Friday, July 28, 2006

Tender loving care

A phrase from this morning's reading caught my attention. In Deuteronomy 10:15 (Msg), Peterson has Moses say:
it was your ancestors who God fell in love with
I guess that it is difficult to render a Hebrew thought in English, and not being a Hebrew scholar myself I have no particular insight, but the image appears to be of a man falling in love with a woman, and marrying her. And perhaps it is fair to observe that in the human situation what starts as an emotional attachment needs in the long run to be bolstered with vows - a declared intention to go on loving, come what may.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Love as faithfulness

Just checking in briefly. And recalling a talk given to Aberdeen Christian Union wherein the speaker commented that the Hebrew word hesed, which in the Authorised Version of the bible is often translated loving kindness, carries the idea of loyalty. It is an operation of the will, not an emotion. So if God says - I do this because I love you - he isn't necessarily saying - because I think you're a nice person (or people) - he is affirming that he has decided to love us - his love towards us is fixed because, yes, he has chosen us (which might have been because he likes us, but I doubt it), but more, simply, because he has decided to do so. He has made a decision, and he isn't going to change his mind.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Commanding love

Thinking about love, and in particular God's command that we should love him:
Deuteronomy 6:4,5 (NIV): Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
What does God mean when he tells us that we must love him? I can't tell you to love me. I could ask you, or I could try to earn your love. I would think it presumptuous to tell you to love me. Of course, it's difficult to have this discussion in English. Hebrew has how many words for love? And Greek, of course, famously, has four (as expounded by CS Lewis in 'The Four Loves'). I suspect that the kind of love which God seeks from us is more an act of will than an emotion.

Does it help to think of God as a jealous husband? One who has chosen us, who has claimed us, who requires us to be faithful. We love him, who first loved us.

Friday, July 21, 2006


The ten commandments were given to the people of Israel, redeemed from slavery in Egypt. Naively, I would think of these rules as indicating the people's side of the bargain. They were to obey God, but not in the sense of a servant doing the day-to-day bidding of a master or mistress, or a robot controlled by the transmitter in its creator's hand. The ten commandments were a framework, a broad set of rules, defining what it meant to be a citizen of the new dispensation.

We have moved on, haven't we? It would be difficult to summarise Jesus' attitude to the laws of the Old Testament. In one respect he made them even more difficult to follow, internalising their requirements. 'Thou shalt not kill', but you must not even harbour angry thoughts towards your brother. Elsewhere, though, he seems to relax their hold - the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

I think that I grew up believing that the ten commandments were absolute. Thousands of years old, perhaps, but still with an iron grip. I don't know, however, if that is the attitude of Christians to-day, or the church. I wonder if we can be inconsistent though - ignoring one commandment when it suits us, and trotting out another when we wish to make a judgement.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Signs of the covenant

If you and I reach an agreement, we shake hands. If we want to make it a bit more formal, we create a document, and sign it. The old covenant had its signs. To signify that you had become a member of the covenant people (if you were male), you were circumcised. Beyond the initial sign, as a member of the covenant people, you took part in rituals - sacrifices, festivals. As I believe Isaiah pointed out somewhere, however, it was possible to be scrupulous (and enthusastic) about maintaining the outward symbols of the relationship, while inwardly ignoring its fundamental requirement - obedience.

The new covenant, the covenant of grace, also has its signs. The initiation rite is baptism (an obvious difference appears immediately - a day after your baptism, there may be no visible evidence of what has happened, whereas circumcision leaves a scar). I submit to baptism to signify (among other things) that I am joining the community of believers. As I continue in the faith, I participate in its activities. I would suggest that communion (or the eucharist) is the action (more than any other) which signifies the renewal and continuation of my acceptance of God's promise.

Of course, different denominations do communion differently. As I find myself once more in the Church of Scotland, I am aware that the way that things are done does influence the way that I think about the whole thing. The CofS takes communion just three or four times a year. It becomes (has, for me, therefore, always been) impossible to think of communion as sustaining my daily (or even weekly) life as a Christian. Indeed, I lived through presumably my formative years as a Christian without being allowed to take communion - I 'joined' the church aged eighteen. I sometimes wonder if those with authority in the church ever think to decipher the messages they send by the rules they apply.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The new covenant

OK, I'm floundering here. The old covenant is easy to understand, but, as it turned out, impossible to implemement. Human frailty means that people will always fail to keep their side of the bargain. So, what is the new covenant which replaces the old one? Is it the promise in Jeremiah of hearts of flesh to replace hearts of stone? Is it the giving of the Holy Spirit, to enable us to become better people, worthy of God's blessing?

When I become a Christian, I accept Christ's sacrifice to deal with past sins. But what of future sins? Under the old code, there was an ongoing system of sacrifices, to deal with sins. If I, at the end of the day, confess my sins, do I automatically know God's forgiveness? Can I be sure that I have been forgiven?

Monday, July 17, 2006


From the 100-Minute Bible (5 The giving of the Law):
God made a covenant with the people of Israel; he would care for them, and they would obey his commandments.
I suspect that, for many of us, subconsciously perhaps, this is still our agreement with God. We shall do our best, to keep his laws, to help other people, and in return, we expect him to look out for us. If something bad happens to us (or someone we know, or know of), our first question is 'why?' And, for myself, I wonder if God is punishing me for some wrongdoing. And when we hear of natural disasters, we comment on the injustice - why were these people singled out?

Of course, I'm touching on a huge, and difficult topic. I just want to consider one tiny aspect of the question. Do we (believers, Christians) live under the old covenant (we do our part, God does his), or have we grasped the new covenant? Or do elements of the old covenant still apply under the new? Does God punish wrongdoing? Do we experience what some people call chastisement? Does God deal with us as a parent deals with a child? And if God is prepared to deal severely with us, to purge us of wrongdoing, should parents have freedom (and backing) on occasion to deal severely with their children?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Was God watching over me?

This morning, I deleted a user's local email folders. Over a gig (1 gigabyte) of data, almost certainly irreplaceable. I didn't mean to, of course.

But for this particular user, some months ago, I set up a backup procedure, which meant that these folders were backed up last night (I certainly hope they were - now I'm not quite sure). When I started writing this entry, I thought that I had managed to retrieve the files from a recent backup, but, sadly, it looks as though the backup hasn't run since March of this year. So, I have lost possibly 3 months' worth of emails.

Maybe I should be leaving God out of this debacle. It's been a disaster; it could have been worse. My fault, I suppose, for not taking an immediate backup before doing anything with someone's data.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


I'm at work. Quite frankly, I wasn't getting much rest at home, and if I hadn't come into work to-day, I wouldn't (as I think I mentioned earlier) have been able to speak to my acting manager before he goes on holiday. Our son is still not well; indeed, my wife isn't 100%, so, conveniently, she is at home. I do wonder whether, when Tony Blair (I always hold him personally responsible) says that he wants both parents to be at work, he considers the possibility that sometimes family members are ill - even one family member being ill puts a stress on the system - the simple, bottom line is that one person being ill means that somebody else has to look after that person - but that somebody else isn't regarded as being ill, so they have a finite number of days which they are allowed to use for the purpose - so, I imagine, Mr Blair has worked out a way to limit the number of days that a person is going to be ill in a year - otherwise, things, eventually, are going to break.

So, in this particular nuclear family, we have three members below par.

I have learned that the email upgrade (which I also mentioned earlier) is being postponed again. On the whole, I am relieved. Perhaps this news represents what my wife would call 'an answer to prayer'. The removal of just one source of stress has to be welcome.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Well ...

Son's dental problems turned out to have a benign cause - there are teeth coming through, causing a certain amount of pain. But he's 'no weel', and neither is his dad.

The difficulty for me is that at work there is an impending crisis. This weekend, an upgrade is being performed on our email service, which may mean that some people won't be able to access their email on Monday. So they'll contact their User Support Team, of which three senior members will be on holiday (good / bad timing). If I'm not back at work to-morrow, I shan't have an opportunity to speak with my acting manager. I suppose that I've got a pretty good chance of being back at work by Monday, but it isn't likely to be pleasant diving in without a bit of time to prepare. I don't know if I am to be personally in charge (if I'm there), or sharing the leadership with a colleague. Either way, this is not a good time to be off sick.

Cue some thoughts about God's power being made perfect in weakness ...

Monday, July 10, 2006

You took the words right out of my mouth!

And the moral dilemmas continue. I'm off work to-day, with a sore throat. My son has been complaining of a sore mouth, and has an appointment to see the dentist. Because he's also generally unwell, I'm driving him and his mother (and our daughter) to the dentist's surgery, instead of expecting them to make a somewhat arduous bus journey. Needs must ...

Sunday, July 09, 2006


A question - possibly rhetorical - if we try too hard to be unselfish, might we put ourselves under so much stress that we, eventually, break, thus spoiling the point somewhat?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

But ...

What I have just written is more or less what I was taught as a youngster, and what I've been more or less (sometimes, notably less) happy with since then. For example, as a teenager, I read somewhere that you could only properly experience salvation when you came to an end of yourself. You had to try to 'go it alone', and fail, before you could honestly say that you'd called out to Jesus and been saved. I know that this sounds silly, but it was a real problem for me as a teenager. And you can see how it might follow from a misunderstanding of the principle that God saves those who have accepted that they are unable to save themselves.

I have seen the same argument applied to addictions such as alcoholism. It is the experience of many that before they can begin to find healing they have to 'hit bottom'. And that on the way down there may be occasions when they try to turn from the drink (or whatever), and fail, because they are doing so partly as an effort of will. Alcoholics Anonymous recognise the need to acknowledge a Higher Power; Christians may call that Power, 'God', and say that they are saved by God, and not by their own efforts.

Again, I feed back into my own experience, to a particular meeting when I was, I guess, 18 years old, struggling with all sorts of issues. The meeting took place, significantly, not in my own church, but in another of the same denomination, in the same town. I can identify the speaker - I'm not sure that I should. His intention (I guess), was that we should become Christians. Later, a conversation took place with my own minister during which my minister indicated that he was hurt by the suggestion that I needed to 'become' a Christian; wasn't I already one by virtue of attending his church?

Anyway, I can remember little of what the speaker said (except, possibly, some biographical information; this was probably where I first heard his life story), except the climax - the punchline, if you like. He asked us (rhetorically) what we would say when we met Jesus in the afterlife. Would we say, "I did my best"? I sat there, thinking, fair enough. "Wrong," he thundered. We should throw ourselves abjectly at Jesus' feet and claim nothing but his blood for our salvation. I paraphrase, but this is pretty well what was said. And, of course, theologically, he's right. But psychologically? I have never since been able to say, "I did my best," without thinking that I should be saying something else. It seems to destroy any point of trying at all. Shouldn't we just sit back and be saved?

I went forward at the end of the meeting. Sadly, the counsellor who dealt with me didn't understand that I had come to an end of myself, and was acknowledging my need of salvation. I came away, eventually, with a short bible reading course to do (ironically - I was already doing daily bible readings with Scripture Union). Actually, I didn't come away with anything. I gave them my address, and they sent me by post a series of leaflets which were, in effect, encouraging me to read the bible. And they contacted my minister, hence the conversation alluded to earlier.

What I am trying to say is this. We are all different. We have all walked different journeys. Your experience is not necessarily my experience. And, perhaps unfortunately, it is the most dramatic experiences which get remembered. But just because my experience has lacked drama, it isn't any less real. You may have needed to experience utter degradation; you may have slept rough (actually, I did sleep rough once, because I thought that only those who had nothing, not even a roof over their heads, could be saved); but that doesn't mean that degradation is a necessary step along the way.

Again, I suppose, it's case of - thanks be to God for his indescribable gift ...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


And the last thing I want to do is to come up with a seventh. If you will forgive me, what I intend to try to do is to use this blog as thinking space. What I write may (certainly will) be incomplete, unclear - more a succession of thoughts than an exposition. Some years ago, I was staying at Carberry Tower, and came across in the library a book called "Markings", by Dag Hammarskjold. I may regard that book as my inspiration.

I am doubly inspired, now, to have read in the related Wikipedia article that Hammarskjold's book talks about an "inner journey", because, coincidentally, Jim Packer has been using a similar phrase, the "inward journey", to describe the life that we live to God and ourselves, as opposed to the life we live to the world around us, and to other people, in the very passage of "Keep in Step with the Spirit" that I was reading as I ate my macaroni cheese and chips (comfort food, I know).

So much for the bread - where's the meat in the sandwich? Romans 3:21-31 is the crucial passage where Paul turns from his litany of human woes and failings to put forward God's answer. I would say that it isn't until the 5th chapter that, gloriously, we hear the trumpets resound, but here, in the 3rd chapter is, perhaps, the first statement of a theme which is to be developed further. The old way has failed. What was the old way? I suppose - obeying the law. I'm reminded of the young man who said to Jesus that he had faithfully kept all of the commandments, and yet Jesus observed that something was missing.

So what is the new way? Is it that we, finally, admit that we cannot do it ourselves? Do we arrive at a moment (like when an alcoholic hits bottom, and finally accepts that he has a problem) when we turn to God, and cry, "help"? Does it matter if we understand how God is able to help us? Isn't it more important that we simply realise that he wants to help us?

Thank God for this gift, his gift. No language can praise it enough!

Monday, July 03, 2006

A short overview of Paul's letter to the Romans

We're all bad, hopelessly bad. But God has provided a way for us to become good. Ah, but here's the rub - we become good by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. Except that if you ask four different Christians just what that means, you'll get four different answers.