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!

Tribe

 

Tribe

‘#OurBloodIsBlack’

So says the sticker on the boot of my car. It identifies me as part of a tribe. I’m a supporter of Ospreys rugby union team. Every other week I head down to the Liberty Stadium with 6,000 other people to watch gentlemen play a ruffian’s game.

I will shout, complain, throw every ball and live every scrum during those 80 minutes. I will support my team whatever the outcome.

If other people see the sticker, they know I am part of a tribe. That means we can have knowing conversations or some friendly banter depending on their affiliations. My sticker and my choice of team are one way of identifying myself to others. They could draw specific conclusions about me as a result of this information.

I’m a member of other tribes too;

Apple users. I have an iPhone, iPod, iPad and a Macbook.

I’m British. My mum is Scottish, my dad is English and I live in Wales.

I like black coffee. Lattes are an offence to humanity.

…… what conclusions you choose to draw are up to you!

Being part of a tribe can be great. Until our very recent history it was essential for our survival. In the 21st Century being linked with other people is still a vital part of our society and personhood. It can bring security, common purpose and a safe space to grow. The feeling of being involved in a team of people, all moving with cohesive purpose can be intoxicating. When the Ospreys score a try, the noise and emotion of 6,000 fans all celebrating at once is hugely emotive.

But it isn’t all good. Being part of a tribe can cause problems. Tribes by their very nature are exclusive. They have the potential to create division and limit our horizons. At their worst, tribal attitudes create an ‘us verses them’ approach that damages others and ourselves.

It is fair to say the church doesn’t have the best record in this department, which is tragic when you consider our main aim should be growing in love for God and for others.

When we indulge in an ‘us verse them’ attitude in faith, it damages our unity, and therefore our ability to represent the Kingdom as Jesus would want us to. God exists in perfect unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Community, flow and love. In the gospel of John, we see Jesus prayed that his followers would be united like this as well.

“The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—

Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you,

So they might be one heart and mind with us.

Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.”

We cannot become ‘one in heart and mind’ if we are constantly splintering off from one another. Valuing our differences more highly than what unites us limits our capacity for love, inhibits our ability to be a positive influence in the world and stops us from reaching our potential in Christ.

Secondly, and more significantly, an ‘us verses them’ attitude keeps others out of the Kingdom. When we create an exclusive, inward-looking faith, it disregards others. It makes us a club, not a movement. It makes it harder for people to believe Jesus’ message.

Let’s not look to create barriers between ourselves and other believers. So we have different views about end times, gifts of the spirit or the atonement. Surely it isn’t worth dividing the Kingdom over?

Showing love for one another despite our differences is a far more powerful demonstration of God’s grace than endlessly dividing over points of doctrine that no-one beyond the four walls of our church knows or cares about.

Most importantly let’s not exclude people from the fullness of life that comes from knowing Jesus because they don’t fit our pre-conceived ideas about who belongs in the Kingdom.

God’s love is unconditional and his Kingdom is inclusive. Jesus demonstrated this clearly during his life. He shocked religious types by welcoming ‘unclean’, ‘unsuitable’ people into his movement and ultimately into his Kingdom.

Let’s then be filled with grace, united with each other and united with God, in order that the world might believe

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.”