10 (again)

Today I am 10, and on the anniversary of the day that I was born again I can look back on the last decade and you may be surprised to learn that in some ways it feels like they’ve been the toughest 10 years of my life.

If you ask me why I feel like that I can probably sum it up in one word – disappointment. I’ve been disappointed by individuals, by organisations and by circumstances. And yes, I’ve disappointed myself on a daily basis.

But the One who has never disappointed me is God. Do I wish that He would click His fingers once in a while and make things go the way I ask? Of course I do, but He isn’t a genie waiting to obey my commands. Do I long for Him to transform people’s hearts and minds and lead them to act more generously, graciously and lovingly? Yes, how I long for that, but as much as I love Him I still find myself stubbornly doing my own thing. How can I expect more of others than I manage myself? Do I want Him to speak to me, tell me His plans, show me the way? I do, but I know that I need eyes to see and ears to hear. Occasionally I catch a glimpse, but I don’t look or listen as much as I should. I must miss so much of what He’s telling me.

But He is with me. He always has been and always will be. He understands me and loves me and accepts me. Knowing these things, and knowing I am His, helps me through the difficult days, and years.

As I reflected on the last 10 years, the verse that came to mind was John 16:33. As I turned to my Bible to copy the verse I read the earlier verses giving context to this one and I felt they were equally important, so here is my birthday gift to you, John 16:16-33…

Jesus went on to say, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.’

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,” and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They kept asking, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We don’t understand what he is saying.’

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, ‘Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me”? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

‘Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father. In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.’

Then Jesus’ disciples said, ‘Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.’

‘Do you now believe?’ Jesus replied. ‘A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

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Private Lives

I was browsing through some notes I’d written over the years, looking for some inspiration for a post, and I came across a document titled “Private Lives”. It turned out to be a complete article which I thought I must have posted here previously, but then I noticed that it had been written on 22 May 2011, predating my blog by nearly a year. So I thought I’d share it with you now. I haven’t edited it. There are a couple of lines I would probably change if I was writing it now, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of rewriting history, so what follows is what flowed from my mind on that day…

Private Lives

I’m troubled by the Twitter/super-injunction drama being played out before our eyes.

It seems that some Twitter users feel that they have a right to total anonymity (privacy) at the same time that they are denying celebrities that same privilege.

Let’s look first at the legal side of this. Rightly or wrongly a court has ordered that the real identity of “CTB” should not be published. Contempt of court is a serious matter.

Twitter’s terms of service clearly state “We also reserve the right to access, read, preserve, and disclose any information as we reasonably believe is necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request…”

So the seeming uproar among the Twitter community at the news that CTB is seeking – through the courts – the name of the individual who has broken the injunction, is unjustified.

But there are even more important issues at stake here than privacy or freedom of speech. Read this well-known passage from John’s gospel.

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Behind the headlines there is a broken family. There are hurting people. A sin has been committed, and sin has consequences. That is God’s way, and it is right. But the world’s way is to hound, ridicule, judge and condemn the sinner more than they would any ordinary person, because he is a celebrity. I don’t condone the adultery, of course not, but I don’t blame him for wanting to try and keep the details between the parties involved. All of us have sinned many times in our lives, and whether those sins were greater or lesser than CTB’s, who of us would want the details broadcast around the world? And what benefit has this pantomime been to any of us? A few cheap jokes, a few more newspaper sales or website hits. That’s all. Is it worth trying to destroy a family for that?

No, we should be praying for healing, and for restoration. We should hope and pray that CTB repents for what he has done, and that he can restore good, loving relationships with his wife and children. We should remember that in all likelihood it was for their sake as much as, or more than his, that he took out the super-injunction in the first place.

As I said, CTB has to face the consequences of his actions, but remember before you speak, write or act, there are consequences to everything you do too.

Who Do You Blame For The Fall?

…so the reason is first the fall, and then free will… why we live in a broken world…

I bit my tongue. First, because it may have been an unintended slip. Second, because it wasn’t the main point of the conversation and I didn’t want to go off on a tangent. Third, and if I’m honest, most pressing, I prefer to avoid conflict. It’s a bit nonsensical sometimes, like on this occasion, when a minor disagreement or correction would hardly lead to world war three, but there it is – I know I need to work on my assertiveness. But the statement gnawed away at me, and so I’ll take this opportunity discuss some of the thoughts I have on the subject.

The first point, which I hope is uncontroversial, is that free will came first. That’s just simple logic. If we didn’t have free will then more or less sixty four and a half books of the Bible would not have been written, and you would have looked at the title of this post and wondered “what fall?”

But that’s not how the world worked out, and so we’re left to contemplate the cause and effects of the fall. And this is where my problems start, because of statements like the following one, which is from the Wikipedia entry on “original sin” but reflects quite a broad understanding:

Original sin, also called ancestral sin, is a Christian belief of the state of sin in which humanity exists since the fall of man, stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion in Eden, namely the sin of disobedience in consuming the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The key phrase is “…stemming from Adam and Eve’s rebellion…” It’s just too easy for us to unthinkingly blame Adam and/or Eve for the fall, and hence for every aspect of this broken world. Genesis 3:16-19 seems to provide scriptural support for that view. But let’s be honest about this. If it wasn’t Adam and Eve in the Garden, if it was you, or me, or your favourite preacher or worship leader, whoever was there would have fallen. And if we’re overly generous to ourselves and believe that we would have been smart or strong enough to resist the serpent’s first temptation, we would have fallen for the second, or the third…

Because, lest we forget, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) And we should also remember that the blaming of Eve for the initial transgression has led to untold (and ridiculous) misogyny in the church and the wider world over the millennia.

No, we should not blame Adam, or Eve, but instead reflect on the fact that this is who we are: fallen, and falling, and as Christians we spend our lives trying to gradually fall less often and less far.

This is what I’ve thought for a long time, but I would always find myself troubled when I thought about Romans 5:12-21, where Adam and sin are juxtaposed with Christ and righteousness. I’ve now found peace in this passage, which I can try to explain to you here, but bear in mind that this – like much of Paul’s writing – is packed with meaning, and I’m only scratching at the surface for the purpose of this post. By the way, I’m looking at the NIV. Translations matter when it comes to examining individual words, but for now, until I become a scholar of Biblical Greek, I’ll trust that the NIV gives a fairly sound representation of Paul’s argument.

In verse 12, we are told “…sin entered the world through one man…” At first I thought this contradicted my understanding, until I focused on the word “through” – not “because of” but “through”. As I said above, sin would have inevitably entered the world, sooner rather than later, unless God had chosen to create robots rather than human beings. But no, by His grace we were given free will, and not only did that throw up options of obedience or disobedience, it also made possible all those other wonderful gifts, like surprise, and joy, and love. And yes, the other things too, but they have their place. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “Lands that know only sunshine and no rain become deserts. Life too is like that.”

As I said, there’s plenty to get our teeth into throughout this passage, but I’ll skip ahead to verse 19, where a potential theological hurdle is expressed very clearly. “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

I have convinced myself that because sin only came “through” the disobedience of Adam, we can’t blame him for our own sin, it’s just a consequence of how we were created. But then how do I reconcile this with righteousness coming “through” the obedience of Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that suggest that we can’t praise or thank Jesus for righteousness? If it didn’t come through Him then would it have come anyway as another consequence of creation?

No, because the man that righteousness came “through” was the “fully human” Jesus, but it came “by” the grace of the “fully divine” Jesus. See verse 15, as well as Hebrews 2:14-18 and Colossians 1:15-20.

So who do you blame for the fall? Who should you blame? The devil, in the form of the serpent? Loathe as I am to let him off the hook, he was also permitted to act as he did, just as he was in the book of Job. So if you want to point the finger somewhere, you might look at versus such as John 1:3 and Isaiah 45:7, and point towards God.  In fact, personally, I think the question of who or what to blame is the wrong one. I think the purpose of Genesis 3, one of its purposes at least, is to hold a mirror up to ourselves and remind us of many things: who we are, what freedom means and what are its consequences, Who sustains and covers us, who deceives us. It’s a deep, rich picture of where we belong in God’s universe, and a reminder of Who we belong to – a humbling and beautiful picture.

It Pays To Give

About eight and a half years ago I was a mess. I was separated, soon to be divorced, and my finances looked desperate. We’d built up a lot of debt during the marriage, and now I found myself owing tens of thousands of pounds on credit cards and personal loans. I looked at all the monthly payments, added those to the money I needed to spend to live, and realised that even though I was on a decent salary the sums just didn’t add up.

After receiving some debt advice and doing difficult calculations, I managed to agree payment arrangements with banks and credit card companies. I found that if I carefully watched my spending from week to week. I was able to get by.

Shortly after I’d made these arrangements I realised that God was speaking to me about money. He didn’t speak audibly, but instead through several different sources: yes, a message in Church, and also through podcasts I listened to, and Christian articles I received in my email. It was like a coordinated attack! I felt convicted in my heart that He wanted me to tithe.

I struggled to accept His instruction, because I couldn’t see where I could possibly find ten percent of my income to give away. But I examined my budget carefully and figured that if I cut all my spending right to the bone then maybe I could just about make it. Moreover, I felt compelled to give because I love Jesus, and this was something I wanted so much to do for Him.

So I prayed, and said to God, “Okay, I hear you, and I’ll do as you ask, but please help me because I’m going to struggle.” I decided to give it a try for six months, I set up a standing order so I was committed to the sacrifice, and then I waited to see what happened.

What happened was that from that day onward the amount of spare money I had at the end of each month just grew and grew. I couldn’t explain why. My salary stayed the same, all my major spending commitments stayed the same, and yet I was able to start saving money for a rainy day and soon I was able to lend money to friends and family. In the years since then I’ve increased my giving. On top of my tithe I make monthly donations to charities, which I add to from time to time as the Spirit leads me.

I had a rocky season when I felt it was wise to reduce my giving for a while, but I didn’t feel guilty about that because I knew God understood, and He knew my heart. Now I’m back to what I would call “full strength” tithing, and I don’t feel proud about that, just grateful and blessed that I’m able to respond to God in this way. I can see the day coming in the not-too-distant future when my debts to financial institutions will finally be cleared. My debt to Christ, for what He did for me on the cross, I can never repay. But God showed me a way to say “Thank You” and I’m so glad that listened to Him.

So I really feel that God has rewarded me for my obedience. I didn’t do it expecting a reward, in fact I didn’t expect anything. I just hoped that things would work out. But when I stepped out in faith, God made amazing things happen. And I’m convinced that He’ll do that for all of us, not just financially, but in every area of our lives if we just learn to put our trust in Him.

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Malachi 3:10-12

My Soul Thirsts For God

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.

Psalm 42, NIVUK

I Recommend Unbelievable?

I know that not everybody has the same enquiring mind as I do. I have a tendency to over-think, and over-analyse, nearly everything if I give myself the chance. When it comes to faith I think there’s a delicate balancing act to perform. On the one hand, absolute certainty (whether that’s religious or atheistic) can lead you down a fundamentalist road that damages both you and those you influence, no matter how pure your intent. And certainty allows no room for spiritual growth and development. Can you ever truly believe you have all the answers? On the other hand, too much doubt will leave you open to being like a wave blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Ephesians 4:14).

Apart from my internal questions about what my faith means and how I should live it, I am fascinated and sometimes disturbed by the reactions to faith that I see in the world. I want to understand why people, who often seem to have access to all the same evidence as me, can interpret it in such different ways. Partly I want to understand so that I’m better able to express my own reasons to believe (1 Peter 3:15), but I also want to learn from them. Because I do believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on this planet if we take the time to do so. Everybody, even your closest relation, has lived a different life to you, and has something unique to teach you from their own life experience. In some cases you may learn something, like a way of thinking, that you completely reject, but even that has value.

This is why I’m so pleased to have recently discovered “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio. That’s the same source as “Be Still And Know” that I’ve written about previously. Unbelievable? is a weekly debate hosted by Justin Brierley and typically involving a discussion between a Christian and a sceptic, although there can be variations on this format. I listen to it as a podcast, but for other methods you can check out the show page here.

I’m not going to pretend that I always find the discussions satisfying – in fact that is very rarely the case! Even in the nearly hour and a half dedicated to each topic it’s obvious that sometimes we are only scratching the surface. And I will often find myself frustrated by unconvincing arguments put forward by both sides of the conversation. Nevertheless, I learn something about other worldviews, and I also learn something about my own, understanding more about the areas where I have surety and those where I am less confident.

No matter what belief you have, if you are interested in the big questions of life, and what it means, I recommend that you have a listen to Unbelievable? It’s guaranteed to provide food for thought.

 

God, Have Mercy

I sometimes feel a little uncomfortable admitting that I have “favourite” passages in the Bible. I know it’s not something I should be uneasy about. Clearly different books, chapters and verses will have stronger resonance during different seasons of my life. And no doubt people who have lived different lives will be drawn to different parts of scripture, or God will speak to them in different ways than He does to me with the same words.

But there are some passages that are universal, and one of my favourites is such an excerpt. It is Luke 18:9-14, known as the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. When I say “universal” I really mean it, because not only can any Christian relate to it, but so can anyone of any faith, or of none, so long as they are not so deluded as to think themselves perfect.

I doubt that a day goes by during which I don’t have thoughts that correspond to the Pharisee’s. When I see someone make a foolish driving manoeuvre, or act rudely in a shop, or just express an opinion I disagree with. Sometimes I will literally think myself “better” than the other person, but often I’ll find myself thinking the same thing in that slightly more subtle, but maybe more pernicious way… “At least I am not like that person.”

And then I’ll catch myself, and realise how far I am from the pedestal I briefly put myself on. At this point a non-believer will berate themselves for their superciliousness. So will I, before figuratively beating my breast and pleading “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Luke 18:9-14