Saturday, 7 July 2018

Bible study on Difficult Times - Isaiah 6.6 and 2 Timothy 3.3

A Bible study delivered in Villar Pellice, Piedmont, 26/27 June 2018

Biblical Christians in Western Europe are living in the ‘difficult’ times predicted by the Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 3. Many feel that accumulating pressures are reaching a crisis point, that a period of reflection is required to prevent confusion and loss of confidence in the Gospel turning into apathy and ineffectual ‘drift’ from faith.

We live, in Europe today, in an aggressively secular world. We see its flaws in the relentless ‘Machine’ of society, in its over burdened and often crumbling services, in its pollution, in mental illness, in its alienation, in its broken families and relationships, in the abuse and in the broken promises of politics. We lament the loss of trust and respect. More and more, we cannot see how Christianity offers solutions relevant to this over-complex society.

Where is a clear Biblical analysis to the modern world? What options are there for committed Christians offended by it? Should they be preparing their own ‘safe spaces’ of escape, fleeing to self sufficiency in the Alps? We are in a historic period of decline and decadence which all civilised societies reach when their core values break down, due to properity. Attachment to customs, national identities and traditions plus individualism fracture society and threats arise from unsatisfied minorities within them, or from less civilised neighbours.

We attempt here to analyse the driving force of modern Europe. It is ‘Self’. We show how the Bible teaches that ‘Self’ enthroned (which is the essence of ‘sin’) leads to collapsing core values and disintegration  We propose that the right response lies in presenting the Gospel as ‘Shalom’: the restoration of a right relationship to God, to others and to the Earth.  These are pressing issues and worthy of serious and extended debate as Christians are being demoralised by messages such as accusations of ‘Fascist’ attitudes in Christian standards of holiness, by having to fight for equal freedom of expression and by being singled out for attacks on religious freedom taken for granted until recently.

Biblical Christians may be small in numbers but we know that God works through weakness and that the church of Jesus Christ cannot be ‘overcome’. Believers need to regroup and refocus on what Christianity has to offer to Western society and discuss how to spread its vital message. Understanding modern society through by the Bible is where to start.

If we interpret modern Europe in the light of the Bible, it is under a righteous God‘s judgement. According to Scripture, a day of reckoning and chastening will be visited on nations who have rejected the Word and laws of God, both individually and en masse. What happens to this generation happens also to the Christian believers in it. Those taken hostage to Babylon included both the true seed of David and unbelievers. God-fearers feel nervous.

We recognise a similar situation described in Isaiah 6:6-13. People had turned away from faith to idols, pleasure and decadence. Their society is not just in chaos but on the verge of total destruction. Isaiah is called to preach judgement on a rebellious people.

“I heard the Lord’s voice, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am. Send me!”. He said, “Go, and tell this people, ‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand. You see indeed, but don’t perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.Then I said, “Lord, how long?” He answered, “Until cities are waste without inhabitant, houses without man, the land becomes utterly waste, and Yahweh has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many within the land. If there is a tenth left in it, that also will in turn be consumed, as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stump remains when they are cut down; so the holy seed is its stock” (Isaiah 6:6-13 WEB).

God commands the Isaiah to continue to warn the people of coming disaster, not to desist until the cities are waste and without inhabitants who had been slain or carried away as prisoners and slaves. This outcome seems unlikely, in our times. Are we like the over-confident first class passengers on The Titanic who never imagined that they were about to strike a deadly iceberg? The wrath of God can permit unexpected forces to destroy whole societies in days. For example:
  • a cyber attack on our energy Grid could create devastating social breakdown. Our cities without power water or food would descend in 48 hours into violence and murderous anarchy 
  • a collapse in the global economic system, which ressembles an illusionary Ponzi scheme, could take us back to the1930s, in weeks 
  • a natural disaster such as a meteor strike, an earthquake in Las Palmas, a super eruption in the Bay of Naples or a bird flu pandemic could devastate the environment and kill millions of people 
  • a chemical weapons attack could create mass panic 
  • a sudden war out of the blue as in August 1914, is always possible. 
The most likely threat is that Europe will become fractured, divided internally, ineffectual and ungovernable. We see hints of it today in various countries which are at war politically, internally. But we are not sitting in ‘the signal box of time’: we cannot predict how God chastises those who reject His will and how long He gives them to repent beforehand. At any rate, Europe is living in a period of ‘grace’ if we believe the messages of the Bible. Jonah preached to Ninevah and it repented in just such a period of grace.

Spiritually, we are in a similarly precarious position. It is likely that Christians could be openly persecuted and marginalised within a few years, unable to work in some professions, driven from politics, teaching, public service and even the apostate churches. The irony is that Christians hold many of the solutions to the imbalances and disorder we see in European society today. These imbalances are manifesting themselves today in the prevalence of mental illnesses, crime, self harm, suicides, chronic anxiety, widespread addiction to drugs and alcohol, loneliness in young and old and family breakdown which has taken such huge toll in capital and human suffering.

At the same time as Christianity is under severe attack for holding to Biblical standards from inside the church. Islamisation with its unitary forcefulness is offering an alternative for those seeking a commitment to a religion of works.

It could be said that the biblical church in Western Europe is already ‘the stump’ in the text in Isaiah (above). For over two hundred years, the church has endured a multiplicity of massive attacks and pressures, ongoing attacks on every side. These have come from the Enlightenment, from Darwin, from science, from the two socialist reactions to Marx (communism and fascism), from mobility, materialism, higher German criticism, from culturally Marxist politics, rampant capitalism and a hierarchy of human rights. Two World Wars fought with industrial weapons of war seriously weakened the faith of millions in Europe. The Sixties youth experiment of free love further depleted the Church’s moral messages and authority.

Today, Christian standards of holy living are being branded as 'Fascist' by the misguided secular activists whose agenda is tolerance of everything that the Bible condemns. Easier divorce, single parents and female financial independence (which let’s agree is welcome) has changed the traditional family unit that has been at the heart of the continuity of Western Christianity. There is seriously false teaching in many churches, ranging from liberalism, questioning of the Bible’s truth, to over-emphasis on feeling and healing, to fashionable politics. All this has distorted the Gospel and further fragmented denominations and fellowships.

Some church members have been badly hurt, abandoned and failed by either false, uncaring or weak churches that they prefer to worship in their own homes. Yet the true Church still has a powerfully healing message of community, restoration and wholeness through a living relationship with God, through the Cross. This has never been more needed since alienated, empty, hurting, confused and struggling people need Christ. People are desperately seeking for deep meaning, significance, a sense of identity and community, at just the point when the Church has been left a ‘weak stump’ in the fracturing nations.

Question: Why is the Church so weak today? Can we do anything about it and if not should we recall that God uses the weak to effect His purposes?

The Scriptures reassure Christians that God will leave a ‘stump’ in the land, a holy seed true to His Word through whom new shoots will spring up since the Church of Christ will never be overcome or vanquished. But let's be honest: the clear aim of some politics is to outlaw and then destroy the true Gospel.

Key pressures on the church are false teaching in the church and the secular values outside it. They both derive directly or indirectly from a) capitalism and b) secular ideologies.  This article does not to suggest that Socialism or Maxism are viable political alternatives, simply that capitalism, the prevailing system is not a sufficient value system for wellbeing and the life of the spirit.

Capitalism tends to turns life into a fierce individualist competition for money and power, resulting in clear winners and losers. For the ‘losers’, life is just an (unequal) battle for day-to-day survival, especially for the elderly, isolated, infirm, those with chronic health conditions and disabilities. Zero hours contracts and job insecurity even if jobs are available, much depends on forces outside the individual’s control, such as world prices, market forces and competitiveness. For the ‘winners’, life soon becomes disconnected from the life of the masses. The so-called √©lite, through their endless international travel and transnational communities despise the rooted masses and even speak dispargingly about their ‘stupidity’ and ‘appetites’ which is leading to the breakdown of trust, respect and relationships. Money and success are seen as far more desirable rather than the values of The Sermon on the Mount. These are now completely ignored as being counter capitalist and dangerously counter cultural. Economists say : The Sermon on the Mount does not work economically.

Secular ideologies have an agenda which is largely hidden from and incomprehensible to the more rooted masses. It is aimed at One World Government (globalisation) which undermines one of the key needs of alienated people which is for identity and significance. Liberalism is now having more difficulty making its message appealing.

A second major challenge for the church are worldly messages massively promulgated through the media, which in one way or another derive from capitalism. They are mostly half truths supporting capitalism and jobs, not aimed at developing spirituality but depleting it (which is not fully recognised).

a) ‘Money and brand new things make you happy and fulfilled’ (supports the economy);
b) ‘Unless you travel constantly and globally and use advanced communications such as Twitter you are not an interesting person with any serious status’ (supports cars, planes, travel and comms industries);
c) ‘Ever more advanced technology is the solution to many of today’s problems’ (supports new industries and creates jobs);
d) ‘If your spouse is preventing you doing what you really want to do, move on’ (supports housebuilding, legal and leisure industries);
e) ‘Accolades, titles and coverage in the media are more important than the content of your character or the real value of your work’;
f) ‘You must entertain yourself every waking hour using mobile devices lifestyle’ (supports high tech industries);
g) ‘Life is for pleasure’ (supports travel and leisure industry).

All this activity leads to profits being made, jobs and money changing hands. But it also leads to hyper consumption, plastic pollution, waste and long term damage to the environment. Christian teaching reverses this vision. In the New Testament, the love of money is the root of many kinds of evil. Those honoured in Heaven and who inherit the earth are the meek, not consumers, the rich and the well-travelled. People and duties to family members are not disposable. Martyrdom has the highest status. We are not primarily to give pleasure to ourselves, but to God. God and the Gospel not technology is the answer to our issues. The true Christian ideal could not be more unlike the modern ideal.

Nevertheless, many who call themselves as Christian are just as worldly as secular people, notably those who believe in the so-called Prosperity Gospel (which falsely claims that faith makes you healthy and wealthy). Yet the genuine Christianity of self denial and service is the scaffolding on which our long term civilisation is sustained. This paradox creates a huge chasm between the ideal modern lifestyle and what is required of a believer. The latter is self-giving service to God and others that seeks no worldly glory, or reward. What could be further from the monetary values of today?

Question: Should true Christians be preparing to flee the world of consumerism and pleasure to set up monastic style informal communities? Or should they more strenuously expose the false values around them in speech and in lifestyle?

Question: A key issue in the light of the fake values and the robotic emptiness of modern life is that people are not responding to the true Gospel which delivers true values and life? Is this because Christians are perceived as not being different enough to be persuasive? Or is it that people can neither see nor hear the truth?

In 2 Timothy 3:1-9 we read about the ‘difficult times’ in an age just like our own. It says:
“But understand this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, savage, opposed to what is good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, loving pleasure rather than loving God. They will maintain the outward appearance of religion but will have repudiated its power. So avoid people like these. For some of these insinuate themselves into households and captivate weak women who are overwhelmed with sins and led along by various passions. Such women are always seeking instruction, yet never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people – who have warped minds and are disqualified in the faith – also oppose the truth. But they will not go much further, for their foolishness will be obvious to everyone, just like it was with Jannes and Jambres”.
Incidentally, people ‘insinuating themselves into households’ is happening today and the medium is television.

St Paul says such people are ‘fools’, by which the Bible does not mean they are stupid but guilty of rebellion against God. The cause of false values is not capitalism and its various needs but selfishness. People are ‘lovers of themselves’, not lovers of God or one another. An example is public servants who are no longer motivated to help people but to further their own career ambitious, just like ‘career politicians’. The ideal of self-sacrifice and loyalty has seriously weakened. Self advancement is largely admired today because it leads to power,status and material wealth which is the pursuit of almost everyone.

It is selfishness that abandons elderly parents and treacherously breaks the ties of duty contract and relationship. At its root is treachery, the breaking of an unspoken or spoken undertaking oath or promise. Politicians who promise policies during election campaigns to gain power and then fail to deliver are acting treacherously. The outcome of these now common behaviours is a catastrophic loss of trust, across society.

The passage in Timothy says that rebels against God’s ordained order are also against what is good for people’s wellbeing. They think they know better what people should be and do than God who created them. Today, our 24/7 working society has lost its entire balance. It lacks natural rhythm and the sense of harmony that blesses and nourishes minds and bodies. The result is chronic stress and anxiety, often leading to addictions, such as alcohol. Today many people are too busy with too little support, in particular working women. Part of the problem is mobile communications, which double the speed of life. A fixation on technology, turning relaxed and private hours and family time, which should be used for serving people turns time into Facebook postings and Twitter messages, giving  instant reactions to news items.

Question: What is driving such an increasingly frenetic lifestyle and these instant reactions? Surely Christians should be assessing everything slowly in the light of the Bible which gives wisdom and depth?

St Paul predicted the growth of narcissism which is the ultimate expression of self love. People in these difficult ‘end’ times will be conceited, boastful and arrogant. In this age of ‘me’ at the centre, narcissism is on the rise. It can become a non-treatable anti-social personality disorder which results in fear and distress for others and a bitter and isolated old age. It even undermines productivity. One of the saddest acts of narcissism is the 'selfie' that costs someone their life, through an accident. Parents can be narcissistic via their children. How many are ruining their children by praising them for their looks or achievements but not for their virtuous character?

The early nineteeth century changed the wealthy English. They started living openly for self and pleasure, as if the point of life is to be always to have fun. Until then, one was supposed to improve one’s mind and ensure that travel activities developed skills which could serve others, or serve God (a concept entirely lost today). Consumption of pleasurable activities, especially global tourism, is now viewed as the meaning of most peoples’ lonely lives. Many are endlessly travelling to flee from their real problems which are relationships, lack of a local community and a sense of alienation. But ‘self’ also overcomes qualms about carbon emissions causing climate change

Paul’s prediction about the existence of the outward show of religion is also fulfilled in numerous nominal churches which are entirely devoid of anything except robes, rituals and platitudes. Instead of the faithful preaching of the powerful Gospel leading to repentance via the Word of God, these churches unconsciously celebrate ‘feeling good about oneself’ in public, which is false religion.

‘Self’ not God is enthroned in our political theory and across society in place of God. We see the results in alienation, in the breakdown of relationships and trust, but also in the churches. It is a kind of insanity to serve and value Self more than God, a upending of truth. It is, says the Bible what fools do, who lose their soul while gaining the world.

The passage in Timothy says that the enthronement of Self warps the human mind so that it actively opposes (God's) Truth. One thinks of the warping effect of water on wood, changing its shape and usefulness. A mind focused on God is not subject to 'warping', but sees straight and true. It has discernment which helps to identifies deceptive lies. Warped minds can be more easily deceived. Warped minds also lack the ‘peace’ that Jesus left to his disciples.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage.” (John 14:27 NET).
Jesus‘ concept of ‘peace’ is much wider and more profound than what is commonly understood today. It connects to the Biblical concept of 'Shalom' which is harmony with God, others and Creation. It puts God, not Self at the centre of one’s politics and worldview. It rectifies the warping effect of the Self on the mind, enabling one to restore healthy harmony and balance and a right perception of values.

Right values lead to right assessment of risks and options and above all to a right evaluation of our fellow creatures, which leads to respect love and care. It helps correct the exploitation of Creation and instead helps us to live in harmony with it. Today, our society desperately needs the healing power of Shalom and Christians who will exhibit and share it, through the Cross.

Question: If Christians are not to flee from difficult times into their own 'safe space', should they not preach healing 'Shalom' as the solution to the disintegrating Self?

Alison Bailey Castellina MA (Oxon), Villar Pellice, Piedmont, June 28, 2018.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Greetings from Marco Reale

I would like to thank Past Paolo Castellina for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. I must also apologize for not having written before. 

By way of introduction..

My name is Marco Reale. I am an Italian believer from Palermo,Sicily. I moved to the United Kingdom in 1987 and  I have lived in this country - Bedford - for the last thirty years.I am married to a wonderful Anglo-Italian (Lombardy) believer, Mariella. We spent our honeymoon in the Waldensian Valleys and wanted to serve the Lord as missionaries in the Valleys or eslewhere in Italy. The Lord did not give us any opening, yet Italy is still in our hearts. We have four children from age 20 to 15.
We attend Alconbury Independent Baptist Church,Little Stukeley near Huntingdon and I currently work for the Protestant Alliance as Administrative Secretary and itinerant speaker.

I was converted in my teens when I lived in Palermo where my parents served as missionaries and worked in one of the mafia ruled area of the town. That was in the period called by the press "The Second Mafia War". 

My father had been converted in Corsica, whilst he was in a military hospital for soldiers of the French Foreign Legion. My mother was converted in Genoa where she was living after the 1968 earthquake and had been deserted by my father who joined the FFL...

My parents reconciled in 1970's and we begun attending the Waldensian Church linked with the Waldensian Institute. Our pastor was Pietro Valdo Panascia. My parents came both from  strong, traditionalist Roman Catholic families. A bishop, an abbott and saint...were part of the family.

My father, Francesco, had his own business and he was able to be involved in the church as a deacon and in the school as volunteer teacher in electronics. My mother , Luciana, begun teaching Religious Education, to the few hundred students at the Waldensian Institute.

However, they were not happy with the liberal theology and political agenda which was influencing more and more the life of the church. I remembered one particular incident as our Sunday School teacher started to explain to the class the conflict of classes and the importance of Carl Marx. I rose up and asked to be excused. When the teacher asked why I wanted lo leave the class, I replied: "I was sent here to learn about Jesus not about Carl Marx". I rejoined my parents in the main service.

Dad and Mom became missionaries - living by faith (namely no mission board supporting them) - in 1977. They were involved in radio ministry (founded Radio Logos Ribera and Radio Buona Notizia, Palermo).

Our church "Grazia & Verita'" (Grace & Truth) was an Independent Reformed Baptist Church serving in a very troubled part of the town. The preaching of the Gospel was also complemented by helping the poor, clothing and feeding people. 

I studied Classics at the liceo-ginnasio "Vittorio Emanuele II" (formerly the oldest Jesuit college of Sicily founded in 1549) and my RE teacher was Fr Giuseppe Puglisi, who, later on, would be  murdered by the Mafia and beatified by Pope Francis in 2013.  I am probably the only Protestant who had a 'Saint' as a teacher.

To be a Christian has not been always easy in my homeland, particularly in the days of the Second Mafia War, but the Lord was merciful and upheld us. This little piece is meant to be a kind of introduction about myself and my background.  I wish to be able to contribute more to encourage you to pray for the work of the Gospel in my two beloved countries: Italy and Great Britain.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

"Pray for me" - A reflection by Leonardo de Chirico

“Pray for Me”

July 1st, 2017

In our fragmented and violent world, peaceful and respectful relationships between people of different religions can be crucially important. Such relationships can help us avoid tragedies of religious extremism, such as terrorists attacking their neighbors or political authorities mistreating religious minorities. Pope Francis is working hard to establish and maintain friendly relationships with peoples of all religions, Muslims in particular. In his 2013 programmatic document, he wrote that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, 250). His relentless encouragement for mutual listening and even cooperation is a clear indication that this is one of the top priorities of the pontificate.

More than Friendships

But there is another side of the coin. Based on Pope Francis’ words and his inter-faith activities and dealings, it is evident that something more is at stake than an attempt at fostering peace and freedom in our world. In a video released in 2016, the Pope appeared with several religious leaders. One after another, each leader affirmed his or her beliefs in a celebration of religious pluralism and fraternity. At the end of the video the Pope concluded by arguing that “there is only one certainty we have for all: we are all children of God”. The message could have hardly been clearer. “We are all children of God” sounded like an endorsement for a pluralistic religion whereby all different theologies and worldviews are legitimate and truthful ways to live out one’s own faith, with the Pope of the Roman Church ultimately endorsing their validity.

For those Christians who are committed to the words of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and the words of the apostles according to whom there is no other name (i.e. Jesus Christ) by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12), Pope Francis’ statement that “we are all children of God” was puzzling and perplexing to say the least.

“Pray for Me”

A new and surprising instance of the Pope’s inter-faith theology came more recently. While meeting a delegation of Muslim leaders from Great Britain (April 5th, 2017), and after praising the value of listening to one another as “brothers and sisters”, Francis ended his brief speech by saying: “When we listen and talk to each other, we are already on the path. I thank you for taking this path and ask almighty and merciful God to bless you. And I ask you to pray for me.” The official text of the Pope’s greeting is in Italian and was published in the daily Vatican bulletin.

“Pray for me”. The audience of this prayer request was a group of Muslim leaders, worshippers of Allah, bound to the authority of the Koran, denying the Triune nature of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, following a work-based religion. The Pope went beyond diplomatic politeness or even the cordial, inter-religious tone of the conversation. He addressed these Muslims by asking for their prayers, using language that is ordinarily used among fellow Christians.

Massive Implications

The theological implications of this prayer request are massive. Let’s briefly point to some of the most obvious ones. “Pray for me” is an expression of deep fellowship among fellow believers. Pope Francis often asks people to pray for him, but the general context in which this request normally takes place is when he gathers with those who share his faith. This time it happened in the context of an inter-religious meeting. This request shows that when the Pope talked about all religious people being “children of God” he did not simply mean members of the human family. He meant those belonging to the same spiritual family, all part of the same people of God. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. are all “children of God” to him. Biblically speaking, however, does the “children of God” include all religious people, in spite of their beliefs and allegiances?

“Pray for me” also implies that when Muslims pray they pray to the same God of the Bible. This is the conviction held by the Pope from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), according to which Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day” (Lumen Gentium, 16). With his request, however, the Pope goes even further, inferring that the God of the Bible is not only worshipped by Muslims, but He even responds to their petitions as if they were His children. Does not the Scripture teach that our confidence in prayer lies in Jesus being the High Priest and in whose name we can boldly approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)?

Asking Muslims to pray for you goes way beyond the good intention of cultivating friendly and peaceful relationships. It is a theological statement that impinges on basic biblical doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and salvation in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, the very biblical Gospel is at stake. The Pope’s dismaying request has significantly distorted it.