Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bridges Across The Great Divide: A Christian Response to #Brexit

In light of recent events, I feel it would be remiss of me not to make some form of comment on Britain's decision to #Brexit - that is, to leave the European Union.

First of all, for the record I am one of the 48% who voted to remain within the European Union and I spent a lot of time researching my decision and campaigning with its merits, having weighed them against the perceived costs.  I won't bore you with all that detail here, because as things stand what's done is done and whether you voted one way or the other... we have to face the future together.  Suffice it to say I felt both shock and deep grievance over Britain's decision to come out and have my own deeply held concerns about where this road may lead us.

But I'm not writing to whine about that here and now - perhaps if people feel like responding in the comments, I may go into more detail there.  My principle aim in this blog entry is to look at where we are at now... and talk about how British Christians have a unique perspective, opportunity and sacred duty to help our fellow citizens in the coming days, years and months.

So let's look at the lay of the land at the moment - the state of the union.  Weeks of bitter campaigning have rocked families, friendships and relationships up and down the country.  I've even become embroiled in a few regretful tussles myself. The endless stream of charts show us that most of England and Wales are at odds with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that divides are not just limited to the geographical but extend to rich versus poor, old versus young and left versus right.

The United Kingdom is very much shaken.... and that's where we need to come in.

During the Scottish referendum, I felt that God laid a scripture on my heart and as polling day loomed, the same passage came to me again... even clearer:

"Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe"
Hebrews 12:28
Paul's letter to the Philippians assures us that we are citizens of heaven and we therefore have an identity that is not founded on the temporal confines of an earthly nation. That's not to say that we are any less patriotic about our nation... but it is to say that our British identity is defined by our Christian identity - and not the other way around.

How can this help other people in the country who are not Christians? Well, whilst Britain may be shaking, we don't have to shake with it. As the psalmist wrote we should turn our eyes to the mountains and remind ourselves that our help comes from - the Lord God.  The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life "under the sun" is full of futility... all things come and go in cycles and have their beginning and end. However if we remember our creator we have a perspective that sees us through that futility - we live life "above the sun" or perhaps we should say "under the Son and not under the sun".

If we live in the unity of our belief we can be a shining example to people who are broken and grieving in the current political situation. As Christ's ambassadors we also need to open our spiritual doors to non Christians. Our hearts and homes must be places where we offer welcome and refuge and a friendly ear to people who have not come to terms with where the country is at (even if we have not ourselves). This may very well become more and more important as time goes on, if the country goes down a road we like even less.

Beyond prayer for our nation and its people, we have a part to play in God's service. So let's pick ourselves up, refresh our spirits with the common identity and  greater truths we find in Christ... and ready ourselves for the spiritual work ahead.

Thoughts for further (respectful) discussion:
  • How do you feel about Britain's exit from the European Union
  • How can Christian's serve God in its wake?
  • Would *you* like prayer with regard to anything that has come out of the result?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Feeling "Lent" Upon

As you may or may not have noticed, we are now firmly in midst of yet another gripping season of Lent.

People often assume that Lent is about giving something up, but actually the act of abstinence in itself isn't at the heart of what those of us who are Christians, do.  Interestingly a poignant and relevant bible verse cropped up twice yesterday, in two different church services I attended. It was  from the psalms:
"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise."
Psalm 51:16-17
The first service I attended, I was responsible for the morning's prayers and felt compelled to use the words in my petitions. In the second service of the morning, the rector of the church used the phrase in his sermon. In my mind it perfectly encapsulates what Christians should be aiming towards during Lent (and indeed in a macrocosm of this, throughout our entire lives on Earth as well). It isn't about taking a break from something naughty. It isn't about refraining from something we like. It's about taking part in a regular, committed activity that draws us nearer to God. It is the personal cost and commitment that are important, not the action. The former is the purpose is the driving force, the personal cost involved is the fuel... the actual act is merely the vehicle that transports us there.

Not being a creature of many traditional vices, I have often struggled to come up with something I felt able to commit to in terms of giving something up. This year, I opted to commit to spending at least an hour every night in a state of personal lockdown. Simply put, at as close to 6pm every night since Ash Wednesday (or as close as I can get to it, where practicable), I have shut my door, stuck some Christian music on and just put myself in God's presence for an hour. Sometimes I nod off; sometimes I prefer to choose silence over music; sometimes I try to finish a theology book I've been reading and I also try to read scripture and pray as I feel led. The format differs periodically, but whatever happens to me in that slot, is purposefully and intentionally pointing towards the presence of God.

Not that I'm boasting... far from it!

You see all that writing was just some preamble before I talk about what is really on my heart for this post... namely, the matter of when God himself seems to raise the ante.

Please excuse me for one moment if I talk somewhat vaguely on a personal matter:

I have been quite encouraged of late by some personal turns in circumstances and have been investing time, thought and energy on what may easily be a fools errand. Then, all of a sudden... just before Lent, any ideas I may have had were frustrated... that's not to say they were derailed... just that no opportunities have arisen for me to do *anything* in regard to them.

The thought has occurred to me that maybe this is not mere coincidence. I find myself asking, "What if God has decided that this is the thing *He* actually desired me to lay on the altar during Lent?" This thought is somewhat reinforced by the fact that praying over the way I felt about the matter and committing those feelings to God just prior to Lent, seems to have been the catalyst.

It's incredibly frustrating but it is very much in line with some of the things you see God doing in scripture with notable characters. Just when things seem to be turning around for a character, God throws a curve ball. Think of Abraham who after receiving a son, is seemingly called upon by God to sacrifice him... even though he is his true heir and a child of promise.  Or think of Josiah who after rejecting the ways of his fathers, embraces the worship of the one, true God... only to discover that the same God who called him to righteousness had now revealed just how far His people had fallen, just how hard the journey back into the light was going to be and that there were no shortcuts... and had then in the narrative basically challenged the new king along the lines of "Are you *really* still up for this? Your move."

Those are just two examples, but there are others. The amazing thing about these men of God, is that when God pulled the plank from under them... they didn't back down and they didn't turn away - Abraham solemnly obeyed but was delivered; Josiah tore his robes and pressed on with the reforms.

And of course these point to the greater, ultimate truth of the sacrifice Jesus Christ himself carried out in the Garden of Gethsemane.

When you are faced with such circumstances, you basically have only a few limited choices. You can stomp your feet about and yell until you get your own way (but you probably won't get anywhere, and you might not find what you wanted is all you hoped if you do - again look at Israel's demands for a king, and God's response). You can passively accept things as they have been and continue to swim against the tide and hope for a lucky break. You can lose faith in what you have already attained and walk away from all God's providence and promises.

I don't think any of these responses are correct. I don't believe God wants us to abandon hope or rob us of it any more than he wants us to try and impatiently snatch it out of his hands. I believe he wants us to surrender our hopes to Him and to entrust them to Him.

Abraham had to trust that God would somehow allow Isaac to walk away from Mount Moriah; Josiah had to trust that God would guide him and strengthen him as he reformed his nation. Jesus had to trust that in obeying his Father's will, and paying our ransom through his sacrifice, that he would be raised to new life.

In my case I have to trust that in surrendering my ideas and intentions to God, that he will give them back to me in a meaningful way that is pleasing to Him, when the relevant time is accomplished. I have resolved not to try and engineer any circumstances for opportunity myself in my personal situation until Lent ends. There may well be natural opportunities that arise, but I have committed to not explore them fully in my favour until that time, or unless God himself turns things around.

In all cases, this is hard. The flesh (the sinful aspect of our human nature), tells us there are no guarantees... that is the cost of the sacrifice and the journey. However, the Spirit  and scripture say:
"And we know [with great confidence] that God [who is deeply concerned about us] causes all things to work together [as a plan] for good for those who love God, to those who are called according to His plan and purpose."
Romans 8:28 (AMP)
It is this knowledge... this belief, that sustains us through our sacrifices - this and the knowledge that we have One at the Father's side who endured the greatest sacrifice and is able to show sympathy and empathy to our situation through the Spirit.

It can be a hard thing to know and accept that God is sovereign... that He is the potter and we are the clay, but at the same time, that same knowledge is at least equally reassuring.

The question we have to ask ourselves when the time comes, is are we prepared to trust our faith in the One we serve, or let our feelings about our circumstance overwhelm and dominate our actions.

For further contemplation and response:

  • Have you felt leaned upon, this Lent? What are your experiences?
  • What do you think of personally when you consider the idea and theme of "sacrifice"?
  • How does the idea of God being "deeply concerned about us", help you when He asks you to make a personal sacrifice?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Forces Awaken

I'm very excited.

We are so very near to two big events in the calendar - one secular, the other religious. The first is the release of the new Star Wars film this week (I've got my tickets for a 3D showing on Wednesday (going solo... Han Solo), and a 2D showing with friends on Thursday. Here's a fan re-edit and mash up of the trailers:
The second of course is Christmas... the time of year when Christians like me celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the new hope that the law and prophets spoke of in the Old Testament.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what links these two very different events personally, in my own mind. I've found it very interesting and poignant that all through the promotional months we have seen precious little of the main protagonist of the original trilogy - Luke Skywalker.  Fans have been getting very anxious about it, some are worried it means that Luke has turned to the dark side, others think he won't be in it much at all... still others have come up with the (crazy) idea that Adam Driver's character (Kylo Ren), is actually Luke and the casting of Driver is all part of some big conspiracy. I share the anxiety but not the fear. We've all become hung up on the question of "Where is Luke Skywalker"?

However, I keep going back to what J.J. Abrams said about accepting the job of director for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. He said that originally he was not going to take the job on, but then he was told the synopsis by Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy. It was a single question - "Who is Luke Skywalker?" That single concept turned him around 180 degrees... and he was on board from that moment on. He has since been quoted in interview as saying:
“The idea that Luke Skywalker now, nearly 40 years after the movie came out, I started thinking he would be as good as of a myth to people who are 19, 20 years old. The idea of a new group of young people, not knowing who he is or who any of the characters were, is the beginning of what became the story of the film.”
And there in a nutshell is what for me is connecting the release of the new Star Wars, with Christmas. Let me adapt that Abrams quote and alter the subject... because I actually think it says something quite important about the subject of faith:
“The idea that Jesus Christ now, nearly 2,000 years after his public ministry, I started thinking he would be as good as of a myth to people who are 19, 20 years old. The idea of a new group of young people, not knowing who he is or who any of the characters were, is the beginning of what became the story of the film.”
You see therein lies the heart of the matter.  As Christians we get so hung up about demanding "Where is Jesus?" in the festive celebrations... but that's defensive and about fearing what we care about will be ignored by others.  True evangelism isn't driven by the fear of rejection... it's driven mutually by the love of the subject  and the love of the uninformed audience. We actually need to move the question on.  We need the question to be "Who is Jesus Christ?".

One of the main trailers for the Force Awakens has a line of dialogue between Rey and Han Solo, it literally made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Rey is talking to Han about the history of the Rebel Alliance and mentions that there are stories about what happened. Han's response is brief and to the point:
"It's true. All of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi. They're real."
That it is Han Solo who speaks this way of the Force is deeply significant; after all in the first movie he appears in, his view on the Force is very different, telling the young Luke Skywalker:
"Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen *anything* to make me believe that there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything. 'Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."
That's quite some turn around.

It may well be that Han's concept of the personal significance of the Force isn't much different, but for him to have come forward as a kind of reluctant evangelist and state "it's real", is immensely powerful.

The changing views of Han Solo
For the record, I'm not saying in any way that Jesus is a myth... I'm saying quite the opposite. I'm merely saying that if we want to stop people seeing Jesus as a myth, we need to move on from repeating stories to them that they already know (when they know them), and show the reality of Christ in how we live.

Often people get hung up on dressing Christianity up, be it with the bells and smells of tradition or an explosive light show that would put even Michael Bay to shame; but actually if we took a step back we'd see the simplicity.  It all boils down to conviction - a person or a group of people stepping forward and demonstrating with sincerity that it happened... that Jesus was, is and always shall be real and has had a tangible presence in their life.

Han Solo is not a Jedi... in fact he was (and almost certainly still is), a bit of a rogue. He can't levitate X Wing fighters and furniture and he can't perform mind tricks... but what he can do is be honest about his loyalties and the things he has seen.  I think what I'm saying is that for Christians, it doesn't matter how the Holy Spirit has gifted us in relation to things like prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, leading, teaching and the like... we might think we are fairly lacking in any or all of those areas, but God still speaks through our everyday lives and we should not underestimate the power, relevance and importance of our own day-to-day testimony. It's because Han Solo has known Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance that he is able to speak with total conviction about their reality. Likewise because we have known the presence of Jesus in our own lives we too can speak of him with conviction:

"It's true. All of it. The sinful nature, the Saviour. They're real." 

Over to you:
  • What excites or worries you most about the forthcoming Star Wars film?
  • What excites or worries you about Christmas?
  • Is Christmas true for you? All of it? Is it real?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Unmercifully Blessed

In recent days I've found myself thinking about and re-exploring  the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. It's a story of Jesus that only appears in one gospel (Matthew), it features a man who having a great debt faces terrible punishment. at the last minute his master has a change of heart and mercifully forgives the debt. Shortly after this, the servant tracks sown another man who owes the master a debt and threatens him with the same punishment he narrowly avoided, when the master hears about this... he reverses his decision and comes down on the unmerciful servant like a tonne of bricks.

In hindsight, the point of the story post Jesus death, resurrection and ascension is quite clear to us because those of us who are Christians recognise that in Christ, God forgave each and every one of us an unpayable debt, and therefore we accept the importance of forgiving others their own sins, however manifold.

However, I believe that the parable has applications beyond the obvious.

Why do we always assume that this attitude only applies to God's grace in respect of the bad things he has forgiven us? I put it to you that in fact, this applies equally to God's providence - the good things he gives us. When God blesses us, should we not equally acknowledge that we also don't deserve the good things he gives us. When we see people who have not been so fortunate or have yet to experience blessing in a particular way, should we not be merciful to them? Should we not remember what it was like to manage day by day before God blessed us? Should we not recognise in others, the difficulties and trials we may once have walked with and escaped, or may have completely avoided simply because God chose to bless us in a particular way?

The most obvious, stand-out example for me is the concept of marriage and the family. Time and time again I see people move into family life (with or without children), and they go through a personality change. I'm not talking about the increase of responsibilities and the change in priorities - these are natural. What I'm talking about is a personality swap that seems to occur. Where once you could joke around with your friends, the humour is lost and actually becomes offensive to the point they feel feel they have to defend one another. These are just the first few subtle cracks of an invisible chasm that begins to widen as time goes by, one that begins to create two tiers within the church... haves and have nots; one that has led to the idolatrous worship of the family unit within the Church... where those who do not meet the criteria are seen as eccentric lepers who we find discomfort in being around, whose presence embarrasses us and who we don't like to talk about because they have become so foreign to us.

In some ways, attitudes like this remind me of the final scene in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers:

It may sound ridiculous, but sometimes it really does seem sometimes like you can strike up a conversation with someone you once knew following a positive change of circumstances... and they just react as if you are some kind of aberration, foreigner or alien. The idea that your friends have become replaced by pod people is laughable... but the feelings associated with it are also not very nice.

There's another parable that Jesus told (this time in Luke's gospel), it's the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this tale, a man who has been abundantly blessed with the things of this world remains blissfully unaware of a poor man named Lazarus who can only hope that leftovers might come his way.  However when both men die, the situation is reversed and Lazarus enjoys the company of Abraham in heaven, whilst the rich man longs for drops of water to cool his tongue from the heat of Hades. Isn't it telling that Jesus doesn't even bother to give the rich man a name? Because of their attitudes, the rich man is temporal and Lazarus is eternal. It is a tale of two chasms - the lateral and eventually... the vertical.

This then is another take on the temptation to be unmerciful. Had the rich man remembered where his blessings came from, had he been mindful of Lazarus... he could have a voided his fate.

So in conclusion then, what am I saying? Am I suggesting that if you are married with kids, you've had your lot in life and if you forget your single friends you are in danger of hellfire? No, of course not. I was merely using the paradigm between the married and the single as an example as it is the one that is most prevalent and relevant to me (and I should add that it isn't even universally true... I am blessed with several groups of married friends who treat me well).

No this isn't my point at all. My point is simply this... that each and every one of us has an obligation to recognise the manifold ways that God has blessed us... and not hoard it from or lord it over the people around us. there must be no ivory towers in God's kingdom.

Let it not be said of us that we are "unmercifully blessed". Instead, let us seek ways of  using our blessings to raise others up. Let us use what God has given us to bless others.

I'd like to finish with a quote from Ridley Scott's take on Robin Hood. I think it sums up in many ways the kind of attitude we should have with regard to the undeserved providence we may find ourselves the beneficiary of:

"We can't repay our good luck with bad grace, it invites darkness."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paul's Prayer for a Deeper Experience of Christ

At present, the churches in Alcester Minster are doing a series on St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Last week, Adrian Guthrie preached on the reconciliation that comes through Christ as explored in the previous chapter of Paul's letter; on how Christians are being built together as one body to create a single nation, family, building and entity in which God dwells by his Holy Spirit; and how the need for reconciliation with God and one another is as relevant to our minster church, as it was for the Ephesians almost 2,000 years ago.
In this morning's passage, Paul writes that he is moved to prayer for the Ephesians. I find it interesting that Paul chooses to include his prayer into this part of his letter. It's a little counter intuitive to our sense of order. In the modern world, we are quite used to having set moments for prayer... We begin and end meetings with prayer and we have special slots in our services for our prayers of supplication, but here... Paul just stops in mid sentence and drops to his knees in prayer, before carrying on in the letter.

I think for Paul, prayer was as much a part of the conversation as the rest of his dialogue... and if the Holy Spirit tapped him on the shoulder in the midst of what he was doing, then engaged God in prayer with regard to whatever was on his heart. This morning I'd like to explore three questions with regards to Paul's prayer for the Ephesians... and demonstrate why it is so important to us in developing as spiritually well rounded individuals, as An effectively functioning and growing minster, and as a true family of Christian brothers and sisters in the universal Church. I'll be looking at what things Paul prayed for; why Paul prayed for those things, and why Paul was confident
in his prayers for those things.

So what exactly did Paul pray for?
Verse 15 tells us that Paul prayed for the Ephesians for the following things:
1. That they may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in their inner beings
2. That they may have power together with all the Lord's holy people.
On the surface that looks like he's asked God for the same thing, the same power twice, but I don't think that's the case. You see, in the first instance Paul has asked that the Ephesians are filled inwardly as individuals. In the second instance God has asked that they be filled with power together with all God's people as a collective. Paul is stressing the need for God to play an active role in both our personal lives and public fellowship.
3. That they may know Christ's love that surpasses knowledge...
That seems a bit odd too, doesn't it? If something surpasses knowledge... How can we know it? Isn't that a paradox?

I don't believe it is a paradox. Knowledge of the facts is one thing, but living in the truth of those facts is quite different. Reading a book about Michelangelo will tell you a lot of information about what the composition of his work. But it won't tell you what it feels like to stand in the Sistine chapel and take in all the sights, sounds and smells.
You can know what the concept of love is, but that's not the same as knowing the love of another person.

To know something in a way that surpasses knowledge requires that we connect with the subject of our knowledge and let that take us on a journey. Here on Earth we cannot fully know God... he's too big...
But we can know what it is like to live in the fullness of God.

The second question I wanted to ask, was why did Paul pray for the Ephesians.

Well he prayed that they would be strengthened inwardly, so that Christ would dwell in their hearts through faith. The more time we make for God in our lives through prayer and meditation, reading the Bible and through fellowship with one another), the more our gaze is turned towards him and the stronger our relationship with him grows. Paul wants us to put our roots down deeply... as he words it, to be established in love.
This flows into the next reason that Paul prayed his prayer because the more deeply rooted in God we are as individuals, the more that benefits the Church.

Paul also prayed because he wanted the Church to truly understand how much Christ loves it.

When we see God at work in one life... be it our own, or another person's... it is invigorating and life changing. But when people see God at work in the life of a church or a community... that's when renewal or even revival happens!

As an example, did you know that there is a type of heat resistant grass that thrives in volcanic soil? However it can only do this because of a fungus that lives on it, that protects it. But scientists have discovered that the fungus itself can only survive because it too has a heat resistant virus living inside of it.
In this respect, God is like the virus, we are like the fungus and the church is like the grass. The more we experience God personally and the more we share God in fellowship with one another, the more the church thrives.

"Panic grass" grows in the geothermal soils of Yellowstone Park in America. It can only do this because of the protection afforded to it by a fungus, which in turn is protected by a virus. This to me illustrates how the Holy Spirit strengthens individuals in a hostile environment, and how a fellowship of these Spirit filled individuals in turn generate the right conditions for renewal and revival.
The third reason Paul prayed the prayer is because he wanted his readers to be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

I was saying earlier about the difference between knowledge of a person and knowing a person on a personal level... and this here is what Paul reinforces - know God cram as much of him into your life as you can! Jesus said to the apostles in John's gospel that:
"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business.
Instead I have called you friends, for everything, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you."
 Paul is reminding us that this offer is extended to all who follow Jesus, not just his apostles. Some people get uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus being a friend... It seems disrespectful, but it is important to remember that Jesus being a friend to us, does not negate him being our master either. The difference is that Jesus is running a family business and not a faceless corporation.

Which brings us to the final question. Why was Paul confident in his prayer?
I believe the answer is because, knowing and experiencing God in his own life, in the ways we have explored this morning, he *knew* that God *is* able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.

I just love the magnitude of those words. Immeasurably - beyond our ability to calculate.
More than all we ask or imagine - beyond the scope of things we can even conceive.
God is limitless.
And the wonderful thing is that God's limitless power and resources aren't just something that he dispenses from on high, but verse 20 tells us that this power is at work within us.
His power is at work within us. What a privilege

And so if Ephesians 2 last week told us where we need to go in terms of Christ reconciling us to one another in the church, the minster and the communities we live in, then this morning essentially tells us how we are getting there.
I have to confess that this short passage is one of my favourite scriptures, and I often use it as a model for prayer when taking part in some kind of mission. Let me finish by praying these words:
Heavenly Father, this morning we pray that out of your glorious riches that you may strengthen us with power through your Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And we pray that we, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. 20 Now to you who are able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to your power that is at work within us, to you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!

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