Monday, 31 December 2012

Numbers Don't Change Anything (Happy New Year)


A new year is almost upon is. It's the time of year when the annual New Year's Resolutions kick into force. If they were all written down, I wonder how many of them we'd find had been kept. Probably not many. How about one in ten? Sometimes the resolutions can be pretty trivial - leaving 5 minutes earlier for work, drinking less coffee or cutting a few calories. Sometimes they're larger issues that really need addressing - bad habits, addictions or neglected callings.

Why do we bother making these yearly pledges when our lives tell us that behaviour fails to follow intention? We seem to find something irresistible - almost magical - about the coming of a new year. And yet all that's changed after the fireworks fizz away is the final digit of the year. One number has been replaced with another and everything else remains entirely unaltered - including ourselves. Our habits, practices, relationships, hearts and lives won't be different at all.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we're incapable of change, that everything in our lives has the remain the way it is. A new year can be a wonderful impetus to changing the way we live but ultimately it does nothing without our involvement. We have to want the change, and be willing to put the effort and measures in to bring it about. It's an uncomfortable truth that sometimes a little (or a lot of) manpower is needed from us.

Is that it? Just try harder? History would tell us that, even with a genuinely enthusiastic attitude, we still fail. There must be an extra component.

Jesus is troubled. In the garden of Gethsemane He goes off to pray and asks his bleary-eyed disciples to keep watch. They fall asleep. Three times. These are followers who, despite being eager and resolute, are stuck in a rut. Jesus is disappointed with them, but the first time He finds them asleep He doesn't just tell them to put more effort in.

"[Jesus] said to Peter, 'You men could not stay awake with me for one hour? Stay awake and pray for strength against temptation. The spirit wants to do what is right, but the body is weak.' " Matthew 26:40-41

For Jesus, prayer is what's able to make the difference. Often, it's only God's intervention and sustaining strength that can make change a reality. Naturally, that doesn't mean that we're not involved. It's called self-control, not God-control. It's the combination of our effort and God's sovereignty that changes the landscape of our lives. When it comes to the smaller things like losing weight it's up to us to put the effort in. When it comes to the bigger things we absolutely need God's help.

I'm very much in the same boat as everyone else here. I'm a work in process too. And I, as much as anyone, need to master the art of continually surrendering the stubborn parts of my life to Him.

As 2013 is wrung in, I pray that the areas of your life where you want to see change are submitted to Jesus' power and strength. That change comes as He works in your life to make you more like Himself. That when 2014 comes around the things you really struggle with would be a part of your history.

And have yourself a very happy new year.


Saturday, 22 December 2012

Women Bishops: Why It's Not a Big Issue

By now the dust has settled on the outcome of the Church of England's vote on women bishops. And there was quite a dust storm. The story occupied central attention on British news sites and provoked a lot of responses on facebook. Emotions in this debate run high on both sides of the table. Does it justify the furore?

Let me say straight-off that this post isn't about whether it's right for women to lead or teach in churches or not. I'm not interested in adding to that discussion, mostly because I don't have an opinion on it. I'd need to read more on this issue in order to get one. What I do feel strongly about is the effect that this discussion has on the church, and on the way in which the church is perceived by the public. I'm immensely saddened by anything that divides the church. Jesus' prayer shortly before He died was that the church might be united as one community (John 17:21). My sadness on this issue is exacerbated by my view that it's been blown out of all proportion by both those inside the church and those outside it.

I saw a lot of responses to the vote as the story broke. I saw responses from Christian friends on facebook and from non-Christians in the comments section of the BBC website. It seemed as if the people who were most upset were, firstly, non-Christians and, secondly, non-Anglicans. The loudest and most angry people seemed to be those who weren't actually affected by the decision but were disillusioned about a perceived lack of equality. But this wasn't a Church of England press release on the importance of women in general. It wasn't about making women second-class citizens. It was an administrative decision about leadership protocol in one denomination in one country. The reality is that, in the short-term, it was only likely to effect a dozen or so potential bishop-ettes. We really need a sense of scale here before we begin making wide-ranging, generalised comments about how the church relates to women.

The issue gets clouded because we tend to overstate what being a leader means. In many churches the leader is idolised as the central source of authority. The one who always preaches. The one who meets people's emotional needs. The one with the responsibility for evangelism. The one who embodies what it means to be a Christian. The one (perhaps?) who can do no wrong. There are two ways in which we get seriously off-track if we have this mentality. Firstly, we place unrealistic demands on our leaders. It's vital that we remember that these are human beings, people who are trying to be disciples just like anybody else. They're not God. That's not to undercut their authority; churches undoubtedly do need responsible leaders who exercise power with a servant-heart. But when our respect for their position under God turns into idolisation then we need to take a reality check. Secondly, we believe that if someone wants to serve God then they have to go into full-time ministry and lead a church. Or go to Bible college and become a preacher. We fail to recognise the exciting diversity of the kingdom of God, that there are so many ways in which you can serve without leading or teaching. If someone wants to build God's kingdom then that's wonderful. It doesn't mean that they have to be a teacher or leader in order to do so. God wants women to build His kingdom. That's a theological no-brainer. We need to constantly keep this at the forefront of our minds in the debate over women leaders/teachers. It's only one form of serving.

And if leading and teaching are, in actual fact, forms of serving, what does this mean for those who feel strongly about this issue? I'd suggest that it necessitates a strong dose of humility. Serving God is, essentially, joining with Him to accomplish His work. His work, not ours. There's a danger that I sound recriminating here against women who feel called to teach or lead, which is the last thing I want this post to achieve. But I wonder if we all, men and women alike, need a reminder that serving God isn't about jostling for position or promotion but about exactly that - service. If we're in-tune with God's priorities then we'll care more about the fruit of our service than about our role or function in it.

So this isn't a big issue. It needn't be widened so as to become a statement of women's ability to serve God within the church, let alone an identity-statement about women's importance in general. Of course, in saying this I'm not seeking to deny the very real centrality of the issue for those women who do feel called to lead or preach. The process of seeking God's guidance here is undoubtedly an important one for them. I respect that and don't seek to cast any judgement on them whatsoever. Like I say, I don't have an opinion here yet.

I mentioned at the outset that I was saddened by the way the church was presented in the popular press throughout this decision. I came across an article in The Guardian which argued that "the Church of England has detonated its credibility with modern Britain". You have to ask: what damages the church's credibility more (and here I mean the church as a whole, not just the CoE)? The administrative decision made by a church council or opinion articles criticising its judgement? I'm saddened that this issue has become such a big fish both in the church and in the press. The church (and, by extension, God) never seems to come out looking good. The same could be said for the debate on homosexuality. Perhaps the best thing we can do with this issue is attempt to keep it in our council meetings and off our newspages or facebook feeds, all whilst constantly striving for unity in the global church and showing grace to our brothers and sisters who see things differently.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

An Unexpected Generosity: How 'The Hobbit' Shows Us the Merciful Face of God


It's the film that everyone and their dog are going to see. Nine years after the concluding part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has hit the screens. It's a film of orc armies, hobbits, wargs, gorging dwarves and a goblin king with a really, really big chin. What could such a mainstream blockbuster have to tell us about God?

One of the pleasures of the film, for me, was witnessing the acting-out of a moment that Frodo and Gandalf discuss in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Bilbo is trying to escape from Gollum's lair. Gollum is in a furious rage because Bilbo has taken the One Ring. However, Bilbo is wearing the Ring, which (if you didn't know) makes him invisible. This gives Bilbo the perfect chance to sneak out of the cave. But he also has an opportunity - to blot out this murderous creature once and for all. Gollum, who has no idea where Bilbo is, is completely in his hands. Bilbo takes out his sword and holds it to Gollum's throat.

Here we're presented with this long, long shot where Gollum, utterly defenceless and vulnerable, stares into the camera. Bilbo makes a call...and saves his life.*

I see myself in Gollum. I think any one of us can recognise ourselves in him. He's desperately attracted to something that's bad for him, something that he needs so much that it consumes his existence. Take it away and he feels empty. Give it to him and he's entranced, detaching himself from the world around him. The Ring stands for our selfishness. For that which consumes us. For our struggle to find meaning in this life. To give it a technical term, the Ring stands for our sin. Our Precious. Gollum teaches us that, even as we recognise that the brokenness in ourselves is negative, somehow we're still attracted to it. We just won't let it go.

Frodo looks at Gollum and condemns him. Here's how that conversation from Fellowship goes:

GANDALF: He hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it.
FRODO: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance.
GANDALF: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand...

Bilbo sees something different. He finds himself in the position where he can kill Gollum and yet he shows him mercy. It isn't that Gollum deserves this mercy. Those big puppy eyes don't change who he is or the fact that he deserves to die. Yet Bilbo foregoes any concept of total justice in order to give Gollum a future.

If we can see ourselves in the face of Gollum then in Bilbo we can see the face of God. The narrative in our heads is constantly telling us that God's out to get us. That He's desperately searching for some by-clause by which to condemn us. Or that, if He does show us mercy, then it's begrudgingly: 'Go on, then, if you must'. But God's mercy far outstretches Bilbo's. God doesn't just feel sorry for us; He actively desires to shower mercy on us that we don't deserve. We think God's the lawyer for the prosecution. Much to our surprise, we find that He's actually the barrister for the defence, who fights our corner and then pops round to the judge's platform and proclaims us as innocent. All purely out of the depths of His mercy.

When you see The Hobbit (I'm sure you will), look out for this moment. And remember that God is the Father "who is full of mercy and all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3).


* If you know almost anything about The Lord of the Rings, this isn't a spoiler.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Flags Are Dangerous

"Abner shouted to Joab, "Must the sword kill forever? Surely you must know this will only end in sadness!" " 2 Samuel 2:26

Don't worry. This isn't going to be a health and safety post about hazardous flag-carrying techniques. 

I'm interested in exploring how Christianity interacts with war. What was the last war film you saw (or the last fantasy/historical film with scenes of combat)? Think about the way in which these movies give you central characters that you relate to and empathise with. These characters then go and fight against figures who you, in the majority of cases, know nothing about. They're strangers, maybe shown as a silhouette or a mass group of targets. Have you noticed how we tend to root for the characters we've come to know? We want them to survive at any cost. And we feel good when they kill their opposition because it means that their side is winning.

Where does this notion of sides come from? Often war gets covered in the idealism of nationhood. Being a soldier isn't just about fighting and dying - it's about fighting and dying for your country. How good a Brit, German, Russian (or elf!) you are is determined by your willingness to fight for the national cause. Objecting to a war makes you a damp squib who's lacking in patriotic zeal. Add another layer of 'fighting and dying for friends and loved ones back home' to this mindset and you have a reason to kill someone. Is it justified?

For instance, in the rush of the war scene, do we ever stop to think that the gunned-down enemy soldier must have a mother that's desperate for him to come back safely? That he's got friends of his own? That he might have his own nation-driven agenda? I think that we 'other-ise' the enemy and make into 'the Other', someone who's so alien that the violence committed against him is deemed acceptable. Do we ever consider that he might be doing the same thing?

Flags are dangerous because they can cause (or at least sustain) wars on the basis that 'the Other' has a different flag to you. A different nation. Or just plain different. There's an irrational hatred here that maybe doesn't have any obvious source. Perhaps it's more present in some wars than others. But we feel it, even in part, in something as innocuous as watching a film. It can't be good or healthy. I'm not na├»ve enough to think that there aren't situations where armed conflict is sadly necessary. But the endemic and seemingly endless extent of war across the world should surely make any sensible person question how much of it is really necessary. We need to be reconciled to our enemies and appreciate that they are fellow-humans. In the wisdom of Mother Teresa, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another."

Where does the Christian fit into all this? I'm not going to pass judgement on the rights and wrongs of those who are involved in the military in different capacities. That's their call. But it's not enough to say that 'spiritual stuff' has no right to interfere with the political and the military. At the start of advent maybe it's appropriate to recall one of  Jesus' titles -  Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The least that you could say, in my opinion, is that no Christian should ever want war. One thing's for sure. There'll be no war in heaven. When Peace-King rules in fullness there'll be a wonderful melting pot containing "every nation, tribe, people and language of the earth" (Revelation 7:9). As God's ambassadors it's up to us to bring that reality about, starting now.

Your kingdom come? Absolutely.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Paradise Now? One Dangerous Afterlife Perspective

Here goes. This is going to be my first attempt at bringing in reflections from film into the blog. I confess, The movie I'll talk about is straight out of my Film Studies module. It's called Paradise Now (2005) and its a low-budget American/Palestinian film that explores what's going through the heads of two suicide bombers (Said and Khaled) as they prepare to carry out an attack. The film doesn't hold back from putting this troubling topic centre-stage, which is one of the major reasons why I found it so disturbing. These are our protagonists. And it's easy to forget that they're planning on carrying out mass murder.

Said, Khaled and Jamal in Paradise Now (2005)

As I watched it I couldn't help thinking about the kind of perspective on eternity that it (or its characters) represented. I think its a stellar example of a model of afterlife that's corrupt In both its morality and its time scale. The bombers are heavily motivated - spurred on by their mentor and contact in the organisation (Jamal) - by their Islamic faith and their conviction that God will reward them for what they're doing. Of course, their faith isn't the only possible expression of Islamic beliefs and the film also shows us Muslims who are vehemently opposed to terrorism. Nevertheless, their perspective can seep into our thinking too if we're not careful, even if we're not prepared to blow up buses.

Dodgy Morality

As they prepare to cross into Israel to carry out the bombing one of the friends asks, "Are we doing the right thing?". The other replies, "Of course we are. In one hour we'll be heroes with God in heaven." There's this attitude amongst the whole group supporting the bomb attack that attacks are legitimate because, once you're dead, what have you got to lose? They're clearly wildly incorrect in thinking that God supports their plans. God's not OK with mass murder, even for the politically oppressed. But, beyond that, is it easier to sympathise with the view that if you recklessly go ahead with something just before you die then God's going to turn a blind eye? I don't think so. There are great promises of paradise in the Bible, like 2 Peter 1:11, which says that we "will be given a very great welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ". But that's not a blank cheque. Peter's just listed a load of things (which my homegroup happen to be studying right now) that should be in our lives if we expect to receive that welcome. Terrorism's not on the list. In short, Jesus offers us abundant grace for our past but how we live now determines what our eternal future looks like. As Romans 14:12 says, "Each of us will have to answer to God".

Dodgy Eschatology (or 'way of looking at the end')

The bombers also have a slanted perspective (suggested in the film's title) on when this paradise is going to come about. Again on the way to Israel, the characters have this conversation:

SAID: What happens afterwards?
JAMAL: Two angels will pick you up.
SAID: Are you sure?
JAMAL: Absolutely. You'll see.

It couldn't be any clearer that these suicide bombers are expected to be rewarded in heaven straight after they die. They're told, "After you ascend into heaven, we'll take care of everything here." It's all about 'going to heaven when you die'. This is actually the expression of what's also a Christian misnomer, one that's prevalent in many Sunday school lessons and a reasonable amount of theology. It's the perspective that heaven's a reward denied in this lifetime but served up on death to departed souls, like pudding neatly separated from the main course but eaten simultaneously. I think it's actually the exact opposite. Heaven is near and now, available on earth for anyone open to experience it - but its fullness won't come until Jesus' return as King. The 'going to heaven' scenario either curtly ignores God's judgement or marginalises it as a sort of confirmation (since heaven and hell are already in effect). Yet Jesus repeatedly taught that He would return to resurrect and carry out final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 13:26-27, John 5:27-29 are just a few examples). It's only then that heaven will come in its fullness as God's kingdom takes control. Heaven's available now (as we meet God here on earth), but paradise is later.

This might radically upset your perspective on heaven. You might disagree (again, please feel free to comment and say so!). You might find it hard to accept that loved ones aren't in paradise right now. And I'm sorry if that's the case. But I hope that as you continue to read the Scriptures, and particularly what Jesus says in the Gospels, that you can at least see where I'm coming from. After all, I'm not saying that it's paradise never.

Paradise Now?

Paradise Now's title brings a story to mind that might refute this, of another man many centuries earlier facing death in the same part of the world. A criminal is being crucified beside Jesus. He says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom". Jesus replies, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Surely this is paradise now? This isn't an easy passage to interpret given my insistence that heaven only comes after Judgement Day. My own take on it is that Jesus, struggling to breathe during His execution, wasn't about to launch into a full explanation of kingdom eschatology (what'll happen at the end). He told the criminal what he needed to hear - that Jesus wasn't going to forget him and that death wasn't the end of the story. For him, as for everyone who gives heaven a chance to invade their now, paradise is later - but it's definitely coming.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Mark of Blame?


The cinematic equivalent of the Cain and Abel story. Credit: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, New Line Cinema)

Sometimes it's the small things that can make all the difference - the fine details in a familiar story that can change your understanding of the whole narrative. There are (at least) two ways of interpreting the events of Genesis 4. One is how I used to understand the story and one's how I understand it now.

Here's the first.

The story goes like this. Cain and Abel are two brothers. Cain develops a grudge against Abel and, despite God's warning, murders him. God confronts Cain over his brother's death and curses him with difficult agricultural work. Cain protests and God then gives Cain a mark to distinguish him.

Interpretation 1 sees this as a blame game. The mark is God's way of reminding Cain of his mistake. Interpretation 1 paraphrases God like this: "Look at what you've done. I'm going to give you this mark so you'll never forget your sin. Every time you look in the mirror you're going to reminded of how you screwed up. Never forget that I'm angry with you."

Here's the second.

It's true enough that God initially curses Cain insofar as his farming work is going to be more difficult from this point on. God undeniably lets Cain know that his sin is not OK. But the only one who actually condemns Cain in the passage is...Cain. Look at what he says:
Then Cain said to the LORD, 'This punishment is more than I can stand! Today you have forced me to stop working the ground, and now I must hide from you. I must wander around on the earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me.'
Genesis 4:13-14 

This ties into my previous post. Just because Cain says these things doesn't mean that we have to agree with him. It doesn't mean that God agrees with him. God says that Cain will wander the earth. But notice that Cain is the one who signs his own death warrant.

So interpretation 2 sees Cain's mark as God's sign of resolute acceptance. It's a tag of ownership. It's God saying the following (and, obviously, this too is a paraphrase): "I know you screwed up. I know that what you did was wrong. But don't ever for a second think that you're beyond redemption. You're more valuable than your mistakes. I'm going to put this mark on you as a sign that you're mine. Every time you look in the mirror, know that you're precious in my sight. And anyone who messes with you is going to have to deal with me first."

A powerful repercussion of this interpretation is that Cain's mark functions similarly to the Holy Spirit - a "mark of ownership", a sign that we are absolutely God's (Ephesians 1:13-14). That's how God treats us. He doesn't sweep our sin under the carpet as if it wasn't significant. He doesn't hold back from telling us that our sin is important. But, despite all our shortcomings, He still cherishes and dignifies us. He puts His mark of ownership on us to stop us defining ourselves by our mistakes. God's mark tells us that we're His redeemed children, no matter what our past looks like.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bible Say, Bible Do

The other day someone posed this question to me: is Genesis sexist? It got me thinking about the way in which we approach Scripture, with what we expect of it as much as anything else. So here's a bigger question for us to chew on: are we meant to agree with everything the Bible says?

I'm hoping that this blog already has a diverse enough range of readers that not everyone reading this will answer that in the same way (again, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments). If you respect the Bible as 'God's Word' (as I do) your knee-jerk reaction might be 'yes'. If we're talking about a book imbued with God's truth, a book that's as trustworthy as God Himself, then surely it must be 'yes'.

If you think about the question for a moment then there are countless instances where portions of the Bible aren't aligned with God's perspective. Why? Because Biblical authors allow human beings in their texts to open their mouths. The Bible's full of people questioning God, contradicting God, even full-on attacking God. The book of Job's a good example. Virtually the entire thing is dialogue, framed by a narrative intro and ending. And a lot of the stuff in the middle is pretty ugly. One of the most extreme points is when Job accuses God of making his life great just so He could get some pleasure out of sadistically tearing it down (Job 10:8-17). It's hardly what you'll hear preached from the pulpit. But there are different characters in the story who each get their own say - it's characters expressing opinions. We don't need to stress out if those characters contradict one another. It isn't that 'the Bible' (as an authoritative, canonical whole) is contradicting itself, just that a text within it is letting characters give different perspectives.

It gets trickier in narrative passages. Take Judges 21. Israel's just been through a bitter civil war where eleven of the twelve tribes have turned against the tribe of Benjamin. Israel has pledged that its women won't intermarry with Benjamin's men but doesn't want the tribe to die out completely. The men of Benjamin need new wives to continue the family name. So, first, they burn down one of the cities that didn't take part in the war and force 4,000 women from it into marriage. Then, when there's still not enough to go round, they come up with this cunning plan:

So the elders told the men of Benjamin, "Go and hide in the vineyards. Watch for the young women from Shiloh to come out and join the dancing. Then run out from the vineyards and take one of the young Shiloh women and return to the land of Benjamin. If their fathers or brothers come to us and complain, we will say: 'Be kind to the men of Benjamin. We did not get wives for Benjamin during the war, and you did not give the women to the men of Benjamin. So you are not guilty.'  
Judges 21:20-22

Frankly, that's shocking to us today. Am I supposed to read this and nod along, taking it as a model for my life? ("Kidnap's the way forwards - at least it skips out that whole tedious dating phase..."). I think it's plain-as-day that's not the case. The text just tells the story, relaying the facts. That's not to say that it doesn't have a message or an ideology - actually, I think there's a lesson here in not making hasty promises (like Israel's pledge not to intermarry with Benjamin) that you'll later regret. Sometimes the Bible itself will guide us as to how we're meant to interpret it. In this passage we're pretty much left to draw our own conclusions. Personally, I don't have any qualms in condemning the kidnapping and forced marriage of a woman as a violation of  her dignity and honour. Notice that it's the elders of Israel who say that this is justified ("you are not guilty"). Not the narrator. And certainly not God. The tragedy as I see it is that confusing stories like this can persuade people not to read the Old Testament (in particular) out of a well-meaning assumption that God must be agreeing with everything that's going on.

What I'm not saying here are two things. Firstly, I'm not denying that there are Biblical texts that have their own challenges and which beg their own significant questions. Secondly, I don't see the Bible as a neutral, take-what-you-want-from-it artefact or think that its meaning is somehow lost in layers of bizarre ancient culture. The Bible is God speaking to us right now. It's meaningful in our culture and has the authority to cut us to our core (Hebrews 4:12).

What I am saying is that our reading and interpretation should always be sensible and intelligent, bearing in mind textual context, genre, who's speaking, historical context etc. Sometimes it'll be obvious what God means us to think about something said or done. When it isn't we should be wary about assuming God's agreement in every detail.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Come and Go

"Where can I go to get away from your Spirit? Where can I run from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the grave, you are there." Psalm 139:7-8

How often have you been in a church service where someone's asked God "to come"? In other words, to arrive? I've been musing on what's become a part of the Christian consciousness - the idea that God turns up for a moment only to then leave us again. It's what I call the Lucozade God - the God who comes, gives us a temporary boost and then says "See you next Sunday". The problem is that it simply doesn't register with my concept of the Biblical God - with His character as much as with any specific Biblical statement. I doubt that many Christians would specifically agree with the idea that God abandons us (they'd probably crack out the footprints story or Hebrews 13:5). But it's something that seeps into the way we talk about God, and particularly His presence.

Hang on. Isn't there a Biblical precedent for God being particularly present in one particular place? Like the famous Shekhinah overwhelming the priests in 1 Kings 8:10-11? There's an aspect of that question that's too big for me to consider in a single post and so I may return to this later. For now, let me say that God certainly did dwell with His people in the Jerusalem Temple (and elsewhere) in a unique way. That doesn't mean that He was isolated there. Put simply, you can't lock God in a church, or a Temple (1 Kings 8:27).

Or, to say it a different way: how many atoms in the room that you're in right now do you think God is absent from?

I don't think there's a single place where you could say, 'God is not there'. Like the Psalm says, there's nowhere where we could run away from Him. God is everywhere, the definition of a God immersed and dwelling in His creation (whilst still remaining distinct from it). If that thought is mind-blowing let's not write it off for seeming too incredible.

There are two important caveats to this. Firstly, there is certainly a distinction between a Christian's experience of God's presence and a non-Christian's. As a Christian, I have the indwelling presence of God's Spirit that marks me out as His in a way that is distinct from a non-Christian (Ephesians 1:13-14). I don't think that means that when someone becomes a Christian God 'turns up' for the first time. Rather, it's like a jumbled TV signal that was always there that gets suddenly sharpened. I particularly love Rob Bell's idea (from his video, called 'Breathe') that God's name is written into our very breathing, even if we don't know Him. Secondly, God's being omnipresent (everywhere) doesn't mean that spiritual warfare isn't a reality. We won't always feel or experience God in the same way. We won't always have the 'high' of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God feels pretty far away. That doesn't detract from His very real constant presence in our lives - whether we notice Him or not. Perhaps our prayer in the place of spiritual barrenness shouldn't be that God comes into our emptiness but that we become aware of just how present He already is.

A large part of this problem is that as humans we're limited - we're only in one place at a time and therefore think in terms of 'coming' and 'going' all the time. But God is Spirit (John 4:24) and doesn't follow the same rules as us.* I don't want to outlaw the language of God 'coming'. Sometimes all that we mean by it in our own minds is that we want God to be more sovereign. But we shouldn't let that convince us that God isn't there.

Because He always, always is.

As ever, let me know what you think...

* Of course, in taking on flesh, Jesus certainly did follow the same rules as us with regards to physical limitations (only being in one place at one time). That doesn't really affect the point I'm making, though.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Welcome

Welcome to my blog!

As I begin this I wanted to share my thought process a little. I've been toying with the idea of doing this for a while. Starting something like this fills me with apprehension about whether it's really a good idea. Here are my reasons why I'm going ahead. It's good to talk, to share dialogue over the big things in life - particularly in a Christian context. There's always space for another angle, another interpretation, another voice. And I feel, for what it's worth, that I have the potential to be a voice of clarity where there's confusion. I'm also encouraged by friends who blog, that I'm not the only one I know doing it.

The cons, as I see it, are the following, and these are what I want to commit to avoiding as long as I do this blog. There's a danger that I become opinionated, another voice in the digital hemisphere waxing lyrical about this, that and the other without actually having anything useful to say. There's a danger that in sparking debate I could end up being divisive rather than enlightening. And there's a danger that this blog simply makes me too busy or absorbed to live out what I'm writing about.

I'm especially aware that I've got a lot more to learn. In writing about the Bible in particular there are probably going to be times when I get it wrong, or wiser heads than mine can point me in a better direction. But then our knowledge is always going to be limited in this life (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). I think it's OK to venture an opinion if you're willing to listen to what others have to say.

I promise not to write about something unless I feel that I genuinely have something useful to contribute. I'm well aware that blogs can often be distractions and only want to take people's reading time if it's going to be worthwhile. Above all, I want to put this under the command of Boss Jesus, to "capture every thought and make it give up and obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Please do disagree with me. Comment. Get involved. This is not a one-way conversation. Ask anything you want. You're welcome to express any opinion you want, as long as you do so respectfully. So here we go.

Let's talk...