Current affairs

My take on anything happening as I write (usually in the news)

#prayforjapan

In the wake of a huge earthquake and resultant tsunami, the hashtag #prayforjapan is trending, even in UK. For those not familiar with the lingo, that means people on twitter are talking lots about praying for Japan. Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor and author, was good enough to tweet against the flow.

Is this how Christians are meant to pray? Is prayer our plan A, with practical aid as plan B? Are the two mutually exclusive?

My guess is that this view comes from thinking that answers to prayer must be miraculous, breaking laws of nature. In this case, an answer to prayer would presumably be considered to consist of the miraculous appearance of food and shelter, without any aid agency involvement. Answers to prayer may be miraculous, of course, but the simple fact remains they often aren’t.

The Bible never speaks about God being constrained by external forces. The laws of nature are not laws external to God which He may choose to keep or break. They are a normative description of the way in which God usually maintains the universe. A miracle isn’t so much God breaking the laws of nature as God choosing to uphold the world differently on a single occasion. By definition, therefore, we should expect miracles to be rare.

So what should we expect to see resulting from prayer for Japan? God may answer prayers for Japan miraculously, but by definition it is more likely He will provide for them through non-miraculous means. These means may well include aid from other governments or from individuals. If we pray for God to provide physical aid to the Japanese, we should not be trying to twist an unwilling God’s arm. We should be willing to use the resources God has given us to bless others. That prayer should be prayed not so much in a spirit of trying to change God, but a willingness to see Him change us.

Of course, this all assumes that Christians are praying for God to provide shelter, food and other material blessings for Japan. We are assuming our prayers are answerable by an aid agency. Not all prayers fit this category though. No amount of financial giving will provide wisdom to Japan’s politicians, energy to their emergency services or spiritual comfort to suffering families. John Piper’s prayer for Japan is not one material aid agencies have the ability to answer.

Please do pray for Japan. Please do contribute money to those less fortunate than yourself. But please don’t view those actions as diametrically opposed to each other.

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Christians love to eat

The Royal Variety Performance is an amazing collection of entertainment acts performed just before Christmas each year. This year Michael McIntyre was tasked with hosting it, and he inadvertently said something quite profound.

About 7 minutes in, he commented that Christmas is characterised in this country by overeating, then went on to compare the celebration of holidays in different religions.

Christians love to eat to excess on their holidays. Other religions starve themselves on holidays. Jewish people have a holiday – they starve themselves. Muslims have a holiday – they starve themselves. It’s almost like Christians have had somebody look through the Bible for opportunities to eat to excess.

Along with Christmas, Michael McIntyre points out that we celebrate Christian holidays by eating pancakes, hot cross buns and Easter eggs. Obviously he was using the term Christian in the loosest sense of the term, and it is to be hoped that Christians do not overeat, but the essential point is an interesting one. Why do Christians eat rather than fast to celebrate a holiday?

Essentially it is because the holidays have a completely opposite purpose from other religions’ holidays, so it is wholly unsurprising that the method of observance is opposite. A Jew might fast to observe Yom Kippur in order to receive forgiveness, or a Muslim might fast to observe Ramadan in order to to please Allah more, but the Christian has a totally different intention when celebrating Christmas or Easter.

Christians eat because they are celebrating the past, not earning the future.

A Christian’s forgiveness is not earned by the Christian, but by Jesus. They are pleasing to God not because of their own actions, but because of Jesus’. It is Jesus’ life and death at the centre of Christianity, and it is Jesus’ life and death which give a Christian salvation despite their sin. It is Jesus who won our salvation by taking our punishment, leaving us guiltless in God’s sight. All the great blessings a Christian has from God are appropriated by Jesus. No wonder Christians look back and celebrate! In his classic book The Cross of Christ, John Stott rightly refers to Christians as ‘The community of celebration’. Christianity stands apart from other religions in that it is good news worthy of celebration. Most Christians, including myself, suffer from the problem of not celebrating it enough!

Anarchy and massacre

One of the BBC reports on the October massacre in a Iraqi Catholic church set me thinking on two counts. I’ve already given a few thoughts on the dilemma Christians face of staying or leaving Iraq, so now I want to pick up a completely separate quote from the same article. Ignatius Metti Metok, who believes Christians should stay in Iraq, commented:

Before the change of regime seven years ago, we didn’t have massacres like this.

I recently heard a Mark Dever sermon entitled Jesus paid taxes, and he made the point that any government is better than anarchy, because it reflects God’s authority and justice, even if only poorly. There are many reasons why Saddam Hussein’s government was not ideal, but it was government. Maybe not good government, but government nonetheless. It was raised up by God for the good of the Iraqi people. Now Iraq is in the unenviable position of having recently set the world record for the longest period of time to form a government, and it was during this period that the infamous attack occurred.

I wonder how often Christians are thankful for the governing authorities there are over us, especially when they do things we disagree with? They may not support the spread of the gospel, they may even try to curb it, but they are a sign of God’s mercy in giving us some degree of order.

An interesting point that Dever raised in his sermon was that the government both Jesus and Paul commanded civil obedience to was the same Roman empire that killed both the Messiah and the majority of the apostles, then persecuted Christians for centuries. If this authority is to be obeyed as stewards of God’s authority, what government isn’t?

To be killed or to be alive?

One of the BBC reports on the October massacre in a Iraqi Catholic church set me thinking on two counts. I’ll come onto the second later this week, but for now I want to focus on the differing perspective of two Iraqi Christian leaders, one in Iraq and one who has moved to the UK. I essentially know nothing about either of them, and I’m certainly not in a position to comment on their standing before God, but I did think their differences were interesting.

A senior Iraqi cleric in London, Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, called on Iraqi Christians to flee the country because it was so dangerous. “If we stay, they will kill us,” he told the BBC after addressing a congregation of Iraqi Orthodox Christians at a service in London. “Which is better, to flee or to stay? To be killed or to be alive? But when I say ‘leave’, my heart is injured inside.”

Here the concern was physical safety. Clearly the decision to leave his own country and his own people was a painful one, but Archbishop Dawood felt it necessary. Much as he wanted to stay, the desire to be alive was stronger.

Compare and contrast.

In Baghdad itself, both Church leaders and Christian politicians seemed unanimous in urging their communities to stay. … “We have to stay here, whatever the sacrifices, to bear witness to our faith.”

Doubtless Ignatius Metti Metok, the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Baghdad, also wants to live. Doubtless he also wants to be safe. But more important than his safety is his witness to his faith. He answers Archbishop Dawood’s question – it is better to stay. To potentially be killed. To bear witness to his faith.

I’ve never lived anywhere like Iraq. I’m supremely unqualified to pass judgement on the decisions of any Iraqi Christians to stay or leave the country as I can’t imagine the strength of conflicting emotion there must be in such a choice. But I do find it an interesting contrast of priorities.

Baby burning

It seems that standard practice in some Scottish hospitals is to dispose of aborted children by incinerating them with clinical waste. The health secretary, Nicola Sturgeon, has reacted with suitable concern, as would be expected. Far more intriguing to my mind is a comment made by Sheila McLean, who is a director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow university. She is quoted by the Times as saying

If you believe the foetus is a person from the moment of conception, then clearly it would be disrespectful to throw it away with clinical waste. There will undoubtedly be people who, because of their belief in the status of the embryo, would find this tremendously distressing.

I do believe that foetuses are people from the moment of conception, but I am shocked by the suggestion that it is somehow worse to incinerate them than it is to kill them. Why do we afford greater respect to a dead child than a living one? The dead child is not affected by the decision. The dead child does not mind if they are ignominiously burned with used bandages or buried as part of a special ceremony. They are dead. They have been killed. Because their life was not respected.

I am pleased that the Scottish government will be reviewing guidelines, but I’d much rather see respect for the living (of any and every age) than for the dead. Wouldn’t it be nice to give respect while it still counts for something?

Spotify unlimited

Today I bought something I never expected to buy – a subscription to Spotify.

I didn’t go for the full premium version. Instead I went for the atrociously named Spotify unlimited, which at £4.99 per month is the same as the free version but with no adverts. I don’t get other bells and whistles like offline and mobile listening, just unlimited listening on my desktop computer. Do I think this is good value for money, paying a fiver every month to remove a few short adverts? To be honest, no, I don’t. But I do appreciate the product which Spotify give me, and I’d rather pay them than not have it. Spotify is a young business, and it isn’t exactly floating in cash. In the words of someone very dear to me, the labourer is worthy of his wages. I’ve been making heavy use of Spotify for quite a while, and it seems fair for me to pay for what I take.

If you want Spotify but can’t get it because you don’t know anyone with premium to invite you, you can now try Spotify open. This gives you 20 hours of listening per month with adverts so you can get a taster of the product.

If you want to compare the different versions of Spotify, there is a handy comparison table available.

Digital debates

I’d like to commend those with a spare half hour (or even less) to look at http://www.youtube.com/ukelection. It’s a collaboration between youtube and facebook, and ten questions posed and voted on by members of the public have been put to the leaders of the main three parties. All those questions have been answered in short video clips (only one of which exceeds a minute in length). It’s noteworthy not because the leaders set out their main policies, but because they engage with issues which the public is already concerned about and which they are not clearly addressing through more conventional communication channels.

You can vote for which leader gave the answer you liked the most, and can see which is the most popular from the votes of others. At the moment Cleggmania is clearly  continuing, and for 9 of the 10 questions Nick Clegg’s answer is easily the most popular, with David Cameron’s answer just more popular than Gordon Brown’s. Personally it struck me that Gordon’s answers were unconvincing, David’s were well balanced, and Nick’s pandered to public opinion regardless of how sensible it was. I don’t know yet who I’ll vote for, but this did nudge me towards the Conservatives.

The ten questions are about the following topics:

  1. Digital economy bill
  2. Banking crisis
  3. Special relationship with America
  4. Immigration
  5. Abuse of anti-terrorist legislation
  6. Protecting property from intruders
  7. Drugs policy
  8. Student funding
  9. Voting system
  10. Science funding