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The Practice of Fasting

This year God used my annual retreat to challenge me about my greed.  About my sense of entitlement to the good things in my life, about my resentment when anything (even He) gets between me and what I consider ‘mine’.  About my refusal to let the good things he’s given me become a means of communion with others; my refusal to share in His name.  I don’t stuff my face at buffet meals.  I don’t avariciously seek to maximise every penny.  I don’t feel any need to wear designer clothes or drive a flash car.  I can sneer at all these things – and yet greed has innumerable tiny hooks in my soul, and it was only the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, scripture reading and contemplation that exposed me.  That showed me my need for God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and God’s discipline in my life. 

There are episodes of devotion, like my annual retreat, that are intense and that can overthrow spiritual mountains (or expose spiritual undermining), but if those intense episodes aren’t grounded in daily life, then they are meaningless.  How do we live in the valleys and on the plains by the light of the mountain-top visions?  Here’s where the disciplines are essential.  The discipline of fasting is taking the ordinary discipline of self-denial to a pointed extreme.  On its own, fasting is meaningless.  If I’m only prepared to deny myself on those special occasions when I ‘fast’, then I’m not really fasting at all; I’m just trying to earn spiritual brownie-points – yet another form of greed!  I need to be able to deny my desires, my lust and greed on a daily basis.  How?  Start small.  What’s something small that you know you don’t actually need or even want, but take for yourself because you’re afraid of missing out?  Something that is a little self-indulgence.  A little guilty.  Whatever it is, it can be your opportunity to practice the discipline of self-denial.  Say to yourself that you’ll forgo whatever it is next time you have the opportunity.  Tell yourself that you are free to leave it for someone else to enjoy.  Remind yourself that God will supply all your needs – abundantly.  Consider how denying yourself in this way might help you to serve others.

When Jesus spoke about fasting, he talked about dressing up festively – “put oil on your head and wash your face” – instead of covering ourselves with sackcloth and ashes.  His point was that the fast is between us and God so we don’t need to advertise.  We should beware of using the disciplines as an opportunity for boasting, but the picture he paints goes a little further than that, too.  We should dress up festively not just to put on a false face, but because we can be glad in our fasting – because God really is an amazingly generous God, and pours his grace out to us superabundantly.  When we detach ourselves from our petty desires, and pause to see all that God gives, we live in gratitude and celebration.  Fasting and self-denial shouldn’t lead us to pretend that God’s goodness isn’t good, but should sharpen our appreciation for the richness of God’s bounty.  And that should overflow into generosity.  These are the spiritual fruit that come from fasting; not misery and resentment and suspicion of pleasure and plenty, but joy in God’s blessings, and a warm open-handedness.  We may first have to confront our resentment of God’s Lordship in our lives, and our anxieties about not having enough, and our fear of missing out, and so forth, and that might be a painful process. But the outcome should be a much greater freedom, and an easier communion for us all. 

The whole world is now clutched tight in the grip of rampant commercialisation.  There is nothing that has not been reduced to a market opportunity.  Our worship of wealth has led to a tiny elite of super-rich, and ever-increasing poverty for those who supply the wants and desires of the 1%.  The world needs better answers than “increased quarterly growth” and “buoyant markets”.  It needs a new vision.  It needs God’s Kingdom.  And it needs us to show them what the kingdom looks like.  But for us to show forth the kingdom, it has to become real in our own hearts.  Can I commend to you the discipline of fasting?  Prepare yourself well, and find a spiritual overseer to guide you in it, and then enjoy what God will do in your soul.


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Homosexuality, Post 7: The Church, Social and Legal changes in New Zealand.

Social Factors

Society is changing – but not all at once.  We need to acknowledge that social attitudes to homosexuality are going through a significant shift, and that it’s not all one way.  While the NZ Herald[1] reports that “A Herald-DigiPoll showed that 61.2 per cent of the public felt adoption law should be changed to allow all couples, including same-sex couples, to adopt,” it also notes that “35.1 per cent felt adoption should be kept to heterosexual couples”.  That is still a considerable proportion of the population.  The survey also showed that “more than half of New Zealanders approved of gay marriage, while 40.5 per cent opposed it”. Again, those figures both for and against are significant, but perhaps the most significant figure is that “the latest poll showed a 20 per cent jump in support for same-sex adoption since 2009”.  So there is a significant swing toward support for treating homosexual people equally in all aspects of life– but it is not unequivocal; the same paper carried an opinion piece questioning the ‘right’ of gay men to adopt children[2] and the Guardian[3] reports that the US Boy Scouts organisation has decided to continue to ban openly gay and bisexual people from membership.  While most people are now shocked and ashamed by the treatment meted out to homosexuals in the past (often by church members, or with church approval[4]), clearly not everybody agrees that heterosexuality and homosexuality are equivalents as normal variants on human sexual expression.

The church has a responsibility to speak out on issues of injustice and immorality.  Christians stand in an uneasy relationship to society – on the one hand we are very much part of the societies in which we live, and want to have a positive impact upon them, on the other hand we often view the surrounding society as no more than the repository of all evil.  The truth is always much more complicated, and while sometimes the church has followed social standards, and other times it has led social changes, on other occasions we have opposed change, and continued to go our own way.  We need to acknowledge that we are influenced by society, and that society is not always wrong, but also that we serve a God who transcends any one human culture, and that his gospel always stands in tension with society to some degree.  When society supports burning homosexuals at the stake, or, more recently, winks at gay-bashing[5] the church should speak out.  Too often we have connived at these acts of violence[6].  When society encourages or legitimises immorality (for instance, the sexualisation of children through advertising and fashion, and the trafficking of children for prostitution) the church must stand against it.  In the question of child abuse, we are certain that there are issues of injustice, exploitation, and immorality.  Regarding homosexuality, however, we are less certain about both the issues of injustice and the issues of immorality; hence our current debate.

Does support for the civil rights of homosexuals = supporting the gay agenda?  What silences many church members as regards the civil rights of homosexual people is not so much a lack of compassion or even an active desire to punish people for being gay (though these attitudes certainly do exist in the church) but the concern that upholding the civil rights of homosexual people may be seen as support for a gay agenda in toto.  This was illustrated vividly in the response of many Baptist churches to the NZ Baptist Union public questions committee submission to the homosexual law reform bill in 1985.  The submission cautiously agreed that decriminalising homosexual acts was the best option, but rejected the human rights provisions which formed the second part of the bill, as it was seen that these would act to normalise homosexuality in society while most Baptists still saw it as aberrant.  This moderate stand was seen by many churches as bowing before a gay agenda, and the submission was substantially modified before being made[7].

The gay lobby is deliberately seeking to change social standards.  Reaction against homosexual issues in the church arising from fear of a liberal or gay conspiracy is not completely groundless.  Laurie Guy’s book, and other research[8] clearly demonstrate that gay people and their allies planned, organised, thought carefully, and fought vigorously in the lead-up to that initial victory, and have done so since, with the aim of normalising homosexuality in society at large, and also in the churches.  It is inappropriate to describe it as a ‘conspiracy’, however as it is not particularly secretive or hidden.  Many groups have agendas for social change – the church among them – and promote their causes energetically in the public arena.  This is normal for a democratic society, and Baptists have historically fought and died for the right to democracy and freedom in public life.  What we react against is the feeling that someone is trying to change ‘us’ – the idea that people are deliberately acting to change the thinking and actions of the church is one that we all feel uncomfortable with.

We must take responsibility for our own thinking.  We need not fear that our minds are being changed for us, however, provided we take responsibility for our own thinking, examine our motives, and determine to submit to the truth as best we may discern it.  The twin dangers before us are that we simply slide from one unformed opinion to another, or that we react to change with a closed conservatism that cuts us off from the world in which we are meant to be salt and light.  We need to be sure that our thinking on this issue is careful and fully informed by all the facts.

Legal Factors

What rights and protections do people who are homosexual have?

Consenting, adult, homosexual relationships are no longer illegal.  It is no longer legal to discriminate against homosexuals in most areas of public life.  Since the 1986 decriminalisation of homosexual activity, and the passing of the 1993 Human Rights Act, it is no longer legal for homosexual people to be evicted from their homes or dismissed from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.  Nor can people be imprisoned or given compulsory medical treatment such as frontal lobotomies or electroconvulsive treatment for no other reason than consenting homosexual activity.  As a matter of justice, the pressures and abuses of the past are now largely just that; of the past.  Non-consenting or underage (under 16 years) sexual activity remains illegal whether it is homosexual or heterosexual.

Churches have some exemptions under the law.  Some are concerned that the church might be sued for discrimination if we find that a traditional understanding of homosexuality is best, and allow that to guide our practice.  In fact there are some exemption clauses in the Human Rights legislation for religious institutions to discriminate in employment where it is clearly within the tradition of that religious institution to do so.  Thus, a strictly male order of Buddhist monks can’t be required to employ a woman gardener.[9]

The law does not apply to many aspects of life.   Apart from employment, the provision of goods and services, and education, the law preventing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation only applies to the actions of Government institutions, those funded by government, and those who are acting “pursuant to the law”.

[1] (I. Davison 2012)

[2] (Roughan 2012),

[3] (Holpuch 2012)

[4] (Guy 2002, 133)

[5] (Grenz 1998, 71-2) (Guy 2002, 9)

[6] One writer quotes the bumper sticker; “Kill a Queer for Christ”. (Lowe 2001, 9)

[7] (Guy 2002, 144 – 147)

[8] (Guy 2002) (Brickell 2005) (Pritchard 2005)  all discuss the campaigns around homosexual issues in New Zealand in some detail, with Guy’s book being the most extensive published resource available.  See also the American campaign plan proposed in (Kirk and Madsen 1987).

[9] (The Human Rights Act, 1993, Sect. 28)

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Facebook connection

This is a test post to see if I’ve succesfully linked my blog and my Face-book account.  All you cobbers on face-book, feel free to come on over and have a browse of Ardie Bea’s confessions…

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