Someone I know has just died of cancer
In the Victorian era the great taboo was sex. Death, by contrast, was an open topic, prominent in everyone's thinking and freely discussed.
Today, it's the other way round. Sex is the everyday topic, with death the great taboo. People are into death-denial, hoping maybe that a robust enough pretence that it doesn't exist will somehow make it go away.
The secular Westerner defaults to the view that when you die you disappear up the crematorium chimney in a puff of smoke, and that's it. No afterlife. No judgment. No nothing. So let's get the funeral over, then we can get busy again with living. We'll turn the radio on to churn out pop music in the background and, with a bit of luck, death will retreat once again to the fringes of our consciousness.
Death as taboo has even touched Christians. In 'charismatic' circles especially, where people believe in God's power to heal the sick, there's a tendency to emphasise the healing option to the point where the possibility of death is ignored. Usually, it's on the basis that to acknowledge it would be the kind of 'negative confession' that allegedly puts a spanner in the wheels of the healing mechanism.
A Christian acquaintance has just died of cancer. In the grim final stages of the disease he was surrounded by well-meaning Christians who warned visitors 'not to say anything negative' to him. By that they meant, 'Don't mention death.' What a pity! By this blinkered attitude they robbed him of the privilege of what an earlier generation of Christians called 'a good death'.
And what is that? It's looking death straight in the eye with the challenge, 'O death, where is your sting?' on the grounds that Jesus, by his own death, has drawn its sting. It's admitting, 'I'm on my way out, folks, but death is for me just a curtain through which I'll soon step right into the presence of the Lord I love, so be glad for me!' It's gathering the family around, saying a bold goodbye to each one, with a smile amid the tears and the reminder that we'll meet again in glory. It's dispensing a blessing on those soon to be left behind. It's a satisfied, 'OK, Lord, now you can take me anytime you want.'
A good death inspires the bereaved family. It fills sons and daughters with faith and hope. It reminds them that this life is no more than the ante-room of the life to come, so they should work at keeping their priorities right. Dying in denial, on the other hand, has harmful effects. It leaves a flavour of 'unfinished business' in the air. It robs the family of a warm, hope-filled leave-taking. It can destroy the faith of vulnerable children who naively believe that the assurances of last-minute healing must be fulfilled.
Denial of death is based on imbalanced doctrine. That the Lord is able to heal, and does heal, no serious Bible-believer can deny. But that he must heal, provided we press the right proof-text buttons and steer clear of 'negative confessions' is nonsense. In this present age we have merely 'tasted the powers of the coming age'; the full banquet, where healing is permanent and death is no more, awaits the age to come, after Christ's return. We err if we hold that none of the powers of the coming age are available today. And we err just as much if we hold that all of them are ours now. Death-denial comes in the latter category and is a tragic error.
Let's be open to God's healing grace and, at the same time, recognise that unless Jesus returns first, death is a prospect we all must face. And when it comes, let's face it with dignity.
Regular alarm in the news about a possible split in the C of E
'Our worst faults,' one sage observed, 'are the ones we are either blind to or proud of.' The first we can excuse; the second, never. Yet here is where the Church of England is most at fault: it is for ever trumpeting its inclusivness as if it were a virtue, when it is in fact a boil on its ecclesiastical backside.
Anglican inclusiveness, far from being something to boast of, is a cause for shame. It makes the C of E like a pub where the barman offers—alongside the beers, wines and spirits—bleach and turpentine. If the toxic offerings are questioned he replies that the historic bar must remain inclusive. And so we find elbowing each other, under the Anglican umbrella, incense-swinging anglo-catholics, Bible-believing evangelicals and resurrection-doubting liberals. I see no virtue whatever in trying to keep them together for they have little, if anything, in common, except the label 'Anglican'.
The issue has re-surfaced, of course, over the ordination of practising homosexuals. Horrified Anglicans who hold to the C of E's scriptural basis mutter about a breakaway to maintain the church's integrity, while from under the same umbrella others lobby for an allegedly Christlike inclusiveness that forbids us to 'judge our gay brothers'. Meanwhile, a white-knuckled Archbishop of Canterbury grips the brolly's handle and tries to placate all parties with waffle.
But unified the church is not. To pretend otherwise is to invite scorn. And any claim that inclusiveness is Christlike is nonsense. Jesus didn't go running after the Rich Young Ruler to bring him back with, 'I'm sorry I was so judgmental. Please come and head up the church's Greedy Rich department.' Sure, he welcomed sinners, but his word to them was, 'Go and sin no more.' The C of E should not be welcoming practising gays into its clergy, it should be expelling them from its pews.
In every generation the church has had to choose between unity and truth, and up to now truth has generally come out on top. When a corrupt Catholic Church proved unwilling to embrace the truth recovered by Luther and Calvin, unity was rightly ditched in the birth of the Reformed churches. When one of these, the C of E, showed itself too inflexible to cater for Wesley's converts, unity once again gave way to truth and Methodism was born. In the East, by contrast, unity has won the day. The Orthodox Church, smug about its unbroken unity, continues to persecute Christians of any other ilk and to suppress the truth, both doctrinal and practical, revealed to later generations.
The choice between unity and truth remains. Before Christ's return we should expect to see the church achieve both, but for now, it's time the Church of England stopped its charade of unity. Let it split. Maybe those from its ranks who honour God's Word will then be able to maintain a credible testimony.
Things comes more easily to some people than to others
I’m just back from the swimming pool. Swimming’s not my thing, really, but it’s good exercise so I stick with it twice a week.
My wife, by contrast, is a true water-baby. We enter the pool together and, while she rattles off 65 lengths non-stop—that’s a mile—I struggle to do 40 in the same time, puffing and panting and resting every couple of lengths. Why is this?
Our backgrounds are one factor. She loved water from her earliest childhood and in the summer holidays would swim with friends in the local canal. Later she was a regular at the swimming pool and in the sea. Though no-one ever taught her the strokes she swims naturally and powerfully. She’s adventurous, too, and in her early sixties had her first go at scuba diving in Greece.
My own water-background is utterly different. None of my family could swim. My father, as a boy, ran home one day to announce that the town’s first swimming pool had just opened. ‘Oh please, Mum, can I go?’ he begged, to which she replied, wagging her finger, ‘You’re not going in the water until you can swim.’ Guess what: he never learnt—and never encouraged me.
To compound my problem I had some bad water-experiences as a boy. Being pushed under does nothing for your confidence. Neither does a heavy-handed gym teacher with no sympathy at all for the fears of a twelve-year-old. Just the smell of chlorine as I approached the pool would make me feel sick. Once I had left school I stayed out of swimming pools till I was thirty-seven, when I found myself in St Louis, Missouri, USA on a sizzling summer day at the home of some folks with a pool in their back-yard. There, the desire to cool off in the shallow end overcame my ever-present fear of drowning. The friend who was cooling off with me, quickly realising I couldn’t swim, took it upon himself to teach me, and by the end of the afternoon I was away. Better late than never.
So I swim, but why do I puff and pant so? It’s not that I’m unfit. Over the years I’ve run regularly, completing several half and full marathons, and I still do regular power-walking, so there’s no cardio-vascular problem. It must be a combination of two other factors. One is that because I’m still uncomfortable with water I’m tense when I swim, in spite of my best efforts to relax, and there’s nothing as tiring as tension. The other is the inefficiency of my style. I’m never quite sure whether my arm and leg movements are properly co-ordinated or whether I’m breathing right. The more I think about it and make adjustments, the more awkward I get, but if I try to let it happen naturally by thinking about something else my style sinks to an even lower level of efficiency. So, all told, I’m still a bit of a flop at swimming.
All this confirms my thesis that, in swimming or whatever, some people are naturals and some are not.
I’m thinking that maybe it’s true also in matters of Christian doctrine and practice. Personally, I’m a bit of a plodder here, too. Convinced that God has overseen the production and transmission of Holy Scripture as the source of all we believe and do, I’ve got to be totally convinced of the biblical rightness of any position. That can involve me in lots of reading, not only of the Bible, but of the works of writers with opposing views, requiring time and effort.
Take, for example, the issue of the role of women in the home and in the church. It has taken me the best part of a lifetime to reach a settled egalitarian position. Having reached it, I’ll defend it to the hilt. But just as, at the pool, I look across and see my wife swimming like a fish, natural that she is, and making me look clumsy, I look across the waters of doctrine and ecclesiology to see some Christians reaching the same egalitarian convictions with virtually no effort at all. They have intuitively sensed that the trajectory of Scripture heads in that direction so, instead of following me round all the tortuous exegetical and hermeneutical side-roads they have taken a cross-country short cut to arrive there not only long before me but also less puffed.
Ah well! We are who we are and I know that, for myself, I’ll forever be a slave to my need to follow the side-roads. I take comfort in the thought that maybe some of the short-cut ‘naturals’ may, in moments of doubt about the legitimacy of their destination, seek me out to be assured that it’s OK.
The Catholic Church is considering canonising him
Protestants generally don’t show much interest in popes. But the death of John Paul II in 2005 caused a huge media stir. What are we non-Catholics to make of this man?
He was born in Poland, which is a strongly Roman Catholic country, in May 1920. Karol Joseph Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-tee-wah) was a gifted young man—an enthusiastic sportsman as well as being keen on literature and the theatre. In fact he delayed pursuing a career in the Catholic Church because he was strongly drawn to both football and acting as alternatives.
Eventually he decided for the church and trained in his native country, becoming a priest, later bishop, and finally cardinal (1967). He became Pope and moved to Rome in 1978, aged 58.
Unlike previous popes he travelled widely—visiting around 120 countries—and in so doing helped to revive the fortunes of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. He was also a shrewd user of the media to increase his church’s visibility.
We can be thankful that Wojtyla was a man of strong moral conviction. He was outspoken in his criticism of the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Poland in his youth and, later, of Eastern European communism. Indeed, he was seen as a key figure in bringing about the eventual collapse of that atheistic system. His strong stand made him many enemies, and in 1981 an assassin shot him as he entered St Peter’s Square, Rome, but three months later he had recovered and went to the prison to talk to and forgive his would-be killer.
He spoke up strongly for human rights in many parts of the world. Sometimes his was the clearest religious voice addressing some of today’s deepest issues. He did not shirk from labelling homosexual activity as sinful, for instance, and strongly upheld the importance of Christian morality and a stable family life. He was also bold in warning against extremes in the practices of biotechnology (human cloning etc.), and roundly condemned both abortion and euthanasia. Oddly, he also remained opposed to contraception, though many Catholics no longer go along with this.
Pope John Paul II criticised the West as strongly as he earlier criticised the communist East. He regularly challenged western materialism, for example, and was direct in his opposition to the lucrative arms trade and recent wars in the Middle East.
On the doctrinal front he was a staunch conservative, upholding the traditional doctrines of the Roman Catholic faith against strong liberalising opposition.
He was a fervent advocate of the Catholic doctrines of Mary, which have no basis in Scripture at all, as well as such fundamentals as transubstantiation and papal infallibility. In line with Catholic theology he regarded himself as a direct successor of the apostle Peter, whom Catholics believe was the first pope, and was fond of the ‘bells and smells’ of Catholic liturgy.
Many Catholics believe his authoritarian style of leadership was inappropriate in a modern world where democratic ideals are held high, but he probably saw that approach as the only way of safeguarding the standards and views he held so strongly.
It is always important for us to distinguish individual people from the religious systems they belong to, and this applies to our view of Pope John Paul II.
As Protestant Christians we naturally continue to hold major reservations about Roman Catholicism as a system. Many of its doctrines and practices owe little or nothing to the Bible’s teaching and in many cases contradict it. We are concerned about the emphasis on magnificent buildings, the powerful hierarchical system of leadership and the internal politics that mark the Catholic Church. At the same time, there is no denying that it was John Paul II’s position as head of the hierarchy that gave his pronouncements the impact they had.
Here we have to show some discrimination. We cannot rejoice in his upholding of traditional Catholic doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary or the continued hocus-pocus of the Mass. But we can certainly be glad about his firm stand on matters of biblical morality, his denunciation of anti-Christian philosophies, his warnings about the perils of materialism and his support for the family unit. In this respect ‘he’ll go down in history as the greatest of our modern popes. He’s been the strong conscience of the whole Christian world.’ (Billy Graham).
Whether the value of his influence in this area outweighs the negative influence of his doctrinal conservatism is open to debate, but in terms of benefit for the world at large it probably does. While, as Bible-believing Christians, we continue to hold our reservations about the papacy and the Catholic system in general, there can be no denying that many Roman Catholics are genuinely born again. Whether John Paul II was one of them it is not for us to pronounce upon, but we can certainly applaud his deep Christian sincerity and his unflagging stand for Christian standards.
Emails about their release are still circulating!
In 1993, three-year-old Jamie Bulger was taken from a Liverpool shopping centre by two ten-year-old boys, who tortured and killed him.
They were placed in youth custody and released in 2001. Yet, in 2009, emails are still circulating saying that these killers are about to be released! The emails usually contain strong pleas to prevent that release and ask people to sign a petition and circulate the message.
My son Jonny, who is a social worker, recently received one of these emails and got into correspondence with its sender. Their dialogue hopefully brings some light onto the realities of the situation and some balance to the difficult question of whether such killers should be shown any mercy.