There are some things I will keep saying even if no one listens and hardly anyone agrees. I may be right and I may be wrong, but all I can say is that I wince anytime I am in a church or read a church bulletin that contains a phrase like “this academic year” or “next term…” Since when did church become a school or place of higher education or a place that teaches us about how to get ahead of the world in pursuing the world’s goals? I am not academic enough to tell you a date, but it probably began to move that way in the UK and perhaps more generally in the Western World at the point where it ceased to be a carrier and demonstrator of good news to the poor and started on its inexorable movement towards what it has become now in the places it is growing fastest, namely a church of the middle class for the middle class, with middle class value systems and aims. That is what it has largely become in the UK. It may well be that in time it will become a church of the rich for the rich, given what we see gaining influence through the airwaves of Christian Broadcast Channels. Increasingly it seems that to be making it as a Christian is about being wealthy and healthy. Ten years ago the proof that you had made it as a conference speaker was that you flew first class. Indeed I have been in conferences where it was “prophesied” over the visiting speaker that it was not the Lord’s will for them to travel Economy any more but to travel not just Business Class but First Class. This apparently was a sign of a life that was truly under the favour of God. This, apparently, is what the blessed life is like; sitting in First Class rather than Economy or even Business Class, keeping check of the time on a Rolex instead of a Timex. It looks as though it is now possible to do what Jesus said no one could do, namely serve God and Mammon. The goalposts have moved. Who moved them? I have no idea, but I know we have no right to do so and yet the movement continues. Now the proof that you have really made it as a preacher is not the type of car you drive but the type of car you are driven in by your own full time chauffeur, whether you have a mansion and bodyguards, and whether you have got rid of your first jet and are now flying in jet number 2! The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can be so inconvenient. He always has been. Thank God for us it is so, for our hearts can indeed be desperately deceitful and there is always someone around who whispers “there is another way of looking at this you know.” A justification for something that is not justifiable for a believer gets under our skin and as the Methodist preacher W.E. Sangster once said, “fatal sophistry” makes us make room for a thought that previously we would have dismissed with a blush. Satan usually offers us things that seem good, things that “surely a good God would want for us, would he not?” In fact he often seems to offer us another version of what God invites us into. God made us as human beings to be in His own mage. Satan seems to offer us the same thing but by a different and forbidden route: “You shall be as God….” We don’t believe a lie unless it seems as though it might be the truth.
I felt so sad overhearing a conversation about discipleship in a cafe the other day. It is not that the conversation was not sincere and I recognise that those involved in the conversation may have a much greater love for the Lord than I do. I am not judging their hearts but again speaking about something that for right or wrong made me wince. Discipleship from the conversation is apparently something that you can now describe in upwardly mobile language, going on this conversation. Words like “where to invest myself” “How to pursue success and still be a Christian” and “Setting goals” seem to fly about the air thick and fast. It struck me as very different from any conversation about discipleship that Jesus had with Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John etc etc. Was it just my sensitivities wincing, or was it the Holy Spirit’s grief I was touching? I cant be sure but I know what I think…
For so many, phrases or words like “academic year,” “term,” “success,” and so on are words that cause unbearable feelings of failure and awaken terrible memories of shame or humiliation. Many people’s experience of life and their estimation of themselves is that they have nothing to invest that is of any use. Even for those who enjoy such phrases and embrace them with capability and hope, are somehow offered through such phrases an off skew version of what Christianity is about. It is about Jesus of Nazareth, once dead but now alive for ever more. In that overheard conversation about discipleship I heard not one mention of His Name. I heard agitation and no rest of soul. Where is the centre of your spiritual life? If we give any answer other than the love of Jesus Christ for me and my love for him, we will probably not have the rest of soul that Jesus wants for his people and indeed the rest he wants in the soul of His Church and for His church to offer to the world.
For some reason, I find that the writers I now turn to most often to refresh my soul are all Roman Catholic, alive on earth or more alive in heaven. People like Jean Vanier, Henry Nouwen and Brennan Manning have refreshed my soul by telling me about the love of Jesus. Each is different from the other. There are certain similarities though. They write from the place of a real touching of their own fragility and the fragility of others and with accepting wonder of the love of God in Jesus Christ. While the church often would encourage you to see yourself in terms of what you can contribute to its goals and mission, let me encourage you for today and indeed for longer than today, to put that aside. See yourself as someone loved by God, loved by Jesus Christ.
For various reasons I have had to get rid of a lot of my books lately. I cannot always remember the source of quotes. I trust I am not breaking copyright to pass on a phrase that I read somewhere by Brennan Manning whose words have so often brought life to me, refreshing to my mind and tears to eyes when I had forgotten how to feel tenderness to myself or to others or a lost world that does not know the love of God: “ If you approached Paul and wanted to discuss parish renewal or contemporary worship, he would answer, “I have no understanding of church or religion except in terms of the sacred man Jesus who loved me and gave himself up for me.”
Please do something for me and more importantly for yourself. Make time to be alone with Jesus. It’s not difficult. Just find somewhere reasonably quiet, and say to him, “Jesus, Beloved Son of God I come to you. I want to spend time in your presence. Please draw close to me and help me to know the love with which the Father loves you and the love with which He loves me.” For some that may seem an uncomfortable thought, not because I am uncomfortable with Jesus but because I am uncomfortable with myself. Let these further words from Brennan Manning be food for your soul: “Jesus came to take away our mistrust of the Father and our dislike of ourselves.” One of the wonderful things about Jesus is that He was completely free from self loathing and completely sure of His belovedness. He wants to help you to be free from every deed or memory, everything that you have done or has been done to you that causes you to dislike or even loathe yourself. He, the Beloved Son of the Father, wants to help you to know that you are the Beloved of God too. He promises to His Father in John 17, “I have made you known Father to the disciples you have given me, and I will continue to make you known, in order that the love you have for me may be in them…” Whoever you are, whether words like “term” or “academic year”, or “success” are words which cause you to breathe with excitement, ease or anxiety, I pray that you will come to this place of knowing that the deepest answer to the question as to who you are is this: “I am the beloved of God.”