Saturday, 30 January 2010

Debate on faith

Read this: Bishop David Chillingworth's speech at a debate at Cambridge Union on "This House believes that religion is a force for good in society."
Cambridge Union

This House believes that religion is a force for good in society.
Mr President
The motion before this house makes a big statement. I don't think any sensible person could survey the history of religion and simply tick the 'Yes' box. Those of us who live and work in the Anthony Trollope and Father Ted world of organised religion live - to be honest - in something of a love-hate relationship with faith and religion. But if I didn't believe passionately that religion and faith are potentially and in reality a force for good, I wouldn't be here.
On a personal level, I do not believe that faith is a spent force. We talk about the secular society in which we live as an age in which people may have lost the habit of God. But even in this post-modern society, it seems that many people do pray and that they yearn for an experience of something greater outside themselves. This is not a yearning for a simple-minded dependency - an immaturity which prevents people from standing on their own two feet and taking responsibility for their own lives. I would argue that what that means is that faith at its best makes people more fully human - it creates a bigness of soul and a generosity of spirit. It engenders the capacity to forgive and the possibility of sacrifice. Faith is not the only thing which does that - but in my view it is that above all which makes faith a force for good.
I am sure you will hear from the opposers of the motion all about how dreadful a thing religion is. And I guess that at least some of what they say I would agree with. I am as you can probably hear Irish. I have devoted most of my working life to Northern Ireland and its issues – bad politics, bad history and - most of all - bad religion. Religion gone septic because it allowed itself to be the servant of political ideology and politically motivated violence in the creeping malaise which we call sectarianism. And in there is the fatal weakness of religion – well actually three fatal weaknesses. One is that from Constantine onwards, religion has had a weakness for cosying up to establishment. Two is that – whether we look at Christianity or Islam - it is flattered and seduced by political movements. Three is that it has a weakness for fundamentalism – of which of course one of the least interesting examples is faith’s mirror image – the atheistic fundamentalism of Dawkins.

Fatal weakness – now there’s a thought. Because of course the best faith traditions teach humility and suffering as a holy way. They teach that strength is found in weakness and life through death. The kingdom of my faith pictures is an upside down place in which the values are almost exactly the opposite of those which by default govern our world.

But when I go off to my sister’s house in Clarkson Road this evening – just round the corner from Wilberforce Road – I shall ponder all those people for whom religion and faith have been the root of their greatness. I think of my visits to South Africa – of the way in which faith shaped Mandela, Tutu and others – and their religious belief helped to shape the parameters of the astonishing journey which moved South Africa from a pariah state to a place of hope promised if not altogether realised. I think of my meeting on a plane as a teenager with Mother Theresa – a person who saw God’s will with utter clarity and unquestioning - indeed terrifying - obedience. But at least her inner voices told her not to invade Iraq but to lift the dead and dying off the streets of Calcutta. And, to be honest, I shall think of some very ordinary people who were members of my congregation in Northern Ireland – people who had every reason to hate and seek revenge but who chose not to because they believed that that was the challenge of their faith to them.

And therein lies one of the great strengths of faith at its best – that it makes it possible for a person to measure that to which they are by events and experience entitled – to anger and revenge - and to voluntarily renounce them. And that is the heart of the forgiveness which releases not just them but those to whom their lives are bound by painful events.

I spend my life with clergy, people and congregations. So much of what we deal with is trivial and unimportant stuff - prayers said to quickly and hymns sung too slowly. And yet somewhere in behind all that - in the passion which which people hold to what is important - is a recognition of the power - the potential to use the dynamic word - the potential to be the place where we discuss the deepest and most challenging things in life - and do that in a context in which we are constantly challenged to move forward in hope and to grasp and to do what is good. That is what makes faith a force for good. I am happy to second the motion.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Looking for the Messiah, by Max Lucado

I just love Max Lucado. Well, not personally - I've never met the man - but I love his style and his wisdom. Read and enjoy!

Looking for the Messiah, Part 2
by Max Lucado

Some missed him.

Some miss him still.

We expect God to speak through peace, but sometimes he speaks through pain.
We think God talks through the church, but he also talks through the lost.
We look for the answer among the Protestants, but he's been known to speak through the Catholics.

We listen for him among the Catholics but find him among the Quakers.
We think we hear him in the sunrise, but he is also heard in the darkness.
We listen for him in triumph, but he speaks even more distinctly through tragedy.

We must let God define himself.

When we do, when we let God define himself, a whole new world opens before us. How, you ask? Let me explain with a story.

Once there was a man whose life was one of misery. The days were cloudy, and the nights were long. Henry didn't want to be unhappy, but he was. With the passing of the years, his life had changed. His children were grown. The neighborhood was different. The city seemed harsher.

He was unhappy. He decided to ask his minister what was wrong.

"Am I unhappy for some sin I have committed?"

"Yes," the wise pastor replied. "You have sinned."

"And what might that sin be?"

"Ignorance," came the reply. "The sin of ignorance. One of your neighbors is the Messiah in disguise, and you have not seen him."

The old man left the office stunned. "The Messiah is one of my neighbors?" He began to think who it might be.

Tom the butcher? No, he's too lazy. Mary, my cousin down the street? No, too much pride. Aaron the paperboy? No, too indulgent. The man was confounded. Every person he knew had defects. But one was the Messiah. He began to look for Him.

He began to notice things he hadn't seen. The grocer often carried sacks to the cars of older ladies. Maybe he is the Messiah. The officer at the corner always had a smile for the kids. Could it be? And the young couple who'd moved next door. How kind they are to their cat. Maybe one of them ...

With time he saw things in people he'd never seen. And with time his outlook began to change. The bounce returned to his step. His eyes took on a friendly sparkle. When others spoke he listened. After all, he might be listening to the Messiah. When anyone asked for help, he responded; after all this might be the Messiah needing assistance.

The change of attitude was so significant that someone asked him why he was so happy. "I don't know," he answered. "All I know is that things changed when I started looking for God."

Now, that's curious. The old man saw Jesus because he didn't know what he looked like. The people in Jesus' day missed him because they thought they did.

How are things looking in your neighborhood?

From A Gentle Thunder
Copyright (Thomas Nelson, 1987) Max Lucado


For the last 6 months, on and off - in fact, more off than on, to be truthful - we have been wondering about a particular decision. A decision to - perhaps temporarily, perhaps not (we don't know) - leave our wonderful home group to help out with small groups at another church.

Of course, we didn't want to do it. We meet with six other friends every week to study the Bible together, pray, share our lives...we very rarely miss a meeting, feeling a gap when we do so. It's comfortable and comforting, challenging and cheering. Hugely important.

Every so often, we wondered: should we, shouldn't we? There were huge numbers of unanswerable questions: would we have to leave our church? We couldn't do two groups at once, so how would we manage without the support of our own group, because leading a new one wouldn't be easy.

Nothing seemed to happen to propel us forward into change, so we put it all back in the cupboard again.

Until last week. during dinner with the friends who lead this other small church,both of us spent the evening separately wondering whether or not we should broach the subject. After all, perhaps they wouldn't want any help from outside. So we kept quiet.

It felt wrong.

So we decided to talk to our home group - would they release us? Reluctantly, they would. They prayed that God would confirm our decision in three ways.

We talked to our friends - did they want help? Yes, they would. Confirmation no.1.

Decision made, I received an aggressive email, out of the blue, which completely threw me. The stress made me feel as if I wasn't worthy to do anything, let alone 'lead' anything. Kind friends supported me and convinced me that this was just an attempt to make me doubt myself. Confirmation no. 2.

Last night, I told the vicar. A huge smile spread across his face. 'Thank you,' he said, 'that's great. I suggested your names to do just this.'

When did he do that? Just hours before our dinner. I realised why they didn't seem at all surprised when we actually offered help. Confirmation no. 3.

I feel absolutely euphoric to know that, although our decision doesn't 'feel' good or even 'right' and we definitely don't want to make this change, God DOES want us to. Wonderful.

Sunday, 24 January 2010


The word 'rubbish' came up several times in church this morning.

God still loves us, even if we 'rubbish' him.

And... "What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him" (Philippians 3:8, NIV)

Of course, even though the NIV is what I am most familiar with, I love the fresh take of The Message: The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I'm tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God's righteousness.

But my take on rubbish was different.

I had an idea that each of us looks like a shiny black plastic bin bag, all tied up neatly,full of rubbish.

Actually, if you didn't know what it was, a full bin bag can look quite smart. Elegant, even, especially if well-secured with integral plastic ribbons which run round the upper opening and can be fastened into an artistic bow. (Yes, I've done that. I take pride in the way I tie my bin bags up. My aim is functional, with flair.)

Imagine how a bin-bag would talk if it was to be opened up.
"Oh, no thanks, I don't feel like sharing....Yes, I know all this rubbish inside needs to be sorted out, but I'm quite happy as I am. Cosy, you know what I mean? I'm keeping it all together very well, thank you very much, and if you open me up it's going to well...spill everywhere, you know. That wouldn't be very nice, would it? So don't worry, I'm absolutely ALL RIGHT....What? WHAT? You're going to open me up anyway? I didn't give you permission to do that. I didn't...ow! OW! That hurt!...Your fingernails scratched, you know. What do you mean, you were untying me carefully? It didn't feel like it, I can tell you.... Well, yes, that is a point. You could have just taken a sharp knife to me and cut me open. I suppose that WOULD have been more painful. Possibly. Anyway, now you have me open so I hope you're satisfied. What? Take the rubbish out to have a look at it? I don't think so... What do you mean I haven't any choice? Oh noooo....."

The bag is opened up, its filthy contents exposed for all to see and examine. Then the work begins as the rubbish is extracted and sorted.

The food scraps - once perfect apples or bananas, peas or carrots,now rotting and degenerate - are all composted, providing, eventually, a fertile environment for new plant growth. The plastic bottles and cartons are melted down and formed into colourful swirling plastic board, still smelling fragrantly of fabric conditioner or dish washing liquid. The paper is pulped and turned into a variety of other papers: printing paper for books, newspapers and magazines; writing paper or cards; even toilet tissue. Glass is crushed and remelted to form beautiful objects. Metal is sorted with powerful magnets, crushed, melted, reused. Electronic items are smashed up, distributed into their constituents: even the circuit boards are crushed under pressure, forming a useful board which can be used for all kinds of purposes - even notebook covers.

Rubbish, when recycled, is useful.

Here's a thought: Each of us, a bin-bag full of the rubbish we call sin, is God's treasure.

And God just loves to open us up and take a good look at all that stuff inside. Sometimes we are opened up so gently - our 'strings' so lovingly and carefully untied - that we barely notice, until someone comments on the 'rubbish' - the sin - they see. Sometimes tragedy, trauma or brokenness make us feel as if we have been forced open and turned inside out. It does, indeed, feel as if a sharp knife has been taken to our very souls.

God doesn't open us up so that others can gloat over how degenerate we have become. Nor does He content himself with a cursory examination and a quick judgement before he moves on to another 'victim. No, he lovingly deals with our rubbish. He sorts out what needs to be crushed, before it can be reformed into something beautiful and useful; or what needs to be transformed, like the composting of green waste, so that He can grow good things and produce fruit. Paper is pulped, squeezed and flattened before it is made: we need to let God do that to our faults, our failings, our broken relationships, our sin... We need to let all the rubbish in us be recycled.

Some of the stuff we have thrown away isn't rubbish at all: it just needs a good clean, or a rub of polish, to restore it to newness. We need to be careful of what we deem only good enough to throw away - it is God who put it in us in the first place, and if He thought it good, it must be. Remember the parable of the wasted talents? Food for thought, a timely warning perhaps?

God is the Great Recycler. Don't be as ridiculous as a bin bag, arguing about what rubbish should be dealt with and what shouldn't. God has a green plan for it all.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Jesus became sin

Wayne Jacobsen (He Loves Me, page 127)says:

"Unseen though he was, the Father was still present in the same measure he always had been. But having become sin itself, Jesus could no longer sense His Father's presence."

Wow. That explains why I, who am so full of sin, often feel distant from God and do not sense his presence.

Simple, yet true.

What am I going to do about it?

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Good answers to hard questions...

The God Who Smokes:
Scandalous Meditations on Faith
by Timothy J Stoner

This is a book which, once finished, needs to be started again at the beginning. Immensely readable, it’s also extremely relevant. And relevancy seems to be what many of us struggle with most, as we seek to carve a path through life.

Sometimes, if we are honest, the solid Christian truths we all know seem a little shaky. God seems remote from our lives, difficulties threaten to overwhelm and it all seems rather ‘wearisome’. Tim Stoner drags these thoughts and feelings out into the light, authenticates them with stories from his own experiences, and gives us a fresh look at our faith. He looks at the questions we all struggle with, pointing us always to the God of Scripture. You might not agree with everything he writes; yet ‘truth’ is never solid, certain and nicely packaged but often glimpsed from different angles. Tim Stoner gives us those glimpses of a ‘truth…that holds reality together; there is meaning and purpose’ and motivates us to keep on with The Way, as the Christian life was known in the early church.

So dive into this book. Find the God who IS in the earthquake, wind and fire. The God who smokes.