Secrets of a happy marriage

It’s our china wedding anniversary today and we have been happy for most of our first 20 years.  We have had the privilege of preparing a few couples for marriage as well as the deep sadness of seeing marriages around us faltering.  I thought I might take the liberty of offering you my tentative thoughts on what makes for happy marriage.

I think it’s a good idea to find the right person.  Someone who you admire, find sexually attractive and agree with on issues that really matter to you.  Yes this does mean it’s a good idea for atheists to marry atheists and muslims to marry muslims.  I know that sounds horribly sectarian to the secular humanist ear, but marriage is about doing life together and differing motivating worldviews easily lead to unmanageable tension in finance, time and prioritising.    It also means it’s likely a bad idea to marry someone you met last week who is fun, good looking and great in bed, but you might just find to be intellectually, morally, emotionally or professionally daft.  Discerning the right person is not necessarily easy.  For us it involved a great deal of anxiety, prayer and listening to the opinions of trustworthy friends and family (including the mutual friend who originally set us up). 

I also think marriage is key to a happy marriage.  A freely entered into partnership of two people for life, incorporating exclusive sexual intimacy (sometimes with the attendant possibility of children), recognised by the community and ordained by God.  Being single was often brilliant.  Lots of late nights with lots of friends, lots of mountain biking and drumming and church stuff, drop everything and scarper weekends (mostly more mountain biking) and unlimited shed-time.  St Paul talked about his freedom to be single-mindedly focussed on God.   Singleness is tough to surrender – the merging of two bank accounts, diaries, careers and lifetyles.  The first year of marriage for all its tenderness and joy was one of the toughest.  Which is why singleness should not be surrendered for anything less than life-long marriage.  There will be times when cutting and running will be genuinely easier, but the understanding that this is permanent and that we will be committed to selflessly loving one another makes the possibility of better times ahead significantly more likely.     

I recognise that these ideas are not rocket-scientific secret revelations and my observation is that human life in a fallen world is enough to place even marriage to the right person under massive strain. That said, these ideas have worked well for us and I have observed them working well for enough other people that I plan to stick by them as well as sticking with Jo.  I’ll put up a confirmatory post on our Ruby wedding anniversary if Jesus does not return first.

 

 

 

 

                     

Cucumbers

After the people of Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, some of them wanted to go back, because in Egypt they had cucumbers.  I remember as a child reading this with disbelief.  Unlike our kids I did not like cucumbers so the thought that anyone would give up freedom for salad veg was utterly incomprehensible.  I think I get it now.

I’ve been employed by a couple of local churches for the last 15 years to preach about freedom.  It’s not just a professional thing.  I believe it.  I have experienced the freedom, forgiveness, belonging and purpose that come from being a follower of Jesus.  Our church is unusual in UK terms in that it is growing, but it is not growing fast.  We’re involved in lots of different aspects of the life of our community and have positive relationships with schools, families and community organisations.  People know us and they know we are not the right wing, all-phobic killjoys Christians are widely painted as, but the message of freedom in following Jesus is still a hard sell.

Why is this?

Christians look the same as other people but they are going in a radically different direction.  We’re swimming against the tide of materialism.  Christians believe in generosity and are opposed to greed.  It looks to us like the U.K. is borrowing money we can’t afford to buy stuff we don’t need to fuel an economy we know is unsustainable.  We’re going against the flow of hedonism.  Christians recognise the God given-ness of sex, drink and drugs but we observe the God-given boundaries to their use.  It looks to us like Britain is busy enjoying the high that comes from the weed that wrecks supply-chain lives and leaves users spaced out from economic and relational reality.  Perhaps most radically of all, Christians are setting aside their autonomy to make Jesus the ultimate authority in their lives.  It looks to us like the West is so committed to educating kids in every trend of individual self-determination that the kids will be too busy wondering who they are and where they belong to work together to build a better world.

Looking from the outside Christianity may appear like slavery: the surrender of individual sovereignty to a higher authority; eschewal of much of the spectrum of available pleasures; rejection of reliance on over-accumulated wealth.    Indeed St Paul described us as slaves to Christ.  But looking from the inside of Christianity outwards, it looks like the average Westerner is the slave – to money, pleasure and power.  

I-phones, sex lives and self-determination you say.   I say cucumbers.   I think this difference of perspective goes a long way towards explaining why Christianity is hard to propagate in the UK.

        

Mike Dean loves football

The last two weeks have been full of magical football moments.  The quick thinking corner from Trent Alexander Arnold and the ball boy; Lucas Moura’s last ditch goal and that Kompany shot.  But this week, something entirely different grabbed my attention.  I had just got home from work to join my oldest son in watching the closing seconds of the play off match between the league two Rovers when the camera homed in on a Tranmere fan. He was standing on the barriers, wildly celebrating his club’s progression to the final and his face seemed familiar.  After a closer look I checked with our the boy, who confirmed that this was none other than Mike Dean, the premier league referee who has presided over FA and League cup finals and recently produced his 100th top flight red card.  I’m no expert in football or refereeing, but it seems like a good thing to me that a man who presides over the millionaires and prima donnas of our top division loves football.

We don’t like the idea of being judged.  The idea of God as a Judge is sobering and scary for theists, annoying for atheists and sometimes uncomfortable for Christians.  But we all know that rules contribute to a good game, laws make for a stable country and honesty makes for good relationships.  We also know that human beings have a propensity to break rules, dodge laws and lie when it suits our purposes.  Cards need to be shown; we need a referee. 

Whether we like it or not, God is the judge of all the earth.  He judges with perfect justice and equity.  All history must give account to him and the account of our misdemeanours must be settled in person.  We might get away with it even for a lifetime, but then all will appear before the throne of judgement on his appointed day.  We have a referee. 

God thinks the world is good.  He has good plans for you.  He loves you.  But he cannot just let the mess we have made of the world go and he will judge us.  So he has made a provision for us by serving our sentence, observing our ban, receiving our cards himself.  God loved the world so much that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life in the future, and life in all its fullness now.   Mike Dean is not like God in the perfection of his judgement or his provision for offenders.  But the close-up at The New Lawn on Monday night was a delightful reminder that this referee loves the game. 

The ridiculous Science vs God meme

I don’t get to nerd out about rocks very often, but last Tuesday I had a lot of fun talking to some local primary school kids about Volcanoes.    Subsequently I have had some conversations which suggest that this kind of thing is not normal.  There’s something in the air that tells us that God and science don’t go together. 

In my world this is nonsense.  Lots of my clerical colleagues have first degrees in scientific subjects.  In fact I am not the only Baptist Minister in the West of England Baptist Association who has an earth sciences degree from the University of Sheffield and a Theology degree from London School of Theology!  The previous minister of our local Methodist church was a former nuclear physicist.  Bill Bryson’s brilliant popular history of science ‘A Brief History of Nearly Everything’ begins with a chapter called ‘Reverend Evans Universe’ about a genius Methodist minister who holds the world record for visual discoveries of supernovae.   Clerics don’t seem to think that Science and religion are enemies…..

And neither do many scientists…  Plenty of members of our churches have higher degrees and jobs involving science on a day to day basis.  An atheist friend once told me that the Cambrian explosion of life does away with the need for the creation narratives of the bible.  In response, I noted that one of the most senior palaeontologists in the UK with specific expertise in the Burgess Shale fauna (probably the most famous Cambrian explosion of life fossil fauna), Professor Simon Conway Morris,  IS A PROFESSING CHRISTIAN.  The most famous palaeontologist of them all (and as far as I know, the only one to appear in the Simpsons), Stephen Jay Gould said ‘Unless half of my collegaues are dunces, there can be  – on the most raw and empirical grounds – no conflict between science and religion.’  Lots and lots and lots of scientists hold to the Christian faith and other faiths.

So how did we all learn that science and faith do not go together (every school kid seems to know this).

I’ve blogged previously about the rise of Young Earth Creationism in the 1920s, but that is only half of the story. 

God is very inconvenient.  He likes fair trade and equal treatment of human beings.  He has standards for personal relationships, corporate finances and social care.  So, if you’d like to justify infanticide or modern slavery, late payment of invoices, relationship-free sex or the neglect of the needy etc, God cannot be your pal.  It would be much better for you to ignore him until you feel aggrieved about the cards the random universe has dealt you, briefly wheel him out of the cupboard as a scapegoat and then bolt the cupboard and carry on as before.   It seems to me that this is precisely what popular secular humanism does. We’re all told that science has killed God (which means we can do as we please) and that it’s OK to simultaneously blame God for all the bad stuff people do.    This seems to be a dominant meme (thanks Richard) derived from secular humanism in our culture, which allows us to do away with the inconvenience of God.

So Richard Dawkins shouts about science killing God and how we can now do as we please.  Ken Ham shouts back about how the bible disproves science and how science leads to wickedness and depravity.  And meanwhile normal, moral, sensible, Christians (some of whom are scientists) and normal, moral, sensible scientists (some of whom are Christians) quietly go about their daily lives.  Maybe it’s time normal, moral, sensible people started shouting down this ridiculous meme.  Meanwhile I was glad of the chance to talk Vulcanology with a bright eyed group of year 4s.    

Leaving the party

Seven MPs resigned from the labour party yesterday and I felt glad.    It felt like breath of fresh air for me because like them, I don’t  I feel like I don’t belong in the party politics of 2019.

My parents never told us who they voted for, but the CND marches, support for the miners and general disparagement of privatisation didn’t leave much to the imagination.  So red (and occasionally green) was always where I felt I belonged politically.  My parents did however tell me where they stood regards God – stories of Jesus and of their own faith – but they left it up to me to make my own mind up about that too.

I became a Christian when I was 13, but was not until I was at theological college in my mid twenties that I began to think more seriously about Christian politics.  This has crystallised with the help of Jim Wallis, C.A.R.E., The Jubilee Centre, The Evangelical Alliance and others to a kind of Christian Relationism.  I’m pretty sure that I know what the bible says is important:  human relationships, freedom, justice and good stewardship of resources.   In recent years I have found myself more socially conservative than the Tories (on relationship issues), more liberal than the Lib Dems (on freedom of belief and expression), struggling to see realism in the new green and SNP visions of the future and alienated from Labour (on Brexit, anti-Semitism, Corbynism etc).  I’m disillusioned with the whole system in which profit is always the bottom line and party tribalism seems to be trump the national interest.  Which is why my ears pricked at these resignations. 

One of my favourite stories in the bible is the parable of the Shrewd Manager. The manager realises he is going to get fired and cuts his masters debts, ingratiating himself with the debtors and painting his master in a generous light.  When he gets fired, the master has to grudgingly commend him for his shrewd handling of the situation.  Jesus goes on to say ‘use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone you’ll be welcomed into eternal dwellings.’ (Luke 16:9)   The point is not that Christians should cheat their employers – there are plenty of commandments and stories in the bible that show God does not approve of that.  The point is that if you’re a follower of Jesus, you graft for a different gaffer, you belong in a different kingdom – not round here. Use whatever is at your disposal to invest there.

The Christians I know are activists, stuck into making a difference to society through all sorts of voluntary community, development and advocacy work in their spare time.  This voluntary work can be really fulfilling, but it can also feel like you are swimming against the tide of a world where people and relationships are deemed less important than profit and party politics.   The same Christians work in industry, for statutory bodies and in the finance and service sectors.  Faith generally makes for loyal, honest and hard-working employees; but there are times when Christian values clash with company procedures and Christians take a stand and/or feel marginalised. Holding a different set of values and investing in a different kingdom can feel alienating.

Maybe this voicing of political alienation by seven ex labour MPs is the dawn of a new politics in the UK or maybe this will come to nothing. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep using such economic and political influence as I do have to invest in God’s kingdom, where I feel and know I belong…  And it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who does not feel they belong in the party politics of the UK in 2019.

Phoebe

Most of the books I read are theological texts for nerds like me and are not worth recommending publicly.  I do like a good story however and occasionally put the big books down to read a novel someone has recommended.  Last week I did this to read Paula Gooder’s novel Phoebe.  This week I want to recommend it to you.

Many theological nerds are good at arguing over fine points of doctrine.  A few of them, like NT Wright or Greg Boyd are also good at communicating at a popular level and a very small number of them like Walter Wangerin or Bruce Longernecker can write a good historical novel which weaves together biblical history and a good yarn. 

In Phoebe, Paula Gooder has done this with aplomb & I would recommend this book to anyone who either likes a good story or wants to get their head round the environment into which much of the New Testament was written.  The real Phoebe was a Christian leader and benefactor at Cenchreae near Corinth.  She gets a brief mention in Romans 16:1-2 and Paula Gooder extrapolates out from this point, drawing in threads from across the New Testament and other historical sources.  She paints some lovely true-to-Christian-life character pictures around marginal biblical and fictional figures with lots of local colour.  I smiled at the biblical allusions, laughed out loud at the parallels with church life and am wondering whether I need to read it again because I did not see the ending coming! 

I’d love to think that Paul was not quite so ugly or antisocial as Gooder paints him, but history and what remains of his own writings have definitely left him open to these charges.  Also, I struggled to get the voice of Dobby the house elf out of my head when reading about the young Felix.  That said, this is a really good book, looking from a Christian viewpoint at the spread of the good news of Jesus and at the honour and filth of first century Rome.    Buy it and read it!  (Or borrow my copy because it’s only available in over-expensive hard back at the moment).

Phoebe, a story,  Paula Gooder,  Hodder and Stoughton 2018 ISBN 978-1-473-66972-7

Why I’m Offended

So, DC comics have decided to release a new comic called ‘Second Coming’ featuring Jesus as a second rate superhero.  Author Mark Russel explains in an interview:

“The concept is that God was so upset with Jesus’s performance the first time he came to Earth, since he was arrested so soon and crucified shortly after, that he has kept him locked-up since then.

“God then sees this superhero on Earth a few thousand years later and says ‘that’s what I wanted for you!’ He sends Jesus down to learn from this superhero and they end up learning from each other. They learn the limitations of each other’s approach to the world and its problems.”

I find this offensive.  Here are some reasons why.

  1. Jesus of Nazareth was real.  He lived and died and rose in first century Judea.  Without lifting a sword or writing anything much, he started a revolutionary movement which transformed the world.  The historical evidence for his life, death and resurrection is plain for thinking people to see and continues to stand the test of historical and literary criticism.  This kind of ideologically loaded 21st century retelling of the story undermines historical truth in an era of fake news.  I think this is deceitful.
  2. Jesus laid the foundation for the freedom we enjoy in the West today.  It is Jesus who reveals the God who appeals to us in love rather than coercing us with force.  Consequently all of the arguments which produced the religious freedom we enjoy in the UK today came from dissenting Christians (those who took the teachings of Jesus more seriously than the threats of the state)…..  And America became one nation under God with a separate church and state and freedom of expression.  This has not happened where the teachings of Mao or Mohammed have been at the fore.  To mock Jesus is to bite the hand that gave you the freedom to mock. I think this is just plain rude.
  3. Jesus is my saviour.  I believe that I cut myself off from God with principled ideological deceit and selfish rudeness.  The teachings of Jesus in the bible introduced me to a holy God who is aware of my deceit and rudeness and still loves me.  They reveal a son of God who is willing to die to take away the separation from God which I have brought upon myself.  They also reveal that Jesus genuinely historically rose from death, and is with God able to receive and reinforce my prayers.  So I pray to God, through Jesus, and I love and worship Jesus for what he did for me.  I dislike it when people I love are slandered or libelled.

Because of #2, I don’t feel that recourse to law in these matters is appropriate.  I’m glad we have abolished blasphemy laws in the UK and pray that they will do so in Pakistan one day too. However, along with over 100,000 others I have signed a petition asking the publisher not to release this comic.    If you find this offensive, maybe you’d like to do the same.    

Deep Truths and Childs Play

I decided it was best not to leave it there with such a gloomy blog before the holidays…

On Christmas morning we will have an all-age worship service at WBC where the kids and teenagers stay in the service instead of going out to separate groups.  We do this on every first Sunday of the month.  I know that putting together an all age worship service is a nightmare for some people.  The idea is to communicate something to the adults in a way which is fun for the kids.  You have to try and occupy that kind of space that the Simpsons occupies on TV – funny and poignant in different ways for different people.  I actually quite enjoy all age worship services – partly because I get on well with kids and partly because I remember a key truth that I read when I was in preaching class at theological college:

You can only ever say one thing in a sermon / service, so say it in a way that is memorable.

And so we have the generosity game – where the two halves of the church try to out-give one another using ball pool balls over a badminton net and then we talk about how generosity is the Christian response to the self-grabbing greed of our society…. And we have Doug, the character with the country accent who long ago discovered some hidden treasure in a field, sold everything he had, bought the field and now lives to dig and then we talk about how God’s kingdom is the treasure worth giving up everything for….  And we have the no toe race where kids hobble towards the finish line and we talk about the importance of every part of the body of Christ…… and so on.  From time to time someone tells me that the teaching in these services is not very deep.  Sometimes they are right.  It is easy for me to miss the point or for an illustration to overwhelm a truth.  They are right that there is no blow by blow exegesis, no greek or no hebrew.  But they are sometimes fundamentally wrong. Because greek, hebrew and blow by blow exegesis do not necessarily make deep effective teaching.  Jesus said  “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

It is not philosophy or theology that saves us.  It is simple childlike faith in Jesus (please see the below blogs if you are concerned that this means jettisoning your brain).  The question is not ‘can you fathom great mysteries?’  The question is ‘can you believe in simple truths?’ Like a child.  All age worship services serve two purposes: they welcome kids and they remind adults of the deepest life-transforming truths of Christian faith.  They also give volunteer kids group leaders a deserved break.

Enough blogging already – I need to pray and think about what to say on Tuesday morning. May the peace of the mighty-God-child and the light of the word-become-flesh and the salvation of the saviour-baby be yours this Christmas time.

Child Abuse and the Church

You’ll know if you watch the news that some horrendous child abuse took place in the UK church in the eighties.  Also in the seventies and nineties… and noughties and teens.  There can be no excuse, there should be no more cover-ups.  This abuse is an abominable betrayal of trust.

You may also have heard that similar abuse has been taking place in schools, in sports teams, scouting and guiding groups, hospitals and summer camps….  Just about everywhere in the UK where kids are entrusted to the care of adults.

Part of my role as a church leader is to make sure that does not happen in kids and youth work at WBC.   No one is ever left alone with a minor here without having been DBS checked and having attended one of the Baptist Union’s brilliant child protection training sessions.  More than that, no-one who is not a church member can be involved in leading a kids group.  This means that we know more about them and their family life than any employer would.  We also have a trained Designated Person for Safeguarding and a trustee who is responsible for overseeing training and DBS checking.

I’m also responsible for leading a community of people who demonstrate the self-giving love of Jesus to the world through generous, kind and honest personal lives and relationships.  This is the place in the church where I see the effects of child abuse on an almost daily basis.  According to the NSPCC, one fifth of the UK adult population suffered severe mistreatment of one kind or another as a child.  Children who are abused are far more likely to grow up to be adults whose habits, relationships and lives are dysfunctional than children who are not abused.   By virtue of being generous, honest and loving communities, churches attract a disproportionate number of people whose habits, relationships and lives are broken and dysfunctional – selfish, unkind and dishonest.  Which means that many of the deeply painful relational breakdowns, depressions, employability issues and family dysfunctions I walk through with people can be linked to child abuse as a root cause.  Most of the effects of abuse I encounter stem from abuse by a family member, some from issues in churches and some from other groups in society.   I concur with the news.  Child abuse has been and still is an endemic evil in our society.

But what I also see on a daily basis is Christians walking with one another through the effects of abuse and the generosity, kindness and honesty of the church family bringing restoration to broken lives.   I see wonderful families supporting one another as they care for adopted kids and kids with special needs and other little monkeys with love and creativity and patience.  I see a community where it is OK to be open about a broken past and where the presence and love of Jesus overrides broken pasts as the defining label of life.  I see kids from regular churchgoing families and the wider community being valued, cared for and taught about and led in the generous kind and honest way of life God wants for human beings. I see space provided for other like minded charity and statutory groups seeking to provide healing and care to broken lives. I see all of this done by volunteers who work hard both to make sure that this is a safe environment for kids and that this is seen to be a safe environment for kids.

There can be no question that the church has historically gone with the flow of endemic child abuse in UK society.   But the church I see from day to day is swimming hard against the tide; alert to the current issue and working hard to restore the historical damage.  This won’t make headlines, but it is healing broken lives.

Fake news and pinches of salt

Earlier this year Facebook removed 00s of accounts used by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Association which was involved in trying to influence the 2016 US election.  It was just another example of fake news and propaganda spreading unchecked through social media.  I’m pleased to say I did not encounter much pro-Putin / anti-Clinton propaganda through Facebook at the time, but I often encounter views which I find upsetting or annoying or which I know to be based on half-truths or untruth.  Which sometimes makes me think why bother exposing myself to this madness through social media?

This world is a messed-up place.  Not because of the internet but because of human beings and their innate ability to put their need for money, sex or power above the needs of their fellow humans or their accountability to God.  Sin, the bible calls it.  The reason social media sites carry so much fake news is because they are driven by human beings.  Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart (and through the smartphone onto the internet).

God’s approach to this broken world is unambiguous in the teachings of Jesus and his followers.  Sin defiles us to the extent that none of us can stand before a Holy God.  But God does not pull the plug because he loves us.  Through Jesus he comes into the world to tell us of God’s love and God’s standards.  Jesus suffers with us – not just life in this broken world, but unjust punishment and unnecessary execution.  God suffers loss as his son suffers to bring us the message of his love.  (This story has a terrific happy ending which you can read for yourself).

So I’m keeping my Facebook account – at least for the time being, because I think God gets involved and he wants his people to be involved.  ‘Being salt and light,’ Jesus called it.    I’ve given up responding to mile long arguments from friends whose views differ from mine on matters theological or local – Facebook isn’t a good medium for discussion anyway, especially when more than two parties are involved.      But I’m going to keep posting stuff about God and the way he gets his hands dirty dealing with us and about my Christian life and things that bring me and other people joy, wholeness and peace….   And I’m going to continue using Snopes and Hoax Slayer and liberally applied pinches of salt.