Pay your taxes!

Isn’t it wonderful when you come across something in scripture that just answers a question with no enigmatic musing to be done, nor produces a battling of souls over various interpretations? Unfortunately, these bits are rare, such is the vast complexity of the mind of our God, and his instruction manual only naturally includes our dilemmas and the ethical mazes we find ourselves in as adults in Christ. In my humble opinion, once you’re past the basic tenets of faith in Christ, black-and-white answers are usually only for babes in the faith (spiritual milk), but a few do exist! Here’s one for you:

In a Facebook debate, I heard of a creationist who was currently in jail, and it sparked my ever-present curiosity. A quick wiki discovered he’s in jail in the USA for tax evasion. He has made six appeals against the ‘government conspiracy against him’ to no avail. I was left dumbstruck: here was a Biblical Literalist, who has made it his life’s work to prove the exact six days’ creation account in Genesis is true, who has actually chosen to ignore a literal command of Jesus!

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (Matt.22:15-22)

There you are, plain as the nose on your face!

Grace be with you.

Undiluted: EVERY Christian should read this

One of the book reviews I said I’d post occasionally:

I cannot recall just how or where I came across Benjamin Corey. I discovered his blog at patheos.com some weeks ago while trawling about. Right away I was struck by his words; not just that he is a superb wordsmith, but also of course because of what he says with them, with occasional lines just begging to be quoted for their profundity! I suppose I was drawn to his blogs fairly naturally since he, like me, is seeking to challenge us to examine and re-examine our theology, our faith and how we live and talk about exactly what we believe. He seems to have arrived at roughly the same place on his journey with God as where I have found myself. I was an outsider to evangelical culture, never truly fitting into it, unlike the majority of my fellows who were ‘raised’ in church and amongst that way of living and thinking. Corey, though, was definitively one of them[*], describing his first days in seminary as a stage of skeptical disbelief that these theologians could tell him anything new about his faith that he had already garnered over his lifetime in church. That changed for him, and he recounts his journey of discovery with such fondness and excitement as he remembers those moments of spiritual enlightenment and inspiration, drawing you along with him as he simply explains, in very readable English, what he discovered and how he wishes for the reader to grasp it.

*[Corey lives in the USA, and he calls his background ‘fundamentalist culture’ with his blog name Formerly Fundie, but this is practically identical to what I call ‘evangelical’ – it’s just different labels within our respective cultures, for me at least. Any differences would be slight.]

Once I started talking to others about this blogger, both off and online, I realised right away that there was a problem, and it’s this: evangelicals think they have it all correct! Exactly what Corey has been trying to say all along. While we pat ourselves on the back that we do indeed have the truth of the gospel that we preach, we tend also to think that anything else theological we hold dear is just not up for discussion. Even though we have to admit that within the ‘evangelical’ fold (which is not actually written down in any creed anywhere) we have different denominations, with their own separate creeds and slants on things. Since Corey seems to come at things from a different point of view, having confessed he is no longer labelling himself ‘fundamentalist’, he inevitably draws suspicion. Evangelicals can be a very wary and jittery bunch, and anyone not identifying with their grouping is taken with a fair handful of salt. When Corey described the moment he realised he was ‘without a tribe’ I chuckled to myself.

He is viewed by many as “just another one of those ‘liberals”, which brings up so many other cultural problems, and such an attitude defeats his rhetoric before he even speaks. For a discussion of what the insult ‘liberal’ means to me, see my last blog. By my definition, he is anything but liberal!

The book itself is surprisingly short, since it feels like so much more. Almost every page I got a fresh insight into something, and it always seemed to just click into place like pieces I need to help me complete more of my jigsaw that is of Jesus. It is listed as 192 pages on amazon, though I pre-ordered it on kindle (for less than £2!). My kindle showed my time taken to read it, which was just about 5 hours. I would not recommend reading it all at one sitting, but let each topic or chapter sink in and get digested before tackling another. Even chapters I thought would not speak to me, like the one on forgiveness, since I’ve learnt so much about that in my life, left me with a feeling of newness, like having woken up and realised something that should have been so apparent all along.

Added to that were, for me, things that just confirmed what I’d been trying to say for years, and lately on my own blog, so the feeling of a ‘kindred spirit’ was strengthened. I have often said I tire of the “I don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t go to the pub anymore!” testimonies I hear over and over again, like parrots at the zoo. Corey relates how he “realised that following Jesus is more of a list of things you do, rather than things you don’t do.” YES! But he goes into depth about just what those things are and how they should affect us in all parts of our lives. While he prefers the term ‘Jesus follower’ to ‘Christian’ he does not just poo-poo all those who call themselves Christian, in an all-too-often ironic conceitedness that many ‘progressives’ display. Rather, he embraces the idea of belonging to this large family of God and does not denigrate the label. In fact, his jibe at ‘not belonging to a tribe’ is referring to a tribal mentality that too many of us have towards each other.

The aim of his book is to whittle past culture and get to the heart of Jesus’ radical lifestyle message. My only gripe with the book is that it is totally couched within American culture, but the application to other cultures is perfectly possible to do, since it is the principles of throwing off that baggage that is not from Christ, and rediscovering what was preached to the crowds 2000 years ago. It was still very relevant to me, certainly. Every chapter is headed ‘Undiluted ____’ and it’s the dilution that culture does to the very strong message of Jesus’ words.

When I came to the last chapter, about his transformation from a rabid fundamentalist, I actually heard my soul say “oh no, he’s going to bash the fundamentalists/ evangelicals!!” Suppose it’s ingrained in me too! However, though it was a rebuke, it was not about getting the gospel wrong. It was how we have inadvertently actually simplified the gospel of salvation so much that what we hear preached from our pulpits is correct, but only a part of the whole message Jesus brought. Many things (like end-times prophecies) have drawn us away from correct attitudes to the world around us. Again, I was astounded.

I say: get past the perceptions and the labels. So what if you’ve read a few of his blogs and find him a bit ‘off base’ from where you are? If we cannot agree to differ on some things… well, go and join an exclusive brethren sect, or the Amish (if they’ll have you!). Read to be challenged and taught, and you just might be surprised.

Grace be with you.

Conservative v. Liberal

Here are a couple of truths: Politics is a vastly complex topic. Theology is a vastly complex topic.

However, we always crave simplicity. Would that I could draw some cartoons for you! Ok, here’s ONE:

Backbiter-Poles-apart

Nice and simple point, eh? No, I didn’t draw it, but in an effort to maintain this ‘simplicity’, I shall address both topics of politics and theology through the oft-quoted terms of ‘conservative’ and liberal’…

Politics

Right-wing political viewpoints tend to value the individual above society, and play down any importance of ‘state-interference’ in one’s ‘personal affairs’. Left-wing political viewpoints seek to address problems that arise in society by legislating against unfair practices and individuals who cause disadvantage to others, valuing the role of ‘the state’ above the concerns of the individual.

One can find the extremes of these viewpoints fairly easily. North Korea is one of the last bastions of ‘the state as religion’ that must be obeyed without question, while the free-market ideas of Thatcherite and Reaganite neocons actually require a suspension of belief that ‘society’ even exists! The majority of us who reside in the middle, along a long, long sliding scale from left to right, understand that we need a balance of the rights and freedoms of the individual with the laws and controls of government upon our society for the protection of all citizens against unscrupulous entities. Such is the basis for (as I said) very complex debates and negotiations.

Applying labels such as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is very tricky, since it may only apply to the here and now. For example, free-market ideology was, at one point, the preserve of liberals like William Gladstone, who was the British PM four times, before the rise of Marx, Socialism and the British Labour Party, which rose to replace the Liberal Party’s place at the head of British politics. One wonders what Gladstone would think of his beliefs being adopted in the late 20th century by the party he opposed, but this serves to highlight such complexities.

Theology

These labels become even more difficult to attach in theological discussions, particularly as the political distinctions have transferred, and many use the labels (even as insults) to attempt to delineate who is speaking ‘the truth’ and who not. The common perception is that ‘conservative’ churches/ denominations/ ministers adhere to long-established doctrinal truths, while their ‘liberal’ counterparts are those who appear to embrace ‘new ideas’ and theological stances from ‘outside’ orthodox faith. This is far too simplistic. Yes, I myself have used such labels, even in my own blogs, but I know what I mean by them, so I shall outlay my distinctions:

I disagree with many, many fellow believers on many points. Note I said ‘fellow believers’ since I do not try to paint myself into my own little corner with a 50-point thesis that one must agree with to be called my ‘brother in the faith’. Theology is so gloriously complex that many viewpoints can be heard and argued, but not completely refuted. What do I stand on, then?

These two truths stand against all false theology, clearly and unequivocally:

Firstly, Jesus said

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

Quite indisputable then, yes? This is not an interpretation of an apostle like Paul or a later theologian upon a debatable statement. These are the very recorded words of Jesus himself: no exceptions, he said. For me, transgressing this to include others who do not believe in him is a truly liberal stance that is errant. Therefore, many preachers who are viewed as ‘conservative’, such as John Hagee and Joel Osteen, are, in my book, liberal! Even Christian universalists (not multi-faith universalists) can be conservative by this definition. Unsure about that? Here’s an excellent blog on that which I could not better, if you’re interested:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/why-some-christians-are-universalists/

Secondly, our means of salvation are outlined in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8,9)

The doctrine of grace was established from the start. It is by faith, not works, so the edifices of churches that came later, like the Roman Catholic church, with its insistence on the ceremonies and sacraments meted out by the church priesthood, and all those ‘legalists’, who maintain that we need to obey the Mosaic Law, seek to undermine the grace of God and Christ’s complete work of redemption through Calvary. The term ‘vicarious atonement’ which is the linchpin of the Christian faith means exactly what it says on the tin: Jesus has done it all, paid it all, so I am free from any further requirements to achieve salvation. He achieved it for me. Not sure you like that? I couldn’t care less if you don’t, it’s the gospel! The glorious, wonderful, graceful, encompassing good news that we do not need to strive to gain heaven anymore. Still not convinced? Go and read the epistle to the Galatians. And then read Romans as well, if you’re up to it.

So in my book, even the Church of Rome is liberal! Why do I feel like I’m sounding very narrow in my opinions, when in fact, I am much more accepting than most of my fellow evangelicals? Any difference in doctrine or practice that does not undermine the two points I laid out above, is not in opposition to my gospel, the one that my whole faith is built on. There are many doctrinal points I will not agree with, but those points are minor, and secondary to faith and salvation. If you find such differences to be irritating to your sense of ‘rightness’, I gracefully suggest that you look into the roots of your indignation, and ask if it comes from things you were raised to believe or that you heard from pulpits and not from any knowledge of the gospel that saved you.

If you worry that some very dubious churches do actually hold to these two points, here’s the litmus test: Do they add to them in any way? In other words, if they claim to have exclusive right to truth, they are a sect; avoid them! A true church will accept that others also have the right to claim citizenship of Jesus’ Kingdom and his salvation, and they won’t try to stop you from attending them. If a church ‘looks down their nose’ at other churches, well then there’s an attitude problem – deal with that as God leads you.

When you seek to attach these labels to viewpoints or opinions (or even people!), remember to use the theological ones, and not the political ones, which have practically nothing to do with Jesus’ message and everything to do with the culture in which you live i.e. ‘the world’!

[Now thinking that I may need to go back and revise a few of my own blogs!]

Grace be with you.

Things I detest….

Here are 6 things I detest, 7 that I despise [see what I did there?]…

in no particular order…

Ties

Country Music

Inconsiderate drivers

Cold, wet summers

Cruelty to children

Cruelty to animals

People who say that the Bible has been altered and edited by “the church” (as if there ever was only one single ‘church’ on Earth, other than the physically intangible true church known only to God), in order to make it conform to what “the church” wants to preach. Such people know nothing of the Bible or its history, and just repeat what some idiot said, like bleating lambs. There is so much tradition and so many practices within churches that can be wiped away with just one brush of a proper reading of scripture, so my Bible does not serve self-seeking preachers or pedlars of falsehood (or practically any denomination you care to name – not one of them has the monopoly of truth). In fact, self-serving charlatans truly fear those of us who know it well, so keep reading it, brothers and sisters, and challenge them!

These same naysayers of scripture often then go on to say “sure it contradicts itself!” SO, what is it, then? IF it has been doctored and edited, how come there are ‘contradictions’ in it? We certainly didn’t do a very good job, then, did we? These difficult passages that seem to cancel each other out are just the complexities within the mind of God that we see as contradictions, when in fact they are truths that balance to create the universe around us. Nonsense, you say? Ask any quantum physicist about the duality of light, and be prepared for a wacky conversation!

When a Muslim says to me that his Koran goes right back to the seventh century and is attestable, I do not deny that or try to undermine it; I am certain it actually recorded the very words of Muhammad. I can make better arguments against Islam than “oh your Koran is all made up by scholars over the centuries!” Please afford my scripture the same respect since it is all attested back to the first century. That which could not be attested was rejected!

Grace be with you.

P.S. we actually had a pastor in our church recently who converted from Islam. We couldn’t record his face or name since he is in danger in his native Pakistan. He said that he memorised the entire Koran, and nowhere did it say that infidels must be killed, but it has been the interpretation of a verse or verses about the wrath of Allah that has led most of the main schools of thought within Islam to state that such a death penalty should exist. Same problem there, then?

Revival: how I long for it (again), but am mindful of what I wish for!

[I started this blog some days ago. As I was writing it, our pastor brought a study on revival and prayer, even calling on a reading of 2 Chron. 7:14 in the same manner as mine here. I take that as confirmation of my post, though I am addressing the consequences of revival, not the methods.]

 

I have shared here before how I came to Christ at age 14, but spent my whole first year as a new Christian not setting foot across the threshold of any church building. This gave me a unique insight into my faith since I was shielded from so much of the cultural baggage that goes along with a ‘Christian upbringing’. The first church I decided to settle in was actually a Congregational church, yet one very much geared towards the youth, and that exercised the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Very unusual, yes. Yes indeed!

The youth within that church underwent revival! We hear that word bandied about churches a lot these days, and I always think “do you really know what you’re asking for when you pray or sing ‘send revival, Lord!’ or grasp what that means?” People tend to get some things about revival right, and some wrong. What is right is that it draws more people in; there were a number of new converts, and we saw the numbers of the youth quadruple in 2 weeks! But numbers is not what it’s about; it’s more about a turning of God’s own people to a new way of living and thinking. The oft-quoted verse of 2 Chronicles 7:14 needs to be looked at carefully, since it is seen as the blueprint for ‘revival’. Let’s put a slight emphasis on it:

“If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Here is where the first common mistake is made. Believers tend to look at the world around them and cry out “save them from their wicked ways, Lord. Send revival for this land!” Note the emphasis there. We become too busy looking at the specks in their eyes, when Jesus exhorted us to remove the planks from ours, before we can see well enough to remove their speck. Is that not what our Lord God is telling us? We need to turn from whatever it is within us that is wicked before he will ‘hear’ our prayers and act. I am currently reading an excellent book by Benjamin Corey; ‘Undiluted’ – a book recalling us to the radical message of Jesus that strips away the infestation of our modern culture that has weakened the church. We need to relearn how Jesus decried ‘holy people’ who only did and said ‘all the right things’ and encouraged people to be holy by seeing the sin within themselves and changing that. He spent more time with ‘sinners’ than with ‘saints’. He wanted to encourage them to become more than those ‘holy people’ they saw looking down on them.

The second most common mistake; people look forward to revival since they are convinced they will feel so good and righteous and nice and cosy. WRONG!!! The single, undeniable, most striking, unforgettable thing I experienced during that revival was conviction! That which Jesus sought to instil in us i.e. looking inwardly at our own hearts. I don’t mean feeling bad about saying a swear word or feeling some desire for something you should know better to avoid. I mean a reaction in your soul to even the most simple thought not in line with the Holy Spirit that keeps you awake at night, that does not allow you to sleep well until you sort it out, or make restitution with a person you wronged in some way. I found myself at that time doing strange things, like approaching a brother in church and actually saying, “Brother, I thought a wrong thought about you the other day. I think it came from some sense of jealousy, but it was just wrong. Forgive me!” This would be an internal thought hatched within my own ears that nobody knew about in the slightest. Nobody except God, and his internal monologue within me convicted me, to the point that I just had to go ask forgiveness. In so many ways this was painful and troubling, but it was also so purging. Like that gruelling training you do to lose weight and gain fitness that hurts your body but you just know you’re achieving something good.

Alas, the revival that we went through was not to last. I was at that church for less than a year, but within that time the minister and his wife managed to make it their mission to exact a humbling and submission from those touched by the revival towards them, not God! We can give it many labels, the most prevalent being ‘shepherding’ (which is strange since it is what ministers/pastors are called to do!); meaning a giving of an allegiance that should be reserved for God and God alone to a flawed church leadership (they’re all flawed) with no questioning or challenging of motives or methods. We went through a bad patch right after the good time, and though the minister’s wife had a dream about having to leave behind a well of blessing that would dry up to travel through a desert to a new spring, then a river, then an ocean of blessing, she herself chose to interpret that we were still to stay at the well and not move. At one external meeting for the choir, heated words were exchanged, but I determined to stay and sort things out. So I approached the minister and told him – I recall clearly the conversation as though it were yesterday:

“That’s great, Tim! So you’re behind me, then?” [I knew what he was implying]

“Mr. ______, I can’t be 100% behind any man. All I want to do is the Lord’s will.”

“I don’t want any of that! I want you behind me!”

“Right!” I said as I looked him square in the eye, then turned and walk out the door. I am not ashamed to admit that I went home and cried. This had become my home, my spiritual resting place, and at that tender age I was suddenly lost and spiritually homeless. I thank God that I had my own personal faith, grounding me firmly in my following of Jesus, not man. I was not a ‘yes man’ – never will be either! I thank God that he has given me the ability to walk alone and not be overly mindful of the walk of others – I can be concerned and pray for them but their problems don’t affect my testimony (most of the time!)

Revival is never about them. It’s always about you! Whether ‘they’ are non-believers outside the door, or fellow brothers and sisters across the pew, they are not your concern when you seek God, when you wish to experience his revival. Look at your heart, pray, and ask, as the Psalmist did, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51). Unfortunately, it may only take one person to withhold their heart from such examination to ruin any chance of revival (remember Achan!). This is maybe why it is so rare. Seek it yourself anyway, and you can only pray others come along with you. As I said, it’s about you in the end.

One of my favourite songs is ‘Comfortably Numb’ by Pink Floyd. Gilmour’s guitar solo is my ringtone, and though the song relates to drugs, his guitar is enough for me to get high! It means a lot to me, especially the closing words before that two-minute (far too short!) solo:

“When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look, but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.”

For many years now I have just sat in church feeling comfortably numb.