things jesus didn’t say #12 | best

21 02 2017

God only takes the best. It’s one those things that we say when someone we love dies. It’s our way of expressing that they were one of the best to us. It’s our way of trying to justify the sadness, devastation even, we feel. Why else would they have died? God must have wanted them, and he wanted them because they were the best.

thingsjesusdidntsay12best

It’s an understandable sentiment. But it is entirely untrue. On a number of levels.

Theologically, God doesn’t ‘take’ anybody, in the sense of reaching down from heaven to take us like tins of peas from a supermarket shelf. He doesn’t ‘take’ anybody in the sense of snatching them to himself, like a selfish toddler who won’t share the best Minion toy. And even if he did, he wouldn’t just take ‘the best’, like a supernatural Darwinian scientist creating perfection.

Firstly, everybody dies. Not just the good ones. Secondly, God came to stay in the person of Jesus, he did not come to take like a thief. Thirdly, he came for the worst, not the best.

The death of those we love can be the worst knockout blow we have. I know, because my mum died of cancer when I was 10. But she didn’t die because God wanted to ‘take the best’, though of course she was my best. If he had, what would that say about his character? To deprive a young family of their mother, their wife, because what – he liked her singing voice?

No, she died because she had cancer. It sucks, it devastates, but it’s life. But I believe in a world with firm foundations, in which death comes in a framework of love, of a God who does not rejoice in ‘taking’ but delights in ‘giving’, who is with us through the darkest nights. My theology of life is grounded in a theology of death, which means I do not need easy clichés, pop theology, and untrue truisms to help me stumble blindly through.

Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness; to defeat death in all its fearfulness; and to abide with us in our hopelessness. May we know God come to us in our sadness, even when our best are no longer with us.





enduring obedience

9 02 2016

Obedience is not a word we hear very often. Unless you train puppies or work for ISIS, which is possibly the only time those will appear in the same sentence. Obedience to us generally has overtones of either military law, or strict discipline of religious fundamentalists – basically being forced against your will to do things you wouldn’t usually do. And train puppies.

Enough with the puppies.

Enduring Obedience title.001

Except we practice obedience all the time. Driving on the left, putting out the bins, banishing unhealthy thoughts, not leaving the toilet door open. Sometimes its explicit obedience, sometimes it’s implicit in our relationships, and we don’t think of it as ‘obedience’ – but it is.

God demands and commands our obedience. There. I’ve said it. It sounds harsh doesn’t it. It is, if our view of God is that of a overly strict demon headmaster, or an obnoxious shouty military general, or we’ve experienced domestic violence and live our life being forced to be obedient for fear of the consequences.

This is not my understanding of the God I am obedient too. The God I believe in is a God intertwined in families and their story, helping and guiding and leading, who demands obedience at the same time as trust, for whom the overriding image is that of a shepherd in the Judean desert wilderness, whose sheep obey his voice because they know he will keep them safe.

There are times when obedience will bring us into conflict with others. Conflicts of priorities in our families, workplaces and elsewhere, conflicts of ethics and morals. But obedience to God isn’t like being watched by the Thought Police. Obedience to God is an obedience characterised by how it changes our actions, not controls our minds. And being obedient doesn’t mean being obnoxious to those we may be in conflict with.

Jesus did not say do as I say or you will be damned. Believe it or not. He said, the greatest commandment is to love God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then to love your neighbour as yourself. He said a new commandment I give to you, to love one another. This isn’t soppy sentimental love, this is deep rooted love, borne out in actions of service to each other. A faithful love that endures through thick and thin.

We don’t obey because we are told to, but because we love. We aren’t faithful out of fear, but because we love. We believe that our God is a model of sacrificial, self-giving love, so obedience to him takes us there too. Which is not easy, or glib, but it does ground us in enduring obedience. Which, yes, sometimes means obeying through gritted teeth and enduring it. And other times means our obedience – or faithfulness – is enduring, faithful, long-lasting and resilient.

That’s where I want to be.


During Lent in our church we are looking at the theme of Enduring Obedience, exploring characters such as Sarah, Ruth, Daniel and Jonah from the Bible, and people like St Teresa of Avila and Martin Luther King Jr who inspire us with their obedient service to God.





unexpectedly political values | being taken advantage of

26 04 2015

In this world of Katie Hopkins-style vindictiveness and politicians’ obsession with only supporting “hard-working families”, I know I’m onto a loser with this next in the series of ‘unexpectedly political values’: being taken advantage of. advantage Is that even a value? Isn’t it a bit… negative? Well, Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, which is actually about humiliation not fighting. When you are slapped on your right cheek, it is because you have received a publicly humiliating back-handed slap. So to turn the left cheek means intentionally offering yourself more humiliation. Being taken advantage of.

Jesus said if a soldier taken your cloak, give him your coat also. This is in military dictatorship. They didn’t ask, they demanded, and even if it was your only cloak, you complied. Jesus says offer more. Be taken advantage of. In these times, with vindictive welfare cuts and Mediterranean boat people and a continuous attempt to hold tightly to what is ours at all costs, we need to learn from Jesus.

To be taken advantage of. On purpose.

How does this work out in practice? Take Foodbanks – people have said to me, don’t people take advantage of it? My response: yes, some will. But it is worth it for those that don’t. Take the welfare system. People say some will take advantage. My response: yes, some will. But it is worth it for those that don’t. Take the tax system. Won’t some take advantage? Yes, but we don’t stop the system because of that. 

When the young people would hang out on the church roof and we befriended them, there were times they took advantage of our kindness. But we were ok with that, because it was worth it for the times they didn’t. The same goes for being the local drop-in for a hundred different things, as I talked about in knock knock, with this selection of items we’ve been asked for:

string for conkers / stamps / broadband / cookies / postman’s wee-stop / trampoline storage / trampoline usage / duct tape / brownies / a football / puncture repair / advocacy / fixing up a gate post / cushions / banter / first aid / Facebook / umbrella / a step ladder / laundry / a garden fork / oranges / downloading Enrique Iglesias / telephoning social services / a shower / odd jobs / water / a lift in the rain / a youth club / Nesquik / time

It is an unexpectedly political value to accept being taken advantage of. It doesn’t often feel noble or heroic. Usually it just feels like being taken advantage of. But the Jesus we follow was taken advantage of, and did not retaliate. In fact, he voluntarily gave his advantage away. There’s a challenge. 

Will we allow ourselves to do the same? Will we give our advantage away? Or are we too proud, or too scared of what we might lose…

Other posts in this series of unexpectedly political values:
introduction: the values vacuum
redemption
confession
resurrection





unexpectedly political values | resurrection

2 04 2015

The resurrection is massively political; there can be no greater political statement than the Christian belief in the physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Somehow though this has become de-politicized, neutered, made insipid; somehow the resurrection has become like an afterthought, a happy ending tacked on to make the story better that we can ignore if we prefer.

Some of that is from fear. We can talk confidently and politically about Jesus life and ministry, his words about love and peace and justice and money, even about kingdoms; and we can talk of his death, his sacrifice. But his resurrection provokes accusations of insanity, of one step too far; bringing personal irrationally-held beliefs into the public sphere.

resurrection - a metaphor

So it becomes a metaphor. His death becomes just solidarity with suffering; the resurrection just a symbol of hope – the power of ideas – triumphing over adversity. Which is not wrong. But it’s like saying winning the Champions League was a good chance to make the stadium grass look nice. It may be true, but isn’t the point.

The resurrection, as early Christians understood it, means that God cares deeply about creation, his creation, which includes humans and plants and animals and guilt and death and sweat and zero hours contracts and laughter and banking.

The resurrection was God re-creating, making new; taking the stuff that makes life stink, symbolised in Adam and the creation/fall story, and putting it to death, killing it dead, full stop; then re-birthing, re-newing; Jesus Christ as the first-fruit of the new world in which humans and plants and animals and all that are made whole, holy; death defeated, the stink gone, the new come. We live in that world.

The resurrection of Jesus shows sin cannot win. It also shows the pagan Roman empire it cannot win. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or Herod or capitalism or the economy or ISIS. They can defeat humans, but they cannot defeat the creator and new-creator. When I place my hope in the risen Jesus of Nazareth, I am not embracing a philosophy of kindness, a nice way of life; I am embracing a politics in which local politics comes second-place to God. There’s a challenge.

Here’s another. The resurrection is political because Jesus first appeared to the society’s little people: women, working men, nobody’s. He wasn’t mistaken for a king, but a labourer. Placed at the centre of God’s plan to shake up the powerful are the very people the powerful would ignore.

So the Christian politic has to place them at the centre. It cannot be a politics of dominance, but a politics that embraces prostitutes and adulterers and tax-evaders and wealthy land-owners and poor zero-hours workers and sees the same darkness in all of us, no matter what our status; and promises the same resurrection to all of us, no matter what our status.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an historical truth, not a metaphor; it is deeply political event, not just a happy ending; it is about God transforming this world, not us escaping from it; if we truly understand it, we cannot help but be changed. 

Provocative Resurrection
I wrote this before I read David Cameron’s article with his (very common) misunderstanding of the heart of the Christian message, and this reaction.  

 





the values vacuum

22 03 2015

The person or people or God you look up to, value, worship; that is where your own core values are likely to come from. We build up on those fundamentals as we develop our own thinking. 

Maybe it is the self-made rags-to-riches kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; and so commend, approve, and emulate. Hardwork, financial success, personal gain, self-improvement, becoming something from nothing. Sacrifice, for personal gain.   

Or maybe its the self-made riches-to-rags kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; then what we commend, approve and emulate might look very different. Self-giving, personal loss, uneconomical generosity, becoming nothing from something. Sacrifice for someone else’s gain. 

Two polar opposites, to make a point. 

values vacuum

My core values come from who I believe God to be. God, as the creator and foundation of everything, including me; his character deeply influences mine. Forms mine. God who does not clutch power like a toddler; God who made himself nothing (Phil 2.6-7); God who endured humiliation. My internal script, my blueprint, my drivenness; they honour and respect this type of God, as revealed in Jesus, who entered the community he cared for, lived in it, listened to it (John 1.14), died for it, rose again for it.

Where do yours come from? Certainly not from a neutral vacuum. 

These values necessarily affect our politics. They have to. And maybe in unexpected ways. Because unlike our current politicians obsession with tiny variations in numbers, being £700 better or worse off over a year does not override all other values. Because of our values, we may have to make political choices that do not directly benefit us, which goes against the visionless politics of ‘what’s best for me’.

Can we do that?  I plan to explore some of these over the next few weeks, putting out questions and challenges to myself, and maybe to you.    





speaking in circles

13 03 2015

We – the church – do not always say it well; we do not always say it to the right people; we do not always say it at the right time;  we don’t always say it coherently; but we do say it. Honest.  

Speaking in Circles

We – the church – are deeply involved and engaged in so many issues in our local and national and international communities, and speak out and act consistently on a wide range of issues. Many of these do not fit the media narrative, so are ignored, culminating in an ironically self-fulfilling prophecy  of the church only speaking about certain things, then being criticised for only speaking about certain things… speaking in circles, anyone? 

Find out more about what the church actually speaks about here:

Archbishop of Canterbury
Church of England
Joint Public Issues Team (Baptist, Methodists, URC, Church of Scotland)
Theos Think Tank
London Institute for Contemporary Christianity
Ekklesia
Archbishop Cranmer/God and Politics
Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (Canon Andrew White)
TEAR Fund
Stop the Traffik 

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list!  





umbrella

5 03 2015

I drew this about myself, but maybe you can see yourself in it too. I think that so often I blame God for things I need to take responsibility for. There are changes we can make to take the umbrella down. Or at least poke a hole in it. Or perhaps the Spirit will blow it out of our hands. Maybe now is the time.  

umbrella





why are religious people so easily offended?

13 01 2015

I don’t like being described as religious. But when religious-inspired catastrophe happens, I find myself guilty-by-association. Us God-botherers with our irrational beliefs and Kalashnikovs. Justify yourself and your medieval sensibilities!, I hear the secularist voices shout.

It’s crap. I can’t explain why some people kill others. But perhaps I can give a glimpse into why “we” – religious types – get offended, and can react all out of proportion. This is not to justify it, but to give an insight into it.  

To outsiders, non-believers, religious belief seems like a moral or ethical decision. A choice, that can be questioned and debated without any real challenge to our core being. When I studied theology at university with mostly non-religious people, to them questions about God and belief were an interesting exploration of human character; to me, sometimes an assault on my very being. An assault I willingly put myself through, because I wanted to test my beliefs to the limit. Not everyone wants that. Not everyone invites that. 

My relationship with God is core. It’s not very rational, but don’t be fooled into thinking we all make rational choices except about religion. Why you choose your car, your coffee chain or your partner are rarely based on rational fact-based objective data. I talk about loving God; I also talk about loving my wife. If you tell me I do not love my wife, but am simply a slave to rational chemical reactions and twitches in my synapses rather than the irrational beauty of love then you’re beginning to dispute my core feeling of love.

If you take it further and not only dispute my feeling of love, but insult & ridicule my wife, whom you have never met, yet deem it ok to call her foul names or publish offensive cartoons of her… Now you’ve crossed a line. You’ve offended me. Religious people will often hold our beliefs as dearly as we hold beliefs about family, and sometimes more strongly. And as anyone who watches Eastenders knows, insult me as much as you like, but if you insult our family and we are likely to become irrational.

It’s hard to find something to compare the strength of religious belief and the way it can form our core identity. Ironically for religious debate, sexuality may be one. Or national pride. This is why religious people may not always look wholly in favour of ‘free speech’. But then, neither is our society. We pick & choose. We can support deeply offending Muslims in public cartoons, but not the right of black footballers to send tweets with jokes about race; suddenly our politicians ‘suis Charlie’, but few will highlight the massacres of Christians that have occurred in the last 3 years in Iraq and Syria.

Because we don’t actually mean ‘free speech’, we mean the freedom to be critical, to challenge, to question. Those are hallmarks of an open, free and democratic society, but they are not easy to manage, and neither should they be.  

Je suis Ahmed

As a follower of Jesus, he said when we are publicly offended with a humiliating backhanded slap in the face, we should turn the other cheek. We should not respond with violence, whether verbal or physical. We do not respond to offence by offending back. Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We do not all resort to violence. 

So, us ‘religious types’ may become more offended that seems rational, because our beliefs about God are tied up with our core identity far more than many realise. And maybe we are frightened of being unravelled, just as atheists who have a religious experience are. But it’s your job as a non-believer to pick the threads of our beliefs, and our responsibility to let you. The tapestry of faith looks better with frayed edges.  





things jesus didn’t say # 11 | help

2 12 2014

God helps those who help themselves. This is another of those things that sound a bit like Jesus might have said it. It sounds kind of… motivational. But the only time I think we ever use it is an excuse to not help somebody we don’t think deserves it.

thingsjesusdidntsay11help

Jesus didn’t say it. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God; the second is to love your neighbour. We do not just actively love ‘hard working families who do what is right’, we actively love those who struggle, those who cannot help themselves at the moment, those who don’t work, those who have fallen no matter who’s fault the fall was. We don’t fill out a ‘deserving’ questionnaire. It might just be our help that gives them the leg-up they need to help themselves. It might not. We still help.

Ultimately, we are not about self-help. We are not about watching others struggle from our positions of power. We are about active love within shared community. Within that, we might be taken advantage of. And we might find we ourselves are helped. I am not afraid of either. Are you?  

More things jesus didn’t say:
1. whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
2. follow your dreams and believe in yourself
3. everything happens for a reason
4. pray harder and I’ll give in
5. on the third day nothing important will happen
6. I won’t give you more than you can handle
7. other your neighbour as you other yourself
8. faith hope and tolerance, and the greatest of these is tolerance
9. touch wood





things jesus didn’t say #9 | touch wood

7 10 2014

“I pray that it works out for you, touch wood.” At which point you find the nearest wood or wood effect furniture (does that still work?), or for comedy value, touch your head. Yes Jesus was a carpenter, but that was his trade, not his prayer ministry technique. The only time he would say touch wood it is if he needed you to hold a speck whilst he took the plank out. 

thingsjesusdidntsay9touchwood

Is it a harmless phrase? Yes and no. Yes, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmless. No, because there is no spiritual power in wood, so invoking its power is harmful. Harmful as it contributes to the eroding of trust in God as the one to whom we pray. And harmful when we touch our own heads, as we do ourselves down and reveal a disturbingly negative sense of our own worth.

We believe in an actual real God who actually really answers prayer. Not in magic or superstition – or worse, a God who doesn’t listen unless we touch a particular type of natural material (or wood-effect laminate – again, does that work?).

I know most people don’t really believe in the power of touching wood. It’s just words. But words are never just words, are they. They carry a meaning.  Do we trust in the mysterious and magical power of wood (or wood effect…) to look after us, or do we trust in the God who made it.

Let’s mean what we say, or not say it at all. 

More in the cartoon series of things jesus didn’t say:
#1: stronger // whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
#2: dreams // follow your dreams and believe in yourself
#3: reason // everything happens for a reason
#4: harder // prayer harder
#5: third // on the third day, nothing important happened
#6: handle // I won’t give you more than you can handle
#7: other // other your neighbour as you other yourself
#8: tolerance // …faith, hope and tolerance. And the greatest of these is tolerance.








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