Category Archives: spirituality

Generosity and Community

god52blog

This year I, along with many others, decided to throw myself into #God52,  A series of weekly challenges, instigated by Martin Saunders, aimed at shaking me out of my little bubble and getting closer to God, and others, in the process. Check it out here.

I was excited to take part. I was excited to see how God might break into my comfortable little world.

Then Martin delivered the first challenge: radical generosity and I got scared. I started thinking of all sorts of excuses that would prevent me from having to give my time or money to other people: I don’t have any time to help people; my wife has just had a new baby and that needs to be my focus; We just have enough money to get by and giving more would put us into the red.

That familiar little voice in my head danced and laughed as I slowly resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t complete this challenge (and probably not any of the others). I felt defeated. I’d fallen at the first hurdle.

What was it that scared me so much? Why was my first reaction to doubt myself and spend time creating excuses not to participate? I realised that generosity scared me because it required me to invest time in others.

I remember being struck a few years ago about a fresh interpretation of the beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

I’d always found that saying odd. Why should anyone be happy when they mourn?

But in order to mourn, you have to have been close to something. If you mourn over someone, it means you invested time in them; you chose to give something of yourself to them. You can only mourn if you’ve chosen to step out of your little world and engage with something bigger than yourself.

It’s the same with generosity. In order to be generous, I have to connect with others. I have to put my interests behind the interests of others.

So I resolve to be radically generous this week. I resolve to enter into the lives of others. I resolve to follow the example of the Triune God: an ever-giving, ever-loving community.

Will you?

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The Depths of Isolation: A Review of “Entrance”

“Entrance” is not for everyone. It is a low-budget horror movie that is literal definition of ‘slow burn’. Very little appears to happen in the movie for most of its running time. I know some people who will be bored to tears by it. Happily, I’m not one of them.

The film follows ‘Suziey’, a young twenty-something living in LA as she goes about her normal life. When she mysteriously loses her beloved dog, a creeping anxiety begins to set in and she decides shes had enough of L.A. But on the night of her going-away party, Suziey finds out that leaving might not be so easy.

The film ultimately speaks about lonliness and isolation and the extremes some people will go to have a ‘connection’ with someone. As a Christian, I believe we live in a fallen, fractured world. As a consequence of our own selfish choices, and the choices those before us have made, we live isolated from everything.

The story of ‘The Fall’ in Genesis represents many things. When ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ chose their own wisdom, rather than Gods’, a number of things happened. The ‘sin’ they committed fractured the relationships of everyone involved. The relationship between Adam and Eve broke down because they blamed each other for the mess they were now in. Both of them chose to hide from God and so the relationship between mankind and God was broken and the relationship between Adam and the ground was also fractured.

Alienation is at the heart of ‘The Fall’ narrative. When we choose sin, when we choose selfishness, we become isolated from ourselves, each other, God and creation. Most of the atrocities committed in this world can be attributed to this idea. In the Genesis story we see ourselves mirrored in the figures of Adam and Eve.

As human beings we long for connection. We need to be connected with other people. On a trip to Copenhagen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of a “Ubuntu“. It is a South African word meaning, “You are only a human through other humans …through your relations to other humans.”

Our humanity is defined solely by our relationships with others. When we are isolated, we become less than human. The gospel, as I see it, is about the reclaiming of our humanity. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we can enter into a new humanity. Through Jesus, the fractured relationships can be restored.

“Entrance” is about what happens when we people try to find that connection themselves. It is about the distorted ways people try to meet those needs. The film is a reminder of the consequences of our sin. It a reminder of the world that we have created through our actions. The film paints a bleak picture of humanity; a bleak picture of the modern city.

But there is another story. There is another city. A city where God dwells with his people. A city where everything has been renewed and restored.

Let us live as citizens of that city and tell others about it.

 

Advent and the Coming of The X-Factor

This morning I was reading Martin Saunders blog about “why life is too short to watch The X-Factor“. The X-Factor has become a staple on television sets all over the world and there are many complex reasons as to why people choose to watch it year after year (Martin has given a good overview of some of those reasons).

As I read the post it got me thinking about how TV programmes, like The X-factor,are replacing the common seasons of the church calendar and what this tells us about our culture.

For millennia, civilizations have used calendars to find a rhythm and flow to the year. Whether it be the calendar of the seasons in agriculture or the life of Jesus in the Christian religion, we all use calendars, and their significant dates, to find meaning and purpose in the year. Key dates help to remind us of our place in the world and to look forward to the future.

In the UK, we have largely followed the Christian calendar, with a few extras, for centuries. Advent prepares us for Christmas; New Years Eve helps us take stock of the last year and set our eyes on the coming year; Lent reminds us of our failures and the coming of new life and Easter allows us to celebrate the new hope we have in Christ. The Christian calendar has been the overarching story we have found ourselves in year after year but with shows like the X-Factor, I’m noticing a change in this trend.

Rather than following the environmental seasons or the landmarks in the Christian calendar, we now seem to be using TV shows as our gauge of where we are in the year. I’ve heard it said by several people that when The X-Factor starts you know that the countdown to Christmas has begun and for many the Christmas season officially starts when they see the Coca Cola “holidays are coming” advert. Now, I’m not necessarily saying that this a negative thing. Our Christian calendar is made up of a number of pagan festivals that Christianity subverted so it would be disingenuous to say that this is all bad news. A better response would be to see what this change means for our calendar and for our culture.

The seasonal calendar (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is used as a way of survival. It helps those working in agriculture to know when to sow and when to reap. The Jewish calendar reminds Jews of their story and their place in it. The Christian calendar follows a similar structure as it helps us enter into the story of Christ. But what does this new calendar offer us? What story does it tell?

The traditional calendars mentioned above create community. They give us space to experience the full spectrum of emotions. The new calendar, made up of The X-Factor, Britains Got Talent, Big Brother and the Coca Cola Advert also offer these but their foundation is built on consumerism and consumption. This new calendar has been created by corporations with one goal: to get us to spend money. Rather than inspiring and captivating us, the TV calendar restricts our imagination, forcing us to become vapid consumers. Instead of giving us space to to lament and remind us of our connection to the rest of the world, it forces us down the road of individualism.

We are better than this. There is a better story than this. Yes, we can  celebrate the fact that The X-Factor at its best brings people together and showcases new talent. But at its worst it turns us into mindless consumers who care more about who goes ‘out’ each week than our neighbour struggling next door.

If we allow this consumerist story to take centre stage of our year; if we allow it to define and control us then we lose the very essence of the core Christian calendar (and the other calendars before it)…

Ourselves.

That’s the Gospel? Really?

The 3rd post in an ongoing series about attending a “conservative led” church as a “liberal”.

I am really enjoying the liturgy in the Church of England we are attending. It’s something I found missing in other churches. For me, using liturgy helps me to find my role in the unfolding story of God. There is a flow and a rhythm to the service. We explicitly hear each week of the work that Jesus did in on the cross. It’s important to be reminded of that.

But it also leaves me asking the question, “is that all the gospel is?”

Each week we hear that we are sinful people, heading for hell but because of the cross we are rescued and get to go to heaven.

I’m not against that reading of the gospel. But I don’t think that serves up the whole picture of the gospel. I don’t think that covers everything that’s going on.

This reading reduces everything to a binary transaction. We are the problem, Jesus is the solution.

What of the creation narrative, the Abrahamic covenant, the mosaic covenant? What about the life of Jesus? What about our lives, right here, right now?

None of this matters if we hold to this basic view of the gospel.

Being a “liberal”, I don’t believe that the sole point of the gospel is for Jesus to rescue us from hell and take us to heaven. For me the gospel is the reconciliation of all things. It is freedom from oppression and injustice. It is longing for the Kingdom to come and for Gods will to be done on earth (Familiar words aren’t they?”

I believe that I am saved from something but also saved for something. I am to be a blessing to all people. I have to hold out and hold on to the living word. I care about this world, and its inhabitants, as I believe God cares about it.

The gospel is the proclamation that, through the Son, a new world order is breaking out in the midst of the old one. The gospel challenges us to be heaven bringers rather than heaven goers.

So yes, I believe that through the cross we have been ransomed, rescued and redeemed.

But that’s just part of the picture.

A liberal undercover

The 2nd post in an ongoing series about attending a “conservative led” church as a “liberal”.

read part 1 here

Last Sunday night, the minister concluded his sermon series on “the sermon on the mount” with ‘blessed are the persecuted…’ Although I disagreed at a fundamental level with his reading of the beatitudes (you can read more about my take on it here entitled “blessed are the truly f**ked up!”) I was challenged and inspired by what he said.

Ultimately his point was to say that if you live out the beatitudes, you will get persecuted and if you’re not being persecuted, then you’re not living out the beatitudes. During his sermon he attacked the rise of liberal theology and ‘liberals’ because they had diluted the gospel to such an extent that they are no longer being persecuted and if you’re no longer being persecuted, you’re no longer living the life that Jesus had intended.

I’m sure it’s not surprise to you that I had an issue with this. It’s a common attack on “liberals” by those that would consider themselves “conservative” and it’s one that does not hold up.

Let me get something straight. My theology is not liberal because I want to please the ‘world’. I’ve not chosen liberalism because I’m afraid of confrontation or judgement. Choosing liberal theology is not choosing the easy way out. And to be honest, I haven’t actually chosen ‘liberalism’ because I don’t believe these categories are choices. These are labels put on people by other people.

These labels are not helpful. They flatten nuanced theology and divide people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ camps. And that’s probably my biggest issue with the sermon on Sunday night. It made everything appear black and white. It made it appear that all believers can be lumped into one or two categories. Labels reduce people to statistics.

It’s easy to write off a whole group of people by labelling them conservative or liberal. Surely, the church is the one place where we shouldn’t be labelled.

In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul wrote these words:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In this statement, Paul called for the barriers between identity, position and gender to be torn down. We are ALL one in Christ Jesus. There is no “us” and “them”.

Writing this post, I do not feel that I am walking the easy path that the minister spoke of. I may not be persecuted by “the world” over certain issues but I do at times feel persecuted from within the church.

I hope that as we, my family and I, continue on this journey we will seek to break down these hurtful labels on both sides and see people for what they are: Humans loved by God.

 

 

 

A Step of Faith…

For those that have read any number of my posts, it is probably clear that I do not hold a conservative view when it comes to the Christian faith.

Now, I am not one for labels as I find there only use is to reduce and flatten people to a series of dogmatic statements. I would never define my theology as liberal because of that. I say it only so you can get a sense of where I am coming from. When I studied at bible college, the New Testament lecturer labelled me a heretic. It was good to see that in bible college there was an openness to dialogue and debate (that last sentence was sarcastic).

I’ll be honest and say that my last position, as youth worker for a conservative baptist church, was a difficult one. Many judgements about who I was because of what I believe were made.

We have since moved and as a family we have started attending a small anglican community church. A few weeks ago I went out to the pub with a few of the other folks from the church and through the various discussions, it became clear that the leadership of the church would be, what I term, conservative. Again, I want to be careful with that label.

This sent my mind racing. Can we be part of this church? What happens when I express my supposedly unorthodox views of sexuality, adam and eve, hell, atonement, swearing, horror movies etc? Will we be thrown out? Should we even bother building relationships with people who have such opposing views to ourselves?

We are still at the church.

After several discussions with my wife, it became clear that I was making the same errors in judgement that I felt some of the congregation of the Baptist Church had been guilty of. I was labelling people. And more than that, I was dismissing people because of these labels. I had flattened these people into a label.

I do not want to be that kind of person. I don’t want to be the kind of person who only hangs around with those who share a similar view point; who make judgements on someone because of the views they hold.

So I’m taking a step of faith. My family and I are taking a step of faith. We are going to invest in this church. We are going to seek truth together. We are going to fellowship with one another.

And I hope I can become more like Jesus in the process.

Losing My Identity

I watched the film ‘Humpday‘ this afternoon and it got me thinking.

“Humpday” is about two guys, who, high on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, decide to take part in an erotic art project and have sex with each other.

It’s a sweet indie film about friendship, marriage and the need to grow up. (I know it doesn’t sound like it)

As I said, I watched it this afternoon and it got me thinking.

The married guy tries to explain to his wife why this is a good idea. He tells her that there are many sides to him and that he doesn’t want marriage (and the prospect of being a dad) to flatten him into one personae. He’s scared about losing who he is.

I’ve been there.

I got married when I was 21. As the big day got closer, I went through a crisis of identity. I was worried that I wouldn’t be ‘me’ anymore. That I’d be known simply as a ‘husband’. That I would have to be with my wife 24/7 and I would lose my identity. I’m glad my (now) wife stuck by me and didn’t walk away from that insecure boy.

Eight years into marriage and I can look back and laugh at that naive boy. I haven’t lost who I am rather, I have added to that identity. I am now also  a husband and a father (although I did go through a smaller version of that crisis when our son was born).

That’s what committing to someone is about. It’s not about losing a part of you, it’s about gaining something else.

I am the man I am today because of my marriage. I think I am a better man for it.

I just wanted to share that.

“Alien” and the subjective reading of our faith

I watched “Alien” for the first time on Monday night. I really enjoyed it.

I had tried to watch it a few years ago but, from what I remember, it was pretty late and I got bored and decided to go to bed instead.

Our enjoyment of a film is entirely relative. It is based on a whole number of factors: time of day, how the day has been, how we’re feeling etc. The first time I attempted to watch “Alien” it was late and I was tired so I found the film boring. When I watched it this week, I didn’t find it boring. There is no objective way to watch “Alien”. It is based entirely on our subjective viewing of it.

There are many films that i can watch at one time or another and not enjoy, then watch it at another time and really enjoy.

I would argue that most of our life is based on our subjective readings. I don’t think that’s a new or radical idea. But I think to be aware of it, changes everything.

As a christian, my experience of God, the bible and faith in its entirety is subjective. I believe that God is an objective reality but I view God subjectively. The writers of the bible wrote subjectively about an objective God. We read the bible subjectively. We cannot read it objectively. Our reading of the bible is affected by how we are feeling that day, where we are born, our personality type etc etc.

Again, this is nothing new but I find it amazing how quickly many of us are to forget this.

The 5th commandment given to Moses on Sinai was:

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” or “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. A valid interpretation of the original hebrew would be “do not carry lightly the Lords name“.

When I was a child my view of God was affected by the boring church I was dragged to every Sunday morning and the boring talks of our school chaplain. They carried Gods name lightly. They told boring stories that bored all of us. Their theology may have been ‘right’ but it certainly was not captivating. As Christians, how we act and speak will influence the subjective viewing of God for others. 

As a church youth worker, I may be the only ‘voice’ of God to the young people I encounter. How I speak of God will influence their view of God. How I treat them will influence their view of God. How I “carry Gods name” will affect how they view God. That’s a big responsibility.

Now we can hope and trust that God will use others to speak subjectively about the objective reality of God but that only helps to cleanse our conscience. That’s a ‘get out jail’ free card to make us feel better. We are the church. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the walking embodiment of the Eucharist

How we carry the name of God, in word and actions, matter.

A Call to End Original Sin!

I finished reading Peter Enns, “The Evolution of Adam” and found it to be an engaging and persuasive argument for the end of a literal reading of Genesis 1-3.

In the book he gives two possible interpretations of the Adam story:

1) It was written as a response of the exile. It is the story of Israel and was a way of them understanding how they ended up in exile.

2) When read alongside Proverbs, the story is about the failure to fear God and attain wisdom. Rather then fear God, which is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10) they follow the advice of the snake and try to achieve wisdom without God. The Adam story is then a story for all of us as we make decisions each day. Do we follow God or someone else?

I was listening to an “Unbelievable?” podcast today where they were discussing “the fall” and “original sin”. As a consequence to not believing in a historical Adam, I then do not believe in the idea that we are all born depraved. I find the concept that we are all guilty because of what two people did to be incredibly unjust. Rather I believe that we are born with the potential to be good or depraved based on the decisions that we make.

I believe that the Adam story can be read in this way.

We are all born into a culture. A culture has been defined by some as “the deeper level of basic assumptions and beliefs that are shared by members of an organization, that operate unconsciously and define in a basic ‘taken for granted’ fashion an organization’s view of its self and its environment.”

Rather than seeing the serpent as ‘the devil”, I believe we can interpret it to be the voice of our culture. We can choose to follow the voices of our culture or we can choose to listen to God. Now, there are times where the voice of the culture echoes the voice of God but that will not always be the case and it is the work of each christian to develop maturity and wisdom by differentiating between the two voices.

What do you think? Does this alternative reading hold true?

Learning from your Enemies

Krish Kandiah has a blog post up about how Tom Wright ( N.T. Wright) is the christian equivalent of marmite.

In the article he raises this point:

“For some of my friends its all or nothing with the theologians they like. There’s a tick list – a writer needs to tick the boxes on a number of issues in order to have anything to contribute to a conversation.”

I think it’s a fair point. When I studied for my BA in Youth work with Applied Theology, there was a clear split between those who preferred Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll. As if somehow by liking one you automatically had to hate the other. It became very tribal.

People like to be part of a tribe and its very easy to have a tribal mentality. When someone attacks what you makes you ‘you’, it is in your best interest to fight it. You want to defend your beliefs as you feel its a personal attack against your identity.

For me though, I think its a little different. I can happily listen to those that I disagree with- to a point. I imagine its the same for most people. We all have buttons or ‘no go areas’. There are convictions that we hold that cannot be pushed and its not always necessarily to do with theology.

For instance I will have nothing to do with Mark Driscoll or Martin Luther. I will not read what they’ve written or take any time to listen to their views.

Why?

Because they both, in my opinion (and it is just an opinion) have a very abusive view of women. Martin Luther once said, “women are the gateway to hell”. Driscoll famously has said, and i paraphrase here, that since the husband is the head of the household, if he wants anal sex, he gets anal sex.

Those are worldviews that those men hold that I cannot get around and its not simply a case of removing those remarks when I come to look at them. I cannot come to a text of Driscolls or Luthers and ignore what they’ve said. Those remarks infect everything that they have to say. It is behind everything that they have to say.

Krish suggests that he can learn from any flawed person and I commend him for that. But I cannot do that.

Let’s imagine Hitler wrote some great literature. I could not sit down and read any of it without thinking “this man had over 6 million people killed”. I cannot just conclude that he’s a flawed human and get past his actions. They are what makes him. It is part of who he is.

Now I’m not comparing the actions of Driscoll or Luther to Hitler. But…if we believe, as many say, that all sin is the same and that sin by its definition is anything that causes a breakdown in relationship with either ourselves, others or God then maybe its perfectly acceptable to do so.

So, over to you. Does any of this make sense? Do you think this is helpful or is there some way of getting past your convictions in order to learn from people like this?