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.

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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.

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blind in the mind

15 09 2015

When things go wrong, we pretend we don’t believe we are being punished for what we did in this or a previous life; but I’m amazed at how many people think that they are. Not in a Hindu reincarnation-type way, just in a ‘there must be a reason for this’ type way. My success is down to me, but my failure is someone else’s fault. Or, if my success is due to God’s blessing, then my failure is down to.. what? Punishment, clearly. At least, that’s the theological cul-de-sac where so many end up. Let’s call it the Hoddle waddle. Everything happens for a reason, right?

In a series on Jesus’ “I am” sayings, we looked at the account of the man who was born blind, and who Jesus healed; this account includes discussion about who’s fault it was he is blind – his? his parents? nobody’s? – whether religious rules are more important than people, and ultimately that his physical blindness wasn’t due to sin, but sin can lead to spiritual blindness.

As it was an all-age service, I wrote the talk as a spoken-word poem in language for all ages, hopefully. Here it is:


the man was born blind
but it was the pharisees who couldn’t see
well, they could see, see
but they couldn’t see, see
they could see with their eyes
but not with their hearts
they could play I-Spy
but they took any chance
to keep other people in darkness
and themselves in the light

like the man who was born blind
who actually couldn’t see
they behaved so unkind
they pretended they couldn’t see him
him who had to beg at the roadside for money
whilst the pharisees feasted on olives and honey

jesus turned this all upside down
turned the smile on the pharisees into a frown
and the blind man who had been so full of worry
turned his face around so he could see the funny
side of being healed with spit and mud
and nobody believing it was really him
and he didn’t even know which man Jesus was

but this story isn’t really about this kind of blind
Jesus was really talking about being blind in the mind
the kind of blind where you find people being unkind
blind to their kind, unkind in their mind
and thinking this kind of unkind mind is the mind
of our God

you’re blind Jesus says it’s like all you see is black
but I am the light so don’t turn your back
like a smallest of candles that can light up a cave
i am the light of the world that God gave

the light that shines in the darkness so you can understand
from a candle to a fire that the Holy Spirit fans
I am the light of the world Jesus said for people like you
the question is now – what will you do?
will you hide you light under a bucket so nobody can see
or pluck up the courage so that you can be free
and show Jesus the light to all people around
and his light will surround and dumbfound and confound
but the darkness will be bound – in fact it will bound away
when Jesus’ light switches on it’s like a brand new day

so let’s not be like the pharisees blind in the mind
but like the man who was blind who let Jesus be kind
and jesus led him from fear to be free
I once was blind but now I can see

© 2015 Kevin Lewis 





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.

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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. 

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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.





things Jesus didn’t say # 8 | tolerance

17 06 2014

“Faith, hope and tolerance. And the greatest of these is tolerance.” 1 Corinthians 13, in the “Bland British Values” version, soon to be taught in schools across the country alongside that version of history in which we simply tolerated workhouses, feudalism, Nazism and duck houses. thingsjesusdidntsay8tolerance

Is tolerance even a value? Yes it is, and it can be a good one. Is it one of the greatest? No. As Jeremy Hardy said on the News Quiz, “Are we really going to teach an orphaned, traumatised refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo to say ‘mustn’t grumble’?” 

Tolerance can be a virtue. Surely we’d rather be known as tolerant than intolerant. Except. Except. We are intolerant of injustice. We are intolerant of persecution. We are intolerant of bullying. Of slavery. Of domestic violence. We are intolerant of political ideology that squeezes private profit from anything that moves, even Child Protection services. We are intolerant of NHS managers getting pay rises before nurses. We are intolerant of the elite ruling political class being vacuous of compassion and labour rights and a sense of collective responsibility.

We are intolerant of the fact that we have reduced the call to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God into a bland aspiration to merely tolerate each other, and for that to somehow be a good thing.

Tolerance. It has it’s place. But it’s got nothing on sacrificial love, thirst for justice, unending kindness and generosity of heart. Those are values to be proud of.





things jesus didn’t say #7 | other

10 06 2014

Now that all the furore over the European elections is dying down, it’s time to reflect on the idea of othering. I know this is a delicate area, but to listen to lots of people claiming to be followers of Jesus, or to speak for those who are, you’d think that Jesus had said “And the second greatest commandment is this: other your neighbour as you other yourself.”  thingsjesusdidntsay7otherHe didn’t, of course, he said “Love your neighbour as yourself”. He said that loving God with all your heart and believing your neighbour is as important as you is worship – more important worship than offerings and sacrifices. Despite politicians ramblings about us being a nation of tolerance, so many seem to be actually causing us to do the opposite: to label each other as ‘other’, as different. Which cannot be good. Whether we are pointing at those out of work, those with spare rooms, those who work in finance, those from Romania, those who are Muslims… the list goes on… we seem to be retreating into greenhouses and throwing stones. 

Jesus didn’t say the EU is a good idea, or that it isn’t. This isn’t about that. You can be anti-Europe, or Euro-sceptic, and still love your neighbour. To be against the corruption and interference of Europe does not equate with being racist; to be worried about immigration doesn’t equate with being racist; yet they seem to be being conflated, conjoined.

We as followers of Jesus should be prime examples of those who love and embrace our neighbour, because we are citizens of a kingdom in which Jesus is Lord; we must not be equated with those who ‘other’ each other, making differences between us our defining characteristics. We must not demonise, or let the media soften our resistance to demonisation, and we must not allow casual racism to become respectable again. 

Let’s be careful with our words, careful with our votes, and generous with our actions.

(And have a quiet giggle at the new UKIP local councillors as they realise they are dealing with suburban bin collections and dog poo, not mass immigration.)

 





things jesus didn’t say #6 | handle

9 05 2014

“I won’t give you more than you can handle.” It sounds Jesus-y. How many times have I found myself saying it, to encourage somebody who is struggling, whilst at the same time thinking that sometimes he really does give us more than we can handle. 

thingsjesusdidntsay6handle

Stephen, stoned. Peter, crucified upside-down. Those are just the early ones. You just have to go on the Open Doors website to see the fate of Christians across the world today. Does that mean they did not or are not following God’s will? If he doesn’t give us more than we can manage, surely they must be? I look at my own life, and the decisions that we believe God has called us to make that have nearly broken us. If following Jesus is reduced to a positive lifestyle choice, it is not a good one. 

It’s too easy a cliche to bring out that God won’t give us more than we can handle. The key verse usually (mis)quoted is 1 Corinthians 10.13, 

And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.

This verse is about temptation, not suffering. Suffering is here in Romans 5.3-5

3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 

Sometimes God gives us more than we can handle. That is a hard truth. So if your church tells you that he doesn’t, and that he will always give you the resources to carry out his calling; and that if he doesn’t then you must have misheard him… it’s not that simple. We don’t believe in a God who leaves us in the lurch. But we do believe in a God who will lead his followers to their death. Is that the same thing?

It is certainly a challenge to the temptation of the middle-class Christianity that says following Jesus will enhance your life and make everything go swimmingly. That is a danger especially at the charismatic end, and it is up to us to be aware of it. Sometimes we are called to plain old hard graft which prayer ministry will not ‘solve’; sometimes following Jesus will break us, or take us very near. 

I think that’s why it’s called taking up a cross.  

Can we handle that? 





things jesus didn’t say #5 | third

16 04 2014

I will die, and on the third day nothing important will happen.

Of course he didn’t say that. I will die, and on the third day I will rise again. That is what he said. And did. That matters.

thingsjesusdidntsay5third

The same goes for Peter. For Paul. Not the birds. The resurrection is the key.  

The weird thing is, to hear a lot of us speak, and to read our theology (you might know them as songs), it’s like the third day isn’t so important. Especially in the evangelical world, our songs are distinctly lacking in explicit resurrection theology. There are many songs about the blood of jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, the death of Jesus. But the resurrection?

I recognise that often we use these phrases as a kind of shorthand. When we say we are ‘saved by the death/blood/sacrifice of Jesus’, what we mean is by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The trouble is, shorthand rapidly becomes the norm, and then nobody remembers it’s shorthand. Resurrection needs death before it; death does not need resurrection after it. 

I challenge you to search out contemporary songs for explicit mention of the resurrection. There are a few notable ones that do, but most? They read like loose sacrifice-themed Old Testament-lite: the death of a lamb, the death of Jesus, it’s all the same. No, because Jewish sacrifices a) weren’t God (obviously), but also 2) they did not rise from the dead, bringing future hope into present day.

This Easter my challenge is to re-train our shorthand to talk of the resurrection of Jesus, not his death. Not to take it as a given, because to anyone new to church it certainly isn’t taken as a given. Anyone can claim their hero has died, and in doing so been a motivating influence; but very few claim the bold, the scandalous, the outrageous and the bonkers claim to resurrection.

The third day is not an afterthought, an added extra, after the serious business of Friday and Saturday. Resurrection Sunday is the centre of our faith. It defines who we are. Let’s keep it that way.

Further reading:

From me: The Provocative Resurrection,  The Provocative Resurrection 2: This World Matters, Suffocating the Resurrection

From Ian Paul: Resurrection

Song suggestions:

See What a Morning (Resurrection Hymn)

More Than Conquerers

The Same Power

And finally, a lesson in theology and poetry from the master:

 





things jesus didn’t say #4 | harder

9 04 2014

We need to pray harder. How often do we find ourselves saying that? It’s as if, when we don’t get what we want, we think that perhaps if we somehow did it ‘harder’, God will give in. I’m not sure what ‘praying harder’ looks like. Is it like weightlifting? Intense straining with our heads in our hands? Like thinking so hard our heads explode? 

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Now, I know it’s not simply that we shouldn’t pray ‘hard’. This is why prayer is complex. Jesus says a lot about prayer, but none of it is a formula that makes it ‘work’, because prayer isn’t about magic incantations that tip a balance or command a force, but prayer is the outworking of a life lived in relationship and conversation with the living God. In Jesus’ most obvious teaching about prayer in Matthew 6, it is in the context of humility, of generosity, of privacy; it is begins with God, and his kingdom, other people, and then ourselves; it involves confession, forgiveness, and recognising Jesus’ authority.

There are times when we need to pray intensely. There are times when we pray continuously. There are times when we need to remember prayer includes listening, and is not something we do just when we want something. But to complicate matters, God may seem to change his mind and act when we pray ‘hard’ – maybe  he wants to know we’re serious. But ultimately it’s not about formulas, and if our prayers aren’t answered as we would like, it’s not simply a case of our failure because we didn’t pray hard enough. Jesus never said that. 

We’re doing the Prayer Course at the moment, which looks at lots of these issues. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good place to start from.  





things jesus didn’t say | 3 | reason

3 04 2014

Everything happens for a reason. It sounds ok at first. it sounds like something Jesus might have said. Until you really think about it. Everything? For a reason? For what, reason, exactly, is a woman raped? For what reason does a child die from cancer? For what reason are Syria’s refugees in desperate crisis? So they can learn about suffering, or grow in character? Seriously?

thingsjesusdidntsay3reason

What people really mean is that minor disappointments can teach us something. And that yes, some things happen for a reason. Yes, some things are directed by God. And the crux of it is this: yes, God can redeem even the darkest situation of pain and suffering. But that is very different from saying that it happened for a reason. That suggests deliberate cause for a deliberate effect. I do not believe that God indiscriminately causes deliberate suffering to teach us a lesson.

‘Everything happens for a reason’ is more about submitting to the person-less myth of Fate than believing in the sovereignty of God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. It is lazy, passive theology. Instead we should claim God’s presence in the darkest places, trust in God’s ability to transform them, and lament when he does not.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

(Psalm 22 1-2, echoed by Jesus in Matthew 27.46) 








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