John Wesley’s Advice

For some years I have had a postcard with “John Wesley’s Advice on How to Preach” sitting on a shelf.  I think one of my children gave it to me.  I thought it would be fun to work through these twelve points and ponder them together. 

Full disclosure, I have no dog in the fight when it comes to John Wesley.  I don’t feel the need to defend him, nor critique him.  So, let’s just engage with these points and see what we can learn in the process.

1. Always suit your subject to your audience.  Well, some might want to argue that since “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful…” therefore this advice is not necessary.  Just preach the Bible and it will be suitable, they might say.  Yes, 2 Timothy 3:16 is certainly true, but it does not mean that every passage of Scripture is equally useful to every set of listeners.  Some will take too much work to arrive at a point of usefulness for the listener.  For example, if I am speaking to a group of children with English as a second language who have no church background, then I probably don’t want to preach from Leviticus.  Seems obvious enough. Technically it may be useful Scripture, but for this group, it is probably not the best-suited text.  

We could restate the advice as follows, “make sure you preach to the people who are in front of you.”  Prayerfully ponder who they are so that your preaching will be suitable for them.  Think about your passage choice, your vocabulary, your manner, your demeanour, your volume, your speed . . . everything.  It would be unloving not to do so.

2. Do not preach more than twice a day during the week or three times on Sunday.  This feels a bit specific to his context.  It was a day of horse riding, handwriting and voice projection.  We live in a different world.  And yet, we are still human.  Perhaps the point still stands.  It will be tempting to do more and more because sometimes, there is more and more to be done.  We would be wise to evaluate our ministry schedules, and our tendency to accept invitations so that we know our limits.  Each of us is thoroughly capable of burning out or flaming out, so let’s think through our limits before we hit them.

Incidentally, I have been in settings where I crammed in as many teaching sessions as could fit and went way beyond these limits. Sometimes there may be a place for sacrificially serving like that, especially during a short and defined window (i.e. a conference or a visit to a place).  Even if we do that, we need to know our own capacity to give, our ability to sleep under pressure, our mental state if our sleep is less than ideal, and our recovery plan for after the event or visit is over.  And one thing is clear to me – we cannot sustain anywhere near as much as we can achieve during these brief windows of time.  Typically there will have been weeks of work prior to the conference or visit. And normal life simply needs more margin – not only for preparation, and for rest, and other responsibilities, but also margin for the unannounced encroachments that always hit us when we think we have found the perfect schedule.

We will keep going next time!

Whose Word?

The Bible is unlike any other book on earth for this reason: it was inspired by God.  Other books may be written by inspiring people or by people inspired by their subject.  But the Bible is “God-breathed” – it comes from God.  God superintended the writing process so that the original authors wrote their thoughts, in their words, in their language, and God made sure that they wrote exactly what he wanted to be written.  That is why we call it God’s Word.  (2Tim.3:16)

So when the prophets wrote their books, they did not dream up their content.  Rather, they were carried along by the Holy Spirit – he was the wind in their sails!  Again, that means that what we have in our Bibles is not just humanly authored but also divinely inspired. (2Peter 1:20-21)

This all means that our goal in reading or studying the Bible is to understand what is there.  What did the Author and the author intend to communicate?  Our job is not to be creative, or fanciful, or original.  We do not get bonus points for making up a meaning nobody has seen before.  No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say!

Check out the latest video in the Enjoying the Word series:

Say It

CH Spurgeon’s conversion is one of the great conversion stories in church history. Feeling under heavy conviction and longing to find out how to be saved, he set off for church one January Sunday morning (172 years ago tomorrow, in fact). The weather was atrocious and he couldn’t make it to his intended destination, and instead slipped into a small chapel where about a dozen people were attending. Their preacher had also been thwarted by the weather, so eventually, a thin man stood up to preach. Some have said it was the wrong preacher, in the wrong church, in the wrong weather, with the wrong congregation. Whatever, God is still God!

Spurgeon himself said, “Now, it is well that preachers should be instructed, but this man was really stupid. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say.”

Of course, the story continues. The text was from Isaiah. “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” And the message was on target for young and troubled Spurgeon, “there was a glimpse of hope for me in that text.” So the thin-looking preacher restated the text every way he could manage for about ten minutes, and then told the young guest at the back that he looked miserable and needed to look to Jesus to be saved. And Spurgeon was born again. Spurgeon often told the story and it is well worth reading.

But let’s just ponder that earlier point. “He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had little else to say.”

Three points to ponder:

1. Our job as a preacher is to say what the text says.

2. Our education does not give us something better to say than what the text says.

3. God once spoke through a donkey, so humbly say what the text says.

Looking back on that moment, Spurgeon quoted words you may have sung:

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

To read a slightly fuller version of the story, click here. (And if you want to sing the song, I enjoyed this!)

5 Reasons to Study the Bible

Some Christians seem excited about Bible study, while others seem scared of the concept.  Why should we invest time in studying the Bible?  Here are five good reasons!

1. For spiritual life.  Some years ago, I was pointed to a fascinating book about conversions in the Muslim world.  I am sure you have heard of how God is using dreams and visions to bring Muslims to Jesus.  The book’s author pointed out that when these testimonies are investigated, the dreams are a key link in a chain, but they are not the whole chain.  In each case, the person had to encounter God’s written word before coming to faith in Christ. 

When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in John 5, he shocked them by saying they did not know God or have his word in them.  These were men who spent hours in their scrolls every day.  Jesus pointed out that they thought they could find life in the scriptures themselves, but actually, those scriptures were pointing to a person – him!  (John 5:39)  As we study the Bible, it points us to Jesus.  As we meet Jesus, we find spiritual life itself.  Knowing God the Father, through Jesus the Son, is the very essence of eternal life. (John 17:3)

2. For spiritual growth.  Six times we have had the joy and privilege of bringing a newborn into our family.  Life is relatively simple for the baby.  Eat and sleep.  And those regular meals with Mum result in the biggest growth spurt of their lives (even more than a teenage boy!)  So Peter positively uses the analogy of milk to describe how the Bible will nourish us and grow us as believers.  We should long for that sustenance so we can grow spiritually.  (1Peter 2:2)

3. For spiritual maturity.  That same analogy is also used in Hebrews but in a negative sense.  The preacher to the Hebrews is concerned because these believers have not matured as they should.  Instead of solid food, they are still on a liquid diet.  Mature believers can discern between good and evil because they have been trained for the challenges of spiritual adulthood.  Where should we look for solid food if the Bible provides spiritual milk?  Still, the Bible – that part of the analogy remains consistent!  (Hebrews 5:11-14)  Have you ever met a genuinely mature believer who had arrived at that stage without a steady diet of the Bible shaping their life and character?   No, nor me.

4. For spiritual effectiveness.  We live in an era of unlimited opportunities.  Where do you go if you want thorough equipping for ministry in the church, home, and workplace?  There are so many seminars, workshops, books, courses and institutions inviting us to come along and learn.   Paul wrote to Timothy and described the God-breathed usefulness of Scripture.  It teaches, reproves, corrects and trains us.  What is the result of that biblical influence in our lives?  It is that we may be complete, equipped for every good work.  That is quite the promise! (2Tim.3:16-17)

The Bible offers us salvation, spiritual growth, maturity and equipping for all aspects of life and ministry.  Some might stop there, but there is another reason to study the Bible:

5. For spiritual delight.  Psalm 1 introduces us to the righteous man who doesn’t allow the world’s message to shape his life.  Instead, his delight is in the revelation of the Lord; on that word, he meditates day and night.  Have you ever paused to ponder the word “delight” in Psalm 1:2?  He does not merely concern himself with the message or even simply find his life instructions there.  He delights in it.  There is something about God’s very character, and therefore his inspired Word, that means we can read and study it for sheer delight.  The ultimate reason to spend time in God’s Word is not that we have to, but because we get to!  The heart of eternal joy and never-fading delight is opened toward us in the revelation of Scripture!

There are more reasons to read and study the Bible, but that’s a good starting point. 

Enjoying the Word – Introduction

New year and new project! Last year I enjoyed working through the book of Psalms on YouTube.  I hope those videos will be useful to more people this year as people choose to use them as companions in a journey through the Psalms.  And now we are into a new year and a new project: Enjoying the Word.

Enjoying the Word will be a growing collection of videos that will hopefully help people to enjoy reading and studying the Bible.  The first part of the sermon preparation process is the privilege of every believer – to spend time in God’s Word so that it gets into us and changes us.

The plan is to release short videos related to Bible reading and Bible study.  I will share a simple process to think through the Bible study journey.  I plan to release more mini-series called Pursuing God’s Heart Yourself. These short series use a single Bible book or section to illustrate important principles of biblical interpretation.  And I may work through a Bible book or two from start to finish to show the workings of healthy Bible study. 

I hope this will be helpful to you and to others you know.  Please do let me know if you have questions or ideas for videos.  And please share the resources with others too!  As videos are liked and shared, and as more people subscribe to the channel, so these videos will get in front of more people. (You can click here to subscribe to the YouTube channel.)

I am also planning to write companion posts on this blog to point to individual videos or mini-series of videos.  The subjects we will cover in the videos perfectly fit this blog, so why not?

The introductory video includes a quick look at a fantastic biblical truth!

Look Out! Preparing for ‘23!

Solomon wrote thousands of proverbs. So when he writes, “Above all else…” – that should get our attention. What is “above all else” from Solomon’s perspective? In Proverbs 4:23, he tells us: “guard your heart.”  That is huge. He recognized that the heart is the governor of all our activity, but strangely he did not simply say, “control your heart.”  If we could just control our innermost desires, then we would have no problem living holy lives (or even being successful in any other pursuit of our choosing). Perhaps at the core of our being, we are responsive to external stimuli and not simply responsible free agents who can consistently choose whatever is best. The wise advice in this section of Proverbs is profoundly important for us as we head into another year.

In Proverbs 4:20-27, Solomon urges the reader to pay attention to his wise words – looking at them and keeping them in our hearts (v. 20-21). He underlines the critical role of the heart and the need to guard it (v. 23). He urges the reader to protect themselves from careless speech or from letting their eyes get drawn aside so that they should step away from their path (v. 24-27). Above all else, in 2023, we need to guard our hearts. I believe a great place to begin is with a prayerful eye evaluation.

I have been pondering a scale to help me take stock of what is getting through my eyes and influencing my heart. It is a scale that runs from -2 to +3.

Distractedly Entertained – Level 0? Long ago, this might have involved some children playing a game in the town square or an animal behaving amusingly. It was a break from the norm. Nowadays, we have entire industries actively targeting you with entertaining distractions. Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, watching random YouTube videos about cats, men throwing CDs into a CD player, the most bizarre incidents in professional sports, and this list is designed never to end. Then there are video games, an endless Twitter stream, etc. Distracted entertainment has become a staple part of our cultural diet in recent years.

I think we can make a case for calling it Eye Level 0 entertainment because there is implicit moral neutrality to some of what distracts us. But once we consider all factors, is there really moral neutrality? Could we be hurting ourselves by believing that we can stand still in a world that is relentlessly moving away from God? Perhaps we would do well to call this entertainment Eye Level -1. The Bible does warn us about time-wasting, which can involve things that are not wrong in themselves. The average weekly consumption of distracted entertainment in our culture is stunning. Perhaps we have become more entangled than we realize. Let’s confess that entanglement and prayerfully take steps away from Eye Level -1 and the regret of lost time as we head into this new year. 

So we have Distractedly Entertained – Eye Level -1.

Sinfully Entertained – Eye Level -2. Any of the above activities can easily slide into sinful entertainment – where we seek satisfaction for sinful desires through what we watch. The classic example is pornography, an industry that has made its content far easier to access than ever before. But even without the things that a good filter will stop on your device, we can also fall into “pornographying” non-pornographic content. Perhaps we think of it as a more sanctified type of lust that does not rely on overtly provocative material – on social media, TV shows, movies, etc. And then there is envious window shopping or jealously obsessing over what the rich and famous wear and drive. There are so many contemporary forms of idolatry. “Search me and try me, O Lord…” – prayerfully ask God to show you where your distracted entertainment has morphed into something even more harmful than time-wasting.

Let’s get back to the positive end of the scale:

Intentionally Entertained – Eye Level +1.  There are legitimate uses of entertainment media. We need to evaluate prayerfully so that we don’t get sucked in by what our world is pushing us to think. However, there is a place for finding a TV show refreshing, a favourite movie can be restful, a shared football game can be social, a good book can be helpfully engrossing, etc. Where Eye Levels -2 and -1 leave us guilty, ashamed, worn down, frustrated, and empty, Eye Level +1 entertainment can be good for us. 

Informed – Eye Level +2.  In the old days, this might be found by listening to a report from a friend who has been travelling, reading the newspaper over breakfast, or watching a helpful documentary on the television. The rarity of access to information placed a premium on this commodity, but today, the situation has changed. We are bombarded with information. A well-chosen news subscription, a select list of Twitter accounts to follow, some helpful YouTube subscriptions, or a select set of blogs, etc., can be beneficial. The key seems to be planning rather than scrolling, or else we end up back in Eye Level +1 intentional entertainment, or even more likely, in Eye Level -1 distracted entertainment, or worse.

We are bombarded with the enticement to fritter away hours in Eye Levels -2, -1, +1 and +2As we get used to and dependent on technology and social media, we may even start to think that our mental health, knowledge and spirituality are to be found somewhere in Eye Levels -1, +1 and +2. Perhaps we even think that our ministry is helped and built up in Eye Levels +1 and, especially, +2. But let’s remember that there is another level.

Enriched – Eye Level +3.  There is something different about Eye Level +3. In the old days, time spent in the Book or good books was an obvious option in a world with a relatively limited range of alternatives. The significance of good reading was especially true for a serious-minded Christian, and even more so for a minister of the Word. Nowadays, this can be so easily lost. We live in a tidal wave of evil, distractions, entertainment, and information. But even if we avoid the worst of that flood, there is still a qualitative difference between being informed by a screen and being enriched by the page. Personally, I find that even reading the same author on a blog does less for my soul than spending time reading their book – is that just me?

We live in an age of hyper-distracted, entertained, and even a few well-informed, but largely unenriched people. It shows in our world today. Are we also living in a time of well-entertained and sometimes well-informed but largely unenriched believers? It shows in our churches and pulpits. So let’s do something radical. Let’s value that which enriches our souls and takes our relationship with God and others to someplace deeper than the norm.

As we head into 2023, let’s take stock of how God would want us to use our eyes this year. After all, they are an essential gateway by which we can guard our hearts.

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In 2023 I am planning to release short videos related to Bible study. God has given us a great treasure. How can we read and study it for maximum understanding, enrichment and life impact? Please subscribe to this playlist to see the videos as they are released. Please like, comment, and share any that might be helpful to others. Thank you!

Psalms Today Complete

During 2022, I decided to work my way through the Psalms. One video per Psalm. One point relating to interpreting the Psalm, and one point of relevance for today. I completed the playlist this week. I hope this can be useful to you. Please do let others know about this playlist if it might be helpful to them too.

I know some people used these videos as a companion to a personal reading of the Psalms this year, perhaps this can be useful in a similar way next year. Since the playlist is complete, it now allows that to happen at your pace instead of mine!

A Perplexing Silence – part 3

We are living in momentous times when the ethical foundations and nature of western society is being radically reshaped.  In part one, I briefly surveyed the situationIn part two, I offered three possible reasons for our relative silence as Christians – some are unaware, some are strangely unconcerned, and some are understandably overwhelmed. 

Let’s continue that list with two very important additions:

4.  Some are afraid.  There is a lot of fear in Christian ministry.  Let me put it out on the table.  It is probably better to discuss it rather than pretend it is not there:

  1. Fear of upsetting people in our church.  Every church will have people across a spectrum of political or cultural views.  Our society controls contrarian perspectives by its reaction. This mechanism is evident with gender, sexuality, race, public health, climate crisis, military conflict, etc.  Some people sit primed to be upset if we touch the wrong nerve.  It always feels safer to play it safe.
  2. Fear of upsetting Christians beyond our church.  Maybe your local church is not as diverse as the wider church.  Perhaps you can speak freely in your local pulpit without concern.  But we live in an age of online recordings.  Spurgeon used to have his sermons typed and published in newspapers. At the same time, thousands of other pastors could preach anything, and only their smaller congregation would hear them.  Today the pastor of an obscure church can be heard by someone on the other side of the world. That person might disagree vehemently and take to their keyboard.
  3. Fear of upsetting people in our society.  A decade ago, church leaders were concerned about being forced into a complicated legal situation. “What if someone asks me to perform a wedding I can’t offer in good conscience?  If that happens, then I could get in trouble.” Today, we are already in trouble with many people because of our beliefs.  We don’t have to do anything wrong; we are already wrong.  We are already guilty of wrong-think.  We hold dangerous views.  When some agent in society requires us to affirm certain things, we will already be in trouble.  This dynamic can lead not only to silence but also to participation so as not to stand out.  When Daniel’s three friends did not bow down, they stood out.  They were heroes then, but it is genuinely challenging to know when to stand out in the complexities of today. 
  4. Fear of the backlash.  Nobody wants to be in the sights of the mob.  The destruction meted out by today’s cancel culture can be ruthless and unforgiving.  The antagonistic othering of people who do not conform to society’s expectations has already become quite sinister.  In the last couple of years, I’ve seen people wishing on me imprisonment, the withholding of medical treatment, the restriction of movement, and even death.  Thankfully they did not name me specifically, but I happened to be in a class of people that were overtly “othered.” Nobody wants to face the force of that anger on any of the triggering issues.

Solzhenitsyn’s stunning warning in 1978 at the Commencement of Harvard University still rings out today.  Does it apply to us? “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.  The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.  Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling and intellectual elites, causing an impression of a loss of courage by the entire society.  There are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”

5.  The category I have not mentioned.  You may have read through these points and said, “yes, but there is another perspective.” I know.  Let me raise the common one that I anticipate.  I agree that the hope of society, indeed the hope of humanity, is the gospel.  Absolutely.  Signing petitions, participating in protests, writing to our representatives, voting one way or another, or any other political action are not the ultimate answer.  I agree.  The gospel is the answer, and we must rest in it ourselves.  Then we must also broadcast it and share it from person to person.  

But can I be candid?  I feel like sometimes we might be hiding behind a gospel-only approach.  To do so allows us to say nothing about what is going on, human rights, moral evils, etc., and thereby not face much in the way of antagonistic response.  I know exactly how to say the right Christian things to avoid criticism or backlash. I’m sure you do too.  We still have the freedom to speak Christian truths to each other, so long as we do not trip the growing number of hyper-sensitivities in our culture.  Gradually the freedom to quote Bible verses will grow ever more restrictive.  When referencing the Bible at all becomes culturally unacceptable, will we then quietly comply with that expectation too?

As Solzhenitsyn provocatively wrote in Live Not By Lies, “And as for him who lacks the courage to defend even his own soul: Let him not brag of his progressive views, boast of his status as an academician or a recognized artist, a distinguished citizen or general. Let him say to himself plainly: I am cattle, I am a coward, I seek only warmth and to eat my fill.”

I do not quote that to point only at others.  I fear that I can too quickly be part of the herd too.

In closing, my mind goes to two scenes:

  1. The best burger I can remember.  I sat with another pastor enjoying both the burger and the conversation.  We were both expressing the same thought.  It isn’t easy to prepare people for what seems to be coming in our society when we are not allowed to mention what is coming.  In my preaching and social media, I can make every public statement both gospel-centred and relatively safe.  But the gospel has always been radically counter-cultural. And as culture pivots away from a Judeo-Christian ethical basis, the gospel will only become more radical. Many people in the church are not prepared for a world that is overtly antagonistic and institutionally persecuting them for their beliefs.
  2. That congress.  The film, Tortured for Christ, begins with the “Congress of Cults” that brought together religious leaders in Romania in 1945.  Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor, sits with his wife listening to the leaders praising the “progress” brought by the new Stalinist regime. Then he spoke out. We could just as easily go back to the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany a few years earlier. It is hard to speak out when almost nobody else does. I know some Christian leaders are taking a stand today and speaking out on various issues. I am thankful for them. But I also see that many are already choosing to play it safe. We aren’t in the 1930s or 1940s, but we are in the 2020s. How can we be so sure this decade will not prove equally significant?

As we come to the end of the year, we also may be coming to the end of an era.  One last quote from Solzhenitsyn, “If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era.” If we were not at a major historic watershed in his day, it feels like we are now.  So, let’s all pray for wisdom, insight, courage, and strength as we head into 2023. Let’s not take part in the lie. We need a spiritual blaze.  God has put us all here for such a time as this.

A Perplexing Silence – part 2

In part one of this post, I considered how we seem to be living in momentous times.  The very foundations of western society are facing an all-out attack that threatens to completely transform the world as we know it.  Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie.  One word of truth outweighs the world.”  He released Live Not By Lies on the day he was arrested and then exiled to the West.  It was written to a people worn down by decades of Communist rule who felt so helpless and lacking the strength to stand and fight the system. 

Today we are not decades into a totalitarian regime, but we may be on the front porch.  Too many are already silently complying with the moral demands of the mob that seeks to rule and transform our society.  There are voices who are speaking truth, fighting evil, and taking unpopular stands.  But as we come to the end of 2022, I am wondering why there are not as many Christian voices as we might expect.

So why are we often so silent?  Here are some possible reasons:

1. Some are unaware. We live in an age with more information available than ever before. Still, it seems easier than ever to switch off current news or at least to switch off some perspectives on current news. It is emotionally draining to try and take in all that is going on. There is wisdom in choosing how much we expose our hearts to difficult news. Deliberately or accidentally, some of us are unaware of the seismic shift occurring under and in western society.

In his Warning to the West, Solzhenitsyn wrote provocatively about the ignorance he saw in that era, “It is astonishing that Communism has been writing about itself in the most open way, in black and white, for 125 years, and even more openly, more candidly in the beginning.  The book [The Communist Manifesto], for instance, which everyone knows by name and which almost no one takes the trouble to read, contains even more terrible things than what has actually been done.  It is perfectly amazing.  The whole world can read, everyone is literate, yet somehow no one wants to understand.  Humanity acts as if it does not understand what Communism is, as if it does not want to understand, is not capable of understanding.” 

The kind of societal transformation agendas I am concerned about today are published online and in print.  They do not get called out for what they are by the media, but they do not hide.  And yet, so many remain unaware.

Furthermore, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, “All Communist Parties, upon attaining power, have become completely merciless.  But at the stage before they achieve power, it is necessary to use disguises.” Some thinly disguised versions of communist-like totalitarianism still fool many these days.

2.  Some are unconcerned.  Most Christians are worried about specific issues when mentioned in conversation.  However, many seem unconcerned that the news and social media keep them in the dark about such matters.  It is genuinely bizarre that people seem content to have information proactively silenced, suppressed, or hidden.  I can only hope they are unaware of the extent of the narrative control rather than truly satisfied with it.

I remember hearing about a Christian ministry seeking permission to sell books in a one-religion country some years ago.  They were given permission but told not to sell Bibles to people of that religion.  When they asked how to know whether someone was from that religion or not, they received simple instructions.  They had to put the Bibles behind a curtain with a sign that read, “Not for people of religion X.” They readily agreed, and the Bible was the bestseller, of course!  We all know human nature causes us to ask questions when we are not allowed to see something.  But human nature seems to have morphed in the last few years.  Now it seems that people are happy to have everything pre-filtered by unknown ideologues with undisclosed guidelines sitting at a keyboard somewhere. 

Underneath a relaxed attitude to censorship, there lies complacency.  Since we cannot imagine foreign troops marching on our streets, we believe our society is immune to any takeover.  Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “There is always this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”

Perhaps we should be more concerned about living in a controlled and crafted narrative.

3.  Some are overwhelmed.  It does not take long to find enough information to overwhelm your heart.  There is a heaviness to living through history.  As I read the Gulag Archipelago, my heart breaks for what so many suffered while the West remained unaware.  That weight only increases when you think of the people who have experienced Communism and are now issuing warnings to us in the West.  History is heavy.  History being repackaged and repeated is heavier still.

Solzhenitsyn in his commencement address to Harvard: “Humanism which has lost its Christian heritage cannot prevail in this competition.  Thus during the past centuries and especially in recent decades, as the process became more acute, the alignment of forces was as follows: Liberalism was inevitably pushed aside by radicalism, radicalism had to surrender to socialism, and socialism could not stand up to Communism.”

In Part three I will conclude this list with two more, perhaps the two most important, reasons for this relative and frankly, perplexing, silence.

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I would recommend reading Live Not By Lies, by Solzhenitsyn.  It is a quick read, but it is gold.  https://www.solzhenitsyncenter.org/live-not-by-lies

A Perplexing Silence

As we come to the end of 2022, I want to share a series of three posts with you.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings have been swirling in my mind, as has a single tweet from a few weeks ago.  A massive body of work and a lengthy sentence separated by a few decades yet resonating together.

As you may have noticed, there is always something going on in the news.  Of course, not every story is genuinely momentous.  Perhaps you can remember the end of 1989? The Tiananmen Square protest and massacre had happened earlier in the year.  As the end of the year approached, Hungary proclaimed the end of communist rule, the Berlin Wall came down, and Bulgaria’s long-serving leader resigned.  Apartheid rules were changing in South Africa.  Student demonstrations in Prague started the velvet revolution.  President Bush (senior) and Gorbachev declared the cold war over. Romanian dictator Ceausescu was ousted and then executed on Christmas Day.  The news was fascinating, and everyone knew we were watching history unfold.

How will we look back on our current time?  There have always been news stories, but some news cycles feel more significant. We live in a season of swirling stories – some are featured and polished for maximum coverage.  In contrast, others seem to be painstakingly discounted, twisted or buried.  For instance, and in no particular order:

  • The Ukraine war is stirring the threatening language of Armageddon from global leaders.  At the same time, celebrities fly into Kyiv for photoshoots with the president.
  • Many social media platforms restrict free speech.  However, the media dismiss new revelations of illegal government influence on Twitter as irrelevant.
  • Critical Race Theory is fundamentally shifting every academic discipline, business practice and even whole Christian denominations.
  • Excess deaths remain way above the pre-covid five-year average, or even the pandemic year, when daily and total death counts were constantly before our eyes.  And yet, asking why this is happening seems to be socially unacceptable.
  • Protests and legal wrangling over possible election fraud rumble away in various countries.  Reporting suspicious behaviour results in being labelled an election denier and a threat to democracy.
  • “Fourth Industrial Revolution” ideas derided as conspiracy theories only two years ago are explicitly promoted by proponents today.
  • One western government is confiscating thousands of farms because of the climate crisis.  And we are all required to pay the bill for Net Zero plans that may or may not make any difference to the projected catastrophe.  Again, don’t question it, or you will be labelled a denier!
  • There is a push for digital id and digital currency, a checkpoint society with a Chinese-style social credit system that will replace fundamental freedoms with earned privileges.
  • In another western country, Euthanasia is being promoted, celebrated and normalised with increasingly ineffective controls.
  • Children are being sexualised and offered life-changing surgery and puberty blockers. At the same time, parents are increasingly pushed out of the conversation.
  • And in the last few days, a woman was arrested and questioned by police about whether she was silently praying in a particular location here in England.  

There are many swirling issues, but we must step back and ask about underlying issues. We are living through a fundamental reshaping of the ethical foundations and the nature of the society built on them.  In the past, there was rebellion against the generally accepted Judeo-Christian ethic underlying western civilisation (e.g. think of the sexual liberation movement of the 60s/70s).  Today we see the replacement of that ethic with an entirely new moral code.  We also observe the culture militantly enforcing compliance so that everyone is required to not only tolerate but also proactively participate in and promote the new moral order.  A dictator enforces their will by sheer power, but a totalitarian tyranny seeks to control everything, even what subjects think.

Solzhenitsyn is both enlightening and provocative.  He warned the students of Harvard in 1978: “There are telltale symptoms by which history gives warning to a threatened or perishing society.  Such are, for instance, a decline of the arts or a lack of great statesmen.” I am no art critic, but I suspect many would agree that we are experiencing something of a decline.  And when did we last see a political leader in that category?  We live in a threatened, perhaps even perishing society.

I mentioned a tweet at the start of this post.  On November 18th, Owen Strachan wrote, “Christian men: it’s not Tucker Carlson, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Elon Musk or other conservative (or just not super-left) voices who should be known for speaking the hard truths, fighting what is evil, taking unpopular stands, and promoting what is good. It’s us.” (We might add a few more names in the UK, like Calvin Robinson, Neil Oliver, Douglas Murray, etc.)

I’ve been pondering that tweet.  I know one of these men I added is a clergyman, but the point is well made.  I also know that merely stating any of these names will cause some to react negatively to this post.  That shows society’s shift from yesteryear, when people used to think and discuss provocative ideas, to today’s hair-trigger dismissal and antagonism.  I might disagree with soundbites from all of these people because of their content or tone. Still, I must be willing actually to hear the points they are making and engage thoughtfully. 

Honestly, I find myself regularly prompted to think, investigate, pray and take action based on monologues by Neil Oliver, interviews by Joe Rogan, books by Douglas Murray, and tweets from Jordan Peterson.  But then, when I look at my feed of Christian leaders?  Honestly, with some exceptions, it can often feel disengaged, out of touch and sometimes eerily silent on contemporary concerns.  It makes me think of that famous quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie.  One word of truth outweighs the world.”  Yes, there is plenty of biblical truth in the social media voices of Christian leaders that I follow.  But I fear our silence on some matters might mean we are inadvertently starting to take part in the lie.

In part two I will share some reasons for this perplexing silence.