Saturday, 30 July 2011


For my next item about Brian McLaren's book, 'Naked Spirituality', I'm going to look at what many people call 'worship'; joining together with other Christians to praise God using music, dance, visuals and other media. As an aside, I'm not keen on using the word 'worship' to describe singing songs and so forth, for reasons that are explained here. But on to McLaren. He says, drawing from the Psalms (e.g. Ps 16:11), that connecting with God is 'as if we are plugging our souls into a pure current of high-voltage joy'. God is a joyful being, McLaren adds, and (illustrated with a couple of pictures from the Brick Testament):

When we tap into the joy of the Lord, when we step into the pure joy that burns like a billion galaxies in the hear of God, we'll soon find ourselves shouting, dancing, singing, leaping, clapping, swaying, laughing, and otherwise jubilating and celebrating.

Doesn't it make sense, then, for Trinitarian Christians like me to define worship as joining in the eternal, joyful celebration that erupts continuously among Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Is it any wonder that Jesus, describing the kingdom of God, conceived of it as party, feast, banquet, festival?

Returning to the point about that word 'worship', McLaren does go on to say that our singing and celebrating really need to expand into a way of life. As Paul urges in Romans 12, we should give our bodies to God because of all he has done for us. This is truly the way to worship God, Paul says. Regarding how we can offer our whole lives to God, McLaren gives seven ways. I'm tempted to write about all of them but here's a little bit about the one that particularly struck me; giving God the joy of our creativity. We're all creative in one way or another, whether it's writing poetry, playing a musical instrument, gardening, cooking, dancing, woodworking, car maintenance... But what do you think of this point ?
Probably, in whatever you do, you apologise: it's not very good... I'm just an amateur... I never took any lessons... I really do it just for myself. My guess is that you do this for the same reason I do: I really love my creative pursuits, and they are unspeakably precious to me, and the thought of them being evaluated or criticised or even mocked by others is so distressing that I decide to pre-empt the criticism of others with my own disparagement.

This idea had not struck me consciously before, and yet I do play down my own creative efforts. I think there's something in what McLaren says about why this is; it's an attempt to avoid or reduce the sting of any criticism that might come my way. McLaren's suggestion on this is remarkably simple, I think:
Let's apologise less and create more. Let's think of creating for the approval of others less, and for the pleasure of God more. Think of the little girl who draws a picture for her mother. She uses crayons to compose crude stick figures – a blue person, a red car, a green and brown tree, a purple house, a yellow sun with squiggly lines radiating out from it. And what does her mother do? Critique it? No, she uses magnets to display it on the refrigerator, where it may stay until the girl graduates from high school. What if God is more like that mother than the critics we fear? What could give our Creator more pleasure than our creative offerings?

McLaren adds another fabulous anecdote of how young children love to show their parents what they're doing. 'Dad, watch this!', they cry as they climb the playground slide or ride their trike around the garden. We could try to live like this with God, McLaren, suggests, showing off in a sense, but not egotistically; instead it is 'humbly, generously and with childlike abandon seeking to bring pleasure to the One who gave me life'. Worth a go, I think!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Being thankful

I'm reading Brian McLaren's new book, 'Naked Spirituality', which uses twelve words to describe twelve spiritual practices. Actually that's not quite true; he illustrates each of the spiritual practices with a few different words, starting with one and then using some more to illustrate the point. So the first chapter is about simply welcoming God to be with us where we are. McLaren starts with the word 'here', as in 'I am here'. He also uses 'now', 'you', 'who', 'we', 'open' and 'home' to unpack the idea of us being with God, wherever we are and whatever our state of mind.

It's the next word that's really got me excited today, though. That word is 'thanks'. Not that we should be thankful for everything (that would just be silly) but that we can be thankful in everything, as Paul wrote at the end of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess 5:18). McLaren also uses the word 'this' to convey the attitude of thankfulness:
This day. This kiss. This view. This meal, this taste, this breath, this moment, this song... instead of letting these treasures pass by as if they were nothing or as if we were unconscious of their beauty and wonder, we pause and savour them, and we lift our joy and appreciation up to God in gratitude.

I've been trying this out over the last couple of days and it's really refreshing. Hopefully I'll be able to stay with it for a while, stopping to notice good things and to thank God for them. It's so easy, isn't it, to just move on to the next task that needs doing, or to get distracted by the TV, internet, radio, or the book you're reading. But it's good to pause, even just for a short moment. It's helping me to stay conscious of God through more of the day and to keep a sense of inner balance when things don't go quite how I'd like.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Biblical words that we've redefined

Just a quick post tonight. I've been having a look round a website called Paths of Return, created (so the author says) as 'a kind of travel log of my journey in search of missing or forgotten elements of the Christian life'.

This blog entry caught my eye the other day. It lists seven words from the New Testament that the author thinks are commonly misused:

Those of you who know me well have probably heard me go on about some of these words, and how our modern usage is a long way from what the words meant in New Testament times. I won't do a big copy-paste from the Paths of Return blog (I think doing that is a bit rude) but do have a look and see what you make of it.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Brian McLaren's take on developing a rich spiritual life

My studying is over for the term but, being a bit of a book fiend, I'm still doing plenty of reading! My latest book is Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren. It's all about developing a richer, deeper life with God, using twelve words as the starting point for twelve spiritual exercises. I might blog about one or two of the specific words, but this post is on what McLaren says about the whole idea of spiritual exercises. He asks how we can experience a life with God day-by-day and moment-by-moment as a way of life, answering that a way of life is formed by practices:
By practices, we mean do-able habits or rhythms that transform us, rewiring our brains, restoring our inner ecology, renovating our inner architecture, expanding our capacities. We mean actions within our power that help us become capable of things currently beyond our power.

He goes on to make the (key, I think) point that this is a very difficult quest to embark on alone. With any skill or character transformation, we do much better if we are among people who are on the same quest. I'm going to quote a rather large chunk of what McLaren says here because I just love his combination of insight and simplicity:
So, for example, I'm incapable of speaking Chinese today. But if I find a social group of fluent speakers, and in their company I begin practising a single new word or phrase or series of phrases day by day, I will one day be reasonably fluent myself. I'm incapable of running a marathon today. But if I find a group of runners who can teach me a time-tested training regimen, I can start with a half-mile today. Then in six months, following their regimen, I will be able to run all twenty-six miles. I'm incapable of playing the violin today. But if I find a master violinist and join her circle of dedicated students, with some months or years of practice, I will someday be able to contribute to a band or orchestra and play an Irish jig or Mozart symphony.

Similarly, I may be incapable of accepting an insult without retaliation today. I may be incapable of remaining grateful in the midst of fatigue. I may be incapable of receiving attention for successful achievements without becoming conceited. I may be incapable of loving my enemies, or seeing things from their point of view, or overcoming discrimination, or resisting the urge to consume or pollute, or remaining patient under stress. I may be incapable of remembering that God loves me and knows my name, or that God graciously accepts me apart from my performance, or that God loves and knows 'the other' no less than me.

But what if there were some practices by which what is now spiritually impossible for me could actually become possible? What if there were practices that made space for the well of living water to flow, for the wind of the Spirit to blow, for the stone jars in my life to be filled with a nobler cause and a more meaningful, joyful purpose? What if there were communities focused on embodying those practices, and what if they were ready to welcome me to learn among them? Would I want to learn those practices, and enter into those communities?
I think that last paragraph sums up a major part of what really excites me and what I want my life to be about. I want to play my part in establishing and growing communities that embody these practices by which God works in and through us, transforming us more into his likeness. Alongside this, though, I hope to develop my own life with God. I've seen it written in a few different places that you can't take people places (spiritually speaking) where you haven't been yourself...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The hope of mankind – Jesus Christ or the American Way?

I've just handed in my final theology course essay! I should be awarded a Graduate Diploma in Kingdom Theology in due course, once the final essay has been marked. Looking back over the last two years, I've learnt so much about God, his ways, and about myself too. I've also met some truly great people and hopefully I'll stay in touch with many of them. Most of them are finishing this year although I'm carrying on to the Masters programme, starting again in early September.

The final essay was all about the Roman Emperor Constantine and his impact on Christianity. Constantine supported the church very strongly, both in financial terms and through giving many church leaders positions of high political office. Whether this all benefited Christianity is, of course, another matter; and this question was the main focus of my essay. So I looked at how Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first two or three centuries since Jesus' time, despite some horrific persecution at points during this period. I also had to write about the modern-day legacy of Constantine's merger of church and state, and it was during this research that I found George W. Bush seeming to equate Jesus Christ with the American Way...

Bush was speaking a year after the World Trade Centre attacks, giving a speech at the harbour of Ellis Island, where many immigrants entered the USA in the first half of the 20th century. Here's the last little section of his speech:
This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbour. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it. May God bless America.

And for comparison, here are the first five verses of John's Gospel (italics added by me):
In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Now I know it's important to bear in mind the context in which we say things. Bush no doubt wanted to inspire his people to believe that the American way of living is worth defending, and not something to be ashamed of. That's fine, but to equate the American way of living with the true light of the world, Jesus Christ? Too far, Mr President.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

What is the good news of Jesus Christ?

When I first began to follow Jesus, I understood it in terms of believing and stating certain things. I prayed a sinner's prayer which was explained to me as marking my transfer from being 'lost' to being 'saved'. The sinner's prayer follows from a way of thinking about Christianity and salvation that some people call the Roman Road of Salvation. I Googled that phrase and here is one of the descriptions that came up:
Romans 1:20-21 – God reveals himself to humanity

Romans 3:32 – We are all sinners; we all fail to meet God's perfect standards

Romans 3:10 – We cannot cancel out or undo our own sin

Romans 6:23 – Our sin must be punished, because God is a god of justice

Romans 5:8 – But God loves us and so became human (in the form of Jesus Christ) to take the punishment that we deserve

Romans 6:23 – God gives us eternal life through the death of Jesus

Romans 10:9-10 – We must believe in Jesus and put our trust in him alone to make us right with God

Romans 10:13 – There is no complicated formula; everyone who trusts in Jesus will be saved

I do think there's plenty of good in this kind of outline; for example it makes the vital point that being a Christian is not simply about the culture you live in or the family you were born into. Something personal is required.

But are we required to just say 'yes' to a series of statements? Formulas like the one above say very little (sometimes nothing at all) about our behaviour; they just seem to be about getting us to a point where we can state certain things like 'I believe Jesus died for my sins'. Are you not a Christian until you say those words? Can we take isolated verses of the Bible out of their context and knit them together in a new sequence like this?

I've recently been reading and thinking about more narrative ways of communicating the good news of Jesus (which is bad, in a way, because I'm no good at telling stories!). Donald Miller writes about this, in his book Searching for God Knows What. He says that all the various self-help, formula-based books he'd read hadn't made much difference to his life; and he mentions a friend of his who 'believes the qualities that improve a person's life are relational, relational to God and to the folks around us'. Jesus taught his disciples in a relational way, Miller says, not through a set of formulas, so maybe 'God didn't know about the formulas, or the formulas weren't able to change a person's heart'. I like this comment (from pages 13-14):
So if the difference between Christian faith and all other forms of spirituality is that Christian faith offers a relational dynamic with God, why are we cloaking this relational dynamic in formulas?... Are modern forms of Christian spirituality producing better Christians than days long ago, when people didn't use formulas and understood, intrinsically, that God is a Being with a personality and a will of His own?... I started reading the Bible very differently. I stopped looking for the formulas and tried to understand what God was trying to say. When I did that, I realized the gospel of Jesus, I mean the essence of God's message to mankind, wasn't a bunch of hoops we needed to jump through to get saved, and it wasn't a series of ideas we had to agree with either; rather, it was an invitation, an invitation to know God.

So maybe that's how I would explain what the message of Christianity, now that I'm losing faith in the formulaic Roman Road-type methods. Christianity is an invitation to know God, to become an apprentice of the maker and sustainer of the universe. And God is supremely revealed through Jesus.

Sunday, 3 July 2011


My parents were on holiday in Weymouth last week so I thought I'd join them for a couple of days, seeing as Southampton is not very far away. We went to Portland on Thursday, meaning that I've now been to Portland, Oregon and Portland, Dorset! Both were great, in different ways, and I'd love to visit both again. I suspect one might happen rather sooner than the other....

Here are a few photos of the Portland in Dorset:

And here's one of the other Portland, looking towards the entrance to the Saturday Market:

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Is Ed Milliband a robot?

I've just caught up with an interview that Ed Milliband gave to the BBC regarding the public sector workers' strike on Thursday. Now, I know that politicians don't always answer the question they're asked, often taking a particular line and sticking with it. But watch this clip (it's less than three minutes long) and see what you think:

Unless my ears deceive me, Milliband answers five different questions using a combination of the same four phrases , wording them more or less identically each time:

These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on
(Five times)

Parents and the public have been let down by both sides
(Four times)

The government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner
(Five times)

I urge both sides to put aside the rhetoric, get round the negotiating table and stop it happening again
(Five times)

Does Milliband really not have anything spontaneous to say or is he too scared of a gaffe to deviate in any way from the script he's prepared beforehand?