Spiritual Maths – Addition or Subtraction?

I believe in a God of love who desires the best for us. That is true freedom, life in all its fullness, happiness, etc…

However, so often we try to chase these outcomes ourselves. We chase the next adrenalin high in the hope that the endorphins will last a little longer this time. We chase status in the work place and success in our careers, hoping that life in all its fullness can be found in the recognition of others. So I could go on – money, sex, relationships are all places we often seek fulfilment and happiness.

This is not the teaching of Jesus. He promises us ‘life in all its fullness’, but as you read the story of his life, as told in the gospels, you discover that this elusive ‘fullness of life’ is not found in addition but in subtraction. Let me explain…

So often we seek fulfilment by adding things to our lives – more possessions, a promotion, a new sport or hobby. These things in themselves are not bad, but they quickly become layers of identity we clothe ourselves in. False selves we put on, like masks, to present to others to seek their recognition or approval. I am a triathlete. I am successful. I am a good Christian. I am a great parent. I am … (you fill in the blank), be impressed, love me.

In truth these ‘false selves’, these layers, are being driven by the society we live in, materialistic, consumerist, driven by status anxiety. To borrow language from psychology or from other spiritual traditions, these pamper to the ego and ultimately go nowhere.

Rather, I believe the ‘life in all its fullness’ Jesus was talking about is found in subtraction; the gradual stripping away of these layers, these ‘false selves’, until we find the core. We might choose to call this our soul, our being made in the image of God, your true self – different spiritual traditions use different expressions. It is here, in solitude before God, that our true identity is found. This is the spiritual journey – emotionally healthy spirituality – it is the journey of subtraction. It is a journey of liberation, shedding layers of skin, finding the true basis for our value or self-worth in God.

So often our prayers are full of requests. God, please give me that new job. Lord, make me successful. Lord, spare me the pain of life. Sometimes God says no, because to provide us with these additions would be to play our egos, to add to the layers, not bring us liberation.

Last Sunday at BGBC we were thinking about ‘the wall’, tough times we hit in life – depression, loss of a job, grief. Many of us question how these experiences can be a part of God’s ‘plan’ for our lives when he is committed to our good. My answer is this – because, if we allow them, they can be part of the process of stripping away the layers, freeing us from the materialism, status anxiety, etc… around us, bringing us to a place of liberation, freedom and yes, happiness, that is grounded in God alone rather than our egos.

Perhaps prayer is better practised in silence. Forget the requests for a while and simply spend time in stillness, focussing on who God is and allowing Him to peel back the layers like an onion (tears and all) until He uncovers the heart of who we are – loved, liberated and free.

Why not try it?

Charlie Ingram

October 2013

 

September 2013

Anchoring in God’s Love

Christianity is not about our disciplined pursuit of God, but about God’s relentless pursuit of us—to the point of dying on a cross for us that we might become his friends.

Most of us believe this intellectually. This is the message of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Experiencing this infinite love in our hearts, however, is another matter.

The sinister voices of the surrounding world and our pasts are powerful. They repeat the deeply held negative beliefs we may have learned in our families and cultures growing up

  • I am a mistake.
  • I am a burden.
  • I am stupid.
  • I am worthless.
  • I am not allowed to make mistakes.
  • I must be approved of by certain people to feel okay.
  • I don’t have the right to experience joy and pleasure.
  • I don’t have the right to assert myself and say what I think and feel.
  • I don’t have a right to feel.
  • I am valued based on my intelligence, wealth, and what I do, not for who I am.

It is astounding how many deeply committed followers of Jesus affirm that this is how they truly feel about themselves. Like the prodigal son, they are content to relate to God as hired servants rather than enjoy the full privileges of sons and daughters of our heavenly Father (see Luke 15:11–21).

[Good] emotional health uniquely positions us to gain a small glimpse into “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to [experientially] know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18–19).

That small glimpse alone is enough to ground us in our true identity—to know we are deeply loved by God. Because of this, we can have new, more biblical self-understanding:

  • I hold myself in high regard despite my imperfections and limits.
  • I am worthy to assert my God-given power in the world.
  • I am entitled to exist.
  • It is good that I exist.
  • I have my own identity from God that is distinct and unique.
  • I am worthy of being valued and paid attention to.
  • I am entitled to joy and pleasure.
  • I am entitled to make mistakes and not be perfect.

[Good] Emotional health powerfully anchors me in the love of God by affirming that I am worthy of feeling, worthy of being alive, and lovable even when I am brutally honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly deep beneath the surface of my [being] iceberg.

I meet many people afraid to feel; they are worried it will unleash a torrent of negative thoughts from within themselves. They are fearful that rage, hate, bitterness, sadness, or self-doubt will erupt. Perhaps that’s true. But an amazing by-product of the journey to emotional-health is a fresh discovery of the mercy of God in the gospel. Not only does God not reject or punish us for being honest and transparent about our whole selves, but he actually accepts and loves us where we are.

We are anchored in God’s love as he gives us permission to express ourselves—the bad along with the good—and take care of ourselves in an appropriate way. Emotionally healthy discipleship affirms that I am not a machine who simply “gets things done for God” but a human being worthy of care and rest.

Adapted from: Scazzero, Peter (2006-07-01) Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life In Christ (pp. 53-55). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

 

August 2013

Skimming stones

Seven is my personal best, a carefully selected stone, just the right amount of spin and force to send it bouncing across the surface of the lake, seven ripples, seven bounces, then gone.

Childhood holidays to the beach often included several hours searching out the roundest flattest pebble to “skim” across the surface.

I wonder how many of us spend our lives skimming across the surface?

Keeping so busy that we bounce from one interaction to the next can be a “defence mechanism” that prevents us from growing up spiritually and emotionally. It’s a way of avoiding parts of life that stir up anxiety or suggest pain. It can work for a while, but eventually it catches up with us, and there’s always a price to pay.

“Skimming” can produce the impression that everything is covered – but in reality, you aren’t completely there. You’re covering ground superficially without being fully engaged.

Skimming with God

Building any relationship requires spending time with the other person, it is no different with God. Are we so busy doing for God that we don’t spend any time being with God?

A daily quite time can be great but it often becomes utilitarian. Time spent studying, acquiring more information that we can put to use. Praying for others is a valuable practise, but can easily turn into ‘work’ as we ‘intercede’ for others.

The monastic tradition of the daily office is subtly different. It can involve prayer and reading the bible or not, but more importantly it involves pausing for a few minutes several times a day to become aware of the presence of God, who is with us always.

Skimming with ourselves

Most of us are overscheduled and preoccupied; we are starved for time, exhausted from the endless needs around us. Who has time to enjoy our spouses company, our children, life itself?

We assume we’ll catch up on our sleep some other time. The space we need for replenishing our soul and relaxing can happen later. Few of us have time for fun and hobbies. There is simply too much work to be done.

Bernard of Clairvaux, like Augustine before him, recognized that mature love does not exist without a basis of self-love. Unless we know what it is to care for ourselves, we can’t love others well. Only in light of the love of God can we love ourselves rightly. Bernard even argued that love of self for God’s sake is the highest form of loving God.

So why not accept God’s invitation to Sabbath, to stop, rest, delight, and contemplate him. Build time into your day for the ancient monastic practise of pottering. Time spent when nothing measurable is accomplished. It is, by the world’s standards, inefficient, unproductive, and useless. Yet is one of the most fundamental elements given to us by God that we might take care of ourselves.

Skimming in marriage

If you are married, your vocation is your spouse first, and any children God has given you. This covenant takes priority over our church and people.

Paul refers to marriage as a foreshadowing of Christ’s union with his ‘bride’, the church (Ephesians 5:31-32). For this reason our marriages are meant to proclaim and reflect our union with Christ. Marriage is to be a picture, and experience, of receiving and giving the love of God.

These are just some of the themes we are going to be exploring in the Autumn as we begin to think together about what an emotionally healthy Christian faith might look like. Starting with the premise that you can’t be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature, I hope it will be a chance for us to stop skimming, slow down together and explore some of the deep places and traditions that can so enrich our lives, individually and together.

You can see more here: http://vimeo.com/45517576

I hope those of you who are having some kind of holiday over August find plenty of time to do nothing, other than invest in the relationships that matter, with God, with yourself and with those you love.

God bless you,

Charlie

July 2013

While the cats away…

Neil is away on sabbatical for the next 3 months so, among other responsibilities, I have the pleasure of writing this blog. Neil we hope and pray that you have a well-deserved break over the next few months and come back refreshed and re-energised by time away.

The Japanese have an ancient craft known as kintsugi. If a piece of valuable china such as a vase or bowl was dropped, then instead of throwing it away, or repairing it perfectly, the kintsugi craftsman would use lacquer containing gold to piece it back together. And so, while the original work was made whole again, its scars and cracks were kept, celebrated, honoured, in golden seams. The restored item was considered far more beautiful than the original – because of its brokenness.

This reminds me of the Leonard Cohen song Anthem, the chorus of which goes:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul talks about carrying “the treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

A piece of Kintsugi pottery, Leonard Cohen and Paul are all reminding us that there is a profound brokenness to everything, what theologians sometimes call original sin. It is found in you, in me, in all of creation. Being reminded of this on a regular basis should serve to keep us patient, humble and less judgemental. It reminds us that it is God’s grace, rather than our achievements, which form the golden seam that makes us whole again. Not by removing our struggles or difficulties but by transforming them, helping us to grow through them, and considering us more beautiful as a result.

God bless you,

Charlie

June 2013

Dear all,

I can’t think of anything to write…

I’m not uninspired, just not inspired…

We all have days like this don’t we?

Times when life is so busy that just coming up for air is an achievement.

I can still remember my introductory day at Spurgeons’ Bible College. A good looking twenty-two year old man (that’s me) was walking up to the chapel and ended up next to a very plain looking man in his fifties. Being the polite person I am I struck up a conversation with him:

“Do you work here?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, what do you do?” I quickly looked him up and down. “Are you the Janitor?”

“No,” he smiled graciously. “I’m the Principle of the college.”

“Oh, that’s great…” I died inside briefly.

He, Rev. Michael Quicke, then stood up in the chapel after we had sung and told us, if memory serves me correctly (!), that we wouldn’t get everything done in our studies and each piece of work would probably take double the length of time we planned for it. I never found the second part to be the case as the table tennis and snooker tables often seemed to call me like a siren in a storm, leading to slightly rushed pieces of work.

He then said he was often so busy that he didn’t have time to pray. I was shocked. Here was the leader of the Bible College, who possibly cleaned the toilets as well, saying that he didn’t have it all together spiritually! I felt a slight panic and then a flood of relief.

He adjusted his glasses and then went on to tell us that Jesus is now in heaven praying for us as the New Testament says (Hebrews 7:25, Romans 8:34 and 1 John 2:1). He stands before his heavenly Father/Mother and prays for you and me! Not just the really good Christians, not just the occasional Sunday attendees, but every single person on the face of the earth.

This means that when we haven’t chatted with God for ages we don’t need to spend most of the time apologising for not talking! If God really loves us even more than we love out children and grandchildren then he is just chuffed to hear our blubbering, incoherent, at times theologically incorrect, utterances.

What are you waiting for? Get chatting.

Maybe share below when and where best works for you when you talk with God.

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

May 2013

Dear all,

I have been struck recently by the family tree from Adam to Noah in Genesis. I wasn’t struck by the ludicrous length of time they lived; I don’t feel the need to justify or argue that!

I was struck by the description of Enoch in Genesis 5:24.

Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

We, quite rightly, look up to people for what they have done. This is understandable. We want people who inspire us and we can emulate. Sadly, this often means covering up their darker side and the unpalatable aspects of their lives. In turn this often makes these aspects of their lives look worse because they have been covered up.

This cover up isn’t true in the Bible where we see the good and bad sides of everyone (apart from Daniel; no-one knows why!). We see their triumphs and their crashes; their talents and their failings.

But with Enoch it’s paired back even more; we don’t see triumphs, talents, crashes and failings. All we know about him is that he walked with God and then he died. Imagine that as the eulogy at your funeral!

“Well, yeah… Bert walked around a bit with God and then kapuuttt!”

But we know that to walk with God means more than to just walk around a bit. It is the core of all that is important.

I have thought about Enoch and God a lot whilst I’ve been walking and praying. Here are some things that have bubbled to the surface:

  • To walk with someone takes time.
  • You need to like each other’s company if you’re going to spend this time together!
  • Walking is good in itself; you don’t always have to do other “deep” things.
  • You talk and listen when you walk with someone.
  • When you’re close to the other person you’re comfortable with silence as you take in your surroundings.
  • The surroundings affect the walk and the way you view the person you walk with as well.
  • Walking with someone is easier than walking alone; bringing protection, encouragement and joy.

Then I checked a Bible commentary (a book that explains Bible verses) and found out that in the original language “walked with” can be translated as “lived on”. Enoch literally lived on God. God gave him life and meaning for that life. Enoch wasn’t loved by God because of his triumphs and talents and didn’t feel a holy cold shoulder because of his crashes and failings.

God invites all of us to walk with, to live on, him…

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

 

April 2013

Dear all,

The three crosses in the photo were put up for The Easter Story Trail (check out the photos here) that we did on Palm Sunday and the Monday (Riverhead Infant and Amherst Junior Schools children were absolutely fantastic and a credit to their families and teachers). It was a surreal feeling putting crosses up in snow; I almost kept looking round for the manger!

Now, as I get back to the “normal” day-to-day running of things after a fantastic Easter week I keep walking past the crosses wondering when we should take them down…

How long can you leave a wooden cross up in a graveyard before it becomes unsightly and an inconvenience? I’m tempted to find out!

When I was studying at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas a framed cartoon always caught my eye as I ascended the stairs to my one-to-one course on Black Church history. It was black and white. At the front was a pulpit behind which stood a well dressed male Minister merrily preaching. Behind him was a huge flower arrangement which covered up the cross on the wall. Underneath was written the following words: “Save us from all unpleasantness.”

It’s fair to say it can be a struggle to keep Jesus central in our culture in the Easter period with all the bunnies and chocolate eggs.

  • Would it also be fair to say that it is a challenge to keep the cross of Jesus central in our day-to-day Christian lives?
  • Are we too quick to take the cross down after the Easter weekend?
  • Does our wonder at the love of God dim too quickly as we become consumed with what we want at church?
  • Do we forget the victory Jesus won for us through his death and resurrection in which he destroyed the power of sin and death?

Maybe we should keep the crosses up in the graveyard as a continual reminder of what God did for us through Jesus and as a reminder to take up our cross daily, as Jesus told us to do.

What do you think?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

March 2013

Dear all,

I’m sure we value connecting with God and being nourished by him through scripture, singing, listening to sermons and reading books written by Christians.

One of my pet peeves is that there is a subtle pressure in some Christian circles to like things because they are “Christian”. The band might be utterly shallow, the novel have a plot as rancid as month old roast dinner, the film be as cheesy as, well… cheese! But if they’re “Christian” we’re meant to accept them and even inflict them on our yet-to-be Christian friends and family, often as Christmas evangelistic gifts – watch their faces when they open them!

Now I’ve got that off my chest I want to acknowledge that many “Christian” pop groups, films and novels are great (that sentence gets Matt Young off my case). However, we also know that God has no time for the institution bound sacred/secular divide and that we can connect with God as we walk down other “avenues”.

I want to start compiling a list of great films, novels and albums that connect us with God and nourish that relationship. It was Stephen King is his book On writing who said something along the lines of: “For every book you choose to read you ignore 1,000. Therefore, drop a bad book and move on to another one.”

Here’s a starting list of books, films and music that I find connect me with God and nourish our relationship:

Books:

  • The power and the glory – Graham Greene
  • A long day’s dying – Frederick Buechner
  • The final beast – Frederick Buechner
  • The book of Bebb – Frederick Buechner
  • The son of laughter – Frederick Buechner
  • Joshua – Joseph Girzone
  • The man who met God in a bar: The gospel according to Marvin – Robert Farrar Capon
  • In his steps – Charles Sheldon
  • Sparrow – Maria Doria Russell
  • Children of God – Maria Doria Russell
  • The moviegoer – Walker Percy

Films:

  • Babette’s feast.
  • The Seven Samurai.
  • The red balloon.
  • Jaws (obviously!).
  • The straight story.
  • The milky way.
  • Being there.
  • The way.
  • Au hasard Balthazar.
  • Ordet.
  • The seventh seal.
  • The virgin spring.
  • Rashomon.
  • Wings of desire.
  • The passion of Joan of arc.
  • Nazarin.
  • Simon of the desert.
  • Viridiana.
  • Winter light.

Music:

  • What’s going on? – Marvin Gaye
  • Born to run – Bruce Springsteen

Why not email me a few of yours?

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

February 2013

Dear all,

Do you ever read something to do with God and his kingdom and think “WOW!”

That happened to me a few weeks ago when I read a book by Andy Stanley. I’ll try and share it with you…

The Greek term, translated as church in our Bibles, is ekklesia. If you’ve heard me speak on this you’ll know that it wasn’t a religious term but was borrowed from the surrounding culture, where it referred citizens called to gather for civic purposes.

Andy Stanley writes:Church Front small

“An ekklesia was simply a gathering or an assembly of people called out for a specific purpose. Ekklesia never referred to a specific place, only a specific gathering… In both secular and sacred literature ekkelsia always referred to a gathering of people united by a common identity and purpose.”

You might be thinking: If the Greek word, and Hebrew equivalent, means gathering why do we have the word church in our English Bibles? Where did the word church come from?

The answer goes some way to explaining why Jesus’ post-resurrection movement became an institution and why most people think of church as a building. We moved from being an assembly to an assembly hall.

In AD313 Constantine, the soon to be Roman Emperor, legalised Christianity after centuries of, at times, intense persecution. Later Constantine declared himself a Christian and Christianity became fashionable. Prior to this Christians had met in homes, had love feasts (pot-luck lunches), sung hymns, read scripture, discussed theology and shared communion. There are only rare cases of tolerant towns or cities where a room in a building was given over to Christians for them to meet. After Constantine’s conversion powerful people came to faith and, as Stanley says: “Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol, including incense, ornate clothing, processionals, choirs, and pageantry. Worship became formal and hierarchical, relegating the congregation to mere spectators.”

Pre-Constantine, Christians would often celebrate communion near the tombs of martyrs but now huge buildings were built on top of their bones, or the bones were exhumed and placed under communion tables at the front of existing sanctuaries. Within a decade ekklesia ceased to be a movement. It had become a location.

The Romans called these locations basilicas, the Latin word for a public building or official meeting place. German cultures, also influenced by Christianity, used the word kirika, which became kirche in modern German, which means house of the Lord.

Stanley writes:

“This Germanic term became the one used most often to refer to the ekklesia of Jesus, and from it we get the word church. Whereas the majority of your English Bible is a word-for-word translation of the Greek text, not so in this case. The word church is not a translation from the Greek. It is a substitution for the Greek. And a bad one at that. The German term kirche and the Greek term ekklesia refer to two very different ideas. A kirche is a location. An ekklesia is a purposeful gathering of people. You can lock the doors of a kirche. Not so with the ekklesia of Jesus.”

This simple grammatical change resulted in massive shifts. Christianity was no longer a grassroots movement but became synonymous with location. Worse still, by the 4th century whoever controlled the building controlled the scriptures. By the Middle-Ages the Bible was literally chained to the pulpit and kept in the hands of experts, out of the reach of the common man. It came to the point where those who controlled the building, controlled the scriptures and, in turn, controlled the people. The reformers began to rescue the church from this grip, notably William Tyndale. He determined to translate the scriptures into English, for all to read, in 1522. He went to Germany to do this, as he had no support in England and began to smuggle Bibles back into England in 1526. He became an outlaw because he had the audacity to translate ekklesia instead of superimposing the German term kirche; he used the term congregation instead of church (he also, correctly, used elder instead of priest and repent instead of do penance). Throughout the New Testament he correctly placed the emphasis of church on being a movement rather than a location. He was betrayed and found guilty. They tied him to a beam, strangled him with a rope, his body was burned and his remains scattered. His crime? Translating the words of Jesus into a language that that adults and children could actually read and understand!

Sadly, it seems the tide is against us and people still think of church as somewhere I go for a few hours a week instead of a movement that I am part of 24/7.

Let’s try and remember at Bessels that we don’t go to church; we are the church, in every place we go!

Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

 

January 2013

Dear all,

I have just eaten one of the eighteen mince pies that I have in my study. I wonder how long it will take me to get through them? In some ways it feels wrong eating them now that the decorations are coming down at home and Christmas is truly over (no more “Two Ronnies” re-runs on the television for the foreseeable future).

There is a time and a season for many things in life, even churches! Think about it; none of the churches mentioned in the New Testament exist now…

Often in church life we can think that things should go on forever because they’ve always been that way. I think it’s true that it is easier to start a new venture in church than to stop something that has naturally run its course.

Sometimes we just need to stop things. They’ve run their course and we’re kidding ourselves that they are still great and worthwhile. They were, but they aren’t now.

Earlier this afternoon I went through my In-tray and ditched some documents that related to 2012; they’re irrelevant now. What else should I lay aside?

What do you need to lay aside (sounds nicer than “ditch” doesn’t it) in 2013?

  • Your Bible study notes and buy some others that give you a fresh perspective?
  • A friendship that is unhealthy?
  • A monthly magazine subscription that you never read?
  • That novel that Aunt Maureen bought you and is still by your bed but you know you’ll never read?
  • Judgemental attitudes to some things or people at Bessels?
  • Something you do, so that you can actually breathe and spend time with your family who hardly ever see you (they’re growing up before your very eyes – you saw that this Christmas time)?
  • Guilt for things of the past?

I heard my wife Jo talking to the children as they were taking down the Christmas decorations. She said something like this: “It is a shame to take down the decorations but the room feels fresher doesn’t it?”

Our lives might be a bit fresher if we lay aside some things that have naturally run their course…

 Yours because of Jesus – Neil.

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