monochrome faith

old tvImagine for a moment that you have never seen a television. Imagine that the first one you see is a black and white TV (yes, young people, they used to exist). How amazing would that be: moving pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having only experienced a black and white TV,  you see a colour TV for the first time. Wow! How amazing would that be? Moving colour pictures and sound from a small box! Now imagine that, having experienced a colour TV you now see an HD TV for the first time. WOW! And so on. The more detail, the more colour, the more vivid and impactful the experience.

[Bear with me for a while, we’ll come back to this]

A number of years ago, while I was still a ‘wet behind the ears’ minister…

[brief tangential comment] – I think being ‘wet behind the ears’ is probably a good thing for a Baptist Minister as it suggests that we have been immersed in water. However, where does that phrase come from? Why is a failure to dry behind your ears an indicator of being a novice? The WWW suggests that it’s to do with newborn babies who are so new they have not even had a chance to be dried off yet. Hmmm, not sure about that one. Anyway, enough of a tangential comment, let’s go back to the original train of bloggerel.

[original train of bloggerel resumes here]… I was with a group of people from different churches in the town where I was a Minister. It was intended as a social gathering of the Christian participants in a successful event. I was chatting with some of the people there when I became aware of something deep and serious going on in a corner of the room. There were several people praying over a woman who was crying and sobbing and as she wept she kept saying: “I don’t feel anything!”

The people were praying that the woman would be filled with God’s Spirit and would feel his presence. But she was not feeling any difference so they were praying all the more fervently. I wish I had intervened. I wish I had had the courage to tell them to leave her alone and stop bullying her. I hope that she might, somehow, read this bloggage and know that I am sorry that I didn’t. But I was wet behind the ears (see previous tangential comment) and did not have the courage (or wisdom) to challenge what was happening.

For some reason this event came back to mind yesterday as I was driving along from a meeting. I felt profoundly uncomfortable at what had happened and prayed that the event might not have bruised that woman’s faith too badly. If you have had a similar experience I pray that you won’t have been too badly bruised either.

I think (from what I observed and subsequent conversations) that a group of people had been talking about how they experienced God and the woman had said that she did not experience him in the same way that they did. So they offered to pray for her. I commend the people who were praying for their desire to see the woman’s experience of God deepen. I commend her (I believe she was a willing participant) for wanting that too.

But now I see this as a form of (inadvertent?) bullying. The unspoken (or perhaps spoken) message was that everyone has to experience God in the same way that the pray-ers experienced him, and if you didn’t then you were in some way deficient in your faith. You had to have it prayed into you. You had to feel something. You had to experience him physically. And we’ll keep praying until you do (or until you pretend that you have in order to make us stop).

Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that some people physically experience God’s presence. I do believe that he can be felt in our emotions. I have had experiences like that myself.

But, dear bloggists, let’s think about it for a moment:

We are all different. We all have different personalities – even personality type indicators can only give broad brush strokes to our personality. We have all had different experiences in life. We are all wired differently. We are unique individuals – even twins who share the same DNA are not the same people. Some of us are touchy-feely-huggy-emotional people. Some of us are reserved-handshaky-thoughtful people. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that we’re different.

So if we are all so different why would we think that God only reveals himself to us in one particular way? If nobody else is exactly like us why would we assume that just because I experience him in a way that suits who I am (personality, experience, preferences, etc) that this is the only way in which to experience him?

Human beings tend to gather together with like-minded people. You can see this in churches. Some are swing-from-the-chandeliers, hands-in-the-air, dance-in-the-aisles churches; others are stillness-and-reflection, sit-quietly, gentle-thoughtfulness churches. And there are many other types as well. People tend to go to a church in which they feel they can fit in, where they feel comfortable. But if we assume that the church we attend is the normal church, the best church, the only church then we can also (incorrectly) assume that the way we encounter and experience God in our church is the normal, best, usual way to do it and if someone else doesn’t have that then they are deficient and we need to fix them (through fervent prayer).

You may sense that I am getting a bit hot under the collar about this. (That heat may dry out any residual dampness behind my ears). I believe that many of us need to grow up as believers. We need mature in our understanding of the God whom we worship. We need to recognise that the same God who created such diversity among us is not only capable of making himself known to us in diverse ways so that we can encounter him in the way that we find easiest, he actually does it that way.

You can encounter God in stillness and silence. You can find him in choral music. You can experience him through modern songs. You can find him in studying the Bible. You can find him in conversations with others. You can sense his closeness as you serve other people. You can hear him as you pray. You can experience him in the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of creation or the intricate design of the building blocks of life. You can find him in church services (of any flavour). You can find him in the kindness of strangers. You can find him in the friendship and love of people around you. You can find him in the familiar. You can find him in the unusual.

And none of them is the only way to experience him. None of them is better than any of the others. None of them is exclusively right: they are just different preferences for encountering God.

I sense some of you have your fingers poised over the special ‘smite the heretic’ key on your keyboards, so before you hit it (and me) let me clarify: I am not saying that you can dispense with the need for faith in Jesus Christ. I am not saying that the central moment in human history and the focus of the Christian faith is anything but the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I am also not saying that any of these is wrong. I am saying that none of them is adequate on their own. I am saying that we can experience God in any of those ways I have described, and many others that I have not mentioned. I am saying that we need to be open to experiencing him in other ways. And I am saying that because we are all different we will all find it easier to encounter him in different ways. We will all have ‘default’ positions.

But please, please, please let’s not assume that our default is the same as another person, or that it’s the only one, and please, please, please let’s not try to impose our preferences on another person. And please, please, please let’s not make what is secondary to the Christian faith become primary (putting it alongside or in place of Jesus).

I do hope and pray that that lovely woman found the ways in which she can best experience Jesus. I do hope and pray that you have found yours too. And I do hope and pray that churches will be able to offer more than a monochrome experience of God (as amazing as that would be). Perhaps with a wider range of possible ways of encountering him promoted and offered by churches we could get closer to HD (which is still only a poor imitation of the real thing!).

Be blessed, be a blessing.

you’re a joke

laughing - permission given for blogJokes are funny. I know that we don’t all find all of them to be ‘funny haha’ but they are ‘funny peculiar’. What I find funny (peculiar) is the vast range and variety of different jokes. Some work best when observed or read on the page or screen; others work best when spoken or performed. Some have a lengthy set up before we get the punch-line; others hit you before you are ready. Some jokes are one-liners; others are long and complicated. Some are very clever and take a while to work out; others are blunt and blatant. And there are many other variations – so much so that some jokes have universal appeal and others only work in specific languages or cultures. But they are all jokes.

One that I found this morning tickled my funny bones: “Making spoonerisms is a bit like bird watching.” It’s short, it’s clever, and I think it’s funny (haha) too. But it doesn’t work if you translate it from English and you have to know what a spoonerism is to make it funny and recognise how clever it is.

One thing that I think Christians have missed is just how funny (haha) Jesus was. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog and you can read about it in my dodgy degree dissertation that you can download from here. I think the reason is that we don’t understand the prevailing sense of humour of his day and his culture. And we imagine that he was always serious and never played pranks on his friends, didn’t tell jokes and didn’t enjoy a ‘throw-your-head-back-laugh-til-it-hurts joke. If we deny him that we diminish his humanity (which doesn’t enhance his divinity). Did he chuckle to himself as he sent Peter the fisherman off to catch a fish which will have a coin in its mouth in order to pay the tax, or was he deep in thought and seriousness?

I think we are all jokes. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. What I mean is that we are all different, unique, funny (peculiar) and yet all share the same human-ness. We need to  appreciate differences and not elevate any over any others; we need to recognise similarities and affirm them; we need to seek to understand one another and we need to be prepared to take ourselves a bit less seriously sometimes and laugh more. If Jesus did, shouldn’t we?

Be blessed, be a blessing

thinking differently

How much discount can you get on your car insurance?
How much discount can you get on your car insurance?

I have just had an ‘invitation’ to renew my car insurance. It seems to be significantly higher this year and the email I received this morning explains that this is because insurers can no longer take a customer’s gender into account when preparing their car insurance. I’m not sure why that makes it more expensive, but I would like to know why.

The email continues…

If I take a ‘moment’ to provide some new information they will give me a more accurate price, tailored to me. There is a strong hint that doing so will save me money on the quote. Now I am intrigued. What information that they don’t already have can reduce the amount of money they want from me to insure my car?

I don’t think my hobbies will make a difference (unless they are driving in demolition derby events or rallying (they aren’t in case my insurer reads my blog!)). I can’t imagine that my height would be of interest to them unless I am too small to see over the steering wheel or reach the pedals. Would they want to know about the last film I watched (if it was one with a car chase in it I might be tempted to emulate it).

This is a blog in progress so I am now going to blog off for a moment (because the email said it would only take a moment), find out what other information they want, and will then report back to you.

[blogs off]

[lots of moments pass]

[blogs back on]

And after providing all of the information they asked about, all of which they already had, the quote changed by a massive £0.00! I am trying to remain philosophical about it. I will consult a few other insurers (and possibly some meerkats) to see if there is a better price available.

Where I thought all this was leading was in fact not where it ended up. I was wondering what alternative information to gender would make a difference for them. What else would they use to judge me? The answer is ‘nothing’. There is no difference.

I wonder what criteria you use to judge people. Oh, yes, I know we don’t judge people. We accept everyone equally.

But we do judge people: on the basis of their appearance (well-dressed or scruffy for example); or on the basis of the sound of their voice (posh or common?) We judge others on the basis of all sorts of criteria – usually comparing them to ourselves (not to meerkats). How are they different from us and how are they similar?

This is something we do almost instinctively. We evaluate other people. I guess anthropologists might say that it is an evolutionary instinct to assess whether someone is a potential threat, ally or even mate.

The issue is whether the difference makes any difference.

I think it should.

Yes, I really did say that differences should make a difference to us.

Hold on, put those stones down for a moment and hear me out!

I am not saying that there is any excuse for racism, sexism, ageism or any other heinous prejudice-based ‘ism’. Not at all.

But some differences are meant to make a difference.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Jesus read those words from Isaiah 61 and said that they were written about him. But how are we going to proclaim good news to the poor if we do not first notice who is poor? How can we release prisoners if we don’t see that some people are in shackles? How do we help the blind to see if we ignore the lack of sight?

The difference that difference should make is that it motivates us to make a difference (positively) to the lives of those whose lives are less than they could be. Followers of Jesus are called to carry on his work: to be good news and bring it; to be freedom-bringers (campaigning against slavery in its modern forms, seeking to help people bound by debt, blessing those who are imprisoned spiritually…); to be sight-recoverers (helping people to see the truth about God, seeking to work against disability discrimination, using our newly insured cars to help people who haven’t got transport of their own…); and telling people that God’s on their side (‘the year of the Lord’s favour’).

God help us (literally) if we ever fail to notice differences like that and fail to act in the way that Jesus would.

Be blessed, be a blessing.