thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: February 2014

What if I die tomorrow?

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I have to confess I am really enjoying Rob Bell’s series on the Bible at the moment. His latest entry got me thinking.

Recently, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to do with the next ‘stage’ of my life. Or indeed my life in general. My overactive mind can often wander off into the dangerous territory of needing to build some sort of story arc for my time here on earth, hoping to contribute something significant, worthwhile, of note, that sort of thing.

Bell talks about how the idea that we don’t know when/how Jesus will return should spur us into a better way of being. He says that if we did know when it was going to happen:

“It wouldn’t change a thing, would it? You would live exactly as you are living. Or…maybe it would, maybe it would spur you to take risks, be more generous, stand up for injustice, enjoy each day more. In that case, what’s the problem? Why aren’t you doing those things and living like that now?”

Well, that knocked me for six! When you look at it like that, the question ‘what if I died tomorrow?’ becomes less of a source of existential angst hoping for some shred of meaning in an ever confusing, ever complicated world; and more of a recognition that whatever I am doing here and now I should be doing with and out of love for others.

The balance on the other side of the scales is that it is worth thinking about our story. It is worth planning ahead and thinking about what’s next, where we are going and what we are doing – being strategic. However, it can be all to tempting to lead these important things into grandiose thoughts about our place in the universe, whilst ignoring our neighbour, being rude to the bus driver, not working very hard, and so on. Just because these things are not our “calling” or our “purpose” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them well, and do them out of love.

Here’s the clincher: when we focus on being kind or generous or compassionate or any other aspect of agape (unconditional) love, we find our purpose.

I look back on past romances that I have  had and I can see this clearly. Instead of worrying about my place in the universe, I was more bothered about how the other person felt about their life. Without that focus, I suddenly find myself questioning everything I am doing with myself. Instead of focusing on the present moment, my mind veers back and forth between the past and the future. This happens to me time and time again. Yet Jesus calls me back and says this:

I could be back tomorrow. What if that happens? What if you don’t get to become this great person you have dreamed up the future you to be? What if you find yourself stood before me, disappointed that you’ve missed your own mark?

I say all of this knowing that God is a God of grace and that I need to do nothing to earn his love. It is in showing this love to others that we lose sight of all of the ‘big’ questions and learn to focus in on the detail. The stuff that really matters – not to us – but to others.

Ultimately, why aim to be a certain way, do certain things, achieve certain goals, when sometimes it is the small acts of love that help to transform people’s lives? Sure, there’s a place for the big stuff. But let’s not forget the beauty that is found in the simplicity of choosing to be present in the moment and to simply try to love others. Then, if I died tomorrow, I would know that I did my best to be the best I could be. And that? well, that’s a purpose worth pursuing.

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How I Feel Today

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“this is how we know what love is”,
that you died for us? no,
that you lied to us –
seems more apt to me
in this moment, in this place.
come back when you’re done
with giving me hell
and trials and anxiety
and fear and rejection
and dismantling the walls
I had built up to try and simply understand.
come back when you’ve good things
to give
because I can’t live for you
waiting for life to get better
hoping something good lies quiet around the corner
when experience has taught me, that if anything,
it’s not.

Sorry if that’s a little raw. I wrote it this morning and decided to share it on account of the fact that (a) I have little by way of anything interesting to say and (b) I don’t think we’re nearly honest enough about our journey of faith.

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In Praise of Joshua Harris

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One of my favourite Brennan Manning quotes spent its first ten years in my life as a DC Talk song quote. It goes like this:

“The greatest single advert for atheism in the world today is Christians. They acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelieving.”

An area I have significantly struggled with in the past has been the mismatch of intimacy and commitment. In his (often hated by the left, loved by the right) book ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, Joshua Harris says this:

“And I think that’s the story of our generation’s pursuit of fulfilment in relationships…. we wished for the pleasure of love with none of the work, none of the vows, none of the sacrifice…. but the results aren’t what we hoped for. And we’re left feeling emptier than before. The intimacy is superficial. The sex leaves us dissatisfied and hungry for something real, something true. Where is true joy? It’s found in God’s brand of love – love founded on faithfulness, rooted in commitment.”

I couldn’t agree more. Though for me, it has always been less about physical intimacy and more about emotional intimacy. I’ve been all too eager to over-commit. For once, I think I actually got the balance a bit more right and it has meant that I have come away from this situation at least a little less hurt than I otherwise would have been. But in any situation where the level of intimacy – physical, emotional, or time – doesn’t match the level of commitment (friendship, dating, relationship, engagement, marriage) – there’s almost always a guarantee of hurt at some point. I have in my life caused a lot of that and have at times been on the receiving end of it too.

Thinking about this got me thinking about how God feels about our commitment. We are all too eager to say things in church liturgy and in sung worship that doesn’t then ring true in our lives. We’re happy to commit to something verbally in a church service, but when it comes to allowing it to really make a difference, we simply don’t. I don’t know if that’s because we’re not really understanding the words we are saying, or because we don’t want to, or because we can’t, or some other reason.

You know the sort of thing I mean.

“break my heart for what breaks yours, everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause”
“Jesus you’re all I need”
“for our inheritance give us the lost”
“Be my everything”

Yet we rarely end up living these things out. How does God feel about that? How would you feel if you were God?

One of my favourite songs is called ‘Take My Life’ by Third Day and I think it hits the nail on the head of how I feel at the moment – amidst the situational depression I find myself in, amidst the anger I have towards God balanced with the knowledge that my anger doesn’t even make sense:

How many times have I turned away
The number is the same as the sand on the shore
But every time You’ve taken me back
And now I pray You do it once more.

Please take from me my life
When I don’t have the strength
to give it away to You Jesus
How many times have I turned away
The number is the same as the stars in the sky
But every time You’ve taken me back
And now I pray You do it tonight.

I’m not a big Joshua Harris fan. I happen to think his book focusses far too much on guilt tripping the reader into a new way of life that better fits his conservative model of dating. But on this particular subject, I think he has it spot on. And I think we ought remember that every relationship we have in our lives in some way reflects a relationship with the divine.

It’s okay to be honest. Sometimes we can’t give our lives over to God. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes we’re stuck, and we struggle. And it’s okay if the world can see that too. An unbelieving world will find honesty, integrity and faith much, much more believable.

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Socialism simply doesn’t work

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about what it means to belong to the Kingdom of Heaven (or the Kingdom of God, if you prefer). I have come to the conclusion that it is quite clear that it isn’t something that we go to when we die – that’s pretty obvious. What I am more interested in is the notion that it is about more than our ‘spiritual’ lives.

As Rob Bell rightly points out in his DVD Everything is Spiritual, Jesus’ and his peers would not have had a concept of ‘spiritual’. The idea simply didn’t exist to them that you could separate this world from the reality of God. So it makes sense to me then that when Jesus preaches in his home town he declares that there is “good news for the poor”.

What is the good news if you’re poor? Is it that you can turn up to church on a Sunday and tell God you’re sorry and  then feel better and then go home again? Is it that you’re going to be OK when you die, because you’re headed in the right direction?

Or is it, perhaps, that you don’t need to be poor any more, because God has heard your cry and he is going to DO something about it?

To me that’s part of what the “Great Commission” is all about. Yes, we need to tell people that God has forgiven them. Yes, Jesus speaks of being poor in spiritYes, what happens when we die is important. But so is the world we live in here and now.

The response of the first Christians in the aftermath of pentecost wasn’t to go all Amish on us and create a sect like commune. Nor was it to overthrow the Romans and start a new way of ruling over people – though that did happen eventually – something I feel is, frankly, much to the shame of the church in A.D 300 or so.

No – their response was to sell what they didn’t need, focus on the here and now, share their lives with one another, provide for one another, and love one another. But not just one another – to love their God and love their neighbour as themselves as well.

When we talk about loving our neighbour as ourselves, we don’t get it. We think it means we need to tell them the gospel, or be there on occasional difficult days. Except that you don’t just do that for yourself do you? You try and keep healthy, you keep fed, you try and find a job you enjoy doing, you look after yourself. Because you love yourself well.

So, we are called to love one another – and we are called especially by God to love the poor (if you don’t believe that, I suggest you read the Bible. God doesn’t stop going on and on and on and on about them).

So how do we love them? We could ensure there was a system of government that took from the rich and gave to the poor. A society where those who work hard are rewarded with high taxes, and those who do not work hard enough are rewarded with government hand-outs.

Let’s face it, it’s a nice idea, but Socialism simply doesn’t work.

The alternative we are given by our political system is called a trickle-down economy. Loosely put, we should free people up to do what they will with their money so that they can benevolently give it to people – something which has more meaning and which affects those who truly need it rather than those who do not truly suffer.

I should say at this point that I am actually in favour of some government and taxes. I think having universal access to basic human rights is essential – law and order, health, education and so on. I don’t believe in a private NHS or a fractured school system. I’m no capital C Conservative. What I have seen of them is not truly a party of the “aspiring class” but one of the privileged few. 

I don’t think this approach works, either. So what is the alternative?

I’m not convinced that we, as Christians, should be taking part in the economy of this world. We’re only going to get ourselves into a moral maze of a mess and end up fretting over shopping in Tesco’s or not being able to afford organic food or wether we should become vegetarian or not buy clothes outside of Charity (thrift for my US buddies) shops. Instead I see a vision of a very different Christian society.

I see people moving in among the poor, the destitute and the needy. I see them not simply holding on to their hard earned middle class cash and giving it away to those in need, distant from them and alien to them. I see them not simply loving their neighbours afterlife soul, nor loving simply their greatest need through Mammon.

No, I see a Church prepared to fully love those it comes across. I see a people moving in amongst those in need and loving them on every level. I see a people not confined by politics or creeds, but a people instead prepared to give to those in need, help them to no longer need, fight for their right and ability to meet those needs by themselves, and to undermine the systems that stand in their way.

What does that look like? I’m still working that out. But I can imagine a Church that says no more to the exploitative nature of Capitalism, and never again to the need to redistribute what we have and cause friction and discontent amongst those who are currently better off.

What if instead of buying expensive organic food, we grew our own, with our neighbours – helping them along the way, shared our crops, and made meals out of it that we can share with one other, getting to know our fellow travellers on this earth in newer and deeper ways, ways which our Oxfam standing order couldn’t even begin to come close  to?

Maybe then we’d begin to see real change in this world. Maybe then we’d begin to see the poor receive truly good news here and now. And maybe, just maybe, in seeing that these people care about them, that this God cares about them too.



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