My Unremarkable Testimony

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I was asked recently to share my testimony. Initially I didn’t think it was worth writing about. It lacks all of those components that ‘exciting’ testimonies have: strange coincidences later seen to be miracles, encounters with angels or Jesus appearing in my dreams. I didn’t return to my Christian roots after years of rebellion. There was no addiction to drink or drugs to break nor any childhood prophecies of becoming a man of God to be fulfilled.

Truth be told, I was reading an apologetic in the bath (Frank Morrison’s “Who Moved the Stone?”) and it convinced me that the resurrection might have really happened, and if it really did happen then I probably ought to do something about it. I had a tract lying around so when I got to my bedroom I figured I’d pray the prayer on the back. It was a fairly standard example of the sinners prayer. Now, because I grew up in a charismatic church and had seen some pretty incredible things I expected my true conversion to be a lightning flash moment, with angelic choirs and fireworks going off. It was a shame, I thought as I knelt down to pray, that I did not have my tambourine with me ready for the party in heaven that was about to kick off.

It wasn’t at all like that. I said the prayer, felt no different, and stood up a little disappointed. Though I have since been privileged to witness many miracles and experience many incredible things, my Christian walk began on my knees with slightly disappointed expectations. (I’m not quite sure where I picked up the daft idea that Jesus was there to do what I expected.)

In one sense this brief and unremarkable moment was an omen for the future. My journey still involves a fair bit of “knee-time”, often in silence. It certainly still involves a lot of unmet expectations. In time I came to realise that what I had done that day was simply take my first step on a lifelong journey. My status with God had changed, and in that sense everything was different. But I hadn’t changed, I was no different.

Yet.

Christ had come to dwell within me, but he wasn’t planning to live in my messy heart without rearranging the furniture, chucking some stuff and mending some broken things. I had habits to break, virtues to practise, discipline to be learned etc. He’s still moving in. Apparently one day my heart will be a temple like no other, truly unique and perfectly suited to house Him. Which is nice.

Like I say, I was reflecting back on my very undramatic testimony, scribbling some notes getting ready to share it, and this is what I wrote. I’d call it a poem but that would be giving it far too much credit. Enjoy.

On reflection, I think I had the impression
That saying the sinner’s prayer
Would release fireworks.
But I must say it right
And mean it completely
Or else picky Jesus
Wouldn’t save me
I remember when my knees
First met my bedroom carpet
When I said the prayer I had read
On the back page
Of a badly written tract.
I thought I had given you my whole life
In just under twenty seconds
I wasn’t aware that this clumsy prayer
Was really just the start.

Spring of Living Water

JEREMIAH 2:13

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Occasionally we come across a portion of scripture that really captivates us. The last few years I have been trying to redress the imbalance between my Old and New Testament literacy, and whilst doing so some of the imagery I have come across in the poetic and prophetic books of the O.T. completely astound me. This is one such example.

This passage in Jeremiah involves water, and in the ancient middle-east water is an immensely evocative symbol. Water meant opportunity, growth, fruitfulness and above all life itself. It was and is in any parched land a precious commodity. There is no obvious parallel symbol for the western world because for them water represented so much good. Having a reliable constant source of water is so fundamental that life can barely get going without one.

God calls himself a spring of living water, and in fact, he unapologetically tells Israel that he is the only spring of living water. A spring for the people that is fresh, available and unending. The implications are massive. He is saying that all good endeavours, growth, opportunity and even life itself rely on him in the same way a community relies on a water spring. He himself stands at the centre of the world sustaining life. He’s responsible for the food, plants, gardens, fruit, grass, animals. Without him everything becomes parched and quickly dies. You can take the image a step further and suggest that the farther away from the spring of water something lives the less healthy it is. We should all live our lives as close to the water source as possible (Psalm 1).

The terrible thing is that despite Gods’s centrality to all of life itself humanity chooses not to rely on God but instead on other things. These other things are often good things that were given to us by him and more often than not it was something he made for our pleasure. But instead of loving him, we have what Tim Keller calls an “over-love” for the things he gives. He says that these idols are at the very epicentre of our desire.

The prophet Hosea also spoke of this tragedy, having experienced it first hand when Gomer left him: “She shall pursue her lovers, but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’ And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” (Hosea 2:7-8)

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This brings us to the next image represented. The image of the broken cistern. Cisterns were dug into the ground to store water. The image above is a surviving cistern in the Middle East. A broken cistern is one that obviously leaks, and cannot hold water, and this evocative image of a leaking well of water speaks volumes about the outcome of choosing anything else over God. Every other well runs dry, the water disappears. It isn’t even used up fruitfully. It disappears into the ground. It’s wasted, and must be replaced by more and more water. The well can never be filled, though we will constantly attempt to fill it, even pouring our very selves into it if necessary.

Doesn’t that proclaim a stark truth that we often miss? Isn’t it the perfect diagnosis of addiction? The drug user must fill his body with more and increasingly heavy drugs to keep a sense of being filled. The more a person craves and accumulates money, the less one is satisfied with each coin. The alcoholic’s thirst can only be quenched by more and more booze. The lonely people who crave nothing more than attention and human interaction, tragically, become pushier and pushier until they push potential friends away. The casual use of pornography becomes an addiction that requires increasingly hardcore material.

An over-love for anything but God, is idolatry, and idolatry always looks like addiction. Like every addiction idolatry grows and grows until it destroys us. Each step in the process requires a little more sacrifice than before. Eventually, what we treasure will require us to die for it. We’ll have nothing but ourselves to throw into the well. When everything about a persons life becomes fixated on the attainment of a single thing, the process is complete and very difficult to redress. They have ceased to fully live, and are simply existing. In a non-literal, but very real sense, they are dying.

Jesus Christ is the only God who says instead “I died for you”. He threw himself into the well, so we don’t have to. He poured himself out, figuratively and literally in greater and greater ways until the cost demanded was his very life. And as we saw earlier, he doesn’t just save us from bondage to idols, he promises us himself, the spring of living water. I’m reminded on the story in the Narnia tale “The Silver Chair”. Jill, a nervous young girl meets Aslan for the first time by a stream, and is terrified of being eaten by the lion. Desperate for a drink, but too scared to approach the lion’s stream she says “Oh dear, I shall have to find another stream”.

“There is no other stream” The lion says.

Let us not try to fill up our cisterns any more. Let’s trust in God for the water that brings life. Let us drink from Gods spring, after all, it’s the only one.

“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

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.