Apr 052015
 

I am writing this blog on Easter Sunday having just celebrated the amazing truth that Jesus, who was crucified, died and was buried, has risen and is alive today. As Paul puts it:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:3–4)

A wonderful statement that is at the heart of the Christian faith, summarising the importance of what Jesus Christ has done.

But I am aware that for many people it carries no meaning or relevance at all and I was reminded of this as I happened to see an Amazon advert on Facebook!

Amazon shopping

I use Amazon quite a lot and have purchased a number of things from their site but I was struck this morning by the question they were asking – with the implied promise that they could satisfy our needs.

What are you looking for?

One of the reasons it caught my attention was that I had just been reading the story in John’s Gospel (one of the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus found in the Bible) of the time when Jesus, after returning to life, met up with one of his friends – a lady called Mary. And he asks her a question:

Who is it you are looking for? (John 20:15)

Mary was looking for the bruised and battered and scarred body of the person who had rescued her, had restored her, had befriended her but who – just a few short hours earlier – had died a horrific and cruel death. She had no hope or expectation that he would be alive, she was looking for one last opportunity to say “good bye”. But instead she met a risen, living, breathing person who was demonstrating that he had beaten death and returned from the grave. One moment she was lost, she was broken, she was sad but her meeting with Jesus transformed her life forever. If he was alive then nothing could ever be the same again.

And after hearing him speak her name and recognising who he was she went and told more of his friends that her Lord, their Lord, was alive.

As I thought about the two questions – “What are you looking for?” & “Who is it you are looking for?” – I wondered how much we look in the wrong place for what we need. Amazon is somewhere we can buy things we want but if we are looking to them to satisfy the deep needs in our lives then we will be disappointed. And so much of our society is built around the premise that acquiring and having more things is the way to happiness and fulfilment.

But the message of the Christian faith, the message of Easter, is that the answers to the deep questions, the opportunity for peace, for hope, for joy are not found in things but found in a person – the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus had some things to say about this before he died as he laid before people choices as to what they were to pursue:

matt 6v25

Lk 12v15

I expect he would have something very similar, and maybe “more so”, to say about the consumer society we live in today.

 

And he went on to speak about what was possible – the opportunity for eternal life including the hope of resurrection

john 6v40

And his own resurrection, his own restoration to life, demonstrates the truth and the power and the certainty of his words.

This Easter Sunday is another great opportunity for each of us to think about where we are seeking to find fulfilment and satisfaction – in things or in a person, in what we can get or in what Jesus offers to give us.

Who are you looking for this Easter?

Jun 112014
 

ofsted report

 

In a recent report by school inspectors concerns have been raised about certain schools seeking to impose particular beliefs on their pupils. This has resulted in the education secretary calling for “British michael govevalues” to be promoted in all schools and that, among other things, pupils need to be made aware of “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”

And, at least to me, this all seems fine and reasonable although some people in the education world are asking questions about how this can actually be done.

Yesterday, I was listening to a radio phone-in where this was being discussed and I was interested in how the word “tolerance” was being used and the recurring comment that religious groups were often seen as intolerant. Two things struck me:

  • Tolerance was totally accepted as something which couldn’t be challenged, the only question was how do we go about it
  • There were calls for religious groups to go and practice their beliefs in private without trying to affect anyone else. This is the way in which those without faith were prepared to tolerate those with faith! (I have written earlier about the importance of Christians engaging publicly so not planning to go into that again here)

And so I started thinking about tolerance and whether the term was being used appropriately.

According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, “tolerance” is defined as:

the ability, willingness, or capacity to tolerate something.

with “tolerate” being defined as:

allow the existence or occurrence of (something that one dislikes or disagrees with) without interference.

So tolerance is the willingness to not interfere with something which we don’t like or disagree with. And, in one sense, this is important and appropriate and good. It is linked to other things which we are all called, and expected, to demonstrate such as openness, being welcome and inclusive. And these are all good things as well.

But I believe, in a Christian context, there needs to be some limit to what we welcome, what we are willing to include and – in some sense – what we are prepared to tolerate.

Wider society would say the same thing, of course. We are not expected to be tolerant towards those who break the law, abuse other’s rights and so on. We are expected to be tolerant towards those who conform to a set of values – maybe the “British values” which the education secretary is calling for but which seem so difficult to define.

But Christians are called to live in step with Jesus and so it is important to understand how this works out in practice – and so it’s worth looking at some examples from his life and his engagement with people.

  • He was totally prepared and willing to speak out against religious leaders who were misleading the people (Matthew 23:1-38)
  • He was prepared to speak against the political leaders of his day as they tried to oppose him (Luke 13:32)
  • He spoke about outcasts coming into God’s kingdom (Matthew 21:31-32) which shows how he welcomed people but he also looked for a change in their behaviour (John 8:11)
  • He expected commitment of those who chose to follow him and didn’t try and hang on to them if they weren’t prepared for it (Matthew 19:16-22, Luke 9:57-62)

Jesus spoke out against what was wrong in society and expected certain things from those who were seeking to follow him.

And it seems that this establishes two principles which are important for Christians to reflect on and practice today:

  1. We have a responsibility to speak out against those things which are actually intolerable, and to challenge when tolerance is called for when it is not appropriate
  2. We need to speak truth in our churches and communities regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ and not be prepared to accept things which he would not.

What does this mean in practice?

One of the things it means is that we should welcome anyone into our believing communities but we should continually be challenging each other to be changed to become more like Jesus. We shouldn’t “tolerate” non-Christian attitudes and behaviours within our churches, rather we should lovingly and gently call people to follow the example of Jesus, and seek to model it in our own lives as well.

Another is that while we should defend the rights of all to believe and worship as they wish (or not) we religious-freedomshould be prepared to speak about the good news of Jesus in a positive and engaging way with those we meet and spend time with.

So I think tolerance is generally ok – but if it becomes syncretism:

the amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought

then we have a problem.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Mar 142014
 

A couple of days ago Jo, my wife, nottingham castle
and I were in Nottingham and spent some time looking round Nottingham Castle.

The original castle was built in 1068 and after being burnt down and redesigned over the centuries was converted into a museum and art gallery in 1875.

We walked around the grounds and came across a small plaque which claimed to mark the spot where the English Civil War had started in 1642 when King Charles 1 raised his flag and called for people to rally round him.

civil war plaque

This marked the start of a terrible chapter in English history as the country was divided over whether to follow the King or to support Parliament.

Four years later it was all over – the King had been defeated and the Parliament forces had won.

But I wonder how long the scars affected lives and families and communities, as divisions had to be healed and senses of betrayal had to be dealt with. Those who had been spies and informers would have tried to blend back into society while those who had suffered at their hands could easily have looked for revenge.

And it made me think about something Jesus once said to those who were thinking about following him.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10:34–36)  

These are words many of us do not often, or easily, associate with Jesus. And we need to recognise that elsewhere he speaks about the peace he came to bring and the peace he offers to his followers. So what was he saying here, what did he mean?

It comes down to the question of loyalty – to whom are we loyal, who receives our greatest allegiance? In the Civil War, brothers who supported different sides in the conflict would still have been brothers but their allegiance to King or Parliament could have taken a higher priority and so the family would have been divided.

And the point Jesus is making is that he is looking for that first place of allegiance, that primary loyalty, in those who call themselves his followers. For many Christians today, at least those living in the West, the choices are less stark. They can choose to follow Jesus and their families or friends may think they are strange but it doesn’t always cause bitter division (although sometimes it can).

I have a friend who isn’t able to go back to his own country due to fears of what would happen to to him for being a Christian. I have another friend who was really concerned about how his family would respond when they learned that he had decided to commit himself to Jesus. For these people they had to answer the question of where their priorities lay and decided to follow Jesus while recognising the cost.

But what about those of us who don’t experience the divisions and breakdown in relationships that Jesus speaks about? Does it sometimes result in us not living the lives he is calling us to live?

In the passage I quoted above, Jesus goes on to talk about the priority he is looking for and it is clear he isn’t expecting half-measures:

  • He is looking for us to love him more than we love our parents and our children (Matthew 10:37)
  • He is looking for us, each day, to be prepared to suffer for him as he suffered for us (Matthew 10:38)
  • He is looking for us to find fulfillment and satisfaction in his plans for our lives as opposed to our own plans (Matthew 10:39)

These are hard, tough commitments but Jesus is totally serious in what he is calling for.

Tom Wright, commenting on this passage, refers to the example of St Francis:

leaving his wealthy home despite his father’s fury, to go and live a simple life of imitating Jesus as much as he could—and setting an example that thousands still follow today

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15, p.122.

And there are many examples throughout history, and probably many examples we each know today, of people who are prepared to respond positively and joyfully to the call of Jesus and find the fullness of life which he came to bring. And there are many of us who are prepared to sit on the sidelines and watch such people as opposed to taking up the challenge for ourselves.

If Jesus were to raise his flag in your street, in your place of work, in your church, amongst your friends how would you respond?

Feb 252014
 

So much is bound up in who we see ourselves to be and the labels that we – and others – apply to us.

We are male or female, gay or straight, young or old, rich or poor. We are each citizens of a particular country which, in turn, drives a lot of behaviours and affiliations; we support different sports teams;football-worldcup-2006-553084-m we vote for different political parties; we are employed or not.

x-in-checkbox-1281305-m

 

 

 

 

Some of these labels are intrinsic to who we are, some change with circumstances. i have always been male and I was once young!

Some labels vary with context. When I was working in the IT industry and attended a conference I met a lot of people and they took on various labels. Some were colleagues working in the same company, some were customers, some were partners with whom we collaborated and delivered solutions to those customers, some were competitors. And, as people changed roles, and different projects came along, we ended up wearing different labels – a partner one day, a competitor the next – and this was necessary and helpful in terms of determining the way we related to different people and the level of information we shared with them.

business-card-929523-m

In many ways, the combination of labels we carry tell us, and others, a lot about who we are and the experiences we have had. I am a Christian, a husband, a son, a father, a church leader. I used to be an IT consultant, I enjoy science fiction, I drink black coffee (and that started when someone played a trick on me 30 years ago!)

But God also says things about us – and these result in really important labels.

Right back in the beginning God was about to create human beings and he said this:

Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (Gen 1:26)

And from that time on humanity has carried within itself something of the nature of God. We reflect Him, we are “like Him”, we are able to relate to Him. Yes, we have made mistakes, yes that image is often marred and tarnished, but there is something in us which is made in the image of God. And while that is great for us to realise for ourselves it carries with it a challenge for how we treat other people. If every person we meet, if every person we speak with, if every person driving on the same roads as we drive on, if every person on this planet bears the spark of God within them then surely this is a more important label than whether we support the same football team, enjoy the same music, work for the same company or attend the same church.

Paul, when speaking about the labels which he could legitimately use to define who he was (Philippians 3:5-6) went on to conclude that none of them mattered. What was important to him was knowing Christ, gaining Christ and being found in Christ (Philippians 3:8-9). Throughout his writings, the label which Paul keeps on applying to himself and to those whom he is writing is that of being “in Christ”.

In one short passage he was able to speak about:

  • Being blessed with “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3)
  • Being chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:4)
  • Redemption being in Christ (Ephesians 1:7)
  • Being included in Christ (Ephesians 1:13)

No wonder this was the core of his identity. This is what had come to matter to him, everything else was peripheral.fingerprint-227873-m

And the question this raises is which labels are essential to us and how important to our identity is being “in Christ”? Is this the central foundation on which our entire lives are based or is it an “add-on” to the other things which characterise us more deeply?

I wonder how differently I would have treated my colleagues, partners, customers and competitors if I had consistently seen them first as people made in God’s image and if I had always seen my being “in Christ” as the label which characterised me most.

I wonder how much those I spend time with now see this demonstrated in me on a consistent basis.