James’s Blog: Thin Places.

James’s Blog:  Thin Places.

I believe in Thin Places. I have two favourites. One is old and one is new. One is inside and one is outside. One is here and one is there.

Canterbury Cathedral is old, at least in terms of this country and its identity. It’s been rebuilt several times over the years, but for nearly one and half millennia it has been a site set apart for the service and worship of God. As you wander around it, you can be thinking about the excesses of the established church, the corruption and insipidity of the Anglican faith at its worst, but why should you not be awed by this building? By the size and the beauty. By the devotion that its construction required. (The idea that God cannot be glorified by good old fashioned ingenuity and hard work is nonsense by the way). Even in this enlightened day and age, hundreds of visitors are daily looking at stained glass windows and reading Renaissance graffiti. There is something special here. Fifteen hundred years of prayer and song and liturgy? That has to leave a mark.

I will stroll down into the crypt and amble to the Chapel of St. John. I may pause to look at the prayers that people have written to be placed on the altar. I will sit and look at the window that shows the harlot drying Jesus’ feet with her hair. Even though there may be tourists, I can be silent and listen. I can meet with God. Fifteen hundred years of prayer and song and liturgy, and I add mine to become part of something greater than myself. A blink of the eye for God, but an eternity of praise.

The second place is on the other side of the world. On a small farm on the Belubula, in a place called Canowindra. Many of you won’t have heard of it, or of a missionary couple named Ian and Irene, who gave part of their farmland over to Cornerstone. Over forty years ago they planted a grove of poplar trees on that farm. I believe that the plan was for the trees to be sold for matchsticks. That was the plan, but those trees are still there, dead and dangerous, and still very flammable. But that grove has seen more than twenty years of prayer and worship and weddings. I have been involved in all three. Australia is a beautiful country, yet so alien compared to England’s green and pleasant fields, and I have sat in the silence of that grove on many a summer morning. I have shed tears and sang songs. I have sat with kangaroos and sheep and birds. I have heard God in some very specific ways, and He and I have wrestled in that place many times. He usually won, but not always.

Thin Places, the Celts called them. Places where the boundary between this life and the next is worn and frail and the freshness of the Kingdom bleeds obviously into the mundane beauty of this world. These places are real, and so is the God who can be found in them.

James’s Blog: Chicken and Egg.

James’s Blog:  Chicken and Egg.

Evangelical Christians don’t have a Pope, nor believe in papal infallibility, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it from the way that some of us talk about Martin Luther, or John Calvin or our favourite authors or a particular leader or church. It’s par for the course for us human beings. We struggle to hold conflicting things in tension, we seek order and patterns in everything, even when there are none. We are happiest when something is clearly 100% good or 100% bad, black or white, right or wrong; when our heroes and villains are undiluted.  When we’re young, and we lack experience, wisdom and courage it’s easiest for us if we can attach ourselves to someone and let them do our thinking for us. We all have this subconscious desire to be discipled by something. For some of us, we buy wholeheartedly into a church and adopt uncritically its interpretation of the Bible on faith, love, sex, prayer and God.

I remember once I was doing some teaching to some visitors at Cornerstone. One of the people listening found something I had said difficult to accept in light of what he had been taught by his church and, to his credit, he came to talk to me about it. I took him through one of the New Testament letters which had been influential in shaping my thinking about the topic. I could see, as we went through the letter together, that he wasn’t convinced. His knew and respected his church leaders, and who was this nobody trying to tell him that they were wrong? At one point in the letter we came across a verse that, to be honest, may as well have said, “That thing that James is telling you? Yeah, it’s right, and that means that what your church has taught you is wrong.” He looked at me and said, without a single drop of irony in his voice, “So I just need to find a way to interpret that verse”. That was when I knew that I’d lost.

I’d seen it before, in victims of cults. You present an alternative interpretation. It shakes their worldview a little and makes them uncomfortable, so instead of unravelling the thought, exploring it and seeing where it takes them, they run to a church leader who performs some complicated exegetical gymnastics in order to be able to say, “That verse that says that thing – it actually means the complete opposite”. And all is right with the world again.

I see it in myself and in others, where instead of letting what the Bible says shape our theology, we let our theology shape what the Bible says. A sad day, when truth knocks on our door, and we just hang out a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.

James’s Blog: Alternative Beatitudes

James’s Blog:  Alternative Beatitudes

“Blessed are those who have realised that getting bigger and better stuff doesn’t lead to happiness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who, when they see what’s on Facebook or listen to the lyrics of the latest chart hit, get depressed,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are those who do more than take Selfies and worry about how many subscribers they have,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who walk down the high street, find themselves surrounded by materialism and soft porn, and feel empty inside,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are those who use technology to build something good, rather than to just make life more convenient,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are those who aren’t subscribed to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Now TV,

for they will see God.

Blessed are those who don’t get drawn into petty squabbles on Internet forums or YouTube comments,

for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are mocked and ridiculed and labelled intolerant because they believe in something bigger than what can be seen,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

James’s Blog: “Hello?”

James’s Blog: “Hello?”

Once upon a time a well-known author and speaker came and spoke at a Christian Union event. The speaker would say something profound, and then end his sentence with something like “Amen?” or “Hello?”. It was obvious that he wanted some kind of response, something like “Preach it brother!” or “Hallelujah!”. Unfortunately we were the wrong audience. We were a mostly white, mostly middle-to-upper class group of mostly students, some of whom came from fairly conservative church backgrounds. All the speaker got from us was silence. Not one to take defeat lying down, he persevered in an attempt to mould us into his own image. Eventually we got the message that we weren’t fulfilling our end of the social contract, so some of us played along a little bit, but you could tell that our hearts weren’t in it. It was serious business to him though, and after one of his little pearls of wisdom was met with unsatisfactory enthusiasm he said, “Not many believers here tonight, are there?”. What did he mean? That you weren’t a Christian if you didn’t vocally agree with him? I was not impressed with this encounter. The whole experience just left me cold. I wonder if he knows how arrogant he came across that evening?

I’m not sure that he would care. He didn’t strike me as someone who was particularly approachable or open to what anyone else thought. He just struck me as arrogant. Arrogant and humourless.

I have a saying: Never trust a Christian who can’t laugh at himself.

Amen?