Monthly Archives: February 2013

The liberty of atheism?

“I find being an atheist liberating”, a work colleague recently declared to me. We didn’t get round to finishing the conversation and I was left wondering, “liberating from what?”.
Had he previously believed in God and found religion restrictive?
Or perhaps he had seen others enslaved by the guilt and shame associated with some expressions of a belief in God.
Or maybe, like the people described in the Bible who hate the rule of “God and his messiah”, crying “Let us break their chains and free ourselves from slavery to God” (Psalm 2), he is opposed to the idea of an ultimate authority to answer to.
Before exploring whether atheism or faith in God is liberating or restrictive, my first question would be: “What is true?”.
I first came to faith in Jesus because I discovered it was probably true. A combination of personal experiences and conversations had shaken my atheist worldview and birthed a growing conviction that there was a God, taking care of me, and that Christianity made best sense of the universe. The evidence seemed to stack up.
I wasn’t looking for a higher power to heal me from my dysfunctionality, brokenness and addictions. I wasn’t expecting anything or anyone to change my life.
So when I came to faith in Jesus, all I said – and this was the first genuine prayer I had ever prayed in my entire life – was: “Well, God, I think you’re there. I’m going to give this Christianity thing a try for a year or two and see what happens”!
Not “Lord, I give my life to you, I commit everything I am to you”, as we encourage new Christians to do.
Or even “Lord, please heal me and change me”, as those looking for God’s transformative power might legitimately do.
I hadn’t hit rock bottom. I wasn’t desperate. I wasn’t looking for religion. I wasn’t looking for change. I simply believed that this thing was true. I also had an overwhelming sense that God was not only true but was calling me to follow him.
This ‘thing’ was excitingly irresistible – not in the sense of not having a choice – the decision was mine – but it (he) was overwhelmingly attractive. Like the thrill of having found ‘THE ONE’ person meant for you.
Little did I know what I was letting myself in for! The good book says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”. And God often takes us at our word. So the next 2 years were spent half-heartedly living as a Christian, but tasting God’s goodness and slowly being changed by his involvement in my life. Exactly 2 years after that first prayer, I experienced the most wonderful, more dramatic transformation, when my addictions were replaced by an inner love from and for God. I’d given it a try, or God had given me a try, and now it was all for real. Filled wonderfully with liquid love! No going back!
What I hadn’t originally been looking for, I’d found. Healing from my dysfunctionality, brokenness and addictions – a process that continues to this day!
What I’d come to believe was probably true, God had now shown me experientially beyond reasonable doubt through his actions in my life.
The most important question surely has to be “What is true?”. But after that, a valid question is: “What works?”. Surely, if Christianity is true, then it will work. It claims to emancipate, not to enslave. As Jesus famously said, “The truth will set you free”.
So why would anyone find religion enslaving or restrictive? Why would Karl Marx describe religion as “the opium of the masses”?
Because it is! Man-made religion – in which man is striving to please a god or gods who are never satisfied with our efforts – will always leave the religious person unsatisfied and a slave to guilt, fear and shame. Always enslaved to rules no one can keep.
This kind of religion is as much an addiction as alcoholism or heroin addiction.
Many have had this experience with Islam, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of course various expressions of so-called Christianity. Millions have been chained to the shackles of man-made religion. It divides, suppresses, pits man against man, nation against nation, as each declares its own set of rules.
Genuine faith in Jesus is not like that. Grace is not ‘religion’, in that sense.
Grace (the free mercy and love of God) tells us everything has been done for us at the cross. As soon as we come to God with our simple faith, all our sin, shame, guilt, is taken away.
Grace comes to us and sets us free from the power of addiction, because addiction’s psychological power lies in the shame associated with it.
Grace sets us free from the need to please others, and the never-ending quest to please God, because we are already acceptable to him.
Yes, I aim to please God, but only as an expression of loving thanks. Not to prove myself.
Grace sets us free from bitterness and resentment, so we are at peace with ourselves and others.
The truth of grace sets us free. Not only free from….but free to…….
Free to be ourselves. The more I immerse myself in God’s love and truth, the more I am able to be fully ‘me’. He makes me complete.
Free to forgive and love ourselves and others. So that we’re not trapped in a prison of bitterness and guilt.
Am I more or less free now than when I was an atheist?
Before, I was free from anyone else’s morality. In my hedonistic mindset, I could do practically whatever I wanted and enjoyed. Yes, a kind of freedom.
Today’s motto seems to be ‘whatever makes you happy is ok’. Sounds like an attractive philosophy.
But this kind of freedom tends to brings with it an enslavement to addictions, anger, bitterness and other patterns of behaviour that hurt others and ourselves. It’s not hard to see the hatred and bitterness in the books and TV produced by certain prominent atheists of our day.
In giving myself to God, I am freed from countless emotional and behavioural prisons. I am a willing servant of God, free to love and be loved, not shackled by rules or guilt.
I hope to resume that conversation with my colleague some time, but I think I know the answer to this question:
Who is liberated – the atheist or the man/woman under grace?

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Why a blog? Why ‘A Child of Grace’?

In these days of social networking and blogs, everyone feels they have something to say. I’m no exception. In my arrogance (perhaps) I’ve often felt I have a view worth expressing. As a young atheist in 6th form, I wrote an article for the school magazine on why there was no purpose to life, why belief in God was just ‘a crutch for religious nutters’ and why Sid Vicious was my hero! I was disappointed that the article wasn’t published.

Some 18 years later, I had a featured letter published in a national newspaper about how God, the Holy Spirit, had set me free overnight from cannabis dependency and given me purpose in life. Don’t you love God’s irony!

In 2009 I had an article published in Nursing Times, centring on a case study from my work as a nurse with homeless people, highlighting how a therapeutic relationship, empathy and rapport with a client promotes concordance, reduces the client’s stress and aids healing. The subject of the case study had a massive, deep, drug-related wound but had stopped attending his GP surgery for treatment. As a result of a therapeutic relationship of mutual respect, empathy and understanding, within an accessible service, the client did not miss a single appointment at our clinics, he was a pleasure to work with, and his wound healed with incredible swiftness. It was one of many beautiful encounters in my work and inspired me to write the article. I felt I had something to say to the clinical world. The article can be found at:

http://www.nursingtimes.net/nursing-practice/clinical-zones/wound-care/holistic-care-of-a-drug-related-wound-a-case-study-from-a-clinic-for-homeless-people/5003854.article

Of personal sadness to me, since the article was published, the client (who was the same age as me) died very suddenly.

I’ve had letters printed in local papers and national magazines. Nothing amazingly significant about that perhaps, but the articles and letters reflect more than a desire to ‘spout my views’ – they reflect a love of writing. I cannot draw, paint or play a musical instrument. But I can write and enjoy writing. I don’t express myself particularly clearly or confidently in speech, but I enjoy conveying my thoughts and feelings in print.

Why a blog? Because I think I have something to say? Undoubtedly. But equally, to fulfil who I am. A creative outlet. The enjoyment of crafting words and ideas together, to create something that is a reflection of ‘me’.

Which brings me to the other reason for a blog: Being a ‘child of grace’ (a phrase taken from the U2 song All Because of You). If I were simply aiming to express my own creativity as a kind of self-fulfilment, it would be nothing more than self-indulgence and serve no real purpose outside of myself. But there is a higher purpose: I am a child of grace!

Grace in the theological sense.

Not grace as in beautiful, as in a ‘graceful swan’, although this grace is the most beautiful thing on earth.

Not grace as in saying thanks before a meal, although this grace is the biggest thing ever to give thanks for.

Not grace as in ‘your grace’ as if I’m something important! Although because of this grace I know that I am important and special to my heavenly Father.

Grace is mercy. I’m forgiven. I’ve had wonderful spiritual experiences of being forgiven and of forgiving others. To forgive and to be forgiven is true freedom and joy – at least one of these spiritual experiences involved spontaneous laughter at the wonder of being forgiven!

Of course, forgiveness, whether you’re giving or receiving it, is never deserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness. Which is why it’s so liberating, so joy-inducing, either to give or receive.

But grace is more than mercy. More than forgiveness. Grace goes further. Grace means not only that the bad stuff is taken away, but that good stuff takes its place.

In my case, this included meaning and purpose, the desire, passion and ability to give my life to a caring career, the ability to be a husband and father, the gift of family, and so much more.

It may sound corny, but I was given peace. The homeless, hedonistic, haphazard, freedom-of-the-road traveller, who wanted no possessions or responsibilities, who’d been drastically damaged by a dysfunctional childhood and wanted nothing more than to get away from England and himself and to travel the world, had now not only found Jesus (or been found by him), but had found peace.

Now born (again) of grace, I had no more desire to travel but to return to England and use the gifts and talents I’d been given to care for others. A remarkable transformation of grace.

A family member told me later ‘You found yourself’. I glibly replied, ‘No, I found Jesus’! I realised later we were both right. As a result of finding Jesus, I’d found myself.

Grace means being overwhelmed by love. It means I can never turn back. I’ve tasted something real, something sweet, and nothing else now will do.

Being a child of grace means that I know my faults, my shortcomings, my failures, and yet – it’s OK! God loves me anyway. Better than that, he accepts me as I am. Even better still….he LIKES me!!! I have value, dignity, self-worth, self-respect – not because I’m anything, but because to God I’m something.

And………..this is the best part……..I see others that way too. Maybe that’s why I see so much beauty in the faces of the broken, hurting, vulnerable and homeless people I work with.

This is not religion. This is not a system of rules or rituals to earn brownie points with God. It is not even a way of life (although that naturally follows). This is simply a free gift, received with open hands and open heart.

Being a child of grace means living under the shadow of the cross. Grace flows from the cross of Jesus Christ – all that he did, all that he is, all that he gives, is centred on the cross.

All that I am, all that I have, is because of the cross. Much as Jesus’ crucifixion was a dark day, a day of death and seeming defeat, his act of self-sacrifice was in fact victory in disguise, revealed on Easter Sunday – light and life for the world, the greatest gift to mankind – to all who are humble enough to stop trying to prove themselves and to come like beggars receiving charity.

My goal – in life and blog – is not simply to reveal who I am, but to point to who he is. Like a star with no light of its own, but reflecting the sun’s light, to reflect the light of Jesus in some small way. In particular, for the shadow of the cross – the light of the cross – to fall on all that I convey in my life and online. For my views and opinions to be tinted with the radiant grace of the cross.

I write this with a belly full of pancakes! Tomorrow is the start of Lent – not something I’ve ever taken much notice of – but this year I aim to reflect and re-focus on my Friend and Saviour. Maybe you will find or re-find him too?

As a child of grace, I try to avoid being ‘religious’ but aim to live in the reality and fullness that God intended. God forbid that I should become too religious! Which means that, although my adulation may have shifted from Sid Vicious to Jesus, I still like to listen to the Sex Pistols, and songs like Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen are still great tunes!

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Redefining marriage

Here I am writing my first ever blog, on a subject that’s totally non-controversial! I’m being ironic, of course. How on earth did I decide to post a blog on something as controversial as the Government’s plans to redefine marriage, laying myself open to possibly huge criticism?

I guess it’s because the arguments on both sides have left me with lots of questions which, for me, lie at the heart of the debate and which I’ve heard nobody address satisfactorily, leaving me feeling entirely dissatisfied with both points of view.

My aim here, rather than to give a definite view, is to ask those foundational questions, and perhaps to give a hint at what I think the answers are. To raise more questions than controversial views.

I’m not sure what I think of the Government’s plan to redefine marriage, nor the response of the church or Coalition for Marriage. The questions which for me remain unanswered include (and these are not rhetorical):

  • Who has the right to define or re-define any word or idea? The Government? The church? The Oxford English Dictionary? Society?
  • Who owns marriage?
  • Is marriage a religious thing? Or is it a concept that has transcended theistic, atheistic and pagan groups everywhere throughout human history, for the good of society?

When society changes the meaning of a word, the dictionaries catch up afterwards.

Similarly, when Western, democratic society evolves its ideas or values, the Government will often introduce (or amend) laws to reflect these changes afterwards. Like it or not, has Western society not already redefined marriage through the concept’s decreasing popularity, people’s disillusionment with marriage and preference towards co-habitation, and high divorce rate?

If the Government redefines marriage by allowing gay couples to marry, it is simply reflecting society’s changing values – society’s move towards equal opportunities between heterosexual and gay people. Is that not a legitimate way of reflecting society’s current values? Does the Government have the right to affirm this shift in values? Does the church have the right to challenge the Government’s proposed law? I don’t know. But doesn’t marriage belong to society (if anybody)?

And would not this proposed change in law (if anything) promote faithfulness (in this case, between gay couples) over promiscuity?

I cannot see how this change in law would in any way detract from or threaten heterosexual marriage. Marriage is already under siege – not by the gay movement, but by a growing sense of transience or impermanence within marriages and heterosexual relationships generally.

I understand and agree with the Christian view that true marriage originates from God’s heart and reflects his faithfulness, love and unity. I understand and agree with the basis for this being rooted in the account or allegorical beginnings in Genesis: one man, one woman, for life, as the context for an intimate, exclusive sexual relationship and for raising children.

Of course, the church has every right to believe that this is the only moral context for sexual relationships.

However, societies and people groups throughout the world and throughout history have had diverse views on what form marriage takes, and I’m not sure the Western church, with its particular interpretation of marriage, has the right to dictate to society or Government what marriage should look like.

If the church is going to make this case, should it not also be fighting for a law against co-habitation? Is it not hypocritical to stand against gay marriage but to have a relaxed view on heterosexual couples living together without a marriage covenant? I’m not advocating for either case, by the way! But is co-habitation not more of a threat than gay marriage to traditional marriage?

Like most Christians, I believe strongly in the importance of marriage in the true sense of a covenant, as one of the building blocks for a stable society. Rather than worrying about the effect of gay marriage on the marriage institution, shouldn’t the church’s focus (or that of Coalition for Marriage) instead be on promoting, supporting and modelling marriage generally, enabling couples (the majority of which will always be male/female) to live out long, loving, stable marriages? Strengthening couples whose marriage is in jeopardy. Modelling how a spiritual life (of prayer, worship etc) between couples keeps the love and passion alive. In many ways the church already does this, and should continue to do so.

I wonder if the fight against gay marriage is the wrong battle. If two gay men or women want to marry, can the church not ‘live and let live’? It’s no threat to me, and I see no reason why it would be a threat to the church or traditional marriage.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis, has received some flak (and some support) from Christians for his recent article in Christianity magazine endorsing homosexual relationships, although his critics recognise his ‘pastoral motivation’. Like Steve, I’m motivated by inclusivism, sensing the welcoming heart of the Father, although evangelical friends might say that I’m neglecting to give the Bible, the word of God, its proper place of authority, or twisting its words. That’s another question!

Maybe I’ve become more liberal and less evangelical in my old age! If that’s the case, I’m not ashamed of it. My intention is now, more than ever before, to be a Jesus-follower (however well or badly I may succeed at that) rather than to be this or that type of Christian. A blog on evangelicalism to follow another time…..!

The battle for the church in this context is to promote faithfulness, commitment and sacrificial love to the society around us, and to point to Jesus, the Author of these characteristics who demonstrated them ultimately at the cross.

Does the church have a monopoly on marriage? Does the Goverment, or the church, have the right to define or redefine marriage? I don’t know. But I think society has already done so.

Have I asked more questions than I answered? I hope so.

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