Today I was visited by a wonderful lady who greatly encouraged me by her presence and prayers. She is a friend of my Session Clerk, Ann, which got me thinking about her too today. I am particularly fond of the way Ann prays. I was trying to work out again today what it is about her prayers that I particularly feel blessed by. I think it is the fact that they are free of cliches and full of thoughtfulness. She tends to pray about a person or an issue with a slant that no one else has seen. It is very refreshing.
I like unusual thought when I come across it. I think that is why I like looking at the sermons of Spurgeon every few years. The end of his sentences often unfold in a way that you would never predict from their beginning. C.S. Lewis and G.K Chesterton do something similar in their writings. Again it is refreshing. Whatever it is about poetry I have come to like, I know that part of what I like is poets who have the ability to use phrases to describe events or places or feelings that I would never think up given the same starting point of whatever is being observed or talked about. Today as I read more of Kenneth Steven’s poetry in a new book freshly arrived from Amazon, I read about a lady called Peggy who was “kind as a whole glen and generous as a harvest”; I read of children collecting conkers being likened to the way pirates used to treasure and count pearls; I read of birds on telegraph wires being like musical notes in a score on a stormy day; I read about a sheepdog called Fleet flowing down a field “like a bouncing waterfall of black and white.” (all thoughts and quotes from ”Salt and Light” by Kenneth Steven.)
So, I really do like sentences, unfolding thoughts, descriptions in poetry that end in a different place from where you would predict. Perhaps as you look at the title of this blog you are anticipating me speaking about the turning over of the tables in the temple by Jesus. Actually that is not where that title at the beginning is leading to; I am rather thinking of the day that Jesus told a story that ended up in a completely different place from where the story had begun; the story of the Good Samaritan. That story which you will probably know well comes about as a result of a question Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbour?” If we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, it sounds like a legitimate question to ask.( I have just updated the blog to say if you have not read the story you can find it in Luke Chapter 10.)
I am not sure how much genuineness was attached to the question when it was asked that particular day by that particular questioner, but the interesting thing is where the story leads to from that starting point. Perhaps the questioner was really asking, “Where are the limits of this “love your neighbour” thing? Jesus you dismissed my spiritual questions with such easy sounding answers, that I feel foolish. I need more intricate, more complicated spirituality than you seem to be speaking about. So, “Love your neighbour as yourself?” Well, just exactly who is my neighbour? Let’s get a bit more profound to show how profound my original approach to you really was: is it literally the person next door whom I am to regard as a neighbour, the people in my street, my community? Define “my neighbour”…..
…But Jesus turns the tables. He does not tell a story that defines who my neighbour is but to put the challenge back to the questioner and to each of us to be a neighbour . “Who then was a neighbour to the man who fell among thieves?” “The one who had mercy upon him,” and out of that mercy helped him, replies the original questioner. “Well then, go and do likewise.” Having started with a question about who is my neighbour, the original questioner has had the tables turned. “Who are you being a neighbour to? What does that mean? It means crossing the road to help.” Do I have the heart and actions that show I am a neighbour? Do I cross the road to help where I see need?
I have a love/hate relationship with this story. It was very much a cornerstone in the church I attended as a young teenager immediately before I became a Christian. I got the impression that Christians were just people trying to be good. It was a message that almost tended towards preening as though Christians were the good people in a neighbourhood. Then I heard the gospel of God’s grace to us all as sinners, how Jesus had died on the cross to save me and that I was to live thankfully and with gratefulness for his saving love and grace not to earn my salvation but as a response to being saved by the blood of Christ shed for me. I grew to hate this story of the Good Samaritan because of the way it had been so wrongly preached upon almost in a way that made it sound as though Jesus never had to leave heaven for the cross to save us, we could get to heaven just by trying to be good! I managed to get my dislike worked through eventually and now come back to this story often. Sadly many preachers in many denominations preach that blasphemy I encountered against the cross still and deny people the good news of salvation at the cross of Calvary – and nowhere else. So averse are they to the idea of being saved by the blood of Jesus Christ shed for us, that they hardly ever mention it and thus confine their congregations to a lost eternity. One famous Irish preacher of the past called it “unbloody Christianity from unbloody liars.” You may stop reading these blogs now, but before you do, do you count yourself as a sinner saved by Christ taking the blame for your sins? Did you believe that once but now scorn it? Are you telling others so they can be saved too? Even if you block this blog now because you don’t like my theology, at least you wont be able to say to God when you stand before him to give account that nobody told you, nor can you plead ignorance that you didn’t know you were to tell others, even those in your own family or your own congregation.
Who I cross the road for shows who I have been a neighbour to. It almost worries me now that in the Christian circles I became most familiar with since the day of my conversion and salvation, I have hardly ever heard this story being preached upon. To be sure that is less damaging than it being preached upon wrongly, but it is sad nonetheless. Evangelical and Charismatic circles tend towards an introspection that can become either narcissistic or morbid. It is not there is not much good in these stables which is broadly where I still belong really, but as one of that circle and having had a significant degree of leadership in a more than local setting before my illness, I can see my faults, our faults, too clearly, and sometimes worry if I furthered these faults and deviations. Evangelicals can often be obsessed with their own spiritual pulses and how far along the road of sanctification they have got and how deeply are we growing in our knowledge of the Bible and am I praying well enough etc.? Charismatics, sadly perhaps, don’t think often enough about such things but on the other hand can be narcissistic; glaringly, boringly and unattractively obsessed about everyone seeing my calling, making way for my gifting, that we are the ones that the whole of Christian history has been waiting for in order that the church may reach its full effectiveness! Actually even King David had the humility simply to serve the purposes of God in his generation and then fall asleep. There were generations before him there were generations after him. At most all of us are simply intermediate points in the story of God, until the return of Christ; no less important than that, and no more.
I guess most of those reading this will tend to be evangelical or charismatic in theology because somehow you have had a connection with me in the past or have decided to make a connection because of what you have read already. Some of you may have a good relationship with me even if you don’t like what I believe. Today I am mostly thinking of my fellow evangelicals or charismatics as I write. Do you need the table of your spirituality turned on you? We are good at calling other forms of Christianity religious, but “evangelicalism” and “charismaticism” can be horribly religious too. I referred to Tom Smail not long ago in a previous blog. He was a sort of champion theologian in the earlier days of charismatic renewal and what he said then is very much still worth reading and applying now. There was an occasion when was speaking to John Stott who was less warm towards charismatic truths, to be as generous as I can in this regard to that great man of God. Tom Smail said in their conversation that he personally as an insider believed that 2/3rds of Charismatic Christianity was of the flesh and not really of the Spirit of God at all. John Stott seized upon that thought and asked Tom if he could quote him in a book. Tom Smail said, “As long as you say that I think 2/3rds of Evangelicalism is of the flesh as well!”
All of us even in the theological camps we feel are most right are capable of horrible behaviour and stupid nonsense. I am asking particularly today if Jesus would turn a table of undue obsession with your own spiritual pulse, your own sanctification or your own giftedness? This to me is one of the weak points of the stable I am in. Everyone according to current teaching is apparently born to be a superstar. I love the love of God for me in my sheer ordinariness! The beginning of spirituality is actually saying, “I thank you God that I am like all other men” as Thomas Merton once said. In the Bible much of the instruction is about ordinary things that ordinary people need to learn in life: teaching people how to be husbands and wives, how children can get on with parents and parents with children, how to be a good worker or a thoughtful boss; how to stop being impatient and start loving. So much is about how we are in relation to others and to the world God still loves as much as when He sent his son to die for us.
So be honest! Is crossing the road to be a neighbour a vital part of the expression of my Christian faith? It should be. One of the historical interpretations of this parable is that Jesus is the good Samaritan. I think that is a hysterical interpretation even if it is historical! But I can see why it came about. Think of the wideness of the road Jesus crossed to come to help us. “You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross my debt to pay, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord we lift your name on High!” Think of the roads of culture and religion Jesus crossed to give value to those who had none.
We have grown to love the phrase “a relationship rather than a religion,” haven’t we? We tend to confuse non-believers by being smart and telling them we are not religious but we have a relationship with God. LISTEN, CHARISMATICS AND EVANGELICALS, MY BELOVED BROTHERS AND SISTERS IN THE LORD: FOR ALL OUR SMART TALK ABOUT RELATIONSHIP RATHER THAN RELIGION, WE ARE AS RIDDLED WITH RELIGION AS ANY OTHER PART OF THE CHURCH. LETS STOP CLAIMING A SUPERIORITY. BEING NON RELIGIOUS IS AS MUCH A RELGION THESE DAYS IN THE SAME WAY AS AETHEISM HAS BECOME A FAITH. When will we let Jesus turn the tables on Charismatic and Evangelical religion with the phrase “Go and do likewise,”? THINK OUT THE WAY! Whatever else following Jesus is about, it is about crossing the road to help. No amount of bible reading or exercising of spiritual gifts or ministries can replace that or mask its absence from the eyes of the Lord.
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