The world needs love?

 

We live in a world where the harshness of life, its brevity, its seemingly random catastrophes, its hollowness, its moments of malignancy , and its violence suggest that there is no God and if there is a god, not a god of love. Yet the Christian community continues to insist that however bleak and confusing the human condition is, there is a God of love.

To believe in a God of love seems to be naïve and sentimental, a bit like believing in Father Christmas. Yet a search of the New Testament discerns a unique kind of love, the holy love of God, mirrored in Jesus Christ. This love is at the heart of the universe and it is demonstrated at its most vulnerable and profound in the cross of Christ. If there is one verse most Christians have memorised its John chapter three verse sixteen which begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his son”. This gift of love is viewed not just in the loving and compassionate life of Jesus but supremely in his selfless death on the cross. Love for Christians is not all sugary and fuzzy, it is not shaped by Hollywood but  by the cross; self-emptying, self-giving and sacrificial love. Sometimes we think of the love of God in very human terms, like romantic love or self-indulgent love. The love of God has an altogether different quality.

Many years ago I read Anders Nyrgren’s book Agape and Eros. His book was more than a narrow study of two Greek words for two different types of love-agape and eros. Rather he was arguing that there is a love that comes from above, from God, agape love and a love that begins below, human love. While Nyrgren has his critics I think he makes a helpful point. There is the kind of love that begins with God and the kind of love that begins with self. One is essentially God centred while the other can be self-centred. Maybe it’s a bit like a story Jesus told about two people praying, a Pharisee and a tax collector (Luke 18). In the story both come to the temple, both pray, but their prayers come from very different places and so their lives are lived out in two very different ways. The tax collector, probably a collaborator of the Roman occupiers, would have been deeply resented by most of the occupied population of Palestine. Tax collectors were known as having an unsavoury reputation; they lined their own pockets by overcharging and exploiting their position. The Pharisee by contrast was highly respected, a pillar of society, morally upright and in a position of influence. He was punctilious and devout .Moreover he was proud of his religious practice, parading it like a virtue.

The Pharisee was proud and self-sufficient. This led to a sense of self-congratulation and ultimately self-delusion. By contrast the tax collector was humble, deeply aware of the flaws in his humanity and painfully aware of what he had become. While the Pharisee looked to himself, the tax collector looked to God. The Pharisee wanted applause and recognition from others, while the tax collector wanted grace and forgiveness from God. One loved himself too much while the other knew he needed the love of God. The parable points to two kinds of love and two sources of love; human and divine. Not every expression of love is a good love. Like any gift from God, love can be distorted, misused and misdirected. At worse it can become narcissistic.

Yes the world needs love, but not any kind of love. The best kind is the one we find in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This holy love brings the best out in us and in others: and has the potential to bring healing, forgiveness and reconciliation to our broken world. This love is the love of Christ. I don’t know about you but I need more of it.

Sixty thousand thoughts

Presbytery May 2016 – the general secretary, the moderator and the moderator's chaplain

Presbytery May 2016 – the general secretary, the moderator and the moderator’s chaplain

Sixty thousand thoughts

The human mind is amazing. Recent research is telling us all kinds of fascinating things about our minds. Let’s look at three insights and their implications.

Experts estimate that we have fifty to seventy thousand thoughts per day. That a lot of thoughts. I will work with 60,000 as a happy medium. Psychologists point out that the vast majority of these thoughts are habitual. In other words, they’re the same thoughts we had yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that. This suggests that very easily our minds can become stale and need to be regularly renewed. One way of overcoming stale habitual thinking is to take on a learning mindset. We can make it our goal to learn something new every day. We can learn from many different sources: books, newspapers, the media, TED talks, the Bible, conversations. We can learn new things by simply walking down the street with open and inquiring minds. The French poet Jacques Reda used to walk the streets of Paris with the intention of seeing one new thing each day. In so doing he renewed his love for his city and kept his mind from falling into habitual thinking which is a death trap if you are a poet. For Christ-followers the call to a renewed mind is found all over Scripture. Clearly God does not want our minds to stagnate. I think St Paul was on to something when he wrote to the Romans that we need to present ourselves to God worshipfully and thus be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). One way I try to do that is to read a passage of Scripture every day and ask the Spirit to help me understand it and allow this fresh God-thought percolate in my mind.

Other research points out that only twelve percent of our thoughts are focused on the future. That might be good if our future-focused thoughts range from low grade anxiety to full-fledged deep seated fear. Our thoughts about the future can be catastrophized over what might or might not be ahead. The less we do this kind of thinking the better. If, however, we are people of faith, while fears and anxieties about the future are real, our faith in God brings with it a sense of hope. The best is yet to be. “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Trouble, hardship, poverty, death and danger can’t” writes Paul (Romans 8:35). The future is never hopeless when God is part of our vision.

The third piece of mind research (the Cleveland Clinic) is that up to 80% of our thoughts are negative. That’s about 48,000 negative thoughts per day! And when we verbalize those negative thoughts, it compounds the problem. Thinking positively, and thinking aloud positive thoughts, is vital to our mental well-being. Again, for people of faith verbalizing our faith gives it power and credence. That’s why to say the Lord’s Prayer aloud, recite creeds aloud, listen to the voice of Scripture and sing songs of faith stimulate healthy minds. Moreover gossip and criticism tend to reinforce negativity while praise and encouragement, “words laced with grace” (Mark Patterson) fight off the tendency to think negatively. Long ago Rene Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”. Thinking is not everything but if the current research is anything to go by, our thinking will shape who we are and who we become.

Blessings,

Steve

 

The rebirth of the soul

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I often try and arrive at the domestic airport early if I have a flight to the Eastern states.

I do this for two reasons. I don’t want to miss the flight and I also love to go browsing in the airport bookshop. On my last loiter around the bookshop I noticed a number of books with ‘soul’ on the title on the cover page. I think I picked up five such books. I thumbed through them to get the drift of the content and also checked the index at the back to see if Jesus, the greatest soul healer, got a mention. To my disappointment all the authors seemed to ignore the greatest spiritual teacher ever, Jesus the Galilean. One author did mention that in his office he had quotes on his walls from Gandhi, the Dali Larma, Buddha, Mohammed, Freud and Jesus.  But when I scoured the content of the book and I couldn’t find any acknowledgement of the teachings of Jesus. I find it fascinating that “the soul” is being thought about and written about in this post-Christian, secular culture. Money and material things, sex and success are not enough to fill our God shaped hole. For decades most people seemed to have concluded that there is no such thing as a soul. We have a mind and a heart, and maybe a spirit, but surely not a soul. We have largely rejected the old Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and we have also been put off by those within the Christian community who speak of ‘soul winning’. God after all, is interested in the whole person, every part of us, even the hairs on our heads says Jesus. We need to view people holistically rather than with a narrow focus on the mysterious ‘soul’.  It is therefore understandable that Christians feel uncomfortable talking about the soul. Should we just let go of the idea of the soul and leave it to the practitioners of ‘New Age’ spirituality and pop psychology to explore this part of the human condition?

I think not. Scripture has a great deal to say about the soul. I love the words of the twenty third psalm where it say “God restores my soul”. Moreover Jesus warns us to beware of those who can kill the soul (Matt 10:28) and in speaking of Christian discipleship he reminds us that gaining the world is meaningless if in the process with lose our souls (Matt 16:26). Is the word ‘soul’ better translated ‘life’, thus demystifying it. What is clear from Scripture is that its authors have an integrated view of human nature. The Bible does not  see we humans as the sum total of different departments, body, soul and spirit. Rather there is a ‘psychosomatic unity’ of the human person, that is the interdependence of body, mind, soul, spirit and emotions. It would be wrong to think of ourselves as owning a soul as we would a suitcase or umbrella as the Greeks seemed to. The New Testament Greek word ‘psyche’ that is often translated ‘soul’ meaning life or personality. It reminds us that we are spiritual being with eternal possibilities. Human life is more than bodily appetites for food and sex. When we become a new creation in Christ there begins a work of the Spirit of God to bring more harmony in us, as whole humans, body, mind, soul and spirit. To love God, according to Jesus involves all that we are, not just one part of us. Christian ministry used to be referred to as ‘the cure of souls’. This suggests we may be only interested in the spiritual dimensions of people, their prayers and their worship. This would be un-Jesus-like. Jesus above all other religious leaders and teachers lived out the wholeness and holiness of God in his love and concern for every aspect of the human condition. As followers  we too are to be concerned with the whole healing of the self, in all its components, and in the healing of society and culture and the transformation of the world.

It feels like Christians need to be part of the ‘soul’ conversations that are emerging. Maybe it’s time for a Christian author to write a book about this topic that would be found alongside the new age literature in bookshops. I live in hope.

From this day forward…

04 April 2016 From this Day Forward

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to be able to go back to Geraldton to conduct a wedding. It was a small private affair but I was struck again by those beautiful words in the traditional vows, “from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.” It’s about commitment to a relationship. It’s about today and every day from now on being different to yesterday. It is about covenant.

I was talking to someone soon after that about where I thought the church was headed. I said that wherever we were headed, we needed to have “a different future” and that it needed to be “from this day forward”. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that as church we are no longer what we used to be. We are unsure about the focus of our calling, we are uncertain about where we are going and we are doing the things that every troubled relationship ends up doing. We are going through the motions of love, longing for a recovery of the romance of yesteryear and counting the pennies to make sure we have enough to last out our days. “For better” is gone, “in health” is out of the question and in the “richer or poorer” bit we just want the books to balance.

Initially the Church was founded as a company of people who walked with Jesus. It moved forward as inter-connected groups who broke bread together, praising God and enjoying the favour of the people. They were one in heart and mind as they shared their possessions, and there was not a needy person among them as they testified to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. But then they became organised. They created management structures and dressed their leaders in different clothing. The leaders took over doing the stuff and controlling the way things are done.

The people initially were happy. But times changed, the people realised that they could do things by themselves in all kinds of areas of their work. They could take the initiative and they could make new discoveries (This goes all the way back to Galileo!). Initially they were happy to be led in their spiritual lives but then found that it was boring and unfulfilling and they began to leave the church and subsequent generations grew up without knowledge of the faith.

I have four pictures on the wall in my office – they are the four congregations in which I have served, two in South Africa and two in Western Australia. They remind me that the church is about the people who gather together week after week to worship God, to bear witness to their faith and to serve the world in His name. It is easy to forget this: we can become caught up in bureaucracy, in the system and in our all-so-important committees. And the Church has done exactly that, in most denominations and in virtually every place!

Our different future is not to become congregation-based, but to recognise that the heart of the church is the people who meet in congregations to worship God. Everything else about the church exists to serve them and to help them be more effective and influential where they are. We need to be committed to this with all our resources. We will, I believe need significantly stronger lay leadership as well as ministers who are trained to resource several lay-led communities out of regional centres. We must create a renewed enthusiasm for the gospel in all its meanings as good news for this world and the next. We have an attractive gospel but we have allowed it to become dusty.

On Sunday, in one of our smallest congregations, I heard a message about God’s vision: that it is big and full of adventure. Sometimes, the preacher said, we think we know what that mission is and we want to keep on going to Bithynia (Acts 16:7) but God wants us in Macedonia. The question that struck me was this, “Who is the Macedonian that is calling out to you?” Paul and his party changed plans and they headed into another direction and from that day forward, the church had a completely different future.

Over the next while, I plan to share with you about plans I believe we should think about changing and about new directions we should be taking. Watch this space.