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.

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!

Hound

Hound

There have been 3 or 4 times over the years when I have been ready to give up my faith.

I have walked away from God, not prayed, not read the bible, not gone to church.

I have made a conscious choice to live a godless life.

There have been different reasons why; life circumstances, emotional responses and intellectual questions.

This has gone on for weeks and on one occasion, months, at a time.

I share this with you because I think it’s important that as Christians we are real with one another.

It isn’t all mountain-top moments and seamless travel from glory into glory. Being a Christian can be hard, and sometimes we are left peering over the edge.

The last time this happened to me was about 3 months ago. I won’t bore you with the details, but it would be fair to say I was making pretty concrete exit plans. I even got as far as sharing how I was feeling with a couple of close friends.

It didn’t stick.

Francis Thompson called God The Hound of Heaven in his remarkable poem of the same title, and I’ve found that to be a very apt description.

Whenever I’ve decided to walk away from God, there’s always been something (or someone) pulling me back.

He’s done it through the Bible, through my friends and through my thoughts and feelings.

His grace is irresistable.

On the most recent occasion I began walking away, I experienced a God-given dream for the first time in my life. God literally jolted me out of my sleep in the middle of the night. This dream was vivid, visceral and real in a way I’ve never experienced before. I have no doubt it was God calling me back.

The skeptics among you will probably just say I convinced myself to return to faith because I was scared of the alternative, because I didn’t have the courage to follow through on my conviction, or perhaps my subconscious couldn’t cope with the change, but that wasn’t the case.

Life isn’t the same without God. Life isn’t as good without God. It isn’t complete.

Jesus said he came to bring life in all its fullness (John 10:10) and I can testify to that. 

So often the Christian faith is portrayed as an escape route from hell, and heaven to look forward to in the future, but when we read the words of Jesus, it’s so clear that he believed the Kingdom of God was for living in the here and now. 

This is why when I walked away from Him, it felt like a core part of my life was missing. My life was no longer being lived as it was intended to be. This is also why when I returned I felt joy, relief and fulfilment.

I’m sure many of you can identify with these experiences and can tell a similar story.

If, on the other hand, you have chosen to be far from God at the moment, the life-affirming, liberating truth is that he is waiting for you to return with his arms wide open. There is no judgement, no condemnation, no cold shoulder.

He loves you and He says to you…..

“…Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”

Heart

Heart

It’s Good Friday today, and all across the world Christians are going to church to remember the death of Jesus.

To the uninitiated this might seem back to front. If Christians really believe Jesus was God, why focus on his death, instead of his life? Why not celebrate his teachings and ministry, instead of his most wretched day?

Jesus taught “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” and he meant it.

He did it.

People often view God as an angry old man in the sky, waiting for the opportunity to smite or judge. Yet on Good Friday, as Jesus hangs, dying, on a twisted implement of torture we see God exposed. At his most vulnerable. Arguably the truest reflection of himself.

Faced with the viciousness of men, Jesus did not resist or take the path of violence; instead he showed us a better way. He broke the cycle of animosity by refusing to respond in kind. He liberated us from the power of hatred and retribution. In doing so, he showed us the heart of God

Author and activist Parker Palmer wrote “It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of mankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate. In its simple physical form, the cross embodies the notion that tension can pull the heart open. Its cross-beams stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down. But those arms converge in a centre, a heart, that can be pulled open by that stretching, by the tensions of life- a heart that can be opened so fully it can hold everything from despair to ecstasy. And that, of course, is how Jesus held his excruciating experience, as an opening into the heart of God.

This is why we remember the cross, why this particular Friday is ‘good’, despite the awful and inhumane events that took place.

God revealed the depths of his love to humanity.

For you. For me. For all of us.

“God is love”, said the apostle John in his letters to the early church. How did he know? Because he met Jesus, he lived with Jesus and he saw Jesus die. He saw Jesus pray forgiveness over those who were tortmenting him.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if as his disciples, we could display the open heart of God in how we live. Point people to the cross by our self-sacrificial actions. Show and receive grace abundantly. Love extravagantly. Forgive generously.

This, I think, is the movement Jesus had in mind when he spoke about the Kingdom of God.

Few have embodied this Jesus way of living more authentically that Martin Luther King Jr, and it’s with a quote from his appropriately named ‘Love in Action’ sermon series that I’d like to finish;

Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye for an eye philosophy would end up leaving everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with a radical love.”