What about the other side?

I once had a church member who had been born in Germany just before the Second World War broke out. Most of her family members had been killed by the Royal Air Force in the fire bombing of Dresden.

I once knew an Arctic bush pilot who had flown for the Luftwaffe in World War Two. He was not a Nazi; he had been caught up in that massive event like millions of other people.

thI’m sometimes asked why I’m not happy about national flags and Remembrance Day activities happening in churches. This is one of my answers.

Remembrance Day was originally about the prayer ‘Never again’. At its best, it’s a remembrance of all who lost their lives in wars – soldiers or civilians, ‘our’ side and ‘theirs’.

Sadly, though, these days it’s often about honouring the sacrifice ‘our’ troops paid for ‘our’ freedom.

My question is, what if you’re not included in that ‘our’?

After all, the Church isn’t meant to be a national institution. Jesus calls his disciples from all nations, tribes, languages and peoples. When I look around St. Margaret’s on Sunday, that’s a reality.

As a Christian, my first loyalty can never be to my nation. My first loyalty must be to Christ and his multi-national kingdom.

Remember this Sunday: you may well have someone in your church whose parents fought on the other side. That person may be intimately connected to you as a fellow Christian.

How are you going to make Remembrance Day about them and their forebears just as much as it is about you and yours?

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What Does Success Look Like? (a sermon for Nov. 4th on Mark 12.28-34)

If you were to make a list of the most successful people alive today, I think Bill Gates would surely be on it. He co-founded Microsoft in 1975, and forty-three years later it’s a mighty force in the world of computer software. And of course Bill Gates has done quite well out of this. As of this year his net worth was calculated at $97.9 billion, so, as the Irish say, he’s not short of two pennies to rub together!

 

It’s interesting, though, that over the past fifteen years or so Bill Gates seems to have taken a different tack altogether, as he and his wife Melinda have given vast sums of money to charitable projects in developing countries. To take just one aspect of the work of their ‘Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – the ‘Global Development Program’ – their organization is currently funding projects supporting agricultural development, financial services for the poor, water, sanitation and hygiene, libraries, and emergency response programs around the world. If all this work has come from a genuine desire to help others, then it demonstrates that even Bill Gates has discovered that business success by itself isn’t enough. Maybe he’s begun to redefine what success means to him.

 

So if we want to be successful in life, what should we aim for? How does God define success? Fortunately, Jesus hasn’t left us in the dark about this; this is exactly what today’s gospel reading is about. A scribe comes up to Jesus and asks him “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12:28), and the answer Jesus gives is a very clear picture of what success looks like in God’s eyes. He says,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

Let’s take a closer look at these verses and ask three questions about them.

 

Question One: Is this, in fact, the central Christian message?Sometimes in workshops I’ve asked people to define in one or two sentences what they think the essential message of Christianity is. I’ve noticed that many people respond with some variation on these words of Jesus, especially the second commandment he quotes, “love your neighbour”. So let’s think carefully about this; is Jesus saying that these two commandments are the central message of Christianity?

 

Look at the question Jesus was asked. It wasn’t, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and love our neighbour.

 

But let me ask you: which comes first in the Christian life, our love for God or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. Commandments aren’t news, so commandments can’t be the Gospel. John tells us that the Good News isn’t that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

 

Mark Twain once said “It’s not the things I don’t understand in the Bible that bother me; it’s the things I do!” I agree! I understand the commandments very well; my problem is I can’t seem to keep them! Every week when we come to church we all confess together our disobedience to these very commandments: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves’. If all Jesus is going to do for me is define the commandments more accurately, that’s not going to help me very much, is it? It doesn’t sound like good news to me.

 

No; the Good News is that Jesus came into the world as a human being to heal our broken relationship with God. On the Cross he demonstrated God’s forgiveness for our sins and gave us hope that our broken relationship with God could be healed. Through his resurrection he’s won the great victory over the forces of evil, and the New Testament tells us that God has made him ‘Lord of all’ (Acts 10:36). Now he invites everyone to come to him, put their trust in him, and receive the free gift of forgiveness and new life that he offers. And then – once our relationship with God is restored by Jesus – we can call on all God’s resources to help us obey these two great commandments – not out of fear of hell, but out of gratitude for God’s great love for us.

 

At the last supper Jesus got down from the table, put a towel around his waist and went around washing the dust off his disciples’ feet – the job of the household slave. Peter was offended; he thought it would be much more appropriate for himto wash Jesus’feet. But Jesus said to him “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” In other words, before we can do anything for Jesus, first of all we have to let Jesus do something for us. And before you and I attempt to obey these two great commandments, there’s a prior question we have to answer: have I come to Jesus and asked him to wash me, to restore my broken relationship with God? These two great commandments are intended for people who have received the Good News and are now asking the question “How can I show my gratitude for all the Lord has done for me?”

 

Question Two: What exactly is being commanded here? As an Englishman moving to Canada in the mid-1970s I soon discovered that even though we used the same language we didn’t always use the same dictionary. To me, a ‘napkin’ wasn’t a cloth you used at a meal to catch the crumbs on your lap; it was a baby’s diaper! The word we used for ‘napkin’ was ‘serviette’. And I very rarely used the term ‘vacuum cleaner’; we just called them all ‘hoovers’, and there was even a verb, ‘to hoover the rug’!

 

We often get into these kinds of dictionary problems when we read the Bible. It’s a very old collection of books and people had different ways of thinking when it was written. So when we hear Jesus telling us to love God and love our neighbour we assume that we know what he means by the word ‘love’. But we probably don’t. In our culture we use this word to describe an emotion, but the Greek language had other words for that: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, ‘eros’, which meant passion or desire, or ‘phileo’,which meant the personal attachment we feel for family and friends. But the Greek word used in today’s passage is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before. My boss said to me “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

 

I had no answer for him at the time. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this. “You’re right: no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and work up a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s telling me to actin a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feelgood toward someone who hurts me, but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. That’s what Jesus is talking about”.

 

So Jesus’ two great commandments are not telling us to feelanything, but rather to love God and love our neighbour by our actions. Now: Question Three. How do I obey these commandments?What practical difference will they make to our lives?

 

It’s often been pointed out that when people are on their death beds their regrets are usually to do with relationships: their failure to love their friends and family as they would have liked, and especially their failure to spend more time with them. As the saying goes, very few people say on their death beds “I really wish I’d spent more time at the office!” Most of us understand that relationships are the central issue in life, and Jesus agrees with this. His two great commandments deal with our two fundamental relationships, with God and with our neighbours. If we get this wrong, we’ve missed the whole point of life, no matter how successful we may be in other areas. If we get this right, we’ve grasped the main issue, even if the rest of our life looks a little frayed around the edges.

 

The first great commandment gives us a description of four kinds of love we can offer to God in gratitude for what he’s done for us. These aren’t four separate watertight compartments of our personality – heart, soul, mind and strength. They’re four overlapping ways in which we offer God our love.

 

The ‘heart’ would not have meant ‘feelings’ to Jesus’ hearers as it does for us; they thought that feelings came from the bowels, not the heart! When they used ‘heart’ they meant the will– the part of us that makes choices and decisions. To love God with all our heart means to make choices that show his kingdom is my number one priority. ‘Soul’ in the Bible means ‘the whole person’; even today we sometimes say, “There were one hundred and thirty souls on board that ship” – ‘souls’ meaning ‘people’. ‘Mind’ tells us that we will have to think carefully about what this faithful life looks like. A purely emotional response isn’t good enough; we have to ask hard questions and think through the issues as well. And the word ‘strength’ shows that this won’t be easy; it will require effort and discipline and good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!

 

In the second command we’re told to love our neighbour and Jesus gives us a guide as to how to do it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. Remember again that Jesus isn’t using a feeling word here. He’s drawing our attention to the way we instinctively care for ourselves. When my body tells me it’s cold, I put on a sweater or turn up the thermostat. When my body tells me it’s hungry, I feed it as soon as possible. Jesus is challenging us to give this same practical care to others.

 

And note the immediacy of the word Jesus uses: ‘love your neighbour’. My neighbours are first of all the people I rub shoulders with regularly – my wife and children, the people who live on my street, the people I work with, the people who serve me coffee at my favourite coffee shop, my fellow Christians at church, and so on. How would Jesus treat them? What would he say to them? What would he do for them? I’m to follow his way of living by treating them as he would treat them.

 

In Luke’s version of this story Jesus gives a concrete example of neighbour love, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man gets beaten up and left for dead by the roadside on the way to Jericho; a priest and a Levite both see him, but they do nothing to help. But a man from Samaria sees him, stops and helps him, puts him on his donkey and takes him to where he can get proper medical care. That’s how to be a neighbour: it means keeping your eyes open to the needs of ordinary people in your daily life, and doing what you can to help them.

 

So let’s sum up what we’ve learned. These two great commandments aren’t the Gospel: the Gospel is the good news that Jesus has lived and died and risen again to heal our broken relationship with God. All people are invited to put their faith in him and come to God through him, as a free gift. When we’ve done that, then these two great commandments will guide us about how to live in gratitude to the one who has loved us so absolutely. They don’t refer to feelings,but loving actionsby which we serve God and serve our neighbours. And they concern the fundamental issue of life: relationships, with God and with other people.

 

Let me conclude by saying again that this is ‘success’ in God’s eyes. Harold Percy says that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point.’ The most important questions in life don’t deal with how successful my business is, or how rich or poor I am, or how fat or thin I am, or how pretty or plain I am. In Anthony Burgess’ novel about the Book of Acts he has the disciples saying over and over again “The time is coming when we will be questioned about love.” That’s the main issue.

 

Have I joyfully accepted the unconditional love of God from the hands of Jesus? And am I living out my gratitude for that love by loving God with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and my neighbour as myself? In the end, these are the only two questions that will matter. Everything else will be irrelevant. As the saying goes, the important thing is to keep the important thing the important thing! And Jesus is absolutely clear what the important thing is.

Stars or Servants? (a sermon for Oct. 21st on Mark 10.32-45)

I’d like to begin this morning with some words from the bestselling Christian author Philip Yancey:

In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, poring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these ‘idols’ are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger than life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.

I have also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

I was prepared to admire and honour these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side by side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favoured ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, ‘wasting’ their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somewhere in the process of losing their lives they have found them. They have received the ‘peace that is not of this world’.[1]

Stars and servants: that’s what today’s gospel reading is all about. As Yancey notes, our world today holds up the stars for admiration. But so did the ancient world. I learned this week that the phrase in the letter to the Philippians where Paul says ‘though (Jesus) was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’ (Philippians 2:6) was actually a political phrase in the ancient world. It was used by the Romans to describe people who aspired to political leadership: ‘He thinks he’s equal to a god’. In fact, in the ancient world you were really only a ‘person’ if you were a star. Ordinary people like you and me were non-persons; we didn’t count.

So people in the ancient word were every bit as obsessed with the cult of the star as we are today. But then along comes Jesus. He has a strong sense of his calling as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, the King who will set God’s people free. That’s what the word ‘Christ’ means. But at the same time he sets himself against the cult of the star. To him, the call to serve God was a call to suffer and die. And so he sets his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem, where everyone knows the opposition is gathering its forces against him:

He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32b-34).

Why is he doing this? Because it goes to the core of what he believes he’s called to do. Look at verse 45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.

This was actually the third time Jesus had warned the twelve about what was ahead for him. They had probably assumed he was going to Jerusalem to claim the throne of David. But Jesus had already told them twice before that this was not going to happen. It was rejection and death that awaited him in Jerusalem, not power and glory.

James and John seem deaf to this. They seem completely unaware of how incongruous it is – right after Jesus has been talking about his suffering and death – to come to him and ask him for power-positions in his government. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v.37). How could they be so deaf? How could they ignore the clear implications of what Jesus was saying?

But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really so surprising; in fact, we do it all the time. There are many sayings of Jesus we ignore. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”. (Luke 6:30) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28). “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (Luke 14:33)

I don’t know about you, but I find these words of Jesus very challenging – too challenging to allow them much time at the forefront of my mind. More often than not, I try to pretend they’re not there. I’m not saying this to boast about it or recommend it; I’m just trying to be honest about it. My point is simply that this is what most Christians do: when Jesus says something to us that doesn’t fit into our world view, or that hits too close to home, we screen it out.

That’s probably what James and John had done with Jesus’ words about going to Jerusalem to be executed. They believed he was the Messiah. God would not abandon his Messiah to his enemies; he would protect him and give him victory. That was what they believed. And so when they heard Jesus saying he was going to be handed over to the Gentiles to be mocked and spat upon and flogged and killed, they screened it out. “You know Jesus – he’s always saying weird things! Whatever he means by this, it can’t be literally true!”

But Jesus rebukes them for their request:

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (v.38).

‘The cup’ is a common symbol in the Old Testament. Here it is in Psalm 78:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draft from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 78:8)

I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like a very tasty drink to me! More like a poison pill! This cup is a symbol of God’s judgement poured out on the wicked, and Jesus says he’s got to drink from this cup.

And of course in Genesis the flood is God’s judgement against the wickedness of humanity. ‘Baptism’ in Greek is ‘baptizo’, and it sometimes means ‘to be overwhelmed by a flood’. The sixteenth century Anabaptists sometimes talked about having to go through ‘the baptism of blood’; they were thinking about the times when Jesus warns us to expect suffering and rejection because we follow him. Not everyone will be happy that we follow Jesus; some people will be very upset – just as they were upset with Jesus himself.

James and John seem pretty confident; when Jesus asks if they’re ready for this, they say “We are!” But then Jesus goes on to say, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (vv.39-40).

It’s often been pointed out that the only other time in the gospels where being at the right or the left of Jesus is mentioned is when he is hanging on the cross with two bandits crucified on either side of him, one on his right and the other on his left. To share Jesus’ glory isn’t a glorious experience; his glory is the cross, where he allows himself to be killed rather than inflicting death on others. Those who want to be close to Jesus have to be willing to join him in that place where they choose love even if it costs them their lives. If you want to be with Jesus, that’s where you have to be. James and John literally don’t know what they’re asking.

But Jesus is determined to make it clear to his disciples. So he calls them all together and spells it out for them again. Here are his words, this time in the Revised English Bible translation:

“You know that among the Gentiles the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and the great make their authority felt. It shall not be so with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Let’s be clear about this: Jesus isn’t saying, “If you want to be great, be a servant of all, and God will reward you by making you great”. If this were true then service would only be a temporary position; once we’d done enough serving to earn our reward, we could cast off our servant role and sit down on our thrones!

But that’s not what Jesus means. What he’s telling us is that service is greatness. Among all the roles the Kingdom of God has to offer, there’s no higher position than to serve others. Serving is what God does when he comes among us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; he’s God’s anointed king. But his whole purpose is to be a servant; this is why he came. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB)

I’m not talking about allowing others to enslave us. Forced slavery is a very evil thing. What I’m talking about is our offering of ourselves in loving service to others, of our own free will. One of the prayers in our Book of Alternative Services begins like this: ‘O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom’. This is what we’re talking about. We were created to serve; when we freely offer ourselves in loving service to God and to others, we find a freedom we’ve never known before.

All this is bringing us back to the central truth Jesus taught us: that the meaning of life is love for God and our neighbour, in response to God’s love for us. James and John weren’t focusing on God and their neighbour: they were focusing on themselves, their own advancement, their own glory. I don’t need to tell you we’re getting some pretty high-profile examples of this behaviour in international politics right now!

But this isn’t the way Jesus is leading us. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (v.45 REB) Jesus surely had the right to be a star if he wanted, but he chose to be a servant instead.  And in the end, he was not the loser for it.

So what would it mean for us to follow him? What if today, instead of asking Jesus for the best seats in the house, we asked him to show us the person he wants us to serve? Not for any gain we could get out of it, but just because this is the way of love?

In fact, we might not even need to do that. The truth is, I probably don’t need Jesus to tell me who I’m being called to love. Those people are already right in front of me. I already know who they are. I simply need to make the decision to love them as Jesus loves them, and to do it not just in words, but in actions. I’m guessing that when Jesus says, “Follow me”, this is pretty much at the heart of what he’s talking about.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]Philip Yancey: Where is God When it Hurts?(Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1977, 1990), p.45.

Godly Sorrow

Seven-and-Neelix-seven-of-nine-30912665-500-382For your Monday morning edification: pastoral theology with Seven of Nine. (‘Star Trek: Voyager’ Season 6 Episode 14 ‘Memorial”)

NEELIX: Seven? When you were a Borg, you were involved in some unpleasant activities.

SEVEN: I helped to assimilate millions.

NEELIX: I don’t mean to be insensitive, but do you ever feel shame about what you did?

SEVEN: Frequently.

NEELIX: How to you manage to keep going, knowing that you’ve done such horrible things?

SEVEN: I have no choice.

NEELIX: Guilt is irrelevant?

SEVEN: On the contrary. My feelings of remorse help me remember what I did, and prevent me from taking similar actions in the future. Guilt can be a difficult, but useful, emotion.

I have been reflecting on this dialogue ever since Marci and I watched it on Saturday night. I have thought for a long time that much popular Christian spirituality has been heavily influenced by pop psychology from the sixties, that sees guilt as entirely negative. And indeed false guilt can be negative and manipulative. But not all guilt is false. Paul talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. I should not try to escape from that guilt. I should listen to it, and fix what needs to be fixed.

On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

Book Review: Donald C. Posterski: ‘True to You: Living Our Faith in our Multi-Minded World’ (Wood Lake Books, 1995).

35659952_10156956550960400_7003163623187021824_nDon Posterski died last week (see this tribute from Tyndale College in Toronto). Don was the author of a number of excellent books and the news of his death has prompted me to revisit one or two of them. ‘True to You’ is my first ‘revisit’.

This is a book about living as a faithful Christian in Canada today. Note: I say ‘today’, but the book was written in 1995 and uses many illustrations that were contemporary at the time. The pace of social change has not been slow in the intervening years; same-sex marriage is legal now, and so is assisted dying, and many more Christians have made their peace with these realities than would have been the case in 1995.

Nonetheless, the topic is still a vital one. Older Canadians can remember a time when Christianity was the assumed frame of reference for questions of truth and morality in our society, but that is no longer the case. So what does it mean to be a faithful Christian in this strange new world? Or, as Don Posterski puts it:

  1. ‘How can we live peaceably and productively with our increasing diversity?
  2. ‘How can we construct a society that allows us to live with strong convictions while giving others the prerogative to do the same?
  3. ‘As God’s people, active in our different denominations and religious traditions, are there ways for us to understand and even appreciate our differences so that we can celebrate our common faith commitments?’

Two classification systems reappear regularly in this book, and I found them quite helpful. The first was taken from an Angus Reid poll about religious preferences conducted in Canada in 1994. it uses four broad categories:

  1. Committed participants (those who attend church weekly and are likely to help make it happen)
  2. Conditional participants (those who attend, but less often, and are less likely to get involved in other ways)
  3. Cultural Christians (those who claim a Christian identity but do not participate in organized religion)
  4. Religious ‘nones’ (‘no religious affiliation).

Percentages will have changed since 1994, but at that time two-thirds of Canadians claimed the ‘cultural Christian’ category. Posterski points out, however, that their actual values and practices were virtually indistinguishable from the ‘nones’.

The other classification system addresses how practising Christians respond to their current marginalization in western society.

  1. Reclaimers want to turn the clock back to the good old days when this was a ‘Christian country’.
  2. Tribalisers want to be sure there its room in society for their views and choices, but their approach to those who disagree with them is very confrontational (in 2018 North America, one can see very clearly just how nasty tribalism – and tribal loyalty – can be).
  3. Accommodators enthusiastically embrace divergence but have very little to offer in terms of distinctive beliefs and practices.
  4. Cocooners disengage from any real involvement with concerns that affect public life.
  5. Collaborators are quite prepared to give other people the room to be true to themselves, but are also assertive in claiming that right for themselves as well.

The seven chapters of the book go on to examine the issues raised by diversity in modern Canadian society. In Chapter Two Posterski defines different forms of pluralism: ideological pluralism is an enemy of faith, but cultural pluralism (everyone is entitled to believe and practice their own convictions) is a friend of faith. In Chapter Three he attempts to outline some common values and commitments for modern Canadian society (personally, I found this the least helpful chapter of the book). In the remaining chapters he explores what he calls ‘principled pluralism’ and what it would look like, both in terms of how Christians should live and how society as a whole should make space for people of differing convictions. One of his more telling observations is that toleration for different viewpoints in modern Canada is easily extended to those who do not believe in clearly defined beliefs and morals (tolerance for the tolerant), but is not so easily extended to people of clear conviction, who are often seen as ‘intolerant’ and are therefore not tolerated!

The conclusion suggests a program for Christians who want to exercise both conviction and compassion.

  1. Trust God and follow Christ – keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come unto me’.
  2. Be true to yourself: know what you believe, who you are, and how you aspire to behave.
  3. Give regard to others. ‘Rooted in the security of their own convictions, God’s people extend compassion to others who are different from themselves…They realize that, rather than coercing creation, God gives people choices; they aim to treat people like God treats people’.
  4. Relinquish rights for the common good. God’s people know that a society cannot be built exclusively on diversity; ‘beyond the requirement to live within the boundaries of the criminal code, all citizens must be willing to sacrifice private desires for shared public goals’.
  5. Fly your flag in the pluralism parade. A democratic society invites its citizens to participate and to influence public policy; we can take advantage of that right, while also respecting the rights of others to do the same.
  6. Love and lobby. We are called both to live a life of love and to lobby for the ways of God, in answer to Jesus’ prayer ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven’.

Despite the fact that its statistic and illustrations are now somewhat dated, I found this a very helpful book. Posterski believed that it was possible for Christians to be true to their own convictions and yet also respectful of the convictions of others. He believed that Canadian society could and should be a place where different convictions are respected and welcomed in the public square. Not all Canadians believe this, and neither do all Christians, today as in 1994. But this book gives solid suggestions for positive Christian life and witness in the context of our modern pluralistic society. I highly recommend it.

2018 RLT #18: Together

‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1).

A couple of days ago I shared my witness about how I first came to conscious faith in Christ – the day I gave my life to Jesus as a young teenager.

Our parish at the time – St. Leonard’s, Southminster, in Essex – was going through a very joyful time of charismatic renewal. People were experiencing the Holy Spirit in very vivid ways. New people were coming to faith. God seemed to be very present in people’s lives; there were stories of guidance, of healing, of answered prayers. We were learning new worship songs (many of them ‘Scripture in Song’ choruses – King James scriptures, easy, catchy, folk-style tunes – or songs by ‘The Fisherfolk’ from the Community of Celebration). It was a very joyful time to be a new Christian.

The word ‘together’ stands out very strongly for me from that time.

When I first committed my life to Christ my dad had been attending a little midweek Pentecostal prayer meeting, so I started going along with him. In this group I first encountered extemporary prayer (some of it very long!), charismatic gifts, informal Bible teaching etc. After a while our Anglican church started ‘home meetings’, as they were then called – home based groups for study and prayer – and I started going to one of them. By then I was playing guitar and it wasn’t long until I was roped in to play for the time of singing that was always part of our meetings. In those days we had no song books; the songs were short and easily memorable, or we might print off little chorus sheets (using the good old Gestetner duplicator!) to pass around.

Toward the end of my time in Southminster (we moved to Canada in December 1975) I became part of the Thursday night home meeting that met at Ken and Kath’s house. 8.00 p.m. Thursday night became a very special time for me. I would get up in the morning and go to school with a sense of excitement – ‘Tonight’s the night!’ I knew I would meet God there when God’s people were gathered ‘together in one place’.

There might have been ten or twelve of us, including one or two teenagers like me. There would be singing, there would be teaching, and there would be extended times of prayer – half an hour, forty-five minutes. Sometimes during those times of prayer someone would sense that God had given them a word to speak to someone else, and they would share it. Someone might speak in a strange language, and another would be given the interpretation of what had been said. There would be prayers for healing, perhaps with laying on of hands. And the sense of God’s presence was strong.

Ever since that time I’ve viewed these midweek groups – whether you call them prayer meetings, Bible Study groups, or whatever you want to call them – as vital and central to Christian growth. Simply put, my observation has been that those who make time to participate in groups like this grow exponentially in their faith.

And I still believe that today, even though today’s schedules make it far more challenging for people to commit to these groups. Whether they meet early in the morning, over lunch hour, afternoon, or evening or weekend, I would strongly encourage everyone who wants to grow as a Christian to find a group like this and join it. Actually, you don’t need to find one – you can start one! Do you work in a downtown office tower? Why not find out if there are other Christians in your office tower who might be interested in a lunchtime prayer and study group? There are lots of resources out there to help you; you don’t need a priest or professional minister to lead it.

What should be part of it? Well, there are no rules, but I think it’s good if the group has something for the Head, something for the Heart, and something for the Hands.

Something for the Head: a time of study, probably Bible study. This can be the simple reading of a Bible passage and the discussion of a few questions to help people understand it. Resources for this sort of thing are easily available (I would highly recommend the ‘Serendipity Bible’ which has study questions in the margin for every single passage in the Bible – it’s out of print, but used copies are easy to find online).

Something for the Heart: the relational component. We express joy in our relationship with God through prayer and praise. We express love to one another as we pray for each other, listen to each other’s stories, and bear each other’s burdens.

Something for the Hands: our lives need to be changed because of our meeting together. The point is to grow as followers of Jesus, finding new ways of loving God and loving our neighbour in action. So it’s good to ask each other ‘What am I going to do differently this week as a result of our meeting?’ – and then to pray for each other as we go out and put it into practice.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them’ (Acts 2:1-4 NIV).