Category Archives: Jesus

Homophobia, religion and a radical alternative

Pink TriangleBBC News is debating an increase in homophobic violence on Britain’s streets. The story includes a comment by Michael Cashman MEP.

Cashman played one of TV’s first gay characters when he appeared as Colin in EastEnders in 1986. He’s quoted as saying that homophobia is being reinforced by faith schools:

“Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they’re not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous.”

Religion makes the news for all the wrong reasons: sectarian violence; hatred; war; in-fighting about gender roles; arguments about the “correct” biblical view of sexuality. You name it, religion seems to have had an unhelpful influence on it.

If you’re reading this thinking “religion’s bad and wrong”, then: Shock! Horror! – I’m very tempted to agree. You can take your dead end Sunday mornings, doing your duty by turning up to a draughty old building while your heart deadens within you, and you can – well, you can do whatever you like with them. But… (there had to be a but, didn’t there?) I don’t believe that’s what  the christian faith is about.

So what is it about? Forget the rules. Forget the religion. My faith is grounded in a relationship with a person. A person who’s an example of how to live right. A role model who offers me a way into “a rich and satisfying life.” Someone who knows me – who really knows me – and who chooses to love me anyway. Someone who has the authority – and chooses to use it –  to forgive me my biggest mistakes. Someone who keeps on giving me second chances. Someone who frees me to get up, brush myself down, and try to do better next time.

The person in Jesus.

Christians get a lot of stuff wrong, and unfortunately having a faith doesn’t prevent that. I’d say, unscientifically, that Christians mess up at least as much as (and possibly more than) other people. But the stuff-ups are our doing. They represent what’s wrong with us, not something wrong with Jesus. They’re the reason we need Jesus in the first place.

And what does this Jesus guy have to say about homophobia? Easy. He tells me it’s simple: “Love others as well as you love yourself.”

Does this sound compatible with homophobia? No.

Does it sound compatible with loving and accepting people for who they are? Yes.

Does that mean everyone (me or anyone else) always gets it right? No.  But as I’ve said, our stuff-ups are our doing, something wrong with us, not something wrong with Jesus.

The idea that “anaesthetised hatred” might be taught to our young people in the name of faith schooling is both frightening and contrary to Jesus’ way. Hatred, anaesthetised or otherwise, must very clearly be off the educational menu. But are faith schools really to be singled out for any failures here?I’m not sure. OFSTED recently published its report on faith based schools, considering whether the Regulations governing their operation are fit for purpose. The report comments on how schools nurture citizenship and community involvement in their students. According to the report, faith schools seem to be succeeding in culturally relevant education of their students:

“The provision made by all the schools visited to develop their pupils’ spiritual, moral,social and cultural understanding was at least good [and schools desired to promote] their pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and to live successfully in modern Britain.”

It seems to me that the presence or otherwise of homophobic violence on our streets is far wider than one of the teaching in faith schools. We need to look wider. How do we as a country, a society, a local community and as individuals behave towards people who are “other”? And how do we teach our children to approach “otherness”? Other faiths, other nationalities, other ethnicities, other political views, other sexual orientations… Maybe our terribly trendy liberalism (“you can do what you like; I can do what I like; just don’t threaten my space and I’ll stay out of yours”) isn’t working.

Jesus once told a story about who we should consider to be our neighbours, called the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus scandalised his listeners by casting a Samaritan man, a social outcast, as hero. The Samaritan disregarded cultural norms to help a fellow traveller (who probably wouldn’t normally have accepted) while religious leaders and pillars of the community preferred to steer clear.

I think the message is simple. We need to engage, not to disengage, with things that challenge us. When I next come across something or someone that’s different to my little world, my challenge for myself is to answer question: “This is my neighbour. How can I love this person better?”. I invite you to join me.

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Bono & God

bonoThe spirituality of U2 in general and Bono in particular has hit the news a few times. If you regularly fill a pew somewhere, it’s quite likely that you heard about it in church, but if you don’t do church it’s quite possible you haven’t heard that Bono has a “God thing” going on.

Why is that? Maybe people simply aren’t interested in whether celebrities believes in God. But I don’t think so. You only have to look as far as Jade Goody to find tabloid media interest in a celebrity’s faith journey. Instead, I think it’s just that we’re happy to read cliched, non-threatening accounts of belief, but we don’t want to be challenged. Many of us had childhood experiences that led to us thinking of religion as boring and untrue. Maybe you remember them too: old, cold churches half empty and devoid of the young; sermons delivering a tired message and  dirge-like music from another century.

As adults, we like to have recourse to some sort of comfort in hard times, so we’re vaguely encouraged by stories like Jade’s that God was there for her. Often we tolerate “traditional” church events and expressions of belief – christenings, weddings, funerals –  as part of the furniture of our lives. We’re used to them; they wash over us; and we take comfort in their familiarity whilst ignoring the irrelevancies.

Bono doesn’t fit that mould, though. We can’t write off his beliefs as a “crutch” in the way we might have been tempted to for Jade Goody, or as a matter of habit. It’s not obvious why Bono would need God. He seems already to have it made based on modern society’s criteria for success and happiness. And yet he has a faith. If you doubt it, have a look at this:

I first heard that about Bono when I was pretty anti-God. I started to read about it a little. I couldn’t understand how I’d missed the theme in U2’s lyrics. More than that, I couldn’t understand how this guy, whose language was as bad (ok, maybe not quite) as mine, and who had a hugely successful, mainstream, rock’n’roll career, could possibly conform to my image of “nice, good, christian”. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t have the hugely annoying smugness I so often identified in christians. There was an authenticity about him. It was a massive challenge.

More than that, it had motivated him to do things.

To me, Jesus was a fairy story. He was a man with beard, long flowing hair, white robe, standing in the sun with a lamb clutched under his arm. Yet here was one of the worlds biggest rock stars, ill shaven, intermittently ill-behaved and with nothing to prove to anyone taking on the world’s superpowers to campaign for the eradication of third world debt. And he did it all with reference to  a God who was in amongst, and who loved the dirty and the broken. Who wanted justice and transformation for them. How could my preconceptions of God and my judgment of christians stand up to a God described like this:

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them. “If you remove the yolk from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom with become like midday and the Lord will continually guide you and satisfy your desire in scorched places”. – Bono, Annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, Feb 2006

Last Sunday, Bono wrote a piece in the New York Times. You can read it  here. The jury seems to be out on whether he’s any good as a columnist, but I liked it. I think it’s good that we have someone who can capture the public’s attention and who’s outside the traditional religious mould commenting on things. It’s a shame he was writing in the US rather than the UK. There’s so little coverage in the mainstream press of the radical, positive teaching the bible has for us. Bono, or any other modern, radically minded christian writer, would be a happy addition to the Sunday papers.

Stop the world: resting easy.

sleeping-commuter-1I’m at the end of a week of holiday. I had big plans – a bunch of studying to catch up on; a load of “life admin” to do; commitments to people; and all those things I said last month I’d sort out tomorrow.  

But d’you know what? Cramming every minute of every day full of places to go, things to do and people to see is – for me at least – miles from being the answer. It makes me buzz, sure, but it also does a great job of slowly draining the life out of me.

At the start of this week I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for anything, God included. So instead I’ve done nothing. No studying. No life admin. No work. I actually can’t remember the last time I did so little – really. Maybe not for 10 years.

A small part of me wonders if this is lazy, and starts the guilt routine, but I’m resolved to fight it. Stopping is biblical. Once again the big black book I thought had nothing to say to my life has practical import. It reminds me I need to stop sometimes – it’s how I was made.  Nature has in-built patterns of rest and growth in the seasons themselves. More directly, God thinks rest is so important that he made doing it one of the “Big 10” .

Jesus rested too. Sure, he worked and he travelled, he partied and he taught, but he also took time out to be alone, to get some peace and to be quiet with God. He had some advice on the subject: 

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly”. – Matthew 11:28-30

I tried it out this week. I can report that it’s been great. I have not been struck down by a thunderbolt for temporarily abandoning my work ethic. I have had time to watch how Jesus does things; to reflect on living with God rather than for him; to spend time on whatever has happened to cross my mind. Has it been a waste? I don’t think so.

I could tell you the details, but probably that should stay between me and God. Instead I’ll just say this: give it a try. Take some real, extended down time.  In our busy world, with our busy lives, simply doing that might be the hardest part.  But  let yourself stop, and listen out for God in the quiet. I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Dead man walking

resurrectionI just read this lovely blog post: Resurrection? You Must be Crazy! . It reminded me why people would look at Christians and think we’re nuts, and of the risks in taking a step of faith – of placing my trust in the resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded of what a challenge my faith presents to others who don’t share it. I’m also challenged to rethink whether I really believe its claims.

I don’t believe that Christians are crazy, or I wouldn’t be one. But it’s good to step back and consider it for a moment. After all, our faith declares that a dead man walked (and much more, but let’s leave it there for now- that’s crazy enough for starters). I’m not about to trot out the evidence for the resurrection. Other places can discuss that better than I could. But I do want to reflect for a moment on the reactions of those to whom Jesus appeared.

Even the people Jesus had lived alongside, his closest family and friends, those who believed he was the Messiah during his life and had heard from him in the run up to his death about what he was going to do, found it difficult to believe that he was raised from the dead.

Mary thought he was the gardener until she heard him speak; the men on the road to Emmaus walked and talked with a traveller for hours before they recognised him as Jesus; and the 11 remaining disciples thought they were seeing a ghost when Jesus appeared amongst them. It’s not that surprising really! You WOULD think you’d gone nuts, wouldn’t you? I mean… if you saw, or seemed to be having a conversation with, your recently murdered friend. And if someone told you THEY’D done seen those things,  you’d think they were crazy, or deluded, or both. It’s a little ironic (and maybe a touch harsh) that Thomas goes down in history as “doubting” because he wanted proof that the dead man standing in front of him was the risen Lord Jesus Christ. It’s also good to know Jesus was able to persuade him.

It’s interesting too that according to the biographical accounts in the gospels, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (which sceptics put down to mass hysteria or delusions amongst other things) include accounts of him walking, talking, eating, showing his wounds, preparing food, blessing people, performing signs, and meeting individuals & groups. There was certainly variety in the ways people claimed to encounter him.

Saul was the last of the apostles to see Jesus. He hit the deck on the Damascus Road when he encountered Jesus. No-one would’ve seen it coming: Saul was a God-fearing Pharisee, a strict follower of the Jewish law, and doing a pretty good job of persecuting Christians. Turning to Jesus was no easy matter for him; it involved flying in the face of everything he’d previously stood for, and there were respects in which the rest of his life involved trying to make sense of that transformation. The important thing is that Jesus was able to catch his attention. Was he crazy? Some people would say so. But then, as he later said to King Agrippa when he was under arrest and had to explain himself: “why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead”? Now if  there’s a God, I think that’s a pretty God point.

Maybe Paul was crazy. Maybe every other Christian in history has been crazy with him. Or maybe the world doesn’t work in quite the confined manner we box ourselves into believing is the case. Maybe just because we can’t prove something with science, it doesn’t make it impossible, but simply makes it  something we can’t explain, at least yet.  

I’m quite glad I don’t understand everything. I like it that sometimes I just have to be; to trust; to let God – assuming he’s there – be God and to believe that if he is, he’ll see me waiting and if he’s not, I won’t lose anything by taking a breather. 

Dear God… honest prayers, faith & doubt

I found a new website about prayer today. The link to it is at the bottom of the post.  I’m not sure what I make of it yet. It’s full of harsh, stark, beautiful prayers from all sorts of people in all sorts of places facing all sorts of challenges. It’s profound, but profoundly what? Reassuring? Disturbing? Maybe both, I think.

It intrigues me that a website about prayer should overtly distance itself (as this one does) from any connection with anything faith-based, because its posts are from real people with real needs, addressing God. They don’t seem believe they’re screaming into a void, or why bother to address an Almighty? I’m reassured by this site that we all search – whether we recognise it or not –  for something more to life than the emptiness of now. The very utterance of these prayers suggests that something deep inside us knows there is something more. That somewhere inside each of these people there’s a mustard seed of a faith. Prayer helps, somehow. I guess the question, the mystery, is why.

I’m disturbed about the places we look to for help, though. At the end of the day we all make choices about faith. John Ortberg puts it like this:

“…making the right choices about faith — like making good choices for life in general — does not seem to rest primarily on IQ. Smart  people mess up as easily as the rest of us. 

“Three men are in a plane: a pilot, a Boy Scout, and the world’s smartest man. The engine fails, the plane is going down, and there are only two parachutes. The smart man grabs one. “I’m sorry about this,” he says, “but I’m the smartest man in the world; I have a responsibility to the planet,” and he jumps out of the plane. The pilot turns to the Boy Scout and speaks of how he has lived a long, full life and how the Boy Scout has his whole life in front of him. He tells the Boy Scout to take the last parachute and live. “Relax, Captain,” the Boy Scout says. “The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.” 

“Our world is full of smart  people jumping out of planes with backpacks. One of the paradoxes of faith and doubt is that it is the ultimate intellectual challenge, yet simple and uneducated  people may live with great wisdom and PhDs may choose folly. One thing is for sure: sooner or later the plane is going down. 

“We all are on the same plane. Smart guys and Boys Scouts alike: everybody has to jump. Everybody has to choose a parachute. No one will know who chose wisely until after they jump.”   (Faith & Doubt, Zondervan, 2008).

I choose to put my hope in the promise of Jesus. That hope seems absent from some of the posts on Dear God. The harder question, therefore, that this site raises for me is about different concepts of God. It makes me ask whether one concept of God is the same as another. In the bottom of my heart I want the answer to be yes, but I don’t think it is. 

I’m humbled by the honesty of the Dear God posts, though. That people are searching, really searching for answers to life’s big questions. And I believe that the truth is there to be found if we search in honesty and humility. 

Today I stopped again to reflect on Jesus’ claims. Are the narratives of his life and death just pieces of random social and political history shrouded in myth over 2000 years? Was he just a generally good guy who got up the authorities’ noses, or is there more to it than that? Who, really, was this self-professed God-man who claimed victory over evil; promised forgiveness; loved the unloveable; taught the drop outs; healed the broken; washed the dung-plastered feet of his own followers; and who offers these things to you too? What does it evoke in you to hear that he was hated and hunted, that he allowed himself to be convicted, publicly humiliated, beaten and slowly killed? And that 3 days later his tomb was empty and his followers met him again.   We each have to decide which way to jump.

http://www.dear-god.net