lampposts and landrovers

4 03 2012

I was out with my running club the other night. It’s something I do from time to time to confirm the stereotype that skinny people are good at long-distance running. Anyway, we were doing this horrible training run where you run hard up a steep hill, then turn round and jog back slowly to a fixed point. And repeat it as many times as you can in 30 minutes.

I say fixed point. You see, often with these runs we use lampposts as markers but the pavement was being dug up so we used a parked car as a landmark. A Land Rover. Which was fine. And very appropriate.

Trouble is, on the 2nd repetition the Land Rover (predictably) disappeared. It threw me momentarily. It reminded me of the time I was walking over Kinder Scout in the Peak District, lost my way and took a compass bearing on the only fixed point I could see. A cloud. I know, not good. But we survived. 

Following fixed points when following Jesus sometimes feels like he has got in the landmark and driven it away. Jesus refuses to be pigeon-holed or boxed. Which we deny, time and time again by making him into fixed point. Turning a parked car into a lamppost is fine if you want to light up a tiny area but not go anywhere.  

I mean, there are fixed points. I’m not saying there aren’t. But the Word of God is person not a book; a personality and not a sentence. Being dogmatic about Jesus is like catching a cloud in a jar to ensure your compass reading is accurate. We don’t really know where Jesus really stands on contemporary conundrums from banking to sex to fig trees to being gay. Ok, we know about fig trees.

We think we know; we make leaps from principles to practice which we may well absolutely believe are true to Jesus. And they may well be. But… Sometimes he drives the landmark away. 

So when we obsess over fixed points, be they about homosexuality and marriage or about anger or adultery or fig trees (and other gardening issues) let’s try and remember that Jesus always – always – saw the person, and the bigger picture; always put loving people first. 

He operated on fixed points. Of course he did, he was a devout Jew. But he also moved them. Redefined them. And to steal from Rob Bell, Jesus didn’t say get out of the box. Because there is no box. This doesn’t get us off the hook when it comes to living well. It doesn’t mean we don’t aim for holiness.

But it does mean we don’t just stand still and admire the small pool of light the lamppost makes around us. Because Jesus has just driven away.  

bin laden with questions

12 05 2011

The world we live in is flat, was created in 7 days and morality is as black & white as a zebra. There are no further questions.

The thing is, the world appears to be a sphere. Genesis appears not to be attempting to be a construction manual. And the closer you look at a zebra, the more the black and the white hairs seem to be a mixed-up and blended in.

It is important to me that our faith in the resurrected Christ impacts on all areas of our life. And those lives are all mixed up. Which is why sometimes I write about my own faith journey, sometimes about politics, sometimes about music. Because there is no place in which Jesus is not. As Rob Bell said, everything is spiritual. There is no sacred/secular divide. 

Which brings us to the death of Osama bin Laden. Immediately I heard the news, I was concerned about the language that was used. ‘Taken out’, ‘eliminated’, and all kinds of other euphemisms. I was concerned about the celebrations that were taking place in America, though thankfully it would seem only in America. People from Pakistan were killed on 9/11 too, though that is easily forgotten. 

But what difference does me being concerned make? Am I just being pious, do I live in a cloud-cuckoo-land where a fair and just trial for bin Laden would cause more problems than there already were? Maybe. But I think we are right to think about these things. We are right to ask difficult questions to those who act on our behalf. There may well be good answers. But we must ask the questions. Because the Jesus I know was not afraid to ask them. The Jesus I know sought justice for the oppressed and he also sought integrity from the powerful.

Richard Littledale notes how mixed-up those things are in posting this picture:


Many have commented on bin Laden’s death so I won’t repeat what has been said, but provide some links to those discussions. 

Tom Wright caused a bit of a storm by comparing the execution to America’s obsession with ‘exceptionalism’, based on the Wild West model of being beyond the law, writing in the Guardian and quoted by Ian Paul; Will Cookson has offered a response to that and to the question of whether Bishops have anything to say on global political issues. Journalists often criticize them for speaking out,  whilst at the same time reporting what they say. 

Nick Baines responds to the accusations of Bishop’s ‘hand-wringing’ with this example:

For example, my own involvement in Zimbabwe led me to believe that unless and until the rule of law is established there, little else can happen to sort the place out. What should Robert Mugabe learn from the killing of Bin Laden? Either the rule of law is fundamental or it isn’t.

These questions are important. We must be uncomfortable, even if we decide that the situation could be no other way. The moment we stop being uncomfortable, the moment we don’t allow ourselves to be deeply concerned, is the moment we are no longer being ambassadors of the radical, life-changing, transformative and very very resurrected Jesus. Because life is not simple. And Jesus is not on our side.

controlled by cookies

12 04 2011

They know. They are clever. And they never forget.
They remind you. They prompt you. They stalk you.

Do you fear them?

Or do we embrace them?

After all, there is nothing to fear. All they are doing is saying if you liked that, you may also like this. You bought this album, you may like this one. How very lovely, we think, I’ll give it a go. Have a cookie. Thanks for the thought.

boxed in

My recommendations from Amazon are sometimes very useful, sometimes way off the mark (80’s rom coms are not really my scene, it was Fran’s birthday…) (honest). But they are always based on my previous purchases, or things I have shown an interest in. Do they show me anything new? Or do they simply affirm my tastes and keep me in the same box? Does the shuffle on iTunes play things I have played more recently based on what I have played recently, so that gradually the net shrinks and it shuffles the same songs?

I was imagining a Bible app that would do the same. Maybe there is one. You know, one that says

  • ‘as you like *Isaiah 61*, you may also like *Luke 4*’,
  • ‘as you like *Acts 2* you may also like *Joel 2*’ or my favourite,
  • ‘as you like to *misinterpret metaphor in Genesis* you may also like to *misinterpret metaphor in Revelation*’.

Then I thought, don’t we already do that. Don’t we already self-select the books we read, the Bible passages we read, the podcasts we download. Don’t we already take recommendations from our friends who we agree with, and in so doing affirm our own rightness by listening/reading/watching stuff we know we will agree with? I was struck by Nick Baines (not literally) a few weeks ago when he said that he doesn’t read books by people he knows he will agree with, because what’s the point? I guess that’s great for an avid quick reading academic like him, but is it realistic for the rest of us? I am about to start a Tom Wright I bought in 2008. That’s how behind I am with my book pile, and that’s mostly books I know I will like. Though it does include a John MacArthur (I was lent that one).

Given the choice, I will read Rob Bell not John Piper. Given the choice and limited time I am unlikely to critically engage in a meaningful sense with someone I am likely to disagree with. Which is exactly what I criticized people for doing with Rob Bell’s new book, people who slandered it before it was even published.

A challenge for me as part of the affirmation generation, who buy/listen/read things based on computer-generated consumption assumptions and tweets from our global ministry heroes is to break out and break free from being controlled by cookies. To try something new. To read someone I don’t agree with and find something good in it.

As Spring Harvest looms, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of opportunity…!

Meanwhile here are a few more ideas for my ‘affirming your own beliefs’ Bible app. Do add your own..!

  • as you like *sporadically applying Levitical laws when they suit you*, you may also like *The Pharisees*
  • as you like *Luke 10*, you may also like *Deuteronomy 6*
  • as you like *denying bodily resurrection and the new creation*, you may also like *The Sadducees*
  • as you like *sending non-believers to eternal physical torment in hell*, you may also like *Matthew 25.31-46*
  • as you like *to write long letters to church leaders* you may also like *Paul*

the provocative resurrection

17 03 2011

Our faith is not a philosophy or a set of ideas, it is not a path of spirituality or a rule of life. It is not something thought up by someone on a rainy Tuesday. It is based on a historical event, something called the ‘scandal of particularity’; at a particular time and place something happened that defines everything. That something is resurrection.

We don’t say Christ has died, Christ was buried, Christ has since disappeared. We don’t say Christ has died, Christ metaphorically rose and Christ occasionally appears in our imaginations. No, we say Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Is, is IS! Christ rose and is still risen, resurrected with a capital R.

So what does that mean? 

Jesus was provocative in his life, and provocative in his death. A good Jewish leader with claims to be the Messiah does not overturn tables and drive out sacrificial animals from the Temple. In our Lent Course I overturned some chairs as an example, even in front of a Church Warden. That is the point – he did it in front of people who would care.

A good Jewish leader with claims to be the Messiah does not talk of the destruction of the Temple, not least followed by a claim to rebuild it in 3 days. The churchwardens, treasurers and pastors all respond with incredulity – it has taken us 46 years to build this!! Do you know how many jumble sales, barn dances and sponsored organ sacrifices we have had to raise this money?! The Temple is where God dwells, and Jesus speaks of its destruction… and its being raised.

No-one understood.

John 2.22 has this wonderful line in which we are told the disciples understood what Jesus meant only after he was raised from the dead. When he is more explicit in Mark 9.32 about being killed and being raised after 3 days, the disciples still do not understand. And are afraid to ask. And when he is raised, Luke tells us that the women ran from the tomb to tell the disciples, who didn’t believe them because their words seemed like nonsense, an idle tale, made-up wish-fulfilment.

We do not believe Jesus is and was and will be the only one to experience resurrection. Every funeral I pray about our ‘sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life’; not our sure and certain hope of drifting vaguely on a cloud somewhere having tea with our granny.

Jesus was provocative. His life was provocative, and his death was provocative. But it does not end there. His resurrection was provocative, daring death and all the powers of darkness to have a go and declaring the gates of hell will not prevail against… us. Which doesn’t mean they bang on our gates; it means we bang on theirs.

Let’s go provoke.

coming alive

3 04 2010

Seems like only yesterday
Life belong to runaways
Nothing here to see, no looking back
Every sound monotone
Every color monochrome
Life begin to fade into the black
Such a simple animal
Steralized with alcohol
I could hardly feel me anymore

Desperate, meaningless
All filled up with emptiness
Felt like everything was said and done

I lay there in the dark, I close my eyes
You saved me the day you came alive

This is my Easter song. This is my resurrection song. This is my faith song. This is my prayer. It is raw, it is loud, it is deep, is cries out from the deepest places, it is a psalm, and it speaks to all who have known dark places.

Is it about Jesus? Is it about Peter? Mary? Is it about us? Is it about the darkness and death of Easter Saturday and the crazy unexpected journey to the life of Easter Sunday? Is it a cry of hope or a cry of pain, is it a memory of Jesus alive or a hope that he will be? Is it ‘Christian’? Who knows and who cares. There is no word in the Hebrew Scriptures for religion. There is no word in the Hebrew Scriptures for spiritual. There is only life, under God.

It is by the Foo Fighters. It is Come Alive. Listen, feel it, pray it.

Then, watch this – Rob Bell on the resurrection, and what it actually means that Jesus came alive. 


sacred space invaders

26 03 2010

What space is who’s and who‘s space is what’s? I mean, what space is ours and what is theirs, whoever they are? And whoever we are.

There’s a new viral Facebook campaign called Invade the Airwaves, a campaign to get a Christian song to number 1 for Easter Sunday. It follows from the success of the Christmas campaign in 2009 to defeat the evil Roman chart occupation of Simon Cowell.

I think this is quite interesting. Despite some reservations about the idea, I have signed up for it. After all, it will only cost 79p.

Reservations? Well, it is only a good idea as part of a whole-life being transformed, that means a whole life with God having invaded our space, rather than us invading everyone else‘s. It is only a good idea of we don’t think that people will hear it and be converted. It is only a good idea if we recognise it won‘t get played by major radio stations except maybe once in the chart show, and that we don’t mind if that is the case. It is only a good idea of we hold it loosely and don’t expect it to make Tinie Tempah suddenly live a very very very holy lifestyle, and have so many Bibles he keeps some at his aunts house. Musical Jesus-bombs may be easy to lob, but won’t change a lot.

I have to hold it loosely because there are some underlying assumptions I am a bit uncomfortable with. That the airwaves are ‘theirs’, and ‘we’ must reclaim them. That to grow the kingdom of God we must invade, rather than transform. That there are no songs in the charts that speak of love and hope and fear and pain and death and spiritual realities. Ok, they may be few and far between, but for every pointless 3 minutes of Cheryl Cole (except Fight for This Love, that was ok…) there’s a Mumford or a Lady Gaga or a Robbie or an Athlete or a myriad of other people who say profound things. They may just be a bit harder to find. So try. Everything is spiritual.

So join the Facebook campaign, buy the song (the right version!), give Reggie something to think about on Easter Sunday at 6.50pm. But make sure it doesn’t make you feel like you’ve done your bit, that this is all we need to do, and that being a part of transforming and redeeming the world costs only 79p. And this song should make us especially clear about that. It is lives changing that make lives change. A change of fast, a loosening of chains and a release from oppression. Jesus overthrew the human empire not by invading but by sacrificial and painful and incarnational love. Maybe we should do the same with the Simon Cowell and the demons of bland sex-obsessed pop. Take up our cross. Not just our downloads. But at least together we can start there, because joining together for something is a point in itself. And there’s money in it for CompassionArt.

And we can be grateful its not a Michael W. Smith song.

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apocalypse (s)now

12 01 2010

fight for survival

When was the last time you killed someone? Today? Yesterday? We’ve had snow of such apocalyptic proportions, cutting off communities, blocking food supplies, stirring such rage that surely has forced us into some difficult decisions. Like, where do you get guns from. And who to kill first. After all, we can’t all survive. Tesco’s ain’t full enough for all of us.

You haven’t resorted to this? Why not? I guess I’m relieved. But still. How have you managed to repress the self-protecting pack-hunter hiding in all of us, the predator, who lives in a dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest – or at least, the one with the biggest gun – world?

Maybe I’ve watched too much TV. Last year’s Survivors, which begins a new series tonight; Day of the Triffids; 28 Day Later, and so many others, all tell the story of a major catastrophe that leaves humans struggling to survive, mostly because without warm living rooms, mobile phones and an open petrol station we all go native, turn feral and kill each other. Why? Because at their root, humans are selfish.

It used to be preachers who had the monopoly on this story. Humans are evil! Humans are depraved! Humans are full of sin! You will be judged! Now, we don’t need to say anything. Survivors: humans are bad. TV news: humans are bad. Avatar: humans are bad. EastEnders: humans are bad. It really is everywhere. I don’t know many humans who need to be told they are crap. Most of us are fully aware that we feel like that already.Who needs Augustine’s doctrine of original sin when you’ve got the Daily Mail.

grim smiles in the fight for survival

If it was Christian preachers who set us on this path, maybe it needs to be Christians preachers who re-set the balance, who address the balance of a world out of kilter with its creator. Maybe we need to apologise for getting something so horribly wrong. Because if we begin at the beginning, to use Rob Bell’s phrase, we discover that humans are not inherently bad and evil; humans were not created depraved and in need of redemption. God saw what he had made, and it was good. It was good. Not perfect, as in a finished product out of a machine; but good, like fresh apples on a tree. This is Genesis 1 and 2. Things were good. So, the original state of humans: good. The default setting: good.

Yes, things changed in a way that Genesis 3 and the rest of the redemption story tries to explain. And then, at the end in Revelation 21-22, things are fully restored. Good. Good! So perhaps there is a different story of human life that we can tell. Stories that are not all about how humans make things go horribly wrong, but how humans are created to make things go right; that by nature we do not all revert to type and kill to survive, but that our nature is to over-rule the survival-of-the-fittest  instinct and look out for those weaker than ourselves. That has happened countless times in the snow over the last few weeks. People putting themselves out in order to help others; people meeting their neighbours for the first time on order to help them with their shopping or get the car out of the drive.

Stories of hope, stories of human goodness. I know it is not always easy. When in an almost empty-shelved (compared with normal!) Tesco’s on Saturday I was tempted to take more milk than I needed in case it we couldn’t get any more; but that would mean there was none left for anyone else. So I only took one. Big deal! But it’s little things that give us hope.

I know that without Jesus I would be more selfish, more opinionated, more impatient. So maybe Survivors is right. maybe I would kill to survive.  Maybe we all would. Maybe the new secular gospel preachers of sin, hell-fire and death have got a point. Maybe all I have said is wrong.

I hope not. Certainly not throwing Jesus into the snowy mix as well. Its times like this he’s especially relevant, especially challenging. In the midst of the bleak midwinter, in the midst of the thawing apocalypse snow. Anyone want to watch The Day After Tomorrow?

another cold-hearted human

jesus wore loose pants

5 10 2009

Maybe it’s a boy thing. Maybe you misjudged your new purchase, or you’ve had them too long and they’ve shrunk – or, of course, your waistline has grown. But there’s nowt more uncomfortable that pants that are too tight. That constant sense of discomfort, wriggling around to ease the pressure. Getting irritable. Searching around for the reason why and missing the simplest answer. Just loosen your pants.

lovely pants

lovely pants

There are many people who follow Jesus, but who seem to have their pants on too tight. People who are so utterly convinced of their rightness, having sat down with Jesus and had the “so what is the definitive answer to…” conversation I obviously missed out on. People who seem to take certain parts of their religious convictions way, way more seriously than others.

The issue of homosexuality is a big one at the moment, with many groups making definitive pronouncements. And for some, this issue defines everything. Along with, of course, 7-day creation, that defines everything. And penal-substitution, which defines everything. And all the other things that define everything. In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell uses the image of dogma and theology needing to be more like a trampoline, that flexes and bends to a certain degree as we discuss things, rather than being like a brick wall that is solid, immovable, and collapses if we take some bricks away.

I find that helpful. Otherwise, we are in danger of ending up down a theological cul-de-sac. Here’s an example. In this post the tornado the lutherans and homosexuality, author John Piper justifies a tornado hitting a convention of evangelicals, who were simply discussing pro-gay issues, as a ‘judgement from God’. That sort of thinking seems to be so un-Jesus-like, whatever our views on the sexuality issue. Maybe it is peculiarly American; it is certainly less prevalent here in the UK. For thinkers like that, because their views are so fixed, everything else revolves around those views. Had the sun shone, would that have been a positive judgement? Has it shone at previous conventions? There are so many holes in such a ludicrous pronouncement.

theological cul-de-sac?

theological cul-de-sac?

I remember when I was researching  a project on the theology of contemporary worship songs, and came across Christians who would not sing any Graham Kendrick songs – not because his particular lyrics were ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, but simply because he came from the ‘charismatic movement’. Their view was that as good fruit cannot come from a bad tree, his songs must be avoided. Theological cul-de-sac? Pants on too tight? Someone need to chill out?

Yes, we are called to make decisions on some issues. Yes, we cannot be endlessly flexible – but then, a trampoline isn’t, otherwise it is not a trampoline but a tarpaulin on the floor being stamped on. But we can still talk, and meet, and worship together. At the recent Southwark Diocese Clergy Conference, we had Bishop Graham Cray (former Bishop of Maidstone, now leader of Fresh Expressions) stating a conservative understanding of human sexuality, yet saying he was open and willing to talk with people who think differently, and help to resource their churches in ways that he can help; and we had the Bishop of Maryland Eugene Sutton stating a liberal understanding, leading a church gathering resources (but not yet endorsing them) for same-sex blessings, yet saying he was wanting to build links with more conservative people.

For me, this is not about leaving the gates open so wide that ‘anything goes’. But it is about wearing loose pants. Not getting so up-tight so quickly; not becoming so entrenched that the only voices we hear are those that agree with us. This way, hopefully, if and when we do have to make unpopular choices, we can do so in  the context of friendship, not of proof-texting one-up-manship, which seems to me such a public-school past-time with posh boys shouting “my daddy’s car is bigger than yours and here’s the measurements in Latin”.

We loosen our pants in the context of worshiping the same Lord, Jesus Christ. In the context of there being a whole lot more important issues on the agenda, like global poverty, local poverty, depression, loneliness, and lots of people thinking that God hates them or simply doesn’t notice them. And we should remember that sometimes, to quote Rob Bell again, from his thought-provoking talk the importance of beginning in the beginning, we might just need a group hug. And sometimes, we just need to have a giggle. So let’s lighten up, and watch this:


Let’s loosen our pants, but please remember to keep them on.

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