Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Good News

The good news is that Jesus died to save us from sin and sinful lifestyles and so that we can be forgiven and move onto a better life with Him.  Every Christian needs to understand that Jesus can forgive sins and we can have a relationship with Him on a daily and on-going basis; it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be overly religious or singing hymns we don’t like or being self-righteous or anything like that at all, it’s beyond that in fact.  We can still be normal people and be Christians after all.  The message of Jesus is good news, so good and even so simple that people often miss the goodness in it and over-complicate what is essentially a simple message, a message of love, a message of peace, a message of hope, a message of reconciliation and ultimately a message of salvation.

We’ve all heard people talking about Jesus and writing about Jesus and even singing about Jesus, but what did He say about Himself?  He had quite a lot to say about Himself, some of which may astound you and certainly astounded the people of His day; some of them loved Him for what He said, and others simply wanted to kill Him and get Him out of the picture, perhaps so some of them could get on with the business of being religious without any uncomfortable or awkward truths getting in the way.

I am going to look at some of what Jesus said about Himself and I will be using a New Jerusalem Bible.

I am the bread of life.  No one who comes to me will ever hunger; no one who believes in me will ever thirst.  (John 6:35)  In some countries and regions on earth, hunger and thirst are issues that people have to deal with, sometimes on a daily basis.  In Jesus’ times no doubt some people never went hungry and others were probably hungry most of the time.  But we don’t just hunger and thirst for food and drink, as humans we hunger and thirst for God, for meaning, for justice, for a purpose and we certainly hunger for true peace in our lives.  He is the bread of life, the very reason for our existence and the only sustenance that really fulfils; no other earthly thing, no success, accumulating wealth, high social status, nothing in fact can truly fulfil other than Jesus Himself.

In truth I tell you. Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Anyone who welcomes one little child like this in my name welcomes me.  But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck.  (Matthew 18:3-6)  In modern societies, there are often overt messages that we should be sophisticated, worldly and cynical about anything which might expose us to ridicule or taunts or just being seen as strange, for whatever reason.  Godly wisdom turns worldly human wisdom on its head by asking us to be like little children, innocent, carefree, not aggressive and perhaps understanding more and accepting more than we do as worldly and sophisticated citizens.  As Christians, we are to be free of worldliness, hatred, contempt, being judgemental and free of sinful lifestyles and knowing sinful behaviour of any kind.  Yes, we will make mistakes, but God in His mercy can forgive in a spirit of gentleness when we truly try to serve Him with a whole heart.  In making us like little children, we can start again and begin to appreciate God and his Creation with the wonder of little children.

As he went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?’  ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered, ‘he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in Him.

‘As long as day lasts

we must carry out the work of the one

who sent me;

the night will soon be here

when no one can work.

As long as I am in the world

I am the light of the world’”  John 9:1-5)  It wasn’t just to prepare us for a glorious eternity in Heaven , Jesus coming into the world was also to heal peope from illnesses of many kinds, and conditions like epilepsy and leprosy and even blindness.  Christians should understand that as well as life after death, there is also life before death; we can live a peaceful, joyful, happy and purposeful existence long before we reach the pearly gates!  This might be a revelation to some people, to others it might not be, but I hope you understand that Jesus can bring you peace and security and happiness in the here and now, not just pie in the sky when you die!  He is the light of the world, when often all we see around us is darkness and millions of people living in that darkness and preferring darkness to light, preferring what is futile and falsehood and emptiness to hope and truth.

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second resembles it:  You must love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too.  (Matthew 22:37-40)  People can get hung up about law-keeping, but here Jesus states quite simply His two most important commandments, both based on love.  If we proclaim that we are Christians, whilst hating other people for any reason at all, and not knowing God at all, what value our professed Christianity?  Perhaps the whole Bible can be summed up in that four-letter word: LOVE.  Without love, Christianity just becomes religion, tired people doing tired things, people preaching sermons no one really wants to hear, people busy doing ‘religious’ things, and for what?  To tie themselves up in knots most probably.  Reducing it all to love means we can sidestep religion and find what is of true value, or certainly what is most important in our Christian walk.    

I am the Way; I am Truth and Life.  No one can come to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father too.  (John 14:6-7)  Though there might be many religions, and even cults and sects of Christianity in the world, and many seeming saviours and great holy men, it is my firm belief that only through Jesus can we truly reach God and only through Jesus can we attain salvation.  It is only through Him simply because He was the only Son of God and there is no other, no other holy man or woman can have this status simply because no other person was fully God and fully man.  Knowing Jesus is knowing God, knowing God is to know Jesus.   I have a firm belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God; we don’t need to add anything to it, and we certainly do not need to take anything away from it either.  No other man or woman ever claimed that they were the way, the truth and life simply because no one else was, or is.  Jesus is the door, the only one who can forgive, give us real hope, and save us for better things.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Royalty, Class, Racism & Christianity

This is something completely from my heart; you may agree entirely, you may disagree entirely; you may agree partially or you may disagree partially, but please hear me out.  The notion of superiority in race and class bulks large in Western culture especially Britain, certainly England, and the United States.  In England, there is a long cosily held notion that the Queen is at the top of the class system, the Royal Family just below her, the aristocracy just below them, the Upper Classes just below them, the Middle Classes below them and the Working Classes at the bottom in graded levels of hierarchy.  This system is, of course, wonderful if you are perceived to be at the top of it, or at least somewhere comfortably in the middle; not so good if you are at the bottom.  The prejudice and frankly bigotry of such seemingly deeply-held convictions about the superiority of some and the inferiority of many others, is what keeps all kinds of double-standards, unfairness and hypocrisy going.  This can, and does, impact unfairly on many people in English society.

Class, like racism, turns on issues of the perceived superiority of some and the inferiority of others; during the height of the British Empire both racism and class were seen as important markers of, and between, people.  In Britain, notions of class were accepted and widely believed to be vitally important in the way English people related to each other; in some ways, yes even in the 21st century, this is still important to some people.  Outside Britain, in the wider empire, notions of superior and inferior races helped justify the land grabbing and control of people and resources in India, Australia and Africa, and many other places besides, in which in some cases we are still living in the detritus of today.  Both notions of race and class were promulgated and strongly promoted to create vast pockets of wealth for some, and misery, penury and poverty for millions of others. 

In some instances certainly in Britain, issues of race and class are subtly played off against each other, with the effect of both issues being side-lined and marginalised.  The issue is also an economic one; whilst elites at the top of Britain live in wealth and splendour and have good jobs and careers, many people are out of work.  Instead of Black and Asian people and Working Class people dismissing each other’s rights as less important than their own rights, couldn’t we stand together instead of being divided? 

It seems that some people, not all certainly, will not discuss the issue of class at all, even those who pride themselves on believing in equality.  You have to understand that if you ignore the plight of one group, in effect you ignore the plight of everybody else.  To really tackle our own prejudices, and we all have them, takes a certain kind of courage and genuine self-examination.  If you set yourself up as someone who is interested in the rights of others, you should be even-handed in that endeavour and not selective.  My argument is that if someone in the class system benefits unfairly at the expense of someone else seen as lower down the scale, in the end you are part of the problem quite frankly.

For some reason nobody seems to want to talk about or debate the issue of class in England; people will talk about every other issue endlessly like racism, sexism, gender differences, religious differences and so on, but not it seems about class!  I do honestly wonder why.  I think as some people who are racist deftly and neatly ignore Black and Asian rights, certain people also deftly and neatly ignore the issues of Working Class people too.  In the same way, issues of Working Class people are again side-lined, marginalised and basically ignored.

Challenging the injustice of the class system is going to be the next big thing in England; believe me, it’s coming.

For a Christian who comes very much from a Working Class background, these issues about class have been a part of my life for a long time and I have written about and debated them many times.  It is good to remember that class, as well as many other similar issues, is a part of the world system and as such constitutes the world and all its sins and evils and injustices.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.  (John 15:19 NIV)  This is something else I looked at: “You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  (James 4:4 NIV)  I believe that all such unjust systems are not part of God and not part of His plan for the world, no matter how deeply-held such views may be.  It might be that those who benefit the most from such injustice might have a lot to answer for one day.  It is better for each individual to let go of their hatred and prejudices, each one of us, to find out what is the truth about these and many other related issues.

Many of us grow up in reduced circumstances of one kind or another, sometimes even in poverty, and then we have to deal with other people’s unfair assumptions and prejudices as well, so adding insult to injury, and justification to what can only be described as hypocrisy.  Often, it is the well-connected, the wealthy and the influential in some way who gets on, who is feted as being better than the rest, and who goes on to a wonderful life surrounded by wealth and privilege.  God, it seems, has different ideas: “Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many of you are wise by human standards, not many influential, not many from noble families.  No, God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong, those who by human standards are common and contemptible-indeed those who count for nothing-to reduce to nothing all those who do count for something, so that no human being might be boastful before God.  (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NJB)

Where does this leave the Christian, irrespective of their social class, ethnic affiliation or skin colour or gender?  I believe that if we serve God with a whole heart, and expect Him to act in our lives, we should not put obstacles in any other person’s way for any reason.  Quite simply we should refuse to be neither exploiter or exploited.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Some Home Truths

Why did God choose me, a hapless, hopeless, awkward loner, a mess of contradictions?  Did God make the right choice, or what?  In cool reflection on my sometimes troubled life, I have come to some conclusions; about my life, and life in general.  I have understood that some people seem to float through life untroubled, and other people can live in chaotic, unhappy and even unpleasant and occasionally downright dangerous circumstances in life.  Some people are lucky I guess. 

What does God’s call mean on a person’s life?  What has it meant for me?  I can say that I have found out, the hard way usually, that God definitely means what He says, and that His calling is not to be resisted in any way.  In living sinfully whilst having His call on my life, I suffered, sometimes grievously, partly in ignorance, and partly just because I wanted very much to go my own way.  I have always been headstrong, very individualistic and have often had my own ideas about how I should live.  I now believe that God knows best, not only for me but for the whole world too.  But let’s bring it right down to the personal and individual level; God has a plan for all He calls, regardless of social status, class, ethnic affiliation, whether we live in a nice area or not, whether we are particularly religious or not and notwithstanding personal circumstances of any kind whatsoever.  If God created every human being then any one of us can serve Him, whether we fit the Christian ‘type’ or not.

I’ve been a Christian for over thirty years of my life, but in talking to many Christians and hearing about many other Christians personal experiences, I don’t think I have been a typical Christian.  I’ve never been to a church to worship in my life, and although I am just in the process of getting involved in some sort of group worship, I am nervous about this and I am moving very slowly.  I don’t come from a Christian background of any kind and don’t even come from a Christian family; I have thought long and hard why God would choose me when I seem like the least promising material He could ever have called.  It’s a puzzle to me, and yet somehow it makes perfect sense too.  To some, God is the God of important people and important concerns, of large churches that dominate millions and that have multi-million dollar budgets; and perhaps to others, He is the God who listens and walks with the lowly, the despised, the unimportant, the lost, the seemingly hopeless cases; someone like me in fact.

I think we all play a part in life, we all pretend to be the person we want to be or wish we were.  I think the great Bard said it best: ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.’  Maybe he was more right than he knew.  I think we all put on a mask, a show if you like, when we are amongst other people, for whatever reason; maybe to impress or to look cool or tough or more intelligent than we really are and so on.  God certainly sees us as we are, and not as we think we are.  I think in all ways, we should be true to ourselves, and try to be the person God wants us to be at the same time.  I have found that God allows me to be me, and not have to put on ‘airs and graces’ and try to be someone I am not.  It’s taken me many years of my life just to begin to be comfortable in my own skin, and to be comfortable with who I am and the person God is shaping me to be; I don’t have to pretend with God, and if I don’t have to pretend with Him then perhaps I should be just the same with other people too, even if that means I am sometimes tongue-tied, shy and a little socially awkward at times!  Well, nobody’s perfect.

There is a great dichotomy in Christian life, and it is something I have been thinking about and musing over recently.  As Christians we are meant to live up to God’s perfection, whilst at the same time knowing full well that this side of Heaven we cannot and will not reach that perfection.  This I believe creates, or can create, in the believer a kind of tension, a pull in two completely opposite directions, a tension which in the end only God can deal with.  We can’t do it on our own, however holy or religious or perfect we might think we are, and without God we might become proud about our religious standing.  With Him, there will be an understanding that as Christians we will struggle with two masters; the master that is self, and the Master that is God.  Knowing that we will not attain perfection until God finally and fully does a work in us means that we can be compassionate to other struggling souls just like ourselves, but which also gives us hope for a future yet realised, when all sorrow and suffering will take flight.

Sometimes, and for some reason not fully known to me, I have often felt the loneliest person on earth; disconnected from everyone and everything and feeling that I am purposeless and without point or a reason for being.  It’s something, yet again, that I have struggled against in my life.  I have also struggled with feelings of inferiority in my life too.  I don’t fully understand why but think it has something to with my working class background and the (relative) poverty I grew up in.  At the same time, I have come to a fuller realisation that I had a good childhood and upbringing and have never really harmed anyone or maliciously tried to hurt or upset anyone in my life.  There are people who have had far worse lives than mine.  However, these feelings of inferiority have affected my life up until recent times; they affected the way I thought about myself and affected the way I approached life and the way I was motivated to getting on in life.  Fact is, for a long time I never even tried to get on, I merely drifted.  God has given me purpose, and a purpose in life.  In embarking on a new life with God, I feel that I don’t have to look back, only forwards, and that I have the right like anyone else to make something of my life.  As for God, I know He wants only the best for me.

There have been a number of cases in the United Kingdom in recent times, where Christians trying to live their faith, maybe correctly or not I can’t fully say, have been denied their right to do so.  There is in the UK a growing trend towards secularisation, the idea that society should dispense with God altogether.  If someone doesn’t believe in God I personally think it is their right not to do so, but I think that the secular movement, in some ways at least, is trying to erase all Christianity from the UK, and therefore trying to stop Christians being Christians.  My view is simple on this; I’m not a ‘Bible-basher’ or ‘holy Joe’ of any kind, and realise that we live in a pluralistic, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan society in the UK, but this means quite simply that we should be able to live any way we choose, whether we are Christians or not, and no one should try to stop someone believing, or not believing, anything they want.  I believe that if I respect the atheist, he or she will respect me as a Christian; it’s that simple really, just mutual respect.

I have been honest because I think that when we are honest, about anything really but certainly our deeply held beliefs, we might just get to the truth of a matter.  I think sometimes that many people would rather hide behind platitudes of one kind or another rather than just face the plain simple truth.  I see the Bible as plain simple truth, profound certainly, life-changing definitely, but in the final analysis just plain simple truth of the most pure and unadulterated kind.  I know that I want my relationship with God to be a simple one, based on mutual love and the fact that He has called me for a reason, a reason that I still don’t fully understand but as I get closer to Him becomes clearer.  I don’t have to worry following God because He has my best interests at heart; I merely need to obey.