Thursday, 10 April 2014

How to experience God and change the world - reflections on an interview with Elaine Heath

Jesus said ‘my sheep hear my voice and they follow me.’ It’s going to be difficult to follow Jesus if we don’t know what he’s telling us to do. But how many of us know what it means to hear Jesus’s voice in a particular situation?

I guess hearing Jesus’ voice means different thing to different people. I’ve got friends for whom hearing Jesus’s voice means accepting ‘thus sayeth the Lord’ type prophetic utterances, and other friends where it doesn’t seem to mean much more than using your common sense. I grew up in a church where hearing Jesus’ voice basically meant studying the Bible (or more precisely, believing the minister’s interpretation of the Bible), to determine what Jesus had said, but there was rarely any mention of what Jesus might be saying. Of course we were encouraged to pray to Jesus, but I don’t ever remember being encouraged to listen.

For me a big shift occurred when I was introduced to contemplative forms of prayer.

In our interview with Elaine Heath she described contemplative spirituality as 1. Showing up 2. Paying attention 3. Cooperating with God 4.Releasing the outcome.

My personality type means that I find it quite easy to ‘release the outcome’, i.e. put into action what I’ve heard. It’s the ‘paying attention’ bit I struggle with. But through contemplative forms of prayer I’ve begun to find that paying attention can also be really engaging.

For most of my faith journey praying meant talking into the silent blackness of my mind. But over the last few years I’ve begun to learn how to engage all the senses in prayer. So I’ve been trying to listen as I journal, or listening as I walk in the countryside, or visualising engaging in conversation with Jesus, or visualising being in a gospel story. Or rather than simply studying the Bible, slowing my reading down and looking for words and ideas that jump out at me, and allowing them to interact with my thoughts, feelings and memories.

So for me, contemplative prayer is essentially about finding creative ways to listen.

Of course this doesn’t mean I’ve had clear answers to all my prayers, but I’ve found that as I (and the community I'm a part of), have committed myself to creative contemplative prayer, I have experienced an increased sense of the guiding presence of Jesus.

What’s been your experience of hearing Jesus voice?


Monday, 24 March 2014

How Nomad is changing my life...

About once a year we upload something called Nomad Journey. It’s 30 minutes of Dave and I chatting about what’s going on with us (no special guests I’m afraid).

We’re both pretty introverted really and don’t like too much attention, but we do think it’s important to do this annual personal update.

I guess Nomad Journey is a form of accountability for us. It hopefully shows that Nomad isn’t just a podcast; it’s a reflection of a very real journey that Dave and I are on. Just over the last few months, for example, how I buy clothes and the food I eat has changed dramatically, as has my understanding of atonement, salvation and the afterlife.

But it’s more than just a personal journey. Dave and I are also forming a Christian Community, called Garden-City, and this too has been shaped by what we’ve learnt through Nomad.

We’d both been pretty battered and bruised by our inherited church experience, and had become quite disillusioned and close to throwing the towel in. But then the Methodist church offered me a role where I’d be given the freedom to explore forming a fresh expression of church. It was around this time that I met Dave, who then joined me on the podcast and in my church planting endeavours.

You can trace the course of this journey by listening back over the Nomad Journey podcasts. Or for a quicker overview you could have a read of an article I wrote for the Fresh Expressions website which describes the first 18 months of this work.

Nomad has been a hugely important part of this journey. This isn’t just because we’re able to interview interesting theologians and pioneers, but our connection with you has also been really significant. We love all the feedback we get on the blog, Facebook, Twitter and through email. It’s so encouraging to know that we’re not on this journey alone, but there are many of us around the world wrestling with the same things.

Thanks so much for joining us on this adventure!


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Four reasons why I’m a vegetarian and one reason why I’m not

Some time ago it dawned on me that the only way I relate to animals is by eating them. My appreciation for the incredible diversity, beauty and complexity of the animal kingdom boiled down to how they tasted (and the occasional David Attenborough documentary).

This got me thinking…

[Reasons for being a vegetarian #1: Theological]
I believe the church is a prophetic community, who is called to point to God’s coming Kingdom. The Bible tells us that our eternal destiny is life on a New Earth where we will live in harmony with God and his creation and so will consequently eat a vegetarian diet. This is the future reality the present church should be pointing towards.

So, I became a theological vegetarian (i.e. my beliefs changed, but my lifestyle didn’t!).

[Reasons for being a vegetarian #2: Environmental]
But I couldn’t avoid the issue. I kept seeing news reports about the environmental impact of the West’s ‘meat addiction’. You probably know the stats, but if not here’s one. The United Nations’ report Livestock's Long Shadow found that eating meat causes almost 40 percent more greenhouse-gas emissions than all the cars, lorries and planes in the world combined.

[Reasons for being a vegetarian #3: Moral]
Apparently around 10 billion animals are killed for human consumption every year. Increasingly these animals are crammed into cages where they can barely move and are fed food mixed with pesticides and antibiotics.

[Reasons for being a vegetarian #4: Nutritional]
I turned 40 a few months ago, and I’d quite like to live another 40 years. And it turns out that a well-balanced vegetarian diet is really healthy as it has considerably less animal fat and cholesterol (apparently my cholesterol is creeping up) and considerably more fibre and antioxidant-rich food.

But despite these four reasons, I just couldn’t imagine not eating meat. So Hannah and I thought we’d start with a meat free month (this was shortly after the interview with Greg Boyd, which we recorded a few months ago). Much to our surprise we found it really easy. So we didn’t start eating meat again

[Reasons for not being a vegetarian #1: Missional]
Hospitality is an important part of the church’s witness to the world. But actually Jesus placed more emphasis on being a guest. When he sent the disciples out he told them to look for someone receptive to their message, to stay with them and to eat whatever they were given, (which for Jews with so much of their identity tied up in food Laws would have been a huge challenge).

When Hannah and I are invited out we want to be the best guests we can. We want to share as fully as possible in the lives of our hosts, so that over time we might have the opportunity to share our lives (and faith) with them. So we made the decision to eat whatever is put in front of us and not expect our hosts to prepare a vegetarian meal for us.

So we do still, on occasions, eat meat.

Despite there being very good reasons to take up a vegetarian diet, I accept that not everyone will be able to take that step. But I do think that every follower of Jesus needs to take seriously their call to live in harmony with God’s creation and consider how that impacts their relationship with animals and the food they eat.


Friday, 7 February 2014

For the love of God, can we go on believing in hell?

Sharon Baker came to faith in a conservative Christian context. She said that her experience of salvation was being saved from the fear of hell. In her book Razing Hell she dissects this experience and asks whether being saved from hell is the heart of the gospel. In doing so she grapples with such questions as:

·      Why does God insist on eternal punishment for temporal sin?
·      Why does God’s grace and forgiveness only last while we’re in our physical bodies?
·      Why does God tell us to love our enemies but eternally torture his?
·      Can people enjoy heaven knowing their loved ones are in hell?
·      Does God have the victory if the majority of people are in hell?
·      If God wills for everyone to be saved, then isn’t hell an eternal monument to his will not being done?
·      If Jesus died for the sins of the world, then doesn’t sending them to hell mean their sins are punished twice?

Sharon has come to see herself as a ‘Christian universalist’, i.e. she believes that ultimately through Jesus’s reconciling work everyone will get to heaven. This, she believes, will happen because after death everyone will face God’s purifying fire, will recognise their sin, repent, be reconciled to God and to the people they’ve wronged. Consequently every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, and, in the word’s of Rob Bell, love wins.

It’s a beautiful picture. But, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I can entirely embrace it.

Firstly, if there is a chance of reconciliation with God after death, it seems strange that this isn’t clearly indicated by Jesus and the early church. Although I will admit that if this was stated the information would no doubt be abused (e.g. eat, drink and be merry, for we can repent after we die). So it is possible that a chance still remains after death, but I just don’t think we can know.

I do believe that God is infinitely more loving and forgiving than we can possibly imagine, and so I’m sure he gives people every opportunity to be reconciled with him.

But I also believe that we have freewill, and I think this freewill requires there to be the possibility of resisting God’s reconciling work. I think that’s why Jesus warns us that sin can take us to hell (e.g. ‘it’s better to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell’). Our character is formed and solidified by the choices we make, so every deliberate sin is a step closer to hardening our hearts towards God’s grace and forgiveness. It’s a dangerous path to take, and I think that’s why Jesus has such a sense of urgency in his warnings about deliberately rebelling against God.

Having said that I don’t see any reason to believe that hell is an eternal torture chamber. It seems clear to me that the use of words like ‘eternal’ and ‘fire’ are symbols of eternal destruction not eternal punishment. God is the author and sustainer of life, so if we choose to separate ourselves from him, then we separate ourselves from life.  So just as death and hades are destroyed in the Lake of Fire, so people who choose to live without God simply cease to be.

For me, this view answers most of Sharon’s objections to the traditional model of hell. God gives people every opportunity to respond to his love (according to the revelation they’ve received), but should they persist in resisting him then they cease to be.

God is love. He doesn’t torture people and he certainly doesn’t do it for eternity. But he does respect their choice to live without him, now and forever.

But really who knows. The symbolic language used to describe the ‘end-times’ and life after this one, is notoriously difficult to interpret. So in practice I wonder if it’s best to live our lives and carry out our mission as if Sharon’s ‘Christian universalism’ is wrong, while hoping that it is right.


Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Prodigal Son (Penal Substitution style)

I like the way this reworking of the Prodigal Son story highlights the stark difference between the Penal Substitution model of atonement and Jesus’s teaching on God’s forgiveness.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the estate." So the father divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son went off to a distant country, squandered all he had in wild living, and ended up feeding pigs in order to survive. Eventually he returned to his father, saying, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants." But his father responded: "I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. You have insulted my honor by your wild living. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would be against the moral order of the entire universe. For 'nothing is less tolerable in the order of things than for a son to take away the honor due to his father and not make recompense for what he takes away. 'Such is the severity of my justice that reconciliation will not be made unless the penalty is utterly paid. My wrath—my avenging justice—must be placated.'"
"But father, please..." the son began to plead.
"No," the father said, "either you must be punished or you must pay back, through hard labor for as long as you shall live, the honor you stole from me."
Then the elder brother spoke up. "Father, I will pay the debt that he owes and endure your just punishment for him. Let me work extra in the field on his behalf and thereby placate your wrath." And it came to pass that the elder brother took on the garb of a servant and labored hard year after year, often long into the night, on behalf of his younger brother. And finally, when the elder brother died of exhaustion, the father's wrath was placated against his younger son and they lived happily for the remainder of their days.”

Taken from Robin Collins and Rebecca Adams, Understanding Atonement: A New and OrthodoxTheory (copyright 1995. A work still in progress)

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Pete Rollins and the idolatry of God

We’ve got an interesting interview for you this month (aren’t they all?!). We’re chatting with the philosopher, writer, storyteller and founder of the Ikon community, Pete Rollins.

There’s no doubt about it, Pete is promoting some radical ideas. His views on the atonement theory and original sin, for example (which he very briefly touches on in the interview), will be challenging listening for many (as they were for us at Nomad). But agree or not (and we’re not sure we do), there’s no doubting that Pete has a gift of provoking conversation, and we like that at Nomad. However dearly held our beliefs are, I think we should always welcome challenge and critique, because who knows, there’s just a chance we might not have a complete handle on the truth and we just might learn something from those we disagree with.

Having said that, there were things that we did fully agree with, like the idea that we can actually idolise God, that we can view God as the ultimate product in our consumer world who is there to meet our needs. There’s no doubt, this is a helpful critique as it’s so easy to forget that it is we who are joining God in his mission, not God helping us maximise our lives.

I also really liked Pete’s reminder that a Christ-centred community is above and beyond all tribal identities, that together we are all aliens and strangers in this world. Again, in one sense it’s obvious, but so easy to forget.

So we welcome Pete’s contribution to the conversation, even if we don’t necessarily agree with everything he brings.

Friday, 20 December 2013

What would Jesus laugh at?

Paul the apostle told the Ephesian church to avoid obscenity, foolish talk and coarse joking. I guess that’s something we all have to be careful of. But imagine your job is to make people laugh. And imagine you’re surrounded by people who are very good at making people laugh exactly by being obscene, talking foolishly and by telling course jokes. That’s the position Christian comedians like Milton Jones, Tim Vine, Jo Enright and Paul Kerensa find themselves in.

Paul Kerensa was in Nottingham recently, doing a stand-up tour and promoting his book ‘So a comedian walks into a church…’, so we thought we’d grab him after his gig and have a chat about the relationship between comedy and religion.

I love it in interviews when avenues of conversation crop up that you hadn’t anticipated. In our chat with Paul the unanticipated avenue was the question of honesty in comedy. I’d asked Paul about the issue of a performer’s identity (i.e. are you the same person on stage as off) and he got into talking about his dilemma of how honest he should be on stage. Every joke needs a set-up, i.e. ‘I was out walking my dog the other day…’. But what if your killer punch line needs a dog, but you haven’t got one? As a follower of Jesus, committed as you are to truth, is it okay to pretend you have a dog?

Context accounts for a lot, and my feeling is that if you were a church minister in the pulpit sharing an amusing illustration, you really need to have a dog if a dog is required to get the laugh you’re looking for. But what if you’re a comedian on stage? It’s perhaps not such an issue for comedian like Milton Jones and Tim Vine, as they are clearly playing a role, they aren’t being themselves. But what about Paul Kerensa who is himself on stage? Can he pretend to have a dog (or pretend his wife’s name is Lucy, or he has a nephew?). Interesting isn’t it?

I suspect there’s a principle at play here that’s relevant to all of us, something to do with the roles we play and the impressions we give of ourselves in the various contexts we find ourselves in. And what it means to be radically committed to the truth. Hmm.