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Family Disagreements…

For a while my dad had a liberal Catholic retired vicar in his congregation who would occasionally help out. Dad and he were talking about communion (and I think he thought Dad was being a bit fussy!) Dad said: “Over the years quite a lot of blood has been spilled over these issues!” to which the reply came “but none of mine!”

To me this illustrated three points, the first that there have always been disagreements amongst Christians, second that Christians have not disagreed in a loving and Christ-like way (burning and torturing those we disagree with seems catastrophically at odds with the one who says “love your enemies”) and thirdly what is our response -is it to say that things don’t matter or aren’t important or do we find a way of graciously disagreeing well in a Godly and respectful way?

Although in our culture we do not torture and execute one another but yet we behave badly to those we disagree with. Sadly the conservatives attack the liberals both saying they are “not proper Christians” or “thinking compassionate human beings”. In recent years both sides of the women priests/bishops debate behaved badly as have both sides in the ongoing debate on human sexuality. Yet too so often sadly the local Church politics can become toxic over all sorts of petty trivialities when we lose our Kingdom perspective. Sadly, too many people have left Churches bruised not by God but human sin and spitefulness.
What does it mean to “seek first the Kingdom of God” where we are seeking primarily to see God’s will be done on “earth as in heaven” which often means that we may have to surrender our ego’s, status quo bias or modern-day pharisee seeking to thwart the work of the Spirit, before we start throwing stones have we gone before God in prayer (interestingly in my former parish my most obstructive and difficult person didn’t attend a single prayer meeting in the 8 years I was there, which I think was not co-incidence).
Too often as Christians we are far too prepared to give someone a piece of our mind, but never a piece of our heart.

Each of us has a responsibility to choose how we behave towards one another, chose whether we separate from the crowd and speak up for righteousness. It is amazing how one person can change the direction and atmosphere of a meeting. Are we people that bring peace or escalate conflict? Do we abide by the principles of is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind -if not it is sinful behaviour.

On one occasion I spent a whole day trying to make peace between two church members about where and how high plates were stacked in the church hall kitchen, neither would apologize or reconcile with one another.

How as Churches resolve our major disputes if we cannot even live in peace within our own Christian communities?

Christianity requires us not only to hear a sermon on loving our neighbour, nor to just highlight it in our Bibles, but to actually live it out in how we treat one another.

We badly need to not only discover what is/isn’t orthodox belief but learn what is orthopraxis behaviour. Too often (on whichever side) we have not just “won” debated but lost people we have grieved the spirit of God, divided the body of Christ and alienated those we are called to reach!

We live in a world that tolerates everyone and everything, but I think Jesus didn’t tolerate people but rather loved them. I do not want to be the kind of Christian that just tolerates people.

Nor do I want to be in Church which exists in an uneasy truce where people are apathetic about their faith and choosing not to think in a grown-up way about the elephants in the room, but instead lean to behave as Christians as we engage, listen and love on both sides of any debate.

Our culture has fallen for the lie that if we don’t agree with people, we must hate them! This is made worse by how we weaponize words on social media. The truth is we can embrace people we disagree with in a healthy, respectful and loving way, indeed often we grow and flourish when we engage, debate and journey with those whom we disagree with rather than trying to live in an echo-chamber of only engaging with people who think the same as us. Indeed, it is the friction within our relationships and within our thinking that often is the catalyst for God’s refiners fire that helps us understand ourselves, one another and God better.

My colleague Dave (a Christian) does an RE lesson with a humanist, both disagree with one another on the answers to life’s most important questions, but can still be friends with honesty and authenticity. They are not saying ‘it doesn’t matter’ but rather modelling how to disagree well with grace, respect and listening to each other.

Jesus let people disagree with him, walk away from him and wasn’t afraid to speak up and speak out when he disagreed with things.

We are called to love one another even when we don’t agree, to read the Bible and pray together, being honest about when we disagree with people but that doesn’t mean we don’t love them.

I long to see the local divisiveness of Church politics evaporate by people loving one another and living out their faith.

I long to see the big issues of the day resolved by loving one another, reading and praying together and even when we may not agree over doctrine we still choose to hold together in unity as the people of God, the body of Christ and not grieving the spirit of God.

This maybe messy and uncomfortable but what an amazing witness to the world, we may be an odd and diverse family but one that hangs together even when we disagree and clash our love for one another holds us together as a community of grace.

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I surrender all (no really, everything)

I was in the car chatting to my friend about stuff and the conversation moved a bit deeper, my friend is a Christian and she is gay and she has chosen celibacy as she feels this is what God is calling her too.

It prompted an interesting conversation about the call of those of us who follow Jesus to surrender all to him.

Some Christians who are gay do not feel that this is something that God is calling them too and have gay partners, there are also some Christians who would insist on mandatory celibacy for all gay people. It is this subject
which has been the ‘deadlock’ issue for large parts of the Church.

Yet, I want to take a step back from it all, and think afresh about the idea of Jesus being Lord of all:
Jesus, Lord of my everything.
Jesus, Lord of every relationship I have.
Jesus, Lord of all my dreams and desires.
Jesus, Lord of my finances and everything I have.
Jesus, Lord of my heart, mind, soul and strength.

There is an oft quoted adage that “if Jesus is not Lord of all, is he Lord at all!”

I recall on one occasion hearing a gay person saying about Jesus: “Yeah but he doesn’t like the way I live my life!” -Yet I believe that Jesus is good news for everyone!

As I thought about this I began to realise that I have no authority to tell anyone what they can and can’t do -especially if they are not Christians-, in the old model of Christendom we have tried to impose a moral structure on people who do not believe in Jesus and it feels like the heavy yoke of legalism.

Christians I believe we are all called to impact and encourage each other, iron sharpening iron, but also carrying one another’s burdens and loving one another, and we have yet to manage to disagree well with compassion, love and mutual respect.

Somehow we need to look afresh at our message and realise that it is truly good news for everyone whoever they are.

Yet although Jesus is good news but also requires sacrifice and surrender from us all. If we submit to Christ as Lord, we will be challenged profoundly in every area of our life as we go through God’s refiners fire, the process of sanctification, being made Holy by God with him at work in our lives by his Spirit.

Saying “yes” to Christ is a big decision, Jesus himself urges those to “count the cost” of following him and uses the picture of “picking up the cross” to describe the Christian life.
I worry that the Church has obsessed about sex and sexuality, that this is the only subject that is talked about, but I know God is wanting me to surrender things each and everyday and this extends to every area of my life, we are in grave danger of selling discipleship sort if we just focus on one part of life to the exclusion of all others.

We often trot out the truism that “God accepts us as we are, but loves us too much to let us stay that way”. If we hear and heed the call of Christ what are we prepared to sacrifice for him, the disciples on the Galilean shores left everything, and the rich young ruler choose cash over Christ, what of us?

Sadly the Church has become obsessed by what we do in bed rather than what we do within our banks or how we treat our breather? ! Jesus cares about every area of our lives, including our sexual, financial dealings and friendships.
What does it mean for Jesus to be our Lord of every area of our lives?

What does it mean to live for Christ and hold nothing back?

Which stems from a question each and every follower of Christ (or seeker of Christ) needs to ask: “If I come to Christ and seek to follow him, can I trust him with my whole life -including the bits I care most about and want to hold on to!” Which is asking if God good? Does he want the best for us?

Yet, as I urged the lad I met with Street Pastors come to Christ and know he love you, as you follow him and learn to trust him, we will be changed and challenged.

Other Christians will have different views, but when we disagree we need to learn to love and be gracious with one another, respect difference and read the Bible together prayerfully asking God to speak to us.

Recently my friend and colleague has been doing some fab RE lessons with the chair of Dorset humanist associations, they are friends, and they do a fantastic lesson together despite disagreeing they get on well and respect one another with love. How I long for this attitude to become more prevalent within the Church.

So, let’s take a moment not to just think about surrendering to Christ to be something that we try to impose on other people, but something we all do coming to Christ and being transformed more into his likeness, not judging one another but learning together with mutual love and respect.

Most of all, let us come to Christ knowing he loves us and we can trust him with everything that makes us who we are, and know that he is for us and not against us, wanting to bless and not to hurt, knowing he is good and his plans for us are good too.

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Recovering Pharisees.

As I began to write these blogs there came a As I began to write these blogs there came a moments realisation that I would have to talk about the gay issue as most of us have had the teenage church sex talk that included the line “About God creating Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” (which is something of an unhelpful trivialisation of an important debate).

As I thought about this topic I recalled my journey on this (and other issues) and I cringe with shame at how unloving and judgemental I have been at times. At the time I would have said I was speaking up for the authority of scripture and defending truth (although I still have a high view of scripture and care as much about believing what is true as I always have). I realised I was in danger of loving cold hard doctrinal positions more than people. Orthodoxy (right doctrine/belief) is important but, so I have come to discover is Orthopraxis (right living) how we behave, how we treat one another matters to God.

As I thought about how I ruled people ‘in’ and ‘out’ I felt convicted -its not my place to rule anyone in or out- and as I looked at the life of Jesus who showed those who thought they were ‘in’ might not be and those who thought they were ‘out’ were welcomed in.

I remember a young person saying to me when I was doing Street Pastors “you must hate me because I am gay!” which made me realise what a tragic message we have sent the LGBT+ community, “Jesus really loves you mate” I said both our eyes welling up.

That night I was deeply challenged by the words of Jesus when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:

“9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I realised that I was a Pharisee!
Or at least on occasions (probably more frequently than I would like to admit) I could be pharisaic.

I would think that I was occupying the moral high ground, yet I know and knew I was broken, flawed and fallible really challenged me! The words of Jesus to “let those without sin cast the first stone!” remained as challenging today as they were 2000 years ago, the call not “not too judge one another” or to ”try and remove the speck in my brother or sisters’ eye whilst ignoring the plank in my own.

As a Christian I can’t stand in condemning judgement of anyone because I am someone in vast need of forgiveness and grace -before God I know I am a sinner- nor can I judge someone else’s servant.

Indeed, Jesus’ command to love one another has no exceptions -indeed to love people we agree with on everything is easy the challenge comes when people think/believe/act differently from how we think they should is when it becomes challenging.

I remember saying that “there is level ground before cross of Christ we all come needing mercy and grace and none of us can stand tall confident in our own righteousness but empty-handed trusting only in the blood of Jesus that saves us”.

I wondered too whether I might be more condemning of the things I wasn’t tempted to do rather than the weaknesses I easily slipped into?! Why are certain sins (often sexual sins) seen as much worse than greed or gossip or any other sin?

A Native American Proverb says: “before you judge someone walk a mile in their shoes”. As someone who suffers from depression, I have had many well-meaning Christians say unhelpful things to me because they simply have not experienced what I am going through and do not understand it, I wonder if the same is true for issues of sexuality and other issues? It is very easy to just say “its sinful” and close our minds and hearts rather than listen, learn and love real people with their experience, struggles, thoughts, doubts and questions -the second is a costlier call but I believe is more Christ-like, meeting people where they are at, coming alongside, rather than standing back shouting at them from the side-lines.

I was asked on the local TV station “what would you do if as gay person came into your church?” (I should have corrected the interviewer and said ‘its Christ’s Church not mine’). but I said “I would welcome them, introduce myself and make sure they had coffee and cake, which is what I would do if anyone else walked into Church”.

At a recent Messy Church our local Vicar Tess talked about the disciples trying to keep the children away from Jesus -and Jesus said “let the little children come to me”- and the image struck me that I don’t want to be that type of disciple!

I do not want to stop or obstruct anyone from coming to Jesus.

I also know that when people encounter Jesus they are transformed, I also know that often his priorities and work in our lives often looks different than we expect, because the Holy Spirit knows us all better than we know ourselves, and maybe Jesus doesn’t instantly say the things to people that we think he should. The more I have thought about mission I have concluded that mainly I am to introduce people to Jesus and then slip quietly away embracing the call to invisibility and gently facilitating people meeting the Living God.
I’m not saying we cannot have opinions on these matters, but as we need to be wise and gracious in our conversations about things that Christians disagree on.

We are told to “always be prepared to give an account for the hope that we have with gentleness and respect” when preaching the gospel, we need to extend love and respect to those who we might to agree with, to listen to their journey and their experience, be wise about when, how and even if to speak, to pray and read the Bible together with openness, respect, and in the context of relationship of love.

I came across a quote from Billy Graham when a gay couple travelled with us in one of our Churches “it is God’s job to judge, the holy spirit’s job to convict and my job to love!” and loving people with the mess that life brings is an example of grace.

The call to love our neighbour as ourselves has no wriggle room, we are not called to love only those who appear respectable, indeed Christ said he had come not to call respectable people but sinners. Jesus hung out with all sorts of people and yet the Church has sadly become very respectable.

The number of times I have had conversations with people who feel (for whatever reason) that they wouldn’t be welcome is heart-breaking. I want Church to be messy and I want to be a Christian that looks more like Jesus who was constantly getting into trouble with the religious elite by loving and hanging out with people and in places that people thought he should not.

Tragically I believe that the Pharisee disease is rife amongst our Churches, and sadly many Christians end up becoming Pharisees, worried about the petty things such as rules, objects, possessions and other trivialities and showing no grace or love. Sadly, too often we end up looking more like the grumpy older brother in the parable of the lost son -the older son is I believe much more lost than his younger brother!

If I ever end up running a Church again, I would call it “Recovering Pharisees” -as I want to look like Jesus more than Caiaphas (the very religious chief priest, the head pharisee), I want to be full of grace and truth, I want to be someone that “by this will people know that I am Christ’s disciple, that I love one another” as I point people to Jesus who is able to fully understand all the complexity of humanity and meets us all where we are at, but loves us all too much to leave us there.

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Simplify.

A challenge I wrestling with is the battle of my mind (which is the place most battles are won or lost!) as I seek to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. To see God’s goodness around and surrounding me each day is a daily discipline but one that has impacted me deeply, often seeing those precious moments like diamonds in the dust which ordinarily I would have missed.

This gratitude attitude has also helped me embrace another spiritual discipline that of simplicity. To live simply, to seek to be contented with what I have and to opt out of the world’s view that the accumulation of more and more stuff is where fulfilment lies (which it doesn’t!). Instead it comes from the profound realisation that life is gift that is to be enjoyed, celebrated and savoured rather than consumed greedily.

As we opt for a simpler life we discover that we are also living a more sustainable life as we in the affluent west devour much more than our fair share of the world’s resources. The more of us who choose to live simply can enable other to simply live.

So often we live our lives at such a rushed manic speed we miss most of what is happening around us, but when we choose an attitude of gratitude and embrace living simply we are deliberately slowing down and having a greater awareness of all that is around us.

When we live simply we learn to declutter our lives by having less but paradoxically enjoying it more. As our lives become less about extravagant consumption we are forced to reassess our priorities and values discovering afresh what really matters (and what is mere distractions!). As we simplify our lives closing down much of the ambient distractions we become more free to hear both God and our neighbour. In simplicity we discover the space and freedom to pursue peace and discover joy. Living lives that are cluttered with the stress and complexities of life is literally killing people, the 21st century dream is being revealed as a nightmare and if the Church can embody the truth that another life is possible that is an exciting witness to the world.

More-over livingally different lives which are better for us and our mental health and family welfare, it is actually living our lives as God intended us to. Jesus says “look at the lilies they neither sow nor reap but your heavenly father clothes them…so do not worry about what you will eat or wear…” John the Baptist says “if someone has two coats give one away” -we need a lot less than we think! Indeed, when we wrap ourselves in the comfort of possessions and material security we fall (back) in love with the world and the things of this world (friendship with the world is enmity towards God) and we insulate ourselves from our need of God or other people and it becomes harder to hear God’s voice.

So, a challenge for us all is to learn to simplify our lives re-priorities our lives around our necessities not our luxuries (indeed, when we fast from our luxuries we enjoy them all the more when we have them -the law of delayed gratification!). Let us live in a radical and counter cultural way, the way we were supposed to live in the first place, the way God intended us to, the way the world is longing to see embodied and lived out to prove that life does not have to be lived the way the world tells us it had to be lived.

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Earn this?

Recently I was watching the film saving private Ryan and (spoiler alert) his Captain dies saying “earn this!” and the film closes with an elderly Ryan crying at the Captain’s grave asking if he was worthy enough?

It is the opposite of grace, how would you ever know if you’d done enough if you had earned it? If you were truly worthy? Yet I believe that many people try and earn their salvation trying to impress God with their good deeds, their spectacular piety and hardwork. Yet this a false gospel of works, or exchange and bargaining rather than a gospel (good news) of grace generously given by God.

Saving Private Ryan is a beautiful and moving film, but as I watched this I realised how unlike the Captain Jesus is. When Jesus died on the cross for us he said “it is finished” and the temple curtain split in two, he didn’t say “earn this” it was freely given and paid for in full and freely offered to us all who are undeserving.

We as humans know our total dependence on God, every breath in our lungs or beat of our heart is a gift from him. The food we eat, the love we give and the live we receive has its origins in God, in fact every good and perfect gift comes from him.

Rather than saying “earn this” Jesus said “this is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you, feed on me by faith with Thanksgiving” -the idea of thankfulness and gratitude is at the heart of the Christian faith, the word Eucharist literally means “thankfulness”. To live “eucharistically” is to live each day with thankfulness to God, as are called to be a grateful people. We owe God everything ‘for he has created us and redeemed us”. When we were separated from God -dead in our sins- when there was no way God made a way for us to be reconciled with him through the wonderful unearned gift of Christ Jesus.

As I thought about my attitude I realise that I have become complacent about the beauty and the blessings all around me. I have fallen for the lie that happiness is consumable, ironic that we have more material possessions than we have ever had before and yet we have never been more depressed and yet we keep on and on spending!

Recently after/during a really tough bout of depression I was walking the dog along the beach and I was struck afresh by the beauty and wonder of creation, and began the mindful discipline of recalling what I wanted to thank God for. Often I take for granted all I have received and I need to reconvert my eyes and hearts to all I have been given, maybe this is true for us all?

When the dark moments come I recall the things I am grateful to God for -both large and small- and as I begin to resurrect gratitude in what I have rather than the pain of what feels wrong or is missing or lost. It is a tough discipline to create and maintain an attitude of gratitude, focusing on what we have rather than what we lack! Choosing to celebrate and savour our blessings to sustain us and making us more resilient in darker moments.

It is an act of faith to choose a different attitude, yet one that I believe causes us to shine, demonstrating something distinctive and beautiful to a watching world.

Gratitude brings warmth into our soul where as a scarcity mindset makes us cold, begrudging and bitter. A life of gratitude makes us healthy and whole where the opposite diminishes us.

Gratitude is transformative as when we realise that happiness and success is not measured by the accumulation of stuff we are liberated not only to find joy in living simply but in that to find contentment, a rare treasure within our culture.

Gratitude effects how we treat others, we have received so much from God that it should overflow into all our relationships and should exhibit generousity shining out from us to others, the more we are generous the more we look like God.

Gratitude will effect our priorities we who have received so much from God will (or at least ought) want to sacrifice themselves extravagantly in sharing what God has done with other people.

As I think of generousity I cannot help but think of the woman who broke a pint of pure nard over Jesus’s feet in an extravagant gesture of worship (costing about a years wages). The woman knew she was sinful and the Pharisee who seems smug and self righteous were told by Jesus that “those who have been forgiven much love much, and those who have been forgiven little love little!”.

So let’s pursue an attitude of gratitude together day as we emulate the God we serve in generosity.

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Creation and Re-Creation.

When we think of Genesis what do we focus on? (Sadly, too often I think we ignore it altogether!) Augustine focused his eyes on Genesis three and the fall of humanity and ‘original sin’ -we are all born with a predisposition and an inevitability of sin- but more recently the pendulum has swung back with the reminder that the original plan of God was blessing, original blessing and that God’s goodness is indelible in the world and all of his creation, however much sin takes hold God’s likeness and nature will still been able to be glimpsed (even if just ever so briefly) within his creation.
Those of us who are passionate about issues of justice, compassion, ecology and sustainable living see much with Genesis that we want to highlight too.
Yet primarily I believe that Genesis is a creation account in God’s recreation narrative, God who makes everything is making everything new and one day he will bring this to it fullness of completion. Yet too often we don’t see scripture as a recreation narrative which leaves us not quite sure what to do with Genesis!
Often we live lives full of ‘deaths’ -or what feels like deaths- but we are also people who believe in the goodness of God where his creation is also filled with resurrection opportunities.
The idea of making new is a powerful image to partner with God in, building new relationships -possibly even on the foundations of ones that had been broken, new seasons in marriages and friendships that looked like they were dying, new opportunities sometimes even in the shell of the old, new challenges and new and fresh vocations awaiting us to pick up.
None of us is too old or set in our ways for a new idea or possibility, indeed it is often such things that people say “these keep me young”. In the west we do not have the same deference for the older people that exists within the east. Age does not always bring wisdom, sometimes aging can be incredibly destructive as we become jaded, cynical, bitter, controlling where we become a cork rather than a catalyst, sometimes we can age ‘badly’ bringing out the worst that is within us. Yet, too many of us know older folk with a zest for life, although their bodies are old they have something very special about them which is very much alive, energising, they have learned -although their bodies have grown frail- how to keep their hearts and minds young to not allow aging to be corrosive. Yet, age is sometimes just a number, sometimes younger people have aged badly their outlook has diminished and hope has evaporated.
We are ourselves ‘new creations’ when we are in Christ, when we come to Jesus our old lives of sin and shame are dealt with at the cross of Christ and we are cleansed from sin, forgiven, restored -made me. The Apostle Paul says this “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come”. As the Spirit of God -the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and makes us alive in Christ- works in us I believe we often have to leave the attitude of death and decay that creeps into the human heart and is often so debilitating for the community at the foot of the cross of Christ and ask him to fill us afresh with himself, his life giving Holy Spirit. We need to discover -even though the grey hairs might be appearing- what it means when Jesus instructed us all to become like little children.
Yet, being a new creation is more that developing a new attitude but also the promise of resurrection and eternity, as we are a new creation we death for Christian is a comma rather than a full stop. I remember hearing an anecdote of a great Christian Minister who died and at his funeral he had written these words “you have come here today mourning my death, but I am more alive than I have ever been!” We are people of the resurrection. We live in a world where resurrection is deeply interwoven into the created order, after death comes life, the death of a caterpillar is the birth of a butterfly, a resurrection picture whereby the butterfly is more glorious and beautiful than the caterpillar reminding me of the words of scripture that says “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart can comprehend what God has in store for those who love him!”
At the heart of the universe is a creator God who not let sin, death, destruction, disease have the last word but rather will end with the restoration of all things for all eternity.

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