Archive for category Worship

The Parrot and the Fisherman

Colossians 1:11- 14

 

I saw the old fisherman again as I sped to my first appointment of the day.

He was standing as always, dressed in a battered green jumper and grey shorts, bushy eyebrows peering from beneath a terry towelling hat, and rod pointing to some place between the horizon and the heights of heaven.

“Keep your eyes on the road!” squawked the parrot beside me.

“Lucky beggar,” I grumped to myself as I negotiated the next curve of the coastal highway.  “Nice for some.” And then carried on to do business as best I could in the more isolated settlements of the north.  It wasn’t a bad day, and it wasn’t good.  I probably paid my way.  But not much more than that.  Maybe a little less.  “Awk! Loser!” squawked the parrot.

Driving home at the end of the day, I saw the fisherman again – in a different spot now.  Read the rest of this entry »

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ANZAC Day

This is from my weekly church newsletter, sent yesterday…
Tomorrow is ANZAC day, and we remember those who have served our nation in the armed services. Regardless of what we think about war and peace, and whether it is ever ok for Christians to take up arms, I believe it is right to respect those who, in good conscience, put their lives on the line for the sake of their nation. Having said that, I also know that most young people who enter the armed services have far less altruistic motives in doing so, and the reality of life in the services is usually a long way from saintly. So let’s remember that there have been occasions in which our nations young people have found themselves called upon to make supreme sacrifices – and many of them have responded with what can only be described as heroism. And let’s also reflect upon what we actually mean by heroism…

I wrote here about how our normal human fascination with power for its own sake leads us to cast our heroes in the shape of Superman, who, for all his moral qualities, is ultimately described as ‘super’ simply because of his physical power. In other words, because he’s the biggest boy in the playground. If there is no God, or if the gods are those of the pagans, then that is not only normal, but right. Nietzsche’s logic on this point is fairly compelling – though it drove him to despair. BUT believing in the God of the scriptures is to encounter a God who moderated the law of the jungle – from “If you injure me, I will kill you!” (Lamech – Genesis 4:24) to “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – and no more than that!” (Exodus 21:24) and then the radical teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-40, directly contradicting this older law with his command to “turn the other cheek.” And then there was Jesus’ own demonstration of this different way of living; living without retaliation. Though, as he said, he could have called down “twelve legions of angels” in his defence, he was more concerned that his followers should do no violence, telling Peter to “put up your sword – those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matt 26:52-53) Jesus submitted to extraordinary indignities for the sake of God’s mission – our salvation. And his life was consistent with his own teaching; he breathed forgiveness for his enemies in his dying moments.

This is not the heroic superman of our culture. He does not overcome violence with more violence, but with self-sacrifice. He trusts God to hold him, even in death, and to bring goodness out of the cruelty and senselessness of the cross. How often are we willing to trust God for justice? How often are we prepared for him to offer mercy to those who harm us – or even to offer that mercy ourselves, in his name? How often are we willing to let go of revenge – even just the satisfaction of being proved right. Paul teaches us that “we proclaim Christ – and him crucified; a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:23). So it is today, too. Jesus, and his apparent ‘failure’ as messiah doesn’t look attractive to a world that worships technology and wealth and health and power. But those who enjoy these things know also that none of these things satisfies. Many are actually willing, in their quiet moments, to consider the claims of the crucified to offer a better way. We can make him available to them, not by trying to be as powerful, and wealthy, and slick as the world around us, but by living fully in the Spirit of the Jesus we follow. We can make Jesus known to our friends and neighbours by following him more nearly, loving him more dearly, and seeing him more clearly, day by day. We can make Jesus known by knowing him better ourselves. That won’t happen if we attach ourselves to the blinding, soul-sapping idols of the world.

Tomorrow we remember those who have fallen for our sake. Many of them would say to us that the hero they most tried to be like was the one who laid down his life for his friends. Not necessarily the fastest marksman or the hardest fighter. Let us remember them with honour, and let us remember – and love – our Risen Lord with great glory.

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Holding Hope

(I found this draft post in my files – it’s a year out of date, but I like what Paul and Tracey had to share, so up it goes…)

So, following on from my previous post, in which I described my impressions from my time with Tracy, the Baptist community pastor for Kaiapoi, I spent some time with both her and the senior pastor, Paul over lunch. They invited me to ask them questions, and I focused mostly on what it was like for Paul, my counterpart, to lead the congregation in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.

IMG440Much of what Paul said reinforced what Tracy had already said.  For instance, he talked of the increase in the suicide rate; not so much among the young (who already have a horrendously high rate of suicide) but among older folks who just can’t keep going.  He talked of the feelings of tiredness and exhaustion which come with coping with being in a broken environment for two years now; how early optimism and the “We can fix this” attitude gets slowly eroded simply by the passing of time.  How the initial losses of home and security and (often) jobs, are compounded over time by the losses of friends and familiar landmarks.

A regular theme here is the phrase, “We’re off the map.”  They explained to me how an earthquake is such an unexpected event, and for each place, such a unique event, that there is no real resource for them – no road-map or guide-book for how they should be coping or what they should be expecting.  They are moving into uncharted territory in the ‘here be dragons’ zone.  This, of course, only exacerbates the stress and increases the load of each new day.  I know full well how pastoral work is difficult at the best of times; in the midst of earthquake consequences and recovery it becomes impossible for human strength.  And there’s the key.  Because they are forced to rely upon God’s grace for each day’s needs, they are convinced of his power to help and to heal.  The reasons for despair in their community are, for Paul and his congregation, an opportunity for optimism.  They look forward to the time when “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21.4)

Because of this basic orientation towards hope; towards a future that is in God’s hands and is good, Paul and co. continue to hold hope for their people.  Paul says that “A ‘woe-is-me’ attitude is not good enough as the default position for Christian ministry.” Hand-wringing and lamentation have their place, but to stay there is to betray the best  part of the Gospel.  Paul looks to the story of Nehemiah leading the people of Jerusalem in rebuilding their city walls, and points out that while Nehemiah lists the various occupations of the wall-rebuilders, there are never any masons or engineers in the lists; it was ordinary people with ordinary occupations who got out there and dealt with the section of the wall that was closest to them.  He also notes that they did actually know what a wall should look like; they had the thing rebuilt within sixty-odd days.  “We don’t know what our future looks like,” says Paul, “But we do know that it belongs to God.”  Thus they have to rebuild in faith, and the first steps might be tentative, but they are foundational, and so essential.

And what are they putting in these foundations?  Paul is awaiting delivery of a strip of red carpet.  “We’re going to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for the Holy Spirit.”  It is God leading his people in their day-day lives that will bring the best expressions of the Kingdom coming.  They’ve recently begun giving away money in their services; with the proviso that the person taking the cash has to ask God how to spend it and it has to be spent on someone else, and they have to come back and tell the story.  The first sum was taken by a forestry worker who returned to tell, with tears in his eyes, how God had lead him to buy blankets for those who were sleeping in their cars still, as a bitter winter rolls around.

There is an emphasis upon fun and laughter – good medicine for the soul.  And “courage grows in company”, says Paul.  Getting people together – for any old reason – helps to build  resilience into people’s lives; helps to remind them that they are still part of a community – albeit a community that is hurting and changing and transforming into something new.

At this point Paul quotes Jesus’ saying about putting new wine into new wine-skins.  The past is gone and the loss hurts and grief is necessary – but the past is gone.  Something new is happening, and the something new demands new ways of doing things, new structures and new systems.  It’s this forward focus that will bring the community of Kaiapoi through these dark days – and it will still be a community because of the efforts of those like Paul and Tracy who are building foundations of hope into people’s lives.

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Ali is Feeling Good…

Ok; this is a story that I wrote when I got bored with the sermon I was writing on 1 John 4:1-6.  Behind John’s instructions to his little churches in Asia there was a major problem going on with the (pre-)gnostic teachers; their very ‘spiritual’ approach to knowledge, and the consequent detachment of ethics from Jesus.  But just lecturing about all that seemed very dry, so I made the attempt to give those bones a little flesh.  Given the conflation of two distinct (but all too often related!) forms of abuse in the story, several in the congregation found it a very uncomfortable reading.  The question I asked at the end of the story was, “At what point did the pastor clearly leave the path?”  What do you think?

Enjoy!

Ali is feeling good,

and tomorrow is going to be even better.

She’s moved towns, successfully

shifted into the little sleep-out behind her elderly aunt’s house,

started her new job

and got through orientation week without any very embarrassing mistakes,

and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.

Sarah, the girl at work who’s been training her, had invited her to come

and Ali had leapt at the opportunity;

so much better than turning up alone!

 

Ali is feeling good because she hadn’t been sure she could do it;

all her life she’s been plagued by uncertainty;

unsure about her own abilities

and unable to completely trust people around her.

 

Perhaps it’s because her dad left when she was little,

or maybe it’s just her personality,

but trusting other people doesn’t come easily.

Nor does Ali trust herself so much.

Despite what everyone tells her,

she still blames herself for everything;

for her parents break-up,

for her older brother’s bad behaviour,

for her mother’s anxiety and stress,

 

There’s one person, however, she does trust, and that is Jesus.

Since she encountered him a few years ago,

since he’d made himself present to her

during that amazing midnight conversation with her best friend,

she’s known at the very centre of her being that she is loved,

and that she can absolutely trust Christ to stay with her always.

 

She has learned to pause,

to step back from whatever uncertainty she’s facing,

to slip within herself and to reach out to him,

and simply discovering, again and again, that he is always there for her,

that his love is unchanged,

that he is still who he claims to be,

has helped her to overcome her fears.

 

She had found herself more able to concentrate on schoolwork;

had done well enough to get good marks, and go on the training course,

and now, here she is,

a new graduate in a new job,

in a new town,

making new friends.

 

And all because Jesus loves her.

Ali is feeling good.

And tomorrow, she will find out about this new church.

 

Now it’s tomorrow, and Ali is facing an enormous table, loaded with food;

on her left, Mrs Rhees, (“Call me Esme, dear, there’s a love.”)

is piling potatoes and corned beef onto her plate,

and to her right, Mr Rhees, (“We just call him ‘The Major’, mostly”),

is telling her about his years in the territorials,

and promising that later, she should see his collection of old medals.

Opposite her is their middle-age daughter, Rosie,

and her husband, Paul, nodding and smiling

as they hear again the stories that are part of the family furniture.

And at the end of the table,

Pastor Austeer is spooning white sauce onto his mounded plate.

Ali thought he looked especially hungry;

not surprising after all the energy he had put into his preaching that morning.

She’s not used to sermons that go for more than fifteen minutes,

and this one had taken almost an hour

– but she’d barely noticed the time flying past,

he was so animated and engaging, and,

although she couldn’t remember much of what he’d said,

she remembered that it had been very interesting.

Not surprising that he is staring at his pile of pink beef

almost as though he’s about to dive into it teeth first.

His gaze suddenly lifts from his plate to her face,

and she feels slightly scorched by the intensity of his stare,

before he flicks his eyes away, and, taking Esme’s hand from beside him,

and her daughter’s with his other hand, leads them in a prayer of thanksgiving

– shorter than the sermon, thankfully – and they begin eating.

Conversation is general at first

– they chat about Rosie and Paul’s children,

and about a new business opening up in town,

and about Ali’s home and family

(“So few couples seem to hold together these days”, sniff Esme.

“I’d never know what to do if The Major, here, left me.”

“Leave you!” he replies. “And have to eat my own cooking!?

Not likely, love!”)

and then about her new job.

“How are you finding the work, Ali?” asks the pastor.

“Not too strenuous?”

“No, the work isn’t too hard at all – yet, anyway.

And Sarah’s a real help while I get used to everything.”

“Yes, lovely girl, isn’t she?”  says Esme.

“Such a pity she had to rush away afterwards and couldn’t join us.

You know her mother once helped me with that Drama we did…”

and the conversation moves on to the drama society politics,

and then on to local body politics,

and then turns to the sermon from that morning.

“I didn’t quite get it,” the Major is saying.

“What was that you were saying about the Spirit?”

“What God teaches,” replies the pastor,

“Is that we all have the Spirit,

and the Spirit gives us all truth,

and so we all have all truth.”

“I find that hard to get my head around,” comes the objection.

“If we have all truth, why are so many Christians so blinkin’ wrong!”

“Clearly,” comes the cool, quick answer,

“not all who claim to be Christian actually are.”

Across the table Ali notices Paul fidget uncomfortably for a second,

and then go still again.

the pastor continues,

“and though we can quickly see that some are false Christians

simply because they embrace error in their doctrine,

others among us merely need to learn how to hear the Spirit’s voice.”

“So you say I’ve already got all truth, but maybe I’m not listening to it?”

“We all have all truth,

but not all of us are able to hear every word of the Spirit.

It takes … practice … to learn to recognise that still, small voice.”

“How?” Ali is surprised to hear her own voice enter the conversation.

“I mean… sorry, I’m new.  How do you practice?”

Pastor Austeer considers her for a second as he dabs sauce from his lips,

and then says, “There are various spiritual exercises that help us to ‘tune in’.

Would you be interested in learning?”

“Ooh.  Say, ‘yes’, Ali, do!” says Esme.

“Rosie and I did this course, and it’s really interesting!”

“What does it involve?”

“Mostly conversation, and some guided meditations,” said the pastor.

“Don’t worry, nothing spooky.

It’s just a useful way of getting rid of stuff from the past

that might be blocking our spiritual ears.

I have some space in my schedule at the moment.

You’d want after hours time, right?”

“Well, yes, if it wouldn’t be a bother…”

“No bother at all.  It’s what I’m here to do and I’m glad to do it.

Would you like to meet on a Thursday?”

And just like that, Ali finds her life taking a new direction.

 

Her home life is flat and uneventful,

as she cooks and cares for herself in her little room,

seeing her aunt only as often as she needs to pay her rent.

Work was at first challenging and stimulating

then became more predictable and even tedious

as she quickly masters her tasks.

Most of her workmates are older than her,

other than Sarah,

but Sarah, while friendly, is deep in preparations for her wedding,

and lives for the weekends when her fiancé is in town.

With no other friends, and certainly no romantic relationships,

Ali finds an unending diet of wedding talk grating,

and is glad, on Thursdays, to walk home in a different direction,

and knock on the frosted glass door of the pastor’s study behind the church.

 

At their first meetings he’d greet her with a warm handshake,

and then seat her on a couch, provide her with a coffee,

and take up station behind his desk.

Once there he talked at length about ‘doctrine’.

He covered all sorts of topics;

the responsibility of Christians to tithe and to give,

the importance of strong fellowship and regular attendance at worship,

the necessity of showing the world how pure their faith was,

and the dangers of the world –

how the world could distract and confuse young believers,

and how the world must be rejected like a rotten apple;

good for nothing but compost.

Ali asked an occasional question,

or sometimes he asked her something,

but mostly she simply let his words wash over and around her,

like she was a rock in a stream of words.

It was sort of restful

and a little bit flattering that he should give her so much individual attention.

He talked a lot about obeying the Spirit;

he talked of how Saul had been so drenched in the Spirit

that he had lain naked and prophesied before Samuel,

but also how Saul had disobeyed Samuel, and been rejected by God.

He mentioned others, too:

Tamar who was moved by the Spirit to dress like a prostitute

and so gave Judah the children from whom Jesus was descended,

Ruth, who obeyed Naomi and uncovered Boaz’s ‘feet’

(She blushed when he explained that this was a euphemism)

and became the grandmother of King David,

and Solomon who sought nothing but God’s wisdom

and was rewarded with great wealth, many wives, and long-lasting peace

as well as world-renowned wisdom,

and how God had entered into the temple Solomon had built.

“And now YOU,” he declaimed, staring intently at her,

“are the temple of the Spirit into whom God has entered!”

He emphasised how God wanted nothing but the best for his children;

that was why he gave the Spirit!

He was fond of Jesus’ saying about fathers, who were evil,

knowing enough to give their children good things,

so surely God would give his children good things, too,

or, as Luke put it, surely the Father would give the Holy Spirit.

 

This led them to a discussion about fathers

and the first of those guided meditations he had mentioned.

He sat beside her on the couch,

asked her to close her eyes and relax,

and stepped her back, slowly, through her memories of her father.

Eventually, painfully, she opened her eyes to find them swimming with tears

that slowly trickled down her cheeks,

and she quickly looked down so that her hair fell forward to hide them,

but he reached out and, very gently, wiped one tear away,

then turned to his desk for a box of tissues,

and a small pamphlet with a meditation on God’s divine father hood.

Then, when she recovered a little, he simply said, “See you next week”

and let her out.

She felt that she floated home in a soft mist;

slightly cut off from the world around her by the release of that old sorrow,

and also strangely touched,

intensely aware of the feeling of his fingertip on her cheek.

Their next meeting, he greeted her as warmly as ever,

and moved his chair to sit in front of his desk as he spoke about God’s love,

and his command that we should love one another,

and how love was the greatest gift of the Spirit,

but he didn’t mention her tears,

and she was grateful for his sensitivity.

 

Each week she meets more members of the church,

and is always impressed by how they all call each other sister, or brother,

how they treat each other with obvious affection,

and how they could ask each other the most searching questions.

“Are you giving as you should be, brother?”

“Sister, how are you getting on with disciplining your Jacob, now?”

but The Major and Esme always make a special point of catching up with Ali,

and Esme always asks how the course is going.

“Are you hearing the Spirit, yet, dear?” she asks.

“I’m not sure – I mean, Jesus is always with me, I know,

and I love to stop and …I don’t know, just be with him, I guess, but…”

“No, no, dear, not Jesus – we’re talking about the Spirit!

Have you heard that still small voice, yet?”

and Ali blushes and mutters that she’s not sure.

Esme looks at her steadily,

and said, quietly, kindly, but very firmly, “You’ll know when you do.”

And then she looks around and asks, “Where’s Sarah, today?”

“Oh! She said she was going to go see her fiancé this weekend,

and that they were going to go to his church, this time.

She’s never been, and he’s been asking her so she said she would.”

Esme looks startled at this,

and turns to the Major, behind her.

Ali is surprised to see that he is frowning deeply,

but he says nothing to her, simply turning and walking away.

Esme hesitates a moment, looking as though she might say something,

but then just hurries after him herself.

 

At her next meeting with the Pastor, he greets her with a stiff hug;

he’d started to do this each Sunday,

and she’d noticed that many people greeted each other with a hug,

so thinks nothing of it,

and they continue as previously.

This time he starts by asking her if she has anything on her mind?

She hesitates, and he quickly says, “You look troubled…”

“Oh.  Well, it’s nothing really.

Just, Esme was asking last Sunday, could I hear the Spirit yet,

and, well, I’m not really sure…”

“Would you like to be more sure?”
“Well, yes!”

“Then sit down, here,” and he moves to sit beside her, again, on the couch.

“What you need to understand,” he says, in a low, earnest voice,

“is that the Spirit is not of this world,

and so the voice of the Spirit can seem quite strange.

Even odd.

And that is why our obedience is of the utmost importance.

If we waited until we understood everything

then we would never do anything.

we need to be ready to obey even before we understand,

no matter how odd the Spirit’s command might be.

Do you understand this?”

“Yes, yes, that makes sense.”

“And so, when you begin to hear the voice of the Spirit,

you must obey without hesitation.

You must not quench the Spirit!”

“No.”

“Sometimes, what the Spirit asks might even seem wrong,

but that is because we are infested by the lies of the world.”

Ali looks at him.  He seems to be waiting for some response from her.

“I’m …I’m sorry.  What do you mean?”

“Well, consider.  If the Spirit said to you to kiss someone,

not a member of your family.

To kiss a man.

What would your mother say?”

“Well …she’d say it was wrong.  It was … dangerous.”

“I think you said your mother …she’s not a Christian, is she?”

“No,” Ali admits, in a small voice.

“Then she’s from the world.

and “you are from God, and have conquered them;

for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world,

and the world listens to them.

6 We are from God.

Whoever knows God listens to us,

and whoever is not from God does not listen to us.

From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.[1]””

“That was the apostle John said that, wasn’t it?” Ali asks.

“Yes. Well recognized. From his first letter.

Do you read the Bible much?”

“Yes. Well, most nights.”

“So you know that Paul said that we are “ministers of a new covenant,

not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.[2]”?

“What did he mean?”

“Simply that we shouldn’t let the scriptures bind us, my dear.

It is the Spirit that gives life, not dead letters.”

“But, surely the Bible…”

“Oh, yes! The Bible is a voice of the Sprit, too

– it is the Bible, after all, that tells us to greet one another with a holy kiss,

despite what your worldly mother may think –

but it isn’t the only voice of the Spirit, nor even the most important.

The most important, is right… here.” and he lays a long finger on her chest,

above her suddenly thudding heart.

He lets it rest there a moment, as he gazes at her,

then returns his hand to his lap,

turns slightly away from her,

and looks into the distance.

“Shall we practice listening to the voice of the spirit, today, then?”

Ali becomes aware that she is barely breathing,

and says, in a whisper, “Yes,” without taking her eyes from him.

“And if you hear the Spirit speaking,

are you willing to obey him?

Are you willing to put aside the distractions of the world,

to reject the advice of the world

and obey only the Spirit?”

She nods, and he turns back to her, and smiles.

“Then relax,

and close your eyes,

and wait.”

 

Ali waits, and hears nothing except her heart beating,

and her breathing slowly returning to normal,

and when she opens her eyes again, after perhaps five minutes,

it is to see Pastor Austeer smiling at her.

“Don’t be disappointed if you heard nothing.

The voice of the Spirit comes as it wills

and no-one knows where it comes from.

Keep listening throughout the week,

and remember, Obey!

Even if it seems an odd thing – especially if it seems odd!

Even if just a little thing.

Don’t ask to understand; just obey.”

“Yes. Ok.”

He smiles again, and sees her to the door.

 

Throughout that week, Ali tries her hardest to listen for the voice of the Spirit.

She starts to notice lots of little thoughts running through her mind.

“Kick the cat,” is one, when a cat crosses the road in front of her.

She’s fairly sure that isn’t the voice of the Spirit.

When she is brushing her teeth one time, she thinks “Upside down.”

as she gazes at her toothpaste.

It isn’t upside down,

but she practices obedience anyway,

and turns it upside down.

Going home from work one day, she is waiting at the crossing,

and thinks “Go,” though there is a car coming.

She closes her eyes, gulps, and doesn’t go.

The car roars across in front of her

and she walks home in confusion.

If she had stepped in its path, would it have stopped?

Or is she meant to have been injured and hospitalised,

and maybe killed?
Is that God’s plan for her life?

What with her wondering, and her listening, and her confusion,

she is not as focused on her job as usual,

but she’s startled out of a fugue at her workstation on Wednesday,

by Sarah saying, “Ali. Ali! ALI!”

“Oh. Sorry, Sarah.  I was… daydreaming.”

Sarah grinned.

“You’ve got up to the bit about listening for the Spirit, haven’t you?”

“Yes! Is it obvious?”

“A little bit.  You should have seen Rosie when she did it.

It was a few years ago, now, and I was just a junior in the Youth Group,

but I remember her wandering around in a total daze!”

“Have you done the course?”

“No. I don’t know that it’s for me, you know?

I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done it,

and they say that he just talks to them a lot.

Well we get that on Sunday!

I’d rather do something in a group.

Like a Bible study.

Hey! Why don’t we start one?  You and me?”

“Ah, maybe.   I don’t think, right now, though –

I mean, I’d like to finish this course, first…”

Sarah rolls her eyes. “Alright, whatever.”
Ali feels herself flush.

It sounds like Sarah doesn’t like hearing Pastor Austeer talking!

“I just want to see if I can hear the voice of the Spirit.”

“Well, I guess if you hear the Spirit all the time,

like the pastor seems to,

then you wouldn’t really need to study anything, would you?

The Spirit gives life and the letter killeth, right?”

Ali’s jaw drops open.

“How did you know that he…”

“Did he say that to you?

Well, he does say it a bit.

Usually when someone else is quoting the Bible. “

Sarah grins.  “Anyway.  I still think a group is a cool idea.

I think I’ll talk about it to Esme and the Major.

They’ve invited me around this evening.”

And off Sarah goes, leaving Ali more confused than ever.

As she walks home that evening,

she strains her ears for the voice of the Spirit

and eventually, throwing open the door to her little room

she slumps onto her bed in disappointment,

and flops backwards onto the pillows.

“Oh, Jesus, help me.” She says to the presence in the quiet behind her eyes,

and suddenly, she feels completely at peace.

Without knowing how she knows, she knows that it is ok.

Jesus is still there for her,

despite her inability to hear this voice that the pastor talks about,

and Jesus will never leave her.

She turns her face to the pillow and sobs,

and the next day feels much better.

 

That afternoon, as she sits on the pastor’s couch once more,

she tells him about the cat

and she tells him about the car,

and she tells him about the toothpaste,

and she tells him about her prayer

and the immediate relief she had felt in Jesus’ presence.

She doesn’t tell him about Sarah, however;

she just doesn’t know how to say what she feels.

 

He is interested in everything she does say,

and most of all in the tooth-paste!

“That was excellent, Ali, excellent!

That was wonderful obedience!  Well done!”

“But the car…”

“Maybe that, too, was the voice of the Spirit.

Who knows what may have happened!

Certainly it was a test of your faith, Ali, wasn’t it?”

He looks at her so intently,

she feels her breathing hitch again, and whispers a “yes”.

Without taking his eyes from hers,

he pulls his seat up and sits directly in front of her

as she perches on the edge of the couch.

“Let’s try to hear the Spirit again, now, together.

No – keep your eyes open this time.

Listen – and obey.”

 

Ali listens,

and finds her mind beginning to fill with the many words spoken here,

washing around her;

“Love one another…”

“What they say is from the world…”

“A holy kiss..”

“The letter kills…”

 

And then, blazing to the forefront of her mind, the words, “Kiss Him!”

Her eyes drop from his to the thin lips beneath,

and then up again

as she replays those words in her mind

and hears again their insistence,

and so she obeys,

leaning into his kiss as he reaches out for her

and takes her into his arms.

 

That evening, as she prepares for bed,

and all the next day,

she feels like she is in a Rosie-like daze,

as she replays in her mind those few, fervent moments.

The pastor had confirmed that he, too had heard that command,

and that though it didn’t matter what the world thought

– they were free in their obedience to the Spirit –

it was best to avoid all appearance of evil,

and not put any stumbling blocks in the way of weaker brethren,

so not to mention it to anyone else just now.

Rather, wait, and see what the Spirit might command next time they met.

 

They see each other at church on Sunday, of course,

and Ali blushes slightly as he gives her a warm embrace,

and places a chaste peck upon her cheek.

He says nothing,

but she sees anticipation in his eyes

and spends most of the sermon wondering what, exactly

the Spirit might say when next they meet.

 

Afterwards, however, as she talks with the Rheeses,

her thoughts are turned in quite a different direction.

After asking about Rose, who is pregnant again,

Ali remembers that Sarah had been going to see them last week;

“How did your evening with Sarah go?

Did she tell you her idea about a Bible study?”

The major’s pleasant face turns thunderous again,

and he turns away, leaving Esme to answer;

“Well, yes, dear, she did,

but we don’t think it’s right.

You see, she doesn’t hear the Spirit.

Her Bible study would be quite wrong.

And besides; we can’t meet with someone who’s been dis-fellowshipped.”

“Dis… what?  Sorry, I don’t understand.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about.

I’m sure she’ll come around.

Pastor will explain it to you later this week.”
And that was all she would say on the subject.

 

Sarah wasn’t at church that day,

and throughout the following week,

Ali gets the impression that she is avoiding her at work.

Finally she finds her seated at her workstation,

doing data entry.

“ ‘Scuse me, Sarah.  Where does this account belong?”

Sarah takes a quick look at the file in Ali’s hand, mutters “Give it to Fiona,”

and turns back to her work.

“Sarah,” Ali tries again, “Is there something wrong?”

The previously bouncy bride-to-be glances up at Ali,

opens her mouth as though to say something,

then snaps it shut again.

With her lips pressed together in a thin line,

she turns back to her screen once more,

and shakes her head mutely.

Ali stands for a second, then, with a shrug,

returns to her own work.

There is a message waiting for her, there.

“Pastor Austeer says half an hour later this Thursday”.

She reads it, wonders, and then crumples it up.

No doubt he will explain when they meet.

But that meeting is starting to look very unlike the one she had anticipated.

 

As she walks up to the frosted glass door on Thursday,

it bursts open and an obviously unhappy Sarah steps out, sees her,

and swings around to walk back to the road across the neighbours’ lawn

rather than come past her.

As Ali stands gaping, she sees tears on her friend’s cheeks,

her complexion burning brightly beneath them,

as though she is deeply embarrassed – or overwhelmingly angry.

As she turns back to the door,

she sees the pastor there,

spots of colour on his cheeks, too.

He reaches out to embrace her,

but then drops his arms as she stiffens,

and simply stands aside and says, “Come in.”

Ali means to ask him about Sarah,

and what ‘dis-fellowshipped’ means,

but he raises the subject himself;

“Ali, does your work require you to talk much with Miss Massingham?”

“No. In fact, she won’t talk to me at all, now, if she can avoid me.”

“Ah. It would be best if you left her alone as much as you could, now.

Can you do that?”

“Well… yes, but why? What’s she done?

Is this what ‘disfellowshipped’ means?

Is this because of her Bible study idea?”

“No, Not because of the Bible study idea

– though that was obviously inappropriate –

but because she has chosen to walk, once again, in the ways of the world.”

“What’s she done?”

“She is pledged to keep fellowship with us, here,

but she has been attending meetings of false Christians

where they teach error and confusion.

She must not be double-minded,

and she will not commit to stay away from them in the future.

She is antichrist: “19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us;

for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.

But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

If I can quote John, again.

She has been avoiding you

because she was hoping to weasel her way back into our fellowship

by not breaking the rules of disfellowshipping.

And I suppose she may have been trying to protect you from any taint.

Has she succeeded, I wonder?

Are you ready and willing to obey the Spirit in this, Ali?”

 

Ali sags onto the couch, and squeezes her eyes shut,

feeling tears pricking behind her eyelids.

What is the Spirit saying?

As though reading her mind, the Pastor immediately quotes from Revelation;

15 ‘ “I wish that you were either cold or hot.

16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,

I am about to spit you out of my mouth. …

You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked…

21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne,

just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.’

22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying …”

Ali, you can conquer this,

you don’t have to be poor and blind,

you can sit on the throne with God!  With me!

Let me lead you.

Are you willing to obey, Ali? Are you?”

She feels him, kneeling in front of her, just inches away;

his hands upon her shoulders tremble slightly.

She’s terrified that if she opens her eyes,

she will see again the mouth that she kissed just a week ago.

In the dark privacy of her mind, she calls out as she had before,

“Oh, Jesus help me.”

And immediately opens her eyes to look directly into the face before her.

 

“I… I’m not sure what the Spirit is saying to me,

but… but I wonder – I don’t know – where is Jesus in this?”

“Jesus?”

“Well, yes.  He was always so kind when people came to him.

I… this… it just doesn’t feel like something he would do.”

“ Jesus! Jesus was just a man.

He died, abandoned by God.

It is the Spirit of Christ which matters.”

“Jesus doesn’t matter?”

“No. The Nazareth carpenter was just a disguise God used;

a suit of clothing that he no longer has any use for.

It is the Spirit not the flesh, that we must obey.

Will you listen to the Spirit, Ali?”

“But the Bible says…”

“Don’t get hung up on the dead letter!

It is the Spirit that counts.”

 

Ali reaches into her purse and draws out her little Bible,

opening it at the marked page with trembling fingers.

“I was reading what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago.

Just before he says that we are from God and they are from the world,

he says this:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit,

but test the spirits to see whether they are from God;

for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

2 By this you know the Spirit of God:

every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.””

 

“But the deadly letter…”

 

Ali stands up.  “I don’t know what Paul meant by the letter,

but I do know that the Spirit he’s talking about

is totally different to the one you’re serving!

I’ll stick with the spirit of Jesus if that’s ok.”

She turns in the doorway;

“Please say goodbye to Esme and the Major for me.  They were kind.”

and then she leaves.

 

Ali is feeling good,

and tomorrow is going to be even better.

She’s moved towns, successfully,

she’s doing well in her new job,

and she’s going to a new church tomorrow.

Sarah, the girl at work who trained her,

has asked her to be her bridesmaid at the wedding,

and Ali is glad for the opportunity.

 

 

[1]1 John 4, NRSV, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]2 Cor. 3:6

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I Wanna Be SUPER-CHRISTIAN! (Sermon for Advent, 4)

I wanna be Super-Christian!

I want to get up before dawn every morning without fail

and spend three hours in prayer and meditation!

I want to fast twice a week

without thinking once about my waist-line.

I want to be able to perform miracles of healing

and cast out demons,

and diagnose short legs and roots of bitterness

with a single glance of my compassionate eyes,

and then, with a mere gesture or a whispered word,

set people free from whatever it is that binds them.

I want to be so filled with faith that I never have a single doubt

and I never have to work again,

because all my needs are meet by God.

I want to be so free from materialism that I own nothing,

but can still give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

I want people to immediately think of me

when they’re asked what a great Christian looks like.

And I want to be so immensely humble

that I’m never aware of this mass adulation.

I want to be so good at evangelism

that I just have to walk into a room for everyone to be instantly converted.

I want to be able to read and remember a book of the Bible a day

and actually understand everything I read.

And everything I write

(or at least, everything my researchers write in my name)

becomes an instant best-seller.

And not just in Christian bookshops either.

I want this direct line to God,

so that I always know exactly what He wants me to do

and he always knows exactly what I want Him to do.

And he does it.

Because I’m such a fantastic Christian.

I wanna be Super Christian.

What a pity I’m just me.

And the Bible says this:

1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,

but do not have love,

I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2 And if I have prophetic powers,

and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,

and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,

but do not have love,

I am nothing.

3 If I give away all my possessions,

and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,

but do not have love,

I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient;

love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant5 or rude.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,

endures all things.

8 Love never ends.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;

as for tongues, they will cease;

as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;

10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child,

I reasoned like a child;

when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,

but then we will see face to face.

Now I know only in part;

then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;

and the greatest of these is love. [1]

According to the Bible, nothing else really matters apart from love.

Only love is eternal.

Hope and faith are right up there,

but hope is all about the future

and one day that future will arrive and we will need hope no more.

And faith is our trust in the one who we do not now see,

but one day we will see him face to face

and our faith will be taken up into adoration.

Faith and hope will one day be redundant,

but love…

love is eternal.

When Paul wrote those words to the Corinthians,

he was writing to a church where people saw themselves as super-Christians.

Earlier in this letter he said he was writing to them,

“so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another.

7 For who sees anything different in you?

What do you have that you did not receive?

And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!

Quite apart from us you have become kings!

Indeed, I wish that you had become kings,

so that we might be kings with you![2]

Paul can be really sarcastic when he wants to be.

To this church full of puffed-up people

who thought that the goal of Christianity is to become super-spiritual

he prescribes a radical change of direction.

It’s not about you, he writes, it’s about other people.

It doesn’t matter if you can speak in tongues or prophecy or move mountains;

what matters is how much you love.

It’s important to anchor Sunday morning sermon thoughts in reality,

so having your own personal examples of what Godly love looks like

is far better than having a few vague words from the pulpit.

So can we just pause for a few minutes

and talk amongst yourselves at your tables.

Ask each other this question:

“Who do I know

or what have I seen

that has shown me what real love is?

1 Corinthians 13 type love?”

Anybody want to share the example of Love they thought of?

Of course, Jesus is the greatest single example of love that we know of.

Paul points us towards him when he wrote to the Philippians:

2 If then there is any encouragement in Christ,

any consolation from love,

any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,

2 make my joy complete:

be of the same mind, having the same love,

being in full accord and of one mind.

(and here’s where he really begins to warm up…)

3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,

but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

4 Let each of you look not to your own interests,

but to the interests of others.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

8               he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

This passage is one of the most important Christmas passages in the Bible,

because it talks about Jesus’ birth in the same breath as Jesus’ death,

and it shows us that the birth, no less than the death,

was an act of humility and obedience and love on Jesus’ part.

By entering into creation with us;

by becoming one with the world he made

Jesus healed the division between creator and creation.

In his body He is the bridge between heaven and earth.

And in his embrace of creation,

his holding and enfolding of sinful humanity into the inner life of the Trinity,

he didn’t stop at the manger

but continued to the cross and the grave.

Manger scenes tend to be prettily painted and very sweet.

I’ve done that myself.

The danger is that we miss the amazing indecency of what actually happened!

There was the out-of-wedlock conception,

There was the long journey in the final days of pregnancy,

There was the inability to find a decent room,

and the agony of birth – amongst animals!

There was the use of a feed-trough as a cradle.

There was a frightened and jealous king

who slaughtered an entire village of baby boys,

and there was a frantic flight by night from the danger zone

and being a refugee in a foreign land.

Jesus birth wasn’t especially pretty or lovely.

It wasn’t even a standard first century birth;

It was awful.

It was a pointer to the death that was to follow.

When God chose to close the gap between us,

he didn’t just come to the good things and the good people;

he came to the lowest of the low – shepherds and tax-gatherers.

Foreign astrologers and village no-bodies.

And in becoming human, Jesus embraced sin, and pain, and sickness

– and death.

Even death on a cross.

It is because God has entered into the very worst of human evil

and has destroyed it from the inside

that we have hope today.

Jesus has kicked down the doors of death

and thrown open the gates of the grave.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name

that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and every tongue should confess

that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Christmas is the beginning of Easter

and Easter is the completion of Christmas.

The two holidays cannot be understood apart from one another.

This has obvious implications for us:

This means that Christmas is not all about getting stuff

but is all about giving to people.

Giving hope and forgiveness.

Giving respect, and care and attention and compassion;

those things that mean so much more than stocking-fillers

and make such an amazing difference in the lives of lost individuals.

Please turn again to those around you, or simply sit and ponder,

and  ask yourselves:

“what can I do this Christmas that will make a difference for someone else?”

(Close in prayer)


[1]The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

[2]NRSV, 1 Cor 4:6-8

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Christian Legalism

This collection of scriptures is intended for those who are being troubled by fellow believers who seek to make some aspect or other of Torah observance binding for all Christians.  The question of Torah (the Jewish Law) was an essential one for the first generation of Christians, and so we have many scriptures that address this question.  At that time the main question was one of circumcision, and the texts below reflect this.  Today the main questions seem to be about Sunday vs. Saturday worship, or subscribing to a specific view on gender roles. 

The important factor that we see clearly in the writings of the first Christians, which have come down to us as Holy Spirit-inspired scripture, is a significant de-valuation of Torah.  Not by any means a rejection of it – it is still God’s gift and a clear expression of the mind and will of God in its time – but the times have changed with the coming of Christ.  He has opened the door of the Kingdom, and instituted a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. 

This leads to two main messages in the New Testament about the law; one is that salvation does not come from doing the works of the law, and anybody who insists that works of the law are necessary to salvation is denying the work of Christ on the cross.  (Against those who argue that Jesus’ new covenant only changes the ‘ritual’ laws, but leaves the ‘ethical’ we have to say that the Bible itself makes no such distinction – as James notes in the excerpt below.)  The apostle Paul, especially, was particularly ferocious on this point, saying on many occasions that salvation is through faith in Christ only and that attempts to save ourselves through works of the law are self-defeating. 

The law remains, however, as an essential strand in all New Testament thinking.  It is frequently seen as a witness to Christ prior to the incarnation.  When Paul writes with specific instructions about how to behave as Christians, he will not only quote the law, but even say “the Law says…”!  The instructions of all the New Testament writers about how to live are clearly consistent with the spirit of the Jewish law, if not the letter.  So while the law can no longer be seen as having the power to save, it is obviously still important as a guide for how we should live.  So should we be obeying the letter of the law?

Obviously, no.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is seen in the teaching of Jesus.  In the first excerpt below, Jesus says clearly that the law will never pass away, “until all is accomplished”, and he says that he has come to “fulfil” the law.  “All things will be accomplished”, presumably, when Christ returns and God’s kingdom is established in its fullness in every human heart, making the law completely redundant.  But what does it mean that he will “fulfil” the law? Besides the prophetic aspect of the law, fulfilled by Christ, Jesus immediately shows what fulfilling the law means by quoting law – and then setting the letter of the law aside in favour of teaching that goes far beyond a literal application.  In some cases – murder and adultery – he raises the bar beyond mere behaviour to a question of attitude.  In another case (divorce) he makes the law much more stringent, effectively changing the words of Moses.  In a fourth instance (love of neighbour and hatred of enemies) he actually completely contradicts the law, saying that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbours!  Later, when the Pharisees point out that he and his disciples break the laws of the sabbath, or don’t perform ritual washing, or eat with (and actually touch!) religiously impure people, Jesus gives his critics very short shrift indeed.  Essentially he makes every law subordinate to the single law of love; and particularly, love of Him (Matt 12:1-8, Lk 7:36-50). 

Clearly, for Jesus and his disciples, fulfilling the law, and not abolishing it, is not the same as obeying its every word.  The law, in Jesus’ teaching and in that of the apostles, still carries persuasive moral force, but not as individual laws.  Rather, every law is considered in the light of Jesus Christ, and of his life and work, and in the light of the presenting situation.  Neither Apostles nor our Lord are anti-law, saying “ do whatever you like”.  They taught and lived to the highest standard of behaviour; it’s just that the highest standard is no longer a dead document, but a living person. 

Legalism has its attractions.  It gives a feeling of security; it can be easier to trust that I have ticked all the boxes when pleasing God is as simple as just performing a series of religious duties.  It makes things much simpler than trying to follow the living Lord Jesus amidst the complexities of real life, with real people. 

Legalism is also attractive to institutions because it provides an easy channel for power and control over one’s followers.  So while I have no difficulty with people choosing to follow any specific Biblical law, out of love for God and neighbour, I reject completely the trend to let some Christian leader tell us that we are only saved if we behave in certain ways.  The Bible is clear; we are saved because of our faith in Christ and because of his loving sacrifice for us.  Nothing else. 

Matthew 5 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you…

22 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

Acts 15 5 But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

22 Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leaders among the brothers, 23 with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. 24 Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, 25 we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

 

Romans 8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

10 …. 2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

13 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 

 Galatians 52 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4 You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10 I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

6 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

 

1 Corinthians 919 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

 

Ephesians 211 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

 

Phillipians 3 2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh— 4 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

 

Colossians 2 6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

 

Titus 3 9 But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.

 

Hebrews 7 18 There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual 19 (for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.

 

James 125 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

 2 8 You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. [1]


[1]All Scriptures from: The New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1989.

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On Being Sensory and why I don’t ‘hug’ online.

So I was walking home for lunch, and had to slow my stride to a dawdle in order to take in the luminous magenta paintwork on a car, standing out from all the whites and greys and dark greens around it like a red rose in a blue sky.  And as I drifted closer to this intense colour experience, the Roast Station in the food-court called out to me with all the richness of it’s many-flavoured meaty menus.  I paused to drink it in.  Then on I went around the corner where a fresh, sharp wind slapped my office-heating-flushed face alive and made me blink away tears.  It was a concatenation of arresting experiences, one after the other.

I love being alive to these unsophisticated, everyday pleasures.  I love the thrill such simple things give me.  They aren’t particularly meaningful, but they are immediate, unexpected, delights.

But when I was trying to write the title to this post, I struggled for words.  ‘Sensuous’?  ‘Sensual’?  Both words mean what I want to say, but they have become entangled – mostly, I think, due to advertising – with the erotic.  And there’s nothing wrong with eros.  The sensory pleasure of an erotic moment is right up there with the whiff of Richie’s Roasts.  But there’s so much more to being sensuous than sex.  Sex must, inevitably, have some societal sanctions attached to it.  Those sanctions, in our changing society, have become a battleground for competing world-views, and so much truth about sex is forgotten as we wage our ‘culture wars’ that other concepts, like sensuousness, are dragged down with it.  Now it seems like sex is the only sort of sensuous pleasure we still talk about.  And maybe chocolate.

What a pity.

Sensory pleasures, like the ones I described above, are so rich, so free, so easy to access and share, that they should be celebrated much more often.  But we lack the language.  Not just the words, but the very concept.  We need to relearn how to immerse ourselves into the goodness of creation around us.  We need to come alive again to the value of what we hear away from the jangle and clatter of industrial life, and what we feel beyond our protective fabrics, and what we smell and see and taste.  We are bodily beings and that’s something to celebrate!

And that’s why I refuse to ‘hug’ over the internet.  Internet interactions are great for the cerebral, but pathetic for what is fully human.   This morning on social media one of my acquaintance reposted a banner that said she needed a hug, and I could ‘hug’ her by reposting the banner.  I get that she’s lonely.  I get that being single she’s not getting anywhere near the physical affirmation I enjoy myself, immersed as I am in an affectionate family.  But I also get that reposting that banner will do practically nothing about that.  The initial author of the banner might be gratified by multitudinous repostings, and my acquaintance might (did) get some positive written responses, but did she get hugged?  No.  A hug is wonderful.  When my son or daughter wraps their arms around me and squeezes and holds me, I know I’m being loved.  It’s a bodily thing.

I don’t want us to stop expressing our regard for one another in non-physical forums, but nor do I want us to delude ourselves into thinking we can be human if we cut ourselves off from our bodily experiences.  In an increasingly touch-phobic/techno-centred society (see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/young-people-japan-stopped-having-sex) we need more touching, not less.  We need to be more sensory, not less.  And we need to listen to and understand what our own senses tell us about what is good, what is enough, what is too much, and what is not enough.

'Far Away' XKCD comic by Randal Munroe

This isn’t saying that we should be dominated or controlled by our senses.  We can – and sometimes must – consciously endure sensory unpleasantness for greater goals; I need to defer my sexual desires out of respect for others.  I need to pass by the sweet-smelling fruit on the grocers stall and not just help myself.  I need to suffer the physical pain of a needle prick in order to give blood.  These are not pleasant sensations – but they are easily bearable given the vast range of pleasant sensory experiences I enjoy elsewhere.  Yes, we are far more than sensory, but we are certainly no less than, and enjoying sensory experiences in no way means that we lose control of our actions.  Let’s not expect ourselves, or those around us, to live in a state of sensory deprivation.  Let’s touch one another, and shower sensory blessings upon each other; give gifts of fragrant flowers, soft cloths, rich foods, and luminous colour.

Maybe then, when we acknowledge and enjoy the full range of positive sensory experience that is available to us every day, we will be less overwhelmed by the porn/violence/gluttony industries.

Go on, be a world-changer.  Really hug someone you love today.

 

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