Three thoughts from my journey through Pilgrim’s Progress

Having found a lovely, dusty old version in a charity shop, in my time off this Easter I’ve been reading John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. 

If you haven’t come across it, in rather blatant form using aptly named characters, we follow the journey from The City of Destruction to The Celestial City of our central character, Christian. He is started on his journey by, yep, Evangelist, and along with his friends Faithful and Hopeful, he encounters such baddies as ‘Little-Faith’, ‘Talkative’ and ‘Obstinate’. I know.

If I’m honest, at times it was a bit of a struggle, I found I couldn’t read much in one go, but I’m glad I kept going. Three big things stood out from reading Bunyan’s take on the Christian life.

1) Bunyan expected the Christian life to be immensely difficult

The Slough of Despond, the Hill of Difficulty, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle (and its owner the giant Despair) are all – for Christian, Faithful and Hopeful – stops en route to the Celestial City. 

Encounters with monsters, scorn from onlookers, mockery from friends and family, temptation from false teachers are all par for the course. And for Faithful, as he and Christian arrive in the area most familiar to my modern eye, Vanity Fair, it ends in a brutal murder. 

Nowhere is there a hint of “your best life now”. For the Pilgrims, the journey is long, tiring and tough. And responsible advisers along the way, and indeed Evangelist right at the beginning, make sure they tell Christian this in no uncertain terms. Food for thought there in our evangelism. Come and have life, but come and die to find it.

2) Bunyan expected genuine Christians to get it wrong a lot

Refreshingly, Christian is not the hero of the story. I was surprised at how often Christian turns aside from the way, ignored the advice given to him, forgot truths he had been taught along the way and lost sight for a while of his pilgrimage. However, the Lord sustains him. He does remember. He does get up again. I took immense courage from this, that in our countless missteps, true believers are held in his grace as they come back to the way and walk again.

Interesting that what keeps Christian going seems to be in equal measure:

  • The certainty of salvation, in the form of a scroll he is given at conversion
  • The counsel and encouragement of his fellow pilgrims, who in turn often need his counsel and encouragement
  • The hope of the glories of the Celestial City

Let’s be friends that look back and look forward together.

3) Bunyan expected heaven to be absolutely mind blowing

The journey is treacherous, and long, but throughout it is clear that it is a journey worth making. His description of heaven, to the weak, wobbling but faithful Christian, as he enters the final hurdle, the River of Death, is quite beautiful:

You must there receive the comforts of all your toil, and have joy for all your sorrow; you must reap what you have sown, even the fruit of all your prayers, and tears and sufferings for the King by the way. In that place you must wear crowns of gold, and enjoy the perpetual sight and vision of the Holy One. You shall serve him continually with praise, with shouting and thanksgiving, whom you desired to serve in the world, though with much difficulty, because of the infirmity of your flesh. There your eyes will be delighted with seeing, and your ears with hearing the pleasant voice of the Mighty One. 

Lord, help me take up my cross, follow the narrow way, and do it gladly! For one day I will see you, and you will swap my toil for comfort and my sorrow for joy.

Where is the Love? – clarification of my talk at AUCU’s Big Event

I enjoyed speaking last night at the Aston University Christian Union’s “Big Event” – amazing performances from Yvette and S.O among others.

The CU did a quite stunning job of putting on a varied and diverse event with singers, dancers, performing arts sketches and the mighty S.O! It made me smile that the event had brought these people together to think about the claims of Jesus. A fun night!

I just wanted to clarify something I said in my talk around the question “Where is the love?” as I’m aware that I may have been slightly unclear, or that some of the most challenging things I said may have left people open to a bit of confusion. Feel free to try this more readable description on the question of suffering and God and justice as well, but I’ve just tried to summarise what I said in this post to be a bit clearer on some of the points. I hope that’s okay!

What’s wrong with the world….Image

Just to remind, I began by acknowledging that all of us – regardless of colour or creed – can see that there’s something wrong with the world. Just as Will.I.Am cries out in the first lines of that song, so do we. I used provocative examples of this from my own experiences in Thailand around the child sex trade, and spoke also about 9/11, chemical weapons, Jimmy Saville, and “Christians” holding “God Hates Fag Soldiers” signs. I acknowledged that all of us – regardless of what we believe – find those things repulsive. Note that at least three of those examples of horrific evil are religiously motivated, and one of them explicitly “Christian”. I was careful to show that religion has caused it’s fair share of the injustice we all hate!

I then concluded that section putting into words my own thoughts and feelings, but that all of us have felt at one time or another; that with all of THAT going on in the world, the idea of a God – and more specifically, a God of LOVE – seemed RIDICULOUS to me.

I then shared that now, though, I am a Christian. A follower, a lover, a worshipper of that very God of LOVE – Father, Son and Spirit, revealled to us in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s a big shift and I asked if I could share how that came about for me.

My journey during that shift revolved around three questions. This is where I may have not been as clear as I could have, so please let me explain if I can.

1) What happens if you take God out of the equation

If we delete God, like an awkward facebook friend, by saying “There can’t be a God because of this suffering”, what happens?

a) The problem isn’t solved

9/11 still happened. Slavery is still happening. It doesn’t solve the problem.

b) A new problem arises

Because of the following three statements from leading Atheists about a universe with no God.

Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Christopher Hitchens:
“To the dumb question, ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to reply. ‘Why not?’.”
Stephen Hawking:
“The human race is a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet”

Which led us to our second and most important question…

2) Do we believe that is true?

What I acknowledged as clearly as I could was that of course NONE OF US believe that child rape is indifferent. Not one of us believes that Jimmy Saville’s victims when asking ‘Why me?’ should be told ‘Dumb question…why not?!’. NONE OF US BELIEVE THAT.

My conclusion here was not that atheists think children should be raped!!!! I hope the way I communicated throughout the evening showed that of course I don’t think that atheists are heartless people who don’t care about slavery and rape. I hope that was clear!

My conclusion, though, which in itself is very uncomfortable to hear I’m sure, was that it proves we are not REALLY atheists! Because atheism, in the words of its leading lights, should lead us to deduce that everything is indifferent, that we’re just scum – and yet NOBODY LIVES LIKE THAT OR BELIEVES IT!

I was not in any way trying to attack atheists.

But I was in a big way trying to attack atheISM.

It’s bleak, it’s harsh, it tries to tell my head to believe things that my heart could never believe! And neither can yours.

I’m not saying atheists love child rape!!!! I’m saying people who hate child rape are therefore not REALLY atheists – because atheISM says “we’re scum”, and there’s not one of us that really believes that.

In the face of this bleak worldview, we were left feeling quite uncomfortable and so I asked the third and final question:

3) What’s the alternative?

Here, I asked you: “What if….”

What if you weren’t stupid for asking what’s wrong with the world?

What if the world was never meant to be like this?

What if longing for someone to come and fix it wasn’t stupid?

What if that’s exactly what we should be longing for?

What if someone did come?

What if that someone was God himself in human form come to rescue the world – the world we all acknowledged needed rescuing?

What if you’re feelings of value and worth and longing for people to be treated right was not a trick or a lie but was because you and they were made by a stunning, bustling, vibrant, joyful God of love who knows the hairs on your head he cares for you that much?

What if he promises that one day he’ll come back and finish the job – perfectly restore the world and rid it of all evil and hurt and pain and injustice and tears?

Well…that’s Christianity! Where is the love? Atheism says “No such thing, just indifference” Jesus says: “I’m here. I came for you. You can have me!”

I hope that is a clearer description of what I said. I would absolutely love to grab a beer or a coffee or indeed ANY DRINK (!) with anyone who’d like to chat more, whether you’re in the CU or not. I’d love to know what you think too!

What I hate about life…

There’s lots of things I love about being alive; football, coffee, kissing my wife, watching a film at the cinema, harmonies. Lots and lots.

But there’s something I really hate about life.

It’s not the most highbrow viewing, but I saw the final minutes of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy this week.

It tackled a subject familiar to hospital shows, familiar to our screens. Familiar to you, to me, to us, to all of us.

Death.

Having watched eight series of 24, where Jack Bauer kills more people than I can count, I’m used to seeing death on my screen. Watching the news, I’m used to seeing death on my screen. Doctors in Grey’s Anatomy are used to seeing death on their wards. Doctors in Birmingham like Ruth are used to seeing death on their wards.

Rarer is seeing it as it really is. Not a passing moment in 24-episodes of entertainment. Not the tragic yet common occurrence for someone working a hospital. Not the nameless, foreign, faceless faces in a disaster on the news I’m scared to really think about. But as it really is. When the someone is your someone. This is death and death to the full. Like when this successful, sees-death-every-day surgeon is confronted with the body of her husband.

I’ve not experienced much death in my 25 years; two grandmothers and my uncle who I dearly loved. Dearly love. I’m deeply thankful for my relative ignorance in this area. I am not in a position to speak about this subject. I’m not pretending to be. I don’t know its depth, its pains. What I know is more than enough for me. I don’t know it fully.

But I will.

Perhaps you know it. Perhaps you don’t. But you will. It will be a subject familiar to you. To me. To us. To all of us.

Cross the seas, cross the ages, cross genders, politics, religions, classes, sexual preferences and each one will know – now or one day – the reality of unadulterated loss. History reveals death to have a 100% conversion rate. The New Testament puts it bluntly: “People are destined to die”.

We cannot beat it. We cannot escape it. We cannot fix it. We cannot avoid it. And it hurts.

And that’s what I hate about life. Death.

I want an answer. I want a solution.

No-one has found one.

Not Einstein. Not Muhammad. Not Ghandi. Not Hitler. Not Steve Jobs. Not Bin Ladan. Not Princess Diana. Not Hayley in Corrie. Not my Nan. Or my Gran. Or my Uncle. Not you. Not me. Not us. Not any of us.

I long for someone to buck the trend. To take on the enemy and to beat him. I want a death-defeater.

Do you?

They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus…the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!

Five books I found helpful last year…

Do you ever think: “Reading a Christian book sounds like a good idea”?

Do you ever think: “I want to know Jesus more and grow in my walk with him, and God seems to have used reading Christian books in the lives of those I admire and want to follow”? Do you ever think: “Reading what a wiser Christian has to say on an aspect of the gospel or of the Christian life is a no-brainer”?

I do. And yet with the wealth of resources out there, it’s very hard to know which book to pick. How are you meant to know which ones will be helpful? There’s just so many.

Well, wiser folk than I have recently been helpfully sharing their top books of the last year (Matthew Weston, Tim Challies, Cat Caird, Kevin DeYoung). This has given me lots of new books on new topics which I can trust will be decent, having had a recommendation.

I’ve been really helped and guided by people doing such lists, so here’s one of my own. It’s considerably more limited, but might offer one or two people just one or two places to start. So here’s my top reads of 2012.

1. The Good God, by Mike Reeves

Some of you (if you’re students) will have heard me talk about this book a whole lot, but I think with good reason! It changed my entire view of God, and therefore my view of everything… and many others say the same (check out this review from Newfrontiers-er Andrew Wilson – it’s excellent reading in itself! – who called it “the best Christian book I have ever read”)

This book is short, funny, quick and easy to read, but none of that is why you should read it. The reason you should read it is because it’s a book all about God… not the dictator god that atheism rejects (rightly), not the headmaster god, the grumpy god, the resentful god, the unhappy god, but the Good God – the Trinity, a Father who loves a Son, the outgoing, bustling, life-giving, exploding-with-love God of the Bible. He really is that good – and Mike Reeves helped me see that more clearly than ever before. Buy it, read it, read it again, give it away to your mate, and then begin that cycle all over again.

2. A Meal with Jesus, by Tim Chester

First a book on the Trinity, and now a book on how Jesus ate his food… I can hear you saying it already… “You’re really scraping the barrel now Rich!”

No! This wonderful book helped me see the beauty of the gospel of grace (meaning I wanted to share it), and helped me see the ease and simplicity of sharing this gospel (enabling me to do it!). No secret formula… just you, some non-believers, some good food, some good wine, and see what happens.

This book is the book I’ve recommended to friends and churchies most frequently this year, the book that most surprised me (I read it with my supervisor last year and I thought I’d hate it!), and the book that has most transformed the way I think about sharing the gospel. It’s also a book I’m enjoying re-reading with Relay Rob and some of his really engaging students at Aston CU. Tim Chester tracks Jesus through Luke’s gospel in six excellent chapters, allowing us a seat at the table with the Lord as he ate at six different meals.

Seeing just how shocking Jesus was in choosing to eat – in THAT culture – with tax collectors and sinners drew me to love the love of Jesus, and long to share it with my family and my pals.

Chester argues that if we love Jesus, and we eat meals with people (nothing more complicated than that, and we do it 21 times a week anyway…) then we will be doing mission. We tend to make it evangelism very complicated, but “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Simples.

3. Dealing with Depression, by Sarah Collins and Jane Haynes

This lovely little book is small enough to fit in your back pocket but was profoundly helpful for me and many others I know this year. It’s not a brand new book, and it’s certainly not handling a brand new topic, but this is one of the most sensitive and robustly Christian introductions to the topic of depression that I’ve read. I gladly recommend it!

It’s no quick-fix, self-help tripe, so look elsewhere if that’s what you’re into. No, it’s boldly realistic, confidently Christian, appropriately careful, and it oozes sensitivity, gentleness and love – something that, amazingly and sadly, books on depression often lack. This helped me and numerous friends a great deal throughout 2012, and though it is very much only an introduction to the issue, it is my recommended starting place.

4. Knowing God, by Jim Packer

First given a copy of this by my Staff Worker while at Uni, I was nudged to finally read this by Brum student Ben McNeely, and we’re now reading it as a group of guys in Birmingham CU on a Tuesday morning over a fry-up! This is somewhat a Christian classic, that has shaped the lives of Christians for years, and it’s been doing the same for us. Packer beautifully unpacks different aspects of God’s character, from his love to his grace to his justice to his glory in such a way as to draw the reader to not be content with being puffed up with head knowledge, but in a way that informs the mind and thrills the heart! I love God more because of this book, and am enjoying sitting at Packer’s feet with some brothers at Brum. Read it! A chapter a night would take 20 minutes… it would be an excellent month!

5. A Praying Life, by Paul Miller

This was on the staff study programme and is the best book on prayer I’ve read. So gospel-centered, the first section speaks little of prayer and just helps you see just how much God has done in saving us! We really are his children! The implications of that are that we can pray!!! Not waiting til we feel more holy, but right now! In the thick of the mess and the dirt and the chaos, our Father enjoys even the thought of hearing us speak to him! And the implications of this are that we should plan to pray more often, more boldly, more honestly, and the book finishes with a few chapters of really practical tips on prayer diaries, prayer cards, when to pray… some of which hasn’t really worked for me, but some of which is still helping me now to enjoy prayer as a child of God. Get it!

Reflections on joy in a term of ups and downs

With one day of work left before a Christmas break, I’ve been reflecting on where I’ve found my joy in a term and a year of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, successes and failures.

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Often, it’s been in “things going well”. In work, there have been plenty of things to be thankful for! What about for you? For me they were numerous – when three Christian Unions with lots to do and many things to think about took the time to welcome me. When a number of individuals passed from death to life by receiving Jesus for the first time. When events at all three Unis that nobody (including me) thought would go that well attracted record numbers of non-believers to hear the gospel. When church leaders were patient with me, the new boy, and generous in their support of mission. When I remember the fact that I have employers and colleagues who don’t just tolerate my faith, but take time out every day to seek to deepen my love for Jesus. When strangers became friends. When those I new a bit became dear brothers and sisters. Hundreds and hundreds of CU members who’ve been wonderful to me. Stories of people sharing Jesus with their mates through Luke’s gospel, and of those friends being drawn to him. So many joys.

And outside work, too, I have had so much to be thankful for. A beautiful, loving wife who has been patient with me in my stumbling first steps as a husband, who works tirelessly in difficult circumstances and has stuck with me. A house to live in, feeling more and more like home as Christmas cards come and we anticipate hosting our first Christmas Day! A church family and four elders who have loved us both and been gracious as we’ve sought to acclimatise to marriage and two new jobs. The friendship of numerous kind people, not least my supervisor from last year who has continued to look after me. Wider family that have wanted to be involved in our lives, and who, again, have been patient with us as we acclimatise. The delightful news of a new baby born in my family, and news of a baby neice or nephew en route next year. Much to be thankful for. And for me, it turns out, so many places to put my joy – things on which to hang my happiness.

The thing is, there’s also been difficulties, for you no doubt, and for me and those around me. Hard and heart-breaking times with one Christian Union. A month or so where I felt like a different person – quiet, subdued and teary every day. An awareness of sin and the consequences of it. Circumstances which I’ve leaned on for my joy, but in which no joy can be found.

In the wider world, the same can be said. The year has brought the excitement of the Olympics, a truly great and memorable time in our country. A time when the country felt happy, full of joy! It’s also brought the brutal and heartless murder of 20 tiny children in the States. In the last couple of days, my pastor’s dad – a faithful and much-loved Christian – tragically died, quite suddenly. One friend’s auto-immune disease continues to cause problems, another friend awaits a diagnosis. Ruth faces the daily reality of sick and dying patients on her ward. There are times where life on earth feels rather tragic, actually. Unfair. Inexpressibly sad. Depending on the circumstance, joy can flood our lives, or drain away and leave us thirsty and defeated.

And it’s on the basis of this reflection – of the astonishing highs and lows of life – that I am driven to a bit of a conclusion – a conclusion I’ve reached before and will need to reach again every day; that joy, happiness and peace are not to be found in circumstances, not even the most wonderful and delightful circumstances. Because in a week, a month, a term and a year, circumstances change more times than any of us can count.

No. Joy, happiness and peace is to be found in a person, The Person – he whose arrival was announced as an event of “great joy”, the “Prince of peace” – the baby in the manger, Jesus Christ.

He came to save me, to bring me to the Father, to join me to himself so I’d be firmly in the Father’s love – as secure in that love as Christ himself. In joys and in sorrows, with my hope in Christ, and Christ alone, I have a joy, a peace, a happiness that is eternal. My joy has a solid foundation, a rock on which to stand, an unchanging, eternal, glorious reality, outside of myself, outside of the peaks and troughs of life, fixed and certain. Somewhere that no accusation, or illness or gunman can get at it. In Christ.

In ups – I’m in Christ, filled by the Spirit, loved by the Father, drawn into the loving life of the Trinity. In downs – I’m in Christ, filled by the Spirit, loved by the Father, drawn into the loving life of the Trinity.

Every single thing can be taken from me, except Christ. Everything else can and will change, except Christ. It is there, then, in HIM, that I can find a joy that stands firm, even through tears, as tragedy hits, or injustice rages, or apathy creeps in once again. Not by being blind to the pains, but by seeing the Saviour. My Saviour. My life. My joy. Christ!

A thought on suffering

As a Christian, by far and away the most common question I get and the most common question I have myself is this: What about all the suffering?

This week a dear friend of mine lost their uncle. Recently some friends lost their baby. Just a few days ago a wonderful friend of ours heard her sister had been hit by a lorry. Life can be full of joy. But life can be quite the opposite too.

What are we to do with this? How are we to cope? What can we say to those who suffer?

Well, the answers are not quick. They are certainly not easy. Thus, we think, perhaps by taking God out of the equation, we can face it head on and get on with our lives? Well, here are some quotes I heard this week.  Take God out of the picture, and here’s where we go. Ready?

“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet” (Stephen Hawking).

“Human beings are absolutely insignificant. We’re a cosmic joke” (Claire Rayner OBE).

“Some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice…[the Universe has] no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins).

What answer does atheism give me when my uncle dies, my baby dies, my sister gets hit by a lorry? “You’re scum. You’re insignificant. And while we’re at it, so are your friends and family. Some people get hurt. There’s no evil or good, just indifference, and you’re nothing more than a cosmic joke.”

Comforting.

Are you really going to say that to your suffering friend? Your family who have lost a baby? The car crash victim? The widow? Do you really, REALLY, believe that it’s all indifferent?

Take God out of the equation and you still have suffering. You still have pain. All that’s changed is that you can longer complain about it.

If you’re reading this as an atheist, I’m not saying you believe that your loved ones are cosmic scum. Honestly, I’m not. I’m saying you’re not really an atheist. Because if you hate suffering, if you feel the pain of tragedy and know it to be awful and wrong, then as far as Dawkins and Hawking are concerned, you’re illogical. You’re betraying your atheism.

The Christian has to think long and hard about these questions. Why does God let it happen? Doesn’t he love us? Is he not able to stop it? These questions are not easy. But atheism finds itself on no high ground here.

And so whatever you believe… we are left asking, what is the alternative?

Imagine… just for a second… imagine. What if…

What if you’re not insignificant. Imagine that the bubbling, fiery, inner hatred of suffering and pain that is in your very being is not illogical or stupid. What if suffering in your life is not “indifferent”?

What if God was not only real, but that he knew what it was to suffer? What if there was a God who didn’t say “unlucky” or stay far away on a cloud, unaware of our plight, but who came to earth as flesh and blood to be mocked, homeless, ignored, whipped and killed, to share in our suffering? And just imagine for a second, if this God showed himself as the one person who has not only suffered, but has BEATEN it, by rising from death?

What if he said to you: “Despite the way you’ve rejected me, I suffered for you. I know what it’s like. And more than that, I have paid for your rejection, and now I offer you, instead of death, LIFE. Life forever, with me, free from suffering, with the God who made you and loves you.”

Whether you believe it or not…Wouldn’t you want that to be true?

If you’re not a Christian, and you hate suffering, why not look into Jesus? Why not see if the claims of Christianity are not just wonderful but are actually true? Why not speak to a Christian friend. Why not?

And if you’re a Christian… we have a beautiful gospel. Far better than the alternatives. Won’t you share it?