Salta to Alta: the breadth of Christianity

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Cathedral of the Northern Lights

On Sunday, I visited the town of Alta, the capital of the northernmost Norwegian county of Finnmark. This was where the Northern Lights was first studied scientifically, so the Evangelical Lutheran church (formerly the state church until a separation from the state last year) built a modern ‘Cathedral of the Northern Lights’, with a basement display of the history of the folklore and scientific understanding of the polar phenomenon.

My wife and I were on a cruise in lieu of our previous 30th anniversary to see Norway, and being winter, hoping to see the Northern Lights for the first time. We were not disappointed! A young member of this church told us we had witnessed one of the most ‘dynamic’ displays they had seen, as I remarked to him that I found the lights to be changing more rapidly than I had first believed: I was right to be surprised! Bucket list ticked, but I wish to see them again in even greater splendour.

What was also most memorable, for me, was the brief conversation I had with Philip, the tall young blonde Nordic lad. He revealed that he had come from a pentecostal background and had spent three years at Bethel, the source of much of our modern worship songs which we use in church. That surprised me since I found the Lutheran service in the cathedral very liturgical and ‘high church’: the priest (though female) was in robes, knelt behind the table while praying, recited a liturgy with interspersed singing from the congregation prompted by the choreographed pipe organ… although it was all performed in the Nordic language unknown to me, I was able to recognise the Lord’s Prayer by the rhythmic chanting they all engaged in together. Since my wife did not pick it up, it may well be my linguist’s brain deciphering that, but I felt a resonance, amidst the ignorance of the wording of the service, that here was yet another expression of faith from fellow followers.

I had a very similar experience in 1989, on my Bible College field term in Salta, Argentina, with the Anglican church: the archbishop of the northern diocese in his robes, reciting in Argentinian Spanish at a time I was only learning the rudimentaries of standard Spanish. These two places could maybe not be more strikingly different in many ways. Salta was a town in one of the southernmost countries of the world, bathed in 35C heat, in a culture of heated passion (the birthplace of the tango, one of the hottest ballroom dances you will witness). Alta was in one of the northernmost countries of the world, frozen in -14C cold, in a culture of pragmatic survival and ‘coolness’ in the face of potentially fatal winters. Norway have just confirmed their dominance on the Winter Olympics medal table, and noticing the practice of placing lights in all the windows and not closing curtains tells me they have a culture that thinks of the stranger in the snow who might need that beacon of hope to find safety on an unfortunate night.

But the commonality of faith pervades. In Argentina, I discovered a pentecostal church more enamoured with healing and ‘signs’ to be performed, than with simply reaching the lost, healing the soul and feeding the poor. The Anglican church had taken up that mantle, being more ‘evangelical’ in its outreach to the community. Philip represented a young generation in Norway that appeared to me to have experienced pentecostalism but had decided to join an ‘old’ church and seemed to be happy, balanced and outgoing. He also assured an old disestablishmentarian that their separation of church and state had been received very well on both sides. I cannot make a decision on all Norwegian youth in churches based on one brief encounter, but I sensed that this church, despite the service being undecipherable, with some ceremonial parts quite alien to me, was open and friendly, and felt like a welcoming place.

The congregants in Alta belonged to that community,

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Inside the Alta Cathedral

and whatever ‘ceremony’ gave them a sense of unity as they participated in it, is the same as the ‘ceremony’ we perform in our church in Belfast; even though we like to think that we are non-liturgical, we do have a choreographed service – just in a different way… in the worship team I receive the order of service email every week.

When we travelled further north on the ship around the North Cape to Honningsvåg, we discovered another little church, much older, that was truly a centre of the community: after the retreating Nazis evacuated the town and burnt it to the ground before the Soviets arrived, the only building they left was the church. Maybe they still had some sense of reverence for ‘holy’ things! The townspeople elected to allow able men to occupy the church and live there until they managed to rebuild it and they all could return. Today it is a warm and welcoming community in the far reaches of the snowbound land.

 

My participation in these places, so far apart yet so closely linked by the congruence of communal experience, has helped to cement in me that feeling that we do share a common faith in Jesus. Whatever doctrinal, liturgical or musical differences we may have (I didn’t recognise a single hymnal tune in Alta), what we do have are the uniting and binding hands of love and grace that were nailed to that cross.

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—  I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

– John 17: 20-23

Grace be with you.

 

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Ripping the fingernails

037d94fb9d5581a0672b8a8c736fcb93Now that you’ve got over the shock of a four-letter word on a Christian blog… oh, you haven’t? Basically, I came across this meme when searching for a ‘hang in there’ type, and despite being alone, I lolled (yes, I’ll hazard a guess that lol is already a verb. If not, I’ve just invented it, though as a linguist, I know that many people will be using it simultaneously; such is language change). Language change is at the heart of the phenomenon of ‘swearing’ – words that I use perfectly innocently can be anathema to an older generation (I learnt once!). I know that I myself would not say ‘Fuck off!’ to someone, unless I was REALLY pissed; I’d be more inclined to say ‘Piss off!’ but then that begs the question why one four-letter word that has a nasty connotation is ‘not as bad’ as another. This all has to do with what one hearer thinks of a word as opposed to the speaker, but I shall not descend into a discussion on this since it is the furthest thing from the point I wish to make.

For me, once I analyse it, I know full well that I should not tell someone else to fuck off but if I tell them to piss off, is that any more acceptable? Jesus spoke of language as abuse in his great sermon and even went so far as to condemn saying ‘you fool’, so I recognise, from the principles he taught, that using ‘fuck off’ is unacceptable, not because it’s a social taboo, but because it is usually said in anger and not in love! Anything from ‘c**t’ (that is still a word I could not even print) to ‘fool’ is condemned! Consider that for a while…

No, the whole reason I laughed at the meme is because that figure there is me! The one hanging on the edge, not the well-intentioned encourager. Having watched a science program on the nature of comedy, I know that this is one of the levels on which the humour works, and the four-letter word adds to the ‘unexpected’ aspect. I shall not go into all the details, but the past few years of things going awry has quickened to a pace I don’t think I can handle any longer. I knew that embarking on a book on finding contentment would open for me a can of worms in order for me to experience setbacks, ponder them (which I do as I lie awake at night – this blog is typically written in the wee small hours), learn from them, and then acquire the capability to write all about them, but that single can has become about half a dozen now. Yes, I’m getting quite pissed at my situation and my lot and I’m interjecting questions at God all about it, which is perfectly acceptable with scripture writers, so it’s fine for you and me! Even Jesus in anguish on his cross repeated the words of David asking why God had forsaken him!! I know that God is good and that he has my life in his hand and everything plays its part in a plan, but I have started to move away from the ‘only-inferred’ hyper-calvinism of the evangelical creed that believes every little action/ breath/ flight of a fly in the world is pre-ordained. God is not the cause of my troubles, but he does know all about them and has a workaround. I just wish he would share more of that personal workaround with me! He will, in his own good time, but the patience he gave me (I seem to have a larger share of that virtue in my personality than most others) is running out; my barrel of hope I got when I found Jesus on my path and changed onto his is down to the dregs: REFILL, PLEASE!!

What of the other character? The well-wisher who supplies only ‘encouraging words’ and maybe does deserve to be addressed thus? I have many dear brothers and sisters who offer such words, as I have done to others myself. The best ones are the ones who put hands on shoulders and say a prayer, and we take it to God together, or even give out free hugs. However, such words on their own are inclined to make me, in my impatient and troubled mood, say (internally only), “AWWW! Piss off!!” Totally wrong, but hey who’s perfect? Why be like this? I have been the relaxed onlooker on another’s life offering soothing insights, and I will be again, for sure. Maybe because I don’t want words, I want reality! Let meresurrected-jesus-modern-disciples take you back to Thomas for illustration; I always like to go back to Thomas. Great guy, because he’s just like me! [smug grin]

The scene

After the crucifixion of Jesus: The 12 apostles… no, there’s only 11 now… have had just about the worst shakeup of their world they could not have foreseen. They had become convinced that their master was the Messiah as prophesied and that this was the pivot of history. Their expectation was the same as all their generation. The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem was the herald of the dawn of the restoration of David’s kingdom, indeed the fulness of the kingdom of God was to come down upon the Earth, and the vanquishing of the Roman occupiers; Jesus was going to set up his throne right there, and the mother of James and John had already called shotgun on their seats at his side. They never grasped why he kept talking to them about suffering and sacrifice, and going ahead of them to a place he would prepare for them. While they murmured their misgivings to each other, it was Thomas who asked his Lord to explain further. He was the enquiring, questioning sort, and I read into the gospels that he was never fully satisfied with answers that were not complete in his own mind. Suddenly, an angry mob had come for Jesus in Gethsemane, arrested him amidst confusion and even violence, taken him away to a kangaroo court, and the disciples had dispersed and fled in fear. Peter was so scared for his own life that he denied knowing his beloved master, even with that swearing we were discussing! Jesus was tried and hung on the cross, died and was buried. They returned in sorrow and pain to their old lives, just not knowing what they had seen, who they had believed in. They met together again in secret, still fearing they would be tried as followers of that heretical Galilean carpenter, but Thomas was not with them. Maybe he just felt there was no point, maybe he had given up all hope, how can we know (we weren’t there), but he had stayed away, nursing his wounds in a solitary reflective way that introverts must do after a trauma. Then the other 10 came to him, telling him loudly and with inexplicable joy that they had seen Jesus! He had risen from the grave!!

Thomas, however, was not in the mood for just joining in with this hullabaloo. Bully for them! They’d seen something he had not. Why could he not have had a visit too? “Where exactly is Jesus then?” he must have thought, “if they’ve all seen him alive.” For me, Thomas was not doubting God, he was doubting them, and the doubts were borne from his experience that did not tally with their words. They could have possibly hallucinated in a sort of mass hysteria of wishful thinking that Jesus had not actually been crucified, but he knew that Jesus… was… dead! It was the words he was rejecting, because he wanted the same experience they had experienced. He wanted to see and feel Jesus with his own eyes and hands. In other words, he wanted the reality of Jesus to break into his life again, like it had been for all those years he spent following him.

I’ve had that reality enter my life clearly too, on many occasions, not least my escapade with death seven years ago, when I was all ready to say my goodbye and leave this world. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking of saying the goodbye to my loved ones, since I was languishing in the ICU and thought that I might just fade off there and then. That was when God reached down to me, spoke to me, and gave me a promise of further years. That was REAL! It changed my perspective in many ways, and ways I have yet to write about, but it has faded since then, with me being as human as the next person, and it only feels now like that ‘fleeting glimpse’ Pink Floyd sang about! I don’t wlooking-up-the-cliff-faceish to face death again (not yet) – been there and bought the T-shirt! I want to face life again, because right now it feels like that is what has slipped away from me, and the view from this side of the cliff edge is just that: the edge of that cliff! Like Thomas, I’m floundering in the doubts that all those things in the past have little to say to me in the present, and I truly want God to reach down in reality again, and show me what he can do, before my flimsy fingernails finally give way, and I fall into the abyss.

The scene a week later

Thomas is with the others this time, door locked, all still in fear. Jesus breaks in again and shows himself, says ‘Peace!’ He turns to Thomas and offers to him to not just see, but touch and feel him, and believe… again.

This is my prayer, Lord… this!

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.

Where fear belongs

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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4 KJV)

The 23rd Psalm is one of the pieces of scripture I actually like in the KJV. Maybe it’s just because it has that poetic charm of familiarity, and the archaisms add to the poetry. This verse, though, came alive to me (forgive the pun) after I faced death myself. Modern translations render it ‘the darkest valley’, which is maybe more accurate, but what darker valley could there be but ‘the shadow of death’?

I blogged on my experience, My Journey From Death, very briefly, since recalling the memories of the time was too upsetting for me. This itself is ironic considering that I faced death square on and accepted it, with peace and a resolve, yet recollections of the time still induce strong emotions, very akin to fear. I knew at the time that I felt fear, but almost immediately, the fear was calmed by the hand of God beside me, and his reassuring voice, though I only heard five words! It was then that I realised that King David penned that Psalm from the experience of facing death, and not just as a poetic exercise. It’s not a prediction, it’s a testimony!

I’ve blogged on this before, where I maintained that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear. For me, there are always two paths open for me when I face a decision: the path of faith or the path of fear. I do not believe they can ever reach the same destination. I have also cited it as a primary reason for my rejection of all the ‘end times’ nonsense around these days; I just do not like fellow believers living in abject terror of the world falling apart, and they really do this (despite their denials) every morning they wake up and switch on the news! Only once you step outside that mindset and leave it behind do you begin to see the prison cell that it is!

After_Earth_PosterI had a film recorded to watch by myself, since it was a sci-fi thriller, and Karen would not be keen on it. It was released in 2013, but since I hadn’t heard of it until it appeared on ITV2, I realised it might not be such a great film. Nonetheless, I’ll watch practically any sci-fi! ‘After Earth’ was not among M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest works, nor was it one of Will Smith’s greatest performances, but I’ll forego a film review here. The main theme of the film was actually fear, and how Smith’s character, Cypher, had learnt to be a ‘ghost’ to evade aliens who ‘smelt fear’ (yeah it was a bit daft!). He made a great statement, though, one which I had to rewind to listen to again, to analyse if it really was that profound:

“Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present, and may not ever, exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me: danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”

While there is a natural fear of things as we face them, like fire or standing at the edge of a tall cliff, this is simply a defence mechanism, and we need to have it to survive and avoid injury. What we are talking about here is that fear that thinks of what might happen and worries about it. Was Cypher correct in his evaluation? For me it’s most definitely yes. To live a life of faith, I must be of a persuasion that my Father God has all things in control for me and is working for my benefit in everything. I must not allow anything to cloud that surety (I’ll not say doubts since I already explained in that previous blog how they play a vital rôle in my growing faith).

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom. 8:28)

Therefore, my reality must be a world in which my interests are paramount to my heavenly Father, and any fear that this is not the case, is purely in my own mind, and the product of my own worries, not of God. This is exactly a direct command and reassurance that Jesus gave us:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? (Matt. 6:25)

In giving ourselves over to fears that are borne from worry about our future, we have slipped into that easy place of disobedience to the command: ‘do not worry’.

Grace be with you.

Child beheaded for striking parents!

isis-flagA few weeks ago, I did something I truly wish I had not! I warn you now not to do the same. I was merrily googling about something political, for information; in my search bar I had included the word ‘atrocities’ and then, for some reason, within the search results, I clicked on ‘images’! Despite not typing in anything to do with ISIS, the first images that appeared were ISIS atrocities! I looked, for too long, far too long, I was mesmerised. It was almost certainly less than a minute, but that was all it took to burn those pictures into my brain. I have some failing memory in my advancing years; how I wish it would fail me now – the pictures will haunt my nightmares until I leave this Earth.

In no shape or form will I ever join in the politically-motivated rhetoric of branding all Muslims as barbaric or savage, but those people in ISIS must be the most debased and disgusting humans on this planet right now. I cannot think of anyone worse. In the past we’ve had the Nazis (white Europeans) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Asian atheists), amongst other savages, so ISIS are not wholly unique, but they are making the effort to top the list with fervour. The most recent report that I read was how they executed 19 young women who refused to take part in ‘sexual jihad’ – I’ll spare you the details.

However, my headline ‘shocker’ has nothing to do with ISIS or Muslims whatsoever. It would have been a tabloid headline in 16th century Geneva (had they been reading tabloids then)! Church history scholars will realise that this is referring to post-reformation Geneva, a city state founded on and run by the principles of Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ and his interpretation of the Bible. One reliable source records that it was a teenage boy, called Phillipe DeVille and that he was tied to a stake and then beheaded. Another source claims it was a girl, but there is no argument against the fact that it did happen, as punishment for lashing out at both parents. Many other unruly children were subjected to harsh punishments, and many adults were beheaded or burnt at the stake for disagreeing with Calvin, or the council who made his ‘Institutes’ as authoritative as the holy scriptures. You can read of the executions of Servetus and Gruet elsewhere, if you can stomach it, and the various debates over how much Calvin himself was involved. His followers tend to try their best to defend him and downplay that he really wanted these men killed, or wished for a swift execution, etc., and that is understandable if you’ve based a whole load of your theology on his writings. The evidence against him, however, is pretty damning. We can say things like “it was a different time he lived in” and I’m glad if we can agree that in the 21st century Western world, we have moved on from ‘that time’.

Calvinism is not the debate I’m entering into, though. I can label myself a Calvinist for the side I drop onto from the fence on the ever-present debate on election and the visibility of the church, but I’m not an ardent disciple of his theology at all. No, the real problem for me is that this utterly heinous act comes directly from our Bible, from the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament:

Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death. (Ex. 21:15)

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (Deut. 21: 18-21)

Had it been a Calvinistic interpretation of some obscure verse, I could dismiss it, but it’s not. It’s as clear as it reads in my own Bible that I cherish. And here lies the problem with those who wish to ‘return to the Law’: The real problem.

The ‘divisions’ of the Lawmosaiclaw

Many who call for a return to observance of the Mosaic Law understand that there are many things in it that seem petty and unnecessary for us e.g. men should not shave the sides of their head, and clothing should not be made with mixed fabrics. Some are outdated; a man who left the Amish community after his personal conversion from their heavily-ritualised living had an infestation of woodworm in his barn. He read the appropriate law and burned the barn down! They didn’t have effective pesticides in those days but we do now.

So in order to be able to dismiss some laws and not others, some try to distinguish them into categories, like ‘moral’, ‘ritual/ ceremonial’, ‘dietary’, ‘clean and unclean things’, etc., but the problem here is that such a division was never in the original. There’s no ‘book of ceremonial law’ or ‘chapter x: the moral code’ there. They’re written in a continuous though quite diverse manner. All the laws as written were to be adhered to uniformly and consistently. As with all legal codes, moral dilemmas ensued with interpretations of just how they could be applied, like just how far could one walk on the Sabbath, for instance, and so interpretations were added. I have often heard things like “when Jesus criticised the Pharisees, he wasn’t attacking the law, but all the ‘ordinances’ that were added on to the law, ‘by man'”

However, even if we were to remove all such additional commentary, and then divide up the Mosaic Law and assign them all into various categories, and then say that we should only keep the ‘moral’ ones, we are still left with the ones quoted above; they’re clearly to do with morals – they even tie into the fifth commandment, ‘honour your father and your mother’ (though that was addressed to adults who were not to forget their elderly parents). Note that it even extends beyond physical violence – Ex. 21:17 states: Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. [emphasis added]

If you truly advocate a return to law-keeping, then note that Paul made it clear that we cannot keep just part – we must adhere to it all, and to not do so would invoke a curse! He even talks of the law as slavery!!

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ (Gal.3:10)

And so we find ourselves faced with a command, a moral one, that must be adhered to. Are we to take our unruly and rebellious teenage children to the legal authorities for execution? As I recall the images I saw on my google page, some of them of children… I must ask: would there be much difference between that and what we must set up were we to go back to the days those laws were written for? If you can comprehend what this means, you have begun to be mindful of the difficulty we face. There are some theologians who believe the Mosaic Law to have been written by man – it is truly a very difficult thing for fundamentalists to argue against!

Paul & the Galatians

You see, there’s a lot of talk about the gospel offending people these days, and it’s worn as a badge of honour by many: “I don’t care if my faith or my Bible offends people, I’m saying it anyway!” – and they refer to Paul talking about the offence and the ‘scandal’ of the gospel. Today it’s usually to do with a ‘laxness’ in morals in modern society, as well as in some churches, or a disregard for ‘the law’, or not calling sin, sin. However, this was not what Paul meant by ‘the offence of the cross’!

It’s true! The gospel of Jesus is offensive! Paul states that clearly: Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. (Gal.5:11). But… Paul is not describing an offence against a ‘lawless faith’ that disregards sin and its consequences and punishments. No! He’s preaching to the Galatians against ‘the law’! And he is talking about the Law as written in the scriptures, not any ‘man-made additional ordinances’. Why is this man, who was a fervent Pharisee, zealous for the Hebrew scriptures and a persecutor of the traitorous Christians, now saying that he’s not for going back to the Law!? He is addressing the church in Galatia, which has been infiltrated by legalists who are trying to get them to be circumcised, and Paul, a circumcised Jew himself, screams “NO!” at them.

Let me explain: Some had entered the Galatian church after Paul, and taught that believers need to be circumcised according to the law, and then told the Galatians that Paul preached the same message. Paul denied this, and in his letter he reels on these usurpers in one of his most venomous writings. What Paul is talking about to the Galatians in the passage quoted above is the offence that the gospel causes to these people; the ones who wish to take the Galatian church back to following the Mosaic law. The case where ‘the offence of the cross [would have] been abolished’ in chapter 5 is made if what the Galatians have been told (that Paul preaches circumcision too) were true. Were Paul to be preaching this, then there would be no offence caused to these pious, religious, law-keeping perverters of the gospel. Hold on! He’s calling law-keepers ‘perverters’ of the gospel? Yes! He addresses this at the outset of the letter: Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (1:7)

Christ and Our Cross

Christ and Our Cross

The offence of the cross is what so many find hard to grasp; which is that grace is extended to whomever would believe and follow Christ, and is not dependent on works at allI exhort you to read the whole epistle, maybe even in The Message paraphrase, since it captures Paul’s anger that many other translations seem to dilute. Be aware, as you read it, that it most certainly is not a “hello, chums! Hope you’re all feeling well today!” sort of letter; far from it!

 Law v. Grace

It was this ‘offence’ of the gospel of grace that caused Mohammad to rebel against it since he could not accept the very idea of vicarious atonement. Vicarious what? It means that someone took the place of punishment for the sins of another; they paid the cost, and took the consequences. This is the very lynchpin of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He paid it all, for the sins of anyone who would accept that vicarious atonement and not rebel against it; it is the will of God that we should partake of it, since God knows our weakness and how we cannot achieve such atonement for ourselves. Paul labours on this throughout Galatians, and touches on it in other epistles, notably Romans.

Now a perfectly natural reaction to this news is to take an attitude of “so all my sins are forgiven!? That means it doesn’t matter if I sin or not!” Some even went to the extreme of saying that we should sin all the more, since this glorifies God by displaying the majesty of his grace that forgives those sins that we commit. As ‘The Teacher’ wrote in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9), and this attitude which we see in some modern churches that ‘sin is no longer an issue’ is as old as the gospel itself. It pervaded Gnostic thought and philosophy, and Paul dismissed it directly to the Roman believers:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rom. 6:1,2)

[The ‘Last Days’ began with Jesus’ ascension to heaven!]

Paul’s theology outlines beautifully how we have died with Christ on the cross, to sin, and arose again to salvation and new life, and anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Rom. 6:6-8). Unfortunately, though, many who have been appalled at those who grant others a ‘license to sin’ (I call them ‘licensers’ in my book) then react in a human way and begin to reject the doctrine of grace, preferring a more ‘righteous’ way of living, and they gravitate back to a code that they can refer to for precise guidance. My problem right away is that we are called to be righteous, not self-righteous, and in this I see a problem arise, which leads to conceitedness, with fellow brothers and sisters thinking that they are ‘better’ than other believers, when in fact, the beginning of the following after Jesus is humility; we are to deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24). Jesus lays out just how much sin resides in us in his Sermon on the Mount, and Paul declares that he himself is the chief of sinners. (1Tim. 1:15) – he recognised that once he was aware of his own fallen heart, there could be nobody else he could judge as beneath him.

I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God. – Oswald Chambers

I have come to believe that this was the very intention of Jesus in pointing to our hearts and saying “there lies sin!” Why else would he convict us so badly, rebuke us so sharply? Only to teach us that each of us has been forgiven, completely, totally, so we cannot wish to judge others or belittle them. We will then react to grace in a positive way, like the single leper from the ten healed, who returned to Jesus to give thanks.

How then do we deal with the licensers? Why can they not feel what that one leper felt and desire to serve Christ in a totally non-selfish way? (And why is it that so many who preach about personal wealth and health by faith then fall into this trap?). More importantly, why do we have this struggle between law and grace?

Cheap grace

dbonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was a modern martyr for the gospel, executed by Hitler’s regime for maintaining his stance against the evil he saw around him. His most famous work was ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and his death was a testimony to what he wrote. He saw much of this ‘license to sin’ in his day too (just as it was in the first century, and still is in the 21st century), and he coined the term ‘cheap grace’ to describe what he perceived these people were doing with the gospel of true grace (or ‘costly grace’). For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace was a perversion of the gospel where grace was used as an excuse for sin, since it was easier to view it that way and live a life without discipleship, without ‘following after’ Christ, which would cost much to any disciple, maybe even to the point of their own life; we are to take up our cross, and we would do well to grasp just what that phrase means. Bonhoeffer certainly did!

To get a better understanding of this, let us first go back to Martin Luther, since his reformation has been blamed for offering Christians licence by taking them away from the long-standing doctrines and sacraments of the established church. On the contrary, what was probably the spark that lit his fire of passion to call for a serious debate within the church was an event one Saturday evening; on his way home, he found a parishioner lying drunk in the gutter. Luther picked him up and brushed him down, and rebuked him for his drunkenness, telling him that he must go home and sober up for the morning to be able to get to the confessional for his sin. The man dismissed his priest, drawing out of his pocket a bill signed by the Pope which he had paid a good sum for, saying “see! The Pope himself has absolved all my sins! I can do as I like!” Licensing existed in the Roman Catholic church too! Luther was appalled at such an attitude: he was a true disciple – he was not intending to enter the priesthood, but did so after promising God he would if hemartin_luther survived a severe lightning storm in the Alps. His word was his bond. As he read his Bible more, and sought the Lord, his grasp of the doctrine of grace did not diminish his desire for ongoing costly discipleship. No, it was a comfort to him, that his place in heaven was assured, that he need not strive any more, but in the heart of a true disciple, it offered strength to the resolve to follow, not the excuse to carry on with life just as before and forget about following. Jesus always laid out difficult conditions for following him. Some of these are too difficult for some!

Bonhoeffer built on this foundation, and wrote some excellent stuff on the differences between cheap grace and costly grace. I prefer to call costly grace ‘true grace’ since this is what flowed from Jesus’ blood on the cross in the first place, and was what Paul and all the apostles, and good church founders throughout Christian history have known. But Bonhoeffer explains why he calls it ‘costly grace’:

It is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.

It is costly because it condemns the sinner, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.

The answer and the antidote to cheap grace is not to return to the law. Paul lays out just how twisted a logic that is, since we are leaving our means of salvation, by grace, through faith, and going back to that which never could save. Abraham was justified by faith, not law, long before the law came! No, the answer to cheap grace is not a return to the Law, but to preach, and live by, true costly grace.

I cringe when I see the likes of Joel Osteen look at the camera and say to viewers to recite his own version of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ (which is not in the Bible, by the way) and then say “congratulations, you are now in the family of God!”. Yes, my own salvation started at a moment with a prayer like that, but with little to no teaching on those TV screens about commitment and discipleship, is that single prayer not simply sewn on stony ground? When I first decided to follow Jesus, I knew from the outset that following him as a disciple was not just praying the prayer, or even believing the belief: it was living the life!

There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. 

– Morpheus

The Law fulfilled

And now comes the objection which I am bound to hear. It is the clever objection that is always proposed, and it is taken from the very words of our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount, right before he talks about how much sin is within our hearts:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)

Putting this up against what we have discussed about grace just sounds like a contradiction, but it is due to misunderstanding on three points:

1. Fulfilment

No, the Law has not been abolished, say the legalists. Correct. However, Christ had not come to abolish them but to fulfil them! They miss that tiny little word but and then the word fulfil gets overlooked. I don’t even need to get into the nitty-gritty of the original words since the English suffices (save to point out that the Greek for fulfil, plero-o, is the root of our word completion). Once Jesus finished his work on Calvary, it was done, all the requirements of the Law were completed and fulfilled in a most perfect way that all of mankind striving, for all of eternity, could never accomplish. For me, any return to what went before, dishonours and insults my Lord’s finished work – it says that it wasn’t enough, and tries to circumvent that which is offensive about the gospel. It’s legalists who cannot shoulder that offence, and they may as well convert to Islam, since it’s much the same as what they advocate, in my humble opinion!

2. The Law AND the Prophets1375452838_prophet

In many of Jesus’ references to the Law, it is termed ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – this is one division that did exist in the Hebrew scriptures, though again done so by men; they had the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (the last one usually consists of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, but the categorisation has changed at times). However, Jesus, when talking about what he has come to fulfil, includes the prophets. To analyse the messages of the prophets in a soundbite, it is that they were always standing on the fringe of society calling the people back to God. It usually consisted of “you keep God’s laws as precisely as if you were ‘straining out a gnat‘ yet your hearts are far from him!” Jesus sought to put these together; yes, there is the law, but don’t forsake what my prophets told you, that a heart turned towards me is more important. Through Isaiah, God said how he had tired of all the sacrifices of rams and bulls and lambs. He wanted them to just love and desire him, and Jesus’ call to his disciples hinged on their hearts. Without the prophets’ message, without heart change, law-keeping means nothing to God.

3. Surpassing the Pharisees

Right after this passage, Jesus launched into one of his most difficult passages about how we should live and follow him, how every little thing we do in our innermost thoughts can be sinful against God, and while we may hide it from others, we cannot hide it from the Father; he knows our hearts, every waking thought, and every sleep-filled dream. I analysed it in minute detail in my book; it’s very tricky to heed and live by, but it lays out what Jesus meant: the Pharisees keep the laws, perfectly, precisely, like clockwork, but that is just all show for others to see their righteousness. “I want you to be different,” says our Lord,”so that you can have an inner righteousness that is greater than theirs, and then shines forth from a heart that has changed.”

A final point to make is that the anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven phrase is actually not saying that we must keep it all, every last bit. It means you cannot set aside one of them – just as Paul warned, if you wish to live by the Law, you cannot set even one aside; you must be enslaved again to keep them all (which includes the child-killing). When reading Galatians, I don’t see Paul saying “don’t keep this law” or “you can ignore that one.” No, he simply warns that they come as a package, and that package is fulfilled, and covered by grace, by Jesus’ blood, buried with his baptismal dip into the Jordan river. Trying to keep them is putting the chains back on that were removed when grace was preached to you.

Still not convinced? Still think that you can choose which laws you like and which you don’t? Which means that you’re ‘cherry-picking’ scripture – heaven forbid! Or that maybe stoning children to death for being rebels is a good idea after all!? I’ll let Paul have the final word – read them carefully:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:1-4)

Alienated from Christ!? Fallen… from grace!? Harsh words indeed!

Grace truly be with you.

[now that I realise this is my longest blog yet, I’m wondering were I not better to make a video where I just read out some ‘zany’ or ‘shocking’ bits of the Law, smile and point at the camera (maybe with an American accent) and say “you sure you wanna go back to the Law? ‘Cos that’s the laaawwww!”] Not me, though. 😦

Spirituality v. Salvation

SP-043-Prabhupada-on-Vyasana-folded-handsI had a Saturday job briefly when I was at school. I was a vegetarian and had started buying from a wholefood shop in our town centre; I responded to their window ad for a worker. We had a fair number of Krishna devotees who shopped with us, but one was particularly evangelical in his fervour to spread the message of Krishna and hung around outside to accost customers and passers-by with his literature. One poor man had been cornered up against our window and could not escape, so my boss felt sorry for him and went outside, shouting “Hey Jim, someone on the phone for you!” The man, whose name we never knew, looked up in bewilderment before realising what was happening, then said “Oh, thanks!” and said to the proselytiser before him “sorry, I have to go and take this!”

Once inside, my boss reassured him that the offending man would go away in a minute and he could escape. He then thanked us for rescuing him and went on his way.

I myself was approached by this religious fanatic once as I left the shop, and it was then that I realised why he chose to stand there. He asked me if I was a vegetarian. Customers exiting a wholefood shop – what are the odds? When I said that I was, he then said “Oooohhhh! That means you must recognise one of the four spiritual laws!” When I told him that my reasons for my vegetarianism were to do with modern farming and land utilisation, etc. and that I ate fish, he lost interest. Even when I tried to bring Jesus into the conversation, he wasn’t having it. He never wanted a discussion with me, just to persuade me to ‘join his religion’! Sadly, too many Christian proselytisers have the same attitude.

He was trying to find something ‘spiritual’ within me that would maybe witness to him that I was on the same hymn sheet as him (or chant sheet!), and he could use this to springboard into drawing me further along the spiritual path (his one). However, ‘spirituality’ is another topic that is subjective: some think that doing no harm to any animal is spiritual and so meat-eating is very unspiritual, yet some find some ‘spirituality’ in hunting animals for sport!

Where we can find common ground with people of other faiths or of no faith on principles like ‘live and let live’ or ‘treat others how you’d like them to treat you’ may serve us well for sharing this Earth and for living in a pluralistic and mixed society, but many Christian denominations seem to wish to find this as grounds for ‘coming together’ and believing that we all share the same spiritual ‘path’ to salvation and eternal life. The opposite of this are denominations that find no value whatsoever in the thoughts and philosophies of anyone outside their narrow definition of what is ‘true religion’!

Both beliefs are wrong! Our path to eternal life is not found on any path of ‘spirituality’ or even law-keeping; it is found in a person. The true scandal of this is the basis for the rejection of the Christian gospel by many; both atheistic people, who cannot accept that salvation is not achieved by doing good, and religious people, like Mohammad, who created a whole new religion to counter the easiness of Jesus’ yoke (Matt. 11:30).

When I watch films like ‘Gandhi’ and see how great (though flawed) a man he was, I am brought to a sense of humility, that this man who actually does not share my faith in Jesus, is an example of selfless non-violent action that cost mahatma-gandhi-quote-nations-greatness-measured-by-how-it-treats-weakest-membershim freedom and prestige in this world. That does not convince me that he has found eternal life – that is only through Jesus – but it does show me that I am not such a great example of what a Jesus follower should be like. I should be better!

Just because I have been given the gift of salvation freely does not mean I am exempt from any efforts to follow in the steps of the greatest and most humble of all: God the Creator, the Word, who left his place to become a baby, a simple carpenter, then a bloody sacrifice on a shameful cross. In fact, if I make no such effort, I betray that I’m not a true Jesus follower (Luke 9:23). I just have this compulsion that I have to prove him in me, not my own ‘spirituality’. When I do find others who display knowledge of some ‘spiritual law’ then I’ll try to show them who is the most perfect example of spirituality, that they might see where salvation truly lies. There is a difference.

Grace be with you.

Don’t let fear.

Jim-Hurst-3

 

I haven’t blogged in a while, I’ve been so consumed with my book; I even took my laptop when I went into hospital for my operation, so I could continue with it in between the painkillers. One thing I knew for sure in writing my book was that I would be setting on a quest for this ‘contentment’ and as such, would be facing trials of all kinds, in order to learn and apply lessons, first to myself, then to my readers. What I did not foresee was a trial that was so instant, yet so devastating, that I briefly lost my faith. Yes!

I have a framed poster on the wall of my study, of a rock climber on the wall of El Capitan in California, with a caption: “Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams.” I relate to it very well, since I was a keen climber in my youth. I never reached the truly dizzy heights of the likes of El Capitan (above), the Troll Wall (or even our own local Fair Head), or anything like that, but it was the very fear while climbing that gave it the ‘buzz’ that drew me to it. You ignored such fear and just climbed!

In life and faith, I have learnt to treat fear in the same way. I believe that as I reach for the things that I believe God wishes for me (and I’m not talking about material things!), then I should be as adventurous as a climber tackling a new climb. You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear. Doubt creates an opportunity for you to question and seek answers and rethink, regroup your thoughts and maybe even change your stance, and then God can reassure you and make your faith yet stronger, but fear…. that just paralyses your faith.

So it was that I was in a confused state after my second operation, coming round from anaesthetic in a place I had nightmares about six years ago; Intensive Care, the last place I’d ever wish to be, and everything left me. Well, not true, actually – God never left me, but my faith did, and if there is one major lesson I take from this personal ‘worst trial ever’ that I underwent, it is that fear is very powerful, and nothing can overcome it, except God alone. My ‘faith’ left me, but my faith is a thing that I construct around God, based on my life experiences, my doctrine, my church, my fellow believers, my own thoughts, but it is not God himself.

I have much to write on this in my book’s last chapter, and there is much to discuss, but for now, please recognise what things in your life you may think are of God, but are not. Even the most precious things, like my worship ministry, my church of supportive and loving brothers and sisters, my Bible, even my ‘faith’… all these things can easily become substitutes for my heavenly Father and his presence in my life. Hold onto HIM, and nothing else. Then when fear comes, you will have at hand the very thing you need to defeat it.

What fear(s) do you have that challenge you right now?

What thing(s) do you have that may well be holding a place in your heart that actually (maybe very innocently) exclude God from his seat there?

Grace be with you.