Saturday, 24 November 2012

All Those Years Ago

How time moves on; it moves on whether we want it to, or not.  One minute we’re innocent children and then we’re uncertain and awkward teenagers.  Then we’re young adults, trying to find a place and a role in the world to fit into and something to be a part of.  Then somehow, we’re just another adult, trying to make sense of it all, trying to get educated, trying to find a job, trying to be someone different amongst those other many millions and millions of people that inhabit the world at large.


I remember snippets of things from my past; I remember some holidays we had, or little bits of them, or snapshots of certain holidays, memories frozen in time, and sometimes I wonder what is the purpose of memory, remembering things, people and places long gone in our past.  It evokes nostalgia, it can evoke happiness, it can evoke sadness and it can even evoke a ‘bittersweetness’ remembering happy times that are far off in the distant past and perhaps remembering people that have gone from our lives, one way or the other.  It maybe also that in the past we had a kind of innocence to our lives, and there was an innocence to who we were; we might mourn for our lost selves and the innocence we once had.


The human race seems to progress in many ways; technologically, educationally, financially and we can accrue wisdom, become sophisticated and become just more polished in many different ways.  But sometimes for all of this, we lack something; we don’t know what it is we lack, but we know or feel something is amiss.  Human progress and advancement, making money and becoming sophisticated are something that many humans aspire to, but at the end of it all, even when we get what we think is our heart’s desire it can all appear empty and without value.


The story of man’s creation is one of harmony, peace, happiness, contentment and a perfect spiritual relationship with our Creator; somehow inevitably, it all goes wrong and our first two ancestors lose that special relationship because of their disobedience, and they lose their original innocence too.  Somehow, this story seems to play out in every human being’s life; a start of great promise and happiness and joy, which gets overtaken by all our human faults like greed, selfishness, arrogance, self-importance and which always ends in people being unhappy in some way and not fulfilling the potential we had if only we’d listened to God.  Somehow inevitably, it all goes wrong.


Like most people, I remember things from past holidays and when I do they make me usually happy, and also as I said sometimes they fill me with bittersweet memories of times and people and places long past and even long gone.  Sometimes it even fills me with a sense of loss, for lost happy times that were as carefree as they were innocent; and how I look to repeat such simple experiences but try as I might I just can’t seem to.  We lose something as we get older; is it a sense of innocence, or a sense of wonder or a sense that something is bigger than our lives and we are merely a part of life and not the most important thing?


Do we remember things exactly, or do we even when we don’t mean to embellish memories, making them seem worse than they were, or better than they were, or just different to what actually happened?  I know if I visit a place again that I visited years ago, I always remember it slightly differently to how it really was; I think many people do that.


We remember who we once were; we might remember our childhoods fondly or even perhaps with sadness; we can even be angry about things that happened in the past when we were kids, all those yet again bittersweet memories from long ago.  Do we pine for our lost selves, the sweet simplicity we once had, before we became sophisticated, before we became ambitious, before the reality of money and earning a living came along?  Do we miss that simple, carefree and intimate relationship we had with our Creator when we were younger, when we had nothing to prove and no particular place to go and not desiring much more than being happy and at peace?  The story of humanity seems to be one of regret, unfulfilled promise, and a yearning, through all the madness and chaos of a busy and bustling world, to find something real, that lasts and that has value and a space where we can be truly fulfilled, both spiritually and materially.


We see then, but we only see through a glass darkly.  We are jaded as adults, and we know that we have lost that original innocence we had as kids, innocent kids born into a not-so-innocent world.  Was it all those years ago, that we danced and played in the rain, that we didn’t worry about any little thing, that school holidays seemed to go on forever and forever?  Is there any surprise about Jesus when we read that: ‘Then he said, 'In truth I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.  (Mathew 18:3 NJB)  In becoming worldly, ambitious and sophisticated as adults, and in trying to be important and successful, have we missed the very thing we have really been looking for all our lives, the very thing we pass by and ignore and see as of no importance?  We might have roamed the world trying to find it or read dozens and dozens of books or made all kinds of acquaintances and friendships, and all to no avail. 


In searching for peace of mind, have we missed the very thing we need to know, the very thing that would bring us peace?  Will having lots of money bring us peace?  Will having a busy social life bring us peace?  Will being the most important person bring us peace?  In many respects, no material acquisition or particular status will bring us anything but short-lived glory, a passing thrill, that doesn’t last, and makes us only search harder for the next thrill; but all to no avail.  How do we become like little children; and why? 

We become like a little child when we see the world through innocent eyes, when we ditch our worldliness and selfish ambition, and learn to live again and put our trust and faith in Jesus.  The only way to find rest and refreshment for our souls in this desert of a world is to simply have faith, and to ask Jesus to make us like little children again, innocent and carefree.  Relish life, dance in the rain, eat some sweets and see the world once again through the eyes of a child!

Saturday, 17 November 2012

It Doesn’t Get Better Than This

Many of us today find ourselves struggling in some way, whether it is financially, career-wise, with illness of one kind or another or depression, with our families and friends and just with the constant barrage of negativity that surrounds us day in and day out.  The bad news never seems to end, and rarely is there any real good news; prices of goods go up, gas and electric goes up, food prices go up, petrol for cars goes up, and wages and benefits stay the same; everything goes up and very rarely if ever comes down.  On top of this, we find ourselves at odds with God in some way; we pray, but He doesn’t seem to hear; we struggle against sin in our lives but always come off losing the battle; we know God wants something better for us but we don’t know what it is; we want so many things but find that we just can’t have them; we struggle to make better lives for ourselves but only seem to be making more work for ourselves while we struggle vainly to go nowhere.  On top of all this, God seems absent, seems He is busy doing other things and we just can’t seem to find Him or catch His attention anyway.


What started out as wonderful promise has become stale, has become ‘old-hat’, commonplace, tedious and even boring.  We know we want something, but we don’t know what it is that we do want.  Things just can’t seem to get any worse.  We do our duty, take the rubbish out, feed the cat, pay the bills, do all the things we are meant to and still after it all we feel an emptiness, a numbness, a raw stretch of pain across our hearts that never goes away no matter what we do.  Is life meant to be exciting, is it meant to be boring, just what is the purpose of life anyway?


Depression can steal all our happiness, can make us see the world in an extremely negative light and can make us moody, miserable and unreliable.  The mood swings a person can suffer with depression means that one day they can be deliriously high and the next day crushingly low; the deliriousness comes from the fact that for the time being the depressed person feels a lull in the worst moments of depression, and the worst moments come from the fact that the illness has a grip again.  The truth seems to be that both extremes, feeling extremely high one minute and extremely low the next, are emotions that should be experienced occasionally and not all the time.  Depression can steal everything good, and can make everything appear lost and without hope.


We see in the Old Testament the trials of Israel, the Israelites; the story of the OT is at best a story of skewed relationship, God’s perfect love and Israel’s usual half-hearted love.  God always knew the Israelites, and of course us too, would mess up from time to time.  In my own life, I struggle with frustration after frustration; I certainly am at this present time.  I can’t see the wood for the trees and I am in trackless wastes with no seeming end or way out.  I find myself struggling, struggling to remain calm even when I feel angry, struggling to see God’s purpose in my life when nothing seems to go right, struggling to make sense of it all when all I feel is unwell and out of sorts all the time.  Even when I try to do what is right minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day, month after month and year in year out, I still feel miserable.  In spite of God’s warnings to Israel, He knew that they, to put it politely, would mess up, would stop loving Him and start loving other things like money and power and sex and the accumulation of land and property and commodities; in the rush to make themselves prosperous, the Israelites forgot about the one person who had made it all possible; what an irony!  Are we any better than backsliding Israel?  One look around you at humans in general will probably tell you that answer.  But what about us Christians, us paragons of virtues, us latter day saints, the called and the chosen; what about us?  Well, sometimes I despair of Christianity and some Christians, or those calling themselves Christians; often organised Christianity seems just as worldly and just as much about power and wealth and social standing than it is about our relationship with Jesus.  If Christians, those supposed to serve God with a whole heart, are just as worldly and selfish as anyone else, what’s the point of being a Christian after all?  But in this chaotic world, this topsy-turvy planet we live on, through all the injustice and rampant unfairness that sometimes passes for society, God knows His own.  We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their good.  (Romans 8:28 NJB)


The Best is Yet to Come

Even in despair, even in our most hopeless moments, even when everything seems irretrievably lost, there is a God who understands our pain, and understands our yearnings for a better life.  He isn’t a God of religion, He is an unfathomable God, uncontainable, uncontrollable, even dangerous and subversive, and certainly wrathful to those who challenge Him.  But here also is a gentle God, a God of summer breezes and a God of playful kittens and the softest of touches, a God who is big enough to know all about us, but intimate enough to want to get involved with who we are and what we are about.  He is a God of relationship, a God who will walk with us, laugh with us, cry with us and feel our pain when we are down and feel our joy when we are up.  This isn’t religion, it is reality, a God-centred reality, one that no one can steal from you and that is more priceless than all the gold and all the diamonds in the world.  All the money in the world might not make you happy, but God can transform your life and He can give you a second chance, even when the world has written you off.

The best is yet to come!  I wait fervently, even patiently sometimes, for a change in my circumstances; nothing much seems to happen; I pray, pray a bit more, read my Bible for inspiration and have hope and faith that God will begin to work in my life.  In the end, that’s all I can do; that’s all anyone can do after all.  Who can force God’s hand and who wants to tell God to get a move on?  Not me anyway!  But as we wait, things become clearer, and even though we suffer and we are impatient at best, things begin to make more sense; all the while God is working behind the scenes, preparing us better things and answering our prayers.  Yes, the best is yet to come.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.  (John 10:10 NJB)

Saturday, 10 November 2012

We Need a Christian Revival in Britain!

It’s not overstating the case to say that many ordinary people in Britain feel that Christianity is just not for them; why?  Well, I hope to answer that as we go along.  First, I will take myself as an example.  I am a Christian, a dyed-in-the-wool Christian, who has been a Christian since I was thirteen, but if I am being honest has really tried to live the faith since I was about thirty.  Being in some ways a very private and even shy person, with occasional moments of overtness, I tend not to like the look of churches that get all emotional, or in accepting group ideology when at heart much of what I believe is very deeply held and not up for grabs in any way.  Organised religion seems to me at best a watered-down version of what we hold in private.  But for me, this corporate version of what starts out a very personal and private faith, has many problems attached to it.  Firstly, it can get hierarchical when I feel most of us want an egalitarian faith; does God see high class status or white skin as more important than any other?  Secondly, organised religion is a business, and in the business of raising money and holding stocks and shares and the like; is this really what God wants from us, running religion as a business?  Thirdly, the individual, especially if they are deemed not important, plays a poor second to so-called group-ideology, where somehow the ideas of those who are deemed important trickle down to the rest of us; is Christianity just another branch of the class system?  Fourthly, and similarly, it seems that Christianity in Britain has become just a reflection of the often unfair social system we all live under; if people fervently promote such unfairness in ‘organised Christianity’, are we so certain that God also promotes such unfairness?  Isn’t this something humans can do all by themselves?!


A calling in Christianity, a calling from God, isn’t just to be a priest or vicar or even archbishop, it is to be a Christian and to serve God with a whole heart.  For many people like myself, believing and having faith in God but not particularly believing in a hierarchical structure that seems more about class and socially important people, there is a void opening.  In Britain, there are many Christians who just do not get organised religion or big denominations but who still have a deep and genuine hunger and thirst for God.  This void has widened over the last fifty years or so.  Let’s be honest here, much religion, much organised Christianity in Britain was about social control, was about getting people into pews and then telling them that the way things were, the deeply unfair social system, was somehow inexplicably ordained by God; the church was preaching falsehood so that the ruling class could control, manipulate and own millions of ordinary people.  This put many ordinary people off religion and so they stopped going to church.  In the last fifty years or so, when ordinary people’s options began to proliferate and people could live any way they wanted to, the church became far less relevant.  But has God become far less relevant?  I believe the answer is no.  But what do Christians like myself really want?  I don’t want hierarchy.  I don’t want the church run like a business, collecting vast sums of money; and for what exactly?  I don’t want top-down ideology, ideas from the elite trickling down to everyone else, using religion as a convenient way of controlling people.  So what do we want then? 



If we really want to have a faith worth living for, first of all we need to open up a debate, a debate that encompasses all Christians, not just vicars and priests and bishops and archbishops and those deemed socially important, I mean all Christians that want to get involved should get involved.  I also think we need to think about ‘church’ as being the body of believers, not some vast impersonal organisation or a particular denomination or a building in need of repairs; why can’t we get together in each other’s houses or hotels or even pubs and bars?  Who says it has to be a dusty suburban church anyway?  Thus says Yahweh: With heaven my throne and earth my footstool, what house could you build me, what place for me to rest, when all these things were made by me and all belong to me? - declares Yahweh. But my eyes are drawn to the person of humbled and contrite spirit, who trembles at my word.  (Isaiah 66:1-2 NJB)


What we all need is a dose of reality, and perhaps we also need to know just what God wants from us, and for us, as well.  I believe God is life-affirming, life-enhancing and life-transforming but little of this wonder, this magnificent nature of God seems to be disseminated through traditional worship and Sunday service churches; is it any wonder people find Christianity irrelevant and even boring? 



I have asked myself many times, ‘just what sort of worship does God want from us?’  I find all that ‘happy-clappy’ stuff, when usually, and supposedly, reserved English people gush and emote at some church services, to be rather embarrassing, both to watch and probably to take part in as well.  Unfortunately, I find the traditional variety of worship, going to church on Sunday at 9am, singing a few hymns and listening to a sermon, and saying hello to the priest or vicar, also not that appealing.  If we could make the inner and private faith we all hold into a genuine public faith, we could all probably move mountains.  How do we in fact square our very private and deeply held beliefs with a corporate and public faith?  How do we worship a God who in fact really needs nothing from us?  But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham my friend, whom I have taken to myself, from the remotest parts of the earth and summoned from countries far away, to whom I have said, 'You are my servant, I have chosen you, I have not rejected you,' do not be afraid, for I am with you; do not be alarmed, for I am your God. I give you strength, truly I help you, truly I hold you firm with my saving right hand.  (Isaiah 41:8-10 NJB)  Perhaps worship can be many things; we worship God by being aware He has called us to be His own; we worship God by staying true to our calling even when we live in a deeply sinful and enticing world; we worship God by treating other people with the same respect we hope others will treat us with; we worship God by being in tune with Him and by being in tune with other people’s needs, and many more things besides.



I have learnt, usually the hard way, that God demands obedience from us; not partial or half-hearted obedience, but full and whole hearted obedience; we cannot live in any kind of sin and then proclaim that we are good Christians; in the end, we may fool other people, we may even fool ourselves, but we will not fool God.  When Israel remained obedient, God blessed them and rewarded them and showered on them both material and spiritual blessings.  However, when Israel only partially remained obedient, God warned them through prophet after prophet to amend their sinful ways and if they didn’t change their ways sooner or later God punished them.  ‘…Is Yahweh pleased by burnt offerings and sacrifices or by obedience to Yahweh's voice? Truly, obedience is better than sacrifice, submissiveness than the fat of rams.  (1 Samuel 15:22 NJB)  The Old Testament and the story of Israel’s often extremely shaky relationship with God is a timely warning for us today, that God means what He says and that He is a God who demands our full attention and our full obedience too.  If we get right with God first, before worrying about other things, we might find that our lives and our view of God are totally transformed.  Who am I to challenge the way things are, who am I to suggest changes to age-old problems and age-old ways of doing things anyway?  I’m just an ordinary sort of guy really, a Christian who wants to see my faith taken seriously but also honestly.  ' Now, please forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I can worship Yahweh.'  (1 Samuel 15:25 NJB)


Inner Reality
Paul talks about the ‘inner reality’, the reality that though buried by a thousand and one other concerns, is the only reality we need.  Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others.  (Philippians 2:3-4 NJB)  Paul, as Saul the Pharisee, was in some ways an accomplished man, a man who had things to be proud of, but he dismissed it all in order to be a Christian.  But what were once my assets I now through Christ Jesus count as losses. Yes, I will go further: because of the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, I count everything else as loss. For him I have accepted the loss of all other things, and look on them all as filth if only I can gain Christ and be given a place in him, with the uprightness I have gained not from the Law, but through faith in Christ, an uprightness from God, based on faith, that I may come to know him and the power of his resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being moulded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:7-11 NJB)  Always, Paul gets to the nub of the argument, and though an educated and eloquent man, he writes with clarity and simplicity, putting across things that could be difficult in a simple and direct way.  For at the judgement seat of Christ we are all to be seen for what we are, so that each of us may receive what he has deserved in the body, matched to whatever he has done, good or bad.  And so it is with the fear of the Lord always in mind that we try to win people over. But God sees us for what we are, and I hope your consciences do too.  Again we are saying this not to commend ourselves to you, but simply to give you the opportunity to take pride in us, so that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearances and not inner reality.  (2 Corinthians 5:10-12 NJB)  Perhaps we need to get back to this ‘inner reality’, or if we don’t know it to find out what this inner reality really means for Christians; certainly it is that we live in the truth of a situation rather than hiding behind cosy but ultimately empty falsehoods.  We need to get back to the simple truth of the Gospel in everything we do and everything we believe.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Just an Ordinary Bloke

Do you need to be super-spiritual to be a Christian?  Do you need to be saying ‘Hail Mary’ all the time or crossing yourself at every moment?  Do you need to like singing hymns and going to suburban churches?  Do you need to like ‘happy-clappy’ get-togethers gushing and emoting with lots of other people singing stuff like ‘Jesus is Lord’ and ‘hallelujah’?  I’m a Christian, and I don’t do any of the above.


In Western culture and society, the countries that make up the wealthy parts of the world, there is often an inference that to be right we have to have a good job, live in the right area, know the right people, talk with just the right accent and be continually motivated to get on and even outdo our fellow human beings.  We progress, supposedly, by competing with everyone and anyone, by partaking in the rat-race, by being faster, quicker, better, smarter and more adaptable than someone else.  We partake in all of this because we need to, or we think we need to, or society strongly infers that just to keep our head above the water we have to.  In some cases, this makes Western societies dynamic, fluid, ever-changing and creates opportunities for many people.  We have to work after all, we have to be busy or we stagnate.  But have we got our priorities wrong somewhere?


Unfortunately, even organised Christianity in the West can sometimes be a mere appendage of the social system we live under.  Some established Churches, like Catholicism and the Church of England for example, seem much more about high social status and collecting and preserving vast wealth and landholdings and holding stocks and shares, than they ever do about that simple carpenter who came to earth two thousand years ago.  I’m not trying to be controversial or overly-critical here, I am merely writing what I perceive to be the truth.  Often ordinary people are even side-lined in Christianity for those who are seen as important or very well educated or those from more privileged backgrounds.  This is the way the world is quite frankly; shouldn’t Christianity be countering the worst effects of a prejudiced world system?


Many people who become Christians are called from all walks of life and all backgrounds and all different nationalities and skin colours.  God is always an ‘equal opportunities’ God!  We didn’t choose Him; He chose us.  My own calling I think is slightly unusual; I don’t come from a Christian background or family of any kind and I never went to Sunday school or church as a kid and I still don’t as yet go to any church, although I’m looking into it.  In spite of this, perhaps maybe even because of it, I find myself living as a Christian on a daily basis and trying to serve God with a whole heart each day.  There’s no need to talk of denominations or affiliations, of being Catholic or Protestant, of religious communities believing this or that, my calling from God simply means at this time that I must serve Him with a whole heart every day; not much more, not much less than that.  But somehow, the world turns this simplicity, this divine simplicity, into something more, something more complicated, something more complicating, something that can get tiresome and weary and more to do with our place in the world, our place in the social system, than about our very real need to get right with a loving and merciful God.

What do we need to be, to be a Christian?  Rather well-to-do perhaps, rather well spoken, suburban and cultured, an important person of some kind?  Again, I’m none of these things and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Christian.  I can’t identify with socially important people because I never have been like that and have never really known personally people like this in my life either.  Am I less to God because of my humble origins?  Is God ashamed of our low-born backgrounds?  Does He really choose the socially important, the privileged and the well-to-do over less important people?  God’s choices in the Bible, if we really scrutinise the scriptures, might surprise people.  Was Israel a technologically advanced, sophisticated and cultured people?  No, they were a low-technology, almost primitive, passionate and warlike group of people, hardly religious at all!  They were surrounded by high technology and sophisticated people like the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Hittites and the Babylonians; why didn’t God pick any of these, why didn’t God pick those who in worldly terms seemed to have everything, those who seemed to matter?  He remembers his covenant for ever, the promise he laid down for a thousand generations, which he concluded with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac.  He established it as a statute for Jacob, an everlasting covenant with Israel, saying, 'To you I give a land, Canaan, your allotted birthright.'  When they were insignificant in numbers, a handful of strangers in the land, wandering from country to country, from one kingdom and nation to another, he allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he instructed kings, 'Do not touch my anointed ones, to my prophets you may do no harm.'’  (Psalms 105:8-15 NJB)  Israel, the Israelites, were the least of people, a handful of tribal people, not a great nation like Egypt or Babylon.  Why would God pick the least of people, the least promising and least important tribe of people after all?  I believe that God’s choices are always fair, a way of challenging human prejudice and injustice, in a world that is often very prejudiced and very unjust.


I’m just an ordinary bloke, after all’s said and done.  Why pick me anyway?  There is a great fear among some English people of being called ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’, of coming from a Working class background or some kind of humble origins.  It’s so ingrained in our culture and society that some people will do almost anything to disassociate themselves from a poor background or any kind of humble origins.  I’ve learnt through being a Christian and a student of the Bible that background and origins, humble or not, are not really important to God at all.  How blessed are those who keep to what is just, whose conduct is always upright!  Remember me, Yahweh, in your love for your people. Come near to me with your saving power, let me share the happiness of your chosen ones, let me share the joy of your people, the pride of your heritage.  (Psalms 106:3-5 NJB)  God is concerned with people living pure lives and how we treat other people.  If a system we live under, be it class, racism, some kind of tribal or religious intolerance or whatever it might be, is making some people hate and abuse, exploit or otherwise ruthlessly oppress other people, God will hear those who are oppressed who pray for help, and sooner or later He will punish those who treat other people with scorn and contempt; it may not be in this life that God punishes people who oppress and exploit other people in some way, but it is certain that come Judgement Day all will confess their sins.  It is better for those who profess to be Christians, wherever they find themselves in the social order, to not oppress or otherwise ruthlessly exploit others unjustly or unfairly in their desire to be successful and wealthy.  I believe God reserves a far harsher judgement for those professing themselves to be Christians, using religion to justify exploitation or oppression of other people, when they should just be living as Christians should be. 


So, I’m an ordinary bloke, who just happens to be a Christian.  In the end, I believe we are all ordinary, we are nothing special at all, but God sees something in us that is special, that is extraordinary, that is divine, that goes beyond the humdrum and the mundane, the routine and the everyday; He created us after all, so He must see something in us that we often don’t see in ourselves.  We may be ordinary, but we were created in the image of God; this is why God loves us and only ever wants the best for us.  Alleluia! I give thanks to Yahweh with all my heart, in the meeting-place of honest people, in the assembly.  Great are the deeds of Yahweh, to be pondered by all who delight in them.  Full of splendour and majesty his work, his saving justice stands firm for ever.  He gives us a memorial of his great deeds; Yahweh is mercy and tenderness.  He gives food to those who fear him, he keeps his covenant ever in mind.  His works show his people his power in giving them the birthright of the nations.  The works of his hands are fidelity and justice, all his precepts are trustworthy, established for ever and ever, accomplished in fidelity and honesty. Deliverance he sends to his people, his covenant he imposes for ever; holy and awesome his name.  The root of wisdom is fear of Yahweh; those who attain it are wise. His praise will continue for ever.  (Psalms 111:1-10 NJB)