The gates are open

  
Yesterday, the above cartoon was published in Britain’s voice of reason and compassion*, the Daily Mail. (*sarcasm overload)

It upset many, many people, something I guess they’d actually be quite happy about as it means more publicity for their brand of hate. Publicity which, yes, I am granting them more of now (albeit only to the 70-100 readers each post gets on average on this blog. So not much publicity, really). For me, the reasons I got upset were fourfold.

Firstly, it meant I was angry at the Daily Mail yet again, despite trying so hard to just ignore them.

Secondly, the use of the sudden death of someone, Cilla Black, to make an attempt at humour based on a humanitarian crisis. It lacks class and humanity on many levels.

Thirdly, “illegals”. So many of the people at Calais at the moment are running scared from war, extreme poverty and persecution. They are human beings who want a chance of a better life which they don’t have, yet we do, due to an accident of birth. Yet the Mail decides to go a step further than the constant description of these refugees, these people, by most of the media as “migrants”, and decides to completely dehumanise these people by labelling them “illegals”. As if they have no right to exist, no right to compassion, no rights at all. It disgusts me!

Fourthly, though, was the heavenly imagery used in the cartoon. Hundreds of people locked out of God’s Kingdom whilst riot police try to keep back an influx of these “illegals”, whilst judging one person as worthy due to her elevated social status. It’s an image which so misrepresents God’s desire to accept us all that it was this which made my blood boil the most. 

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote this,

“Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (‭‭Galatians‬ ‭3:23-29‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬)

Today, Paul may well have said that there is also no celebrity nor illegal. All are welcome and justified by their faith in Christ alone, not by their place of birth or bloodline. There is no need to climb over the fence, as some are doing in the background; rather, if we knock, the door will be opened for us.

That is what is truly wrong. The idea of God, the one who made the heavens and the Earth, the one who breathes life into us, the one who came down to Earth in order to die and save us from ourselves, the one who invites every one of us into a relationship with him, would lock the gates on those most vulnerable. Christ spoke more about helping the poor, sick and marginalised than anything else, except for the Father’s Kingdom. He did this to make the exact point Paul did to the Galatians; we are all equal in God’s sight and all equally welcome into His courts through Jesus. 

There is no need for us to queue or clamber over gates. There will be no policing, no truncheons, no hatred, no fear, no desperation. There are no “illegals” or legals. Instead, as Matt Redman put it in his song “Holy Moment”,

“We will run run run

Through your gates, o God

With a shout of love!

With a shout of love!”

People are people

 
It’s one of those New Testament stories which many people who aren’t particularly familiar with the Bible know. Acts 9 tells us how Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee who had been zealously persecuting the Followers of The Way (soon to be called Christians), was travelling to Damascus when he was blinded by a bright light and heard the voice of Jesus asking why he was persecuting Him. Saul then met a Christian in Damascus called Ananaias who placed his hands on Saul, who then regained his sight (scales literally fell from his eyes, where the saying comes from). Saul changed his name to Paul, made it his mission to spread the Good News of Jesus to as many as possible and, in doing so, ended up writing most of the New Testament.

It is the most amazing, dramatic story of redemption; one which has served as an example of hope to Christians for 2000 years. It has always been seen as the most startling example of a life transformed by the risen Christ.

Today, however, there may be stories coming out which are almost, if not equally as amazing. Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in the Middle East have reported a former fighter with ISIS who started dreaming about Jesus telling him he was killing His people. This man was so affected by this and other things which happened, including a Christian who gave him his Bible before being killed, that he has run away from ISIS and given his life to Christ.

The article in the link suggests, although only anecdotally, that this is not an isolated incident. If so, this is an amazing testament to the way people’s lives can really be changed by an encounter with Jesus and how even the hardest hearts can be softened. 

Now, I posted this link on Facebook and a friend of mine, perfectly understandably, pointed out that this makes no difference to those who have already been killed by the brutality of ISIS. He also commented that there was no redemption for those whose lives had been cut short. That is something I’d dispute, particularly in light of Jesus’ own words,

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (‭Matthew‬ ‭5‬:‭10-12‬ NIVUK)

What can be more righteous than refusing to bow down to such an evil doctrine as the warped version of Islam which ISIS espouse. Surely all those persecuted, and killed, by them have been blessed for doing the right thing. Surely their redemption is secure.

Those carrying out the persecution, however, are far from redemption. By redemption, I do not mean escaping from justice. Anyone who has carried out atrocities in the name of ISIS deserves to face justice, regardless of whether they now reject ISIS or not. However, their redemption as human beings, as children of God, as people welcomed into the Kingdom, is still possible if they do the same as the man who approached YWAM. The redemption they will receive, that this one man has received, is a spiritual redemption; one which shows the world that they are human beings, not monsters, and allows them to have the chance to do good with what remains of their lives.

Nothing will turn back the clock and undo the actions of persecutors, but God allows the slate to be wiped clean for every person, regardless of their actions,

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (‭1 Timothy‬ ‭1‬:‭12-17‬ NIVUK)

Paul is the example here. A man whose actions were comparable with those of ISIS towards Christians, but without whom the Christian Faith may not have spread so successfully in those early days. He accepted what he once was, but also accepted what he had become was through God’s grace.

So, I’m choosing, as well as praying for the persecuted Church, to pray earnestly for their persecutors. These are human beings, broken and hate-filled human beings, but people created in God’s image as we all are. I pray that each and every one finally sees the true face of the God they claim to follow and turn away from theatre of destruction they have chosen. Lives can be changed and saved by this, I honestly believe this. Violence against these people doesn’t work, but maybe a true act of love can do.

Be a kid!

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor 13:11)

No, no I didn’t put away childish things. Paul may have, but I still embrace the childish things. They’re fun, they bring joy, happiness and silliness to life. I need these things to keep me going, pull me out of the mire and add some colour to life.

The other day I saw a tweet by @Lolly_Knickers (Worth following, by the way. She’s funny) which simply said “I killed Lucy”, a reference to the murder of Lucy Beale in Eastenders (which I don’t watch anymore, but still got the reference). I replied that I shot JR, which led to an increasingly silly conversation where we claimed responsibility for a series of historical soap opera events. Daft, but really good fun.

She then tweeted “we are grown ups. I never imagined that this is what grown ups do when I was little”.

This is the truest thing I’ve ever seen on Twitter. Two 40 year old children claiming to have burned down Crossroads Motel and that they are Mr Opodopoulous is inane and not what I ever imagined grown ups do. (I apologise to anyone from outside of the UK, or under the age of 40 who may not get either of those references)

I always thought that I would, one day, feel like a grown up. When I was 20 I thought I’d feel like one by 30. When I was 30 I thought I’d feel like one by 40. Now I’m 40 and, well you get the idea. I just feel like I’m pretending I’m an adult. It feels like everyone around me is mature, responsible and knows where they’re going in life, while I’m still a kid trapped in a bald, middle aged body.

Then I have conversations like that on Twitter. Or my wife tells me how she broke into song at a job interview (primary school teacher – it sort of makes sense). Or I have a conversation with a 70 year old man who says that he feels like he’s pretending to be a grown up. These things make me realise that everyone feels the same. We’re all just kids in adults’ bodies still trying to find our way in the world.

Yes I’m more mature than I was. Yes I can be a grumpy old man at times. Yes I can go off on very serious rants. But, I still want fun and silliness. I still need to have pointless conversations, just for a laugh, or put on stupid voices, or laugh like a drain at a not very funny joke. We all do. Life is there to be lived and enjoyed. It’s a gift and a blessing which we can sometimes miss by letting the world get on top of us and crush us so that we’re care worn, cynical and too serious.

Let’s be kids. Not all the time, we need to be serious and responsible as adults. But, just at times, we need to let ourselves go and be silly, joyful and carefree. We need to just enjoy life.

Come on. Last one to do it is a rotten egg!

Lent Day 40: 1 Corinthians 15

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Yesterday was Good Friday. Today, nothing. Nothing but a dead body in a tomb and a bunch of desolate, defeated followers. Hope is lost. Everything is lost.

Easter Saturday is a dark day for the early church (I guess, in part, because it’s not really born until Pentecost, after Jesus’ ascension). The disciples have seen Jesus die and all their hopes die with him. Their faith was in him, their dreams were in him. But that all disappeared on the cross.

And it would have stayed that way, too. If Jesus’ body was still lying, undiscovered and undisturbed  in a first century tomb in Jerusalem then hope would be dead too and there would be no church. The disciples would have scattered, nothing left to fight for or believe in, and the status quo would have  remained.

But one thing changed. One thing which, had it not happened, would have seen Jesus and his followers forgotten quicker than they came to prominence.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 NIV)

Jesus rose again!

When he said that he would rise after three days, the disciples didn’t really know what be meant. Now they did, they saw him. Paul didn’t believe it had happened and persecuted the early church, but he, too, saw Jesus.

Jesus rose again!

He overcame death, as the Old Testament prophets had written. He overcame death so we wouldn’t have to. This isn’t wishful thinking or mindless acceptance. I agree with Paul when he says,

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19 NIV)

If Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead then what is the point in following him. If he hadn’t been raised then he is simply a good teacher telling us common sense stuff about how to live and how to treat each other.

But, if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead, why were so many willing to say he had been? Why were so many willing to risk ridicule, violence, arrest, imprisonment and even death simply for saying that Jesus was alive. Power? Influence? Money? The apostles got none of those things. They received something so much more wonderful and eternal than any of those things,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NIV)

The grace of God. The knowledge that, whatever they have done in the past, whatever horrendous acts they may have committed, God turns their worthlessness into something He treasures and loves. The knowledge that their sin is no longer what defines them, but something they are able to beat, with God’s help. The knowledge that death of the body is not the end, but eternal life in God is there for them and for anyone who believes in Jesus.

Jesus rose again!

I’m not skilled in apologetics or evangelism. I can’t get into long intellectual debates about the existence of God or the rationality of my beliefs. I’m not great at trying to steer others onto the same path. But I can tell you what I believe and why I believe it. That’s what I’ve tried to do over the last 40 posts as I’ve reflected on the Gospels over lent. I may not convince people, other believers may disagree with me, but I know one thing. One thing which unites Jesus’ followers. One thing which holds faith together. One thing which, despite the almost unbelievable, supernatural nature of it, I believe with all my heart and mind.

Jesus rose again!

Lent Day 34: John 9-10

I’ve heard a couple of debates hosted by Premier Christian Radio in the last couple of years around the idea of same-sex marriage. In both debates the same line was used at some stage by the person on the traditional side of the argument,

“Are you saying that 2000 years of biblical interpretation on the matter is wrong?”

Neither of the people defending same-sex marriage actually went as far as saying yes, even though that must surely have been their position to hold the ground that they did. I think the reason for this is that, by saying yes, they would have come across as arrogant and, possibly, heretical.

It’s one thing to challenge views where there has always been an element of debate and differing interpretations, but when you start arguing against seemingly universally held views, ones which theologians and leaders have agreed on for centuries, you find yourself on tricky ground. Arguing with people and ideas is easy, arguing with tradition is a different ball-game altogether.

I can understand this. If you start to try and break down those concepts, ideas, beliefs and traditions which have been held for a long time then at which point do you stop? Calling something “the thin end of the wedge” is a typical right-wing tabloid tactic in fighting against such things, but it’s a fair concern. There’s always the worry that, once one pillar falls, the rest of the house will soon crumble around your ears.

Of course, if that’s the case then the house, your faith, wasn’t built on strong enough foundations in the first place.

And, of course, people get things wrong. It’s even the case that perceived wisdom handed down through the ages can be wrong; the Earth is flat, the Earth revolves around the Sun, the universe was created in seven days, left-handedness is wicked, slavery is acceptable and women should not speak in Church. These are all beliefs held for centuries, agreed by most, if not all, and justified by particular biblical interpretations. All of them have been challenged and, for the most part, all have now been abandoned as a greater understanding of God’s word is reached (with the exceptions of the seven day creation, which many still blindly cling to, and the minority who do not accept a woman’s authority to teach.)

However, in each case these were initially challenged by small groups of individuals, all of whom were condemned as heretics or evil. Their ideas and enlightenment took hold, however, as God spoke through them to more and more people until centuries of tradition were abandoned for God’s will.

And that is exactly what the blind man who Jesus heals went through,

“The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  
To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.” (John 9:30-34 NIV)

This man challenges the religious leaders, those whose teachings and views are held as the authority to be listened to by the majority of Jews of the time. He is told he is an arrogant sinner and thrown out.

But he’s right. Just because there is a perceived wisdom, or tradition, or interpretation handed down for years it doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong.

Regardless of your views on same-sex marriage, whether a particular position has been held for centuries by millions of biblical scholars or not cannot be a valid argument. People get thing wrong. Sometimes, the majority get things wrong.

And if you feel that these traditionally held views, that centuries of interpretation is wrong then just say it. On this matter I happen to think it is wrong. I think that a lack of understanding about the nature of homosexuality, thinking that it’s a sexual perversion without having any understanding or concept of two people of the same sex being able to fall in love emotionally, has coloured biblical interpretation. I think that the view that it is a choice, rather than something people just are, has meant that passages about rape and prostitution have been applied to all homosexuality to justify cultural prejudices. I also see the possibility that the main New Testament passages used to justify the traditional view, Romans 1:26-27, could have been written with a similar mind set.

In that, Paul talks of lust. Not love. I feel that either he is applying contemporary cultural prejudices to his own condemnation of homosexuality or, in my view more likely, it’s an overall comment on promiscuity. He’s saying that people were so wrapped up with having sex as often as possible with whoever they could that they even did it with people of the same sex. Shocking!

Paul condemns lust more than once in a heterosexual context as well. He never, however, condemns love. I don’t think that Paul, or any of his audiences, had a concept of a loving same-sex relationship, so never addressed it in his writings. As God is love then I can’t see how he could be against two people in love, harming nobody. Love glorifies him, surely this does too.

So, there you go. This was not meant to be a defence of same-sex marriage when the post started, but it seems to have ended up as one, albeit not the most structured, robustly argued one (mainly because I tend to write these posts in one go, often not knowing where I’ll end up once I’ve started). I guess it is still my way of showing that traditional beliefs can and should be challenged, to either overcome them if they’re wrong (which they can be) or strengthen them if they’re right.

Thanks for listening.

Whose work is it anyway?

This afternoon I was in a meeting at work. It was one of those meetings which had no obvious purpose, but still filled its allotted time. One of those meetings which turned into people, justifiably, moaning about being overworked with no light at the end of the tunnel. One of those meetings which made you want to pick up your things, walk out and never come back.

Then these words came to mind,

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23 NIV)

And I thought, really?! Really, Paul?! You want me to look at this as like working for God? This is pensions admin, not missionary work. I have no time to actually do my job because I spend all my time doing my job (and, somehow, that actually makes sense!). We’re all doing the jobs of three people with questions asked when stuff isn’t done. Within two minutes of arriving I already feel beaten down and running out of time. Everyone is miserable about the standards they’re expected to live up to, but can’t. Several have been off with stress or anxiety. I’m supposed to be dealing with depression in this environment. Yet you think I should see it as if I’m working for the Lord?!

I train people to process applications for pension transfers, I don’t feed the hungry, dress the poor, comfort the grieving, preach to the deaf, heal the sick or do anything remotely worthwhile. How is that like working for God, Paul? How?!

Then, I heard a voice. Not audibly. Not like ‘hearing voices’. More of an impression of a voice, pushing through the self pitying ranting of my mind.

I know the voice.

I should do, He is always trying to say something. I’m just not always ready or willing to listen.

I can hear Him now, though.

“Give Paul a break. He’s right. He knows what he’s talking about. I told him to say it!

You think this is tough? You think this is pressure? You have a job. A regular income, bills paid, food on the table, a roof over your head.

Think of the unemployed, scrabbling around on small change in homes where the landlord won’t fix the boiler or Windows, but still charges the earth in rent for it.

Think of those who have final demands piling up on the doormat. Scared of every knock at the door or ring on the phone in case it brings homelessness.

Think of those starving, scared and alone in Syria, Somalia, North Korea or many other places where poverty, war, oppression or all three are a daily prescence.

Think of those who are persecuted because of their faith in Me. You have freedom to worship, meet others in My name, write a blog proclaiming your faith. Others have to meet in secret, in fear of their lives if they are even seen with a Bible.

And you think middle-class, first-world problems are tough?

You have a wife and family who love you.

You have a nice home.

You have a job where you have the responsibility for developing others. Helping them to build skills and knowledge. Helping them to realise their own potential, to turn around faltering careers, to mentor new staff, to be the best they can be at their jobs. To help make their Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 existences as rewarding as they can be.

How is that not My work?”

And He’s right. Of course He is. When isn’t He?

So, I will. I’ll work with all my heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.

Because that’s exactly what I’m doing. We all are. We just need to listen and find out how.

Encouragement

On Sunday I ran a session with the youth group in my Church around Acts 9:19-31. In it, the newly converted Saul (soon to become Paul, author of a large bulk of the New Testament) starts preaching the Gospel. Many of the believers are terrified of him because he had previously persecuted Christians and was present at the killing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

The session looked at how many of us, if not all of us, have at least occasional feelings of not being good enough. Of worthlessness. Of being no use to anybody, let alone any use to God. All of the kids in my group admitted that they felt that way about themselves occasionally and sometimes felt it about others.

The irony of this is my own frame of mind. For a while now, although it’s only recently been diagnosed, I have had depression. Thankfully it’s not severe to the extent of some people I know. I manage to get out of bed in the mornings, go to work, do my job, look after my family, go to Church, run the youth group and do all the things I need to day to day. However, my emotions are rarely above flat and very often hit horrible lows. I feel worthless, not good enough, no use to man or God, and feel that other people have that view of me too.

The thing is, Saul was good enough, despite his past. Despite what fears other believers held about him. Despite the feelings of despair he had about himself at times. God decided that even Saul/Paul was good enough to bring His good news to an almost global audience and establish Christianity throughout the Roman world. He is viewed as a man who shaped the faith in a way which is second only to Jesus. Not bad for a guy whose main intent on the road to Damascus was to kill Christians and destroy the faith in its infancy.

Saul didn’t do it alone though. He had an encourager. Literally, as it happens, as the name Barnabas means “he who encourages”. Barnabas stood up for Saul at a time when others wanted nothing to do with him. He convinced the others, and Saul himself, that he deserved a chance. His conversion was genuine. He is worth taking the same risk on that God himself did.

We all need a Barnabas. I have mine. I have an incredibly supportive family, for a start. That’s only part of the story, though. In the last few weeks it has been as though people are going out of the way to boost my self confidence and self esteem. I’ve had loads of people letting me know how much better I look recently (I’ve lost 3 1/2 stones in the last year). I’ve had so many positive remarks about things I’ve done in Church. My last blog post really struck a chord both in the way I wrote it and what I wrote. It feels almost as if people are being prompted in some way to improve my self esteem. Most don’t know about the depression, but I believe they are being prompted. I feel that God is telling me that, while I may not feel it to myself, I am worth it to Him. I am His child and He loves me unconditionally, like I love my own kids, but in a more amazing way. He loves me enough to have sent His son to die for me.

I still feel low and flat. I’m taking the right medication to help. I also know that the feelings of worthlessness are depression lying to me. I am not good enough for God, but I’m good enough for Him at the same time. We all are. And that helps.