Late night, big picture.

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As I write this it’s 1.40am and I can’t sleep. So, as you do, I decided to do a little bit of light reading to while away the sleepless hours. In this case I read the jolly tale of bloodshed and genocide which is the book of Joshua.

Well, I actually only read the first two chapters. No bloodshed or genocide yet, but it’s clearly on its way.

There’s an awful lot of violent, nationalistic language here. You know, the type of thing regularly used to denounce the Bible and religion itself as backwards and a force for evil. There’s lots of talk of fighting and taking of land in God’s name. There’s talk of blood being shed and striking fear and dread into other nations. There’s talk of destroying kings. Lovely, lighthearted stuff for a late night, insomnia driven read.

Now, I’m no biblical historian. I am looking to do some theological training very soon, so I hope to put that right. However, it seems to me that this stuff, if looked at through the eyes of the readers it was aimed at rather than 21st Century eyes, would not appear in the least bit barbaric. I can’t say for certain, though, which is why I want to learn more.

However, it does look, when read as part of a much wider narrative, to be a bit easier to swallow than we may imagine.

“Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:7-9 NIV)

God’s promise to go with the Israelites relied on them following his law, living it every second of every day. Their success in battle, in winning land and nations, depends on their ability to live within God’s law as given to Moses. As time goes on, however, this changes from laying waste to other nations into prosperity and peace for themselves and between Israel and other nations. They move on, they grow up as they learn more and more about the very nature of God.

Finally, the law which they struggle so hard to live with, which is such an impossible burden for the Jews, is fulfilled in Jesus. In Jesus we finally go from conquering nations by force to conquering hearts with God’s grace. It’s no longer about a chosen people and military might, but God has fully revealed himself and shown that his Kingdom on earth is won by his word and people living under the new covenant. Hearts, minds and souls have become the objects to win for God, not military and political domination.

In God’s command to Joshua we see something which appears unpalatable to our eyes, but is near the start of a journey which sees him move his people away from the usual way of barbaric warfare to one where all people can be reconciled through him. It seems unpalatable to us because it’s unpalatable to God, but he’s moving his people forward, step by step, to peace, love and grace.

Sadly, this has been lost by many who feel that literal translation is the way to look at these things. Fundamental believers from Crusaders in the Middle Ages to many on the Christian Right in America (and a few in the UK too) seem to think that conquering military forces, destroying the bastions of “heathen” religions and setting up systems more acceptable to Christian (or a Western version of it) sensibilities.

On the flip side of the coin there are those who use verses like this to attack religion. They say that it demonstrates a bloodthirsty, psychopathic God and his sheep like followers being a danger to society as a whole and a cancer on the Earth.

Both of these views misrepresent the nature and law of God. They say that you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you’ve come from. That’s what stories like Joshua do, they show a developing understanding and relationship with God. They show the start of the revelation of his true nature, which points to and culminates in Jesus. They show our own journey from people lost and blind to those found and sighted by his amazing grace. They are just the beginning, not the whole story.

God’s story is far bigger than one moment in history. It’s far bigger than one book of the Bible. It’s bigger than the Bible itself. Unless we try to see as much of the story as we can we run the risk of reading individual parts badly wrong and acting in ways which he never means us to. But when we try to look at the bigger picture we are constantly amazed by his love and patience for us and for all of his people.

Lent – Good Friday: John 21

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You’ve been following a guy around for about three years, learning from him, eating with him, travelling with him. You gave up everything to follow him, put yourself in danger for him, saw him perform miracles you could never have imagined, heard him say things which changed lives all around you. You accepted him as the long awaited Messiah, God’s own son. You watched him arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, tried before those who wanted him dead and die a death he didn’t deserve. You also saw him again, miraculously raised to life, and worshipped him as you now, finally understood who he really was.

So, when you’re out fishing and he shouts to you from the shore, you’d recognise him.

Right?

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.” (John 21:4 NIV)

Oh, ok. Maybe not.

It’s not the only time this happened. When he encountered two followers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) they didn’t recognise him either. It took him breaking bread in front of them for them to realise.

So, if these people who spent time in his company when he was on Earth struggle to recognise him, what chance do we have? We encounter Jesus every day. Every single one of us, whether we realise it or not, whether we believe in him or not, encounter Jesus every day. It may be an opportunity which seems almost too good, it may be someone who unexpectedly comes to our aid, it may be the prick of conscience guiding us, it may be an opportunity to do good for others. We encounter Jesus every day.

But, so often, we don’t recognise him. We may be too wrapped up in ourselves, or in the world. It may be that we don’t want to recognise him, it would be an inconvenient truth which we wouldn’t want to handle. We may have a particular belief system which discounts the idea of Jesus. We may be expecting something more supernatural or spectacular. But it’s him, and we don’t recognise him.

The thing is, the signs are always there. He gave us the commands about loving each other. He gave us the teaching that, when we help others, we are helping the Father (Matthew 25). He gave us directions for our lives in the Sermon on the Mount, in his parables and in his actions. He told us that he would be with us, always, even to the end of the age. He told us where he would be and how to recognise him. It should be easy.

If you choose to ignore, disbelieve or mock, that’s entirely prerogative. But if you want life, love, fellowship, freedom and wisdom beyond anything this world has to offer then he simply has two words.

“Follow me.”

Lent Day 30: John 1-2

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I love science. I love the way it has unlocked so many of the mysteries of the world and the universe. I love the advances we have made in technology and medicine in order to improve people’s quality of life. I love the way it is constantly tested and challenged to ensure progress for correct theories and that wrong ones are stopped in their tracks. I love the fact that it is evidence based, constantly proving to us new ideas and discoveries and expanding the boundaries of human knowledge and achievement.

I don’t love the way that it has been set up as some sort of antidote to God, and vice versa.

I’ve always felt that science and “religion” (for want of a better word) are two sides of the same coin; science explaining how things are and religion explaining why things are. One is based on rigorous testing and evidence, the other on faith, interpretation and observation.

Science cannot explain what gives something beauty. Why a flower is pretty, a piece of music is exciting or a piece of writing so moving.

Today I have visited Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. It’s a reconstruction, opened in the 1990s, of what the original is believed to have looked like. It is a stunning wooden structure with an open, thatched roof and the most beautiful artwork on its permanent set. It has been put together because of a collective love of theatre, particularly the works of one man who wrote in the 16th and 17th centuries and whose plays transcend all others in the English language.

But what makes that so? Why do Shakespeare’s writings survive and thrive 400 years after his death? Why is he so revered?

The main reasons are, firstly, that his use of language is so wonderfully creative and beautiful. So many of his words are used in every day speech (see the picture at the top). He had a way of writing that brings joy, laughter, sadness, anger, fear, power, love and so many other emotions to life.

That’s part of the second reason, the way he is able to explain so much of the human condition through his writings. Whether it’s the hopeless love of Romeo and Juliet, self worshipping pride of Richard II, the descent into depression of Hamlet, the ruthless ambition of MacBeth or the patriotic heroism of Henry V, Shakespeare was able to show us everything as it was, allowing us to feel sympathy, even for characters who committed awful acts as he paints a vivid picture of what internal and external influences drive them.

But all of this is taken on trust. None of it can be repeated under laboratory conditions because we all react differently to each other to different events and we all react differently ourselves depending on our state of mind.

We simply can’t explain why something we see, hear or feel affects us in a certain way. We can explain, as I’ve attempted to do, why Shakespeare is so endearingly popular, but not why he is more so than other writers or why some don’t like his writing at all. Ultimately it’s down to something too intangible to fully explain.

That’s how I feel about faith, about God and why the start of John’s Gospel sums it up so perfectly for me. It is written in such beautiful language, explaining Jesus in a way which makes sense, but I actually can’t explain. I can explain how he brings light in the darkness, helping us to see the world as it really is. I can see how he was there at the beginning, as part of the creation of the Universe.

But I can’t explain how he is God and is in relationship with God. I can’t explain how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God, but are one being as well as three. I can’t explain how,

“Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (John 1:16 NIV)

I can’t explain it, but it makes sense to me. Even though I can’t quite make sense of it. In much the same way as Shakespeare explains humanity in a way in which I can explain by dissecting the words and actions, but can’t actually make sense of what that spark inside it all is which gives his writings such life, so the same is true of John’s writing. It is beautiful, moving and explains the nature of Jesus as divine perfectly, I just can’t tell you why that is.

And that is faith. It’s why faith and science are so different, but not incompatible. Some things defy explanation, because they just don’t need it. They simply are. They just make sense, and that’s all we need to know.

Lent Day 25: Luke 15-16

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There’s an old joke about a man during a flood. You may have heard it before, but it goes like this,

A man is sitting on his porch as flood waters rise. A woman floats by in a boat, asking if the man needs help. “No, thank you,” says the man, “I’m trusting in the Lord.” The waters rise higher, sending the man upstairs. A raft full of people floats by his second story window. “Get in,” they say, “there’s plenty of room.” “No thanks,” says the man, “I’m trusting in the Lord.” The flood waters keep rising, pushing the man up to the roof. A helicopter swoops in, lowering its ladder for the man. “Thanks anyway,” shouts the man, “I’m trusting in the Lord.” Finally, the man is swept away in the torrent and drowns. At the gates of Heaven, the man asks God, “Why didn’t you save me?” “What do you mean?” replies God, “I sent two boats and a helicopter.”

We are all looking for signs. It may be that you have a faith in God and the signs you are looking for are supernatural, like the man in the flood, when the solution is staring you right in the face.

It may be that you are an atheist or an agnostic. You don’t, or can’t believe, but if God were to show himself in some unmistakable way then you may rethink things.

You may want to believe, but can’t see past your own failings. You may think that you aren’t good enough, that if there was a God then he wouldn’t want a thing to do with you. You want something to show you that this isn’t true.

You may be the type of person who occasionally prays the, “if you let this happen/not happen then I’ll definitely go to Church every Sunday” prayer. Or the person who’ll visit church every Christmas and Easter, because it feels like the right thing to do, you just don’t know why.

We all want the big gesture. That large, unmissable “HERE I AM! I’M GOD!” Moment which will tell us all what to do.

We want a sign.

Thing is, we’ve had a sign. We’ve had loads of signs.

Jesus didn’t just work with the supernatural, healing by faith and making dinner for 5,000 out of a few fish and bits of bread. He also did the practical; feeding, teaching, comforting. Most of the time the answer to our prayers isn’t a bolt of lightning, but a person or an opportunity.

Jesus told us that nobody is too bad or wicked for God. Look at the Prodigal Son, working in the dirtiest, least sacred place a Jew could imagine after dishonouring his father and running off. Despite all of this, once he recognised where he’d gone wrong, the father welcomed him with a party. Our heavenly father will do the same for all of us.

We know that church is the place to be at Christmas and Easter because of why we celebrate them. The timings and some of the traditions may not come from Jesus, but the birth celebrations do. The celebration of the cross does. The celebration of new life does too. It’s all about Jesus and He is trying to tell us that.

As for needing God to actually come and show himself, otherwise there is no basis for belief in him, well,

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family,  for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’    
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’    
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’    
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:27-31 NIV)

Someone has risen from the dead, and still people don’t believe.

God has actually come and shown himself, and still people don’t believe.

We don’t need a sign. We don’t need ghosts coming back to tell us it’s all real. We don’t need God to walk the Earth. We don’t need the dead to rise again. It’s all happened.

We’ve had all the signs we need. We just need to learn how to follow them.

Lent Day 21: Luke 4-6

I got into a bit of an argument online recently (I wrote a bit about it earlier). I objected to an MP verbally abusing someone and it didn’t go down too well.

Two or three others, also Christians, came to my defence over the matter. All of my comments (I think) and theirs were reasonable, calm, without hatred and none of them mentioned God in any way.

However, we were all described as “religious haters”, hiding behind religion to mask our true natures. I was called a “mad Christian Socialist”, despite my faith and political beliefs not coming into the discussion at all.

How did it come to this? How are we at the point that having a belief in God marks you out as some sort of disaffected, angry mad man or woman? When did a belief in God become a weapon to use against you?

Well, around 2000 years ago, it seems. The reasons for doing it have changed, but the disdain has always been there.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:22 NIV)

Jesus knew this would happen to his followers and is very open about it from the start. In his time, and in many parts of the world today, this involves real persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death. There are places in this world where just owning a Bible carries a death sentence, converting to Christianity leads to honour killings and Christian gatherings take place in secret for fear of violent reprisals. It’s almost like things haven’t changed in 2000 years.

Here we are blessed. In the UK, and the rest of the western world, Christianity is the majority religion. We can meet, worship and share our faith openly. In some countries the Church still has a role in the affairs of state (not that I’m really happy with that, but that’s another matter). We are free.

But, we are ridiculed as an anachronism. Out of touch idiots who believe in a big sky fairy who tells us what we can and can’t do. A lot of people won’t or can’t take us seriously as people because of it. We must be weak or deluded or both. We cling to religion as a crutch or a way of justifying our prejudices and outdated values.

How has this happened? In a country where our education system, legal system, democracy, health care and so much more have been founded around Christian values, how are we seen as the bad guys?

“But woe to you who are rich,    for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24-26 NIV)

Why, if you live in one of the world’s richest countries, would you want to hear something like that? You’re well off, well fed, have many possessions, friends, influence within the world, so what’s there to be woeful about? You don’t need God to be telling you that! In fact, you don’t need God at all. You’re doing pretty nicely, thank you. You know best.

And that is why faith is ridiculed. That is also why Jesus said what he said. You are not going to experience pain and sadness because you have money, possessions and food, but you will because of the complacency they lead to. Life without God is, ultimately, empty. Once you start telling yourself that you know best, where do you stop? Who makes the rules, the boundaries? At what point do we go from living for others to living for our own selfish needs.

Just look at the way the vulnerable are viewed and treated today. Not as people needing help, but as people who are to be divided into the “deserving and undeserving”. Even worse, there is a default position that they are undeserving and need to prove otherwise. We jealously guard our resources from those who have little or none, unless we are forced, either emotionally or legally, to do otherwise.

The poor and hungry are blessed in spirit. It’s time the rich and well fed realise that and get closer to them, in order to get closer to God. The world is broken. We need to fix it.

I’m not a religious hater. I’m not mad and angry.

I am a Christian Socialist though, guilty as charged. And I’m not ashamed of it.