Bala Ministers conference

I have just returned from the EMW (Evangelical Movement of Wales) Bala Ministers conference at Bryn-y-Groes. The theme this year was “the Glory of Jesus Christ in His Person and Work”.

Stephen Clark gave the three title addresses, Andy Pitt spoke on our identity in Christ, Lindsay Brown on Calvin the missionary, Mark Barnes on the current views held by non believers, Adrian Brake preached on the life and Ministry of William Williams, Pete Campbell lead the prayer meetings and I spoke on Tuesday evening on what God can do with a little oil (2Kings4).

I do not wish to go into too much detail regarding the programme, just to say that it was well thought out with a real concern for the current needs of the delegates. I was greatly encouraged and stimulated by the content. As a speaker, I stuck out like a sore thumb among such titans of the EMW (Evangelical Movement of Wales).

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I do not wish to elaborate anymore on the programme for two reasons.

  1. I scribbled so many notes down that this review would soon turn into an essay if I went any further.
  2. I feel it helpful to distance the programme from the conference, because as good as it was (and it was excellent), it is the other attributes that make the three days truly special.

There are many conferences that offer the high level seminars akin to those expected at the Bala Ministers. They are all well organised, valuable and of course offer great discounts on books! However, the Bala Ministers conference is unique! For reasons you can only understand if you come! Yes, it shares in all the benefits of the aforementioned learning but it was packaged in a gentleness and sincerity that I had not experienced elsewhere.

The prayer meetings were fully attended each morning; the more academic material was not coldly presented but given in the love of Christ, the discussions (that included strong rebukes and challenges) were shared in a spirit of unity.

This was more than just a conference; it felt like a family reunion, young and old gathered together from all different circumstances, some had been coming for decades, others were there for the first time, but we all loved each other as brothers in the Gospel.

I shared meals with men who will go down in church folk law as bastions of the faith, I discussed philosophy and theology with leading and respected academics (embarrassingly asking them to sign copies of the books I purchased after the discussion), I enjoyed coffee with young prodigies set to take on the mantle for tomorrows church. We were reminded of old truths, and given new ideas to meet the needs of a changing world.

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This week battle weary brothers had fun together, we enjoyed each other’s company, we walked, we debated and we relaxed in the idyllic setting of Bala lake.

We were all cared for so wonderfully by Gwydion, Catrin and the team at Bryn-y-groes, they truly are called to serve in such a way. The food was tremendous, you could almost taste the love that went into its preparation. Nothing was too much trouble for them to ensure our stay was as comfortable and beneficial as possible. Thank you!

In conclusion

You can pay for the Carson’s and the Keller’s, you can hire out a room, book a hotel and prepare a programme. The content will be good, and the time worthwhile. But what other conference do not give you is the spirit of love, care and gentleness that I received from Bala Ministers this week.

We were not professionals meeting, we were broken men seeking our saviour and He came and met with us and bound us together in love.

By God’s Grace I hope to see you all next year!

Isaiah 53

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence,  nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

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My visit to Auschwitz

I concede that I write this post out of selfish necessity. A week has gone by since I visited Auschwitz and I need this output to fully digest the horror. I write this blog with the heaviest of hearts. I warn you it is not for the faint or sensitive.

Why visit Auschwitz?

I was invited alongside twelve other Ministers in Wales to attend the European (Christian) Leaders Forum in Poland with a view to setting up a “network” in Wales.

I will write again about the Forum, so I will just say that it was a wonderful learning experience; we lived like Kings for a week, all thanks to the generosity of the American backers. We are all very grateful to them.

The forum was just two hour’s drive away from Auschwitz, so before the conference started we all went.

I knew that I ‘should’ go as it was on our doorstep, but in truth I was dreading it. Being away from home is hard enough, especially for a week of study that convicts the soul. Did I need to start the week on such a low?

Arrival

When we arrived outside Auschwitz (I), it was a bit like a theme park, coaches and buses filled the car park with hundreds of people queuing outside the gates. The mood was oddly jovial and it lifted my spirits. This turned into a cruelty that allowed me to fall from a higher peak when I walked through the gates and was exposed to the horrors.

Our group pre-arranged a tour guide who took us through the entrance gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei” written in the iron arch (I will come back to this later). Jewish captives would walkout under this gate each morning to the sound of an orchestra, as they began their day of hard labour.

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We visited various buildings of significance throughout the camp, where the Nazi’s used to house and work the Jews and POW. We saw the firing wall where they shot women, this was next door to their dorms (notice the blacked out windows so nobody could see ). We saw the offices of the Nazi generals with Hitler’s picture still hung on the wall, the “courts” (a paradox in themselves), the gas chamber and furnaces (to burn the bodies) and Rudolf Hoess’ house, where he lived with his wife and children in perfect luxury next door to the torture.

As you can imagine the camp was well enforced with imposing wooden turrets, barbed wire electrified fences and large bleak concrete walls.

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Evidence

We were then taken through various displays that evidenced the atrocities. This is where I broke down.

Amidst a room of hair taken from the prisoners (estimates of about 50,000 scalps) I saw the blond plats of a young girl, she could have been no older than my daughter and it suddenly became personal. Tears running down my face we went on to see piles of glasses once used to read poetry and love letters, pots and pans used to share a family meal, and stacks of tins containing Zyklon B (the killer gas). There were photographs of deformed and starving people experimented on in the name of “science and progression” and various other logistical and bureaucratic records, showing how far these poor people were shipped in from.
The tour guide was very clear in regards to the evidence throughout. She stated the factual and told us with great honesty what was assumed knowledge. There was clearly a belief that some would doubt the horror (or the level of it), so the information was presented candidly for us to understand for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

We went back to our coach, our heads face down and in silence.

We took the short drive to Auschwitz (II) Birkenau. I did not think it could get any worse…..I was wrong.

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In the middle of nowhere you are greeted by an imposing tower of the camp entrance where cattle trains drove people, human beings, in like cargo.

Nothing could prepare me for the size of the compound. It was huge!

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All that is left of most of the buildings that housed the Jews are the superfluous chimneys either end of what was a wooden structure. These lifeless towers of despair stretched in their hundreds all the way to the trees on the horizon, on either side of the track. The camp was surrounded by viewing posts and electric barbed wire fences.

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The original Jewish arrivals were re-homed in these buildings. The conditions were awful but at first there was some provision for them. These first families were welcomed and told it was a short term arrangement during the war effort.

This “testing period” was not a gracious one, but callously conjured for PR purposes. These unsuspecting souls, men women and children, once accommodated for, were told that they could write postcards home welcoming their friends and relatives to come and join them with nothing to fear but hard work… they did write, and they did come, by the hundreds of thousands.

Many people died on the journey. They were crammed into a carriage like cattle from all over Europe enduring extreme temperatures and suffocation.

On arrival Men got off the train and were placed on one side of the platform and the women and children on the other. They were greeted by POW  in striped pyjamas who took their belongings off them “for the time being”.

The men walked up the platform ramp on one side and met Nazi doctors who chose (at most) eighty from every five hundred, fit enough to work, the rest were sent to the “showers” to get “cleaned up”, along with the women and children on the other side of the platform. They were all stripped, and sent into the “showers” under false pretenses and were gassed to death.

The deceased would then be taken from the chamber by the Jewish prisoners, often numbering some of the eighty men and boys “saved” from their party earlier.

During the murder of their kin those deemed healthy enough, had been marched down to collect their striped uniform and immediately sent to work, their first task was to be reunited with their family (whom moments before they had left on the platform alive) and now had to endure pulling out the gold teeth from their lifeless bodies and then drag them into the incinerator.

At peak times, it would take just thirty minutes for people to be turned into dust, from landing onto the platform to the incinerator. Jewish slaves would then spread the ashes on the surrounding fields as fertiliser.

The point of Natural selection

The ‘surviving’ slaves lived in extreme conditions, with little food, no fuel, poor facilities and thin clothing, in a punishingly cold environment. Among their many tasks was to conduct the extermination of their own and destroy the evidence. They themselves had a life expectancy of about two weeks, before being subject to the same fate; killing eye witnesses meant that nobody could speak of the horror afterwards.

When the war turned against Hitler, the Nazi’s began to destroy the evidence, the gas chambers now sit as rubble.

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Thoughts

This was clearly not a normal historic tour, it was grim with an air of evil and I am grateful to God that I experienced it with some of the wisest and loving men I know. We spent the week in deep philosophical debate trying to come to terms with what we had seen.

I could hear many comment on the “business-like” process of the camp; it was a production line of death. But it was far more than that. If this killing was just a business, it would have been deemed insufficient to transport two Jewish people all the way from the Channel Islands to die in this camp. The expense and resource required to achieve this slaughter when fighting battles on both fronts was unwise and probably contributed to the Nazi demise. No, this was beyond the coldness of business, it was beyond the evil of war, the force driving this “extermination” was of biblical proportions, it was a glimpse of the Horrors of Hell.

Now I know some would say, “how could twelve Ministers, who preach a God of love, take Him seriously after visiting such a place of evil?” I do answer such a question in a previous blog which I hope is helpful (Why does God allow evil – an answer to Stephen Fry). All I would like to say at this point, is if we went with the alternative world view and denied God’s existence, Auschwitz still happened.

Without God, we are in a meaningless universe of chance, where according to Darwinism the best equipped species survive and at this time and place in History, it was the Nazi’s. The Nazi’s had the power to commit these atrocities, so in a godless world view, the question of immorality should not even be considered, these events should simply be regarded in much the same way as natural history. It was one natural force outbidding another for the success of their “selfish gene”. But as we all know such a viewpoint is utter nonsense.

We know at our core that what happened at Auschwitz is wrong, we know that the victims of such crimes, have souls of unlimited value and this is why we all (even alleged atheists) mourn this tragedy as we do. Because human beings are more than randomly evolved proteins, we are body and soul, we are all transcendent image bearers of God with a propensity to love. So we are upset when we see such suffering and injustice.

My fear is that in our modern western world that continues to reject the God of love, where churches are closing and our popular scientists are fast becoming society’s demigods, driving philosophical thought outside of their remit, the very same thing will happen again in our culture in the name of “science” and “progress”. There is already signs of such dehumanization in our society in regards to the less fortunate, or refugees. We see the very same narratives being used today by politicians that Hitler used initially to gain power.

On that train platform at Birkenau you had the brutality of ‘natural selection’ in action, those fit enough to work survived, those without such desired attributes could no longer exist.

Without God, at best we are dying in a world run (at the moment) by an evolved ape driven by an amoral natural force of greed, lust and pride, for no reason or purpose.

Without God we live in a world where the horrors of Auschwitz happened and will continue to happen and as living accidents of time+matter+chance you have no rational way to explain why it terrifies you, or why you know it was wrong, because there is no such thing as ‘wrong’ in a meaningless (Godless) universe.

However, with God, there is meaning and purpose, a higher morality which can condemn and protect us from such horror and give us hope amidst the trial.

Like God, guilt cannot be seen touched or measured, but it is very real, guilt is the ‘call to action’ for the soul and guilt lead these Nazi’s to run and hide, just like Adam and Eve hid in the garden.

It is this uniquely human property of morality (that we all share as God’s image bearers) that drove the Nazi’s to demolish the camp and destroy the evidence in a bid to evade justice – they knew what they were doing was wrong!

It is this ‘meaning’ or ‘conscience’ that convicted me to tears whilst walking through the camp. I was reminded of my own capacity to have done the very same evil (Matt 5:22). In my weakness I was once  intolerant, at my lowest I sought strength in hate, until I met Jesus who told me “blessed are the meek”(Matthew 5:5) and showed me that strength comes as a servant (Philippians 2:7).

Later investigations proved that there was nothing unique (genetically or psychologically) about the Nazi’s behind the atrocities. They loved their families just like us, they enjoyed relationships just like us, they ate and drank just like us and just like us they had a vein of evil at their very core.

The Bible gives the best explanation for this phenomenon in the account of the “fall”, that caused the total depravity of mankind (Romans 3:10). Our capacity to love is matched with a capacity to “sin”, we are all driven by pride, greed and lust – the fuel of hate! We are all in some way guilty of such evil and this means that we all need a Saviour. Jesus Christ.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts this innate sickness of man perfectly in his book about the Soviet forced labor camp system, The Gulag Archipelago.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

This sickness is in us all, the cure is Jesus Christ.

Final thoughts

What struck me most was how so many were lead to their death in utter compliance. Over 1.3 million people (Jews, Gypsy’s, Poles and POW) were murdered in Auschwitz by just 7,000 SS troops during this period.

Why did they not revolt in great number? If a cruel death was a certainty, the electric fence or being shot in the back would surely have been a mercy that could have allowed others to escape?

Perhaps the dehumanisation got to the Jews themselves, as they were tasked with the barbarianism of sorting through the valuables of their beloved deceased. Did they begin to think that they were not worth saving? That their lives were not worth fighting for?

Or perhaps many of them did not even know that they needed saving? To them this cruelty was short term and relative. Many were grateful for the housing during the war effort, it was no better in the ghettos they had been brought from, perhaps they just thought they should keep their heads down and get on with it?

You will remember from earlier I spoke of the words arching over the entrance of this epicenter of utter evil “Arbeit macht frei”. This translates to “Work will set you free”.

Perhaps the captives genuinely believed this. Each day they bravely battled through their arduous existence, cold and hungry, along with everyone else, not knowing the inevitable cruelty that awaited them.

Is this reasoning not metaphor for today’s culture?

Millions of our kin arduously work through life, not knowing the judgement that awaits them in eternity. Our cultures demigods tell them that there is no God, that you are just evolved accidents here by chance and that your value is defined by your ability to work, you are told each morning as you hit the grind by a televised orchestra of media and advertising that “work will set you free”. “Be slaves to commodity and know happiness,” yet all remain hungry and nobody rebels because all are bought into the lie. It is death by compliance.

It is poignant to note that at a place of most extreme evil, you are welcomed with the anthem of this cursed world “Arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free). The very opposite of the heart of Gospel message that proclaims “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Heaven’s gates read “you have been saved  not by works – but by the blood of the lamb!”

Such evil that I passively experienced and the emotions it conjured reaffirms to me the reality of the Biblical narrative. We are truly in a cursed world and mans propensity for evil is great. Never have I been more inspired to preach the love of God, for only in the Gospel do we have a saviour who chose to come low and suffered the trial and injustice that these Jewish people knew. He can sympathise with their weakness and His grace is sufficient, for He tasted such brutality on His own lips!

Only in the Gospel do we have meaning in trial and hope amidst the reality of such evil. The gospel that says “love thy enemy” is our best weapon against such hate!

In the gift shop I bought the below postcard, a picture of Christ on the Cross scraped into the wall of cell 21.

I wrote on its back the words of John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it”.

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To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be praise and honour and glory and power forever and ever.” Revelation 5:12

 

Pray for Manchester 

The world is calling us to #prayformanchester in light of the atrocities – and as Christians we must! 

Many have woken up this morning having to face the loss of sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins and friends. Your neighbours may not be directly affected but are scared, anxious and distraught by such awful events. We must pray for them all and pro actively  love, sympathise, empathise and sacrificially serve all those affected as best we can. We need to pray to God asking for His strength so that we can be Christlike in our community and pray that He will give us the right words to say during this painful time.

Whenever humanity witnesses such irrational hatred and evil, we have no other alternative but to turn to God. Made in His image we all instinctively run to Him in crisis. This collective desire to #prayformanchester should then remind us all (churched or otherwise) of our transcendence; innate love, humility and compassion, the very things that make us uniquely human. This is exactly why it is so important for us all to pray and appreciate the reality of God (and His character imparted to us as His image bearers) in our daily lives. 

We can see from the worlds response to such atrocities (the request for prayer) that secularism cannot provide the comfort we need, dismissing God does not fill the vacuum or stop the killing of innocents, neither has modernity made prayer redundant. Prayer is uniquely human, it is uniquely helpful, because we are uniquely made in God’s image.

The terrible events in Manchester once again prove the total depravity and fallen nature of mankind and that we live in a cursed world, where terrible things can and do happen. Christian, we must weep with those who weep today and prayerfully love and help those in need and show them (amidst the horror of such events) that there still is hope, because there really is a God and He has a rescue plan for us… found in the person Jesus Christ of Nazareth! In Christ we have meaning in such trial, light in the darkness, we are made stronger in adversity and carry a sure hope of a better future whatever evil is thrown at us. Our desire to  glorify God with our compassion and gospel love (even to our enemies) is our best weapon against such hate.

As a church we should be on our knees today mourning with those who mourn, praying for all those affected by this act of hate and praying that God the Son, who also lost loved ones and faced injustice and death HIMSELF on the cross will be of great comfort and strength for all those suffering in grief and injury. 

May God’s Grace be sufficient in our weakness as we seek to support all those affected and may He be of help to those who have lost loved ones and are suffering today.


General Election 2017: Who should you vote for?

We were all surprised to hear that Theresa May had called a general election, but not surprised that she found inspiration in the Welsh hills. The beauty of the Welsh countryside allows for peaceful reflection and the grandeur of the environment births grand ideas (whether you agree with them or not).

I have since been walking the hills of our Welsh valley pondering the situation and have written the below guidance from a Biblical perspective (although not exclusively for the Christian to take heed to).

As I have said before; it is best to keep politics out of the pulpit, so I will seek to remain impartial throughout, refusing to reveal my own persuasion. I do not want to alienate anyone from the Gospel because of my political opinion, especially when such concerns have little significance in the light of eternity.

With that said, as Christians we have a responsibility to give to Caesar what is Caesars and I believe this also means that we have a duty to vote! (Mark 12:17)

We must then take time to consider carefully the best possible option, in the understanding that all human institutions are not perfect (Romans 3:10).

We must also be willing for the Lord’s sake to submit to the elected authority whoever that may be (1 Peter 2:13).

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So the question remains who should you vote for?

Every candidate will be telling you over the coming weeks that they are the most deserving of your vote. Admittedly they all have various positive attributes (depending on your world view) and I am sure all run with the best possible intentions.

The Green Party’s message may resonate with you because of the Bible’s teaching on being good custodians of God’s creation (Genesis 1:26-28) and Labour’s taxation policy may share Biblical principles on giving (Proverbs 19:17). Many Christian would say that the Tories uphold certain conservative values that align more with Biblical teaching (Romans 13:1), but you can also argue that the Liberal Democrats best follow the Biblical view on social justice (Deuteronomy 10:18-19). Many Godly people may see the Bible reflected in one of the national party manifesto’s (Plaid Cymru, SNP, UKIP etc) and vote for them, or Christians may want to witness their “saltiness” and cast a protest vote (1 Peter 1:16) (Matthew 5:13-16).

The truth is, no party fully adheres to the Bible’s mandate, for perfection lies only with the Lord and in the Kingdom of Heaven (Psalm 145). Even if we had a National Christian party, we’d probably all feel that they do not adhere to our specific denominational view and find closer adherence to one of the secular bodies.

So the choice must come down to the party that you feel best reflects your Christian conviction.

There are wonderful guides that are made available for this, I highly recommend the Christian Institute dossier (when it is released), they (usually) summaries each manifesto pledge alongside Biblical principles, so you can make an educated choice.

My humble input for your prayerful reflection is that you consider not just what the party can do to make the world a better place, but how they can help you make the world a better place. (How the party can help you serve God’s Kingdom in the Christian context).

I make this point out of a genuine concern.

I have seen a growing trend in recent years of people delegating their social duty to the state (and what is more concerning Christians delegating their Christian duty to the state).

Joe Bloggs now feels that by voting Green he has done his bit for the planet whilst burning carbon through his various technology apparatus, vehicles and extra long hot showers.

Erika Mustermann equally thinks she has done her bit for our societies poorest by voting Liberal Democrat, but you never see her volunteering down at a soup kitchen, or donating funds to the local foodbank.

Alice and Bob vote Tory because they support the entrepreneur but never buy anything from the local shop.

Walter Plinge feels strongly for elderly care and votes Labour but would never think of visiting a local care home one evening a week to talk and play chess with one of the residents.

Yes! The government’s job is to drive a fairer society that gives opportunities to all, our governments duty is to keep us safe, healthy and educated but your vote does not delegate your social duty to your fellow man. Just like typing “Amen” under a Jesus meme on Facebook does not make you a Christian! Get up off your sofa on a Sunday morning and go and support your local church!

As you decide what box to tick, I pray that you will take your vote very seriously and thank God for the freedom you enjoy in our land to partake. But as you diligently contemplate your candidate’s appeals, do so under the lens of how they can help you do more for those in need as God’s means of Grace. Such a view will surely drive change and our Christian witness in our community!

Christian, vote for the party that would protect your rights to worship, to read your Bible, to pray, to meet together and evangelise.

Christian, vote for the party that would allow you to be economically better off, under the conviction of being better able to financially support your local church.

If the offer of more bank holiday’s are appealing, ask yourself will you give those days to God?

If a church of 70 people took the four extra days offered (per annum) for Kingdom work, it would give the same man hours to the Gospel as a full time worker!

Critiquing one party for their policy on the NHS whilst smoking in a small room with children is hypocritical.

Voting for a party because of their environmental policy whilst incinerating your old car tires in the garden is hypocritical.

Putting a poster up promoting a party of alleged unity when you do not get on with your neighbours is hypocritical.

Voting for a certain party does not make you more caring and charitable, if you are not caring or charitable.

Do not outsource your social duty to imperfect leaders, but vote for the party that best allows you to be a force for the Gospel wherever the Lord has placed you to serve.

I will leave you with the thoughts of Jesus’ brother James

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  James 2:14-26

 

Undermining Ishtar

It is that time of year again where Facebook is filled with memes about Ishtar, claiming that this pagan god is the real source of Easter.

This is yet another poor attempt to undermine the Bible and ignore God’s love for the world.

The main grounds for this “theory” is based on shared symbols of eggs and rabbits and that “Ishtar” and “Easter” sound similar. 🤦‍♂️

History

It is true that the Romans did bastardise Christianity to align the “religion” to their state ideal and they did adapt various pagan attributes into their festivals to allow them to win the hearts and minds of other cultures. The use of Rabbits and Eggs at Easter could be an example of this as both were used in pagan traditions to symbolise new life and fertility over the spring season.

But such symbols have nothing to do with the Biblical account of Easter.

Church

Christians celebrate Easter every week at church.

We gather to thank God for His incarnation, atoning death on the Cross and the new life given in His victorious resurrection. We do this every Sunday without eggs and bunny’s. They are simply seasonal novelties.

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There are so many other discrepancies with this theory but I will deal with the most ridiculous today. “Ishtar sounds a bit like Easter”.

My name (John Funnell) sounds a bit like the Olympian Sally Gunnell, but I am neither a woman and cannot run the hurdles.

Just because things sound similar it does not mean they are the same thing.

Language

Constantine, the Roman Emperor who adopted “Christianity” did not speak English, he lived hundreds of years before the language was even invented. To him “Easter” was called “Pascha” in Greek or Pesach in Hebrew.

Pesach or Pascha sounds nothing like Ishtar.

Constantine would not have known what the word “Easter” meant. It is just a coincidence that the word sounds similar to modern ears.

Learn, Love, Share

It is remarkable how so many have an opinion of Christianity yet know very little about it.

So, to those who promoted the Ishtar meme (and others like it), I warmly invite you to come to church this Easter and learn the wonders of the Bible for yourself.

You will see that Easter has nothing to do with Ishtar, rather it is a celebration of God’s victory over death, His personal offer of a fresh start in His resurrection and His overwhelming love for you!

These are all amazing and life changing truths!

Easter is a celebration that reminds us that every human being is valued by God. He

loves you (to death) and treasures you and wants to know you as His child.

Do not let these silly cultural myths cloud your relationship with you Father in Heaven. Come and see what Easter is all about!

For more info www.NoddfaChuch.com

An Atheist Mother’s Day

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This morning (Mother’s Day), my doting sons woke up early to prepare a wonderful surprise (within their adolescent capability) for my amazing wife. Breakfast in Bed!

The eldest nominated himself to be the culinary whiz, whilst the middle son made a wonderful card.

Placed awkwardly on a tray, they tip-toed up the stairs and presented it all to their sleeping mother. (The kitchen was left in a total mess!)

The front of the card had a smiling face, with rosy cheeks, bright eyes and long brown hair (it was my wife). The face was framed in a two layered heart, the inner a bright purple and the outer pink. It was beautiful. Inside my son wrote, “To Mummy, Happy Mother’s Day, Love” (and then their names).

My wife was overcome by emotion; she could see the love, effort and care that had gone into making such a card. She embraced my grinning sons who appreciated the gratitude for their labours. It was quite the scene!

It all got me thinking! What if my wife had viewed this cherished gift in the same atheistic ‘world view’ that most of our society share today?

What if she ruled my son out of the equation and assumed that the picture (however beautiful) had simply arrived by chance over billions of years? The heartfelt words would become meaningless, discarded as haphazard weathering on the page. How would my son feel?

What if my wife, instead of thanking my son, did a chemical analysis on the crayons and ink to find out their source, or carbon date the paper to find out its given age, or take a core sample of the dust that gathered and take it back to the lab?

The once loving Mother’s day exchange would become a cold and meaningless affair.- would it not?

My wife would have lost that moment of love with her son and my son would be mightily concerned with his mum’s lack of appreciation with his craftsmanship! The relationship would be broken!

This world view gives us the very same problem today with our creator God.

He has given us a world that screams out the hallmarks of intelligent design. From the intricacy of our DNA to the great and purposeful forces of nature, from the fine tuning of billions of factors required to support life (let alone sentient life) to the improbability of our very existence. He even resides in our own (and unique) ability to love, create and share, even at times that are counterproductive to our very survival. All such things that we experience each and everyday, that we often take for granted, but are all signatures of the love, provision and grace of our creator God.

Dismissing all He has done for us as our creator is like dismissing a handmade Mother’s day card from an adoring son.

Dismissing God from His creation turns life into a cold and meaningless affair.

Thank God this Mother’s day, that despite our rejection of the obvious, through His Son Jesus Christ, He has provided a way back to Him. Happy Mother’s Day!

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

 

Giving Teenagers a lifeline

This academic year we at Noddfa have revamped our youth ministry, moving it to a Friday evening and expanding it across two age groups.

The first session is for primary school aged children (6-7pm). They all come into the hall and get to pick the games or crafts they want to take part in and are rewarded with points for behaviour, achievement and creativity. We then gather together for prayer and a 10 minute Gospel message, then a warm snack, a final game and then home time.

kids3The older group join us later (7:30-9pm). The format is the same, but the games are more mature, we have a Wii, a pool table and beanbags for those that wish to just sit on their phones and be miserable.

We gather together for prayer and a 10 minute Gospel message (that usually extends to 30 minutes with the Q&A). We break for a warm snack and then the young people can either continue with whatever they want to do, or join me for a more in depth Bible Study.

By God’s grace the evening has become very popular and we have built trusting relationships with the young people and their parent/guardian(s).

I have been able to counsel many of them one to one (from a Biblical perspective) on various issues they are facing, from bullying, peer pressure, drug use etc.

I have created the below sheet for our young people and their parent/guardian(s) that I will be handing out to them as a practical guide to help them get through such difficult situations.

I pray that it will be of use to any of you reading this.

Explanation of hand out

We Christians often find ourselves in sticky situations, we go astray with the same temptations as anyone else. But Praise be to God we have an escape! The Cross (x) of Christ Jesus!

At The Cross (x), in the greatest act of love known to man, Jesus Christ took the punishment we deserve for all the things we have done wrong, His wounds have healed us, so that we can return to our Holy God without fear.

Every time that we feel tempted or pressured into doing something we do not feel is right Christians can look to the cross where we are reminded of Jesus’ love for us and the price He paid for our sin.

The Cross (x) encourages us to distance ourselves from such temptations and gives us a place to seek forgiveness when we fail.

As a teenager have you ever found yourself in uncomfortable circumstances where you feel pressured to join in?

Have you taken part in activities that you knew were wrong, but did so because you could see no other way out?

Well at times such as these, think of the Cross (x) of Jesus Christ and type “x” into your phone and send it to a group message to your parent/guardian(s).

The “x” is just one letter, nobody will notice that you are sending it, or ask why. If they catch you, they will not know what it means anyway!

When your parent/guardian(s) receive the “x”, they are to call you immediately stating an emergency and that you need to come home quickly, they will explain all later.

(This is not a lie, the situation you are in is an emergency and you need to get out of it).

After the call, run home, you are free from danger!

Please use this only at times when you feel necessary, for this to work you need to maintain trust, do not cry wolf with your parent/guardian(s)!

Parent/Guardian(s).

As Christians come to the Cross (x) to receive forgiveness, when you’re young person sends you the “x” follow the aforementioned steps and do not ask them any questions about it when they get home.

Such interference might hinder them using your service in the future and who knows what they could get themselves into. Simply thank God that they had the sense to call upon you for help when the situation got too much for them.

Please be clear with your young person that they do have a duty of care to their fellow humans and must call the police if they know of anything criminal and that you are always available to support them through this process if they are willing to share.

Feel free to print and use the below…

phonex

If you are in danger think of the Cross (x) of Jesus Christ and type “x” into your phone and send for help.

‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray, ’but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” 2 Peter 2:24-25

I am totally indebted to Burt Fulks and his excellent blog for this idea!

Fake News and the church

fake-news

Since the beginning of time mankind has spun the truth to adhere to the rhetoric of its day. For example, in the first century Octavian lead a propaganda campaign (Fake News) against Mark Anthony in Rome. King Harold died by a lucky arrow through the eye (1066 Battle of Hastings), but in France the report was “William’s brave men slayed the King of England during the heat of the Battle”. The Historians job is then to grapple with the differing accounts of “truth” to actually find it.

We must then acknowledge that all accounts are weighted in the favour of whoever the sponsor/ benefactor maybe and such motives will never change. “Fake News” is here to stay, red top papers will continue to publish scandal and embellish the “truth” to sell more papers and online media will continue to do the same to battle for clicks and advert impressions.

Pope Benedict XVI checks the new Vatican web portal on an iPad device at the Vatican

President Trump’s “Fake News” claim is nothing new, but there has been one significant development in recent times that is worthy of the fuss. “Average Joe” can now broadcast their own versions of the “truth” to the masses, whether in the form of a styled Instagram picture (intended to fool the viewer on the credibility of your appearance), or an uploaded video reporting no seats on a train during rush hour! As a result the plebs view of the world has now been equated with the media elite.

Such constant exposure to endless versions of “truth” (from either the once trusted media  or from random strangers through a hashtag), has made us (the masses) naive, cynical and dismissive of reality.

For decades the West have feared the Orwellian (1984) view of an “information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state”[1] (a threat made real during the Cold war). But such fear has driven us to the Huxleyn view (Brave New World) of a “technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble”[2] .

This is all a result of such media saturation, increasingly consumed via image based mediums.

context

It is often said that a “picture is worth a thousand words,” but are these words of truth? Does a picture really tell the entire story?

A picture can define a moment without context and thus it is more susceptible to manipulation (see above), but a “word” never stands alone! The word is always given in a context and can always be reviewed, critiqued, verified and once written the author is accountable.

As we continue to move away from ‘word based knowledge’ and embrace real-time graphic media consumption, credible broadsheets are going to be replaced by picture filled red tops and image based mediums such as TV or online video. As a result the quality of journalism will continue to decrease and we will have a society filled with people that make “informed” decisions based on the “Fake News” shared by celebrities on Twitter (a benefit of the 140 character limit).

Modern publishers and technology firms have created this Huxleyn predicted society, where questionable imaged based media not only resides in the corner of your front room, but follows you around all day on your handset or tablet. Because the truth is often boring this media saturation has driven journalists and production companies to get creative with reality in order to win more viewing figures,clicks,impressions,shares,likes,retweets etc. “Fake News” is simply an inevitable consequence to this “enlightened age” of technological advancement.

A social condition best described by Neil Portman (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan because everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

Putting my Ministerial hat on for a minute…is the church not the answer to this “Fake News” catastrophe?

The church is a set apart (Holy) people, chosen by God to be a counter-culture from the world (more on this here “Dealing with change – thoughts on BEXIT”). Is it then our generations calling to fight against the sea of amusement, the “Fake News” and stand for truth?

As a church we should be offering an escape from such modernity, a ‘wifi free world’ where “Fake News” is left at the door and replaced by the unchanging word of God! A sanctuary against a world that defines you by what you can produce and consume, a world that at best offers you scandal, lies and death.

The church should be the place for people to unplug, switch off and come to meet the God of life, love and a truth, a place for people to come and make real meaningful relationships within a humble community of believers who are defined by their fresh start and future with Jesus?

Christian, is this not our calling today? and are we (the Reformed church) not the best equipped for such a task?

For centuries the privileged few manipulated God’s Word so the plebs would follow their agenda’s, they hid the truth behind an elite language (Latin) and supported their “Fake News” narrative behind image based media (stained glassed windows). All until the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago, where the word of truth got out and it was preached FREE from mans sinful agenda (warts and all)!

The reformed church rushed through Europe deposing the priests and began to empower and educate the people to read God’s Word for themselves and ensure those in the pulpit had no other motive than to stick to the Bible and save souls for Jesus!

Christian! In this media saturated world of “Fake News” are we not called to drive against the oppressive forces of modern, meaningless amusements and liberate the lost into the Kingdom of God? Are we not to stand as a counter-culture against such delusion and be ever more resolute to the eternal truth found only the Bible? A truth that does not hide from evil, but explains it, a word that does not hide from the inconvenient truths of immorality from its patriarchs but wilfully admits them, a word with only one agenda, to save souls and bring them into a loving fellowship with God so that they can be a force for good in this world of deceit, corruption and “Fake News”!

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.” (2 Peter 2:1-3)

..

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/feb/02/amusing-ourselves-to-death-neil-postman-trump-orwell-huxley

The Llanerch colliery disaster

On February 6th 1890 176 men and boys (fathers and sons) died in a tragic mining disaster at the Llanerch Colliery, Abersychan.

Since its 125th anniversary Councillor Giles Davies has organised a service at the pit head to remember the lost and I have had the honour of leading those gathered in prayer and worship.

An earlier methane explosion  (October 1889) that lead to two casualties, raised concerns about the colliery’s safety. Mine inspectors suggested the use of closed safety lamps, but the Managing Director of the pit approved the use of open flame lamps (December 1889) on the belief that the mine was “well ventilated”. Eight weeks later the explosion happened and 176 men were dead. So severe was the blast that it echoed down the valley and could be heard for miles around. Many of the casualties could not be identified.

The incident itself stripped the local community of an entire generation of men, leaving their widows and family desolate. You can read a list of the deceased here, many are buried in our graveyard at Noddfa.

The inquest ruled the explosion was caused by the men using “naked lights”.  No one in management was found responsible and no one was fined. The mine was reopened and back in business just 13 days after the incident.

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Survivors of the Llanerch Colliery Disaster – “Back to Work”!

At its peak (1918) the Llanerch, Havod Van and Blaenserchan pits that filled this little valley employed 2,060 people. It was a booming place of industry with several pits, furnaces, brickworks, roads, trains and other amenities.

Sadly it all closed shortly after Nationalisation in 1947. Nature has now reclaimed the fair country and all that is left of the pit head at Llanerch is the bottom of the girder that once held the shaft pully.

15.jpg

During the short service, we prayed, the children, Mayor, MP and Councillors placed daffodils on the pit head and I spoke from the text 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”

The men and boys of Llanerch left their wives and children in the early hours of February 6th 1890, fully expecting to be back for supper, but they never made it home. They were taken in an instant. As we remember their sudden deaths, we need to ask ourselves whether we are ready to face our own? As it could come as suddenly! Do you know peace with God? Do you have hope in the risen Saviour Jesus Christ?

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The Llanerch Colliery

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A drone image of the Llanarch Colliery site during today’s service (by Gwyn Jenkins)

 

After the service I then took a welcomed walk around the derelict and dismantled sites through the little valley with friends.

Chris Tew (the Sherriff of Abersychan) kindly guided me through the small valley and told me what went where. A forgotten past hidden amidst the rubble and thorns.

11

This often unheard of tragedy is currently marked by a small memorial. The local community are fund raising to build something of more significance that will keep such a dark history in memory. You can find out more about the fund here

A big thanks once again to Giles Davies for organizing such a wonderful morning, including lunchboxes for all the children.

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Stephen Fry on God and why it went viral?

stephen-fry_3183239b

In February 2015 Gay Byrne (RTE) asked Stephen Fry what he would say to God on their inevitable meeting. Stephen Fry’s answer went “viral” on YouTube.

At the time many people contacted me personally over this video, some maliciously, as if it were evidence that would not only undermine millennia of scholarship and historic study, but would cause me to reject my faith and go back to the man I once was (God forbid).

I chose to respond on an individual basis but I did not want to rebuke publically as I felt it to be a Matthew 7:6 scenario and greater men than I were doing a better job.

But this video has reared its ugly head again two years on and I have seen it on the social media accounts of people I deeply care about and pray for. Members of the church have also come to me and asked my thoughts. So here they are!

Before I start, I want to be clear that I have the greatest respect for Stephen Fry. General Melchett (Blackadder) is one of the finest comedic characters to ever grace our screens, Fry’s work on Qi is marvellous and what I have read of his, I have enjoyed. But being a “fan” does not mean that I have to agree with everything ‘Brand Fry’ says. He is certainly an academic, but I am sure (by his own admission) is not always correct.

gen_melchett

Assuming you have seen the video already, there are few points that I prayerfully wish to make.

The Moral Question.

With all the alleged “scientific” rhetoric that the popular consensus attempts to dethrone God with, ask yourself why, when a direct question such as “what will you say to God when you meet Him” is asked, an ‘atheist’ will always reply with a moral (non-scientific) answer?

The reason is simple; As God by definition is outside of the empirical, he cannot be measured or tested, so to deny His existence is beyond the scientific realm. Such arguments are farcical which is why Fry took another route.

So let us look at Fry’s moral stand against God.

To summaries Fry; ‘If there is a God, I want nothing to do with Him, because He claims to be all loving yet has made a world where unjust things can and do happen. I can’t understand this paradox so I will a) discredit God b) challenge God c) deny His existence.

I believe this a fair summary.

My prayerful response to Fry

Point 1 *

Did you know that Quantum Mechanics and the Theory of Relativity contradict with each other (until we find a theory that unifies them)? If our world’s greatest scientific minds took Fry’s approach and dismissed them both because of this current paradox, we would not have mobile phones, tablets, computers or GPS. They all work because both principles are true (despite the perceived contradiction). You can’t discount truth because you do not understand it, it is illogical and incredibly arrogant. It is true that God is all loving and that bad things happen in the world He created. (Point 4 explains how).

Point 2

Without God any moral statement such as Fry’s in this video becomes subjective and thus the argument falls to pieces.

Fry’s moral case against God is a weak one, because if you take God out (as he does) it is no easier to explain why children suffer with bone cancer. In fact, if you take God out your only answer to such injustice is; it’s “natural”. In a godless world, created by chance, with no meaning or purpose then such incidences should not drive emotion or concern or even the question of injustice. A child’s bones cancer is simply natural, it is what it is. Remove God and you are just a collection of randomly evolved proteins, floating on an incidental rock through a cold dark meaningless vacuum, orbiting around a pointless ball of gas for no reason or purpose. As a result you should not have the propensity or desire to care – so why are you angry, why are you concerned with justice? Without God; sadness, grief and love are all simply reactive hormonal responses, so get over it! Pass on your naturally driven selfish gene and die!

This sounds harsh, but it is the truth you preach if you discount God. If you take God out of the equation when faced with injustice, you will have a tougher time explaining your innate desire for justice in a meaningless and accidental universe. Without a God who created our universe with a meaning and purpose, the concept of justice is as pointless as your very existence.

But we do all care, and as we can see in this video even Stephen Fry cares! He cares enough to challenge the injustice. Why?  Well it is because of an innate sense of right and wrong and purpose and meaning that is uniquely human, because we are uniquely made in God’s image, with a propensity to live for Him! Explaining such sentient truths away dehumanises us into accidents. (The hypocrisy of the BHA).

If you remove God, then ‘right and wrong’ is nothing but a personal opinion and as a randomly evolved collection of proteins, “you” are simply time + matter + chance and thus your opinions have no more validity than the chair you are sat on which is equally time + matter + chance, coexisting with you to no end in this ever expanding vacuum.

Some argue that ‘morality’ can exist without a god. They argue that morality has been evolved into the human psyche! But if this is the case, then morality becomes deterministic, a working for the greater “good” of the species. Determinism contradicts the concept of morality itself. If morality is evolved, then a child that is more susceptible to bone cancer should cease to be a moral dilemma, but expected in the grand meaningless process of natural selection, so neither us or the child should mourn the tragedy. – It is what it is! Get over it! (But we do mourn the tragedy, we do love and grieve and seek justice and these uniquely human experiences should prove the argument).

Point 3

As ever, the atheist attack is focussed on the Christian God. I argue that Christianity is more frequently targeted because it is true. Other “religions” have clear faults that can be easily exploited, other religions will seek to kill you for your attack (we are the soft touch) and you can sell more books by attacking Christianity – (money the ultimate driver of a worldly man).

Christianity is hard to accept, which is why a prerequisite of salvation is faith. Christianity is beyond our comprehension because we did not make it up – it is truth from God.

Christianity is uniquely attacked because Christianity has uniquely come from God! More on this here “Are all religions the same?”

It is nice to see Fry’s approval of the Greek gods in this interview, this reiterates his position, as such religious systems are man-made and thus adhere to mans desires and are more palatable to Fry who seeks to justify a godless life, having gods of his choosing and control.

Point 4

The Bible does not hide from the evil of this world; in fact it brings it to the forefront. The fundamental story of the Bible is that the world is not what God intended it to be and it tells you how to escape it! The Bible tells us that in Christ Jesus, God can bring you into a new world of justice and love where bone cancer does not exist. A truth that gives hope to those suffering tragedy such as bone cancer, a hope that is being undermined but such nonsense shared in this video.

The Bible teaches us that all mankind sin, but all can find forgiveness in Christ.

The greatest heroes of the Bible committed moral atrocities, yet in the depth of their perversion God showed grace and love and brought them back in Christ Jesus and as a result they became a force for good in this poisoned world.

The Bible is God’s rescue plan for humanity! Deny its truths and you are godless.

Without God, this world is all you have and it is dying.

Without God you are left alone in a world that defines itself and you by mere physical attributes.

Without God you are simply your sexuality, your habits and your desires.

Without God you become what you consume and you are rewarded by what you can produce.

Without God this world that allows for injustice and inequality is all you have!

Without God at best you are dying in a world run by an evolved ape driven by an amoral natural force of greed, lust and pride, for no reason or purpose. What a gloomy state to be in!

The Gospel gives you an escape from this. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16.

In this interview Stephen Fry said that he would not come to God on his terms and would rather put his trust in this world with all its aforementioned benefits such as bone cancer.

Fry clearly has misunderstood God’s terms, which are ones of Love and Grace to save us from such ailments that Fry protests against.

Why did it go viral?

I want to close asking why such a video went viral? What drove people to share it?

If God is non-existent then why promote His non-existence? Carry on living as you wish, unchallenged, guided by your purposeless subjective morality and leave us “nutters” to it!

If we are wrong, you have taken hope from those who are suffering.

What are you defending by sharing this video? A meaningless universe? Why?

I forget who came up with this quote but credit to them!

“There are two things you can be sure of an atheist 1. They believe God does not exist 2. They hate him.”

Why do you hate Him? Or the idea of Him?

Is it because His morality undermines yours and highlights your failures (as it does mine)? Is it because you will have to change? Is it because you feel you have better things to do on a Sunday morning than go to church, and refusing to believe in God is simply more convenient for you?

Are you using “brand Fry” to then justify your convenience?

If a rant from a popular “academic” is all that is keeping you away from the joy of God, I can raise you 64.5% of Nobel prize winners in the last century (modern science) who are all professing Christians. I can introduce you to Francis Collins who decoded the Human Genome and came to faith during its process, or Werner Heisenberg a pioneer of Quantum Mechanics who famously said “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”? Or even better, I can introduce you to Jesus Christ, God Himself, the ultimate academic -He knows everything! Jesus welcomes you with a love and grace beyond what this world can offer and despite who you are and what you produce and consume, He says  “I love you, come to me and live, come to me and have purpose in your trial, whether it is bone cancer or simply feeling lost. I am here to rescue you from the injustice”.

Sin, is evident in the world, if you do not believe me turn on the news and see what man is doing to God’s creation.  The Bible does not hide from the cruelty of suffering, Jesus Himself suffered injustice and immeasurable pain on the cross and in doing so offers you an escape from the endless death and subjection from this world.

The concept of a perfect God may be hard to understand amidst injustice, but this does not mean He does not exist. Sharing ‘Fry’s’ video will not help you understand it either, neither will it help a child with bone cancer. It may give short term satisfaction as you seek to justify a “convenient” godless life, but without God you cannot explain anything!

I hope the above puts some holes in the argument and that you see the love that has gone into this reply. I am chief of sinners myself, I followed Fry’s argument for much of my life before Christ saved me. What a joy it is to know God! I am just a blind man, showing other blind men where to find bread!

If this blog has caused a chink in your armour and you can accept by your very humanity that there is a deity – but confused by all the “Religions” claiming to know Him – read my blog Are all the Religions the same? I pray that it will be of help.

 

(* This point is not of my own, but one I heard from a Rev. Stephen Clarke – one of the wisest men I know!)