Monday, 4 June 2018

What's next after this life?

"Forget images of playing harps up in the clouds"
When young children – and many adults – do something for a while, they soon get bored and ask “What’s next?” We’ve done that, been there, achieved this, arrived here, so what’s next on the bucket list, or the life plan? It’s what drives us to gain promotion, get more money, upgrade our lifestyle. Contentment is sometimes wrongly equated with stagnation and boredom.

But the biggest question of all – what’s next after death? – is not one we spend much time on until tragedies or advancing years intervene. Almost every culture and religion has some kind of belief in afterlife and Christianity is no exception. So what, if anything, is next, and why should we think about it?

Death: an obscene intrusion into life

Life is precious. When death intrudes, whether by “natural” or violent causes, individuals grieve, communities mourn, and strangers may gather and offer support. In some well-publicised and usually violent or tragic cases, shrines spring up, Facebook fundraising takes place, and memorial concerts are arranged. Life is glorious and to be celebrated. Death seems obscene, wrong.

We have “a profound inability to conceive of nothingness,” author and columnist Caitlin Moran wrote. Three years earlier she had declared, “I want there to be an afterlife, now.”1 The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences has been offered for anyone who can show a way of conquering death.

There have been three modern attempts to postpone or escape death. The welcome rise of medical expertise including transplant surgery, along with improvements to diet and public health, has succeeded in lengthening average lifespans considerably in developed countries. However, it can also have the effect of lengthening life artificially so much that a person becomes a breathing corpse. By contrast, good palliative care aims to enhance, not necessarily extend, a person’s remaining days.

The technique of cryonics, which deep freezes newly-deceased bodies in the hope that they might one day be resuscitated has been available to rich people for several decades, mostly in the USA (currently for $200,000). And there is growing interest, fostered by science-fiction writers and partly illustrated in the Channel 4 TV series Humans, in “transhumanism”, in which electronic hardware and software extracts memory and personality from the brain as well as replacing worn-out tissue.2

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, biblically death is not seen as a friend but as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Alfred Lord Tennyson caught the conviction that death is an unwelcome intrusion into life at the start of his long poem In Memoriam. It was written over several years in response to the sudden death of his close friend Arthur Haslam, which threw Tennyson’s faith into confusion:

Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
     Thou madest man, he knows not why,
     He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

“Not made to die.”  But we do. Some believe there is nothing beyond death. We live on only in others’ memories, through our achievements, and through our genes in our offspring. That is largely how people in Old Testament times viewed life beyond the grave. Apart from a hazy idea about a shadowy existence in Sheol and the occasional glimmer of insight such as Job’s “after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (19:25), future hope for ancient Israelites lay more in genealogy than regeneration. It is only in the New Testament that a clear and at the time revolutionary concept of life after death appears.

The famous reaction of Jesus Christ – “Jesus wept” – when his friend Lazarus died suggests that there is even divine grief and anger in the face of death. Translators struggle with the Greek original of John 11:33. The NIV suggests “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. The New Living Translation has “he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled”. It was not just because he had lost a personal friend whose home had been a welcome retreat for him.

The 19th-century theologian B.B. Warfield described Jesus’ anger thus: “It is death [itself] that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death and whom he has come into the world to destroy. Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words, ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites on our behalf.”3

Death, this seems to imply is somehow an “unnatural” intrusion into life. Yet cold logic tells us that death is part of the cycle of life. Plants and animals die, their remains recycled by the seasonal rhythms. Age takes its toll on all living things. Everything physical slowly decays or wears out. Even stars like our sun, in their unimaginably long timescale, are born and eventually die and are consumed.

This creates a problem for interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis which suggest that death entered the world only after the rebellion of Adam and Eve. (This can be implied from Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.) Was everything before then as indestructible as modern plastic? Where did the humus nutrients for plant life come from if not from decay? Were all the animals vegetarian? Generally, commentators regard the threat of “death” after eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17) as a purely spiritual alienation from God, which is probably how Paul intended his teaching to imply.

So in their pristine Paradise, how did death occur? Could Adam eventually have become crippled with arthritis? Could Eve have developed breast cancer? C.S. Lewis in his science fiction novels speculated on a kind of painless, joyful translation of an un-fallen race from this life to the next. We’ll never know. This is now, and everyone dies, sometimes prematurely, sometimes painfully, sometimes peacefully. But the New Testament suggests that God has not left us to mope over what might have been, but gives us a glimmer of hope for what could be.

Resurrection and re-creation

The Bible does not teach that human beings are immortal. On that basis, it is possible to believe that death is the end for all, or that life after death is granted only to some favoured souls. It also rules out any concept of reincarnation; we don’t go on and on in different forms. Instead the New Testament introduces a whole new concept: resurrection.

Although the idea had crept into Judaism during the previous few centuries, it was still contentious and unclear in Jesus’ time. Hence the cynical question by the resurrection-denying Sadducees about which husband would live with a hypothetical seven-times married widow in the next life (Mark 12:18-27). Jesus’ teaching about his own forthcoming death and resurrection was received with bemusement by his disciples (e.g. Mark 8:31-32; John 14:1-6).

What transformed their understanding was the undeniable fact of Jesus’ own bodily resurrection. Despite his attempts to prepare them for the unimaginable, it was only when it happened that they understood. In the book of Acts, it was Jesus’ resurrection, not his atoning death on the cross, which dominated the apostles’ preaching and inspired the rapid growth of the fledgling church. The resurrection demonstrated God’s power and love, and paved the way for anyone who believed in him to enter eternal life.

And it was Jesus’ resurrection that formed the basis of St Paul’s relatively brief teaching about what lies in store after death for the rest of us. Like Jesus, we too will be raised from death. In what is probably his earliest letter, he tells his readers not to grieve for those who already “sleep in death” as if there is no hope for them. “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).

Human imagery cannot begin to comprehend
spiritual and eternal reality
In 1 Corinthians 15:20 he calls Jesus the first instalment of those who will rise at the last day, when God creates a new “kingdom”. He suggests that the bodies we shall receive will be spiritual and enduring rather than physical and mortal. This tells us only enough to be sure that life after death will be conscious and tangible.

The book of Revelation, often appealed to as a picture of life after death, certainly portrays heavenly scenes but only in figurative language. It must be remembered that the vision given to John was not intended to describe the future life in any detail but, in veiled language, to encourage persecuted Christians that their enemies would eventually be vanquished and their faithfulness to Christ rewarded. The picture of a new heaven and a new earth as a cubic city made of gold and precious stones (Revelation 21) was never meant to be understood as a sneak preview of God’s photo album but as an artist’s or visionary’s way of saying that “it will be perfect and unblemished, beyond your wildest dreams”.

Forget the caricatures and conjectures

The idea of life after death has attracted many caricatures, mythical conjectures and hopeful assumptions and it’s hard even for Christians to throw them off. So forget joining angels on puffy clouds to strum harps all day. And thankfully forget the idea of heavenly equivalent of an endless church service. The image of worshipping throngs in Revelation 7 – whose joy stems from God’s victory over their persecutors – has to be matched with Paul’s assertion in Romans 12:1-2 that true and proper worship is serving God wholeheartedly.

Forget too the idea of a perfected life as we know it on earth. At the end of Julian Barnes’ book A history of the world in 10½ chapters the hero asks to be taken away from heaven because he’s fed up of going round the golf course in 18 strokes – a hole in one each time. Couldn’t the creator of the universe come up with something more interesting, he asks. He probably has, but we know precious little about it because we cannot conceive of “life” beyond the material world.4

Then there’s the idea of some glorious reunion party in heaven. Paul does imply that we’ll meet again those who have gone before in the 1 Thessalonians passage quoted above, but that doesn’t seem to be the key concept of heaven. TV presenter Emily Maitlis told Stylist magazine, “When I was a kid, I used to think of death or heaven was about endless concentric circles of people you’d met throughout your life – some randomly, some intensely, some for moments – popping up and back into it to say hello. Then they invented Facebook and I realised how unappealing that actually was.”5

So what can we know?

Here’s some bullet points from the scriptures, to feed the thoughts and conversations we all need to have about life after death. 

·         There is something next. Jesus’ resurrection – the Easter story – points to that. Jesus rose, and is accessible to us through prayer and in experience. He told Martha at Lazarus’s grave “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though they die.” He told his disciples he was going to prepare a place for them (John 11:25; 14:2).

Life after death will be completely different: sculptor Phillida
Barlow's "upside down house" defies imagination
·         It will be radically different to life now. “Heaven” is an unimaginable dimension beyond space and time. It will be tangible but not as things are now. It will be a timeless dimension. Eternity is not time extended infinitely, but a whole other dimension. Theoretical physicists and cosmologists currently suggest that there are already more dimensions in the universe than we can conceive, and perhaps also other universes. Our imagination (and often our faith) is time-bound and rooted to our concept of matter as we know it. Yet Jesus’ resurrection body had unworldly properties, behaving more like some of the elusive elementary particles of matter discovered by researchers that behave in distinctly non-material ways. As he was, so shall we be.

·         It will be good but not a mere escape. St Paul declared that “I desire to depart and be with Christ which is better by far”. But this was not the weary cry of a man worn down by constant deprivations, ailments, and crises. He decided that actually “it is more necessary for you [Philippians] that I remain in the body” (Philippians 1:23-24). He didn’t want to go there yet because he had more work to do here in order to comply with God’s good purposes. When Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 15:19 that if we have hope in Christ only for this life, “we are of all people most to be pitied” he did not intend to fuel Nietzsche’s later assertion that heaven is a myth devised to comfort weak people. Paul was this-life affirming; the hope of eternal life was an added incentive to remain faithful to God’s calling now. The promised upgrade to come doesn’t detract from the call of the present to build God’s Kingdom as best as we’re able.

·         It will be a place of knowledge and understanding. Our questions will be answered, our doubts resolved, at last. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

·         It will be a totally new creation without the built-in blemishes and weaknesses the present one endures. It will be without suffering, pain, and conflict; justice will be seen to have been done; evil will be banished (Revelation 21:4; 22:5). The question as to why this life is blemished and prone to accident and decay is perhaps only one that can be answered in the next life.

·         There will also be continuity with this life. The biblical picture of “paradise” begins with a garden in Genesis and ends with a city in Revelation. In between is the call to contribute to the building of God’s “Kingdom”. God is not about to destroy everything good that we’ve done corporately and individually. Somehow all will be renewed, and thus incorporated into a new creation depicting what we should and could have done had we been more faithful to God’s purposes. Paul writes of the “redemption” of creation, not its wholesale demolition (Romans 8:18-25).

More questions than answers

Once you begin thinking about the topic, many other questions come to mind. What happens between the time we die and the return of Christ and the inauguration of the new creation? Paul suggests the after-death experience will be like sleeping, which presumably means from the point of view of the deceased there’s no passage of time at all – we’re oblivious to it.

But is there some kind of intermediate state, a place of preparation, a dressing room, if you like, before we take our place on stage before the King? Scripture is virtually silent on the topic and focuses on this life as the training ground (see the parable in Luke 16:19-31 which seems to rule out any “second chance”). Yet we all retain our human imperfections. We need to receive our new set of spiritual clothes (see Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 7:9-17; and compare Paul’s imagery of changing clothes in Colossians 3:1-14 and the promise that we shall be changed in an instant 1 Corinthians 15:51-54). The jury is out; we wait and see.

And then there’s the question of the last judgement. “We will all stand before God’s judgement seat … [and] each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10,12). Is this an exam with rankings, to determine which position we will attain in the next life? Paul suggests that our work for God will survive, or be incorporated into the great transformation, and we will be rewarded. Those whose lives here have contributed nothing to the Kingdom will see their worthless activity “burned up” but they themselves will suffer loss yet still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Is this a hint of differing levels of heaven? But how can a perfect new creation be anything other than egalitarian? Otherwise I might think I ought to have a better spot than someone else, and all the old rivalries re-emerge! Again, we have to wait and see; it’s not for us to speculate, but simply get on with being the best we can for God.

And that leads to the final question: who will be there? There’s plenty of room (or rooms) for all, Jesus suggests in John 14:2. Paul seems to leave the door open to people who have never had the opportunity of hearing the Gospel clearly in Romans 2:12-16. But Jesus also speaks of hell as well as heaven. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven”; all others will be driven from his presence (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31). Tyrants, murderers and the selfishly immoral appear to be excluded (Revelation 21:8), yet Jesus promised paradise to the dying thief on the cross who may have repented to Jesus but who had no time to make amends or communicate to others (Luke 23:40-43).

The imagery of a loving God torturing sinful souls for ever is probably a distortion of the biblical teaching. Better, perhaps, to think of the exclusion as permanent, and that the realisation of such a fate may result in agonising regrets; beyond that, scripture again seems to be silent. Biblical scholars these days are talking more about exclusion from the Kingdom in terms of eventual annihilation after the initial realisation, than of unending terror. Apart from other considerations this underlines that fact that humans are not born immortal. Death could be the end, for some, after the painful and damning judgement that they’ve wasted their life and missed out on some glorious future.

These warnings are not given as a basis to speculate about the fate of others. They are for each person’s cautionary personal examination. When Peter presumed to ask about the fate of John, he was rebuked by Jesus (John 21:20-23). Judgement of others is to be left to God. We’ve got enough to do just to sort ourselves out (see Matthew 7:1-2).

There’s just one potential down side, which is why all this is worth thinking about. There could be people in the next life who currently we can’t stand. God loves them as he loves us. And they will be there, just as we will be, not because of any merit on our part, but courtesy of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on that first Easter. One way of preparing for what’s next is to live and think in Christ’s way now.

And the sure way of being confident that however flawed we remain we will still be welcomed into heaven is to take heed to Jesus’ promise to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). And if the answer is yes, John much later in life assured his readers, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. … Whoever has the Son has life” (1 John 5:1,12). We do not need to go fearfully into death’s good night.

Think and talk

1.  Work through each section and its Bible references. If you can, discuss the implications with a group of others.
2.  What have you done to prepare yourself and others for your inevitable departure from this life?

1.  Caitlin Moran, The Times Magazine, 7 October 2017 and 22 February 2014.
2.  My short story Time to go explores an aspect of this. See
3.  B.B. Warfield, The person and work of Christ, quoted in R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel according to John, IVP 1979, p.140.
4.  The Julian Barnes story was quoted by Bishop Tom Wright, “Imagine there’s no heaven – not such a hellish idea” in The Sunday Times, 20 April 2003
5.  Quoted in The Times Diary, 16 June 2016.

© Derek Williams 2018


Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A very human preacher

Reflections on working with Billy Graham

The evangelist Billy Graham died aged 99 on 21 February 2018. His funeral was due to take place on 2 March. I worked for a decade with his team and occasionally directly with him.

He was wearing tracksuit bottoms and trainers in a hotel room in Bristol. His wife Ruth was in hospital in America. Billy Graham and I were discussing a forthcoming speech he was to make to a “black tie” British audience. I shared some ideas and tried to probe what he felt his message should be. He was very unsure. He leaned back, and lamented, “If only Ruth was here! She’d know what I ought to say.”

            It was near the start of the three-month series of meetings in 1984 in six venues called Mission England. The encounter was my first of several insights into the very human, often diffident and indecisive, shy and sensitive human being who lay behind the public persona of a seemingly confident and assured preacher addressing audiences numbering tens of thousands.

Proof I was there: in the background as Cliff Barrows
 and Billy Graham made a pre-meeting stadium visit
I worked with the communications team for Mission England (1983-4) and subsequent missions in Sheffield (1985), London and its 248 “Livelink” TV satellite relays (1989), Scotland (1991) and Moscow (1991-92). I produced information for church supporters and for the secular media, assisted in direct media relations, and occasionally worked one to one with Mr Graham as he prepared articles or speeches. I also wrote the official story of Mission England (One in a million, Word Books 1984), pre- and post-mission magazine-style publications in 1984 and 1989, and had later back-room opportunities to draft materials for some other overseas missions. I was by no means the only person involved in this way, but I had plenty of opportunity to see the operation, and the man, from close up.

            In person, Billy Graham was always polite, and he always listened. He was a “mid Atlantic” man, like most of his team who I worked with, in manner and accent. There was none of the brash, loud, bombastic, drawling, know-it-all “speak first and think later” character that British people often associate with some Americans. He and his team were culturally sensitive, anxious to work with, not order around, the local people who had invited them in.

Indeed, when the “Life” advertising campaign for 1989 was revealed to a group of us by the agency we had appointed, one of the first questions was whether the Americans would accept it as it was totally unlike anything they had used before. It was entirely in black and white, and included a teaser campaign using the jumbled letters of the word LIFE. (FLE.I, E.LIF, ILE.F) with the question “Can anyone make sense of it?”. The final reveal poster, with a silhouette back view of the evangelist, was “LIFE. Come and hear one man who can make sense of it. Billy Graham.” The Americans graciously accepted the British team’s judgement that it would work here; it actually went on to be widely copied and won an advertising industry award. In Moscow in 1991-2 we used something similar – flyers posing the simple question Why? and the mission title which translated roughly as “the most important”.

The Graham team never went anywhere without a clear invitation from a widely representative body of church leaders. In fact it took almost a decade of repeated invitations from British leaders before Billy Graham considered that both the time, and the nature of our proposal for Mission England (a three-year programme of training and outreach of which his meetings would be the focal point), was right for him to come. The final decision always lay with him.

            Indeed, his desire to be inclusive and accommodating sometimes got him into trouble with the very people who theoretically should have been his strongest supporters. There were demonstrations against him by ultra-Protestant groups who objected to him welcoming Roman Catholic Church leaders onto the platform. They handed out anti-Graham leaflets outside some of the UK venues and harangued people going in. While he never compromised his solid Bible-based evangelical beliefs, Billy sat loose to denominational differences. If people were happy to accept and promote his simple message, he was happy to work with them.

            Interestingly – and as if proof was ever needed that there’s always another side to the media-projected image of public figures – my only personal encounter with the late Ian Paisley, the fiery Protestant politician and church minister in Northern Ireland, came in a blistering ten-minute phone call from him in 1989. However, he was not complaining about Mr Graham’s sympathetic attitude to Catholics. Paisley was a strong supporter of the mission and of Graham’s ministry.

            But he was always the far-seeing, and in that sense wise, politician. I had issued a press release announcing that one of the venues for a Livelink relay was a Roman Catholic Church in Belfast. To us in London, it was a newsworthy contribution to furthering the cause of unity in a deeply divided community, and to promoting Billy Graham’s ecumenical credentials. To Paisley in Belfast, although he had no personal problem with the relay or the venue, the publicity was a potential hindrance to the cause of peace. It could provoke his own even more extreme supporters to turn against him, making the event more, not less, divisive. It might also hinder the cause of the Gospel as remonstrations detracted from the purpose and message of the meetings, he suggested. Sometimes, things need to be done quietly, without fanfare, as small steps in a very long journey. We had failed to be culturally sensitive in our enthusiasm for the immediate story, a common media and PR failing.

What fuelled his success?

We once asked a journalist why there was so much positive interest in and coverage of Billy Graham’s 1984 visit. “Maybe after all these years we’ve begun to think he might have something,” he replied. Simple and undeniable facts had exhausted most of the sceptics’ antagonism.

            Top of the list was the simplicity of his message. Billy Graham was not an intellectual but neither was he theologically illiterate. He had a sharp and quick mind, as many of his live broadcast interviews (including with renowned psychologist Anthony Clare) revealed. He did not offer glib answers to deep questions such as why innocent people suffer. He acknowledged he didn’t understand everything, and simply stressed God’s care for people in extreme situations. Nor did he hold out to people of faith the glib promise of wealth and well-being, unlike the “prosperity gospel” TV evangelists in the US. He just stuck to his core message that every human being is a sinner who needs Christ’s forgiveness and new life. It rang bells with ordinary people even if it continued to rankle with some commentators.

            He was also patently sincere. People who came to the meetings out of curiosity went away acknowledging that whatever else they thought about the message, Billy Graham clearly believed it himself. He was not putting on an act, or playing to the gallery. He was earnest. (He did get carried away occasionally. He used very full sermon notes typed in very large print, but once, having told one of his regular anecdotes which received a greater than usual laugh, he went on to tell another, and another, off the cuff. There was then what could only be described as a pregnant pause. His secretary on the platform turned to one of the UK mission leaders and whispered, “He’s lost his place and doesn’t know what comes next!”)

            His sincerity was borne out by his lifestyle. Very early in his ministry he and Ruth had bought some (then) cheap land on a mountainside and build a wooden house on it. He lived there for the rest of his life, and died there. When his support organisation was formed, also early in his ministry, it was agreed that he would be paid a fixed salary equivalent to that of the minister of a large (not mega) US church. The team offered their services in the UK (and elsewhere) entirely at their own expense and the collections taken at meetings went entirely to the considerable costs of hiring and equipping large venues, producing the literature, and paying local staff. Anything left over might be given partly as a “love gift” to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and also shared with other UK evangelistic projects.

            There was never a whiff of scandal attached to him, either. That was thanks partly to his rigid rule (recently redubbed the “Pence rule” after the current US Vice-President) of never meeting a woman in any circumstances on his own.

            More controversy did surround his relationships with world leaders and particularly US Presidents. However, after he was badly hurt and let down by the antics of President Nixon, who Graham counted as a personal friend, he never publicly endorsed the policies of others. He became a trusted confidante of most presidents of both parties, however, and nothing that passed between them was ever made public.
Always happy to talk - an impromptu media interview
at the Liverpool Garden Festival in 1984
And as you look through the archive of photographs, what strikes you is the ease with which he sat cross-legged with a group of students, or on occasions engaged with people in the street. Billy Graham liked people. He would talk to anyone. And he treated them equally. He was never whisked like a head of state in a convoy of armoured cars and kept apart from the public: in that regard, he was far more like today’s young royals than distant politicians. People warmed to that, and were thus more open to what he had to say.

            Nor did he hide behind TV cameras, although he used TV as much as he could. His primary ministry was to people in person in live meetings, where he felt most at home. In 1984 in Sunderland (previously dubbed the graveyard of evangelists because of its low level of church attendance and response to previous outreach attempts) I went out on the streets asking people why they were coming to hear him in such large numbers. “Well, he’s been good enough to come to see us, so we ought to go and hear what he’s got to say”, said one middle aged Geordie.

            But there were two other factors behind his success in the UK and elsewhere. One was the context. The missions in the 1960s were carefully prepared by local people and the lessons learned then were taken up by UK church leaders and the Graham team elsewhere and refined by the 1980s. Far from being “mass evangelism”, the thrust of the missions was personal evangelism on a large scale. Almost 50,000 people attended the preparatory Christian Life and Witness Classes in 1984, 100,000 in 1989. The course taught Christian basics and encouraged Christians to share their faith with others.

Many volunteers worked late into the night after each meeting
to follow-up enquirers, sending their details to local church
nurture groups to arrive by post the next day
Alongside that was Operation Andrew in which people pledged to pray for and bring to the meetings half a dozen or so of their friends, relatives or colleagues. And on top of these were the Prayer Triplets: three people getting together regularly to pray for up to three people each. Time and again we heard of people coming to faith as a result of this witness and prayer long before the meetings took place. And the majority of uncommitted people who did get to the meetings were already prepared in some way to hear the message – they were not coming cold to something completely unfamiliar. Billy was reaping the harvest from a carefully-prepared mission field.

At times in the meetings you could almost feel the power of that prayer, and the presence of God, much as one might in the echoing silence of a great cathedral or a country church. Once, when we were especially aware of it, a colleague turned to me and said, without in any sense being irreverent, “He could read the weather forecast now and people would come forward to commit themselves to Christ.”

That atmosphere was not what some critics feared – a hyped up emotionalism. It was something completely different. In fact, most of the meetings felt very flat and ordinary – there was none of the frenzy one might associate with a pop concert or football match in the same stadia. That didn’t always suit our friends in the media. At one venue we watched from the press bench with amusement as a TV crew – cameraman tied to sound man with a long umbilical cable, and a reporter – hared across the pitch to the far side to film about four people near the front of a stand who had their arms raised in praise and worship during a hymn. Almost everyone else in the 30,000 crowd was singing heartily but restrained physically.

The second factor was simply Billy Graham’s gift. The New Testament speaks of the gift of an evangelist – someone who under God is able to bring people to the point of encounter with Christ. Billy Graham had that in spades. Some would call it an anointing. He admitted in private that he remained surprised that people came in such numbers to hear him, and to respond to his message. He had a genuine, almost child-like, amazement that God should use him, a dairy farmer’s son with no great human talent, in such a great way. Perhaps that humility was one of the secrets of his longevity as a preacher.

What is his legacy?

That is impossible to quantify. Think dropping a stone into a still pond, with the ripples going out in all directions. Of course, some people who attended the meetings came away unconvinced. Others were affected, but later drifted away from church. Jesus predicted such an effect in the parable of the sower. But many people did come to faith, or had their faith rekindled, through his ministry. And some of those went on to become church ministers, lay activists in their churches, or quiet witnesses in their families, communities and workplaces. Through them, others have come to faith, or had their interest in Christianity awoken, or just been on the receiving end of some gentle “Kingdom building” of goodness, kindness, and godliness. The legacy is never ending.

The same, of course, can be said of almost everyone: we never know the full extent or effectiveness of what we do. The desire to quantify our achievements, to account for or justify our activities is ever greater in a society seemingly obsessed with fulfilling targets and ticking boxes. While defining clearly our strategies in God’s service is good, spiritual effectiveness can never be measured by numbers or actions. King David was taken to task in the Old Testament for holding a census of his fighting force, in effect to measure his pride of achievement and popularity. It wasn’t how God wanted him to think of himself.

The question also arises as to who (if anyone) is the “next” Billy Graham and will carry the torch for large-scale evangelism. It would be a foolish person who said that there never could be someone like him or that there could never be large scale evangelistic meetings in UK sports stadia or places like the O2 arena (after all, he wasn’t the first in history; think John Wesley, George Whitfield, and D.L. Moody). People do go to large events – pop concerts and festivals, and sports events. And there are large scale Christian events (usually semi-residential) such as New Wine, Spring Harvest, the Keswick Convention and so on.

But against that has to be weighed the fact that the world is now different. When Billy Graham was at the height of his ministry in the 1960s through to the 1990s social media didn’t exist. There were fewer TV channels. The satellite technology utilised in 1989 was pioneering – in fact Mission 89’s 248 Livelink relays used all the available large scale projection equipment that existed in the UK at the time, and some had to be imported from Europe. Furthermore, all large scale events today – take the recent Winter Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, or large concerts, even theatre events – utilise two things that didn’t exist then: fast-paced rapidly changing action and vivid visual effects. There are of course people gifted as evangelists, but they don’t have to exercise that gift on large scales. Today, local is often better, with a few churches joining together for a concerted outreach into their community.

Billy Graham was a man for a specific time. Today, outreach with the Christian message needs to utilise technology in a different way; yet still many churches don’t have the facility for providing even simple visual reinforcement of talks. So, because of the well-documented decline in people’s ability to concentrate on a single speaker for any length of time, many have reduced their teaching slots to a few minutes’ monologue instead of re-imagining them and the worship “package” that sandwiches them. And the success of the Alpha Course suggests that the combination of friendship, food, a lively visual programme (the Alpha Course videos were re-worked a year or two ago) and discussion is currently a winning and culturally appropriate formula for sharing the Christian faith.

Instead of looking for a successor, and instead of trying to repeat a formula which worked in a former period, we need to be asking what we’re doing locally and nationally to draw people to faith in culturally appropriate ways. If God raises up an individual who in effectiveness stands head and shoulders above others, that would be great. But meanwhile we’re called to simply get on with the job of mission where we are. And that imperative, if anything, is the greatest legacy of the Billy Graham missions, because they mobilised people in the pews to do what the first Christians did: gossip the Gospel.

Think and talk

1.  What are the most appropriate ways your church might reach out with the Gospel to others without first expecting them to walk into a church service of their own accord?
2.  And what could you do to help facilitate it?





Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Peering through the mist

A meditation on the fogs of faith

The mark of an enquiring mind is that it never stops asking questions. And the more questions it asks, it discovers the less it really knows. But the mind that stops asking questions ceases to grow. Physiologically, a human brain that is not exercised tends to shrivel more with age than one which is given regular fresh focus.

John Betjeman’s scathing (and unfair) indictment of the inhabitants of war-time Slough serves as a more general, cynical indictment of mental as well as physical complacency that never reaches beyond the everyday realm of getting and spending:
“Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans
Tinned minds, tinned breath”.
He adds the patronising caveat that
“It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio”
because they are people, he suggests,
“who daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead”.1

There is, however, a downside to listening to birdsong, looking up at the stars and asking profound questions. In matters of the spirit, we prefer our faith and our religion to be clear and certain. In one, limited sense, ignorance is bliss. Questions challenge former certainties. They threaten to confuse and complicate simple understandings. They can disturb our mental, emotional and spiritual equilibrium. From travelling on through clear daylight with stunning views, as it were, we find we have been enveloped in a fog in which everything becomes hazy.

Yet according to one biblical writer, that is how it often is, and it’s not necessarily a sign of spiritual decline, but a stage in spiritual growth.

The well-known opening words of the otherwise lesser-known and often misunderstood biblical book of Ecclesiastes, are “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” or “Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” They and the author’s original intention are variously interpreted but the word for “vanity” or “meaningless” means literally “vapour” or “mist”. The author is saying, “Everything is misty! It’s all utterly foggy!” And that such a state is not the end of the world.

Fog can stimulate faith

The point is that mist comes and goes. Life is ephemeral. James said the same in the New Testament: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). We prefer not to think about it. It threatens our self-sufficiency.

It’s easy to get lost in fog. The author, like many people, is groping his way through the disorienting social, cultural and religious smog of his time. Ecclesiastes (3:11) knows that God “has set eternity in the human heart; yet no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. The author is frustrated by human limitations that cannot perceive more than indistinct shadows of God’s presence. But he presses on through the fog in his quest. Many just give up. Some never venture out at all.

Mist also transforms landscapes, and swaddles them in mystery. Sir Nigel Thompson, former Chair of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, has written: “Mist is like a universal corrector in the way it veils the imperfections of the middle ground. It softens sharp edges and disguises the influence of man – it puts nature on show.”2

Perhaps the opaque intellectual and spiritual clouds that obscure the frazzling presence of Almighty God are a similar corrector. They diffuse blindingly incomprehensible truths into a gentler awareness that lacks detail. Maybe, too, they can soften our sharp assumptions about life, people and God. There are mysteries beyond our narrow horizon. The ways of God cannot be reduced to neat formulae. We walk by faith, not by sight. 

When mist falls, a hush descends. Birds cease their song. Traffic noise is muffled. Familiar scenes become vague shapes. Distances seem lengthened. Time passes slowly. An awesome, echoing silence as in a lofty cathedral spreads over the land. It’s as if the earth pauses to worship its creator. “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few,” cautions Ecclesiastes 5:2.

I grew up on the Kent coast, where sea and sky merge as fog blankets the Straits of Dover. Stressful as such conditions were for navigators in the crowded shipping lanes, on land they brought a quiet peace that was broken by the South Goodwin lightship’s foghorn offshore. It was a comforting sound. Someone was there in the gloom, keeping watch, warning of danger. It was a guiding grunt when the kindly light could no longer penetrate the dense, chilling fog, reminiscent of Isaiah’s assurance: “Whether you turn to the right or the left, you will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).

Moses heard God’s commandments thunder through the swirling clouds on Sinai (Deuteronomy 5:22). Elijah caught God’s whisper on the hazy heights of Horeb when the earthquake, wind and fire failed to reveal the divine presence (1 Kings 19:8-18). And enveloped in sudden fog on the Mount of Transfiguration three disciples were surprised by an unseen voice advising them to listen to Jesus (Mark 9:2-8).

There can be hints of hope, echoes of eternity, even in the temporal mists of doubt and the tantalising clouds of unknowing. One day “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2) will dispel the mist, and “we shall know fully, even as we are fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Meanwhile, as St Paul resolved, we can “strain towards what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13f.), even though we can’t see clearly what is there, because it is beyond our comprehension.

Think and talk
1.  Why don’t people share more openly the mysteries of faith that puzzle them? Might honesty be a better form of mission than ignoring or skating over the imponderable questions?
2.  Where does the fog linger in your faith and understanding?
3.  How might we maintain a balance between continuing to trust and follow God, to hold fast to what we do know, yet remain open to discovering new dimensions to our faith and understanding?

1. John Betjeman, “Slough”, John Betjeman’s collected poems, John Murray 1970 edition, pp.22f.
2.  Nigel Thompson, “Poetry in Motion”, in ed. Bill Bryson, Icons of England, Black Swan 2010, p.319.

The big questions of life and Ecclesiastes’ surprising answers will feature in future blogs.

© Derek Williams 2018


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Why be moral when you could be rich?

The Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family after King Herod
opted for convenience rather than morality
(window in Southwell Minister)
“Morals don’t pay the bills” is the reported opinion of Wesley Perkins from Birmingham. A newspaper claimed that he buys up recently-expired internet domain names, directs their website users to pornographic sites, and demands large sums of money to return the sites to their original owners. He was said to call himself an internet gangster, but said that what he does is not illegal.1

It may be legal, but on his own admission it is hardly moral. It is taking advantage of other people for personal gain. But everyone, it seems, does it. Misha Glenny, author of the 2008 book McMafia on which a recent TV series was based, claimed that “the battle has broken out for what is moral in global terms and underpinning this is inequality.” He added that political “leaders everywhere … are engaged in financial dealings and activities which are absolutely outrageous but seen as the way of the world.”2

It is redolent of the early period of ancient Israelite history when “everyone did as they saw fit” in the absence of central authority and shared values (Judges 21:25). In Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward, a fortunate businessman takes ruthless advantage of a less fortunate one (Matthew 18:21-35). It was legal, but hardly moral.

Yet according to entrepreneur Richard Branson, “Ethics aren’t just important in business. They are the whole point of business … The more successful you get, the bigger and harder the ethical questions become.”3 We could add, they are important for everyone, in any walk of life. And they’re not always easy, either; the temptation to compromise principles for the sake of convenience is often present.

But most of us can only greet with a helpless shrug the steady stream of “outrageous” stories of exploitation or unfairness.  They include tax avoidance, cosy deals between government and big business, corner-cutting and neglect by construction companies and corporate landlords, the implicit demand of shareholders to put maximum profits before social responsibility, and the appeal to “market forces” as if they were gods demanding absolute obedience.

And then there are the excessive salaries funded by hapless customers or taxpayers, and large scale international scandals that come to light only years after the damage has been done and for which few executives pay a penalty. The list of probable or questionable legal actions that fall short of moral probity is almost endless. Doing anything about them is often above our pay grade.

Yet doing nothing is a recipe for social disintegration. “Morality matters,” wrote Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi. He defined it as “the inner voice of self-restraint that tells us not to do something even when it is to our advantage, even though it may be legal and even if there is a fair chance it won’t be found out. Because it is wrong. Because it is dishonourable. Because it is a breach of trust.”

He continued, “We are reaching the endgame of a failed experiment: society’s attempt to live without a shared moral code. … Without trust, self-interest defeats regulations, undermines institutions and eventually causes systems to collapse.”4

Of course, there is still a huge amount of good will and human care in the world. Witness the outpourings of support after terror attacks or disasters, and the offerings of money and time given to voluntary agencies and charities. It’s one thing we can all do to maintain some level of moral rectitude.

People go “the second mile” without being asked (cf. Matthew 5:41); they “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12); they “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). They are the people surprised by Jesus’ commendation for their selfless humane actions in his parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Thank God for the milk of human kindness which flows unabated even in straightened times and communities.

So: why be moral, especially if it may be to one’s own financial or other loss? There are two complementary approaches: social responsibility, and biblical requirements.

Social responsibility

Every society legislates against the worst excesses of unrestrained human behaviour. The sanctity of human life and property is protected by laws against murder and theft, which carry recognised punishments for transgressors. They can be reinforced by laws about irresponsible or dangerous conduct: driving without care and attention; erecting unsafe structures. They may be enhanced by voluntary codes of practice for institutions, businesses and trade associations to maintain acceptable standards. But no society can legislate for kindness and altruism.

                Ethicists suggest three principles for a shared code of conduct over and above the raw stipulations of the law. They are the moral duty to help people in need; consideration of the likely consequences of our actions on others (might they cause inconvenience, loss or suffering); and whether our actions contribute to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

So the two well-heeled professionals who ignored the injured traveller in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) weren’t breaking the law, but they were acting selfishly and not loving their neighbour as themselves. It was as anti-social as playing loud music at 3.00 a.m. or dumping rubbish on public or private land instead of taking it to an authorised waste and recycling centre.

The problem with the secular approach is first, that it is not based on any absolute standard and secondly it cannot threaten any sanctions on the selfish person. The Scriptures offer both.

Biblical requirements

Most people have an innate sense that there is a distinction between right and wrong. However, human beings will often take the easy way out, or opt for the lowest common denominator of acceptable behaviour, if to do otherwise may involve personal inconvenience or risk.

Both in-built conscience, and in-grained selfishness, are recognised in the Bible. These conflicting forces can bring out the best and the worst in people. Altruism stems from the uniqueness of human beings made “in the image of God” and reflects, however imperfectly, God’s justice, mercy, kindness and faithfulness. Selfish indifference results from the dethronement of God and his standards in favour of the more achievable targets of personal convenience (for which the theological shorthand is “sin”).

The Ten Commandments provide a bare but absolute framework for conduct. They pass beyond the “legal” (prohibiting murder and theft) to include wider rules for social wellbeing to maintain work-life balance and family cohesion, and restrain personal desire (Exodus 20:1-17).

                This mix of “public” and “personal” rules for conduct is expanded in the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Their instructions on appropriate behaviour mostly fall short of absolute or laws or religious duties; they are voluntary, not mandatory. Yet paradoxically they make the laws harder: hateful anger is put on a par with murder, because it causes lasting damage to everyone caught up in it. And they all stress that our behaviour and attitudes should reflect those of God.

                So, if God is kind, patient, long-suffering, forgiving, gentle with human frailty – all attributes ascribed to God in both Testaments – then so should human beings be. The list of loving, kind and often counter-intuitive actions in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is exhausting to read as well as exhaustive in scope. He sums it up in one terse, pivotal sentence: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

                St Paul’s great theological essay, his letter to the Romans, has eleven dense chapters explaining in typically rabbinic style the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross and its relevance to human experience. Then, at the start of chapter 12, he writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…”. From there he lists a range of behaviours that should characterise a person who takes God and Christ seriously: love sincerely, cling to good, honour others, bless persecutors, don’t take revenge, love your neighbour as yourself, and many more.

                Neither he nor the apostles make much of the sanctions, but they are always understood: ignore God’s ways at your peril, because they will impoverish you and the community. Jesus does banish the thoughtless and self-concerned people in the parable of the sheep and goats to outer darkness (Matthew 25:46), while Paul suggests that some people of faith will barely squeeze into the heavenly realms with red faces and nothing to commend them for their indulgent, unproductive life on earth (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). But generally the message is: love as you have been loved, serve as you have been served, out of compassion rather than from compulsion.

Theologian Christopher Wright once described the Christian life as continuing the unfinished symphony of God’s story.  “In the Bible we have the score of the earlier movements, with such a wealth of recurring themes and variations, played on such a variety of human instruments, that it is quite sufficient to enable us to work out the music of our own ethics according to the mind and will of the composer, confident in the assurance that the final resolution lies in his hands.”5

Christian living – moral, self-less, God-pleasing – is a kind of spiritual karaoke: keeping in tune with God, following his melody and freely improvising fresh harmonies that enhance and develop it without ever becoming discordant. The more people who join in with this music of the universe, the more peace on earth and goodwill to humankind will prevail over the atonal cacophony that stems from amoral indifference and immoral indulgence.

                Putting human service before political dogma, the common good before commercial profit, is not an easy sell. Electors and shareholders need persuading that morals can still pay the bills – and make the world a better place. But individuals know that to be true, and what is society but individuals working together for common ends?

Think and talk

1.  Pray: We pray that all Managers and Leaders in the Public and Private sectors will find ways to model Jesus’ forgiving and caring approach; and allow them to be led by the Holy Spirit and fully consider the consequences, on the whole community, as they make and implement difficult and potentially divisive or painful decisions. (Prayer for 1 January 2018, Peterborough Diocesan Cycle of Prayer.)
2.  Read Matthew 5-7 and make a list in your own words of every injunction in it. Which ones in particular do you need to give special attention to, and why?
3.  Read Romans 12:1 – 15:7 and make a similar list. Why do we find such common sense instructions so difficult to enact in practice?
4.  What does Deuteronomy 24:5-7,10-15 tell us about the “rights” we owe to others?
5.  What do Romans 1:28-32; 7:14-25; James 2:8-11, 4:1-4 tell us about the reasons for ethical failure?
6.  See my short story “The smoking Gnome” for common loose approaches to ethics; discuss the rights and wrongs of each! www.gentlertales.blogspot, Gnome  

1.  i, 27 November 2017.
2.  Interview in The Times, 6 January 2018.
3.  Richard Branson, Business laid bare, Virgin Books 2009, p.10 (italics his).
4.  Jonathan Sacks, “It is the end of a dangerous experiment”, The Times, 7 July 2012.
5.  Christopher J.H. Wright, The use of the Bible in Social Ethics, Grove Books 1983, p.11
© Derek Williams, January 2018


Caption: The flight of the Holy Family into Egypt after the paranoid King Herod put power before truth, personal status above moral rectitude.