The People of God

Sunday morning church services always produce the usual eclectic gathering of people.  It was a moment in time for me, a realisation of a greater reality whereby I glimpsed something of God, something of heaven in the strangeness of “God’s people.”

First there is Catholic lady who always comes to our local Baptist church.  Always first in, always waiting to be let in, always swiftly consuming another cigarette.  Sometimes, if she has taken her medication, you will get a “Hello” or a “Morning” and rarely anything more than that.  But, if she has forgotten her medication, she is very agitated, hair slicked back, greasy, face full of menacing scowl, and no words other than what she mutters to herself.  Yet, she’s still there, outside, waiting to come in, always first, and always first to leave the service, during the service, mostly during my sermons(!).  Once I looked at her during the reading of Scripture, she hissed and growled at me and crossed herself three times.  That was weird.  I carried on reading.  She left.

After one particular service at a church in South Wales, I was talking to a couple who had been known to me for two years but only attended church services four times (OK, about four times, I don’t exactly keep a register!).  I’d been to their home on several occasions, to break bread and pray with them, to hear the story of their lives.  Their kids have been taken into care, they’ve attempted suicide, it is a desperate desperate situation.  But they were there, worshipping with us, loving God in all their pain and grief.

Whilst walking with them to get a coffee, I saw another regular.  This gentle giant is always late for services, and when he turns up, he just walks right down the middle of the seating and sits somewhere near the front, fiddles with his Bible and looks around at people.  On this occasion when I saw him, his Bible was on the floor by the fire escape door and he was doing what looked like a rain dance around it as he tried to make a roll-up.  Tobacco drifted to the floor as he danced and I smiled.  It was this moment that I started to get it.

Within ten seconds, even before I had my coffee, another man (I think they all live in the same care-home), another “regular” sprang from behind a door to lament with his usual mischievous sadness that he had already had his allotted two biscuits.  I asked him if he wanted another one, to which he told me he wasn’t allowed anymore because “they told me I’d had enough.”  “Do you want another one” I asked, to which he replied, with eyes now full of teary excitement, “Yeah I do, but it’s very naughty!”

“Come on,” I said.  They don’t call me the “Naughty Minister” for nothing, I thought as I walked with him to the heart of the coffee room and a table full of people and biscuits.  “Help yourself” I said.  He sat down as excited as a boy at Christmas.  They don’t really call me the naughty minister, but I do like to think I can stretch the two-biscuit rule to three or, as was the case, eight, plus an unknown quantity in his coat pocket.

I grabbed a coffee and went off to pray with a couple who had lost everything except God.  They loved God, and here they were.  God sent them to me on this day, a day that reminded me it was all about Him.  These people, these strange, uncouth, demanding, barmy, hurting people – they were the People of God, and I glimpsed God’s love for each and every one of them:

Biscuits and Bibles.

Smoking and sermons.

Pain and prayer.

God was there in it all.

 

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Relating Faith – a book recommendation

Relating FaithGralefrit is so thrilled that this long-awaited book has finally been released and I commend it whole-heartedly.  To quote the blurb on the back cover, Relating Faith – modelling Biblical Christianity in Church and World is a “stimulating book [that] contains a selection of reflections that aim to encourage us to approach issues in the church and in life increasingly through engagement with the biblical texts.  Robert Knowles argues that Western Christians are often starved of biblical content in their local church contexts.  He believes that the Bible is indispensable to building Christian and church identity, thought, and life, and that biblical texts, brought to life by the Holy Spirit, themselves play a central role in Christian formation.

Anthony Thiselton, Emeritus Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Nottingham, writes, “I am glad to commend this book.  It combines such technical-sounding topics as speech-act theory and postmodernism to very practical issues in Bible study and the Christian life.  Dr. Knowles has shown that these are down-to-earth tools and issues which can be of practical use in everyday Christian discipleship.”

This book is a gold-mine of wisdom!  Get it if you can.

Poverty and Wealth: A Psychiatrists assessment

Poor Little Rich Kid 2006

Many of the 1960’s civil rights workers Robert Coles consulted in his psychiatric research came from middle-class families.  Their parents nagged the kids about getting a real job and making something of themselves.  One of them responded to his mother’s concerned prayers over him: ‘I wonder what Jesus said, listening to her prayers!  I felt like writing her back and asking her if Jesus ever held “a regular job” – or ever “found himself”.  Jesus, the migrant preacher, who became so unpopular and disturbing to everyone big and important that He got crucified.

Working with the poor and oppressed, Coles marvelled over how much their lives resembled the lives of the prophets and Jesus himself.  Perhaps that was why they found solace in religion, and why the sophisticated reviews of society so studiously ignored what they had to say about it.  Middle-class churches tend to be sweet, soothing and inoffensive, their worship services predictable and controlled.  Coles himself, a product of the privileged minority began to wonder about his own resistance to the power of a radical gospel.  He could not avoid the discrepancy between the Bible’s teaching on justice and fairness and the lives privileged people tend to live, marked by greed, competition and status.  What was the gospel’s message to the well off?    What was its message to him?  As Coles explored the mind of the privileged ones, he realised he was exploring his own mind.  To his shame, he found within himself many of the same troubling tendencies.

Comfortable people, he noticed, were apt to have a stunted sense of compassion, more likely to love humanity in general but less likely to love one person in particular.  Did he show compassion?  As a Harvard undergraduate, he recalled with a pang, he had treated the dormitory maid as a lowly servant even while earning As in his ethics course.  What about arrogance?  A physician, he fought the temptation every day; he was, after all, the expert, the healer who had come to help the disadvantaged.  Pride?  He was generous, to be sure, but he had the luxury to be generous.  He had never been in a situation of absolute dependence, the daily state of many poor people. Continue reading

Possessions

We should think rightly about the way we relate to our material possessions.  We are stewards, looking after things in trust, enjoying but not owning.  Obviously this is easier in theory than practice.  But it is a good thing to remind ourselves that all these good things actually belong to God and not to me.  I’ve found that when I actually manage this, the sense of gratitude for the incredible generosity of God brings in its wake a sense of freedom.

All things are loaned to us.  All things come from God, and that includes the very body that clothes us.  In this sense I have no rights and I do not possess.  David Nicholl writes about this:  “Once we realise that we own absolutely nothing…. a weight is lifted from us and our hearts grow lighter… at least we have made a true beginning when we can gaze around at all the possessions, qualities and capacities that are supposed to be ours and recognise that they do not really belong to us.  In fact a good exercise for us beginners is to scan slowly over the world we have built around us and say of every item in it “Not mine; just on temporary loan:  this house – not mine, just on temporary loan; these books – not mine, just on temporary loan; these fingers – not mine, just on temporary loan; my children – not mine, just on temporary loan.”

Getting to this level of contentment is of course not easy, especially when I realise that my beloved books are not mine but a gift from God.  Contentment is attractive and surely is the best way to live.  It implies I enjoy things as they are without becoming a slave to them.  Since I know they are only on loan, I rejoice in them, but I also feel detachment, delighting in them when I have them but not losing my peace of mind when they are taken away.

This is real freedom from the tyranny of assertiveness.  It is also freedom from the tyranny of appearing to be successful in a world which measures success by signs of outward possessions and prosperity and profit.  For if I am going to [try and] live in this way I am continuously brought face to face with the fact that everything in my life is gift and I am entirely dependent on God as Creator, Giver and loving Father.

Life

“What science will ever be able to reveal to man the origin, nature and character of that conscious power to will and to love which constitutes his life?  It is certainly not our effort, not the effort of anyone around us, which set that current in motion.  And it is certainly not our solicitude, not that of any friend, which prevents its ebb or controls its turbulence. We can, of course, trace back through generations some of the antecedents of the torrent which bears us along; and we can, by means of certain moral and physical disciplines and stimulations, regularise or enlarge the aperture through which the torrent is released to us.  But neither that geography nor those artifices help us in theory or practice to harness the source of life.  My self is given to me far more than it is formed by me.  Man, Scripture says, cannot add a cubit to his stature.  Still less can he add a unit to the potential of his love, or accelerate by another unit the fundamental rhythm which regulates the ripening of his mind and heart.  In the last resort the profound life, the fontal life, the new-born life, escape our grasp entirely.”

Pierre Teilhard Chardin, The Divine Milieu, p.48

A Life of Critical Challenge

Dr Rob Knowles writes on the critical imperative of making ourselves open to challenge and thus prepared to live our lives in the central room, a centre that governs and shapes all thought, motives and views under the authority of God’s Word.

Communion and Criticism: Openness to Challenge by the Real

In a postmodern world, we encounter a conflict of interpretations.  Which of life’s many spheres, worlds, discourses, texts, thought-forms, practices, or paradigms, should be the most “central” for “right human living”?

Well, Christianity and the Bible, if they are true, should compare favourably with other paradigms for human existence and with other claims made by other religious texts and by other traditions of thinking.  If Christianity and the Bible are true, then they will stand the tests of critical debate and of practical viability for living.6

Since the Bible itself espouses the roles of rationality and experience, then [we] should not exalt “reason” or “experience” over the biblical texts. Jesus himself says: ‘If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own’ (John 7:17).  One can only become convinced that biblical and prayerful communion with God constitutes life’s central room by trying it and by allowing critical challenges. Conversely, those making peripheral worlds “central” must also allow criticism according to biblical criteria.

Such openness to challenge aligns with the scientific testing of hypotheses.  Suspicion rightly arises when any truth-claims immunise themselves from external questioning.  It is weak belief systems, authoritarian regimes and personality cults that cannot stand against scrutiny, that refuse to be challenged.

Some, though, including dogmatic scientists, refuse external challenge because they habitually evade self-criticism.  They inhabit carefully-constructed discourse-worlds, and train others—under threat of an “ugly scene”—to avoid conversational “no-go” areas, topics, or even single words that reflect life-issues crying out to be addressed.  Even science can be an avoidance strategy. A refusal to be challenged is a refusal to live in the room of a genuinely true world.

Admittedly, the psychoanalytical tradition says that patterns of self-deceit and delusion shelter us all from uncomfortable realities.  Nobody’s world or discourse is wholly true, but is at best distorted.  Nevertheless, God calls us into an increasingly real world in which our practices, discourse, and thinking are increasingly shaped towards a truthful ‘authentic’ humanity in which reality, actions, and ‘words’ “correspond” in inner consistency and ‘integrity’.7


6 So Thiselton, 2H, 292; cf. 83; cf. Knowles, R., Anthony C. Thiselton and The Grammar of Hermeneutics: The Search for a Unified Theory (Milton Keanes: Paternoster, 2012), 444-564.

7 Thiselton, A.C., New Horizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (London: HarperCollins, 1992), 111-112; cf.: Thiselton, A.C., ‘Truth’, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3 (ed. C. Brown; Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 879; 883-886; 892.