Tag Archives: Jesus

God’s ‘mini-me’s

Can humans be gods? Of course not. At least not according to Christianity.

Yet, in Psalm 82, one of the Jewish / Christian scriptures, God (Yahweh) addresses Israel’s rulers as ‘gods’! Humans described as gods! This incredible psalm should come as quite a shock to most religious people.

Jesus himself quoted from this psalm to affirm that God did indeed address the people as gods – in order to make his point: “Why is it so hard to accept that I could be God’s son?”

The words of Psalm 82 have mind-blowing implications for our society in various ways:

  • As ‘gods’ or Yahweh’s representatives, our leaders and politicians have a God-given responsibility to exercise mercy and social justice: to care for the marginalised and vulnerable. As numbers of people dependent on food banks due to benefits sanctions rise and rise, and as homelessness grows unstoppably in Hastings where I live and across the UK with no sign of slowing down, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of our current government before a holy God – where holiness is not the cold piety of a distant deity, but the fiery, devoted passion for ultimate justice on behalf of the most vulnerable. I suspect there’s a message there for our American friends too, with just a few days to the presidential election.

 

  • As ‘gods’, every human being has an intrinsic worth far beyond that which any of us can ever imagine – far above anything expressed by most theological and psychological schools of thoughts. And no wonder – the idea of us being ‘gods’ is so radical and far-reaching, it verges on blasphemy to Judeo-Christian thinking. To approach the idea of people being ‘gods’ is to walk on holy ground. And yet it is a Christian idea. God is. I am. The mystery of our being mirrors the mystery of his being. We are, literally, God’s children. We carry his DNA, his genes – so much more than his image. So ingrained in Christian thinking is the idea of sin’s pervasiveness, that the holiness, goodness and beauty that underlies our brokenness is usually missed. I would so love for all the broken, hurting, struggling people I know (that’s pretty much everyone, including me) to begin to grasp this core identity that we have. What incredible healing there would be in that comprehension!

 

  • Those regarded as ‘least’ and ‘lowest’ according to the echelons of society, or ‘low-life’ as I’ve heard them described, are nevertheless ‘gods’ according to Yahweh – not just his representatives, they are his ‘mini-me’s – and therefore, as Jesus made plain, whatever we do or fail to do for them, we do or fail to do for him. This affords us amazing privileges and opportunities to encounter the holy love and presence of Yahweh as we serve society’s marginalised, pray for them and press for social justice.

 

Here’s Psalm 82 in full:

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.

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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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COMPASSION IS REST

Compassion is rest.

To live with compassion means we don’t need to prove ourselves – that we don’t try to be better than someone else.

Compassion means that we don’t judge or criticise those who say and do things we disagree with, but accept that they, like us, have their weaknesses.

Compassion means that sometimes we do judge and criticise, even those close to us, but at that very moment we can forgive ourselves, as we’re forgiven, for these disturbing attitudes, and we’re free to move on.

Both they and we need compassion at the same moment. We discover that we’re in it together.

Compassion is a level playing field, where all have gone astray, all need mercy. No one is better or worse.

Which means that we can empathise with people who seem either less or more moral, whether posher or poorer, than us. Levels of morality, class and wealth, fade to grey, in light of compassion.

There are, in fact, no levels.

To accept that we need compassion makes us no better than someone who hasn’t yet realised that they too need compassion. We’re just lucky to be in that place.

Compassion means that we go easy on ourselves. After all, who are we to argue with God?

Compassion means that in every thought, word and deed, with so many mixed motives, honourable and dishonourable, even when we mistakenly think we’re doing the right thing… we’re honoured.

It means that this very moment, right now, we’re forgiven and free…and this moment…and this one.

Yes, and this one, too.

And this one.

And even this one.

Mercy is not just new every morning, but every moment.

Compassion means that every single second we can start afresh with a clean slate.

We don’t need to wait for a new day.

Which means a permanent state of restfulness, and of freedom.

Freedom to do what’s right.

Freedom to get things wrong.

Freedom from chains of society, religion, consumerism, one-upmanship, and showmanship.

And freedom to forget that we’re free from chains of society, religion, consumerism, one-upmanship, and showmanship – when we act as if we’re still enslaved. We can be forgiven for that, too!

In the world of compassion, even our hypocrisy is forgivable.

Compassion means that we don’t have to do anything!

To live with compassion is to be at rest.

 

Compassion is action.

Compassion means we can’t ignore the plight of the poor and the victimised.

Compassion means we can’t just walk by on the other side.

Compassion means we want to help.

That we will do what we can.

It means that love flows from a place of rest and freedom.

Those who receive compassion cannot help but give compassion.

Compassion means that sometimes we do walk by on the other side, but we discover that even our omissions are forgiven, and we learn from our mistakes.

To live with compassion means empathy with people in their weakness and vulnerability, because we know that we too are weak and vulnerable.

Compassion means that we don’t try and save the world, because we recognise our limitations and the strengths of others.

Compassion means that we care for ourselves too,

that we’re equal to others for whom we feel compassion. We recognise that we too need support, mercy, love and empathy.

Compassion means life with purpose, destiny, and love expressed in deed.

To live with compassion is to be stirred into action.

To have found this compassion so long ago remains, for me, a miracle bombshell blessing:

Compassion in the shape of Jesus.

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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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A brush with Vincent

If you know me or my blog, you’ll know that I have a little fascination with both van Gogh and Van Morrison. Must be something about vans. I haven’t blogged about white van drivers yet, though – maybe that’s to come…

But both Gogh and Morrison, unlike white van drivers, seem to help unlock a sense of awesome awareness of the Creator’s sweet pervasion of the world around me.

You may even know that one of the reasons for taking my family on a short break to Holland in the recent half-term was to visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Having been so enthralled by his life and mesmerised by his art, I wondered what a visit to the museum, which houses over 1000 of Vincent’s works, would be like. Would I be touched even more deeply by the man of myth and magic? Or would I be unmoved – would a museum’s inevitable sterility detract from the emotions normally evoked by this beautiful man?

The first van Gogh work I saw on entering the main gallery was a familiar, famous painting – The Sower.

Several things struck me all at once.

Firstly, I was blown away by the obvious fact that I was looking at an original! This was a painting actually painted by Vincent van Gogh himself!

Viewing the popular masterpiece, with its dense, swirling, brush strokes, felt like a mind-blowing encounter with greatness,

beauty,

history,

madness and sanity,

and the brilliant transcendence of the Creator in Vincent’s (and our) world.

Right from the outset, I was overcome with emotion, moved to tears once again, by this brush with Vincent. As it turned out, no cold museum sterility could dampen the reactions sparked by this intriguing character.

As well as being awestruck by the significance of being face to face with an actual van Gogh, I was startled to find it was 3D! It had never occurred to me that the flat, 2-D images we see in a book or on a computer screen could never do justice to the coarse, wild textures or contrasting shades of an oil painting’s brazen, 3-dimensional, brush strokes.

the-sower-1888

A flat, 2D image of The Sower, a 3D painting

Such a stark realisation sparked an immediate thought about my prayer life. My recent (last couple of years) journey into a more mindful and contemplative approach to prayer, inspired by the likes of Shaun Lambert, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, feels like a transition from 2D to 3D faith.

Diving into the omnipresence of God.

Being in his being.

Not that prayer, for me, has ever been simply a religious “shopping-list” or an approach to God as a dispensing machine, but this practising of stillness, stopping to soak in the reality of who God is and of who I am, has been a welcome learning curve and a growth into the fullness that Jesus promised.

Vincent never seemed to lose his faith in Christ, but recoiled from the strict religion of his pastor father. Did Vincent ever experience the fullness of life that Jesus offered? My strong suspicion is that, despite being tormented by mental ill health, a sense of alienation from society, and even “existential dread”, as described in the blurb for one painting at the museum, Vincent did indeed drink of that spiritual life.

He seemed to be so wonderfully attuned to his surroundings and, through those surroundings and his depiction of them, to be at one with the Creator he believed in. You could say that his painting really was a form of contemplation.

Even Christians, with our genuine claims of the “joy of the Lord” and “fullness of life”, are not immune to mental illness, depression and “dark nights of the soul”. I, too, have had my moments.

Part of my contemplative learning curve has been a growing embrace of “non-dual thinking”: accepting the “both/and” of life and faith in 3D fullness, instead of the “either/or” often associated with 2D religion.

I think Vincent understood this, through his ups and downs of faith and life. As I browsed the museum, I was intrigued by his Still Life with Open Bible, in which a large family Bible, open at Isaiah 53 that speaks prophetically of Jesus as the suffering servant and “a man of sorrows”, is juxtaposed with a copy of Emile Zola’s contemporary novel of the time, La Joie de Vivre.

still-life-with-bible

Still Life with Open Bible (sorrow and joy)

I don’t think Vincent ever really rejected the Bible or Jesus but resented his father’s “blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset”, and like a lot of people, found that the religion of his time satisfied neither his mind nor his soul’s need for love.

In contrast, La Joie de Vivreand so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth,” as Vincent put it in a letter to his brother Theo.

His simultaneous representation of both sorrow and joy in this painting seems to sum up Vincent’s experience of life and faith. Both/and.

As I admired the lavish, almost randomised, multi-directional strokes in Vincent’s paintings, I was drawn to the paint patterns’ apparent disorder, that paradoxically composed such natural order in the finished works. Isn’t life like that?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the apparent disorder of my life – especially as a parent! – and of so many aspects of our world. How do we make sense of this? How do we come to terms with our lack of control over our disordered circumstances? Our flawed characters? Our loved ones? The random nature of death and suffering? And all the other things of this world that we care about?

Is it just me, with my OCD tendencies, that experiences this struggle?

Or do we all to some extent feel the need for neat answers – for order in our world? Current contemplative Richard Rohr, describing Franciscan spirituality in his book Eager to Love, expresses it like this:

“Paul says only ‘the folly of the cross’ can deal with what poet Wallace Stevens called “our blessed rage for order!’ The ‘mystery of the cross’ is Paul’s code-breaking and fundamental resolution for the confusing mystery of life! Without it, it seems most people become cynics, depressed, bitter, or negative by the middle of life, because there is no meaning in the death of all things and the imperfection of everything. For Paul, the deepest level of meaning is ironically the deep, grace-activated acceptance of a certain meaninglessness! We are able to leave room for God to fill in the gaps, and even trust that God will!”

Life is full of paradox and, for me, the cross of Jesus and his resurrection bring meaning to the perceived meaninglessness and disorder of this universe. This faith doesn’t answer all my questions. If it did, the God I believe in would be too small.

But through faith in Jesus, I trust that the almost randomised, multi-directional strokes of this world, that we see in the apparent chaos even at a subatomic level of the universe, make up a magnificent, somehow ordered, painting too big for the eyes of our hearts and minds to comprehend.

Order/disorder. Both/and. My contemplative faith is enabling me to live with the tension between the two.

Thank you once again, Vincent, for helping me accept the breadth and depth of God, and to the van Gogh Museum for its part in expressing the messages of his life and art.

And one day, maybe even the disordered driving of white van drivers will inspire in me a sense of awe at their Creator…

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Previous posts I’ve published, relating to van Gogh, include: A Sense of Wonder, Sunflowers, and specifically Take Me To Church.

 

(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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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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Not poles apart

This morning I was playing with magnets on the kitchen table with my 4-year-old daughter, Hannah. I loved magnets when I was a kid. Turns out, I still do. What is there not to love about magnets?

…unless, of course, you’re a car about to be picked up by one of those huge scrap yard magnets, only to be ripped apart or crushed to bits.

I was showing Hannah how, if you slowly slide a magnet along the table towards a stationary magnet, there comes a point when the stationary magnet suddenly jumps across the gap and latches on to the moving one. Hannah loved it. And each time she did it, it made her jump when the magnet lurched across the table top, making both of us laugh.

It reminded me of how I, and many people I know, are drawn towards the magnetic heart of God. How we can never stray too far from the loving heart of the Father and the (almost) irresistible person of Jesus.

And of how, in that magnetic heart of God, we find answers to our own, broken, human hearts.

As the years go by, I’m less convinced that Christianity or the Bible can necessarily give us all the intellectual answers we need to life and suffering. I was talking to a friend recently who as yet can’t find faith in God, although he would love to, because he can’t understand how an all-powerful God could allow the untold suffering, especially the most extreme forms, that goes on around the world.

I do sympathise with him and, even though I think Christianity can to a certain extent offer some explanation of that question (in fact, I recommended the Alpha course to him, which includes an evening just looking at the question of why God allows suffering), at the same time I’ve become increasingly content with not having all the answers; of living with divine mystery.

I realise that may sound like a cop-out. However, I think it’s borne out of a level of trust in God that’s developed, despite the questions, as a result of a time-tested, experiential faith over so many years now.

While I don’t believe Christianity or theology can necessarily entirely satisfy people’s intellectual questions about life and suffering, I do believe that…

…the person of Jesus – the heart of God ultimately uttered at the cross in self-debasing, sacrificial love – can and does answer the problems of the human heart – the problems of falsehood, hypocrisy, selfishness, brokenness, disconnectedness and fear, for example.

And that maybe the problems are more important than the questions.

That when we’re drawn like that magnet to the heart of God and we experience his compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, companionship… our intellectual questions become less important and we’re better able to face the uncertainties and trials of this life. And better able to face not only the evil in the world around us, but even the sometimes unbearable darkness of our own hearts.

Maybe we were never intended to face suffering alone; maybe the answer to suffering lies, in part at least, in having the magnetic, empathic companionship of God with us in all our life experiences, transcending our trials.

The magnets also reminded me of that reassuring statement from the New Testament: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Like the magnet, it only takes a small movement from us, to compel the Father’s heart closer to ours.

When we take time to pray, we tend to find that surprising blessings emerge. Sometimes a change of circumstances, sometimes the strength to go on, or a change in our own heart or in someone else’s. And an entwining of our heart with God’s.

Prayer is like any relationship. When we invest time in prayer – even 5 minutes here and there (what matters most is genuineness, rather than how much time we give) – we find the relationship with God enriched, our lives enriched.

Thank God for magnets

and for his magnetic heart,

so that God and we don’t need

to be poles apart.

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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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Redemption song

Redemption Song

Jesus, we enjoy the fruits of your labour

We stand in the embrace of the Father

prodigal-son-

We kneel before a loving King

Who enters and embraces our suffering;

We hand over to you today, tomorrow,

Our fears, our sins, our pride and sorrow

Swallowed up, gone forever, in the Saviour’s light.

We stand free, we stand FREE!

More free than we’ll ever know

As we pray for us, for them, for all

to absorb

To truly comprehend…

To grasp the extent

of this liberation…

More than we’ll ever understand

More than Marley ever sang,

This emancipation

This warm embrace

This welcome home.

(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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Wars not make one great

Come back in time with me to a period a long time ago (well, 1980) in a galaxy far, far away, in Star Wars V (The Empire Strikes Back)…

yoda1_0The other day, like a zillion other people, my son was working his way through watching the original Star Wars trilogy in preparation for seeing The Force Awakens, when I walked into the room and witnessed the following dialogue:

I’m looking for a great warrior,” says Luke to Yoda.

Ohh, great warrior? Wars not make one great,” gently retorts the little green giant of wisdom, in inimitable Yoda style.

—–

A few weeks ago the media and especially social media were awash with anti-war sentiments as Parliament debated, voted and agreed on the decision to unleash air strikes in Syria.

Protests followed, mostly peaceful ones, by those genuinely concerned about the impact strikes would have on innocent people, not to mention the disingenuousness of spending millions on war while austerity measures at home are depriving the most vulnerable and driving more and more people to food banks and homelessness.

One of the anti-war campaigners, Helen Pattinson, asked: “How come they can find money to drop bombs on other countries to create refugees… but they can’t find money for health, for education, and for young people to have a decent future?” This sentiment has been a common thread running through public opinion.

There was and is understandable anger at Government policy over these issues. It is absolutely right to be outraged at injustice, at an adamantine Government that seems hell-bent on hurting the vulnerable and making them pay (even with their lives, in some cases) for the greed of bankers and tax-evaders.

There were apparently some who expressed their anger through abusive phone calls and letters to Stella Creasy and other MPs. But these seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.

Mostly, peaceful expressions advocating peace inundated the streets, the internet and conversation.

What surprised me was my own internal response. As I concurred with popular anti-war statements and ‘liked’ memes opposing airstrikes, I became acutely aware that none of this will do much to change the warmongering minds of western Governments or eastern terrorists, and yet I can effect peace where I am.

I found myself more motivated than usual to proffer grace to people I sometimes find difficult; to overcome potential, minor, everyday conflicts with expressions of compassion; to promote peace through words of kindness in my own networks of friends, family and community, in my own limited way. I can start where I am. And I can hope and pray that others may do the same.

An old saying goes something like: I can’t change others; I can change myself; others might change in response to the change they see in me.

And who knows what difference our own interpersonal efforts at peace might make across the globe, in a butterfly-effect kind of way? Genuinely.

Over recent years I’ve been enthralled by Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I’ve read their biographies, watched films about their lives, and been deeply inspired by their passionate embrace of nonviolent resistance. All of them were themselves inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, whether or not they all embraced Christianity.

Gandhi famously (or infamously) declared: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Jesus (not Christianity) was their teacher and example.

In a similar vein, the first step in my walk towards Christ was a reading of the Sermon on the Mount[1]. There I was quietly minding my own business, taking a look at the Bible for the first time, just out of curiosity, when I was blown away by Jesus’ audacious ideas about forgiving people who hurt us, about loving enemies and praying blessings on them. Looking back, I know something began to shift spiritually deep inside this (then) atheist. I would never be the same.

But how hard it can be to live this out, right? Who can forgive those who commit atrocities against us, our neighbours, or even our loved ones? How can we love enemies?

Well, my answer is: Christ in me.

Christ in you, too?

All I know is that when Christ started to live by his Spirit in me, my whole attitude started to change on the inside.

That same passion that lived in King, Mandela and Gandhi, lives in me. That passion to overturn war with peace; to overcome hatred with love.

It’s one of the reasons I will never insult our politicians, however horrified I am by their policies, however strongly I might speak out about the impact their decisions make on our society.

Christ in me energises me, motivates me, continues to shape my heart. And I find that it’s through wars, rumours of wars, injustices, or more often just my own everyday relational challenges, that he spurs me on to strive in his strength for peace.

War and conflict only serve to make me more determined to pursue the way of peace.

Some of the more ‘religious’ Christmas cards remind us that one of the names given to Jesus by his followers over the years is ‘Prince of Peace’, and he calls his followers to be like him:

Blessed are the peacemakers (yes, that’s right, peacemakers, not cheese-makers, you Python fans) – for they shall be called children of God”, explains Jesus in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Wars do not make one great; rather, making and promoting peace reflects the great heart of God.

This Christmas, next year and every year, maybe together, in our own little ways, you and I can help restore peace and justice to the galaxy.

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[1] Gospel of Matthew: chapters 5-7: worth a read!

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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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The Fallout of Fallen Leaders

This is not the kind of subject I normally tackle, but this particular story has moved me more than most of the high-profile cases of sexual offenders that have hit the headlines in recent years, because of my (indirect) personal knowledge of the perpetrator:

“Retired bishop Peter Ball – who has been jailed for 32 months after admitting abusing 18 young men across 20 years – was a sadistic sexual predator who groomed, controlled and abused his victims, one of whom ended up taking his own life.” (BBC News)

I never met Peter Ball but, as a young, new Christian in the late 1980s, I was a little awed by the descriptions I heard of the then Bishop of Lewes. In 1987, after returning to England having found Christian faith while living on the road, I started attending a church in Lewes, where people spoke admiringly of the way Ball would take young men under his wing, to learn and benefit from the monastic community way of life. It was even suggested that it might be something I’d consider.

Also around this time, I heard Adrian Plass speak, I read some of his books, and to this day I remain a fan of his writing and humour. Adrian, who had had been somewhat disillusioned with superficial aspects of Christianity, spent some time working with Peter Ball on the late-night religious programme Company and found Ball to be a breath of fresh air with his joyful, profound and yet down-to-earth spirituality.

“Whatever [Peter] touches seems to sparkle. He even makes me fizz a bit,” wrote Plass (who is not someone to be easily impressed or taken in by Christian showmanship or fakery) in 1986, in the autobiographical The Growing Up Pains of Adrian Plass.

For me, living and church-ing in Lewes in the late ‘80s, the name Peter Ball was held with deep affection and respect among the Anglican church community.

Although I never met the man, I felt like I almost knew him and felt sure I would have liked him and enjoyed learning from him.

So the news emerging this year about the long catalogue of sexual abuse by Ball towards 18 young men over 20 years (including this period in the ‘80s) comes as a massive shock. In fact, I was somewhat in disbelief until Ball admitted the charges.

When asked whether he’d come to terms with his vow of celibacy, Plass recounts in The Growing Up Pains (1986) that Ball looked at him for a moment, his eyes twinkling, and replied, “Adrian, as I’ve already told you, God loves me extravagantly. I’m not just a celibate. I’m an extravagant celibate!”

Questions arise within my mind, like:

Could this apparently deeply spiritual man with such a love for God really have been simply “using religion as a cloak behind which to carry out his grooming activity in order to satisfy his sexual interest and desire for young men,” as claimed by Det Ch Insp Carwyn Hughes, from Sussex Police?

Or was he a genuinely spiritual man blighted by a dark, hidden addiction that plagued his conscience?

Some would say it matters little either way; that his behaviour, abusing the trust of these young men, preying on the vulnerable, is without excuse. And that the former inaction by the Church of England, as with other institutions over previous decades, is intolerable. I can’t argue with either of those sentiments.

What I’m left with, though, is a sense of incredulity; a need to understand.

And I’m left with questions and thoughts about how revelations like these impact on young people and others pursuing faith and spirituality today and in the future. Will they, and should they, treat all church leaders with suspicion and cynicism?

“Don’t follow leaders,” sang Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues. Is he right, perhaps?

My own conversion to Christ took place in isolation from church or institution. There were Christian people along the way, like the painter / decorator Ray Galloway in Portland, Oregon, who influenced me and played a part in my move from atheism to faith in God. But it was primarily a revolution that took place between me and God. My experiences out on the road and my inner thought processes left me convinced that there was a God who created the Universe and cared for me. I never attended church during that period, until after my conversion.

In fact, all the significant transformational moments in my life have taken place in solitude, rather than in church or through the means of leaders. I guess that’s the way my personality works. It doesn’t mean I’m any better or worse than someone else who tends to grow in their spiritual life through the influence of others, but it does have its advantages.

It means that my faith in Jesus doesn’t tend to be dampened by the inevitable disillusionment that comes to probably every Christian when it comes to churches, religious systems and leaders.

After all, there will always be fallen idols, disgraced leaders and disagreements.

My hope and prayer for others budding in faith in Christ is that, however we’re made – whether introverts like me who have our big moments alone, or others who gain strength and growth through interactions with others – we would hold our estimation for leaders lightly, and keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on Jesus, who alone is found to be fully trustworthy. In fact, the Bible itself often counsels not to trust ultimately in people but in God alone.

Ironically, Plass describes Ball himself as the initiator of his understanding that “Christianity is not about systems and God but about individual people, and the relationship they build through raw, prolonged contact with a creator who is genuinely and warmly interested in them. Peter is a man who has real discipline, a real prayer life and a real joy. He is one of the small group of people I know who has gained his experience of God from God” (italics mine).

Whatever the truth about Ball, it seems that the impression gained, the lesson learned, by Adrian Plass is perfectly pertinent to these tragic revelations:

That there is absolutely no substitute for our own individual journey with God, for spending time alone with him, and growing directly in our own consciousness of his compassion and wisdom.

Leaders, systems and even theologies rise and fall, and we need that deep, personal, inner walk with Jesus that ultimately nothing can take away.

And as my heart goes out to those who tragically suffered the abuse of this bishop, I’m somewhat relieved that I never took up that suggestion of living with and learning from Peter Ball.

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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 Nuttall)

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Life, The Universe and Roses

“The Universe provided for me” said a friend to me the other day. “Hmm”, I thought, “how do I respond to this?” Because of course, being a budding writer and left-brain dominant (not that there is such a thing, really), I think in coherent phrases rather than just abstract concepts, but that’s not important….

What may or may not be important is that ‘The Universe’ has become a popular substitute for ‘God’ amongst those who have a spiritual sense of a greater power but have been turned off by religion’s portrayal of ‘God’. From the glimpses I’ve had of my kids’ TV viewing, the term is used a lot in US sitcoms, to the point where it may become as irritating as that most hated of expressions, ‘lol’ – and may one day be used with the same level of irony!

Does it matter what we call this higher power? When my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, does she mean the same thing as me when I talk about ‘God’?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, as is oft quoted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to illustrate that a name doesn’t change the nature of a thing.

But is the nature of ‘The Universe’ the same thing as the nature of the ‘God’ that I believe in?

The answer is, of course, yes…and no.

But while I leave that vague, ambiguous response hanging in the air for you to ponder, here’s a thing….

How ‘God’ is viewed varies even amongst my fellow Christians (let alone wider monotheists such as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc). My understanding of him will inevitably vary from that of another Christian, because of differences in personality, life experiences and spiritual encounters.

No wonder many Christians find it important to keep coming back to, and meditate on, the key ways and names by which we believe God has revealed himself. After all, ‘God’ is not really a name but a generic word for a higher power, and for some people it might conjure up images of a distant, dictatorial deity or something worse.

You may know I hate the triteness of 3-point sermons, so sue me or forgive me as I offer 3 popular revelations of God, because I think they just stand out above all others….

Here’s the first. I’ve blogged before (in Mindfulness: More Than Fringe Benefits) about the sheer wonder of the name YHWH (or ‘Yahweh’, meaning ‘I Am’) – the mind-blowing name by which God identifies himself to Moses in that uber-iconic moment at the burning bush. From the start of Judeo-Christian history, I believe God reveals himself to be outside of time, not dependent on anything or anyone, the source of all things, unchanging, transcendent, mysterious, beyond human labels and religions.

‘I Am’, he whispers to the world.

And I guess that many have a similar view of ‘The Universe’.

I find it curious, disheartening even, that most English Bibles translate YHWH as ‘The LORD’ (in capitals like that), rather than as the profound ‘Yahweh’ or ‘I Am’. Perhaps Bible translators are trying to emphasise his authority, despite the fact that YHWH implies source and giver of life, rather than boss.

As life-giver rather than despot, the Jewish prophets unswervingly unveil YHWH as the true God who is ever keen to distinguish himself from the surrounding pagan gods known as ‘Baals’, meaning ‘masters’, instead expressing his passion to be something far better than boss – not to lord it over us, but to be husband, father, mother, friend, provider, source of life, longing to sweep us into his arms, into a relationship too unique and sublime to be adequately defined by human analogy.…’more intimate than lovers’, as the song What A Friend I’ve Found by Delirious? poignantly puts it.

Fast forwarding to one of the last letters of the New Testament, we come across Jesus’ closest friend, John, mentioning, almost in passing:

God is love…

Three simple words.

One of the Bible’s most amazing sweeping statements. It was almost a throwaway comment. As if we were meant to know. As if it’s been obvious all the time.

According to Jesus’ best friend, the source of all things, Yahweh, is Love.

Love brought this universe and you and me into being.

There was a brief time in my life when I believed the universe was a dream of itself. It was an idea I’d picked up somewhere. Now I believe that God (Yahweh) fills every subatomic particle of – but cannot be confined to – the universe.

But what might really distinguish me from those who see The Universe as their deity is the third and final astounding assertion about God that I believe: the claim that ultimately we understand the nature of God by looking at the person of Jesus.

The Jesus who sat with sex workers, stood with the street people, moved with the marginalised, and who hated hypocrisy or religious play-acting. The Jesus who was willing to give up everything in love for those in spiritual poverty like you and me.

Jesus – the name which means ‘rescuer’, because he rescues us (who are both victims and perpetrators) from both our sins and our hurts.

‘I Am’, ‘Love’, ‘Jesus’: three names that, for me at least, go a long way to understanding the nature of the God who is beyond human definition.

Despite these confident claims held in common by all Christians, we still have somewhat different perceptions of God at times, so it’s little wonder that there are also times when I find my understanding of the love and compassion and inclusiveness of God bears more similarity to the beliefs of those who speak not of God but of ‘The Universe’ or some other spirituality.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But there’s another famous saying about roses: “A rose is a rose is a rose”.

It’s based on the line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”

– from Gertrude Stein’s poem Sacred Emily, written in 1913.

Despite this often being taken to mean the same thing as the Bard’s “A rose by any other name…”, when asked what she meant by the line, Stein said that in the time of Homer, or of Chaucer, “the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there.” As memory took it over, the thing lost its identity, and she was trying to recover that – “I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

So there’s a poetic, philosophical and even prophetic significance to names. I guess that’s why we Christians love to speak the name of Jesus when we talk about God. “There is power in the name of Jesus”, as the song goes.

And, by Stein’s reasoning, I think we Christians seriously need to re-discover the breath-taking significance of the name YHWH.

But to return to the question, does that mean that when my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, she means something different from me when I speak about ‘God’? Only further conversation with her, which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have, might elucidate that answer. Even then, I suspect (in fact, I know) that God, the Universe or YHWH, is far too big and transcendent to be defined by her or me.

I’m hoping that I’ve left you with more questions than answers. Because questions have a way of leading us into an awareness and awe of the mystery and love that is truth, which I understand as God.

What I’m sure of is that my friend and I will both continue to stop and smell the roses that have been given life by YHWH (or The Universe), and will agree on their sweetness.

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate

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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)

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MAKING (MYTHS ABOUT) POVERTY HISTORY

Poverty is big TV these days. Benefits by the Sea, On Benefits & Proud, for example. And it’s not just these so-called ‘poverty porn’ documentaries. It’s also the constant stream of news and other media debating the exponential rise of food banks and the effects of Government policy, driving too many people to the breadline and beyond.

MythCo-written by Martin Charlesworth and our very own Hastings local Natalie Williams (both working for an organisation called Jubilee+), The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is a short, insightful book that highlights the media’s pervasive use of lazy, toxic stereotyping of poverty and its influence on the British public’s attitudes to poverty.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, in my view, deserves to become a modern classic.

Despite having worked with homeless people for the last 11 years and thinking I’m pretty understanding and empathic when it comes to poverty, there were some real lightbulb moments as I read this book.

So, I decided to write this little blog piece as a book review and recommendation, for all my friends, colleagues, and anyone else willing to receive a wise education – with no guilt trips attached – in attitudes towards British (or even western) poverty.

In The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, Natalie Williams reports on a survey she conducted in 2014, in which she analysed nearly 400 media items (including reports, features, comment pieces, letters and cartoons) related to poverty in Britain, appearing in 10 major (and varied) news sources over a 4-week period.

Her analysis of the findings revealed two particular concerns: a generally negative media bias against those in poverty – unsurprisingly more extreme in certain news sources (such as the Daily Mail and The Sun) than others; and a widespread lack of views and comments directly from those in poverty themselves; both concerns creating an ‘us and them’ mentality amongst the public, or as one journalist described it, a “gradual erosion of empathy” where poor people are regarded as “an entirely different species” and “instead of being disgusted by poverty , we are disgusted by poor people themselves”.*

The authors also report on another survey they undertook in 2014 involving 419 people, comparing attitudes of Christians with those of the general public towards poverty. Although there was evidence of greater sympathy and awareness amongst Christians surveyed, the authors were more interested to discover the principal influences on Christians’ attitudes towards poverty.

Political preferences were, perhaps unsurprisingly, found to be intrinsically linked to attitudes. Broadly speaking, those who identify with the Conservatives were found to demonstrate less sympathy than those with other or no political affiliation.

Also not too surprisingly – but pertinently – was the correlation found between attitudes and proximity to poverty. In other words, those who worked with or lived amongst people in poverty demonstrated greater empathy, while those who were physically detached showed less understanding.

Of greater concern, perhaps, was the link found between attitudes towards poverty and choice of newspaper read by Christian respondents.

For example, fewer regular readers of the Daily Mail (36%) and The Telegraph (39%) agreed that large income gaps between the rich and poor are ‘morally wrong’, than those who regularly read the Daily Mirror (73%) or The Guardian (65%).

Similarly, 36% of Daily Mail readers believe the level of help available from the State is not enough, causing hardship, compared with 80% of Daily Mirror readers.

Charlesworth and Williams point out that, for Christians, there are (inevitably) factors other than our faith that will influence our attitudes and beliefs about poverty, and effectively apply some guiding principles from the teachings and examples of Jesus and other Biblical sources to current media coverage of British poverty.

Very helpfully, the authors describe and define 4 distinct elements to poverty:

  • Economic
  • Aspirational
  • Relational
  • Spiritual

An example from one of the TV programmes (Breadline Kids, 2014) which would instinctively elicit empathy and compassion from most viewers is juxtaposed with the example of someone who says they’d rather live on benefits because they’re better off that way and that they can get a bigger house by having more kids.

The authors make the case that our lack of compassion for the latter example misses the point that this person is also in a type of poverty – aspirational and spiritual – and that generally adults in this kind of poverty have been raised in poverty and may be unable to see any other way. Not that this means that handouts are necessarily the answer, but it does mean that as a society we need to recognise and understand patterns of poverty and be willing to extend the appropriate kind of help, rather than label some as ‘deserving’ and others as ‘undeserving’ of help.

On the subject of aspirational and spiritual poverty, let me illustrate this with a snapshot from my own life…

In my forthcoming book (I say forthcoming – I mean in about 20 years, when I have time to write it), I’ll be describing spiritual and relational homelessness. I didn’t grow up in any kind of material poverty – far from it – but I did grow up in a very unhappy house that never felt like home and so for this and other reasons I chose homelessness as a way of life.

Although I wasn’t forced on to the streets as many of my homeless clients have been, my physical homelessness was a direct consequence of a relational poverty (dysfunctional family) and spiritual homelessness (my total insecurity and atheism).

I experienced aspirational poverty, in that the ‘rat race’ or pursuing a career was, to me, completely futile, so I flunked exams. My only aim was to live as an itinerant, pursuing self-seeking experiences.

When I found a spiritual home (through coming to faith in Jesus), all of that was changed in an instant. My hedonistic pursuit of sex, drugs and travel, and the sense of futility I felt in ‘normal’ life, was replaced by an inner drive to use what I had usefully to help others in some way, which led me into a career in nursing and eventually to working as a nurse with homeless people, as I do now.

Once my spiritual poverty was resolved, my aspirational poverty was also overturned. This in turn brought an end to my (previously chosen) economic poverty. So, in my case at least, spiritual and relational poverty was the root of other kinds of poverty.

More on that in my ‘imminent’ book….! But back to a book that has been written

One final comment, and this is an observation, not a criticism. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is written by Christians, from a Biblical viewpoint, to challenge and inform the attitudes of other Christians.

I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues who have a different worldview, yet I don’t know how accessible The Myth of the Undeserving Poor with its distinctly ‘religious’ angle, laced with Bible references, would be for them.

I would love to see a later edition of the book aimed at a wider readership, more designed to challenge prejudices and myths in the wider British public rather than specifically UK Christians, while still maintaining its Christian basis.

That said, there would still be much for people without a Christian persuasion to relate to in this first edition, and I hope they’ll give this a shot. Furthermore, this informative book could serve to break down some prejudices and misunderstandings about Christianity as well as poverty.

The research findings and myth-busting covered by The Myth of the Undeserving Poor are relevant and important reading for people of any or no faith living in 21st Century Britain.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is available from Amazon UK for £7.00

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

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* Moore, S. (2012) ‘Instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves’, The Guardian.

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