Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I hope you will forgive the reflective tone of this letter. I have been reflecting! If you are friends with me on Instagram or Facebook, you will have noticed I have a new hobby! Taking photos of flowers. I’ve never really been that interested in flowers – like many I was just glad they were there, and occasionally I bought some for my wife. But recently in walking around some areas of Sydney, my eyes have been opened to the astonishing variety and beauty of this particular aspect of God’s creation. So far, I think this one is my favourite – the colour and texture is beautiful. And I love the Trinitarian symmetry!
I don’t know the names, the details or indeed anything – I just appreciate the beauty. These flowers tell me about God. (Romans 1:18-20). Sometimes, in the old Scots saying, it’s better felt than telt.
The Rainbow Church?
In God’s creation there is beauty, variety and harmony. That surely should be the same for the Church. I am increasingly concerned that in the Church we are becoming far too like the world. We are like those secular groups which talk a lot about diversity and equality, but don’t practice it. The Church should be colourful – we should be a rainbow church. I realise in the symbolism of today there are many of us who would be uncomfortable with that – because the rainbow has been hijacked by those who want to teach the very sin that the rainbow was a sign of judgement (as well as grace) against. But we should never let the devil determine what the agenda is. The rainbow is a glorious symbol of God’s creativity, beauty, grace, power and divine nature. When we reject that we bring the wrath of God against us – (read the rest of Romans 1!).
But far too many churches are in danger of becoming monochrome, black and white, parodies of what the Church should be. We build structures, create systems and develop methodologies which forget that the church is a body, not a robot; a family, not a corporation; a beautiful mess, not a perfect formula. None of which is to argue against structure, system, and method – but rather to argue that these are the means, not the end.
The Odd One Out?
After a tough week, I have been reflecting on this from a personal perspective. Have you ever felt that you are the odd one out? That somehow you don’t just fit? And we all want to fit, to belong, don’t we? I know that there are some who crave the role of the rebel, the misfit, the revolutionary who upsets people. But it’s not a good craving. We were created to be in harmony and fellowship with other human beings – and together with God.
This past week there were two things I wrote and two videos I recorded which I knew would bring a backlash – I just did not expect it to be so spiritual. First there was this article for Christian Today https://theweeflea.com/2021/11/02/the-church-has-something-distinctive-to-say-about-climate-change-if-only-it-would-say-it-ct/
Then all Hell broke loose when I spoke about Hell here –
CS Lewis says that he never doubts a doctrine so much as when he has just defended it in public. I generally agree with that – except that whenever I speak on Hell (which is not that often) it’s as though the forces of Hell are let off the chain!
The ASK podcast with Bishop Rod Chiswell followed – again it was such a joy to share with him – but how could someone so gentle arouse such hostility?! The ASK Podcast 4 – Being the Bad Bishop – with Rod Chiswell
And then there was a fierce reaction to this response piece on Eternity – https://theweeflea.com/2021/11/06/is-the-climate-change-debate-over-eternity/
I don’t know why – but the level of anger , abuse and accusation – even from Christians – shocked me. I don’t mind being wrong (actually that’s not true – I do mind being wrong – it hurts my pride – but I get over it!). I do mind being personally attacked. Perhaps because I know that such attacks can far too easily become an established narrative and harm your reputation.
The Desire to Belong
We all desire to belong. When I lived in Easter Ross, I remember my first day at Tain Royal Academy (forget the rather grand sounding name, it was just an ordinary standard Scottish secondary school – although in those days the standard was pretty high!). I had heard all the horror stories about first years getting their heads ducked in the toilet – amongst other initiatory rites. I really wanted to fit in. So, what remained of my English accent quickly disappeared and when I was asked by the boy sitting beside me, ‘what do you think of the Beatles’ – I said I loved them – even though I had never heard them. I immediately went home and found out as much as I could – and that is how my genuine love of the Beatles started! Peer pressure.
The Failed Preacher?
When, much to my shock, I found myself as a young man in the Free Church College, training to be a minister in a denomination I had just joined, I was quite terrified at the prospect of being a Free Church minister. My first summer as a student was spent in the furthest West point on the Scottish mainland, Ardnamurchan point. I loved the six weeks there. But I really doubted that I could fit into the ministry – especially in the Free Church. I went to see Prof Douglas Macmillan (who coincidentally came from Ardnamurchan) and told him that I was thinking of giving up. When he asked me why I told him: “I don’t think I can preach – and I certainly can’t preach like you. I can’t shout!”. He laughed – we were in the ‘smokers’ room in the College (yes there was one!) – and replied: “David, I wish I didn’t shout. Don’t copy me. You must just be yourself.” I listened and from that day I determined just to be that – however uncomfortable that was – even when I didn’t like my ‘self’!
Which Tribe Do You Belong To?
It’s not always easy. For me it has meant that in today’s world I find it difficult to belong to any of the tribes – even within the Church. After I had the somewhat unusual experience of speaking at the Clan gathering in St Andrews (Scotland’s biggest charismatic event), another speaker, R T Kendall came to see me – (we also had him preach in St Peters – the first and only time I have seen a psalm singing congregation filled with hand raisers!). He asked: “Where do you come from? What tribe do you belong to?”. After some reflection I had to admit “I don’t really belong to any tribe…perhaps my Church (I was an optimist!)…I’m the kind of person who gets invited to speak at conferences once!”. (That could of course have been because I wasn’t that great a speaker!).
Again, he gave me some advice which was really helpful: “That’s a great advantage and disadvantage. I belong to two tribes, the Reformed and the Charismatic. That means I get invited to certain conferences and my publisher knows there is a readership for what I write. Your disadvantage is that you don’t have that – you don’t have the support of those kind of networks. But the great advantage is that you are beholden to nobody! You can say what you want. I thought you were really courageous at Clan – saying things that the leadership needed to hear – but then I realised that you didn’t actually know what you were saying – you were just teaching the Bible. That’s a great freedom “. Its not that I didn’t care what people thought – I didn’t know!
Please understand – I’m not claiming to be some kind of Martin Luther figure. (Here I stand I can do no other). Nor am I Elijah (I am the only one left!). I’m just stating that trying to be true to who you are, with all your faults, sins and mistakes; and remain true to the Word of God; comes at a price. Especially in today’s world where networks are all pervasive and image is so important. Social media also allows your reputation to be trashed both by yourself and others! When your ministry depends on being an open book so that you can teach The Book – it is difficult.
An Unforgiving Culture
That is made all the worse when your own personal sin, arrogance and pride get in the way. Although there are also cultural issues here. As Douglas Murray has pointed out – we are such an unforgiving culture. One mistaken word spoken years ago – can condemn you for life. I recall being spoken to by a woman who told me that she and her husband were considering leaving the Church because of a mistake I made. I admitted I was in the wrong (because I was!) but suggested that we should not adopt the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy of the world but instead go with Jesus’s seventy times seven! (Matthew 18:21-22). I suggested I had another 489 chances! But then I saw her face and realised I wasn’t even going to get the three strikes! They left. Badly.
The trouble is that in an unforgiving, social media, network culture – where everything you say in public is online forever – you will eventually end up alienating everyone – unless you either say nothing or are totally bland! I was approached by someone at a conference here; “Are you the Wee Flea? I read what you write but I don’t agree with everything”. I said “I write the Wee Flea and I’m not sure I agree with everything!” The point is that whereas in biblical culture ‘the wounds of a friend are faithful”(Proverbs 27:6), in todays culture ‘the wounds of a friends are fatal’ and immediately your friend becomes your enemy!
My culture/personality is to speak out, challenge and question – expecting that I will get things wrong – but knowing that you sometimes learn more from your errors than you do from being right! Bitter experience is a great teacher! I have lost count of the number of times I have been advised not to say things, question or challenge. “Such and such a leader won’t like that….”. Whilst we should have no desire to be rude or unnecessarily provocative – and should always recognise the limitations of our knowledge – we cannot be guided in what to say by whether influential people will like it or not! The preacher in the first instance, has an audience of one – God!
In this regard that is why I tried to encourage St Peters to be a church for the outsiders. Biblically we are all odd. I guess my motto was ‘odd man, woman and child – in!’ That of course meant that there were people in the Church who were not like me, did not agree with me and maybe didn’t even like me – but thats’ the point. It’s not my church. It’s Christ’s. It’s not my way or the highway. It’s His way or the highway!
Christ – the Ultimate Odd One Out
Perhaps one more reflection. Paul was the odd one out. But so was Judas! Yet again there was no one more odd than Christ. He just didn’t fit – at times not even in his own family! (Mark 3:21). Yet when we follow him, we belong to a band of brothers (and sisters!). In the days to come I suspect that as the churches and denominations are continually shaken; as we face up to being the bad guys in an increasingly hostile society; we are going to discover that all our networks and tribes are ultimately meaningless – we need to stick together as the family of God. We are in a storm, and we need the crew to be on board! None of us is the captain – there is only one captain of our salvation. (Hebrews 2:10). None of us is ‘the boss’ – there is only one Lord and head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). None of us has it sorted – none of us is strong – and none of us can stand on our own.
I leave you with the beautiful thought I read this morning from Thomas Manton in his sermon on Isaiah 53:1 – He speaks of over confidence in those who are troubled by their sin – and too easily think they can deal with it – without having the desire for holiness. “We must be directed to a better course, and that must be only by Jesus Christ. It is a sign we are guilty of this self-confidence when we resolve upon a better life, and do not think how unable we are for it. Great resolutions are always vain, unless joined with the consideration of our own weakness. The people of God have promised much, but always it is with the concurrence of Christ.”
Your brother in Christ
PS. Speaking of tribes. Not only is that seen in denominationalism but also within denominations and also churches. Sometimes we find our identity in the divisions. In the midst of our Free Church troubles in the 1990’s I was speaking at a commission of the Assembly in Edinburgh when a minister stood up and challenged me with the question “How long have you been a Free Church minister?”. The clerk of Assembly, Prof John L Mackay, ruled it out of order. But I asked to respond as it was an aggressive and damaging question essentially saying ‘you are an incomer, you don’t belong, keep silent”. I pointed out that I had been a Free Church minister over ten years (more than my accuser) and that the Church was not about background or upbringing, but rather it was the Church of Christ – governed by him, not tradition. But that is an example of the ‘you’re not from round here, are you’ tribalism that exists everywhere. I recall in Mississippi hearing some very nice ladies in a church stating that the new visitors they had seen that day would not be back because they were not PLUS (People Like Us)!
Of course we will often gravitate to those who are like us. That’s not wrong. But what is wrong is to make the church in our image – not His. We don’t get to choose who belongs – Christ does. We may have our ideals – he has his people.
PPS. I just read this which seems apposite…”Today any evangelical who demurs from the cultural consensus will almost certainly be viewed as a rebel, perhaps even a subversive, and almost certainly as irrelevant and out of it.” (David F. Wells – God in the Wasteland – p.59