Generally I tend to think that I am right. If I am not acting idiotically (which I do sometimes), then I would not be doing or saying something if I didn't think I was right. The problem is that I am not always right. I know this because I know that no-one is always right. When I look at other people I can spot their blind spots however, the very definition of a blind spot means that I cannot see my own. Criticism, rebuke and correction are therefore essential. They can do things which I myself am incapable of doing. It is essential that my life is full of these things as without them I will remain right in my own eyes but wrong in everyone else's. If I am truly reading and engaging with the Bible then criticism, rebuke and correction can come from there. However, often God uses people to do this work and to help us grow in godliness. This unfortunately leads to a few uncomfortable conclusions. 1. I need to repent of my pride and my unwillingness to hear criticism. I tend to respond very badly to criticism even when it is about something completely unimportant. So someone criticises the volume of music or the way I set out chairs or anything completely unimportant like that and I immediately find myself bristling. If I respond so badly to insignificant criticism what chance do I have of God using criticism to change my heart. 2. I need to build relationships in which criticism, rebuke and correction are the norm. It is difficult to build relationships where these things are just part and parcel of them but I need them and so need to invest in relationships so that this can occur. I am rubbish at dealing with this but maybe if it was more normal and natural I would be better? 3. I need to be willing to criticise, rebuke and correct. I need to do this in love but I do need to do it. If I need it then so do other people and to not do it is to not care for the person enough to help them grow. It's one thing to resolve to deal with it better but it seems a much more daunting thing to resolve to be better at doing it. But if we don't we are not helping people to identify and deal with the blind spots they inevitably have. So I may hate criticism but I need it and need to learn to value it better!
O.K. so as Sarah and I continue to work our way through House it is inevitable that in an ideas led hospital drama the issue of abortion is never going to be too far away and sure enough we've just watched a couple of episodes dealing with the moral arguments for and against abortion.
At one point House presents the following argument to a patient he's trying to convince to have an abortion. He says that in the end we have to draw a line about abortion and that although people may quibble about trimesters ultimately the obvious line is birth. He then goes on to say this - Morally it doesn't really make much difference but practically it makes a whole load of difference.
That line has stuck with me all week because I think it's such a great summary. Ultimately lines are pretty arbitrary morally however practically where you draw the line is huge. I think what house was saying was that in practical terms aborting feels nothing like and very different to killing a baby - even though morally the only difference is time.
Now if I'm honest this has stayed with me not because of my views on abortion but because of what a brilliant summary it is of how most of us make many decisions. Let me explain.
Morally there is not much difference between downloading a film on the internet and stealing a dvd but practically there is the world of difference. Practically one feels worse than the other.
Morally there is not much difference between being lazy at work and stealing from the till but practically there is a whole load of difference.
Morally there isn't much difference between lying to someone and trying to deceive someone without actually lying but practically they feel different.
I know the temptation to do life like this is there because I tend to live life according to how it makes me feel. But surely life and morality shouldn't revolve around my feelings.
May God save us from expedient morality and help us to start doing things because they are right not simply because they don't feel wrong!
Having written on Monday about our inability to be motivated to obey Jesus' teaching and instruction by the fact that it is in our own best interest I then read these words from Psalm 119.
'Teach me, LORD, the meaning of your statutes, and I will always keep them.
Help me understand your instruction, and I will obey it and follow it with all my heart.
Help me stay on the path of your commands, for I take pleasure in it.'
Now whether you call this providence or merely coincidence I certainly found it striking that here I see the Bible giving its answer to my query. In the last sentence of this section the person who wrote it acknowledges what I know to be true, and articulated on Monday, that despite the fact that I take pleasure in obeying God I still can't do it and need God to help me do it.
However, what really struck me in this section is the correlation between being taught and obedience. You see I know that God's ways are best. I believe it to be true and I have in some ways experienced it. I therefore think that my lack of obedience is down to something other than knowledge. It's easy to think that I don't need to be taught any more rather I just need to become better at doing what it says.
However, the Bible doesn't seem to recognise my distinction. The Bible's verdict is that if I am still not keeping God's commands, if I'm not obeying, if I'm not following him with all my heart then what I need is not some new supernatural feeling, it's not simply to try harder, it's not to find a stronger motivation. No what I need is for God to teach me. What I need is to understand God's ways better. I might think that I know and understand them but if I truly did then I would obey them.
No wonder when I distance myself from my Bible, from fellowship with other Christians, from studying with other Christians and from hearing people faithfully explain and apply the Bible my obedience suffers.
I have just been for a run (I hope you are all suitably impressed) which was at times difficult but overall relatively enjoyable. I know that running makes me feel good. People tell me that exercise releases dolphins into my blood which apparently swim around and make me feel happy. However, I don't base my knowledge that running makes me feel good solely on that but also on the fact that I know that if I exercise regularly I find the everyday struggle with emotions and moods to be somewhat easier.
However, despite the fact that I know running does me good and despite the fact that my experience tells me that running will make me feel better and make my life better I still often find it hard to motivate myself to get ready and go out to run. Sometimes the thought of having to go out and run makes me want to do nothing more than stay in bed or stay in front of the television.
In house groups we have been looking through John's gospel. I love John's gospel because John has the brilliant habit of explaining why he's writing what he's writing or including Jesus' reason for saying or doing what he is doing. So we see Jesus encouraging Christians to love and abide in him, to unite with each other and to listen to his words because by doing this they will experience joy, peace, love and fullness of life.
Yet again I not only know this to be true because Jesus says it's true but I know it to be true from experience. Although following Jesus can at times prove difficult I know that when I am abiding in him, when I am listening to him, when I am talking to him and loving his people I do experience that peace, joy and love that he offers. My life is fuller when I do what he says I should do than when I don't even though I have to wait until eternity for that absolutely full joy, peace, love and life!
However, still at times I don't do those things Jesus tells me to do even though I know they're to my benefit. Like going for a run, even though I know I'll feel better for doing them I still can't motivate myself to do it. I see many people like this in the world. I see many people in the church who have a similar problem. I see many people who are not enjoying the fullness of life Jesus offers because they're not doing the things Jesus told them to do in order to do so. The question is how do we ensure we do those things and enjoy the life Jesus offers?
Up until recently I have thought if I could just teach myself and others that the things Jesus tells us to do are actually for our benefit and make us feel good then we would suddenly start doing them. I thought that if I could just encourage others to taste and see that the LORD is good then I would see people becoming more and more committed to doing as Jesus commands and enjoying the life he offers. The problem is that it doesn't work. Like me and going for a run, sometimes knowing that it improves your quality of life is not enough to actually get you doing it. When we are fighting against our own laziness, our own selfishness and our own sinful nature no amount of knowledge and logic is capable of motivating us to live Jesus' way. It might motivate us temporarily. We might get 10 minutes or 10 days or even 10 weeks out of it but by itself it will not triumph. What we need is supernatural help.
So following Jesus might make you feel good but I'm going to stop relying on that to motivate me, and others, to live his way. No instead I'm going to pray that God would come into our hearts and motivate us because I'm fast learning that I'm incapable of motivating myself, never mind others, even when it's in my own best interest!
In my short and undistinguished career I have done two jobs which have been quite ideas driven. So when I worked for Middlesbrough Football Club in the Community I was responsible for coming up with new and creative ways to teach young people a wide range of things using the football club as a hook. Over time I felt that many of my ideas became stale. Thinking of new and innovative ways to communicate became more and more difficult and constantly being expected to come up with new and whacky ideas I found somewhat exhausting.
My work for Browning Avenue Baptist Church at times feels very similar. The content is radically different but again at times I feel the same pressures. The pressure to think up new and innovative ways of communicating the gospel is at times inspiring and exciting but at other times stressful and depressing. What do you do when the ideas run out? I often feel like keeping interesting and original is just too difficult and I go back to the same stuff again and again.
I have no idea where this blog is going except that I need to remind myself that God is a creative God who created creative human beings and that God's work is not dependent on me having good enough ideas. At the football club my lessons were completely dependent on the ideas I had and my skill in delivering them however when it comes to the gospel, although I pray that God will use my ideas and gifts, ultimately his success does not rely on those things!
So I pray for good ideas and creativity but until they come I shall just have to get on with doing the work despite feeling uninspired and trust that God knows what he's doing!
We often bang on about how being a Christian is about having a relationship with God. I long to have this relationship with God. Being able to talk to the God who created and sustains the whole world is an incredible privilege and one there can be no doubt I do not make the most of. However, there can be no denying that talking to God is very different to talking to our friends. For a start he is very different to any friends we might have (how many friends do you have who are morally perfect and have the power to create the world with a word?) however, perhaps the biggest difference is that when I talk to a friend they normally respond audibly. When I pray to God the conversation often seems to be very one way. So we go on about it being a relationship often failing to recognise that it is completely different to any other relationship we will ever have.
It is difficult to maintain a conversation with someone when the communication so often seems to revolve around you talking. Over time your prayer's develop and with experience, thought and biblical study you sort of learn how to make this bizarre sort of conversation, this unique relationship work.
However, on Tuesday I went round to a guy from our church's house who's only been a Christian for a few months. At the end I asked him if he'd like to pray and he said that he would but that he was rubbish. So he prayed and it was in many ways nothing like how I pray. It was pretty unstructured and even the content was very different. However, I have to say it I found it the most amazing thing. Here was a guy who was genuinely just talking to God as he wanted to and saying the things he wanted to say to God.
I try my hardest to be as real as I can in my prayers however I inevitable carry into my prayers my own personality, my own theology, my own experiences and just a whole lot of other baggage. I found that sharing in someone who seemed to have so little baggage's prayer was an incredible blessing. I often think that when it comes to prayer the more rubbish they are the better they are.
Over the weekend we were looking at the religious nature of people's hearts. One of the aspects which really struck me was how we all tend to make religions which we can perform o.k. in. So we make the things which we consider to be virtues (whether they're down to a belief in the supernatural or just the sufficiency of man) things which we are good at.
As a Christian I was challenged at how often I do this and so here is my attempt to recognise that tendency in my life and identify some of the places it manifests itself.
In my Christianity...
...being self obsessed is better than being boring
...being unkind is better than being weird
...having a quiet time by yourself is better than doing it in a group
...being self controlled is better than being honest
...being irrationally committed to a new style of church is better than being irrationally committed to an old style
...being theologically sound is better than being loving
...speeding is better than under age drinking
...avoiding conflict is better than confronting sin
...talking about Jesus to non-Christians is better than talking about Jesus to Christians
...looking morally good is better than confessing to people and repenting
...being able to preach is better than being gentle
...being funny is better than being wise
In my Christianity I make the rules and I decide the priorities.
Sarah and I are currently watching through House (we're a bit behind on Series 3 but will soon have you series 5 addicts caught up!).
Last night we were watching an episode which dealt with the thorny issue of euthanasia (I notice there's a lot about this in films and on the television at the moment - The phrase hearts and minds springs to mind!)
As the three doctors debate about the ethics of ending this person's life who apparently wants to die there are a number of opinions. However, the episode ends with Cameron delivering a lethal injection and helping the patient to die. The episode ends with House telling Cameron he is proud of her for doing what she believed in.
Now whilst this sort of thing is commonly heard in our society I can't help but feel a it uncomfortable every time I hear it. After all Hitler was only doing what he believed in as were those people involved in the Crusades or the attack on the twin towers. It strikes me that doing what you believe in is not really something which either you or others should necessarily be proud of.
However, I guess if we are going to get rid of any sense of absolute morality all you can ask from anyone is for them to do what they believe in! Good job I believe in peace, love and the brotherhood of humanity or else who knows what I might do!
Working for a baptist church in Hartlepool is a weird thing. We work and work to tell people about Jesus and to get them to engage with God's teaching in the Bible and the salvation he offers everyone and yet on a good Sunday Morning we still have less that 100 people there and it still feels like the vast majority of people have little or no interest.
I so often find myself just wishing that as a church we were a bit bigger. I was talking yesterday to someone and found myself wishing that we just had another 100 people in the church. How encouraging it would be to have 100-200 people in the church rather than 0-100. How much easier it would be to organise things and then to do them.
However, this couldn't help but lead me to ask the question How many would be enough for me? You see if Hartlepool has 90 odd thousand people living in it then all that going from 100 to 200 would do is mean that there are 89800+ people we don't have contact with as opposed to 89900+. Would this be enough for me? I guess not. I guess I'd still want more. Even if we got mega church size and had 5000 people coming on a Sunday that would still leave 85000+ people who don't have anything to do with us.
I long for God to be working in Hartlepool. I long for his church to be growing here and I long for people to be saved but thinking about it I think I'd probably better leave the numbers to him!
'Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.'
In my worst moments I do some terrible things. I say things with the sole intention of cutting and hurting other people. I put myself first so often at the expense of others. I remain indifferent to so many other people's trials and difficulties as long as I make my own life as easy as possible. Looking back on this week I can see how often I have spent my time doing what I want whilst leaving those things I don't want to do for my wife to do after a busy and stressful day at work. Looking back further than that I can still remember things I have done which have caused real damage. So I look back to times when I have been irrationally angry, when I have been spiteful, when I have been oppressive and I can look on people who I have been repeatedly unkind to.
Then I look to Jesus and I recognise that in terms of my relationship with him I have done some terrible things. For years I rejected him and went completely my own way. I repeatedly marginalise and sideline him. I often rebel against his ways and decide I am still going to go my own way. My love for Jesus at times feels insignificant or even non existent.
I am certainly not the person I should be!
But actually those things don't represent my worst moments. No, my worst moments are when I see myself like that and don't care. My worst moments are when I am lazy and waste my life and it doesn't bother me. My worst moments are when I don't give a monkeys that I am living completely for myself, that my focus is on making my life as easy as possible at the expense of everyone else (including the people I love most in the world). My worst moments are when I find myself dismissing people and having no time for them and I think that it's o.k. to be like that. My worst moments are when I find myself ignoring the God who loved me enough to die for me and I couldn't care less.
But in my best moments I feel that. My best moments are not when I don't do those things (they are not my best moments but rather my imaginary moments). No my best moments are when I look at my life and I feel just how badly I am living my life. In my best moments I am ashamed that I allow my wife to do all the housework when I've had an easier day than her. In my best moments I feel the pain that my words and actions have caused to so many people throughout my life. In my best moments I am traumatised that I ignore Jesus and fail to live for him. In my best moments I cannot believe I so often fail to love God, read my Bible, pray to him after he came to earth and suffered death and hell for me. In my best moments I recognise that if I was God I would be blisteringly angry with me or have given up on me altogether.
It is in these best moments that the words I put at the top mean so much to me. In my worst moments the promise of being without sin seems insignificant to me. But in my best moments it seems like the most wonderful thing. To no longer hurt people. To no longer rebel against God but to be free of that is such a wonderful promise which in my best moments I cannot wait for. Of course this is not the pipe dream of some hymn writer. No this is just what Paul writes in Romans 6v6-7
'For we know that our old self was crucified with him (Jesus) so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.'
In my worst moments this means nothing to me. But in my best moments I long to cling on to this promise now and so in Christ's strength I start resisting sin knowing that one day I will be free from it completely. The thought of being saved to sin no more not only spurs me on to fight sin now but it also gives me so much excitement as I look forward to the day when that salvation will be complete and I will not only sin a bit less but will be truly freed from it forever!