“Atheist Church” – A Christian’s Perspective

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Sat with a big fat coffee in a Costa the other day my Dad asked me: “Have you heard about atheist church?” A shimmer of excitement went through me. You might expect a phrase like “atheist church” to elicit horror: “Great, a group of narky atheists, grouping together to bash Christianity”. It didn’t however and my excitement at the news was well founded.

In London something beautiful has happened. A group of human beings have decided that they would like to meet up on Sunday mornings to get together and celebrate life. They think it only fair that non-believers get a chance to meet up, sing some songs together, hear some great literature, and be inspired by motivational speakers. It’s being called “Atheist Church”, and the parallels are obvious, right down to meeting in an old, albeit deconsecrated, church building.

The theme of their first meeting was wonder and it was with wonder, and I confess a bit of envy, that I read about their gathering. How affirming! Its easy for Christians to dismiss atheists as being shallow, (the mistaken assumption being that Christians are always deep). Anyway, the cat’s out of the bag. They are real people, with real spiritual needs (though they’d likely use different terminology). Some of them are ex-churchgoers, who still feel a “void” on Sundays.

“I think people need that sense of connectedness because everyone is so singular right now, and to be part of something, and to feel like you are part of something. That’s what people are craving in the world.”

Agreed. More togetherness I say.

However there is one thing that, inevitably, frustrates me. I can’t help but think that Alain De Botton, whom is undoubtedly more learned than I, is wrong about something. “It should never be called [church], because ‘atheism’ isn’t an ideology around which anyone could gather. Far better to call it something like cultural humanism.”

Why? Why go and do that?

Why criticise this church for being called so and for gathering around an ideology? Are they really such dirty words? Of course atheism is an ideology people gather around. Every single day people gather around common ideas like atheism, and this new London venture proves that people actually quite like doing so. He’s simply wrong. It is a church, And they are gathering with a shared ideology. And it’s beneficial to those who are a part of it. Their mantra would not be out of place above a Christian church entrance, “Live better, help often, wonder more”. Amen!

The crucial difference is that the Christian church gathers (or ought to) around a person, Jesus Christ, not simply an ideology. Nevertheless, theirs is a pretty good ideology, and it might even serve as a great motivation to Christendom to get on with the real earthy business of serving others and building a community that is a force for good.

In fact, upon reflection, their “mantra” is not a world away from “love the Lord your God… and love your neighbour just as you love yourself.” Mark 12:30-31 (paraphrase).

Here’s a link to the article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21319945

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I Don’t Know Much (And Thats Okay!)

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I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing. Socrates.

Did you find your Christian journey began with a million unsolved questions? The awkward sort that keep you up at night. It probably did. If you were like me you very quickly learned some tidy answers. It’s far better, I reasoned, to nip the questions in the bud usually with a half-baked solution I had heard from someone who I supposed knew all the answers. If the answer sounded clever enough I could actually convince myself that they were sufficient.

What a mistake I have made. I have too readily embraced quick answers, and to my shame, have often been the purveyor of cheap solutions that actually solve nothing. I realise now that I have regularly, even within this blog, assumed too much knowledge of the holy. It’s easy for Christians to be afraid of the unknown isn’t it?

I am beginning to understand the value of questions.

(You may have thought studying philosophy should have taught me this. It is after all the the study of the unknowable for if by chance something does actually become knowable, it ceases to be philosophy.)

You see I always thought I understood the value of questions, but I thought a question only important to the extent that it be the proper avenue towards an answer. You had to ask the right sort of question, to get the right sort of answer. Questions were simply the means to but not an end in themselves.

Now I am beginning to consider questions to be my friends for the journey. When they knock at the door, they are not to be ignored but to be invited in and listened to. For one thing, they humble me. They put me in the right frame of mind to approach God. It’s probably foolish to approach God  claiming to know very much at all (he’d only prove you wrong). Much better instead to approach Him with wonder and imagination. A little like Job, to come to the Father after having laid “my hand on my mouth”, accepting that we have spoken of what we do not understand.

Socrates’ attitude sounds pretty sensible. I’m not advocating mysticism here, there are some things we can be assured of, even some things of the nature of God, but let’s be realistic. There’s a lot that we just haven’t a clue about. Perhaps we are all guilty of prioritising the answers above the questions, because of a nasty assumption we probably learned early on that questions smother faith.

Does it not make more sense, to say that confidence in our own knowledge would smother faith? What need have we for faith when we can know things? We are told that there is a narrow road, that leads ultimately to freedom. Perhaps similarly the “suffocating” questions can give us breathing room for faith.

Jesus seemed keen on questions, I’m learning to be too.

Comfort For Those With Little Faith

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There’s a picture Timothy Keller uses in one of his sermons to articulate the need for faith. It goes a little like this:

Imagine you are stood on the precipice of a great cliff. Running toward you, teeth bared and claws ready is a great big grizzly bear. To stand still means certain death. You peer over the precipice and know that to leap towards the ground would also mean death. However you notice some branches protruding from the edge of the cliff several feet downwards. You could jump and hold on to them, safe from the bears clutches. Which one do you go for? Some look strong, others weak and thin. There’s no way of knowing which branch will hold your weight, regardless… you must make a choice.

What doesn’t matter, to a degree is how strong your faith in a certain branch is. A man of great faith may leap from the cliff with confidence and gusto and be saved. Equally, a man of small faith may shuffle off the side of the cliff and make for a branch, half expecting it to snap. Both men, if the branch is strong, will be saved.

What matters most, is choosing the right branch.

Keller uses this dramatic picture to represent the importance of faith in ours lives. We must make a decision. Which branch shall we trust, remembering we can only choose one. At crunch time some of us will find that the branch we trusted in our whole lives will break and we shall fall. Those branches may have looked strong and healthy, but were shown to be weak and worthless. Others may choose not to even go for a branch, believing the fall to be trivial and not worth concern.

Either way, the confidence we have in the branch is of secondary importance. The primary concern is choosing the right branch. If you feel that your faith in Jesus Christ is small you’re much like the man shuffling off the cliff wondering if the branch will snap. Be comforted. He’s strong and he will save you. Of course, we should not settle for weak and timid faith but for some, such confidence takes a lifetime to cultivate. Let it grow and don’t be ashamed. Even if it takes a lifetime, you’ll have eternity afterwards to enjoy it.

Don’t let those with the loudest voices intimidate you. They may leap into Jesus’ arms, and you may warily approach, but the one you approach will always let you in, and he will never let you down. He is the only branch that will not break.

Lord, I hope to be a man of great faith, but I often doubt, and I’m often afraid. My prayer is that, “when I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3) and I know I will be saved.

All Things Are Possible For Who?

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Mark 9:22-23 – “… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him “‘If you can’! All Things are possible for one who believes.””

Check this verse out. Is Jesus essentially saying that everything is possible for a person who believes?

I like to read it as though Jesus is experiencing a little bit of indignation at the man’s suggestion that Jesus may be able to help. Would it be too extra biblical to paraphrase Jesus’ response: “‘If I can!’ Pah! All things are possible for the one who believes”. Read this way we see something quite remarkable. Jesus might have been talking simply about himself. He is the one who believes and for whom everything is possible. Not us, necessarily.

This is quite different from the way this verse has typically been read. I find it particularly helpful to read it this way, because it places the entire burden of supernatural acts on Jesus, and not on me. This makes sense right? We know that Jesus is capable of all things, and if he chooses to do something great, and if he doesn’t well that’s okay too.

So what part do we have to play? I think the man’s humble response tells us very much. The man’s humble response is “I believe; help my unbelief”. What a strange request! He has a little faith, but he’s still struggling with doubt. Does Jesus rebuke him, or scold him for his doubt? No. Does he ask him to come back when his faith is better? No.

Jesus heals the boy.

What we don’t see is the faith of the father healing the boy. Isn’t that the way we’ve typically understood this passage. “If the father had had more faith, then he could have healed his own son.” Possibly?

What we see instead is actually far more beautiful. We see Jesus’ faith healing the child, despite the Father’s doubt. Isn’t that comforting? We don’t have to be the finished article for Jesus to do beautiful things. If our faith is shaken we can be reassured that Jesus’ is very much intact. If you allow me to just be a little more extra-biblical, I imagine Jesus with a little indignation and much passion saying: “You don’t understand, it’s me! I believe, I’m the one with enough faith and I can do all things, just watch me”.

Perhaps if we wish to see more of the supernatural, we should place confidence in Jesus and his faith, rather than our own. Doesn’t that sound sensible?

My faith isn’t much to speak of, but thankfully, Jesus has great faith.  I trust Him and not myself, or at least I try to. He is the only one able to move the those mountains I never stood a chance at. What need have I for power? I have very little of it, but my friend, my closest companion has great power. I’m content with that.

“Sex Sells” – The Rise of Boring Bikini Adverts.

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There’s a song on my iPod called ‘Summer in the City’ by Regina Spektor. Her music ranges from intense and poetic, to childish and brusque. This particular song belongs in the latter category, it begins:

“Summer in the city, means cleavage cleavage cleavage.”

I don’t know if Regina’s happy about summer in the city or not, but I know I’m a little tired of it. Or rather, just tired of the advertising that goes on when the sun gets hot. Increasingly, year on year summer brings with it the same old bikini posters wafting around the city like a stale breeze. Usually these adverts are overly sexualised. At the moment the streets of Liverpool are wallpapered with H&M adverts that are pretty risqué. I used to work the magazine aisle at the supermarket and if those images were on the front of FHM or Nuts, they’d be behind a screen so children couldn’t see them. And yet they’re on the road side and in bus stops

Now, on a practical level I understand that we as a human race often need bikinis. I really do. Apart from anything else swimming in heavy jeans can potentially cause drowning. I also understand that the sale of bikinis requires advertising, and a lot of it at that. It is a once a year sort of product isn’t it? As soon as the degrees reach double figures we Brits have two things on the mind: bikinis and barbeques. (Ironically poor weather means the bikinis stay dry and the barbeques get wet, one day we’ll learn.)

But, must a bikini be advertised in such a way that 90% of the visual image is a bronzed body, air-brushed to an un-human standard only leaving a small focus on the product that’s actually being sold? Must the model sporting the bikini strike a pose that, let’s be honest, would look strange by the pool side?

To say ‘Sex sells’ is the worst kind of excuse. Back in day they might have said at slave markets – ‘racism sells’, but we wouldn’t say that it made purchasing a person acceptable. The fact that it works does not justify it. I’m not anti-bikini, and I’m not anti-sex, but I am ‘anti’-these adverts.

It might sound terribly vain, but I am so much more than a pair of eyes. I have a brain and sometimes I even like to use it. I especially like it when advertising engages with me and makes me stop and think. These blunt and uncreative adverts want to reduce me to a hormone, with two eyes and a head that swivels when I walk. Instead of getting me ‘hot under the collar’ it just gets me ‘hot and bothered.’

Advertising companies should have to do better than this to sell a product. I deliberately boycott a few other companies for inappropriate advertising. When the sole purpose of an advert is to titillate a person, it should be remembered that public adverts are viewed by single and married adults. Any company that actively wants me to pour my eyes over a body that I’m not married to is making light of marriage. It should also be remembered that children can see them. Would you be okay giving a young child a picture-book of bikini adverts? No. Of course not, so we shouldn’t be giving them a city-sized picture book.

Sex only sells because we let it. Don’t settle for uncreative adverts which objectify us at least as much as they do the model. Last summer I made the decision not to let sex sell a product to me. I buy products, I don’t buy sex, so why should sex be the selling factor of an advert? So there you have it, I think sexy adverts are a stale, patronising form of advertising. What do you think?

(By the way – Being male, I must admit that buying bikinis isn’t usually on my to-do list. You could in theory tell me to calm down because the adverts are for women and they are not meant to grab the attention of men. I would have to say that the adverts target audience is just as much male as it is female. Men want women to buy the bikini at least as much as the women do.

Why My Wife Does Not Complete Me

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During a profound conversation with my wife, April, I looked at her over the rim of my tea-cup (most of our profound conversations occur over tea) and said:

“You don’t complete me”.

I’m clearly not a romantic… fortunately April is used to me and didn’t take my words at face value, so I was not forced to wear her cup of tea on my face. Nevertheless, I felt I ought to explain myself.

To give you some context, we were talking about how our marriage is going pretty well. We’re nearing the end of our first year and there have been next to no issues, (or at least none I’m telling you!). After being warned by several couples that the first year is the hardest, (one even told me not to panic if April were to “leave me” several times only to return by dinner time), we feel that this is an achievement. However, despite this roaring success I am not “satisfied with life”, (is it egoistic of me to assume life should satisfy me?).

I have known for a long time that marriage does not “complete” a person, for I have read, and mostly forgotten, the usual array of marriage books doled out upon young couples (or often bought in excitement mere hours after the engagement). It wasn’t until this moment, with a cup of tea on the couch, that the truth hit home. My relationships with other people might be perfect, my marriage might be swimming, but they alone cannot make me happy.

If I relied on others to make me happy I would be making them the object of my happiness, and they shouldn’t have to reshape themselves to fit my ideals. It’s also unfair on myself because no person is perfect, and if I stake my happiness on something imperfect I will be devastated when they “fail”, which of course they will do from time to time.

We see this occur every day. For instance, teenagers often elevate their boyfriend/girlfriends to such a high place of importance so high that the romance actually becomes more defined by reliance than by love. Ever said to somebody “I don’t know what I would do without you…”? It’s a beautiful sentiment, but if I said this to my wife, I would be lying. I know I would hurt for a long time if I lost her, but I’d endure. I would survive because my life does not revolve around her, nor should it.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? I don’t think so. This is more than a minor qualm, it’s a dangerous mindset when we stake our happiness on other people. Tim Keller summed up the issue bluntly when he said that he and his wife will not stake their happiness on each other because “one day, one of us will have to see the other in a casket”. Is your happiness tied to something that will fail and one day perish? Beware. You might have a wonderful relationship with somebody now, which feels so perfect, but don’t let it consume you. Everyday people die a living death because they put all their hope on a ship that sinks, and was always destined one day to sink. Our obsessions have the power to kill us.

Instead, let your obsession be for the one person who cannot die and who is by His very nature the perfect friend. The one who will “always let you in, and never let you down” (as Keller puts it). He is the one who promises to satisfy you, regardless of your circumstances, be they good or bad.

One of my favourite qualities in April, is that she already does this. She doesn’t require me to complete her, because she recognises that that’s Jesus’ job, not mine. This gives me the freedom to be who I am with her, not the person she always wants me to be. Our relationship is made healthy, because she depends on Him, not on me. Every day I have to remind myself to tie all of my hopes, happiness and satisfaction to Jesus, the ship that cannot sink.

A Scary Prayer:

Lord, let me never ever feel satisfied with anything that will perish. That way, I will recognise my need for you, the only one who can satisfy me, the one who will not perish.

Being Needy = Being Human

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“There were times when the place was seething with bodies – but it was almost as if I was the only guy in the garden.”

Haven’t we all been there? In a crowded party but quite definitely alone? So writes Dave Hopwood in his book “The Blokes Bible”, which rewrites Biblical stories in a way that relates to an ordinary human, and specifically male, experience.

Adam, in the story quoted above, has just finished a long day of naming the animals. he took a “working lunch” while naming the carnivores, and is now chatting to his “mate” (God) while drinking from a coconut.

He’s got a problem, he’s lonely. There’s something not quite right. He doesn’t relate to the animals around him… he wants a companion just like himself.

There’s a very simple truth about humanity to be found in Genesis 2. Man was not built to be alone, and yet we take it as a sign of weakness when somebody feels lonely or “needy”. There is tremendous pressure in our modern society to be self-satisfied and self-sufficient. Having friends is fine, but needing someone? Sounds weak doesn’t it?

And yet, here we are. Way back then, man sat on a rock, chatting to God, laughing about how he had eaten the last unicorn for lunch, enjoying the perfect friendship, great job satisfaction, a roof of stars and coconuts galore. But he’s not satisfied.

Nothing is wrong with the world yet. Everything is right, but man is lonely.

So, it is not wrong, or silly to need people. We were built this way..

Whether historically true or not (it really truly doesn’t matter) the story of Adam, Eve and that famous garden wants us to understand that man was not meant to be alone and that no matter how good things are with your job, with God, with yourself… we all need a human somebody. Not necessarily a romantic partner, but a partner nonetheless.

There’s a lot of us and we’re all clamouring to be noticed. So next time you’re feeling like you’re totally isolated, even in a room full of people don’t imagine that your feelings are pathetic. They are truly human. You are supposed to ache for friendship, and all the people in the party are just as desperate to solve that great loneliness as you are.