Compare

One of the things I really struggle with as a Christian is comparing my faith to those around me. I wonder why I’m not as devoted as some, or passionate as others. I question why I don’t hear from God in the way that people at church seem to or get as much from reading the Bible as them. I get frustrated because my faith doesn’t seem as steadfast as the other people in housegroup.

These thoughts leave me feeling discouraged and distant from God. Sadly it often means ending up spending less time with God, less time in the bible and less time in fellowship with other Christians.

I suspect I’m not alone in this, but it’s a very difficult thing to admit to, particularly when we compare ourselves to others who seem to have it all together. We don’t want to appear like the weak link in the chain, the doubting Thomas or denying Peter.

At this point some of you might be thinking, ‘Well, you should be more disciplined in prayer, in bible reading, in church attendance. Maybe then you would experience a faith more like those other people.’ That is true to a point, but if my experience is always clouded by comparison to others, then those actions are just as likely to make the situation worse.

If you are with me in this, I think we need a change of mindset, a different starting point. American Pastor Rick Warren suggests that being honest with ourselves is the starting of point of changing this damaging cycle of self-damnation…

“Just acknowledging that you struggle with envy [of the faith of others] can be painful, but it is the first step toward a change of values and a more mature spiritual life.”

Our faith is meant to be personal, meant to be unique. The Psalmist wrote that God knows us from before we were born. Jesus tells us God knows every hair on our heads. The Apostle Paul says God has good plans for us.

That means your relationship with God will be different from the relationship He has with your mother or brother, the person sat next to you on Sunday morning, or that blogger who you read every week.

God loves you for who you are. He knows you and so will relate to you in ways that you can understand.

And it won’t always be the same. How you communicate with and relate to God will develop and change over time. And no, it will never be the same as that person you are always comparing yourself to. It can’t be. You are unique. Your relationship with God is unique.

Remembering that is a good start to a deeper and more satisfying faith.

Meal

Meal

There are few things that I appreciate more in life than enjoying a meal with good friends and family. As an intentional way of sharing our lives with one another, it is unparalleled. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a high pressure situation. In fact it can be quite a casual act (unless you happen to being to a Michelin Starred restaurant!). We invite whom we like and spend the time in whatever way we want to.

This wasn’t the case in 1st Century Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime. In that culture sharing a meal with someone had significance that it is difficult for us to imagine today. It was not a casual act. Rules surrounding meals were deeply embedded in the religious purity system that dominated society at that time.

These rules governed not only what might be eaten and how it was to be prepared, but also with whom one might eat. Refusing to share a meal was a form of social ostracism. Pharisees (and others) would not eat with someone who was seen as religiously impure.

In Matthew chapter 9 we read the story of how Jesus called the disciple of the same name, and then was invited to his house for dinner. Now Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been a social pariah. He worked for the hated Roman occupiers, and he probably ripped off his countrymen in order to line his pockets.

No good Jew would have been seen within a mile of Matthew if they could at all avoid it. They definitely would not have eaten a meal with him. The religious culture of the day would have seen that as a tacit endorsement of the tax collector’s behaviour. It would have made them as ‘impure’ as Matthew by association.

Therefore when Jesus accepts Matthew’s invitation to his house for dinner, he was doing something no other Jewish religious teacher of that time would have done.

He was putting relationship ahead of rules. People before dogma. Love over law. He was causing scandal amongst the establishment and destroying any chance of his movement being acceptable to the status quo.

More than that, by choosing to eat with these ‘tax collectors and sinners’ Jesus was enacting a powerful message about the Kingdom of God, and indeed God himself. He was demonstrating God’s unwillingness to exclude anyone who welcomes him into their life, regardless of religious taboos or societal expectations.

He was demonstrating that love trumps law every time.

This really goes to the heart of what Jesus ministry was about. This is the inclusive Kingdom of God he taught about and demonstrated through his actions.

Are there people we as Christians in 21st Century Britain struggle to relate to? Are there social groups that we consciously or sub-consciously exclude from the Kingdom of God? Do we ever put law ahead of love when dealing with others? Are we more worried about our reputation than those in need around us?

The church needs to demonstrate the love of Christ, not the law of the Pharisees. We have the most incredible, life-changing, joyous and liberating message to share- let’s not limit it’s reach!

Plastic

Plastic

I had never heard of Henderson Island, an uninhabited paradise in the South Pacific, until this week when news broke that it is buried under 38 million pieces of plastic waste. That equates to 18 tonnes of bottle tops, cosmetics jars and six-pack rings, with a further 13,000 items washing up every day and adding to the mound covering the atoll.

I found out about this disaster through a tweet from the Guardian newspaper, and when I clicked through to the full article, the scale of this environmental tragedy genuinely shocked me.

It’s moments like this that have a capacity to shake us out of our complacency. The honest truth is that the devastating damage Henderson Island is currently facing is just a tiny example of the ecological disaster humanity has wrought on this planet, and most of the time I ignore it. I live as if it isn’t happening.

And that fact has been playing on my mind ever since.

For me as a Christian, what makes this even worse is much of the ecological mess we face today is rooted in western 19th Century Christian theology, specifically the misinterpretation of the Genesis 1:28 command to dominate the earth.

That people who claim to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom were first in the queue to exploit and irrevocably damage His good creation is difficult to stomach. As Brian McLaren so eloquently pus it “…industrial-era Christians have used toxic, industrial-strength beliefs to legitimise the plundering of the earth, with concern for future generations of humans, much less our fellow creatures.”

Part of being a Christian is being humble enough to recognise and acknowlegde when we’ve done things that hurt others, both individually, and collectively as the church. Our part in creating the current environmental crisis is surely worthy of such a response.

But the Christian faith is about more than owning up when we have done wrong. In Jesus teaching and example we see that life in the Kingdom of God is rooted in loving, generous, kind, life-affirming, altruistic, sacrificial service of others!

We can express this Kingdom living in how we treat the environment around us, which in turn affects how we love our neighbour. Evangelical pastor John Piper expressed this far more eloquently than I could;  “I think the best argument for environmental concern is love for people. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. He put us here to enjoy it. So, if we mess it up we are hurting people.

So whether it’s choosing to recycle, picking up rubbish when we walk past it on the beach, swapping energy supplier to a green provider like Ecotricity or walking a bit more instead of driving, or writing to your local M.P. to lobby for progressive legislative change, your actions, no matter how small you think they are, make a positive difference. They enhance the life of others rather than injuring them and hurting our home.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. It starts small, but then grows into something much larger and more significant than you would expect, given what you had at the beginning. This is how our small environmental choices, when combined with the actions of others, begin to have an impact on the crisis we are facing.

According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is breaking loose in our midst (Luke 17:21) and that we as his followers are part of it. We can partner with God in the restoration of our planet! What an awesome thought!

Correct

Correct

“God said it, and I believe it and that settles it.”

A familiar phrase to some of you I’m sure. My church background is evangelical, therefore a key feature in my faith was believing the ‘correct’ things.

Particular doctrines or ideas were absolute truths, no negotiation.

The inerrancy of the Bible or creationism.

Unshakable.

It almost didn’t matter what archaeologists uncovered or historians discovered, what physics was telling us about the nature of the universe, or biology about humanity and the world around us.

“God said it, and I believe it and that settles it.”

I have learnt there are two big problems with this.

Doctrines I once believed to be integral and immovable are no longer that way in my mind. I have learnt about different traditions and understandings, read the bible through the lens of new life experiences and listened to wise counsel.

It’s ok to change your opinion, even if that means you disagree with those around you. This evolving understanding is an integral part of reading scripture and of faith itself.

Secondly, who decides what is ‘correct’?

If you’re Catholic, the answer is simple. For everyone else: not so much.

The appeal to scripture being ‘God’s word’ that we can just read and be ‘correct’ about doesn’t stack up. The sheer diversity of strongly held opinions within evangelicalism alone undermines that.

Does this mean I consider the bible worthless, or at best ‘life guidance’?

Not at all. I hope it means I take it more seriously.

I try to learn what I can about the society in which it was written, what it might of meant to the readers of the time and what influences and pressures impacted on the thoughts of it’s authors. This in turn helps me apply it to my life today.

Being open-minded towards scripture and its interpretation can be scary.

It is comfortable to be in a place where you agree with everyone and everyone agrees with you.

“God said it, and I believe it and that settles it.”

It can also be a straight-jacket and limit our capacity for growth.

Jesus constantly questioned the understanding of his contemporaries. His most caustic arguments were with the dogmatic Pharisees. He spoke in stories, parables and analogies. He often left his listeners to figure out meaning for themselves.

He rarely gave a straight answer. In fact he was more likely to ask another question.

He always valued love and compassion over ‘being correct’.

“God said it, and I believe it and that settles it?”