Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Quashing the human experience?

A couple entries back I asked the question "is Christianity beautiful?" No doubt there are many people who'd answer in the negative and I think the impression that Christianity is oppressive may be one reason driving this. I can recall a discussion about Christianity emerging on a music forum I used to participate in and many folk were chipping in their reasons for their belief or disbelief. One guy's response has stuck with me ever since. He said that Christianity stifled, or quashed, or generally demeaned the human experience. What he meant by the human experience he didn't specify, but I took his complaint as suggesting that there are certain activities, emotions, or engagements which when carried out, deeply enrich or fulfill a person's life, but which Christianity forbids or discourages.

A wide-spanning complaint indeed but I think so on the money in terms of how Christianity is popularly perceived; Christians are backwards, sheltered, restricted (and wanting to restrict you), aloof, joyless, prudish, and pathetic. They. need. liberating.

Perhaps there are professing Christians for whom this is true. Perhaps there are entire Christian institutions for which this is true. After all stereotypes don't emerge without reason. My concern isn't with them however, but with the Christian message itself, the core of it I mean, what Christians would call "the gospel". Is the gospel conducive to this sort of ugliness?

To answer this question we'll need to unpack the gospel's content alongside the various aspects of the objection at hand. The whole gospel won't be visible at once. They'll be loose ends. But as we keep coming back to it bit by bit, together the layers will form a discernible whole. So let's begin.   
 
The weight of moral obligation

Y'know I really hate olives.

No, really. Can't stand 'em. In the past my parents would try and sway me to them by elucidating their nutritional benefits; "they have vitamin so and so, and are X amount of your weekly this." Although I understood that they were good for me, I just plain disliked them and so to eat them was a real chore. It required much mustering of will, and it was generally quite burdensome to my dinner table experience. I often failed to carry out my dietry duty and left them on my plate.

Isn't so much of our moral experience like this? We often know what's good for us, but what's good seems so contrary to our desires. Oh I know I shouldn't talk to her again, I'm a married man. But she is so pretty ... and I know she wants me ... Oh I know I should give this change to the Oxfam lady outside. But I really want that CD ... Our own moral codes are hard enough to live by, let alone the code of a perfectly good, morally flawless superbeing. With this sort of experience being normal we can hardly be blamed for thinking that the ethical demands of Christian living would crush us more than enrich us.

The gospel has much to say to this fear but one thing the gospel offers is a tongue transplant. What if I were given a new tongue that loved the taste of olives? Would I not gladly consume them? Surely I would. What then, if I were given a moral 'tongue transplant'? A new set of attitudes and dispositions that delighted in doing good and pleasing God? Would I not gladly follow God's commands? You'd have to say, surely yes.

Such a tongue transplant is exactly what the gospel promises. The gospel says, "trust in Jesus and you will literally be made a new man." That's not to say that your individuality will be destroyed. Rather your heart's attitude toward God will change from aversion to affection. Something very real changes in your being. One of the Biblical authors describes the effect of being a new creation like this:

You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (Romans 5:18)  

You might think the use of the word slave describes exactly the state of oppression you fear! The word slave didn't mean the same thing then as it does to us but at any rate the imagery describes how the pull towards what doing what we know is wrong is instead exchanged with a pull toward doing what we know is right. And if what is right is what we delight in and what is right is also good for us then it is a joyous "slavery" indeed. But does this actually happen? Or is it just an empty promise? 

Well the truth of this promise hinges on whether Jesus really rose from the dead bringing new life or not. Although I think the evidence for the actuality of that event is good, I shan't be exploring that here. What I will say is that my experience is consistent with this promise. That isn't to say I always do the right thing. Old habits die hard and other desires can loom strong. But I do desire to please God. And sometimes this desire takes me by surprise.

A couple years ago I was in love with a girl. I was blessed enough to have her return the affection! But after being in relationship together, while our affections remained we considered it would be wise to split up. Being a tad silly I didn't let go of her in my heart. She, being a tad wiser, let go of me! She was also blessed a few months after with another partner. When I found out about this I was still very much in love with her. Needless to say, "ouch" and my own fault really. I can recall not too long afterwards attending a church service with them also being present. Seeing them provoked all sorts of bitterness and animosity within me. I stewed in this for the first ten or so minutes of the service. And then the time of worship began. As I sang praise to God my attitude instantly changed. Not to merely being okay with them being there, but being happy. Not only being happy, but wanting to do good to them, to see them prosper and do well. At attitude like Jesus'.

I'll close this part by sharing one of Jesus' parables to ponder over.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:44)     

Friday, 4 March 2011

Relay Update: 04/03/11

What is Relay? Relay is a discipleship program I'm doing this year and you can read all about it here. I'll be updating the blog from time to time with updates for all the people partnering with me during the year. And this is one of those updates!

Phew. What a month February has been. Your prayers, financial support, and general encouragement have been needed. Thank you. Please keep praying for me. I'm tired and I know I need God's help to continue working with energy and joy.

I've spent nearly all of this month involved with mission weeks which are weeks of events Christian Unions put on to allow people to engage with Christianity and make a choice regarding it. Typically mission weeks are made up of lunch time events where free food is given away and a talk is given on some hot issue (like science or suffering), and then there are events in the evening that provide a more direct presentation of the gospel. In the spare time the CU will be busy flyering for the events, praying, conducting questionaires and chatting to people on campus about their thoughts on Jesus.

Although Relay workers help out with the missions at their own CUs they also get to go away and help out other CUs, so me and Jason headed to Bangor in North Wales along with Luke who was their main speaker for the week. Straight off the back of this week was Stoke's/Crewe's mission and then the week after was Keele's so you can see why I'm a little dead right now! What were the highlights you ask? Good question...

Bangor Mission Week
Absolutely loved staying here but I think the highlight for me was going around asking students "if you could ask God one question, what would it be?" So many honest conversations followed with people wondering about the fate of lost loved ones, the chance of immortality, the necessity of Jesus, and the reasons behind our Christian faith. I ended up chatting to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Socialists, Agnostics, you name it. I was encouraged to see that Britain is not as closed off to the gospel as we sometimes believe. One lady even agreed to meet in a reading group to examine Mark's account of Jesus. Amazing.

Stoke Mission Week
Stoke have had a hard year struggling to get people to attend and commit to the vision. Some of these struggles showed up again during the week but it was also really encouraging to see how many people brought their friends to the free buffet event. There is great promise in this place and I can't wait to see what the new committee that have just stepped in will do here.

Keele Mission Week
Lunch time events have previously not been very successful at Keele but they were much more effective this year. There were a couple issues with food and the Student Union but they didn't throw us and more importantly people turned up and really engaged with the talk material. Myself, Jason, and Luke sat down with a few of the folks that turned up and chatted for a good half hour afterwards on the problem of suffering and other questions on the gospel and life generally. Lindsay Brown, a man with an incredible amount of experience in student mission was the main speaker and he delivered a powerful and meaty talk at the Wednesday event on the evidence for Jesus and the resurrection. I know many people were deeply challenged and encouraged by it. It was also a time of cross-cultural exchange as two Serbian students and a Bosnian Pastor (and ex-mafia member) served the CU alongside us and shared their experiences of evangelising in their home countries.

There really are too many stories to recount from the past weeks but those are some of the ones that loom large in my mind. To my knowledge we didn't see any professions of faith during the weeks, but we can pray that seeds planted will grow. I'm aware how trite that phrase can become so I hope you'll pray that we actually trust that and not throw it out as a token consolation to ease a sense of disappointment.

Honestly though there are times this month where I've burnt out. I know that much of my work has been motivated by desiring significance and acceptance from my achievements rather than accepting Christ's unconditional love for me. I've done several talks this month and led several apologetics workshops too. They all received positive feedback but they wearied me. I put too much pressure on myself and the workload increased to a point where I actually broke down and cried one Tuesday morning. My attitude has been pride-driven and self-destructive, so please pray that I would find security in Christ. I'm struggling to get back into that place.

What I'm excited for
Both Keele and Stoke have changed over their committees so here begins a new CU year effectively. Stoke committee attended a training conference last weekend for new student leaders in their shoes and I was so pleased to see them inspired by the gospel and reflecting critically on how the CU can share it effectively and creatively.  

With an eye to the future, I'd love to suggest some things you could pray for...

Please pray that I will find my confidence and security in no other place than in Christ
Please pray that I will rest and trust the CUs to God
Please pray that the new committees would keep the gospel central
Please pray that they would not assume that how CU currently is is how CU needs to be
Please pray that those impacted by the mission weeks would eventually become disciples of Christ
Please pray that I will be financially provided for

I know the last prayer is always there but I'm basically living off UCCF's emergency supply. Because of various circumstances I don't have many people sponsoring me. I you could please consider partnering with me financially, I'd be most grateful. You can download the form to do so here. Thanks so much to those who have already supported me financially.

God bless and much love,

Martin