Garden door

 “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough.

 “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved.

 “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test.

 “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown.

Revelation 3: 8-11

When we are children we often have comforting images we return to again and again. In my case one of these images was a door in a wall. Through this door was a garden and if I could only find it then I could go through this door and enter the garden where nothing bad could happen. Of course, as I grew up this image became tinged with sadness. In the godless world I lived in then, this door could never exist.

Before I started the book club I spoke to a number of (adult) people about their favourite books. This book, The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis came up again and again. Having read it again, I wonder if it is that image of a door into a perfect world that means so much to so many people. Yet it is a world full of paradoxes. The first is that you must step into the darkness to find the light. Lewis describes the moment Tirian (the Narnian King) steps over the threshold into the stable. He expects to find a dark place inhabited by Tash, the dark god. Instead:

For a moment or two Tirian did not know where he was or even who he was. Then he steadied himself, blinked and looked around. It was not dark inside the Stable, as he had expected. He was in strong light: that was why he was blinking.

In the bright world Tash is there. But he only wants to overcome the Calormene leader, who has summoned him. Soon, Tirian sees another sight.

Seven Kings and Queens stood before him, all with crowns on their heads and all in glittering clothes, but the Kings wore fine mail as well and had their swords drawn in their hands.

These people are the humans who have made their way into Narnia from our own world. But there is one missing…

The rest of the book is really an allegory or fable. Is it of Heaven? Is it of a New Earth, renewed in the image of Heaven? I don’t know and I’m not sure it really matters. Maybe we could go one step further and say it is a picture of the Kingdom of God here, now, on Earth, in our own lives and hearts.

SusanpevensieBut, Tirian asks: ‘Where is Queen Susan?’

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.”

So Susan is excluded from the New Narnia. And what is her terrible crime? She is the sceptic, the one who embraces the ‘real’ world. She has forgotten the wonder of the walk through the snowy forest and the awe of meeting Aslan. The everyday god of social acceptance has become more important. What she no longer believes in she cannot have.

But the next thing the Narnians find is that some people have arrived the New Narnia who don’t believe in Aslan. They find the dwarves sitting in a circle, unable to see the beautiful land and only seeing the dark and smelly stable. Even Aslan cannot help them. He gives them fine food and it tastes like raw turnips. Fine wine tastes like smelly water;

But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went to quarrelling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot.

But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out. But come, children. I have other work to do.”

The problem is that the Dwarfs have been taken in. Night after night they had bowed down to a donkey in a lion skin. They had been told this was Aslan and, for a while, had believed it. They had done what this false god had asked them to do. So, when he was shown to be a fraud. They refused to believe in anything except themselves and, perhaps, each other.

In our godless world this is what we call ‘growing up’. In the last ten years or so I’ve met a lot of teenagers. They all believe in something. It may be a boy band or a football team. It could be their own dreams or ambitions. Yet all of these things will fail. The boy band or football team will, after all, be just young men who can falter. Even if the dreams are realised they will not change who we are, or chase the shadows away. So these youngsters will leave behind the gods that failed them, get a job and a mortgage and just well, carry on.

Before we reach the end I want to look at another character in this story. The Last Battle was published in 1956. To modern minds it has some very non-PC characteristics. One of these is that the baddies (called Calormenes) are clearly of middle Eastern origin. They are quite bloodthirsty and have an unpleasant, devil like, god. But Lewis makes the point that, even in such a rotten barrel, there will be one or two good apples. Emeth resolves to walk into the stable to find his god ‘to look apon the face of Tash though he should slay me’. But once he walks through the door he finds himself in the wide, beautiful, New Narnia and comes face to face with Aslan.

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, All the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’…

But I also said (for the truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘Unless thy desire had been for me thou woudst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’

So Emeth the Calormene joins all the other humans, talking animals and other creatures as they go ‘further up and further in’. They go through another door into an even wider and more beautiful place. But I won’t tell you how it ends, you will have to read the story yourself.

New Wine 2014

I promised to write a post every day but with so much to do and so little internet access it hasn’t happened. So, what is my experience so far? We have about 8,000 Christians here, what are they thinking, what are they doing?

First, there seems to be a new confidence I haven’t felt before. The Church in the UK is tiny compared with many places in the world but we are so strong. Many of the talks we have been to have been brimming with confidence. Confidence that the country is full of dysfunction and unhappiness and Jesus does have the answer. Confidence that the atheist experiment has failed and people are looking for spiritual answers to the problems in their lives.

I went to a talk yesterday by one of my personal heroes, Shaun Lambert. Shaun is the Vicar of a church in Stanmore, North London. He spoke on the topic of Christian Mindfulness. This is a way of being mindful of ourselves, mindful of the world and (last but, of course not least) mindful of God. This sort of practise, involving meditation and self help can seem self indulgent to many Christians but, if we are going to be a healthy church, we need to be full of emotionally healthy people.

And it is a chance to reconnect with God and with other people. To re-commit to many things in my own life, including writing this blog. Some of the people I went on pilgrimage with are here, its been great to spend time with them and with other people from our church.

A new pilgrimage – Friday

Packing

There are all sorts of pilgrimages we can make. The last one involved a lot of walking. This one involves packing tents, sleeping bags, pillows and getting in the car down to a vast campsite in Somerset. Its two years since we have been to New Wine. How do I feel? Excited, a bit worried (that we won’t have everything). It feels like, as a family, we are a real team this year with the kids doing their bit and really helping. I’m going to have to keep this short as I haven’t packed any books, washing stuff or anything. But, I’m going to make a promise. That I will blog every day we are there. Even if it is only a picture sent from my phone. See you there.

 

God on Mute – Pete Greig

The Big Hovercraft Monster

Hovercraft

One of my earliest memories is being taken to see a hovercraft take off. I was about five and this was new to the Isle of Wight, where we lived. We stood on the tarmac with this big rubbery thing in front of us. Then, without any warning it exploded into life, became twice as big and began to move. The noise was deafening. My most vivid memory of this event is holding on to my Daddy’s hand. All I could think was: ‘If I hold on really tight then nothing bad can happen, he will look after me.’

Sometimes I think of this event when I am worried about something. I think: ‘If I just hold onto God really tight then nothing really bad can happen to me,’ and most of the time this is true.

God on Mute is about the times when God does not protect us from the Big Hovercraft Monster.

Pete and Sammy

Pete Greig is the founder of the 24/7 prayer movement. He is currently ‘Director of Prayer’ at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London. He is also a local boy who grew up and went to school in Reigate, where I have lived most of my adult life. I like to think this is significant, that people who grow up in this town have something special about them wherever they end up (but I could be just kidding myself).

Pete is married to Sammy and they have two sons: Hudson and Daniel. This is significant as the book centres around an event that happened soon after Daniel was born. Chapter 1 starts:

“Wake up!’ she gasped. ‘Something’s wrong.’ Sammy’s whispers buffeted me out of a deep sleep, and I began mumbling and fumbling like a drunk, flailing frantically for the bedside lamp. Squinting in its light, I stared instinctively towards the old Moses basket beside the bed, but seven-week-old Daniel was soundly asleep, his lips pouting softly for his mother’s milk.

‘It’s my leg.’ Sammy’s voice bristled with fear. ‘I can’t feel it. It won’t move…’ Sammy, pale as the moon, was sitting upright in bed, clutching her thigh. Then, suddenly… the fingers of her right hand began to curl into an old lady’s fist. Her wrist twisted to a 90-degree angle. She let out a gasp – a yelp – of pain as shuddering spasms began to tremble up her arm.

The seizure continued and, once in hospital, they discovered that Sammy had a large brain tumour. She was operated on and the tumour removed but it left her with serious and ongoing epilepsy which continues to this day. This book is not about coming to terms with this illness, with accepting it, because who could accept such a thing? It is about why God does not answer the prayers to heal Sammy, not just Pete’s own prayers but those of many, many other people has well.

Pray like Jesus?

praying hands

 Then Jesus went with them to a garden called Gethsemane and told his disciples, “Stay here while I go over there and pray.” Taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he plunged into an agonizing sorrow. Then he said, “This sorry is crushing my life out. Stay here and keep vigil with me.”

Going a little ahead, he fell on his face, praying, “My Father, if there is any way, get me out of this. But please, not what I want. You, what do You want?”

Matthew 26: 36-39 (MSG)

At the core of the story of Jesus is a choice. We sometimes forget that He was a man. And, as a man he had two privileges. The first was ask God for whatever He needed, not with the certainty that the prayer would be answered but with the certainty He would be heard. The second was free will. He could have walked away. And with the God given knowledge of what was about to happen that would have been easier than for most of us. But He chose to do His father’s will. He chose to die on the cross.

Jesus is kinder to us than He was to himself. We don’t normally see the disaster coming. And even once it has happened we are somehow protected. Greig puts it like this:

I was lonelier than I had ever been before; yet strangely, I was also becoming aware of a kind of inner warmth. It was the comfort of huddling into a thick coat with deep pockets on a bitterly cold night. Doctors would probably call it shock, but to me it felt a lot like the presence of God.

This is an enormously thoughtful book. My only criticism of it would be that the title is misleading. It is not really about God being Mute. It about our requests not being answered. This is not unreasonable given what Jesus Said:

“Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?

Matthew 7: 6-8

But, just as a good parent would not give their children everything they ask for, we should not expect God to do the same. Of course, sometimes God does give us what we ask for, either in a natural or supernatural way but Jesus promised that God would be better than a good parent. He would know what we need. Grieg comes up with a number of reasons why prayers are not answered. If you have not read this book (or if, like me, your memory is less than perfect!) I think it is worth listing some of  them with comments.

Reason 1: Common Sense. Some prayers are not answered because they are just plain stupid. This isn’t always obvious at the time. Greig mentions praying for a petrol (filling) station to appear where there was not one before. This is clearly stupid but I have prayed for things that only seem to be stupid in hindsight. Often when we are anxious or worried we will ask for things which are clearly not what we need.

Reason 2: Contradiction. Examples of this are: praying for certain weather patterns; praying for ‘your’ team to win the match; praying for a parking space. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for these things, just understand that God sees the bigger picture.

Reason 3: The Laws of Nature. Greig quotes C. S. Lewis:

That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

Summer FlowersAs we discover more and more about the natural world it is clear that it is a world finely tuned to support life and, therefore, us. If the laws of nature were continually subverted then we would be in danger of destroying this balance. But it also seems to be stranger and more beautiful than we previously imagined it could be. I sometimes wonder if we really, really want to disrupt the intricate dance that God has created for us to live in?

Reason 4: Life is tough. It is sometimes really tough. I know many people who are facing huge problems in their lives. Yet even when our lives are fairly OK we can find ourselves praying for ‘solutions’ to our problems. Greig says:

One of the problems, ironically, can be prayer. In prayer we set our hopes high and call it faith. We pray for the perfect spouse, healthy children, successful careers and serene families. We don’t just wish for these things but actually train ourselves to expect them! We fear the worst if we should ever lower our sights. Yet this is false faith. The apostle Paul longed not just ‘to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,’ but also ‘ the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings’ (Phil 3:10). The Christian witness and our ultimate hope, is not merely a miraculous succession of miraculous escapes from all human affliction. Rather, it is the joy of a deepening relationship with the ‘man of sorrows familiar with suffering’ (Isa. 53:3) who loves us and lives in us.

Reason 5: Doctrine. Greig describes a lady he knew called Margaret who was dying, painfully, of throat Cancer. Many people would tell her how brave she was, how difficult her life was. So she wrote her response on a piece of paper:

This is not the worst thing to ever happen! Cancer is so limited. It cannot cripple love, shatter hope, corrode faith, eat away peace, destroy confidence, kill friendship, shut out memories, silence courage, quench the Sprit or lesson the power of Jesus.

And that is it. I sometimes turn the whole thing around and ask people to imagine someone who has never suffered. We all know such people, usually young, often spoiled and shallow. Would we really want to be such a person?

Reason 6: God’s Best. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because he has something better for us. I was raised to be ambitious. When I became a Christian, about 6 years into my career in IT I used to pray for recognition and promotion. My prayers were rarely answered but I’m really quite glad. Having a less glittering career meant I could focus on the technical aspects of IT. It also meant that could be a mother, a wife and a friend. If my prayers then had been answered it might have been difficult to take the time off I’ve had now and write this blog.

Sometimes God wants us to have something even better than we ask for.

Reason 7: Motive. Greig says:

Jesus never actually promised to answer our prayers unconditionally. It is God’s prayers in our mouths that are guaranteed to work. The apostle John puts it like this: ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him’ (1 John 5 14-15, emphasis added). It is when we pray ‘according to his will’ that God hears and acts, which means that miracles happen only when our prayers harmonize with God’s broad desires for our lives.

Reason 8: Relationship. We all have our favourite bible characters. Mine is definitely Simon Peter. I love that bold impulsiveness, the argumentative streak. Like, him I love being on, or in the sea (although I have never tried to walk on top of it, wouldn’t that be great!). But he definitely did not have an easy time. It is almost impossible to imagine how he would have felt after Jesus was crucified. Not only had he lost his best friend, his teacher in the most horrific circumstances, but had betrayed His trust at a time when he was needed most. But Jesus never wanted to give his disciples an easy time. What He needed from Peter was to forge a relationship so strong that it would enable him to start the Church. Jesus needed Peter to know that He was with him every step of the way.

Finally

There is lots more in this book. For instance, I’ve missed out a whole section on spiritual warfare which is well worth reading. But one phrase keeps on popping up in my mind. It is from Love Wins: ‘Does God get what God wants?’ and the answer is Yes. He wants us to be better than we are, to be more like him. He wants us to have rich and fruitful lives, even if it means we don’t get what we want. And, above all He wants us to know him.

I said before that I didn’t like the title of this book. Because God is never mute. He is speaking through nature, through other people and through scripture. Sometimes, he speaks directly to us but however He is speaking all we have to do is learn to listen.

Liberal Democrats Do God

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a dutiful citizen. From that first time proudly walking out the school gates to the latest European Elections I have always voted. And I even go to hear the candidates speak so I can decide who to vote for. But, between elections it didn’t have much impact on my life. Until last year…

Politics came crashing into our lives last year when our son, William, stood in the council elections. Suddenly, we were Liberals: putting leaflets through doors, going to the count in the local sports hall. He was the youngest candidate standing anywhere so he had quite a lot of press attention. I remember getting him up at 6am to do a radio interview (on the phone, in his dressing gown, sitting on the sofa). Even as parents it was quite an intense experience. He came a good second and, after saying ‘Well done’ to him, I went to congratulate the winning candidate. ‘Oh thank you, Monica,’ she said and gave me a big hug. Well Reigate is a bit like that.

Liberal Democrats Do GodWhen this book was published it caused a mild media flurry. The title is based on the famous comment from Alistair Campbell following an interview with Tony Blair that ‘We don’t do God’. It is encouraging that many politicians (including our current Prime Minister) are prepared now to publically declare their faith and the effect it has on their life. My feeling is that the attempt (by the ‘New Atheists’ and others) in the late 20th century to ‘Kill off God’ may have had quite the opposite effect. It has encouraged people from all walks of life to be honest about their faith in a way that has not been possible for some time.

Although this is quite a short book there is a lot in it and my choice of what to comment on is entirely personal. My focus is more on the Church than on the world of politics and I suspect that everyone reading it will have different things they feel are important. Each section is written by a prominent Liberal Democrat politician and the range of issues is enormous. I’m going to start with Sir Andrew Stunell:

Three reasons to Thank God – and not the usual ones

While I was reading this a tune kept on turning round and round in my head. Most of my generation will know this tune. The words are:

God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be,
When the Earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

Because the sense of this short essay is that God is working his purpose out. Maybe not in the way we would expect. Possibly not in the way that many Christians would want but it is happening. Sir Andrew’s first thankyou is:

Let’s start by thanking God that we live in a secular and pluralist society.

Within a few hundred years of Jesus’ death on earth attempts were being made to control and manage the Christian faith. This reached its peak in the late middle ages but, even by the year 1800, it was still impossible, in the UK,  for anyone who did not belong to the Church of England to enter parliament, get a University degree or hold public office. Of course, you also had to be a man and of reasonable personal wealth to do most of these things. Even those following other flavours of Christianity such as Baptists or Catholics were excluded. As Sir Andrew says: ‘We have never been all one great big happy Christian family’.

This level of control had some unexpected consequences. One of these was to force Jews and non-conformist Christians into other areas of public life, such as banking and manufacturing. But a less positive effect was to weaken the Church in this country, to the point where going to a church service was not seen as a act of faith at all, but merely ‘doing the right thing’.

The second ‘Thankyou’ is:

Lets thank God that the Holy Spirit has been at work through the ages

He continues:

… the Holy Spirit didn’t stop work when the Book of Revelation was sealed. Not according to scripture itself, and not according to the subsequent evidence – of which Wilberforce’s successful crusade (against slavery) is a landmark piece…

Stunell mentions a whole list of things that have improved in our society: Slavery, women’s rights, care for the disabled, relaxation of dress codes, but I would like to highlight another improvement in our society and in our churches that we now take for granted.

A friend of mine was divorced about 40 years ago. Added to the pain of ending her unsuccessful marriage was a virtual exclusion from her normal society. The church she belonged to was unwelcoming and certainly offered no help. All her friendships and clubs depended on her being part of a couple. We have come a long way since then. Churches offer ‘Divorce and separation’ courses and actively welcome divorced people and remarried couples. People generally are more relaxed and accepting of divorce and its consequences. The failure of a marriage will always be painful and difficult but at least the people involved can now start again much more easily.

Which brings us to the third ‘Thank you’:

Let’s thank God that he has yet more truth to break forth from his Word

In ten years time Christians will look back at the fuss we made about Gay marriage and wonder what it was all about. We will wonder how we could not have opened our church doors and our hearts to those who had struggled to find their place in society; who were, after all, our neighbours. We will wonder how we could have denied the love of God to so many people. Not just our gay neighbours but all the non-gay people who could not accept a church that seemed to pass judgement on people just because of who they were.

I’m with Andrew Stunell on this. He says:

In this generation it is rights for gay people that seem so hard to acknowledge and so readily denied.

In contrast to that, in all my years as an MP and a councillor I have never once had a letter from any Christian asking me to make committing adultery a criminal offence, or to introduce a law to stop adulterers adopting children, or prevent them from teaching children or repeal the Civil Marriage Act that permits them to remarry, or to require them to have medical treatment to prevent a recurrence of their sexual behaviour. I have had all of those things recommended to me about gay people. That is despite the fact that adultery is unambiguously condemned in Scripture in a way that goes far beyond the somewhat iffy references dredged up about gay behaviour. It unambiguously causes far more harm to far more children than gay behaviour, and is unambiguously very much more damaging and destabilising to families, and of course the institution of marriage, and society at large. Just ask any MP about their Child Support caseload.

In my opinion, things are about to change. The silence from the leadership of the Church of England is deafening on this subject. The dam will burst from the top. But it may take a change to the structure of the Church to achieve this. Which brings us to Lord Tyler’s essay on:

Faith, Society and the State

He says:

 My plea would be for more consistency and more transparency. Treat our fellow citizens as grown-ups, by acknowledging that we are now a multi-faith nation with strong intra-faith links at all levels of society. If that means disestablishment for those of us who live in England, so be it. If that means that King Charles III decides to call himself “Defender of the Faiths”, well why not?

I understand that since the Swedish Church was disestablished in 2001 it has gone from strength to strength, with new commitment to its mission and increasing membership. I have no reason to believe that the English sky would fall in, any more then it did in Wales.

I think we, as Christians, need to reclaim the debate on disestablishment of the Church of England . I was cooking macaroni cheese on Friday and pondering how to make the separation of the Church and State seem at all relevant when I heard a rather sad little story on the BBC News about bats. The journalist was talking to a Church warden from a church in Norfolk. More than 300 bats were roosting in his church. As they are protected he was unable to get rid of them. He described putting down sheets every night and coming in every morning to find them soaked in urine and dotted with poo. The stink was putting people off coming to church at all! What was not mentioned was that he was unable to just close down the church building and set up in a school hall (or other practical venue). Of course not, the parish church is the parish church.

This little story seemed to show in miniature many of the problems with the Church of England: Ancient, impractical buildings, inflexible structures that do not allow change, an insistence to be a ‘special case’ and often outside the law. Lord Tyler says:

Above all, I hope to those of us who remain Anglicans can soon find a way to return to Christ’s own teaching and stop agonising over the dated views of my namesake Paul of Tarsus… Sorting out a speedy way to implement the clear majority view of the Church that the “Stained glass ceiling” of women priests is ludicrous, and offends all our Christian instincts would be an excellent first step in this direction.

I am an Anglican. In many ways the Church of England is stronger than ever. Those who belong to this organisation are really committed to both the Church and to God. There are very few ‘Pew Fillers’ any more. And in Justin Welby we have a really remarkable leader. But, to fulfil our potential we need to break the shackles from the state and stand free.

Love Wins – Rob Bell

Love Wins BookDeciding to blog on ‘Love Wins’ was easy. Deciding what to say about it was a lot harder. My process for blogging is this. I generally choose a book I’ve already read. I then read it again quite carefully and place little coloured stickies at the points I think are interesting and quotable. At this stage I usually have about 8 or 9 bits of coloured paper sticking out the side of the book. But, as you can see, I kept on marking the book and in the end sort of gave up. Every page seemed to have something important and interesting to say.

Having said that, I need to mention what is not in the book. It caused a bit of a stir. Rob Bell was accused of being a heretic and a false teacher. In the end he had to leave the church he had founded and move to California. He was also accused of being ‘politically liberal’ and a ‘universalist’. This side of the Atlantic being politically liberal could be seen as a compliment (certainly in our family) but being a ‘universalist’ will need to be explained.

In my post on ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ I looked at the orthodox Christian view of where people end up after they die. To recap: If you believe in Jesus then you will be saved by him and go to Heaven. Otherwise you go to Hell. It is not altogether clear what Hell is but it is very unpleasant and goes on forever. Rob Bell tackles this head on with the example of a 15 year old boy who died an atheist. In the orthodox Christian message he goes to Hell. That’s it. Some people believe there is an ‘age of accountability’ that is around the time a child is twelve years old. Bell says:

This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces. If every baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in Heaven, and not in hell, forever. Why run the risk?

And that risk raises another question about this high-school student’s death. What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies? Was there a three-year window when he could have made a decision to change his eternal destiny? Did he miss his chance? What if he had lived to sixteen, and it was in that sixteenth year that he came to believe what he was supposed to believe? Was God limited to that three-year window, and if the message didn’t get to the young man in that time, well that’s just unfortunate?

When I read this book again, I can see why it made people angry. It starts with a blistering list of questions, tearing apart the traditional idea of who will get to heaven and who won’t. If that was at the base of my faith, I would be angry too.

But one of the main reasons for our understanding of Hell may simply be a misunderstanding of the original Greek text. Right at the end Matthew Chapter 25: 42-46 Jesus says this:

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.

They will also answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (New International Version)

Now how I, and I would guess you too, read the phrase ‘eternal punishment’ is some terrible painful punishment going on and on forever without even death to end it, because you are already dead. OK. Except it seems that is not what Matthew meant at all. Bell says:

…the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about sheep and goats being judged and separated. The sheep are sent to one place, while the goats go to another place because of their failure to see Jesus in the hungry and thirsty and naked.

The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.

An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or a “time of trimming”, or an intense experience of correction.

Which makes perfect sense. Because people who are unkind, selfish or even cruel will never be able to flourish in the Kingdom of God. They will first need to change. It also makes sense because this is what God is like. Not a soft pushover, but always giving people a second chance. Another thing strikes me about this story: The ‘sheep’ who ‘receive their inheritance’ are not defined as ‘those who believe in Jesus’ but those who are kind and generous. It is clear from the story that they may not even realise they are doing these things for Jesus at all.

At the start of this post I promised I would explain what Universalism is. It is this: that everyone, of every faith; however sinful they are, can eventually be reconciled to God. I honestly think that it will always be harder for those who don’t accept the grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers, but the gate is open. There will always be second chances.

But what Jesus did was a whole lot more than that. Bell says:

Jesus, for these first Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along.

Unity.
To all things.
God is putting the world back together,
and God is doing this through
Jesus.
 
 
He holds the entire universe in his embrace.
He is within and without time.
He is the flesh-and-blood exposure of an eternal reality.
He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation.

Which is mind blowing but also a bit hard to grasp. So, I created a couple of pictures using my Three Worlds framework to try and explain this.

The leaves in this picture represent the physical world we live in. The people walking represent us and also the social world of friends, family and even enemies. The stained glass window represents God and His Kingdom. Before Jesus came this was the picture. There were ways of reaching God: through sacrifices, priests and a few prophets. But you had to be the right person at the right time in the right place. God was in charge, but, for most people, most of the time he was a long way off.

Broken world

We start our year counting at Jesus’ birth, but this is wrong. The first day is the Sunday when the two Marys find the empty tomb. From then on nothing is the same. God’s world and our world are knitted together. Everyone who believes in Jesus can live in both at the same time, can be a child of the world and a child of God. On that first morning everything had changed.

Healed world

Love Wins.

Diary – 16th of May

Image

One of the things I have been doing recently is learning how to draw people. My first attempts were not very good but I think I have improved enough to share this with you. The process is very strange. At first it seems like nothing will work. You create a structure and it doesn’t look like anything. Then gradually it comes together. I’m hoping to do some pictures of family members and maybe myself.

Three Worlds

Start

When I was reading ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ it occurred to me that we need a new way of thinking about the world. A way that includes God. This sort of bothered me. My ‘light bulb moment’ happened standing in a supermarket queue (I don’t think anyone noticed). It was not a new idea for me, I’d explored it before as a way of thinking about some of the gospel stories but I realised I needed to lay it out as an idea on its own before looking at the implications. I’ve called it ‘Three Worlds’. And here it is.

World 1

Patterns I’m sitting at my desk, looking out the window; its been raining and there are spots of water on the window. These are all real physical things. World one is the physical world we move around in. What we can see, touch, feel, smell and taste. Yet this is not a simple thing. When I look out the window each tree is a different colour and the pattern of leaves is different. And how we experience the physical world is different for each of us. On my pilgrimage last month, I just wanted to look at everything, some people wanted to touch things. Others were concerned with signs and symbols. For many people the overwhelming experience was what was happening inside their body. Blisters, aches and pains, were taking up front space in their minds. Science is discovering more and more about our physical world. I honestly believe that some of these give us a clue to the mind of God. He cares about our physical world. He made it beautiful.

World 2

World 2 is the social world. We need to live in a world connected to others. Loneliness is a terrible thing and can cause illness and even death. We understand this world instinctively as clearly as the physical world we live in.People talking I’m thinking that one of the reasons why social media is so important in our society is that it is an attempt to recreate the village communities that we have lost. It is said that in one day a modern person sees more people in one day than someone living 150 years ago saw in a lifetime. So creating and maintaining communities of people who really care about and for each other is incredibly hard. Yet this is what we long for. The picture here is of some of the people on our pilgrimage after a private church service. We all had something to say, a connection to be made.

We also make connections to animals, places and even objects. One of my friends is always telling me to ‘declutter’. ‘What can you possibly need with all those books?’ she asks. I’m not sure she understands!

World 3

World 3 is God’s world. Jesus called it the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. We might call it the ‘Spiritual dimension’. In my very first post on this blog I talked about our nine senses. To recap these are:

  1. Sight
  2. Hearing
  3. Taste
  4. Touch
  5. Smell
  6. The sense of the inside of our bodies.
  7. The knowledge of our own thoughts.
  8. The reasoning or judgement on these thoughts.
  9. The sense of the presence of God.

And, just as almost everyone can see, it seems that almost everyone can sense the presence of God. There is even a word for the presence of God in the everyday world – Numinous. I’m going to quote Alister McGrath for a definition of this word:

“numinous” – a mysterious and awe-inspiring quality of certain things or beings, real or imagined, which (C. S) Lewis described as seemingly “lit by a light from beyond the world”.

We sense this in the beauty of the natural world, in art, in the love we feel and receive from other people. For half my adult life I was an atheist but I was still moved by religious music. My heart knew that it was telling me something important and real even if my head didn’t understand it. More than anything else this presence of God in the world shows His generous nature. Everyone has access to his presence in this way even if they don’t believe in him.

From time to time God seems to break in and act in a more direct way. These are not necessarily true miracles, but they are experiences and events that cannot be explained in any other way. The tendency of our secular world is to do exactly that even if it means calling otherwise sane and rational people deluded. But if we accept the reality of God’s world it means that the world we see, feel and talk about makes a whole lot more sense.

Three Worlds together

The idea behind these three worlds is that they create a framework to understand the whole world we live in. What I’m hoping to do is to use this framework to think about all sorts of things. I’m going to go back to the start of my journey with God and look at Chaos Theory (Yes, really) and look at how we can understand some of the Gospel stories better using this framework. I’m not sure where we will end up. It should be interesting.

Suggested Reading.

‘The Book of Sparks’ by Shaun Lambert. The quote is from ‘C. S. Lewis, A life’ by Alister McGrath.

A New kind of Christianity – Brian Mclaren

Introduction

It is now quite a long time since a did a post on a book. And quite a lot has happened. After I had written this post I realised that it contains as many of my own ideas as those of Brian McLaren. If you want to know more of what he thinks then I would really recommend reading this book. I’m sure that he won’t mind me using his ideas as a springboard for my own…

What do we believe?

When I am sitting in church do I know what the person sitting next to me believes? I will almost certainly know their name, usually their occupation and the details of their family. I may well have sat in their house and eaten food they have cooked but do I know what they believe? There is a well known saying here in England – ‘Never talk about politics or religion’ and generally we don’t. This is not helped by belonging to an established church which tries to be relevant to as many as possible. The mission statement of the (local) church I belong to is:

Building a community to reach a community with the love of God.

Which is great, fantastic and most of us are doing our best to live this out. But it is more about what we do rather than what we think. Of course the two are connected. My recent posts on pilgrimage show that what we do can change who we are and even what we believe. Maybe, as McLaren says, we need to get past this, to emerge into an ‘Age of the Spirit’. As he says:

… an approach to Christian faith that tries to preserve the treasures of previous eras and face and embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century. So something is happening. Something is afoot. A change is in the wind

But first we need to be clear about what we are leaving behind. For many people this will be quite a wrench.

timeline
This timeline is taken from McLaren’s book (I couldn’t resist adding some pictures of my own). This is the classic ‘Christian’ story. It goes something like this:

Once we were innocent. We lived in a wonderful garden and talked with God all the time. Then Eve (naughty woman!) ate the apple and gave some to Adam. They were expelled into some bleak place and there they (we)stayed until Jesus came along and saved them (us).

At this point we were given a choice. Either believe in Jesus and then, after you die, you will go to a good place called Heaven or don’t believe and then (also only after you die) you will be in Hell forever, without any time off for good behaviour. Put as bluntly as this it not only makes little sense it also seems profoundly wrong. Lets start with Eden and the fall. McLaren says:

… the Genesis narrative sets the stage for what follows. As we’ve seen. it’s the story of a good creation, marred by expanding human evil, countered by divine faithfulness, leading to profound reconciliation and healing. This narrative serves as a kind of fractal for the (bible) story as a whole and for its many parts.

Last summer I spent a week in Oxford studying Christian apologetics. One of the many memorable conversations I had there was with a young (only 19) American lad called Drew. He said: ‘How do you explain the Fall with evolution and all that?’. I thought about this. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Who is the most fallen person you can think of?’. After a pause I came up with my own idea. ‘Gordon Gekko‘. The mythical antihero of Wall Street has no morals, no scruples, for him greed really is good.

‘So,’ I explained. ‘You have Jesus at one end of ‘falleness’ spectrum and Gordon Gekko at the other end and most of us somewhere in the middle. As society expanded it became more and more possible to ‘work the system’. Living in small family groups or villages it is hard not to be honest and upright as everyone is looking out for each other. But when people began to live in larger and more complex societies it is possible to use power to get your own way, to trample on those weaker than you.’

I had never considered this question before but I think my answer was broadly right. The story of Jewish/Christian faith covers a large chunk of human civilisation from about 3,000 BC until the present day. McLaren shows us the step changes in civilisation, each with advantages but each moving further and further from a more innocent past. This past is quite close to our own English myth of the happy and well fed farmer untainted by the delights of the big city. The story of Adam and Eve is really an ancient parable. All knowledge, all progress, comes at a price.

Here is where the conventional narrative becomes a bit confusing. We have to move from a ‘us’ story, involving everybody to one concerning each individual soul. Many of us, as Christians, are locked into a story where we have to reach a certain stage in our faith before we die so we can be in the good place. If we don’t reach that stage, if we are still confused or uncertain then we may go to the bad place after we die.

Except Jesus never said that. When he talks about Hell he uses the word Gehenna. When he talks about Heaven or (more usually) the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. It is as something present and real, that we can be living in right now not just after we are dead. Gehenna was the Jerusalem rubbish dump and we have all been there. Unhappiness, poverty, hopelessness can all seem just like a rubbish dump. I watched a TV news slot about the war in Syria last week. It looked about as close to Hell as you can imagine but this was really happening, right now and, as the camera moved through the bombed buildings, a woman with a small child ran across the blasted, empty street.

What about other people?

And this story of Heaven and Hell doesn’t make Christians look good. About 13 years ago, when I was a very new Christian, I worked with a lovely man who followed the Sikh religion. We had some long conversations about our faith and what it means to us which were really interesting and fruitful. But then he asked THE QUESTION: “What will happen to me after I die?” I answered “You will go to Hell, because you don’t believe in Jesus”. I’m ashamed to say that I said this without the slightest hesitation, not even feeling guilty afterwards. My only excuse was that this was what I had learned from my two or three years as a Christian. I really hope he didn’t take me seriously.

McLaren addresses the ‘other religion’ question in some detail. After a 4 page tour through the old and New Testaments he says:

We would eventually need to look at Jesus, considering in detail, say, his attitudes towards a Samaritan woman, or a Roman centurian, a Syro-Phoenician woman, or some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus and went through Andrew and Philip. We could even look at Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew, noting how the Magi – what we might call New-Age practitioners – are drawn to Jesus through their own religious arts.

As in so many other things, we need to see Jesus not as a rule giver (although there were a few) but as a living parable. As C.S Lewis put it ‘A true Myth’. In a society and culture that shunned and feared outsiders, Jesus and his followers reached out to others and respected their views. In a way this is easier in Britain than in other Western countries such as the U.S.A because we are just so diverse. It is quite difficult to feel badly towards someone of a different faith, nationality or sexual orientation if they are living next door to you or sitting at the next desk. Once you start speaking to people their lives start to be interesting and rich rather than just alien.

But, if you are reading this as a Christian, by now you will be shouting at the screen “John 14:6-7!!” For those of you who can’t recall the bible just by the book and verse (I can’t either) this is:

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Message Version)

This is where Brian McLaren and myself will need to differ. McLaren wraps this around in the context of Jesus’ coming crucifixion, resurrection and the anxious questions of his followers. This is fair enough but I think we have to assume that if Jesus said it and John wrote it down then it has got to have a wider application. I completely agree with him that this does not mean that people of other faiths or none are automatically on that mythical rubbish heap, either before or after they die, so how should we look at this?

The clue is at the other end of John’s Gospel: John 1:12-13:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God –   children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (NIV)

Belief treeThis diagram shows a number of relationships we can have with God. I’m going to be bold here and say that only Jesus Christ can offer us the relationship in the top layer. Which seems like a wonderful thing, and it is, but it carries with it a responsibility. If one of my own parents requires something from me I will do it if I possibly can and there is a bond that cannot be broken. So it is with God.

But not all Christians are at this stage. And that’s OK. And followers of other faiths are relating to God in whatever way their culture and personalities will allow. There are a lot of people who believe in God who don’t follow any sort of religion, who simply think he is there. I’ve called these ‘Onlookers’. There are also people who believe in God but are angry with him, some ‘atheists’ seem to be a bit like that.

I think God honours all of these relationships. There may be a point (perhaps after we die) when we see clearly the truth of who God is. If this is so then some of these people will have a big surprise and I’m sure we will all have to adjust our thinking. I’m going to end with a parable of my own, hope it helps:

There was once an girl, about 12 years old, who was put up for adoption. The prospective parents were extremely wise, loving and patient and took time to get to know the child. The girl had very mixed feelings. On the one hand she didn’t quite trust these people. Why did they want to love her so much? What was in it for them? On the other hand she was a bit afraid. They had a lot of other adopted children already who all seemed to have their lives sorted out. What if she just wasn’t good enough?

She realised that she had a choice. She could walk away and never see them again. They had said that she could change her mind at any time but what if they rejected her?

She could maintain contact and call on them when she needed support. This seemed like a good, safe option but it was a bit scary to be out in the world on her own and what if they ignored her when she called?

She could go and live in their house, follow the rules. She would pick up her clothes, do the washing up when asked and go to school on time. If she was good and polite they would look after her and keep her from harm.

Or she could really join the family and become their child. The prospect seemed very attractive and fun but all her old fears came back. What if they didn’t love her back? What if she wasn’t good enough?

So, in the end she decided to opt for the third option. She lived in their house and did what she was told and they loved her as much as she would allow. And because the parents were extremely wise and loving they waited.

Suggested Reading

I would really recommend reading the starting point for this blog: A New kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. It is completely packed with ideas about faith, Jesus and God.

The best two books written about Heaven and Hell are by C. S. Lewis:

The Great Divorce

The Last Battle

They are both works of fiction which seems quite appropriate for this topic.