faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

?

rodin thinker silhouetteThis morning I was at a local school taking a lesson on ‘how did we get the Bible?’ At the end of the lesson I asked if the children (aged 9-10) had any questions.

And wow, didn’t they have a lot of questions?! They started with questions about the subject and then covered all sorts of different subjects about Jesus and the Christian faith. There were some unusual ones (where is Mary buried?) and there were some technical ones (what year did Jesus die?) and there were some ones that led to some deep insights (was Jesus a real person? where is he buried?)

I loved it. And there were still plenty of hands in the air when we had to call a halt to the lesson.

I have a feeling that Jesus loved it when people asked him questions – especially those that were asked out of genuine interest and curiosity. You only have to look at the answers he gave to see how much he relished them. Stories like ‘The Good Samaritan’ and ‘Unforgiving Servant’ were told in response to questions. He even seemed to relish questions that were designed to trip him up because he could use them to point to the truth about himself and about how people can relate to God.

I suppose one of the problems with our didactic approach to teaching in church (sermons) is that there is not so much opportunity for people to ask questions in the service. I love it when people have questions afterwards though, because it shows that they are thinking about what was said, not just accepting it at face value.

In the past I ran a group called ‘Deep Thought’ where we had the freedom to ask any questions and share opinions on some of the deep questions of life, the Universe and everything. I loved those occasions too.

There are still opportunities for us to ask questions – in small groups, among friends and so on. And I love it when people ask me questions about something they have been reading or (miraculously) something they remember from one of my sermons.

Questions are one of the essential elements of learning. They open up possibilities, they stimulate thoughts, they invite dialogue and they show a desire to grow. There is always more of life to discover. There is always more of God to discover. Never stop asking questions: the moment you do is the moment when you have settled for less than God wants to offer you.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

the minimum age

We put age limits on a number of different activities and behaviours in order to protect children and in recognition of their relative immaturity to cope with what are essentially adult activities. There is a minimum age, for example, for smoking, drinking alcoholic drinks, sex and even voting. there will be questions about whether the ages are correct but I’ve not really heard many people suggesting that they should not be minimum ages for a range of different activities. I would like to add to that list a minimum age for children to be able to ask their parents any question beginning with the word, “why…”

Birthday Cake 2
Congratulations, you can now use the word ‘why’?

Eventually a child who persist in asking that question will end up with the following answer, “because it just is.” That is not a satisfactory answer but it is one that denotes the boundaries between the limits of parental tolerance and the beginnings of exasperation.

I’ve got a list of questions that I want to ask God. It’s a fairly long list and it is growing. A lot of the questions start with the word “why” and on the list are included:

Why aren’t there any easy answers to life’s tough questions?

Why do things go wrong?

Why did you let [insert terrible event here] happen?

Why do you make it so difficult for some people to encounter you?

Why haven’t you issued an upgrade to the Bible covering all of the contemporary issues that we face today which didn’t exist as issues in the day when the Bible was written?

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there are answers to all of these questions. But some of them are very long and complex. Some of them take a lot of work to discover. And, if I’m completely honest, some of them are not completely satisfactory. some of them even seem to be the theological equivalent of, “because it just is…”

I firmly believe that God welcomes and indeed encourages us to question. He wants us to test the boundaries of our faith. He wants us to have a dialogue with him (in my experience often through the Bible) in which our understanding and experience of him is expanded. If we don’t ask questions and seek answers our understanding of God will be limited. It’s a frightening thought that some people’s understanding and knowledge of God is limited to what they hear through my sermons, for example. That is a poor substitute for the sort of dialogue that God wants us to have.

So what do we do with the questions that we have? Well for one thing I don’t think we should give up with them: if the answer is that we get is inadequate and incomplete then they there is more to come. I think we also need to recognise that sometimes our questioning is because of spiritual immaturity. We want to know answers that we are not ready to cope with. Sometimes our questioning is actually more an expression of pain and frustration than a desire for an answer that makes logical sense and we need to recognise that instead of an answer we want comfort and sympathy. Sometimes, and this is where we need to discern the difference between my first statement in this paragraph and this reality, our questioning is because we do not like the answer we have received.

Whatever questions we’ve got, God is big enough to take them. The reality is that sometimes we are not big enough to take the answers. Sometimes God has to give us answers that we can cope with and we need to recognise that later on he will give us more detailed answers, or we may have to wait to see him face-to-face and ask him. If you’re not sure about this, ask yourself how you would respond to a 2-year-old child who asks you why the sky is blue. Would you respond differently to a 16-year-old who asked you the same question?

Be blessed, be a blessing (and keep asking).

is God unreasonable?

Yesterday’s bloggage about difficult questions got me thinking about a question I got asked at a University interview. I was applying to study Law at Bristol University and had somehow been offered an interview. I travelled up on a coach in my new M&S suit without any idea what I was letting myself in for.

When I arrived I joined the other nervous-looking candidates. I can’t remember too much about the day except for two things from the interview itself.

One was the layout of the interview: it took place in what was obviously a lecturer’s study. There were two staff members seated as I entered. One was in a low armchair, the other on a desk chair. I sat on a chair that was halfway in height between those two chairs. And the two interviewers were seated about two metres apart. This meant that when I was talking to them I had to look down and to the right to speak to one and up and to the left to speak to the other. It was a bit discombobulating. I am not sure if it was deliberate – to see how we coped in awkward situations – or accidental – because there was not too much room in the study.

The second thing I remember is a question (yes, there is a link with yesterday’s bloggage – it’s almost seamless!). One of the interviewers (I don’t remember if it was ‘low, comfy, righty’ or ‘high, upright, lefty’*) asked:

rawr

“You buy a pet tiger. Before you buy it you do some research and discover that tigers can’t jump higher than 12 feet. So you build a 13 foot high fence around your garden. However, it turns out that your tiger is a super-tiger who can leap higher than 13 feet and one day he jumps the fence and mauls your neighbour. Discuss.”

I was thrown. I had no idea what to say initially, so I made it look like I was considering my answer. In the end I think I came up with a decent enough response. I said that I thought I had taken all reasonable steps in the circumstances so I was not liable. I said the tiger’s ability was so unexpected that it would be like if I had a dog on a chain and it bit through the chain and attacked someone.

I suspect it would have been better if I had talked about whether there is a strict liability for those who have wild animals in their gardens. I suspect it would have been better if I had discussed whether I might face criminal charges or even a Health and Safety investigation. I suspect it would have been better if I had discussed whether it was reasonable to keep a wild animal in a suburban garden in the first place. But none of these came to me at the time (partly because I had not studied Law at the time: after all, that’s what I was applying to study).

I did not get offered a place at Bristol University.

I am not sure it was because of my tiger-related answer. It may have been the M&S suit.

‘Reasonableness’ is at the heart of our legal system. Many cases revolve around whether someone acted reasonably, or whether someone could reasonably expect someone else to act in a certain way. It used to be that the test of ‘reasonableness’ was related to a hypothetical ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’. This was assumed to be a normally-educated and intelligent non-specialist bloke, against whose presumed conduct the actions of a defendant could be measured to see if they have been negligent. If it can be established that the man on the Clapham omnibus would have done it like that, it is reasonable.

The reasonableness test has undergone a lot of revisions. It has all sorts of caveats attached to it now, but if you are ever sitting on a bus with ‘Clapham’ on the front I hope you will take your responsibility seriously.

The problem is that when I look at God I think he is unreasonable. He requires perfection and gives us free will to choose whether or not to live up to those standards, and we fall short every time.

I think one of the problems is that you can’t apply a ‘reasonable-ness’ test to God. You can’t consider a ‘god on the Clapham omnibus’ to discern whether or not he has acted reasonably. We can’t put ourselves in his position no matter how high an opinion we have of ourselves.

But actually (and before you start lobbing abuse at the screen) the paragraph two up from here does not contain the unreasonableness. It’s quite reasonable that God’s all-consuming perfection would consume the less-than-perfect beings we become when we reject him. It’s an act of reasonable love that we are separated from him in order that we might survive, at least temporarily.

The unreasonableness is that he loves us so much that he does not want us to suffer the consequences of our actions – separation from him. The unreasonableness is that God has sorted out the problem we have caused. the unreasonableness is that he allowed his son to be executed so that we need not die. The unreasonableness is the extent of his grace that knows no limits. The unreasonableness is all to do with his generosity and love and positive attitude towards us.

I am so glad God is so unreasonable.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*Obviously these are descriptions of the seating arrangements and nothing to do with their church preference, social standing or politics

interrogatory insights

What’s the most difficult question you’ve ever been asked?Question mark

Perhaps it was a question in an examination that stretched your understanding and ability to (or beyond) breaking point.

Maybe it was a question that tested your loyalty to someone else, or put you on the horns of a moral dilemma.

It could be that it was, “Will you marry me?” – to which my wonderful wife answered, “Oh heck!” (later saying yes, as you will have deduced).

Perhaps it was a question that caused you to have to reach into the darkest recesses of your memory to recall an event or a person.

It could be relatively simple, such as, “How are you?” when the answer is incredibly complicated and you aren’t sure whether you can trust that person or are not sure that they want the full unexpurgated version of your life story right now.

Or how about ‘What’s the most difficult question you’ve ever been asked?’

At the moment a lot of people who are kind enough to show an interest in me and my sabbatical leave are asking me, “How’s the sabbatical going?” It’s not the most difficult question in the world at face value, but I am not sure what the criteria are by which I am expected to respond…

Time is passing at its normal rate so the leave is counting down (just gone past one month).

I am enjoying reading the books that I have set aside to read, and I am ahead of my reading target at this stage.

I have been able to arrange to visit some other churches to ask the questions that are coming out of my reading and thinking.

I am coming up with some interesting ideas, thoughts and possibilities.

I am relaxed.

On all of the above criteria, the sabbatical leave is going well. Thank you for asking.

But that’s all from my perspective. I wonder how God thinks it’s going.

I don’t know if I can answer that on his behalf. If you have any insights…

And if you want to know the most difficult question I have ever been asked, it’s this:

“Will you follow me?”

I’m spending the rest of my life trying to be a good answer to that question.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Why did they do it?

QuestionsThe reaction to the film ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ has been astonishing. It has been astonishing in its ferocity and in the violence and deaths that have been caused by those who have been offended. It has been astonishing because it is an obscure film that is apparently poorly made and has been dubbed after the initial filming – a film that would ordinarily have disappeared into obscurity if not for the response. It has been astonishing because of the issues that it has raised about the limits or otherwise of free speech and the culpability of those who provoked such reactions as well as those who have reacted so violently.

I should state for the record that I have not watched the film. I do not intend to. Because of that I am not in a position to make a judgement about it. (However the serious reviews I have read of the film have invariably said that as a piece of film-making it is terrible, and the version that has caused all of the offence is truly offensive). At least one of the actors in the film, Cindy Lee Garcia, is taking legal action against the film maker because she claims that the script in which she acted was not the version that has been produced. This comes from the BBC website:

Lawyers for Ms Garcia contend that changes in dialogue during post-production casts her in a false light.

“[Garcia] had a legally protected interest in her privacy and the right to be free from having hateful words put in her mouth or being depicted as a bigot,” the lawsuit says. “There was no mention of ‘Mohammed’ during filming or on set. There were no references made to religion nor was there any sexual content of which Ms Garcia was aware”

If that is true then it seems to me that the actions of the film maker are reprehensible. But should anyone be allowed to say anything? In this country we have laws against incitement to racial or religious hatred. We have laws against blasphemy, libel and slander. My limited view is that if this film had been made in this country it is possible that the film maker would have been in breach of some of those laws.

But whether or not there has been any legal breach, there is a moral breach of fundamental proportions here. It is not just bad manners to have produced a film that causes such offence it is hateful, spiteful, cruel. I would say the same about any ‘art’ that did the same thing about any religious belief.

And should the film maker have published this film at all when they could reasonably expect such offence to have been taken, and perhaps could realistically expect that there would be a violent reaction against it? Legally there may or may not be culpability there, but there is definitely moral culpability given the responses to the cartoons of Muhammed published in Denmark.

Some people have said that not to publish such a film because of the anticipated violent reaction is giving in to a form of bullying. It would mean that we never say provocative and cruel things about issues that will provoke a violent reaction so the violent people win. That’s one way of looking at things.

Or, should we all stop before we say provocative and cruel things about anyone, regardless of whether they will react violently? That way we all win.

It is difficult for me as a white, middle class Western Christian to understand the reaction against the film across the world. I have been upset and disappointed by films, books, plays and the like that have sought to ridicule Jesus. But it has never motivated me to a violent reaction. When I was a kid there was a massive outcry from Christians against Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In my home town the Christians protested so much that it was banned from showing at our local cinema. (When I eventually saw the film, as an adult who had studied at Bible College, I realised how clever the writers had been, how they were poking fun at religion in general but how Jesus, through his cameos, was not directly ridiculed. I would not show the film in church because not everyone would share that view, but it is not as bad as I was led to believe).

But nobody fired rocket propelled grenades at anyone.

Nobody gathered in the streets with placards proclaiming death to the perpetrators.

It seems to me that some of the over-reaction has been fuelled by extremists who seek to further their own cause by provoking the masses: creating headlines, sensationalist pictures of furious crowds and inciting anti-Western feeling. Christians should know all about masses being provoked (read Matthew 27:20-26 if you are uncertain). The BBC website again:

As was evident after Danish cartoons of Muhammad were published in 2006, politicians and religious leaders in the region used perceived insults to Islam to rally public support.

Protests began to spread from Egypt to other countries – spurred on perhaps by local media – because of a long-standing mistrust and anger at the West, something a number of groups have been able to capitalise upon.

Middle East analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says that although the film will have caused genuine offence among many Muslims, groups like Al Qaeda, whose black flag has been seen at some of the protests, have seized the opportunity to stir up unrest.

Disillusionment, lack of opportunity and anger at the establishment is also feeding into the protests, analysts say.

Often in the way that events are reported we are expected to choose between ‘right and wrong’; between ‘the good guys and the bad guys’; between ‘good and evil’. Sometimes those are the right choices. But sometimes we have to accept that nobody is right, nobody is innocent. There is culpability on all sides here from the film makers on the one hand to the crowd-inciters on the other.

How can we diffuse this and prevent it in the future? With genuine love for our neighbours that manifests itself as respect, peace, kindness, humility and forgiveness above all cultural, racial, religious and gender differences. I think Jesus had rather a lot to say about that.

There were some significant protests in London at the time of the second Gulf War. Many people carried the placard, “Not in my name” to express how they did not feel that the war was being prosecuted on their behalf and to disassociate themselves from it. In the same way I believe that the vast majority of Christians would want to say, “Not in my name” about this film. And the vast majority of Muslims would want to say, “Not in my name” about the violence and bloodshed in response.

It’s certainly not in my name. And definitely not in His name.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Don’t feel obliged to answer

The responses to yesterday’s minibloggage made me smile this morning. There weren’t any. I wonder whether that’s because nobody has ever been asked a good question or whether you al assumed it was a rhetorical question.

The idea of rhetorical questions is fascinating, isn’t it? We use them as a device for engaging others into our thought processes, to invite people to agree with us and perhaps to make people think further about something. I wonder if a lot of the things Jesus said are thought to be rhetorical, but ‘Follow me’ demands a response, even if it is ‘nope’.

What about, ‘ love your neighbour as yourself?’ It seems okay in theory until you reflect on the Good Samaritan and realise that neighbourliness is not geographical. However, perhaps your neighbour is located in the next cubicle, office, classroom, seat on the bus or in the queue at the checkout. They don’t have to be someone we don’t get along with!

Who is your neighbour? (rhetorical question?)

Be blessed, be a blessing

(sorry to those of you who checked this earlier, intermittent problems posting this morning so the bloggerel has been uploaded in segments!)