Warner's TheoBlog

Thoughts from a disciple who writes


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Burned out on Religion

In my work as a funeral celebrant, the phrase that I hear most regularly is, “we are not religious”. In fact, almost all of the funerals I officiate at are understood, at least by the families whom I serve, to be non-religious. Yet they request prayers, Bible readings, a brief message of hope in the grace of God, and a hymn with words that give honour and glory to God.

When families tell me that they are “not really very religious”, they do so with a sense of apologetic determination. As if they are saying, “we are not really very religious and we are not going to be persuaded otherwise”. As I dig a little deeper during our discussions, I find that people have often been put off of the church, by their experience as children or by a kind of assumed cynicism. They may not be ‘religious’ but they have a suspicion of faith in God.

 “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 (The Message)

As I sit with them, I tell them the truth. I am not very religious either.

I believe that religion sucks the life out of faith in Jesus. To be religious is as helpful to faith as making formal rules for the conduct of love. As if a love affair can only be a ‘real’ love affair if one uses specific words, visits particular venues and involves only prescribed movements to acceptable pieces of music.

We all know that pretty much every love affair involves certain elements: words that declare love, dates where couples hold hands, sofas where they canoodle, physical touches that send shivers down the spine, all done to a soundtrack that, when one hears it years later, engenders sharp memories of a time of sweetly sharp love. Love affairs do not need to be formalized and controlled, they need to be given space and minimal boundaries.

Religion is rubbish! It is the codification of our relationship with God. Religion turns our relationship with God, that would otherwise be a love affair, into a stuffy meeting over afternoon tea. It takes all of the vibrant reality out of faith in Jesus, telling us that it is only the prescribed methods of spending time with Him that are unacceptable. Religion makes the love of God into something that it should not be… a contract.

Faith in God is supposed to be unfettered, unrestricted, and wonderfully real. We should not dread and avoid our encounters with Him. We should be excited to be early, so that we waste none of the time we spend in His company as possible. Our desire to be with God should be a reflection of the overflow of a forgiven soul. We are the recipients of His grace, welcomed into union with Him by His open arms, desperate to squeeze every moment out of our joyous time together.

Going to church, praying, singing, reading God’s word; none of these should be a bind or a chore. They should be a wonderful overflowing pleasure. And it is almost impossible to make them so, unless one has a very specific taste, through codification and formalization. My time with my beloved wife is not characterized by our prescribed words of devotion and strictly timed liaisons, but by our sheer pleasure in simple having opportunities to sit, laugh, talk, touch and love.

That is not to say that there are not boundaries in both love and faith. The boundaries of a love affair have to do with restricting the expression of passion so that it does not become destructive to ourselves and those who are witnesses to our love. The boundaries of faith expression are similar, having less to do with what we practice and more to do with what might be destructive.

I am not Religious. I am deeply, passionately, breathlessly, sincerely, seriously, amazingly, desperately in love with Jesus who, when I was lost in destructive sin and far away from my Father Creator, paid the price so that I could be reconciled and reunited with Him. I love Him. And I want to tell Him that I love Him. I want to be with Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and close to my Father. I don’t need prescribed words and movements to do that, although there are times when it is a little help, I need space and opportunity and desire. I WANT to spend time with God, so that is what I do. Freely and lightly, as an overflow of my very forgiven, renewed soul.


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Adoption

I was talking to friends of mine who are a lovely couple who, over 20 years ago, upon finding that they were unable to have children of their own, made the decision to adopt a child.

After all of the tests and paper work were complete, their new 5 year old daughter turned up their doorstep. She burst into the midst of their otherwise calm life together with all of the emotion and energy of any 5 year old. In her case, however, she had already been shaped and altered by the abuse and neglect of her life so far. Through no fault of her own she was, to say the least, a challenge. From that moment on, my friends committed their lives together to love and bless this little girl who was now their daughter.

I heard them share their testimony on Adoption Sunday in the UK, and they were so proud of their daughter. They showed some photos on the screen and talked about how she had come to faith, was baptized and later married. They shed tears of joy that she was grown up, happy and loved. Yet, the journey of parents and child had also been incredibly challenging.

Their daughter’s life before adoption had had some effects on her that were permanent. And the parts that were not permanent have taken years to heal, and will take more years yet. Even as I write this, however, I have a tear in my eye at the awesome love and sacrifice that my friends have given for the sake and good of their beloved daughter.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12)

As we were talking in their kitchen it dawned on me that their action was the same as that of God.

We talked about the fact that by the age of 5 years, the character and experience of a child are already mostly formed. That, in many ways, it is too late for their new parents to form them through nurture. Their adoptive parents might cover their new children in love and devotion, but there is no guarantee that their child will grow to maturity as a healed and balanced person. We talked a little about the parents and marriages that have been wrecked after adopting challenging, hurt children, lives left exposed and attacked by the challenges that come with loving the lost and broken.

My friends, together with so many adoptive parents, made the deliberate choice to lay their lives on the line for the sake of a child in need of love and care. They had none of the run-up of pregnancy to develop a bond. Their child exploded into their life with all of the hurts and pain of their previous life. Every vulnerability in their lives was exposed and all that they could do was trust in Jesus, everyday choosing to love and nurture their daughter simply because that was what she needed. There was no guarantee of a happy ending, only of the challenges and difficulty that would come with each day. That is not to say that there were not joys, only that the life of a parent is not all joy and sweetness and light.

But the price was worth paying. I will write that again, more clearly. THE PRICE WAS WORTH PAYING!

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:14-16)

The Bible tells us that those of us who believe in Jesus are children of God, adopted into His family. Men and women, accepted by the Father into the inheritance position of an elder son. Everything that is our Father’s is also ours.

God, our Father, adopts us. We turn up with all of the hurts and anguish, damage and disability, that result from the lives we lived before we come into His home. There is no guarantee to the Father that we will turn out alright, or that the unconditional love that he lavishes upon us will be accepted and bring us to healing and wholeness. The only thing that is guaranteed is that it will cost the Father all of his love.

Our Father loves us, because He chooses to do so. He is willing to deliberately pay the price for our adoption in effort, time, energy, love and, as necessary, in blood. Our growth as children is worth, to Him, His sacrifice of love and devotion.

This is a mind-blowing truth. Father offers us life as a child in His home. Not because we deserve it, but because He gives it to us. I am a child of God. I am a son of God, because he chose to love me.

Adoption is a sacrament. It is an imitation of our Father God who adopts us as his beloved children, despite all of our own issues and damages. He spends a lifetime nurturing us, leading us to healing and maturity. He sacrifices all, including the life of his true son, in order to restore us to wholeness as his beloved and blessed children. Thank you to all of you who adopt as my Father God has adopted me. How ever the situation might have turned out, wherever you and your child has ended up, you are a blessing and an inspiration. As an adopted son of God I bless you in the name of my Father who is also your Father.

“The Father bless you
and keep you; the Father make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Father turn his face towards you
and give you peace.” (my version of Numbers 6:24-26)


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Lord, help me stand

Lord, help me stand.

In the midst of every activity, let me stand.

In the teeth of the gale, let me stand.

Amongst the clamor of voices, let me stand.

When thoughts conflict, let me stand.

When all seems at ease, let me stand.

When I know nothing, let me stand.

When accusations fly, let me stand.

When suspicions are directed toward me, let me stand.

When the waters rise and seem set to engulf me, let me stand.

In the darkness and the cold, let me stand.

In the light and the heat, let me stand.

When I am noticed, let me stand.

When I am ignored, let me stand.

When I am included or pushed out, let me stand.

In the silence and the noise, let me stand.

On your promises and your word, let me stand.

Wherever I am, let me stand.

Let me stand.

Let me stand.

Whatever the world throws at me and if suffering comes.

Whenever and wherever I am.

Please Father, give me the conviction, faith, acceptance, grace, strength, power, peace and knowledge to stand.

And when all else fails… let me stand.

 


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Faith in the promise of God

There are lots of cool things about studying the Bible, but amongst the coolest are those times when a passage that you have read time and again suddenly speaks to you in a fresh way.

In chapter 41 of Genesis, Joseph is standing in front of Pharaoh. He has been taken out of prison, cleaned up and asked to interpret a disturbing dream for the most powerful man in the world at that time. Joseph stands there by the recommendation of the Pharaoh’s own wine attendant, who he had interpreted a dream for two years earlier (see Genesis 40). Joseph makes it clear to Pharaoh that it is not he who has the power to interpret dreams, but that God is the one who interprets dreams and Joseph can only do what God leads him to do (Genesis 41:16).

Pharaoh tells Joseph about his dreams. The first involves 7 emaciated cows swallowing 7 fat cows. The second, 7 thin ears of corn devouring 7 healthy ears of corn. Pharaoh and all of his priests and magicians are stumped by them. It is what Joseph says next that blew me away.

“The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon” (Genesis 41:32)

It had never occurred to me before but, when Joseph utters these words about God repeating the dream in different forms because God has firmly decided upon it, he is also declaring his faith in another pair of dreams. (Genesis 37:5-9). As a young man, about 15 years earlier, Joseph had had two prophetic dreams of his own. The first about sheaves of corn and the second about the sun, moon and stars. Joseph himself had interpreted their meaning, much to the anger of his brothers, that he would come to rule over all of his family. In fact, it was as a direct result of these dreams that his brothers faked his death and sold him as a slave. Far from ruling, he now stands before Pharaoh as nothing more than a slave-prisoner.

Yet, Joseph declares with faith that Pharaoh’s dreams are true because he has had the same dream twice in different forms. He implies, therefore, that his own dreams were true for the same reason.

It is the steadfast faith of Joseph in the face of 15 years experience (that seems to prove beyond doubt that he would not rule over anyone, let alone his brothers) that blows me away. Even though it appears at that moment that there is no conceivable way for these dreams to ever become a reality for Joseph, he believes that God spoke the truth through those dreams.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Hebrews 11:1-2)

At no point before the interpretation of Joseph’s dream does it seem likely that his situation will change, and yet he has faith in God’s word for him. Joseph believes that God will fulfill Pharaoh’s dream and that God will fulfill Joseph’s dream. He has heard the promises of God, taken them to heart and now stands on them everyday, whether they look possible or not.

The question is this… what are the promises of God for you and I? We need to listen to God, discern His promises and then stand on them by faith. Our world might not look as if the promises of God have any hope of being fulfilled, or are even real, but that is not the point. The point is faith. All that matters is that God has promised and that what God promises, He does.


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Living by Faith

I have been spending some significant time in Hebrews 11 recently. It is a remarkable chapter of the Bible that sets out the concept of faith and then uses a massive list of people from the Old Testament to illustrate it.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” (Hebrews 11:1-2)

This is the BIG IDEA.

When God speaks, we need to live by what He says.

This might seem obvious, but it is profound and important and it is key that those of us who are disciples of Jesus don’t just hear what this says, but live too. So I need to say it again.

When God speaks, we who live by faith need to live by what He says. Even if the world that we observe around us does not seem to conform to what God says, we must.

The writer of the Hebrews illustrates his point, time and again and here are just a few of the examples he uses…

  • Abel – offered sacrifice to God, giving the best that he had, even though he could not see the God that he was sacrificing to with his own eyes. He had faith that God existed and was worth the sacrifice.
  • Noah – built an ark in the middle of a desert to protect his family from flood waters that God had promised, even though it was not raining and did not even look as if it would rain at all. He was ridiculed and pilloried, but he had faith that God was right.
  • Abraham – left his home to travel to another country that God had promised, even though there was no certainty that it would all work out. In fact, God promised that the land of Canaan would belong to his family and he never saw the of this promise in his own in his lifetime. He had faith that God would honour the word that He had given and so lived in the reality of God’s promise.
  • Abraham – again, showed that he trusted God more than his own eyes. As an old man he was promised a son and a multitude of descendants, even though it looked impossible in reality. He had faith that God would honour His promise and Sarah gave birth to Isaac in their old age.
  • Abraham – yet again. Took Isaac, his beloved son, to a mountain top and was willing to sacrifice him according to God’s instruction, even though it clearly appeared to be categorically opposed to the word of God for a multitude of descendants. He heard the voice of God and obeyed. He trusted God over and above his own eyes and the good opinion of others.

“All of these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13)

These people lived by the words and promises that God gave to them, even when they seemed ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world. In many cases, they never even saw God’s promise fulfilled in their own lifetimes, but they trusted, by faith, that God was in charge and would see things come to fruition according to His word and time. They accepted that their faith was alien to the world that they lived in, but they accepted what God said as truth and lived according to it. They were willing to be derided and laughed at by everyone else, simply because God was greater than they or their situation.

SO what about us? Are we willing to live as aliens in our own world and have faith in the promises and word of God over and above our own good, preference or common sense?

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is not to witness the fulfillment of the word of God. It might not happen in our lifetime and the story of the world is not about us to begin with. Neither is it our job to judge the word that God gives us according to our own preferences and logic. Our job is to live by faith… even when, to all appearances, the thing that we believe to be from God seems impossible or ridiculous.

We are not called to witness God’s act, we are called to be witnesses to God’s word!

By grace, it might be that God allows us to witness the fulfillment of His word in our lives but, if He does not, who are we to argue? If God is God then God’s word is true. Faith is believing this fact, accepting it and then living by it.

I would rather live by the truth of God’s word than by the understanding of the world… In all things. Because I have faith in God most High.

Of course, this stand on faith becomes problematic when what we believe is not believed, or even ridiculed, by the people around us. When the people around us do not believe what we believe or even oppose our faith choice. Just off the top of my head, the world I live in has different beliefs in areas that I believe God teaches particular truth on issues of sexuality, fidelity, marriage, honesty, creation, truth, divinity, faith, power, and so much more. The faith that get from my discipleship in Jesus is derided by our society, the people who rule the media and many of the people that I live among.

The question that I must ask is, “what does God say?” Even if God’s words is opposed to the voice of the many, I know that it is God’s voice I must listen for and, by faith, His path I must follow. Wherever that might lead.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)


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Why do we find it hard to live by faith?

I have really struggled over how to approach new set of blogs that is swishing and swashing around in my head. I want to address the idea of faith. To look at the deceptively simple idea that we need to have the faith to stand on the word of God. I find, however, that I am simply not sure how to get it out there in such a way that my readers might understand. I am not sure I get a full grip on it myself.

The truth that I want to put across is a simple one, yet it is deeply profound. It is something like this…

We must have a faith in God’s words that allows us to live in the truth of them. Not living in the world as it seems to be, but in the world as God says it is.

I am struggling even to convey what I mean in a sentence or two.

Let me try to explain what I am getting at with a series of lists that attempt to illustrate the progress of our thoughts.

First, how it should be…

a)     God speaks

b)    We hear

c)     We live by it

Let me fill it out a bit with an example from Jeremiah 31:3 of how it should work…

a)     God speaks – He says, “I love you with an everlasting love”.

b)    We hear – and think, “I am loved”.

c)     We live – as a person who is loved, in security and peace.

Most often, however, the following is the case…

a)     God speaks – He says, “I love you with an everlasting love”.

b)    We hear – and think, “I am loved”.

c)     We live – in exactly the same was as before.

Most of us live as if we are unloved and so are insecure, defensive and lonely. This is not how God wants us to live. When we hear about the deep and abiding love of God, it is a joyful revelation. What is missing most often, however, is a real acceptance of this revelation that allows us to live by the truth of it as secure, comfortable and blessed people.

It that something happens to us that causes us to hear God’s word and then not live by it. It is not that we ignore the word of God. Nearly all Christians would be able to say, “Jesus loves me”. Rather, it seems that reality as we perceive it hijacks the word of God so that we are unable to live by it. Thus, there are countless Christians who do as follows…

a)     God speaks – He says, “I love you with an everlasting love”.

b)    We hear – and think, “I am loved”.

c)     We live – as defensive people who feel insecure and unloved.

To give the process a bit more detail, I think that what happens is something like this…

a)     God speaks – We hear, “I love you with an everlasting love”.

b)    We hear – and think, “I am loved”.

c)     We live – in a world in which we have always felt unloved and insecure.

d)    We reassess God’s word – and think, “I do not feel loved by God. If I was better then I would be able to believe and live by God’s words. Therefore, it must be because I need to be a better person. How can God love me if I can’t even believe Him?”

e)     We then rewrite God’s words – He seems to say, “I would love to love you with an everlasting love, but you are not good enough”

f)     We hear – and think, “I am not good enough for God’s love”

g)     We live – in a way that does not feel loved and secure and so we set about ‘trying’ to live a better life and feel more loved by God, yet we feel guilty when it does not work.

Our experience of the world around us and our learned behavior seems to overwhelm our faith in what God says.

It is time for a change. We do not need grace to change… we already have that. The second that God declares His love for us we are offered the grace to experience that Love. What we need is faith. Faith in the word of God.

Faith is not simply hearing and believing. It is accepting and living as if it is true even when we find it hard to believe.

a)     God speaks – He says, “I love you with an everlasting love”.

b)    We hear – and think, “I am loved”.

c)     We live – as if we are loved by God’s everlasting love even if we don’t feel like it. We are secure, valued, loved, blessed and all the rest. How do we know? Because God tells us that we are. So we live in peace and faith.

It is so easy to ignore God’s word and promises. It is so easy to justify a life of insecurity and anxiety by saying, I am human. We are children of the living God… we do not need to justify our insecurity and unloved-ness because they are simply not true! WE ARE LOVED!

Where does this lead us? To a life of faith. A life lived in REALITY as it really is… As God says it is.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1)


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Good faith is good

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1)

I have spent a lot of time in the last week or so cogitating on this verse and the chapter that follows it. I hesitate to blog on it, because I am not entirely sure that I have a proper handle on it. I seem to have a lot of interesting ideas but I am struggling to put them into plain English. (What is the point of an idea if no one except I can understand what I mean?). So let me know if the following is clear.

My first thought is this. Faith is good. Actually, let me put it slightly differently. Good faith is good.

Faith is, according to the verse above, surety of what we hope for and certainty about the things that we do not see. From the perspective of the passage, this is a good thing. All of the people listed in Hebrews 11 stand in faith upon positive promises of God. They hold on to the things that God has said to them and they act in accordance with the future that God has promised, but that is not yet realised.

All of us need to take this on board. What are the promises of God for you? There are many that are clearly general promises in the Bible. That God will bring us into His Kingdom, that those have faith in Jesus will be saved, that the Holy Spirit empowers those who have faith in Jesus, and so on. There are also promises that are specific to us. God speaks to His children (another promise) through the power of the Holy Spirit. What has He said? How we live our lives and the choices that we make point clearly and honestly to where our faith lies.

A specific example of this from my own life is that God called me, 4 years ago now, to leave the church, stay in Braintree and He promised to provide for me and my family. The decision that my wife and I made as a result was to leave our denomination and stay in Braintree. Even though we had no work or home of our own in the town, we put into action the decisions that were in accordance with God’s word to stay in Braintree. We found that, after we had acted in faith, God provided work and, miraculously, the ability to buy a home. God is always faithful to His promises. I have faith in this.

My second thought is similar and, possibly, equally obvious. Bad faith is not good. Faith is the surety and certainty of what is as yet unseen. Therefore, if one is sure that things are going to turn out bad and fearful that the path that might lie ahead could lead to difficulty or pain, then that too is faith (just not a good sort). This kind of faith will also determine our actions and lead us on a path other than God’s.

Fear is not simply the opposite of faith, it is another kind of faith. How many of us who claim to believe in the word of God really, beneath the surface, worry that it is not real or true? Many, many Christians live by fear of what might go wrong rather than faith that God is REALLY all powerful.

For example, how many of us have a stronger belief in our own unworthiness than we have in the grace of God? If we believe, at the heart of things, that we are unworthy of God’s love more strongly than we believe that God offers His grace to us freely and without any need for us to earn it, then we will act accordingly. We will live in fear of God’s punishment rather than assurance of His love. It is so easy to believe that, really, after all is said and done, in the end, I need to be a better person in order to know God. All that this leads to is a guilty conscience and slavery to religious practices that are supposed to purify us for God. When we have faith that God offers free grace then things are very different. It is only after we come to God in Jesus that we change and are transformed into better people because we know God. When we come to God in faith, in humility and submission, then God’s plan unfolds in our lives and we are transformed by it. We are not changed in order to come to God, we are changed because we do come to God.

Fear is a faith that things might not turn out well and it dominates many Christian’s as they try to live in Jesus. Fear ruins the lives of disciples, because it is twisted faith.

I guess the question goes something like this… what do you have faith in most strongly – God or something else? If our faith is in God, then we will act in a way that opens the way for the power of God to move, because we will be in step with the Spirit. If our faith is in something else, then we will act to please or mollify that thing… or we might not act at all. Even then, we will probably try to justify what we do by saying we are doing it for God.

It is hard to think of examples that are simple to give. Yet we all know the competing voices that call for our attention in every area of our lives. The “What if…” question is always loud and it can cripple us as we seek to follow the will of God for our lives. If Noah had listened to what if… he would have drowned in the flood. Had Abraham listened to the what if voice… he would have died in Haran like his father before him.

There is only one voice that matters. The voice of God. When God speaks, there is no what if because we can be sure that He has the what if in hand. Our calling is to walk the path rather than plot the course.

The question I ask myself is this. “What has God said to me and am I acting upon it by faith? If I am not acting in accordance with it then why not?”

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1)


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Psalm 23 (rebooted)

(A Psalm of Nigel… taken from David)

I am the Lord’s sheep. He is my shepherd. He is there to guide me and I am there to be guided. Whilst I know that I shall lack nothing with Him as my shepherd, for some reason I still live in repetitive fear that I will go without something and be left alone. It is not true, but it still sneaks in to my head.

I feel His firm hand on me as he lays me down in the lush green grass, besides quiet waters. The only thing that disturbs the peace is my bleating, as I keep trying to find out what the grass is like over there and there and whether I should have such peace. My soul needs restoring, but I wonder if I ever stop long enough to let it happen.

My shepherd guides my path in righteousness, but I am constantly wandering off without thinking. But my shepherd keeps on guiding, because he is my shepherd. That’s what he does.

At those times when I walk through the shadowy valleys, that suggest and feel like death, I don’t need to fear evil. I find that as I walk in the dark, I can sense the presence of my shepherd staff… even when I find it almost impossible to see the shepherd. I really don’t need to fear evil in those dark places… but often I still do. Until I stop. Then I notice that my shepherd is, in fact, right next to me and feel immense comfort from the presence of his staff and the knowledge that He is with me.

My shepherd prepares a table for me. My enemies might think I deserve to eat off of the floor, but my Lord sits me in His banqueting hall at His table to eat His food. Everyone can see that He loves me, even those who hate me. My Lord anoints my head with oil to show that I am not only a sheep of His flock, but a son of His family. If I can but notice it, my cup overflows because He gives me more than enough of everything that I need.

Because I am His sheep and His son, good things and His love will be with me and upon me for every minute of my life. Nothing can happen to me that will separate me from Him and so everything is good, for the rest of my life.

I am His and so I will live in His presence for ever. Nothing will change that. I just pray that I perceive it.


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Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’

Whilst my blog is most often an opportunity for my theological thoughts and cogitations to be aired, there are times when I feel it necessary to make a comment on culture and the media. This week is one of those times.

I spent an interesting and enjoyable hour watching Simon Schama’s new BBC documentary, The Story of the Jews. As with all of his history programs, it was good TV and he is an engaging presenter. Since I am not an historian, I would not comment on the historical accuracy of his programmes, especially the ones that have focused purely on the history of Britain or America. Whilst I watched this one, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable.

I have a more than passing familiarity with the history of the Jews (through my theological studies) and as I watched him presented his understanding of the ancient history of the Jews I felt that it was almost unrecognizable. It took me a good half an hour to work out why.

When Simon Schama began the programme, he set out his reasons for doing so. Chief among them was his own need for identity as a Jew and his desire to belong through a shared story. Yet he very clearly avoided declaring a faith in the reality of God. In fact, he declared his solidarity with Sigmund Freud’s need for identity and conclusions as to his Jewish personhood. Freud was a secular Jew who believed that the concept of God was a projection of human need and could be reduced to an expression of the human psyche. Schama is, it seems, and Freud was, an atheist.

Schama went on to set out the ancient history of the Jewish people with only a passing reference to God and, when he did refer to God, only with the implication that God was a necessity of unenlightened, pre-enlightenment Jewry. Implying further, that a concept of God was not a necessary. Even when footage of he and his friends celebrating the Pesach (Passover) meal was shown, the impression was that the presence of God in the story of the Exodus was an incidental explanation for suffering and escape needed by an ancient people.

Simply put, his history of the Jews was God-less.

He went on to suggest in his thesis, with little or no explanation, several ideas that were very problematic. Among them were the ideas that Moses must have died at the point when the law of God was developed and that the law was simply an enactment of communal grief on behalf of the people, and that the Bible itself was changed in Babylon to make the law even more rigorous. Neither of which fit with the biblical account and both of which are only necessary if one does not have a concept of the need for God.

Simon Schama has produced a documentary, all be it an interesting one, that is not ‘THE story of the Jews’, but ‘AN INTERPRETATION of the story of the Jews’.

To leave God out of the history of the Jewish people is like leaving flour out of bread. You might still be able to cook something with the ingredients, but you are not going to get bread. Perhaps his reply to this point might be that God is only the leaven for the bread of Judaism, but I would simply say that without God there is no bread at all. The presence of the One True God is at the heart of Judaism and it is what lifts it to transcend national identity. God offers purpose and meaning to the existence of humanity in the universe, a truth that is made clearly evident in the People of God, the Jews.

I am not Jewish and can never truly understand the historic suffering of my Jewish brothers and sisters. But I am a believing, faith filled Christian and I believe that the God of the Bible (both Old and New Testament) is the meaning and purpose that lies behind the existence and life of humanity. I pray for those who believe in the God I follow, even those who do not yet know Jesus to be the Messiah, and I hope that, even as I watch and enjoy the rest of Schama’s TV series, the presence of the One True God will shine out of the story of the People of God for all to see.

As the Bible says,

Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’ (John 4:21-24)

That time has come in Jesus.


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Walking around in circles

Even I can see, as I read Joshua 6, that the strategy to take the fortified city of Jericho is a little bit alternative. It is not normal to walk in circles around a city and never fire a rock or stone at the walls, and then to expect the walls to come down.

“as the commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell face down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” (Josh. 5:14-15)

Joshua’s encounter with the commander of the Lord’s army reveals several things.

  • First, God’s power is present as the people of Israel start to take possession of the promised land. His army is already at the scene of the battle and preparations have been made.
  • Second,  the land around Jericho is already holy. God has set it apart for the people of Israel to see the power of His presence and activity. The land will not be made holy when the city is taken and the non-believers are destroyed. It is already holy because God says that it is. In the same way, I am acceptable to God; not because I am without sin, but because Jesus says that I am. It might seem an odd thing to say but; things are not made holy by our actions, but by God’s declaration. They become real to us as we walk in the faith that they are real.
  • Third, the city of Jericho is doomed by the word of God, but the actions are still to take place.
  • Fourth, the plan to take the city is not Joshua’s. Jericho will fall at the hand of God by the plan of God. Joshua 6 relates God’s plan to open a city that is heavily defended and tight shut… and it is crazy.

“March round the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Make seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march round the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, make the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.” (Josh. 6:3-5)

As we read on, this is what happens. The whole army of God marches around the walls a total of 13 times in a period of 7 days. The Ark of the Covenant, which holds the words of God and the proof of the wilderness experience, is given centre stage and the people walk with it around the whole city of Jericho. On the seventh day, they walk around the city seven times and at the last moment let out an enormous shout of praise for God and the walls come tumbling down. Then the huge column of the army charges from all directions at once into the now defenseless city and wins the battle.

There are several things that come to mind as I read this…

  • There is no doubt at all that God wins this battle. No matter what people might say or claim, there is no other possible explanation. And so, as the people of Israel enter the campaign to win the promised land they are building on an earthshattering, resounding victory that is entirely down to God.
  • The faith of the people needs to be strong. The army of the Israelites must have felt like a proper bunch of plonkas, walking in silence around the city walls. The people and army of Jericho would have shouted insults at them all the time they marched and, as day followed day, the army must have wondered what was going to happen and if Joshua had made a mistake. I wonder what the talk in the camp was after the first day of walking around the walls? I wonder what people were saying about Joshua after the 6th day of nothing happening? I wonder how enthusiastic they felt after the 6th circuit on the 7th day? By faith they marched and shouted.
  • Faith is not a feeling, it is a conscious decision. Whatever the feeling of the army of Israel, they went through with the entire plan. God said it would work, and it worked. There must have been occasions when the army thought it was a stupid idea… but they kept going out of a conscious decision to follow God’s words. We are no different. If we believe God has said something, we need to carry on until the end. If they had given up after 6 days, they would not have won.
  • God’s plans are not the same as our plans. No sane General would suggest this plan to take Jericho… but God did. How audacious is that? God has the power and authority to carry through His plans… even when we cannot see how they might actually work out. We need to submit to the plan and power of God, not expect him to take our advice.

This passage has so much to teach us. As disciples, individually and as a community, the will of God should be our primary focus and the glory of God our ultimate aim. No matter what the apparent evidence of our eyes might be or what the preference of our desires might suggest, God’s word is key. When we hear God speak we need to carry it through… however mad it seems.