Love, In the Church

The most famous literary description of love is surely 1 Corinthians 13.  It has been read aloud at countless weddings, and yet, it was not written for a wedding.  It was written for a church.  Actually, it was written for a struggling and divided church in Corinth.  This was a church that was splintered by factions, by immature Christians flaunting their supposed superiority, and by a whole host of interpersonal tensions and issues.  This was the church into which Paul unleashed “the love chapter!”

The chapter sits at the heart of a section addressing the right use of spiritual gifts in the church.  It begins by underlining the necessity of love (v 1-3) and ends with the never-ending reality of love (v 8-13).  And at the heart of the chapter, in verses 4-7, we find a familiar and poetic depiction of the nature of love.  In just four verses, Paul offers fifteen descriptions of love.

Their world, like ours, was a confusing melee of ideas when it came to love.  There was romance, passion (appropriately marital and many harmful alternatives), family, and friendship.  I don’t know whether they used “love” to speak of food and sport, quite like we do in English, but let’s not imagine their culture was any less confused than ours.  In the face of that confusion, Paul offered a confrontation with God’s kind of love.

What do we do with a list like this?  Our tendency is to see it as a behavioural checklist and to consider it as a suggestion for greater effort on our part.  The problem is, not only do we all fall short of God’s perfect love, but we are unable to self-generate genuine godly love.  We can only love, John tells us, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).  So, while it may look like a list of descriptions, actually, Paul wrote it as a list of verbs.  This is love dressed up and going to work! 

So, as we consider this love in action, we should let it confront our own areas of lack, but also point us to the only one who perfectly lived out God’s love in this world.  Let this list point you to Jesus, and then let his love flow more freely in your local church setting.  As we look to Christ’s love, it will stir Christlike love in us.  And when the body of Christ starts to look like Christ, we can pray for the church to have an impact like Christ!

1. Paul begins with a basic foundation: Love gives.  He begins his list with two positive statements: love is patient and love is kind (v 4a).  Patience here speaks of having a long-fuse with other people, giving them space and time, instead of flaring up at the first opportunity.  Patience is partnered with kindness, which gives of our own usefulness for the higher good of the other.  A loving church is a place where grace infiltrates every relationship.  Grace for the weaknesses of others, and grace that gives of ourselves to build them up.  Love gives.

2. Paul zeroes in on the Corinthian core issue: Love is not selfish.  His list shifts into a sequence of nine points, most of which are negative.  The central thought in this list of nine points is like a summary of the whole section: love is not self-seeking (v 5b).  Ever since the Garden of Eden, we humans have been largely unaware of how self-oriented our hearts now are, by nature.  Our selfishness is built-in from birth, but it is only because our nature is fallen.  It seems so normal to seek our own good, but God’s design is love that is not self-seeking.  (Look at the Trinity for the greatest example of this: how consistently does the Father lovingly honour the Son, and vice versa?  Our God is a God who lovingly and selflessly lifts up the other, and the good news is that can even include us!)

Before and after that central thought, Paul offers two sets of four descriptions of love.  When there are differences between us, love does not self-elevate (v 4b-5a).  It does not envy what others have, longing for self to be satisfied by that salary, that house, that spouse, etc.  Neither does love boast, trying to make the other person long for my ability, possessions, or strengths.  Love is not arrogant, puffing up self to push others down.  And love does not disregard accepted standards of behaviour to elevate self and so disregard and dishonour others.  Some versions have “love is not rude” at this point.  That might bring to mind inappropriate vocabulary or noises at the dining table.  But Paul’s word goes beyond the odd little social faux pas.  It is the same word used for unnatural sexual relations in Romans 1.  It is that casting off of restraint and acceptable norms, because, well, because I want to . . . so I should.  Actually, love wouldn’t.

And when there are problems between us, love does not self-protect (v 5c-6).  Love is not easily angered, that is, it is not irritable and touchy.  If we take any of Paul’s negatives and pursue the opposite, we will discover a painful loneliness.  Now, there is a place in the Bible for legitimate provocation.  Jesus was provoked by death at Lazarus’ tomb, and Paul was provoked in spirit by the idols of Athens.  Luther was provoked by a false view of God and so launched the Reformation, and Wilberforce was so provoked he sought to end the slave trade.  Maybe today many of us have grown too nice before the provocations of society, but perhaps still too easily angered at little personal slights in church life.  Love is not easily angered in church fellowship.  When people say and do wrong things, love lets the grievances go instead of inscribing them in our internal memory ledger of grudges against others.  And when those people that grate on us turn out to be sinners in some way or other, love does not rejoice in their sin.  Rather, it rejoices in what is true – God’s love for them, their position in God’s family, their gifting, and their key role in our lives. 

3. Paul points them beyond any notion of personal ability because true love relies on God (v 7).  Undoubtedly, Paul is offering a literary flourish to complete the list.  The last four descriptions add the word “always” or “all things.”  It feels good to the ear, but if you consider it carefully, it feels impossible to the heart.  How can I always protect?  The idea is to cover, like the seal on a ship that keeps all water out.  One commentator describes the idea of “throwing a blanket of silence over the failings of others.”  Obviously, there are legal and moral exceptions to this.  But as a general rule, when I am annoyed, provoked, antagonized, and bothered, love will keep that sin hidden from others who do not need to know about it.  Paul points upwards to God – love always trusts and always hopes.  That is not easy.  And back to the struggles here below again, it always perseveres.  That kind of persistent endurance of inter-church tensions can easily take us beyond ourselves. 

Paul’s great list is a bit like the Law of Sinai.  A wonderful revelation of what is right and good, but beyond our ability to keep.  And so, let 1 Corinthians 13 not only confront your struggle to love like Jesus.  Let it also point you to Jesus.  We can only love at all because God has first loved us.  May our hearts be so captivated by his love that our churches increasingly look like the body of Christ!  We can only live this life in the flesh by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

Love is patient, love is kind.


It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others,

it is not self-seeking,

it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.


It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NIV)


If this playlist of videos about Bible study is helpful, please like, comment, share and subscribe – thanks!

Applicational Preaching

So many people seem to want to listen to preaching that is “applicational.” I understand the impulse. After all, who would want to listen to non-applicational preaching? That sounds like preaching that is not relevant to my life and will not make a difference.

Actually, if we are talking about preaching that is relevant to life and genuinely transformative, then I am completely on board with that desire. The problem is that when we talk about “applicational preaching” it can fall short of what we really need. Here are some of the potential weaknesses:

1. Applicational preaching can place emphasis on action points and to-do lists. Now, there is certainly a place for knowing what is expected of us at the end of a sermon. If a passage gives an instruction that applies to us, then we should certainly note it and look to obey it. However, is the Bible primarily an instruction list for life? Some sermons give that impression, but perhaps that is missing something of the richness and purposefulness of God’s revelation.

2. Applicational preaching can point the listener in the wrong direction. When our preaching emphasizes what we must do, then the focus will tend to move toward our own willpower. Sermons that point the listener to their own discipline, their own choices, their own efforts, etc., are not the best sermons. And I don’t just mean they are not the most theologically impressive sermons. I also mean they are not the most effective sermons. Lives are not transformed by to-do lists. They can help, but they remain mostly on the surface. God is in the business of transforming lives from the inside out.

In order to see the full potential of any preaching or teaching ministry, I would encourage you to think about the ABCs of Application. Here is a brief explanation:

Bible Study Mistakes

I have recently posted a series of videos on common Bible study mistakes. We have probably all made some, or all, of these mistakes. Please take a look and see if these are helpful to you, or to anyone else you know.

Mistake 1: Proof-Texting – It is just so convenient to find a line of text that says what we want to say. But the danger is that we will not see the richness of the text as it was intended to be understood. It seems obvious once you say it, but it is good to remember that what God made it say is always better than what we can make it say! Click here for this video.

Mistake 2: Collapsing Correlations – When you are reading and you see something that reminds you of something else . . . perhaps a saying of Jesus, or a different epistle, and then you collapse both passages in together, then you are collapsing your correlations together. Easily done, but what if that other passage doesn’t mean the same thing? Click here for the video.

Mistake 3: Ignoring Background – Sometimes it is just easier to read the passage and ignore whatever background may be relevant to your study. Who has the time to think about distant geography, ancient customs, and foreign politics? Well, if we want to understand the Bible, we need to make sure we don’t ignore the background. Click here for this video.

Mistake 4: Genre Override – Apart from sounding like a cool concept, what is genre override? It is when you take some of the rules of interpreting a genre and let those rules run roughshod over your interpretation of the passage. “Since this passage is apocalyptic literature…” is the start of many misleading sentences! Of course, we need to be sensitive to the genre, but that is always a support to our being sensitive to the passage. Click here to find out more.

Mistake 5: Imposing Meaning – Our goal in Bible study is exegesis, that is, drawing out the meaning of the text as intended by the author. But when we impose meaning, we are doing eisegesis. That is, reading into the text what we want to see there. God’s Word is better than yours, or mine! Click here for more.

Mistake 6: Isolationist Confidence – Bible study is something we may do on our own a lot of the time. But we must be wary of isolationist confidence. When it is just me and the Bible, I can easily become overconfident in my own opinion. I may be on the right track, but very superficial. Or I might be wandering off into new (therefore heretical) theological territory. We need to think about the role of the community in our Bible study! Click here for this video.

Mistake 7: Tone-Deaf Reading – The Bible is not just a data store that we are to mine for theological truths or applicational points. It is interpersonal communication and so we need to make sure we are sensitive to the writer’s tone as we seek to make sense of what is written. Here is the link to this video.

I will probably add a few more, in due course. As ever with these things, if you are able to like, share, comment or subscribe to the YouTube channel, it is all helpful in encouraging the algorithm to share this content. Thanks!

Here is the playlist that contains these videos, plus others that are all related!

What’s the Big Deal with Worship?

What does gathered worship do?  Sometimes it can make our souls soar.  Other times not so much.  It is easy to understand why non-believers scratch their heads at Christian worship.  If I saw a small group of people awkwardly singing, listening to someone talk about an old book, and sharing a tiny amount of bread and wine, I’d scratch my head too.

As I anticipate returning to Poland for the European Leadership Forum, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by so many during the Communist era.  Russian Baptist pastor, Yuri Sipko, remembers Christians who were sent to prison camps or lost their jobs or their children. “Without being willing to suffer, even die for Christ, it’s just hypocrisy.  It’s just a search for comfort.”  Challenging words, but ponder this thought: “You need to confess him and worship him in such a way that people can see this world is a lie.”

What does gathered worship do?  It declares that this world is a lie.

At the end of Revelation 3, we find that famous verse about Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  He was knocking on the door of the church at Laodicea, but would they open the door and let him in?  They thought they had everything they needed, but actually, they desperately needed Jesus.  As we turn to chapter 4 and John’s great vision from Jesus continues, we find the heavenly door is open for John to come up and participate in the ultimate worship gathering.

In Revelation chapters 4-5, we get to glimpse the ultimate worship gathering, and it reminds us what gathered worship does.  Here are five things that gathered worship does:

1. Worship centres us around God’s throne. (4:1-2)  In worship, we are invited, by Jesus, to gather at the throne of God.  In Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, he points out how we live in a world that feels like a storm-tossed sea.  We are thrown all over the place by every wind, every wave, every advert, every news story, every problem, and every threat.  But as Christians, we have an anchor that holds us firm, gives us a circumference, and centres us.  God is on the throne, so there can be a constant source of stability in my heart and life. Gathering with God’s people to sing his praise is an anchor point in the frenetic chaos of life.

2. Worship gathers God’s people around his throne. (4:3-11)  In this glorious vision, there is layer upon layer of rich meaning.  The vibrant colours seem to reflect God’s holiness and justice, as well as his life-giving nature as the Creator.  The 24 elders probably represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Church (there is debate on all these details, of course).  Perhaps they represent God’s great work through the centuries to reveal his plan and rescue people for himself.  Then there are the four living creatures – a picture of God’s creation (noble, strong, wise, and swift), and some have seen here four glimpses into the person of Jesus Christ.  God’s people, God’s creation, all falling down and worshipping God on the throne.  In worship, we are united together, not only with one another but also with God himself, in the uniquely trinitarian worship we find in the Bible.

3. Worship points us to Christ and his payment. (5:1-7) At the start of chapter 5, John is struck by the disconnect between God’s greatness and the need of humanity.  The sealed scroll, Earth’s title deed, God’s plan of judgment – its existence underlines that no human is worthy to open the seals.  Even apart from the judgment context of Revelation, our gathered worship cannot be satisfied with just lauding God the Creator for his power and majesty.  Christian worship always points us to Christ and his payment.  John turned to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and was confronted by the slain Lamb.

4. The Lion/Lamb Redeemer stirs greater songs of worship. (5:8-13)  When God’s people encounter God’s goodness and grace, they sing.  Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, Angels, Jesus and the Disciples, Paul and Silas – they all sang.  When we become aware of who he is and what he has done, then we will sing too.  In chapter four, there were two songs to the Creator (4:8, 4:11).  Now the singing swells as more voices join in and more richness is reflected in two songs to the Redeemer (5:9-10, 5:12).  Finally, there is one song to both the Creator and the Redeemer combined (5:13).

5. Worship finishes with a great Amen! – the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan is definitively affirmed!  (5:14)  If you think about it, we humans have a history of saying no to God.  We are all quite adept at saying no.  But Revelation 4-5 underlines that in the end God’s great yes will overcome every one of our noes.  In worship, we are confronted by the reality of God the Creator King on his throne, and of God the Redeeming Lion/Lamb, and we cry out, “Yes!”  When we worship together, we get a pre-taste of what is to come.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Gathered worship is like an anchor to both the future, when all our questions will be answered, and to the ultimate reality in the present – that God is on the throne and he has redeemed us.

So what does gathered worship do?  It declares that this world is a lie.  More than that, it centres us around the throne of God – for God is on the throne whatever we may be facing down here.  It gathers God’s people around his throne – for God is worthy of every note of praise that can be uttered by any part of his creation.  It points us to Christ and his payment – for we worship not only in response to the majesty on the throne but also to the scars on that Lamb.  It stirs us to sing greater songs of worship – for God the Creator and our Lion/Lamb Redeemer.  It definitively affirms the ultimate reality of God’s person and plan – for in the end we will cry out our great “Yes!” and “Amen!” to God.

Whether we are gathering in a great crowd at a Christian event, or with a handful of dear saints on a Sunday, let us appreciate the privilege of gathered worship and declare with joy that this world is a lie.


Sipko quote from Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher, p185-6.


Remembering George Verwer (1938-2023)

I just heard that George Verwer went to heaven late last night (14th April 2023).  So many memories are swirling as I remember all that George has meant to me and my family.  It is hard to overstate how much God has used George in our lives.

I probably met George when I was two years old at the commissioning service for the Doulos.  I don’t remember that, of course.  My earliest memory of George was being introduced to him by my Dad after a service in Bristol.  I was a teen.  I was struck by George’s enthusiastic greeting of my Dad – “One of God’s faithful warriors in Italy!”  It was George’s invitation back in 1962 that motivated my Dad to go over to Europe that summer, indirectly resulting in my parents going to Italy as missionaries.

Once I was introduced to George, he stayed in touch.  It is easy to think of George the public speaker, but many thousands also know of the George who continued to care for the next generation of OM kids.  He had no connection to me except my Dad’s involvement in OM thirty years before, but that was plenty for George.  I remember him phoning me one day.  He was on a train in Scotland and he wanted to let me know that he was praying for me.  Getting a phone call like that as a teen rocked my world.  I used to listen to cassettes of George preaching – those messages consisted of a sort of overflow of his energy, his drive, his gospel passion, and his transparency, blended with some oft-repeated doses of his humour. 

He often told of the time in Pakistan when a pigeon dropped a mess onto the sleeve of his suit.  “Praise God that elephants can’t fly!”  He would tell of the time he lost his temper with his long-suffering wife, Drena, kicked a box which turned out to be full of books, and stormed out of the house in pain, only to re-enter the house by the back door and repent of his sinful outburst.  He would share honestly about his struggles with lust.  He would pour out stories and statistics of the great need in the world.  He would recount God’s goodness through the years of OM’s history.  And somehow it would all fit together in one message.

When I spent a year serving on the OM Ship, the Logos 2, I got to work alongside George a little.  His gopher (travel companion and assistant) and I went to collect George and Dale Rhoton (co-founder of OM) from LA Airport.  George didn’t like the idea of waiting for Dale so he found an empty row of seats and sat down.  When we came back with Dale 45 minutes later George had covered a huge area of airport floor with piles of paperwork that he swiftly collected together.  It was a privilege to listen to George and Dale chatting together in the back of the car.  The third member of the original Send the Light trip to Mexico, Walter Borchard, also joined George during the 40th anniversary celebrations onboard.  (Note – I heard that Walter also went to be with the Lord just a few days before George did.)

I secretly prayed for some months about becoming George’s gopher as I really aspired to the role.  On my 21st birthday, he was onboard the ship and called for me to come to his room.  He found out it was my birthday and so gave me a half-eaten bar of Dairy Milk, as well as a bag full of correspondence that he thought I should look through.  More important than English chocolate, he asked if I’d ever considered being his gopher.  I was so thankful and promised to continue praying about it.

I met up with George again at the OM conference in De Bron, NL, that September.  We went for a walk around the conference site.  He had just left the skylight on his bus open and his wife’s laptop had been rained on.  He was feeling very guilty about that.  He asked again about the gopher role for the following year.  Maybe he sensed my hesitation, because he immediately followed up with, “you’ve met a girl?”  I explained that I had met a girl in Portland.  Of course, George knew her parents – also OMers from back in the earlier years.  “Ah!  Good Brethren stock!”  Actually, Melanie’s parents had met on an OM team, so Melanie’s very existence was a result of George’s ministry! He had prayed for her family for years too. I was disappointed to not be his gopher, but was encouraged by his understanding of my desire to go to seminary and not be travelling in the year before we married.

During the seminary years that followed, my wife and I pondered where our future might lie.  We wanted to be involved in missions.  But where?  We explored options all over the world but no doors seemed to be opening.  Then one day my mother-in-law passed me a note: George wanted me to call him.  I called him from the phone in the seminary building.  He asked me, “Are you prepared to leave America?  I know a lot of people like the salary that they can get from a US church. And I’d hate to see you stuck in a classroom teaching somewhere.”  I assured him that we were looking at missions options rather than salaries and we planned to leave the US.  “Come and be based here in the UK, we need trained Bible teachers like you. The UK is a place of real nee too . . . let me help you launch…”

Our church leaders all felt that this invitation was of God and they gladly sent us to be based in the UK with ministry details still to be determined.  Lots of people in OM warned us that George would not be arranging meetings for me and it might end in disappointment.  It turned out I did not need George to arrange meetings. I was happy to work loosely in his team and arrange my own opportunities with God’s help.  As it turned out, we ended up living next door to George and Drena for that first year.  Our third child was born “through the bedroom wall” of our adjoining houses.  He enjoyed that little fact.  “Which one of you was born next door?” he would ask my children on later visits.

During our time living next door to George, I enjoyed a number of walks with George as we talked about life and ministry and navigating the complexities of theological disputes and issues in world missions.  My wife and I enjoyed a meal out with George and Drena.  I was so enjoying his story of how he had been banned from India for smuggling two typewriters, but then saw the look on Drena’s face – she had endured a lot at George’s side.  The weekly prayer meeting at Forest Hill was always so much better when George was there.  He would whistle through worship songs, sort his mail during various phases of the meeting, spill little tidbits of random OM history in reference to any guests that happened to be there, and refer to an awful lot of ministry as “tremendous.”  George had a way of building people up, and building up their contribution to world missions – even though most would have felt massively intimidated by George’s global impact!

What was George’s impact?  George was a pioneer.  In an age where missionary boards wanted seminary graduates, George pioneered a missionary force of willing volunteers.  In a time when missionaries made a career commitment, George saw the value in short-term teams.  Then there was the idea of getting a ship – totally crazy, but God was in that craziness.  Mexico, Europe, behind the Iron Curtain, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc . . . all across the world George’s pragmatic pioneering spirit has spread with OM.  And then there are the hundreds or thousands of ministries that have launched out of OM.  People who came to OM for a couple of months or a couple of years, but went on to have lifelong ministries under a different banner.  George’s impact and legacy as a missions pioneer is vast.

George was a prolific speaker.  If you were looking for careful expository preaching, that wasn’t George.  But if you were ready to hear the overflow of a life set on fire by Jesus, then George was pure gold.  Whether it was in front of thousands of students at Urbana, or a handful of saints in a little church, George spoke (often while holding a giant inflatable globe) and lives were marked.  The last time I heard him preach he had three sets of seven points.  It was classic George.  But it was still so good.  He might have been known as a “pied piper missionary speaker,” but his greater passion was always “reality in Jesus” – he knew that if people experienced that revolution of love that comes from really knowing Jesus, then missions involvement would follow naturally.

George believed and preached the radical grace of God for undeserving sinners. He would say, “Where two are three are gathered in my name, sooner or later there will be a mess.” It was not just a humourous line to get a laugh. It was the reality he lived time and again. People mess up, and God’s grace is critical. George would preach about that grace, and then he would live it as a leader drawing alongside strugglers as a fellow struggler and recipient of God’s great grace.

You might assume that George’s impact was all about leadership and speaking. After all, he was the International Director of OM (until 2003), a global missions pioneer, and had a full speaking schedule (apparently he dropped from 900x per year to just 350x per year after he retired!)  But even if he spoke multiple times in a week, there were still so many hours outside of those slots – George wanted to use all of his hours for Jesus.  Living next door for a season and working alongside him during those years, I noted several ministries that could easily be overlooked. 

Prayer.  George prayed for people.  He had his gopher put pictures of people on his phone so he could pray for people when he was on the London Underground and lost his phone signal.  If he couldn’t be talking to someone, then he could be talking to God about someone. He had photo albums full of ancient prayer cards – one day he knocked on our door to show us pictures of Melanie and me as little children.  Another time we had guests and our friend was shocked to meet George for the first time as he held out a picture of her with her family when she was a toddler – he’d pray through these collections of memories again and again. In these last years, George was excited to know that our children also went out with OM – to Ireland, to Albania, and to the Logos Hope. That’s three generations involved in missions, in part, because of George’s prayers.

Connecting.  George would get a phone call from someone.  He would introduce them to someone else.  He literally multiplied his ministry by connecting people to other people that could be an encouragement to them.  He asked me to get in touch with an evangelist that could do with a friend.  It might have seemed like a mess, but the chaos continually spawned more ministry fruit.

Giving.  George was one of those people who God seemed to trust with money.  After raising funds for OM over the years, he focused on his Special Projects for the last twenty years.  Bibles, books, the Dalit Freedom Network, under-supported OMers, etc.  George was constantly passing on funds to where they were needed most.  Only eternity will reveal just how much money was recycled for God’s work through George.  His extreme frugality was well-known in OM (George and Drena trading their wedding cake for gas to drive to Mexico is a well-known story from the early years).  He repented of some of the more legalistic emphases that grew out of his own personality quirks, but that frugality surely led to him being trusted as a faithful conduit of Kingdom funds.

Books.  You can’t have met George and overlooked his passion for books.  Every meeting had an overflowing book table, with his incessant attempts to convince people to take books (post-date a cheque for a year beyond your college graduation!)  His book pushes were superb.  There was Operation World, of course. Grace Awakening – how many times did he push Swindoll’s classic (and mention that the first section was a bit dull, which somehow didn’t seem to put you off reading it!)  Calvary Road – he loved Roy Hession books and worked with the Roy Hession Trust for many years.  He would refer to A.W.Tozer books just sizzling away on the book table.  And his own, Hunger for Reality and Revolution of Love were two powerful examples from the earlier years.  Then Messiology came later – some of his most controversial comments compiled in a book.  Yes, George had a passion for books that came through in every meeting.  But he didn’t stop outside of meetings.  He was constantly sending packages of books, plus calendars, and single sheet papers on subjects like making a prayer meeting work.  If you were on George’s mailing list, then these packages would reassure you that you were in his prayers too.

It was so sad to hear that George was nearing the end.  If you haven’t seen his final blog, please click here to do so.  Right to the end he spoke of the many who still need Jesus.  Hundreds of thousands have been involved in missions directly or indirectly because of George.  That means millions will have heard the gospel directly or indirectly because of George.  To many of us, George was a hero. Of course, he was no superhero.  He was far too real for that.  And he was definitely a little bit quirky and unique too. But he was a hero to my wife and me because of how God used him to mark our lives so profoundly.

Today I grieve for George and I also praise God for his willingness to give his all for Jesus. I will miss his energy and drive, I will miss his passion for Jesus and world missions, and I will miss his love for me and my family. I know there will be many around the globe who are sad at George’s passing, yet thrilled at George’s promotion.  Maybe one of his crowns could be a global jacket like he so often wore.  He will be thrilled to cast that down before his Lord!

When Lies and Treachery Take Root – Part 4

In part 1, we set the scene and considered how a crisis can be used to wrest control, but the tyrants taking charge may not be impressive to all.  In part 2, the thin veneer of tyranny does not protect subjects from the harsh realities of the suffering that always follows.  In part 3, we scratched at the religious veneer to see that the biggest question in life is the right question at any time of change.  However, asking the right questions will not be welcomed, but oppressed.  Thus, the truth matters, even if everyone seems to be buying into the lies.  This brings us to this final post.  Surely the truth will set society free?  Ultimately, yes.  But we should not be shocked when a hypnotized people choose to stay under the spell.

20. Revealing the lie does not automatically break the spell.  “The light is dawning, the lie broken.”  It seems so simple.  Show everyone how they have been lied to and everything will be alright.  Well, not necessarily.  After defeating some captors, the king cried, “Now, Dwarfs, you are free.  Tomorrow I will lead you to free all Narnia.  Three cheers for Aslan!”  But, Lewis goes on, “the result which followed was simply wretched.” If everyone rallied to the side of the king, there was hope.  But not “if half the Narnians – including all the Dwarfs – just sat and looked on?  or even fought against him.”  Would the German population have rallied to the side of truth if there had been time for it to be revealed?  How many might have been saved if the populations of the communist soviet countries had revolted sooner?  And what if our own population does not react when lies are revealed?  The result of apathy to truth will be simply wretched.

21. When a lie is revealed, there may well be more sinister aforethought than previously realised.  By chapter 9, Jewel recognizes how much planning had taken place.  “We see that the Ape’s plans were laid deeper than we dreamed of.  Doubtless he has been long in secret traffic with The Tisroc.”  It is hard to fathom the depths of evil conspiratorial planning that may exist, but where is the benefit in believing everything is driven by good intentions and some accident?  Will we look back and wonder why we were so naively accepting of the lines we were fed? Perhaps we would do well to ask questions sooner, rather than just having to take stock of the damage once it is done.

22. When a lie is revealed, the evil tyrants will continue to spin yet more lies.  It is the most infuriating plot twist, but it is repeated time and again.  When the lie is revealed, it is met with yet more lies.  The Ape explained how a beast had dressed up and pretended to be Aslan.  “Jill wondered for a moment if the Ape had gone mad.  Was he going to tell the whole truth? . . . It was seen last night, but it got away.  It’s a Donkey!  A common, miserable Ass!  If any of you see that Ass—”  The Ape lied to cover his lies, and so retained control of the population!  “Jill looked at the King: his mouth was open and his face was full of horror.  And then she understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan.  By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

It is a story that has been told again and again.  The Ape in its glory.  So much harm is done along the way, but eventually, every dressed-up Ape will be brought down.  May we learn from the story before we live unnecessarily through another chapter of the same old tale.  May we never accept any self-declared-wise old ape who sets himself up as the better leader to take us toward utopia.  The world does not need a year zero, a new beginning, a great leap forward, or a reset, no matter how great it might sound, or how urgently the need is portrayed.  What the world needs is truth, as well as humble leaders ready to serve the people, and for those who have met Aslan to make sure they are never fooled by a doddery donkey dressed up as divine.

When Lies and Treachery Take Root – Part 3

In part 1 we were introduced to the thin veneer of tyranny, and then in part 2, we noted how subjects will suffer nonetheless.  Now, let’s dig below the surface and ponder some of the religious aspects of the imposed new normal.

14. Different gods are treated as one.  A Lamb spoke up, “Please, I can’t understand. What have we to do with the Calormenes? We belong to Aslan. They belong to Tash.  They have a god called Tash.  They say he has four arms and the head of a vulture.  They kill Men on his altar.  I don’t believe there’s any such person as Tash. But if there was, how could Aslan be friends with him?”  The underlying impulse of tyrants is always a collective uniformity.  There is no space for diversity of thought or diversity of religion.  And so, like a recurring refrain, the religions are pushed together and effectively true religion is pushed out.  It was true in Narnia.  It was true in Nazi Germany.  It was true in the Soviet Union.  It is true in China.  It is always the same.  There is always one version of religious thought allowed, and the new leaders get to define it.

15.  The God question is the best question to ask.  Once the Lamb had spoken, we are told that they knew this was the best question anyone had asked yet.  It always is.  In a world where the boundaries are blurred and the gods are blended together, the most important question is always to ask about the true God.  After all, He will always be different, and better, than their imposed amalgam deity.

16. Good questions incite aggressive answers.  The Ape jumped up and spat at the Lamb.  “Baby!” he hissed. “Silly little bleater!  Go home to your mother and drink milk.  What do you understand of such things?”  The subjects are ridiculed if they dare to question.  The experts know best.  They always do.  If you question them, then you discover that you are questioning “The Science” itself.  Abusive relationships do not always require shouting and overt aggression.  However, the presence of shouting and overt aggression tends to be a good indicator of an abusive relationship.

17. The blending of gods will always mean the diminishing of the true God.  The Ape declared, “Tash is only another name for Aslan.  All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly.  We know better now.  The Calormenes use different words but we all mean the same thing.  Tash and Aslan are only two different names for you know Who. . . . Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”  The true God always seems to be reduced when the proud claim to have new insight.  They know what is best and they should be trusted with the future.  But Lewis described how every tail was down, and every whisker drooped.  Except one.  The Ginger Cat asked a clarifying question – “Aslan means no more than Tash? . . . I think I am beginning to understand.”  When we add another god to the true God, the true God becomes nothing more than that other so-called god.  You can add nothing to the true God and make him better.  Some might use the ecumenical impulse for their own gain, but the Narnian beasts were right in their downed tails and drooped whiskers.

18. Silencing of contrary voices is always required for a tyrannical coup.  King Tirian cried with a loud voice and was silenced.  “If he had been allowed to speak, the rule of the Ape might have ended that day; the Beasts might have seen the truth and thrown the Ape down.”  Instead, with violence, the Ape put down the truth-crier.  “Take him where he cannot hear us, nor we hear him.”  Which is more important, that he not hear their lies?  Or that they do not hear his truth?  Since tyranny is always a fragile house of cards, it must surely be the latter.  Therefore, there will be ruthless silencing, censoring, cancelling and de-platforming of any counter-opinions.  After all, it is for the good of the people.  The destruction of free speech should always be a big red flag to thinking people.

19.  The pantomime leader is ridiculous, but you may be tempted to believe that he is real until you remember the truth.  In the next chapter, the Beasts are crying out to Aslan as he is paraded in front of them, briefly.  King Tirian looked on from a distance, “He had not expected Aslan to look like that stiff thing which stood and said nothing.  But how could he be sure? For a moment horrible thoughts went through his mind: then he remembered the nonsense about Tash and Aslan being the same and knew that the whole thing must be a cheat.”  The doddery old donkey in fancy dress almost fooled him, but the truth won out.

There is one more post to come . . . next time.

When Lies and Treachery Take Root – Part 2

In part 1, we introduced the sinister situation in The Last Battle – the created crisis, the prevailing atmosphere and the thin veneer of tyranny.  Now let’s continue our list of thoughts and ponder matters of authority, tyrants and how subjects are treated.

7. True authority is always kept out of reach.  A Boar asked the Ape about seeing Aslan properly and talking to him.  But it was not allowed.  In a truly free modern society, the authorities serve at the pleasure of the citizenry.  Ultimate power lies with the people, not in a palace, nor a secret government discussion.  In a dictatorship there is really no access for thinking subjects, only a carefully staged presentation that will have an impact on the crowds.  The Roman Caesars would go into hiding and then appear in a spectacular show of splendour.  “He is a god!”  The crowd would cry. But it was all staged. 

8. Tyrannical authority always knows better than you.  Accused of being an Ape, the Ape declares,   “I’m not.  I’m a man.  If I look like an Ape, that’s because I’m so very old: hundreds and hundreds of years old.  And it’s because I’m so old that I’m so wise.  And it’s because I’m so wise that I’m the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to.  He can’t be bothered speaking to a lot of stupid animals.  He’ll tell me what you’ve got to do, and I’ll tell the rest of you.  And take my advice, and see you do it in double quick time, for he doesn’t mean to stand any nonsense.”  Notice there is no reasoning, no discussion, no debate.  The tyrant knows better than you and so you must obey.

9. The subjects of tyranny are always necessarily treated as stupid.  Since the authoritative council of stakeholders is made up of experts, it means those under their rule must necessarily be treated as stupid.  “Stupid animals!”  They are to take what they are given and do as they are told.  It has always been true in every dictatorship down through history.  When you can smell disdain from on high, know that tyranny approaches again.

10. Freedom is turned into slavery.  Some of the horses were speaking about getting the work done quickly, in order to return to freedom.  “Well, you can get that idea out of your heads at once.  And not only the Horses either.  Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in future.  Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen – The Tisroc . . . All you Horses and Bulls and Donkeys are to be sent down into Calormen to work for your living – pulling and carrying the way horses and such-like do in other countries.  And all you digging animals . . .”  The Ape had no intention of releasing control and letting the Beasts run free again.  When freedoms are taken away, they are seldom returned without a struggle.

11. Slavery is described as for the common good, but it isn’t.  When the Beasts howled about being sold into slavery, the Ape snarled back, “None of that! Hold your noise!  Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves.  You’ll be paid – very good wages too. That is to say, your pay will be paid into Aslan’s treasury and he will use it for everybody’s good.”  The repeated commonality in coups across the globe is the utopian vision of the betterment of society.  It is for your benefit!  Yes, there will be some work involved.  There must be, to make things better.  But your slavery, that is, your work, will make you free!  The Ape made promises to the Beasts of Narnia.  The Nazis put that assertion over the gates at Auschwitz.  The Communist Party always promises a collective utopia beyond the struggle.  And yet, who benefits?  It is never the common man and woman.  It is always the ruling elite.

12. The goal of the common good is described as a form of utopia, but the cover always slips.  The Ape described the goal of their newly imposed future.  “And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in.  There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons – Oh, everything.”  Actually, Narnia was pretty good before slavery was imposed.  The future only seemed to mean added restrictions and silencing for the subjects, but luxuries and control for the ruling elite.  Oh, you will own nothing, and you won’t be able to go too far, but you will be happy.  Utopian dreams with revealing slips.

13. The new and false freedom is defined by the tyrant.  “You think freedom means doing what you like.  Well, you’re wrong.  That isn’t true freedom.  True freedom means doing what I tell you.”  A truly free society is a rare commodity on this earth.  Even in Narnia it seemed easily lost.  When tyrants take over, they get to set the rules.  And when they do, the people suffer.

Next time, we will continue our list. . .

When Lies and Treachery Take Root – Part 1

I feel sorry for the last book in a collection.  While many may enjoy the first, and probably the next couple too, not all readers will complete a series.  This was certainly true in my case.  It is only now, with my last pair of children, that I have finally cracked open The Last Battle and journeyed back into Narnia one last time.  What I discovered felt like a commentary on devilish and despotic democracide.  I had to check the publication date.  Was this written in 2023?  Obviously not, for it treads on far too many sensibilities for our day!

However, The Last Battle, the final chronicle of Narnia, remains eerily relevant.  I am sure it was to its own day, a day of reflection on the atrocities of National Socialism (Nazi-ism) in Germany, and a day of growing suspicion of the murderous evil of International Socialism (Communism) in the East.  Like all great stories, The Last Battle remains eerily relevant today, too.  “Narnia faced its fiercest challenge,” the back cover explains, “not an invader from without but an enemy from within.”  Indeed, so often the greatest threat to society lies within its own ranks.  And that threat does not always come from the most intelligent enemies of the state.  Often the mind behind the evil is devilish, while the actors used are less than impressive.  His antagonism to all that is good lies behind the puppet leaders used to enact the sinister effort to transform a safe society into something so much more malevolent.

By the time we reach the third chapter of The Last Battle, we already know that a self-serving Ape and his hapless Donkey have stitched up a lion’s pelt for some nefarious purpose.  We also join King Tirian and his Unicorn, Jewel, as they discover that Aslan has returned and ordered the felling of the holy trees and the murder of their dryads.  Arriving at the newly cut gash in the Narnian landscape, they discover Calormenes who are mistreating a Narnian talking horse.  It is all too much and they kill the two foreigners in a fit of rage. 

Struck by their noble consciences, they determine to surrender their fate to the justice of Aslan.  Whereupon we encounter “The Ape in its glory.”

I know that this is not directly related to biblical studies or preaching. But if you will indulge me as I share a brief series of reflections on a prescient work of fiction, here are twenty-two eerie parallels to ponder – parallels between Narnia, C.S.Lewis’ day, and even perhaps, our own.

1. A crisis was created and used by the leader of the coup.  The felling of trees, the gash in the landscape, the sale of noble tree trunks to the Calormenes, the profound upset of Narnian peace – it was all created by the one who now used that same crisis to wrest control of the territory and to serve his heinous purposes.

2. Death is in the air.  In the first chapter Shift cunningly manipulates Puzzle with the notion that he “shall probably die” if he tries to fetch the lion pelt from the pool.  Puzzle retrieves it and is “almost tired to death.”  In the second chapter the dryad is killed, then two Calormenes.  This is a story of death after death so that by the end, all the characters are dead.  Multiple characters state that it would have been better to be dead than…, and later on, we see Cair Paravel “filled with dead Narnians.”  Death becomes an everyday conversation when societies are taken over by tyrannical forces.  Lewis may not have known how accurate his picture was in the Communist east.  We may not know all that is swirling in our world today, but it does feel like the subject of death is hanging in the air.

3. Everyone is saying the same thing.  The King is struck by the fact that “the Horse said it was by Aslan’s orders. The Rat said the same.  They all say Aslan is here.”  Even though he had been warned that this was a lie, everyone was repeating the same message.  There is a strange power in a common story.  It will grow its own legs and generate its own credibility.  Sometimes a coup will take over a land by force, but not always.  Sometimes it is by stealth and the subjects will carry the tale of their own downfall willingly as if what they say is true.

4. For those that see clearly, it was clearly a charade.  There in the clearing, at the peak of the hill, “there was a little hut like a stable, with a thatched roof.”  But for those who could not see clearly this charade became their focal point.  “On the grass in front of the door there sat an Ape.  Tirian and Jewel, who had been expecting to see Aslan and had heard nothing about an Ape yet, were very bewildered when they saw it.”  As readers we can see through the whole charade – don’t believe what he says, he is a fancy-dress ape with a dressed-up donkey prop!  It is frustrating when others cannot see what is plainly before them.

5. Tyrants always look silly.  When the Ape, chewing his supply of nuts, was handed the king’s sword with its belt, “he hung it around his own neck: it made him look sillier than ever.”  Did the German population wonder about the short, shouting Austrian tyrant?  Did the bigger moustache of Stalin command the respect he may have thought it should?  And what of the potential tyrants in our day?  If you look carefully, they always look silly.

6. Tyrants are always self-serving.  “Now listen to me, everyone.  The first thing I want to say is about nuts. . . . I want – I mean, Aslan wants – some more nuts.”  The squirrels had already given the Ape more than they could spare.  That’s the thing about tyrants: they take everything from the people and lavish luxuries on themselves.  Beachfront villas, fine foods, private jets.

Next time we will continue our list . . .

(Illustration by Pauline Baynes)

5 Easter Lessons from the Trials of Jesus

As we come to another Easter, our minds and hearts will be drawn back to the cross and the empty tomb.  This is the central hinge of human history, and ground zero of our faith.  As followers of Christ, we should never stray too far from his passion if we are going to follow him well, do good theology, or seek to offer hope in this world.  We are a people birthed, marked, shaped, and transformed by the cross and the empty tomb.

God gave us four Gospels, and all four essentially offer a preparatory retelling of the ministry years of Jesus, followed by a slower and more detailed account of the Passion Week.  That means we have many column inches given to other aspects of that first Easter.  As well as the crucifixion and the resurrection, we also have a lot of details about Jesus’ clashes with the authorities, the Last Supper and Upper Room, Gethsemane, and the arrest and trials of Jesus.  Let’s take just the trials, in particular.  What might we notice as we move towards another Easter?

1. The trials did not all happen in one night.  There are six trial hearings that occur between the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion.  However, the Jewish authorities had long determined that he was guilty and deserved to die.  As we read through the Gospels we find their growing animus, their utter rejection of his authority, and their determination to put him to death.  This final night of trials was the end of a process, it was not the beginning.

2. The trials are divided between the religious and the Roman.  Jesus was arrested by a group of temple guards, with some Roman soldiers added to the posse.  He was taken first to Annas for what is effectively a pre-trial hearing, then to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin during the night, and then for a brief ratification of their decision at first light.  The focus of these religious trials was Jesus’ teaching and identity.  Then the Jewish leaders took him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, for the Roman trial.  Here the focus was his threat to Roman rule, and the emphasis had to shift to political concerns.  Pilate offered a political peace offering to King Herod, a Roman-installed Tetrarch who had previously sent a complaint about Pilate to Caesar.  Herod had wanted to meet Jesus but soon sent him back to Pilate for the sixth and final trial of that night/morning.  Three religious trials.  Three Roman trials.

3. The trials feel rushed and disorganized.  The Jewish authorities had planned to arrest Jesus and deal with him before he could slip away from Jerusalem, but not during the feast.  And then, during the Last Supper, Jesus revealed to Judas that he knew about the planned betrayal.  Their secret was out, and so they rushed a plan into action.  The rush resulted in them struggling to find two witnesses that would agree in front of the defendant during the night trial, and then coming to Pilate without a clearly defined charge in the morning.  It all seems so chaotic and rushed – because it was.  They were not planning to execute Jesus on that particular day.  We can see that God’s plan for the timing required crucifixion on that particular day.  The authorities were not in control.

4. The trials helpfully point us to other key characters.  As we read through the trial accounts, we come across a number of incidental characters.  There are soldiers mistreating Jesus (quite likely to have been Samaritan conscripts, since the Jews would not have joined the Roman ranks).  There are the members of the Sanhedrin gathering in the shadows.  There is Pilate’s wife, whose dream only increases Pilate’s superstitious nervousness around this decision.  And there are some major characters too – Pilate was the most powerful man in the region.  He was used to criminals cowering and begging for mercy but was amazed at the silent strength of Jesus.  Peter had promised to die for Jesus, tried to kill for him in the garden, and then found himself in a series of mini-trials by the fire in the courtyard.  Peter wept bitterly at his failure, but Judas’ grief was different.  He was confronted by the deathly darkness of despair and plunged to his death that night.  As you read the trial accounts, notice everyone who is mentioned.

5. The trials shine a glorious light on Jesus.  And as you read the trial accounts, be sure to focus particularly on Jesus himself.  The arresting party wasn’t in control.  The mafia don of Jerusalem, Annas, was not in control.  The High Priest was not in control.  Nor Pilate the governor.  Certainly not Herod the visiting King.  No, the only one showing control, dignity, clarity of purpose, and strength of character, was Jesus himself.  Watch for when he remains silent.  Take note of what he says when he speaks.  See how he supplies the Old Testament quotes that the High Priest needed to seal the decision.  Recognize his gravitas before Pilate.  Just as Jesus’ words from the cross help to shape our theology, so should his words in these trials.  Jesus came to rescue us at such a great cost.  And Jesus came to reveal the heart of his Father with such great clarity. 

As we head into another Easter, let’s be sure to watch Jesus closely in the biblical text.  He is our humble and regal Redeemer, rescuing us and revealing God to us.  Thank God for Jesus, and thank God for the beautiful way he navigated those last hours before the cross.


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