Monthly Archives: July 2013

Going Deeper

How’s this for an amazing photo?

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What do you mean, it’s just a rubbish picture of a river, with a fish vaguely visible under the surface? This is an action shot! This is a photo of a huge fish just after it dived down at the sight of me raising my camera.

This is a picture of a disappearing act.

On one of our recent record-breakingly hot days, I had the rare pleasure of a long, leisurely walk along a rural canal, enjoying the tranquillity of some time alone, to ponder, pray and photograph.

Fish were rising to the surface of the Basingstoke Canal, but as soon as this one saw me prepare to take the photo, it quickly submerged.

It sparked a thought. At the slightest perceived threat, the fish went deeper.

And for people who know and love God, there’s always an innate, but sometimes latent, desire to go deeper with him – to know him better, to grow closer.

When we feel under threat – is that when we especially choose to go deeper? Do we retreat into prayer? Do we submerge into his arms? Do we dive into his presence?

I was reminded that when things get tough, when life throws its stresses and challenges at me, as it often does, I need to go deeper into him. To be like the fish, and do a disappearing act.

And that when life gets too busy and we’ve taken on too much, we need to stop, take time out. Not only to rest, but to dive into him, retreat into prayer.

Into that place where we let God reveal to us our motivation for such frenetic activity, where he grants us permission to rest.

Where we discover what his priorities are for our lives.

In that place we find refreshment. We find protection.

Strength to face real or perceived threats.

And power to do just what he wants us to do. No more, no less.

Jesus often withdrew from the crowds. He realised his need to retreat into his Father’s arms, to find strength and guidance for whatever was next.

In order to do effectively just the things he was meant to be doing, rather than trying well-meaningly to be everything to everybody, he needed those times alone with his Father. There lay all the resources he needed.

I know all this (and you probably do, too). But I for one am still a bit of a ‘Martha’*, someone who doesn’t easily stop and just ‘be’. I tend to be always on the go. Always something else that needs to be done. Lists to check off.

I also love to retreat, especially into places of nature, to reflect, pray and refresh. I often need the reminder, though, of just how much I need to submerge into my Father’s depths, into Jesus’ love. To spend time with him, to become more of the person he wants me to be.

Those wonderful individuals I know who exude God’s love and grace aren’t necessarily people who have read lots of books on the subject or can write clever stuff in blogs, but are those who have spent time talking, listening, and being, with their Father. I know – more than I know anything – that there are no short-cuts to being filled with God’s presence and shining out his love to the world.

No short-cuts.

I’m grateful to the fish for this reminder.

So if I disappear from Facebook for a while or don’t write a new blog post for some time, or you don’t see me frantically serving in church, it may be for a number of reasons, but let’s hope that it’s because I’ve listened to my own message – that I’m going deeper with my Father.

And I hope you too are inspired, not so much by my thoughts here, but by your own knowledge and experience of the Father’s grace, to submerge again into him.

Happy diving!

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I took this photo the same day, along the canal. It’s quite clichéd and has nothing to do with the blog, but it’s a better picture than the one of the fish!

*As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

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Labelled with love

(or ‘Why I am no longer an evangelical’)

I’d known the big, burly guy for less than 5 minutes when out of the blue he blurted: “Are you a Christian?” The out-of-work lorry driver was a new client at the homeless service I work with.  He was a bit macho and I hadn’t quite sussed him out yet.

But he’s noticed something different about me and wants to know more, I thought to myself. There’s an opportunity to share something of my faith with this guy.

So with naïve eagerness, maybe even pride, I responded, “Yes, I am!”

There I was, expectantly waiting for him to tell me how interested he was in finding out more about Christianity. Instead he announced, “Well, I hate Christians”!!

So that was a bit of a conversation-killer…

I can’t remember why he said that now, although he did explain afterwards and we went on to have a good working relationship. But in hindsight, instead of answering directly as I did, I’d like to have asked him, “What do you mean by ‘a Christian’?” or “Why are you asking?”

Returning a question with a question, as Jesus exemplified, can often replace superficial exchanges of words with honest, profound communication, searching out latent truths from the hearts and minds of people engaged in dialogue.

Or I could have replied with: “If, by labelling me as ‘Christian’, you’d think of me as a judgmental, bigoted, fundamentalist Bible-basher, then I hope not. But if you mean someone who’s received the love and forgiveness of Jesus and wants to share it with others, then definitely, yes!”

Many people shun labels, for example when it comes to medical conditions, people groups or religious affiliation. Labels can be misunderstood or run the risk of defining a person wholly by a single part of his/her life or personality.

For me, belonging to Jesus – or being a child of my heavenly Father – is my primary identity, so to be labelled as a ‘Christian’ is pretty acceptable. But what does that mean?

To some, the term ‘Christian’ can mean someone who’s been christened or has some affiliation with the Church of England, or even someone who’s been brought up in a ‘Christian country’.

Originally, ‘Christian’ (meaning Christ-like) was a term of contempt by those outside the faith towards Jesus’ early followers, who then thought, “Actually, we quite like this label” and it stuck.

Similarly, ‘Jesus Freak’ – coined as a pejorative term in the late ‘60s – has been embraced by many Jesus-followers since and became the title of one of the greatest contemporary Christian tracks of our time, by DC Talk:

What will people think
When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak
What will people do when they find that it’s true
I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak
There ain’t no disguising the truth

If someone labelled me a Jesus Freak, even derisively, I’d take it as a massive compliment.

In years past, to distinguish myself from people who call themselves Christians just because they were christened or British or something, I’ve described myself as a ‘committed Christian’ or as ‘born again’. Or I’ve thought of myself as an ‘evangelical’.

What arrogance! Who can call themselves a ‘committed Christian’? Answer: only a hypocrite!

God is committed to the people he made – in fact so committed that…

he entered our dirty, broken, hurting world as a human being.

A servant.

Who gave up everything.

Including his power.

His rights.

His life.

Giving himself to the most horrific form of death.

Tortured physically

Mentally

And spiritually.

All so that we could receive the free gift of spiritual life, eternal life, at his expense.

That’s commitment! How dare any Christian call him/herself committed? God invites us to receive his gift of life for free, like children opening a Christmas present, like beggars receiving charity. He knows we can’t pay him back, so he doesn’t ask us to.

He doesn’t call us to ‘make a commitment’.

He asks us to keep believing and receiving his love. And to love him back. That’s all.

And of course, if we love him, we’ll do the stuff that pleases him: stuff like loving our neighbour. But to call it commitment is a denial of the Gospel – the good news that he gives us everything good in exchange for all our bad stuff.

So there’s my problem with the expression ‘committed Christian’. What about ‘born again’? Surely nothing wrong with that phrase, is there?

Like many millions of Christians, I’ve experienced the transformative wonder of entering a whole new, spiritual life – being born again, by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus described it. I’m in no way denying that – far from it – but if I label myself a ‘born again Christian’, I’m implying I’m different from, or better than, other types of Christians – as if there even are different types!

And therein lies my main problem with the word ‘evangelical’ too. To call ourselves ‘evangelical’ is to imply we’re better than, say, a Catholic Christian, or our theology’s better than theirs; that we want to distinguish ourselves from that ‘brand’ of Christianity.

But there are also other problems with the word ‘evangelical’ – issues of understanding.

Soon after my initial prayer of faith in Jesus (as described in California Dreamin’), I returned to England from the USA and started going to a C of E church. One of the members there, in telling me about the church, described it as being “fairly evangelical”.

“That’s nice”, I thought, as I wondered what he meant. I’d seen the word on the side of another church in the past and guessed it probably meant something to do with angels. I imagined that evangelical churches might have angelic sounding music, perhaps?!

To be fair, I was just 22 with no previous interest in the world of church. And I wonder how many other people today haven’t a clue what ‘evangelical’ means?

So to clarify… “What characterises us [evangelicals] is a passion for the good news of Jesus Christ, which we call the ‘gospel’. The term evangelical itself comes from the Greek ‘euangelion’ which was used by the New Testament writers to speak of ‘glad tidings’ and ‘good news’” (from the Evangelical Alliance).

But in the 21st Century ‘evangelical’ has also come to mean:

“Characterised by ardent or crusading enthusiasm; zealous” (The Free Online Dictionary), as ina new breed of evangelical atheists” (quote from a description on Amazon of a book by Mark Vernon). So now even atheists can be ‘evangelical’!!

I certainly relate to the original definition – being passionate about the good news of Jesus. And for many of the ensuing years after that conversation in the Anglican church, I was a proud evangelical. Proud to be a ‘proper’ Christian, who believed the right kinds of Christian doctrine!

But even apart from the confusion in terminology and the arrogance of implying that our kind of Christianity is better than someone else’s, evangelicalism sometimes seems (to me) to lose the wonder of God’s bigness, with its theology neatly tied up in tidy packages. Sometimes it seems that we think we know God better than he does!

My few decades’ experience of life and people on this planet informs me that God is bigger and more complex than any brand of Christianity’s neat ideas.

There is a newer label that modern Jesus-followers are embracing: ‘Red letter Christians’ – a chiefly US-based reaction against the kind of American evangelicalism that’s intertwined with right-wing politics – a movement which seeks to restore a focus on the teachings of Jesus (printed in red font in some Bibles) and an emphasis on social justice. I have to say that this appeals.

But who needs another label?

I still call myself a ‘Christian’ – with caution in this post-modern, post-Christian society with its many misconceptions about what the term means.

Despite all the above, I’m not vehemently anti-labels. I’m just pro-understanding between people. Pro breaking down the walls.

So feel free to call me whatever you like, but above all let’s talk, let’s seek to understand each other. Let’s ask each other questions, explore each other’s beliefs and discover where each of us is coming from.

I could tell you loads more about what being a Christian means to me, and would love to do so (feel free to contact me by posting a comment or by email), but here’s one massive thing:

I aspire and pray to be known, above all else, for reflecting God’s healing love into this hurting, broken world.

I’d like to be labelled with love.

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ADDICTED TO LOVE?

“You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to…”

Yes, I admit it: I am or have been addicted to many things including some of the things mentioned in this blog. I’ll leave you to guess which ones.

“To be alive is to be addicted”.1

But “addicted to love?” Definitely not. That’s the craziest contradiction in terms, the most obtuse oxymoron.

It’s like saying “strangled by the air”. Or “drowning in happiness”. Only more so.

Sorry, Mr Palmer, but you were very confused when you wrote that song some 27 years ago (and we won’t mention the terrible video…). Hopefully, as in Johnny English, with age has come wisdom!

Sorry too to Mr Ferry, but love is never the drug.

Because love is the ONE thing we can’t be addicted to. Love is in fact the antidote to our addictions.

But we can be addicted to many things that masquerade as love, such as…

Relationships. Romance. Lust. Infatuation. Or sex.

Or a particular person.

Or that fleeting experience of being ‘in love’ – those feelings designed to draw us into a relationship with someone.

Or to the need to be needed (co-dependency).

Of course it’s normal for pop songs to confuse lust or infatuation with love. In fact, in music, it’s rare for love to be called love.

So, to quote an age-old question from another song: What is love?

Crucially, love seeks the best for the other person.

Love also sees the best in the other person.

Love is loyal, standing by the other person when inner voices and external pressures tempt you to stray.

Love gives the other person freedom to make his or her own choices. Love imposes no chains or demands, even when the other person’s choices cause you distress and sorrow.

Love is sacrificial – the person who loves will ultimately give his/her life for the other person.

Love is not an emotion – it goes beyond emotions. And yet it can be felt.

Love goes the extra mile and is not limited by lust, guilt, fear or other temporal feelings.

Love forgives unconditionally.

Love is a choice made by a heart that is free.

To be loved like this is the ultimate cure for addictions. To be loved with this kind of love sets us free from the shame that perpetuates the vicious circle of addiction.

To be loved like this inspires and motivates us to live for the one who loves us2.

But who can love like this?

Yes, human love like this does exist – to a degree. When it does, healing from addictions begins.

When human love fails, the fallout is fertile ground for addictions to thrive in.

For example, something like 50% of people with drug & alcohol addictions were sexually abused as children3. A former colleague of mine estimated from his experience with Narcotics Anonymous that the percentage amongst people addicted to drugs as opposed to alcohol was more like 75%. One reason for this may be that they take substances in an attempt to anaesthetise their inner trauma.

Most of the homeless people I work with missed out on parental love. They grew up in care, or were abused, or both. Many have become dependent on alcohol or heroin – to become “comfortably numb”.

For them, it seems too late. Can they ever find unconditional human love that will show them how to be free and inspire them to something better? They seem more likely to remain in the revolving door of dependency and self-seeking relationships.

Perhaps, like me, you believe that God is love? Perhaps you believe that where human love fails, there is a higher power, a higher hope, who loves perfectly.

I’d been a Christian for a couple of years when I experienced what is sometimes called being baptised (= immersed) in the Holy Spirit. I’d been hungry for a greater experience of God’s love, and one evening in my room it happened! A drenching in love. Overwhelming sense of forgiveness. Such powerful mercy, that I found myself both crying and laughing. Tears of sorrow that I’d saddened my Father with my unfaithfulness to him. Laughter at the joy of sins forgiven. There was no sense of judgment.

Feel free to write me off as a religious nutcase (I can take it!) but that experience effected lasting change, the most overt of which was the eradication of my cannabis dependency: I never wanted or touched the stuff again. For 2 years my conscience had alternated between thinking it was ok and this niggling feeling that my dope smoking was standing in the way of knowing God better. But now his tangible love had set me free, not just from my addiction, but for loving him back. I couldn’t stop praising him.

OK, so cannabis doesn’t have the same capacity for physical addiction as alcohol, heroin or nicotine, but physical addictions can be treated (or at least substituted) with physical medications. Unfortunately, clinicians and support workers aren’t able to provide the one antidote to psychological addictions – unconditional, sacrificial love, also known as ‘grace’.

“Although addiction is natural, it severely impedes human freedom…and makes us slaves to our compulsions. Grace, the freely flowing power of divine love in human life, is the only hope for true freedom from this enslavement.” 4

But let’s make one thing clear – religion is not the cure. In fact, religious practices are a common source of addictions5. We can be addicted, for example, to…

Church.

Or “Christianity”, whatever that is.

To religious guilt.

Over-busy church activity.

Or even to prayer.

To the approval of others for our good deeds.

And the need to be needed by those we care for (co-dependency again).

Or to our own false image of God as harsh judge.

Addiction to religion is liable to produce the same cycle of guilt and shame in us, and hurt to the people around us, as any other addiction.

Religious addiction, like addiction to heroin or alcohol, sets impossible demands and enslaves the user. Whatever we do – for our religion or substance – is never enough.

But if God is love, if Jesus is love, we cannot be addicted to him. All we can do is love him back – with love that spills out to our neighbour. Freely. Without fear of reprisals. Without demands. With a willing heart.

Love says, “It is enough”. Or, as on the cross, “It is finished”.

Is there hope for the individuals I know, with their heroin and alcohol addictions?

Is there hope for me and you, with our addictions?

Well, I believe in a Love that doesn’t hold back, that reaches out to those who need it most – to those who will embrace it (i.e. him). I’ve known people and heard about others who have experienced miraculous liberation from powerful addictions, by embracing the person and message of Jesus.

So I, for one, am full of hope, with prayer.

In describing love, Robert Palmer in the ‘80s may have got it incredibly wrong. But more recently, Marcus Mumford, drawing on his Christian roots, nailed it on the head:

“Love that will not betray, dismay or enslave you

It will set you free

Be more like the man you were made to be.” 6

  1. Gerald May, Addiction and Grace. May is a psychiatrist who brings spirituality and psychiatry together in this masterpiece of a book.
  2. Titus 2: 11-12, The Bible (NIV).
  3. Research from the University of Brighton by Darren Britt – sorry, I can no longer find a full reference or link for this.
  4. Gerald May, Addiction and Grace.
  5. Don Williams’ Jesus and Addiction is an excellent book on the dysfunctional church, which I thoroughly recommend. Anyone reading this who lives near me is welcome to borrow my copy!
  6. Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More.
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