Tag Archives: christianity

A Response to Ricky Gervais’ Easter Message

OB-NN040_gervai_EV_20110414130159Ricky Gervais’ (atheist) Easter message from 2011 was doing the rounds again recently and I just had to write my own response.

OK, so I’m 5 years late. Better late than never.

Of course, Ricky makes some valid points. He’s an intelligent man pointing out some real inconsistencies in the way Christianity is sometimes expressed, as well as some rather obvious and well-worn observations about religious hypocrisy.

What I love about his article, though, is his accidentally ironic assertion that he is “a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.”

There’s something wonderfully oxymoronic about this statement, that he probably didn’t intend and which I’ll attempt to make clear.

He bases this belief on the fact that, by his own scoring system, he gets 10 out of 10 on the Ten Commandments. He seems to be under the impression that the Bible is some kind of rule book for Christians and that the Ten Commandments are the acid test of religious morality!

I’ll forgive his competitive approach towards Christians, as it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek.

What he seems to fail to realise, though, is that to be a good Christian is not so much about being good but about admitting we’re bad…

A “good Christian”, if there is such a thing, is perhaps someone who takes the teachings of Jesus seriously…

…teachings like the parable of the Pharisee (very moral person) and the tax-collector (bad person). The morally good person stands up in the temple (church) and thanks God for how good he is; the bad person can barely look up, but begs God for mercy because of his immorality. Jesus says the tax-collector, i.e. the bad (but humble) person, the one who knew he hadn’t got it all together, got it right… while the good (but proud) person got it wrong.

The bad person, in this case, turned out to be the “good Christian”.

…or like Jesus’ inaugural announcement in his universally revered Sermon on the Mount, the wisdom that inspired the likes of Gandhi: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”, not “Blessed are those who tick all the boxes on the Ten Commandments.”

In other words, happy are those who haven’t got it together, who acutely feel their moral and spiritual failure; people who know they need a saviour. If anything, those are the people who are “good Christians”.

If someone says they’re a good Christian, then they’re probably not! Herein lies the oxymoron in Ricky’s statement.

I had a eureka moment recently. I suddenly realised that the reason I feel so much empathy with the homeless and other vulnerable people I work with is not just because I was messed-up and lost and then my life turned around; it’s just as much because I’m so aware of the struggles and weaknesses I still face!

I often feel like that tax-collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Coming back to the Ten Commandments…Ricky explains the meaning of them very well in his article; he just doesn’t really understand their place. Although he recognises that they were written for the ancient society of Israel over 1000 years before Christ, he also seems to see them as a set of rules for Christians.

That’s not to understate their significance for Christians (and anyone else) today, though. Jesus often elaborated on the Ten Commandments. He poignantly emphasised that it’s not just the letter of the law (do not murder, do not cheat on your partner, etc) that counts, but the spirit of the law (don’t even insult someone, don’t cheat on someone even in your mind, etc) – again, from the Sermon on the Mount.

I wonder how Ricky would score on that basis? Maybe not much better than me.

However, Jesus didn’t expand on the Ten Commandments to make us feel even more rubbish at being moral people. He came to show us a spiritual way of dealing with spiritual challenges such as following the spirit of the law.

He taught that following him was the way of being freed from our addictions to those actions that hurt ourselves and others, and from the guilt and shame of our moral failures, even from the guilt of our hypocrisy.

He taught that following him entails a life of receiving and giving love.

A “good Christian”, therefore, might be someone who has decided to follow Jesus and is hopefully progressing in this journey of freedom from guilt and shame, and towards a lifestyle of love towards God, others and ourselves.

Ricky concedes that “I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians”.

Although this at first seems a fair comment, (apart from mistakenly thinking that being a good Christian is about being good) it unfortunately misses the point that being a Christian is less about what we believe about Jesus (although that’s important too, not that we believe he “was half man, half God”, by the way!) than about how we believe in him – i.e. entrusting our lives to him and his teachings. Again, it’s a spiritual path rather than a set of mental beliefs.

Having said all that, Ricky is right to point out the hypocrisy and prejudice displayed in the name of Christianity, because these are the kinds of things that steer people like him towards atheism. Surely we should expect better from people who claim to be followers of Jesus? Yes, we should.

But Jesus didn’t say that his followers would be known by how well they perform on the Ten Commandments, but by their love for one another.

Love should be the key feature of Christians.

And if Christians like have failed at that, as no doubt we have, then the expectation of us that Ricky and other onlookers have every right to hold is a humble, repentant attitude – admission of our failures, like that tax-collector in the parable.

An expression of how poor we are in spirit.

Thankfully, I’m seeing more of these admissions of failure emerging publicly from the church, such as apologies for the way we’ve treated LGBT individuals historically.

What I do see as well is a positive move by the church over at least a decade, away from hypocrisy and negativity towards genuine, loving care for our communities, through the burgeoning growth of street pastors, food banks, homeless projects and much more.

That’s not to say that we can atone for our own sins through good works, but I think it does show a repentant attitude.

However, churches and Christians like me will always have our faults and may never live up to the expectations of others, or even our own.

We will therefore continue to hold on to Jesus, our Saviour, who is able to forgive us and lead us forward in our journey out of shame and into love.

And we will hopefully continue to plead not only with God, but also to observers like Ricky Gervais: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”

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(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)

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Holy sex, Batman!

salt n pepa

Let’s talk about sex, baby….. (remember that song?)

I’m one of thousands of people who have contributed over the last few years to the online dialogue on faith, same-sex marriage and sexuality, but most of us, me included, have actually said very little about sex. But I’m going to be brave and take the plunge….

By the way, if you haven’t already read enough on Christianity’s efforts to grapple with sexuality, you might like to take a look at one or two of my thoughts: Redefining Marriage, Vicky Beeching, Romans 1 and 21st Century Life, and Homophobia, Jesus and Me.

More generally, I’m passionate about the inclusive heart of God and diversity in church, which you can read about in: The 11th Commandment, Inclusion Zone and, most recently, Take Me To Church.

I’ve read mountains of articles and comments on same-sex marriage from all sides of the debate; been appalled by some arguments, enthralled by others; and been concerned by how this all looks to people outside the church. I.e. does what we say build bridges between people, and between God and people, or do we construct unnecessary barriers – which is less about our viewpoint, and more about how we express it: whether with humility, respect and empathy – or with rigid, fist-thumping dogmatism.

This has all led me to one vital question:

Why do Christians care so much about issues of sexuality and marriage? What makes us so vociferous, whether for or against same-sex marriage, whether we support or oppose LGBTQ equality? One vital reason – not the only reason but one often lost in the fracas – is this:

Sex is seen by Christianity and the Bible as inherently good – but even more than that, the physical and emotional union of sex is seen as a reflection or metaphor for the relationship between God and his people1. Sex is…. holy!

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Christianity views sex as inherently bad. Clearly, the church has often given that impression, sometimes creating unhealthy shame for those who fall outside of our ideals.

nosex This is simply because in our view, sex is such a precious, holy thing, that we feel it should be protected  – preserved for relationships of love, fidelity and emotional intimacy, reflecting the heart of our loving, faithful God.

And let’s be honest, for most people, sex is more complete and pleasurable when it’s more than just a physical act – when there’s emotional bonding and the two people concerned know and love and respect each other intimately as whole human beings rather than just bodies.

Sexual desire is a powerful impulse, driven by an evolutionary urge (and, according to Genesis, a God-given mandate) to multiply our species, with the potential for huge pleasure in the act itself as well as the natural joy of having children. The church, in its passion to direct people morally and, unfortunately, at times in history, to control the masses, has been afraid of this power. Perhaps understandably. After all, sex is a formidable force.

Some years ago I heard the renowned Christian missionary Jackie Pullinger speaking about how the intimacy and ecstasy of sexual union echo the intimacy and ecstasy of our relationship with God – aspects that we can enjoy partially now (our encounters with the Holy Spirit can be literally ecstatic) – and will experience fully in the future.

The following quote is from a group with differing conclusions from mine on same-sex marriage, but which shares my understanding of the significance – transcendence, even of sex: “Sex, unlike anything else we might do with another person, transcends the self while radically reorienting it within a new, shared context with our sexual partner”. (From Liberalism can’t understand sex)

Sex is holy!

So when you hear Christians object to same-sex marriage (even though I personally don’t), please bear in mind this noble backdrop to our views.

Please remember also that marriage, in the Christian worldview, reflects God’s heart – our belief in his complete dedication, devotion and affection for his people, expressed supremely and sacrificially when Jesus gave up his life on the cross2, so all of us have a hope in heaven!

So, sex and marriage for Christians reflect the amazing potential blessings of a relationship with God. I hope this goes some way towards promoting understanding of Christians’ views on sexuality. So far, so good…

Just before leaving it there, though, there’s one further element central to Christian understanding of sex that’s worth considering. Jesus spoke of a future world where we will be like angels and there will be no marriage, no sexual relationships3.

But before you start complaining at how dull that sounds (as in Ian Gillan’s 1981 hit No Laughing in Heaven – remember that?), actually what Jesus means is that heaven is better than sex! If sex is an intimate, ecstatic, pleasurable union between two people, Jesus promises something even better between all people and him, where he is the life and unity and intimacy and ecstasy between all of us and him.

Sex and marriage, like many things in this world, are for Christians a pale reflection of something better to come. Sexuality, whether straight, gay, bisexual or other, is not the final word. Sexuality is temporal. What we will be in heaven is something more complete. ALL our human relationships and marriages now are incomplete and to some extent broken because of our brokenness.

For that reason alone, I believe we should let people be who they are in this world. Our sexuality does not reflect the bigger picture, whereas relationships of sacrificial love, affection and fidelity do. Sex is temporary and incomplete, but in a context of sacrificial love it hints at a greater power, a greater love.

Sexuality is temporary and incomplete. Love is eternal.

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  1. Song of Solomon; Ephesians 5:31-32
  2. Ephesians 5:25
  3. Matt 22:30; 1 Corinthians 15
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Is Yoga a Slippery Slope to Satan?

“I think us Christians can learn a lot from Buddhism,” I suggested in conversation with the young man I’d just met after the service at church last week. He was OK with that. He got where I was coming from.

This was in stark contrast to an online article the same week, on the relationship between Christians and Eastern practices, with a headline that read:

‘It’s a slippery slope from yoga to Satan’ – Irish priest.

Father Roland Colhoun had warned (particularly to the Catholic world) that those partaking in yoga and Indian head massages may be led into the “Kingdom of Darkness.”

I’m no expert on yoga or Eastern religion, but I know that for a lot of people the meditative, physical and ethical principles of Buddhism or yoga are not “religious” or even spiritual, but simply a healthy way of living, promoting positive ways of thinking and being. Many principles of yoga or Eastern spirituality such as Buddhism seem to be generally good for physical, emotional and relational health.

This very morning, at church again, as I was discussing this blog post, another friend revealed that she practises and enjoys the physical benefits of yoga, putting it this way: “It’s as spiritual as you want to make it”.

For the Christian, meditation or relaxation techniques such as mindfully focussing on our breathing, can be used to help us to pray, to be still and know God, to quieten our minds and listen to his still, small voice. All these practices are neutral: until we choose how we use them.

How we use that quietening of our minds will differ between, say, Christians, atheists and Buddhists. The atheist may focus on her breath, achieving a calmer state of being. The Christian may do this too, but also focus on the God who gave her that breath, by faith ‘breathing in’ God’s Spirit and grace, and ‘breathing out’ praise to God (or confession of sins).

There is huge overlap between ancient Eastern meditative practices and ancient Christian contemplation. For the Christian this should come as no surprise, believing as we do that God has made every body (not just those who believe in him), and designed us in such a way that whatever our beliefs, taking time to be still and to quieten our minds is essentially good for our bodies and minds.

A few months ago I had a fascinating conversation with a beautiful, jolly, love-filled, Catholic man, about contemplative prayer. After we discovered that we had a mutual admiration for Thomas Merton, the popular 20th Century Catholic contemplative writer, the man informed me with a wicked, tongue-in-cheek smile that Merton had been responsible for converting more Catholics to Buddhism than anyone else!

It probably isn’t true – I don’t know.

The point is that, although Merton extolled the benefits of contemplation from a distinctly Christian viewpoint, the parallels with Eastern or Buddhist meditation can hardly be lost on his readers. Some Christians recoil at the very thought of anything that may bear any similarity with another religion, holding tight to their version of ‘Christianity’ in fear that they may be negatively affected by some unhealthy spiritual influence.

I am in some sympathy with those people. (In fact, here’s a link to a very balanced BBC article on the concerns about yoga shared by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.)

But when Christians live in that kind of fear, they betray how small their trust in Jesus is.

The wise, mature Christian has grown out of his childish clinging to the religion of Christianity and instead entrusts everything he knows to Jesus himself.

He closely examines the example of Jesus and prays for the ability to emulate him rather than church tradition.

He observes that Jesus, living in a society ruled by the Romans, never felt the need to denounce their pagan religion, only the hypocrisy within his own (Jewish) religion. What does that say to us?

And Jesus was drawn to, and commended, people of any faith background who had genuine, hungry hearts, rather than those who believed and did “the right things”.

Likewise St. Paul, in Athens*, surrounded by statues of Greek gods, chose not to warn the Athenians about the dangers of false gods, but to find common ground with their culture, with its gods and poets, to communicate the good news of his Jesus to them. In fact, there were already hints about the God of the Universe within their polytheistic literature, perhaps divinely planted there.

Christians, like me, may see things that we think are wrong in other religions, but Christianity in its various expressions can be equally wrong: for example, when its beliefs and practices are exclusivist or prejudiced.

People will often find what they’re looking for. If they’re just looking for relaxation, then they will probably find just that, whether through yoga or churchgoing. If they’re genuinely looking for truth or wholeness, then they will find those too – though it may take a while. Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said “Seek [or keep seeking] and you will find.”

Years ago, I was searching for truth, above all else. My journey took me through Buddhism and other ideas, and led me eventually to Jesus.

Twenty-seven years later, I still believe in him; that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’. He not only satisfied my need for truth; he turned my life around, satisfied my need for love and is continuing to make this broken man whole.

And I’m enthralled and thrilled at being part of a church that’s not trying to prove its truth, or defend Christianity or the Bible, but is simply intent on blessing the people of Hastings with all that Jesus offers.

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“And how can you say that your truth is better than ours?

Shoulder to shoulder, now brother, we carry no arms.”

(Mumford & Sons – I Gave You All)

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A few years ago, a friend of mine, a spiritualist, was searching for more, and as he was meditating, he encountered a vision of Jesus that he said was more powerful than anything he’d ever experienced. He ‘became a Christian’ and was baptised. His conversion to Christianity was sadly short-lived, but I remain hopeful for him.

I’ve also heard countless stories of Muslims who, desperately seeking the reality of a relationship with God, have encountered life-transforming dreams and visions of Jesus, and consequently put their faith in him – often in face of serious death threats, such is the strength of their conviction.

Like them, I believe that truth and wholeness are ultimately found in Jesus. I could be wrong. Either way, I have enough confidence in him not to be worried about people exploring other faiths or practices.

In other words, it’s what’s in a person’s heart, their goal, rather than the validity or spirituality of their current faith or practice, that will determine where their search will lead them.

Is yoga a slippery slope to Satan? Or could it, like Buddhism or meditation, be a slippery slope to good health, and perhaps for some, even to Jesus? Who knows?

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*The Bible: Acts 17

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My Goodness! (And Yours)

(The following article was originally published in May 2014 on the American blogsite We Occupy Jesus. Here it is again, with a few revisions).

My goodness! Your goodness! In fact, everyone’s goodness… The goodness of man – something worth celebrating. Worth talking about.

All around me I see people trying to do the right thing. People displaying kindness and thoughtfulness.

A colleague going the extra mile to get a homeless person rehoused.

A friend spending scores of hours and buckets of energy raising thousands of pounds to help a paralysed boy learn to walk.

People speaking out against racist and discriminatory politics.

A relative inspiring others to support fair trade.

My work colleague who died suddenly in 2014, who had spent years providing humanitarian aid overseas, then using her nursing skills to volunteer with homeless people.

People of all kinds of theological persuasions – atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, etc, filled with a warmth towards other people, driven with a social, ethical conscience, bearing concern for equality and relief of poverty, and in many other ways being ‘good citizens’.

Man’s capacity for altruism is remarkable.

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 “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying ‘I love you’… And I think to myself: What a wonderful world”  – Louis Armstrong.

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The Goodness of Man

A member of my family, who’s not a Christian or religious, commented on how amazing man’s capacity for forgiveness is. I think he’s someone who’s both received and given forgiveness and realised you don’t have to be religious to experience this.

Christians have an unfortunate reputation for emphasising the badness – or sinfulness – of man. Show people how sinful they are, how much guilt and shame they should feel, so they can better understand how much they need Jesus as their Saviour.

So the theory goes. Well, that might work for some people. But it doesn’t seem to be how Jesus went about doing things. That approach seems to be more in line with Pharisees than the Messiah.

People were drawn towards Jesus for all kinds of reasons, and followed him for all kinds of reasons. And Jesus seemed to make people feel better about themselves – and become better people.

I was initially drawn to Jesus not so much because I felt I needed saving, but because I became convinced that he was the Truth. I’m now convinced that he’s not only the Truth but the best thing since unleavened bread – and he’s saved me as well, in all kinds of ways.

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Working as I do with broken, vulnerable people, I see all too well the effects of a sinful world – the products of abuse, poor choices, injustice, inequality, selfishness and downright evil. In order to help these people effectively, I need to believe what the Bible says about them – not just about their amazing potential, but about their actual, immeasurable goodness and worth to the Father now.

I believe what I read in the book of Proverbs, and in Matthew 25 (the sheep and goats parable), and in the letter of James, that ‘the poor and the marginalised’ somehow represent God in our society, and that how we treat them is the measure of how we treat God (someone please tell this to our Government, by the way).

I believe that God sees these people (and all people) as special, wonderful; often through tear-stained, longingly affectionate eyes. That he sees them as good.

By seeing them that way myself, I may be able to divulge the Father’s irrepressibly passionate heart; I may be able to instil in them some self-belief, some hope for their future, maybe even faith in a Higher Power.

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Original Goodness

So obsessed have Christians been historically with the whole concept of sin, that theologians have all kinds of terminology to explain it. Terms like Original Sin and – here’s my favourite – THE TOTAL DEPRAVITY OF MAN!!! Isn’t that wonderful (he says with an ironic smile)?

The term, ‘the total depravity of man’ doesn’t mean that everything about mankind is bad; it describes the idea that everything we do and think is tainted by sin; that nothing ever comes from totally pure motives.

charles-barsotti-no-no-that-s-not-a-sin-either-my-goodness-you-must-have-worried-your-new-yorker-cartoon

‘Original Sin’ refers to that first act of rebellion against God, involving a tree and a snake in the Garden of Eden by Adam and Eve (either allegorical characters who represent the rest of mankind or the first real, historical people, who handed down a sinful nature to all their descendants).

Personally I take it as allegory, but whichever way you interpret it (if the Bible has significance for you), you’ll probably agree that before Original Sin was ‘Original Goodness’.

Adam and Eve were good before they were bad.

God made man and everything else, and saw that it was very good: mankind in particular, because we were made ‘in his image’. Mankind was made to reflect the love and creativity of God as his children on planet Earth – and we still do, in our imperfect, marred kind of way.

Although Original Sin and the Total Depravity of Man have some biblical basis, they’re not biblical terms, even though historically they’ve been so accepted and deeply interwoven into evangelical thinking.

And yet when did you last come across terms for equally biblical concepts like Original Goodness or the Total Goodness of Man in a church or Christian book?

(You may have come across these if you read books by writers like Steve Chalke or Rob Bell).

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Humanism and Christianity

Christianity and humanism seem to have always been in opposition: humanism suggesting that mankind is basically good and can get better with the right kind of education and development; Christianity asserting that man is basically bad and can do nothing to resolve the problem without help from above, from a higher power, from a Saviour called Jesus Christ.

What if the truth is somewhere in the middle? What if Christianity has so emphasised sin that it’s (we’ve) neglected to affirm the goodness in all human beings?

What if God looks at people’s hearts and loves it when they act in selfless love because, despite their faults, they’re still reflecting who he is – because they’re a chip off the old block?

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The Evolution of Empathy

Now here’s a thing:

Modern evolutionary biology has struggled to comprehend why humans display any sense of altruism; and yet it’s found the inescapable fact that people are naturally, instinctively altruistic and empathic.

An article in the New York Times, for example, describes the work of primatologist Frans de Waal, who has for many years studied the cooperative side of primate behaviour.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

(The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths).

De Waal emphasises that human empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed.

Like Dawkins perhaps, he argues that “biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

Despite de Waal’s rejection of religion, his biological claim neatly (and unsurprisingly, in my view) converges with the Bible’s assessment of man as being essentially good.

I don’t know about you, but I love it when science, philosophy and the Bible all concur. In those points of convergence lie some deep, exciting and important truths.

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Goodness Over Evil

Don’t get me wrong: I do understand and adhere to the importance of sin as a Christian concept. Like a sickness of the soul, we do need to face our need for healing and to allow Jesus, who died and overcame suffering and death, to embrace us with his healing arms.

But we’ve under-emphasised how wonderfully good we are. We’ve under-estimated how crazy God is over all the people he’s made, and how much he enjoys all the ways we reflect him in this world.

I think I’m a pretty self-aware person; and being a Christian, the Holy Spirit living in me gives me a sharpened conscience. But I’ve given up beating myself up about my faults.

If I dwell on my sins and shortcomings, I miss out on the power of God’s smile to change me. If, instead, I believe that my Father sees me as good, as someone incredibly appreciated and valued, then I don’t take myself or my mistakes too seriously.

I laugh at my faults and discover that the hilarity of God’s grace gives me the power to trample them into the dust.

Well, goodness me…….

(Love always looks for the best – 1 Cor. 13 The Message)

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SPEED FREAK

Whereas Karl Marx described religion as the opium of the people, meaning that it provided an escape from the harsh realities of life, it’s been observed that, going by the manic conflicts in the Middle East, religion today looks more like the amphetamine of the people. (Tobias Stanislas Haller)

At this point, I have to tell you my own little amphetamine (speed)-related anecdote… and I promise I’ll get back to the point of the above remark about religion and amphetamine in a bit.

It’s 1985 and I’m hitch-hiking across the southern United States, in the cab of the fanciest, fastest, flashiest truck I ever got a ride in. Compliments from other truck drivers on the road were coming over on the CB radio, on this guy’s truck and its speed.

(This is probably not a very accurate picture of the truck in question because this story took place nearly 30 years ago, but you get the idea).

(This is probably not a very accurate picture of the truck in question because this story took place nearly 30 years ago, but you get the idea).

We were just outside Albuquerque, going 80-100 mph on the 55mph freeway through night-time New Mexico, when the ‘bird-dog’ (radar detector) on the dash started bleeping, alerting us to a police speed trap. Unfortunately, the truck was too fast for the radar detector, and almost as soon as it started bleeping, we could see the police car up ahead.

We got pulled over; the driver was given an on-the-spot fine. The police also searched the cab for drugs and found nothing, but confiscated the guy’s marijuana paraphernalia. What they failed to spot, on the cab floor, was the amphetamine tablets stashed in a screwed-up cigarette packet – of which we’d both already partaken.

At the time, I thought it was hilarious that the police had done the driver for speeding but we’d got away with ‘speeding’ in the other sense!

Now, I’m not promoting drug use and it’s 25 years since I last took any illegal substances, but it still raises a chuckle in my head when I think back to some of my pre-Christian escapades.

And, although those days are long behind me, I admit that I do have an addiction to speed. Not amphetamine, but the speed of a fast-paced life.

In fact, I had a bit of a wake-up call to my overactive lifestyle recently on a speed awareness course.

Yes, this year I was caught speeding myself.

Not 30-40mph above the limit like that truck driver. I was doing 36mph on a 30mph road through a rural village on the A21.

Like many people, I opted for the speed awareness course rather than points on my licence. The course was actually very good. In fact, I’d even say I enjoyed it!

At one point, one of the driving instructors who delivered the course asked, “Why do people speed?”

Answers from the floor varied between a range of circumstances, poor time management, the pace of life and pure impatience.

My answer was “Personality. A tendency to live fast, always wanting to do everything as quickly as possible, to pack as much into the time as possible.”

As I spoke the words out loud about myself, I had a sudden realisation that I needed to change – that I could change.

My addiction isn’t just to being busy. It’s an addiction to productiveness. This sense that every moment I have to be doing something useful – springing perhaps from a kind of insecurity, of feeling that I need to prove myself (to me; to God; to others?), and maybe stems from that sense of pre-Christian-conversion shame that leaves its mark even after years of experiencing the deep, liberating grace of God.

At work, I’m mostly my own boss. I manage my time autonomously, with no one watching over me. But rather than slacking, I have a tendency to try to pack in as much productive activity into the day as possible.

I’ve been told that I’m obsessed with multitasking!

I don’t take a lunch break, as such; I eat while I work, so that I can take time later in the day to run or write my blog. Not a second wasted.

And when I run, I aim to be as fast as possible.

Although I tend to drive carefully in residential areas (despite being caught inadvertently speeding in a 30mph zone), when it comes to longer-distance motorway driving, I try to get from A to B as fast as possible with little regard for speed limits.

It’s not an altogether healthy way of being.

My self-disclosure on the speed awareness course woke me up to this deeper problem behind my fast driving habits.

Returning to the opening reference to religion and amphetamine….it’s easy to see a certain ‘evil’ hyperactive religion in the guise of ISIS, for example.

But there’s also a kind of overactive religious ‘do-good-ing’. It may initially spring from the joy of being born again and being thankful to God for being forgiven and redeemed, but can become a self-motivated over-busy-ness in our own strength, with mixed motives, unhealthy attitudes, and carries the risk of burning out.

Sometimes we mistakenly try to pay God back. Something he never asks us to do.

Around the same time as the speed awareness course, I started to explore Christian contemplation or meditation: a slightly different approach to my faith than the styles of prayer that I’ve been used to, and quite an ambitious aim for a hyperactive do-er like me…

Contemplative traditions speak of ‘centring prayer’ and ‘living out of the centre’. I’m not even entirely sure what that means yet, but for me now, it involves my prayer life re-focussing on my identity in Christ, re-discovering what it means to just ‘be’, so that my praying, my actions, my life, start to flow once more from belonging unconditionally to God.

I’m re-discovering what it means to rest in God, and to act from a place of deeper security as his child – loved and accepted without having to do anything.

The benefits of this practice seem to be (subtly) evident already, in such a short time. They’re pretty personal, but here are a few broad hints:

  • I’m feeling more confident to be me – less concerned with what others think of me;
  • Genuinely letting go and trusting God with a recent difficult situation has been such a beautiful reality, that spontaneous laughter of trust has sprung from my lungs;
  • “It is what it is” – that statement of contented acceptance of circumstances – resonates in my heart;
  • Temptations seem to have less of a pull;
  • Spontaneous words of genuine kindness have flowed more readily from these lips;
  • And well-worn scriptures like these are taking on a fresh reality for me:

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; They shall rise up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah)

“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms)

 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (Jesus, Gospel of John)

I’m not suggesting that Christian contemplative prayer is a panacea for every spiritual ill. It may not be for everyone – not even for every Christian.

Just that this is good for me – just now.

And that it’s another way of drawing on all those incredible resources available to us through the life and cross of Jesus.

And that many of us need to slow down and rest in God, for our own spiritual, mental and even physical health.

In fact, one of the most important changes for me is that I’m learning to slow down – just a bit:

to do less activity,

with more love,

as Mother Teresa so aptly said:

it-is-not-how-much-we-do-but-how-much-love-we-put-in-the-doing-it-is-not-how-much-we-give-but-how-much-love-we-put-in-the-giving-mother-teresa-mother-quote

I can’t compare my faith to amphetamine or opium or any other drug, because central to faith in Jesus is acceptance of perfect Love, which is always free, pure and unsullied, and has no potential for addiction, as I explained in ‘Addicted to Love?’.

But I’ve started on my road to recovery from my addiction to the speed of life.

And if you bump into me at a meeting, I might just introduce myself like this: “I’m Roger, and I’m a recovering speed freak.”

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Vicky Beeching, Romans 1 and 21st Century Life

In response to some friends’ recent Facebook discussion on a Christian view of homosexuality, following Vicky Beeching’s ‘coming out’, here are a few thoughts to throw into the melting-pot!

Let me start by asking….what is important to God? My answer….

In relation to him: undivided love, trust, adoration, gratitude, humility, etc.

In relation to others: selfless love, generosity, faithfulness, compassion, reconciliation etc.

In relation to ourselves: security in the Father’s love, integrity, wholeness, purity, joy and peace in life, etc.

In relation to everything and everyone, including ourselves: wonder at the beauty in all that God has made (Rom 1:20).

And perhaps you’d add other attitudes and attributes to those statements.

Passages like Romans 1:18-32 (and others that appear to be about homosexuality) are concerned with practices that threaten those principles: e.g. idolatry and sexual practices that go against people’s own nature in hedonistic revelry, often (in those times) in association with worship of false gods.

The Bible writers didn’t have the benefit of the biological understanding of sexuality that we have today. They were speaking against sexual idolatry, not homosexuality that is integral to someone’s own natural identity.

If an LGBT person enters a faithful, loving relationship with another person of the same gender, they are fulfilling God’s ‘law’ of love, not going against it.

God is concerned with the heart – a heart of agape love towards others and towards him, and is grieved when anything pulls a person away from that. He’s concerned with motivations rather than mechanics.

What does the Bible say? That the word of God is a stale, dead, dry encyclopaedia of rules and laws?

No! It says that it is living and active. It’s a living thing. The way it applied to 1st Century Rome should be different from how it’s applied to 21st Century life in the West.

If Romans 1 is concerned with anything that detracts from a life of love towards God and others, then perhaps applying it in a living and active way to 21st Century UK means using the passage to address issues like consumerism, our obsession with mobile phone technology, general gadgetry and the internet, sexual hedonism (still) (whether heterosexual or gay), and all manner of ethical questions around scientific advances. These are some of the things that go against nature and/or take people’s eyes off God.

For example, does the amount of time I spend online detract from my love for God?

Does your desire for the next version of iPhone interfere with your desire for God?

Or: can we justify the amount of money spent on exploring space or on Hadron colliders when a third of the world’s population is starving?

What are the implications of cloning or the creation of 3-parent families?

These advances in science and technology go against nature.

What are the motivations for those advances? To promote the good of mankind, the wonder of God’s creation and a love for God? Or to promote the cleverness of man and continue to push ethical and scientific boundaries as far as possible, just because we can (like the story of Babel)?

I’m not judging on these experiments and explorations. I’m just saying that these are the kinds of questions that arise when we apply Romans 1 to our own society.

A gay person in a relationship with someone of the same sex is not going against his or her nature, or even nature in general. Nor are they committing idolatry.

An LGBT relationship is no more likely to detract from a love for God than a heterosexual relationship. A faithful, committed gay relationship is promoting love, not working against love. And, I don’t need to tell you, but…. God is love.

Ideal sexual purity involves faithfulness in mind, body, heart and eyes. This is what concerns God’s heart, not the mechanics of gender.

As stated previously, the Bible writers (both OT and NT) wrote about homosexual practices from their perceptions of the surrounding hedonistic, idolatrous people groups. The Romans passage condemns love-less, perverse lust and idolatry (including heterosexual people engaging in bisexual orgies – going against their own nature), not faithful love between people who are gay by nature.

We need to develop our relationship with God and our understanding of his heart before we can understand the finer details of his will. We need to see the big picture first, in order to perceive the smaller elements.

Knowing God develops through time, receiving the Holy Spirit, Bible reading, prayer and a humble heart.

We also gain a greater sense of who God is by engaging in the things that are close to his heart:

“ ‘He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well with him. Isn’t that what it means to know me?’ says the LORD”. (Jeremiah 22:16; italics mine).

By acting out his compassion towards ‘the poor and needy’, I believe we inevitably see God in those people, grasp a greater, more beautiful picture of God and paradoxically also develop a greater sense of ‘unknowing’, of learning that God is both knowable and also a sublime, wondrous mystery.

The more we get to know the brokenness, complexity and mystery of human beings made in God’s image, the less black-and-white our view of others and the world will become. Our view of people like Vicky Beeching or others facing complex moral issues will become less black-and-white.

I’m not saying I know God better than anyone else, just that working over the years with broken and vulnerable people has influenced my theology, i.e. my knowledge of God.

[BTW: I suspect that this progression of theology as a result of working with vulnerable people is also the experience of Steve Chalke, to whom I tend to relate in terms of both heart and views].

Jeremiah also explained: ‘But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the Lord, have spoken!’ (Jer. 9:24)

The Pharisees searched the scriptures ruthlessly but failed to recognise Jesus or receive the life he offered (John 5:39), because they didn’t truly know God. So, scripture alone without God’s heart can lead us astray. They failed to see the big picture of God and so misunderstood the finer details of his will.

We need to beware of simply quoting scripture rigidly to defend our case. Much harm has been done in this way.

HOWEVER….

Even when we’ve all searched for God and developed our relationship with him after many years of prayer, humility, scripture and compassionate action, we still won’t all come to the same conclusions about every issue, because we’re all so much smaller than him. We see him from a different angle, through our own life-tinted lenses.

To repeat: God is both knowable and also a sublime, wondrous mystery.

For that reason, and because I have a deep love and respect for the Bible which has played an important and powerful part in God’s transformation of my life, while also recognising that you and I may have a different approach to the Bible, I write this with humility and trepidation, stating here that this is purely my own understanding.

I submit this to my brothers and sisters, feeling a deep and sorrowful sense of empathy with those who have been excluded or felt excluded from the church or even Christianity because of their sexuality, and believing passionately in my heart that the church needs to fully accept LGBT relationships equally to heterosexual relationships……. while knowing that some reading this will vehemently disagree with me.

I hope, in that case, that we can respect each other’s view and demonstrate agape love for each other, in agreement with God’s heart.

I also submit that I may be wrong! This is my view, not my dogma.

I’m of far greater conviction that whether I’m right or wrong in my statements above…and even if the view that homosexual practice is always wrong in God’s eyes is correct…that this is still a minor question and God’s heart is far more concerned with issues of mercy, justice, love, faithfulness and care of ‘the poor and needy’. That this question of sexuality should remain a matter of conscience, not of dogma.

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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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Simple as This

The one word “girl” towards the end of the lyrics is the only clue to the simple answer to Jake Bugg’s search in his soulful song, Simple as This. When I first heard it, I’d wondered if the song was about something else – more on that thought in a minute…

According to the song, he’d been round the world searching into all kinds of philosophies, spiritual ideas and substances, only to find fulfilment in a relationship with this girl.

Yep, another “silly love song”, as John Lennon might have said. (Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs was allegedly a response to Lennon’s jibe that McCartney “just writes silly love songs”)!

Have a listen to this beautiful, folky, simple, silly love song…

I’m not sure that that this romantic notion is ever a realistic remedy for our deepest needs, however important human relationships may be.

Like Jake Bugg in the song, I’ve known a great many people over the years who have explored a range of remedies and ideas in search of meaning, identity and wholeness. Some of them never seem to find that answer and appear to spend their lives dissatisfied and a little lost.

All their self-help philosophies, mix & match religion, globe-trotting, their quest for peace in a pipe, pill or bottle, even romance and relationships, never quite hit the spot.

Some of these people, however – some of my friends, in fact – did find what they were looking for, just as I did. Like in the Bugg song, it turned out to be something so simple. So surprising. And in a way, so close to home.

And Bugg was right in one sense – it is about a relationship.

At this point, if I start talking about a relationship with God, with Jesus, you might switch off; you might think it either boring or nuts. But I’m hoping that you’re curious enough – or kind enough – to read on…

People get turned off by religion. At least, I do, and I’m a churchgoer! But Jesus excites me. The actual Christian message of a relationship with God never ceases to thrill and engage me.

You see, although it’s possible to go into theological depths of the atonement, propitiation, the Trinity and all that…

…and although it’s useful to engage our brains with theology as best we’re able to…

…although that understanding may build faith….

…although the letters of Paul and the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament do contain all that stuff for our benefit…

In everyday practice, it’s so simple.

The message is all about a relationship of trust and love. It’s about placing all we have, all we are, into the hands of Jesus, trusting his love.

It’s about who we trust in with our hearts, not what we believe in with our heads.

About a person, not about facts.

The beauty of the Christian message is that anyone can receive it. In fact, sometimes it’s the smart people, or those who think they are, who just can’t accept it. Sometimes, with great intellect comes arrogance, and the message can only be received by humble hearts.

One evening, years ago, I was invited along to a service where two young men with profound learning and physical disabilities were being baptised. I vividly remember, as they were each lowered in turn into the pool, their faces beaming with profound delight at giving their lives – placing their trust – in Jesus in this public way.

It’s an act of trust, a decision of the heart, rather than intellectual, scientific knowledge – although our faith does rest on reasonable, historical facts. So the great intellectual theologian Paul admits (in 1 Corinthians):

Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.

But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.

Although there are complex theological claims in the Bible, Jesus himself tended to simply invite people to come to him, and to find a new way of life, in fact a new life, that would simply flow from that relationship with him.

To be a Christian, we don’t have to believe a whole set of doctrines.

To find new life, we don’t have to adhere to any particular denomination’s take on Christianity.

We do need to believe that Jesus is who he claimed to be – the messiah who came to give his life for us and to overcome death, and we need to place our lives into his hands.

If we do that, we will experience a new birth.

Our hearts will be changed, as the Holy Spirit works inside us.

We will begin to love God. Our love for him will grow.

Our love for others will grow.

Our addictions and dysfunctionality will begin to be healed (although not all overnight).

And we will be motivated from the heart to do the things he said we need to do, like forgive those who hurt us, care for those less fortunate and work for peace. Our actions will be evidence of genuine faith.

Jesus emphasised relationship rather than rules.

And deeds, not doctrines.

Recently I’ve been enjoying this prayer and invitation from the lips of Jesus:

“O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way!

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”  (Matthew 11)

I bought a new car (no, not brand new – I’m not that rich!) last week and I’m lovin’ it! I have no idea how many pistons or valves this the car has, or what they even do. I don’t know how the turbo-thingy works; but I know and love the way the car pulls away sharp-ish when I put my foot down! I know it gets me about reliably and I’m enjoying the relative comfort of a newer car compared to my old clapped-out Zafira.

Perhaps if I took the time and trouble to learn how an engine works and understood the specifications of this Ford S-Max, I’d get more out of the car. Maybe.

My relationship with God is a bit like that. The theology can help, but I don’t have to understand exactly how Jesus paid the price for my sin, or get my head round how God can be three in one, or get involved in debates on women bishops or creation and evolution. Like with the car, getting in and going forward is what it’s all about.

Years ago, I found peace with God, rest for my soul. I haven’t lost that, but from time to time, I’ve found I need to renew that peace by returning to the simplicity of faith – turning my face to my saviour again.

If, like me, you’ve been a Christian for years and years and years and have got bogged down with doctrines and questions and theology (which can be a help or a hindrance), you too may need to return to Jesus’ simple invitation:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”.

And if you’re still searching, the invitation is also for you.

It really is as simple as this.

 

Lyrics to Jake Bugg’s Simple as This:

I’ve been in search of stones , Making up the pavement of less-travelled roads Mining for treasure deep in my bones That I never find

Went looking for reverence Tried to find it in a bottle And came back again High on a hash pipe of good intent But it only brought me down

Tried institutions of the mind and soul It only taught me what I should not know Oh and the answer well who would have guessed Could be something as simple as this Something as simple as this

Travelled to each ocean’s end Saw all seven wonders, trying to make some sense Memorised the mantra Confucius said But it only let me down. Tried absolution of the mind and soul It only led me where I should not go Oh and the answer well how could I miss Something as simple as this Something as simple as this

I’ve been falling, crashing, breaking All the while you were stood here waiting For me girl Tried liberation of my own free will But it left me looking to get higher still. Oh and the answer well who would have guessed Could be something as simple as this

God knows how I could have missed Something as simple as this

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Love Trumps All

All you need

All you need is love. Were the Fab Four right? Personally I think they were pretty spot on, although they may not have meant exactly the same thing as me by the word ‘Love’.

As a Christian I believe that God is love and that Jesus was the human embodiment of God.

And, therefore, that those who genuinely know and follow Jesus will inevitably grow in their love for their fellow human beings.

What does that mean in practice? What is this love? Some warm, fuzzy feeling of affection towards other people? In my days as an atheist, I remember a friend criticising ‘born again Christians’ he’d met, for advocating loving everyone. “How can you love everyone when you can’t even like everyone?” was his response.

Again, for Christians, the Bible is our starting place. One of the most famous passages in the Good Book is 1 Corinthians 13 (worth a look, if you’re not familiar). The gist of it is that when we love, we’re not only kind and generous, but we act in a way that seeks the good of others and don’t assert our own rights or desires over those of others. In other words, we’re unselfish – selfless, even.

Which brings us to the Bible’s ultimate plumbline of love…. the life and (especially) death of Jesus – giving up a sinless life to a brutal execution for the restoration, wholeness and forgiveness of many others. The perfect act of selflessness.

An act that: a) transforms, from the inside out, the lives of those who receive his gift by faith, bringing forgiveness and power to change, to love; and b) becomes our example to follow, our source of inspiration.

The Bible writers go on to describe how we live this out in practice in our flesh-and-blood family and in our spiritual family – the church community.

For example Paul, in his multi-ethnic, multi-faith, 1st Century culture, explains how he’s free to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols because at the end of the day it’s just…meat. BUT if this causes offence to a fellow Christian, then he would even go so far, if necessary, as to never eat meat ever again! He could have declared, like the Soup Dragons in their brilliant 1990 hit:

“I’M FREE TO DO WHAT I WANT ANY OLD TIME!

The original Soup Dragon (on the right) – for fellow Clangers fans!

The original Soup Dragon (on the right) – for fellow Clangers fans!

“It’s my right to eat meat. God has said it’s OK to eat meat, so I will!” He could have looked down on those whose faith was ‘weaker’ and tried to persuade them that his way of seeing things was the right way.

Instead, he did the loving thing. The thing that respected his Christian brother’s conscience and way of faith.

But doesn’t ‘living under grace’ mean that we’re free from religious rules, from ‘do’s and don’ts’. Yes, kind of, but love is the greatest commandment and the only response to grace.

Love trumps all.

If love means following a ‘rule’ so as not to hurt a sister or brother in Christ, then we follow the ‘rule’.

The idea that what we say and what we do affects those around us – that no man is an island – is an important concept to followers of Jesus.

In a similar way, when it comes to relationships, Paul tells a community of Christians to let the ‘peace of Christ act as judge (or ruler) in your hearts’. Which means that the peace of Christ that you normally experience as a Christian is a gauge of the health of your relationships with others in the church: i.e. if this peace is disturbed because of conflict and disharmony between you and others within the church community, it’s telling you – you need to put something right. ASAP.

All of which leads me to Margaret Thatcher…

Because she was the lady who was not for turning. Politicians rarely do U-turns. Or if they do, they generally don’t admit it, because that would mean admitting they were wrong the first time round and that would mean losing face.

(Never mind the fact that the voting public would actually appreciate some integrity and humility for a change).

imagesCA9M0OF6

I am doing a U-turn – on my last blog post, Sowing and Reaping, or part of it… because my recent blogging has had some negative impact on my relationships with one or two Christian brothers in my own church community, causing some concern and offence to them, not to mention a great deal of anxiety to me. The peace of Christ in me has been troubled.

Taking the approach of challenging the status quo, provoking controversy, in the quest for sincere faith – although it may encourage some Christians and help build bridges with others outside the Christian faith – may be an obstacle to the building of other relationships in the church.

One of my passions is to be part of a community that’s being built together in love, building with them, and if my blogging works against that, if it’s promoting discord rather than unity and community, then I would consider never blogging again!

I would at least take a U-turn on writing anything that causes disharmony within my own church community.

Because love trumps all. Yes, even free speech and open dialogue, which I hold dear.

I wrote in Sowing and Reaping about finding some resonance in Progressive Christianity – not that it’s really any different to any other ‘type’ of Christianity (because Christianity is Christianity, and really there is no Christianity, only Jesus Christ, who doesn’t change), but this particular ‘stream’ or ‘movement’ places an emphasis on experiencing Jesus and on living out his love in action, while some expressions of Christianity have been perceived historically to over-emphasise doctrine.

To quote Paul again: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6).

While doctrine and theology are important, some of us are not cut out to be theologians – at least in the academic sense, although we may be theologians in the sense that we know and love God and have a passion to live this out, rather than to debate predestination, atonement and the like. As an ancient prophet put it:

“ ‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?’
declares the Lord”.
(Jer 22:16)

I’m happy for others to take care of the theology. I recognise its value and I respect the gifting of those who are called to study and teach it.

For me, I’m happy to live it out in love as best I can. That includes the work that I do (see The Spirit of Healthcare) and writing creatively, to express this love to those who don’t claim to have faith in Christ. I hope to continue blogging in a way that finds common ground with atheists and agnostics, while also encouraging the faith of fellow believers.

And if that means refraining from making controversial statements that may offend my own (local) spiritual brothers and sisters, then restraint will be the order of the day.

Or if it means maybe running a blog draft past particular individuals before posting it, to avoid offence, then I’ll happily do so.

Because love trumps all.

Why am I posting these thoughts? Well, not to claim any moral high ground.

1) To explain that I’m just someone with many flaws including a strong self-will (which can also be a good thing), but with a resolve to go against my flaws and follow the One who called me and gave me everything.

2) As a heads-up on this ‘U-turn’ (or this ‘toning down’ at least), for those who follow my blogs.

3) To encourage fellow believers to continue working out how to live a life of selfless love for their spiritual brothers & sisters.

Hearts are trumps4) And for everyone else, to shed a little light on the fact that, whatever you may think of Christianity, whatever you’ve imbibed (subconsciously or otherwise) of the media image of church…sacrificial, selfless love does go on week in, week out, within church communities. Not flawlessly. Humanly. Imperfectly reflecting the perfect love of Jesus Christ shown on the cross.

Love that trumps all.

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A sense of perspective

At the risk of being repetitive and boring, banging on about the church and homosexuality again

This is written mainly to a Christian audience, but if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, you’re of course still very welcome to read and comment on it!

Below is a letter I wrote to Christianity magazine, printed in this month’s edition.

One of the reasons for this letter is that divergence of opinion on sexuality seems to be currently the distinguishing factor between church and the rest of society – at least publicly, as portrayed by the media.

This worries me immensely, although I know this is not actually the predominant differentiating factor for (hopefully) any Christian, but rather an emphasis implied by the media.

The things that should distinguish the church from the world around us are qualities such as joy, love, forgiveness, mercy, grace:

Joy: Christians should be the happiest people on earth because we’ve received the best news ever, of a slate wiped clean, of eternal love, with the joy of true liberation.

Love etc: We should be known for our love for each other: church fellowships held together by patience, mercy, forgiveness, unity of heart, and overflowing with grace and generosity to the world around us.

Actually, much of the time this is the reality!

One of many things that drew me to Jesus was seeing faces of Christians ‘glowing’ with the joy of knowing the Messiah. They had something supernatural and wonderful.

The unity, love and community support within ordinary church fellowships goes on unnoticed by the media and much of society, week in, week out. Churches are made up of ordinary, broken people with faults and difficulties, and yet these fellowships are communities held together by patience and love in the face of (at times) misunderstandings and disagreements that are typical of any family.

Church members’ support for each other is often phenomenal and sacrificial, without any trumpet-blowing or media hype.

Their experience of Jesus’ love drives many to serve outside their churches, in the wider community, either voluntarily or (as in my case) in paid work, through organisations like Street Pastors, hospices, healthcare and other public services.

Privately, church communities are often what they should be, distinguished from the rest of the world by love, joy, patience and mercy. Let us not be fooled by the media that we’re defined by views on sexuality.

So that’s the backdrop to my letter to Christianity, which was edited down to the point where the argument I was making was unfortunately somewhat lost. Hence, for the record, below is the full letter (with relevant Bible passages also inserted, rather than just references).

Note to self: in future, when writing to magazines, write shorter letters!

Here’s the letter:

Dear Christianity

Whatever our view is on homosexuality, it’s important to hold it in perspective. To illustrate from the story of Sodom: even IF (and that’s a big ‘if’) homosexual practice is always wrong in God’s eyes, the sin of Sodom was not so much this as the fact that they had become so self-centred and hedonistic that, not only did they neglect to show hospitality to strangers and care for the poor, they went even further by seeking only to rape and abuse those who came to visit their city.

See Ezek 16:49-50: “Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door. She was proud and committed detestable sins, so I wiped her out, as you have seen”.

The root was selfishness. What can we learn, therefore, about how to treat gay or straight people who visit our churches or move into our streets? How good are we at welcoming and caring for people? Are our church services designed to serve ourselves or to draw in outsiders? These questions are more important than sexual orientation or practice.

This sin of Sodom was the worst possible abuse. AND YET…even worse than this in God’s eyes is the rejection of grace and of the Holy Spirit by those who have seen evidence of him working before their very eyes.

See the words of Jesus in Luke 10:8-12: “If you enter a town and it welcomes you, eat whatever is set before you. Heal the sick, and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you now.’ But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say,‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate. And know this—the Kingdom of God is near!’ I assure you, even wicked Sodom will be better off than such a town on judgment day.”

How we respond when we see God at work and hear his voice is ultimately more important than anything. This will affect how we love God and people, whether gay or straight.

Even IF we believe homosexual practice is wrong, it is OK for others to believe and practise otherwise with a clear conscience. We can agree to disagree. If same-sex marriage is approved, it will apply to a small minority and will not threaten traditional marriage nearly as much as the far more accepted and widespread practice of heterosexual co-habitation or the prevalence of failing heterosexual marriages. I see few Christians campaigning against heterosexual co-habitation. Let’s not worry about same-sex marriage: who knows, maybe gay couples will show greater commitment and honouring of their vows than straight couples?!

Let’s avoid hypocrisy as much as possible, keeping things in God’s perspective and making God’s priorities our priorities: such as practising hospitality, recognising God’s voice and showing grace and love to people of all sexual and theological persuasions!

(I promise the next blog will be on a completely different subject!)

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