James’s Blog: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

James’s Blog:  Standing on the Shoulders of Giants.

I was discussing with someone who suggested that, as an atheist, he at least was ‘…thinking for himself’. I pointed out that, unless he had invented atheism, he actually wasn’t. None of us really think for ourselves, I told him. There are thousands of years of history and debate and experience behind each of us, and all we can ever do is just pick a side. Read more

James’s Blog: The Politics of Fear.

James’s Blog:  The Politics of Fear.

I’ve been thinking a little bit about fear recently. I don’t really want to write about Britain’s decision to leave the EU, but I feel like I should at least say something. It’s too big to ignore; too massive to just carry on and pretend it hasn’t happened. I’d rather write something else, some spiritual reflection or humourous observation, (like the fact that my spell-checker lets me write ‘humour’ but wants me to write ‘humorous’). But, as I said, I’ve been thinking about fear recently.

The referendum debate revolved around fear. Fear of economic uncertainty, fear of immigration, fear of eroded sovereignty, fear of the future. Fear seems to be the only tool that our politicians have, and if that’s the case – regardless of the referendum result – we’re in trouble.

There’s no doubt. Fear is a powerful motivator. You can make people do outrageous things, things totally against their character, if you can just make them afraid enough. Yet when I read through the gospels, I can’t help but notice that Jesus never seemed to act out of fear. I never get the impression that fear was a factor in his motivation. He did some pretty crazy stuff and upset some powerful people, but he never seemed to be afraid, and if he was then he never let it control his choices.

There was a time when fear came out to play, and that was in the garden of Gethsemane, where he pleads for a different route. He doesn’t want to die, especially not like this, and he asks God to spare him. And yet…”Not my will, Father, but yours”. Even in his darkest hour, his greatest fear is not death or suffering, but rather the fear of not being obedient.

Imagine living a life where that’s really the only thing that you are truly afraid of.

I find it hard to feel optimistic about the immediate future right now. There’s all kinds of ugliness and uncertainty surfacing in the Island of the Mighty, but I have decided to not be afraid. Whatever the future brings and whatever actions I take, I will try to not let fear be the thing that drives me. Not my will, Father, but yours.

James’s Blog: Lighting Fires.

James’s Blog:  Lighting Fires.

Talking of managing anger, there was once a time when Ruth and I were going through a stressful situation, but we were confident that it would all work out because we had Boris on our side. Boris (not his real name) had said that he’d make sure that everything was sorted out. There was a problem though – namely that Boris wasn’t following up on this, and he wasn’t delivering on what had been promised. I was feeling let down, anxious and quite angry about it all. Then one morning, as I was waking up and before I’d had the chance to erect my defences for the day, a thought sneaked into my head, like the last sentence of a dream. “You’re putting your trust in Boris rather than in Me”. I tell you, it’s really something to start your day with a divine slap across the wrist.

It’s easy to talk of ‘trusting God’ when the bank account is full, no-one is sick and England haven’t yet been knocked out of the tournament, but the reality is that, when these unconscious supports erode, many of us find our ‘trust in God’ evaporating in the face of panic. It turns out that our trust wasn’t really in God in the first place, but rather in our own resources, in our savings, in our clever plans or in Boris.

Larry Crabb, in his excellent book Connecting, calls this ‘Fire Lighting’.

Who among you fears the Lord
    and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
    who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
    and rely on their God.
But now, all you who light fires
    and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
    and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
    You will lie down in torment.

Isaiah 50:10-11

Crabb suggests that the only cure for this malady is a period of intense darkness where we have no choice but to reach out into the black and take God’s hand. Then we come to learn that He is the only one worth putting our trust in. Painful lessons are best learnt once.

James’s Blog: While it was Still Dark…

James’s Blog:  While it was Still Dark…

Darkness does strange things to the brain. Sometimes, when you wake in the middle of the night, the darkness makes easily manageable problems seem insurmountable. In the darkness, all our fears and worries can sneak up on us unseen. It’s even worse for those of us who are blessed with an overactive imagination. But God being God, it doesn’t surprise me at all that He does some of His best work in the darkness.

Imagine being there at the start of the world’s calendar, surrounded by the rolling chaos of oppressive darkness, and then to hear that first command – “Let there be light”. God does some of His best work in the darkness.

One Sunday, Mary carried her grief all the way to the tomb where Jesus was buried and finds the stone rolled away. John tells us that this happened ‘…while it was still dark’. Mary is there, in the dark, both figuratively and literally, pondering what has happened. I’ll tell you what has happened, Mary. While people were asleep, surrounded by the light-smothering night, God was getting on with the business of resurrection. God does some of His best work in the darkness.

Imagine that.  God takes the night, which to us spells death and fear and suffering, and makes it scream of life and light and joy. Of course He’d do it that way. Of course He would. Do you not know Him?

Sometimes the lights go out in our lives and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Don’t be afraid, because you know what happens in the dark.

James’s Blog: A Letter from God.

James’s Blog:  A Letter from God.

A little while ago, my three-year old daughter told me that she wanted to write a letter to God. I wrote, while she dictated. It wasn’t a very long letter, more of a note, concerned primarily with finding out if God owned a) a cat and b) a space hopper. We put the letter in an envelope and that was that. Naturally, being me, I sensed a teaching opportunity, so I decided to write a reply.

Dear Imogen,

Thank you for the letter that you wrote to me. I loved to receive it. I do not have a cat, but I do like cats. I love everything that I made. I do not have a space hopper, but I don’t need one at the moment. Perhaps if I do, I could borrow yours? I love you very much & thank you again for your letter.

Love God.

Apart from the dubious theological statement that God likes cats, I thought it would be a nice moment for Imogen. I put it in an envelope, and a couple of days later ‘delivered’ it. Imogen was fascinated at first, but after I had read God’s reply to her she became quite frightened. I believe the correct phrase is ‘she freaked out’. My parenting skills leave a lot to be desired.

On reflection, it makes sense. God is very much a part of our family life, so Imogen is aware of Him, but she is only a child after all. She has never seen God, and is not explicitly conscious of Him working in her life. The transition from God being an abstract idea to a concrete reality that could interact and intervene was probably a bit too much for her at that moment. We all have a crisis point where we have to decide whether or not God is that real, and I probably brought it on a bit early…

Still, to be able to talk about God and to be willing to talk to Him, but to be surprised and terrified when He decides to talk back? I can understand fear as an initial response, but eventually we have to decide to either walk away or be all in. Hanging around the fringes, still afraid, doesn’t help anyone.

James’s Blog: The Parable of the Talents – Two

James’s Blog:  The Parable of the Talents – Two

My family and I were part of Cornerstone Community for about eight years. For those of you who don’t know, Cornerstone is an Australian mission and discipling movement, and it’s been going for about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s far from perfect, but it must have been doing something right. There are countless well-meaning Christian communities that have imploded within their first five years. Why has God kept Cornerstone around? What is the magic ingredient?

I wonder if one of the things that God enjoys about Cornerstone is that, fundamentally, it’s a risk-taking venture. I’m sure those who are responsible for the organisation’s accounts will agree with me, but others might not be so sure. Well, trust me. I’ve been involved in local church leadership and been a member of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, so I know what I’m talking about. There are churches that consider themselves ‘edgy’ because they’ve recently changed the time of their evening service. There has always been a touch of the Mad Scientist about Cornerstone – “Well, if Jesus really said that, what happens if we try this..?” I think God likes it. I’m not sure there’s  a risk-free way to build bridges to heaven.

There’s a lot of theology you can be wrong about, and still be a Christian. Predestination, women in leadership, the Rapture, what worship really is, the role of Israel in God’s plans, what the point of the Sabbath is, whether or not Donald Trump is the Antichrist etc.  I used to think that my position on some of those things was really important. Now I’m not so sure. However, I do know that there are plenty of churches where the stuff about Jesus being God and dying for our sins and all that is just a given, and that the real meat and drink is in the kind of stuff that I’ve just listed – and you’d better make sure that you believe the right things. I know of at least one church where ministers are selected based on their response to a grilling from the congregation about these kind of issues (maybe not the Donald Trump one).

The thing is, what happens if you subconsciously create a church environment where it’s a terrible crime to believe the wrong thing about these topics? What if everyone has to be on the same page about everything, or they’re persona non grata? What if what you’ve communicated over the years is not actually the gospel, but rather the message that the worst sin in the world is to get it wrong? What happens to a church like that? It won’t be a risk-taking church, because the problem with risks is that sometimes you can get it very wrong.

I remember taking a very specific risk once, and it going wrong. I crashed and burned in a humiliating way. The scars from that failure are still with me – all these years later and I still haven’t totally recovered. But I don’t regret it for a second, because I know that if God ever brings it up in conversation I can say, “Sure God, it didn’t work out brilliantly, but at least I tried.” I’m sure that God’s response will be to smile, because He is a risk-taking God and has a soft spot for risk-taking children. I remember hearing a story once about a woman who criticised D.L. Moody for the way that he evangelised. His response: “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”. I think that God agrees.

When I read ‘The Parable of the Talents’ another thought that I can’t get out of my head is that there are no rewards, no prizes in heaven for caution. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, as I read it, I wonder what the master’s response would have been if the servant with five talents had lost them all in his investment scheme. I like to think that he would still had more time for that servant than for the one who sat on his hands. I don’t know for sure, and such speculation doesn’t really have a place in the interpretation of parables anyway. Jesus told it to make a specific point, and a different point would have required a different parable altogether. Maybe if he’d been surrounded by reckless, careless disciples he would have told a parable about a man who suffered because of a foolish risk, but as it is he told a parable about a man who was rejected by his master because he was too cautious and not risk-taking enough. I wonder why he felt the need to tell us that one?

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

Richard Wurmbrand.

In the early days of my faith I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned during the rule of Communism. The book left an impression on me, and in those early days, if I wasn’t in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Adrian Plass books then I would have been in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Richard Wurmbrand books. His biographical account, In God’s Underground, is absolutely fantastic. As Brian Clough might have said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Christian autobiography, but it’s in the top one.”

One book that I read was Alone with God, which is a collection of his sermons. What makes them unusual is that they are sermons that Wurmbrand preached while he was in solitary confinement. As part of a routine to keep his sanity, he would preach a sermon in his cell every day, despite the fact that no-one was there to hear it. He says that he reduced their main points to rhyming couplets, and by doing so he was able to memorise the bulk of them. When he was released, one of the things that he did was write them down, and he claimed that he managed to recall 348 of the 350 that he had preached.

I find that feat of memory amazing enough, but when you consider that many of the sermons include extensive quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare and other sources, it becomes truly incredible. I can’t help but think that the published articles were a lot more polished than the original sermons. Regardless, Alone with God was a very significant book for me when I was a younger Christian.

Many years later, while I was in Australia, I read a copy of the first collection of sermons that he wrote, the functionally-titled Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I’d found Alone with God to be insightful, powerful and influential. Sermons in Solitary Confinement. Blew. My. Mind. The sermons in this collection were raw and uncompromising in a way I’d never encountered before – these were the ones that read like sermons conceived in a oppressive hole deep in the Romanian earth. There is something incredibly unnerving about having a man bleed all over you, but you can’t doubt for a second the strength and meaningfulness of his convictions. These sermons came from a dark place, but they blazed in a way that deeply challenged and comforted me, despite the distance of both years and geography.

One thing that had a large influence on both my writing and my personal walk was the book’s introduction. Wurmbrand was obviously aware of the potential controversy of some of what he was writing so he warns the reader that he will find some disturbing and uncertain things within. This is not a place to find solid, consistent theology and doctrine, he warns, rather these are the outpourings of a soul in agony. But then he writes the following about those days: “I did not live on dogma then. Nobody can. The soul feeds on Christ, not on teachings about him.” Wurmbrand survived his ordeal not because he knew a lot of theology, but because he knew Christ. Do you understand the difference? In that one line he put into words the yearning of my soul since the first day that I had bowed my head before my new master.

If there is one goal in my writings, it is this. I do not want people to learn about Christ through what I write. I want them to encounter Christ. There is a crucial and important difference, and I am thankful to Richard Wurmbrand for his writings over the years, in which he demonstrated that distinction. It has helped to make my faith real, rather than hypothetical.

James’s Blog: In Which an Atheist Shows a Perfect Understanding of What it Means to Follow Jesus.

James’s Blog:  In Which an Atheist Shows a Perfect Understanding of What it Means to Follow Jesus.

“They walked on in silence. A shower of hail bounced off Granny’s pointy hat and Oats’s wide brim.

Then Granny said, ‘It’s no good you trying to make me believe in Om, though.’

‘Om forbid that I should try, Mistress Weatherwax. I haven’t even given you a pamphlet, have I?’

‘No, but you’re trying to make me think, “Oo, what a nice young man, his god must be something special if nice young men like him helps old ladies like me,” aren’t you?’

‘No.’

“Really? Well, it’s not working. People you can believe in, sometimes, but not gods. And I’ll tell you this, Mister Oats…’

He sighed. ‘Yes?’

She turned to face him, suddenly alive. ‘It’d be as well for you if I didn’t believe,’ she said, prodding him with a sharp finger. ‘This Om…anyone seen him?’

‘It is said three thousand people witnessed his manifestation at the Great Temple when he made the Covenant with the prophet Brutha and saved him from death by torture on the iron turtle-‘

‘But I bet that now they’re arguing about what they actually saw, eh?’

‘Well, indeed, yes, there are many opinions-‘

‘Right. Right. That’s people for you. Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ’em like a father and cared for ’em like a mother…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like “There are two sides to every question,” and “We must respect other people’s beliefs.” You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgivin’ sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people any more, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just…is just bein’ nice. And a way of keeping in touch with the neighbours.’

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: ‘Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say, ‘Oh deary me, we must debate this.” That’s my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.’ She added, almost as an aside, ‘But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.’”

Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett.