Monthly Archives: June 2014

Answering a tricky question

Life, the Universe and Everything – don’t you just love solving these little matters over a cappuccino or a pint?

A little while ago I was having one of those conversations, when my friend, who’s previously been turned off religion after growing up with a certain strict sect, asked me:

“So tell me: in your opinion, why did Jesus die?”

Well, us Christians, you know, we live for moments like that. Perfect opportunity to explain to my friend exactly why Jesus died for him and what he needs to do about it.

So did I do that? Did I, heck. I stumbled over my words, not sure where to start. I mean, I’ve read so much about Jesus’ death over the years, heard hundreds of sermons on the subject, meditated on it, thanked God day after day for its impact on me, and heard the modern and not-so-modern controversies and debates. So to be put on the spot like that was tricky. Which theological aspects of atonement and propitiation do I unpack? Or do I simply give a personal response – what Jesus’ death means to me personally?

To be fair to myself, it didn’t help that my friend, influenced by a glass or two of vino, was putting me under a lot of pressure to give a robust reply. I can’t articulate clearly under those conditions. And I’m far better at writing than speaking, anyway. So here’s my response.

If I were to put it into just a few words, I’d say:

Jesus died to bring us back to God and into all the forgiveness, love, healing and wholeness that is to be found with him: starting now and made complete after death.

Which leads to (at least) one more question:

Who is ‘us’?

Or: Who did Jesus die for?

I ask this because certain religions and denominations purporting to be Christian may appear to be exclusivist. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, might tell you that only a chosen few will get to live on the new earth.

Amongst mainstream Christians, only the most rigid fundamentalists would say that Christians alone go to heaven as a result of Jesus’ crucifixion, or that only Christians can know God. As if God were narrow-minded like us and judges us on what religion we follow. Ha ha!

Thankfully, the good news that most of us Christians believe is the timeless truth that God is love.

And that Christianity is not the only way to God, but that Jesus is.

I think that’s worth repeating….

We believe that Jesus, not Christianity, is the only way to God.

And there’s a world of difference between the two.

Christianity is the religion that has built up around the person of Jesus, and has morphed and shape-shifted over two millennia, not always for the better.

But Jesus, as the Bible says, “is the same, yesterday, today and forever”.

At this point, I’ll point you to Rob Bell, who expresses this idea far better than I can in his book Love Wins. Feel free to go away and read his book or stay and finish reading this post. Or both. I don’t mind.

But if you’re still reading this, what better place to go for answers than where it all started: the events surrounding Jesus’ death…

Hanging there on the cross, the Man of Compassion looks around at those who crucified him: the Jewish leaders, the priests, the Roman soldiers, the Roman leaders, the baying crowd who demanded his death. He looks around and he cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”!

Was he simply praying a well-meaning, caring prayer, that the Father may or may not have answered affirmatively, depending on whether or not Jesus had been praying “according to God’s will”? Were some of those responsible for his death forgiven and some not?

Or was Jesus so at one with his heavenly Father, so in tune with his Father’s will, and did he carry so much divine authority himself (see Matthew 28:18), that when he prays “Father, forgive…”, it will definitely come to pass?

Could it be that they were all forgiven? All of those responsible for his death?

What does that mean for others who don’t know what they’re doing – who don’t understand the possible consequences of their actions against God and against others? Or those who can’t seem to help themselves doing wrong though they (we) know the right thing to do? (See Romans 7).

Then we see the thief on the cross, admitted into paradise on the strength of a moment of pleading.

We see the Roman soldier with that flash of inspiration: “Surely this man really was the son of (a) God!” Whatever he meant by that, the gospel writers seemed to think it was pretty significant.

We see the women who had been following Jesus – most of whom seemed to be called Mary for some reason… Those devoted, caring ladies, whose lives had been enriched and transformed by this Saviour. Real Christians, staying with him till the end – and beyond.

So that’s Jews, Christians, Romans, Pagans…… all carrying at least glimmers of hope and in some cases huge cause for celebration – hope for reconciliation with God right there and in the future, signs of revelation of God, evidence of forgiveness for seemingly insurmountable sins.

Why? Because of their own faith? Because of their allegiance to the ‘correct’ religion? Because of their manifest effort to turn around towards God? Not all these people displayed these characteristics.

Or simply because of Jesus? The name which means “He saves”.

Simply because Jesus cannot help but forgive and save – because it’s in his nature?

Over the wall

 

Why did Jesus die? Because heaven can’t contain the reckless compassion, the relentless mercy of God. Because God’s love overflowed into this world in the person of Jesus.

Because God so loved this world – a world made up of atheists, Muslims, agnostics, Christians, Pagans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Buddhists and all those people put off the idea of God because of all the obscene and cruel things done in the name of religion – and wanted to restore our humanity, made complete by being in relationship with him.

How many people, I wonder, have found God in his transcendence, grace and love, not even realising that Jesus has made that connection possible by his sacrifice? People who wouldn’t touch Christianity with a bargepole?

What does Jesus’ death mean for me? Since I first said to Jesus, “I believe in you” at the tender age of 22, his death and resurrection have meant an overwhelming sense of being forgiven, the incredible reality of a relationship with God, and real new life on both the inside and the outside.

“And the healing has begun”, as Van Morrison put it. Healing from the damage and dysfunctionality of my past has, in fact, more than just begun, but it’s also a way off being complete.

For me, his love displayed at the cross means that hope and healing are wide open.

Who did Jesus die for? Who is forgiven and reconciled to God because of Jesus’ death? Just those who understand who he is and recognise him as Saviour?

Or is Jesus so much more generous than that? Do the events and words spoken around his crucifixion hint at to so many more being gathered up into his arms of forgiveness?

If Jesus is that inclusive, that generous-hearted (as I believe he is), then perhaps he’s more appealing than many people (you, maybe?) realise.

I’ll leave these questions for God ultimately to answer and for you to make up your own mind about.

And, my friend, I hope this response has done justice to your question. Either way, we’ll speak again soon…

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Hope for the Homeless

Maybe you’ve read about my journey to faith in My Life’s Soundtrack. If you haven’t, I’d love it if you decided to have a peek. From being physically – but primarily spiritually – homeless some years ago, I found a home in Jesus and my insecurities began to be healed from the inside out.

Of course, that was just the start of the journey. It can be tempting to think, when we have that kind of turn-around, that that’s it. We’ve found what we were looking for. We’ve been born again, found peace, were lost but now we’re found, or whatever. But it’s just the start. And the best is yet to come.

Like the romance of honeymoon, those who genuinely love and are truly loved know that real love is not the passion of newlyweds but that which has overcome trials, which has stood the test of time and tragedy and challenges, which has matured and developed into something deeper, more courageous, more giving.

My relationship with God is not what it was when I was a zealous young fanatical charismatic Christian. It’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s different. Actually, it is better!

For one thing I’m more reflective, and more secure in my faith, and therefore more free to be honest about my beliefs rather than feel I have to agree with any party lines of the Christian establishment – while at the same time valuing unity more highly than ever!

My outer life tends to consist of mornings, evenings and nights spent managing the joys and challenges of my family – a toddler, a teenager and one in between – wrapped around daytimes spent busily coordinating a homeless health service. It’s all good, of course. That is, I have everything to be thankful for, even if I’d like to complain about being too busy and tired and not having enough time to go running or to write stuff like this! But here I am.

(OK, I am busy and tired and that’s why I can’t sleep and why I’m writing this in the middle of the night, but I still have no reason to complain…)

But even these things are not what my life really consists of. My real life is internal and is made up of my waxing and waning love for Jesus, my attachments, joys, temptations, hopes and doubts, and the attitudes of my heart towards my family, clients, colleagues, friends, neighbours and strangers.

I express my love for God differently these days. The scriptures I treasure (i.e. the Bible) tell me that the kind of worship that God is pleased with is not so much exuberant songs or sacrificial giving or church commitment, but treating people in need – especially those most marginalised by society or religion – with dignity, respect, value and compassion – with ‘agape’ love.

Homeless and vulnerably housed people, amongst others, are a gift from God to us. They offer us the opportunity to express our love for him in a tangible way on this earth.

Doing the job I do is a mind-blowingly incredible gift, privilege and responsibility that I’ve been entrusted with. One I don’t want to take lightly. In my busy-ness, an attitude of love, so easily forgotten, is everything.

Bulletin-316-coverIt has been a wonderful privilege and opportunity also to have an article on the Hastings Homeless Service featured in this month’s Royal College of Nursing Bulletin.

Please click on the picture opposite (that’s me!) and then go to pages 8-9 to have a read about what I do…

…externally, at least.

And if you’re a praying person, please pray for us, that this service would reveal divine, healing love to its clients and colleagues.

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Good job!

Hancock

Was a time I was acutely driven by the potential accolade: “Well done, good and faithful servant”, from the Parable of the Talents.

After a dramatic turn-around from a hedonistic, messed-up and somewhat criminal life to faith in Jesus, I became zealous for church, for prayer and especially for evangelism. My motivation wasn’t all wrong by any means (I’d been genuinely ‘born again’ on the inside, loved God and had a complete change of heart towards the world around me), but partly I was driven subconsciously by a need to try and prove myself to God, to make up for the years I’d lived defiantly and definitely contrary to his ways.

Although I knew I was saved entirely by grace, in response I was keen to run the race well and to hear him say at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

There were times I felt burnt out and knew that all was not well within me. In 1995, during the time of the controversial ‘Toronto Blessing’, I received some healing & restoration by way of new revelation of the Father’s heart. I understood in a new, deeper way, that when I pass from this life, the Father would embrace me with wide open arms. He would be ecstatic to see me. Not because of any efforts of mine – just because of his irrepressible, ardent love for his children.

And that this was not just about some future hope but how he feels about me now. As the Christian Aid slogan goes, “We believe in life before death”. He embraces me now.

This was a lasting change that stayed with me. I remain conscious of the security I have, of being held in my Father’s arms.

So those words – “Well done, good and faithful servant” – what of them now? Well, I’ve started to look at them in a fresh way…

In the parable in question (in Matthew 25), both the servant who invested and multiplied two talents (i.e. a certain sum of money), and the one who multiplied five talents, were commended by their boss with these affirming words. The only servant who wasn’t praised was the one who did nothing.

Father God is far more open-hearted than we humans often give him credit for. Human love and praise and affirmation are a pale reflection of Father’s heart. He is infinitely more generous than we are*.

His “Well done” isn’t just for the spiritual high-flyers, the religious achievers, the most zealous followers, or even the most caring and loving.

His “Well done” is for all his children imperfectly trying to live out their faith in him, with our feeble attempts at prayer and flawed efforts at spreading his good news, falteringly demonstrating divine love for our neighbours, stumblingly striving to walk a pure walk in step with the Spirit, and in human weakness attempting to imitate God’s creativity.

Some of us were bombarded by our teachers and parents with the words “Could do better”, and have grown into adults projecting that image on to our idea of God. But Father God is not like that.

Father God is not trying to trip us up, catch us out or write negative reports on our progress. Grace sees the best in people.

And his ‘Well done’ is not just for the next life but for the present. Can you hear him whispering ‘Well done’ through the scriptures and into your heart?

Listen to the Spirit’s whisper:

You may feel bad about yourself. God says you are good.

You may feel less than faithful; you may feel faithless. God says you are faithful.

You may think you’re not doing too well at following him. He sees your efforts and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”!

One more thing……

Father God’s gracious, affirming “Well done” is a pattern for us to follow.

Like Will Smith in the eponymous superhero in the wonderful film Hancock, I’m learning to see the good in others and to praise them.

I love the way Hancock’s initial attempts at building positive relationships, at building people up with praise, are wooden and poorly timed, but with practice he eventually gets the hang of it and means it. I’m still a bit like that.

At home I sometimes imitate the way Hancock says, “Good job!”, but in an exaggerated American accent. My 2-year-old daughter hilariously copies me: “Good jaaaab”!

Finding fault and criticising others is so easy. I don’t need any practice at that! But I’m learning to catch people doing the right thing, doing something well, and to tell them so. Kind words are like a kiss.

Take this mouth

So quick to criticise

Take this mouth

Give it a kiss”

(From Yahweh by U2)

Can you hear the Spirit’s whisper from the Father’s heart? Hope so. In which case, please pass it on.

 

* For Biblical examples, see e.g. Psalm 103:8-14; Isaiah 55:7-9; Luke 11:13.

 

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