Month: November 2015

The Anthem Kerfuffle

I penned the first draft of this piece prior to the Paris Terror attacks. I haven’t felt the need to make any significant edits to it in light of those events, though I’m conscious they may make it harder to think about some of the issues raised here. 

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About a month ago there was controversy over a Melbourne primary school’s decision to give some students the option of leaving their school assembly to avoid singing the Australian national anthem. The grandmother of one of the students at Cranborne Carlisle Primary School phoned in to a talkback radio show to express her outrage after witnessing the scene.

The students were reportedly of Islamic (Shiite) background and were observing Muharram – a solemn month to commemorate the death of one of their revered religious leaders. According to reports, there was some confusion as to whether singing the national anthem would be a breach of the solemnity that accompanies Muharram, which sees Shiites avoid any celebratory or joyous activities.

The Sydney Morning Herald published at least two opinion pieces on the issue: one by Kevin Donnelly of the Australian Catholic University, published under the title “Singing the National anthem at school should be compulsory” and one by spokesman for the highly controversial Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Uthman Badar, arguing “Muslim children should not be forced to sing national anthem.”

I have two things I want to say about this controversy.

1) This is a classic example of a knee-jerk-reaction. As Skipper from the Penguins of Madagascar might say if he was a Sydney evangelical:

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“This is no Matthias Media study…there was no ‘think it through’!”    [2]
I refer to the original complainant, Melbourne grandmother Lorraine McCurdy, who told 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell she didn’t understand how the national anthem would be considered participating in joyous music or celebration. Perhaps the opening line “Australians all let us rejoice” gives some indication as to why it might be interpreted in this way! I don’t want to be nasty, but I wish Ms McCurdy had attempted to understand why the Shiite students might have seen things the way they did, when the answer seems to be glaringly obvious.

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It’s not the first time there’s been confusion over the opening lyrics…  [3]
2) I disagree with forcing people, including children, to sing the national anthem when it’s against their conscience to do so. I don’t agree with Hizb ut-Tahrir on very much, them being a fairly hardcore Islamic advocacy group and all, but on this point at least I sympathise.

For many people in Australia, their religious convictions are more important to their identity and daily life than their citizenship/nationality or the cultural expectations of the society they live in. As a pluralistic society with freedom of religion, speech and expression, Australia needs to respect different convictions people may hold when it comes to things such as singing the national anthem.

Forcing people to sing or participate in such an activity against their will is more likely to result in resentment than warm feelings towards the anthem and what it represents. Likewise, imposing nationalism upon people as something considered more important than their religious beliefs is more likely to provoke radical reactions from the targeted minority than succeeding in “pulling them back into line” when it comes to all things Australian.

As a Christian, I dislike it when Muslims are targeted by the media with the question of whether their loyalty is primarily towards Australia or their religion. This is a different question to whether their allegiance lies primarily with Australia or a foreign power, or hostile group that may present a threat to our national security. Because yes there is an issue if someone is ill-disposed towards the Australian Crown, government, constitution, rule of law and civic freedoms or harbours resentment towards Australians as a people. That is dangerous to our society and we have to think intelligently about how to deal with the threats that such people might pose.

But as a Christian, my allegiance is to Jesus Christ over and above Queen, country and culture. And in extreme instances where there might be a conflict between the teachings of Christ and Australian law, I would be more concerned about living consistently with the precepts of my Lord than I would with the dictates of the government.

Christians may have legitimate cause for concern about radicalised Islamic groups setting up their identity in such a way that turns people against the rest of society and sets them at odds with citizens of different religions, ethnicities or values systems. But in this case, freedom of religion and the ability to live consistently with what one believes to be the most honouring to God (so long as it does not cause damage to the safety of others) is a more important thing to emphasise as a society than insisting on inflexible arrangements involving expressions of national loyalty, like singing the national anthem.

The Shiite students involved were not attempting to force radical religious views on anybody, nor were they acting in a subversive way towards Australia that undermines the security or social fabric of our nation. Instead what we seem to be witnessing is others, forcing their nationalistic expectations on a religious minority that wishes to exercise their freedom not to “rejoice” with all Australians for one month out of twelve, for religious reasons.

It is my hope that Christians will reject the view put forward by Kevin Donnelly that students and citizens of certain religious convictions should be compelled to perform such activities, as though the State or the nation is above one’s most deeply held beliefs about God and life. For it’s easily foreseeable that this kind of imposition will increasingly be wielded against all who take their faith seriously and refuse to follow every detail of what someone else deems to be essentially Australian.
Photo credits:
[1] denisbin “Warrnambool” CC BY-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Moshe Reuveni “Skipper and Rico” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Benh LIEU SONG “Masai Ostrich” CC BY-SA 2.0 flickr.

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No mistake – we’re at war (Pt. 3)

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Before reading please check out the two previous posts (here and here), which give the relevant background. 

We’ve seen that Christians in Australia are in a state of war. Spiritually, we’re called to constantly resist the evil one through the resources God has given us, notably prayer and the gospel (and especially prayer for the gospel, see Eph 6:18-20). People of whatever political or religious alignment are not our true enemies, but the spiritual forces behind them. And we do not wage our warfare as Christians through physical violence.

Yet, politically, we live in a nation-state that is engaged in physical military combat with an armed, flesh and blood enemy force. As citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia, we can say that the artists-fraudulently-known-as Islamic State are our country’s enemies. We can even go further and say that their actions have made them enemies of humanity – the foes of any person or people who have not ingested their vile, poisonous and extreme form of ideology.

There are plenty of ways in which we need to keep our spiritual enemies and our country’s enemies in separate categories. As I’ve already explained, the Christian’s real enemy will always be the spiritual forces behind the extremists. The Church’s priority should be wrestling “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” without getting distracted by perceived human enemies. The State’s priority should be fighting legitimate combat operations against hostile elements that threaten peace, security and stability – yet it is powerless to stop the spiritual forces behind them.

But is there a meeting point between these two aspects of warfare we find ourselves touched by? I want to propose that there is.

In the last post I suggested we pray: “for the decline of radicalised Islam as a spiritual evil in our community and around the world – that it would lose its grip on the hearts and minds of those it controls.” That is part of our responsibility as Christians: it’s appealing to God to address the spiritual evil behind the physical atrocities and injustice. Better yet, we can pray that our Heavenly Father’s name would be hallowed in Iraq and Syria and His Kingdom would come there and His will be done there as it is in Heaven. Islam, particularly this form of it, is a demonic tool to keep people made in God’s image bound under spiritually oppressive control. Only God’s rule coming through the gospel can replace that – otherwise we may see something not unlike Jesus’ description in Luke 11:24-26 come to pass in these countries.

But we should not only pray for the fall of radicalised Islam and the triumph of the gospel. I believe we should be praying for the military defeat of ISIS and all its affiliated groups. I do not say this out of malice towards a particular race or creed, but because of my conviction that this abominable destroyer of children, women, the elderly, the marginalised, Yazidis, non-compliant Muslims and Christians must neither be allowed to continue perpetrating its hideous attacks on innocent people, nor given any further opportunity to indulge in the delusion of a caliphate or state by holding onto the territory it has captured.

We should pray for the success of the Australian military and their allies and for our leaders to have the courage, conviction and tenacity to do whatever is necessary to stop this wickedness from terrorising the region.
We should pray not out of blind support or fervent patriotic pride, but out of compassion for those who have been butchered, raped, assaulted and subjugated to the barbaric rule of the monstrously inhumane fanatics that have conquered the land of thousands of people. We should pray not out of a bloodthirsty desire to see our enemies shot and blown to pieces, but out of a thirst for justice and a demand that the blood of the weak would no longer be spilled.

And we should pray that ISIS can be stopped and rendered inoperable with as little loss of life possible – especially the lives of non-combatant Iraqi and Syrian civilians, and our own military forces that are acting to protect them. My greatest hope is that many of the young men involved with ISIS will become disillusioned with Islam and begin to disband, so that its power disintegrates. As a Christian, I’m not adverse to the idea of those guilty of bloodshed facing justice for their crimes in this life, whether on the battlefield or in the courtroom. But I do hope that God in His mercy might prolong the lives of many guilty jihadists that they might have an opportunity to hear a clear presentation of the gospel and repent of their sins to gain eternal life in Christ.

Of course this brings us to the heart of the contentious issue at hand: to pray for mercy (i.e. the mass conversion of ISIS militants) or pray for justice (i.e. the mass defeat of ISIS militants)? That is the question.

Because both are so important, I think our prayer must simply be for God to act. For surely like God we must take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23) and desire all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). But with the Psalmist we must ask God to break the arm of the wicked, call them to account, help the afflicted, fatherless and oppressed and end the reign of terror by evil men (Psalm 10:15-18) and with the martyrs we must long for the day when God avenges the blood of the innocent and righteous upon the wicked (Rev 6:10) – even if that day is someway off.

The Sovereign God is able to show mercy to whom He wishes to show mercy, while leaving others to face justice for their sins against Him – either now or at the day of judgement. So let us pray for Him to act, trusting that He will save many of the perpetrators and victims of the crimes against Heaven and humanity that are occurring in Iraq and Syria, through the cross of His Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But at the same time allowing for Him to display His justice in this world by destroying the lives of those who continue to rebel against Him despite His daily long-suffering and kindness towards them.

It may be a hard reality to live with. But then war tends to have that effect…

No mistake – we’re at war (Pt. 2)

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Following on from the previous post, which you can read here – how should we respond to what transpired in Paris this month, as people who recognise we’re involved in a spiritual war, while our country is caught up in a military conflict with a very wicked organisation?

Here are some of the things I’d invite you to join me in praying:

We need to pray for our own hearts – that we wouldn’t be corrupted by fear, prejudice or just plain apathy in response to the things that are occurring in our community and in our world. Much of the spiritual war we’re involved in concerns the struggle for control of our hearts and minds and those of our brothers and sisters in the family of God.

We need to pray for those who have lost their loved ones – that they would find true comfort and restoration in the loving arms of Christ and that God may bring good to them out of this horrific evil. May we pray the same for the hostages that survived as they seek to recover from trauma and injuries they may have occurred as a result of the siege.

We need to pray for the decline of radicalised Islam as a spiritual evil in our community and around the world – that it would lose its grip on the hearts and minds of those it controls.

We need to pray against the spiritual evil of racism and religious vilification that simmers below the surface of respectable society in our nation. Pray that God would keep our Muslim neighbours safe and protected by the authorities and their fellow citizens now and into the future. And pray that you and I would have the courage to confront outbursts or violence related to race or religion if we see it taking place in public.

Pray for the police, intelligence agencies and others who work tirelessly to protect their fellow citizens.

Pray that world leaders would act wisely in their ongoing response to the situation. [Not only the military/counter-terrorism aspect, but also the humanitarian/refugee crisis etc;].

Pray that this Christmas more people would grasp the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth and goodwill to men” – because of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And pray that we would be willing to work for the advancement of God’s Kingdom in our community by sharing the hope we have in Christ with people from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.

There is also a junction where the two wars I’ve talked about intersect and I’d like to share my thoughts on that with you in one final post over the next few days…We’ll look at how knowing about our involvement in a spiritual war and seeing what happened in Paris this month and Sydney last year, might lead us to pray in a certain way about the current situation with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

But for now, let’s be aware there’s a war raging all around us. And let us respond to the call to action and fight the evil in this world by praying, loving our neighbours and proclaiming the good news of Jesus that shines like a light in the darkness around us.

[1] Jordi Bernabeu Farrus  “Tercer premi en la categoria Individual de Notícies d’Actualitat al World Press Photo. BULENT KILIC / AFP” (CC BY 2.0) Flickr.

No mistake – we’re at war (Pt. 1)

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The recent attacks in Paris have again got Christians talking about an appropriate response to the separate, yet related matters of terrorism/extremism, Islam as a religion and Muslims as people and neighbours. Over the next few weeks, I plan to publish several posts that interact with these issues. I originally published the first two parts of this series of posts 11 months ago, immediately following the “Sydney Siege”, on the website of the church I was co-pastoring. I thought it might be beneficial to revisit some of these themes in light of what’s been happening in Paris and around the world since that event… 

While the outcome of the crisis that ended at Martin Place in Sydney yesterday could have undoubtedly been much worse than it was – it marks the day that the extremist violence of the kind we’ve witnessed so much around the world since September 11, 2001 has finally violated the sacredness of human life and public safety on Australian soil. [Likewise Paris has reminded us once again how destructive these attacks can be].

It also serves as a clear and sharp reminder to us all that we are at war.

Around 9/11, I heard people talk ignorantly of waging “a war against Muslims.” Rest assured, that’s not what I’m talking about. God forbid that we should ever be involved in or condone an armed conflict or persecution against any general population of a particular religion. It’s critical that we heed the calls to show kindness and support to our Muslim neighbours during this sensitive time and denounce any show of violence or hatred towards them.

But it’s also critical that we recognise that we are nonetheless involved in a war and that maybe we’re more involved than we’d like to be.

One one level, Australia [along with France and other Western nations] is effectively engaged in warfare against a pernicious militant group known as ISIS or Islamic State. While the actions of Man Haron Monis did not represent the sentiments and intentions of the mainstream Islamic community in Australia [likewise regarding the actions of the terrorists in France], they seem to have had a lot to do with the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

While the exact motives behind the attack are not currently known, it is clear that Monis wished to identify himself and his actions with ISIS and thus it is fairly safe to conclude that part of the message he wished to send our nation and the world was ISIS-related. The attack happened in the context of our government’s decision to send military assistance to those in Iraq who are resisting the brutal advances of this atrocious group that slaughters those who do not agree with its extreme interpretations of Islamic religion.

But for Christians, this tragic event is a reminder of the war you and I are caught up in every day of our lives in this world: the spiritual battle being waged amongst humanity in unseen realms without pause. Our struggle, we’re told, is not against the visible, human perpetrators of conflict, hatred and violence but against the invisible influences that drive and enable much of the wickedness we see in the world. “…against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12b). Our weapons are never the physical blades and bullets used to destroy human bodies but are spiritual weapons, for a spiritual war (see 2 Cor 10:4-5, 2 Cor 6:7, Eph 6:13-18) – not for harming people but for attacking the very things that harm their souls.

What happened in Sydney [and now in Paris] was driven by spiritual forces of evil. It robbed people of their lives and families of their loved ones. It disturbed public order and spread fear through the community. It has incited more extremism – providing fertile ground for anti-Islamic sentiments and copycat or retaliatory attacks by radicalised people in the community. All of this is evil and the work of our true enemy the devil.

So how do we respond to events such as this, as those who are aware of our involvement in a cosmic struggle between spiritual forces of good and evil that is affecting the lives of every single human being in our society?

The most important thing we can do in this situation is to use our God-given spiritual weapons – prayer and the proclamation of the Gospel to the world.

How can we do this? Firstly, I’d invite you to do some reflection of your own and pray in response, but tomorrow I’ll share some suggestions for how we can pray and act in a way that takes this situation of war we’re in seriously.

[1] Image credit: Flickr user: Devar “RAAF Airshow: Counter Terrorism Response Group” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Reflexions to Projections: Clear Evangelicalism

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After giving you a little bit of background as to my personal theological formation and spiritual journey, I thought I’d write a little bit about how I like to think about myself now, my hopes and aims for the future and the kind of theology and spirituality I want to dedicate The Lion & Phoenix to upholding and advancing.

I’ll try and make this a short post about a big idea: clear evangelicalism. You may have noticed that in the previous post, I described myself in the most recent period of my life as “a Reformed, Conservative Evangelical.” It’s an accurate enough description of the kind of theology and emphases I’ve developed since my early twenties, but it isn’t where I want to stay. Because I have an inkling that “Reformed” and “Conservative” can both potentially be too limiting and that without wanting to diminish or “move on” from the convictions I hold today, I sense that evangelicals defining themselves in terms of “conservatism” or having arrived at a fully reformed state of being in theology and practice, may not be the most helpful place to end up.

The truly “reformed” church is committed to the principle of semper reformanda (Always Reforming), not merely resting on the laurels of your church’s traditions and past achievements. “Reformed” is accurate if you or your church have  been  shaped by the  principles of the Protestant reformation and have undergone a process of changing your doctrine or practice because of your arrival at new convictions based on the clear teaching of Scripture. But Christians –  even in the best reformed traditions – need to continue to challenge themselves to be renewed and reshaped in response to God speaking through His Word.

Likewise,  “conservative” would seem to imply that we need to resist changing trends,  values,  beliefs and practices and hang onto “the way things have always been”. When it comes to the core of our faith,  conservatism is crucial: you can innovate your way out of historical, orthodox,  biblical Christianity! But conservatism doesn’t work so well as a universal approach – in fact I dare say it undermines further reform and self-evaluation in many cases.  Sometimes we hold to traditions without ever re-evaluating whether what we say we believe and how we practice it in today’s world accurately represents biblical principles and faithfully points to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Plus there is a tendency to create litmus tests for theological conservatism that often alienate other evangelicals who may share a range of similar convictions but find themselves disqualified by one or two shibboleths.

“Progressive” evangelicalism seems to have more problems of its own than solutions to their conservative brethren’s issues (more on that another time). So I’m proposing something that is in many ways the same as conservative evangelicalism,  but with a difference that possesses the versatility to either appear explicit or subtle when the two approaches are placed side by side.

Clear evangelicalism is about holding tightly onto the core of the gospel tightly and never loosening our grip,  while at the same time ensuring that the secondary and tertiary aspects of our theology and practice present other Christians and non-christians alike with a clear and unobscured message about the Christian gospel.

It begins with looking at one’s own approach and constantly being challenged to say and do everything in such a way that proclaims Jesus,  and salvation in His Name,  loud and clear. Then it extends to encouraging others who share this commitment to keep doing the same.

My hope is that while people might be classified differently under the present evangelical subgroupings on offer or still find themselves disagreeing with gospel-centred people on a range of issues,  a common commitment to clear evangelicalism will facilitate greater encouragement to preserve,  promote and proclaim the things that matter most. I also hope that where differences exist and one group can’t win the other over to their position despite reasoned biblical arguments,  there will be room for a different kind of victory: challenging those with different views and practices to approach them in the way that best displays the gospel.

I’ll share more on what I think this might look like in the coming weeks and months,  but for now I would love to hear your feedback.  Does this sound like a worthwhile approach? Am I perhaps just rebranding conservative evangelicalism without any substantial changes? Do you see any dangers or weaknesses with this kind of attitude towards evangelicalism?

[1] Sathish J “Spirituality” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Flickr

Reflexions of a Reformed, Conservative Evangelical

2007-2015

Previous posts: here, here & here.

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In the dark days of 2006-7, I began to experience a gradual, theological shift. My online Christian blog reading had taken me on a journey from the dispensationalist prophecy-speculation websites to pages that criticised aberrant movements within evangelicalism – something I was quite concerned about at the time. I ended up becoming a regular reader of the Pyromaniacs blog, which was managed by an elder at John Macarthur’s church in California.

Their fierce cessationism was a bit off putting to me (and still does!), but I was attracted by their frank assessments of contemporary evangelicalism and found it a helpful place to grow in thinking about how to respond to some of the things going on in the church today.

Over time, I noticed that I had become sympathetic to their way of interpreting Scripture when it came to contentious issues like predestination and God’s sovereignty over human affairs. I felt the “Calvinistic” system made sense of the biblical data and narratives more than the interpretations I’d been brought up to hold. While certain teachings like “limited atonement” were a bit hard to stomach and took me sometime to make a definitive decision on, I underwent a gradual shift to Reformed theology, rather than the Arminian assumptions I’d inherited.

This had flow on effects for other areas of theology. For instance, in 2007 or 2008 I was looking for a systematic theology book to read and Wayne Grudem’s was one of the most accessible volumes that was available at the time. So I bought a condensed copy of his work and began reading. A friend of mine who attended a Pentecostal Bible College warned me that his lecturers didn’t use Grudem (a Charismatic) because he “had some funny views on women in ministry.” As I read, I relished Grudem’s theological treatment of baptism, Reformed soteriology, spiritual gifts and a range of other issues I was already quite convinced about. And when I read what he had to say about what he called “complementarianism” I went back to my friend and said: “I read what Grudem said about women’s roles in the church and I think he actually makes some good points!” Despite only ever having positive experiences with female pastors and being in a church that had them, I became convinced by Scriptures like 1 Timothy 2:12 that the complementarian position was more likely to be biblically sound. (I’ll talk more about some of my theological distinctives in another series of posts).

Around this time, I was also heavily impacted by The Way of the Master approach to evangelism via the teaching of NZ-born evangelist Ray Comfort. I joined an outreach team that shared my enthusiasm for this evangelistic method and made what I suppose were my first “Reformed friends” during this time, which was an encouragement to me as I continued to wrestle with a range of theological and spiritual matters.

By 2009 I was finally finishing my degree and had a strong desire to be involved in gospel ministry – full-time if possible.  I’d been involved in a range of ministries at my church but wanted to explore a range of different possibilities for the future, which led me to enrol at Bible College for 2010.

College was the place where I could not only sort out some of the questions I had about whether to become a pastor, overseas missionary or student/campus minister, but I’d also have space to work out some of the theological issues I’d been thinking about. I picked Brisbane’s only non-denominational, missions-focused evangelical college, the Bible College of Queensland (now Brisbane School of Theology) because it seemed to be the best fit for where I was at in terms of theology and ministry.

Intertwined with my journey regarding theology and ministry prospects was my recovery as a person and forming of new friendships, following my period of deep emotional and relational wounding from my family situation. It was great to interact with a diverse range of Christian faculty and students and I owe so much in my life today to the influences and friendships of the brothers and sisters in my life at this time.

Some of my theological convictions and personal circumstances (such as my residential location) did change during this time and when I was about to do a field education subject in 2011, I decided to make the difficult and scary move of trying out a different kind of church where I’d be able to learn in quite a different environment to the church I’d attended since high school. Despite the many new challenges I faced in changing congregational settings (something I’d never taken lightly), my ministry supervisor, Steve proved to be a good example of gospel-centered, pastorally tender ministry and I was able to learn a lot by serving alongside him over the next few years.

In my final year of college and first year or so out, I’d become theologically resettled in a lot of areas, but still had a great need for ongoing spiritual growth and personal recovery. I was constantly challenged in areas at the intersection between theological understanding and practical action, such as the realities of cross-cultural gospel ministry and the impetus to take the good news of Jesus to places which lack Christian resources. A beautiful, godly young woman who shares very little in common with me on the surface at first glance, but so much in the depths of Christian identity and gospel convictions became the greatest personal influence and encouragement to godly growth I’ve ever known. A friendly Chinese-born accountant I’d met in 2010, who wanted to serve as a missionary in Asia, became my best friend at Bible College and over time, the only woman I would want to share my heart and life with.

As we celebrate two years of a challenging but immensely rewarding marital relationship, I continue to be stretched to grow as a husband, as a Christian and as a student and servant of Jesus Christ and His gospel. I’ve by no means “arrived” theologically or spiritually! But I’m so very grateful that God has transformed me from the Christianish kid and nominal nodder to the sincere but overly strict and rigid young Christian and now to a broken, but gradually reconstructed and vastly more mature believer in Christ.

Reflexions of a Pentecostalish/Fundamentalistic Christian

2004-2007

Previous posts can be found here and here

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I came to a spiritual crossroad towards the end of high school. Because of a girl, I’d gotten back into youth group attendance and eventually added church attendance in 2003-4. Then a Christian schoolmate had invited me to attend his home group/Bible study during my final year of school.

Things seemed to be getting a bit more serious for me and although part of the reason was definitely connected to keeping the girlfriend and her parents happy, that was far from the whole picture. I realised that when I went to university I was going to need to decide whether I’d live independently as a Christian young adult, once the crutch of school chapel and the spoon-feeding of caring Christian teachers disappeared into the rear vision mirror of life. I knew uni wouldn’t do anything to make it easy to live as a Christian, so I felt confronted with the need to either commit or acknowledge that my faith would slowly melt away.

God truly was at work in my life during this season and as I left high school, I continued with church, youth group and home group. I was growing more convinced and committed rather than less and I wanted to ensure I was living as a sincere disciple in response to God’s offer in the gospel.

In August 2005, I had one of the most significant experiences of my Christian life. I was baptised after making a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance from my sins. In my own mind this was my decisive step in declaring my genuine discipleship to family and friends. But as I went down into the waters and subsequently emerged I experienced a powerful sense of assurance from the Holy Spirit that I had indeed been washed clean by the blood of Christ, died with Him in His death and risen again to new life.
I knew the water had not done anything special to me, but at the same time I knew God had. A new chapter had begun and I was determined to live for Jesus, trusting in Him for salvation and following Him as Lord in a way I had neglected to do for so many years of calling myself a Christian.

I was once again part of Pentecostal Christianity and experienced all the strengths and weaknesses that come with this particular expression of the faith. My church and home group instilled in me a greater appreciation for both the Bible as God’s Word and its place in my life, as well as the vitality of a relationship with Jesus through faith and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. I had experienced what Pentecostals call the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” a few months before my water baptism and spoken in tongues and developed something of a mystical spirituality when it came to relating to God. On more mature reflection, I think Pentecostal spirituality can be like a two-edged sword. It helpfully cuts away at religious formality and emphasises real, holy Christian living on one hand, but at the same time it can deeply wound the conscientious soul that is striving for spiritual attainments that are seemingly always out of one’s reach. I think the teachings on holiness I received during those years had an incredibly positive impact on my life in some respects. But at the same time I developed a strong fundamentalistic, reactionary posture to help me survive the harsh secular environment of university and to navigate the temptations of youth – which was not terribly helpful to me or others and often sunk into legalism. I don’t wish to pin the blame for this on others, as I’m aware that my own personality and way of thinking was fertile ground for this perspective on life to develop.

I also had a very speculative approach to understanding Bible prophecy which was fuelled by influences within my circles of fellowship, along with online influences I’d discovered as a high school student. I believed the European Union was the revived Roman Empire and that the Great Tribulation would probably begin before I finished university. Living a godly life and evangelising the lost both seemed much more urgent to me than other things during this period – especially long-term life-planning like super-annuation.

This was the theological and spiritual position I was in when I made some of the most difficult decisions and faced some of the most difficult trials in my young life up to that point. I broke up with my girlfriend because of my new convictions about living a holy life (in hindsight a difficult but wise and right decision). I left university without completing my degree (I’d return later) because I thought God wanted me to give this up too as a sign of devotion towards Him (in hindsight, probably an immature and unwise decision, given I ignored the counsel of my pastor in making it). And in 2007, I experienced terrible personal trials as my family unit broke apart – something which is still difficult for me to speak about today and which has impacted me enormously ever since.

There is no other way to describe this period than this. I got crushed. Emotionally, relationally and spiritually. My theology and spirituality helped me through in some ways, but they did not spare me any suffering and I lacked the maturity to properly process what was going on. I stubbornly persisted in the ministries at church I was involved in and carried on in the Christian life, but I was hurting and felt let down.

After this season I was a changed person – mostly it felt for the worse. I would need to gradually recover personally, but also change theologically and grow into greater spiritual and emotional maturity. More on that in the final installment.