Monday, 23 December 2013

My back, the kingdom of Heaven and a one storey universe - part 2

Following on from part 1, in saying that the "kingdom of heaven is near/at hand" John, and later Jesus (Chapter 4:17) are both saying that God should no longer be perceived as up there or in some way apart from us, but now through Jesus is right here alongside us and, through spiritual birth, within us. In fact Jesus tells his disciples one time that "the Kingdom of heaven is within (them) you ." (Luke 17:21)

"20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst (within you).’"

Jesus is quite clearly educating his disciples to think differently and recognize God's immanence, crucial if they are to evangelize the world for God. And maybe that was the source of their effectiveness in the first several centuries, this living out of their lives in His presence or should I say, more importantly, living out of His life which was within.

And every 'revival' of this notion - the immanence of God - over the centuries, has brought with it a new fruitfulness as the Church rediscovers this truth and experiences a renewal of its mind on the matter (Romans 12:1-2) or as John and Jesus put it, repentance (a change of mind). I think that this message is particularly pertinent at this juncture in human history in the West which worships the mind over the heart and spiritual intuition.

Here is Bishop Jonah again from the foreword to Fr Freeman's book:

"The real Christian task is to integrate our lives and our consciousness by the awareness of God, to overcome the compartmentalization dictated by our culture, and to sanctify all creation by the remembrance of God, awareness of His Presence. In truth, there is nothing that is not permeated by God, and there is nowhere we can flee from the Presence (Psalm 139). We live, as it were, in the womb of God. It is not God who has absented Himself from our awareness. Rather, we have shut Him out and become forgetful of His Presence, intentionally oblivious to reality Himself."

He continues:

"We are faced with the task of overcoming the delusion of our own autonomy and surrendering to Him who rules over all things. Indeed, the compartmentalized world is a delusion of our own creation.It is the ascendancy of the rational mind over spiritual intuition, of the head over the heart. It creates a comfortable world with the safe borders of our own very limited perceptions and narrow vision, an illusion that we can understand and control, because it is not God who has created it."

These words need to be read and re-read slowly as they contain such deep truth and touch on so many fundamental weaknesses that we, as Christians fall into, embracing all kinds of subjects such as idolatry, worldliness, superficial worship etc. I believe that both Bishop Jonah and Fr Freeman have put their fingers on the real weakness that we as Western Christians suffer from, the notion that we are in control of our own world and our own lives, except when things get a bit difficult for us, when we run out of our own finite resources and then feel the need to call 'in' God because it isn't working for us. The results of this false understanding is that the church is in free-fall decline in many places as the momentum of Christendom slows down and we begin to realize that the whole of our faith was really a human construct predicated on a deistic (God started things up and then left) rather than a theistic (God started things up and works within his creation) understanding of God. To test this ask any church leader about the importance of prayer in their church. How does he/she perceive it? As a kind of 999 call in emergencies, asking God to step down and intervene. Or as an ever-present partner in the work of the Kingdom. Or what about Holy Communion? God present - the body and blood of Jesus - or God absent, symbols of what once happened in an upstairs room on Passover night when God in Christ paid us a visit before returning to the safety of his heavenly home.

We say we believe in God, but what do we believe about Him, and how does it affect our Christian lives? How does it affect our relationship with him and our availability to Him every day? How does it affect the way we do - or don't do - evangelism. If I believe God has left His creation, even though He watches it on some kind of interested by hands off way, then we will see that Church growth is down to our own ingenuity and hard work. If however we believe in a God who is intimately involved with His creation and partners us in the growth of His Church then prayer and listening, spiritual alertness and the belief in the importance of the Holy Spirit will drive all that we do (and don't do).

Do I believe in a single-storey universe? I should do, because is clearly what Jesus taught and the Bible bears witness to. I should do or what I will build is a kingdom centred on me with a man-made foundation, rather on the foundation which is Christ, incarnated, crucified, died, risen, ascended yet present now and always in and through His Spirit.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Apathy Rule K.O.

I am not always one to get greatly involved in politics and tend to sit on the sidelines and moan. However I am not sure that that is a very Christian thing to do especially given the kinds of things that are happening in society for example in the NHS, the growth of food banks and the growing volume of homeless people. At the same time MP's are meant to represent us and we should therefore hold them accountable for what they do. But how many people know who their MP, AM or local councillors are? And how many know how to contact them or do something to help make them sit up and take notice in between elections? These are questions I have been pondering when I received an email asking me if I would like to sign a petition about the recently proposed MP pay rise which was something like 11% (recently revised down to around 9.5%).

This opened the door for me to take action and speak on behalf of those who feel that Government is laughing in their face as they struggle with rising food and fuel bills. And so anyone out there who would like to take action too here are two useful sites you may want to use.

The first one tells you who your local MP etc is. Click on this address and follow the guideline:

ttps://www.writetothem.com/

The second is the site which occasionally invites me to sign a petition calling for change etc:

https://www.change.org/en-GB

As Christians we must pray and take action on behalf of the poor, weak and vulnerable. Here is our chance to make a difference.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Worship - how others do it.

When I have a chance, which is not often, I like to see how other denominations worship God. Having been brought up in a middle of the road Anglican Church, experienced evangelical and charismatic worship, I wanted to look at how other Christians worship to see if I can learn anything from them. So a few weeks ago I sat in on a Roman Catholic midweek Mass and soaked up the silence and the remains of the aroma of incense and must say that I enjoyed the measured devotion of the service with its recognizable liturgical shape and its gentle ritual and deep reverence. Looking further afield I have looked Eastern Orthodox worship and was struck by the explanation behind it. So here is a video of an Orthodox priest talking about his latest book and Orthodox worship. Food for thought.

Friday, 13 December 2013

My back, the kingdom of Heaven and a one storey universe - part 1

Backs are handy things. They help you stand upright, lend strength to lift things and give you something to lean against a seat with when you are tired. One unintended use, I am recently discovering, is that when they 'go' you have little option than to stay still and rest, two things I am particularly bad at. That is the position I find myself in after yesterday when, having come out of the shower, I innocently leaned forward to pick up something from the bed to experience something I have not had for about a year or so now, a painful spasm which had the unusual consequence of causing my whole body to lean painfully to the right as it tried to cope with the hyper-tense muscles in my lower back. This worsened as the day wore on and left me in the state I am in today popping Nurofen (I don't like the strong stuff) and sitting upright in my pyjamas and dressing gown typing away this blog.

But the 'good thing' about this, as referred to earlier, is that I have been forced to stop and rest, and therefore think. And the result is the opportunity to put onto my blog some of the things I have been mulling over the last week or more.

It all started with reading the first part of a book I recently came across written by an Eastern Orthodox priest called Fr Stephen Freeman. The book is entitled "Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe." The first part of the title comes from the following prayer to the Holy Spirit I learnt from the Orthodox Prayer book:

"O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth who art everywhere, and fillest all things, the treasure of blessing and the Giver of life, come and abide in us. Cleanse us from impurity and of thy goodness save our souls."

I learnt the prayer - among others - because I was sick of my own rather superficial prayers and needed something deeper and more profound to 'borrow' and use. Well Fr Freeman has taken this prayer, and especially the phrase in italics, in order to examine his own heart and the Christian Church and question if it really holds to the truth of that statement which is/should be the basis of what it is we as Christians believe.

He calls this belief, the belief in a' single storey Universe' where God is 'here' and 'everywhere' and not just up 'there' in heaven (a two storey view of the Universe and God). To quote the Foreword written by Fr. Freeman's (then) Bishop - Jonas - and mentioned in an earlier blog:

"One of the most fundamental principles of the Christian vision of reality is that God is present everywhere, filling all things. This underlies the essential Christian task of becoming consciously aware of that Presence and bringing that awareness into every aspect of our life."

I am sure all of us can say 'Amen' to that. But do we really believe it? A sure sign of whether we do or not is seen in our daily practice or in our attitude to prayer or the sacraments. The bishop continues:

"Secularism is the compartmentalization of God and religion, and everything else, into autonomous and unrelated parts of our lives. Secularism does not deny that God exists, but rather states that He has His place and does not necessarily affect other areas of our lives."

How does this insidious belief work out in practice? Let's take the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Those who believe it is a sacrament believe that somehow, in some way, when the bread and wine is blessed God is present 'in' them, that somehow and in some way Jesus's body and blood and the bread and the wine become 'one'. The more secularist Christian - if I can call them that - believe that this is superstition or nonsense and will tell you that the bread and wine are mere symbols of Christ's body and blood. What they have done in taking this line, however, is to banish God from His world and say that all that Jesus has left us with is an idea rather than his actual presence. And yet, as plainly as he can say it, he tells us that "this is my body which is broken for you....this is my blood which is shed for you..." In other words "I am fully but mysteriously present in the bread and wine as you eat and drink it".

Another evidence of the secularization of our faith is prayer. Of course not all prayer is like this, but sometimes the way we pray, inviting Him  to act, seems to imply that He is either in another place or far away and needs to be summoned. Okay we must allow for the fact that language is not always exact and sometimes prayer in this way is just another way of saying 'help'! But it can also betray a mindset that sees God separate from His world and needing to be called in like some heavenly emergency service or rescuing cavalry. But isn't God always here? Isn't that what Jesus came to tell us? Isn't prayer therefore an acknowledgement of that?

This came home to me more recently as I was preparing to preach on Matthew 3: where John the Baptist preaches: "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near" (or "at hand") something Jesus takes up later in Matthew 4:17.

Let's look at this. The word "repent" is often associated with sorrow, confession of sins and a desire to put things right that we have done wrong. All that is true. But the word also means "to change one's mind" or even "to think differently". Put all this together and you could say that to repent means that action of God at work in you which leads to a change of mind about Him, sorrow for having thought and acted the wrong way and a resulting change in direction of your life that brings it back into line with God and his intentions for you.

We see this played out in the passage that follows as people have been struck by that fact that they are wrong in what they have been doing and thinking about God, and confessing this, they have undergone symbolic baptism for the washing away of their sins in the River Jordan. And the fact it is the Jordan is itself a powerful symbol referring back to the Israelites crossing over the River (see the Book of Joshua) from the old life of slavery to the new life of freedom, form the old kingdom of Pharoah into the Promised Land, the Kingdom of Israel.

Later in the passage John is unconvinced of the Pharisees' intentions as they came to hear him, as their refusal to be baptized (inferred in the passage) demonstrates that their thinking is unchanged and therefore their lives are set firmly on the (wrong) path that will ultimately reject Jesus and His teaching.

The second part of John's message is a reference to something the Israelites may have had an inkling about. Every Jew knew that one day God was going to finish His work in the world and bring everything to an end. At that point their belief in Him would finally be vindicated and He would come and finally establish - or re-establish  - his Kingdom founded by their greatest King, David. Evil - in the form of unbelieving gentiles - will be done away with and all the believing Jews will share in a great banquet with God in celebration of His victory and the defeat of evil. So thinking that that is what John the Baptist was announcing - and that he may be the long awaited Messiah - people flocked to him to prepare for God's imminent arrival.

But this belief was predicated on the idea that God was somehow "up there" and was coming "down". This was further underlined by the way it worked in the Old Testament. There Moses had to go up a mountain to get the commandments Exodus 19-20) and Elijah too (1 Kings 19)  to get his head right again and his mission back on track. And when God did turn up it was usually in the form of angelic visitors (see Genesis 18) or in one of the several theophanies in the Books of Genesis (Chapter 14:18ff) and Daniel (Chapter 3). In other words God was generally considered absent from His world unless He turned up for some special purpose or summoned His leaders/prophets to a special place (Temple) or special mountain (Sinai).

But here John was actually taking the idea and adding a new twist. In saying the Kingdom of heaven was near he was saying that God is now drawing near, but not in order to end something but start something new. And this something new referred to his 'moving in' to stay with us.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

As an Evangelical - albeit an Anglican one - I have long struggled with the concept of the "Wrath of God". This came to a head in recent months over the modern hymn "In Christ Alone" where the stand out verse in this respect talks about how the "wrath of God was satisfied". I have swung both ways on this, wanting on the one hand to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the Wrath of God, and that it is a biblical concept, while on the other hand being very wary that this does not become the predominant feature of God's character.

It was interesting to read Angela Tilby's article in the Church Times a little while back on the subject as mentioned in the above hymn. I am not sure what Angela's churchmanship is but I suspect that it is not evangelical. And yet she writes in defence of the line and the theology behind it. You can read the whole article here.   But here is what she says about attempts to correct the 'offending' line:

"So how should we react to the theology of the cross in "In Christ alone"? I am unconvinced by the attempts to "correct" the authors, for example by substituting "love" for "wrath" in the critical line. Worthy, wimpish, and ultimately patronising, it refuses to allow them to engage with one of Christianity's most potent metaphors. Penal substitution may not be found in scripture, but it does have an honourable pedigree. It is crucial to Anselm's understanding of the Atonement; Calvin developed it, and it still moves individuals to tears of repentance.

Yet this deeply disturbing, even cruel, conception of what happened on the cross works because it is a metaphor. Taking it literally as a forensic analysis of salvation is simply a mistake. It should be seen alongside, for example, John Donne's "Batter my heart, Three Person'd God".

As paradox, penal substitution has great force. To imagine Christ standing in for me at the place where I am most guilty and in need brings about the kind of insight that can change a life. We should not try to conform genuine poets such as Townend and Getty to our theological mediocrity."

By contrast an evangelical, Tom Wright, makes a case for changing it. Here are a few of his quotes on the matter:

First on the doctrine of the Wrath of God:
“The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates — yes, hates, and hates implacably — anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.”

However he warns against oversimplification which makes God's wrath or anger His most prevalent characteristic leading to a tendency to split the Trinity making God the bad cop and Jesus the good cop as it were:
“This is what happens when people present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn't much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent.“ You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God: not ‘God was so angry with the world that he gave us his son’ but ‘God so loved the world that he gave us his son’. That’s why, when I sing that interesting recent song ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’, and we come to the line, ‘And on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’, I believe it’s more deeply true to sing ‘the love of God was satisfied’. I commend that alteration to those who sing that song, which is in other respects one of the very few really solid recent additions to our repertoire. So we must readily acknowledge that, of course, there are caricatures of the biblical doctrine all around, within easy reach — just as there are of other doctrines, of course, such as that of God’s grace.”

Wright is concerned to avoid caricatures of God as being ONLY wrathful and angry - as Richard Dawkins would have us believe - and quite rightly points to the fact that His wrath is an expression of His love. What he and Angela Tilby are saying therefore is this, don't emphasize the one over the other but put them together as two aspects of the same thing. Unfortunately I do wonder if "satisfied" is the right way to describe what happened to God's wrath when Jesus died on the cross? But what other word would do? Placated? Quelled? Deflected? I do not doubt that somehow God's wrath was answered by Jesus' willingness - and therefore God's willingness - to die on the cross for our sins, but to put those two words together "wrath" and "satisfied" does evoke so many unhelpful and therefore inaccurate images that if I were to lean any way it would probably be towards Tom.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

America today, us tomorrow?

A Non-Theistic Christian Now Running the Washington National Cathedral

Rev Gary Hall, the new Dean of Washington National Cathedral believes that teaching people to wait for marriage to have sex is “unrealistic.” He isn't too keen on the idea of life-long commitment or fidelity in marriage, either. But he agrees with gay marriage and has personally assured Dr Richard Dawkins that he also “doesn't believe in the God” that Dr Dawkins doesn't believe in. (Note: Dr Dawkins has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't believe in any kind of deity).

From the Washington Post:
Life experiences informed Hall’s unconventional views on marriage. (His parents were married seven times between them.) “We have this cartoon in America where you grow up, get married and stay the same person,” he says. “For the church to say, ‘No sex before marriage,’ is not realistic,” he argues.
… Under Hall’s leadership, the cathedral announced it will start performing same-sex marriages.
… He tells of sitting next to the renowned atheist Richard Dawkins at a dinner and discussing God. Hall told Dawkins, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.”
“…I don’t want to be loosey-goosey about it,” he says, “but I describe myself as a non-theistic Christian.”
taken

Christian Atheism

It seems at the moment that all the challenging thinking is coming from outside my tradition. Recently an Eastern Orthodox writer challenged me on worship. Now another writer - Fr Stephen Freeman - has challenged me about my tendency to act as if I live in a two-storey universe. Here is an excerpt from his book "Everywhere present":

"What has been an integrated vision of God and humankind, of the divine and the created, in the "one-storey universe" has become a dualistic segregation of God from human life in the "two-storey" model, in which God is absent from the first floor, and people begin to wonder if there is Anyone home up there..... God has not disappeared from our world, but we have tried to exile Him to the second floor.

One of the most fundamental principles of the Christian vision of reality is that God is present everywhere, filling all things. This underlies the essential Christian task of becoming consciously aware of that Presence and bringing that awareness into every aspect of our life. Secularism is the compartmentalisation of God and religion, and everything else, into autonomous and unrelated parts of our lives. Secularism does not deny that God exists, but rather states that He has His place and does not necessarily affect other areas of our lives. But soon the compartmentalisation leads to an exclusion of God altogether, as we create a world in which we live by our own reasonings. Thus is born a kind of Christian atheism, where we operate as if God were absent, perhaps even non-existent. This kind of functional atheism then degrades into faithlessness."

From introduction to book by Fr Stephen Freeman called "Everywhere present: Christianity in a one-storey universe "

Friday, 6 December 2013

Interview with Professor Rosario Butterfield

I have recently been reading an interesting and provocative book by Professor Rosario called "The secret thoughts of an unlikely convert" which tells the story of a woman who, at 28 boldly declared herself to be a lesbian and then, later, through her conversion to Christianity had a radical rethink. The following is an interview where she talks a little about what happened. This can also be found, along with other interviews, on a website which looks into people who have wrestled with their sexuality as Christians. It is called: www.livingout.org

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The power of prayer

I have returned to the topic of prayer and the power of prayer many times and each time I look at it I feel as if I haven't quite discovered it's secret. Here is a short article that sets out to explain how we should pray for the church. I will offer a short comment at the end.

HOW TO PRAY FOR YOUR CHURCH

Did you know there are about 650 prayers recorded in the Bible? This is because prayer is important. Throughout Scripture, God repeatedly invites his people to pray to him in all kinds of circumstances for all kinds of reasons. God especially delights in his people praying for the church.

So how should we pray for our church? Let’s explore several sections of Scripture to see how prayers for the church are modeled in the Bible.

1. Pray for unity in Jesus for the Church
In John 17, Jesus sets the example of what it looks like to pray for the church. And what does he pray for? Unity. Jesus prays that his people “may all be one,” united together in God. From John 17:20–23 and what is known as the High Priestly Prayer:

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

2. Pray for God's will within the church. 
In Colossians 1, the Apostle Paul displays his heart for the church by praying that the people within the church be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, so that they can live for Jesus. From Colossians 1:9–13:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.

3. Pray for the Holy Spirit to move in the Church. 
In Ephesians 1 and 3, the Apostle Paul prays that God the Father would give the Spirit of God to the people within the church.  He prays that God would strengthen them in the Spirit, so that Jesus dwells in their hearts and they are rooted in the love of Christ. Here’s Ephesians 1:16–20:

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.

And Ephesians 3:14–19:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

4. Pray for the fruitfulness of the Church. 
In 2 Thessalonians 1, the Apostle Paul prays for a church that is growing in faith and love while enduring persecutions. He wants them to know that Jesus will one day return to earth and that, until that day comes, it is very important for the church to be faithful and fruitful, working diligently to provide for their families and help expand God’s kingdom. Here’s 2 Thessalonians 1:11–12:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let us be encouraged that our God invites us to call upon him in prayer at all times for our church.

Bubba Jennings is the lead pastor of Mars Hill Federal Way.

Comment.
First, the above are random texts in the sense that they don't form one continuous argument that teaches us that prayer is central to Church growth. It is important and part of the picture but isolating it from everything else gives the (false) impression that all you need to do to grow a church is pray>

Second, we read THAT Paul etc prayed and encouraged prayer, but none of the texts actually tell us HOW to pray. I get the impression that prayer was something natural to Paul and the apostles and something they did, but I am no clearer about the sort of prayer that was offered. Was it request-based, was it as part of the Jewish daily prayer pattern? As with many such passages as above the author perhaps is seeing the passages through the lens of his own particular way of praying. However I am not convinced that his was the New Testament's or Paul's.

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