Thursday, August 27, 2009

Church unity as a circle

It seeking to understand Church unity, it’s tempting to think a circle, where people inside the circle are part of the Church, and people outside the circle are not in the Church. The Church is one, because it is one circle.

However, thinking of the Church as one circle is a bit more difficult when you try to actually decide who is in and who is out of the circle. And it also raises the question of how big should the circle be?

We could have a small circle, where the Church may include only those people, for example, who belong to the Roman Catholic Church. But even with a circle this small, perhaps it is not small enough. What about lapsed Catholics? What about those who go to communion once a year, but fail to even think about Jesus the rest of the time? What about those who do not even believe in God, but continuing going to church to keep the family happy? Should our circle be smaller?

We could have a large circle that includes the whole world. But presuming we don’t want our circle to be quite this large, what about a circle that includes everybody who claims to follow Jesus. But maybe this isn’t quite large enough? What about those people of other religions who have never heard the name Jesus, but who live a life that is more in keeping with Jesus’ commandments than those who claim to be Christians?

And speaking of those who claim to be Christians, can all of them really be said to be a part of the Church? Many cults claimed to be following Jesus. There are some people who have thought they were Jesus.

Another approach is to say the Church includes those people who have certain beliefs or who follow certain practices. Do you believe in a Trinitarian God? Do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Are you baptised? Do you have communion? Kind of like a Church check-list, if you like. I sound like I’m making fun of it. But it does have a lot to recommend itself. It’s not too small a circle that it only includes one denomination. It’s not so large that it includes a whole range of people who say they’re following Jesus, but who have very warped ideas of who exactly Jesus is.

Although I like this kind of circle, it does have problems. For one, there are a number of people who consider themselves members of the church, may even be part of mainstream denominations, and yet cannot tick all the boxes. Maybe they haven’t been baptised. Maybe they can’t take communion. There are also people who do not believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus. Are these people Christians? I’m not sure. But they still think they are part of the Church. Does anyone have the right to tell them they don’t actually belong? I’m not sure about that one either.

I tend to favour the larger circles, rather than the smaller ones. I would rather a definition of Church that includes people that aren’t really Christians, rather than one that excludes those that are. In the Parables of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus says that they should both grow together and they will be separated at harvest time. And so maybe, as we seek to understand what the Church actually is, the aim should not be to exclude anyone. But instead to let God decide who belongs to His Church and who doesn’t.

But in saying this, it is also important to remember that the Church has a centre. That centre is the truth and that centre is Jesus Christ. One can be part of the circle and yet be very far from the centre.

Perhaps it is more helpful to think not of a circle with definite boundaries. But as a centre that radiates outward. Kind of like a sun. Anyone who is orbiting around the sun is part of the church. But some are closer to the sun (or the Son) than others. Some receive more of its light. That sounds patronising, but it has to be true. If there is one truth, and very many different understandings of that truth, then some have to be closer to the real truth than others.

So when we include people in our definition of Church, that is not to say that their understanding of Jesus is as good as any other understanding of Jesus. It is to say that they are may be part of the one Church, but they may also be far away from its centre.

(Image details: Nicolaus Copernicus - The Heliocentric Solar System. Image is in the public domain. Courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

This post was originally published at my old blog, But it does seem a waste to let a post that combines both Christianity and Bon Jovi just sit there. So I’ve decided to publish it again here.

Bon Jovi is the band I never quite grew out of. I started liking them as a teenager. And even though my taste in music has changed considerably since then, and I no longer like many of the bands I liked them, my love for Bon Jovi remains.

I think one of the reasons for that is that Bon Jovi continues to produce great music. Another reason is that everybody needs at one teenage band they don’t quite grow out of. And the third reason is that a lot of Bon Jovi’s music seems to say something to me about faith and God. I once joked to a friend that if you think of any song that has the words ‘God, faith, Jesus or prayer’ in it as a Christian song, then I spend a lot of time listening to Christian music. Of course, they’re not really Christian songs. But they do have some good messages, from a Christian perspective.

So here are my top 5 Bon Jovi songs, purely from a faith perspective.

Hey God!
Hey God -
Tell me what the hell is going on
Seems like all the good shits gone
It keeps on getting harder hanging on
Hey God,
there's nights you know I want to scream
These days you've even harder to believe
I know how busy you must be,
but Hey God...
Do you ever think about me

I like this song because it reminds me of all the people who want to believe in God, but find it hard to, because life isn’t working out the way they want and it seems like God doesn’t care. Now I don’t think God’s role is to go around making sure that everybody’s life is perfect. But the fact remains that life is tough for some people. And often it’s hard to believe in God, when life is tough.

Everybody’s Broken

It's so hard to believe
It's easier to doubt
You're trying to hold in
But you're dying to scream out
It's okay to be a little broken
Everybody's broken in this life
It's okay to feel a little broken
Everybody's broken, you're alright
It's alright, it's just life
Take a look around
Tell me what you see
Is who you think you are
Who you wanna be?

This song sounds a bit depressing, but it’s actually quite a feel good song. I know I love to play it when I’m feeling inadequate or like I just want to retreat from the world for a while, because I’m too ‘broken’ to belong to it. Because it reminds me that everybody is broken. We all have problems. We all have pains. We all have things that need fixing. We’re all sinners, in other words.

Welcome to Wherever You Are

Maybe we're different, but we're still the same
We all got the blood of Eden, running through our veins
I know sometimes it's hard for you to see
You come between just who you are and who you wanna be
If you feel alone, and lost and need a friend
Remember every new beginning, is some beginning's end
Welcome to wherever you are
This is your life, you made it this far
Welcome, you gotta believe
That right here right now, you're exactly where you're supposed to be
Welcome, to wherever you are

This song is similar to Everybody’s broken, in that it reminds me that we all have problems, and none of us are perfect. I particularly like the line ‘You come between just who you are and who you wanna be.’ It reminds me of Romans 7:15: I do not know why I do the things I do. I do not do what I want to do. But I do the things I hate. I think many Christians can relate to the fact that we are caught between who are are and who we want to be. But it’s a reminder also that, even though we’re not yet at that place where we do want to be, we should be thankful for being where we are.

Keep the Faith

Walking in the footsteps
Of society’s lies
I dont like what I see no more
Sometimes I wish that I was blind
Sometimes I wait forever
To stand out in the rain
So no one sees me cryin
Trying to wash away the pain
Mother father
There’s things I’ve done I can’t erase
Every night we fall from grace
It’s hard with the world in your face
Trying to hold on, trying to hold on
Faith: you know you’re gonna live thru the rain
Lord you got to keep the faith
Faith: don’t let your love turn to hate
Right now we got to keep the faith
Faith: now its not too late
Try to hold on, trying to hold on
Keep the faith

It was really hard to find a small portion of this to cut and paste. I just wanted to use the whole song. This song is a reminder that having faith is hard. And that the world isn’t that nice a place sometimes. There are things out there I don’t want to see. Things that cause me pain. And things that make it very hard sometimes to continue to live as a Christian. But despite all that, despite all the pain, despite all the ugliness, despite all the ways that I fail, I’ve got to keep the faith anyway. I’ve got to continue to believe and hold on to God.

I am

I Am
When you think that no-one needs you
Sees you or believes you
No ones there to understand
I Am
I'll be there to be that someone
When you think that no one, is there to hold your hand
I Am
We're just who we are, there's no pretending
It takes a while to learn to live in your own skin
Say a prayer that we might find our happy ending
And if you're in, you know I'm in
I'm ready and I'm willing

Okay, I see this song as basically a song about God. And it is such a beautiful reminder of the love that God has for us. Because when we think no-one sees us, or understands us, God is there. Yahweh (I am) is that someone who will always be there. I also like that line that says, ‘It takes a while to learn to live in your own skin’. Another reminder that we’re all on the journey. None of us are where we need to be yet.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Comfortable Christian

I recently started going to the Catholic Church. And although it’s quite embarrassing to admit this, one of the things I find difficult is the kneeling. It’s just so uncomfortable. And I’m a fairly fit 35 year old who doesn’t have arthritis or anything else that causes me pain.

It seems today that we’re pretty used to comfort. We like our air-conditioning and our lounges and our cushioned seats and our comfy beds. I know I get annoyed if I don’t have my own three pillows to sleep with. I just can’t get comfortable. And it is so annoying being uncomfortable.

But this idea that we need to be comfortable is pretty new. Not that long ago, people were cold in the winter, hot in the summer, slept on hard beds and just generally put up with a lot more discomfort than we do.

And not only do we just want to be comfortable. We act like it’s a God-given right sometimes. And there’s millions of products that are designed with the aim of keeping us comfortable. The beds, the lounges, the air-conditioning systems. Have you ever gotten into a car with someone who doesn’t have air-conditioning? Generally, they mention the fact in a very apologetic way. They don’t quite say it like this, but there’s the idea that they are very sorry that we may have to put up with some discomfort for the entire 15 minute car trip. How on earth will we cope?

But being comfortable is not a God-given right. In fact, I’m pretty sure that our desire for comfort does not come from God at all. And I really don’t think that Jesus’ main aim for the church is for it to be comfortable.

The reason why I find kneeling weird is that the Protestant churches that I’ve been to don’t do it. And I wonder why? Is it because it is too uncomfortable? And discomfort has no place in a 21st century church? We stand and we sit and that’s it. Hardly any new churches have wooden seats or pews. Some have cushioned chairs and air-conditioning.

But our desire for comfort goes behind physical comfort. We also create churches in which life is comfortable. In fact, some churches seem to promote the view that becoming a Christian will make you comfortable. God will start answering your prayers and blessing you. And all you really have to do is turn up to church and worship God in our air-conditioning building. You don’t even need to dress up, if you don’t want to. Jeans and sneakers are fine.

Not only that, but we worship a God we are comfortable with. We have our own idea of Christianity, and we get very annoyed when someone challenges that view. Why? Could it be because it makes us uncomfortable? Could it be that our view of Christianity seems to justify our own comfort? Who wouldn’t want to believe in a God who wants us to be rich and shower blessings on us and answer our prayers. Don’t anyone mention suffering, please. It could make people uncomfortable.

It’s funny because when I look at the prophets in the bible, none of them seem too concerned about making people comfortable. Neither for that matter did Jesus. Instead, they seemed to want to shock people out of their comfortable mindset. And the Christians of the past didn’t seem too worried about creating a comfortable life for themselves. Instead of driving in air-conditioning buses, they were heading for the lions. Instead of wearing jeans and sneakers, they were wearing hair-shirts. This idea that kneeling was uncomfortable would not have even crossed their minds.

(Image details: Den helige Franciskus i bon (1635-1639), Francisco de Zurbarán. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the public domain.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Erasmus' paraphrase of the Book of James

Today I am going to have a bit of a lazy day and let others do the speaking. This is Erasmus’ paraphrase of James. I read this last night and I liked it so much I wanted to share it.

Now Martin Luther did not like the Book of James at all. And I can understand why. For a person who was big on the whole ‘faith, not works’ things, it does jar a bit. However, I think the very reasons why Martin Luther disliked James is what makes me like it so much.

But just because we are saved through faith, not works, does not mean we should just be turn our back on everything that God wants us to do. We can’t simply say ‘Well I’m saved through faith’ and therefore I do not even need to think about doing anything to please him. As this paraphrase makes clear, our professions of faith should not just be meaningless words. Our faith needs to be acted out in our lives.

The book of James and this paraphrase reminds us that being a Christian is not just a matter of going to church every week and looking spiritual and thinking we are saved because we have faith. We also need to be doing God wants. Not to earn our salvation. But because we love Him.

Erasmus’ paraphrase of the Book of James

But what is faith without love? Love moreover is a living thing; it does not go on holiday; it is not idle; it expresses itself in kind acts wherever it is present. If these acts are lacking, my brothers, I ask you, will the empty word ‘faith’ save a person? Faith which does not work through love is unproductive; no, it is faith in name only. An example here will make clear what I mean. If someone says blandly to a brother or a sister who lacks clothing or daily food, ‘Depart in peace, keep warm, and remember to eat well,’ and after saying this, gives him or her none of the things the body needs, will his fine talk be of any use to the ones in need? They will be no less cold and hungry for all his fine talk, which is of no help to their need. He gives him only verbal support, but does nothing in actual fact. A profession of faith will certainly be equally useless if it consists only of words and does nothing except remain inactive as though dead. It should no more be called faith than a human corpse merits the name of human being. Love is to faith what the soul is to the body. Take away love and the word faith is like something dead and inert. It will do you no more good before God to confess in words an idle faith than fine speech benefits a neighbour in need when he must be helped with action. People think they are being mocked when you say to them, ‘Keep warm and well fed,’ and give them neither food nor clothing. Just so the person who offers no tangible proofs of his faith but repeats every day, ‘I believe in God, I believe in God,’ seems to be mocking God. A person who gives lip service to love possesses a fruitless charity. In the same way a person whose belief is only a matter of words possesses a faith that serves no purpose.

(Image details: Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. Courtesty of Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the public domain.)

Monday, August 17, 2009


There are very few of us who don’t have at least a little part of us that want people to suffer when they hurt us. In its mildest form, this may mean just getting the teeniest bit of pleasure when someone who has hurt us goes through their own pain, through no fault of our own. It is even better when their suffering is caused through their own doing. A bit like guilt-free revenge, in a way. Kind of like ‘Well God showed you, didn’t he?’

Then there are the times when we imagine the terrible things we would like to have happen to a person who has hurt us. It could mean just spending a brief moment picturing something slightly discomforting. At the other end, it could mean spending countless hours actively plotting their ruin and downfall. There’s a big difference between the two, but nevertheless, both are dangerous.

Firstly, when we spend any time engaging in mental revenge, there’s a good chance we are carrying out another form of revenge. Sure we may not be carrying out the big email campaign against Jane Doe, who stole our idea at work. We may not be going through her files and destroying her work. We may not be ringing up our boss anonymously, pretending to be the police investigating Jane Doe for murder. But we’re probably doing at least something to make Jane Doe suffer, even if it’s not what we would really like to do.

How are we talking about Jane Doe to other work colleagues? Are we trying to poison their minds against her? Are we treating Jane Doe in the same way we would treat other people? If she leaves something on a desk, do we return it to her? Or do we leave it, because it belongs to that silly woman who stole our idea? And what’s our attitude towards Jane Doe like? It is almost impossible to have a good attitude towards someone, when we are spending a lot of time imagining their suffering. Are we using every opportunity to show Jane that we are don’t like her? Are we trying to make her feel guilty?

Trying to make someone feel guilty is probably one of the top ways that people try to make others suffer for the hurt they have caused. Sometimes there’s no even the conscious desire for revenge. But the subconscious desire to make someone suffer for what they did is still there. I know it’s a generalisation, but I think wives are the ones who do this most often. Their husband hurts them. So they pout and they cry and they huff and give the cold shoulder and they withdraw affection. They might say they’re doing it because they are hurt. There’s a good chance they are also doing it because they want their husband to suffer for what he did.

The other danger with imagining some misfortune befalling those that have hurt us is that what starts off as brief harmless fantasy can quickly turn to an all-consuming desire to revenge. It starts to become all we think about. It destroys our peace. It can affect our relationships. Eventually, it can get to the stage where we feel we will never be happy until that person gets what they deserve.

There are three options when we’re in that place. The first is to simply be miserable and bitter for our entire lives. Not a good option. The other is to take matters into our own hands and try to punish them ourselves. Also not a good option. Not only does it usually lead us away from the will of God, but it can get us into all sorts of trouble. Plus, if we’re successful, we often end up feeling more hollow than satisfied.

The last option is to let it go. Just let it go. Forgive them and move on.

It’s easier to say than to do. There seems to be this idea hard-wired into us that when somebody does something wrong, then somebody has to pay. Well guess what? Somebody already did.

In today’s world of the personalised Jesus, we often look at Jesus on the cross and say ‘he died for my sins’. True enough. But he also died for the sins of our enemies. Whenever we think somebody should suffer, it would be worthwhile remember that somebody already did suffer. Jesus Christ did the suffering for those very sins that have hurt us.

That’s not to say that God will not punish them for what they did. Perhaps he will. But we should leave the punishment up to God. And we should give up all thoughts of revenge – even if they’re only in our imagination.

(Image details: Retribution; - tarring and feathering; - or - the patriots revenge, by James Gillray (died 1815), published 1795. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Frustration or My Computer Has an Attitude Problem

This week has been a very frustrating week, most of which has had to do with my computer. When I tell it do something, it decides to do something different. And I am almost positive that at the moment it’s getting a real kick out of seeing me waste my time. I enter all this information in and, with a flick of the mouse, it’s gone. It’s like it has an attitude problem or something. As though it’s telling me ‘Nuh, don’t want to do that. Find yourself another slave.’

It has been so frustrating, because I rely on the computer a lot. Perhaps too much. Maybe that’s why it’s suddenly decided to become temperamental and only help me when it feels like it. But I do use my computer for most of my daily tasks. I work at home, on my computer. I blog and write, using my computer. I do my banking and pay my bills with my computer. I do my university work on my computer. I even order groceries on my computer.

And let me tell you, my computer really pushed it too far the other day. I had ordered groceries, and as I was ordering, things kept getting deleted from my basket. I thought I caught them all and added them all again. But when my groceries arrived, no diet coke. Anyone who knows me would understand how completely frustrated I felt at this point. I’m kind of a bit addicted to diet coke. Okay, I’m a lot addicted to diet coke.

Now my computer may delete work that I’ve done, refresh a page when I’m in the middle of writing an email, decide to keep making me sign into ebay for some unknown reason, slow down completely when I have about 20 things to do and refuse to send my emails to hotmail addresses (Actually I think that’s a problem with my internet provider. But they’re friends. I think they’re ganging up on me.) And I can kind of understand. The poor thing is a bit overworked. But when my computer deletes my DIET COKE, I am not happy AT ALL.

Now admittedly my computer has not done anything really bad. It hasn’t shut down on me. It hasn’t sent money off to Nigeria. It hasn’t deleted my book that I’ve been working on for five years. None of the things it has done has caused any real dramas. Even the missing diet coke wasn’t really that bad. My life is not going to suffer if my diet coke does not come on the day I ordered it.

It’s just been frustrating. And inconvenient. And time-consuming. Did I mention frustrating?

But sometimes I think it’s those little frustrations that are more upsetting than the big dramas. When I have something really go bad, I tend to be pretty philosophical about it. I say things like well God has a purpose and something better might come along. I feel calm and in control and peaceful. When my computer decides I’m spending too much time on ebay, I start yelling and crying.

Why is that?

Well, most frustration comes down to the fact that I am not getting my way. Things aren’t working out the way I want them to. In other words, it’s all about me and my desires. And one thing this week has taught me is just how annoyed I do get when I don’t get what I want.

And I guess with the big things, there is that hope that God’s in control. God has a plan. Maybe I didn’t get what I want here, because there is something better around the corner. But with the little things, there is no reason to it. My life is not going to suddenly get better because I have to write an email again. God doesn’t have a better email planned for me. It’s just a frustration. A frustration that serves no purpose except to make me yell at the computer, cry over missing diet coke and frustrate me.

Well, maybe it does serve a little purpose. As I said, it has made me realise just how much I like getting my own way. It has made me recognise a few of my faults that I didn’t actually know were there. And hopefully, it will eventually make the kind of person who is not so easily frustrated, who can still remain peaceful when things don’t go my own way. Maybe. With God, there’s always hope.

And maybe it’s also God’s way of telling me that I rely on my computer more than I rely on Him. God isn’t going to break down, delete my prayers or make me wait five minutes for the page on the bible to download. And unlike my computer, he doesn’t have an attitude problem. My computer problems can possibly be solved with a good clean-up and running a program to fix bugs and improve performance. But to fix my frustration problems, I’m going to need to spend less time on the computer and more time with God. He is the best anti-virus program for the human soul there is.

Postscript: While trying to upload this post, my internet encountered a problem and had to close. I find it hard to believe that is simply encounters problems. I am quite positive that it goes out searching for them. And then when I tried to find a picture to add, it moved so slowly, I could have built my own computer and taken a photograph of it before it was done. So I ditched the picture idea. I am not a person who swears often. If I do, people tend to look at me in shock. But in the middle of doing this blog, I have said the F word about 10 times. And I don't mean the word 'frustration'. I think I've already said this once or twice in this post, but this is very FRUSTRATING!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Manna and Trusting God

In the desert, the Israelites were given manna to eat. Each day, they had to collect what they needed for that day, except for the day before the Sabbath, when they were to collect what they needed for the Sabbath as well. They could not try to collect for more than one day or save what they had collected. Any manna left over at the end of the day went bad. The only exception to this was the Sabbath, when the manna would miraculously last for two days.

Talk about an exercising in trusting God. They were compliant reliant on God providing what they needed.

To put it in perspective, imagine if you only had enough food in your house for today. And if you tried to stock your pantries with food for beyond one day, it went mouldy. Or imagine that you only had enough money for today. No savings, no extra money in the bank account and no retirement plans. Scary, isn’t it?

In today’s western world, we like to make plans. We don’t just fill our cupboards and refrigerators with food for one day. Often we have enough food there to keep us going for a month. We start to stress when our money runs low or we’re not sure what our next source of income will be or we don’t know if we can survive through retirement.

Now there’s nothing wrong with planning. In today’s world, we need do at least some planning. But most of us are pretty good with planning. Well at least, we do a very good job at worrying about the future. But we’re not so good with trusting God.

Maybe we need to do a little less worrying and a little more trusting. Maybe we need to stop being so anxious over problems that aren’t even here yet. Maybe we need to start enjoying what God provides us with, instead of wanting to hoard it for a rainy day. And maybe we need to spend a lot more time being thankful for each and every day that we have what we need for that day. Because for today at least, that’s all we really need.

(Image details: The Gathering of the Manna at the Musée de la Chartreuse. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the public domain)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Do Not Convert Register

In ‘Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia’, Quarterly Essay, Amanda Lohrey discusses Brian Houston, leader of Hillsong and Assemblies of God in Australia:

Houston, by contrast, resembles a motivational speaker, the very picture of dynamic movement, and indeed on the DVD I’m watching, he seems to suggest that salvation is all about moving forward. There is insistent repetition of the words ‘growth’, ‘increase’, change, momentum, all words used by business, and in its own way, this is a kind of corporate religious speak, punctuated by its own commercials for the sale of the CD of the speech currently being delivered, and concluding with the injunction of the good CEO to his shareholders: “Remember the best is yet to come.”

Although she is speaking specifically about Brian Houston here, it could be a description of any number of Christian preachers around the world. Sermons often sound more like motivational talks that anything else, where the focus is on how God can make your life better, rather than what you can do for him. There is frequent reference to DVDs, CDs and other products, often mentioned along with the words, ‘I really pray you get this because it will bless you.’ And anything touching on evangelism (which quite a lot of it does) comes across like a sales speech.

Part of the reason for this may lie in the fact that the types of churches that tend to do this are pretty young, comparatively speaking, and have perhaps been influenced more by the surrounding culture than other traditional churches. We live in a consumer world, filled with advertisements, marketing and a whole heap of products and services on offer. In such a competitive market, companies need to convince us that their product or service is worthwhile. And billions of dollars is spent on marketing and advertising campaigns in order to do this.

And so our world is filled with a lot of messages telling us that this product or service will improve our life in some way, or that we’ll be missing out if we don’t get it. And because there are so many messages out there, companies need to do something to get our attention. Advertisements no longer simply tell us what’s on offer and why we should get it. They need to entertain us, shock us, humour us, yell at us.

And so it seems that many Christian churches have simply entered this world. Christianity is no longer just about serving Christ. Today’s consumer wants to know what’s in it for me. How is this going to improve my life? And so we fill sermons with messages about how God answers prayers, gives you money and moves you forward onto better things. And because we live in an entertainment and advertisement saturated world, the message needs to be big. It needs to get our attention. And when Christians want to convert someone to Christianity, they deliver the sales pitch.

But one of the problems with the consumer world we live in is that we have heard so many sales talks that we have grown cynical. I don’t know about you, but every time I would answer the phone to hear ‘We are going to give you a new phone’, I would feel like hanging up. I’ve heard it before. I know they’re just trying to sell me something. And at one stage, I was getting about five of these phone calls a day. I didn’t mind the odd sales call. But it was just too much. So I put myself on the ‘Do Not Call Register’. As it happened, I still get a few sales call a week, from charities trying to sell me raffle tickets. Apparently charities are exempt from complying with the register. And it doesn’t matter how good their charity is or how worthwhile the prize in their raffle is, when I get those phone calls I just want to hang up.

And I wonder whether we’re really doing Christianity a huge disserve by turning it into a sales talk. When Christians emphasise the benefits and the blessings that will come our way, they do tend to sound like a holy advertisement. And people of today have heard a lot of advertisements. Many of them have grown cynical. The minute someone starts trying to sell them something, they turn off. They have heard it before. Not interested, thank you.

Has anyone ever noticed that the look you sometimes get when you say you are a Christian is the exact same look that people give when they open the door to a stranger? It’s that look of ‘Whatever you’re trying to sell, I don’t want it.’ Instead of placing themselves on the ‘Do Not Call Register’, they’ve placed themselves on the ‘Do Not Convert Register’.

Christianity is not just another product, among all the other products, that needs a great marketing campaign, a catchy jingle and a good sales talk. Christianity is so much more than that. But I am afraid that many people will start to think of it as ‘just another product’ if that’s the way we continue to ‘sell it’. Christianity doesn’t need to be sold. It’s not a gimmick to keep you out of hell. The bible is not a motivational book that will show you had to lead a good life in 10 easy commandments. And signing up for Christianity does not come with a 100-day, prayers-answered or money-back-guarantee.

Christianity is about recognising the God who made us and the Christ who saved us. We don’t follow him because we’re going to get something out of it. We follow because God is worthy of our worship and our service.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Instead of a Show - Jon Foreman

One of my favourite songs at the moment is Jon Foreman’s Instead of a Show. When I first heard it, I listened to it at least 10 times, over and over and over. And I hadn’t done that since I was a teenager listening to a new Bon Jovi album. Then I played it to my kids. Then I played it to my friends. And now I’m going to play it for you. Well, I’m going to include the video here and say please, please listen to it. It really is a brilliant song.

It sounds a bit like harsh when you first listen, especially at the beginning. You could be forgiven for thinking this is sung by a person who really doesn’t like churches – or at the very least some kinds of churches. But the song is actually based on a passage in Isaiah. I’ve included the passage at the bottom of this article.

The song and the bible passage are both a reminder that all our outward expressions of religion don’t mean a thing to God, if we’re not doing what he wants us to do. And I know that Christianity is about grace, not works. Yes, none of deserve God’s forgiveness. And the only way we can be accepted by God is by His grace, not on anything we may do. However, that doesn’t mean that what he wants us to do is not important. It matters more to him than our sacrifices and our worship. There’s no point in raising our hands to God in worship, if we’re going to keep them clenched up and out of sight when someone wants a helping hand.

We feel spiritual because we look spiritual. But God wants more from us than to simply look spiritual. He wants more than a show.

Dare I say it, but a lot of churches put a heap of effort into producing a good show. They have the large worship teams with trained musicians and easy to sing along songs. They have the dancing and the swaying and the screaming and the praying. They have people speaking in tongues and being slain in the spirit. They have large auditoriums with an abundance of lights, screens and speakers. They have merchandise stalls set up, where you can buy books and CDs and DVDs that are going to bless you. Going to these churches can be more like attending a rock concert than a church.

But it’s just a show. And it’s not the show that counts.

Here is Isaiah 1:11-18.

11 "The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?

13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;

16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
17 learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.

18 "Come now, let us reason together,"
says the LORD.
"Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

(from Bible Gateway)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

You don't need to complain just because you can

Recently I caught myself have a good old whine about someone. They had done the wrong thing. Which meant I had to do something I shouldn’t have to do. And basically, I was being treated very unfairly.

First of all, I complained to the person involved. Then when they wouldn’t listen to me anymore, I carried on complaining to myself. I even thought about ringing my friend just so I could have someone else to complain to. And I was quite sure that she would agree with me and commiserate with me on my unjust treatment.

The only thing that stopped me was a little sentence that came into my head. You don’t need to complain just because you can.

A lot of the time, people seem to live under the assumption that just because they’ve got a good reason to complain, they should complain. It’s almost seen as an obligation. And it’s very hard to let go of that. If we don’t complain, we feel like we’re saying that what they did was okay.

Now there’s perhaps some truth in that, when it comes to complaining to the person involved. If somebody is getting hurt, we should speak up. And there’s certainly nothing in the bible to say that we should let people walk all over us. But sometimes we spend a lot of time complaining about things where nobody actually is getting hurt. Just because something is unfair doesn’t mean that anybody is being harmed or seriously disadvantaged because of it.

Sometimes we need to complain to the person, but stop the complaining inside our head. Complaining about someone either to ourselves or to others doesn’t hurt the person involved. It doesn’t even change things. If somebody continues to do the wrong thing, even after you’ve said something, they’re not going to change their mind just because you spend a whole lot of time thinking about what they did wrong. Then there are the times when people do a lot of complaining about someone, but say nothing to the person they’re annoyed with.

But even when we should complain to someone, and there are very good reasons for speaking up, we also need to learn when to stop complaining. Some people will continue to do the wrong thing, no matter how many reasons are put forward for why they are acting inappropriately. To constantly battle such people is just a drain. There are times when we need to accept that someone has done or is doing the wrong thing and nothing can be done about it.

But it’s often in those times that it is hardest to stop complaining. When somebody won’t change what they are doing, all we have left is complaining. That and praying. And prayers in these cases can often be just complaining to God. We feel like we need to complain. It’s all we have left.

Yet it’s also in these times that complaining can do the most harm. We just get more and more frustrated with something that can’t be changed. We feel the need to go over it constantly in our heads, preventing us from achieving any real peace. It can even spill out into other relationships. And if our friends should tell us not to complain so much, we will ask them whether they think that was has happened was right, with the underlying assumption that if it was wrong, they should listen to us complain as much as we like.

But whether what happened was right or not shouldn’t be the issue. When somebody does the wrong thing, we aren’t obligated to complain about. We can simply accept it and move on. To accept something is not to say that it’s okay. It’s instead to say I’ve done all I can do about this situation and it’s time to let it go.

And really, we’d be a lot happier if we let a lot more opportunities to complain just pass us by. Deciding not to complain is not letting the culprit off the hook. It’s letting ourselves off the hook. It’s refusing to let that person’s actions hurt us anymore than they already have.

(Image details - A gargoyle of a nagging wife - from Grendon, Northamptonshire church. Picture by R Neil Marshman (c). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0. Image taken from Wikipedia Commons.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Desiring Knowledge

Today, I wanted to share with you a passage from Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ.

Everyone naturally desires knowledge, but of what use is knowledge itself without the fear of God? A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul. A man who truly knows himself realises his own worthlessness, and takes no pleasure in the praises of men. Did I possess all knowledge in the world, but had no love, how would this help me before God, who will judge me by my deeds?

Restrain an inordinate desire for knowledge, in which is found much anxiety and deception. Learned men always wish to appear so, and desire recognition of their wisdom. But there are many matters, knowledge of which brings little or no advantage to the soul. Indeed, a man is unwise if he occupies himself with anything save those that further his salvation. A spate of words does nothing to satisfy the soul, but a good life refreshes the mind, and a clean conscious brings great confidence in God.

The more complete and excellent your knowledge, the more severe will be God's judgment on you, unless your life be the more holy. Therefore, do not be conceited of any skill or knowledge you may possess, but respect the knowledge that is entrusted to you. If it seems to you that you know a great deal and have wide experience in many fields, yet remember there are many matters of which you are ignorant. So do not be conceited, but confess your ignorance. Why do you wish to esteem yourself above others, when there are many who are wiser and more perfect in the law of God? If you desire to know or learn anything to your advantage, then take delight in being unknown and unregarded.

A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself.

I loved this passage, even though I found it very challenging. I think I often focus more on gaining knowledge about God, than I actually do on knowing God. I place a high value on learning gaining information and reading lots of books and being 'knowledgeable'. And although there's nothing wrong with that, this passage reminds me that it's not really that important. And sometimes it can actually lead us away from what God wants us to do.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Americanisation of Christianity

There’s no doubt about it, the world is becoming more Americanised. American products and entertainments are invading our countries, our towns and our homes. We watch American movies and television products. We eat American food and drink American drinks. Our teenagers dress like Americans and think like Americans. Here in Australia, we almost seem to be more American than Australian at times.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that this Americanisation of the world is extending into religion. The fastest growing church is the Pentecostal church – which so happens to be the most American. We read American Christian books. We watch American Christian TV programs. Pastors are influenced by American teachings. And much of what Christians say or think or pass on come from American sources.

Now I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that everything that comes from America is bad. Many of the books I love have been written by American authors. And most, if not all, of the movies I love were produced in Hollywood. My two favourite bands are Bon Jovi and Switchfoot; both of them American. I drink Diet Coke as if I’d die of thirst without it. Let’s face it. One of the reasons why Americanisation is so successful is they know how to produce some good stuff. Or maybe they just produce so much stuff that some of it has to be good.

I like American products. I just don’t like Americanisation. When it comes to Americanisation of religion, I think there are some very real dangers.

Firstly, Americans – by definition – live in America. They are shaped by American culture and they speak to people who are shaped by that same culture. Admittedly, here in Australia, that translates pretty well. Our lifestyle and culture is very similar to America. But even here, there are differences. For instance, when it comes to evangelising, what works in America wouldn’t necessarily work in Australia. We don’t see things in quite the same way.

The second danger is that, when we read the same views in book after book and hear them on TV program after TV program, we may begin to think that there is a strong biblical basis for these views. Whereas, in fact, they are really only products of the American culture. We find the same views because the people are all influenced by the country they live in. American thinking is not necessarily Christian thinking.

Thirdly, when the bulk of our information about the Christian faith comes from the one country, it gives us a very narrow view of Christianity. Because our writers and speakers all live in America – and quite often are themselves influenced by other American theologians – they can have a very similar message. Basically, they say almost the same thing. Now I tend to search out books that have something new and fresh to say. But I remember when I first became a Christian, every single book I picked up seemed to talk about the same things in the same way. For a while I stopped reading Christian books. Why bother? I had heard it all before.

There’s not much we can do about the Americanisation of religion. They produce more books because they can. They have the resources to do more television programs. And even if I could, I’m not sure I would want to stop it. Maybe some of the books that wouldn’t make it to Australia would be those books that I really enjoy.

However, I challenge you to let yourselves be influenced by non-American sources. Read books written by other writers. Research Christians in other countries. Don’t let yourself believe that the American view of Christianity is the gospel truth.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Allowing people to write themselves into the bible was never going to work

Recently, a bible was put on display at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art and people were invited to write themselves back into its pages. However, within a short period of time, there were so many obscene messages, that the artist, Jane Clarke, a Christian minister who has an outreach to gay, lesbian and transgendered people, was forced to place it under a glass case. People were still invited to write comments into it, but they had to do so on loose leaf pages, which were then inserted inside the bible.

At first glance, it sounds like a good idea. The kind of feel-good act, that leaves everybody feeling better. So why did it fail? Perhaps it was because there were too many flaws in the idea from the start.

The major problem in the whole set-up is that it presumed that people would respect the bible. They just want a chance to write themselves back into it. It’s easy for Christians to make assumptions about people’s attitudes towards the bible, that simply aren’t there in the wider community. In a church setting, most people either consider the bible as the sacred word of God or are at least willing to engage it. When we look beyond the church, however, that respect and willing to engage is not always there.

In fact, sometimes people can have very negative attitudes and even hostility towards the bible. I have had someone stand in front of me and swear at God for half an hour. And I don’t think the feelings expressed then were that uncommon.

In all fairness, inviting people to write in the bible may have been a way to address that hostility. If people could simply write what they wanted to in the bible, then they would no longer be angry.

And perhaps it might have worked if the only reason people feel anger or hostility towards God is because they feel excluded. But that’s simply not the case. Yes, there are many Christians who feel rejected by the church. But it should be noted that being rejected by the church is not the same as being excluded from the bible. Also, there are people who are angry with God for what Christians have done, or how they feel God has treated them, or because they think God’s angry with them or doesn’t accept them as they are or is trying to impose a whole lot of rules that they simply cannot keep.

Despite the fact that writing our own messages in the bible does not really address this at any deep level, it’s also not the full story. Some people are angry with God because they want to be. The problem is not so much that the church has rejected them, it’s that they have rejected God. They’re not looking for someone to welcome them back into God’s family. They want no part of it. If Jesus came down from Heaven himself and rolled out the red carpet, they would walk away. For such people, an open bible and a pen is not a chance to re-include themselves, but simply a chance for them to express their anger.

The other problem with the open bible approach is that it’s not really being excluded from the bible that is the problem. Many people feel rejected (or sadly are rejected) by Christians, not because the bible fails to mention them, but because it does. It mentions their sins. Now we are all sinners and there is not a single person alive who does not have at least one of their sins mentioned in the bible. But it’s often the sins that are mentioned in the bible that make people feel excluded. To feel accepted again would not be a matter of writing themselves back in, but of writing their sins out.

And another problem with this whole episode is that it panders to the desire that most (if not all of us) have to simply write our own bibles. I don’t like this, so let’s cross it out. That needs to be changed, let’s edit it. Perhaps we don’t take a pen and physically do this. But whenever we read a bible, we have a tendency to read ourselves into it. We don’t need an invitation. It’s human nature. I heard one (rich) pastor say that Jesus must have been rich, because God would not have wanted his son to be poor. That’s writing himself into the bible. Just add a few words and feel good about all the money you have.

Yes, there are people out there who feel rejected by God and rejected by the church. And I do commend Jane Clarke for trying to do something to make people feel accepted. But the type of exclusion that many people face is not going to be solved by writing a few words next to Leviticus 18:22.

Perhaps instead of writing ourselves into the bible, we should start writing the bible into our hearts.


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