BIBLICAL SURMISING - CARESS AND COLLIDE

HOW BAD DOES YOUR THEOLOGY HAVE TO BE...

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How bad does your theology have to get before it negates the saving work of Jesus and the amazing grace of God?

What a great question.

Over the years I have become increasingly uneasy with the Theologist, that is the theological version of the racist or the sectarian. Those who would look upon someone else as something less because they judge that their theology is suspect and treat them dismissively as a result. 

From such a faulty system I had been told to dismiss fellow Christians as “dodgy” or “liberal”. Finally meeting many of those those who had been condemned as significantly less I discovered men and women, passionate for Christ and full of the spirit of God. 

Jesus never said, “By their theology you will know them”. Instead he spoke of love of one another and a oneness among his followers. These indeed would be the things that would be a witness to the world.

Shunning or casting out followers of Jesus because their theology does not meet the accuracy of your own theological mathematical formulas seems an antithesis of what Jesus was urging.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that theology is not important. Indeed I would be so bold to say that this blog is theological. I have come to believe though that over prioritising theology leads to theological error.

It was a friend who told me about a Mission Conference that he had been at. Mother Theresa was featured in the content but some were chatting about how she wouldn’t make the cut. Catholic! Universalist?

The next morning at breakfast my friend was sitting with an Anglican vicar from India. So he asked him what he thought of the judgement of Mother Theresa. “How bad does your theology have to be before it overcomes the grace of God?”

Lovely! 


DISCIPLESHIP? TALKING TO... OR WALKING AWAY FROM PROSTITUTES

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Away back in 1994 I was forced by an IRA bomb to live in an apartment block in Belfast city centre. I had no TV nor did I need one. From the window I could see the drug lift there, the prostitute rendezvous there. 

One morning I almost stepped over the night girls on my way to my office that was temporarily in the the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings. I moved quickly, no eyes connecting. And as I walked away I thought that that was a good Presbyterian boy. 

I had no more thought that when I was quickly drawn back to the Gospels. Jesus did not walk over prostitutes and scamper off all self righteous to Church headquarters. Quite the opposite. Jesus was comfortable in the presence of prostitutes. 

He would have sat down on the front step of our apartment and chatted with them. They always seemed drawn to his grace. 

It was bad not good discipleship that sent me off to some ivory tower with the inability to reach out to these women that God loves. I started asking why all those conferences and and books about discipleship hadn’t taught me how to talk to prostitutes?.

Of course had I sat with these ladies and done the Jesus thing I would have been looked on with some suspicion. My reputation might have been a tarnished (or even more tarnished than it is!!!). 

How far we have gone from following Jesus to following some middle class behavioural code that we erroneously call Christian?


IS CHRISTIANITY CRAP? CHARLIE MACKESY PREACHES...

Crap Tuna Tins

I love Charlie Mackesy. Oh his book of illustrations and succinct wise quotations, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, for sure BUT what I really have grown to love are his sermons for Alpha! He’s an amateur preacher and all the better for it. His understand and passion for the grace of God is refreshing as is his disdain for the negative characteristics of the Church.

Mackesy has a profound belief in a Jesus that he is quick to declare was kept from him by a judgemental Church that screamed STOP STOP STOP and laid upon people guilt and shame, instead of love.

Mackesy has a simple but profound illustration. Once, while in Romania, he was offered some tuna. Outside the tin was the word CRAP. Mackesy rightfully says that the outside would put you off and as a result you might miss the glorious wonder of the taste inside.

The Church is Jesus worst PR! It seems to have been for a long time. I say that as someone who has committed his life to that Church but also as a follower of Jesus who cannot contradict the case against it.

I have become too aware of this in books and film recently. 

Kenneth Branagh has the guldering (loud angry shouting) of the preacher. It does not have a positive effect on the young Brannagh. It causes him sleepless nights and the inclusion of the this scene in his autobiographical movie suggest a long term barrier to God.

I was watching Belfast while I was reading Jan Carson’s novel The Raptures about Church in rural Northern Ireland. Again, throughout the novel, CRAP seems written all around the Church. Oh it is not all bad but neither does it draw you, welcome you or embrace you with love.

Sadly, it is not just in film and novel that CRAP is branded across the Church. A friend, whose faith in Jesus is stronger than her faith in Church, told me recently that at her very own father’s funeral she was approached and told that her dad would love it if she repented and returned to Church. Yes, read that sentence again. At a time of grief, instead of hug she got a pointed finger! That has CRAP written all around it.  

Another friend while speaking to an American College group said, “My Christian journey almost robbed me of the wonder of my humanity.” How can those who follow Jesus who spoke about bringing humanity in all its fulness have gotten it so wrong as to steal someone’s humanity.

We are in a world where everyone around us is looking for love, forgiveness, a welcome and a belonging. Jesus life gives us an invitation to all of those in abundance. Roman Centurions, Samaritan women, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers and outcasts. None of them are made feel guilt or shame, just utter love and transformation. 

This is the amazing grace inside a tin with CRAP on the outside. 

It reminds me of The Proclaimers song The Light where again faith is a wonderful thing but for some bizarre reason Christians get the PR wrong:

 

But I can't put my faith in

(Your words)

Your words and demands

(I believe)

I believe in God alright

It's folk like you I just can't stand

 

In his best selling book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller wrote about how at University the Christians set up little Confessional booths all over the Campus on the most hedonist night of the year. When people went in expecting self righteous peers to listen to their sins, the Christians confessed the errors of Christianity instead!

As a minister in the Church I am happy to, if sorrowful that I have to, confess our failings. In the secular world we live in Jesus is for me the way and the truth and the life. Jesus came to bring us amaz and life in all its fulness. We need to stop hiding that behind a banner that says CRAP!

Charlie Mackesy shows slides of his garden. To get in you need to get through a gate that says BEWARE OF THE DOG. It could be frightening. Once inside if you look around you will see a bronze sculpture. Near hidden in the briars of his garden, it is the Prodigal Son being embraced by his Father, Mackesy says that it is the great truth that we are loved unconditionally  in a world that is messy.

Preach it Charlie… and those of us in the Church too.


WOE (TO US) WHO ARE RICH

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“The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German 

Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon 

And during communion I study the people 

Threading themselves through the eye of the needle”

               - The Divine Comedy

 

The Divine Comedy have a Greatest Hits out at the moment and this their sharpest prophet strike at modern day Christendom is sadly missing. 

This line is a depth charge that explodes deep in every Church across the developed world. Divine Comedy mailman Neil Hannon was son of Anglican Bishop, Brian Hannon. Neil would have found many Church curiosities to surmise in his late agnostic teens.

This one is so accurate it is frightening. Indeed every time `I preach about money or wealth in Fitzroy I find it truly scary. A number of years ago I was preaching on Jesus’ Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man and I almost froze when I sensed the weightiness of the words in a church full of wealthy people.  

When I say wealthy, I do not mean rich. We are middle class with many leaning to the high end of that but every one of us are rich in real terms. This is the richest generation in the history of the world. What Jesus says about wealth speaks into our every ambition and decision. We are those that Neil Hannon watches at communion. There at the cross of a poor man we are trying to drag our material blessings with us through the eye of that needle that the crucified man spoke about.

This is THE issue for discipleship in my generation. Yet, we have prioritised sexual purity and correct theology and ignored the spiritual elephant in the room.

Mary sang of God: 

 

“He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.”

 

It was there long before Mary. The Old Testament prophets were regularly pointing out the “German cars” of their day. Amos:

 

“You levy a straw tax on the poor
    and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.”

 

In the text I preached in Fitzroy last Sunday Jesus is at it again:

 

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.

Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.”

 

Oh my…

So what are we going to do. Give our tithe and a wee bit more for missions and the homeless? That is all good and I would encourage it BUT I am thinking God is looking for more than charity. 

Give bigger sums of money and go out and volunteer to build schools and houses. Again, that is all good and I would encourage it BUT I am thinking God is looking for more than development.

God wants revolution. He doesn’t want us just to help poor people. He wants to eradicate poverty. There is no poverty in heaven and Jesus asked us to pray “on earth, as it is in heaven”.

This is the craziness, the upside-downess of the Kingdom. Money and wealth are the most serious of all things in the Kingdom and in our discipleship. 

I’ll close by declaring that in all our desire to follow Jesus, and I hope I can use the word desire, we need to be aware that the biggest obstacle to that following by far is that we are the wealthiest generation that ever lived. That makes it much harder than it was in Jesus day or any era since!


THAT WAS THE RIVER, THIS IS THE SEA - THE SEISMIC SHIFT OF JESUS BIRTH

That Was The River

This year’s Advent threw up theological ideas that opened up flickering ideas I have had down the years. I find that happens. Surmises on the fringes are given a more central place in a coming to clarity.

I was very taken this Christmas at the different perspective that God becoming incarnate, in the baby Jesus, gives us of God. I heard a sermon that left me quite cold. Oh it was sound in a rattling out cliches that ticked some theological bingo card phrases. As I unpacked it I realised that I was uneasy by how distant God felt during it.

The words used were all a little too Old Testament. I felt like Isaiah in the Temple as recorded in Isaiah chapter 6. I was made feel not so much in awe as frightened to be in the presence of this God. Like Isaiah I felt - ruined. 

In its juxtaposition around Christmas I realised that the baby in the manger is a different perspective on all of this. God is no longer distant. His transcendence becomes immanence to shepherds and mystical star gazers. God’s behind the veil privacy becomes intimacy to a teenager girl…. and in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus to us all! As I wrote almost 30 years ago, before Pope Francis seemed to steal it this past week, God is now close enough to whisper. 

For me the birth of Jesus is a seismic shift in God’s dealings with humanity and in the human understanding of God and how we then should live. 

In my Boxing Day (St. Stephen’s Day) sermon I was reaching to find a phrase to explain this shift. Oh the Old Testament is not over and ripped up as an early Church heretic called Marcion suggested BUT this year more than any other I was acutely aware of the shift. How can I articulate it? In the sermon I failed to find a phrase.

The next day I was listening to one of my Christmas gifts and there it was. Old words, familiar but handing me the keys to my surmise:

 

“That was the river

This is the sea”

 

I am listening to the 1989 incarnation of The Waterboys all fiddles, accordions and bodrans instead of their 1985 big music that first gave us This Is The Sea. Perhaps it’s the more mystical trad sound of 1989 but as I sang along my soul smiled. That’s it. I found it! The best description of the watershed between the Old and New Testament. 

The 39 books of the Jewish Scriptures is like the river. As Paul wrote in his letter to Galatians (v 23-25) about this watershed: 

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 

Brilliant. This guardian, Paul talks about, is like the banks of a river, holding us in until maturity comes in Jesus and eventually the Holy Spirit’s indwelling post Pentecost. From Jesus arrival, the banks are no longer needed. So we flow out of that great river of Old Testament salvation history into the sea of its New Testament fulfilment.

God comes across in a different space, reconciliation is a done deal when Christ’s cross rips the veil of the Temple in two. Jesus teaches us that a fulfilment of the law is the same water as the Old Testament river but it takes a different grace centred, law nailed to the tree, persona, behaviour and outworking. 

The invitation to follow Jesus is like being invited into the sea. The truth, now flesh and blood, sets us free. Life in all its fulness is never possible when we row back up the river to live like children under a pedagogue. 

Religion always prefers the control, the pharisaical rules and regulations of the river and strict judgmental teacher. Religion is frightened of freedom. Religion prefers the God at a distance to be appeased still by right rules.

The sea is the same but fulfilled, the same but matured, the same but almost altogether different as a human being’s relationship changes to his or her nursery teacher. The teacher was there. The teacher is not contradicted. Yet life in the sea no longer needs. The flesh and blood truth of the baby in straw has set us free.

So, for me, 2022 will be a study of other ways this seismic shift changes the spiritual life. How following Jesus out in the sea differs from that old constricted life on the river and where we have dangerously allowed ourselves to get swept back unto safety by the theologically immature who tempt us to be less than we are (Just like Eden) with words that sound so sound but are confined by the banks of that old river.

I hope to share these surmises here on Soul Surmise as well as in Sunday sermons!


WHY WE GO TO CHURCH? - TO GET REALIGNED

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The most important thing about the Sunday service is not the sermon… or the hymns… or the prayers… or the Bible Reading… or the offering… or fellowship together.

The Sunday morning worship service is a realignment.

All week long we are pushed and pulled out of alignment. For six days the human race continue the great error of Eden. We reach to be more than human. We are tempted to be gods. We want to be in charge. We know as much as God knows. As in Eden such actions lead to becoming less than human and we dehumanise others in our wake. 

All Sunday worship services, no matter how boring and no matter how dull the preacher, is God’s resource to realign.

We offer up worship to God, giving God Lordship over all that he has designed and crafted but also sustains. This is not a oppressive Lordship. God does not dehumanise us for his own self centred ego. Indeed, God has “de-divined” himself to become human and even dehumanised himself to death on an inhumane cross.

No, God as Lord is for our best. When Jesus offers us life in all its fulness he is offering us the full potential of the life that he gave us. With God as Lord and we as the stewards of creation we live out our human vocation and there will find the deep gladness of realignment. 

Psalm 8 tells us who God is and why he looks at us twice. It points out our role in creation as stewards over animals, birds and sea creatures. 

When we are better aligned we always begin by looking to God who knows how, why and what we were made for. With God in place we can then look down from where we are and treat the world with the care and compassion of God, as seen in Jesus.

So no matter whether we like the worship, or whether we think the preacher is Biblical and relevant, being part of a worship service is enough. It realigns and the more Sundays we go without that realignment… well there is a reason God made it weekly! 


THE DEVIL PRESSING RED LIGHTS TO GET ME MAD... OR...

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If I had a chance to write a chapter to add on to CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters it would be about how The Devil sending his evil minions to mess up my driving.

And there they are at every junction. I look left and there is a trail of cars. There is nothing coming to the right. BUT… just when the line on the left is passed and nothing more is coming a demon presses GO and the cars start arriving from the right… and on it goes.

Or at traffic lights. I can drive the two miles to Fitzroy and have every red light, even the ones for pedestrians. And if the demon is on form then the light changes just as I might get through it. When you are light for a meeting… oh my. The rage!

A little while ago I was particularly bothered and enraged, shouting at demons and angels and God. I needed a last light to be red in order to make a meeting on time and a demon pressed red. Aggghhhh!

As I sat there watching all the traffic that could move I started asking how they were more important than me… and that was when I had a spiritual eureka moment.

They were at least as important to me. They had meetings to be at too. They had schedules. They might be even later than me.

The car is a wonderful symbol of our ego-centred bubble. In the car we are the only ones. It is all about where we are going and we have no connection or sensitivity to the others on the road. We are centre. We are the only ones that matter. Our destination is priority.

Stopped at those traffic lights I suddenly realised that other people needed me to stop at the lights so that they could get to their destination. Others needed me to give way. Everybody else has the right tone on time at their meeting. 

Suddenly the other cars were not demonic minions simply to get in my way and annoy my day. Those in other cars were equally precious human beings. 

When Jesus asked me to deny myself and take up my cross daily to follow him it was for times like these. It was practical humble service for others. It was to rid me of my selfishness and make me more Jesus-like.

It is the fruit of the Spirit in my car. It is love and kindness and gentleness and forbearance and goodness and indeed self control. 

Not so much Screwtape Letters as How Then Should We Live!

 


GOD LOVES HUMAN BEINGS - THE CARESS AND COLLIDE

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For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

             - John 3:16

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

               - Romans 5:8

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

                - 1 John 3:16

 

God loves human beings. 

Humans haven’t made it easy for God. The early chapters of the Bible tel us of humanity wanting to be like gods themselves. Alas, when the reached to become more than human we ended up being less than the full humanity God designed for us. Alienated from God, each other and the entire creation. 

Even when humans caused enmity with God, God never stopped loving humans. The verses at the top of this blog tell us of such love. The Bible is riddled with such truth. It is a New Testament mantra.

It is a wonderful spiritual caress to know that God loves us. As we are actually. His grace is unmerited favour. Isaiah’s experience in the Temple (Isaiah 6) reveals that. Isaiah finds himself before a holy God and feels ruined without hope BUT God moves before Isaiah can. God acts and takes away his guilt.

God loves human beings. 

That theological truth has consequences for us that might add a collide to the caress. It demands action. Action that could be costly and difficult.

They say that a nation’s humanity can be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable. Those most vulnerable are those made in God’s image. God loves them. It is that love that inspired Jesus to teach us to feed them, give them water, shelter, visit them. Anything less is disobedience. It is all driven by our theology of humanity

At one of Fitzroy’s recent Prayer Meetings a prayer led me to wonder if a nation can also be judged by how they care and love their enemies. If we dehumanise the other whoever the other is in our particular eyes then we are out of sync with the heart of God.

This is why Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

A huge chunk of God's holiness, his otherness, is that he loves his enemies. A test of our growth in holiness must surely be linked to how much we are learning to love the other. 

God loves humans. It is an amazing truth. It caresses and collides.


FOLLOW ME - TWO WORDS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

Stocki Book 2

 

“Follow me” - Jesus

Two words. The most important words. My life shifted on those two words.

As a 17 year old I concluded after 10 years of atheist activism that God existed and Jesus was who he said he was. I’ll be honest. I was a little surprised. It was quite a turn around. Yet, it was like a door opening, full of possibility.

I came to Jesus via The Beatles. From 15 to 17 I was up to my soul with The Beatles. In my adolescent exploration of what life was all about The Beatles were asking questions about life and love and how to change the world. 

They set my life up… but they didn’t really follow through. As Christian singer, Larry Norman, who played his own part in my life’s turn around sang, “The Beatles said All You Need Is Love/and then they broke up.” 

Jesus. His life. His teaching. The mystery of his continued presence. This seemed a little more robust than anyone or anything else.

Jesus words, for me, was an invitation into life. Later, much later, my favourite verse would echo my birthday, John 10:10, I have come that you might have life in all its fulness.” That is what I was looking for when I responded to Jesus’ “Follow me”.

There’s a Northern Ireland formula for getting right with God. Fear of hell. Deep sense of guilt. A repentance from world things. A heavy leaning on the blood of the cross of Jesus.

Oh they were all tangled in to the prayerful conversation that God and I had late at night on Saturday May 17th 1979 but it was not some humiliated sinner on his knees before a terrifying God. I was  a very excited teenager who grabbed God grace gifted opportunity to live life. My knees were bent with the exhilaration of readiness to jump into a whole new world. I was turned around and reborn.

Jesus, for me, was cooler than John Lennon. “Love your neighbour as yourself”, Blessed are the meek” and “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Even “Love your enemies”. I grew up in Northern Ireland. Wow! These were better refrains than “All You Need Is Love”, “You say you want a revolution” and “Give Peace A Chance”. 

The parables and poetry and imaginative possibilities of the Gospel stories opened up a hope of transformation for me. Jesus could change my world. He could also change the big world and, as I saw it, the world needed changed. What he taught and how he lived. That was what I wanted to do. 

This God who became human and drew in the marginalised with the deepest love, who took on the injustice of the world by sacrificing his life on a cross before being resurrected from the dead. I have never found a better road map for being human.

“Follow me…” 

The thrill of it. The challenge of it.


SURMISING IF NOT DOING THE RIGHT THING CAN BE THE RIGHT THING

Love and Law

- What you did was wrong

- I know

- Why did you do it then

- Because it is right

 

These might be the words that Rahab might have said when she lied about those Israelite spies in Jericho.

Or could they be said, at various stages in the Old Testament Book of Ruth, where a family go against law and tradition in moving to Moab, marrying Moabites and bringing the Moabite Ruth back to Israel.

Or maybe when Jesus was healing on sabbaths and the Pharisees were holding him to what was right and Jesus knowing he was wrong did what was right! You wouldn’t have your animals in pain on a sabbath he probed.

In all these situations what was right in law and tradition was over turned by what was right in loving, being gracious and kind.

I have been increasingly intrigued by this this conversation between law We often seem caught into an erroneous idea that law is the power that defines love. 

Not so said Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

So the law hangs on the love not the other way around. We would do really well to get that right.

Oh… the opening quotation is from the TV detective show Luther. Maybe well named. Wasn’t it Luther who realised that love was more important than law too!