happy to be unsound

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I used to be theologically sound, but I don’t think I am anymore – and I am glad. When I was much, much younger I was ‘sound’ because I repeated what I had been told was ‘sound’ by others who told me about Jesus. I hadn’t really thought about it, I just accepted it. I accepted it because I respected those whose opinions, teaching and orthodoxy I was replicating. Nobody told me this is what I was supposed to be doing, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because things were usually presented to me as answers rather than questions.

When I started at theological college to train to be a Baptist Minister one of the things they did early on was make me question everything… if the answer to ‘why do you believe that?’ was ‘because [insert name here] told me’ I was encouraged to go deeper and work out my own answers. That may sound like a recipe for ‘anything goes’ but that’s not the case. By working things out for myself I was able to understand myself better and dig beneath the surface of my understanding of God – rather than wearing the veneer of ‘soundness’ I had adopted for myself. I started to look at questions about God and me, rather than adopt answers.

It was an incredibly uncomfortable experience, but wonderfully valuable and liberating at the same time. It was like taking down a prefabricated building someone else had put up in which I had been living and being helped to build somewhere I could call home that I had created. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still a building to live in. It’s not ‘anything goes’ because it’s still exploring who God is in the light of Jesus.

I regret now that in my earlier years of ministry I was not so good at helping people to go through the same experience I did. In fact I modelled the answer-giving approach much more than question-giving. Having reached my own ‘sound’ orthodoxy (evidenced by a theological degree and Ordination) I shared that perspective with people who wanted me to share it with them. It seemed to work.

But I have found that it only works for so long for some people. Some just want to be told the answers and find people who will give them questions instead to be irritating and frustrating. There have been courses run by churches for the last 3 decades that have offered exactly that – answers to life’s questions (albeit that they also define what questions you should be asking). I have gladly led such courses and seen people’s life and faith enlivened by them. I don’t have a problem with them, except that they don’t suit everyone.

Ironically, and I am disappointed in myself for not realising this sooner, when I became fully fledged as a Minister I used to work on a ‘one size fits all’ approach: if people wanted to ask questions, let me run a course for them and give them the answers. But what about those who have different questions? Or what about those who want to question the answers they are given? Where was the space for them in our churches? Slowly I realised that I had been perpetuating a model that hadn’t blessed me as much as I thought it did at the time.

Churches can squash questions. They may provide a diet of ready-meal answers and rather than enabling someone to flourish, develop and become the thinking person God has created them to be. They can create clones who will unthinkingly repeat what they have been told is sound rather than encourage diversity and questions.

Uniformity is not the same as unity.

Conformity is not the same as collaboration.

Dogma is not the same as faith.

The former in those statements feel like a tethered balloon – floating but not free. I want to be untethered.

In the last church I led we began to explore this in a group I called ‘Deep Thought’*. The idea was that each time we met we’d look at different questions the group wanted to consider, share our views, learn from one another and deepen our experience of God. No question was considered silly. Everyone’s view was accepted, although we all had freedom to ask questions about those views. I rather enjoyed it and I think those who came along did too. But then I moved on from that church and Deep Thought became a good memory.

Now I am back in a local church again I am minded to do something like Deep Thought again. But I also would like to think that we are a safe space in which we can ask open questions without me giving all the ‘right’ answers. I would like to think that I can help people to do the same for themselves. The church I serve seeks to be one where it’s okay not to be okay. It’s a church that includes and accepts everyone, even those who might disagree with the Minister. It’s a church where we encourage people to have different opinions and to share them. It’s even a church where it’s okay to have doubts and explore them.

There’s still lots that I believe that makes me conventional. I am still a follower of Jesus without hesitation, but I recognise he often answered questions with questions or stories rather than giving answers – I would like to do that more often. I still happily and wholeheartedly affirm the Baptist Union Declaration of Principle – because I am convinced of its truth rather than because I have to. And there’s so much more to experience of God beyond that…

And that is what makes me unsound.

And I am glad.

*Deep Thought is the name of the computer that is created in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts) to answer the question of life, the universe and everything. It seemed an appropriate name bearing in mind that the only answer it gave was an enigmatic ’42’.

breakfast with a politician

I have written three times recently to my local MP (about different aspects and issues relating to Migrants,  the Jungle Camp clearance in Calais, and votes in Parliament). To his credit he has written back twice (the third one was only this last weekend so it’s a bit too soon to expect a reply). But his replies were immensely frustrating because rather than answering questions I asked and responding to points I made, he wrote about things he and the Government are doing which did not address those issues directly. He left me frustrated and annoyed that he had ignored the key points but probably felt that he had answered me. There is a difference between an answer and a response!

It got me wondering about what life is like in a politician’s house (at the risk of generalising about politicians). It’s breakfast time at the Politician’s house…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAPolitician’s Spouse (PS): Darling, please will you take out the rubbish bin?

Politician (P): I am glad you asked me. Did you know that I have taken out the rubbish bin every week for the past three months? And did you know that the Council has not failed to empty it on any of those occasions?

PS: Thank you dear, but please will you take it out today?

P: I have plans to take the rubbish bin out every week from now on. The future rubbish-taking-out needs of the household are in safe hands.

PS: But it needs taking out now.

P: Thank you for bringing this to my attention. As a household we have significantly reduced the amount of refuse to be collected since we started recycling.

PS: I will ask you a simple question and want a simple answer. Are you going to take the rubbish bin out?

P: That’s an important question. But a more important question is to ask whether our neighbours have taken their rubbish bins out – my actions on their own won’t make any difference.

PS: I can hear the refuse collection lorry coming. Just take the bin out now!

P: Do you realise that if I had not taken the rubbish bin out in the past we would have a big mound of rubbish in our back garden that would constitute a health hazard. My actions have prevented that.

PS: [screams in exasperation] YOU’RE TOO LATE!

P: I don’t see why you are so upset with me. The rubbish is everyone’s responsibility, not just mine.

Why is it that some politicians seem to have developed the ability to answer the question that they wanted to be asked rather than answer the one that has been asked? Reflecting on this I realised that Jesus sometimes did the same thing. He might be asked a question and instead of giving a straight answer he would respond with a question or a story. Was he being as evasive as some politicians?

The difference is that when Jesus responded he was seeking to reveal the truth – the true (and sneaky) motive behind the question, or the reality of how God sees things and open people up to the possibility of positive change. Politicians when evading questions are seeking to obscure truth, avoid the awkward questions and close down any possibility of changing their mind or policies.

It’s a shame because, as Jesus said, “The Truth will set you free…”

Be blessed, be a blessing

the unspoken question

silenceIn the past I have been involved in youth work and as part of the programme that we ran we would talk with young people about relationships and sex. There was one question that they all wanted to ask, but few had the courage to speak out (especially if they were already going out with someone) so I used to pre-empt it by answering it. The question went something like this:

“How far can we go?”

It might be more creatively (or crudely) put but the ‘How far can we go?’ question was an important one. I admired the fact that these young people wanted to know how to live as a follower of Jesus in this area of their life, even if they found it embarrassing to ask.

Sometimes I would offer three guidelines to them (coming originally from Rev Steve Chalke):

  1. Don’t lie down together
  2. Keep your hands outside each other’s clothing
  3. If you haven’t got one, don’t touch someone else’s

The third one usually raised a laugh. But it was important to give clear and memorable guidelines. We’d also give clear and practical advice about all aspects of relationships and sex, not just ‘how far can we go?’

However, there is another way of interpreting that question – ‘what’s the most we can get away with without actually going against what God says in the Bible?’ That approach is legalistic and inflexible. It seems to be close to the attitude Jesus was criticising in religious people of his day – keeping the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. He challenged that approach in the Sermon on the Mount when he spoke about how our attitude can break the law even if our actions don’t – hating is as bad as hurting; lusting is as unfaithful as adultery… what’s in our heart is what counts.

I still encounter this approach today – the ‘what’s the most we can get away with before we have gone too far’ or ‘what’s the minimum we have to do to get by’ approach is alive and well in churches. But Jesus was not about half-hearted measures. He encouraged an ‘all out’ approach to following him and our relationship with God. Paul described it as ‘living your life as an act of worship’ (literally ‘living sacrifices’).

Paul also wrote these words (Colossians 3) (my italics):

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

When dignitaries visit places the locals go to great lengths to make them welcome and make sure everything is ‘just so’. Why should it be any different with God? Indeed, surely as he is GOD we ought to exceed those standards of excellence for him!

Whatever you do…

If it’s washing up, make the plates as clean as you can.

If it’s feeding the hungry, give them the best food you have.

If it’s performing magic tricks, perform them as well as you can.

If it’s telling people what you believe about Jesus, tell them as clearly as you can.

If it’s singing your least favourite song or hymn in church, sing it as if it’s your favourite.

If it’s making a cup of coffee for your colleagues at work, make it the best you can.

If it’s driving, be as careful and courteous as you can.

You get the idea!

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:


“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