A prayer for the prodigals

This is not a theological treatise, but a word of testimony which we share to encourage other Christians.

It was around a dozen years ago that our lives were shattered when our son’s marriage broke up and he stopped following the Lord. We felt very lonely (though dear Christian friends sought to encourage us), as it was an experience we never expected to happen in our family which had been blessed over generations with those who loved and served the Lord.

Path trod by others

As we moved through those dark days, we slowly found that others had gone down the same path and they too felt discouraged and lonely. As we visited other churches, conferences and overseas in the Lord’s work, we found more and more who wanted to share with us. Slowly we built up a circle of Christian friends who wanted to pray for and encourage each other. So we built up a prayer circle to this end.

Disciplined prayer

Persistence in prayer when you see no answer is a discipline. A prayer circle like this is an encouragement to keep on praying, believing the Lord hears and does, in his own time, answer prayer. Others formed more local prayer circles to the same end.

For some eight years we saw no changes in our loved ones, but then, a couple of years ago, we received the first good news.

First answer

One young man, brother of one of the ladies in the group, had left the Lord when his marriage broke up and was unable to continue at the church which his wife attended. As a result he became a backslider. He had now returned to the Lord. Slowly others were added to that number. An older couple, the brother and sister-in-law of one of our ladies, also came to faith. This was marvellous as it was just before the husband died. His conversion was the last in a large family of siblings.

Back to church

Recently we met a young couple who had also come to the Lord. The man had been a church worker and left the Lord; his wife had never walked with him. Now, both of them know the joy of sins forgiven. The story of their journey to faith was remarkable. One day the man said to his wife that he had been thinking for several months of returning to church. To his surprise, she had been exercised in the same way for the same period of time. They went back to the church, he returning to the Lord and she becoming a Christian. In the year or so since the first man repented, we have had eight that we have been able to ‘cross off’ our list. (We continue to remember them in these early days of their walk with God, of course).

What does this mean to us?

It is an encouragement to keep praying for the rest. When we shared the news with our prayer circle, one lady wrote that, when she heard the news, she danced around the kitchen praising God. For ourselves, we see God working in the lives of those similar to our son and take that as a promise that the Lord has not forgotten him.

How long, O Lord? That’s a question we often ask. But he encourages us to pray on, believing.

New proofs for the existence of God

Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy
By Robert J. Spitzer
Eerdmans Publishing. 319 pages. £18.00
ISBN 978 0 802 863 836

This book, by an American theologian and polymath, addresses the question of God’s existence through the prism of historic Christian logical arguments and experimentally justified scientific cosmology.

It is a strategy akin to that of William Lane Craig and similar high profile intellectual evangelicals. It is a well structured but quite tough read that rewards the Christian believer who wishes to ponder some of the deep things of God.

In mathematics and logic, all proofs begin with assumptions (axioms) that are taken as either hypothetically or self-evidently true and consequences are deduced according to accepted rules of thought. To a certain degree, the initial axioms can have a higher status than the ensuing consequences, which strikes some Christian thinkers as an upside-down procedure when it comes to justifying our belief in God — surely the supreme Axiom of thought and consciousness, as a long tradition, including Anselm, Calvin and Plantinga, affirms.

However, the rationale for arguing from the lesser to the Greater is well embedded in Christian history and has the attraction of starting from common ground between thinking people, wherever they are. But this common ground may seem more apparent than real, especially for postmoderns. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 1, reminds us how willfully devious humans can be in hiding from the face of God. Nevertheless, it is highly profitable — particularly for those already believers — to consider the two-way connections between analysis of theistic beliefs and contemporary understandings of our cosmic home and the conditions necessary for life.

A deceptively simple example is the Kalam cosmological argument. As expressed by W.L. Craig, this states:

1. All that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

A key issue is the defence of the proposition that the universe began to exist. This is well addressed by our author, in Part 1, with extensive discussion and documentation to recent scientific and philosophical literature. The Borde, Guth, Vilenkin (BGV) Theorem is introduced. This proves that all inflationary cosmologies with an average Hubble inflation greater than zero must have a beginning. Part 2 advances three major philosophical arguments for God’s existence. In explaining these, Spitzer distinguishes between Conditioned and Unconditioned Realities, and argues step-by-step: (a) that there must exist at least one unconditioned reality in all reality, (b) that this must be the simplest possible reality, (c) be absolutely unique, (d) be unrestricted, and (e) the continuous creator of all else that is. Further extensive sections follow that aim to demonstrate that such a Creator must be unconditioned in understanding and intelligibility.

In the interests of brevity, I just mention the fascinating discussion in Chapter 5 that draws upon the prohibition, by David Hilbert, the great 20th-century mathematician, against the existence of certain types of infinities (called C-infinities) or infinite past time. This points to an A-infinity, that is, a Reality that transcends both time and the axioms of finite mathematics.

After these rigorous and cogent arguments, Dr. Spitzer has a final Part 3 that complements other treatments of the attributes of God as they impinge upon our human longing for perfect truth, perfect love, perfect justice/goodness, perfect beauty and perfect home. So this volume has much to warm the heart as well as exercise and enlighten the mind. It is recommended as a book to read and re-read by well-motivated Christians accustomed to abstract reasoning and concerned for competence in high-level apologetics and philosophical theology.

Professor David Watts, 
University of Manchester and Sale Evangelical Church

Fearless love: Astounding Stories of God’s Intervention in Islamic Africa

No one comes to know Jesus except by God’s own hand. This is nowhere more evident than where believers are persecuted for their faith.

When he calls people, he gives them the faith to stand their ground, and fulfils his purpose in them.

Fatima grew up in a rural region dominated by savannah and a hot semi-arid climate, close to one of Africa’s strongest Islamic cities with a population of about ten million. In recent years, other Islamic nations have financed this city to make it a stronghold of an expanding Islamic influence on the continent.

Fatima helped her family by farming groundnuts and fetching water from the wells, and joined in annual Ramadan festivals, celebrating the original revelation of the Qur’an, and the Qurbani Eid (or Eid Al-Adha), commemorating ‘Abraham’s offering of Ishmael on the mount’. She watched as several village leaders were sponsored in different years and flown to Mecca for the annual hajj. Her region considered itself the strongest and purest Islamic region south of the Sahara, and deviations from the faith brought swift punishment.

Saved and rejected

25 years ago, when Fatima was married, she was asleep in her home when a man dressed in white appeared to her. He said: ‘I am Isa [Jesus]. I bring you truth’. She woke up the next day a new person. Her husband recognised it immediately, and threw her out of the house. Her instantaneous rejection was a great shock, but she could not go back and deny the truth. The villagers also said she must leave. She walked alone down the long hot dirt track to reach the main road to the city. The Lord comforted her and said he was sending a woman to look after her.

When she reached the tarmac road, she spotted a car pulled up by the roadside. The driver, a Christian woman, was having engine trouble. Fatima stopped to help and together they got the car started. Before this driver had set out that day the Lord had spoken to her, telling her he was sending a lady she would look after. She knew Fatima was that person and asked her if she needed a lift — quite a risk for a Christian to take unless they know it is from the Lord! So, on the first day of her new faith, Fatima was on her way to a nearby Islamic city to live with her new friend. The lady discipled her and Fatima spent a year in her home, learning the Scriptures.

Return to her village

This wonderful mentoring period was not to last. At the end of that year, an attack against Christians broke out and Fatima’s friend was among over 2,000 people murdered. However, she had sown seed into Fatima’s life that would bear much fruit. Her faith strong, Fatima returned home to her village, hoping she could spread the gospel.

Although the village community allowed her to stay, she was not reunited with her husband. For ten months she was persecuted for her faith, from beatings to being denied basic rights, such as permission to buy or rent land for farming, access to the village wells, or food beyond that which sustained her life. She grew weak under the persecution and considered renouncing Jesus.

She prayed, ‘Lord, this is not helping anyone. No one is being saved. It would spare me a lot of trouble to say I do not believe in you any more’. But the Lord answered, telling her that he had a purpose, and that she should be patient a little longer.

Asked to pray

Two months later, something happened that turned things around. One of the young women in the village had been chronically ill for a long time with an unknown disease; there was no doctor to diagnose the illness and no cure for her ailment. No treatment available helped her. The villagers called in the traditional healers, the old women with knowledge of herbs and the witchdoctors, but they could do nothing. The Islamic clerics came to pray, but this did no good.

Fatima heard the people of the village talking: ‘We will ask Fatima to pray and see if that helps’. She did not want anything to do with this — she was in enough trouble already, and if the lady was not healed when she prayed, things would get even worse for her. But the elders insisted. So Fatima went to the young woman and prayed that the Lord would heal her, in Jesus’s name. Ten minutes later, the woman, who had been bedridden for months, was up and cooking food for the people of her house. That day 64 people in the village became Christians. Fatima’s former husband was not among them. She has remained unmarried since she met Jesus.

People were being saved in nearby villages. Not all of Fatima’s disciples are open worshippers; some come at night and meet outside the villages for Bible studies.

A visit to Fatima

30 churches have now been started in this Islamic district, all overseen by this strong woman. (We know several women whom God has saved and is using to boldly spread the gospel where angels and men would fear to tread! They have kind hearts, but they are also resolute for the truth and immoveable.)

We paid Fatima a visit. En route to the village, we passed through towns where the atmosphere of aggression sent shivers up our spines as Muslims glared in our direction. A simple roadblock on our way out would easily allow them to seize our small party. But we put that out of our minds as we continued on the road which haphazardly meandered through village after village.

The anger displayed towards us seemed at harsh variance with the neat, beautiful environment. The contrast of colours made a striking setting: the tawny mud-brick huts with their thatched roofs, the lush green of the maize crops by the dusty road … Many of the villagers carried farming tools, or balanced firewood or bundles of yams on their heads, all modestly dressed in brightly-coloured flowing African clothing, the women with headscarves and the men with soft fez caps. But joy was absent from their faces, and the reality of their harsh lives was never far from our minds.

In each village we saw a mud-brick complex with a corrugated iron roof and a large cross of unfinished wood on the side of the building. These were the church meeting places that Fatima was overseeing. Her boldness and courage was (and is) highly admirable. At any time there could be an attack against this growing Christian community.

As foreign visitors, we were not in as much danger as the people there. If there was to be a negative reaction against our brief stay, it would most likely be directed at Fatima’s church after we had left, yet they were eagerly awaiting our arrival. (Indeed, the Bible college’s partnership with Fatima may help the gospel spread even more. People are impressed that international visitors come to see the Christians in their villages.)

The gathered congregation were singing when we arrived in Fatima’s home village, where an interpreter, an architect who supports her ministry, had driven for three hours to be there to help with the meeting. Some churches that are keen on missions support village pastors with motorcycles, or pay them a small wage to enable them to establish and maintain churches in outlying places. Fatima is known and respected by a few churches far off that help her in this way, assisting pastors serving in the churches she has established. During our visit we spoke to the congregation, and before leaving promised to do what we could to support the work.

This article is an extract from Fearless Love: Astounding Stories of God’s Intervention in Islamic Africa by James Andrews with Emma Newrick, published by Authentic Media (ISBN 978 1 850 789 826, £8.99), and is used with permission.

Notes to growing Christians – from David Jackman

The growing business
Several years ago, I spotted a garden centre delivery van, which ran the strap-line, ‘Our business is growing’. It seemed a slogan that could readily be adopted by any individual Christian, or church, or ministry.

The double meaning is both clever and important. We want to see the gospel growing, in our land and locality, as well as around the world, as God adds new members to his church. But we also have a responsibility to be growing ourselves, as followers of Jesus, in many dimensions and all sorts of areas of our lives and personalities. That’s our business as believers.

Contemporary issues
So, the aim of this column will be to explore contemporary issues of discipleship, in a culture that has lost its moorings along with its Christian heritage. It’s a culture where apathy is still the predominant response to evangelism, but where hostility is coming up not far behind. Yet we live still in a context of massive opportunity and we still enjoy great freedoms to be the salt of the earth, the light of Christ in the darkness, a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden (Matthew 5.13-14).
Let’s start, then, with a look at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Bible word, used in the New Testament, signifies a ‘learner’, or perhaps we would use the term ‘apprentice’. That carries the idea of two connected types of learning. The first is a body of knowledge or skill, derived from an experienced teacher, but this is also in the context of a personal relationship with the instructor, learning to become like that ‘master’ and so to graduate to becoming an expert oneself.
This is probably why Paul defines the change which the Ephesian Christians had experienced through believing in the gospel, in the unusual phrase of Ephesians 4.20 as ‘learning Christ’, almost as a casual acquaintance, but being personally committed to him as one’s life-teacher and his words as the foundation of truth, on which the whole of one’s life is to be built. As the next verse indicates, ‘learning Christ’ means hearing his words and receiving his teaching, because he is the truth in himself. Becoming a Christian is being indentured to a new master, living under a new ruler.

Such concepts tend to make us anxious about the potential loss of our freedom. After all, that was what attracted many of us to Jesus, in the first place. We know that we needed to be rescued and set free from our sin and guilt in not letting God be God in our lives, refusing to allow him his rights over us, although he is the one who gives us every breath we take. But is this not merely to exchange one slavery for another? How can he be both liberator and lord? Isn’t there an irreconcilable tension between the two?

Freedom, true and false
We do not need to fear. It is a feature of God’s creation that there are no absolute freedoms in this world of time and space. We might like to dispense with the law of gravity and be free to fly, like a bird, but don’t ask me to join you in the experiment of launching off from the church tower! You can liberate your pet goldfish from its restrictive bowl onto the vast expanse of the living room carpet, but you are condemning it to die. It can only live in water. And human beings, made in God’s image, can only live spiritually in Christ. That is the necessary condition for eternal life. For the miracle of the new birth is the implantation of the very life of God, eternal life, into our individual human consciousness.
The great gospel freedoms — from sin and guilt, judgment and hell — are also accompanied, here in this world, by the possibility of increasing victory over temptation and the down-drag of our fallen humanity, but they all depend on our ‘learning Christ’, submitting to his authority and obeying his instruction, as rescuer and ruler.

When Paul writes, ‘it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved’ (Romans 10.10), he has already defined the content of that faith in the previous verse, in the affirmation ‘Jesus is Lord’. That is the unique Christian confession, enabled only by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 15.3), which opens the door to discipleship. And it is by its practical application to our lives, day by day, that we devote ourselves to what is his business and ours — growing in Christ.

David Jackman writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
Other articles in this series include:
True contentment

What should a ministers library look like? … and a few other ideas!

Enjoy the following links!

9 Marks – What should a ministers library look like?

Gospel Coalition – Prayer as pastoral work

Good Book Company – Are we bigoted?

Desiring God – A cure for lame table prayers

Tim Challies – Four questions to help answer “Am I called to preach?”

Bob Kauflin – Can singing about the Gospel become rote?

Top tips from Tim Thornborough: Making the most of media interviews

I sat under the blazing lights of the TV studio, the presenter looking at me suspiciously.

I was the nasty, Bible-bashing evangelical, out of tune with the culture, the times and reality as he knew it. He really only had one aim. To show the world how irrelevant and bigoted I really was. I gulped nervously and tried to put on a brave smile as the red light went on and he turned to me, eyes boring into me like gimlets…

Religion is news. Big news in fact. And not just news on the national scale but on the local scene as well. Barely a day goes by without some major story in the national newspapers about church policy or a topical issue on which the Christian viewpoint is being applauded or attacked. And so it should be.

If the gospel is about the important issues of life, then Christians and churches will have views on most, if not all, of the moral and political issues that our country faces. It is a pity, therefore, that the church spokesmen who our journalists often talk with are so patchy in presenting a clear, consistent and interesting response to these questions — and, under the unflattering glare of the TV lights, are often made to look and sound like representatives of a bygone age.

Massive opportunities

Pastors and ministers of local churches may not have much opportunity to represent the biblical faith at the highest levels, but at the local level there are massive opportunities for awareness raising, outreach, evangelism and opinion formation through the local media. Local newspapers and radio are machines that gobble up information, turn it into news and spit it out again to be read and heard by thousands of people. Although our first instinct might be to fear how it could all go wrong, I want to encourage you to make the effort to get in touch with your local media for the sake of the gospel.

I worked as a journalist in various capacities for 20 years and, in this article, I want to help you understand how journalists think, and how to use the opportunities of the media to bring glory to Jesus through the printed word and over the airwaves.

What journalists really want

The story that started this piece was me on national television. It was not a pleasant experience at all, and it may be that you are reading this thinking that journalists are all like this, and that the press are to be avoided at all costs. Not so. Journalists are hard working people, who have to operate to strict deadlines. They are employed to write words to fill their columns or bulletins. Journalists are basically looking for four things.

1. A story

They are looking to report a story — an event of significance that people will find shocking, funny, interesting or important.

There will be newsworthy things happening in your church every month. It’s just a question of being able to spot what things might appeal to your local media. Your church may have a speaker visiting with an interesting history. There may be a ‘human interest story’ with a couple getting married or having a baby. There may be some church initiative or outreach event that gives the opportunity to get some positive exposure. The key is to develop the eye to spot a story that they might be interested in.

The place to start is to scan the local newspaper to see what headlines there are — not just on the front page, but buried deep inside — and then to think about how you can present that opportunity to your local journalist.

Having a story gives you the opportunity to share something of the gospel to people. Not necessarily the whole deal, but one aspect of the good news: forgiveness, a life changed through Christ, a community committed to loving action or the strength that faith in Jesus brings to life’s tough situations can all be brought out from a simple story — whether it is the opening of a church building extension or an obituary of a loved Christian.

2. Something simple

For the most part, reporters will not be Christians, and will often have no real grasp of what Christianity really is. Like most other people really. In certain hot topics like the ordination of women or the homosexual debate, Christians are often used to dealing in long complex arguments from Scripture, and reviewing long complex histories. This is not what journalists are after. They want a soundbite.

A soundbite is a short pithy quote that sums up an idea or an argument, and your greatest opportunity for getting your message across is to prepare a maximum of three key messages that you want to get across related to the news story. For the interview I was involved in on TV, I sat and wrote half a sheet of quotes, statistics and comments the night before and had them next to me on the sofa.

During the course of a short two-minute interview, I was able to use virtually everything on the sheet, whereas the other guy being interviewed came across much less strongly. Preparation pays off.

3. A source

Even if you do not have a story to share with the world, it is worth cultivating a good relationship with local journalists. They will be working on stories every day that there may be an opportunity to contribute to. Journalists are always looking for prominent local community leaders who can give them a reaction to a story.

If you are able to build a good friendship with a local journalist, they will be more likely to give you a call to comment on the closure of a local hospital, a crime or some new local event. A few tips here.

* Don’t be unremittingly negative! Christians can seem to be the ‘fun-suckers’ against change. Try to see the positive side of things and applaud them.
* If you are called by a journalist for a quote, clarify what the story is, and then offer to ring them back in ten minutes, or email your quote. This will give you the time to work at refining a clear, positive, gospel-centred message in a few words.
* Check the reporter’s deadline so that you know when you have to respond.
* Never say: ‘No comment’ — it looks like you have something to hide.
* Nothing you say to a journalist is ‘off the record’. They can legally quote anything you say to them. So don’t relax and say unguarded things after or before a formal interview.

4. Substance

Journalists are ordinary people. And like ordinary people they have assumptions about life, the church, the Christian faith, which are for the most part wrong.

Journalists will often revert to trying to fit anything you say into some typical ‘story types’ that they will be familiar with:

* The church is a dying institution (Church closes)
* Religious people are hypocrites (Vicar runs off with organist)
* Faith is irrelevant (Church debates arcane theology, but remains silent on major issues)

It’s important to remember this when talking to the media. They will make whatever you say into one of these three stories unless you take steps to prevent it. It’s not a conspiracy — it’s just human nature.

The key here is to research facts and statistics. The discussion I was involved with on Breakfast TV was about cohabitation — couples living together without being married. It’s seems to be a classic case of the church simply not recognising the modern reality that this is how people live. It makes church look irrelevant, and appears to be an open and shut case.

If it were just a sharing of opinions, nothing would have changed. One simple fact dropped into the conversation changed that. ‘Did you know that cohabiting women are four times more likely to suffer domestic violence than those who are married?’
By quoting a fact, I was able to throw doubt on their assumption, and make them, and the viewers, think there may be more to this issue than they first thought. Suddenly the Christian position didn’t seem quite so irrelevant.

Journalists are looking for substance — facts and ideas — not just opinions. Do the research to make sure you give it to them. There are great opportunities to promote and defend the faith. Use them to the glory of God.

There are lots of practical things you will need to understand about interview technique if you get the opportunity to speak on radio or appear on TV. You can google these quite easily.

Tim Thornborough – The Good Book Company

Faith matters in healthcare

Faith matters in healthcare
By Graham McAll
Christian Medical Fellowship. 192 pages. £8.00
ISBN 978 0 906 747 414

The issue of whether Christian healthcare professionals should share their faith with patients and colleagues has been highlighted by the case of a GP who has been reprimanded by the General Medical Council (GMC) for discussing his Christian beliefs with a patient. In this context a book that explores these issues is timely.

The book seeks to explore the importance of faith and worldview; to unpack how such issues can be raised with patients; how the clinicians’ own faith can be shared with patients and colleagues, and how such interventions can be used to the good of patients in a variety of situations. This is done in 21 short chapters using a collection of anecdotes from healthcare professionals as well as the author’s comments and reflections from the perspective of an experienced GP.

The chapters on the importance of exploring a patient’s faith and worldview are very helpful and illuminating. The author outlines how spiritual perspectives can affect health beliefs and outcomes — in both physical and mental health. He also looks at ways in which a ‘spiritual history’ can be taken and when this is likely to be welcomed by patients.

The author quotes from the GMC guidelines and echoes the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) advice that faith issues should be raised sensitively, with permission and respect. There are many references to how the author has been able to achieve this professionally. It is apparent that the author has extensive experience of raising spiritual matters with patients and it would have been helpful to be able to have had his wisdom and advice drawn together in one section of the book.

Sometimes the use of anecdotes without comment was less helpful, as it wasn’t always clear whether the author considered them examples to be followed or avoided. The author himself suggests these anecdotes might be a basis for discussion. Day conferences such as the CMF’s ‘Saline Solution’ days provide a setting where clinicians can discuss living out and sharing their faith in the workplace and can further sharpen their abilities to witness to Christ.

Dr. Harriet Strain, 
GP, St. Albans