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Permission To Struggle With God In Prayer

Today, I attended for the first time a Leaders’ Forum at Waverley Abbey House, home of CWR. These days (free, gratis and otherwise at no cost) had been recommended by a new ministerial friend here. The theme was The Leader’s Vital Breath – Prayer. I thought I would share one insight that came in this afternoon’s session led by Philip Greenslade.

Giving us an extended treatment of Psalm 73, he contrasted Islamic treatment of the Abraham story with the Jewish and Christian approaches. Referring to the incident where Abraham bargains with God for the salvation of the righteous in Sodom, he noted that the Qu’ran deletes the bargaining and Abraham is basically told to shut up. In other words, it’s pure Islam: ‘submission’ (which is what the word ‘Islam’ means). On the contrary, both the Jewish and Christian approaches allow for honest struggle with God in prayer (hence Psalm 73). Quoting Abraham Heschel, who said that for the Jewish prophets, ‘Thy will be done’ involved effectively praying ‘Thy will be changed’, he said that any proper understanding of ‘Thy will be done’ has to include Gethsemane.

Does not all true prayer involve struggle, he asked? If prayer is only submission (and some Christian traditions are guilty of this, too), then is it true prayer? Good question.

I think we are learning this lesson of being able to be honest with God in prayer more and more in today’s church, but it was good to have such a thought-provoking underlining of it.

Sabbatical, Day 20: Libraries, Linux And Slow Broadband

If anything demonstrates a failure to understand different religions today, it’s this story: Bible moved to library top shelf over inequality fears. Muslims in Leicester had been upset to find the Koran on lower shelves of public libraries. They felt their holy text should be on the top shelf to show that it is above commonplace things. Librarians agreed to their request, but also moved copies of the Bible to the top shelf.

I’m prepared to believe they did so out of good intentions. Perhaps they didn’t want to look like they were favouring Islam over other faiths. Perhaps they thought all holy texts should be treated the same, as if the holy book of a religion occupies the same relative place in each faith. If so, they were adopting an approach that has been used in schools to teach about different religions. It takes the phenomena of various faiths, and directly compares them. It is a flawed approach. For, as reaction to this story shows, religious texts are treated differently. My research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, used to say that the place of the Koran in Islam was more akin to the place of Christ in Christianity, because it is revered as eternal, uncreated and coming down out of heaven. 

Christians do not treat the Bible that way, however ‘high’ their doctrine of inspiration. In the story, even the spokesperson for the extremely conservative Christian Institute is concerned that the scriptures are not placed out of reach. They are meant to be within the reach of all, a point understood by the spokesperson for Civitas when he called for libraries to be run on principles of librarianship rather than as places of worship. However much we honour the Bible for its revelation of God, we do not worship it. Only God is to be worshipped. The Bible is a holy tool. Like all tools, it needs to be close at hand.

How ironic this news comes in the same week that the atheist Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has said that children need to be taught the Bible or they will fail to understand our culture. As a Christian, I would of course want to make much larger claims for the narrative of Scripture than that, arguing that it is the framework to make sense of life, the universe and everything. However, I welcome his comments nonetheless.

Meanwhile, on the personal front, once again family circumstances have meant I’ve achieved none of my sabbatical aims today. I stayed in with Mark this morning while Debbie, Aunt Pat and Rebekah went into town. At lunch-time, Debbie and Pat left for a day trip to Sussex. However, Mark has been full of beans – or, more accurately even more pasta shapes – and we managed his first trip out this afternoon since he became ill. The local library was putting on a James Bond afternoon for children. If I took it seriously, I wouldn’t like it. Although I’m not a convinced pacifist, I don’t believe you talk about guns and poison casually. The visiting speaker was from a military museum, and was showing examples of equipment used by British spies a few decades ago. Thankfully, it went over our children’s heads and they were more keen to take out some of the books to which they normally gravitate. 

Finally, I’m trying to install some extras to the Ubuntu Linux partition on my laptop, ready for my next sabbatical jaunt on Monday. Some things install better on that Vista laptop than our Vista desktop – Ubuntu, for one! I might reboot into Windows and see whether the software for my Sony Ericcson Walkman phone will install properly on that machine – it doesn’t on the desktop. Everything so far has been immensely frustrating, because our broadband has slowed to a crawl in the last day or two. I tested it at and it reported a download speed of just 0.1 Mbps. I’ve been trying to find out tonight whether we’ve been throtted by our ISP for over-use, but so far I can’t find anything – not that it’s easy to find out. I’m going to sign off now and try again to find out some answers.

Removing The Cross In Coronation Street

Last week we discussed the church that removed a graphic crucifix in Horsham. This week, a similar issue has hit British television. The Daily Mail, Times and Daily Telegraph all report the case of a wedding scene in soapland, where the television crew wanted to remove a cross from a church where they were filming said wedding. On learning that the cross was fixed, they obscured it with candles and flowers.

Why did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for realism. Dry ice wafted through the scene – so just like any church service, then. According to church sources, they said they didn’t want to cause offence.

I didn’t see the show. Not only do I see very little TV, I’m allergic to soaps. I’ve been catching up on the issue after two church members told me about it.

In fairness, the television company has since apologised for the error and conducted an investigation. They believe there has been a misunderstanding over their intentions and motives. I wonder how the story would have been reported if the church had protested directly to Granada first and not gone public until after this investigation.

However, my main interest here is this: it’s curious to see the language used by the church leaders in protesting, and what it might imply. I’m particularly interested in the language of ‘offence’. In the Daily Mail report linked above, Stephen Regan of the Diocese of Chester is reported as saying,

The cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity, and should offend no one.

Er, hold on? The first part of his sentence is correct, but from the beginning of faith in Jesus the cross has been an offence. If the cross has been reduced to symbol in the sense of a corporate logo, then I suppose it wouldn’t offend, but that isn’t what we’re about.

Similarly, James Milnes, the rector of the parish, quoted in the Telegraph story linked above, rightly says that Granada Television had 

emptied the church of the very thing that makes it a church

in that the Cross is what makes us the community of God. Absolutely. I once wanted to design a church letterhead as not showing a line drawing of the building, but people around the Cross.

However, what is strange is the extended quotation from his church magazine:

How can people think it offensive to see a cross in a church, in the same way as you would normally see the Koran in a mosque or the Torah in a synagogue? That is the emblem of this faith.

This has a resonance around the country. It plays into who we are as a nation because I do not think we have a clear idea as English people. We do not really know where we are going.

There is constant attrition to our way of life. You can’t say this or you can’t say that for fear of offending. Who can we possibly be offending?

If ’emblem’ has become ‘logo’, then again one can understand the shock at the sense of offence. But the Cross itself is offensive to many who do not know the power of the Gospel. Muslims would see the death of a ‘prophet’ such as Jesus as being demeaning to the dignity of God. To traditional Jews, one thinks of Paul quoting Deuteronomy in Galatians, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ To the Greeks of Paul’s day, it was foolishness, and it remains that to many people today.

To Christians, it is the glory of God’s love and grace. And that is what I understand the Revd Milnes and Mr Regan defending. However, they cannot expect it to lack offence. Here’s just a thought: do they take things this way because they have an ‘Established Church’ mentality? I’m just guessing, and may be doing them a disservice. If I am, I will apologise. However, Milnes clearly links the issue to the confused current destiny of being English, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark, even if I am wrong.

Yet as the Christian Church in the UK seeks a mission rôle as a minority group in society, I can’t help thinking that more helpful models of church are needed. I’ve spoken and written before, as others of a missional theological mindset have, of ‘exile’ as a helpful biblical model. From the perspective of church history, I find myself heading more in Anabaptist directions all the time. I don’t pretend that’s easy, in fact it risks being painful, but I do think the changed and changing society in which we live means we need to look for some different paradigms on which to model our witness.

In typing this, I am mindful of an interview in the February 2009 issue of Christianity Magazine, with Ann Widdecombe MP (the interview will probably not be online for another month). For anyone reading this who doesn’t know British politics, Miss Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in opposition to women’s ordination. In the interview, she is asked about the current vexed issue of the establishment of the Church of England. She replies:

I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.

But there’s the problem. Claiming the UK is a Christian nation is a fig leaf. Widdecombe would doubtless wish to protect establishment (even though she went over to Rome) for political reasons of constitution, and certainly some of the reasons advocated by politicians for disestablishment are weak and unChristian. But right now establishment is not protecting the rights of Christians in the courts when religious freedoms are trumped by other freedoms, so that some Christians cannot exercise their consciences and keep certain jobs. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic to expect that people won’t find the Cross offensive.

In saying all this, I may of course be putting too much weight on the use of the words ‘offend’ and ‘offending’ as used by Stephen Regan and James Milnes. Perhaps what Mr Regan really means is ‘surprised’. However, Revd Milnes uses his language in a context of objecting to ‘political correctness’, and so I am a little more sure that he really does mean to be concerned about the problem of offence. Certainly, the risk of offending people provided it is with the substance of the Gospel rather than just by being aggressive Christians (step forward Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who inevitably responded to requests for a quote) is a risk we must take today. If we do not, we shall not be faithful to the Gospel.

Interestingly, the Telegraph has this week carried the story of an Asian Christian minister in Scotland who claims he was sacked from an Asian community radio station for supporting Christianity and criticising a Muslim’s understanding of the Christian faith. The station disputes his account, and asked for questions to be put in writing. However, the Telegraph received no response to its fourteen points. If the case has been accurately portrayed in the newspaper (and I don’t think the station’s failure to respond looks good), then sadly this is the climate in which more and more British Christians live. Mr Milnes and his parishioners may have had a rude awakening into it, even if it was a misunderstanding and Granada Television meant no offence. This is not to seek persecution or develop some unhelpful persecution complex, which some Christians play on, but it is, I think, to be more realistic.

Over to you.

Covenant Sermon

This Sunday, my church at Broomfield is experimenting with bringing its annual Covenant Service forward to the beginning of the ‘Methodist year’ rather than the calendar year. Hence what follows is a sermon for a Covenant Service, rather than on one of the regular weekly Lectionary readings.

Romans 12:1-2

Introduction
At my office, I worked with a Muslim guy. Javed (or ‘Suave Jave’ as we called him, for his attitude to the ladies) was more Muslim by upbringing than practice. But one day, he brought in to show us his mother’s copy of the Qur’an. It was edged and blocked in gold leaf. It came in a special tissue-like wrapper. One thing neither Javed nor his mother would have done with that book was write in it. Even touching it seemed risky, in case of damage.

But I don’t treat my copies of the Bible that way. In particular, I was taught as a young Christian to underline words in my Bible. Not only verses that struck me, but also some key words. ‘But’ was a good word to underline. It indicated an important change in Paul’s arguments.

And Romans 12 starts with another key word: ‘therefore’.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

‘I appeal to you therefore’: therefore indicates all that has preceded Romans 12. It indicates the first eleven chapters of Romans, summarised here as ‘the mercies of God’. We make and renew our covenant because of ‘the mercies of God’. All we offer today is in response to the mercies of God. Not just one-off mercy in initial forgiveness, but mercies. Over and over again, God is merciful to us. Our sins, our mistakes, our foolishness and weakness: for all these things God is merciful to us in Christ through the Cross. And because he is relentlessly merciful – his mercies are ‘new every morning, [so] great is [his] faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23) – we offer ourselves to him.

How does Paul ask his readers to respond to the mercies of God? In these two verses are two ways:

1. Sacrifice
Paul urges Christians to ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (verse 1).

‘Spiritual worship’ here implies that it is reasonable, rational and true. This is the right and proper thing to do in light of God’s enduring mercies to us. The mercies of God come to us through the sacrifice of Christ: is it not appropriate, urges Paul, for us to make sacrifices as a grateful response?

But what are these sacrifices? ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’, he says. It’s not just something we do ‘spiritually’: we present our bodies. And if I might just re-order the words to reflect what many commentators think is the sense of the Greek, we make ‘sacrifices, living, holy and acceptable to God’. Those adjectives ‘living’, ‘holy’ and ‘acceptable to God’ illustrate the kinds of sacrifices we might make with our bodies.

‘Living’ – we freely offer our bodies to God, because of what he has done for us in Christ. It may cost us something. The author Robert J Morgan tells how one Sunday, the late Corrie ten Boom was preaching in Copenhagen on these very verses. She was eighty years old at the time. Two young nurses at the church invited her to lunch afterwards, but they lived in a tenth floor flat and there was no lift. Not what you want at eighty.

She struggled up the stairs as far as the fifth floor, but her heart was pounding and her legs buckled. Collapsing into a chair, she complained to the Lord. But she sensed God whispering to her that it was important she carried on.

When she finally made it to the tenth floor, she met the parents of one of the nurses. Neither was a Christian, but they were both interested in the Gospel. Corrie ten Boom led them to faith in Christ. All because she reluctantly followed her own sermon and made her life – her very body – a sacrifice in climbing ten flights. She was willing to go where God led her, despite the cost.

‘Holy’ – our dedication to God may also sometimes come at a price. The Covenant Service promises balances the way some parts of our discipleship are attractive and others are costly:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult; some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both; in some we may please Christ and please ourseleves, in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves. Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.’ (Methodist Worship Book, p288.)

Holy sacrifices are about being willing to pay the price of unpopularity and difficulty for the sake of dedication to the right thing. It is also a matter of doing so graciously, rather than with complaint, self-righteousness or attention-seeking.

‘Acceptable’ – this probes our motives. Other translations say, ‘well-pleasing to God’. It’s about a desire to please God. In marriage and other human relationships, we make it our first goal not to please ourselves but our spouse, or whoever it is we love. So too with God. When we know how merciful he has been to us and how regularly he has been merciful, the fitting response is to set our minds and hearts on doing the things that bring him joy.

There is a story told in the Old Testament that gives a small illustration of what I am talking about King David wanted to buy some land from a subject and use it for worship. The owner says he can have it free of charge, but David says, no: he insists on paying. Why? ‘I will not give to the Lord that which has cost me nothing,’ he says. Discipleship and giving need to cost us something to be genuine. It may be financial, material, emotional, psychological, even social. If we realise just how merciful God continually is to us, then out of joy we shall be willing to show love in return, even if it comes at a price.

2. Transformation
Verse 2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

‘Do not be conformed to this world’ – or, as J B Phillips famously translated this passage, ‘Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. Do not be conformed, be transformed, says Paul. Don’t be squeezed by the world, ‘let God re-mould your minds from within’ (Phillips).

Yet how easy it is to conform to the world, to let it squeeze us into its mould. Often we don’t notice. The late Lesslie Newbigin once observed that just as a goldfish is not consciously aware of the water in which it swims, so we are often unconscious of the culture we live in and its values.

In our society’s case, think about how we easily use popular words such as ‘tolerance’. It is presented as a quality that everybody must have. Woe betide the intolerant! But the word ‘tolerance’ carries with it overtones of a benign attitude to things that are wrong, enduring wrong things or having no deep convictions oneself. It’s a slippery slope towards tolerating sin. All these shades of meaning are therefore anathema to the Christian, but we refer to tolerance as much as anyone! The world is squeezing us into its mould, if we are not careful. I could give examples from other apparently innocent or positive words such as ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘community cohesion’.

So how do we resist social pressures to adopt ways of thinking that are inimical to the Gospel? Paul exhorts us to ‘be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds’, or to let God re-mould us from within, as Phillips puts it. Spiritual transformation involves a battle for the mind, because what we think affects our attitudes and our actions.

This doesn’t mean we all have to be intellectuals. Any Jesus-follower can develop Gospel thinking, Gospel attitudes and Gospel actions. That is Paul’s vision. Where do we begin?

We start with reading and reflecting on the Bible and its great story from the Garden to the New Jerusalem. It is Scripture above all that will help us to be Gospel thinkers. However, we don’t do so alone. Private Bible reading is good and worthy, but most of the books in the Bible itself were written or dictated to be heard less by individuals than by groups of disciples. It’s important, therefore, to get to grips with the Gospel together. If you’re not part of a small group that does that, you’re missing out! For starters, join the Living Faith course! It will help us get to grips with the big picture of our faith together.

But it’s not enough just to read the biblical message and discuss it. There are many people in churches who know their Bibles well, but who are harsh, unloving and judgmental. (Not that any of us is perfect – least of all, me.) So just reading the Bible and talking about it isn’t enough.

In other words, the biblical authors didn’t write their books just to be read or heard. They wrote them to generate action. The Bible isn’t just to be read, it’s to be done.

In my final year as a student minister, I spent half my time on placement in a circuit. At one of the two churches where I worked, I led a Bible study every week. However, the minister who supervised that group had been very frustrated with it. ‘When are they going to stop talking about the Bible and start doing something?’ he said to me once. ‘They’re more interested in the maps on the inside covers of their Bibles than in putting the teaching into practice.’

And that’s what I’m on about. Spiritual formation in Christ – the transformation of our minds to which Paul calls us – involves Bible reading, reflecting on it together where we support and challenge each other, and then getting on with what we’ve learned. It’s when the thinking leads to action that we truly learn. If I were a betting man, I would wager that Katie learned more about God’s love for the poor through her trip to Kenya with Hand In Hand than I would have done simply by reading about the poor.

One famous preacher said, ‘Never finish your sermon without telling your congregation what you want them to do about it.’ I suggest you might almost say, ‘Never finish your Bible reading without deciding what you are going to do about it.’

Conclusion
If God has been so persistently merciful to us, then what might we give him as a present? It would be appropriate if our offering involved sacrifice, when we recall all that he has done for us in Christ.

Transformation is also appropriate: Christ did not die on the Cross only for our forgiveness: he died that we might be saved from sin in every way. Not only the penalty of sin, but the practice of sin (which involves us co-operating with the Holy Spirit in being transformed) but also the presence of sin (as we anticipate God’s New Creation by being colonies of God’s Kingdom).

This Covenant Service, let us pledge ourselves again – in promise and in action – to the God of abundant mercy.