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"I'm clean enough"

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One thing that all hotels have in common are those little door hangers, which tell the cleaners whether they should come in and make up your room or not. I came across one recently where the usual two options were put in a slightly different way. One side read: ‘I’m clean enough: please don’t disturb’. The other said: ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’.

And as someone who’s passionate about getting the Bible’s message across in everyday language, I thought they were brilliant. Because they perfectly sum up the only two possible responses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the misconceptions about Christianity that I try and combat as a minister is that it’s only for good people. That it’s for those who have it all together. But that leads only to pride (for those who think they are good enough) or despair (for those who know they are not). In actual fact, the Bible tells us that there has only be one truly good person who has ever lived – Jesus Christ. The reason he came to earth was not (mainly) to set an example for us – since we could never live up to it. Instead, he came to live the perfect life that we fail to live, and then die in the place of his people.

As a result, being a Christian isn’t so much about ‘doing’ but about ‘receiving’ – receiving the free gift of cleansing that he offers. There are many (not least among those who sit in churches) who say, ‘thanks but no thanks’ – ‘I’m clean enough: please don’t disturb’. But by God’s grace there are others who gratefully say, ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’. It all boils down to how you see yourself.

Jesus himself says ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’ (Revelation 3:20). What will your response be? ‘I’m clean enough: please do not disturb’? Or ‘I’m a right mess: come on in’?

The above article was scheduled to be in today’s Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, but wasn’t printed. It looks like the paper’s new editor may have axed the ‘Thought for the Week’ column.

"Adam poisoned me"

The BBC recently featured an interview with Toronto artist Gillian Genser, headlined: ‘How a sculptor’s artwork slowly poisoned her’. Genser was experiencing headaches, vomiting, hearing loss, confusion and suicidal thoughts. But she never suspected it was coming from the sculpture, which was made only of natural materials. 

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For years, doctors were baffled by what was afflicting her. They asked if she was working with anything toxic, and she assured them she wasn’t. They prescribed antipsychotics and antidepressants, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, she saw a specialist who tested her blood for heavy metals and found high levels of arsenic and lead in her system. She was shocked, but still confused — how had she ingested those dangerous compounds? Finally, she talked to one doctor who was horrified to hear that she had been grinding up mussel shells for the past fifteen years. She had no idea that mussels can accumulate toxins over years of feeding in polluted waters. 

And the most fascinating thing about the story is who the sculpture was meant to be. It was Adam, the first man. Genser recognised the irony herself. She said: ‘It’s very interesting and ironic that Adam, as the first man, was so toxic. He poisoned me. Doesn’t that make sense?’

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And it makes perfect sense, because that is what Adam, the first man, did to all of us. He poisoned us. He rebelled against God – and we are contaminated by that rebellion.

For a long time Genser didn’t suspect that her poisoning came from the sculpture of Adam. And we too don’t suspect that our sin comes built in. We blame society, education, our up-bringing. We believe the myth that people are basically good. And because of that misdiagnosis, we prescribe ourselves the wrong cure.

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One of those wrong cures is the outward forms of religion. Going to church, taking communion, giving money, doing good works. They’re all good things – but are helpless to cure the underlying problem.

The message of the Bible however is that a second Adam – Jesus Christ – has come to cleanse us from this in-built corruption, as well as all the other poisonous thoughts, words and deeds we add to it during our lives. It doesn’t mean those who trust him will be perfect. Like Gesner, we will suffer the effects of Adam’s poison for the rest of our lives – but it will no longer define us forever.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 14th February 2019

2019: What we can and can't know

The prospect of a new year brings many uncertainties. But what if it didn’t have to? What if we could find out what lies ahead? Many try, through fortune tellers, clairvoyants, mediums and so on. In general, we would be right to be sceptical. A couple of years ago, a tweet about a clairvoyant’s show being cancelled due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ went viral. If the dictionary defines them as ‘someone who claims a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future’, then cancelling a show due to unforeseen events is a bit of a hint that such a claim is unfounded. And yet people continue to turn to them. In words attributed to the novelist G. K. Chesterton, ‘When a man stops believing in God he doesn't believe in nothing, he believes in anything’.

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And yet God does not forbid his people from consulting fortune-tellers and mediums because they do not work – the only extended description of a medium in the Bible features someone being successfully called up from the dead. Rather, the prohibition is because going down this route will stop us relying on God.

God wants his people to seek information about the future in a different way from those around them. God does tell us what lies ahead – but he does so in big picture terms. We don’t need to know the details, and we couldn’t cope if we did.

What we can be certain of is that God’s plans for his people are ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope’. That doesn’t mean this life will be easy. Many of God’s people around the world face persecution for their faith. Christians aren’t exempt from illness (physical and mental), tragedy, bereavement and family conflict. Jesus said ‘in this world you will have trouble’. But he also claimed that ‘everyone who believes in me will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’. 

One of the great uncertainties for many is what comes after death. Even many who are devoutly religious hope they’ll be in Heaven, but are not sure they have done enough to get over the line. That is one thing we don’t need to be in darkness about, however. If we’re hoping that we’ll be good enough to make it, we’ll never get there – but if our faith is in Jesus, our future is secure.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 27th December 2018

Big Brother hasn't gone away

The final series of the TV show Big Brother may just have finished - but Big Brother hasn't gone away. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon described herself as the 'chief corporate parent', or as she prefers it, 'chief mammy'. While doubtless intended to be endearing, Sturgeon's admission highlights a growing trend of government interference in family life. Recent examples of this are the proposed Named Person scheme (ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 2016), government efforts to stand between parents and their young children on the issue of gender self-identification, and Scottish Government support for a bill by Green MSP John Finnie to ban smacking.

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This latest effort is despite the fact that 74% of Scots say that smacking should not be a criminal offence (though the Church of Scotland disagrees). While the Government claims a connection between smacking and aggressive behaviour in adolescence and adulthood, there is no evidential basis for such an assertion. In fact, the author of the bill admits to smacking his own children and says they turned out to be 'well-rounded'!

Not only does the proposed bill ignore both the public and the evidence, its supporters consistently misrepresent the current law by claiming that the new legislation is about protecting children from assault. In actual fact, any smack that leaves more than a temporary reddening of the skin is already illegal, as are smacks aimed at the head. The present law ensures that parents will not be prosecuted for using light, reasonable discipline. The new legislation would turn good parents into criminals for simply tapping their kids on the back of the hand or pulling them away from the side of the road. Meanwhile, police and social workers will be flooded with trivial cases, leaving them struggling to stop genuine child abuse.

The Government is also trying to rewrite history in an attempt to force through the bill, claiming to have 'long opposed the physical punishment of children', when as recently as 2017 Ministers said they did not believe a ban was 'appropriate', while similar legislation was opposed by the SNP in 2002.

Those who perhaps breathe a sigh of relief that Christianity doesn't dictate morals as it once did may just be starting to worry about what it's been replaced with. A God-sized vacuum has been left behind, which the Government is all too happy to try and fill.

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 8th November 2018

Wishing for a worldwide day of rest

I don't often quote Katy Perry in church, but I did recently. She told Cosmopolitan, 'I'd love if the world implemented an actual day of real rest'. What would such a day look like? 'I wish there was a thing like Shabbat...a kind of worldwide day where we're not on our phones'. In an era of hyper connectivity, there's an increasing realisation that a constant diet of beeps and notifications demanding our intention can't be healthy. In fact, the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system was released on Monday with a headline feature called Screen Time, which lets you keep track on exactly how much you're using your iPhone or iPad. Many of us are probably too scared to look. The technology of which we thought we were master has quickly made us its slaves. If you don't have a phone, just apply it to TV. Could you go a day without it?

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The idea of a worldwide day when we could put aside such distractions and focus on what's truly important sounds like a pipe dream, but it's actually part of God's design for the world. Perry references 'Shabbat' - the Jewish day of rest. But the Sabbath is no merely Jewish institution. It was put in place at the creation of the world, long before there were any Jews - in fact, before sin had even entered the world. Jesus himself reminds us that 'The Sabbath was made for man' - not just for one particular group of people.

Katy Perry said she would love to have such a day. But she does - if only she would realise it. It's one of God's greatest gifts to humanity - enshrined in the 10 commandments, and observed by God’s people in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It's a reminder, both of the fact that God made us (and rested on the seventh day), and that Jesus died (and rose again on the first day) so we could be freed from the agenda of a dying world.

Removing the Lord's Day from our culture removes a weekly reminder of the reality of creation - and of the need for redemption.

Ultimately, it's a question of worship. Simon and Garfunkel sum up the choice of many: 'And the people bowed and prayed / to the neon god they made'. When you wake up on Sunday, who are you going to serve? 

Published in the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press, 20th September 2018.