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Hell of an idea (2)

I was having a beer on Poole Quay with my friend who had a fishing rod with a plastic fish on the end of it which didn’t seem to attract any fish (there is almost certainly a blog in that later!) and he said:

“I want you to write another blog on hell!”

I laughed as it seems as though if you even start wrestling with this doctrine there are many who will chuck you over the bridge as “going liberal” or “selling out” and yet it is a doctrine that for many of us is problematic.

In my previous blog I spoke of the wrestle I had when my grandfather died without (appearing) to have a personal faith (and had he said the prayer?) and about how I had to trust him to Jesus. Something I had to do often with funerals of people who appeared not to have faith to not give false theological assurances, point people to the completed work of Jesus which means that even the most dire and unlikely situation and circumstances can have hope, and urging people to “trust their loved ones to mercy of God”.

I remember in Kingswood talking with someone who was saying about hell being “eternal, conscious torment” –which was a doctrine that was majored on in this church- and I remember asking myself is that actually what the Bible teaches?

Jesus certainly uses this image in the story of Lazerus and the rich man, and there are other parables about being thrown into the darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. There is a phrase in Revelation about the “second death” and often scripture uses words like “perishing” –another theory is called aniliationism an ultimate end and death. The Orthodox Church talk about Jesus storming hell and preaching the gospel (which has biblical backing) in the creeds this is what Jesus did on Easter Saturday but the Orthodox will argue that the cross and resurrection are outside of time so perhaps Christ’s ability to rescue reaches further than we think. Having studied the passaged, my honest answer is I do not know what hell is like.  I know whatever it is like that the cross says that Jesus wants “none to perish” and when I read the sermons of Peter, Stephen and Paul they do not talk largely about hell, although there is a talk of reckoning and judgement.

I think I have come to a place where I have to admit I don’t know, the one thing I am sure of is that the often used evangelical phrase “the Bible clearly says…” is wrong, scripture is actually quite hard to pin down on what happens to those who choose to reject Christ, they are all united on the fact that it is not good and we should accept the rescue that Jesus brings us.

Universalism, the belief that everyone gets to heaven eventually has for me some problems that I struggle to accept: –

Free-will people have to be able to be lost otherwise free will isn’t free will, we have to be free to make choices –even if they are bad ones- for free-will to be real.

Repentance:- Sin may have been atoned for by Jesus’ death and resurrection and so the means of forgiveness can be obtained, but repentance still really matters both to God and to the victims of what has been suffered.  It is really hard to forgive those who are not sorry, and for heaven to be heaven the persecuted and their persecutors maybe alongside each other but that can only happen if there is true heartfelt repentance?

God loves those who’ve been sinned against:- When I was 17 I had a friend Simon who was in my history A level class who had a really sleezy driving instructor who used oogle girls out the window. One day Simon got fed up with this and said when he made a comment about a girl walking past the car “That is my sister (he didn’t actually have a sister)”.  The guy was suddenly really apologetic.  This was the opener for my “relationship talk” –every Christian youth worker has one! God is a loving parent but he cares about his children and what has happened to them; judgement is part of the Christian story, a reckoning –we will be asked whether we have built with Gold Silver or costly stones or with “wood, hay and straw”… Just as God now puts his finger on areas of our lives he wants to change, surely when everything is brought into the light –truth revealed- things will come out and repentance will have to be given or justice be done.

So, I cannot be a universalist by conviction, but I do believe that God is desperate for us all to come into relationship with him; and maybe the tension some of us feel with finding some aspects of this (everyone getting to heaven eventually) attractive is humanity being made in God’s image wanting desperately for those we love to see “mercy triumph over judgement” and that inward tension we feel is a reflection of God’s awesome love a desire for all to come back to him in repentance and faith.

Another challenge this subject gives us is our understanding of salvation; it seems to me that Jesus unsettled many religious folk who thought they were in by including those they thought were out, indeed he talks about the “tax collectors and prostitutes entering the Kingdom of heaven BEFORE them” –religion and lack of grace stand in opposition to the cross of Christ, and perhaps sometimes our views on hell and judgement reveal that we are standing with the Pharisees and older brother, rather than with the younger son returning home penniless and smelling of the pig sty.

I wonder, and this is a dangerous thought I am about to throw out here, when I was a Vicar in Kingswood, sadly some of the nastiest people I have ever met went to church and would call themselves Christians –they may have even prayed a prayer once- but when I read James he questions whether a faith without any fruit will save us? Hebrews 6 talks about if we continue to live in sin what atonement can there be? Does “saying a prayer” really mean you are “in” or is it the daily choice to put our faith in Jesus and pick up our cross and follow him (or am I making faith and following Jesus “a work”?).  Perhaps, I am wrong, the Bible also says that: “if you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead then you will be saved” –but maybe we don’t think enough about “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” or “making our calling and election sure”, Jesus himself says: “If salt looses its saltiness it is no good for anything except to be thrown out”.

Many of us struggle with the idea that a horrible Christian gets into heaven and a saintly agnostic wont, despite one looking Christ-like and the other not. I wonder if something of this idea was in Jesus’ mind when he preached the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25) where those who refused to feed/clothe/visit/shelter/give a drink to the thirst are damned and those who serve lovingly are saved, Jesus even says: “even those who give a cup of water because you are my disciples will surely not loose their reward”.  

Which leads me onto thinking more about eternity, a more biblical idea is “God’s Kingdom coming” rather than “going to heaven when we die” and we as human-beings can fall into two equal and opposing dangers, we can either make EVERYTHING about eternity and so becoming a Christian becomes like a “get out of hell free card” and our lives are basically waiting for our death or Jesus’ return(!) or we focus so much on the here and now that we loose any sense of an eternal perspective and the hope that it brings, somehow we need to learn the mindset of an “already but not yet” both focused on there here and now AND eternity.

So, my basic problem with universalism is it is a too easy answer to a difficult question, yes we need ideas like this to surface to help us grasp mercy, grace and God’s deep desire for his peoples salvation, but it does not answer some of the other tensions around repentance, free-will and how Christians live out their lives.

So, I conclude this piece much as I started, deeply confused, but having revisited some of the tensions within myself.

As I thought about the tensions between God’s love and desire for mercy alongside his commitment to free-will and the need for human-beings to repent I wonder whether rather than these doctrines being two contradictions that tie us up in knots, instead these truths in tension can be like the opposite ends of a bow (as in bow and arrow) the tension between the two positions is what enables the arrow to fire forward.

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The Evangelistic Faux Pass of me aged 11 (Part II)

I put up a blog last week whereby I talked about as a kid being passionate about Jesus, but actually pretty clueless of how to share my faith wisely and well with my mates.

A friend who I have recently got back in touch with, wrote this as a response:

You might cringe looking back at “Andy the Evangelist” from the Cavendish (our school) days. But the only reason I am a Christian and work for the church is because of the 13 year old you were.
Blessings mate.

I thought about this a lot, my friend (Andrew) Evers became a Christian when I was only just about hanging on into church and me and my relationship with God.  I had invited him along to a few things happening at church, and then church itself, and –surprisingly he had said “yes” and so most Sunday Mornings the doorbell would go half an hour before the service started (when I had been used to coming in at some-point during the first song).

A reminder that often in our weakness God is strong.

Scripture tells us not to ‘despise the day of small things’ and from an awkward invite to a CYFA group (do people remember CYFA, what happened to them?!) saw  a guy come to faith. Fast forward thirteen years or so and I helped with his (then) youth group at Soul Survivor summer festival. A number of his young people encountered God in a real, authentic and challenging way, and several prayed a prayer giving their lives to Christ. I have no idea what has happened to them, or how many are still walking with God, but I am sure some are.

In a way perhaps this is a beautiful real life example of the parable of the sower, from one seed sown has come a greater harvest, we are just called to sow –however clumsily.

It is easy to look back at evangelistic mistakes and feel the blood rush to your head with embarrassment and from that place of feeling like a wally it discourages us from trying again… Satan loves to remind us of our ‘blooper reel’ where as the spirit reminds us that he can even use those mistakes for his honour and glory.

I was talking to a friend after the service last time and somehow  we ended up talking about the author Jennifer Rees Larcombe who wrote about her experiences of God whilst in chronic pain in a wheelchair and then later (many years later) about healing, and I remember doing something in RE about the story, and I remember passing around a photocopied newspaper article where she was holding her wheelchair above her head.  The thing I most remember about that lesson was what didn’t happen, no one took the mickey, made jokes about being gullible, rolled their eyes or whatever.

I have no idea whether that made any difference to anyone, I also remember having lots of great conversations about God at the Sherwin Arms, the pub near my theological college, and being excited by the ‘normal’ opportunities I had to talk about my faith, but 13 years later (as far as I know) no one has become a Christian since. A strange paradox that when I was doing evangelism “at my best” it seems (as far as I can see) not to have been terribly fruitful and some of my most clumsy attempts have resulted in changed lives.

As I thought of my evangelistic history I certainly would have love to have seen more people come to know Jesus, but success is not based around results but by obedience, and many of us wont know the impact we have, yet one day all our stuttered utterances, moments of bravery and attempted answers to difficult questions will one day be a crown of splendour that we can lay before the feet of Christ, as we stand there for eternity with people for whom we were instrumental in their journey of salvation. This crown goes before Jesus as he turns the water of our evangelistic attempts into the wine of his Kingdom and used by his spirit.

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Evangelistic faux pass of my 11 year old self…

I went to a friends Church this morning on zoom in Eastbourne, one of the things I have liked about lockdown is it has been possible to worship with different friends and also to hear sermons from mates, family and former colleagues who I wouldn’t normally get to hear from.

The preacher was awesome that Sunday, but that is not what I am blogging about today.  The service was led by a guy, Martyn Relf, who used to be my RE teacher, and he said “I remember you when you were a kid telling the whole class you wanted to be a missionary!” I cringed, as when I was a kid I loved Jesus and wanted to share him, but I didn’t know what to say or how to do it, and just ended up making me a bit of a target to get bullied.

I probably could write a blog, indeed I have probably written many, talking about ‘zeal without wisdom and knowledge being folly’ and how we need to be wise, prayerful and sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit as we share our faith.

Perhaps, maybe unconsciously, that is why I am passionate about the school of mission, about helping people to live out their faith well and fruitfully.

I wonder with our kids do we ever help them to talk about their faith well from a young age, pulpits seem regularly to be thumped by some preacher telling us to “make Christ known” but rarely is there any real and helpful training to enable us to do this well. Many people have rarely seem evangelism modelled well.  Often courses on evangelism are taught by bookish minister who probably don’t see a person who isn’t a Christian very often from one week to the next(!) in fact one former Pastor I see each week told me that when he left his job and began to lead his church full-time he didn’t see anyone who wasn’t a Christian for several weeks, and he ended up becoming a cricket umpire so he could meet some mates who weren’t Christians.

My boss and friend Dave, does an amazing course each year in Exeter for (anyone including) guys going off to Uni to help them think about mission and evangelism. I remember sitting there on his course thinking “this is brilliant” and then thought “I could have really done with hearing this when I was just turned 11 and launched into the scary world of secondary school”.

Interestingly I often talk about the Christian life as walking the tightrope, am a a legalist (a pharisee, smug judgemental but mildy holy) or am I a liberal (very gracious and non judgemental but sinning like it is going out of fashion) and I have fallen off both sides of that wire –Jesus obviously the greatest tight-rope walker ever managed to be holy, loving and full of grace and truth- but Jesus was God right so we’d expect him to get it right, and then I came across Daniel, a young lad who probably felt much of the things as I felt as a child wandering around a scary and at times brutal secondary school when he was dumped in Babylon and tried to live out his faith in a hostile and alien culture and context.

Daniel let them call him a Babylonian name, he ended up working for their government, but he didn’t end up eating their defiled food nor praying to their King, and although I got a few bumps and bruises and a bit of name calling I never got fed to any lions!

Yet I can count on one hand how many times I have heard people talk about how to navigate through the weirdness of modern life well in a Christ-like way, and much of the comments made from the front of churches make me realise that those who are talking have very little idea what “real life” or at least “my real life” feels like.

For me, my issue wasn’t a need for greater apologetics, or even how to explain the gospel in 2 minutes, but how to “be Christ-like and ‘normal’”  as I am trying to develop ‘a school of mission’ my whole idea was summed up by my friend AJ who said “basically Mase your saying ‘how can we help Christians to live and talk about Jesus without being a nob!’ –Maybe put slightly more bluntly that I would have done, but that is about the gist of it.

I remember reading Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy” –the film is amazing but the book is a whole lot better! The boy Marcus a nerdy kid who doesn’t understand life and is bullied massively becomes friends with this older guy Will, who is cool (but very shallow) and there is this beautiful bit where they have an argument. Will thinks Marcus needs a wise “dad” type figure to “impart wisdom and be wise and learned” (which Will is very ill equipped to do) but Marcus doesn’t actually, Marcus wants someone to tell him that Kirk Obain (really Kurt Cobain this pretty girl at school is being cruel to him) does not play for Manchester United but is the lead singer in the band Nivana and wants someone to help him buy trainers that look decent.  

My friend Simon who sadly passed away used to openly mock many of the ordinands at St. John’s Vicar Factory for being “completely up their own backside” (slight paraphrase!) and wanted to run his own module in the pub –called BS2, BS was Biblical Studies and college seems unaware that BS is a common abbreviation for bullsh*t, BS2 would have been beer studies with Simon where you could only pass by being “not embarrassed to introduce to our (mostly not Christian) mates in the Sherwin Arms” –despite this being a humorous suggestion he was actually right and wise!

So, there I was, cringing at the reminder of my very poor attempts at evangelism to the other guys in my class, and I later really compromised my faith too, I got it wrong a lot, but in getting it wrong I think God really taught me a lot, and when I eventually ended up going back into what could have been a Christian bubble I realised that the years at school, sixth form, work, pub, mates had meant I no longer fitted and I hope that the more I do what I am passionate about doing, there might be more kids in school –or people where-ever- who are unafraid to talk about Jesus, but do so wisely and well, faithfully and fruitfully.

My friend Mark Rich has a phrase “zeal without wisdom is folly” –the opposite of my misjudged 11 year old outburst!

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Joseph (Jesus Step-Dad) an unsung hero…

I remember aged 10 being asked to play Joseph in the Church nativity in Eastbourne, evidently this was a real honour as the other kids in Sunday School had had to go through all the other parts before they got their chance for the two main roles (I was the new Vicars kid and had usurped the top job).

Yet I came back from my first rehersal pretty deflated “he doesn’t do ANYTHING!” I moaned. He just stands there! At that time Margaret ‘Milk Snatcher’ Thatcher was in office, and her unfortunate husband Dennis had to work out how to be a PM’s spouse.

Joseph was a non event in my dramatic life as a child thespian(!), he just stood there.

Yet, I have come to really appreciate this “unsung hero” of the nativity story recently, mainly because he does just stand there.

Let’s take a moment to look at this from Jewish eyes, he marries his betrothed (and I think he really loves her, but maybe I’m just an old romantic!) despite the scandal and the shame, he cares for her, marries her and stands by her, out of  what I believe is both divine obedience, being a good man and perhaps a deep love for Mary (the old romantic rears his head again). He probably heard peoples’ whispers, saw their judgemental looks and was aware of their spitefulness. Yet he stood loyally by his wife.

Mary is, rightly, given centre stage in the birth narratives, but Joseph is there, and perhaps his role was there as a support, friend and protector for his wife and her baby, the step dad to God incarnate.  His role may not have had many lines dedicated to it in scripture.

Yet “just being there” is a massive think, I have mixed views about Mary –on one level I think “what an amazing woman of God” and on other level I think “poor kid!”- and think as she does something incredible, give birth to God and raise a child, having someone whose “there” is really important. I thought that if the disciples were sent out in pairs to do the work of the Kingdom then this is one of those Kingdom moments where God in his goodness and love sent her someone to be with her.

Anyone who has been engaged in messy church stuff, or challenging mission contexts and just the crap life can throw at you knowing the awesome power of someone who is prepared to stand by you is beyond value.

I remember a sermon of my dads –rather bizarrely on Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest (as you do!)- and his challenge was saying: “You might not feel like a Zerubbabel, but for someone you could be a Joshua” –there are times and context where I have thought “is this more a Joshua role (supporting someone else)” and times when I have felt like Zerubbabel (called to do something that I felt daunted by).

The call to be a support, to come alongside, to be there, to encourage and to stand with made me think. My mind  went to my mum, who is something of a Joseph character; loyal, kind and an incredibly Godly person but allows someone else –normally my dad whose a Vicar/preacher mainly- to take the more visible role, but without her loyalty, presence, wisdom, support, love and care would he have been able to have faithfully told people about Jesus as fruitfully as he has for the past four –nearly five- decades. Would my dad’s incredible ministry being anything like as fruitful without the strength and (behind the scenes) wisdom and prayer helping him, I think probably not. Is she noticed and thanked –I loose count of the number of times people say “we loved your dad” so much so that I now say (being bitter and twisted but that’s another blog) something about “yeah my parents go the extra-mile” –why in the Christian world do we only eve seem to notice the person with the microphone and not the person praying, cooking, serving, helping with the kids…. (Grrr, rant over!)

I believe the world, and especially our churches, are filled with unsung heroes, faithfully working under the radar. I was thinking about my life in my late teens where much of me staying safe and not ending up in real and deep trouble due to my habitual foolishness was probably down to a wonderful array of saints who prayed for me regularly, probably with my human eyes their impact on my life seems almost invisible but with spiritual eyes I owe these grey haired saints a debt I can never repay.

Perhaps having been young and energetic I fear maybe I have got used to thinking “its all about me” wanting to be Mary (the main character) rather than Joseph (the bit part), maybe I need to learn to stand back and support other people through the births of their visions, achievements and victories.

Later on Jesus meets his cousin John the Baptist, who says “I must decrease so he (Jesus) must increase”.

Shane Claiborne says “everyone wants revolution but no one wants to do the washing up!” in a world where everyone wants to be number one, maybe there is a call to be a number two?!

What of us, do we want to rush in and make everything all about us, are we always wanting to be centre of attention? Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Joseph, who is prepared to be a background character in scripture, but a forefront character in the life of Jesus. Faithfully serving even if it was unglamorous and out of sight.

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I know less, have more doubts and am more aware of my failures, flaws and fallenness… I think that’s called growing!

I get absolutely no points for a catchy title here!

I was thinking the other day about my life and I remember moments when I thought I knew it all, I was brimming with confidence and a (seemingly) confident smile and great dreams of being a “history maker for Jesus” -I think many of my generation jumped and sang in various festival fields to that particular song of Delirious, and most of us genuinely wanted (and still want) to be part of Jesus making history and transforming a broken and hurting world.

I’ve been ordained, I’ve planted a couple of congregations and started a whole load of Fresh Expressions, some worked well and others didn’t, I even did a spot of outreach on Kingswood High Street with Archbishop Justin (always good to name drop!). If I wrote an autobiography there would be some highs and lows, successes and fruit alongside some failures and mistakes. Yet the question we rarely ask those of us as excited teens promised God our all is “have we grown” -indeed, spiritual growth is talked about all the time and yet it seems as though no one ever really talks honestly about how we measure growth. Often we conflate knowledge or learning with growth, I know how to host events, manage teams and write a sermon that has enough jokes and illustrations in it, and these skills are useful. I also learned at college some useful Bible verses and can regurgetate ideas from old theologians and can maybe even surprise you with a little Greek (he’s called Stavros!) This is not spiritual maturity but facts, knowledge and implimenting good practice.

Most of you will probably have guessed that what I am going to say is that spiritual growth is actually based around do I act like Jesus wants me too (even when no one is looking). To be honest, I don’t think I do -or if I do it certainly doesn’t look how I thought it would, and if I do manage it and people see it I know that there is also an awful lot of times when I don’t manage it, and I know I don’t manage it, and I’ve realised that that is okay.

There is a confident arrogance that we often associate with success, it is smug and self satisfied, it’s pleased with itself, and yet this is actually really the opposite of spiritual maturity, it is prideful and boasting (and I have at times felt this too, of which I am not proud, but it happens sometimes).

Scripture tells us that the beginning of wisdom (interesting phrase, “beginning of wisdom’ as wisdom doesn’t have an end destination this side of eternity) is the fear of the Lord”. Which I wonder is meaning a realisation that God is God -all knowing and all powerful- and we are not, wisdom is realising that God and not us has the last word.

I once was asked about my view on the authority of scripture -actually they used the word inerrant which has issues in my mind about translation and our understanding of context- and I said this: “I have no problem with what God says being inerrant but I don’t believe in the inerrancy of my interpretation of what he says!” God is right but we struggle to get the right end of the right stick most of the time, fortunately God is gracious, he sent Jesus, Holy Spirit and the scriptures -and one another- to help us be faithful.

I’m not into labels but want to faithfully follow Jesus which often causes me to ask lots of questions, as I find following Jesus can be confusing, and the more I’ve gone on and the more I have read, the more questions I had… And I came to a point when some questions about certain text really got me tied up in knots releasing I might never get answers, actually it completely changed my reading of the bible, long term for the better I think but certainly for a number of years (yes that is not a misprint) I felt a bit nervous of how to handle it well, maybe I was too cocky with it before?!

Jesus saying “blessed are those who are spiritually poor” or “blessed are those who know their need of God” that a healthy place is not the place of EGO (which has been called an acrostic for Edging God Out) but knowing our dependence on God. It is the paradox of the addict who begins their recovery with AA’s step one when they admit that their lives had become unmanageable, acknowledging their need of help. Proverbs tells us that pride comes before a fall, and I have had times when I thought “I can within stand this” and fell, and as many Christians will testify there are other moment where God has proved the truth of “in our weakness he is strong”.

So, to conclude, I think our spiritual growth actually might not feel like we are developing a ripped six pack, I think it looks humble and often happens gradually, and is about allowing the Christ in us the hope of glory to be seen without the us in us to want to grab the limelight.

As I come into land, I realise that there maybe some of you who are saying that this blog about growth is a cop out because I haven’t talked about measureable things, other than looking like Jesus which in itself is a difficult one as Christ was pretty unpredictable. Yet the key measureable in growth, in becoming more like Jesus are found as the fruit of the spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” and these are normally learned in the challenging crucible of real life where these things take some working at, but the question is “am I revealing more of these more often than I was last week, last month, last year?” And how do I practice these in this context or that senario when another reaction and response probably is keen to take charge.

So growth might not look like success, and wisdom might not involve having all the answers and looking like Jesus often is choosing the right thing in difficult circumstances when the wrong thing feels easier and more natural.

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Smoke Detectors, Jesus and our Consciences…

I was bestman at a friends wedding, and was really nervous about giving the speech (which is odd considering what I do for a living!), her dad got up to speak. “Please don’t be too funny” my insecurity prayed silently.  Within seconds he had the room in hysterics joking about how his daughter used “the smoke alarm as an oven-timer” (although I have eaten around their house since then and don’t remember anything being burned!)

I’ve recently been thinking about smoke alarms (need to get out more I think!) as I came across one of the girls at the Greenhouse drying her hair in the kitchen so as not to set it off! I have also heard of people sticking up a smoke detector and never testing or changing the battery –and wonder how many fires happen and houses burn down without even a beep?

I think smoke detectors are a bit like our consciences, sometimes they are like Davina drying her hair –they go off when there is not fire or danger- I say sorry when someone treads on my foot in a shop!

When I say conscience I mean that bit of us that makes the choices and shapes our thinking, that place where God can speak (although other voices crowd on in there) and controls our journey towards right and wrong, good or bad choices.

The smoke detector keeps beeping even after we have taken out the burned toast? Or living a life plagued by guilt and shame many years later; I remember an old lady in the nursing home saying “I had an affair when I was a younger woman, I expect I will go to hell” –my guess that probably whatever happened that was a long time in the past, but evidently afflicted her mind (and even though at that times I wasn’t really a Christian) I knew enough of my Bible to say that “God forgives all those who repent and turn to him”. 

Do we know God’s conviction of our sin, specific stuff, or, do we get confused by the blanket condemnation, where we just generally feel crap about ourselves and everything (which Christians believe comes not from God but the devil)?

As I thought about this,  I remembered times when I felt –or been made to feel – guilty and have realised that: “I am not sure that was actually my fault?” Rather stupidly my poor handwriting when I was 7 or 8 with a dreadful teacher called Mr. Molloy, I realised I was a child and later found out I was dyslexic, it wasn’t my fault, but I felt guilty about the fact I couldn’t write as neatly as the other kids in the class. 

Maybe there are other people who feel guilty and God is saying: “you have nothing to feel guilty about”, “you did nothing wrong”. Be liberated. Be free.

Shame and false guilt can really damage and destroy us.  One of the names given to God’s Holy Spirit is “the Spirit of all truth” and I believe that he can liberate us from false guilt that can be so corrosive to us.

Some of us have an inner critic, not a complete liar but certainly ungenerous with expectations that are unreasonable.

Our conscience and our ‘inner critic’ sometimes can get muddled or the words (intentionally and sometimes unintentionally) of those around us can cause us suffering which is not right, justified or fair; we all need to think seriously about the words that we sometimes put on one another.

Yet, it is easy just to talk about consciences in terms of people feeling bad about things, but for some people their problem is the opposite of this. The house maybe ablaze and the smoke detector has yet to make a sound.

The apostle Paul speaks blunty about such people saying “their consciences have been seared with a hot iron” they have managed to find a way of taking the batteries out of their internal smoke detector. Your conscience is part of your humanity; it is part of your soul and a gift from God, yet trying to silence the voice of the Holy Spirit and hardening our hearts will lead us away from the blessing that God wants to lavish upon us.

Some of us are probably a bit of a mix between the two, consciences that are ultra sensitive and under-sensitive depending on ‘what, where and who’ we are around and the contexts we find ourselves in.

I am not musical but when I was a Vicar we had to get the organ/piano tuned and you realise how deeply sensitive these complex instruments are to everything –heat, moisture, cold –it doesn’t take much to throw it out of sync –rather like a car when we clip a curb and send our tracking out- so is true of our consciences easy to get out of alignment.

Sometimes the negative comments we believe most deeply about ourselves have come from people who were significant to us perhaps parent, friend, teacher, spouse, child, mentor –and sometimes people (even often well meaning ones) can say horrendous things that we have allowed to shape and become part of us and our minds often are highly fertile and receptive to those words that take root and grow (to mix my metaphors there). 

It is okay to visit with God our strengths and weaknesses, God knows that he didn’t give me the gifts to be a ballerina (as a silly example, I’m no Billy Elliott!) but he does not make unrealistic expectations of us, or call us beyond his power to equip (although at times it feels beyond where our faith can envisage -yet).

God gives us a conscience to help us moderate our behaviour but if we aren’t wise we can allow the accuser of the brethren to talk us out the game and off the pitch.

I had a phone that went bonkers once (in fact I have had many phones most of which end up having a short shelf life!) and got it “returned to factory settings” and came back just like it was when I bought it.

In a way the cross and Pentecost is something of a “factory re-set” for the Christian, when we can obtain forgiveness but also allow God to show us our life from his perspective, soften our hearts, strengthen our courage, and work in us.

I guess for many of us we would call that our conversion, or our time of re-commitment, and surely this is actually what it truly means to be disciples “to see us and our world as God sees them and live transformed in the light of this?” As we think of being people seeing life from God’s perspective that is what many of us would call “the Kingdom perspective” which Jesus urged us to pray “that God’s will be done and Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”.

This is an exciting, but actually scary thought, the prayer and promise from Ezekiel about a new heart of flesh not stone and God’s spirit within us is a dangerous prayer to pray.

Scripture sometimes uses the word “terrible” which we can mistranslate as dreadful or fearful, but actually means “do not pray this prayer lightly because God is mighty and awesome” –know to whom you speak, do you actually want God to show up and speak to you about your life and change how you think and feel?

If I am honest, I do but I’m scared, I want God to work in me and I know I can trust him, but I’m scared of the process and what I might be confronted with, but I also believe that this is better than staying where I am and plateauing in a place of spiritual comfort and complacency, even if it is costly.

I thought too about how I try and do this work on other people “surely they must feel guilty about…” and yet people are wired differently from us, and we never actually know what is happening in peoples’ lives.

As I have to allow God to work in me, trusting him to work in other people –and to ultimately be justice and righteous with all things- is a really hard thing, as I read the Psalms I hear David saying “why don’t you slay the wicked” and I think “why can’t you prod XXX’s conscience God as I really need an apology/answers or whatever it is?” and I don’t know why sometimes we see breakthrough in these prayers and other-times we don’t (and again no idea what God is doing in peoples lives that we cannot see either).

I always discover I’d rather God be working in other people, that working on me… but the truth is before God I only really can be responsible for my choices and actions. CS Lewis warned us with Aslan telling the children to not focus on other peoples stories, but rather to concern themselves with their own story (reminincent of Jesus on the beach with Peter and John after the resurrection at the end of John’s Gospel).

So, a challenge to us all, whatever state our conscience is in, to ask God to come in his awesome restorative love and touch our consciences deeply so that we may see, feel and think Gods way about how we live our lives and think about things.

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A hell of a question.

There seems to be a renewed interest in hell recently amongst theologians, or maybe just the ones I am currently reading.

Hell seems to divide opinion. I often wonder if I turned and ran into the arms of Christ because I loved him or out of self preservation from the fear of hell? I remember the moment I was at infant school in North London so must have been about 5 or 6 at the time, ending up in a horrible place for ever and ever was the stuff of my worst nightmares.

Certainly with my daughter Hope I am not sure what she has heard about hell, I want her to love/know/follow/serve Jesus, but I don’t want to scare her into making what I believe is the right choice but for the wrong reasons.

I was at theological college the universalist idea kept creeping into lectures in much the same way as the vegetables did on the weekly menu.

It seemed as though the tension was “we don’t really like the idea of hell -apart from for people like Hittler- so we’re trying to work out anyway around it” (but still let the large evangelical churches send us their potential Vicars).

For me, I had/have a high view of the authority of scripture and I didn’t want to believe something that the Bible didn’t teach. I also have a high view of justice, and believe that there does need to be a reckoning and truth needs to be told, and victims need justice.

Others had a really good understanding of the goodness and love of God and found that a doctrine that has at its heart “eternal conscious torment” felt really wrong.

I remembered when I was a careforce worker in Wakefield, someone told me about the Vicar Rupert being asked “who did he think would be in heaven?” to which he gave a fairly standard evangelical answer about “those who have put their trust in the full and finished work of Jesus’ death on the cross…” before adding “but I also hope there will be plenty of surprises.

For me this became a very real issue, as two weeks into starting work in Wakefield my grandad died. My Grandad was a very good man, a very moral man of integrity and compassion, but had he said “the sinners prayer?” Did he know Jesus? He died really suddenly so I wasn’t convinced that he had any death bed conversation. I had some loose theology about “we don’t ever know what’s going on in peoples hearts and minds, and knew the story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus and had heard the story of the guy who got converted when he had a near death experience after getting stung by a jellyfish…

The truth was I really didn’t know what had happened to him eternally, and although he hadn’t given me any major clues of a real faith (although he was of the generation where faith was more prevalent) I had to trust my grandad to God’s mercy. I remember praying a prayer “Jesus look after my Grandad, I don’t know if he really knew you, I pray that he did and is okay”.

Less than a year earlier I had lost two friends in Eastbourne, one of whom -Jane- there were signs of God at work in her life and she had not long joined our church family, the other Sam had looked like she was walking in the opposite direction -but it turned out later that she had the night before she died she had prayed with her mum (which was something that seemed out of character) for both of these friends there felt like God had given us some assurance and hope that they were with him.

Questions that are often asked are “what about babies” or “people without cognative ability or never heard of Jesus? Certainly when we had a miscarriage my area dean prayed for me and said about “the child is with Jesus” which was a real comfort, and knowing how passionately God cares for all he has made I know that on judgement day he can be trusted to have made the right call on all situations.

Years later I came across the phrase “hopeful inclusionist” which sat (rather uneasily) with my desire not to be a “functioning universalist” -the belief that everyone goes to heaven anyway, so why bother with evangelism, talking about Christ or the cross and lets act like hell or judgement aren’t real (the thing with functioning universalists is that they probably tell you they are evangelicals, but the don’t act like they believe that personal salvation matters). I like “hopeful inclusionist” as it does not degrade the centrality or importance of Christ’s death on the cross but it does reflect something of God’s nature of wanting all to be saved and caught up in his redemptive plan for the world.

I remember a slightly starchy lady at theological college called Val, who was actually quite sweet, but could look pretty terrifying, asking one of our lecturers “can people be lost?” he tried to dodge the answer, so she asked again, and again, and again. He answered -his position- that ultimately people have to be able to be lost in order for free-will to be truly free. For many years this was the line that I took, I would say things like “God does not send people to hell, but will respect our decision to walk away from him”. I have moved my position slightly since then, as a dad if I thought my daughter was going to make a catastrophically bad choice I probably can’t stop her, but because I love her I would do all I could to dissuade her. I believe God will not let anyone go to hell without him putting up a fight to draw them back to himself. When we think of the lengths God went to on the cross, this makes sense to me, this is a God who will fight for each one of us, and will do all he can to see us reached.

I have wondered whether sometimes we scare people into accepting Christ out of a fear of hell rather than as a response to his awesome love, certainly I prayed my first prayer of commitment from a place of fear.

As a dad I would hate to think my daughter would only come to me because she feared a punishment if she didn’t, that doesn’t feel like love, and I worry that we distort the gospel when we speak of it in those terms. Indeed the Gospel literally means “Good News” -but sometimes it doesn’t always sound good.

One of the questions people often ask me is “What do I think heaven is like” which I think is an interesting question, because I don’t think we will be floating around on clouds playing harps and eating grapes. Or even the descriptions in Revelation that make it sounds like a large gold box without a coast! But rather we know that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind can comprehend what God has in store for those who love him” and we know that in God’s Kingdom there is “no more pain, sickness, suffering, decay or death… and Christ himself (whom we meet face to face) will wipe away every tear from our eyes”. We know for the Christian that after death comes life, there is the story of some evangelist who said “you will have heard that I am dead, don’t believe it, I will be more alive than I’ve ever been” -He had confidence in Christ as his resurrection and life.

Yet people rarely ask me what I think hell is like, I am not sure it is like Dante’s inferno -is this literal or is this like other images in the book of revelation pictoral? One of the pictures used to describe ‘hell’ is that of Gehenna -a smoking rubbish dump outside the city. The Jews didn’t have a neatly worked out afterlife doctrine, they use seem too have borrowed phrases from neighbouring people groups such as Schoel, or Haydes, and talk in Job about Satan residing in a ‘hell’. Elsewhere the new Testament uses words like “perish”. I don’t think scripture ever really explains what hell is like other than being separate from the source of all life, and not what God wants for us and went to great lengths to save us from it.

So, in practical terms I’m going to keep on talking about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the way that the Bible points to as God’s rescue plan for us all, and God will do more than we can ask or imagine to bring the people that he loves into an eternal relationship with him, we get to join in that privilege of partnering him in advancing his Kingdom that will last for eternity.

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Another reflection on the older brother… Grace -> A word for us as Church.

I have recently been really challenged afresh about grace, and have realised that I have a bit of Pharisee hidden in me that needed rooting out.

Tonight we were read some Bible passages including that of the passage that is know as the prodigal son, a passage I know well and preach on often (too often some might say) and there was a picture of the older brother looking jealous of the Father embracing his younger brother.

Yet something struck me, it is the older brother who talks about the younger brother “squandering your money on prostitutes” –no mention of these has happened earlier in the text (apart from in the living translation, which is a mistranslation), the older brother calls his sibling “this son of yours” –harsh words of ‘disownment- saying: “he is nothing to do with me”.

I have often thought that the older brother was resentful of the Fathers grace and forgiving love; but I also wondered whether perhaps he wished he had done some of the ‘wild living’ his brother had, he thinks the suffering that his brother had evidently gone through “served him right” and that “as he had ‘done the crime, he needs to do the time”.

Like the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector the Older Brother measures his righteousness against his brothers failures, any idea that he might have done wrong things is completely absent from both stories.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” and from the text it seems as though the older brother is holding up too images “his brother indulging in prostitution with his own diligence” the immense pain and suffering that his brother had evidently been through being destitute in a time of a famine does not cross his mind, nor is there any compassion for his brother. Entitlement has completely eaten any sense of compassion of humanity towards his brother.

I thought about how easy it is to get a creeping sense of entitlement, this idea that “God owes me” –as I thought about this I thought of the workers in the field those who worked all day for a generous wage and those who worked the last hour and received the same payment (a passage which I always sneakily shared something of the all-day-workers frustration). Yet, in reality God doesn’t “owe me” in fact I owe him everything.

I think it is fair to assume that the Older Brother never suffered such extreme hunger he was tempted to eat pig scraps; his comparisons (as most of ours are) are biased and has “photo-shopped” them in his own mind. We tend to look at other peoples lives with envy, we think the grass is greener but don’t realise it is astro-turf.  

I wondered about –despite things we all wish were different- whether there is great power in learning to be content with what we have rather than looking what other people have with selective comparisons?

I wondered too, whether something of an antidote to this is to develop and cultivate an ‘attitude of gratitude!’

I was talking to someone the other day and I have at times been very resentful of certain aspects of my life, but I had realise the amazing opportunities that I was able to have had, and in that second I felt humbled.

Is some of our unhelpful older brother thinking based on that we do not believe that God is ‘for us’ or that his plans for our life are good and he is faithful, that he does work “all things for the good of those who love him”.  Is our envy actually stemming from a lack of trust in the goodness of God’s character for us in each situation, do we really believe that “making our own cisterns” is a better idea (which scripture makes clear it isn’t!).

I have said before that it is this older brother who is the lost son of this parable, that is the twist in the story, as it is he who doesn’t realise the extent of God’s love either for him, or for his brother.

As Jesus had his feet anointed by someone who was cruelly judged by the Pharisees, Jesus rebuked them saying “those who have been forgiven little love little, but those who have been forgiven lots love lots”.

I realised that actually sin and its scale is not actually the issue here but rather the type of sin even then sexual sin seemed to be considered worse than others, and two thousand years later we still seem to care more about sex than spitefulness or stinginess (or whatever).

I looked at the older brother and feared I might be like him more than I realised, and as I looked at his face in the painting, his eyes looking jealously at the dad and brother embracing, I wondered whether part of his problem was a sense of insecurity, a lack of understanding his worth and value, he’s not confident in his identity.  It is his identity that the Father reminds him of when the Father comes to meet him –interestingly the Father comes to meet both his Sons, one he runs to meet the other he creeps alongside, but both encounters are motivated by love.

The Father reminds him that the Older Sons lack of grace has taking him out of the party on his own, which is where his Father finds him. 

We may begin as the younger son, but there is a danger that we can very easily ‘morph’ into the older brother unless we allow grace to continually heal our eyes and keep our hearts soft rather than stone-like. 

As I begin to journey deeper into grace, I have discovered a terrible fact and an awesome truth; the terrible fact is that actually “I am a worse sinner than I thought I was” but the awesome truth is that God’s love and grace extended towards me are greater and more vast than I have previously comprehended.

A while ago I began a group called “the Recovering Pharisees” and my prayer is many more of us will realise our broken way of thinking and be liberated and live in grace-filled-freedom, changing how we see ourselves and in turn other people.

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