Why we should stop caring about flags. Matthew 6.

My Pastor at Village, Lucas came up with the hashtag #inBelfastasitisinHeaven a while ago that he uses often uses on twitter.

That prayer is as much needed today in Belfast as it has in a long time.

He of course is borrowing from the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer that is echoed by thousands of people every Sunday in churches all across Northern Ireland. Yesterday you may well have said it. We’re taught it from an early age and it becomes so engrained that we can recite it in our sleep.

Which is partly why I have a problem with it.

Not the prayer itself but how we have become so over familiar with it that I suspect we have forgotten or indeed never truly understood the power it has.

In case you don’t know it here it is.

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Reading through it seems like a lovely prayer that we can use if we can’t think of our own words and need a little prompting. It seems to cover everything that Christians think are important. God, Heaven, forgiveness and sins. Pray for these things and we will be fine.

But it’s not an easy prayer to pray and mean. Continue reading

What the Prodigal son wish he knew.

I wrote something in my blog a few days ago which I believe wholeheartedly and am trying each day to remember and change how I think, but also finding really really difficult. It was this.

We are in Jesus. Jesus died and is resurrected therefore we are in Jesus and have died and resurrected too. Sin has been defeated and we are called to act, not as if this will be true someday, but because it is, right now.

I truly believe that to stop those behaviours (and I’m talking more in line with addictions rather than lying or cheating, although it’s true for those as well) in our lives that are hurting us and others then we need to get our minds around this. We need to remember who we are or else we could end up like the Prodigal brothers.

But it’s not easy. Especially if you have found yourself giving in over and over to a behavior which is always there, sometimes quiet but ultimately ready to rear it’s ugly head.

In line with what I wrote yesterday there is a part in Romans 6 which sums up nicely how we are to live.

Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I say nicely because it all makes sense in fact I would be so far as saying it motivates me to put my trust in God everyday rather than the things which hold me back from truly being alive.

But it gets sticky when at 3am you awake and for some reason you want to look at porn. (There is a pun in there, if you got it shame on you). Or when you decide to give up drinking because you are hurting your family through the way you react to them when you drink but can’t manage to go more than a couple of days dry.

Its verses like the ones above which can be our best friends or can be our most frustrating friends. I get it, I believe it, I just can’t live by it.

And this comes back to my previous post. We spend some of our time thinking through these things without taking serious consideration of their implications. Because when we are told we used to be slaves of sin that is truth. It’s not just some nice theory but it is the reality. We can choose to live because it is true or as if it is true.

Maybe an illustration could help. Continuing with Paul’s theme of slavery imagine a woman who has been trafficked. She has spent her life since she was 6 being told she is free but really is being held against her will. She is told she can stop having sex with strangers anytime she likes but the walls of the small dingy room she is kept in tell another story. She is used to living like this. This is all she knows. As much as she hates it, it is strangely comforting. Continue reading

The Prodigal Son. What both brothers missed.

More and more recently I’ve found that reading the Bible through the eyes of the Jewish context that Jesus lived in opens up a world that often I believed I had received everything there was to gain from, but which in fact I am barely scratching the surface of.

The more I read and more I hear different stories with the Jewishness of the situation brought to the forefront the more I realise how much Jesus was radical and life changing. This for someone who has spent their whole life, like many others, believing everything they heard about Jesus, is incredible.

Case in Point. While reading the story of the Prodigal Son again (incidentally if any one story continues to reveal new mysteries it is this one) I was struck by the idea of why the Prodigal son decided to ask for his inheritance in the first place. Later in the story when his older brother confronts his father on why they are now supposed to celebrate his returning brother’s return the Father kindly and softly (I imagine) replies with the words,

“‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

Everything I have is yours. Not “just be patient because in a few years you will own all this” but everything I have is yours. Present. Now. Currently.

The prodigal son I assume had the same promises. He didn’t want for anything. So why did he feel the need to leave it all behind and go searching for something else.

It seems that both brothers had forgotten what it meant to be part of a family and the benefits that that entails. Food, shelter, security, guidance, love. One had forgotten and decided that they were going to look for something else, somewhere else. While the other had stuck around believing that they needed to work hard just to remain in the family.

The older brother’s blindness to this is evident from his question/grumble

‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

When we live in God’s family we spend so much time wondering how we can be better. Like the rich young man we look for answers to the question what can I do to inherit the kingdom of God. For the first Christians and for the Jewish people the kingdom of God was the time where God would unite the New Heaven and the New Earth. The young man was asking for rules to keep so that he would be able to be part of that new age when it arrived. What can I do today to be part of tomorrow?

In truth we still act this way. We want to know what the rules are that a good Christian should follow to be part of God’s family and get to Heaven. Is it no drinking, go to Church every Sunday, read the Bible everyday, don’t look at porn? But Jesus’ answer to the man reveals what truly is important for us. He told the man to give all his possessions to the poor.  A pretty big ask for someone who has a lot. But Jesus point was more than a rule to follow. It was a call to a change in character. A change in seeing what was important. To put the poor’s needs above our own. Jesus often used this Jewish literary tool exaggeration to make a point and get to a truth behind what seemed like an obvious command or statement. Jesus doesn’t really want us to gourge out our eyes if we sin, but he wants us to confront the seriousness of it.

We’re not called to follow specific rules as much as called to changing our character to one where we see where we are going (a renewed Earth with Heaven right in the middle) and starting to follow Jesus into becoming people that inhabit the traits that will exist there, all for God’s glory.

The great news is that this isn’t just something that is coming but is already here. Jesus death and resurrection has brought about the early stages of this. The early Jewish Christian listeners of these ideas from Jesus and later Paul would have understood this. We are in Jesus. Jesus died and is resurrected therefore we are in Jesus and have died and resurrected too. Sin has been defeated and we are called to act, not as if this will be true someday, but because it is, right now.

Just like the two brothers.

They had forgotten what it meant to inherit their Father’s home. Inheritance in Jewish and Greek thought was something that was given as a gift and that you may already have at your disposal.

The younger brother was unhappy with or perhaps had forgotten what he already had. What was already true. So he went searching someplace else for fulfillment. Maybe today we have been taught that God is a strict task master that demands us to give up life and follow rules so we go searching for something more freeing. Or being a person of faith, rather than being about love and hope for the whole world means to be part of a lot of disagreements or fighting, and we decide that we don’t want a part to play in it.

Then there was the older brother who believed he had to work extra hard to stay a part of the family. So today maybe we get bogged down with doing the right things like not missing a Church service, or feeling guilty if we don’t spend time with God. Or even feeling let down when we see people who have ruined their lives have them turned around through God’s grace, while we have never missed Sunday School once in our life and we still don’t get any credit.

God’s gift of new life is our inheritance and it is not something that we need to work at gaining but can accept freely today. It may not be complete yet but it has arrived. We’re called to possess characteristics of the people who will inhabit the New Heaven and Earth simply because it is happening now.

Not like it’s happening, but because it is.

What’s God’s Love For?

The historic and prominent reason given for God’s love and specifically for Jesus death and resurrection is that we are sinners and need saved.

Nice and neat.

Which begs the questions, saved for what exactly? Or even saved from what exactly?

Most Western Christians assume, because they have been taught this, that Jesus died for us because we need saved from Hell. The point being we can now spend all eternity in Heaven rather than being punished in Hell.

But is there a chance we have missed the point?

Now this is pretty much old news. We’ve debated for years, not just since Rob Bell’s book ‘Love Win’ was published almost two years ago, what the point of salvation is. But instead of looking at it from a “Is Hell a real place?” discussion, what if we reframed it into a “What if avoiding Hell or getting into Heaven for that matter isn’t the full objective” discussion?

Is Jesus death about that, or is it about saving us so we can be God’s Priests and Kings in the New Heaven and New Earth? Is it about following arbitrary rules to live as best as we can here and now in the hope that someday we will be leaving for something better?

Something tells me we’ve got it wrong a lot of the time and that we have misunderstood what Jesus came to do. We’ve made Jesus out to be someone we pray to once and use to get our golden ticket out of here rather than someone whose lead we follow by living sacrificial lives and growing to be more and more like, for the purpose of playing our part in bringing God’s kingdom to Earth.

Jesus death has set in motion a new way of thinking about the world. Not one where everyone needs to be told to repent so they don’t end up in Hell but where we need to repent because God is starting something bigger than we imagined and we have a part to play in it.

Perhaps we don’t like to view it like this because it means we have a responsibility to work at ourselves and train to become more like Christ and that seems too much like ‘works’. But this is not how Paul saw it and it’s not how we should either.

When you read the New Testament through the eyes of someone who believes that God is redeeming this world and that our goal is to work out our salvation to be a part of the rescue plan that is already happening, much of the New Testament begins to make more sense.

The Beatitudes become an example of the type of characteristics that will be found in the New Heaven and Earth, not just rules of how to act.

Jesus’ call to deny ourselves and take up our cross makes sense now that we know that we aren’t just waiting around for the end of the world. We need to so we can be part of God’s rescue plan.

Paul’s talk of putting sin to death is important not because it stops us getting to Heaven but because it stops us being examples and reflecting the fullness of life God is bringing forth right now. That is Heaven on Earth.

Jesus bringing in the new kingdom and defeating evil by the most humiliating way possible, suddenly becomes even more revolutionary when we realise God’s kingdom is brought forward not through violence but through peace.

The more I read the New Testament in this light the more I realise Jesus’ message is a sign to what He has promised, not only in the future but today. It is happening now. And we are called to respond.

Because right now, we’re not going anywhere.

New Year Resolution #3. Don’t read the Bible every day.

If you are a Christian it is a certainty that at some stage in your life you have decided to read the Bible in 1 year. That works out at around 4 or 5 chapters a day. A warning though, you will look like a back slider or a Rob Bell type heretic compared to those who use this mental plan.

I’ve always liked the idea of reading through the whole Bible in a year in principle but was never committed enough to it. I get bored and don’t understand huge chunks of it and it starts to get all a bit too much. That says more about me than anything.

Reading the Bible everyday is never going to be a bad thing. That’s impossible. But is it realistic? Why do we do it? Anytime I have tried something like this I usually get to a certain point then stop. Last time I tried it I was 11 and I reached Numbers. That means I survived Leviticus. Pretty good. But then I stopped. Why?

Simple. I stopped because someone showed me that they were impressed with what I was doing. Someone had given me confirmation with what I suspected I was looking for all along. Praise.

I didn’t really want to grow in God or any of the usual New Year Spiritual resolutions (not that these are ever bad!), I wanted to impress people.

And I did. So I had no other reason to continue.

I’d like to say things have changed since then but really they haven’t. I still want to show people how spiritual I am, how close God and I are, how much better their life would be if the just did exactly what I was. Spiritual disciplines are never bad but if we are doing them just because it’s a new year we have missed something vital.

God doesn’t work on our time. He doesn’t clock in every day when we wake up and clock out when we sleep. I’d stick my neck out as far as saying I don’t think Jesus birthday is actually December 25th. Yeah really.

He’s seen more New Year’s Eve’s that we’ve had hot communions.

He’s not really impressed by you reading through the Bible in 3 months.

He is however interested in knowing us. In being a part of all our lives this year, every decision, every hurt, every tragedy and every joy. He does care about how we treat people and how we show mercy to those who need it. He wants us to listen to Him and follow Him. Yeah reading His word is so important but it’s not everything.

So if and when you fail you can remember that the goal is Jesus and not finishing Malachi by March. And if and when you succeed you can remember that the goal is Jesus, not just reading Leviticus without skipping parts.

God cares about a lot of things.

But He doesn’t care how long we take to read the Bible.

New Year Resolution #2 Eat as many Mars bars as I like.

I haven’t made any New Year Resolutions for 2013. Last year I had a whole load of plans and goals in January and ended up failing at pretty much each and every one of them.

Good intentions are one thing but when life gets in the way, we usually hit a snag.

A year is a long time and sometimes it’s good to look ahead but sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Consider the person who has decided to lose weight and get healthy. For a couple months they lose weight and get fit and then suddenly realise that they have another 10 months of 7am workouts and no Mars bars.

Or the person who commits to reading one book every month but then lack of time starts to diminish their appetite for it.

Or the person who wants to write a blog series, commenting every day on the book of Matthew and then realizes that is a mental idea and remembers they are not NT Wright.

And then there is the person who decides that they want to change their character rather than specific behaviours. Who realizes a year is longer than they think so breaks it up into small sections with small achievable sustainable goals. Who decides to nurture small daily habits that are easy to grow and after enough work become second nature. Who remembers why they enjoyed running in the first place and sees that pleasure as their new goal.

Who looks back at the end of the year and realizes they have changed, grown, succeeded and won more than they thought they ever could. More than grandiose resolutions would ever allow.

I’m not making any resolutions this year but I am asking myself a daily question, which person am I?

Ask me again in 364 days.