Saturday, May 31, 2008

Chosen and unique

This just chokes me up every time. Brilliant, inspiring, fills you with joy.

This guy, Paul Potts went on to win the competition and has now got a great recording career. But he always had this talent. It was always there within him.

He never gave up on it, and now he's realised his dream and fulfilled his talent.

Now not all of us get to be singers, not all of us get to be celebrities or up front or well known by everyone.

But that doesn't mean we don't have unique talents.

God has given every single person on this earth a unique personality, unique calling and unique gifts. The passions we feel inside are often put there by God. He's given us specific roles to fulfill. We're all here for a reason. God believes in us, He believes we can live the way that He wants us to live and He has given us gifts to use on this world.

We don't have to work in a church to use them for God's glory either. Paul said "Whatever you do, by thought word or deed, do it to the praise and the glory of God". So if you're a doctor, do it for God's glory. If you're a hairdresser, a dentist, a road worker, a decorator, whatever you do, do it for God. Honour God in how you treat the people you work with, by doing your job with integrity, by doing your best in whatever you're doing.

There is another meaning of that verse, that God wants us to try and follow Him and live like Him whatever we're doing. Wherever we live, wherever we are at any time, put God first and acknowledge Him.

I'm not saying we have to talk about God all the time or use religious language, or thank God all the time. But in how you live, how you treat people, how you speak, your attitude, in all the little things, honour God. Live His way.

Coming back to my main point though, the point is that God values each of us, each of us is special, unique, chosen, gifted. There will never be anyone else exactly the same as you again in history. God made you that way. celebrate that.

We are worth dying for, all of us. Jesus came to show us how to live, but He also came to show us how much we are loved. The cross showed us how much God loves us, how He longs for us to know Him.

He also longs for us to find who we were made to be, and to fulfill that destiny. He's outside of time, He already knows what will happen. Even so, He's with us right now as we live that out. How that destiny turns out is up to the choices we make. We need to choose to see ourselves as God sees us.

Unique, loved, chosen, gifted, worth dying for. That's for all of us

Jesus - Religious, not a religion

I've been thinking of the words 'religion' and 'religious'. Christianity is often called a religion and Christians are termed 'religious' people. I thought I'd explore.

I've discovered they are very different things, and only one of them in my view is truly applicable to the kind of life Jesus has in mind for us. Only one applies properly to the true nature of Christianity.

The word 'religion' talks about an organised, institutionalised system of religious beliefs.

An organised, institutionalised system?

Did Jesus really come to set up a system, an institution? What did he do with the religious systems around in His time?

He consistently condemned them, called their leaders hypocrites and said that saying the right things and being seen to do the right things, living rigidly according to the laws, being legalistic was not the way of God.

Jesus wasn't about starting a religion. But inspiring and encouraging people to live a new way, God's way. To make their lifestyle, their everyday lives, be pictures and reflections of God. To interact with God, to make our choices and habits ones which reflect God, to make our lives a witness of our devotion, rather than being part of an institution.

You say well didn't He ask Peter to start a church? Yes He did.

But Jesus didn't mean the church to become an institution. He meant for it to be a community of believers, serving each other, supporting each other, praying for each other, and serving the community as a collective and individually. A community where everyone was welcome.

Not an institution. Not at all. That's what man has made it.

I think what 'the church' as those outside of it see it and define it now, has become an institution. Part of the establishment. Part of the accepted order. Near to government. Part of Royalty almost. The Queen is the head of the Church of England even.

Jesus didn't want it to be that. Not at all.

Because when that happens it loses its edge. It loses its radicalism. It loses it power. Its more and more afraid to take risks and take a stand. It gets to stuck down in tradition and legalism. It becomes more a set of rules and regulations, not a living community, not a way of living.

Being a Christian is a way of life, not a religion.

Which brings me nicely to my second word. The word 'religious' means the following three things in the dictionary.

1)Of, relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
2)Of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
3)Scrupulously and conscientiously faithful

If we talk about being religious with our faith - then that's correct. If we are truly religious Christians we will devote ourselves to God. We will devote ourselves to observing what He says, and His reality, and we will be faithful to this belief. Scrupulously faithful means being faithful to a life of integrity and conscientiously faithful is to be have our lives governed by God's moral codes and values.

Wow. This I can get on board with. Living a life of integrity, according to God's values, devoted to God and listening to what He says. A lifestyle devoted to God.

Being religious, in the truest sense of the word, is a good thing. Its how Jesus wants us to live.

Jesus wants us to religiously follow His way of life, His example, His teaching. If we are truly religious we will be putting it into practice, we will be living out our faith.

Christianity is a way of life, the way God wants us to live and when its done in its truest sense its done religiously.

But that doesn't make following Jesus a religion. Jesus didn't come here to do that, but to institute a new way of living, and to set us free to live it. Religious, not religion. They are two very different things, almost polar opposites.

Lets not get stuck in religion. Lets get religious with our faith instead.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Christians aren't perfect!

Some non-Christians, often atheists, say that Christians are hypocrites and that they don't practice what they preach.

It got me thinking. In one way or another, aren't most Christians hypocrites sometimes? No Christian meets God's standards all the time, so its inevitable it will happen sometimes.

If all Christians were perfect and never made mistakes then they wouldn't need Jesus. If we were all perfect, the cross wouldn't have been required. Its very naive and misguided to think that Christianity is flawed because Christians are hypocrites.

That's missing the point.

Christians won't ever be perfect. However, the one person that matters is - Jesus Christ. He was without sin, without hypocrisy, without error. He was sinless and perfect in everything he said and did.

He's our example as Christians, He's our Lord, the one we follow and are obedient to. Or at least trying to anyway.

That's why I've put 'Trying to live like Jesus every day' at the top of my blog, instead of 'living like Jesus every day'. It would be a lie to post the second one, because I don't live like Jesus every day.

Parts of the day, yes. Trying, yes. But I'm not perfect. I make mistakes, I get angry occasionally, I say things I don't mean sometimes, I have bad attitudes sometimes, I treat people poorly sometimes. I am not perfect.

We are all works in progress. We all make mistakes. The great thing about Jesus is that despite all the things we do that offend and hurt Him, He is always there to accept us, forgive us and show us mercy and grace. Nothing we've earned, but something given free despite us not deserving it.

That doesn't mean He makes it easy for us, or He lets us get away with it. Far from it, its very hard to face up to your mistakes, but we all have to do it. Admitting you are wrong about something is one of the hardest things to do.

Even Paul, the great evangelist and the writer of so much of the New Testament, struggled with this. In Romans he writes of his struggles with living how Jesus asks us to.

Romans 7:19-21 (New International Version)

"For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me"

Its not easy at all, especially when we live in a society which is so cynical, merit-based and consumer-orientated. Being a Christian in the West is counter-cultural and so its very hard to stick to it at times. But does that mean you're not a Christian? Does that mean that following Jesus isn't important to you? Of course not.

But none of us is perfect. We need to be working towards becoming more like Jesus, of course, but that is a daily process of continuing to make choices which are in line with how God wants you to live, in every area of your life each day.

Being a Christian is to make your whole lifestyle revolve not around the culture we live in, but to live your life in such a way as to try to re-define culture to God's values and standards, in a non-judgemental way. In a way of love, peace, grace and forgiveness.

That's the ideal, but we're not perfect. As Christians lets remember that, lets not act like it and lets just tell people that we're not perfect and that we make mistakes like anyone else, the same mistakes often. The only difference is that we have a way of dealing this, and we have a higher set of values and standards to aim for.

We don't always reach them, and we won't until after we die.

But we keep working towards them, we keep focussing on that goal. On becoming more like Jesus and living life how He has called us to.

Christians aren't perfect.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Science and faith - Complimentary!

There are some people who think science can disprove Christianity. They say that the theory of evolution (note: its a theory) proves once and for all that the creation story in the Bible is rubbish, therefore the rest of it can be written off.

Then when you give them the story of Jesus, they throw science at you again and say He may not even have been dead in the first place and that He didn't rise from the dead.

Okay, lets look at these issues.

Who says science has to disprove faith? Why not science and faith?

For example, the idea of 'the dials' in creation. The proven scientific fact that there are hundreds of different measurements in creation - percentage of salt in the sea (the exact same as in the human body), the exact degree that the earth faces the sun, the distance we are from the moon, the level of certain elements in the air and hundreds of others, that all have to be exactly as they are to sustain life on earth.

Not only that, but the simple truth that if even one were out of sync then it wouldn't matter if all the others were correct. No life on planet earth would exist. Now one or two coincidences is one thing, but hundreds and hundreds (at least 300) all being the exact correct measurement? A complete coincidence and accident?

Not for me. Looks to me like there's some kind of design.

Then there is the fact that scientists are now beginning to conclude that there are at least 11 dimensions to reality, and as many as 13. Scientists are starting to conclude that there is some scientific uncontrollable force out there which governs everything we do. This is science by the way, not some religious texts. Starting to sound similar aren't they?

To me that many coincidences in creation, the different dimensions to reality, the way nature all fits together and apart from all that the sheer beauty in creation suggest to me that there has to be something more. There's simply no other explanation.

Once you come to that conclusion then you look at all the accounts of creation, and the one which sticks out is in the Bible. It may not be the literal description of events, in fact personally I think the creation story is a metaphor, for both the fact that God created the heavens and the earth and designed them, and for the fall of man. Who says that evolution was not the method that God created the universe and life on earth? In fact even more, does it actually matter?

Should our faith in Jesus really be dependent on whether the creation story is literally true?

If it is, I'd humbly like to question just how strong someones faith is. Personally my faith is based on the fact that I believe Jesus is true. That He was who He said He was and that His way is the best way to live. Simple as that.

The creation story and what exactly happened is not as important as what that story represents, and its certainly not what my faith is based on.

But nevertheless, to me the idea that God created the universe explains all the coincidences and science of creation better than any story that it was all just an 'accident'. It only adds to my faith, rather than destroys it. The science of the universe makes much more sense to me when you explain it through the idea that it was specifically designed and created by a sovereign God.

So you see, science doesn't disprove the idea of a creator God. To me it merely strengthens the idea that there is a creator God behind it all and therefore gives me even more confidence that Jesus really is who He said He is and did what the Bible says He did.

If you want to go into whether Jesus was dead, well that's simple to me. The background to the whole story, the science and the historical facts behind it, leads to a different conclusion.

Jesus had been through a Roman flogging, which was known to have killed people on its own without any need for official execution. Following this He had then been executed in the most painful and brutal form of execution ever devised by man. He was totally emotionally drained, and given that He'd been abandoned not just by all His friends but by God as well (unlike anyone else in history) I think its perfectly believable that He died on the cross. To me there is no question. He surrendered His soul to God, He was physically dead.

Even if you question if He was dead, there's the cultural issues and facts around the story of the empty tomb.

It was near enough impossible for a Roman tomb to be opened from the inside, especially by someone with the level of injuries Jesus would have sustained. Roman gravestones would have needed several men to move them, from the outside. Given the amount of Roman guards guarding the tomb, whose lives may have been at stake if they had failed in their job, there is no way the stone could have been moved by anyone without it being noticed. Not a chance.

Then there's the fact that the first person to discover the empty tomb was a woman. In Jewish culture a woman's testimony wasn't valid at all. Only men's' testimony was valid. If Jesus wanted to convince people of a lie that He was risen from the dead, a woman was not the best person to tell first.

Bottom line, to me there's simply no other realistic conclusion than that the story in the Bible is true. Not for me. The evidence otherwise just doesn't add up, scientifically, culturally or historically.

So yet again scientific fact, in this case research about Roman and Jewish culture and how the human body reacted to Roman executions, doesn't destroy faith, it supports it and even encourages it.

Far from one destroying the other, science and faith can in fact be very complimentary

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Seeing Yourself

Ever done something wrong in private? Do you have bad habits? Habits that if anyone found out about, you'd be ashamed and embarrassed. Habits that nobody would associate with you on the surface.

I think all of us do, don't we? If we're really honest.

Its easy to hide these away from everyone, including ourselves. Because no one talks about their bad habits, then its easy to forget you're doing something wrong, isn't it?

The problem is that there is one person none of us can hide from. Who sees it all. Jesus.

Often people talk about one of the most important things to possess to have real Christian maturity is character.

Character is what God will ultimately judge us on, because its to do with how we live and what we've done and haven't done. In private. Because in private, we start to see who we really are. We're not putting on a show for anyone, consciously or subconsciously.

We need to stop running from our bad habits. We need to stop hiding.

We need to be honest with ourselves.

If we want to live like Jesus and become like Him, if we want to follow Him, then we need to do this. We need to accept our mistakes. We need to be honest and accept we've screwed up. Then we need to ask God to forgive us. To forgive us and help us truly be forgiven, but turning around completely and changing our habits. Making the things we do in private good things.

There's a reason Jesus said that it was good to keep what you give private. Because what you give in private will come from your heart, not a desire to impress.

The habits we have in private will ultimately impact what happens on the outside. It will bear fruit in what we do, in how we treat people, how people perceive us and what we will achieve.

What we do in private impacts who we become in public.

If we make good choices in private - in our living, giving, reading and behaviour, if we feed on God's word, if we avoid wrong habits and cut them out of our lives, if we invest time in our relationship with Jesus in all the different ways you can - prayer, Bible study, worship, reading, social action, serving, giving, treating people everywhere with love, grace and forgiveness, living the way of Jesus in private as well as in public, then we will reap the reward.

The reward? A deeper relationship with Jesus, a deeper knowledge of God, but most of all you will discover more about who you are.

You see, you will only see the real you when you see yourself in the light of Jesus. When you see yourself the way you were meant to be, not how everyone perceives you or even how you perceive yourself.

When you see yourself through the eyes of Jesus, the possibilities are endless. Isn't that worth fighting for, working for, committing to?

I'm up for the journey.

Are you? The invitation is there for all of us...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The way of Grace & Peace - what unites us?

Christians disagree on so much don't they?

Think about it. The role of women, what different verses mean, what we 'have' to believe to qualify as a Christian. There's so many things which have divided the church. Look at how it is now - I can't even count how many denominations, doctrines or strands of theology there are.

But what does the Bible say about that?

Rob Bell discussed it in one of his recent sermons, using some passages in Philippians and beginning with one from Romans 14, v 1-10.

This is a big chunk which you can read in full at your leisure, but the key verses are verses 1 and 5.

V1"Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters".

V5 "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind"

Then we move on to the passages from Philippians. They're a bit shorter so I'm going to put them here in full so that you can refer to them later.

Philippians 2 v 1-2 "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose."

Phil 3 v 14-16 "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained."

This is incredible.

First Paul tells us not to judge each other on disputable matters. He accepts here that we will disagree on aspects of faith, on matters of interpretation of scripture, in individual issues regarding our faith. Matters of doctrine and individual belief. He says that we all need to be convinced of what we believe, and if you read the passage in full you will see that he ends up saying that we shouldn't judge one anothers faith.

Then in Philippians Paul says we need to be one in spirit and purpose. That means that at the heart, at the centre at the core of what we believe needs to be the same purpose, the same heart. The same root at the centre of everything.

So we need the same core centre of our faith, but there are disputable matters and we should allow others to disagree with us, and leave it up to God to convict them.

Paul is accepting we will disagree. He says that its likely that at some point some people might think different. Not only that, but he says that its okay to do that, and allow God to speak to individuals and convict them. In Romans he says also that we're not to judge those who think differently, on 'disputable matters'.

That is, matters that are up for discussion and debate.

Bottom line, Paul is accepting that there will be disputable issues that will arise and its okay to disagree. Just don't judge. He's almost preparing people in advance, knowing that these things are going to come up.

So that leads me into the obvious question.

What's the heart of our faith? What does it all come down to? What remains if you take all the teaching and doctrine away?

There's only one answer isn't there?

The cross.

The one thing which unites Christians of all doctrines and denominations - that Jesus is the Son of God who came to die and rise again to save us.

Whatever you think of issues of the role of women, about the gifts of the spirit, tongues, no matter what your different doctrines are, Paul is saying we shouldn't let that divide us. We need to be working together, for each other, supporting each other, not falling out over doctrine. If people see the church divided, they see Jesus divided.

Why not put our differences behind us occasionally? Stand up and show what God stands for, what we agree on.

The cross.

Jesus came and died to save us all, we all need salvation.

All the rest is interpretation and disagreement, but the cross is indisputable. So your friend thinks women shouldn't be in leadership and you think they should?

Fine. But you both believe that the cross is the most important thing to our faith.

Its a whole attitude isn't it? Find what unites us, not what divides us. Then use that as a basis for discussion.

When I go to football I can talk to anyone there about football, because I know we all have a love of football (and Chelsea FC often as well) in common. So if I start there, then I can build trust and a relationship and even if we disagree, we still have a core value in common.

We can use this attitude with non-Christians. So they don't believe in Jesus and think the church is irrelevant?

Okay, but do they think there are big problems in the world that need solving?

Yes, most likely. Most people do. Well, so do we. Not only that, but we believe we have a way to solve them. So then lets talk about ways we can solve those problems.

This is the way of grace and peace. The way of love.

Its not our job to judge and condemn, but to have grace to accept others disagree and find a core value we have in common, from where we can build relationship so we can have unity.

The lowest common denominator, some value that two individuals in a conversation or a two or more groups working together can hold on to. Something that unites them.

When followers of Jesus have true unity in this sense, then the church really can change the world.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

i-jesus? Not for me

I've been thinking a lot recently about what I believe and why I believe it, trying to go back to basics with my faith. A lot of this thinking has been influenced by two books. 'Velvet Elvis' by Rob Bell and the book I'm currently reading, 'A Generous Orthodoxy' by Brian McClaren.

Both paint a picture of a new theology, a new reality of what a Christian is and how we've distorted Christianity by shrinking it, giving ourselves labels, and making it fit shrink into our culture and our lives. They talk of radical new ideas of what the church and being a Christian is an should mean, and both authors have been labelled as heretics by the traditional, evangelical and pentecostal movement.

Someone quite famous in Christianity was once called a heretic, accused of preaching false doctrine, of working by the devil and committing blasphemy. In fact, He was even killed for it.

You might know who He is.

His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, if the selfsame people who call these guys heretics were preaching what they do now 500 years ago, they'd probably be burned at the stake as heretics.

Doesn't that say something about the Christian faith? And about Christians too?

Christianity is always progressive. Jesus was. As culture and society changes the basic truths may not change, but we may find out more historically, we may find new meanings which are in fact old meanings. We may re-discover our history again in a fresh way.

There's no new things. Only new readings of old things. Or original interpretations of teachings which have been seen one way for centuries and accepted as tradition, rather than the truth.

We need to be open to what God is saying and doing that is different. That is counter-culture What issues would Jesus discuss today? Who would He call hypocrites now? How would He live? Where would He hang out? What would He say about the church today? Would what He say fit with what Christian convention and tradition says?

Judging by what He did and said when He was here, I think we'd be very surprised.

We all assume today that we'd definitely recognise Jesus if He came now. We wouldn't make the same mistake as the Pharisees, not recognising their saviour amongst them.

Of course not.

I, however, beg to differ.

Are we truly open to see and hear what our Saviour is doing and saying? Are we open to new/old things?

In one of his sermons Rob Bell tackles this brilliantly.

Jesus once called the Pharisees "truly sons of their fathers". He was talking about the fact that while the Pharisees decorated the graves of the prophets and said they wouldn't make the mistakes their predecessors did in persecuting and executing a prophet of God. Yet it becomes clear further on that they already are plotting to kill Jesus.

The message, said Bell, is that sometimes we read the Bible and we look at Bible characters and our gut instinct, before we think, is that "I'd never do that", "I've never done that", when often if you look at the context and apply it to our culture and setting today, then there are equivalent things that we do or don't do that we say we never would or wouldn't do. For example the parable of the good Samaritan. Isn't it easy to say we'd help the man on the road in that situation.

But how often have we all - and I include myself in this - walked straight past a homeless person without giving it a second thought, or ignored them because we feel uncomfortable, or lied about how much money we have to get out of giving?

We've all done that.

So lets be careful before we go making assumptions that we'd recognise Jesus today. Jesus was a radical. He was different, He stood out, He was outspoken.

This leads me to my major point, and one which Brian McClaren and Rob Bell tackle brilliantly.

How big is our Jesus?

Have we shrunk him down, to fit on our i-pod, to access when we choose and what we choose to? Us in control, so we can avoid difficult things or things we want to ignore.

Is our Jesus actually i-jesus?

That would fit in with our culture perfectly wouldn't it? A Jesus we can carry around and dip into whenever we want, who we can ignore when we want and listen to when we want, who we expect to give us what we want when we want.

McClaren in particular argues that modern Christianity has become a lot like this. It has shrunk Jesus and adapted Him to fit in to our lifestyle. Its put Him as our Saviour but not our Lord in its truest meaning - one we serve, follow, listen to and revolve our whole life around. That's been forgotten. Keeping Jesus as our saviour allows Him to be i-jesus (and I use the lower case deliberately). We get salvation and eternal life, we get forgiven for whatever we do. We are free to live whatever way we want now, as we are forgiven. The beginning and end of our faith is that we are rescued from Hell.

How convenient. How consumerist. This is the ultimate in i-jesus.

We cannot and should not shrink Jesus to fit into our consumer society. We shouldn't be taking what we like and want and ignoring the difficult stuff. We shouldn't be basing our faith merely around Jesus as Saviour.

Its so much more than that, and Jesus is so much more than that.

Following Jesus and being a Christian is a daily journey, its a lifestyle choice, its an attitude to living, an attitude to the world which governs how we conduct ourselves, how we treat others and what we do, and it needs to be done in community. Yes its a relationship with Jesus, but part of that is through community with other Christians. Serving, loving, giving, forgiving, blessing each other as family, and as family reaching out to the wider world to show them the real Jesus.

Jesus who stands for social justice, fair trade, a healthy and clean environment, who loves and accepts and forgives all people no matter what their religion, culture, gender, social class, financial status, medical condition or sexual orientation. A Jesus who wants not a church that is 'them and us', 'in or out' , 'I'm right you're wrong', but one which re-defines culture by being different from anything else. Taking a stand against injustice, poverty and inequality but also against racism and homophobia. Who takes all our prejudices and tears them down.

Does this mean that everyone gets into the kingdom?

Well I'm not a universalist. I don't believe everyone gets in the kingdom whether they are a believer or not. No. I don't believe Christians should be praying with people of other religions in Christian churches or other religious buildings. No.

I believe Jesus is the only way to God. I do believe that the way of Jesus is the only way to live. I believe its God's best for us. I believe that the only way for us to get God's best is to be a Christian, and by that I don't just mean to believe, but to live as Jesus commanded us, and as He showed us.

I was at Westminster cathedral the other day. I was in total awe of the place. The amount of time, effort, devotion and work that went into that was incredible. I was in total awe of God, and realised again how big and how awesome He is, how much more He is than just what we seem to limit Him to.

He's even bigger than that church too. That, I realised, is almost nothing compared to the glory and majesty of our Lord.

Yet we seem to want to shrink Him into i-jesus.

Time to get rid of i-jesus. Time to meet the real Jesus, who's power, teaching message and lifestyle is so much bigger than what we want it to be or than we can even imagine it to be.

Our God and our Saviour are awesome. It says dominion and awe belong to God, so lets give it to Him. With our attitudes, lifestyle, with our hearts and minds, our words and our choices. By the things we stand for and against.

Otherwise, how are we ever expected to recognise Jesus if he came back? And more importantly, how are people who don't beleive ever expected to see the real Jesus?

Becuase if Christians don't show people who He is, then who else is going to?