James’s Blog: The Cost of Discipleship.

James’s Blog:  The Cost of Discipleship.

“Go away!” squealed the Ghost.  “Go away!  Can’t you see I want to be left alone?”

“But you need help,” said the Solid One.

“If you have the least trace of decent feeling left,” said the Ghost, “you’ll keep away.  I don’t want help.  I want to be left alone…”

The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

‘Insufficient’ is not a word that good Evangelicals would typically apply to Jesus’ death, but Paul wasn’t so squeamish.  Notice what he tells the Colossians: ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the Church.’

Paul is not, of course, suggesting that we need more than Jesus to restore our relationship with the Father, rather he is saying, “Jesus’ suffering may bring salvation, but it does not necessarily bring maturity.  Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen.  You need someone to get alongside you and teach you, feed you and change your dirty nappies.  That’s the job that I’ve taken on for the Church, and let me tell you this: It’s a costly business.”

That’s the hidden cost of discipleship.  In our immaturity we don’t realise that the men and women who invest in us, and help us get to know God better, can only do so by giving up something of themselves.  I think about the time people spent with me rather than doing something infinitely preferable; I think about the suffering that others went through so that I could be spared some of the same pain; I think about those who spend an hour on Sunday mornings helping my children get to know God.

But this reliance on one another, rather than just God, isn’t some oversight on His part; some side effect of sin.  It’s the divine core of discipleship.  God wouldn’t have it any other way.  He’s terribly keen on interdependence, you know.  It’s what He wants, for us to need others; it’s the inbuilt ‘flaw’ that forces us into relationships – forces us to emulate the Trinity.  If Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were sufficient not just for salvation, but made our spiritual growth inevitable, then we wouldn’t need community.  We could retreat to our monastic cells and just sit around, waiting for sanctification to kick in.  God’s not going to give us that excuse.  So He made it that for me to grow, I need people, and those people have to pay a debt of love.  And then He made it so that I have to do the same for others.  Clever.  That’s probably why Paul felt able to rejoice in this particular cost of discipleship.

James’s Blog: Two Types of Fire.

James’s Blog:  Two Types of Fire.

God has given me two types of inner fire.

A few months after I became a Christian I was attending a men’s prayer breakfast at my church. During prayer, I experienced what I can only describe as a warm, tingling sensation in my chest. The best effort to put it into words can be found in the Bible, on the lips of one of my older brothers as he and a friend talked about their encounter with the risen Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he explained the Scriptures to us?” It’s happened to me frequently over the years, mostly during prayer. It’s comforting rather than anything else, and I’ve come to associate it with an awareness of the Holy Spirit. It’s just one of those practical, concrete hooks on which I can hang my faith.

The other fire, however, is different. It’s what I might call ‘the squirming inferno’. Again, the best way to describe it can be found in the Bible, this time as the prophet Jeremiah complains. Frustrated by how much trouble God had caused him, he handed in his notice. “Find yourself another prophet,” he says to the divine. But it’s not that simple, and Jeremiah discovers that the message of God will not be smothered. It was, he said, like a fire in his bones. Sometimes (more often than I would like) I find myself restless, and tortured by the feeling that there is some important truth I should be getting out there. The problem is that it’s a time-consuming, difficult and painful process to set it free. Often it’s like realising that its your job to slay a giant dragon, and not even knowing how to begin. Those are the worst times. The only way to keep it quiet is to actually try and do something with it, however feeble my efforts, but it’s never satisfied. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to completely pay off its debt – the squirming inferno is probably here to stay.

They’re both from God. One is His way of saying, “I love you, and I am always with you”; the other is His way of saying, “But I’m not going to let you get away with being lazy.” I am loved, but I am lazy. I am genuinely thankful for both of these flames, because I need the warmth and the refining.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

James’s Blog: Creed.

James’s Blog:  Creed.

I believe in God the Father, the creator of the world and everything in it.

I believe that He has guided His people over the years, with many miraculous signs.

I believe that He parted the Red Sea, provided manna from heaven and led Israel as pillars of smoke and fire.

I believe in Jesus Christ, the God with us.

I believe that through His life and death, God has worked salvation for all humanity.

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and so delivered the ultimate “Take that!” to the forces of evil.

I believe that death is defeated, and life is eternal.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the God in us.

I believe these things, because they are easy to believe from a distance.

But I don’t believe that He is that committed to using me to bring His kingdom on earth.

I don’t believe that He has much interest in my day-to-day life,

or that He even has much to say,

and if He did, He certainly wouldn’t do it through that person.

I don’t believe that God will part my Red Sea, nor do I expect Him to provide manna, or to lead me.

I don’t believe, in the grand scheme of things, that it matters much what I do.

And I don’t believe that He really means what He says.

Amen.

James’s Blog: The World Waits with Baited Breath.

James’s Blog:  The World Waits with Baited Breath.

It’s easy to hold the Church up as a good argument for atheism. Our shame is not that we have been exceptionally bad, but rather that we haven’t been exceptionally good. But you can’t shake off the Holy Spirit that easily. Even after two thousand years, the World still expects us to keep Jesus’ promises. After all, you can’t be disappointed with something unless you’d hoped that it would be better, right? The problem is not that Christianity is bad, but rather that we have made a bad job of Christianity. I believe that even the most die-hard atheist still expects the followers of Jesus to be different to the rest of society; to be good where others are not.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish-American conservative commentator, believes that, regardless of what people think of religion, there remains in our culture an expectation that faith should make a difference to behaviour. He tries to prove this by asking people to picture something particular.

Imagine that late one night you are walking down an alley in a major city. The dim street lights illuminate your car at the other end of the alleyway. Suddenly, a group of boisterous young men turn the corner and start walking down the alley towards you.

Once the listener has this scene in his mind, Prager asks this question: Would you feel safer if you knew that those young men had just come from a Bible study?

Prager says that he has never had anyone answer “No.”

So, that’s the good news. People are just waiting for you to prove them right. Even now they still assume that you will be different. The best thing to do is to live in such a way that our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children will benefit from the same expectation.

James’s Blog: Natural Words and Spiritual Words.

James’s Blog:  Natural Words and Spiritual Words.

Sometimes I’ll talk to someone about how things are going, and they’ll say something like:

“When she was out walking the dog, Sheila noticed that the family a couple of doors down was selling their car. So, we bought it for a good price. It turned out to be really convenient.” Read more

James’s Blog: Musings on Faith, Reason, Experience, Colouring-in and Worship.

James’s Blog:  Musings on Faith, Reason, Experience, Colouring-in and Worship.

It’s been one of those years – the kind of year that was meant by the ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in Interesting Times.”

Here’s a couple of things I find interesting about these Interesting Times. The first is that, through following up on Tweets and stuff, I learned that in America three of the top five best-selling non-fiction Christian books of 2016 were adult colouring-in books.  After what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I don’t know what to say.  I understand that some people find them helpful, but really?  Three out of five? Read more

James’s Blog: Looking Forward to Christmas.

James’s Blog:  Looking Forward to Christmas.

I like the build up to Christmas. I like the festive lights, nostalgic songs and the general atmosphere. I even enjoy the weather – the crisp, cold winter days. In Australia we had nine months of summer and three months of grim misery in a house that was designed to shed as much heat as possible.  Plus, Christmas in the summer just felt wrong. Read more