Church; not the be all and end all

59985_498192216908616_1673170725_n

 

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.

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.

Lets be like Thomas; doubt and certainty in one

I wasn’t always a Christian. I first came to know Christ at age 14 and was heavily involved in the church, eventually assisting the vicar with the services and I also did a lot of Bible readings for the services. But something happened when I was about 18 that led to a lot of questions but very few answers, and I was in quite major financial trouble. By 22 I made a decision to sort out the problems and eventually walked away from the Christian faith. But I never stopped questioning and challenging and after moving to Oxford in 2008, I got to know a Christian couple who went on to become very good friends of mine and came back to Christ in their front room. My whole faith journey has been built on asking questions, expressing doubts, challenging views, getting answers then repeat. So it will come as no surprise that my favourite character in the Bible is Thomas.

I like Thomas but I was being taught that we don’t want to be like Thomas, because Thomas doubted Jesus and that doubt is the enemy of faith. How much of that is actually true though? Did Thomas really doubt Jesus and are we really expected to have no doubts at all in order to have faith?

The main story that seems to have earned Thomas his reputation is in Johns gospel, specifically chapter 20 verses 19-31, but this isn’t the only passage where Thomas is asking questions. In John 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples he’s off to prepare a place for them, Thomas pipes up “Uh, Lord? We don’t know where you’re going so how can we know which way?” Jesus gave him an answer,

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him

Now, when Phillip, one of the other disciples chimes in with “Show us the Father that will be enough for us” Jesus reacts very differently; Phillip is given a serious rebuke, “How can you ask such a question? Don’t you know me? Believe me when I say I am with the Father, or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” Keep that last bit in mind “believe on the evidence of the works themselves” because we’re going to come back to it.

Thomas also makes an appearance in John 11 which covers the death of Lazarus; Jesus is telling the disciples that he needs to go back to Judea. The disciples are like “You’re joking right? They tried to kill you last time and now you want to go back?” This is a justified reaction to be fair but Thomas, the doubter, the one we’re not supposed to be like, steps up and says “Come on guys, let’s go with him so that if he dies, we’ll all die with him”. It seems that Thomas was going to make sure that Jesus didn’t die alone. These 2 events capture Thomas perfectly; expressing doubts and asking questions but also showing complete faith by being willing to stand with Jesus no matter what.

So lets bring all this together as we look at John chapter 20. Verses 19-20 says;

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord

So Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side and then they believed. Now, we know from verse 24 that Thomas was not with the other disciples so he’s not seen Jesus since he died on the cross. We pick the story up at verse 25:

The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Who is Thomas doubting at this point? He’s doubting what he’s being told by the other disciples and again, you can’t really blame him. Living in the first century under the rule of the Roman Empire, he’s know enough about crucifixion to know that unless they get a pardon, whoever goes up on that cross isn’t coming down alive. He has enough knowledge of biology and experience of life to know that dead people stay dead. So what has he asked for? Nothing more than the other disciples got; to see Jesus, to see the marks in his side and his hands.

So verses 26-28:

A week later, Jesus’ disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

What an affirmation from Thomas; my Lord, my God!. Thomas didn’t come to that place despite his doubts, he got there because of them. He was honest about his doubts and Jesus let him face them, allowing him to believe on the evidence of the works themselves as Jesus said back in John 14. The evidence that Christ had risen was him standing in front of them. Now, we don’t have that, we don’t have Christ physically standing before us which brings me onto verse 29:

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”

We haven’t seen Jesus physically risen as I said, but what do we have? The Gospels. John tells us in verses 30 and 31:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Luke says something very similar in the opening of his account. Now this can lead to the question “how do we know the Gospels are reliable”, and my response is “Yes, great question. Let’s look at that and have a discussion”. This leads onto other questions about the Bible because there are so many translations and interpretations, and we need to check what we are being told. This brings us onto the last passage I want to look at briefly which is Mark 16 verse 14:

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

Now, this passage is slightly contentious because it is part of verses 9-20 which don’t appear in early manuscripts and pretty much all Bibles have a footnote or some disclaimer saying as such, so that raises a set of its own questions. But who is Jesus referring to specifically when he said ‘those who had seen him’? The other disciples? The women at the tomb? All of the above? Does this mean we should automatically accept what we’re told regardless? This seems very dangerous as one US pastor found out when he took verse 18 and went with it without question;

they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

The pastor was ultimately bitten by the snake and died from the poison. We humans are flawed, our understanding is never 100% correct 100% of the time. We have to question things, otherwise we can end up doing things that are incredibly harmful to ourselves and others. It can also lead to great social changes. It was doubting the then current understanding of scripture that led William Wilberforce to lead cry’s for the slavery laws to be abolished. It was his expression of those doubts that caused others to take another look at scripture and then join the cause.

So what is Jesus talking about in that passage in Mark? I don’t know, it’s one of those things I wrestle with and what is our journey with God if not a wrestling match? Plus, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’ because faith is not an expression of certainty, it’s an expression of vulnerability. It says ‘I don’t know if I can do this, but I know you’re with me Lord.’ It says ‘I can see all the pain, all the injustice, but I’m holding on.’ Too often we’re told questions and doubts are signs of spiritual weakness. They really aren’t, they lead to a richer spiritual experience and understanding as we explore and walk closer with God. Certainty is no guarantee that you’re with Jesus. Peter was certain in John 13:37; he said “I’ll lay down my life for you” and Jesus said “Really? When it’s all said and done you’re going to deny me 3 times.”

I found a quote from Archibald Macleish, who was an American poet and Librarian of Congress which says, “Religion is at it’s best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at it’s worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.” When Jesus said, “how can you take the speck out of someone’s eye when you have a plank in yours”, he was about asking us to take a long hard look at ourselves and our faults. How can we start doing something as huge as looking at our faults if we’re not even willing to start the process of doubting what we currently believe about certain things? Doubt is an inevitable part of that process. To quote Claus Westermann;

Where God’s words penetrate a man’s life and are taken seriously there are certain to be struggles and remonstrations and defeat; doubt and temptation also inevitably occur.

There are always things we are going to be certain of though. I’m certain in what I’ve said to you today and that doubting is not wrong and that nothing is beyond reproach. But doubt is not the same as unbelief, it’s a state between beliefs; so if you find yourself doubting, know that you are in good company and that it’s perfectly fine to be there. Jesus will be in there too, as he was with Thomas and as you walk with him with your doubts; and God is not going to be angry with you. Be ready to go places you were never expecting to go and be prepared for some conflict as you end up somewhere different to someone else. Doubts are only dangerous if we make them something to be ashamed of and we insist upon remaining distant from those who doubt and hold different beliefs. Like a splinter, pretending it doesn’t exist or thinking you are wrong for having one isn’t going to solve the problem and it can become infected if not treated.  Making people ashamed is the easiest way to get them to leave their doubts unchecked.

One final thing before I wrap this up; Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit before ascending. How can it be allowed to move, work, guide, show us something new, if we cling so tightly so our certainties and reject anything that contradicts them? It is through doubting that we grow, that we can walk closer with Jesus. Doubts are what make our faith our own, are what lead us closer to truth. It is impossible to be concerned with truth unless you’re genuinely open to the possibility that what you currently believe is wrong. There’s no 2 ways about it.

There’s so much more I want to say but I will end with this. I had my doubts, I still do and if I hadn’t explored them and wrestled with them, and still do so, I wouldn’t be a Christian now. We saw with Thomas that yes, he had his doubts but he was still willing to die with Jesus and that’s what ultimately happened to him when he was killed in India spreading the gospel. This is what we are supposed to be willing to do. I think we could do a lot worse than to be like Thomas. His doubts didn’t get in the way of following Jesus, and neither did they go away afterwards, indeed they were part of what allowed him to make such sacrifices because he explored, he doubted, he learned, he grew through those doubts and ultimately came closer to Jesus as a result.

 

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

12313964_10207371013967400_4232775044777527243_n

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.

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.

An open letter to non-affirming Christians

The silence is especially deafening when Christians have an apocalyptic fit when someone does come out and affirm being gay.

The Faithful Within

By Nathan Barber

Dear non-affirming Christians,

You’ve told me a million times. You disagree with my ‘lifestyle’ (whatever that means) but you still love me. You completely affirm my humanity and believe that I, as a gay man, am just as much made in the image of God as you are. I get it. I wish you would affirm my relationships too, but I get it. I really do. It’s just that I’m not quite sure anymore that I believe that you love me as much as you say you do. In fact, I’m doubting whether you have ever actually meant it at all. Because if you really do love me, then where the heck have you been?

Circulating around Facebook and Twitter last week was an abhorrent video of a man who calls himself a “pastor” claiming that we should execute every gay person in an attempt to achieve…

View original post 612 more words

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.