion, and not just to fade into the background. Try to relieve 3rd world poverty or gun down a few dozen people? Following this train of thought, both courses of action would be equally ‘moral’, in that ‘morality’ is a myth and both decisions would forcefully impose your own version of meaningfulness on the world.

And then a little more recently, we have the New Atheist movement, whose proponents have joined forces with Ayer and Sartre in cheerfully explaining away any sense of moral obligation that we’ve been led to believe in. Our sense that some things are ‘right’ and some things are ‘wrong’ is a product, like everything else, of the evolutionary development of our species. Our more kind and empathetic ancestors proved to be better survivors than our more selfish, violent predecessors and so human beings have this general feeling that helping old ladies across roads is good and stealing milk off school children is bad.

Which brings us nicely back to Baronness Thatcher.

Why are people so hot under the collar about this lady and the decisions she made? It would make sense for miners from Yorkshire to have strong feelings about this, but I’m not facebook friends with any miners from Yorkshire. Why are people who were barely alive when the Iron Lady bid her tearful farewell to Downing Street so irate about what she did or did not do?

The answer is simple. Their responses give us a glimpse of the truth we all know but so many have tried to hide. Our actions and decisions matter. Humans have real value. There is such a thing as right and wrong.

The moral relativism and evolutionary extrapolations of the last 100 years have deadened us to moral evil and the value of human life. No question. We might have never heard of Ayer, Sartre or even Dawkins before but their effect is overwhelming. For most 21st century Westerners, life simply doesn’t have any meaning. Not really. Not beyond, eating and drinking, for tomorrow we die. And this leads to countless directionless, meandering lives lived with no sense that they have any real consequence. It also leads to a general atmosphere of utter apathy.

Then, every now and again, something comes along and shakes us out of our carelessness and frivolity and reminds us that we’ve been tricked. An event or personality appears that provokes an emotional reaction that shouts that our actions do matter and our lives are important. They can be forces for good or forces for evil. Not forces for ‘whatever we decide is good’ or forces for ‘the things we’re not very keen on’ or even forces for ‘what we’ve been programmed by natural selection to value or despise for the continued promulgation of the human race’. Real good and real evil. And if there’s real good and real evil, there must be someone beyond us who decides what fits into each category. It is impossible to conceive of a moral law without a moral law giver. Therefore there must be a God and he must care enough about human beings to set us codes of behaviour.

Richard Dawkins wrote this in his book ‘River out of Eden’:

‘The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

It’s a very good summary of the only sensible conclusion to questions of life’s meaning if you remove God from the equation. However, try telling that to Morrissey, Glenda Jackson and Elvis Costello. I don’t wish to side myself with any of the specific verdicts of her life- I don’t really understand politics and still hold to the apparently slightly outdated view that you shouldn’t speak ill of the recently deceased. However, without making any judgement on Margaret Thatcher’s achievements, I think I can be pretty sure about one element of her legacy and it certainly can’t be described as ‘pitiless indifference’.

Categories: Central Point Tags: , ,

Anders Breivik and Retributive Justice

April 20th, 2012

A year ago I had a very interesting conversation with a female student who was seriously investigating Christianity. She was clearly impressed by Jesus and seemed to like being around Christians, but she had one problem with Christianity: the Bible’s insistence on the need for retributive justice!

Now, I’ll back up a bit to keep everyone up to speed: basically, there are several reasons why societies punish people and two of the main ones are reformation (to make the offender a better person and stop them offending again) and retribution (to pay them back for their crimes). This lady believed that any form of retribution was wrong, as paying someone back for their crimes was a vindictive, mean thing. She believed (rightly) that God was neither vindictive or mean but, from this basis, reasoned God would only ever punish with a mind on reforming an individual.

While this may seem incredibly technical, it meant that she refused to accept that a payment was due for our sin, either through Jesus’ death on the cross or through an eternity in hell. As far as I know, this still is the main obstacle preventing her from becoming a Christian.

The reason I feel compelled to dredge up this unusual chat is that this very issue has been raised with some force in the news this week through the trial of Otto Breivik. Breivik is the Norwegian man who, acting entirely alone, bombed the Norwegian government building in Oslo before gunning down 77 people on a nearby island. In most countries, he would receive at the very least a lifetime in prison, but in Norway the maximum possible sentence is 21 years and Norway’s prisons are notoriously plush. In Newsweek, the journalist Stephan Theil, reporting on these elements of Norway’s penal system, concluded that Norway “considers the idea of punishment barbaric.” Norway has come to the same conclusion as the student with whom I conversed: punishment should be primarily to reform, there is no place for retribution.

Norway will certainly have to do some soul searching about this issue in the light of Breivik’s chillingly brazen show in court. However, I personally have no strong feelings about Norway’s methods of punishing criminals. In a fallen world, governments have to make calls on issues of law and order and I do not think that the Bible categorically supports any particular answer to these difficult questions. However I believe that there is a vital question looming behind all this that we need to think through and be ready to engage with our friends about: does God have the right to punish sinners?

The Bible makes it clear that we have all broken God’s law and stand before Him as criminals in the court of heaven. It is also clear in Scripture that God’s heart is to reform us. That is why he sent his son. The gospel is not just that we can escape punishment, but that we can change and become righteous. As Paul says in Romans 1:14 ‘in the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.’ Salvation starts with justification (an imputed righteousness) but is leads to sanctification (a stuttering but noticeable progress in our personal holiness) and finally glorification (when 1 John 3:2 says ‘we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ Woop woop!) One day, we will look back and see that secular Scandinavia does not have a monopoly on reformative justice, God is the master at transforming the worst sinners into Jesus’ doppelgangers!

However, the God of the Bible is a God who has put retribution at the heart of how the universe runs. Isaiah 59:18 says:

‘According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes’

and in Romans 12:19

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord.

As Christians, I certainly don’t think these should be our most beloved verses and I can see why some people who aren’t Christians recoil from those who seem to take a cruel delight in God’s willingness to repay sinners for their sin. It is hard to read about Jesus and conclude that God delights in avenging sin in anything like the way he does in showing grace.

However, we need to maintain God’s prerogative to administer justice, because for all the technical terms, justice is what this involves. God is just. Justice is good. Sin needs to be paid for. That is the horrifying reality of the depths to which we have sunk, but a universe without such justice would be out of control and even more awful. In fact, it would be hell already.

Whatever Wenche Elizabeth Arntzen (the judge overseeing the Breivik trial) decides to do to Otto Breivik, there is another judge who will have the final say on the matter. Breivik’s sins will be punished by God along with all our much less public horrors. They will either be punished in the person of Jesus on the cross or in the person of Otto Breivik in an eternal Hell.

My guess is that this trial will raise serious questions about the nature of punishment in Norway and other secular nations (like ours). We must engage with those questions by presenting a God who longs to reform but who is utterly justified in taking retribution as well.

Categories: Central Point Tags: ,

New Music – Zang Productions

January 13th, 2012

As you may have noticed, our new church website features several videos relating to different areas of church life. If you haven’t had a chance to take a look at them yet, it’s well worth having a gander! They provide an excellent introduction to what Churchcentral is all about.

To make these videos the high quality products that they are we couldn’t rely solely on Russ’ chiselled features, Owen’s cheeky smile or even Sam’s comedy backwards leap (StarCity video- right at the end). We needed some decent music so decent music we did get! The soundtrack to all of the videos is provided courtesy of Zangproductions, a Moseley based independent record label (www.zangproductions.co.uk). All of the artists on the label are Christians (you will probably recognise at least one) and Zang exists not only to produce quality music but to bring the good news of Jesus to people in a relevant and thought provoking manner.

Interested in checking it out? Here are some recommendations:

Fiction Fight- I am a thief

http://fictionfight.bandcamp.com/

Beautifully crafted worship music that breaks away from the usual Chris Tomlin/Matt Redman mould. Fiction Fight blend together a variety of musical styles which provide the backdrop for deeply  personal, profound songwriting. And you can pay whatever you want for it. Highly recommended!

(The King Edwards site video features ‘Love is brave’ and the Lordswood site video features ‘My rescue’)

Benjamin Blower- Pillar of smoke

http://www.zangproductions.co.uk/releases/benjamin-blower-the-pillar-of-smoke/

Imagine Jeremiah the prophet crossed with Johnny Cash hanging out regularly with the Beastie Boys. That’s Benjamin Blower. He’s awesome and all his stuff is worth checking out but this is my favourite.

(The church homepage video from ‘Childhood by Benjamin Blower and the army of the broken hearted featured on the album ‘The darkness doesn’t love you’ )

Ickberg- Arctic Village Beaver

http://www.zangproductions.co.uk/free/ickberg-arctic-village-beaver/

Some people may remember the DJ Shadow album ‘Endtroducing’ from the 90s. If you don’t recognise the name you will definitely have heard the music on various film soundtracks or adverts. Ickberg make a similar brand of(largely) instrumental hip hop. Another quality free download.

(The StarCity video features ‘Make me’)

Selina Blakeney- Russian doll

http://www.zangproductions.co.uk/free/selina-blakeney-russian-doll/

Zang’s latest release is really just Selina’s beautiful voice and very little else. Almost entirely accapella, ‘Russian doll’ combines layers of harmonies with heartfelt songwriting to create a moving, hypnotic mini-album and once again it doesn’t cost a penny.

Joel the Custodian- My organs are yours

http://www.zangproductions.co.uk/releases/the-custodians-my-organs-are-yours/

Joel makes hiphop as it should be. His sound is crafted from reggae, electronica and even country music, with lyrics exploring themes such as the devastating majesty of God and the frail mortality of man. And, you’ll never guess, its FREE!

Categories: Central Life Tags: , , ,