Why I want to be an extremist and a fundamentalist

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Extremist = bad

Fundamentalist = bad

Moderate = good

These three things are held true by most people when it comes to religion. The extremist kills, the fundamentalist hates and the moderate is nice and warm and fluffy.

So, why do I want to be an extremist? Why do I want to be a fundamentalist? Why do I want to be anything other than moderate?

Look at the definitions at the top. Look at what extreme and fundamental actually mean. Think about how that would apply to Christianity, based on its central message.

Does rejecting people because of their lifestyle sound like something which forms the central core of Jesus’ teachings? Or does calling them to follow him, dining with them, talking with them and loving them sound more like it?

Does taking the lives of people for their sins sound like Jesus? Or does telling them to “go and sin no more” strike you as more fundamental to his way?

Does the pursuit of wealth for the few come across as an extreme example of Christian teaching? Or does selling everything and giving the money to the poor fit the bill?

Does a love of Queen and country seem like the central tenet for us to hold onto? Or does the seeking of God’s Kingdom over all earthly kingdoms sound like our main aim?

Does a rejection of people based on race, colour or creed sound like a divine calling? Or do you think that welcoming strangers and making disciples of all nations is the thing we are called to do instead?

Extreme love.

Extreme grace.

Extreme forgiveness.

Extreme acceptance.

Extreme devotion to God.

Extreme sacrifice.

Extreme peace.

Extreme generosity.

Extreme service of others.

Extreme life.

These, as the result of Jesus’ teachings and his sacrifice, allowing the Kingdom of God to break into this world, are the fundamentals of Christianity.

This is what true Christian extremism and fundamentalism looks like, not the false gods of the religious right in America or similar noisy factions throughout the world.

They are extreme, but not extremes of Jesus’ way.

They aren’t fundamental, but are quite the opposite as they twist and distort the truth.

And what of the “moderates”? What of the Christians who are “average in amount, intensity or degree”? Who actually wants to be one of those?

Is feeding the poor ‘average’?

Is worshipping a God that most people in the West don’t believe in ‘average’?

Is visiting the prisoner, or the sick, or the grieving, or the lonely, even though you don’t know the person ‘average’?

Is worshipping and praying with and for refugees who nobody seems to want ‘average’?

Is proclaiming your faith in the face of oppression, as many around the world have done, ‘average’?

Is speaking words of forgiveness, then singing songs of worship before being decapitated by masked men on a beach ‘average’ or ‘moderate’?

No. This is extremism and fundamentalism at its purest and most beautiful.

A quote has been posted on social media a lot recently. It says ‘If your fundamentalists are bad, there’s something wrong with your fundamentals’. I believe the fundamentals of Jesus were everything which is good. I believe that when you look at Jesus you see what an extremist, what a fundamentalist should look like.

It’s time we looked like that as well and took back those two terms to show what they can and do really mean.

 

 

Different paths, same aim

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Earlier in the week, my wife and I took a trip to St Mungos Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow. It was chock full of religious imagery, artefacts and ritualistic objects from all kinds of faiths and from all over the world. They ranged from the painting above (“Crucifixion” by Peter Howson – 2010) and similar images depicting familiar views of Christianity to a bronze statue of the Hindu deity Shiva,

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a painting of the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak

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and a depiction of the holiest site in Islam, the Ka’aba in Mecca.

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The museum was a very still, quiet and moving place, full of the reverence which each of these and many more artefacts bring with them. They served as a reminder of the search that the human race has had for a higher power ever since we first climbed out of the trees (*dons tin helmet at the mention of evolution*).

Many of these religions and faiths grew totally independently of each other throughout the world. Some no longer exist, such as the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, while others, like Islam and Christianity, continue to grow and thrive. All, however, centre around an innate need within all of us to find meaning in our existence; some kind of order, purpose and aim in life. The fact that so many civilisations have focused on this idea of a god or gods speaks volumes to me. Where did the idea come from? Why the concept of a god or a group of deities? I could understand this being a purely human construct if it all came from one origin, but it appears that people have worshipped a god of some sort in every part of the world without any outside influence. It is a natural, divine urge to connect with the higher power who created the heavens and the earth.

I’m a Christian, so central to my belief is this one verse from John’s Gospel,

“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” (John‬ ‭14‬:‭6‬ NIVUK)

I believe that Jesus is the way to God. However, the fact is that billions around the world, both today and through the ages, have sought and are seeking God. I feel that this need to connect with God is the most powerful thing a person can experience and that, however we chose to do so, we must learn about and from other faiths and learn to respect and understand their beliefs. Our aim is the same, after all, to know and grow close to our creator. The one who made and knows each of us and left a desire to know him buried in our very being.

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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 31: John 3-4

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“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)

When I was really young I used to see people holding the John 3:16 posters up at sports events on the TV and wonder why. I couldn’t understand what it was all about partly because I had virtually no biblical knowledge, partly because I didn’t see why one verse was so important amongst so many and partly because I couldn’t understand the point in holding that up without the words of the verse being with it.

I still don’t really get how it’s meant to achieve anything, to be honest. Following Jesus is all about relationships. Relationships with other followers, with people who aren’t and with Jesus himself. I don’t see how holding up a piece of card with one word and two numbers on it from, often, a foreign country, with no chance of building that relationship is going to have much, if any effect.

I also don’t see how quoting it out of context is going to do any good. What does it actually mean in practice? Who is God’s son, really? Who is God? How does he give us eternal life? What does it even mean? We need to go beyond one verse to even get close to answering those.

However, if you asked people to quote you a Bible verse, the chances are that they would quote you this one (or “Jesus wept”, which comes a bit later). This means that, despite whatever the poster bearer’s intentions, this is a great conversation point. What does John 3:16 actually mean? And why is it so famous?

The fact is that it’s the verse used by remote, faceless evangelists because, more than any other verse, it sums up why Jesus came. He came because God, the Father, loves us. Not because he wanted to judge us or punish us, but as an act of love.

He came because God gave him up. He gave him up to us as a gift of love so that we can learn from him about life, about love for him and for each other and about God’s kingdom. He also gave him up to death. I once took part in a Church music as l called “A Man Born To Die”, which describes Jesus well. His teachings were important, but his death and subsequent resurrection are what leads to the final part of the verse.

Eternal life is a tough concept. I don’t know what it looks like, but then, I don’t want to. Not yet. I want it to remain a mystery, a surprise, if I get it. I do know that Jesus overcame all of the wrong things we’ve done by dying, as sin is what really kills us spiritually, and by coming back to life. This is how he gave us eternal life, I just can’t explain how it means. I tried him that it’s worth it, though.

And that’s the point. Whoever believes in him gets it. When Jesus speaks of belief here he means that we trust what he says and follow him. Simple as that. It’s not about having a rigid set of rules and regulations. It’s not about ritual, avoiding doing certain things at certain times and doing others on a regular basis. It’s about listening to what he teaches us, trusting that he is the way to go and following him. It’s about helping others along the way; loving them, guiding them, comforting them, feeding them, sharing everything with them. It’s about life.

What it’s not about is religion. I try to avoid the word because it has so many negative connotations, and rightly so. Religion is a system of rules, a system of control, a system of separation and segregation. Religion is man-made and has been used as the justification of so many bad things throughout history. I mean, read the Bible itself! There are enough examples there of how religion has been used to justify evil, including Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus didn’t come to found a religion. He came to give us life. To show us the way to live, fully, eternally. He came to help us to break free from the control that those in power have over our hearts, minds and souls and to show us how to love each other and him so that we can truly live. Believing in him means all of this and more. Not control, not religion, not rigid rules, not condemnation, but love and life.

Who wouldn’t want to believe in that?

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 16: Mark 7-9

The other day I was watching football on the telly. It was Manchester United v Liverpool, a game which, for Liverpool fans like myself, is one of the biggest games of the year. For the first time in years Liverpool went into the game ahead of United in the league. Not just ahead, but a massive 11 points clear and as the form team in the country. Pundits were queuing up to predict a comfortable Liverpool win, despite the fact that they hadn’t won away against United in five years.

And yet, I was pessimistic. I could see that form counts for very little in games like this. I envisaged United suddenly turning their season around and coming good with a big win. I could see a nightmare for Liverpool.

Then, my kids pointed out that I always do this. I always look pessimistically on situations (unlike the tablet I’m typing this on, which just tried autocorrecting “pessimistically” to “optimistically”!). I’m always being all doom and gloom and never believing that the best will happen.

It’s true. I think it’s partly to soften the blow of any potential disappointment, but I do this a lot. Not just with football, but with life in general. I wonder if “Murphy’s Law” could be renamed after me sometimes, as I seem to believe so strongly in it.

Then I read these wordsand see, not only myself, but also Jesus’ answer to me.

“Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”    “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:21-24 NIV)

The boy’s father asks Jesus to help him overcome his unbelief. This is what I need, too. I need Jesus to help me overcome my pessimism and believe that things can and will turn out for the best. Even if it seems that it actually has gone wrong, I need to believe that He will make something wonderful out of the ruins.

He does it all the time. He takes broken situations, broken people, broken lives and makes the most wonderful image of humanity, love, compassion, sharing and giving that you can imagine. He has done it with me, and many others I know, so many times in the past that I have no excuse for any unbelief. As he says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”.

As usual, I was wrong in my pessimism about the football. Liverpool won 3-0 and, frankly, it could have been more. They put in a fantastic performance which United were blown away by.

More importantly, though, God constantly puts in a fantastic performance which we are blown away by. He always comes through, in the end. We just need to believe.

With God you’ll never walk alone.

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Lent Day 12: Matthew 25-26

I’ll be honest, this is really more about Matthew 26 than 25.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells parables regarding preparation for him coming again, which was the topic of my last post. The end of Matthew 25 I covered in this post from January.

Matthew 26, however, covers the start of the fulfilment of Jesus’ mission. He has spent his time teaching and preparing his followers for this time and beyond. Now, it’s here.

It’s characterised by the contrasting reactions of the protagonists and antagonists of the story.

The Pharisees are worried. They have been looking, for much of Jesus’ ministry, for a reason to kill him. They fear that he endangers their hold over the people and their religion by constantly questioning their interpretation of God’s law. They have tried, many times, to catch him out, but in vain. They have had opportunity after opportunity to do it, but their cowardice has prevented it. Until now.

Suddenly a chance for someone else to do the work has arisen, from an unexpected quarter. Judas Iscariot, of of the 12, is willing to sell his teacher out for 30 pieces of silver (the going rate for a slave at the time). We don’t hear in Matthew what his motivation may be, but to turn traitor is the ultimate coward’s act. To give up all you have believed in for a bit of money when the going may be about to get tough is weak and pathetic.

These are words Peter would probably have used to describe himself. A man big on words, but when the chips were down where was he?

By Jesus’ side? No.

Outside the temple, declaring Jesus’ innocence? No.

Planning some sort of rescue effort? No.

No. The man who said he would die alongside Jesus rather than disowning him is, as Jesus predicted, disowning him. Not once, but three times in increasingly forceful terms. Why? Because he is scared for his life. Because his faith has taken a hammer blow. Because he has forgotten all he has been taught.

Unlike Judas, Peter will live to fight another day. Many days and many fights. He will become the rock Jesus said he would be. But for now, he’s just a broken shell of a man. A coward.

The coward’s option is the easy option. One which we are all tempted by at times. Some will tell you that it’s an evolutionary mechanism designed to ensure self-preservation. This may well be true, I mean, what use are we if we’re dead? Of course, we may survive, through our own endeavours or through God’s, so the result may not be death. We may be persecuted, ostracized, ignored by loved ones, mocked, beaten or any number of horrible outcomes for standing up and being counted.

But what use are we if that happens. If we’re turned into a nobody. Or a dead nobody.

Well, a lot of use, it may turn out.

There is one man here who puts the right thing, the Father’s will, ahead of his own wellbeing.

“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matthew 26:39 NIV)

Be under no illusions. Jesus didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to suffer the agonies ahead of him. But then, if he did want to there’d be no point in it. If it wasn’t horrific, violent, unbearable then it wouldn’t achieve its aims. To take on our punishment and give us a path to God.

However, despite his fear and terror, he recognises that it’s not his will, but the Father’s will which needs to be done. In the face of worse horrors than the Pharisees, Judas or Peter could even comprehend, he submits to what his Father wants.

We will probably not face a life or death decision over our faith, although some may. At some stage, though, we will all be asked to stand up and do the right thing. To do God’s will rather than ours or the will of those around us. The outcomes will be unpleasant, possibly unbearable, but they will be worth it.

So, what do we do?