Just in case William and Kate need some more advice…

I thought I’d recognise the festive occasion by reporting something I wrote a few years ago, when Marci and I were approaching our 29th anniversary (this coming October will be our 32nd). Here are a few of my convictions about marriage, in no particular order. The first two are a bit of a lost cause as far as William and Kate are concerned, but they might help a few others along the way!

  • You will have to choose between (a) making enough money to have the same lifestyle as your neighbours, or (b) having enough time to love your spouse and children. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll have time to do both.
  • Don’t live common-law before you get married. Statistics show that this dramatically increases the risk of your marriage ending in divorce.
  • Be skeptical about 75% of what the media tells you about love and marriage. Most of the people who write those movies and songs haven’t been able to hold down a relationship for more than four or five years.
  • Similarly, be skeptical about how ‘normal sex’ is described in popular novels, movies etc. If you take that as the norm you’ll be setting yourselves up for dissatisfaction and failure. Technique is fine, but love is far, far more important.
  • Remember – love is a choice, not a feeling. If feelings lasted forever we wouldn’t need marriage vows. When the feelings start to wane in intensity, don’t be scared: this is normal. Do what you promised to do anyway, no matter what you feel, and eventually something deeper and stronger will start to grow. This is the most important secret of a lasting marriage.
  • Go out for coffee together regularly, and leave your cell phones at home when you do. The object is to get away from distractions and focus on talking.
  • Conventional wisdom tells us ‘lovers look at each other, friends look together at something else’. This may be true, but it hides a deeper truth: your love is more likely to last if it also includes friendship – if, in fact, your spouse is your best friend. And friends aren’t absorbed in each other, they’re absorbed together in something else. So find something you can both get absorbed in, and do it together. This leads to the next point…
  • A marriage needs a mission. Marriages in which the couple are totally focussed on each other, rather than on some form of service to others, are narcissistic marriages. For many couples, the major mission is raising their children to become happy and healthy adults. Don’t see the attention you give to this as competition for your marriage; it’s part of making your marriage less selfish and more loving.
  • Remember that when you learn to love God more than you love your spouse, you will then find that you are loving your spouse far, far more than you did before. It’s a paradox, but it’s true all the same.
  • Put the teaching of Jesus and the apostles into practice in your marriage. Make reconciliation with each other a priority, and if you have a problem with your spouse, speak to them about it first. You’re not perfect, so don’t expect your spouse to be perfect either; be quick to apologise and quick to forgive. Don’t let resentments fester; talk them through as soon as possible. Choose to stay together and work on your problems rather than getting a divorce. Don’t commit adultery with your eyes and your heart, and you probably won’t commit it with your body either. Tell the truth to each other. Live a simple life focussed on God and your neighbour, not on storing up earthly treasure. In other words, being a better follower of Jesus will make you a better marriage partner.
  • Don’t be passive about your marriage; don’t, for instance, take the attitude, “I hope it works out”. Instead, the two of you together take responsibility for making it work out. Expect this to be difficult, and don’t be intimidated by the difficulty.
  • Finally, a word for the guys from the character played by Dennis Quaid in the movie In Good Company. When asked by a younger man what his secret of a lasting marriage is, Quaid’s character replies, ‘You find the right person to get into the foxhole with, and when you’re out of the foxhole, you keep your dick in your pants’. Every time I’ve shared that story in mixed company, the women have shaken their heads about how offensive it is, and the men have nodded their heads, knowing that ‘lowest common denominator’ wisdom is often a good place to start…!!!
(Credits: The first idea, about not having time for both getting rich and loving your family, is adapted from a statement by Mary Pipher in her fine book The Shelter of Each Other. And the idea about loving your spouse more if you love God first is something I first ran across in one of C.S. Lewis’ letters.)

The command we prefer to forget.

‘I have found it very interesting to ask non-Christians what Jesus taught. Nearly without exception they mention that Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Among nonbelievers, Jesus seems to be famous for teaching that his disciples should love their enemies. Yet when I ask Christians what Jesus taught, they very rarely bring up this commandment. But I think the intuition of the non-Christian is correct – Jesus’s emphasis on loving enemies is central to Jesus’s teaching and is especially prominent in the Sermon on the Mount. The command to love your enemy is memorable because it is radical. But the command to love your enemy is a command that we who are followers of Christ tend to forget because it is so very hard to do.

‘Yet Sermon on the Mount Christianity is the very kind of Christianity that can change the world. The Christlike love that absorbs the blow and responds with forgiveness is the only real hope this world has for real change. To respond to hate with hate enshrines the status quo and only ensures that hate will win – it’s what keeps the world as it is. We tend to think that our hatred of our enemies is justified because we can point to their obvious crimes and, as the logic goes, if we were in charge instead of our enemies, things would be different. But history tells a different story. Hatred, no matter how justifiable, simply fuels the endless cycle of revenge.  Nothing really changes except that lines on a map get redrawn. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Christianity has more to offer the world than recycled revenge’.

 – Brian Zahnd, Unconditional? The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness (Charisma House, 2010).

Lent 2011 – a retrospective

This year I did something I haven’t tried before – I gave up both Facebook and blogging for Lent, and most of my blog reading too – kept only Reed Fleming‘s and Philip Yancey‘s blogs. This was far and away the most beneficial Lent discipline I have ever tried. It’s hard to adequately describe the sense of quiet and of focus that I experienced through Lent this year. I realised that Facebook has become the constant background chatter to my life, and I realised afresh just how addicted to it I am. I also realised how much of an exercise of egotism blogging is for me – how often I check back to see what the statistics are, for instance, or to see if anyone has left me comments (even though I know with my head that WordPress would have sent me an email if they had!). So it was a relief to lay all that aside and just enter into the quiet of Lent.

One benefit of all this was the amount of reading I was able to do. My ‘Books read’ sidebar tells the tale. Our church Lent book study was on John Bowen’s ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘, and Marci and I have been enjoying reading the Narnia stories together – we read five of them during Lent. I read and enjoyed Eugene Peterson’s memoir, ‘The Pastor‘, and especially enjoyed John Stott’s little book ‘The Radical Disciple‘, along with the recent biography of John by Roger Steer, ‘Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott‘. As I mentioned earlier in the year, I’ve decided to read through the entire King James Bible this year in honour of the 400th anniversary of this classic translation; I’m now in Nehemiah (as well as being almost through the psalms) and am still thoroughly enjoying it.

Speaking of reading, I bought myself a Kindle a few weeks ago. One of the attractions of doing so was the availability of so many public domain classics as free downloads (the Amazon store alone has over 5,000 of them, and many more are available from other sources). I’ve read two George MacDonald novels, ‘Thomas Wingfold, Curate‘ and ‘Paul Faber, Surgeon‘ since I got the Kindle, and am now reading a biography of Fletcher of Madeley before moving on to an Elizabeth Gaskell novel.

Another purchase during Lent was the new update of the NIV Bible (popularly but unofficially known as the ‘NIV 2011‘). I quite liked the TNIV and was sad to see that Zondervan and Biblica were pulling the plug on it, but so far I’ve been mostly quite impressed with the NIV 2011 which I’ve been using for my morning devotional readings.

Oh yes, something else I gave up for Lent was the Daily Office. It was getting very dry and stale for me, so I decided to go back to the simple old ‘quiet time‘ of my early days as a Christian. I use the Bible Reading Fellowship’s ‘New Daylight‘ Bible reading notes, so I read the chapter that the daily passage is taken from in my NIV 2011, think about it and write down some thoughts and meditations, read the New Daylight comment, and then respond in prayer in the old ‘ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication)’ pattern. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this; in fact, it’s been a breath of fresh air for my prayer life, giving me a new sense of immediacy in my daily time with God.

The weather in Edmonton has truly been atrocious, with constant snowfall all through Lent and even up to the week of Palm Sunday. This has really cut down on opportunities for outdoor exercise, and I’ve felt the lack of this, but am now enjoying getting out and walking again. I haven’t done any bird watching for a long time, but hope to get back to it as spring progresses.

I’ve continued to work slowly on the recording process for my new CD. I’m using a friend’s home recording studio, and my good friend Alex Boudreau is doing the actual engineering for me. So far we have recorded fourteen guitar and voice tracks, and we plan to do three or four more. We will then listen to what we’ve got and make some decisions about adding other instruments, although I want to keep to a fairly stripped-down sound as I like the simplicity of it. Tracks we’ve recorded so far include some traditional tunes like ‘Johnny Cope’, ‘Pretty Saro’, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, and ‘Lord Franklin’, along with some of my own, including ‘The Ballad of Jake and Rachel’, ‘Watching this Town Growing Old’, and ‘I Know You Will Be There’. I’m very happy with the recordings we’ve made so far. I do plan to send this recording away to be professionally manufactured, unlike my previous efforts which were all home-burned.

There’s much else that could be said – how many different ways are there to say that I love being a grandpa? – but I think I’ll stop here, and end by saying that my experience of freedom and peace during Lent has me thinking very seriously about the role that the blogosphere and Facebook play in my life. I do not seem to be able to ‘do’ them moderately as some people can. Giving the whole thing up for six weeks was tremendously enjoyable, and I’m really questioning whether or not it’s something I should do permanently. I know I’ve tried before, and failed, but I may well give it another try, ‘The Lord being my helper’.

Happy 90th Birthday, ‘Uncle John’

Early in 1991 I received one of those letters that you keep for posterity. At the time I was the third most northerly Anglican minister in the world, located in the community of Holman on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago. The letter was a blue airmail from England, and the return address on the back said, ‘The Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott’. When the postmaster (who was also the co-op manager, and who had heard John Stott speak at Urbana conferences in the past) handed it to me, I looked at the return address, smiled, and said, “Shall I frame it?”

But when I met him later that year, ‘The Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott’ turned out to be not that sort of person at all. In fact, he was one of the most genuinely humble and Christlike people I had ever met in my life. Full of faith, full of godly wisdom, richly taught in the Scriptures, and ready and willing to share the fruits of his learning, not just with audiences of thousands at Urbana or hundreds at Regent College (or at his own home church, All Souls Langham Place in London), but also with an audience of five of us, in a small room at a  remote location in the high Arctic.

What he actually wanted to do was to go bird-watching (a lifelong passion of his); he wanted to find the snowy owl in its nesting ground in early summer, and he had already made two trips to the high Arctic in search of this elusive bird. He was writing to me (as the local Anglican minister) to ask if the folks in Holman knew if there were likely places in our area where the snowy owls could be seen, as he was going to be at Regent College in Vancouver in June and wanted to do another trip to the north afterwards. I duly consulted with the locals and reluctantly replied to him, saying that the neighbouring community of Cambridge Bay was a more likely locale. But then (‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’) I asked if he might be willing, if he did come to our area of the Arctic, to speak at a little retreat for a few of us local clergy, both Anglican and Pentecostal. To my surprise, he wrote back immediately saying that he would be delighted to do so, and that there would be no charge to us for the event, as he was going to be in the area anyway.

And so in June 1991 we gathered, three Anglican and two Pentecostal pastors, in the community of Coppermine (now Kugluktuk). We were able to get extra accommodation in a teacherage, which one of the other pastors and I shared with John. We all gathered in the living room each morning and evening and he led us in extensive Bible studies on 1 Thessalonians (which he had been lecturing about at Regent College the week before) in the mornings, and topical studies in the evenings. The studies were wonderful – rich, full of intellectual content (miles removed from the ‘how does this passage make you feel?’ type of study) and spiritual challenge. But even more inspiring, for me, was the chance to be with John for a week, to have quiet talks with him on various subjects, and to get to know this world-renowned leader as the humble man of God that he is.

Make no mistake about that ‘world-renowned’ part. In 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that if evangelicals selected a pope they would probably choose John Stott (I’m not sure I agree myself – I think they should choose John Stott, but I’m dreadfully afraid they might go for someone like Joel Osteen!). Ordained in 1945, he became first curate and then rector of All Souls Langham Place in London, England, which became the flagship evangelical parish in the Church of England under his ministry. He remained as rector until 1970 and then became ‘Rector Emeritus’, passing the torch to Michael Baughen, as his own global speaking and writing ministry had expanded beyond the point where he could do both jobs. Back in the 1950s he led marvellously effective university missions all over the world; his bestseller Basic Christianity (3 million copies in 50 languages) was based on the talks he gave at those university missions. The book shows the man for who he is: it is not your standard stereotypical emotion-based appeal, but a rigorous examination of the intellectual grounds for Christian belief followed by a no-holds-barred challenge to count the cost and give your life to Christ. In the years following he has written many other books – Your Mind Matters, Christian Mission in the Modern World, I Believe in Preaching, The Cross of Christ, The Contemporary Christian, and Issues Facing Christians Today, to name just a few – and has also edited the superb ‘Bible Speaks Today’ series of New Testament commentaries, to which he has contributed a few volumes himself, including my two personal favourites, on the Book of Acts and the Sermon on the Mount.

And it’s not just the books. In 1974 he was one of the framers of the Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelisation and gave it much of its theological rigour, including a controversial statement on simple lifestyle which cost the final document a few notable signatures, including that of Ruth Graham, wife of Billy Graham. A few years later he was one of the convenors of a follow-up consultation on simple lifestyle, and he took the message to heart himself (more on this later). He was one of the main organisers of two national Evangelical Anglican conferences in the UK, at Keele in 1967 and at Nottingham in 1977; these were the conferences at which English evangelical Anglicans came out of the closet and decided to take their full part in the life and work of the Church of England rather than functioning as a ghetto. He has taken a major interest in the ‘Two Thirds World’, travelling and speaking there widely, and the vast majority of the royalties from his books have gone to the Langham Trust, which seeks to provide theological education and study materials for pastors and students from poorer parts of the world. This work continues today through the Langham Partnership International (known in the USA, over John Stott’s vociferous objections, as ‘John Stott Ministries‘).

All of this work has not come without a cost. John Stott has remained single all his life, despite a couple of opportunities to marry as a younger man, and now feels that this has been part of the call of God to him, enabling him to have the sort of wide-ranging ministry that would not have been possible if he had had family responsibilities. But he has been quite open about the loneliness and sense of loss involved in this decision. He has turned down several invitations to become a bishop, believing that the institutional and administrative responsibilities would detract from his ability to carry out the teaching and writing to which he believes he is called.

And he practices what he preaches. The example I will give is of the simple lifestyle which he has advocated since the mid-1970s. When he resigned as rector of All Souls, the parish built a small two-room apartment for him over the garage of the rectory at 12 Weymouth Street: a bedroom and a living room. In the daytime the living room became his study and the bedroom became the office for the series of ‘study assistants’ – young students or graduates, mainly Americans – who he began to hire in the 1980s to assist him with his writing projects. He could have afforded something much better, with all the money he was making from his royalties, but he chose to live the simple lifestyle to which he believed Jesus is calling his church. Almost always dressed formally in shirt, tie, and jacket, his clothes were nevertheless few and bought off the cheaper end of the rack.

His formality is worth commenting on. He was raised in a well-to-do doctor’s home in Harley Street and is naturally a reserved sort of person. Back in the 1970s he chafed a little at the informality that led young people to assume that they could address him by his first name. This led to a discussion as to how he would like to be addressed; after a number of possibilities had been discussed, someone threw out ‘Uncle John’. John visibly brightened; “Oh yes”, he said; “If you want to call me ‘Uncle John’, I won’t protest at that”. And ‘Uncle John’ he has been since, to tens of thousands of people who have had the privilege of meeting him around the world.

I have to say that I have not always agreed with Uncle John. He is far more of a ‘straight down the line’ evangelical than I am, and I certainly part company with him over the issue of pacifism and the just war, to mention just one area of disagreement. His analytical mind sometimes creates tidiness in biblical exposition where no tidiness is actually to be found! But nonetheless, I honour Uncle John as a leader, a preacher, a writer, a role-model, and above all as a faithful and humble follower of Jesus.

Uncle John turns 90 this Wednesday April 27th. He is very frail now, and lives in a community for retired Anglican clergy in the south of England. He is well aware that the end of his earthly pilgrimage is close. His most recent book, ‘The Radical Disciple‘, addresses this issue head-on; suggesting eight ‘neglected aspects of our calling’, he chooses to conclude with ‘Dependency’ and ‘Death’, and is quite open about his own thoughts and feelings about what lies ahead for him.

John Stott would not be pleased with hagiography, and it isn’t my intention to write it, though I hope my respect for the man is clear. But I write in the spirit of Hebrews 13:7:

‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith’.

John Stott has definitely spoken the Word of God to me, and I hope to imitate his faith in the years ahead.

For more information:

There is a short biography on the Langham Partnership website here.

Roger Steer has written a very accessible biography, Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott.

Timothy Dudley Smith has written a massive and exhaustive two volume biography: John Stott: The Making of a Leader, and John Stott: A Global Ministry.

Goodbye, Sarah Jane

Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane Smith in ‘Doctor Who’ in the 1970s, has died of cancer at the age of 63.

For me, just as Jon Pertwee will always be the Doctor, so Sarah Jane will always be the Doctor’s companion. In poll after poll, through the years, she comes at the top of the list of Doctor Who audience favourites. Her guest appearance on the new series a couple of years ago was the high point of that season for me.

Rest in peace, Elisabeth, and goodbye, Sarah Jane.

A rather overwhelming event

‘So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy’ (Matthew 28:8a).

‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted’ (Matthew 28:17).

The event that the first followers of Jesus found themselves in the middle of, on the first Easter Sunday morning, was not a nice, unambiguous, homely sort of miracle, the kind you could put on an Easter card and write a Hallmark greeting about. Rather, it was an overwhelming encounter with a reality far beyond their experience or their understanding. Their meetings (a rather mundane word for the sort of experiences the gospels describe!) with the Risen Jesus were elusive, unpredictable, and entirely outside their control. Some apparently had no doubt that it was their Master Jesus they were seeing and hearing and touching and sharing food with; others weren’t so sure. They were full of joy, but also full of fear and awe.

Lord Jesus Christ, I long to experience the joy of your resurrection, but I’m not so sure I want the fear, the awe, the sense that events are getting unpredictable and moving beyond the point where I can control them. The problem is, I suspect it all comes as a package deal.

I know, Lord, that I can’t conjure up your presence, as if you were a genie I could summon by rubbing a lamp. But I can worship you, the one to whom all authority on heaven and earth has been given, and I can hold myself ready to hear your voice and obey your command to proclaim your message, in the confidence that you are with me always, to the end of the age. Amen.