Saul among the prophets – an interesting worship experience

Do you remember the Old Testament story of Saul among the prophets (1 Samuel 19)? Poor Saul’s been rejected by God as Israel’s anointed king in favour of the popular hero David, and has begun his descent into madness, badness and dangerous-to-know-ness.

And on this particular occasion, he’s on his way to kill David when he runs into a bunch of prophets who are, well, prophesying. And unexpectedly the Spirit of God comes upon even Bad King Saul, and suddenly he’s prophesying away ecstatically with the best of them for hours on end (and lying naked on the ground into the bargain).

It’s an odd story, and hard to understand. Was God simply protecting David, or was he giving Saul another chance?

The reason I mention it is that just recently I’ve been feeling a tiny bit like Saul among the prophets. Let me explain.

Sliding away?

I kind of hope I’m not following Saul’s overall trajectory, though some evangelical friends might see it that way. What’s certainly true is that for a long time I’ve felt like I’m not really a ‘proper’ Christian, and experiences of church have often contributed to that feeling.

Readers of this blog may also have noticed that my theology has gradually become less evangelical, as I’ve started to question and rethink many of the touchstone doctrines of Reformation Christianity – biblical inerrancy, penal substitution, hell, homosexuality, who gets ‘saved’ and what that even means.

And for a long time I’ve felt pretty uncomfortable with this move. I’ve feared that in shaking off the conservative shackles I may simply be backsliding headlong into apostasy and heresy. Not unlike Saul.

But then, just in the last few months, I’ve finally started to feel more settled. Going to Greenbelt festival recently felt like coming home and breathing the free air – a sense of relief at being among people who think and feel as I do.

Yet at almost the same time another movement has been re-starting in my spiritual life, and apparently in a very different direction. While my theology’s becoming more liberal, my worship’s becoming surprisingly charismatic – again.

Charismatic worship and me

Perhaps it isn’t so unexpected. For a long time I’ve been involved in (jargon alert) ‘leading worship’ in the moderately charismatic, fairly open evangelical Anglican church where I re-found faith 20+ years ago. I took a break a couple of years ago, partly because of life circumstances and partly for spiritual reasons, but just recently I’ve returned. And a few weeks ago I led worship again for the first time in a full Sunday morning service.

If you’re not familiar with charismatic Christianity, worship and worship-leading are big things. The often extended times of worship carry an expectation of entering into God’s direct presence through heartfelt singing, perhaps also with singing in ‘tongues’ and occasional outbursts of spontaneous praise. There’s a belief that the Holy Spirit will move upon worshippers, touching hearts and changing lives.

And it was in this worship context that I first found a sense of connection with God years ago, in a way that academic theology or Bible preaching hadn’t been able to achieve (and still haven’t). I love theology, but it’s in sung worship where I feel I most directly and deeply encounter something of God’s presence. And that’s even so when, as now, I’m not sure I can agree with the words of the songs I’m singing, and even sometimes query the whole theological framework of charismatic worship.

Furthermore – odd as it may sound – I’ve long felt that I’ve somehow been gifted, even perhaps called, by God to lead others in sung worship. In doing so I’ve frequently felt caught up in something bigger and better than myself, and often others have responded too, reporting that they’ve experienced something of God’s presence.

I say all this because right now I find it confusing and contradictory. My mind and my theology have become increasingly liberal (cynical even), but somehow my soul still comes alive and sings in worship. And I’m glad of that but also unsettled by it, unsure what to make of it or do with it.

An experience of worship

And so it was this time. Before the service I felt nervous, unsure of whether I could even do this thing any more, at least with any integrity. But as I gave myself to the music, my doubts fell away and I felt that sense of being caught up and carried along on a greater tide. And the response from the congregation was incredibly positive and affirming. Suddenly I was in a very different role and position to my accustomed (largely self-chosen) one of disaffected and disengaged outsider.

Hence Saul among the prophets. Here’s me, seemingly backsliding, cynical and liberal, unsure if I’m even really a Christian, suddenly leading the faithful in praise, and God’s Spirit apparently showing up.

Now it’s not that I’ve felt no sense of God’s presence throughout my supposed ‘backsliding’ phase. But what made this time different was the church context; the head-on collision between the liberal and charismatic parts of my faith.

Where now?

So do I now simply set aside all my theological questioning and doubts, and plunge back wholeheartedly into charismatic, even evangelical Christianity? Part of me would like to, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

For now I probably just need to accept that there’s something of a disconnect or tension between my theology and my worship; between my Christian head and heart. But maybe that can be a creative tension rather than a destructive one. I hope my experiences of worship can stretch and challenge my theology, and my theological questing can inform and deepen my worship.

Of course I may ultimately need to let go of some cherished ideas, or some beloved ways of doing things, if I’m to be true both to myself and to wherever God may be calling me. In the meantime, perhaps I should just re-title this blog ‘The Charismatic Liberal’… or just start peppering my posts with random Hallelujahs…😉

Posted in Charismatic, Liberalism, worship | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

God bless Greenbelt

I’m really not a natural camper, so it takes something pretty amazing to persuade me to spend 3 nights under canvas, away from the comforts of home and forced to use frankly horrible toilets. This August bank holiday, that pretty amazing thing was the annual Greenbelt festival of arts, faith and justice.

There’s nothing quite like Greenbelt. If you’ve been to other Christian gatherings like New Wine, Spring Harvest, Keswick Bible week or whatever the equivalents are in other countries, it’s nothing like those. I’m not knocking them and I’ve found them helpful before. But those are effectively Christian conventions with a slight festival vibe; Greenbelt is a full-on festival with a few talks. Think of it as the Christian answer to Glastonbury.

What stands out most for me about Greenbelt is its overwhelming atmosphere of open-heartedness, inclusivity and playful creativity. It has space for voices across the range of Christian traditions from ultra-liberal to (open) evangelical, Catholic to Protestant, Quaker and Franciscan. Greenbelt also welcomes Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics and atheists to the platform, as well as people across the whole spectrum of gender and sexuality. In other words, it’s not really for ultra-conservatives.

This was the third year of the festival’s latest location in the wonderful grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire. The move from Cheltenham Racecourse has its downsides – all the venues are now in tents rather than buildings, which reduces comfort, removes the nice loos and limits some options for activities. But it feels much more like a festival now, and it helps to be surrounded by natural beauty rather than betting adverts.

Music and performing arts

Greenbelt has changed significantly in other ways too. Recently the economic climate and dwindling numbers have forced organisers to downsize and drop some of the bigger names, most noticeably in the music programme. Previously I’ve enjoyed the likes of Athlete, The Proclaimers and Billy Bragg; this year I didn’t know any of the bands, though some still sounded pretty good (when they weren’t stopping me getting to sleep).

Any loss in music was more than offset by some outstanding performing arts and comedy. Best for me were Barely Methodical Troupe’s Bromance, an exploration of the awkward interplay of male friendships using jaw-dropping acrobatics, breakdancing and hoop stunts; and the hilarious and touching Steampunk drama Grandad and the Machine.

Other personal highlights included comedians Josie Long and festival headliner James Acaster. Both were raised by Christian parents, one’s now atheist and the other agnostic but neither hostile, particularly not to a Greenbelt audience that welcomes doubt and diversity. James Acaster quipped that his favourite Greenbelt tent was ‘Lost Children’ which he imagined must be always full, “because aren’t we all lost children?”

Inspiringly offbeat talks

The talks at Greenbelt are almost always first-class, if you’re looking for something a bit unconventional and unconservative.

There weren’t so many big names this year – no Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, John Polkinghorne or Rob Bell. But we were treated to refreshingly sweary tattooed US pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber; former hostage Terry Waite; Iona community leader John Bell who also leads the fantastic annual ‘Big Sing’ and Greenbelt regular Mark Yaconelli. My best new find was Chris Meredith, theology lecturer at Winchester – his Antidote to Bible Studies were the sharpest, freshest and funniest Bible commentaries I’ve heard in years. Altogether I laughed a lot, learnt a lot and was moved to tears twice by the talks.

My one gripe with Greenbelt is that they used to make all the talks from current and previous festivals available to download on their website, and any from 2 years ago or older were free. They’ve now removed all the old ones, which is a great loss.

The Communion

I mentioned Greenbelt’s open-hearted inclusivity and playful creativity. These were best expressed for me in the Sunday Communion service, always a central feature of the festival.

At first I feared I wouldn’t feel part of it as we couldn’t fit into the main tent area where all the action was, but I needn’t have worried. We were asked to form into groups of 10-12, and we were welcomed into a group from the L’Arche community (for people with Special Educational Needs).

Each group was given a communion pack containing bread, juice rather than wine… and kazoos, which came with a warning ‘may not be suitable for adults suffering from excessive dignity’.  These were to accompany a joyous and hilarious liturgical song led by the fabulous Fischy music, looking ahead to the time of peace and reconciliation when God’s Kingdom comes. The idea was based on Isaiah’s ‘lion shall lie down with the lamb’ passage but Greenbelt had riffed on it so that Republicans and Democrats were playing something daft like Tiddleywinks together, and UK PM Teresa May was offering opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn her seat on the train.

All the liturgy and songs were fresh, creative and meaningful, and the whole service was by turns gloriously silly, moving and challenging. It was also all led by children, and presided benignly over by Archbishop Justin Welby, who entered into the spirit with endearing lack of pomposity.

Not everyone loved it – one man near us bemoaned the lack of familiar songs, complaining that even “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” had been altered to make the words inclusive: “Stand up for lesbians in Gaza” as he parodied. Which actually captures the Greenbelt spirit nicely – if everything in you revolts against that idea, maybe it’s not the festival for you.

Silent stars and loud thunder

The overarching theme of this year’s festival was ‘Silent Stars’, referring both to the whole of creation singing God’s praise, and to all the unsung heroes quietly working for social justice and a better world.

On the opening Friday night the silent stars glowed above us in a perfectly clear dark sky. But it wouldn’t be Greenbelt without rain, and the following day we were battered by a sustained torrential downpour, a glorious thunderstorm, tent-threatening winds and apparently even a small tornado.

Some Christians might see these as signs of divine disfavour on a gathering of hopeless heretics and backsliders, but the good people of Greenbelt mostly enjoyed (or endured) it as part of God’s wild and messy creation. For me, the storm broke in the middle of a Franciscan worship time exploring how we’re fellows with the created world including ‘brother fire’ and ‘sister water’, so the weather underscored rather than undermined the point.

And throughout the long weekend, the loveliness as well as wildness of creation was a constant companion. I felt closest to God walking alone among the quiet beauty of the grounds, surrounded by trees and lakes, the sounds of water and birdsong.

I’ve said before that going to church sometimes makes me feel like I’m not really a proper Christian. By contrast, Greenbelt made me feel that there might just be room in the broad Christian fold for folks like me – people who aren’t too sure where they stand on most things, but are still hoping to stand somewhere near-ish to Jesus.

So in short, if you can survive camping and afford the ticket price, aren’t too theologically conservative and want your soul to be refreshed, get to Greenbelt. It’s one of the best things I’ve done this year.

And here’s a rather amusing article affectionately mocking Greenbelt in Premier Christianity magazine: How to be a Hipster Christian at Greenbelt.

Posted in Arts, Liberalism, Spirituality | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Coping with our faith crises

One of the problems with the usual model of spiritual or religious development we’ve inherited is that it too often places the ‘spiritual crisis’ only in the past – ‘I was lost, now I’m found’.

So we’re allowed the single pre-Christian spiritual crisis which catapulted us to conversion, but this is now safely behind us (hallelujah!). And we’re taught to view any post-conversion spiritual crises as dangerous, to be feared and avoided. We’re afraid they will lead us out of the security of faith into heresy and apostasy; will pluck us off the straight and narrow way where we’re safe and saved, and throw us into perdition.

But I think the truth is that for many of us there’s equally a spiritual or faith crisis to come after conversion – perhaps even an ongoing cycle of crises. And rather than being something we should fear or shun, I think we can embrace these as a normal and necessary part of the life-cycle of our faith. Indeed, these crises may even be one of the key means by which we grow and develop.

Yes, crises of faith are often difficult and can be destructive. But they are, I believe, inevitable and even vital, rather as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are a necessary feature of our living planet’s life-cycle. Without them, our faith stagnates and doesn’t fully develop; we stay stuck permanently at the baby stage of spiritual development. Only by going through these crises (and, yes, eventually coming out the other side) can we truly reach the mature fulfilment of our faith.

Spiritual what?

What do I mean by a spiritual (or faith) crisis? For me it’s a time when your faith, theology or beliefs are radically challenged, perhaps to the extent that you consider leaving church or even giving up your faith.

It may be that you can no longer accept some fundamental tenet of your faith (biblical inerrancy, say, or the church’s teaching on homosexuality or the ultimate fate of non-believers). Or you may have become disillusioned with church leadership or the behaviour of fellow Christians, or feel that God himself has let you down. Maybe you’ve been persuaded by the arguments for a different religion, or for atheism. Or perhaps some personal issue or struggle makes you feel you can’t call yourself Christian any longer.

Sometimes these things hit suddenly, precipitated by a particular event or realisation. Other times you may reach a ‘crisis’ point only after a long and gradual period of change.
Spiritual crises force us to rethink, to re-evaluate our beliefs and practices. What do we really believe? Are we really Christians any longer, and do we want to be?

It was a long, slow spiritual crisis that prompted me to start this blog 5 years ago, writing to explore my doubts and concerns about the faith that I’d grown up in, walked away from and re-converted to some 15 years previously. In some ways I’m still going through the same long crisis now, trying to work out what I really think and where I belong spiritually. Sometimes I yearn for the old certainties, but I can’t go back – only forward.

Disarming the ‘danger’

We often fear spiritual crises because we associate them with someone losing their way, or losing their faith. And of course this can be the case – but I don’t think it needs to be.

Unfortunately, we often don’t properly help people face their faith crises, and ironically this may be because we’re so frightened of them ‘falling away’. What people need at these times is not Christians quoting the Bible at them or warning them against the deadly perils of sin, apostasy and backsliding.

People honestly questioning their faith need support, care, understanding, acceptance. They need to be listened to, without judgement or condemnation or platitudes. If we could lay aside our panic about people losing their salvation and concentrate on just being there for them, I suspect that far fewer would ‘fall away’ (whatever exactly that means).

Liberated from rigid religion

But… even if people do fall away or walk away, I’m not sure that’s always as final or as terrible as we sometimes feel. Sometimes people need to walk away from their previous expressions and experiences of faith, which may have been overly simplistic, restrictive and even psychologically unhealthy.

Psychologist M. Scott Peck noted that many people who came to him for counselling changed their religious beliefs as a result of their emotional growth. Some came to him as confirmed atheists and many of these he encouraged to explore a more spiritual dimension to their lives.

Yet others came to him with strong but emotionally unhelpful religious convictions. These had often been brought up with a very rigid, fear-based and fundamentalist Christianity, and after counselling many became agnostics or even atheists. Scott Peck saw this as growth for them, because their former religion had been soul-destroying not life-affirming, spiritually stunting not liberating.

Breaking the container

I think this ties in with Franciscan Richard Rohr’s idea that our inner life is formed of two major phases.

The first phase is about forming our identity or forging our ego (Rohr calls it ‘the container’), and it requires exclusion and exclusivism. We set up rigid boundaries or container walls – deciding who’s in and out, who’s right and wrong, who’s good and bad, and defining ourselves accordingly. Our group is the ‘in’ group, the good and right group; others and outsiders who don’t belong to it are wrong or bad.

We have to go through this phase, but we then have to move on from it to become our full and free selves.

Christians often make two mistakes here. If our first-phase identity wasn’t Christian, we may try to rush on out of it too quickly, attempting to shortcut from ‘sinner’ to ‘saint’ by simply denying our dark side and trying to be perfect Christians, but without going through the long hard journey of inner transformation.

But if we were brought up as Christians, the equal and opposite mistake is to stay stuck in the first phase, clinging on too tightly to our old Christian identity when we need to let at least some aspects of it go.

To enter the second phase, Rohr suggests, we have to go through a crisis of ‘dying to self’ (that is, to the old ego self or ‘false’ self). Only then can we can start to discover our full, free, real self in Christ. We have to emerge from the rigid container with its divisions of in/out, either/or and goodies/baddies.

But unfortunately religion can too often become a way of keeping us stuck in the first phase – particularly for those who were brought up in the faith from the cradle, or who converted into a highly fundamentalist religion. There can be a lot of fear and resistance to moving on, to breaking out into a freer and more life-affirming form of belief.

So when people turn away from their former faith, that may not always be a bad thing spiritually, and it may not be the end of the journey. Some will later return to a better and more freeing form of faith. Others may not, but by God’s grace may still be growing spiritually outside the container walls of the church, its beliefs and teachings. I think God may be big enough for that.

…And whether by coincidence or not, this excellent and very relevant HuffPost article happened to drop into my inbox this morning – I promise I hadn’t read any of it when I wrote my piece: 6 Things Christians Should Stop Saying To People Who Doubt

Posted in Dark night of the soul, Faith, Scepticism and doubt, Stages of faith, The faith journey | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

An experience of divine absence

No, this isn’t a post about Brexit, though it does feel strangely appropriate under the circumstances.

In the past I’ve written about an experience of grace, a time when I felt a deep and unexpected sense of God’s goodness towards me and my gratitude to him, and on another occasion an experience of encounter when I felt overwhelmed by God’s presence.

This is the flip side of that – the polar opposite.

Earlier this week, walking home from work I felt a profound sense of the absence of God. I felt that he was simply no longer there, or not interested at all; that no-one was listening to my prayers, and maybe no-one ever had been. The sense was very strong for maybe an hour or so, but lingered on in the background for a few days.

Whether this feeling was in any way accurate or not, I don’t know. I suspect it may simply have been caused by tiredness and a particular set of circumstances – but it felt very real.

I don’t write this looking for sympathy or spiritual advice, but simply to share an experience which I suspect is common to many people. It’s a deeply unsettling one, but not necessarily a bad one, or a sign of being hopelessly lost (I hope). I’m writing about it in the hope of processing it for myself and also perhaps offering some encouragement to others who undergo similar experiences.

Absence and abandonment

I’ve compared the faith journey to that of a love relationship, and this experience felt very much like the break-up of a marriage, or the loss of a life partner. Suddenly someone who I’d always relied on, always been able to turn to, knew would always be there for me simply wasn’t. I had to keep on talking to them, but they were no longer able or willing to listen – or so it seemed.

It felt shocking, disorienting, as though the sky had parted to reveal nothing but emptiness beyond, or as though the world I inhabited were revealed to be just a fibreboard film-set like in The Truman Show.

It seemed as though all the real meaning and purpose had gone out of the world. Everything carried on the same as before, everything looked the same, but it all felt strangely empty now, pointless, a bit meaningless – that the life had moved on and left only the hollow shell.

I also felt something of that sense that C.S. Lewis recorded in A Grief Observed – pounding on heaven’s door and being met not merely with silence, but the sounds of bolts being drawn against you. A paradoxical sense both that there’s no one at home, and they don’t want to talk to you.

So it’s an experience both of absence, that God isn’t there at all, and also of abandonment, that he does exist but has chosen to leave you.

Contributing factors

On reflection, a number of obvious things led up to this episode.

Firstly, I’ve had several recent experiences of going to church (mostly mainstream evangelical churches) and feeling alienated, like an outsider. I’ve felt excluded by the songs, the sermons, the prayers and the testimonies, and have come away with the sense that I’m just not a true Christian.

And this has merely reinforced a nagging longer-term feeling that I simply don’t look, think, talk, believe or act as a real Christian should. I sometimes feel (rightly or wrongly) that my Christian faith is little more than a façade or charade; that deep down I’m more of a pagan than a Christian – certainly if conservative evangelical Christian theology and practice is what we’re aiming for.

And then recently a difficult set of family circumstances has arisen that I won’t go into here. While in the midst of this I’ve found it very hard to see God’s presence or activity in it (though taking a step back, I’m sure he has been in it). At the risk of sounding melodramatic (or just bonkers), at times I’ve felt almost under a curse, or simply abandoned by God – that he simply isn’t listening to my prayers. Being tired and losing a sense of perspective haven’t helped of course.

Some smaller things haven’t helped either. Watching The Woman in Black this week as escapism left me with a pervasive sense of darkness and evil, that the universe is ruled by hate and fear not love and goodness.

And finally, the last straw if a very daft and trivial one. Twice in the past two weeks, the cross I’ve worn around my neck for many years has fallen off, once in the middle of a conversation about faith in which I was already feeling like I wasn’t a proper believer. I know it sounds silly and superstitious (and probably is), but it felt to me like a sign or a judgement; God saying ‘you’re not one of mine any more’.

This was partly because it recalled a time many years ago when my then vicar prayed and prophesied over me: ‘God’s saying that like the fish symbol you wear round your neck, he’s holding you and will never let go of you’… and then a couple of days later I realised that the fish pendant had fallen off and was lost. It felt like God rejecting me.

Moving on

So do I still feel this way a few days later? No, not really. From the outset, my journey of faith has been punctuated with occasional (mostly fleeting) moments of doubt, of the sense that God wasn’t there or wasn’t interested – this one was just deeper and longer-lasting than most. But it has equally been punctuated by moments of grace and encounter, of the sense of God’s presence and care, often despite circumstances.

I suspect that these are all necessary elements in the life of faith, and we need to learn to accept (perhaps even embrace) each of them in their season.

And in a way, this experience of absence has driven me to seek God more deeply, and to examine my own heart and life to see if any of the cause lies in me. Which it probably does.

In the company of Jesus

And of course, when we feel abandoned by God we’re in the best possible company. Jesus himself experienced such absence and abandonment in Gethsemane when God didn’t answer his prayers (‘Father, take this cup away from me’), and ultimately at Calvary (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).

So perhaps there is a positive way to view such an experience – as sharing profoundly with an aspect of what Jesus went through to redeem humanity and the cosmos. I believe that many mystics and saints have experienced similar times and ultimately drawn closer to God through it.

Though in my case I suspect it was nothing quite so grand or noble. Probably nothing that a few good nights’ sleep wouldn’t cure.

And now, someone please tell me that Britain leaving the EU didn’t just happen…

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Posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Dark night of the soul, Scepticism and doubt, The faith journey | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Why doesn’t God magically sort out our problems?

Way back last time I was looking at miracles, and the problems both of being overly cynical about the miraculous or overly reliant on it. This follows on from a slightly different angle.

First, a question. If you knew God wasn’t ever going to fix your problems, answer your prayers, heal your hurts, bless you with nice things and generally sort things out and make things better for you, would you still bother with Christianity or religion?

I ask because I’ve realised that, for all my vaunted sophistication and scepticism, deep down I’ve still been clinging on to a view that God is basically magic and will (or should) do magic when I need it.

God our daddy?

I’ve been expecting God to be like a toddler’s mum and dad, a big all-capable provider and problem-solver who I can go running to and who will ‘kiss it better’. I’ve been hoping God will always make it all okay, will make all the pains and problems magically go away.

I’ve been fondly imagining that if I just pray enough and maybe try and do the right things, everything will always turn out fine and I won’t have to suffer regret, loss, disappointment, failure. And if God doesn’t act like that, I feel aggrieved and let down.

And I have a feeling that I’m not alone in this.

We know we can call God ‘Father’, even in a sense ‘Daddy’ (Hebrew ‘Abba’). We also know that he is love, and that he is full of kindness and compassion. And we know that he is all-powerful and can in theory do miracles (depending on our theology).

Put these together and it’s easy to assume that he is going to magically fix all our issues for us, make everything nice and easy, and spare us from all pain. And we (well, I) can get pretty annoyed with him when he doesn’t; when things go wrong and God doesn’t instantly step in to make it all better.

What’s the point of believing?

Let me state two apparently contradictory things up front.

Firstly, I believe that God does care and does answer prayers, albeit often not quite as we’d wish or expect. I believe that he does even heal, sometimes and in some ways, again not always the ways we want.

But secondly, the reality is that Christians (and people of faith in general) are not immune from problems, pain or suffering. Christians seem to get ill as much as the rest of the population. Christians appear to suffer relational breakdown and break-up pretty much as often as everyone else. Christians certainly suffer bereavement and loss just as much as any other group, and I can confidently state that the mortality rate among Christians is as high as among the general population. That’s even true for charismatic and Pentecostal believers who expect and pray for miraculous healing rather more than the rest of us.

So does that mean it’s not worth praying, or not worth being a Christian? If God offers no guaranteed magical protection against life’s ills and no guaranteed magic cure when they occur, then what’s the point of turning to him?

I’m beginning to wonder if the point may be that we need to grow up into a mature, adult relationship with God and leave behind our childish expectations of a magical, problem-fixing, pain-zapping super-Daddy. (Though as always, I may be wrong.)

Good-enough parenting

Almost every parent knows from experience that they can’t (or mustn’t) just give their children everything they want. Nor can they just jump in and fix every problem their child experiences, nor take away every pain they feel, nor shield them from the uncomfortable consequences of their own actions or unwise decisions.

A good (or good-enough) parent has to grit their teeth and let their child grow, and grow up, by learning to handle their own problems and feel their own pains. Obviously this is a gradual process, and a balancing act; parents don’t just abandon young children to sort out everything for themselves from the word go. But bit by bit, parents train their kids to be able to do things for themselves, to grow in competence, confidence and responsibility.

And parents even have to be a little bit mean at times, though I hope few enjoy it. There comes a point when they have to push their child away just a little bit, like an adult bird pushing the fledgling out of the nest when it’s ready to fly.

Crucially, the good-enough parent has to allow and encourage their child to separate from them, to stand on their own two feet, including making their own mistakes. Yes, at first they can come running back to mum or dad when things get too tough, but gradually they need to learn to be independent and separate.

And God, I’m pretty sure, is the same. He is not our eternal Daddy who will always make things better when we’ve fallen over in the playground or bail us out when we’ve got ourselves in trouble. He will be with us, support us and empathise with us, but he won’t always ‘rescue’ us from all our trials and mistakes and hurts. That would not be truly loving or even truly kind. It would merely infantilise us, create a cycle of dependence and discourage our growth to maturity and wholeness.

Growing up in faith

New Christians do often (not always) seem to experience more direct answers to prayer, more miracles, more divine intervention than others. If so, I don’t think that’s because they have greater faith necessarily (though some may), but because they are infant believers who need more hand-holding and spoon-feeding as they take their first baby steps in the ways of faith.

So if you’re experiencing pain as a Christian and God isn’t stepping in to make it all better, congratulations – looks like God thinks you’re mature enough to handle it. Though of course I realise that may not feel like much consolation. I only say this because I’ve wrestled with it too, shouting at God to make things better and take away various long-term pains and problems. But in the silence and apparent inaction of God, I’ve gradually started to learn a deeper lesson. I’ve started slowly and protestingly to grow up.

Giving up the need to rescue

Along with the need to be rescued, I think we may also need to grow out of the need to rescue others all the time.

It often feels like the loving, kind and ‘Christian’ thing to do, to step in and bail someone out when they’re struggling. It feels cruel to stand by and watch someone in difficulty when we know we could make it easier for them, could do the hard thing for them.

And sometimes it is right to help; but not always. Sometimes it’s just necessary to go through the struggles, the pains of trying and failing and trying again, or of waiting for something which is taking a long time to get better.

We want to rescue others because it feels unloving not to, but often the more loving thing long-term is simply to support and be with them as they keep struggling, keep trying, keep waiting, keep pushing until either their situations change or they do. I believe that’s what God does with us, and I don’t much like it but I’m starting to think he might just understand a bit better than I do. Annoyingly.

Posted in Divine intervention, Faith, Suffering, The faith journey | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Cynical about miracles?

A friend recently sent me a miraculous news story reported in Christianity Today magazine. It tells of a modern day Road to Damascus conversion, an Islamist leader hell-bent on killing Christians until his life was transformed by miraculous visions of Jesus. I’ll post a link to the full story at the end.

I must confess that my first reponse to the story was to doubt it. And my next was to seek a non-supernatural explanation.

Which, for someone who claims to believe in the resurrection of Christ and the miracles recorded in the gospels and Acts, seems a bit strange.

There was a time when I’d have accepted a story like this unquestioningly, and seen it as proof of the continuing power and work of the Holy Spirit today. But I realise I’ve gradually become much more cynical and suspicious. I still believe in the possibility of miracles, and indeed that they have happened in the past, but I’m sceptical about modern-day miracle reports. Why?

Faith vs experience?

It’s partly just a case of experience triumphing over faith. Everyday life tends not to be outwardly miraculous. And though over my years as a Christian I’ve prayed a lot, and hung around with Charismatic miracle-believers, I’ve seen few things that I can point to as definite miraculous answers to prayer.

There have been a handful that I can’t easily discount, including one or two in my own life. And I’m certainly not saying there have been no answers to prayer – far from it. But for the most part I’ve experienced little that’s obviously miraculous, and I’ve come gradually to accept (rightly or wrongly) that this doesn’t seem to be the primary way God works in modern western society.

It’s also because I’ve eagerly believed quite a few miracle reports in the past, only to have them exposed as hoaxes. For a time I desperately wanted to believe in the supernatural operating here and now. But when time and again it’s turned out to be false I’ve grown increasingly cynical.

Doubting Thomas

When I expressed my reservations to the friend who sent the article, he responded with “blessed are those who believe” – a reference to Doubting Thomas.

Poor Thomas is always held up as a sorry example of lack of faith, but if I had to be one of the apostles I’d probably choose him. Okay, perhaps he could have trusted his friends more; perhaps he could have remembered Jesus’ promise to rise from the dead. But his desire for visible, tangible evidence seems eminently reasonable.

For without evidence, ‘blessed are those who believe’ can all too easily turn into ‘blessed are the gullible’.

And yet… might it not be preferable to be a tiny bit gullible than to be so cynical you miss what God’s doing?

I certainly don’t want to end up like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, ‘so afraid of being taken in that they can’t be taken out [of themselves]’. Healthy scepticism is, well, healthy, but I don’t want to become so hardened that I fail to see the genuinely divine when it does appear.

So with the father of the probably-epileptic boy in Mark 9 I say ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’. Just adding the small caveat ‘but only if it’s actually true.’

The problem with miracles

Another issue is that even when I do believe in miracles these days, I often find them as problematic as they are marvellous.

If God really is appearing directly to an Islamist leader and changing his heart to follow Jesus then that is amazing and great. Yet it also raises difficult questions.

Why just this one particular leader and not all the many others who are persecuting Christians? Why would God get directly involved in this one particular situation and yet apparently leave so many others of equal or greater need? What about, say, the thousands of refugee children dying in horrific conditions?

And this is of course always the problem with any specific miracle. It seems so arbitrary and unfair, like a divine lottery. For each person who is blessed, liberated or transformed, thousands of others aren’t, many of whom are in equally dire straits and have been praying desperately for years. I find it hard to celebrate fully with the favoured one when I’m aware of the unmet needs of the many. (Though perhaps it’s my own unmet needs and unanswered prayers that bother me most.)

Of course, God is free to do as he chooses, with whom he chooses, when he chooses. He doesn’t have to give account of himself to me. And for sure, sometimes his answer to prayer (for whatever reason) is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’. Just because someone isn’t healed now, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be later – though of course many never are.

Perhaps my real underlying problem with miracles like the one that prompted this piece is that they challenge my safe liberal worldview and nice comfortable theology. Just when I’ve persuaded myself into a particular view of God and faith that suits me, something like this comes and shakes up the picture. I find it scary and unsettling. If this happens, maybe I’m wrong about everything.

Relying on miracles

Yet I think there’s an equal and opposite danger in placing too much reliance on miracles.

By definition, miracles are rare divine occurrences brought about in God’s timing and by his choice. I’m sure they do occur, but I think we’re wise not to look to them to solve all our problems.

In my experience, God seldom operates as a glorified fairy godmother with a divine magic wand. There are rare times and places when miracles are the order of the day – such as during Jesus’ earthly ministry – but otherwise God apparently prefers to operate quietly, gradually, behind the scenes, through natural means and flawed human agents.

Hidden miracles

So the kinds of miracles I care most about these days are the understated, often unrecognised miracles of forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration of ‘shalom’. And of course the claimed miracle that prompted this piece does partly fall into this category, and it’s that aspect of it that impresses me more than the claims of divine visions and voices.

And then there are the everyday, ordinary miracles of simply being alive in this astonishing universe; of being able to think and see and taste and touch, of giving and receiving love.

It occurs to me that there are two very different kinds of miracle even within the New Testament. In the gospels we have all the healings and wonders. But then in Paul’s letters we read that God wouldn’t heal him of his mysterious ‘thorn in the flesh’, saying ‘My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness’.

This is the other, harder kind of miracle that God calls many of us to – not magically removing our troubles, but redeeming them to bring good from bad. I’d prefer magic, but maybe this is the more Christlike path…

And now here’s that miracle news story…

Posted in miracles, Scepticism and doubt | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Salvation – an alternative take?

We’ve recently had Good Friday and Easter, when Christians believe that Jesus died to ‘save’ us in some sense. But in what sense? What does it really mean to be ‘saved’?

A few posts back I said there were many classic Christian terms that I was no longer sure about – words that had accrued meanings and interpretations I no longer felt entirely comfortable with. These include sin and hell, heaven, atonement, born-again, scripture, holiness, evil, the devil. Most of these I now see prefer to see as mysteries whose meanings we can only approach through metaphor, and then only ‘through a glass darkly’.

And ‘salvation’ (or ‘saved’) is another such term. In many ways it’s the other side of the coin of ‘sin’ and ‘hell’ which I’ve already looked at.

Rethinking salvation

Though a more positive concept than sin or hell, the idea of being ‘saved’ can still be pretty contentious. It’s often used in an excluding way – ‘I’m saved, are you?’, or ‘only those who believe in Jesus (and in the same way as I do) are saved’. The implied opposite pair-word that then goes with it is ‘lost’ or ‘damned’. If you’re not saved, you’re lost. If you’re not one of us, you’re eternally excluded. Bad luck.

But I don’t think it needs to be seen in those terms. There are lots of other ways of understanding the term ‘saved’, and I’ve looked at some of them before. I don’t want to re-cover old ground so do read those old posts alongside this one if you’re interested (I’ll put the links at the end).

In short though, I think that salvation is a multi-faceted mystery that encompasses aspects of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual healing, transformation, liberation, restoration, renewal and reconciliation. I believe it’s above all about becoming part of a community of mutual love, all and each filled with the love, life and light of Christ. And I believe that the primary means of salvation is incarnation – Christ being formed in each of us.

So I suppose there are elements of inclusion and therefore perhaps exclusion, but that’s not the main emphasis. And crucially I don’t believe anyone is ever excluded except by their own choice, as I looked at last time.

A computing metaphor

But there’s a specific alternative metaphor for salvation I’d like to look at more closely now. It comes from the world of computing – the idea of ‘saving’ a document or data.

It just sounds like a daft bit of wordplay – how can saving computer files bear any relation to the Christian concept of salvation? But it’s recently gained some theological credence through the writing of (among others) well-respected physicist and Anglican cleric John Polkinghorne. I’ve heard Polkinghorne speak and my impression was of the highest scientific intellect, coupled with a deep Christian faith.

Polkinghorne’s idea is that our physical bodies and brains are, in computer terminology, our hardware, and our souls, minds or spirits the software, or perhaps more accurately the data files in the computer’s memory.

When we die, the hardware fails and (after a while) corrupts, but the software or data – the essence of us – doesn’t have to. Just as when our old computer ceases to work we can copy all the files over to a new computer – so long as we’d already ‘saved’ them, backed them up. Otherwise they may be ‘lost’ and simply cease to be readable or usable (though we might possibly be able to recover some limited version if we know what we’re doing, or else they may continue to exist in a kind of data limbo).

Similarly with people then, our minds and spirits are linked with the physical hardware of our brains and bodies, but they can potentially survive beyond our physical death. But perhaps this can only happen if they have already been ‘saved’, backed up so that they can be transferred to a new system or platform.

Could this then be another angle on what Christians mean by salvation, being ‘saved’? That those who are ‘saved’ by Christ are not condemned to cease to exist mentally and spiritually when their physical bodies die, but are now able to be uploaded to new resurrection bodies in a new realm, the Kingdom of heaven?

In computer language we might speak of being ‘uploaded to the Cloud’ (which could maybe breathe new life into the old imagery of sitting about on clouds with harps). It certainly offers another way to understand the New Testament ideas that we are even now ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms’ and that our ‘lives are now hidden with Christ’ (Eph 2:6, Col 3:3).

The ‘unsaved’?

And we could also posit that those who are not ‘saved’ in this sense might simply cease to exist on death when there is no hardware to ‘run’ them – an entirely painless annihilation, like being simply switched off. Some would certainly see this as the most merciful option.

However, there’s also scope within the metaphor for those who favour a more classical view of Hades – the idea that ‘unsaved’ souls might remain in some kind of shadowy part-existence like unrecovered computer files. And in which case, I see no reason why such souls could not still be ‘saved’ at any point after death, should they desire it. This is certainly my own preferred belief, though I have little evidence for it beyond God’s inexhaustible hope to redeem as many as possible in the end.

But these are matters where we need to speak sensitively and tread carefully. Real people will have real loved ones who have died and I have no wish to speak casually or unfeelingly of their destiny. Please remember that this is all just an extended metaphor; it may bear no relation to experiential reality. And I pass no comment on who is and isn’t ‘saved’; I believe and hope that all may be saved, if not before death then at least after it.

As an aside, we can if we wish extend the computing analogy further, perhaps viewing evil as malware, or sin as a virus that corrupts our system and data, and sanctification as a process of cleaning up and restoring that which has become corrupted.

Souls good, bodies bad?

Now, all metaphors have limits. I’m aware that the hardware/software metaphor can easily sound dualist, as though our bodies and souls are entirely separate and our bodies are relatively trivial or meaningless, eternally speaking. That’s not the point at all – none of this is to say that our physical ‘hardware’ is unimportant or that what we do with and to it doesn’t matter.

While our minds are housed in our bodies, what we do to and in our physical bodies both involves and affects our minds, leaving its imprint. We can’t separate the two and imagine that our bodily and mental or spiritual life are unrelated; they are intertwined at all points. I’ve said before that our physical life is our spiritual life, in many ways.

And in addition, our future ‘resurrection’ bodies will surely be based at least partly on our current ones, though I’m hoping they’ll represent an upgrade. Jesus’s still apparently had scars, even though he was now able to walk through walls. To return to the metaphor, the data of our minds/spirits can’t be uploaded to a completely unrelated platform – just as you wouldn’t be able to use Windows files and software on a Mac.

But all this is only a metaphor of course, and if you don’t find it helpful, don’t worry about it. And it’s only one among many ways of trying to picture the complex mystery of salvation, which in the end defies definite definition.

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When God joined the optimists – an Easter reflection

Which is the proper attitude towards life and the universe we live in – optimism or pessimism?

For the pessimist, the world is ultimately ruled by Sod’s or Murphy’s Law, the principle that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It’s a close cousin of the law of entropy. Things fall apart, things fall down, they break, they die, they come to nothing. In the long term, we’re all dead and entropy wins.

From this perspective all we can do is make the best of this bleak reality, grabbing what transitory enjoyment we can and joking in the face of death, like Eric Idle singing ‘Always look on the Bright side of life’ at the end of Life of Brian – a kind of ironic joke-optimism in the face of the unstoppable forces of chaos pulling us to our destruction. Life is a tragedy but at least we can laugh at its absurdity.

But for the optimist of course, all will be well and everything will work out in the end, despite any and all current evidence to the contrary. And perhaps this isn’t always as pie-eyed daft as it sounds. Life does so often prevail, staging miraculous comebacks in the face of impossible odds, bursting through the cracks in the concrete where there seemed no hope of anything growing. The mysterious, vibrant, subversive forces of life, light and love keep on re-appearing when chaos and death seemed to have had the last word.

Yet the laws of physics seem undeniable, inescapable – we will all come to naught in the end; ultimately entropy wins in the physical universe. No amount of optimism can stave that off in the end… can it?

On Good Friday the pessimists have certainly triumphed. I told you it would come to no good, going about trying to make the world a better place… Look where it gets you, trying to be good and help people… best leave well alone and let the world go to hell in a handcart like it’s going to anyway… Good Friday seems to vindicate pessimism, to show that in the end, darkness and chaos win.

But then comes Easter.

For me, Easter is God throwing in his lot with the hopeless optimists against the rational pessimists. It is the first tiny seed planted of a new order of things, barely visible as yet, but which will one day burst through the cracks in the ugly concrete of this present reality, bringing in life and light and love everlasting and unstoppable and undefeatable.

And this is faith for me – believing in the ultimate victory of life over death, love over hate, good over evil, light over dark, hope over despair, beauty over chaos, and believing it despite everything in this messed-up, self-destructing physical world that tells to the contrary.

I’ll admit that I’m a natural pessimist. When I look at the world and at my own life, it’s pretty hard to believe in Easter. It’s easy enough to believe in Good Friday, in the apparently hopeless and pointless death of all that is good and kind and lovely, the ruin of all the promises of hope and change and a better future. Easter by contrast just seems far too long a shot, the beautiful but impossible pipedream of the hopeless optimists.

Except of course that it isn’t really the optimists who are hopeless…

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The cross as symbol and reality

The cross. Such a potent symbol, pregnant with a million meanings, yet at the same time so ubiquitous and universal that it loses its impact.

So what is the cross a symbol of? It is not a symbol of power, or strength, or authority, or victory, or glory… or rather it is, but in a new way that turns all of these ideas on their heads. What true power and glory and victory mean are forever changed, the old ways overturned by the cross.

The cross is the ultimate paradox at the heart of the universe and of human history. The Creator of all things, destroyed by his own creation. The Lord of Life, dead. The Great Healer, fatally wounded. The Prince of Peace, brutally and violently killed. The Mighty One, utterly weak and vulnerable, bleeding to death. The Glorious One, stripped in naked humiliation for all to mock. The ultimate Good, overcome by evil. How can this be? It makes no sense.

But this is our God. Not the Sovereign God of the Calvinists, who wields absolute power, arbitrarily determining the fate of all of his creatures according to his inscrutable iron will. But also not the absent God of the Deists, removed from the suffering of his creation. Nor the nice but slightly useless God of some ultra-liberals, saddened by human misery but unable to do anything about it except set an example that we won’t follow.

The God of the cross is the God who sees and feels the mess and pain of his world, and determines to do something about it himself – to take it on and into himself. It is the God who hates injustice and oppression and all the myriad evils which we inflict on each other and ourselves, but who is not willing to wipe out humanity. It is the God who must act, must do something about the mess, but to redeem not to destroy; to save not to punish.

The cross is the glory and wisdom and power of God. It is where God truly reveals himself and shows that he’s nothing like the God we’ve imagined. It is where he carries out his ultimate act to change the universe and us. And it is like nothing we’ve ever expected or dreamt of.

I get bored of preaching about the cross, because it so often focuses just on a narrow and transactional view where Jesus dies in our place to save us from God’s wrath at our sins so we can go to heaven. There may be some small truth in this, but it diminishes, dilutes and distorts the reality. We can’t explain what happened at the cross in some kind of formula; we can’t really explain it at all. And there is so much more to the cross, to God, than this picture allows.

Of course you may have a very different understanding of the cross to me, and that’s okay. As I say, I don’t claim to understand it, but I do still believe it. I believe in it as both symbol and reality, but by attempting to put that symbol and reality into words we do damage to it.

To me the cross has inexhaustible meanings. For a start it means that God is with us and for us; God is up close and involved; God is good and God is mercy; God forgives and so can we. The cross means that there is hope in the darkest situation and for the worst person. It means that evil can (and often will) do its worst but it won’t get the final say or the last laugh.

For the cross turns power and glory and victory on their heads. It turns even death on its head. I said that it was the Creator destroyed, the Healer fatally wounded, Life killed. But the end result of that the opposite becomes true – God’s death becomes the source of life; God’s wounds the source of our healing; the cross’s destruction the source of new creation.

How does this work, how does it happen? Who can say? Call it magic, call it miracle, call it mystery, call it what you will. It is the profoundest and most unfathomable work of the God of paradox, the God of surprises. But it has happened, and it is working. We can receive it and partake of it without understanding it or having to explain it.

For now evil still remains – for love cannot destroy evil by force – but now ultimately love wins. It wins by losing. It wins by dying. And that is what evil cannot understand, cannot destroy, cannot ever overcome.

God is dead; long live God.

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