Tuesday, January 31, 2012

God's silent witnesses

Atheists try to tell us either that God doesn't exist or that they find it impossible to believe in a God.

The Bible says (in Psalm 19):

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows his handiwork.
Day to day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.

Think about it. The nearest star to the earth is so far away that it takes light from that star, travelling at 186,000 miles a second, four years to get here. Some stars you can see with the naked eye are 4,000 light years away. Light arriving on earth from those stars just now left when Abraham and Sarah got married.

It would take light (travelling at some 670 million miles an hour) more than 100,000 years to travel the length of our galaxy, the Milky Way. There are billions of galaxies. There are about 200 billion billion stars in the known universe.

If the sun were hollow, 1,300,000 planets the size of the earth could fit inside it. There is one star which, if hollow, could fit 64 million suns inside it. There is a star in the constellation of Hercules which could fit 100 million of those stars inside it. The largest known star, Epsilon, could swallow up several million stars the size of that one.

Could you stand somewhere unpolluted by smog on a cloudless night, look up at all of that and pretend it came there on its own?

Early in the book of Romans, Paul seeks to establish that all of us are sinners - Jews, Gentiles, you, me, whoever - in order to demonstrate that we all need a Saviour. (Either we accept the price He paid for our sin or we pay the price ourselves, which would be fearsome.)

But what, you might say, about those who have never heard the gospel? Those who haven't heard the gospel, says Paul, will be judged according to the knowledge of God they had. He explains it like this (in Rom 1:20):

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.

Immanuel Kant wrote:

It is impossible to contemplate the fabric of the world without recognising the admirable order of its arrangement and the certain manifestation of the hand of God in the perfection of its correlations. Reason, when once it has considered and admired so much beauty and so much perfection, feels a just indignation at the dauntless folly which dares ascribe all this to chance and a happy accident.

The Bible says (in Psa 14:1):

The fool has said in his heart,
"There is no God."

The word used for fool in the Bible does not refer to someone who is mentally deficient, but someone who makes foolish decisions. (It infers a malicious refusal to acknowledge the truth.)

Deciding there is no God and trying to prove to oneself that that's true is a foolish decision indeed.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Homosexual marriage: trouble ahead

It doesn't seem long - not more than a decade or three - since homosexual practice was illegal. Now not only is it legal, but practising homosexuals appear to have been transformed into a group who have to have whatever sort of legal privilege they ask for.

The first book in the Bible establishes marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. Marriage has long been legally defined as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others."

Civil partnerships were introduced to allow homosexuals virtually all the rights and privileges of married couples, the practical differences between marriage and civil partnerships being those caused by the differences in sex.

Apparently this is no longer sufficient. Now there are voices calling for the definition of marriage to be altered to allow marriage not only between a man and a woman but between persons of the same sex. Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband have all voiced their support.

Why the cry for change, if civil partnerships offer virtually the same legal rights as marriage? Because homosexuals insist that homosexual relationships are every bit as normal as relationships within marriage and must not be allowed to appear in any way inferior. But that's not all. There is a second reason. This is a serious attempt to tear down the institution of marriage, divinely appointed at creation and the bedrock of society since.

The Scottish Government held a consultation on the matter which closed in December. When the consultation was opened, the Scottish Government said while no decision had been taken, "the Government's initial view is that marriage should be open to both same sex couples and opposite sex couples" - as though the Government's collective mind was already made up.

A consultation is to be launched south of the border in the next few weeks. Lynne Featherstone, minister in the Westminster Government in charge of equality matters, has said it will be followed by a change in the law. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the reform will be driven through Parliament. Home Secretary Theresa May is reported to have said that the Government intends to introduce same-sex marriage regardless of the consultation; the consultation was merely to help with the "nuts and bolts" of the legislation.

If David Cameron does attempt to change the law, he is not unlikely to have the biggest revolt on his hands since he became Prime Minister. Ministers would be expected to support him; other MPs have been promised a free vote. Opponents say more than 100 Tory backbenchers might vote against homosexual marriage.

MP David Burrowes said an attempt to change the law would open up a can of worms and a legal minefield about freedom, religion and equalities legislation.

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, the second most senior cleric in the Church of England, said in an interview in the Telegraph today: "Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. I don't think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is. It is set in tradition and history and you can't just change it overnight, no matter how powerful you are."

It would be wrong to underestimate the pressure for change.

If it comes to it, will Christians be united in their support for traditional marriage, or will there be some few voices in the wilderness, and remaining Christians acting as though they were unconcerned?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Brave New World again

It's been an interesting few days.

The Daily Mail reported that abortion clinics are to be allowed to advertise abortion on TV and radio (with effect from April 30).

Said Dan Boucher, of CARE: "The idea that abortions should be freely advertised on TV along with toothpaste and breakfast cereal says something very sad about the way in which the values of our consumer culture, of acquiring and disposing, are penetrating our way of life."

Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: "Having an abortion is a deeply traumatic experience that can lead to further medical and physiological
complications. A 30-second advert is not the place to discuss and promote this medical procedure."

MP Nadine Dorries said: "What this is actually going to do is desensitise what abortion is and the seriousness of it, and making it sound like it's as easy as having your lunch. Broadcasters will be making profit through advertising revenue off the back of a service which ends life. It's appalling."

Cranmer writes: "It is curious that, at a time when all advertising for cigarettes and tobacco is banned from our TV screens in order to avoid promoting and propagating the habit, we should move towards permitting advertisements for abortion. Only a decade ago, HM Government (spurred on by EU directive) outlawed tobacco advertising in order to mitigate the detrimental effects on the nation's health. Why is lung cancer of a higher political priority than mental health? Is the life of an emphysemic pensioner worth more than the child in the womb?"

BioEdge, the bioethics website based in Australia, reports on a couple of interesting stories.

First, a company in Philadelphia suggested that in these days of economic difficulty women should consider "well paid, part-time positions" as egg donors and surrogate mothers. "Wages" range from $20,000 to $35,000.

Professor Art Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, said it was "most outrageous."

Second, Dr Anna Smajdor, of the University of East Anglia, said pregnancy and childbirth are so barbaric, painful, risky and socially restrictive for women that public funding should be diverted urgently to the development of artificial wombs.

Ectogenesis - artificial gestation - is still the stuff of science fiction, but may be possible.

"Either we view women as baby carriers who must subjugate their other interests to the well-being of their children or we acknowledge that our social values and level of medical expertise are no longer compatible with 'natural' reproduction."

Another reminder of how remarkably prescient was Aldous Huxley's satirical Brave New World, published as long ago as 1932.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

David John Anker and a life worth living

Dave and Trish Anker had one daughter, Jasey, when Trish became pregnant again. Everything seemed perfect until Trish's 20-week ultrasound.

The ultrasound technician went for a doctor. The doctor's first words were "I'm so sorry." The baby had Potter's syndrome - a shortage of amniotic fluid which prevents normal development of lungs and kidneys and means the baby is likely to be stillborn, or at the most, to survive a few hours.

One of the first things the doctor said was that they should think about terminating the pregnancy. "We didn't hesitate," writes Trish, "and told him we would never even consider that, since we believe only God can create life and only He has the right to end life. . .

"Dave and I cried the whole way home. . .

"We begged God to heal him and spent a lot of time during the following months with our hands on my growing belly feeling our baby kick and squirm, and made sure that Jasey felt included in those times so he would feel real to her as well. We hoped and prayed that David knew how much we loved him" - they had decided to call the baby David John - "and counted every day of my pregnancy as a blessing. That is not to say it wasn't an extremely difficult time! We struggled to accept God's will, and though it is painful for me to admit it now, there were times as I grew bigger and more uncomfortable that I wished for it all to be over."

The night before a further ultrasound, Trish went into labour. It was a difficult delivery. During the delivery, David's heart stopped beating.

"One of our nurses cleaned him up and placed him into my arms. He was still warm and merely looked as though he was sleeping. Dave and I held him and kissed him with tears streaming down our faces. Then Dave went to call our family to meet our son. I will never forget the sound of my mom and sisters weeping as they came down the hall. . .

"We held him for hours and told him how much we loved him. When it was finally time to let him go, it was so hard to let the nurse take him and put him in his little bassinet. . .

"To this day we have regrets about the short time we spent with David. . . but the one thing I will NEVER regret is that we chose not to end his life. He was our son, loved and longed for, and his life, although short, has touched our lives and the lives of our family and closest friends unforgettably. However short, his life was truly worth living."

Some people today would look down their noses at Dave and Trish Anker. But can it be so wrong to have such a high opinion of the value of human life?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reunited at last

Randy Alcorn tells a beautiful true story on his blog.

While she was in her teens, a farm girl named Minka was raped. Her parents sent her to a home for pregnant girls, with the understanding that she would not be able to bring her child back home.

Minka gave birth to a blonde-haired little girl with a dimpled chin. She called her Betty Jane. A pastor and his wife wanted to adopt the baby. "I loved that baby so much," said Minka. "I wanted what was best."

Betty Jane was renamed Ruth. Minka had no further contact with her, but wrote dozens of letters to the adoption agency, who kept her informed of the child's progress - until there was a change in management at the agency, and Minka lost touch.

The years rolled by. Minka married and had more children. When she was in her nineties, she prayed a prayer. "Lord, if You would just let me see her," she said. "I promise You I will never bother her."

One day the phone rang. A man began to ask about Minka's background. It was Ruth's son, seeking his mother's natural family.

Not long afterwards Ruth and her son arrived at Minka's apartment with a massive bunch of flowers. They talked, looked at photographs and caught up on the years they'd missed.

Minka is now 100, and Ruth 82. They are still in regular contact.

Says Dianna, a daughter from Minka's marriage: "I have never seen my mother so happy."

Says Randy: "The story is so powerful because the rape, as evil as it was, in no way diminished the mother and child connection, and the joy they've experienced in the past six years. It's a great example of how a child conceived by rape is as precious as a child conceived by love, because a child is a child. The point is not how she was conceived but that she was conceived. She is not a despicable 'product of rape' but a unique and wonderful creation of God.

"After I had shared similar thoughts in a message at my church in 1989, a dear woman in her mid-twenties came up to me, sobbing. I'll never forget what she said: 'Thank you. I've never heard anyone say that a child conceived by rape deserved to live. My mother was raped when she was twelve years old. She gave birth to me and gave me up for adoption to a wonderful family. I'll probably never meet her, but every day I thank God for her and her parents. If they hadn't let me live, I wouldn't be here to have my own husband and children, and my own life. I'm just so thankful to be alive.'

"Women often think that a child conceived by such a vile act will be a constant reminder of their pain. On the contrary, the innocence of the child often has a healing effect. But in any case, the woman is free to place the child for adoption, which in some cases is the best alternative. Aborting the child is an attempt to deny what happened, and denial is never good therapy. One woman who had been raped and given birth to the baby said to me, 'A baby is the only beautiful thing that can come out of a rape.'"

You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Keeping on going

In a race, it's not the one who starts well, but the one who finishes well who wins the prize. The Christian life is like that. It's not the one who starts well, but the one who keeps on going to the end of the road who gains the reward.

There are difficulties, there are distractions, there are temptations. But there are plenty of encouragements. Isn't it remarkable how many dozens of times the Bible tells us to "fear not"? Have you noticed how many times we are instructed to "stand fast"?

Christians are promised God's love, God's protection, God's provision, God's power and God's presence. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" we are asked. "Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord," the Bible says.

"He will not leave you nor forsake you," we are promised. "Be steadfast, immovable." "Let not your heart be troubled," said Jesus. "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."

"Let us hold fast our confession," says Hebrews. "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith." "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering." "Do not cast away your confidence." "Let us run with endurance that race that is set before us."

I love the story of Polycarp, the Christian in the 2nd century who had been a disciple of the apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. In his old age, Polycarp was the well known and well loved leader of the church in Smyrna, in present day Turkey. It was a time of Roman persecution, and Polycarp was going to be in trouble because he was not willing to burn incense to Caesar. His friends urged him to flee, but Polycarp refused. He eventually agreed to move to a small estate outside of town.

When the Romans found him there, they escorted him to the local proconsul. Told to curse Christ and offer a pinch of incense to Caesar, Polycarp replied: "Eighty-and-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"

It cost him his life. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake in the arena.

More than 50 years ago, I came to Christ and He took me in. I know my sins are forgiven. I know my future is secure. I have a home in heaven which He has gone to prepare for me. I have friends and relatives there waiting for me. Over the years I have failed Him, often. But He has never once failed me. So why should I believe He is going to start now?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Go on. . . laugh

There's a need for laughter in this sad old world.

There's a little boy named Micah who really is the happiest little character. He just loves to laugh.

His grandfather, a retired minister who appropriately enough is an expert on relieving stress, says of him: "Baby Micah has brought our whole family hours of joy with his contagious laughter. He's a contagious laughing machine who enjoys life to the fullest, with a few whimpers sprinkled in to remind us that he's human."

When Micah was eight months old his parents made a video of him laughing fit to bust as his father tore up a letter advising him his job application had been turned down. They put the video on You Tube. So far it has been viewed 34 million times.

If you feel like a smile and would like to see Micah laughing his socks off, you can watch the video by clicking here.

"A merry heart does good, like medicine," the Bible says (in Proverbs 17, if you want to know).

So, go ahead. Take a minute off and give your laughter muscles some exercise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Where owning a Bible can be fatal

Each January the organisation Open Doors publishes its World Watch list of countries where Christians are the most severely persecuted.

On the 2012 list, North Korea is No 1 for the 10th successive year. The remaining nine in the top 10 - and a total of 38 of the 50 countries on the list - are all countries where Muslims predominate.

Nowhere in the world is persecution of Christians more fierce than in North Korea. (Kim Jong-Un recently replaced his late father, Kim Jong-Il, as the country's leader.)

Owning a Bible there could get you killed, or sent to a labour camp. In 2010 hundreds of Christians were arrested; some were murdered. Christians can't share their faith with their children until they are old enough to understand the dangers. Despite the risks, the church is growing: there are an estimated 400,000 believers.

Prayer is requested for an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians suffering horrific conditions in labour camps there.

The other countries in the top 10 are Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Somalia, Iran, the Maldives, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan. Pakistan made the top 10 for the first time.

Nigeria remains the country with the worst atrocities in terms of lives lost. More than 300 Christians are known to have been martyred in Nigeria last year, though the actual count may be double or triple that number. (The total is probably greater in North Korea, but it is impossible to confirm the number killed in North Korea because of the country's isolation.) The extreme Islamist group Boko Haram has destroyed more than 50 churches and killed 10 pastors in Nigeria since 2009.

China still has the world's largest persecuted church - an estimated 80 million - but has dropped to 21 on the list, due in large part to house church pastors learning how to play "cat and mouse" with the government.

You can see more details of the list here.

While sitting in a pew or in a comfortable chair at home, free to believe what you want to believe, spare a thought for those laying their lives on the line for their Christian faith.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Assisted killing: Don't open the door

The Independent Commission on Assisted Dying published its report today. It suggested the law in England and Wales should be changed to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill, with safeguards.

If you had asked me a year ago what the report would say, I would have told you it would suggest the law in England and Wales should be changed to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill, with safeguards.

How so?

The commission was a sham. Calling it a commission might suggest it was Government appointed. It wasn't. It was sponsored by Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, and financed by supporters of assisted suicide.

Its chairman was Lord Falconer, an advocate of assisted suicide. He chose the 11 members of the commission. Nine of them were known supporters of assisted suicide. Forty organisations - including the British Medical Association - and more than 40 individuals declined to give evidence to the commission because of its evident bias.

I expect the findings of the commission will now be trumpeted by proponents of assisted suicide as evidence that the law on assisted suicide needs changing.

They say it is unfair that 20 or 25 people a year should have to travel to Switzerland to have help to end their lives. There would be 1,200 a year having their lives ended if we had a law like that in Oregon, and something like 13,000 a year if we had a law like that in the Netherlands, according to a 2005 House of Lords report.

The law does not need changing. The present law, properly applied, is a safeguard against pressure on the elderly and the disabled to end their lives.

And please don't tell us about adequate safeguards. There wouldn't be adequate safeguards. When abortion was decriminalised, we were told it was for a very small number of people in desperate circumstances. Within a short time, we had abortion on demand.

The day the law on assisted suicide is changed in the UK, if that day ever comes, will be a sad day.

Critiques of the commission and its report can be found here.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

It's a two-way business, Mr C

A concerted programme is needed for religious literacy to be recovered in the Civil Service, Parliament and local authorities, says the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, writing in the Telegraph at the New Year:

In his recent speech on the place of the Bible and Christianity in our national life, David Cameron showed how the political development of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christian ideas. He challenged the Church, and specifically the Church of England, to provide moral and spiritual leadership. Such a challenge is long overdue, but the role of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in national life is more important than the status of any particular church. Whether or not this or that church provides what the Prime Minister is asking for, this tradition must remain central to our public life.

Much of what Mr Cameron said is music to my ears. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many obstacles will confront him if he tries to give effect in legislation to things he has said in his speech.

One issue is religious literacy in the Civil Service, Parliament and local authorities. What Mr Cameron said about Christian ideas being embedded in our constitutional arrangements is no longer understood in the corridors of power. A disconnected view of history and the fog of multiculturalism have all but erased such memory from official consciousness. A concerted programme is needed if this literacy is to be recovered. Church leaders can help with remedial action, but this has to do with the place of Christianity in schools, and the teaching of history. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, knows that history cannot just be about dates and personalities, but must be a narrative of a nation's emergence from the mists of time. For such a project, the place of Christianity is absolutely central. Education on citizenship cannot ignore the fact that our cherished values have biblical roots. . .

The proper relation of religion to science is also vital. Young people must be taught to appreciate both the experimental methods of science and the ultimate values which religion offers. Such a conversation must take place in the classroom if we are not to continue being divided by "scientistic" and religious fundamentalists. . .

The Prime Minister is aware of the vast scale of social service, prison work, relief of poverty, and the like that churches and their agencies undertake. He is right to expect their help with his vision of citizens working for the common good. Churches will welcome greater participation in building up communities. But they cannot simply be surrogate service-providers. What they do springs from their beliefs; the authorities must respect these, if there is to be genuine collaboration. . .

Bishop Nazir-Ali has hit on a point that many others have missed: wanting Christian ideals is all very fine, but you can't have Christian ideals without Christianity, and the authorities, generally speaking, have not much time for Christianity.

Finding the solution to this problem is the challenge for the church - and, in particular, for Christians whose ministry is prayer.