godisnowhere

thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Category: Theology Page 3 of 9

Phoenix Christianity

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The legend of the Phoenix has it that there is a creature who lives for a thousand years. Once its lifespan is complete, it builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself into the flames. As it dies, it is reborn anew, and rises from the ashes to live another 1000 years.

What has that got to do with Christianity? For me, it is a fantastic analogy of my faith journey over the last 3 years. It feels as though I have been a Christian forever. As far as forever is concerned, for me – all 26 years of it – that is true. Forever can feel like 1000 years, even when it is only as short as 26!

About 4 years ago I began to seriously question the validity of my own faith. I began to tear out whole sections of my beliefs and throw them on to the fire. I watched as they burned. One by one I threw away my opposition to homosexuality and universalism, my frameworks of Evangelicalism, charismatic worship and so on.

As this process continued I proceeded to become more and more negative, more and more cynical, more and more skeptical of every possible aspect of my faith. Eventually, I found myself left with nothing. Pyrotheology had burnt my faith to ashes.

Yet here I find myself, once again prepared to affirm faith in God – even though I am not yet totally sure who or what God is, I believe that God is real, present and good. I am looking forward to discovering what else I can piece together over the coming years. Like a Phoenix, my faith is rising again to life from the flames.

There are two observations I can make about this: the first is that the Phoenix is a legend – an impossibility. An animal cannot be born of fire. We know that. Yet this is where I have found faith – out of having absolutely nothing left. I have explored the darkness and found that even in the depths of depression and nothingness, there is something, somehow holding me back from taking a final and permanent ‘leap of unfaith’.

The second observation is that my newly forming faith won’t last forever – it will last for a time, and then it will be replaced by something else. Perhaps the process will not be as painful, nor the changes so tangible, but there will be a renewal nonetheless into something different again. It is good to be at peace with this.

Ultimately, I am glad of the experience. Having nothing but ashes from which to build has meant that I have had to go beyond my experiences, beyond my world and explore the silence, the stories of others, and craft out new ideas and new ways of seeing things. The process has been incredibly rewarding. And finally, I find my cynicism beginning to subside. I can begin to believe again in a world which is worth inhabiting well.

 

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The Case For Nonviolence

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Yesterday, MPs voted to take part in air strikes against terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The action was justified on the grounds that the terrorists posed a threat to UK national security, and that they are causing untold misery already in the middle east and must be stopped.

I watched the debate – and the vote – with a heavy heart. People from across the political spectrum, and across the religious spectrum – voted to engage in violent conflict. It is my firm belief that Jesus advocated non-violence, and did so for good reason: violent conflict does not resolve problems. Here I want to set out an outline for why I believe as Christians we should engage in conflict, nonviolently.

First and foremost, I don’t believe violent conflict ever fully resolves the conflict in question. It can often appear to do so. For example, the bombing of the terrorists in Iraq and Syria will inevitably lead to their weakening as a force – but for how long? and who will be upset in the process? It is quite conceivable that being a part of the force attacking them, Britain will be the victim of a terrorist attack in the future. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 arguably got us in to this mess in the first place.

Secondly I believe it is vital for Christians to be engaged in conflict. If the conflict is violent, we can provide respite, care, help and support to those hurt, injured or affected by that conflict. We can also choose to deal with, not shy away from, problems – on a small or international scale. There are a great many things we can, and should, be doing as God’s people.

We can pray for peace. We can pray for those suffering and we can pray for our hearts that they would be stirred to enter into conflict with those we oppose – with a view to a peaceful resolution.

We can dialogue with the other parties involved. As Christians we can encourage and foster a culture of grace, forgiveness, and moving forward – just as God has done for us in inviting us into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Northern Ireland conflict is a great example of this happening. Yes, it isn’t perfect, but it’s so, so much better than it used to be now that both sides are talking, positively.

We can get in the way. Nobody wants to bomb a city full of its own citizens. Radical? Yes. Crazy? Probably. Risky? Almost certainly. But Jesus didn’t ask us to lead long, comfortable, cosy lives. He asked us to risk them. And besides, wasn’t it Paul who said that “the greatest thing a man can do is lay down his life for a friend”? When Paul says “friend”, think “neighbour”. What does Jesus have to say about who our neighbour is? hmm…

We can make a point. It would be wrong for Christians not to engage in conflict. We can see Jesus engaging in conflict all of the time. My favourite example is the adulterous woman – Jesus didn’t just stand there. He got in the way, made a stir, made a point – very, very well. His prophetic act of drawing people’s names in the sand (I forget where I heard that explanation from, sorry) really riled the woman’s accusers and turned the tables on them. Jesus loves turning the tables. We should follow his example.

So I think we can be involved and engaged in conflict – but never violent conflict. For “those who live by the sword will die by the sword”, after all. Jesus asked Peter to put his sword away, and he asks the same of you. He asks the same of our armies. He asks us not to bomb, not to shoot, not to hit, not to even direct our anger at one another – for otherwise we risk our existence being worthy only of being consigned to the garbage dump.

Instead let’s follow Jesus’ example – pray for those who persecute us (or our ‘allies’), work to create understanding, stand in the way of conflict and prophetically proclaim the good news that God came to the earth not as Justifier of War, but as Prince of Peace.

 

 

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Over The Line

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Nadia Bolz-Weber has written a wonderful book called “Cranky, Beautiful Faith”. I highly recommend you get hold of a copy and read it. She’s refreshingly blunt and has a lot to say about grace and inclusion. So much so, that she reminds me of another recovering alcoholic, Brennan Manning. I couldn’t help but see many obvious comparisons between Nadia’s story, and Brennan’s collection of stories in The Ragamuffin Gospel.

There is one story in Nadia’s book that I keep coming back to, though. She tells of a time when her church – full of gay people, transgender people, homeless people and others who have been rejected by society – experiences an influx of trendy hipsters in the wake of her taking a service in front of a large audience.

She tells of her instinctive reaction to want to exclude those people. And then she says this: “the trouble with drawing a line as that as soon as we have drawn it Jesus is on the other side“.

Ouch.

It can be easy to sneer at Christians for their exclusivity. I find myself often fuming at the way in which people try to keep the club as small as possible. They often exclude women, non-heterosexuals, transgenders, those of a different (usually lower) social class, those with differing theological viewpoints, those who are differently abled, those of a different race, and so on.

Too often the Church has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to equality. Which is somewhat ironic when you consider that its founder was radically inclusive towards women. No wonder I frequently come to find Christianity wanting.

The challenge becomes not being like the Christians. Yet in saying that very sentence I draw a line between “us” (the welcoming, liberal Jesus-followers) and “them” (the conservative Christians). It’s the ultimate conundrum on being liberal – the whole philosophy is to be inclusive towards everyone except those being exclusive.

I’ve been mulling over this paradox for a few days and the conclusion that I have come to is that God likes paradoxes, especially this one. We are always going to find ourselves on the “wrong” side of Jesus, here, I think. I can’t see how it could be any other way. So perhaps this is God’s way of reminding us that we haven’t got it all sorted, and that there is always a bigger picture, and there is always a bigger love to grasp hold of?

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The Central Human Problem

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One of the few talks I made it to at Greenbelt this year was by the Rev Dr Sam Wells and was a rather academic talk on the nature of poverty. I enjoyed it so much that I am going to paraphrase parts of it for you and add in some thoughts of my own to bring it in to context.

Sam talked about how the central “human problem” is mortality. If we see someone dying, we want to help them. If we see someone with a low quality of life, we seek to improve it. If we can only live longer, or live better, then we will be on the right track. The central problem for humanity is of course mortality – will we live forever in Heaven or will we suffer forever of suffer the second death in Hell?

And so it naturally follows that our mission should focus on one of two things (or both, if you are a more left-leaning Evangelical): telling the gospel, and aiding those who are impoverished – that is, those with a lack of access to materials or to the means of production (communism, anyone?) . Both of these things help to either ensure the immortality of the soul or improve the mortal experience of the body.

In order to achieve this we must help others to have the opportunity to experience the same luxuries as us. We must make sure they have heard the good news, received an altar call, been brought up to speed on what to believe and how to believe it via an Alpha course and finally teach them how to make good, proper Christian quiche.

If they are poor or destitute we must go and help them. We must travel to those nations who are “third world” from our “first world”. We must come alongside them and help them to build their schools, hospitals, and churches (apparently the 3 founding pillars of any society according to the image presented by every missionary organisation ever). Some have recognised we should do more than this and so set up camp in these countries, spending their entire lives trying to help these people spiritually, in business, or in faith; sure of the knowledge that one day their worlds will merge and these people will finally “get it” and live as we do in our enlightened western ways.

Of course mission doesn’t stop abroad. We must go to the poorest parts of our own nation. We must run food banks to help those who cannot afford food to eat. We must teach people how to avoid debt. We must help them to get their lives “back on track” so that they can get jobs and contribute to society like the rest of us – finally fulfilling their sense of worth and giving them a sense that their life is here for a reason, that mortality is worth it and thus giving us a way to show them that immortality is worth even more again. We must plant churches in these areas to allow us to rub shoulders with these people – to give them an easy way to come to us, so that we can share all of these good things with them.

Clearly, we must, must, must, must do something about poverty. It is imperative in Jesus’ teaching, in the ways of the Torah, and it is something the Evangelical and Traditional wings of the church have ignored for far too long.

The problem is that virtually everything I have written so far is a load of complete bollocks (You can thank me over a pint for wasting your time!).

The central human problem is not, and has never been, mortality.

The central human problem is loneliness.

The afterlife is not about an extension of our mere blip of mortality. It is about being one with God, or not being one with God. It is about relationship.

The most impoverished state anyone can be in is total isolation.

And so we see our picture unravel, from the ground up. It’s not about telling people to believe in something – it is about sharing our stories with others that they might be inspired.

It is not about putting them on the middle class Christianity conveyer belt and hoping that they turn out just like us – it is about meeting people where they are at and recognising God at work in their particular struggles.

It is not about going abroad and building schools and hospitals, leaving a few weeks later having made so little an impact with your brickwork that the local community actually feels compelled to rebuild the building so that it is actually structurally sound. It is not about robbing people of their sense of self worth and ability to do things themselves. It is about recognising the isolating effects of globalism and isolationist politics, and recognising the exploitation that has come with the removal of the producer from the consumer. It is about redressing that balance and building long lasting friendships with those who sustain our way of life [though I struggle to imagine how this can be done].

It is certainly not about doing the same on our own doorstep. We claim to dislike benefits claimants, or those who exploit the system or are work-shy. Yet our Christianity hands them this culture on a plate (idiom chosen without irony). We go in to the “poor” communities with our food banks and day trips and “mission weekends” where we go in like America to Vietnam and carpet bomb them with love, kindness and Christianity only to head off the next morning back to our leafy suburbs. No, it is about choosing to be among a people; building friendships and relationships and allowing our hearts to be broken for them in such a way that instead of coming from outside the problem, we are a part of the problem. It is about knowing these people as our neighbours.

The irony of the pursuit of immortality is that it has actually damaged our desire for better relationships and thus made the central human problem worse. Instead of confiding in friends, we seek counselors. Instead of learning to provide for ourselves from our communities, we lazily become reliant upon handouts and pity, if we aren’t lucky enough to rely on a trust fund or a wealthy family, or indeed a postcode-lottery education.

Of course with right relationship comes a reduction in material poverty anyway – those with whom we relate, we share. Those for whom we love, we provide. It would be gratuitous to claim that the Christian should never care for those in material need. Of course we should. But that’s the key – we should care. You cannot truly care for someone if you do not know them.

The advantage of this way of seeing poverty is that we cannot fix it quickly and we cannot burn out. Too often when trying to fix material poverty, we simply apply sticking plasters, and after sticking too many plasters, we collapse from physical, mental, emotional or spiritual exhaustion. I have seen this happen time and time again in my local community. And I am sick to the core of it.

We do not need anything to help loneliness, but ourselves. When we are less busy trying to get the resources and the programs together to help “fix” others, we can spend more time ensuring we live a healthy balance of loving God, ourselves and our neighbours. That way, we are more likely to combat the isolation poverty of the world and feel better about it. Win-win! (That’s because the isolation poverty is relational, so when others feel good – so do we. It’s almost as if we were designed for relationship… hmm…).

Sam summed this all up as “working for” versus “being with”. Can I implore you to think about this. Do not work for anything. Be with those in need. Don’t think you can fix people or teach them how to be or show them God’s love by telling them the Gospel. No, instead – go and be with people. Be vulnerable. Be available. And don’t go doing it the other side of the world, or the other side of the city. Recognize that in order to not be “doing things for/to/at” people,  you have to be among them. You have to become a part of the relational poverty. Otherwise you’re ultimately just adding to the problem.

I rather like how Rob Bell always ends with a benediction so I am going to do the same. This is my prayer for all of us, myself included.

So may you discover where you are in relational (dare I say spiritual) poverty yourself, and may you, in the words of Jesus, know that the Kingdom of Heaven is yours. May you go to your friends and neighbours and show them love and kindness. May you be a part of the solution, and not the problem.

 

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Always Look On The Bright Side of Life

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Eric Idle’s immortal words at the end of Life of Brian strike a surreal tone in the context of Brian’s inevitable demise on the cross of his crucifixion. Yet it is a striking truth which is sung out – one which I believe better epitomises the good news of Jesus than many have before or since. It is further ironic that the film was so widely derided by the established church as heretical. For me, it contains the only universal truth I can hold on to:

We are capable of framing a negative experience in a positive light. When we do this, we not only learn to live more positively ourselves, but encourage others who suffer and struggle that they can do this also.

For me, that’s part of what Jesus’ message was all about: life’s a piece of shit; when you look at it. But if you look on the bright side, if you frame experiences positively – no matter how hard or impossible this may seem – you can begin to overcome adversity. You can take part in a better world. One where the circumstances may not be perfect, but where our reaction to those circumstances both as individuals and as communities, can be near-as-dammit so.

Jesus didn’t claim everything would be okay – far from it he claimed circumstance would be worse. But what we have in Jesus’ ways are ways which help us to deal with life well. It is universally true across all peoples and cultures that overcoming adversity of any kind is a positive and helpful trait – even if it boils down to evolutionary necessity.

The ancient Hebrews told a story about a man named Job. Job was tormented by Satan, with permission from God.

So – wait a minute? God causes the bad things to happen? This isn’t the only incident of such an idea in the Old Testament. It is however superseded by the idea that Satan does evil of his own volition independently of God. So in the original way of thinking, God commands everything, and it evolves that God only commands some things.

We’ve been becoming Atheists for a while, huh? gradually taking away God’s control in our narrative of reality. I know that’s something I do. I used to believe in miracles, I used to believe God had a plan for my life, that sort of thing. I’ve been busy “weeding out” those thoughts for a while on account of their “stupidity” or “naivety” or something or other.

What if the ancient Hebrews were right? What if all comes from God? What if it isn’t about not suffering but about learning to live in the world the way the world is. If I take my universalistic tendencies and add them into the mix, then this can actually begin to make some more sense. If everyone eventually makes it to the ‘other side’ then it’s okay if we have different levels of “suffering” because the “suffering” itself is blown away by the joy.

The suffering is very real and very painful – but suffering is not an absolute. It is about how much we can cope with our circumstances. It is about how we live in the world that we are in. We compare our suffering with others, but the truth is that the smallest amount of “pain” can cause untold misery for a TOWIE star, whereas a week of nothing but a handful of rice grains can be enough to bring joy to the face of the most impoverished child.

It’s plain to us which of these situations is more “just” and which is “ridiculous” but it is not plain to the participants. They are stuck in their own relative experiences. One of the things about the Kingdom of Heaven is its emphasis on “otherness” and seeing the world through the eyes of those around us. This helps us to move towards a more just society, and is, in my view, all a part of the plan. We can all learn from suffering – big or small – our own or suffering of others.

What I’m really trying to get at here is that perhaps it isn’t as simple as the old “mankind screwing up so there’s sin and brokennes” narrative, or as simple as the “God isn’t real and/or suffering isn’t of God” narrative either. Perhaps there’s more to it than that?

Jesus dies on the cross not to make things right – that would simply be an act of divine Justice which reset the God-human divide. No, the cross is an act of mercy where God wipes clean the records, where we are no longer bound by rules of in/out , good/bad, Christian/Non-Christian. Instead we are bound together, as humanity, by our suffering and our joy – both of which we must share so that we can learn from one another – full in the knowledge that God himself entered into this bargain as the person of Jesus Christ.

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Inspiring Stories

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Recently, I asked Anonymous Agnostic asked me the following question:

Do you think there are stories as/more inspiring as/than the story of Jesus death and resurrection?

Their response included them firing it straight back at me:

“What would you say to that question? I assume you do think it’s the most inspiring, but why?”

Here’s my answer…
The first thing I would say is that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred 2,000 years ago – which is approximately 50,000 years into our history as a species if modern scientific theory is correct, and about 4,000 years after humans first began to communicate. In those 6,000 years we have gone on a journey from primitive understanding of the world around us and of each other to a more complex and nuanced understanding.

This nuanced understanding includes a recognition that the elements do not appear to be “controlled” by a deity whom we need to please. It includes a recognition that women, far from being a weak yet necessary accessory to mankind’s survival, are a vital and wonderful part of the human race.

What I find interesting about the first of those two examples is that while we claim we are more enlightened, we may be surprised to discover that we are not! Whilst we may be convinced that there is no deity causing it to rain when he is happy that we have donated enough crops to him by burning them on an altar, we do find ourselves suffering the consequences of abusing the world in which we live such that it is beginning to take its toll on us and threatens our survival in many parts of the world. Perhaps our arrogance betrays us?

You’re probably wondering where this is going! What I am trying to say is that it can be tempting to value one story ahead of another because it seems more “progressive” and less “barbaric”, and I think we have to consider the inspiration in context. That said, it is impossible to exist totally outside of our current context, and so would be impossible to judge every story in this way.

In your answer, you rightly narrowed down your response to stories about God/gods. I don’t think I explicitly said that had to be the case, but it does beg the question – what is inspiration in a totally godless world? It is possibly a byproduct of my Christian upbringing, but when I think of a truly godless reality I can only reach an existentialist conclusion of there being nothing to be inspired by or for. If there is no purpose beyond “science”, “maths” and “chance”, then I find reality rather unappealing.

All of which brings me to the following question: what kind of God(s) are we talking about?

The God who told the Israelites to commit genocide, and who insisted they follow his ways, for fear of judgement?
The God who told the Muslims they had to obey his every command if they were to have a chance at eternal life?
The Gods who teach you a lesson by reincarnating you as a lesser being if you aren’t good enough in this life?
The Man who taught that your story ended in euphoric bliss when you reached Nirvana – nothingness and total detachment?
The God who allows the murder of his own Son?

Or the God who brought his people out of slavery and to the promised land?
The God who demands only loyalty, peace and devotion in return for eternal bliss?
The Gods who teach that you can make amends for your mistakes, and be rewarded for your good deeds?
The Man who taught that you could move beyond pain and suffering?
The God who says “enough” to the system of sacrifice, and allows any and all to know him with far greater depth than could possibly be imagined?

I think that there is inspiration to be taken from all of the stories of God/gods/great men and women who have been spoken about throughout history. I am suspicious of my own perception of the Christian God because of course I want that god to be the God, the one who matches my liberal, post-modern and progressive values with his inclusive religion. However, as much as I can look into these other religions, they seem to fall back on rules, regulations, actions and consequences – with the possible exception of Buddhism. So being my usual analytical self I want to narrow it down to those three possibilities.

The universe is as it is – there is nothing more out there, but you are the result of thousands of years of evolution, chance, and mutation. That is, in and of itself beautiful.
I cannot, no matter how hard I try, get away from the idea that this leads to pointlessness, existentialism, nihilism and hedonism. None of which are appealing. So for totally emotive and experiential reasons I am going to reject this story!

Which leaves us with Buddhism and Christianity. My knowledge of Buddhism isn’t fantastic, but it seems to me as though there’s a lot of overlap between its teachings and those of Christianity – as you alluded to in your response. What Buddhism doesn’t have is hope.

I think that hope is what gives the resurrection its power. We can argue forever about the death of Christ – was it penal substitution? was it a metaphor? how does it “work”? did Jesus go to “hell”? All of those questions are immaterial if Jesus simply died. Yes, we would have peace with God, but that is all we would have. If we want peace with God and with the world around us, we can get that through meditative practises or through whatever paradigm our context – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other world religion – requires of us to do to achieve this such feeling. That is, I think it is the context which defines the kind of peace that is needed.

Equally we can debate about the life of Christ. Did he mean chop off your hand? Why didn’t he mention homosexuality? Do we really have to sell all of our actual possessions? What if we do deny the Holy Spirit? What does that even mean?

But the fact that Jesus, a man, died, was buried and gone – somehow goes beyond death and comes back to life, in this life with a memory and a body and everything that could be expected of a human being. That gives us the hope that there is more. It validates his teaching and it vindicates his death – even if it is a death of substitutionary atonement! But primarily it gives us hope that there is more. There is a Kingdom of Heaven. There is a life in which the wrongs of this world are put right. There is a chance to experience bliss without detachment, new life without memory loss. There is hope for the one thing that humans have not stopped chasing since our ability to think: eternal, blissful life. I’m not convinced it can possibly get more inspiring than that!

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What if we went local?

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In the last 18 months I have made the transition from the neo-pentecostal church I was a part of when I first moved to Southmead over to the local Anglican church. Largely this has been a positive experience for me. I have enjoyed the contemplative nature of the services, the simplicity of the sermons, the importance placed on Jesus’ sacrifice, reminding me week-in-week-out that it is indeed finished.

But the change I have appreciated the most? This church is full of people who I can count not just as my friends but also as my neighbours. In this church, we are all in it together, and we’re all equal, and we’re a community – not just on a Sunday morning but throughout the week. That simply wasn’t the case for the significant majority of my previous congregation.

Instead of having to travel to a particular area of the city to go and run a project or provide for someone in need, that someone and the people who would be ‘reached’ by these such ‘projects’ are one or more of: my co-worshipers, neighbours and friends.

I don’t love everything about my new church – who does? Of course there are things I would change. Realistically, I would feel much more at home in a medium-sized Baptist church with a larger group of young, single people (beyond myself and my housemate) as well as families and folks of older generations.

But that’s just it. Far too often we go to a church because it’s what we want. We go and we consume (there’s a whole blog post in itself there, really). Instead of doing that, I wonder what it would look like if we actually invested in our local communities? I think two or three key things would happen. And I think they would all be good.

Picture the scenario. Every Christian across the UK (or even, say, across Bristol) decides to attend the church most geographically proximate to them.

The Mega-churches would be empty, and the dying churches filled

Megachurches tend to be situated on commercial or industrial estates, or they tend to be found near the city centre or nearby to university campuses. These areas have extremely low residential population density and certainly aren’t likely to be closer to a housing estate than the local Anglican church (I admit, the Anglicans really do have the upper hand in this whole scenario). One could argue they might even die out.

Conversely, local churches would be filled up again. They wouldn’t be bursting at the seams, but they would be hugely increased in size, proportionally. I’m sure (though I don’t have the numbers to back this) that you would end up with a good 15-20 people attending a significantly high percentage of local churches. In a lot of cases, that’s another 50-100% on top of the existing congregation.

These small-to-medium-sized communities would function similarly to large homegroups, equivalent in size to a medium-sized church’s student group (often called Pastorates). You would know everyone there (or get to know them quickly), you would be close with one another and – crucially – you wouldn’t live far from one another, either.

We would rediscover our sense of localism

Within this environment we would lose one thing and gain another. We would lose the encouragement, excitement, hype and bigness of megachurches. Initially this would be a bad thing. There would be pastoral chaos, as people are forced to be real with one another morseo than in the easy-to-not-engage-with larger gatherings. There would be a lack of consistency and solidity in teaching – there are many great and good celebrity Christians whom I personally admire – and these would find it much harder to gain any sense of prominence under a localised system.

That’s not to say, however, that in time, it wouldn’t be sensible to have regular large gatherings. I think they’re vital to getting a sense of the ‘bigger picture’ of our faith community. I just think they happen a bit too often!

What we would gain is worth that loss. We would gain a sense of localism. Need something? Your neighbour might have it. Need help with something? Your neighbour can probably help. Feeling generous? What do your neighbours need?

These questions are harder when we are not geographically close by. I have had a really hard time lately with depression – yet those who I would speak to about it the most live far away (and by far away, I mean 25 minutes drive, which isn’t a lot, but it’s a lot when you’re feeling crap) which means I’m not inclined to do anything about my situation. If I had close relationships fostered with those who are nearby to me, that would be very different.

Our relationships with those we serve would be radically transformed for the better

The localism doesn’t stop there. The people around us who are homeless/depressed/struggling with addiction/in need of tuition/poor/whatever-it-is-you-care-about-or-is-a-problem-around-you are around us. This means:

  1. We will struggle to ignore them (good!)
  2. We can find more time to help them (great!)
  3. They’ll see us leading our normal lives, away from the pretense of service-provision (ouch)

Number (3) is the most daunting, and yet the most freeing. We have to learn to be ourselves, to be vulnerable, to treat others as friends not as someone on the receiving end of our services such as free food. Much better to have them round for dinner and get to know them as a human being, I think.

To me, that’s the beginning of starting to really look like how the Kingdom of Heaven should look like. Making things more organic, more interpersonal, more interdependent. Instead of perpetuating the system (I am in need of X, someone can provide X so I will use that service becomes I am in need of X and my friend can help me – much healthier).

We would be able to support one another in mission, rather than watching one another burn out

One of the most striking things I have learned in my four(!) years in Southmead is that people burn out. People feel alone, isolated and emotionally exhausted from trying to be missional.

So we have to stop being missonal. (In the sense of deliberate, pointed, mission).

That doesn’t mean we need to stop sharing God’s love, or sharing the good news of God’s love. It means we have to stop trying so damn hard. It means that instead, we should focus our energy on living normal life and letting that life be attractive. We’ll see those whom we are serving at the doctors, at the gym, at the supermarket, around and about.

It also means that in our small-group-churches we can sustain and support one another. No task will be huge because the area of focus will be so small. No more huge events which require volunteers to burn themselves out over a bank holiday weekend. No more isolated families expected to do all the mission work of a congregation – however implicitly – and then find themselves questioning their own faith. No more burnouts. Beautiful.

We would look a lot more attractive

We’d also be a lot more normal. Instead of some pageantry and procession on a large scale, or emulating the latest rock concert vibes (have you seen just how hipster church posters have gotten now? ugh), we can just live life in a way which is attractive.

It’s a lot harder to have orthopraxy, but it’s worth it. It’s genuine. It’s meaningful. And it’s where we’ll actually see change happen. Our best bet? going local.

Of course, this is all a dream scenario. But if you aim for the sky you might at least hit the top of the tree, right?

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Being a Bad Evangelical

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Recently I decided that I didn’t want the label of “Christian” any more. I’m still thinking about that, but I’ve focused recently on the idea of being an “Evangelical”. I was tempted to write about this in light of the Oasis/EA debacle, but thought better of it (no one likes angry sweary blog posts, after all).

I’ve had some time to think about it, and I think I’ve realised that I’m probably not an “Evangelical” by ‘their’ standards, but I might be one by God’s standards. I’m not sure.

One thing I do know is that it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid being labelled. It’s also really difficult to avoid wanting to label oneself. I think that the reality should be slightly different – we ought to hold labels lightly, regardless of whether or not that label is of someone else our ourselves. With that disclaimer, some labels:

Above all, I affirm God’s love for all.
I affirm environmental activism.
I affirm gay marriage.
I affirm nonviolent substitution.
I affirm universalism.
I reject war.
I reject state-sanctioned murder.
I reject the idea of an eternal torture or punishment.
I reject the Bible as a perfect book,
but I affirm it as the story of God.

By all accounts, and by EA’s own standards, I would make a pretty bad capital E Evangelical. I couldn’t sign up to their doctrinal statement. But does this matter?

Of course, they would say that it does. But I’m far, far less convinced. I’m not sure I’m just a “liberal” or an “agnostic” or even a “heretic”. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I!

There’s something deeper in all of this, for me, though. The reason I find it hard to affirm some of the ‘doctrines’ of Evangelical Christianity, and the reason I have chosen to affirm some ‘opposites’ are actually rooted in the reality that I don’t know the answer.

If I don’t know the answer, I’m not going to shout about what I think as being the only ‘true’ way. I’m not going to ‘tell my friends about Jesus’ and I’m not going to ‘share the GOS-Pel’ (that’s how you pronounce it in UCCF circles) through countless ‘good conversations’ (where ‘good’ usually means ‘I got to speak the most’).

How can I when I myself am unsure of the exact nature of some of this stuff? never mind gay marriage, I don’t understand the cross, or the afterlife, or anything of that ilk.

What I do understand is that deep within my psyche is the desire to see a better world here and now. I would argue (and indeed have on countless occasions and blog posts) that Jesus’ central mission wasn’t his death, but his life. Jesus came to show us a newer, better way to live. One that only makes sense in light of the cross, sure, but central nonetheless.

The driving force of this better world is love. I don’t oppose same-sex marriage because I’d rather love those people by affirming who they are (rather than telling them their very nature is depraved) than to tell them they are behaving ‘wrongly’. It’s not the same as occasionally wanting to steal, it’s at the very core of who you are. So don’t go equating those sorts of things!

I digress. I affirm such things out of love, and even if I am wrong (I accept this to be possible at all times), I’d rather God knew I tried to love than tried to be right. What does Jesus do? Does he try to be orthodox? No. He tries to love.

My actions define who I am. In the words of Donald Miller, “What I say is not what I believe, what I do is what I believe”. My aim is to honour the God who has shown me love, who has helped me to love him, myself and others – and to share this joyful, better way of life with those around me.

But I can’t do that with the noise and the mess and the crap that Evangelicalism, Catholicism, and… well… every other denomination shouting from the sidelines saying “I’m right”, “No, I’m right” and so on.

Instead I feel compelled to drop the label “Christian” and definitely drop the label “Evangelical” as a particularly toxic brand within that label. I feel compelled to learn to live a life worthy of my own standards before I go attaching myself to anything. People can make their own judgements on what I am or what I am not – that is their problem.

Mother Theresa wasn’t known because she was a Christian. She was known because she loved. I only hope that one day, if and when I come face to face with God, that is true for me also.

Now that would be a life of sharing good news.

 

 

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Engaging with post-Christendom

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Those of us who confess a faith live in interesting and difficult times. Many face what they feel is persecution for their beliefs, some are even martyrs. Our prophets and preachers are sidelined and ignored. Communion is no longer a central focus of our week. We pray in the hope that our supplications might appease almighty God and that he would deliver us from both our sins and the sins of others. We’re caught up arguing about predestination, homosexuality, transubstantiation, atonement, you name it we’re arguing internally about it. We’ve gone from being a major power player in social structure, through ensuring our core focus is to evangelise the lost, to recognising the need for social action, community living, mission, and intentional discipleship.

If you understood that paragraph, read it again. And then think to yourself about what our biggest problem might be. I would argue it’s one word: communication.

As any sub-culture, Christianity has a lot of jargon. When we were in charge, this was fine. People knew what ‘sunday school’ was. People understood ‘mass’ to mean the ritual we use to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection, rather than assuming it was a reference to physics. But we’re not in charge any more, and people don’t understand us. Worse for us still, they’re not bothered about not understanding us.

We see this shift of attitude in our modern politics, too. People don’t care if UKIP are going to screw them over with incredibly dangerous right wing economic policy. They’re wilfully ignorant of it (or too naive to see it), preferring to blame the lack of work ethic in the UK on a handful of ‘benefit scrounging’ immigrants.

People make up their own narratives now. Instead of seeing the world as it is, we choose to see the world how we want. Fed by decades of consumerism, where we are consistently and continually manipulated to want what we can’t have and then have what we don’t need, we have become obsessed with escapism. This escapism has driven technology to previously unimaginable new places: immersive computer gaming experiences, online prostitution, technology which perpetually interrupts us and encourages us to see the world through it, Facebook “friends”, and so on.

We don’t want to live in the real world any more because the real world is too hard to accept. The problems are too big and too unsolvable. And when we realise that the reason they are unsolvable is because of those in power, we become even more keen to totally escape the world we are in and be elsewhere. So we create our own little “world”s.

So my question is this: in a world which is bloated beyond capacity with hyper or virtual reality, can Christianity offer the medicine we need: authenticity?

The problem with authenticity for the Christian sub-culture is two-fold – and depends n which end of the ‘spectrum’ you sit. Either we’ve been going for a long time, and we’re really quite stuck in our ways, with all of our jargon (see above), or we’ve spent the last 30 or so years trying to appeal to the inauthentic world with smoke machines and flashy videos, when really we should have been leading the way in authentic relationship with those around us*.

So what does the solution to this problem look like? I believe that it involves going back to the way that Jesus lived. Firstly, Jesus used the language of the day to describe who he was and what he was doing (son of God, saviour, good news – words like these were all Roman concepts). Secondly, Jesus lived a genuine life, not distracted by his work or the technologies around him. Instead, Jesus consistently focussed on relationship with others.

In order to address our status as a dying relic of the old order, Christianity (I’m coming around to admitting I’m still a part of it, reluctantly) needs to junk the jargon and stop trying to be cool. Only then, I think, will it discover its voice in a post-Christendom, post-Modern world.

 

* I’m aware of the irony of writing this all on a blog post rather than saying it to you over a pint. There are positives to technology, too, but what I am getting at is our over use and over consumption of it.

 

 

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Shall we go on sinning?

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In my last blog post I looked at how we need to leave behind the legalism and the guilt of all religions, including Christianity and move on instead to a life lived in the knowledge of God’s love for us and a life in which we are free to choose a better way because we can actually recognise the consequences of our actions beyond a crude religious-legal structure.

The mistakes made by many a grace-embracing Christian are (1) to feel a need to constantly repent of sinning (law breaking) rather than to feel remorse for sinning (not living the way we know we should) and (2) to see grace as the great catch-all, the final say, the ‘I don’t need to do anything any more’. Some even go so far as to say it’s okay to sin because then there will be more grace…

What does Paul have to say to this? “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? by no means! for you have died to sin“.

You have died (with Christ) to sin. But that isn’t where it stops.

“On the third day he rose again”.

And so do we.

Free from the shackles of religion we can now choose to heed the words of Jesus, Paul, the many others whose voices we hear in scripture and indeed God Himself. Not out of necessity, but because we want to.

I received quite a strong reaction to my previous post – partially around negativity. That was deliberate. That was the death, this is the resurrection. Previously, I ended with a question: what does it look like?

Well, here’s my take on that:

Be Filled with the Spirit

What was the first thing of note that happened to the disciples after Jesus left them to it? They were filled with the Spirit of God. To try and explain/exegete/expand on this would take more than a couple of paragraphs (it would probably require an entire web site) so I won’t try and do that here.

But what I will say is this: the temple curtain tore and there was nothing there. God goes from being the object of our worship (the idol, the statue, the thing we can tangibly see or imagine) to the method of our interaction with others. That’s not to say we can’t interact with God as well, but there’s a shift in our perception. No longer is God to be grasped, avoided, held back or anything like that. No – God is accessible to all, and is in all. We have, in Paul’s words, the power of God within us.

How can we possibly expect to experience a life changed by God if we do not acknowledge God in ourselves, God in our relationships, God in nature and God in others? It is this acknowledgement that I believe Paul refers to when he speaks of our need to accept in faith what Jesus has done for us.

When we are filled with the Spirit of God, when we focus our lives to listen to that spirit, then we will recognise better than our clouded judgement allows us just when it is that we go against God’s way, when we offend, hurt, damage or injure someone. We will know because the spirit of God is in us and guides us.

Have Your Heart Broken

Under Law, we are obliged to help those in need. We must do things to make the world a fairer place. But this leads to systematic, tokenistic giving, without any real relationship involved. You’ve only got to look at things such as giving money to charity to see the parallel between that and the precise way in which Old Testament Law around crop harvesting was interpreted.

Filled with the Spirit, we find that our hearts – through prayer and meditation and life experience – become closer to God’s heart. We begin to recognise a world through God’s eyes rather than our own. It is at this point that we begin to feel the pain that God feels. We see all of the problems around us and our hearts are broken.

Sometimes our hearts become hardened. And so we must pray and meditate in the Spirit that our hearts would become softened again. But in allowing our hearts to be soft, to be vulnerable, we find the same compassion within ourselves which God has for us. Indeed, “We love because God first loved us”. That’s when we’ll start to see real change in the world.

This is what Paul is talking about when he asks us to be hospitable, to give generously and so on. It’s not a Law of legalism, it’s the Law of Love.

Give Yourself Rhythms

The problem with this compassion of course is that we dive into it headfirst and it burns us out. We end up having no energy left because we’ve tried to go and solve the world’s problems all by ourselves and all at once. It’s just not something we can ever hope to actually achieve.

So instead, I suggest that we need rhythms. Again – the Law stipulated that we must pray in a specific way, at specific times of the day, month or year. I wouldn’t advocate a return to that requirement. Rather, because we recognise that these rhythms are good for us (“Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”) we choose to create them.

The beauty of our new rhythms is that they are no longer one-size-fits-all. We don’t need to go to church every Sunday, confession every Saturday, Morning Prayer every day at 7am. But we can do these things as and when they are helpful to us. Personally, I find it helpful to begin and end my day with prayer, and to have a space once a week to focus myself on God and be reminded that others are doing the same. That may or may not be true for you, but some sort of structure is always going to help.

These rhythms help us to focus on God and others rather than on ourselves, and they provide rest from the busy, bustling world around us.

Take Part in Communitas

Finally, we avoid burning out by doing life together. But not just for the sake of togetherness. In his wonderful, encouraging, helpful and inspiring (can I recommend it enough? no!) book, “Exiles”, Michael Frost talks about the idea of Communitas rather than Community as a group of people bound by common purpose where that purpose is higher than “community” on its own.

I think this is what we need. We come together as a community because we must, because we recognise that we’re after the same thing and we can’t do it alone rather than because we are told to (such as the pressure to attend particular aspects of Church) or because God tells us to or anything like that.

Communitas is important over community because if we exist for existence sake we lose track of our mission, we become introverted, and we don’t live life in all its fullness. And seeing as we’ve managed to break the stranglehold of Law, we really don’t want to then not experience life in fullness by managing to burn out!

 

So I think there’s an exciting life beyond Christianity. I think it involves God and I think it is sustainable and sensible and structured – but not in a way which induces guilt if it isn’t followed to the letter. I think that we can see a world transformed if we allow God’s guidance in us, allow God’s heart to shape ours, make sure that we spend time doing the things that sustain us, and live and laugh and play and work with others.

Next up, The New Heavens and the New Earth.

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