Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

The first of the Ten Commandments is often quoted and preached upon, and while it applied to Israel in a time they were tempted to worship other gods or go after them for blessings and assistance in some matters, I have often heard that it should apply to us too, since we may be capable of placing other ‘things’ before our Lord and allowing them to be ‘worshipped’ in some way. One might argue that is a bit of a stretch if you are talking about things which are naturally important to us and prominent in our lives, like family or jobs. However, Jesus did make a stunning declaration about following him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)sermon-mount

Many have tried to downplay the word ‘hate’ here as if it means ‘love less’ or ‘make secondary’ yet it is the word miseo, which means ‘hate’! In the context of ‘everything else Jesus said’ of course, we have to find an explanation of it, since we are commanded by him to love absolutely everyone! Why would we be commanded to love our enemies, yet hate our own family? Best answer I can offer is that the natural ties we have are to be regarded as below ‘loving others’, so our devotion to our families must be no more nor any stronger than our love of anyone else; we should love all people equally. Interesting? Something to ponder?

What is clear, however, is that Jesus demands our devotion to him first, and that he is not to be equated with devotion to anyone or anything else. An alternative translation of the first commandment is ‘Thou shalt have no other gods beside me’ so that would fit with the idea that God has no equal, no partner, no cohort he will allow to be venerated or worshipped like him.

Fair enough? Let me suggest a common mistake many make regarding this commandment. Some time ago, while I was still a freshman (as they call it in the US) at Bible College, I came across a woman who believed that John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ meant her Bible! I was surprised at myself that I suppressed a laugh, since I had this picture in my mind of a black leather gilt-edged KJV sitting beside God at the beginning of the universe! I quietly explained to her that ‘the Word’ here is the pre-eternal name of Jesus [note: capitalised (in English)]. He is the one who was both with God, and was God, from the beginning and will be forever. By equating her Bible (the word of God) to being the Word, she was actually allowing it to not just be with God as I had pictured, but to be God (that is what John 1:1 states). Does this mean then that when I read my Bible, I hold God in my hand? Or within the app on my phone, in 64 different versions?

While this may be something we can laugh over, I have come to the conclusion that it is more serious a problem than one might first think. I know plenty of believers who adore their Bible, talk about it in ways that you’d think was reserved for lovers or family members… and right away I recall that command Jesus made about family! If nothing is to come between us and God, or to be equated in reverence with God, then this must include our Bible! Please don’t ask for a Venn diagram of that – our Bible sits squarely within the box marked ‘everything’.

The Jews hated idols, just like the Muslims do today. They were commanded not to worship them, and they strove to have no graven images to which they bowed or showed reverence, but human nature being what it is, they had to have some tangible thing to sit in awe of, in their synagogues. So they created special manuscripts from specifically prescribed forms of hide, written in a specific mixture of ink, which were not to be touched by vile human hands or anything else debase, so they made silver psothebystorahointers… were you to drop one of these scrolls on the floor, I am sure you would hear gasps of horror! Some Muslims do exactly the same thing with their Koran, wrapping them in beautiful silk scarves and handling them with such delicate care. Do Christians do the same? I did know of believers who were shocked at the idea of me tossing my old worn-out Bible into a bin once I got a new one! What was I supposed to do? Burn it on a ceremonial barge on the river Jordan with prayers? Revering the paper and ink IS idolatry, sorry!

However, I do love my Bible! I read it constantly, and try to find new things I can learn from it, and strive to live by what I glean from it. Thankfully, the English word ‘love’ can be used for anything from ice cream to God, so when I say I love something I know I don’t love it more than I love Jesus. Or can I be sure? If it is possible for me to fall in love with someone, or some thing that I love doing, which distracts me from following Jesus, then can it also be possible that my Bible could distract me too? There may be many ways, but the question raised surely is this: “if my Bible is simply the words of God in written form, then how could that be possible?” Right away, I arrive at the kernel of the issue as I see it. The ‘standard’ position of the fundamentalist who holds to ‘inerrancy of scripture’ on this is that ‘every word of our scriptures has been written by God’. Known as ‘plenary inspiration’ (a good description here), it ascribes God’s inspiration to the complete Bible as we have it today, and decries any attempt to ‘water that down’. This is perfectly understandable since we do not wish to allow a ‘take what you want and ignore the rest’ faith in Christ (even though many who maintain ‘inerrancy’ do so with some commands they don’t like!), but while I have never held this ‘plenary’ position (which is not the default position within the whole church and never has been), I have never been one to take a pair of scissors to my Bible! I prefer what scripture says about itself, that it is all ‘God-breathed‘ (2 Tim. 3:16). I see the hand of God and his redemption story and plan throughout, from Genesis to Revelation, but many parts are limited in understanding simply due to the human writers, since it was written by people of an ancient time, who had limits on knowledge and a lack of things we now know. Therefore to find an ‘archaic’ view of something in my Bible is not a problem to me; I don’t need to explain it or defend it. However, many believers, fixated on their irrefutable plenary doctrine, tie themselves in knots defending what is text on a page of a book, in the belief that they are defending their faith, or even defending God!

Let’s take a couple of examples for illustration: in the book of Job, we have a record of God speaking to Job where he asks “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail…” (Job 38:22); we now know that God does not have ‘storehouses’ of snow or hail. We know how they form now, through our study of meteorology. Of course, everyone says that this is metaphor/ poetry/ allegory, even though it is a record of God’s actual words to Job. So was God revealing a truth to Job according to his limited understanding? Then we encounter the creation account in Genesis: this is taken as literal by so many who would easily accept the metaphorical aspect of the passage in Job, yet reading Genesis 1 without the blinkers of devotion can see clearly that it is the description of a flat earth at the centre of the universe, with night and day occurring before the creation of the sun and moon. Why is there this ‘blind devotion’? It might be because it belongs to the Pentateuch/ Torah, the first five books of our Bible also known as ‘the Law’. From some Jewish tradition we have inherited, it is part of that ‘given’ to Moses directly by God, yet there is no support for this (and Moses even dies before the end!). So much of this comes from cultural tradition and not a direct reading of scripture. It’s all supposed to be literal historical narrative, yet in my evangelical Bible College, we studied the first 11 chapters of Genesis separately to the rest – chapter 12 is when the famous Abram appears (later called Abraham).

I do ponder how some parts that we can now see with modern knowledge can be accepted as not literal, yet other parts cannot! What is it about the creation account that it just must be adhered to? I’ll not go into any speculation about politico-historico-cultural stuff here, but my point is simply this: in trying to explain our faith to non-believers, do we not realise that an insistence on a literal reading of Genesis 1 is perceived as one of the most idiotic stances in the 21st century? If we try our hardest to state that every word is literal, and that it is not describing a flat centric earth, is that not just plain denial? If we apply a rational mind to it, then surely a realisation must occur! To continue in this conformity, then is it not akin to ignoring or covering over the truth? Is that not a description for lying?

flee_idolatryFor me, it truly is a blind devotion, by faith, and that means that your faith in a book is unshakeable (even though you’d be prepared to forego the ‘storehouses’ reference in Job!), and right away, I worry. I worry that such devotion that should only be reserved for God and God alone, is given to what is an object on our shelves or a program in our computers and phones!

I actually don’t want any debate on this – I’ve had enough over my life! I know where I stand on this issue, where I have always stood, and it has never affected my faith in Jesus as my Lord. I simply want fellow believers to consider what they’re doing. If you are not ready to accept it, I’ll leave it there.

Grace be with you.

Great Expectations

jesus-christ-triumphal-entry-949744-wallpaperIt just dawned on me what it was that led to the people who called for Jesus to be crucified only a week after hailing him as the Messiah… their expectations!

We are often told from pulpits that the Pharisees and the religious ‘establishment’ in Jerusalem ‘turned the crowd against Jesus’. That has an element of truth in it, but it wasn’t in just one week that it was achieved. The people had been fed a diet of expectation all their lives. It was the received wisdom, from specific interpretations of their scriptures, that the Messiah was about to come, but he would be a warrior king who would supernaturally eject the Romans from Judaea and ‘restore the kingdom’ i.e. just as it was in King David’s time.

That was why they cried ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ (Matt. 21:9). They were expecting this revolution, this spiritual freeing of their nation from oppression. They had heard many things, and many rumours about this prophet from a far-off part.

Imagine their disappointment when he actually did not challenge the Romans, nor be drawn on any questions about how they should ‘deal’ with the Imperialists. Instead he continued in his teaching he had always maintained… that he wants his followers to be servants, to everyone, and to love all, even enemies! It wasn’t a battle cry, or a call to arms, or anything remotely like that. No, it was the opposite! This man they had been told was coming even arrived on a donkey! The donkey and colt were ready for him to use for his ‘triumphal’ entry, just as Zechariah had prophesied, so these people were not properly informed on scripture after all. The first thing Jesus did on arrival? He went to the Temple and drove out those who had commercialised his religion! His attacks were not on their conquerors, but their own religious leaders. He just could not have been their glorious Messiah! So when the call came for his death, they were only too eager to join in.

What are our expectations of Jesus? Do we decide in advance what we think he will do for us, or who or what he will be to us?

Or do we just accept who he iswhat he is, and most importantly, what he asks us to be, and to do? It’s all there in our gospel records, so why the false expectations?

Grace be with you.

The Chilcot Report and the separation of church and state

Tony-BlairHere I go finding links again! What has Chilcot got to do with disestablishmentarianism, I hear you ask? You weren’t asking that specifically? Well, here goes…

Amidst all the conclusions, recriminations and finger-pointing going on right now, what stood out to me was a comment by Claire Short, who was a member of Blair’s cabinet and was opposed to the Iraq invasion. She said that Tony Blair was determined to stand with George W. Bush on the matter and was convinced that going to Iraq was the right thing to do, thus leading to a preference for the intelligence reports that favoured that decision and a dismissal of other voices.

Something I bang on about quite a bit is ‘confirmation bias’ since it affects a lot of things we say, do and believe. We have certain convictions within ourselves that we hold to firmly. These are the sort of things we hold ‘sacred’ and would need to undergo a huge change in ourselves to abandon, or even question. When these things are challenged, we immediately become defensive, and try our best to seek validation for our beliefs, to the point that we choose to ignore glaring truths that we are faced with, just because they undermine these sacred things we treasure. While I describe myself as a definite ‘questioning Thomas’ who is always posing the questions others dislike or avoid (the childlike ‘WHY?’), I too have a degree of confirmation bias. It exists in us all. Acquiescing to such unpalatable truths is never comfortable.

So I can see how Blair fell into his own bias trap by making a gut decision before all the information was in and digested. Maybe he had Thatcher’s advice still ringing in his ears: “Great leaders lead by conviction, not consent!” That’s only true if you consider dictators and tyrants to be ‘great’! True democratic leaders recognise that they are not perfect, and are capable of making fallible decisions, so submit themselves to the rigours of democratic consent, and the voices of the dissenters. Only the bad ones surround themselves with ‘yes men’ (like George W. Bush). Admission of our fallibility is the starting point of the Christian journey, is it not? Blair counts himself as a religious man, so why did he ignore that basic belief at that crucial time of decision?

I see the results of this bias almost every day. My fellow evangelicals have a set of beliefs that spring from their faith, which they count as vital core parts of their faith. They believe a, b, and c, so then it follows that d, e, f,… right up to x, y and z must be true too. They post on social media about all these various things. I reply that they’ve latched onto a hoax or an exaggeration. 9 times out of 10, they react badly, and reject my claim, no matter how factual it is. Saddens me, since we all follow Jesus, who is The Truth. I cannot comprehend how holding on to something false has any positive effect for the holder, the hearer/ reader, or our faith (or society in general!)

And so this is why I maintain my core belief in the separation of church and state, as has been maintained in manywestminster-abbey branches of Christianity, not least the Baptist school of thought. If we allow any ‘church’ or any part of the Christian church in the world, to have political power, then certain convictions they hold will be subject to become state policy, and who is to say which convictions are right, and which are wrong? In a plural society, under the overarching belief… no! strike that… the overarching fact that not one of us is infallible (except The One), we all need to find common agreement on things.

My convictions of faith are mine, and I do seek to convince others that my faith is true, and convert them to following Jesus, but any decision I make in regards to politics or the society I share must recognise that many things I hold true are not so for others, and may even be unfounded! I know which things are certain in my heart, but even those are simply personal and not universal. Just surrounding myself with ‘yes men’ who concur with all my convictions will not change that fact.

Tony Blair failed as our PM right at the most important time we needed him to make a decision, simply because he had convinced himself of his motives. What does our scripture say about that?

Fools find no pleasure in understanding
    but delight in airing their own opinions. (Prov. 18:2)

Do not get me wrong; my values will always shape what I say, do, act, vote, lobby, campaign or petition for. However, I exist as one individual in a society of voices, and we will never agree on everything, so listening to those voices, and understanding them, is vital for righteous living, in my humble opinion.

Grace be with you.