Tuesday, 31 August 2010

It ain't necessarily so?

Although I really enjoyed watching Jamie Cullum at the proms, I was reminded of a recent quandry. I would appreciate the thoughts of my friends, all faiths and none.

As a christian, I believe that whatever I do, I should do it for the glory of God. That is, I should not be pointing at myself to make myself look better, but pointing always to God, giving him the credit for all the good things he has given me and enabled me to do.

So if everything I do should be pointing to the greatness of God, this must include the words out of my mouth, right? The conversations I have with others, what I write in texts, emails,essays, blogs, tweets and good old fashioned letters. And, the words I use when I'm singing.

I'll happily be the first to admit that often I spend probably too long analysing the words of worship songs, for their theological accuracy when I should be concentrating on the reason I'm there singing them in the first place! It strikes me that if there were some words I did not entirely understand, or wasn't in exact concordance with, I might be more reluctant to sing them with such sincerity and joy.

On the whole however, in terms of what we say, it's easy to make God the most important thing using the words we sing in church; the songs we use are written for this specific purpose!

But here's the big question; If I pay so much attention to the words I sing in church,what about the words of the songs we sing when we enjoy the highlights of our ipods, listen to the radio, dance in clubs, or perform on stage?

It would certainly, certainly be too extreme to suggest in any way that Christians should not be listening to or singing along with secular music, but recently I have found my integrity challenged in this area; not in terms of what I listen to but in terms of what I sing.

Jamie Cullum performed an excellent version of George and Ira Gerswin's 'It aint necessarily so' alongside a company of superb brass musicians. However tounge in cheek, the song throughout details various episodes from the bible, suggesting 'the things that you're liable, to read in the bible, it aint necessarily so'. Asides the blatant theological issue with this, I have to say I love the song's lyrics, which include these diamond lines.

'Jonah he lived in a whale
He made his home in
A fish's abdomen
Jonah he lived in a whale'

Who wouldn't?

In light of a conversation on this subject earlier in the week, I considered my hypothetical self in the position of Jamie Cullum singing 'it aint necessarily so'.
For me to sing the song's major hookline...would that be to compromise my belief that the bible is God's word,true from start to finish and the number one way that we can know God? Or by choosing not to sing these words am I embracing a new form of legalism and undermining the freedom I have as a christian living under grace? The short answer is I just I don't know.

Perhaps out of any songwriter I can think of at the moment, I have been enjoying Frank Turner's lyrics the most. (I'm listening to his album 'Love Ire and Song' as I tap away on my trendy blackberry). His are certainly songs which require lashings of gusto and a level of lyrical sincerity to capture the spirit in which they were written. Having seen him live, there aren't really any half measures when it comes to the yelling of this line from an excellently crafted song called 'The Ballad of me and my friends'.

'and we're definitely going to hell but we'll have all the best stories to tell'

On Sunday night I singing was alongside a friend at a party providing some fairly rough and ready light entertainment for mostly close friends and their families. After some consideration I actually chose not to sing the aforementioned song, letting Sian work her magic solo. It's certainly not a song about the great hope we have as christians; and although singing other people's songs often involves an element of theatre, I made the call that for me to sing it with enough conviction and sincerity to perform would be impossible. Asides the witness of the words coming out of my mouth, singing the song, would possibly be to compromise my core beliefs as a christian and the spirit in which the song was written.

Having said this, realising a while later on the dancefloor that the pussycat dolls 'Buttons' and indeed most other songs that I love to dance to have lyrics with implications far from God's best plan for my life! So then am I not to dance, the response of a couple of Amish people I watched on a culture clash style television programme a while ago. I think not, for I would presumably have to sit alone in my room all night and day listening to Tim Hughes (a well known christian songwriter)or silence!

So where do we draw our lines in the sand? Do we? If performing perhaps to sing songs alongside a disclaimer, or to count it all fun and games and to put the discussion to rest. After all, we are in the midst of a diverse world created by God in his image, we are to live in love with all people, and this must include involvement with and embracing the creativity produced by the experiences and emotions of others?

But then if as christians we are to be 'in the world but not of it', 'living up to what we have already attained' letting our yes be yes and our no be no, doesn't our new life demand this radical stand against all that God hasn't planned for his people?

The most important thing is that of course, under grace, this discussion is perhaps pointless. These questions are not asked so that I can behave right, do all the right things and ultimately earn favour and forgiveness from God. They are asked from an already righteous stand point before God, because of what he has done for me. This isn't about following rules, in black and white, but looking at the cross, and learning to respond, asking 'how can I best glorify God with my life?'

All these decisions about what I will and will not sing are decisions not based on any rules in seemingly the greyest of areas. Neither are they specific to the issue of singing on stage. I could only ever sing christian songs but still use my mouth in gossiping about friends behind their backs, just as I could buy fair trade chocolate and tea but decline to lend a moment's attention or penny to a homeless person I pass in the street. I know there is much more to say on the matter.

This is the way I'm challenged and should continue to be challenged my whole life. Of course the answer to the above question is no, but in light of God's undeserved kindness to me, there is no need to want to carry on in the old way of living, the governing disposition of my spirit is a will to live for the greatest cause I know.

As with all choices about what I will say, how I will act and how I will respond to various situations, my question should not be 'what can or can't I do so that God won't be angry with me' but 'does what I'm doing or saying match up to the salvation and amazing status as a child of God that I have already been given?'

Sent using BlackBerry® from Orange

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Ephesians 2 (as found in the 'landlubber's manual', otherwise known as the bible)

I can't believe it was now a whole month ago at Maplewell, that I had the pleasure and privelege of looking at the second and third chapters of Ephesians* alongside an awesome group of young people.

If I'd have chosen my inital favourite part of the book of Ephesians on which to focus I might have picked the end of chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5, which talks mostly about how as Christians we should be living in light of what we believe. However, on another couple of readings, I began to appreciate more the brilliance of what comes before all this stuff. A friend reminded me that if we forget the first few chapters of Ephesians, all that we do afterwards, no matter how firmly we adhere to the back end of the book, is pointless! In short, if we have no understanding of what it really means to be a christian, the reason why we can live differently, and the cause for which we do so, then doing all the good 'christian' stuff is in itself worthless. The book of Ephesians both reminds us firstly what it means to be a christian - and secondly what impact our faith should have on the way we live today, in light of eternity.

Having never really done a talk-y bit (this sounds a more friendly way to describe it than calling it a talk and certainly a lot nicer than using the word 'sermon') as such before, this passage seemed a good starting point. I particularly enjoy the the first ten verses of chapter 2 which seem to overview the very crux of our christian faith.

Paul, once named Saul and a persecutor of christians, now writes as a follower of Jesus being held prisoner in Rome for preaching the very news he used to hate. It is this good news about which he writes in the book of Ephesians, a letter of encouragement to christians living in a place called Ephesus, now part of modern day turkey. Ephesus town was a wealthy port where people were generally pretty educated and people were writing all sorts of clever things; being a christian was probably to go against the grain.

Paul is writing to a church, to remind them of the huge change their new identity as christians brings to who they are, and the impact it has on how they are to behave. The first ten verses of chapter 2 sharply contrast the before and after of being first 'dead in sin' (or 'spiritually dead' as the youth bible translation phrases it) to then having 'new life in Christ'.

But what do these phrases mean? We might so often hear them thrown about, along with 'born again' and 'saved' in christian circles. If we're not careful we can end up using these words all the time without realising their enormous implications, in turn downplaying God, how great he is and the greatness of his gifts to us.

Let's imagine that my parents go on holiday, which a few weeks ago they did, leaving me to look after the house. To all intents and purposes, the house is mine for two glorious weeks. There are no rules, only that the house must be found upon the return of my parents, in the state which it was left. Two weeks later, the house is wrecked. There is my new favourite red wine seeped into all of the cream coloured carpets. All the handles on our new kitchen drawers have fallen off. The windows are smashed in and all of the radiators are leaking. I also borrowed the car which is now written off. When my parents return, are they angry? And is it right that they are angry?

In the first few verses of Ephesians Chapter 2, Paul (once Saul) talks fairly bleakly about us being once spiritually dead or 'dead in sin'. If our spirit is the part of us designed to relate with God, and we are spiritually dead, we are described as unable to relate to God as he intended us to. The passage says this is because of our sin, ('dead in sin'), put more simply, because of the way we have turned against God's plan for our lives and ultimate authority. Much like me messing up my parent's house when they left me home alone , we have been up until now, living in God's world as though we were in charge! Were my parents angry at my hypothetical house destruction? And was it right that they were angry? Certainly. So we are comparing the rebellion of all humanity away from God, to my (relatively small in comparison) act of rebellion in the form of trashing my parent's house. If my parents are right to be angry, how much more would God have the right to be angry at the rebellion of the the whole world? Ephesians 2 says we deserved to face God's anger, and rightfully so; we have a holy and just God who by nature then must be angry at our rebellion against his perfect plan for our lives.

However, we can not forget that the reason Paul writes this letter is to remind the Ephesians of the great change that God has now made in their lives! It's worth noting that Paul speaks to the Ephesians about being 'spiritually dead', 'dead in sin' in the past tense, as the recipients of his letter have had their hearts and lives changed. Now, there is hope. In the next few verses a dramatic turning point is given as Paul talks about being given 'New lives in Christ'!

Back to my hypothetical house sitting disaster. My parents return, and the scenes of devastation are unimaginable. There is certainly rightful anger involved. But for the million dollar question, despite the destruction, and their rightful anger, will they stop loving me? My answer here, is that they don't. So we are (quite crudely) comparing the unconditional love of parents, who are still human, only a reflection of what God is like, to God, the source of all, incomparable unconditional love. If my parents were still to love me despite me blatantly disobeying them, how much more love then does God still have for the whole of his creation, despite such a rebellion on an enormous scale?

For two and a half years (I am a slow reader at the best of times) I have been reading very slowly on and off this epic book by uber theologian John Stott, called 'the cross of Christ'. I'm only perhaps three quarters of the way through but it's helped as a useful reminder of why and how Jesus on the cross is so central to what we believe as Christians. Particularly when matching God's holiness and perfect justice system up with his unconditional love and compassion.

So If we believe the bible to be true, we have a God who as the perfectly holy and just creator of the universe can not tolerate our sin - a God who is rightfully angry at our rebellion. Yet we have a God who is wholly loving and compassionate to all he has made - a God who is unconditionally loving to rebels. Surely this is contradictory in the grand scheme of things? How can God be true to himself by retaining his rightful anger at the things in our world and our attitudes which go against his plan for us, whilst also showing us true unconditional love and compassion towards us in the form of forgiveness for these things and our attitudes of rebellion?

In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul explains. He reminds the Ephesians, 'For it is by grace you have been saved'. Saved from what? Saved from the consequence of our turning away from God's perfect plan and rejecting his rule and authority over our lives. The bible says, clearly that the consequence of turning against God is death, hence the Ephesian people are referred to as once 'dead in sin'. But indisputably, upon reading it, the overwhelming message of the whole 'landlubbers manual' (also known as the bible) is that 'the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

So what is this Grace, and how does it save us? One of my oldest friends Grace defines her name to mean 'undeserved favour'. I've also heard this acronym given for this word thrown around so much by preachers and people in the back end of the bible;


And here describes the painful yet perfect solution meaning that God is able to both maintain his rightful anger and perfect system of justice and show unconditional compassionate love to us who have broken the law. This is the crux of the christian faith and the ultimate expression of sacrificial love; we are given the riches of God, at the expense of Jesus Christ. to summarise, perhaps the most well known and most quoted sentance of the bible

'For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life'

If you were wondering why I previously refered to The Bible as the 'landlubbers manual' this is because I haven't quite dropped down out of the sky from planet pirate yet, where I have been this week having fun helping out with a children's holiday club back at my church in Norwich. Making, doing, singing and silliness have all been part of my every morning this week designed to most importantly teach primary school aged children what it means to be a christian and follow Jesus. They have truly loved it, and have certainly been learning.

The memory verse we have been learning together with the children this week comes from Phillipians Chapter 3, verse 8. 'Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as rubbish. All I want is Christ'. Each of the children can recite this from memory better than I can, and still could this morning at our family feedback service. If you pray, please pray that each of the children we have met with this week would be remembering all they have learned, considering it's truth for themselves and still wanting to know more about what it means to count everything else as rubbish compared with following the greatest captain, Jesus.

One particularly exciting part of the bible I had the great privaledge of reading with the older kids at holiday club is the bit where Paul and Silas (followers of Jesus and imprisoned for it) experience a humungous earthquake which knocks down the prison walls!** To cut a long story short, the jailor arises from his sleep and seeing possibly the joy/wisdom of the two men, runs in shouting 'what must I do to be saved?' Again, even for the untrained teacher, this bit is a joy to talk about because this is the very epicentre (apologies) of my belief system.

The two rapidly reply 'Believe in the Lord Jesus' - but to Believe exactly what about the Lord Jesus?

Rightfully, for turning against God and rejecting his ultimate authority, renouncing the fact that my creator knows better than me, I deserve nothing but the consequences of God's anger; my separation from God, my inability to relate to God as he had planned, death. But the bible says, whilst I have earned myself separation from God, it was Jesus, both wholly man and wholly God, who chose to die on the cross. In doing so, Jesus who had never sinned, sufferd everything which was due to me because of mine, ultimately the spiritual death Paul talks about in Ephesians chapter 2, separation from God the father. Any crucifixion involved immense physical suffering, and social humiliation. But the christian belief is that Jesus' death on the cross was not just a shameful,or tragic accident but a choice, part of God's plan to bring people back to himself. I believe that Jesus on the cross was taking the penalty I deserved. The sin debt I once owed, he payed. The separation from God I deserved as a result of my rebellion, he endured, explaining the significance of his words '"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?".

But truly God, he rose to life again, demonstrating power over death itself and with him his followers too inherit the gift of eternal life and a one day fully restored relationship with the Father and his creation.

This is what it means to believe in the Lord Jesus. That his death has paid the sin debt I owe, making me righteous in the eyes of God. Here there is grounds to be joyful in absolutely every situation, peace admist any trouble, and an assurance that God's goodness and mercy follow me every day of my life.

Thank God, that this salvation is not something I have to earn, because I could never. Thank God that i need not live life depending on my own strength or righteousness to impress a holy God - to do so would be to fail. Thank God, that this salvation is a gift! Thank God that I am to depend on the righteousness and strength of the Lord Jesus.


Wednesday, 4 August 2010

My work of Ibizan inspired art

So when friends aren't around, and there is no uni work left pending, and only a small amount of youth group type planning on the go, I have a few days spare in which to entertain myself. Almost immeadiately, boredom threatens. So I'm seeking to fill my time productively with those things I remember longing to have enough spare time to do whilst shut up in my bedroom/the library back in may learning about everything from the particle sizes of various types of aerosols to the many different forms of insulin available and what to do if the doctor forgets to sign the prescription amongst other world shattering situations.

Today I had a short scrap booking session, ordering online some bargainous photo prints to add in, and I also completed my first 'read it swap it' swap. Read it Swap it is a website designed for, you guessed it, swapping old books. It's as simple as offering up a list of books, waiting until somebody requests a swap and then choosing one of their books with which to swap with. I don't yet see how this is an improvement on the library service because it still costs for postage and packaging, but as they say 'you can't knock it til you've tried it' so I await my next package in the post with great anticipation.

Also on today's agenda was lots of tea drinking, university challenge, chilling with the cat, painting my nails (red, as usual.) spending too long on the internet reading theology blogs (what's the deal with that?), cooking dinner for my family and this evening sewing up a hole in a pair of tights (hopefully, good as new!) whilst watching a ridiculous 80's film called 'The Thing' with my parents. I even browsed a website which had loads of adverts on it for musicians wanted. I quite like the idea of being in a band again, or even doing more little chilled out jam/sing songs like the good old days. I fear, although I'm not sure whether I should, things getting a little dull. Perhaps this is just because i'm not really used to having so much time doing next to nothing, but I've been thinking about other things, little projects I could get involved in to mix things up a bit, either over the next few weeks or months, or even back at uni. Suggestions on the back of a postcard, please.

So tomorrow, there will be tea in abundance, although our newly tiled kitchen is still not quite back to normal. I may have to spend the morning consulting the pre prepared freedom board of rainy day activities. During exams I had fun with coloured pens on a large sheet of paper, writing down all of the things I'd like to do once the summer holidays were officially upon us. Our house in Norwich had at least 3 freedom boards (named boards to infer no obligation rather than using the potentially stress inducing term 'list') up on our respective bedroom walls , and mine is still in place. It will be interesting to take it down on my return in a couple of weeks to see how I'm getting on with all the fun things I had planned!

On the freedom board, I remember writing 'do a big painting', after being inspired by a programme Katie and I watched on TV, about Mattisse. Today I remembered this pledge although the painting shown below, a San Antonio Sunset, is just A4 size due to my cuts in spending at The Works. I did it with watercolour paints using my fingers because I don't have a paintbrush. Rock and roll. It looks a little as though the sun is setting into a mountain, but these were just intended to be darker coloured clouds. I am by no means an artist, and I realise that my twenty minutes of finger painting this afternoon looks like the contents of a primary school drying rack, but I quite like it! Certainly, with my perhaps too harsh scepticism of modern art, and everything being whatever you want it to be, this is a work of Ibizan inspired art.