“Bullies and Saints” – a review

Book Review: Bullies and Saints

Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look At the Good and Evil of Christian History Paperback

John Dickson, Zondervan Reflective

Bullies and Saints” tackles the ticklish question of the role of the Christian faith throughout the last two millennia. The subtitle of the book is: “An honest look at the good and evil of Christian history.” It tackles the accusation often made by atheists and others that the world would have been better off without the Christian faith. Which is a thought that has possibly crossed many of our minds. Religious wars, the Inquisition, and more recently the atrocious abuse of innocent children by clergy has all, understandably, fuelled the fire of antipathy towards the Christian faith.

Dickson, as a trained historian and theologian, carefully combs through the history of the church and sorts fact from fiction. With meticulous detail goes through many historical events. He openly acknowledges that which is evil, without excuse, but also highlights the many good things that Christianity has given to the world.

An interesting tack that he takes is that he also looks at “atheist” history and reveals the enormous atrocities perpetrated by unbelieving rulers such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, that causes any “Christian” barbarism to pale into the background. Dickson also clarifies inaccurate historical perceptions. For example in the historical imagination “The Inquisition” was one of the great historical evils. The fact is that over the 350 years of the Inquisition fewer than 5000 people died. Not that this is excusable but the truth is often vastly inflated. Fascinatingly, it was probably the Protestants and their propaganda against the Roman church that was largely responsible for this inaccuracy.

One of the refreshing aspects of this book is the way he looks at the doctrine of the “Imago Dei” – the image of God in humankind – and reveals how this has impacted our understanding of the value of life. This doctrine has, for example, been central to the development of charities, public hospitals, the anti-slavery movement from the early years of the church and in turn, has been incorporated into modern civilised societies.

His chapter on child abuse within the church is short but pointed and he acknowledges that this dark stain has caused a huge mistrust of the church which will take time and effort to redress. He shows clearly how this is a betrayal of Christ and the gospel.

In the final chapter he points us back to Jesus Christ and the importance that Christians follow him in faith and action. He also adds, ironically, how some atheists now acknowledge the importance of the Christian ethic for healthy society to function.

This is a valuable book as it enables us to put Christian history into perspective. It will assist Christians in honest discussions with non-Christian friends and colleagues. It also reminds people of faith that our motives  must always be guided by Christ and his word. Waver from that and all sorts of traps await.

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David

David

Below is a story by my wife that imagines what it was like when David was anointed as king of Israel. (1 Samuel 16)

The row of ants marched across the warm rock. The lead ant paused to take in the antics of a ladybug that the troop was about the pass. Every ant in the line momentarily stopped also, as it passed the bigger insect.

David mused, then he rolled over onto his back. He squinted at the bright afternoon light. He could see, far off near the eastern edge of a clear blue sky, the almost full moon. How far was it? David thought. How many days’ walk to reach the moon, if a boy could walk across the sky? What would that distance look like across the palm of Yahweh’s hand?

Young David

David sat up. He could hear someone calling his name. He stood and scanned the valley below. All his sheep – well, his father’s sheep – were grazing on the summer pasture. Beyond them a figure appeared and David recognised Abel, his family’s servant. He picked up the shepherds’ crook and his lyre and bounded off, past the sheep who momentarily stopped, not unlike the ants, to watch the boy rush between them.

“Abel, why have you come?” he asked the old man. “Has something happened at home?”

“Shalom” replied the servant. “Your father has sent for you. Go. I will stay with the flock until you return.”

David glanced at the crook and the lyre in his hands. He hesitated before handing the crook to Abel. Then he thrust the lyre towards the man as well. “Play for them. They love it.” Abel grinned.

The boy-shepherd turned and ran down to the homestead.

Before David got to his home another servant met him.

“Is my father ill?” he asked the man.

“No, he and your brothers are with the Prophet. They are making sacrifices to the LORD.”

“What has this to do with me?” asked David.

By now they were at the well in the courtyard.

“Wash your face and hands and put on these clean clothes.”

David’s mother then appeared. She took the cloth from the servant and began scrubbing at David’s neck, tutting about the grass and gravel smudges on his face and arms. Her son was taller than her now so she had to pull his head down to reach.

The boy tried to get out of her grasp.

“Mother, what is going on?” He pleaded.

But there was no time for answers. Soon enough David was escorted into Bethlehem and then to the place where his father and seven older brothers were standing. Another man was also there – the Prophet Samuel.

David could tell that his brothers were restless. Eliab, tall and strong, was the oldest, and he glowered when he saw the littlest of his brothers come tearing around the corner towards them. The boy-shepherd skidded to a halt a few yards from the group, took a deep breath, and calmly walked the final distance to stand before his father.

If I could run to the moon, he thought, I could get there sooner.

Jesse put his hands on David’s shoulders and forced him to pivot around to face Samuel. The Prophet seemed not to notice him; he was in a deep reverie.

“Your servant, David, Jesse’s son” David said, and he bowed. The Prophet was not physically tall. He was a full head-height shorter than the boy-shepherd. But David felt as if he was bowing before a someone of giant importance. He felt ant-sized.

Something – not his father’s hands this time- compelled David to kneel.

And then… and then, something amazing happened. The Prophet held a ram’s horn of oil above the head of Jesse’s youngest son, as the other seven sons looked on, and upturned the horn. Samuel proclaimed that David was the next King of Israel, anointed by Yahweh.

As the oil came first on his head and next dribbled down his neck and into his shirt, David took a sharp intake of breath. He held the air in his chest, unable to decide if there was something different about him. Unsure if this meant he should or could still be himself. Unsure if breathing was necessary.

His father and brothers came forward and, one by one, embraced him.

“Now let’s eat!” The Prophet declared loudly.

As the sun began to sink into the horizon, the shepherd-king tramped across the valley towards the sheepfold. Abel stood in the opening. “They’re all in there, present and accounted for,” he said. “And you’re right. They do love the music of the lyre.”

David drew his woollen cloak around himself and squatted in the opening as Abel started back in the direction that David had come. Some of the ewes nuzzled against him, sniffing at the strange scent of oil.

Not twenty yards away the old servant turned and shouted at him, lifting a thumb towards the sky:

“Full moon tonight!”

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Is “Unprecedented” Really Unprecedented?

It is easy to think, with all the goings on at present, that we are in an “unprecedented” time, that no other time in history has been like the one that we are in currently. That is, however, a short-sighted view. Pandemics far worse than Covid have devastated the world. The Spanish flu, just after the Great War, is just one example.

However, one area we could reflect on is the tectonic shift in power and empires that we are witnessing at present. Is this unprecedented? About 170 years ago, the world was undergoing monumental change. The gold rushes in California and Australia, the development of communication through the telegraph, undersea cables and railways, the power plays between empires old and new, made the planet a swirling mass of eddies and changes in which the outcomes were hard to predict and the effects of which we still see now.

Ben Wilson in his book Heyday: Britain and the birth of the modern world(W&N,2016) explores this period with a sense of the electricity and energy that represented the age. In fact, it gave me a clearer picture of why China has its current ambitions when one recalls the humiliation it suffered under various European powers throughout that period. One can understand why the Chinese say, “this will never happen again.”

The hero of the story is “gutta percha” a nonconductive resin from a Malaysian tree that encased the telegraphic cables that were laid across oceans. This invention commodified news. The first with the news could “weaponise” (a modern turn of phrase) information that, in turn, could be used to make money or corner your enemies. Reuters was at the ground floor of these advances

For the inhabitants of the C21st we see the first hints of social media, the 24 hour news cycle and the way it informs and twists information in the growth of communication in this period.

Wilson makes the claim that this era was the beginning of modernity. The irony, I find, is that modernity thinks so highly of itself, even now, that we fail to see the origins of many of the realities that presently surround us, whether it is the enigmatic confusion we call “Afghanistan” or the suspicion of vaccines that has been ping ponged via the media.

“Heyday” reminds the reader that we have not just arrived out of nowhere. We all have a past. And if we fail to recognise that past, in the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!”

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The Princess Syndrome

I wrote this nearly 10 years ago. If anything, matters have worsened.

Travels from Ur

With hindsight, it was easier to have six than one. Having “half a dozen unassorted”, as one doctor described them, (i.e. six daughters) turned out to be a blessing for them, and for us as parents. The girls had to learn to share, cooperate and compromise.

We told them they could have an “attitude” when they became a teenager. If they displayed an attitude after their 13th birthday we told them they missed their chance. It was on the day they turned 13 they could have an attitude. After that  was too late. With six, you set patterns and the others tend to follow with only the odd break out attempt.  In our family there was the famous dummy spit over a school bag. It is memorable because it was a rare event.   So the patterns went like this: “It is our family rule that we know who is supervising…

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The Church in a Pandemic

Here is a piece written by my wife Hetty reflecting on the church in our current time.

What happens when a church/ faith community/ group of believers, find themselves in the world of Covid 19?This is a question that I’ve been stewing on for 8 months. In March and April I kept my ears and eyes open for evidence that believers were mobilised to give assistance wherever the need was. I also wanted to see how churches were adapting their services to the challenges and opportunities of ‘online’.

At first I noticed the Sikh and Muslim communities making and delivering meals for tertiary students who had lost their income. I saw that churches were moving online but it was a poor attempt to replicate the service as close as possible, losing much of the sense of personal connection. Some church leaders tried bizarre stunts to continue certain practices.

Closer to home I heard of the work a group of Christians, which included my daughter, was doing to provide meals to the homeless and hungry. To change the sit-down meal they offered in the past with a takeaway one. Our local Christian school is using the produce from their horticulture unit to make meals and fresh food hampers for families who are having difficulty making ends meet.


Yesterday I stumbled across an article about the pandemics of the past. It explained the advancement of the early Christian church during and following the Antonine and the Cyprian plagues that occurred in the Roman Empire of A.D. 165 – 262. The combined pandemics’ mortality rate was anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of the empire’s population.


So what caused the baby Christian church to become a significant religion?Here’s a different way of asking this question: What was God doing in the hearts of the believers? How was He resourcing and equipping them?This is a quote from that article-
“Rodney Stark, in his seminal work “The Rise of Christianity,” argues that these two pandemics made Christianity a much more attractive belief system.While the disease was effectively incurable, rudimentary palliative care – the provision of food and water, for example – could spur recovery of those too weak to care for themselves. Motivated by Christian charity and an ethic of care for the sick – and enabled by the thick social and charitable networks around which the early church was organized – the empire’s Christian communities were willing and able to provide this sort of care.Pagan Romans, on the other hand, opted instead either to flee outbreaks of the plague or to self-isolate in the hope of being spared infection.”


Ah! There it is. Charity.


But where are the majority of today’s Christians to be found? Fleeing the outbreaks? Self-isolating? Pretending that nothing’s changed? Trying to get modern technology to ensure the congregation can continue to tithe? Demanding that the government leaders allow their churches to meet in person again?
Or living out the commandment of Jesus to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”(Luke 10:27)


I don’t want to search for this. I want it to be so, so patently obvious that a blind man couldn’t miss it. I want people to say “Christians? Yeah, there they are….. using their facilities to cook meals……..providing shelter………helping those struggling with anxiety………using their charitable networks to distribute aid.”
The twenty first century Christian has been equipped by God and He has given each of us a particular task that we must undertake where He has placed us.
Right now we find ourselves in a pandemic.

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Sorting Photos

Over the last few weeks I have been sorting through my parents’ photos and putting them into a visual diary. This requires some research: who are they, where was it taken, when was it taken, and so on. I have pestered relatives for information to try to uncover some of the mysteries. Some photos, thankfully have some details scrawled on the back. The problem is that most of the people in the old photos have passed on a long time ago. Google search and maps have been handy companions but there is only so much they can tell you.

My father, left, as a 17 year old

The process however, especially with the old photos is an emotional one – my dad as a 17 year old rugged up in a heavy coat. What were you thinking dad at the time this photo was taken? Where did you expect your life to lead? There are the photos of his time as an indentured worker in Germany. I see camaraderie and youth but not too many smiles. The Christmas Tree in 1943 is particularly evocative. And then there is the eerie doubly exposed photo of a young woman superimposed on what seems like a park. I have this faint memory that this was a girlfriend before my mother came on the scene. Why was this photo kept? I know my mother wanted it to be thrown out.

The mysterious double exposure

There are photos of Rotterdam before it was bombed by the Germans and then the Allies with the Kestein bicycle factory (thank you Google) with a loaded wagon pulled by draught horses. Another time and place. A world away from 2020. There are bicycling holidays after the war. What were your hopes then, dad, when so much had happened and when a blanket of pain and suffering had settled over Europe.

The sorting is a slow process as you can’t help but look at the photos and ponder as you try to sift behind the black, white and grey images and the softly fading faces.

My father, back left, in Hennigsdorf, Germany
Rotterdam before the war
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For a Time Such as This

How has God been preparing the church, the people of God, for a time such as this? And what hints and leadings has He been giving us to be His active representatives on earth right now?cropped-cropped-isaiah.jpg What opportunities has He created? These are all questions my wife has been challenging me with in recent times. Hetty has written the following.

In 2005 we went to live in the UK for 16 months. I found myself with a lot of time and looked about to find something to become involved with. Our local church put me in touch with Bridgebuilder, an organisation that worked with schools to teach children about the Christian faith.

This appealed to me because for 15 years I had been a volunteer teacher of Christian Religious Education in Australia. Every week I spent 30 minutes in each class, sharing Bible stories, and praying with the students. It was a government legislated privilege to be able to do this.

In the UK things were different. The best Christian churches could hope for was to be invited into schools for a few hours every year. Bridgebuilder developed programmes and presented them to a hundred students at a time. I felt appreciative of our Australian system but knew that there was a lot of opposition building against it in the secular community.

Fast forward 5 years and my fears were being realised. The CRE programme was under attack, the organisation overseeing it was scrambling to adapt to the pressures. If the Government removed its protective legislation how would its mission to school children continue?

This was the moment that I thought back to my time in the UK. Could God have given me this experience so that I could now see a way forward in my local situation? Had He been equipping me for a future I didn’t yet know?

Today the universal Church is part of a universal crisis. Alongside health, economics, education, transport, employment, and a hundred other areas of human life, the Church is wondering how it will survive in a Covid 19 world and how it can keep being Christ to that world.

Many Christians and churches are trying to tweak what we’ve always done – drive thru communion, services in the car park while parishioners stay in their cars, and the like. Generally we are hunkering down and looking after our own flock. Missions means going ‘out there’, but we’re being told to stay at home.

But my thought is that God has been preparing His people for a Covid 19 world. What He was doing in your life ten years ago, or five years ago, or last year, was ‘the equipping of the saints’. Cast your mind back.

Look around your immediate vicinity. What appearance does this new world have? How has it changed? Then go back to our marching orders. What is a Christian’s primary mission, and what equipment and training have we been given by God to carry it out?

One example is the scandal of child abuse that has rocked the Church. The Church has become a stench to the world, and often it is trying to make excuses for the actions of its own people, desperately trying to salvage its reputation. I cringe whenever this issue is raised. I want to hide in shame.

So how should we view the sequence of events in our time with the idea that God is using them to equip us? And how do we move forward into the future with this massive millstone around the neck of the Church?

I believe God can and will advance His kingdom in spite of the wickedness of mankind. Abusive churchmen and women cannot thwart His plans. Perhaps the Church needs to fall on its knees, confess, repent, and seek forgiveness from those it has harmed. Never seeking a lenient sentence, but accepting judgement, and giving all it owns (every last gold goblet!) in restitution and compensation. A broken and contrite heart. Personally, I am waiting for the leaders of our churches to start this process.

Then we can be used by God to …

 

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A Pandemic Rant

My wife told me to write the following to get it out of my system.

 

I have become increasingly perturbed by the “sooking”, all the complaining and whinging coming out of society since the lock downs that been imposed. “Why can’t we do this now.(Clubbing, shopping, visiting)”  “I am depressed because I’ve got my kids at home.” I can’t do this and that and the list of complaints goes on  …

I am not denying that the coronavirus is a huge upheaval and people have lost their jobs, and life has been hugely disrupted – and people are dying. It is huge and it going to continue being an issue for quite some time. However, in the whole sweep of history it is not the Black Death with a third of the population wiped out, it is not a reign of terror by invading hoards, it is not the nightly fear of bombs dropping on our heads and living in the Underground every evening, it is not a nuclear holocaust. It is a pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many generations. Yet in most western countries, with a few stark exceptions, and certainly in Australia the impacts have been managed.

The virus has, however, revealed a deep lack of individual and community resilience. I believe we need to place ourselves in the context of history rather than in our self-centred C21st  bubble. My father was born at the end of WW1. The Spanish flu was running riot. When he was 10 the Great Depression started and by the time he was 20 he was picked up by invading Germans and forced to work near Berlin through the best part of his early 20s. At thirty-three he picked up his young family and migrated to Australia, worked hard, never made much money but also never complained. The thing is, he wasn’t unique. It was a characteristic of his generation. There was a resilience and tenacity. When I complained about the jobs I was supposed to do as a young boy there was, understandably, very little sympathy. He didn’t know the phrase “suck it up” but that was the intent.

The question I want to pose is, why do so many today, young and old, show a lack of resilience? With all the comforts, technology and government safety nets of our society, where is the sense of fortitude, courage and desire to overcome?

Is it that in the last few generations we have protected ourselves and children from tough choices, hard decisions and even the more mundane daily tasks that simply mean putting aside our discomfort and stepping up? If our children are told to hang the washing, weed the garden, clean the bathroom or wash the car is the expectation that they do it whether they like it or not. “Suck it up.”

What have we learned about ourselves over the past months? Are there attitudes we need to change? Are there areas of our life where we need to grow a backbone? This pandemic will be wasted if is all about returning to life as normal because it may just be that “normal” was not such a healthy state after all, for us, our families and society.

And finally, it is not simply about finding the “positives”. For many, particularly those who have lost loved ones, jobs and security, the message of “finding the positives” can be quite despairing because there aren’t any. The message, in fact, is far simpler. Life throws up many tough challenges and we need to have the courage to struggle against them whether they are individual, family or communal. It is a trait that should be learned from childhood. It is a resilience that enables communities to fight wars against evil oppressors, individuals to persevere over personal struggles and societies to fight pandemics. Is it that lesson we are all being reminded of? Looking around and observing social behavior I find the answer to that question quite disheartening.

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O God Our Help in Ages Past

A reflection by Hetty

O God, our Help in ages past

Our Help for years to come.

Our Shelter from the stormy blast, and our Eternal Home.

I am a small girl, sitting on a hard wooden 1950s school desk.

High above the blackboard is a wedge shaped speaker, and out of the speaker comes a crackly, church organ led version of this hymn.

It’s Anzac Day.

A familiar tune that I only heard once a year in the same place at the same time. At first it was the melody that gave me comfort and peace. Every year I forgot, and then I heard it again and my soul remembered. I sat in that new classroom, one year older, and let the notes cascade over me, swirling around me, enveloping me.

Then I began to listen to the phrases. And in my young mind I joined the words to my life. Our help, my help. Ages past, my past.

There was only one event in my past. My father died. Whatever else had happened meant nothing to me. It loomed large whenever I glanced back and it touched everything that was now.

I let these thoughts skitter across my consciousness and then they disappeared until next Anzac Day.

Next Anzac Day. I was in high school now. No speakers on the wall, we were all in the quadrangle with the principal on a platform leading the service. We had sheets with the words of the hymns, and there it was – my hymn.

I stared at the words:

Our help, ages past. Our Hope, our Shelter.

Stormy blasts.

There was something I’d never noticed before. Our shelter from the stormy blasts. I’d certainly known some of those in my ages past. Oh, I knew it was meant to conjure images of soldiers hunkered down in trenches while bullets and explosions rained down on them. But I also knew the hunkering down I’d done while the circumstances of my life exploded around me.

Our Shelter, my Shelter.

My family began to attend a different church. Now we had a service every week and a hymn book in the pew. The services were long but the hymn book was a source of entertainment for a young girl with a good imagination. I silently read through the wedding vows at the back, choosing two random people in the congregation to marry. I read through the alphabetical index and the topical index and anything else I could find in that book.

And then I found it! My Anzac Day hymn.

There were more verses that I’d never known!

“Under the shadow of thy throne,

Thy saints have dwelt secure;

Sufficient is thine arm alone,

And our defense is sure.”

I hummed the tune under my breath as I read the words.

Here was the perfect marriage of my comforting tune and these life affirming words on the page before me.

I knew this. I’d lived this.

“Before the hills in order stood,

Or earth received her frame,

From everlasting thou art God,

To endless years the same.”

Did it matter that I’d lived through stormy blasts? Did it matter that more stormy blasts would be coming my way in the future? Not when I had the assurance of a eternal, everlasting Shelter.

“Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly, forgotten, as a dream

Dies at the opening day.”

This morning I woke up singing my Anzac Day hymn. Much time has rolled on since I sat staring at the speaker above the blackboard. They fly, forgotten, as a dream.

But Thou……our Guide, and our Eternal Home. My Eternal Home.

Categories: Christianity, Faith, Hetty's Devotions, hymns, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Second Sunday of Advent Poem

The Battles of Advent

Preceding ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’

The battle raged:

The snake in the garden,

The first murder,

The lies, deceit

And betrayal.

The Old Covenant sad stories

Reveal

The real struggle.

When David stood before Goliath

The real fight

Was in the heavenlies.

When David lusted after Bathsheba

The battle raged in places

Far beyond earth.

When the second Adam

Was nailed to a tree,

The Romans and Sanhedrin

Were not masters

But slaves.

When Christ arose,

The false Prince lost.

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