the paper thingy

Recently, at a Christmas do, some friends of ours gave me this present:

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If you have never seen one before you may be wondering what it is. I certainly was. It had started its life as a strip, looking a bit like a paper garland. Then our friend opened it out and stuck the edges together to make this 3D object.

Any guesses yet? Some sort of artistic paper sculpture?

Let me rotate it (to save you turning your screen upside down).IMG_0208

Does this help? Is it some sort of paper vase (not very practical admittedly). How about if I turn it on its side?

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Perhaps it’s some sort of large paper shuttlecock or missile? I discovered you can open it out by pulling together one of the ends.IMG_0210

Maybe it’s some sort of paper fruit bowl? Not very stable though. I had no other ideas so our friends told us. It’s a hat!IMG_0211IMG_0212

It only really becomes a hat when you pull it onto your head. Until that moment it becomes a curious object.

It’s the same with the Christian faith. It only really comes to life when you put it on, when you start to live it. It’s not about adopting a religion or following rules or even going to church! It’s about entering into a relationship with God. You may have lots of other ideas about it until that moment when you take a step of faith you won’t experience it in all its fullness.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

nobody expects

I recognise that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is not everyone’s cup of tea, but they how many of you were expecting the Spanish Inquisition?

Nobody?

I thought that would be the case.

Personally I find that sketch (you can see it on YouTube if you are prepared for some silliness) rather amusing, especially when coupled with later unexpected visits from the Spanish Inquisition during the TV episode. But it does make light of one of the most troubling episodes of Christendom’s era – when people were tortured and killed in pursuit of establishing their orthodoxy as Christians – by the Church! How such a process could have evolved (and be defended at the time) by reference to the Bible I have no idea. The concept makes me shudder, and please don’t even mention witch-hunts in this country…

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And I shudder still when I see Christians conducting a neo-Inquisition today. Thankfully there is no physical torture involved (usually) but some Christians still engage in a fanatical approach to testing orthodoxy, and it almost looks like a witch hunt at times. It lacks love, grace and mercy and can be full of venom and vitriol that you never find on the lips or in the heart of Jesus.

What I find most upsetting is that, as with the Spanish Inquisition, neo-Inquisitors are not even using a Biblical ‘test’ to discern whether or not someone is ‘a proper Christian’. Which is ironic in the extreme because the neo-Inquisition is about whether or not you are biblically sound! The test is based on your ethics: ‘Proper Christians’ are those who interpret the Bible in exactly the same way that the neo-Inquisitors do (and they deem themselves to be the arbiters of what is ‘biblical’ so ‘proper Christians’ are those who hold to our particular approach to the many ethical conundrums that face us today. If you don’t prepare to be shunned, scorned, argued with, lambasted, ignored or (horror of horrors) deemed to be ‘unsound’.

The neo-Inquisition spends considerable time, effort, energy, resources (and space on the internet) denouncing and rooting out those who are unsound, based on their ‘test’. But surely there are far more important tasks facing the Church today than engaging in a neo-Inquisition based on a false ‘test’ of orthodoxy?

And if we do have to engage in testing orthodoxy (which surely is actually God’s job) let’s at least use a biblical test: Romans 10:9 – “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

That’s it.

Nothing about having to interpret the Bible in a particular way. Nothing about ethics. Indeed it may not even require that much when you consider what Jesus said to one of the thieves crucified next to him (Luke 23:39-43) based only on a minimal understanding of who Jesus was and what he said (and before his resurrection!).

Please, please, please let’s stop arguing about who’s right about what doesn’t make an eternal difference and spend that energy letting people know the amazing news that “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I’m not suggesting that how we interpret the Bible is unimportant, nor that we should not live ethically. But Jesus spent a lot of time trying to show the religious people of his day that their rigid rules, literalism and hypocrisy were getting in the way of people finding God and I have a horrible feeling that those words still resonate today.

And if that makes me unsound… so be it.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

updating

The Bible has been updated. It’s true. It happened this morning. I had a message on my phone that said, “Successfully updated ‘Bible'”. I am not sure what updates they have made, but it will be interesting finding out. Perhaps they have taken out the gory bits or the sexy bits or the difficult bits.

Or perhaps, as seems more likely, it was simply my phone alerting me to the fact that the Bible app I have installed on my phone has been updated – to fix a bug, for example. In fact this morning it was one of four apps that were updated.

Yesterday afternoon I had a frustrating time with my emails. I have two accounts – a personal one and a work one. The work one kept working (appropriately) but the personal one decided all of a sudden to become impersonal. It stopped receiving emails and kept asking me to enter the password as if I was entering the incorrect password, even though I knew that it was correct – after all “password” is not too difficult to remember is it?* I was getting frustrated by this and restarted the program several times to no avail.

In the end I decided to try a trick that I learnt from an amazing computer support man I knew. I turned the whole machine off and on again. As I was doing this I noticed that it wanted to install some updates. So I told it that I was happy for it to do that and guess what? When it restarted after installing the updates the email program worked fine for both the work and personal accounts.

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Because technology is so integral to our lives nowadays, so too are updates. Bugs need to be fixed, potential security weaknesses need to be strengthened, incompatibilities with other programs need to be resolved, and (just occasionally) an update enhances the capability and look of the program or app. Sometimes these updates happen behind the scenes, without us noticing. Sometimes they need to be authorised by us, or we need to restart the machine to make the update effective. I wonder how many years of our lives are lost while we are waiting for technology to update itself?

To update a Biblical description of what the Holy Spirit does, he is constantly applying updates to the lives of people who have given him permission to do so (generally known as ‘Christians’). A lot of the time we are not aware of the updates happening because they are small, gentle enhancements or fixes. But there are other times when the Spirit makes us aware that we need to be updated to fix a significant issue, to help us to resolve a potential security weakness (avoiding temptation) or to help us with our incompatibilities with other people. And sometimes he provides an update that enhances us and our capabilities (spiritual fruit and gifts).

In those cases, when we need to take action ourselves, we are responding to the Spirit’s prompting but the update won’t happen without our involvement because we are not machines or technology to be updated by a software update program but are human beings in a relationship with the Living God. Because he has given us autonomy and free will he will not force us to be updated, but he will recommend it. Do you need to respond to any update messages today?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I hope you realise that was a joke!

Ten good reasons not to believe in God

I think it is about time we were honest. So this Baptist Minister is giving you ten good reasons why you should not believe in God* and risking being burnt at the stake or excommunicated. Perhaps your reasons are in here somewhere…

Hand Count 101. It’s old fashioned – believing in God is not really a 21st century thing to do, is it? It’s like believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and we have grown out of it, haven’t we? It’s as old fashioned as breathing.

2. Christians – yes Christians can sometimes be a good reason not to believe in God. They can be annoying. They can be overzealous. They can be hypocritical. And they can do things and say things that hurt us and put us off God. And haven’t Christians been responsible for some of the worst atrocities in history – Crusades, Inquisitions…? Surely when you believe in God you become perfect don’t you?

3. Church – it can be a bit, well, churchy. Nobody likes being preached at. And sometimes it comes across as rather traditional and boring while at other times it seems to be trying too hard to be cool (and nobody says ‘cool’ any more). I wonder sometimes whether God doesn’t feel like going to some of our churches either. And while churches do lots of good things (we can’t deny that) so do lots of other charity organisations. Going to church is like looking at a stained glass window, it looks nice but it’s out of date and not very practical.

4. Bad stuff happens – this is surely one of God’s weaknesses (if he exists). How come he lets bad stuff happen? That’s not very nice, warm, loving and fluffy – not the sort of gentle Jesus meek and mild I was told about in Sunday School. God is supposed to be “in light in accessible, hid from our eyes” (as the hymnwriter puts it) – blindingly perfect. What sort of God would give people complete free will and risk them ignoring or hating him and doing bad stuff? What sort of love is that?

5. Bad stuff happens that is not anyone’s fault – you know, earthquakes, famines, tsunamis and the like. You can’t pin that on free will being exercised can you? If there is a God and he made this planet how come he made it with all of this hideousness as well? He can’t exist and if he did he’s some sort of monster. Car manufacturers put safety features in to stop them having accidents so why couldn’t God do the same? Admittedly the cars become less safe and more accident prone when you put a human behind the wheel and they decide not to obey the rules…

6. He’s anonymous – if there’s a God, how come we can’t see him? Why does he have to be silent, invisible and remote? If he was that interested in us surely he would let us know about himself, give us some clues, leave some fingerprints or DNA around the place from which we could at least deduce his existence? Surely he would show us how we can get to know him?

7. Science has disproved him – we humans are clever. We know how so much of this planet works, we have worked out the complicated maths behind so much of the Universe. We know so much of what happened from the fraction of a sliver of a tiny nanosecond after the Big Bang. We know about DNA and how it mutates and changes through the reproductive processes. From the smallest particle to the largest expanse of the Universe we know about it all. Yes, there are some bits that we don’t know yet, but surely it’s only a matter of time before we know how everything works. And ‘how’ is the most important question isn’t it?

8. Aliens – alien life forms disprove God don’t they? The Bible doesn’t mention aliens. What about Roswell, Area 57 and all of the evidence about alien life forms? Ha, God, get out of that one. The evidence for aliens is all around us. Everyone knows that.

9. The Bible is iffy – there are so many discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Bible. It’s been made up by people who wanted to try to explain why things happen – people who didn’t know about science. I’m sure we can all name hundreds.. maybe five… at least one inconsistency in the Bible.

10. If God is so nice, why does he send people to hell? That doesn’t sound very nice does it? Even if we can understand some of the horrible things that happen now, surely God wants everyone to be with him in heaven, so why does he send some people to hell? That’s not nice. If I invite people to a party what sort of host am I if I troll those who don’t want to come?

So let’s stop worrying about God and get on with not believing in him. If we say we don’t believe in him then he won’t exist. Will he?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*This bloggage is incomplete without understanding the irony. Because irony is not obvious in the written word I wonder if some of you missed it or need the irony above explaining a bit, so if you need them here are some further explanations to what I have written above.

1. I imagine you haven’t decided that breathing is unnecessary, so why ignore the possibility that there is someone who is beyond and within time who gives us that breath?

2. Christians are not always the best free samples of Jesus. We are human, we are flawed, we are ‘works in progress’. If God used angels or any beings other than humans to tell others about him it would be very difficult for people not to believe in him because we will have seen the evidence of the supernatural so he takes the risk that Christians will mess things up in order not to compromise the free choice he wants all of us to have. I don’t excuse the hideous things that Christians have done in the name of Jesus, but atheists are no saints: Holocaust, Stalin, Mao…? I am not saying that you can excuse one atrocity if you excuse the other. But let’s not throw stones if we live in glass houses.

3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And if you want to see the best of a stained glass window you have to go inside the church to experience the light streaming through it – it’s the same with church and being a Christian. You can’t fully experience it looking from the outside. But do you trust your friends who are Christians? And people who are not ‘church’ doing good things doesn’t mean there isn’t a God, it could be evidence of his goodness at work beyond the church.

4. The existence of light mean there is also likely to be shadow? There is a ‘shadow’ to our world. Suffering can have a purpose – pain signals to our brain tell us that there is something wrong or to take our hand out of a fire. Sometimes people’s greed means that others suffer – why are shanty towns built in vulnerable areas: because the rich people have the good land. Sometimes we humans have to take responsibility for our own failings.You can’t give people complete free will without risking that they will ignore you and cause bad stuff to happen. And you can’t give people complete free will without allowing bad stuff to happen because if you intervened they would have no choice but to believe in you. Because if you built a perfect sentient robot with self-awareness and the ability to think for itself you couldn’t make some rules about it having to love you.

5. Yes, there is suffering in the world that makes no sense and has no human cause. But free will (if it is genuinely free) risks rebellion and that rebellion is at large in the world. You can call it evil, the devil or whatever you like, but this world is not as God intended it because it is at odds with him, just as a malfunctioning robot might destroy the environment in which it is based. The robot designer did not intend it to malfunction. And if there is a malevolent force around doesn’t it make sense that it would exist in the shadows of this world and try to point us away from God by making us blame him for the bad stuff that happens? Bad stuff happening is evidence of a malevolent force in the world. Wouldn’t it make sense for a loving God to be trying to sort that out for us?

6. Read one of the gospels and then ask if God is anonymous. And take a look around you. The Universe we inhabit is astonishing isn’t it? Isn’t it possible that it has a Designer? Why is that less plausible than that it happened purely by chance?

7. Science tells us how things happen. It doesn’t tell us why. Science can tell us how God put things together but it can’t say why. It can tell us about the patterns and laws and rules and maths behind everything, but it can’t say why those patterns and laws and rules and maths are so perfectly balanced to allow for this Universe (other than to hypothesise an infinite number of Universes so that this one can exist and sustain life).

8. You can believe in aliens but not in God? The ‘evidence’ for alien life forms is somewhat sketchy at best. And even if they did exist, why does that disprove God? Bearing in mind when the Bible was written, wouldn’t it have rather freaked out those people to have been told about beings on other planets?

9. The manuscripts of the Bible exist in many fragments found in many different places and they are in harmony with each other in 98.5% of the all of the manuscripts. The 1.5% were caused by mistakes in copying (no photocopiers or scanners, it was all hand written); explanations added in the margins and then incorporated; and some words changed to try to make it easier to understand. None of these differences make a difference to any of the major themes of the BIble. Did you know that 24 carat gold is 99.9% pure gold, but 18 carat gold is 75% and 9 carat gold is 38%. The Bible is almost 24 carat gold!

10. I don’t believe that God sends anyone to hell (whatever your view of ‘hell’ is). If he is consistent he will always respect our choices because he respects our free will. He won’t force anyone to be with him who doesn’t want to be with him. ‘Judgment’ (whatever that is) is about God (sadly, perhaps even reluctantly) accepting our decision whether or not we want to be with him. Whatever you think hell may or may not be, it at least is an absence of God: he respects our decision – if we want to be with him we are with him, if we don’t we aren’t. Whatever you choose, he will respect.

You may not believe in God, but he believes in you.

forms, details and arrangements

paperworkThere’s a lot to sort out when you are moving job. All sorts of forms need filling, lots of details need dealing with, arrangements need arranging and so on.

It is probably not the case but it feels more complicated when the ‘jobs’ are church-related. In addition to the forms, details and arrangements, there is a church family to say goodbye to, there are lots of ‘last [insert meeting type here] meetings’, there are final thoughts to share and at the same time (unless you are retiring) there is a new church / role to be anticipated with forms, details and arrangements (like arranging an Induction service). It’s complicated and (occasionally) confusing.

I made a mistake when I was trying to arrange a time to visit a church in my new role but looking at my current diary. I got the wrong month and thought I was available on certain dates, which I offered, and then when one was accepted this morning I tried to put the meeting in the correct month and found that I was double booked with a meeting for my current church and the need for a meeting in the new role at the same time on the same evening. I hate it when I do that because it means that I am letting at least one of the groups down.

I now have to ask for grace from the people with whom the second meeting was trying to be arranged and look more disorganised than I usually am.

All of this has got me thinking about how churches can fail to realise how big a thing it can be for someone to say that they want to become a Christian: we might say that they are moving from darkness to light. When we talk to people about it, or preach about it, we can make it all seem so easy and simple.

There are far fewer forms to fill and perhaps fewer arrangements to arrange, but all of a sudden there are new details to deal with: possible lifestyle changes; a new timetable (to allow church attendance); loss of sleep (if Sunday morning lie-ins have to be surrendered in the new timetable); friends and family to tell (and their unpredictable reactions to consider); possible implications for employment; a new language to learn (church-speak) and so much more.

When Jesus said, “Follow me,” it all sounded so simple. So how did we make it so complicated? But at least he warned people about the cost… do we?

Be blessed, be a blessing

re-branded?

Live Coals
Branding can be painful!

There’s an interesting article on the BBC News website about brands that have crossed over to become household names for the item we use: think ‘hoover’, ‘jacuzzi’, even ‘escalator’, ‘google’ and ‘yo yo’! The suggestion is that while the transition of a brand name to becoming a generic name suggests success it actually can sound the death knell for a company because at that point the brand has lost its distinctiveness.

Most of us don’t ‘vacuum-clean’ a room (some of us don’t hoover either but that’s a different issue). We don’t use the ‘moving staircase’ in a shop or on the Underground. And because of that the brand name no longer means just that product: in our thinking it includes any similar product, including those from a different manufacturer.

It got me thinking: has ‘Christian’ had the same experience? It used to mean ‘follower of Jesus Christ’ but now seems to have crossed over to mean ‘Christened as a baby’, ‘knows where the local Anglican Church is’, ‘nice person’, ‘has a residual awareness of church’ or even ‘not a member of another faith’. I have suggested on this blog before that the word ‘Christian’ has been devalued and the article from the Beeb made me think further on that.

I think a similar thing has happened to the word ‘church’ (at this point you can imagine me climbing upon one of my hobby horses!). It used to be the collective noun for Christians – the name of a gathered community of believers – but has now been reduced to describing buildings or as a sloppy shorthand for ‘Church of England’*.

So what’s to be done about it? We could abandon the words – allowing them to float like verbal flotsam and jetsam in the Linguistic Sea. We’d have to come up with some alternatives but they can seem a bit clumsy: ‘Jesusite’ (oops, Jesuit!); Christfollower; born-again Christian (but that’s now a loaded term and anyway we only have a record of Jesus saying that to one person), ‘free sample of Jesus (sounds familiar)…

Or we can reclaim them but reasserting our distinctiveness. Surely those brands are not lost. Surely if those brands were so good, so significant, so much better than the rest people would want them first. So how does that look for ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’? It starts with us being filled with God’s Spirit and then letting him flow out through us so we can be the best free samples of Jesus possible.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I listened to an interview on Radio 5 Live this morning where ‘the Church’ was used 10 times in the matter of a few sentences instead of ‘the Church of England’. It irks me because it suggests / assumes that there are no other churches in this country… [deep breath, and r e l a x]

risk

Some of you may not get the full relevance of this image to 'risk'.
Some of you may not get the full relevance of this image to ‘risk’.

Oooh, isn’t it interesting what ignites people’s interest? The mention of something topical and a bit controversial in the blog title yesterday caused a surge in views. The letter in the Daily Telegraph from 50 high profile people complaining about our Prime Minister describing the country as ‘Christian’ made headline news. (I was interested in the use of statistics here – the letter from the 50 said that Christians are a tiny minority, based on Church attendance, while those defending the position refer to the last Census where 6/10 people said they were Christians). And now politicians are fighting back by reasserting what the Prime Minister said and saying things like: ‘it’s difficult for moderate people of faith to express their views because of extremist attitudes’.

One of the ironies is that the values based on the Bible that have shaped this country (such as ‘tolerance’; ‘welcoming the stranger’; ‘care for the downtrodden’; and ‘free will’) are now the values that are being used to say that we can’t assert one faith over any other.

And that doesn’t surprise me because God is a real risk-taker. When he put human beings on the planet with the freedom to choose whether or not we wanted to know him he took the risk that we wouldn’t. When he chose the nation of Israel to be a ‘light to all nations’ as a way of showing everyone what a relationship with him could be like he took the risk that they would assume that they were the ‘special ones’ and see it as a right to be exploited not a privilege to be shared. When Jesus chose twelve somewhat flaky men to be trained up as his followers ready to take on the world he took the risk that they would let him down.

And when God wrote out his ‘maker’s instructions’ for the planet and for people he made them universally fair and took the risk that they would be used against him. God says, “Everyone is equally valuable”; so we reduce faith to a matter of personal choice and say: “Because everyone is equal you can’t say that your God is better than any other god.” God says, “Love me, love your neighbour as yourself”; and we ignore the first bit and reduce the second bit to a Universal Truth: “Respect everyone.”

If you doubt that God is a risk taker, consider this: he wants to use ordinary people (albeit filled with his Spirit) as the ones who will spread the Good News about Jesus around the world. He risks us getting the message wrong, fighting amongst ourselves, being too scared, and blending in with our surroundings so that people don’t notice us. But he also risks us changing the world forever. This may not be a Christian country, but it’s God’s world and he is loving it back – through you and I!

Be blessed, be a blessing.