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So runs the strapline for William Paul Young’s ‘The Shack’.shack

I wouldn’t have dreamt of reading it – had it not been the subject of our local clergy book club.  But I’m glad I did.

Eugene Peterson writes that “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his.  It’s that good!”  I’m not sure about that – but it was good.

It’s a book about God, and the Trinity, and suffering, and judgement, and forgiveness, and sacrifice, and above all about relationships: God’s with him/her/themselves (you have to read it!), our’s with God, and our’s with one another.  I don’t think it says anything new about any of that – but it does use some novel and interesting metaphors and images to convey it all.  And you can ready it all in a day!

The author uses the quote from the book: “If anything matters…everything matters” as the strapline on his website. 

My own ‘keynote’ quote would be: [Papa (God), to Mack (the central character)] “…just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies.  Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes.  That will only lead you to false notions about me.  Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

bbc3-deborah-13-servant-of-god-wk-11-mar09-1

 

Last Tuesday evening there was a documentary on BBC 3 entitled: ‘Deborah 13 – Servant of God’

Deborah is a 13 year old girl living in the depths of Dorset, on a remote farm, educated at home by her parents, with 8 other brothers and sisters (two others were living away from home) – and is a very fundamentalist evangelical Christian.

 

She has no tv or mobile phone (indeed if we are to believe the documentary, she has never ever watched tv!).  She has no idea who Victoria Beckham or Britany Spears are (lucky girl!), and she has never shopped in Top Shop (nor, I have to confess, have I!).  More significantly, perhaps, she has no friends of her own age in the locality.

 

Early in the interview she turned the tables on the interviewer, looked her in the eye, and said ‘Would you consider yourself to be a good person?’  To which the interviewer replied, ‘yes’.  Deborah continued,

‘Have you ever told a lie?’  

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you ever stolen anything?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you every used God’s name in vain?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘Have you ever coveted anything?’

          ‘Yes’.

‘So you’re a lying, thieving, coveting, blasphemous person!  Do you still think you are a good person?’

 

She goes on, later in the programme, to make it quite clear that anyone who breaks any of the Ten Commandments, even a well-meant ‘white’ lie, is destined to hell!  This sets the tone for the whole of the documentary.

 

I found the whole programme to be deeply disturbing.  Disturbing to see someone so constrained by such rigorous religious views.  Disturbing to see someone so out of touch with the rest of the world.  But disturbing most of all because I felt there was something deeper within me that was disturbed, something I couldn’t quite properly pin down.  I think it was something to do with her attitude to the Bible.

 

She says, in the course of the programme, that “the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired word of the living God”.  Inspired’ I would agree with (although probably not interpreted in the same way as Deborah would have done so), but ‘infallible’ and ‘inerrant’ I could not accept.  We won’t find either of those descriptions in Scripture itself – they are rather products of 16 century Reformation theology.

 

It is something about that ‘absolutist’, extreme ‘black & white’ attitude to Scripture that I find so difficult, and so disturbing – and so at odds with Jesus’ own attitude!

 

Compare, for instance, Deborah’s insistence that every single lie, no matter how small, no matter how well-meant, is a ticket to hell.  This is law ‘out of context’, law applied without reference to circumstance or situation.  Compare this to Jesus’ treatment of the woman caught in adultery in John’s gospel – a judgement tempered with compassion and love.

 

The teaching in the New Testament leads us, in the main, to seek the deeper source of the Law of God, rather than being almost sidetracked by its individual precepts.  St Paul even goes as far as to say that Christ “has abolished the law with its commands and ordinances…”  (Eph.2.15a nrsv).  He’s not advocating no law – just a deeper, less definable, law.

 

We can see this in today’s gospel reading, where Jesus drives out the moneychangers and the animal dealers from the Temple.  They were there because the Law required sacrifice and taxes, and that needed sheep and shekels: sacrificial victims and Hebrew money (rather than the Greek and Roman stuff.).  But all that trapping had seemingly become a distraction that deflected the participants in temple worship from its truer, deeper, more spiritual aspects.  Hence Jesus’ ‘zeal’!

 

All this, of course, means that we have to enter unchartered territory, that we have to leave behind the comfortable constraints of certainty – as expressed in the written law – and enter the, sometimes less sure, realms of the spirit.

 

Adherence to the law can never make us good – it just makes us compliant.  And God wants more from us than that!  In Jesus he expands and deepens our understanding of what it is that he requires of us,  but doesn’t, thereby, make it any easier.

 

St Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrestles with the implications of all this – it’s one of his major preoccupations (see Romans chapters 5-8, for example).  He writes there (7.6)                                                                                      

“…the Law no longer rules over us.

Now we can serve God in a new way by obeying his Spirit,

and not in the old way by obeying the written Law.

 

…and again in 2 Corinthians (3.6)…

 

“[God] makes us worthy to be the servants of his new agreement

that comes from the Spirit and not from a written Law.

After all, the Law brings death, but the Spirit bring life.”

 

We are called to reach beyond and beneath the letter of the law, to discover the Spirit, to discover life in all its richness.

 

Deborah is clearly a bright, faithful, committed young girl, and, despite her own protestations to the contrary, a good person.  But somehow I just can’t shake off the feeling that something is not quite right…

This has got to be the quote of the day.  Check out Bishop Alan Wilson’s blog at http://bishopalan.blogspot.com/2009/03/ecclesiology-what-is-church-then.html

Lot of good stuff there!

“The promise that he would inherit the world
did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law
but through the righteousness of faith.”
Romans 4.13

St Paul had a ‘thing’ about Abraham’s faith – it’s his most quoted theme from the Old Testament – it’s central to his understanding of the Christian faith and the basis for his fundamental doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  You know it: Abraham had faith in God, and we share in all the promises that God made to him by sharing Abraham’s faith.

If we read the New Testament in its various English translations, a slight confusion often arises.  Sometimes we read that ‘Abraham put his FAITH in God’, sometimes that he ‘put his TRUST’ in God, and sometimes that he ‘BELIEVED’ in God; all three of those capitalised words being translations of the same Greek word.

The problem is that as languages develop they seem to ‘unravel’.  What Abraham, Paul and the other biblical writers had as only ONE word (in their respective languages), has now ‘unravelled’ as THREE words in English: BELIEF,  FAITH  and  TRUST!

All three words are right, in a way,  but none of them tells the whole story on its own.  BELIEF and FAITH and TRUST are all bundled up together in one biblical idea, a biblical idea so important that it might be helpful to try to unravel the meanings of those three words, because each gives its own shade/colour to the overall meaning.  So here goes.

Abraham BELIEVED God

So often these days BELIEF is contrasted with DOUBT: ‘believers’ verses ‘doubters’.  In this sceptical age people are not prepared to believe anything
that can’t be proved or demonstrated, so that ‘belief’ almost equates with ‘certainty’.  But, in fact, it is ‘certainty’ that is the opposite to ‘belief’, not ‘doubt’!  And doubt and belief are part of the one thing.

The English word ‘belief’ comes from an old word that means ‘willingly’ or ‘gladly’; and that reveals the true characteristic of belief: something that we hold willingly and gladly.  And so we cannot be persuaded to believe anything – or forced, or cajoled, or bribed.  But belief IS something that can be encouraged and supported, provided that it is accepted willingly and gladly (along with all the doubts and uncertainties that are part and parcel of belief).

Abraham accepted gladly and willingly the hope that God offered to him.

Abraham also TRUSTED God

Trust is another thing that is going out of style these days.  We live in a world of guarantees and safeguards and assurances and risk assessments – most people don’t like to take risks these days.  And yet ‘trust’ is all about taking risks.  It’s about putting our lives into someone else’s hands.  To live without trust, without taking risks, is to live timid, limited, stilted, fearful lives.

The English word ‘trust’ comes from an old word that means ‘strength’ (think ‘truss’, a beam that hold a roof up!).  To live with trust adds strength to our lives, and allows us to stride out freely and confidently.

That is not to say that our trust may not be betrayed now and then, especially if we put our trust in other frail human beings like ourselves.  But to live trusting lives is to live in the belief in the ultimate strength and providence of God.

Abraham gladly and willingly put his life into the strong hands of his God.

Abraham had FAITH in God

Faith brings with it a personal element.  We can put our ‘trust’ in a well-built roof (solid trusses!), but we usually talk of putting our ‘faith’ in another person.

The faith of Abraham, as also the Christian faith, is not about ideas and theories.  It’s not about philosophy or metaphysics.  It’s not like Marxism, or Socialism, or Capitalism.  In fact, it’s not an ‘-ism’ at all, it’s a ‘-ship’: it’s about friendship, fellowship, relationship, partnership.

Faith is a two-way thing, linking two people, or even two peoples, together, gladly, willingly, strongly.

The God of Abraham is a Covenanting God, and covenants are also two-sided things.  We can only discover what that really means from the inside.  ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’ – and the proof of faith is found only when we reach out in faith to the one who has faith in us.

Abraham was old and weak, well past his sell-by date, when God reached out to him in faith.  And yet by responding in faith, to faith, Abraham found God’s promises fulfilled in him.

Abraham believed the Lord, put his trust in the Lord, had faith in the Lord, and it ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’   (Romans 4.22)

Questions for reflection this Lent…

  •  what do we really believe in…?
  •  where do we really out our trust…?
  •  and who do we really put our faith in…?

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