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Finding God where he shouldn’t be.

I’ve come to realise that I really love finding God where (some say) he shouldn’t be. I wonder, sometimes, if he is easier to spot there than where we expect him to be, easier to discern what is God and what is present due to out expectation of finding God in a certain place.

In John 4 Jesus meets a Samaritan woman. A Jew shouldn’t have been there, mixing with a Samaritan and, especially, not alone with a woman of such disrepute in her own community – having to collect water during the hottest part of the day to avoid meeting other people there. Yet here is God, in flesh, where many would say God shouldn’t be, ministering to a woman the majority of Jews would have rejected.

Mark 2 records “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Again we find God where other’s say God shouldn’t be – questioned by the Pharisees as to why he eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.

At Jesus’ death on the cross the temple veil rips in two – no longer is God constrained to the Sanctum Sanctorum (most holy place of the temple, sectioned off with a veil) but exists among the people, sending the Spirit at pentecost. There is no longer a special sacred space, the spirit is present, spreading through the whole earth bringing the sacred with it – even where some would say it shouldn’t be.

When St Paul travels to Athens in Acts he finds many idols and alters to different gods but one, in particular, takes his interest – the Alter to the Unknown God. Paul speaks to the people and says you may not know whom it is that you worship at this altar but I do and I will tell you about that God. God was already there, where God shouldn’t be, working among the people of Athens, they didn’t know God and yet they built God an alter. Similarly at his meeting with the Samaritan woman Jesus tells her “You Samaritans worship what you do not know;we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Again God was already there, the Samaritans just didn’t know it. This can be called prevenient grace, God at work in places and people who may not even acknowledge the existence of God.

I spent the other weekend at Bloodstock festival, helping to run the welfare tent through The Order of the Black Sheep. A Heavy Metal festival is quite an interesting place for a Christian to be  – surrounded by Christian symbology and ritual, but most of it inverted and used in an attempt to be sacrilegious. There is no pretending that (in general) the Heavy Metal community are pro christian, many outwardly reject it. And yet walking around I found a sense of God being present and even at work through unsuspecting people. For instance, the act I was most looking forward to seeing was Machine Head, a band clearly critical of Christianity and wider belief in God and yet I find their song Darkness Within to be really powerfully spiritual, it has helped me through a more difficult patch in my faith. There is a great honesty to the song. God,  preveniently, working through people. Who knows whether that grace will ever by convened, but God was there at a Heavy Metal festival and I was able to worship, in the middle of a crowd of metal fans, to a song that has helped me spiritually.

Likewise, in working with the LGBT community through “I’m Sorry a Different Kind of Christian Presence“, I have been able to find and see God in places and in people that many may say he shouldn’t be. If the above was one of my more powerful spiritual moments this summer the other was joining Life at the Centre  for a service on site at Nottingham Pride.

In meeting many non Christian LGBT people at Pride events, it is not possible to deny that the image of God is within them. Greg Boyd provided a great response for this on Twitter in July.

If you are unable to find God somewhere, in a place that some, or even you, may say he shouldn’t be – try looking just that little bit harder. Perhaps, sometimes, we are too busy spotting the things that are not of God to notice the things that are. Once we have we are able to join God in what God is already doing.

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Finding the people of peace & wiping the dust from our feet.

 “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.  Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.

 “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you.  Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’  But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town”

Last Saturday I, along with others, went to Sheffield Pride under the name “I’m Sorry: A Different Kind of Christian Presence” with the aim of showing love to a community, perhaps, more used to a presence of condemnation and even hate from Christians. You can find out more about us and what we did at our website here. I, obviously, knew that it would be considered controversial by some and that we may face issues somewhere along the line. I didn’t, however, particularly expect it to happen so quickly or to come from people that we knew – I was naive. To cut a long story short I have been able to read this week that I am a cancer spreading through the church and lost a friend – all because I wanted to go show love to people. It has been a week that has taught me a lot about finding people of peace and removing the dust from my feet.

The people of peace have definitely been the LGBT community at Sheffield Pride, we took our message of peace and it was returned to us. We had a great day, some great conversations and we were accepted and thanked for being there & our message. We were not welcomed by some Christians. To the point of the loss of long held friendships. It came as a complete surprise to me having hardly engaged in any of the debate that had broken out. My only real crime* was to state how saddened I was by the things that I was able to read about myself and later point out my anger over some more things that were being said about us; untrue accusations being made about close friends and the term “unchristian” being branded about – just the kind of thing likely to upset me. There was no return of peace there. There is no point dwelling on these things. We did what we did, we believe we did the right thing and what has happened as a result is unfortunate. It wasn’t done in order to cause trouble but to show love.  What I realised was that it was time to wipe the dust from my feet. I think that Jesus told the disciples to do this in order for them to be able to move on to the next town in search of their people of peace. Not everyone is going to welcome us but this isn’t something to take personally and in, literally or metaphorically, wiping the dust from our feet we are able to put this behind us and get on with the task in hand. To show peace and love to those who do welcome us and to build the Kingdom of God on Earth, as it is in Heaven.

Disclaimer:
This isn’t meant as an attack on anyone or to fan the flames of disagreement (this is unlikely now that certain people have removed me from social networking). It is just meant to be a lesson and an example of finding our people of peace & dusting ourselves down when we don’t. Just because we do not find someone to be a person of peace to us personally does not mean that they are not person of peace to someone else.

*For the purpose of complete transparency I did point out to someone else that they seemed unable to take what they gave out on Facebook having complained about negative comments that they had received on their own postings. I had no further engagement in any debate other then as laid out in this post.

Christians need to be radicalised

Radicalisation and faith, when put together, are terms that probably make you think of hate preachers and terrorist attacks. They are terms used in the media all the time “British youth being radicalised by hate preacher” etc. So, some, may find it odd that I would call for a radicalisation of Christians. It probably isn’t the sort of thing that you ought to have as a blog title (can’t help but wonder if I’m going to get my blog checked over after it comes up in a search for key words). But radicalisation is exactly what I think Christianity needs.

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

For a while I took part in a blogging for books program where I would get a free copy of a book in return for blogging about it. The service that I was signed up to exclusively had Christian books and one had caught my eye about Christianity and business which I thought might be interesting. It turned out to be my worst nightmare in book form. Completely on the opposition end of the political scale to me and not at all in tune with how I think about the world and my faith and how this may effect my approach to business. But it was a part of the deal to blog about it and to review it on a website such as Amazon. As part of my review I explained that I had just finished reading “The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical” by Shane Claiborne saying that this perhaps shows why I wouldn’t have gotten on with the book that I was reviewing. I got a comment on my review suggesting that I be wary of anything with radical in the title as it tends to depart from the gospel. I politely pointed out that Claibrone and his community seem to live out the gospel far more than most Christian groups that I have read about and suggested that, perhaps, Christ would have been considered a radical in his own time.

I think the problem is that we often want a Christianity that fits in with the world, doesn’t disrupt it too much and doesn’t call us into question. We can go on a Sunday and feel good about ourselves. Sing songs about how amazing Jesus is and allow it to have very little affect on how we live our lives Monday – Saturday (unless of course attending further Church meetings on these days). We may try to be a bit more pure, change things that affect ourselves slightly but don’t really make any difference in the world. But as Bonhoeffer points out perhaps we should be shocking the world more then we do. Perhaps we should be a stronger voice for the voiceless, stand in solidarity with the oppressed, feed the hungry and find shelter for those without it. Perhaps we should be standing against inequality, discrimination and the unjust, petitioning and speaking out. People should know that when there is something wrong in society Christians are going to be there to speak out and help put it right. We should be known as radicals of love, grace and justice.

We need to remember that thinking of Jesus only as gentle, meek and mild is heresy. Yes he was those things but he didn’t shy away from speaking out against those who were oppressing people and causing injustice. He turned over the tables in temple. It is about his love for us and our love for him but if it’s only that, then I suggest it may as well be nothing at all. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and help home the homeless, as what we do for them we do for him. And maybe once we start to get this right we will be seen as the radicals we ought to be.

We need to be radicalised by love preachers.

Why I am going to Gay Pride.

Quite a while ago I saw the above image, it’s a Christian guy being hugged by a gay man in his underwear. Andrew Marin and a group of Christians went to a pride event in Chicago with signs saying “I’m Sorry”, which had a great response. They were apologising for the hate and general lack of love that Christians are known for showing to the Gay community. It was an image that made me emotional, it was an image that represented reconciliation, love, peace and forgiveness. It’s an image that I have been unable to forget. So fast forwards 18 months or so & I have helped organise for a group of Christians to go to a pride event. Our aim is to take a “different kind of Christian presence” to a community that is perhaps more used to Christian demonstrations of condemnation and hate.

We had been thinking that we would just turn up and see what happens, perhaps take signs etc. However last week Mark Berry from Safe Space came to talk to our team of Churches. He briefly talked about the Samaritain woman at the well, a passage that I have turned to over the last few years while thinking about Christian relations with the LGBT community. His community felt that they were called through this passage to start a night time ministry caring for people as they left a local nightclub, offering a safe place to call a cab, space blankets, flip flops first aid etc. He went on to tell us how ridiculously quickly it started after the idea was first brought up (I think they got going in around 2 weeks-ish) and how all the doors that should have been shut in their face where open for them to go though, including being handed the funding they needed without having had to ask for it. He also told us about how he was asked to be on the board for the local football club, having talked to the chairman and having spent time offering love to the football community by sweeping the terraces after the games and spending time with the community in the bar afterwards.

Traveling home from that talk last week the way forwards hit my in the face and I decided to contact the organisers of the Pride event, knowing that getting them to trust us may have been an issues thanks for the reputation of Christian groups with regards to their interaction with the LGBT community. I sent the email and asked people to pray, hoping that there would be a person of peace in the organising team and trusting that God would be ahead of us opening doors if we were supposed to do this. A few days later I received an email from the treasurer who, it turns out, is a Christian himself and had been wanting to get Christians involved in the event as his church had been unable to do so this year. I went on the trust that the doors would be open and was really pleased to have found that they were.

We are looking at what we would be able to give out, a small bag of sweets or something, and offering the chance to ask for prayer in a non-threatening way (perhaps writing down a situation that prayer would be appreciated for and leaving it with us to pray for when we leave).  Our way of being able show love, humility and grace.

The Parable of the Good Athiest

Whilst travelling on the road between Sheffield and Derby a local Christian man, yet to reach the boundaries of his community, was attacked and left for dead having had his iPhone and wallet taken. After a short while a vicar passes by but he hurries along on the other side of the road as he doesn’t want to be late for communion – after all no one else is allowed to do the service. Just as the vicar travels out of sight it so happens that a worship leader  comes by but he, too, hurries by on the other side of the road. The worship leader can’t be late for a prayer metting, after all who else will lead the church in prayer for the local community? The next person to come down this stretch of the road is an Atheist who stops to help the man. He puts him in his car and drives him to the nearest medical help. This just so happens to be a couple of years after the NHS bill had been passed and the government were now full swing in their privatisation of the health service. However, the kind atheist leaves his credit card promising to be back in a few days to settle the bill for whatever care is needed.

So what do we take from this modern retelling of the famous parable? How can it be that the Atheist is more Christ like than the Christians? Does it resonate some of the original meaning, the Jews astounded that it would be a Samaritain who did the right thing, who loved his neighbour?

What about the vicar and worship leader? Are we sometimes too busy, caught up in the ritual of Christian life that we miss the opportunities to be Christ-like for someone? Like the test of seminary students in America sent to speak about the good Samaritain and, ironically, ignoring a person in need on their way to do so. The study concluded that if we have somewhere we need to be (even if it is to speak on such matters) we are less likely to stop and help someone in need. Are we sometimes in too much of a hurry to go partake in Christian religious life that we fail to be Christ to those who need us to be? Perhaps being free of this allows the Atheist to spot and help the person in need, rather than the vicar & worship leader?

The worship leader is too busy going off to pray for the local community to stop and help and person from the local community. Do we do the same? Are we sometimes too hooked on our prayer and worship that we fail to be the answer to prayer and Christ for those who need him?

What other questions does this retelling raise? What response do you have?

The Parable of the Good [Insert Your Samaritan Here].

The Parable of the Good Mormon:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Mormon, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

 I chose to substitue the Samaritain for the Mormon in this adapted version of the famous parable as one of the churches I am involved in is helping set up a food bank with other Churches in the area, including a Mormon church which seems to have caused some controversy. However, there are actually many different words that we could have placed there “The Parable of the Good”… Homosexual, Muslim, Pentecostal, Catholic, Anglican,  Atheist… the list could go on and on.
The Samaritains believed that they were the true followers of the Israelite religion (seeing Judaism as an altered version of this). Neither the Samaritains nor the Jews would enter the other’s territory and they would not speak to one another. The Jews viewed the Samaritains as unclean (and vice versa) and believed that the Samaritains followed the wrong religion (although both Abrahamic and descendants from the Israelites ), they followed a different law and had different religious texts (do you see where I’m going yet…?). I’m pretty sure that if you asked a first century Jew about the Samaritains they would have said that they didn’t have a relationship with God as they followed him the wrong way and could list the ways in which they were theologically wrong, probably using scripture to back up their points (sound familiar?). But here Jesus says that the Samaritains are to be considered as a neighbour and you are to love them as yourself. Jesus tells us to love the people we hate and we think have it all wrong as ourselves. Just let that resonate and think about who your Samaritain might be. Perhaps mine would be fundamentalists, but we probably each have more then one group.
Whoever Is Not Against Us Is for Us

38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

Whoever is not against us is for us? Can a man who offers food to the poor in Jesus’ name (even if their understanding is different to ours) loose their reward? Whoever is not against us if for us.

I don’t even find it frustrating* anymore that people don’t want to be involved in something amazing, building the kingdom, feeding the poor (which seems to be pretty central to the Gospel) because a certain group are involved, I just find it really, really sad; I’ve been walking round with a heavy heart as I’ve thought about this today. *(Ok, maybe I do… just a bit)

The stupid thing is that I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid if non-believers were invited to help out at the food bank. I don’t think it would have been as controversial to have Muslims involved in the food bank, but involve Mormons and you’ve got issues.

Let us remember to love our neighbour (including those who we are told we should be separated from, like the Jews and the Samaritains) as ourselves. And let’s not say to the hungry or the poor “sorry I can’t be involved in helping you because a Samaritain (whoever that looks like for us) is.

Me, Myself and Jesus; the Idolatry of Worship.

I offered some thoughts on this in my last post. I had intended to follow it up before now but being a uni student + working + church + the trails of life + trying to have down time = that not happening.

“My Jesus, My Saviour”

As these words were sung around me, I couldn’t help but once again question what we were singing. At which point did I gain personal ownership of God? Now don’t get me wrong, I know that isn’t the intention of the writer who penned these lyrics but put in the context of the landscape of modern worship I think this is actually what gets communicated in a sub-conscious kind of way. Christianity has become about what we can get, what is promised to me, what benefits I will find. It’s not like we even sing “Our Jesus, Our Saviour” making us aware of those around us, that Christ and Christianity isn’t all about ME. Or how about we start to sing more songs that drive us to action, to live a Christian life. I’m not saying that it isn’t important that we recognise and proclaim our personal relationship with God but the problem is that this is the mode that we have defaulted to, it is out of balance. Christians in this sense are not counter-cultural but have assimilated modern culture as we have become more and more individualistic, it’s about what we can get. Nadia Bolz-weber offers some thoughts on this:

How the glorification of the individual can perhaps best be seen in that new title Americans have given to Jesus in the last 100 years… “Personal Lord and Savior”. As though in your contact list between your Personal Assistant and your Personal Trainer can be found Jesus, your personal savior.  And he can be YOUR personal Lord and Savior too if you just choose him.  Like a magical puppy in the pound. If you choose him he’ll be yours. And with your personal magical puppy will come all the warm feelings and love and blessings you can imagine.” From here.

This trend affects our theology which in turn affects our actions and our mission. But I believe that Christianity is counter-cultural, I dont believe that we should view church and worship in this way.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

We are called not to serve the self but to deny it. It is not supposed to be all about me. It is supposed to be all about God and all about our neighbour. We are called to take up our cross and follow him, to put others before ourself. Again Nadia offers some thoughts on denying self here.

This is a challenge for us all, one that which we are hindered by in our worship, even those of use aware of the issues surrounding this are still someway affected by this in thought and action. I think we need to change our worship away from self indulgence, which will change our theology and, therefore, our actions. Hopefully we will lay down our idolatry and learn to deny the self to take up our cross and follow Christ.

A related post can be found here: Bought to you by the letter I for me