May 252014

religious or spiritual

I have just been looking at a fascinating article posted by Tom Shakespeare – Is it better to be religious or spiritual? – on the BBC Magazine site.

He is commenting on the difference between those who would claim to be religious and those who would claim to be spiritual, and the idea that there are many people seeking spirituality outside of the context of organised religion. He challenges this approach, arguing that many people seeking spirituality retain the trappings of religion while leaving behind the sense of relationship which many people find in religious groups. He thinks this is a consequence of the growing sense of individualism in our society which ends up with us no longer being challenged to work towards a better world for everyone.

He clearly states that he doesn’t want the beliefs which go with a “pick’n’mix” spirituality:

I don’t want to be required to have faith in a supreme being or miracles or reincarnation, or any entity for which there is no scientific evidence.

But he does find value in organised religion due to the relationships and connections, traditions, disciplines and teaching which it provides.

Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself.

Its an article well-worth reading but I wanted to comment on a couple of specifics – one on a point made in the article itself and another on a question it raises for those seeking to live in a Christian community.

1) In his article he makes the following statement:

The word “religion” is thought to derive from Latin “religare”, to bind or connect. I think that sense of a connection is the key point. Religion offers a bond between individuals and it helps them form a connection to the wider universe.

I think this statement is valid (although some see “religion” being derived from “re” + “legere” – which means to “reread”) but I want to comment briefly on this from a Christian perspective (which is not the sole focus of the original article). For the Christian faith, I think the implications are wider. The rebinding or reconnecting which was in view is, I believe, primarily related to

reestablishing by worship a lost or broken intimacy between God and worshippers

(Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible)

It is, however, interesting to note that the term doesn’t appear extensively in the Bible. There are just five occurrences in the New International Version (Acts 25:19, 26:5; 1 Timothy 5:4, James 1:26, 27) with only one of these (the first) relating to questions of faith with the remaining four looking at how it works out in practice with relationship to others.

A true understanding of Christian religion – in my view – does depend on a belief in, and relationship with, God from which flows relationships with, and care for, others and the environment in which we live.

2) But I think his article is challenging to those who meet and worship and work in Christian communities as to whether we do so to get the benefits he refers to or whether we do so, primarily, due to our relationship with God.

He suggests that many people who go along to church on a Sunday morning are:

going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent

And this raises a question which is important for us to think about.

When we – those who meet regularly as Christians – are together in our “religious services” is our priority and focus firstly on God and what He wants to say to us and how he wants to change us? Or is it on meeting with our friends and seeing what has been going on since we last met?

Interestingly enough, we recently asked ourselves this question in the church which I have the privilege of leading and we said that when we meet together these should be times:

  • Which are centred on God in worship and where we appreciate and rejoice in who He is, where we focus on Jesus and are empowered by the Spirit
  • Where what we believe and our experiences of life should come together in powerful and transforming ways
  • Where we meet together as family to love, support and encourage each other
  • Where we participate in being refreshed and renewed from the challenges and difficulties of life
  • Where we are prepared and equipped to live on our frontlines (places where we live out our faith each day)
  • Which provide opportunities for us to be challenged in our faith or to come to faith

From what Shakespeare wrote I expect he would align himself with some of these – but not most.

For those of us who meet regularly as Christians it is worth asking ourselves the question “Why?” from time to time.



May 012014

A news bulletin has just been published regarding a barrister lying to the police in a case they were investigating.

lying barrister

And it brings up the question of the relationship we have to the truth. Is speaking truthfully something which we are passionate about, is it something which is our normal practice or is it a tactical choice depending on the situation we are in.

I still remember the shock of being told – many years ago – by a colleague that he was planning to lie to our customer in the meeting we were just going into. He felt it would produce the best result and that was all he was interested in.

We see many instances of lying in many different forms:

  • children to stop themselves getting into trouble
  • friends to avoid being embarrassed over some action they are now ashamed of
  • company representatives to try and get an advantage over a competitor
  • advertising statements which mislead or misrepresent in order to attract
  • politicians as they seek to defend a particular position
  • criminals trying to avoid conviction
  • partners to keep secrets from those they love
  • parents to their children as it is sometimes easier than telling the truth

We tell ourselves that it is socially acceptable and understood, we comfort ourselves with the idea of a “white lie” but what do we lose in the process?

When Jesus was talking to his followers about whether it was right to take an oath he challenged people with these words:

Let your word by “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”

There is a sense here of reliability, of confidence, of trust in what someone is saying. If we know someone who consistently means what he / she says and speaks the truth then we are more likely to believe them and our relationship can be strengthened as it is built on solid foundations.

Jesus said of himself:

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6b)way, truth and life

Jesus was the way to God because he was the truth of God and the life of God – and he came to impart these to his followers.

When Jesus was on trial before Pilate he spoke about the importance of truth and that he had come to proclaim it:

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37)

He acknowledged that he was a king, he also spoke about his reason for coming into the world was to testify about truth. The implication, surely, is that his kingdom, his realm, is one of truth.

The challenge here for Christians, for those who are seeking to live as citizens of his kingdom, is whether we are prepared to live “on the side of truth” in the big things and the small things of life.

What would it mean to us, what would it mean to our country, if we were more consistently prepared to do so?


Apr 302014

In a statement in the House of Commons today, the Home Secretary announced that the powers for police to “stop and search” are to be revised.

theresa may

This follows the revelation that up to a quarter of such searches may have been illegal – which contributes to the, sometimes uneasy, relationship between the police and some groups of society.

With policing in this country being based on the consent of citizens, a good and healthy relationship between the police and citizens is essential and the sort of behaviour referenced in this report and statement can seriously undermine it.

In a totally different context, in a country which was overrun by a foreign power, Jesus called on his followers to act in an amazing way towards those who had authority over them.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:41)

Here Jesus was referring to the power which the ordinary Roman soldier had to compel anyone to carry his equipment for one mile. And Jesus was saying that, instead of resenting it, they should be willingly prepared to do so and even go beyond what was expected of them.

This verse occurs in a passage where Jesus is advocating a different way of living (Matthew 5:38-42), a way which seeks to defuse tension, reduce hostility and introduce peace and goodwill. A tall order but one which Jesus develops as he calls on his followers to

love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:44b–45a)

It is in living this way that we emulate and follow the example of God.

Jesus demonstrated this model of generous forgiveness as he was being nailed to his cross and called out to his father to forgive those who were treating him so badly:

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34a)

In this article I am not advocating that the police should be above the law nor that it is right for them to behave as the report to which the Home Secretary refers suggests.

What I am reflecting on is that we will all find ourselves badly treated in many different ways, and by many different people, and it is our responsibility to determine how we will react and respond.

Am I prepared to follow Jesus in the way he calls me to?


Apr 292014

One of the news items today is a report on the UK economy showing that it is thought to have grown by 0.8% in the first quarter of 2014.

uk economic growth


This is seen as a positive thing with the Chancellor welcoming the news but warning that

the recovery could not be taken for granted

The shadow chancellor acknowledged the positive growth numbers but is concerned about the fact that

millions of hardworking people are still feeling no recovery at all

There is a sense that things are getting better, at a macro-level, but that for many people things are still as they were or worse. Underlying the opinions expressed is the premise that economic growth is a good thing which is something that we have become so accustomed to that it is accepted as a fact – and I don’t know enough about economics to know whether it is really true. Interestingly, on the same day, an article was published asking whether wealth has made the people in Qatar happy. According to this article, Qatar is now the richest country in the world with the average per-head income exceeding £60,000 per annum.

qatari wealth

The article itemises many of the benefits which the Qatari people enjoy but there is a sense of something valuable having been lost. At the end of the article there is a quote from an American anthropologist who has lived in Doha for a long time:

Have some sympathy for Qataris. They’ve lost everything that matters

That, admittedly, extreme example does raise questions about the challenges to a society associated with economic growth – though few would suggest that the economic hardships we have been experiencing over recent years have been helpful. But are there different indicators that we should use to assess the health of a nation? In what we now refer to as the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus calls on his followers to make a choice as to whether they are going to pursue earthly treasure or are they going to seek to serve God and do the things which are important to him (Matthew 6:19-24). And he presents his listeners with a stark choice, arguing that they can’t do both:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be not serving two mastersdevoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

And to get an idea of what serving God is like we can look at Jesus’ “manifesto” at the start of his public ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Jesus was there for the marginalised, the poor, the neglected, the oppressed. If we are seeking to follow him then these should be our priorities as well, and how well we deliver against these should be a mark of how our society is doing.

Apr 282014

This is the first post in a series looking at what following the example of the Jesus who suffered for us could mean to our country. (For the context to this, please see the post which introduced this series yesterday)

I said that I would reflect on one of the top news stories of the day and, unfortunately and sadly, there are two stories today which relate to how people have been abused and mistreated. In one the victims were women and girls, in the other it was boys in a school. Both stories (one is reporting on a verdict, the other relates to an ongoing investigation) refer to people in positions of power exploiting that to take advantage of others.

When we look at the life of Jesus we see something very different.

In Matthew 19:13-15 there is a story of parents seeking to bring children to Jesus so that he might bless them and pray for them. His followers try and stop this (presumably thinking that Jesus had more important things to do) jesus and childrenbut Jesus intervenes and makes it clear that children are very important to him, and to God’s kingdom, and blesses them.

In a society where women were very much second-class citizens, Jesus spends time speaking with them (e.g. John 4) and defending them (e.g. John 8:1-11). They were included among his group of followers (Luke 8:1-3) and were witnesses of his resurrection (e.g.  Matthew 28:5-6).

We see Jesus healing the sick, speaking to the oppressed, giving comfort to the suffering and raising the dead.

In these, and other, situations we see Jesus seeing each person as important and valued and special. And this is hardly surprising as each one was made in the image of God. I love the story where two blind men are brought to jesus and blind manJesus, and Jesus, not presuming on what they want, asks what he can do for them (Matthew 20:29-34). What a great demonstration of the way in which Jesus treated the vulnerable with dignity and respect.

Jesus had power and authority on a scale that those in today’s news stories couldn’t imagine but he didn’t use it for his own ends, rather he laid it aside and came into this world to be a blessing to those in need. The apostle Paul spells this out in Philippians chapter 2 where he speaks about Jesus:

  • Sharing in God’s nature and being equal with God (Philippians 2:6)
  • Being prepared to leave that behind and live as a servant (Philippians 2:7)
  • To be obedient to God even when that meant him dying on a cross (Philippians 2:8)

and in Philippians 2:5, Paul calls on the Philippian disciples to have the same attitude as Jesus did.

And so the question which this raises is how do we relate to other people in general and, in particular, how do we relate to those over whom we have some form of authority?

The model of Jesus is one of love, respect, care and service. The question I need to reflect on is how I follow that example in the relationships which I am part of.

And what a difference would it make if this model was lived out in our neighbourhoods, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our families, in our churches, in our legal system, in our government, in our media and wherever people engaged with others.


Apr 272014

When David Cameron included the phrasedc and church leaders

our status as a Christian country

in his Church Times article on 16th April 2014 I wonder if he expected the debate it generated.

56 people put their names to an article in the Telegraph objecting to this characterisation and “the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders”. They recognised the contribution made to our society by many Christians but claimed that it was wrong to single out this particular group when those of different beliefs provide equal contributions.

Representatives from some other faith groups seemed to be relaxed about what the Prime Minister had said with the Hindu Council UK saying it was “very comfortable” with it while the Muslim Council of Britain said the UK “was a largely Christian country”.

Some of the Prime Minister’s colleagues came to his defence talking about our Christian heritage and the way Christian values have contributed towards the “ethics of our society”.

The BBC came up with a “matter-of-fact” analysis looking at the arguments for and against this claim looking at numbers of those who claim to be Christian on the census vs the numbers who attend church and a range of other indicators.

The Archbishop of Canterbury joined in the debate and talked about the way in which our laws and values

have been shaped and founded on Christianity

He also argues that the influence of Christianity “has enabled us to be welcoming to other faiths” which is one of the points made in the Prime Minister’s original article.

The thing that I find strange, and deeply disturbing, is that in none of these articles – as far as I can see – is there any mention of Jesus!

In fairness to Mr Cameron his article was actually about the Church of England, not Christianity itself – it’s title was

My faith in the Church of England

but I still find it bizarre that the ensuing debate could omit to mention the person on whom the Christian faith depends.

The Prime Minister’s article speaks about the good things which Christians do (while recognising that this is shared by those of other faiths and none), the help which faith can be in times of difficulty, and that this faith can encourage people to help others. It’s as though if people behave in a particular way we can apply the label “Christian country” in the same was as we call ourselves a “democratic country” because of how we govern ourselves and a “capitalist country” because of how we we manage our economy.

And if that’s all it is I don’t think its a particularly helpful label and I agree with a post by David Criddle (written months before this current debate) where he speaks against

 imposing the idea of a ‘Christian nation’ or ‘Christian values’ on society

But what if it were a label which meant something more significant? What if we reclaimed the meaning of the word “Christian”?

Maybe surprisingly, the word only appears three times in the Bible – Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16.

In the first we find that this title was applied to the disciples (followers of Jesus) in the church in Antioch, in the second it was addressed to a follower of Jesus who was in chains for what he believed and in the third it talks about the very real expectation that Christians should be prepared to suffer for their faith.

And this is very consistent with the words and actions of Jesus as he talked about how he was going to suffer and be killed (Mark 10:33-34) and how he called on those who chose to follow him to be prepared to take up their own crosses (a sign of suffering and shame) and to follow his example (Mark 8:34).

In his book “The Crucified Christ”, Jürgen Moltmann makes the powerful statement that:the cross

Christian life is a form of practice which consists in following the crucified Christ, and it changes both man himself and the circumstances in which he lives (p.25)

and he goes on to say that:

The assimilation of Christianity to bourgeois society always means that the cross is forgotten and hope is lost. (p.58)

It strikes me that in the debate I summarised above Moltmann’s warning (in the second quote) has come true in the understanding of many people and society in general, and that if we are serious about the question of Christian living we need to seek to “follow the crucified Christ”.

What Christian distinctives would the rest of our society see if all those who have committed themselves to following Jesus took this challenge to heart? I know it would change how I see things and how I respond to different situations.

To help me reflect on this further, I plan to take one news item over each of the next five days and think about how  I should engage with it from the perspective of a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus who was prepared to suffer for me, and calls me to be prepared to suffer for him.

I’ll select each item from the BBC’s UK News website  (which recently added a report on  comments from the former Archbishop about this country now being “post-Christian”!) and post some thoughts and reflection here.