Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Dangerously Alive!

I finished the outstanding book, Dangerously Alive over the bank holiday weekend. Detailing the adventures of Simon Guillebaud in Burundi over the last 10 years, this book is not for the faint hearted. It will provoke, unsettle & make you smile in equal measure.

The book is full of stand out quotes, but from amongst them, these words by Robert Capon stood out all the more: As we move inexorably into the summer, another day, another week, another month - allow them to stir you from any sense of complacency or self centred, comfort eating religion that so easily settles over us. How about a different approach? Over to Guillebaud & Capon:

The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news.
Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn't change people into wide eyed radicals any more; He changes them into 'nice people.'
If Christianity is simply about being nice, I'm not interested.

What happened to the radical Christianity, the un-nice brand of Christianity that turned the world upside down? What happened to the category smashing, life threatening, anti-institutional gospel that spread through the first century like wildfire & was considered dangerous by those in power?
What happened to the kind of Christians whose hearts were on fire, who had no fear, who spoke the truth no matter what the consequence, who made the world uncomfortable, who were willing to follow Jesus wherever He went?
What happened to the kind of Christians who were filled with passion & gratitude & who every day were unable to get over the grace of God?

I'm ready for a Christianity that 'ruins' my life, that captures my heart & makes me uncomfortable. I want to be filled with an astonishment which is so captivating that I am considered wild & unpredictable &, well, dangerous. Yes, I want to be 'dangerous' to a dull & boring religion. I want a faith that is considered 'dangerous' by our predictable & monotonous culture.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Myra Wattinger & the voice of God

I've been reading Jack Deere's excellent 'Surprised by the voice of God' again this week. His story about Myra Wattinger is well worth retelling here.

Alone & penniless, Myra wondered through the South Texas towns of the 1940's, finally getting a job caring for an elderly man. The pay was pitiful, but at least she had the security of a place to sleep & food to eat.
Myra had a history of what psychiatrists today would call 'rejection'. She & her husband had recently divorced. Although he was prosperous he refused to give her any money. Her parents had died when she was an adolescent, so she had no one to turn to for help.
As Myra sat in the house watching her elderly employer sleeping, she thought her life had sunk as low as it could go. Sadly, she was wrong. The devil had planned a new torment for her, something that would even bring her to the point of killing herself. One day, while the old man was sleeping, she found herself alone in the house with one of his sons. The son, an alcoholic, had previously made sexual advance towards Myra. Although Myra had made it clear that she found him & his actions repulsive, on this day he was determined not to be refused. He raped her.

Nothing in Myra's short, difficult life came close to the humiliation of that afternoon's violation. 'How god must hate me', she thought. 'Why else had he let this happen, what have I done to make him so angry?'
Whenever she tried to talk to God about her situation, she heard nothing from him. It could have been the turmoil of her emotions or the fact that she had no real history of conversation with God, that kept her from hearing his tender comforts & promises. But Myra didn't ponder either of these options. Instead she concluded that God had abandoned her.

Sometimes when things can't get any worse, they do infact. The incidence of pregnancy in forcible rape is incredibly low, less than 3 pregnancies out of every 100 rapes. Myra's body defied those odds. It seemed to her God had gone out of his way to add one last torment to her misery - to have become pregnant through the rape. God was forcing her to carry the drunken brute's child.
Even if Myra had been able to support a child, she had no intention of supporting this child. She had been forced to endure the humiliation of the rape but she was not going to let the rapist, or even God, force her to endure the humiliation of the pregnancy. It just wasn't fair. She shouldn't have to suffer any more consequences from that horrible afternoon. She decided to kill the baby.
Her Doctor wouldn't co-operate. Quickly Myra found out that in South Texas in the 1940's it was not easy to get an abortion from a physician. She still thought the best course of action would be to kill the baby, with or without the help of a doctor.

These were the thoughts battling for the control of Myra's mind on a spring afternoon in 1943 as she trudged back home from the Doctor's. Sitting on the back porch of the home where she had been raped, a new option came to her mind - suicide. Just at the point when the thought of suicide seemed to offer the quickest end to her pain, there came an urge from somewhere deep in her spirit to pray. She looked up to heaven & cried out, 'Lord, I'm carrying this child & I don't know what to do.'
She was never really sure afterwards if the voice was audible or not. It was, however, as clear as any voice she had ever heard. God said to her, 'Have this baby. It will bring joy to the world.'
Those 2 short, divine sentences, dispelled all thoughts of suicide & abortion. Heaven's words have a power that no voice from hell can match. When Myra heard those words, not only did her destructive thoughts leave, but the joy of heaven entered her soul & crowded out the depression & anguish. She was convinced God would give her a baby girl whom she would call Joy, for according to God, this baby would bring joy to the world.

On October 9th, 1943, Myra brought her baby into the world in the charity ward of St Joseph's Hospital in Houston, Texas. Things began to go wrong immediately. Myra almost died in childbirth. The baby turned out to be a boy & not a girl.The next few years were not easy for Myra or her young son. They were often separated with the boy in a foster home.
Over the following years, the son showed no promise at all for fulfilling his heavenly destiny of bringing joy to the world. He did become a Christian in his early teenage years, but showed no promise for Christian work. In fact, he was so incredibly shy he simply could not speak in any kind of public setting.

The summer after the young man graduated from High School he went to a revival meeting - a Friday night - He heard God calling him to preach. It was as clear as an audible voice, though no one else would confirm it. They all knew this young man was not gifted for any sort of public ministry.
On Monday he went back to work at the Chemical plant. Most of the men who worked at the plant were not Christians. Their conversation was filled with profanity, dirty jokes & sexual references about their wives & mistresses. While this talk had never bothered the young man before, what had happened the previous Friday night made all the obscenity unbearable. As he listened to the men on the job, & again at lunch, where 200 workers gathered around 2 flatbed trailers, the young man was overcome with compassion for the workers & filled with anger at the sin separating them from Christ.
Suddenly, without realising what he was doing, he jumped up on one of the flatbed trucks & shouted to all 200 of his co-workers, 'Listen to me!' The men stopped chewing on their sandwiches & stared in amazed silence.
'I am just a boy out here trying to learn how to be a man. All you men are teaching me is how to talk filthy, think filthy, live filthy, be filthy! Men, I wouldn't talk about a dog the way most of you talk about your wives. But God loves you. And he gave Jesus to die for you.' This was the introduction to the young man's first sermon.
Pipe fitters, insulators, craftsmen & their helpers sat stunned as they heard these words. As the young man continued to preach, the conviction of the Holy Spirit swept over them. When he stopped speaking, no one said a word. They just hung their heads & shuffled back to their jobs - without realising a revival had just begun in their chemical plant. Over the next few weeks the young man had the privilege of leading many older workers to Christ. It became apparent that he was called to be an Evangelist. Some thirty years later, that young man has been responsible for leadings millions of people to believe in Jesus as their Lord & Saviour.

His name is James Robison. In the spring of 1943 his mother was truly surprised to hear the voice of God.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Mashed screw heads & some old authority on marriage

I’m preparing a sermon for our first wedding of the summer tomorrow & I’ve been captivated by the idea of Jesus teaching us about married life. In Mark’s gospel it says he gathered the crowds & ‘he taught them.’ His chosen specialised subject was marriage.

In this frantic 21st Century, post modern, internet age – it seems a little odd that we might be taught about marriage by a single guy from the middle east who lived 2000 years ago. Yet his is not just another voice in the multitude of relationship advice that is out there – another user guide for dummies in the Amazon top 10. No - He has something to teach which is so foundational that we would be foolish not to sit up & listen. Ultimately, it says more about who Jesus really is that His words are still shaping our lives in this generation

He speaks as the one who was there in the beginning when God made man & woman. He teaches as one who was involved in the planning process for marriage & worked on the design brief for procreation. When we recognize this, we have to acknowledge that he is free to speak with an incredible authority to us. Because of who he is, a marriage between a couple who recognize his authority to speak & shape our lives ought to be the most secure, most loving, most sexually fulfilling relationship there is.
The reason we so often we fall short into disappointing, dysfunctional or even broken marriages, may be that we fail to allow this amazing teaching which comes with authority to penetrate our selfish hearts.

In 1984 when Toby Pass left the Woodwork room at Forest Boys School to go to the toilet, I fastened his almost completed letter rack to the work bench with big fat screws & in doing so mashed the heads for good measure.
He couldn’t take it off. Try as he might, the teacher couldn’t remove it either. It was a sword in the stone moment. For all I know it remains joined to that work bench to this day – an immovable monument to my adolescent misadventure!

Jesus teaches us that marriage stands or falls on this kind of authority. What God has joined together so tightly & completely is never intended to come apart. Jesus teaches us that it is God Himself who joins us. It is His authority as the creator of mankind & designer of married life which means no one else has any right to touch, break or interfere with this wonderful new union.

When God declares a man & woman joined, like the letter rack on the bench – the intention is that they stay joined. Our happy couple tomorrow enter a brave new world in the fast lane of 21st Century culture with these old truths of Jesus teaching them & holding them together from the start.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden & the vicious cycle of bad theology

There are many things that have troubled me this week. I still don't understand the AV voting system & I only have a few hours left to go to the polling booths! Spotify want to charge me for music which I have got used to streaming for free. The Turner prize nominations have been announced.....need I say more.

However, my most uncomfortable moments this week have arisen whilst watching the world press & internet feeding frenzy on the story of an older Arab man who was shot dead in front of his family. Osama Bin Laden also happened to be the most wanted terrorist in the world.

I'm uncomfortable about all of this on so many levels. Whilst not wanting to drop into a knee-jerk anti american conspiracy theory diatribe - I find the chanting, cheering crowds outside the White House deeply troublesome. I remember 9/11 - it was terrible. Is there a just reason for going after those responsible & bringing them to justice? Yes, absolutely.
However, has the link between these acts & Osama Bin Laden ever been firmly established? If so, is he still the kind of threat or aggressor which justifies an outright act of war against him & his family?

Arrest & justice yes - shoot him dead when he has no weapon, throw his body in the sea, take a few grainy photos on an iphone - it's all a bit wild west, wanted dead or alive. I thought we were propagating the kind of modern democracy which had left revenge killings behind & went in for fair trials. To follow it up with TV broadcasts of whooping celebrants is the sort of behaviour we despise when we see it in the flag burning, gun toting middle east - why is it any more acceptable in the USA?

Ultimately, I'm uncomfortable with the notion of hunting a man for almost 10 years in order to shoot him dead. For a society which tells the world they are 'one nation under God', these actions preach a different God to the one I know. Our theology really does shape us - the things we believe about God really do impact the way we behave in the world. If we have been raised on the God of anger, the God of revenge, the God of retribution, is it any surprise we act this way? We are totally sincere, but we are sincerely wrong. This is the way of the zealot, the religious bigot, the terrorist - the way of the Apostle Paul before he had a true revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ. Here the American Pastor who burns Korans & preaches hate is no different from his Islamic counterpart.

If bad theology has got us in this mess, what could some better theology do to break this vicious cycle? The bible presents us with God made flesh, the man Jesus who said love your neighbour as yourself. The radical God who says love your enemies, love those who persecute you. The extreme God who says when they strike you, turn the other cheek.

I'm not attempting to square the circle today, nor am I looking down from a high moral standpoint above our American friends - I'm aware of our own national faults as Brits! Perhaps if I had been in New York or known someone who perished in the Twin Towers I would be thinking differently.
However, the things Jesus said & the way that he lived, even giving himself up as an innocent man before His enemies - this example of extreme love should at least challenge our foreign policy positions & the outworking of armed strategies in dark & dangerous places. Imagine, if we allowed our home affairs to be governed by the same precepts that drive this kind of foreign policy? Our streets would be full of blood killings & long standing generational feuds between neighbours.

Is the world better off without Osama? Quite possibly. But is there a better way to live, a better way to understand who God is through the way we behave towards one another? Certainly.