Church; not the be all and end all

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Church; the Bible describes it as “the Bride of Christ”, which is high esteem indeed. It is an excellent way to spend time with other Christians, sing some songs, worship God and to hear someone read from the Bible. Some Christians go as far as to say that attending Church to worship is the most important thing a Christian can do, but some go further and say that if you are not attending Church, you are not a real Christian or even a Christian at all.

Now usually at this point I would say something like “Is this really the case?” and proceed to break the arguments down before coming to a conclusion. Whilst I will still do that, I am first going to jump to my conclusion, which is this; it is absolute nonsense and in fact, quite dangerous (bordering on manipulative) to even remotely equate church attendance with someone’s faith. It ignores, trivializes or caricatures the reasons why many do not and indeed cannot go to a regular church service.

You see, life does not stop just because it is a Sunday. Health issues do not suddenly go away to allow you to go to church. Job requirements do not suddenly stop because you want to be somewhere else. When I make it to church, what you don’t see is the battle that I have waged to even get out of bed; a battle I have to fight every day just to go to work. I have had to stop going to darts and dance due to my health. More often than not, I have my own church at home where I can put on some music, chat to God and mostly hide out in my study. I have friend named Helen, who has a chronic illness and has to take 29 tablets everyday  just to function. She does not get to church very often due to her health issues. Sarah’s friend Sophie is in a similar situation that causes her constant pain and unpredictable symptoms; this prevents her from sometimes working and going to church. Are you seriously going to say that the most important thing they do on a Sunday is go to church? Sometimes the most important thing we do each day is just to start the day.

My previous job required me to work weekends, and I actually needed the extra money to pay bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. Some people’s jobs are at nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, orphanages. Would you tell them that a church service is more important than helping people in need, or ensuring they don’t become homeless themselves? God can and does provide, this does not mean that we are then suddenly exempt from needing to work on a Sunday. Perhaps the job that requires those people to work on Sundays is the one that God has provided. Some will say that we have to prioritize God; now I agree with that to an extent, but there are 7 days in the week and Paul seemed to be quite clear on this in Romans 14.

Worship does occur at church, but worship is also about so much more than singing a few songs. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” NIV (Matthew 22:37-40). Going to church means nothing if all you do is go to church on a Sunday to worship, then forget about it for the rest of the week or worse, act in a manner that is counter to what Jesus taught (a point I will return to very shortly). Worshiping God is about keeping those two commandments above all else. Singing songs of praise is great, but I can do that anywhere; in my house house, in a field, at a rave…you get the idea.

This brings me onto another reason why people do not go to church; they simply do not find Jesus there. Many have issues with how the Church approaches certain social issues (among many other things) and have left the church as a result. Comments like “you have to attend church to be a Christian” is to simply bury your head in the sand regarding the churches faults/issues and how much damage they are actually causing; not to mention ignoring what the term Christian actually means – the hint is in the name. Some have left because they have been badly burned by the church or have seen others badly burned, and if someone has hurt you, you are not going to keep seeing them, at least, not unless they apologise. The same applies to church. Some of the most vile abuse dished out have come from Christians and there’s only so much you can take before you have to walk away. This does not mean we have lost our faith, in fact, it often means the exact opposite. We have left because of our faith (and our sanity!) Now at this, people will point out that the church is not perfect and you cannot change something if you leave. This is true, but you also cannot change anything if you are so badly beat up that you have nothing left. And just wanting a morning to do nothing is perfectly acceptable. We have to look after ourselves too.

To sum all of this up though, I will end with this. Until churches start acknowledging that people have very legitimate reasons for not being in church, that they are contributing to some of those reasons, that Christians relationship with Jesus doesn’t necessarily need to involve them; then vicars & pastors are going to find more people having reasons not to be there.

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Your everyday best

So…Sunday services at church. Traditionally a time where the dress code is smart. I will be doing the sound system at my church this Sunday, and many parishioners will be dressed very smartly.

What I will probably do is reach for whatever is closest when I roll out of bed, which is likely to be black jeans, or possibly trousers that have so many pockets, they’d make MacGyver proud. Or maybe even the ones with the Captain America patch on them, due to a hole on the knee that eventually became too big to ignore. I will almost certainly wear a hoodie; maybe the i59 one, or the Las Vegas one, or the one with the Rooster Teeth Logo that doesn’t zip up. T shirts could be anything from one with the iconic ‘alien ship over the Whitehouse scene’ from Independence Day on it, to “Atheism; a non-prophet organization”, or possibly one that will raise some eyebrows even further. My rainbow flag lapel badge will almost certainly make an appearance too. I will stroll into church wearing my headphones, listening to a UK Rave mix of some description, grab a coffee, take my place at the sound booth and get on with setting up the sound desk for the service.

But hang on, that actually sounds like every other day, and that’s the point; my Sunday best is my everyday best, it’s who I am every minute of every day. I go to church as I am and act how I usually would. I don’t hide, dress up or put a mask on. God accepts and loves me for who I am and I do my best for Him every day. My best is being who I am; I don’t change just for a Sunday. So if suits and ties are not you, then don’t wear them this Sunday or any other Sunday for that matter. God is not interested in how you can present yourself on a Sunday; He’s interested in how you engage your heart with Him. So dress in your everyday best and be yourself.

Quick thoughts on the banned Lords Prayer ad; Part 2

So a couple of weeks ago the DCM (Digital Cinema Media) blocked an advert depicting the Lords Prayer from being shown in cinemas, and I penned some thoughts on why that was the correct decision and not a breach of free speech or an example of persecution. The controversy just won’t die down though and has been fanned into life once more with the news that cinemas are showing a short film which depicts animated Hindu gods; and once again Christians have whipped themselves into a frenzied mob including one very misguided Christian who put this together

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I say they’re misguided, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call it manipulative because this picture leaves some out some very key facts which when known, really make this whole controversy another example of the Christian persecution complex.

First off, the Lord Prayers ad was not a short film depicting people praying, it was an explicit advert for the website justpray.uk. The Hindu film is not an advert so the comparison is false. If you’re looking for a similar Christian example, it’s much closer to the movie God is not Dead which was not banned and shown in many cinemas. Indeed the only criticisms that were leveled at  it was the scathing reviews on how horrendously atrocious it was (and yet somehow it got a sequel)

Secondly though and linked to this, as it’s a film not an advert the decision to show it lies with the individual cinema companies themselves not the DCM as they themselves have stated. So the Christian anger isn’t just misguided, it’s aimed at completely the wrong target anyway.

If Christians want depictions of prayer in movies, there’s no shortage of them. Heck even Day After Tomorrow has a small poignant scene of the President praying in a chapel, not to mentioned Noah and Exodus. If they want Christian characters in movies or Christian movies in general, do what the makers of this Hindu film did and make one; just make sure it’s better quality than the aforementioned Gods Not Dead.

So it’s very much ado about nothing and another case of where people need to stop and think before brandishing the pitch forks.

Ex-Christian, non-Christian; get over it

Whilst the article was originally written back in February, this piece written by Max Andrews appeared in my Twitter feed and attempts to argue that the term “ex-Christian” is not only incoherent, but apostasy (geez, some Christians love to throw that word around) His argument is as follows:

So, the problem with Ex-Christians is that they never were saved to begin with. At least, they cannot consistently claim to once be saved and now not. To say that one was once saved and now not saved because of apostasy is simultaneously affirming a truth claim on one hand while denying the same claim on the next hand. Any Ex-Christian must say that they were never actually saved or born again because they couldn’t have been if they believe it to be false.

Now I don’t have a PhD from Edinburgh (or anywhere for that matter) but the article doesn’t seem to make much sense.

To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, that’s what the term means. Christians follow Him because we believe he is the Son of God and that he died and rose again. We also trust Him with our lives, we believe he is trustworthy. Indeed the Greek word for faith used in the New testament is Pistis; and it carries the same meaning as fides:

Belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same fidelity, faithfulness the character of one who can be relied on

Even the dictionary definition of faith has a similar definition:

Complete trust or confidence in someone or something

So what happens when that trust is broken? What happens when we stop believing Christ is trustworthy? You’re not going to follow someone you don’t trust, so you stop following Him and by the definition of a Christian you are an ex-Christian. You trusted Christ, now you don’t. Trust can be broken for a multitude of reasons, and we can debate until the second coming whether they are good reasons, but given the relational aspect of Christianity, everyone’s reasons will be based on their own personal experience of Christ and events often force perceptions to change. This doesn’t mean that because you’ve changed your mind that you didn’t believe in the first place; Even with the relationship aspect to one side it doesn’t mean that.  If I was a young earth creationist and believed the earth was 6000 years old, then changed my belief to the earth is billions of years old, that doesn’t mean I was never a young earth creationist. My reasons have changed, I am ex-whatever I was. This happens all the time in life, why is it hard to think that it can happen with faith?

This will inevitably raise the question of salvation which is the focus on Max’s article. Now it’s true  that God may indeed change us, but that is a process that can take a long time and may not be fulfilled this side of heaven (we don’t all get to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus” conversion moment) Max’s whole article comes across as an exercise in tribalism; If you’re one of us, you never leave. If you leave, you were never one of us” as one commenter on my Facebook page put it. This is rampant in fundamentalism as justification to shun those they don’t agree with, especially those who have left the fold and to apply pressure through emotional blackmail to get them back. Salvation is between an individual and Christ and Christ was quite clear no one goes through the father except through him (which is not the same as saying only Christians go to heaven) as well as being clear that calling yourself a Christian is no guarantee you’ll get to heaven either (Matthew 7:21-23)

Ultimately Max demonstrates a breathtaking lack of understanding as to why people believe and the kind of journey’s they go through in their life and faith. Not everyones story and faith and the same. He takes the easy option of simply dismissing those stories as “well you were never a Christian then” which I’m sure would not have led to his many honours had he taken the same approach to his studies. Trying to usurp Christ in passing judgement over who is/isn’t a Christian, is not only dangerous but probably apostasy as well.

If an atheist made this argument (and I did have an atheist say to me I was never an atheist) Christians would tear them apart and rightly so, it’s total nonsense and remains so even when said by people with PhD’s.

I would like to apologise if you now have Monty Pythons dead parrot sketch in your head.

Same-sex marriage and apologetics; stick with what you’re good at

It’s always been odd to me that apologetics websites get involved in same-sex marriage, because same-sex marriage has nothing to do with the truth of Christianity which is what apologetics is about. Inevitably, the articles these sites publish are arguing against it, or as they like to put it “putting a biblical case”. One such was this from Saints and Skeptics where it goes into why same-sex marriage is not just unbiblical but bad for society. It then concludes with 4 reasons why same-sex marriage should be opposed. For the purposes of this article I’m only going to address the 4 reasons here, so here goes:

First, given the level of family breakdown in the secularised West, it would be inadvisable for the law to teach that marriage exists for adult satisfaction, and not to create and sustain new families.

The breakdown in families started long before same-sex couples started campaigning for equal rights under the law. Larry King has had 8 divorces, nearly half of heterosexual marriages end in divorce, my parents got divorced. If you want to be concerned about family break down, start there (but Christians are oddly quiet about divorce). The notion that same-sex marriage is going to teach that “marriage exists for adult satisfaction” is grotesque because it’s ultimately saying “same-sex couples only want to be with each other for sex” It’s completely lost on them that LGBT people are capable of love and commitment, something even Archbishop Justin Welby recognizes when he same-sex couples can teach us heterosexuals a thing or two and indeed praised the quality of same-sex relationships. Just on the last point, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg commented that if the argument that marriages for creating families, infertile and/or elderly couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry either!

Second, it is a bad idea to have a law that replaces “fatherhood” and “motherhood” with “parenting.” The institution of marriage recognises the importance of sexual complementarity; we should not casually dispense with the presence of a father and mother in a child’s life.

This is just a slap in the face to all the single mothers and fathers out there. Having a mother and father in your life provides zero guarantee of a child being raised better than one without a mother and a father. Indeed, there are studies that have suggested that children of same-sex couples do better. Other studies contradict this which leads me to one conclusion; how well a child does has bugger all to do with the sexuality and number of their parents.

Third marriage would be redefined as romantic attachment or companionship. This changes the meaning of every marriage by changing the meaning and function of the institution of marriage. People do not marry simply because they are lonely, or because they are romantically attracted to one another. They marry because they want to see another person’s face in the face of their children; their marriage says “together, we would be suited to make a new life, and to raise it, and everyone else is obliged to honour that fact!”

What a load of nonsense, which is basically a re-wording of the other nonsense they put above. Again, it completely reduces same-sex couples to just wanting sex. It completely ignores married couples who can’t have children or choose not to. I am not marrying my fiance because “I want to see another persons face in my children” I’m marrying her because I want to commit myself to her for the rest of my life. Now you can argue I don’t necessarily need to get married for that to happen, but I want to, she wants to. Children have got nothing to do with it; but it goes way way beyond just romantic attraction and companionship and that can’t be touched by same-sex marriage. Given the reason that they put up next, their use of the word “obliged” seems a bit hypocritical.

Fourth, the law would compel many people to honour and recognise a new form of relationship, no matter what their spiritual or moral convictions. This law would tell Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians that they are wrong: sex is not for the creation of new families, but can have whatever meaning we attach to it. In the long run, some loss of religious liberty is inevitable. Given that same-sex partnerships can be legally protected without redefining marriage, the result will be a net loss of liberty for society as a whole.

Yes, it absolutely is saying they are wrong, so what? When you have 2 competing statements, one is saying other is wrong; it’s called logic. It’s no different to the law (before it was changed) telling same-sex couples they were wrong about marriage. It’s the same with any law that people don’t agree with. The problem with civil partnerships which is what I’m guessing they’re referring to when they say “that same-sex partnerships can be legally protected without redefining marriage”, is that it’s effectively saying “you’re not good enough for marriage, have this instead” Ultimately, his reason can be translated into “I can’t discriminate against who I want therefore it’s a loss of liberty for everyone”

Saints and Skeptics are more on the conservative side of theology than me, but I’m disappointed in them for this piece. They’re usually pretty good in their arguments or the ones of the pieces they choose to publish, but this isn’t even close to being a reasoned argument. They should probably just stick to apologetics because it has nothing to do with same-sex marriage anyway.

One small step for me, one giant leap for the church (or vice versa)

I actually made it to church yesterday, and one where I wasn’t reading at or visiting Sarah’s mum; first time I’ve done so in nearly 18 months. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have gone had Sarah not been with me to encourage me to go (or book the taxi and made sure I was in it with her). I chose this church because it looked like it had a similar style (relaxed, informal modern/contemporary music) to my previous church which I prefer. It was always going to be the theology that was going to be the sticking point. Not in terms of whether we agree but how they treat differences and those they disagree with.

It became quickly evident that we’re not seeing eye to eye on certain things (at one point Sarah had to pretty much hold me down when I heard “we called to love the sinner and hate the sin” and “truly forgiving involves forgetting”) and me being me, was just honest about how i felt about those things. The question I was asking God towards the end was “if I’m supposed to be here, am I here to learn or teach?” I think the answer to that is both, it’s just a matter and what, when and how. I got discussing penal substitution theory with the pastor, but very deliberately steered clear of other subjects like inerrancy and same-sex marriage. They will come, and we will have to see what happens when they do.

They’ve already made it clear that they are particular about what is taught from the front, and that they have house groups for essentially extended teaching. How open they are going to be only time will tell, how I open I will be is another matter. I’m not totally settled on what the Bible is or what I’m to do with it, or really sure what the point of church actually is, all I know is that I feel I need to be in a community of other Christians where I can share fellowship; but still be myself and challenge and be challenged and explore these doubts. The pastor has offered to meet me one to one to discuss various aspects, not sure if its to understand me more, to have the discussion or try to change my mind on things but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

I’ve had Christians tell me that we have gifts we can offer the church which is part of going. Well I’ve taken the small step of going, need to take some more and keep going. We’ll just have to see whether the gifts I offer are accepted.

Me, myself and theology

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I am not a Theologian or a Scholar. I do not have qualifications or training in Theology or Biblical Scholarship. My qualification, aside from the GCSE’s and A-Levels I left school with at 18, is in Digital Forensics, and I have  just over 10 years experience of working in various fields of the IT industry. I mention this because despite no formal training , I have to have an understanding of Theology and Biblical Scholarship to even begin discussions about Christianity and the Bible, and to even be a Christian. Subjects like atonement, justification and the Trinity are incredibly complex, yet seem to form a core basis for the Christian faith (aside from the resurrection, obviously). This is why organizations like RZIM and Premier Christian Radio  host training days to help people to understand these subjects. But even for organisations such as this, communicating these topics are no easy feat. A cursory glance through different books and articles quickly shows the breadth of opinions on any given subject, so how do we decide who to listen to? If the experts are divided, what chance has the layman got?

Often on social media sites, there will be a post from someone asking about peoples top 3 books/authors they’d recommend. The logic seems to be that if the recommendation comes from someone they trust, they’d be more willing to read it. Plus, time constraints means that they can’t read absolutely everything. Makes sense. Depending on the subject that they’re interested in, my response would vary, but most of the time, my recommendations are as below:

  • Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood
  • Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I refer to Derek Flood a lot.  I can say that his book helped to save my faith. In the early days of my faith, I was influenced by people like Ravi Zacharias and Michael Ramsden, but their interpretation of the cross, (that it was about the pouring out of Gods wrath onto Jesus) really didn’t seem to settle with me; it didn’t sound like the God I knew. I was wrestling with it a lot as well as issues regarding Genesis (Lost World of Genesis One helped me with this), and the whole inerrancy issue (which Inspiration and Incarnation helped me with). But it wasn’t until I read Flood’s book that I began to understand that the cross was about restoration, not wrath. Until that point, what I was coming to understand about heaven (courtesy of NT Wright’s work), were just words that sounded great, but I had no idea what they meant or how to apply them. Flood’s book acted like a pen joining up the dots, not just about the cross, but about virtually everything that I couldn’t reconcile. It blew away my fears, and I felt a freedom and a peace that I hadn’t had since that night at my friends house. Now, any time that Flood posts anything on his website or anything about the organizations that he writes for, I’m there reading and sharing it. I have on one occasion sent him an article just so I could get his views on it…and he has very graciously responded.

When you’re in the middle of working through something, and you have all these voices telling you conflicting things, having people you trust who you can go to can really help you to find a path, but in the end, you have to work it out for yourself. When relying solely on other peoples opinions, you run the risk of simply being blown about in the direction of whatever author you happen to be listening to at the time. Also, your understanding isn’t really your own – it’s your understanding of somebody else’s understanding. Your faith is effectively somebody else’s. It is a fine line, but there is a difference between being influenced by someone and saying “this is true because they say so”. It isn’t wrong to listen to others, it’s how we learn, and it certainly gives you a great starting point. It may even result in a massive breakthrough like Flood’s book did for me.

I don’t have it all worked out, but that’s OK. We’re not all fortunate enough to be able to go to university or seminary to study theology full time, and even a qualification doesn’t guarantee that it will all make sense to you. But in turn, that doesn’t mean that you can’t help others by sharing what you know and who’s influencing you.

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If you, like me, are interested in exploring theology but aren’t sure where to start, my advice would be to read a wide range of authors, not just from this century, but previous too. Some of the greatest theological writers were born years before social media, and still managed to get their voices heard. Do your research; look up current theologians on the net, go google crazy! Read blog posts for and against the subjects you’re interested in, because the more rounded your research is, the better your understanding will become. And if you’re feeling particularly geeky (no offence meant, I am a budding geek myself, just ask my fiancée), go further and see which sources and people your favourite theologians favour, and research them. The more you discover, with each piece of information you gather, your foundation for decision making will become firmer and firmer. And don’t put pressure on yourself or compare yourself to others who are passionate about the same field – go at your pace! Like Sarah is often telling me, slow down to enjoy the journey, you’ll reach your destination whether you walk at 10 or 100 miles an hour. But if you rush, you may miss important things that could trip you up later down the line. But with all of this knowledge should also come open-mindedness; I have come across too many Christians who refuse to have their minds changed, and that creates an instant wall. How are you supposed to grow in your faith if you can’t ask questions and see things from other people’s point of view? If you’re prepared to be challenged and to accept new points of view, the world is your theological oyster.