Monday, 28 February 2011

I sold my soul to Jesus and since then I've had no fun

This is a lyric from from The Captain And The Hourglass by the wonderful Laura Marling. From what I gather, she was a practising Christian during some of her teen years but has since moved away from the faith. I'm guessing that the line from the song reflects, at least in part, her experience of Christianity. How sad is that? But I guess every Christian has felt that way from time to time, that it's all about a list of Dos and (more of these!) Don'ts.

Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. This passage is often taken as a set of rules that Christians ought to follow; 'Do this. Don't do that.' But what if, instead, it was a description of how life will be for those living under God's power? Dallas Willard says in The Divine Conspiracy that Jesus' aim with the Sermon was to help his listeners understand 'the nature of the kingdom into which they are now invited'. Willard goes on:
'Far from being additional laws to crush us or show us we can't make it on our own (of course we can't!), the separate parts [of the Sermon] are distinct perspectives on the sweet life of love and power, of truth and grace, that those who count on Jesus can even now lead in his kingdom.'

Now doesn't that lift your spirit, rather than crushing it with a list of rules that nobody could ever dream of living up to?

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Would I follow Christ to the point of death?

I've been thinking about martyrdom over the last couple of days, cheerful fellow that I am. It started when one of the lecturers on my theology course (a wonderful man of God called Peter Fitch) asked whether we'd rather be Christians now, in our current situation in the UK, or in the 1st century. His answer was 'now', because of all that we can draw on from those who have been before us. He encouraged us to adopt an 'ancient-future' approach to our faith, drawing on the best from all the historic traditions (quotation from 'The Divine Embrace' by Robert Webber):
Why go back [to the earliest convictions of Christian spirituality]? Because the Roman culture in which Christianity first emerged is very similar to the culture of today's world. It was a culture of political unrest, a world of numerous religious options, a time of moral confusion and poverty. The religions of the day made no demands on believing, behaving, or belonging. In this context the Christian message was not presented as one more spirituality among the spiritualities but... Christians proclaimed, "We believe, we behave, we belong."

This is a wonderful point to make, and it's a point that my particular Christian tradition probably needs to hear more than most. But many of us Christians in these times (at least in the western world) are so half-hearted in our faith, so comfortable with our material security, so infected by our culture. In stark contrast, look at the example of the early Christian church as it came into being in the midst of the Roman empire. The regular periods of persecution that Christians experienced meant that a half-hearted faith simply wasn't viable.

The notes we got on the theology course residential week mentioned a lady who I'd not heard of before, Perpetua of Carthage. She was executed for her faith in around AD 203, making her one of the earliest Christian martyrs. A full account of her martyrdom, along with that of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, is here and I've quoted an excerpt below (picture licensed by Creative Commons, photograph taken by Gaetan Poix on 20th August 2008):

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheater joyfully, as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.…

They were then led up to the gates, and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.

“We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.”

Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the onlooking mob. Then, when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: “You have condemned us, but God will condemn you” was what they were saying.

At this time the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this, that they had obtained a share of the Lord’s sufferings.

Perpetua then called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.”

Immediately as the contest was coming to a close, a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus [Perpetua's teacher] was drenched in blood. Shortly afterward, he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving.

Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.

On the one hand, I recoil in horror at the brutality in accounts like this and I feel sick with fear that I might ever have to go through anything like this (I'm not good with pain). But what an incredible example of unswerving faith in Christ! I certainly don't want to experience pain, torture or death for my faith but I pray that, if it ever comes to this, I will hold firm and confess that Jesus is Lord. Whatever the consequences.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Holy anticipation

I'm off to Cheltenham for a few days on the last residential teaching block for my theology course. I have a sense that it's going to be a good time. The staff at the theology college and our local 'hub director' (the lady who makes it all happen here in Hampshire, basically) have all been praying for us students and they've sent us much encouragement over the last few days.

The sessions for my group will mostly be split between a module on Christian spirituality and a doctrine module. I'm really looking forward to both, but in quite different ways. The spirituality sessions promise to teach me many new things – or rather many old things that I'm not yet aware of! We'll be looking at and trying to learn from contemplative, mystical practices and writings from the whole history of Christianity. And I expect the doctrine module will force me to confront a few issues with my own thinking about a few different points of theology. How close am I to embracing what some might describe as heresy, especially regarding open theism and simple / organic church? And what if I am close to embracing 'heresy'; does that matter?

Just in closing, a quick word on the chess tournament. I did pretty well, finishing with a win, two draws and two losses. All my opponents were higher graded than me so my score of 2.5 out of 6 was slightly better than par. A good weekend then. It was really hard work though! It felt like my opponents just didn't make any mistakes. But that's the thing about people graded higher than you; they don't make many mistakes. Or at least the mistakes they do make are subtle enough for you not to notice them. The upshot of it all is that I'm pretty tired as I write this, so if you're a praying sort then please pray that God would help me to stay focused and sharp this week. Thanks!

Friday, 18 February 2011

Chess and tightrope walking

I played chess on Tuesday evening as I usually do, at Southampton Chess Club. All was going very well for me, I was playing at pretty much the top of my game, and then a moment of blindness. I gave away my Queen. Nothing in return, no excuse either. I just completely missed that my Queen was under threat. And it had to happen when I was about to win, didn't it?! Well over an hour of good work totally spoilt by one shocking mistake.

It struck me that playing chess is a lot like tightrope walking in this regard. In both, you can be moments away from triumph and one error means it all goes to waste. Clearly, the stakes are rather higher (ha ha) in tightrope walking than in chess but, hey, no analogy is perfect!

And I hope I've got all the terrible moves out of my system as I'm playing in a chess tournament this weekend, starting tonight. I'm feeling okay about the great Queen giveaway but it's a bit worrying that my last game of chess was decided by a hideous mistake of mine. Still, things can only improve and I should comfort myself with the knowledge that even chess world champions sometimes make such mistakes...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

More music that moves me

I posted back in July about some songs that I love, looking especially at the lyrics. Well, it's time for another post about music, I think.

It seems I'm on a constant quest to find Christian music I really like; so much Contemporary Christian Music is either droning heavy rock or cheesy MOR, at least to my ears. However, here's a Christian album of true beauty and spiritual insight: Kansas by Jennifer Knapp.

Firstly, I'm a big fan of melodic folk-rock and a sucker for a great voice. But more than that, Kansas is packed full of poignant, inspiring, piercing lyrics. Here are a couple of my favourite songs off the album with a little sample of the lyrics underneath.

Martyrs and Thieves (not great audio, sorry)

A great fool in my life I have been
Have squandered 'til pallid and thin
Hung my head in shame and refused to take blame
For the darkness I know I've let win

So turn on the light and reveal all the glory, I am not afraid
To bare all my weakness, knowing in meekness I have a kingdom to gain

Undo Me

Abba Father, you must wonder why
More times than Peter I have denied
Three nails and a cross to prove
I owe my life eternally to you

And finally, congratulations from me to Laura Marling and Arcade Fire, who both won awards at the Brits the other day! Two of my favourite acts getting serious recognition for the greatness of their music. Happy listening!

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Kevin explains what the ‘Big Society’ means

Followers of UK politics will know that David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has a bright idea which he calls the ‘Big Society’. The idea has been greeted with rather a lot of indifference and confusion so Cameron is giving it a re-launch. He spoke yesterday about the Big Society being ‘a different way of governing’ that is ‘going to get every bit of my passion and attention over the five years of this Government.’ Stirring words, eh? Or does it still leave you cold?

Well I thought I’d have a go at explaining what the Big Society is, seeing as so many people say they haven’t got it yet. Masochistic, I know, although I’d prefer to say that I like a challenge. I was prompted to do this by something I read on the Political Betting blog the other day and then something that a workmate told me earlier this morning. Here goes:

You see a problem of some kind; say a neighbour who struggles to get to the shops or a park that is full of litter. The Big Society response is to think, ‘I can do something about that’, and to get on with doing your bit to resolve the issue. You and a few friends keep in touch with the neighbour and offer to help with their shopping. The Big Government response is to complain that the Council should be sorting things out better. Maybe you do tell the relevant authority but you don’t do anything about it yourself.

My workmate gave me a practical example. A friend of hers has been in a nursing home for a couple of weeks and was talking to the staff before he left. The guy lives with his parents, who are both very elderly and need a lot of support. But they manage due to a wide network of family and friends who are always popping by to help with whatever needs doing. Big Society. However, this wasn’t good enough for the nursing home staff who said something like, ‘Oh, so there’s no professional help.’ Big Government. That is the assumption which David Cameron is trying to wean the country from; if a paid official is not involved then it doesn’t really count. And I wish him well.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A different kind of church meeting

Our church meeting on Sunday is going to be a bit different from the usual. Our children and all the kids' ministry team will be in the main meeting, with the other adults choosing one of three seminar / workshop options. And I'm leading one of the workshops! I'm really looking forward to it but I've got no idea how it will go. And how it will go is largely out of my hands...

The plan is that everyone who opts for this workshop will sit in a circle and wait until we feel God prompting us to say or do something. This could be to talk about something we've read in the Bible recently, or to share some message that we think God has given us, or perhaps to lead a song that we can all join in with. It's all about being spontaneous and free to follow where God is leading us that morning, without the rigidity of a pre-set agenda. So how it goes will depend a great deal on what everybody brings, in the same way as the success of a shared picnic depends on everyone bringing something (food, drink, games, companionship).

I'm a bit nervous as I'm guessing this will be most people's first experience of taking part in a meeting like this. I want the experience to be positive and for people to be enthused about meeting together in this way again from time to time. But all I can do is pray that God would prepare people and give them something to share over the next few days, and that he would really show up on Sunday morning! I know he's always with us, but I'm sure you get what I'm saying.