The Privilege of Persecution

The Privilege of Persecution by Dr.Carl A. Moeller and David W.Hegg

We in the Western world can learn a great deal from our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world. As the authors explore the disciplines, attitudes and faith of oppressed believers they thereby  challenge us.

Among other things, the book examines our diverse attitudes to worship and the church, to prayer and dependence and community and to generosity and stewardship.

The following extracts, taken from the book, give a flavour of its contents;

“ In the West, the deceitfulness of riches and the confidence of comfort can lead to spiritual dullness, which prevents us from knowing where the edge of danger really is, and we can fall right over the edge into the abyss. In the persecuted church- because of the threats and opposition of the enemy- believers stay crystal clear as to where the edge is…” (p19)

“The persecuted church has been given no alternative but to trust God, and they do. They don’t have high tech, or great buildings, or the best music. They have God’s word and nothing else, so they have learned to trust God…and each other.” (p41)

“ Whether it’s in a park in China or an alleyway in Tehran…the church will continue to meet, serve and worship, with or without a building.” (p59)

“A saying among African Christians…”In America you have watches. Here we have time.” (p93)

“In Japan, a person will never publicly say they are a Christ-follower until they have been baptized, because that’s when they are ostracized. It is a major decision with serious social consequences.” (p131)

“In Ethiopia, it’s an honor to support a church planter with a nickel a month. It’s an honor to bring rice for the widows. It’s an honor to bring fabric to make things for the orphans. It’s an honor, not an obligation.” (p133)

Even these few extracts above serve to highlight how different our experience of faith often is and how great an example of godliness a fellow believer from the persecuted church can be to us.

To conclude in the authors own words:

“As we have seen throughout this book the persecuted church is God’s gift to us in the West. Their understanding of God, their reverence for His Word, their dependence on prayer and worship, their daily immersion in authentic community, their biblical submission to authority, and their unbridled generosity of spirit can be tremendous resources for us if we only humble ourselves to adopt a spirit of learning…” (p147)

Fifty Shades of Grey: The heart of the matter is more black than white

What makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so popular?

It was the best-selling book of all time in Britain a few years ago, according to the Telegraph, and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Yet, this is certainly not because it is a contender for winning the Booker literature prize.  The novel by E.L. James has received mixed reviews, being negatively compared to Mills and Boons and described as appalling writing by Laura Barnett.  Don’t hold your breath either if you expect the film (released this weekend) to win any Oscars, since it has had mixed reviews already.

Neither is it breaking new ground in terms of storyline or art-form, since it has similar content to the mid-eighties erotic drama film, ‘9½ Weeks’.  Nevertheless, it has already taken in millions in advance ticket sales, in contrast to ‘9½ Weeks’ which was a box-office disappointment. In fact, at a preview screening of the mid-eighties film for 1,000 people, all but 40 walked out, and 35 of those who remained commented that they hated it.

In contrast, what makes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ so popular now?  And how should we respond to its popularity?

[This article is intended partly to help at a pastoral level for those in our fellowship to have a biblical way to respond to this film.  It is also, hopefully, a Christian response which will help those who are enticed by it, to consider another response.]

Fifty shades of black and blue

For those who are fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the content of the book or film, some points may be helpful in understanding what all the fuss is about.  The story is between billionaire businessman Christian Grey and graduate student Anastasia Steele.  He is a broody, domineering sadomasochist, while she is a vulnerable virgin. It has been described as soft-core pornography, or ‘mommy porn’, due to its popularity among women.  Kaley Payne writes, “Pornography is about intent: an intention to elicit sexual thoughts and feelings. So there’s no question this film is pornography, just as the book before it. It is fantasy sex.”

Yet this film features not just explicit sex, but also bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM).  Although a large DIY store admitted that its memo alerting staff to expect increased sales of rope, cable-ties and duct tape was in jest and simply a PR ruse, this nevertheless gives an idea of what some viewers might copy in their bedrooms after watching the film.

While many filmgoers might be attracted by the erotic content featured in the trailer, it is concerning that this book and film can in reality encourage sexual violence towards women. Mandy Marshall (co-director of Restored, an international Christian Alliance to transform relationships and end violence against women) writes: “Fifty Shades of Grey is not a romantic love story, it’s abuse.”  Gail Dines (professor of sociology and women’s studies) goes further in her assessment of the impact that such relationships portrayed in the film have in real life; “The most likely real-world ending of Fifty Shades of Grey is fifty shades of black and blue. The awful truth in the real world is that women who partner with a Christian Grey often end up hightailing it to a battered women’s shelter with traumatized kids in tow.”

The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realist that the reason that this film is so popular is because public opinion and attitudes towards sex, pornography, and even BDSM have changed over the years.  Decades ago, pornography was considered morally wrong, while BDSM was virtually unheard of.  Yet, over the years, a slow but persistently increasing exposure to immoral and explicit romantic films and TV dramas have not only fed public appetite, but have become expected as the new norm.  While opposition to such low moral standards in the arts would once have stifled such productions, public opinion in general has now shifted to the other extreme, with ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ almost sold out before opening weekend in some places.

The film industry is a business, and by and large operates on a supply and demand basis.  If there is enough demand, they will make and screen the films.  With some cinemas devoting most of their screens to just this one film, it is clear that the hearts of the public (in general, although there will be many exceptions) are drawn towards ‘mommy porn’ meets BDSM.  What makes this film to popular is the change of heart towards pornography which the public in general is demonstrating.

Sex is a gift from God, but sin turns it from light to darkness

Unlike the sex portrayed in this film, God’s plan for sexual relations is not centred on selfish personal gratification, and does not include inflicting pain or fear on others. It is the giving of oneself for the good and pleasure of the other in the relationship. It is the husband seeking to please his wife, and the wife seeking to please her husband.  When both are unselfish, both are fulfilled by the other, as they are not only pleased by giving pleasure, but by receiving it as well.

But sin distorts and corrupts what God has intended for good.  Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. has written, “The corruption of the gift of sex is, more than often realized, an assault upon that human dignity that is the Creator’s gift. The attempt to declare beauty at the expense of goodness and truth is at the heart of the problem of pornography.”  The problem is that we all naturally tend towards sin, because of the sinfulness in our hearts.

God prohibits all forms sexual immorality throughout the Bible, in both the Old Testament and New Testament (e.g. Deuteronomy 27:20, Hebrews 13:4). Sin takes what ought to be a blessing, and misuses it.  What ought to be enjoyed in good conscience before God is instead often distorted and done in secret, in darkness, resulting in guilt, pain and broken relationships.  But it is worse still when we don’t even have a conscience about sinning.  Al Mohler continues, “Now, we live in a society fast losing even a sense of shame about its pornographic obsessions.” 

Responses: Option 1, moralism; Option 2, gospel.

At this point, many people would simply say, “don’t watch it”, or “change your ways”, or “you should feel ashamed of yourself”.  But that is not what Jesus would have wanted to be known to say.  It is not that those are not legitimate responses, they are.  Jesus would agree with them.  The problem is that those responses are just moralism, telling people to do what they clearly do not have the ability to do. Telling an addict (e.g. a sex addict) to stop being addicted is not enough. It doesn’t work most of the time.  This is because people know that they are doing wrong, but they are powerless to do otherwise.  While it does not excuse the adulterer or the immoral, we need redemption, not condemnation.  We need to be set free from bondage to the darkness of sin, so that we can walk in the light of holiness.

Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to set us free from sin (John 3:16-17).  He has told us that there is a time coming when judgment will be the order of the day (Acts 17:31).  All sin will be addressed, judged, condemned and punished on that day.  But precisely because of that, God wants to free us from condemnation, from receiving what we are due for our sin.  As the perfect judge, he cannot let us off the hook by simply turning a blind eye to sin, without committing a miscarriage of justice.  So, he has another way of letting us off the hook, by taking the punishment for sin himself, in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21).  That is why we need the cross, that is why we need to trust in Jesus ‘alone’ for our salvation (Romans 6:23).

But there’s more.  When we simply ask God for forgiveness, trusting, believing, that Jesus has done what it takes, we also receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. The Holy Spirit (as his name implies) reverses the degeneration towards darkness, and leads us into the light of holiness (Galatians 5:22-23).

The gospel is what we need to hear, not mere moralism.  But once we hear the gospel, we are freed and enabled to live a morally upright life.  “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:7)

To enjoy sex, live a godly life in a restored relationship with God

Finally, God is not against enjoying sex.  After all, he created it.  Sex was God’s idea to give us pleasure.  But, only within strict boundaries of a loving married relationship.  If we want to enjoy sex without the guilt of immoral pleasure, without the impact of broken relationships, without the enduring aftermath of abuse, we ought to live according to God’s plan for sex.  We ought to turn to him, firstly for forgiveness and to have a restored relationship with him in general, and then to have our emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual needs met.  He is the giver of all good things (James 1:17).  Fulfilment comes from turning to him, and centering our lives on him, and receiving blessings from him.  Anything else might offer or promise fulfilment, but doesn’t deliver.

Instead of turning towards the darker shades of grey, turn towards the light, through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

There are a number of good biblical responses to books and films such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, such as ‘Pulling back the shades: Erotica, intimacy, and the Longings of a Woman’s Heart’  which is reviewed here.

The Goodness of God

The goodness of God - Randy Alcorn

This is a little gem of a book! It is full of practical insights and observations as it tackles the serious and challenging question about God, who is infinitely good, and yet who allows suffering and evil to exist, even prosper.

Randy Alcorn shows us that there are no quick fix explanations to this problem of evil and suffering in our lives and in the world. Ultimately we have to have faith in the goodness of God and hold tight to our deeply rooted beliefs found in Scripture. Randy points out:

“God Himself doesn’t offer any explanation…maybe because evil defies explanation.”

Tackling the problem of evil from different angles, Randy makes some very valid points, here are just a few:

“Yes this hurting world has truckloads of evil, but it also has boatloads of good.”

“If a good God doesn’t exist, what’s the source of good?”

“Man’s freedom to do good …cannot exist without the freedom to do evil.”

“God limits sin all around us all the time.”

“ The fact is that no matter how much God reduced world suffering, we’d still think He did too little.”

The question is often asked “why  doesn’t God do something about evil?”  God did something about it when He gave His beloved and only Son to die on the cross for us. Randy writes “whenever you feel tempted in your suffering to ask God “why are You doing this to me? Look at the cross and ask “why did You do that for me?”

This book serves to strengthen one’s faith in our almighty and loving God. Maybe we cannot understand certain things about His ways any more clearly and maybe we have to hold on tightly to Him by faith, but the insights we have been given here are very helpful in many  and various ways.

Note: This book ‘The Goodness of God (Assurance of purpose in the midst of suffering)’ (96 pages) by Randy Alcorn deals with a subset of the topics in his larger book ‘If God is Good (Faith in the midst of suffering and evil)’ (over 500 pages).

Ministries of mercy

Ministries_of_mercy_coverIn his book, Ministries of Mercy, Timothy Keller exhorts believers not only to do good works to believers and non-believers alike, but also to actively seek out opportunities to help people. It is a challenging read.

He points to the example of the Good Samaritan recorded in Luke 10:30-37:

“The compassion which the good Samaritan showed was full-bodied, leading him to meet a variety of needs. It provided friendship and advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy and even a follow-up visit… we have nothing less than an order from our Lord in the most categorical of terms, ‘go and do likewise.’ ”

Our primary duty after loving God is to love our neighbour, and this should not be just “something we get to if there is time or money in the budget, after we are satisfied with our educational and evangelistic ministries”. He argues that the good Samaritan parable “shatters that set of priorities”.

The question ‘who is my neighbour?’ is addressed early on his book. Jesus shows that anyone in need is our neighbour.  Keller looks at various case studies of different needy individuals and examines the social and economic reasons for their poverty. In his chapter A call to mercy he states quite clearly that “mercy is not optional”.

“We must meet the needs of others with all the speed, eagerness, energy and joy with which we meet our own.”

“Did Christ minister the word to unbelievers, but only confine His healing and miraculous ministry to the community of believers? No, He fed the multitude.” Jesus didn’t distinguish between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor and nor should we. “Our mercy must not only be given to those who reach some standard of worthiness.”

Furthermore, “the example of God’s grace indicates that we should not passively sit and wait for the needy to beg. Rather, we should study, find and meet basic human needs”, according to our resources and opportunity. While we should give our aid wisely, generously and graciously we also need to keep in mind that our help should be with the aim of getting the person/s back on their feet and able to provide for themselves. And also to ultimately help them spiritually. “Our mercy must have as its goal the rehabilitation of the whole person”.

He makes the point strongly that evangelism and social concern “constitute a whole that should not be divided…they are inseparable.”

In seeking to address peoples concerns that relief only go to the “deserving poor”, Keller talks about how completely undeserving of God’s grace we all were and how Jesus lavished His love on us.

“Christ knew that 1000s would trample His blood under their feet; that most would despise it….yet He gave His own blood…if you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and undeserving…Remember His own word, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” ”

Furthermore, when we serve the poor God is honoured.

In the second part of his book, Timothy writes; “Every Christian family must develop its own ministry of mercy by looking at the needs closest to it and meeting them through loving deeds and a spirit of encouragement”. He’s speaking here of a duty of care to family members; “the family needs to ‘look in close’ before it ‘looks afar’ ”. Believers are to watch out for needs and to seek to meet them “out of their own pockets and out of their own hearts” not waiting for a formal church programme to be established before they act generously.

Also, Christians are to look out for opportunities for good deeds in the community.  Keller addresses the importance of motivating the congregation and how this should be achieved.  As people who are proactive in seeking to discover the needs of individuals and of the community we ought to:

“find out the existing services, speak to those with the finger on the pulse of a community, isolate the most important needs…now ask does your church have gifts, skills or other resources that seem to match up with certain needs?”

He reminds us “the church is the light of the world,” and has the power to transform a community. It must “think big” and not “shrink back from looking squarely at all the possibilities.”

He explores how mercy ministries often promotes church growth and how they are sometimes the only ‘bridge’ between church and the ‘unchurched’. He points out that mercy ministries must grow at the pace of the church. He shows how this can be achieved in practice.

Timothy writes;

“Most churches are surrounded by the growing needs of the unemployed, the underemployed, new immigration population, singles, divorced persons, unwed mothers, the elderly, prisoners, the dying, sick and disabled. Poverty is on the rise, the percentage of the elderly in our society is exploding…Do we want to reach these new neighbours with the gospel? Then we must give our faith active expression through deeds of compassion coupled with evangelism and discipleship.”

“The church of Jesus Christ must squarely face its responsibility for the neighbour lying in the road.”

Just Walk Across the Room

Bill Hybels in his book Just Walk Across The Room challenges his readers to more than just engage with people but to wholeheartedly reach out to them with acceptance and love, just as Jesus did.

We are to treat people with integrity and sensitivity, all the while concerned about their eternal destiny. Every Christian, according to Bill, has a mission while here on earth and this is to share the gospel with those around.

The title of the book comes from an account of how Bill, prompted by the Holy Spirit, walked across a room and introduced himself to a stranger. This man later put his faith in the Lord Jesus. “Just a few ordinary Spirit-ignited steps can have an extraordinary outcome.”

Jesus’ preoccupation with people should serve as our role-model. “If you are a Christ follower then you are called, equipped and expected to share the gospel” (p. 61).

We ought to go out of our way to love and care for others in obedience to The Holy Spirit’s promptings.

Bill’s natural evangelistic abilities do not necessarily mean he finds evangelism easy or straightforward. He writes very honestly about his “911” calls to God and his needing to tread carefully and to “muster courage” on occasions.

Evangelism can be really difficult, challenging, even risky at times.  Some seed will fall on good ground, but often our sowing will seem fruitless. He encourages us nevertheless to keep on sowing. “The potential is colossal” (p. 42).

“Simple and safe was not exactly the theme Christ was championing when He warned His followers that being sent out as lambs among wolves was part of the deal. “Spotless and uncluttered had no place in the task of embracing a dying, broken, weary world with radical forgiveness and actionable love.”

In our relationships with people, Bill urges us to discover peoples’ stories (p. 84). Also he urges us to be confident in ourselves, to be natural and real, “let the conversation ebb and flow in sync with your authentic selves” (p. 86). We are to build bridges with the people we meet, not walls. He quotes Paul, 1 Cor. 9:22 “to the weak I became weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”.

Being in tune with the Holy Spirit is vital in your relationships and conversations.

“Friends, there is no question in my mind about whether these encounters are worth it, even the messiest of them. I challenge you to take the risk, to sideline your own agenda and discover people’s stories no matter how uncomfortable you get, how awkward the situation becomes, or how heavy the sin is you’re sorting through with them…you just might be the single flame in someone’s dark night who reminds them that there is a God who created them, who loves them…” (p. 91).

With this in mind, Bill talks about the “be with” factor—how you have to “be with” people, that is, deliberately spend time with them. Only then will you discover their hopes, desires, dreams … and friendship building can begin. At some stage you will most likely have the opportunity to share your own story, which God may use to “ignite a spark that will one day lead to a miracle in a person’s life” (p. 130).

He urges us to believe in the power of the gospel. He calls us to be confident and to love “the sin-scarred” people all around us. “Take big steps. Take small steps. Take whatever steps you can…” He writes, “my role is to step out in faith, start a conversation, ask a question, explore whether there is an open door. And leave the rest up to God” (p. 158).  “I am deeply moved each time I read the gospel accounts that show Jesus accepting, including and deeply loving people.”

With great enthusiasm he writes, “Just imagine it! Imagine your life being used to help someone live abundantly today and live in heaven tomorrow!” In the same vain he quotes a speaker from a meeting he once attended “when you get to the end of your life and take your last breath, what do you want your life to have been about?” (p. 187). “The issue is whether or not you are leveraging your creative energies, marketing skills and problem-solving capabilities for the sake of landing more people in heaven.”

Throughout his book, Bill has consistently spoken about the need to keep close to the Holy Spirit through prayer. Now he spends time emphasizing how absolutely vital prayer is for effective relationship building and witnessing. We need to be “devoted” to prayer, “Pray a lot! Pray when you are alone. Pray when you’re with a lot of people. Pray when you’re in small groups. Pray on your way in: pray on your way out. Pray in your closet, in your car, at your desk. Pray morning prayers, pray mealtime prayers, pray in between mealtimes. Pray fervently, expectantly, and unself-consciously. Pray when you’re ….” In effect we’re to pray in any and every situation. He emphasizes how Paul urged his readers to pray that above all he, Paul, would speak the message of the gospel clearly.

Just Walk Across The Room is a very engaging and inspiring book. Bill clearly challenges his readers to truly love and seek the lost and draw them into the kingdom of God. And to do this in reliance on God Himself.

To finish with two more quotes from Bill:

“Imagine what would happen”, he writes, “if every single on of us prayed fervently that God would open doors for us that day!”

“… No trophy, no promotion, no pleasure, no possession will ever hold a candle to the thrill we feel when God uses us to touch another human life for eternity” (p. 217).

Nobody’s Child

Just as the name suggests, John Robinson was an orphaned child, never even knowing who his parents were, all he knew was that they didn’t want to see him. After suffering through abusive foster homes throughout his childhood in Borstal, John found himself in a detention centre for arson at only 14 years old. Soon after that, he took to the streets for a life of crime, surrounded by drink and bad influences.

A trip to prison, countless stab wounds and a failed marriage later, John was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for depression. The therapist who assessed him said that he had never met someone who had gone through so much trauma, torture and rejection as John had who hadn’t ended up committing suicide.

John was showing signs of improvement, and was soon released from the psychiatric hospital. He was back in the real world, with his freedom regained. But without three square meals a day or a place to stay, John was reverting back to his life of struggling on the streets. One day, not long after his release, happened to pass by a church, and was invited to a talk by Clive Calver for that night. He snuck in the back, slightly late, so he wouldn’t be noticed in his shabby clothes.

That was the night his life changed forever.

‘Nobody’s Home’ is the tale of a disheartened, tattoo-covered young man, loved by nobody, who is transformed through knowing Christ. He finds out that he is loved after all, and in a way more significant than he could’ve imagined.

The book takes you through the childhood, teenage years and adulthood of John Robinson, and his brand new life in Christ. Robinson becomes a powerful agent for the Lord, working with thousands of youth like himself, creating successful initiatives, such as a non-alcoholic bar at the church tower, and a bus outreach, to bring the gospel to many broken teenagers.

John launched the Eden Bus ministry in early 2000, which went on to be extremely successful in bringing hope to the youth of Manchester. He went on to write a second book about ‘the teenagers who committed their lives to Jesus on the streets’, called Somebody’s Child.

Nobody’s Child is an autobiography which shocks and provokes, and is a truly awe-inspiring testimony of how God is at work in even the most unlikely of cases.

John and his family now live in Thailand, involved in prison ministry, 10 years after the release of the book, and is married to Gillian.

Les Misérables – two barricades to cross

Les Misérables

Have you ever not wanted to see a musical? After first hearing about Les Misérables about years ago, it didn’t attract me. A friend told me that it was about a fugitive who turned over a new leaf, met a dying prostitute, brought up her child, and evaded a law enforcement officer who hounded him throughout his life – all set in France after the French revolution, almost 200 years ago. Not exactly an inspiring storyline, I thought, from what she understood of the stage show. But a few years later, I saw it with my fiancé. It turned out to be the best musical I have ever seen, and very different from the portrayal I had been given. I went again (twice), and bought the album.

Film versions

While several films have been made of Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel (over 1,000 pages), in the 1998 version directed by Bille August, some critics said that Liam Neeson should have received an Oscar, as Valjean.

Until now, all the film versions were portrayals of the book.  Yet, this recent film version of Les Misérables is not a screen play of the book, but is instead of the musical.  With outstanding performances, recorded live, by such as Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, the film is remarkably well done (although maybe too graphic and in-your-face at times, compared to the stage version).

The unforgettable music touches many emotions, from the tear-jerking “I Dreamed a Dream”, the haunting “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, of unreturned love “On My Own” to the final rousing anthem, “Do You Hear The People Sing?”

The story

While the story centres around the fugitive, Jean Valjean, various themes are developed through different characters. These range from romance to armed rebellion, set in France at the time of the French revolution.  Skip to the next heading if you don’t want to know how the story pans out.

Valjean is jailed for stealing a loaf of bread. After many years in prison, he is let out on parole.  But almost the first thing he does is steal from the Bishop of Digne. When caught by the police, the Bishop shows him mercy, saying that the goods belong to Valjean, even giving him more as well. This triggers a turning point where Valjean commits his life to God. Valjean is a renewed man who is kind, gracious and heroic.

Yet, the legalistic chief of police, (Javert) a man in whom there is not an ounce of compassion or grace, continues to hound him. Valjean adopts and brings up the daughter (Cossette) of a former employee (Fantine) as his own. Ultimately, the legalistic Javert cannot cope with Valjean’s forgiveness and change of character, his gracious and merciful approach to life. Throughout, there is also the unscrupulous couple (the Thernadiers), milking whatever system they can, even masquerading as Christians when it suits them.

Big issues

It is not only the themes that we can connect with that make this story populer: such as of Valjean making a better life after prison, the love that Maius finds with Cosette, the cause of justice for the poor of this world (les misérables), life’s dreams unfulfilled and the spiteful wrong that people do to others, as Fantine experienced.  There are themes such as poverty, hurt, injustice.

The film can be viewed in two ways.  At face value, one is the dilemma that the poor and oppressed of France (or Les Misérables) face as they suffer while the heartless rich are not merciful to them in their poverty.  Should they follow the path of rebellion, unmercifully turning the tables on the aristocracy and becoming rich themselves in a new republic?  Or should they follow Valjean’s example in seeking love, grace, and mercy

One response is to try to resolve problems through revolution and force, giving the hope of victory through insurrection.  Another is to seek love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness from God, which transcends our natural responses, which gives us a different hope for an eternal future.

Also, there are the themes of how on the one hand justice, and on the other hand grace, mercy and forgiveness, relate to each other. Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean, even after he is a reformed character, but Valjean eventually shows grace and mercy to Javert.  For some, mercy triumphs over justice, with love and hope triumphing over rebellion.

There are two salvations in view

The script weaves together two overlapping threads.  Based on the common search for justice and a better life, one thread focuses on how to achieve it in this world: for example, the rebels who take up arms on behalf of themselves and their community;  the Thénardier couple who are looking out only for themselves; or Javert who cold-heartedly wants to punish lawbreakers and is blind to mercy and forgiveness.

The other thread seeks a higher cause, where justice is met with forgiveness, grace and mercy, with hope for a better future than a revolution can provide: for example, Valjean prays to God on high for Marius’ life, and he shows mercy to Javert the rebels wanted him to die.

The first rousing crusade anthem is sung by the rebels as they anticipate a better life for the poor immediately after their barricade and rebellion. But in the ‘Finale’, the anthem is sung with a better life in view, beyond that barricade – they have in view the blessing of being with God for eternity, which although it is more distant, is far better.  Both groups have hope for the future, but they are very different.

There are two solutions for Les Misérables, the poor of this world. One is to struggle for a better life before we die, using rebellion and force to overturn the status quo and become better off here and now, in the short term, after the barricade on the streets. While it is right to try to overturn temporary injustices and unfairness, the second solution is to seek eternal salvation, in the long term, not through revolution and its barricade.  Those who pursue this seek peace with God; they seek to show love, mercy and justice in a world that suffers such pain.  And they seek a better future after death.  Both solutions have a common problem, but different means to address it, with different futures in view.

Will you join in our Crusade?

As these two threads in the story weave their way to a final conclusion, they are both presented together as a call to respond in the finale; “will you join in our crusade?”  Unlike the initial call to arms with the same anthem after which so many were killed at the barricade earlier in the film, the lyrics of the finale seem to reflect less of a recruitment call to rebellion than an offer of hope for eternity, and a call to join the march towards eternal salvation.

Following immediately after Valjeans’ prayer to God for the salvation of Marius, the finale resonates with the hope of a better life, hope beyond the here and now, for the blessing of salvation with God.  The last lines in particular focus our minds on eternity, beyond the barricade of revolution, to:

… They will live again in freedom in the Garden of the Lord,
They will walk behind the bloodshed, they will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade? who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes… Tomorrow comes!*

How can we join in this crusade?

Some people will disagree that the themes listed above are present in the story.  Yet, the lyrics themselves describe these issues in plain speech.  So, the issues described above are not so much reading something into the story, as reading the story itself.

Nevertheless, while the musical and film magnificently describe the situation of Les Misérables, and the two ways to improve their lot, and while we are asked in the finale “Will you join in our crusade?”, we are not told explicitly how join in this crusade.  If it is a call to rebellion, that is easy for many people.  But if it is the call to trust in God for a better, eternal future, how do we do that?  The Christian answer is that we should trust in the Lord Jesus alone.  He has died in our place to save us and secure for us a better future beyond the final barricade.

Just as Valjean prayed a simple prayer before the finale, we too can pray a simple prayer to receive a better future for eternity, with peace and hope for the present, by praying this prayer.

 

*From the musical, ‘Les Misérables’ by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’ (used with permission.)

This article was adapted from one published in ‘Crosstalk‘ in 2002.

Enhance your daily prayer

Prayer is part of a Christian’s two-way relationship with God.

Prayer is at the heart of a Christian’s relationship with God.  At least, it should be, as part of a two-way relationship with God.  On the one hand, we listen to God speak to us through the Bible.  On the other hand, we talk to God in prayer.  Listening to God directly, through reading his Word to us, the Bible, is often lacking in personal devotions.  But I’m not going to address that here.  Instead, I recommend this handbook by Ken Boa as a guide to get started, or continue, in a pattern of prayer that really connects with God.  It is quite expensive to purchase in book form, and is not readily available, but it is inexpensive in electronic form at Amazon: Handbook to Prayer: Praying Scripture Back to God.

Prayer God’s thoughts back to him

As the title suggests, the contents of the prayer guide are essentially praying God’s will back to him, that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We often pray for things where we’re not really sure whether or not they are God’s will.  But when we know God’s will, and pray that these things will come into effect, we can be sure that our prayers are on target and that God will hear and answer them.  Praying God’s will, or the scriptures, back to God was the Lord Jesus’ pattern of prayer, and that of many others in the Bible as well.  As the author writes in the foreword:

Think of this handbook as a tool that combines the word of the Lord with prayer and guides you through the process of praying Scripture back to God. It will enable you to think God’s thoughts after Him and to personalize them in your own thinking and practice. It will also provide you with a balanced diet of prayer by guiding your mind each day through eight kinds of prayer. Because it is based on Scripture, you can be assured that these prayers will be pleasing to God. This book will encourage you in your walk with God by enriching and enhancing the quality of your experience of prayer.

With so many quotations from the Bible used as the basis of the prayers, this guide remains very close to God’s Word.  The result is that we are praying God’s Word back to him, instead of praying the author’s thoughts.

Based on the Our Father

The structure of prayer in this guide is based on the Our Father, or the Lord’s Prayer.  Each prayer or phrase within the Lord’s Prayer is used as a principle or approach in prayer, that is expanded on in different ways: “The eight forms of adoration, confession, renewal, petition, intercession, affirmation, thanksgiving, and closing prayer are all illustrated in this model prayer.”*

Prayer of petition are organised around a seven day cycle focusing on different needs, with prayers of intercession similarly organised into groups.

Three month cycle

The shorter section of Part One: Morning Affirmations can be read daily, and can help us focus our lives towards God each day.  The bulk of the guide is contained in Part Two: Daily Prayer Guide which has different prayers each day over a three month cycle.  These prayers don’t need to be read or prayed mechanically, although they can be prayed as they are.  They can also be used as templates for our own prayers on the topics or verses for that day.  For times of more concentrated devotions, Part Three: One Week Prayer Guide is an excellent addition.  In the paper book, Part Four: Personal Prayer Pages allows notes to be taken, but this is not included in electronic editions (at least not in the Logos Bible software edition – I’m not sure about the Kindle edition).

Loving God completely

The final words are probably best put by the author himself.  He concludes:

Loving God completely is a growth process that involves the personal elements of communication and response. By listening to the Holy Spirit in the words of Scripture and speaking to the Lord in our thoughts and prayers, we move in the direction of knowing Him better. The better we know Him, the more we will love Him, and the more we love Him, the greater our willingness to respond to Him in trust and obedience.

To love ourselves correctly is to see ourselves as God sees us and to allow the Word, not the world, to define us by telling us who and whose we really are. The clearer we capture the vision of our new identity in Christ, the more we will realize that our deepest needs for security, significance, and satisfaction are met in Him and not in people, possessions, or positions.

A biblical view of our identity and resources in Christ moves us in the direction of loving others compassionately. Grasping our true and unlimited resources in Christ frees us from bondage to the opinions of others and gives us the liberty to love and serve others regardless of their response.

Since we cannot serve two masters, the focus of our heart will either be the temporal or the eternal. If it is the temporal, we cannot love God completely because of a divided heart. When Christ is a component instead of the center of life, things become complicated; the worries of the world, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things choke the word of truth in our lives and we do not bear lasting fruit (Mark 4:19). If the focus of our heart is the eternal, we will love Christ above His created goods and pleasures and begin to fulfill the enduring purpose for which we were created.

 

 

* Note: the closing prayer “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” noted in the Lord’s Prayer is found in only some Bibles, and is generally accepted as not in the original manuscripts.  However, it is nevertheless a useful note on which to conclude a time of prayer.

Theology of reconciliation instead of Christian Zionism

“Christian Zionism is officially on notice” according to a review in Christianity Today magazine on two films, one of which is Porter Speakman Jr.’s “With God On Our Side.” 

Christian Zionism

According to the film’s website, Christian Zionists are “defenders of, and apologists for the State of Israel, which involves the justification of Israel’s occupation and settlement of the West Bank, Golan and Gaza based on biblical grounds.” Christian Zionism is most prominent among a section of evangelical Christians in the U.S.A, where it heavily influences U.S. foreign policy in favour of Israel.  There are also Christian Zionists among evangelical Christians in Europe.  We see the continuing debate between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian in letters to the editor in local newspapers in the north here too, as well as in murals in different parts of Belfast.

An alternative voice

This film outlines the history of the conflict, the rise of Christian Zionism, and some of the current difficulties that Palestinians have experienced which are often hidden from tourists to the Holy Land.  The views of Palestinian Christians are heard, along with the responses of theologians and others to the Christian Zionist movement.  The film focuses more on the Palestinian perspective through personal interviews and responses.  While it could be criticised for not also presenting a clearly Jewish persective, it’s purpose is to address Christian Zionism instead of the Israeli/Palestinian debate.

The roots of the problem

The strength of this film is that it highlights the failings of Christian Zionism through its lack of humanitarian concern towards Palestinians, and its questionable approach to the Bible and therefore its theological basis. These are root causes to why some can turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices, or see no other way forward for the current dilemma.

As U.S. Christian Riaja commented about how she used to think: “It’s OK to have a political opinion about something, but the minute that political opinion causes you to become prejudiced against another people group, you lose the heart of God” (1:12:57 in the film).

How ought we to respond?

How ought we to respond from a biblical perspective to the issues that are raised?  Is one camp right and the other wrong?  Or is there another way forward?  When a military commander in the Bible asks a soldier he meets whether he is for his side or on his enemy’s side, he replies that he is for neither but is instead for the Lord (Joshua 5:13-15).  We often try to conscript the Lord onto our side(s).  However, the Lord instead wants us to leave our positions and join him and support his position.  His ways are so often very different to ours.

Is there another way forward?

This film shows that there is a way forward that addresses justice and humanitarian issues, as well as fulfillment for God’s message in the Bible and his people.  But the most common positions often don’t help.  As Salim Munayer, Palestinian Christian and professor at Bethlehem Bible College commented: “You will find Christians that they are pro-Israel, more pro-Israel than the Israeli. And you will find Christians that are pro-Palestinian, more pro-Palestinian than the Palestinian.  And as a result, we lose our distinct calling and vocation to be a bridge between the people.  So, instead of helping those two distinct groups of people to resolve their problem, to promote peace, reconciliation, we are adding oil to the fires” (1:09:01 in the film).

Theology of reconciliation

Munayer continues: “So we are, I am promoting and saying theology of reconciliation – theology where the justice of the Palestinians are seeking will be met, and the hope the Jews are looking for will be met… We need to speak to the Israeli and Palestinians; hatred is not a solution, war is not a solution, destruction is not a solution. We need to speak to those people saying; your enemy, your neighbour, how you treat him, reflects who you are, what truly you are. If you claim that you believe in God, and you hate your neighbour, you have a problem – it reflects your faith in God, what type of God you believe in” (1:14:23 and 1:15:57 in the film).

Love our neighbour

We ought to love our neighbour, regardless of whether they are our religious or political adversaries.  Christians should support and campaign for justice, caring for others, because that is the kind of people they ought to be.  Christians should certainly not turn a blind eye to injustice, because it doesn’t suit their political or theological agenda.  Where they do so, such agendas are not God’s agendas, they are not doing God’s work.  As the film shows, taking a wrong approach has also historically harmed the cause of Christianity through the centuries, as well as the well-being of those affected.

This film is a breath of fresh air into the debate about Israeli/Palestinian matters among Christians.  The study guide and other resources are excellent too.

Other resources

The DVD can be purchased in the UK here.  A study guide to consider the theological issues of Christian Zionism can be downloaded here.  For further reading on the theological issues, Stephen Sizer’s book Zion’s Christian Soldiers is an excellent read, even if just the summary in chapter 8 is all that you have time for.  (These are now being added to our church lending library.)

Unlocking the Ten Commandments

‘God’s Rules For Holiness, Unlocking the Ten Commandments’ has impacted greatly on my personal relationship with the Lord as it has enabled me to reflect and question my behaviour and beliefs.

The author, Peter Masters, sets out to explore the Ten Commandments and the impact and meaning they should each have on our daily lives. In order to do this he has very cleverly structured the book in bite sized chapters with numerous sub headings in each. Each chapter focuses on one individual commandment.

At the beginning of the book, the prologue titled “Five Crucial Keys” sets the scene for the rest of the book. It highlights how the commandments reflect God’s character, how they keep their full authority today, how they were designed for believers, how each commandment covers a family of sins and finally how the negative commandments include opposite positive virtues.

On a personal level I found this book easy to read and most importantly insightful. I never looked at the commandments as a means of understanding God’s character before. Although I have grown up knowing the commandments, this book has given me a deeper insight to what each one means and a deeper understanding of who the Lord is.

The author refers to bible references to support his beliefs throughout the book. I felt safe reading this as it was clear the author’s evidence was based on the bible. Each chapter explores the family of sins for each commandment but it also explores the positives virtues that we should strive to have.

Rather than just focusing on what we shouldn’t do, the author highlights the behaviours that a child of Christ should have. The positive aspect of reading a book is that there are no time constraints so I could re-read chapters as I felt necessary. I would highly recommend this book but only if you are ready to face up to change.