Saturday, 29 January 2011

It's Not You It's Me

Page 38 of this week's Eastbourne Herald features a picture of me. At least I think it's me, it could have been. I'm sure it is. If you squint, turn the page 45degrees and go cross eyed you can just about make it out, it's me talking to a group of school kids. I'm famous; at least in the visually impaired community anyway.

I was speaking to a class of secondary school kids about what Christians believe.
It was part of series the school has been running on the religious diversity in Eastbourne. The class had had representatives from the pagan community, Islamic group and Mormon religion and I was there to be the Christian (which is strange because I used to hate the Christians who came into my school to do that - now I'm one of them; I never saw that coming!)

To get them thinking I asked them the question 'what's wrong with the world?' Pollution, terrorism, drugs, war, gang culture... the list went on. Interestingly, none of them said 'nothing' and I can understand why. I think we're all convinced that there's plenty that needs to be done to fix our planet, something's not quite right.

I was trying to explain the concept of sin which is a hugely unpopular (and misunderstood) idea and one that at its mere mention sends people into shut down and switch off mode: outdated, medieval, guilt-inducing, moral bashing are just some of the things that spring to a lot of people's minds when they see that word. 'Christians talk about sin in order to try to make people feel bad' is often what people think.

Interestingly a lot of people think that sin is simply about 'doing wrong things' like not doing the dishes when your mum asks you to, or looking at Heat magazine when you should be reading Shakespeare, that kind of thing. But that doesn't go anywhere near far enough to reach a thorough understanding of why 'sin' is significant to the question 'what's wrong with the world?'

You see the stuff that's wrong with the world is the stuff that the Bible means when it talks about sin. It's the real underlying cause of every evil.

War, genocide, gang-culture, drug abuse, a collapsing economy, broken homes are the saplings and in some cases full grown trees that grow out of the soil that is sin. Rather like how an apple is the fruit of an apple tree, evil is the fruit of the tree that is sin. Sin is the ingrained 'me-centered' life that motivates so much of my day to day existence. It's in all of us and in my opinion it's what's wrong with the world. If you were to divide the world into 'good' and 'evil' I think you'd find that the line runs right down the middle of your own soul, at least it does mine.

All I'm saying is that the reason Christians talk about sin is because we want to answer the question 'what's wrong with the world?' and we think it isn't enough to say 'other people are'.

The heart of the human problem is the problem with the human heart, my heart included.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Stationary Bike of Progress

Life is a stationary bike and each generation gets on it, pedals as hard as they can until they die and fall off and then, the next generation gets on and says, “Well, they didn’t make it, but we’re going somewhere.”

The myth of progress and generational amnesia.
We still all act like the myth is true and we still all suffer from the disease.

Frankly I'm embarrassed by how little I know about history even recent history, my own country and even my own family. It's as if I think to myself 'I wasn't alive so it can't have been that important...honestly.' So many people find it difficult to get along with the older generation. Why would we be interested in a time before our one? If we're honest I think that on some level we're embarrassed by their ideas. Their outlook on the world seemed so terribly shallow and naive compared to ours. We've got the internet.

Not once does it occur to us that maybe our grandkids will be saying the same things about us in fifty years. 'Ah but we're different,' we say 'We've shaken off the shackles of the past, we're liberal, we're free thinkers, we're post-modern, we're... just as naive as they were.'

'Not even God could sink this ship.' Employee of the White Star Line at the launch of the Titanic May 31, 1911

We are still living within a generation of World War II. We're connected to the war by the people who are still alive who fought in it but we don't listen to them very much, we don't make room for them, I rarely think to ask them about it, to learn, to receive the wisdom of history. We've moved on, the world's changed - we've walked on the moon now.

We revere the young and we pour scorn on the old. Our heroes are the beautiful and the artistic not the noble and courageous. If a person can sing and dance well then they are worthy of international acclaim or if someone appears on our television screen we turn them into a national symbol and we go weak at the knees when they walk into a room. We call people 'great' without really knowing what the word means, we cheapen it when we use it for rock stars and game show hosts. We are great believers in 'learning the lessons of the past' but we have become so charmed by the present that we think that history is of very little concern to us. The strange thing is that we are connected to the past and to the people who lived then more than we understand. The DNA in our body, our mannerisms, our habits, we really aren't all that different from the people who lived 500 years ago.

'Why should I care what the war-generation have to say, Cheryl Cole is singing on TV/Frank Lampard's love life is in the news/Coleen Rooney's new perfume's available to buy.'

I write this as a record to myself to read over again next January. I want to remind myself not to fall into the abyss of the present.

My dad was passionate about history, he seemed to know the answer to every question I could ask him. From Nelson and Waterloo to the Battle of Hastings or Agincourt, he had read it, reflected on it and put it into the file of who he was. As I see it I owe it to Riley not to allow him to think that 2010 onwards was a unique period in Earth's history. Life exists outside of us, the world carries on with or without us. We need to be cured of our incessant narcissism, the 'into-me' disease since we're all so 'into-me'. We rarely think to look too far outside of ourselves for answers. This needs to change.

By the way, when I say 'we' I mean 'me'.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Grace and the man seeking God

'Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God seeking man.' - Martyn Lloyd Jones

I saw this recently on Twitter. It's good since it sums up the main difference between Christianity and all the other religions of the world.

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There is a famous anecdote that has been told in numerous books about C.S. Lewis entering into a debate of faculty members at Cambridge University where he used to teach. They were discussing with much difference of opinion the aspects of Christianity that made it unique from all the other world faiths. "That's easy," said Lewis, "Grace."

Grace is a small word and a much misunderstood word, but a word with big meaning. What he meant by grace wasn't a girls name, or the prayer of gratitude we say around meal times. Grace is the message of the Bible, it's the idea that God, a good, holy, sovereign and perfect God chooses to not only forgive but to be kind to people who are rebellious, hard-hearted and anti-God. Grace is God showering rebels with favour.

The things is, our best efforts of God-seeking fall far short of his glory. In the same way that a toddler's attempt to paint a landscape fails to capture any of the actual likeness, so our religiosity and goodness do God a terribly disservice.

Some people try really hard to keep rules, adhere to traditions and make all kinds of resolutions. Those people need to hear the truth behind the opening quote. In Christianity we see God seeking us out. God draws near to us just as we are with all of our shortcomings. Since none of our goodness is ever good enough, we have to hear this, we need this to be true.

Other people think that they are so far beyond the pale, their lives so screwed up, their heads so messed up that God would want nothing to do with them, that the church is no place for them to be found. They need to get to grips with grace. Grace is getting what we don't deserve. Grace is unreasonable and grace goes against every human instinct to want to earn our way into happiness or favour. Grace is God saying through the sacrificial death of his son - I love you I choose you I like you. Grace is God saying 'you are welcome to come near.'

People need to hear this. Religion doesn't work, grace does. Religion can't help you, Jesus can. Living to impress God and working hard to be loved by him, misses the point.

God is seeking you out because he loves you and wants relationship with you period.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Flapping arms can't grab a lifebelt

Riley woke up a few moments ago screaming. I went upstairs and picked him up. I kissed him and whispered "it's ok, it's ok, daddy's here, it's ok." How did he respond? He went on screaming, louder and louder. Ear-piercing and then some.

Amy came up and together we reassured him kissing him, loving him. No change. He just carried on screaming. It reminded me of something. Sometimes when we're scared or confused we can't hear the reassuring voices around us through the sound of our proverbial screaming. We feel like people aren't listening and we don't think there's any comfort or hand of reassurance around us.

When C.S. Lewis's wife died he found himself in a deep state of despair, his faith seemed to desert him. A Christian author, speaker and guide to thousands he found himself alone and unsure of the faith he preached to others. 'Where was God' he asked? Where was the comfort he had hoped his faith would bring him? Was God tormenting him? He felt abandoned by the God who'd said he would never leave him nor reject him.

Fear, grief and unexpected turns in life among other things can do this to us. Challenges we've never faced before seem insurmountable and we can be tempted to give in. We lie awake and allow the cold sweat of fear to take control. The Bible's book of Mark records an occasion when Jesus' followers were out at sea and were caught in the midst of a great storm. Jesus was asleep in the hull of the ship but was awoken by a desperate fishermen yelling at him "Jesus! Don't you care that we're going to drown?!" It's a natural response. The trouble was however that they'd forgotten who Jesus was, what he was capable of. They abandoned their trust in him for panic in the moment.

Looking back on his grief after months of questioning and wrestling C.S. Lewis remarked that he was like a drowning man too busy flapping his arms about him that he didn't notice the lifebelt he'd been thrown.

If only Riley stopped his screaming and opened his eyes he'd have seen two doting parents committed to doing whatever they could to relieve his discomfort and if only the disciples had stopped responding to the storm and responded instead to the man inside the boat.

When fear grips us by the throat and threatens to suffocate us and when a challenge saps us of all our strength and we're anxious about the outcome of events, we need to take some time out and remind ourselves of who loves us and who's in the boat with us. The Bible says 'cast all of your worries onto God for he cares for you.'

Worry doesn't disappear unless we off load it onto someone else and who better to dump it on than the one who cares for us more than we could know? Back-up the dumper truck full of your concerns and empty it over and over and over again. Stop flapping around, stop screaming, stop panicking and remind yourself "he loves me, he cares for, he knows what he's doing."