Wednesday, 23 November 2011

reasonable faith?

I'm currently in the process of writing a short talk on the title "The Bible: boring, irrelevant, untrue?" and while I don't in anyway think the answer to this is yes, I am writing a talk to challenge the ideas of those who might indeed think this. There could be several reasons for this, perhaps because their only experience of the Bible is through Church when they were very young and it all went a bit over their head, apart from the nice stories, but they aren't really true are they? Or because the only bits they know (the nice stories... I'm thinking Noah's ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, Mary riding on a donkey...) just don't seem to have any relevance to their life now. As I start to tackle these ideas I find it difficult to avoid the fact that although I might be able to satisfy someone's intellectual curiosity with regards the historicity of the Bible (or the NT at least... the modes of thinking in the OT are in some instances too far removed from our own "scientific" mindset as to make the question of historicity to some extent irrelevant) it is not really their intellectual curiosity that I'm concerned with. I'm concerned with presenting Christ to them and 10 mins barely seems long enough to get from how we can trust the Bible (a complicated question to address even when you're preaching to the converted) to the person of Christ without the audience having some prior concept of the relationship between Christ and Scripture (or between a man who lived 2000yrs ago and a book written by 40 different people over a millenium, which may included the story of Jesus, but includes an awful lot of other things as well) .

Anyone coming to such a talk is either a Christian, eager to learn for themselves or to discover how to combat the questions of their non-Christian friends, or someone interested in history for its own sake. It will be a very, very small minority who is there because they know what the Bible teaches and yet cannot quite make that final step to belief because they are uncertain of the trustworthiness/value of the text itself. And it will not be through the power of carefully reasoned argument that they are enabled to make that step. Those people who become Christians through apologetic talks are always those in whose hearts God is already at work.

The heart is the centre of our being in more ways than simply as the organ that keeps our blood flowing. The Bible frequently speaks of the heart as the root of human sinfulness. The people of Israel spend their time turning away from Yahweh, because their hearts are hard. That is why in Ezekiel 11:19 Yahweh saves them by giving them a new heart, and only by having a new heart will Israel follow the commands of Yahweh. Only by having a new heart will Israel see that it is reasonable and right to follow His commands. So the change of heart has to come first. I think this is why I have long had doubts about the reason Christians in certain circles are so keen on Apologetics, as it sometimes seems to rest on the belief that if we can persuade people of the reasonableness of Christianity, we can remove a barrier to faith. However, what this doesn't perceive is that Reason itself comes from faith, from the desires and focus of our hearts. Reason does not allow or create faith, it justifies it.

Let me offer an example (borrowed from this talk which was part of the inspiration for this post...: There are two Christian students, both lead busy lives and have a busy day ahead of them. When their alarm goes off the first student, lets call him John, decides that he really needs another hour sleep, and that if he has that then he will be better able to serve Christ for the rest of the day, even though that hour will mean he misses his quite time. The second student, Sally, feels just as tired as John, but gets up to spend some time alone with God before she gets on with her day, she knows that it is better to start her day in this way than to get an extra hours sleep even though she needs it. Both these students have reasons as to why they act the way they do, and they might both sound reasonable! But John's justification for staying in bed springs from a heart that loves sleep more than spending time with God, while Sally's justification springs from a heart that loves God more than sleep.

My point is not that we should sleep less and pray more (though there are times when I for one need to do that) but that both Sally and John's reasons for acting as they did were reasonable, but the desires of their hearts were very different. Each of them used their Reason to justify, and their Will to act upon the desires of their hearts. The same is true of the difference between Christians and non-Christians, it is not that one is irrational and the other reasonable (though you would be forgiven for thinking that if you have heard any of the debates between prominent atheists and apologetic Christians...), but that for Christians the desires of our hearts is Christ Jesus, and our Reason can demonstrate the reasonableness of our faith to us, while for the atheist, their hearts do not desire Christ but hate Him, and their Reason can demonstrate the reasonableness of their stance to them. For the Christian, faith is rational and unbelief irrational, while for the non-Christian the opposite is true, because Reason is in slavery to the desires of our hearts. I cannot persuade someone purely by rational argument, to become a Christian. God has to change their hearts. What converts people is not a rational understanding of who Jesus is, for even the devil knows that, but a relationship with Him, brought about through the Spirit's work in our hearts.

What then is the place of apologetics? Clearly I am not seeking to convert people by my reasons for why we can trust the Bible as history, largely because to those who cannot hear the voice of God in Scripture my reasons may well be insufficient. My aim instead must be to introduce them to Christ, who can change their hearts. Even though Reason is enslaved to the desires of our hearts, the world cannot see that, and so presenting reasoned argument does perhaps have a place in the attempt to demonstrate that Reason itself cannot be a sure basis for belief, but rather belief in Christ is the proper foundation for Reason. C S Lewis puts it beautifully when he says "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else". Faith is not based on Reason but on a relationship. Only a living relationship with Christ can allow us to see everything as it is, and from that viewpoint Christian faith is reasonable, because Christ is the desire of our hearts.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

the Life of the Church

When moving to a new place, one of the things which must be considered is where to go to Church. I say must be considered, although it is arguably a symptom of our society's high estimation of "choice" that we think it necessary to "choose a church". Things to consider might be denomination, whether there's a band, the friendliness of the people, the soundness of the teaching, whether there is liturgy, I could go on...  I didn't particularly think through my choice of church when I went to university. A church was recommended, I went, I liked it, I stayed, and I had a good time there; the teaching was generally good, there were lots of people there with whom I got on very well, and I built some solid relationships with people who were willing to challenge my preconceptions and push me to really think some important questions through. Reflecting on my time there, I know that God was at work in my life, and that he used various people in the Church to carry out the work of admonition and instruction, we shared lives and pointed each other to Christ.

The one thing which I have since begun to question about this particular church's practice, was the lack of much liturgy, and the relatively infrequent celebration of the Eucharist. This is not something which is unique to that church of course; earlier today I was chatting with a Christian friend, who aged 23, has been a Christian all her life and yet has never heard the creed. I nearly dropped my LeCreuset dish, which I was in the process of washing up... Having been raised in the Church of England, I always find it slightly bewildering that church can exist without a regular proclamation of our faith. My experience has been that in churches that do not use the creed regularly, the preaching very often contains a "gospel message", so it is not as though the central beliefs are not being spoken/heard. The major difference is that the proclamation of the creed is a corporate proclamation of faith, in a way that a preached message never can be, whether because it is only from the mouth of one man, or because some of the congregation are not fully engaged. That the value of corporate proclamation is increasingly unrecognised says something about the changing way that Church is understood in certain circles. The creed gives the Church, every individual united together, an ownership of her faith, and a more radical picture of unity. The same is true of the Eucharist, because here the whole Church meets together at the table of our Lord, thus united in the taking of the bread and wine, being renewed together as we remember the presence of Christ with us.

Both the Creed and the Eucharist are acts of remembrance, but they are only properly experience if we understand what the Scriptural understanding of memory is. Modern culture seems to understand memory as thinking about something from the past, a nostalgic dwelling on things past. However, Scripture has a much higher view of the necessity of memory, using Alan Roxburgh's phrase "In Scripture, memory is what the skeleton is to the body - without it, all collapses into an insubstantial mess." (see his book "The Missional Church"). It is memories and the rehearing of those memories that gives Israel her very existence. It is clear that Israel's memory is not something confined to the past, about which to be nostalgic and get a warm fuzzy feeling, rather it lives in the present, through the act of Israel's remembrance (though also without it - they are no less God's people when they forget what he has done for them than when they remember - what grace!). The same is true of the Church. Our story is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of His life onto his people through the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the centre of Christian worship, not because it is an act of remembrance of something which has brought us a great deal of good, but because it is a re-living of the life of Christ, it is remembering that makes the past present and allows it to influence the future. When Jesus says "do this in remembrance of me" he is not asking his disciples to be nostalgic about a time gone by, but to relive His story, and allow his life to shape and renew them once again.

As Christians we have the delight of a relationship with God, one which is made possible through the Presence of the Living Lord in our lives individually, but most truly in the Life of the Church. This is why the Church remembers Her story through the creed, through proclamation of Scripture and through the Eucharist, the story that gives her life and identity as the People of God and the Body of Christ. Church is the place where we can meet Christ united as His body, rather than as individuals. Church should be centred on the person of Christ, meeting with Him at His Table, as the Church relives the story that gives Her life.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

at home in his presence

I have been thinking a lot recently about Home. This is probably something to do with the fact that whenever someone asks me where I'm from, I usually have to pause to consider the question. Another way people ask is to say "where is home?", but this doesn't really make answering much easier. Over my 21 years I have lived in five different places, for different lengths of time and for different reasons. If by home, they mean the place I currently live, then the answer is easy; Hatfield. However, this is not what I really associate with the idea of a home. More usually people are inquiring as to my background, my roots, but again there is no simple answer. Born in Cottingley, I lived there til the age of 6, when my family moved to Bristol. Two years later we returned to Yorkshire, this time to Pudsey, and when I was eleven we changed our allegiance and crossed the border to the county of the red rose.  Usually, this is slightly more information than the casual inquirer really wants, so I usually go for the abbreviated version of "Well I was born in Yorkshire, but have lived in Lancashire for the last 10 years". Of the two I am possibly slightly more attached to Lancashire, but this is probably largely because I can remember far more of my life there! I sometimes throw my three years living in Oxford into the equation just to stop myself sounding like a stuck record (a danger when you are in a new place and meeting new people fairly frequently...).

Of course, my answer reflects something of what I assume people mean by "home". I usually refer to places, rather than people, which on reflection seems ridiculous, because actually what tends to constitute "home" is the place you feel most secure, most loved, and the place where the people you love most are. It is indisputable that we also attach a reasonable amount of significance to people, as well as to place, but it seems that I am less likely to think of home without reference to a place as well as the people there. My parents and three of my siblings recently emigrated to New Zealand, a place where I have never lived, indeed I haven't even yet been to visit them there (11,600km is not a distance that can be traveled every weekend), so although I know that I will always "have a home there", I have yet to refer to it as Home, when asked where I'm from. That said, if pushed to give a definite, short answer to where my earthly home is, I would have to say "with my family"; no matter how little I see them, or how far away they are, their home is still the place I feel most at home. I can know that without actually going there (though I am impatient for when I do!) because I know and love the people there.

Many people in our society seem unanchored and unsettled. We find it disturbing that the places we once thought of as home, can change completely after we leave, and a lot of time a energy is spent trying to create the illusive perfect home. All this suggests that the world is not how it was meant to be and that there is a, often unheeded, awareness of this; that we can attach such importance to the idea of home and yet it can still seem so elusive demonstrates its importance. One thing that I have been challenged to think more on since my family moved, is what home actually is for me, and the importance of the fact that my eternal home is not here. We can return to the places we used to live on this earth and when we do we discover that they are no longer our home, the place "remembers [us] no more" (Psalm 103:15-6) and eventually it will be as though we had never been there. There is nothing permanent about our home on this earth, yet home is a secure thing, a permanent thing. If it is not here, it must be with our eternal Father. For even though I may feel at home with my family, the home I have with them can only ever be a poor reflection of the Home, which Christ has prepared for us. Pinned on my wall, just in front of me as I write this, I have a "Green card", given to me when I left university and my previous church for "the big wide world", which is a small green piece of card with Philippians 3:20-1 on it, reminding me that my "citizenship is in heaven". This carries both great comfort and great challenge.

There is comfort, for God wants us to know that no matter how uncertain we are about where we're from, or where our earthly home is, we have the certainty of a home in heaven, indeed we are already citizens of that great country, and one day we will be brought there, to dwell forever in the presence of God.  But Heaven (the new heaven and new earth), which is so much more than a "nice feeling" or even a "sense of belonging", but is a renewed creation, is the place which will never forget, because God has promised to be with us "from everlasting to everlasting". It is a place, a city, a land, that will never change and which God's presence will never leave. There is also a challenge, for we can very easily feel very "at home" in this world, and while the homes that we have with our families are a great blessing, they are only ever a reflection of our eternal home. This world is not how God intended it to be, it is a world that has largely forgotten that God once walked in the garden in the cool of the day. It is only by His mercy that we can still experience something of what home means, experience the presence of God in the midst of our lives, in the midst of a world which does not know Him.

How then do we know that this world is not our home, and that heaven is? Just as I know that I have a home with my family, wherever they might be living, because I know them and have already tasted what home with them is like. It is just the same with our eternal home. We can be certain of it, because we have already tasted it, God by his mercy dwells in the hearts of those who believe by the Spirit, those who have become part of the Body of Christ, the children of God. So we experience the presence of God through Scripture, through fellowship with our brothers and sisters, through dining with Him at the Eucharist, through prayer and living our lives with Him, who is our life. The Church is a taste of Heaven, because it is the people of God living in the presence of God, and if she does that faithfully then she will be a light to the nations, so that all may be drawn to the throne of God, their eternal home.

Friday, 30 September 2011

patience is a virtue: learning to "wait well"

I have recently discovered that, somewhat to my surprise, I am not a particularly patient person. Perhaps this comes as a surprise because I have always been perfectly content to wait for things like Christmas and birthdays (which is a mercy, considering that these two events fall within 8 days of each other...), with very little of the "I can't wait for...", which is so often heard on the lips of children, and indeed, adults! (I'm sure my estimable father will correct me if my memory is faulty at this point!) If it ever was heard, it would have been swiftly met with the instruction to "stop wishing your life away!"

Several things have started me thinking about what it really means to be patient, and how we might "wait well", particularly when it is God we are waiting for. The first was my own experience of waiting to see how God would provide for me while I'm on Relay (a discipleship and training program, which involves working with students and is run by UCCF: The Christian Unions). It is at this point that it is clear that waiting and trusting are very closely tied together. Perhaps I always found it easy to wait for Christmas and Birthdays because I always 'trusted' that they wouldn't fail to come around eventually! Whereas, while on Relay, even though it is something which I very much believe God has called me to, I find it so easy to forget the words of our Lord and give ourselves over to worrying, which will not achieve anything other than to make the waiting for God's gracious provision even harder! Clearly worry should never play a part in "waiting well".

Another thing which has continued my musing over "how to wait" is the story of Anna (Luke 2:36-38). This little gem is easy to miss in the great sweep of the infancy narrative, but there is a great challenge posed here by Anna's way of waiting. She has been widowed, probably since about the age of 20, and has spent the last 60 years of her life in the Temple, worshiping God. Finally when she is 84, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple and Anna knows who this child is, she praises God and speaks about the child to all those waiting for Jerusalem's redemption. This is what Anna has been waiting for, but she has not been idle as she waits, she has not been "wishing her life away", though surely the longing for this moment must have been strong. Instead she has spent 60years investing in the best relationship of all. That she has spent her time worshiping God, night and day demonstrates her trust in His faithfulness to his promises. She "waited well" for 60years. How humbling to think on, when I feel like I'm doing well after only a few weeks, if I'm waiting for something which I trust will happen but know neither when nor how! From Anna we can see an example of how to "wait well" for our eternal home; by spending every minute of every day, delighting in the presence of God. No small task, but a life-giving pursuit and it ends in the coming of the one who is Life.

My final thoughts came about as I finished working my way through Exodus. My initial thought is that the Israelites were rubbish at waiting! For anything really, as is demonstrated by their continual moaning and complaining, and most starkly, by their hurry to make the golden calf when Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai. So a failure to wait, impatience, is characterised by a lack of worship of the Living God and a consequent seeking of something else to worship. Idolatry is what results when we do not "wait well", when we fail to trust God, despite what we have already seen of his power to fulfill his promises and rescue his people. The second thought that came to me, as I was ploughing through the 15 chapters of instructions on how to construct the Tabernacle, was that this was not a fast process (neither is reading it!), and that it was a very active form of waiting. As they build the Tabernacle and follow the instructions on priestly garments and washing practices, the Israelites are preparing for the presence of the Lord to dwell among them. In a sense the Lord is already with them - He has been throughout Exodus, guarding and guiding His people by His very presence. Yet they are preparing a place for Him, a specific dwelling. So too as we are waiting, already in the presence of God in Christ, we are preparing for His future coming, and the final revelation of his glory, just as the Israelites waited and prepared so carefully for the Presence of the Lord dwelling in the Tabernacle, a cloud by day, and a burning fire by night.

And so we live each day in His Presence, like Anna and the Israelites, waiting and preparing through worship (that is, following the call of Christ) for the final coming of our Lord, when He comes to dwell forever with His people.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

reading the Bible for all it's worth

(with apologies to Gordon Fee, the title of whose book was something of an inspiration to this comment!)

I've been challenged over this last summer on my approach to the Bible. I don't think my understanding is in any sense complete, nor my new approach at all perfect, but I hope it will help me to see more clearly, and know more dearly!

Without a doubt before this summer I would have subscribed whole-heartedly to the view that the Bible is God's Word, inspired by the Spirit and a way in which God can work in our lives, speaking directly to us. However, none of this seemed to match my somewhat sporadic efforts to actually read it, to sit at God's feet and hear from him in this very particular way. What was perhaps more of a problem was the fact that this never really concerned me, it would go well for a month or so (normally following a summer of Keswick Convention and CYFA camps as I was fueled by the experience of being built up, surrounded by other Christians and fired up by passionate talks... there's a lot I could say about this but I'll leave it for the moment...) but then there would be long gaps, with half-hearted attempts to use Bible notes or some other aid.

From surveying my own experience of reading the Bible, I can see a scattering of failed attempts and all the approaches which simply did not work for me. (As I write this I can hear certain people thinking "well there's your problem right there...'for me'" and yes I know, but do let me finish) That in itself was enough to tell me that something wasn't right, but I still couldn't understand what that was - no-one else seemed to have the same problem! Then I began to be introduced to a new (or very old) idea. That the Bible, as God's word to us, is actually God speaking to us, here and now, as well as his words to the people of Israel so many centuries ago. Barth puts it beautifully when he seeks to "hear the Word within the words", coming to scripture to hear from God and being faced with God himself.

A new approach was suggested to me when on team day a couple of weeks ago, we spent just over a day reading through the book of Luke out loud - and not like in (some) church(es) where one person reads and everyone else sticks their noses in their own Bible (I have always been awful at reading ahead while someone else is reading out loud and consequently not paying enough attention to either the person reading or my own skimming...) - instead we took it in turns to, in pairs, do a "dramatic reading" of a few chapters at a time. It was an amazing experience, and I heard the gospel of Luke more clearly than I ever have before - I highly recommend it!

Since then I have also read an article (found here challenging people to just read their Bibles through, as though they were reading an ordinary book (which for me means curling up with it for several hours at a time, devouring the story). The joy of this is that it gives us the big picture - by immersing us in it! I started a couple of days ago and I'm now half way through Exodus, sinking myself into the story. There is a certain joy in losing yourself in the story in this way - and I really mean losing yourself - this is not an exercise which invites self reflection as such, but rather immerses us in the out-workings of God's mission to the world, first through Israel, then through Christ and the church.

I hope to finish this read through by Christmas (so feel free to ask me how that's going!) and I hope that I will come to understand on a far bigger scale what God has done and what he is now doing... I do not know my Bible even half as well as I would like to, (and probably far less well than might be expected after three years of theology...), and what knowledge I have is largely fragmentary, what better way to put it all into the big picture an learn ever more of our gracious creator God?


I was particularly challenged by a talk which I discovered on my iTunes (and I genuinely can't remember  where it came from, but it seems appropriate that I found it now!) on the reasons Christians read their Bibles poorly by Gordon Fee (not free I'm afraid, but good nevertheless...!)