New Book – God’s Plan for the World

create space and kindle cover

New Paperback and Kindle e-book available in early April 2016!

Christians hope for a better future – for restoration and renewal. They place their faith in God through Jesus and entrust themselves in obedient service to God believing that God is going to ‘put things right’. Though many agree that the world could be a better place, they dismiss the Christian hope as misguided or childish or both. ‘Where is this better future?’ they say, ‘The world has always been the same and when you get down to basics, people’s lives carry on in the same way that they have always done, and religion causes more problems than it solves.’

So what is the basis of this Christian hope for a better world and what kind of future does the bible say that will it be? Christians talk about heaven, but does heaven exist and if so where is it? God promised a Kingdom – but where is it? Is it merely a mystical place deep ‘within’ each and every one of us or is it a place ‘out there’ – somewhere? Some Christians say that at the culmination of all things they will go to heaven but others seem to think that the Kingdom of God to be on earth. Who, if any, are right? What is the ‘culmination of all things’? And what about Israel? The Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen nation but their recent history does not seem to be very enviable. If the Jews have rejected Jesus as their Messiah, then what does this mean? What about God’s promises to the Jews? Most of them seem to have ended in failure. Has God forgotten them or given up on them? Has God ‘retired’ to some distant corner of the universe and left the world to its own devices?

In this book author Robert Laynton takes an overview of what scripture has to say about God’s Plan of restoration, renewal and reconciliation and in the process considers what it means for each and every one of us – whether we are Christian or not. This is explored as part of the historical narrative of creation itself – humanity’s fall into disobedience, God’s promise of a Deliverer and God’s selection of Israel as His chosen people through whom the rest of the nations would be blessed. This narrative is followed through beyond the time of Jesus, and beyond our present age, in order to consider what we can expect in the future as God’s Plan moves to completion.

Search for this and other titles on Amazon!

 

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Theology – Why bother?

theology-matters

I’ve met more than a few Christians who take a dim view of studying theology. Either they are worried about it damaging their faith, or they dismiss it as irrelevant to the real world of Christian living. Yet, every Christian, whether they know it or not, believes in some kind of theology. Doctrine isn’t something that remains locked up in the ivory towers of academia for clever clogs to debate while the rest of us get on with being Christians in the real world. As new theological ideas gain credence they start to trickle down to us all, through the songs we sing, the sermons we hear and the books we read. In the end your theology, good or bad, will shape your view of God, which will in turn shape how we act in the world today.

Justin Brierley ‘Premier Christianity’ February 2016

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The Thinking Christian

thinking questions

The thinking Christian

Its true. It seems that many Christians do not want to think too much. When thinking gets too deep or complex they are quick to say something like: ‘I just want to follow Jesus!’ There can be a glib superficiality amongst some fellowships whereby they are more interested in singing and having an emotional boost rather than living a godly life. And I have also come across some fellowships where there is a very strong emphasis on teaching and maintaining the minutiae of doctrine, theology and what I call ‘party spirit’, by which I mean the orthodox set of beliefs and practices that form the hallmark of that particular Christian group, be they Catholic or Protestant; Calvinist or Arminian; Charismatic or Conservative or whatever. Some fellowships place a high premium on their member’s adherence to a wide range of Biblical tenets, to the point where they go beyond being ‘sober-minded’ and become ‘dour, depressing and downbeat’. Deviate from the ‘party line’ and someone will soon let you know about it – either directly or more probably indirectly, through disapproving looks, critical tones of voice disguised as ‘concern’ or some form of withdrawal. Somewhere in the middle there is the right balance.

Diversity in Unity

It is of course also true that we are not all the same. When it comes to Christians: ‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines……If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body…..Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?’ (I Corinthians 12 v 4 – 11; 17 – 20; 29, 30).

The gift of thinking and knowledge

I am a thinking Christian. That is what I am. That is the gift that I have. I am not an Overseer/Elder or a Deacon. I don’t have the qualifications for those roles. I am not a teacher – I have not been formally asked to fill the role of teacher and again, I do not consider myself to be qualified to fill that role anyway. But I think a lot. Because of the makeup of my personality and temperament, I need to anchor myself with a good cognitive foundation – a good understanding, a firm perception and apprehension of basic principles – so that I am orientated, so that I know where I am, and so that I know what direction I am travelling in and what my destination is. I find myself constantly asking questions about Christianity and sometimes I find that the answers that I get are not adequate – so I have to explore the theme for myself, more deeply. So, all being well, I eventually find answers that seem to satisfy the questions that I have asked. What then? Shall I keep them to myself? Shall I hide them under cover so that no one else can see them? This does not seem to be the attitude that Christians are meant to have. I am a Christian. I am no one special. In fact I regard myself as a poor servant of Christ. So shall I remain silent? By no means! What does the apostle say? ‘What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up’ (I Corinthians 14 v 26). You see I come with something. I come with what I have thought about, with what I have learned about God and His dealings with me and with us in general. Other Christians come with a song of praise, with a reading of Scripture, with an ability to play a musical instrument – with any number of a whole host of gifts and abilities that they can bring to build up the fellowship. I come with what I have thought about and some of the things that I have thought about I share here, in the hope that it is profitable to others.

Of course I do have to remind myself that not every Christian is a thinker in this way. A Christian fellowship is not primarily a theological or philosophical debating society. The gift of thinking, like each of the other gifts that Christians bring to build up the fellowship, has its place in the living Temple. It is not to be ignored but it has a place and function alongside all the other diverse gifts that Christians are blessed with and bring to the fellowship. And thinking is not mere academic theorizing either. The apostle Paul constantly encourages Christians to know and understand because such understanding and knowledge is part of the Christian’s growth in Christ and such understanding informs the principles not only of their beliefs but also their day-to-day behaviour in the world and their relationship to God through Christ. Knowledge and understanding works itself out into practical living – godly behaviour is the fruit of right knowledge and understanding.

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Labels and Paradox

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Labels and Paradox

One way of avoiding the labelling trap is through the use of paradox. Paradox is a level or stage that is obtained in the Transcendent Inner Spiritual Path because the spiritual adept reaches a point where boundaries are transcended – bounded objects become inadequate when it comes to Spirit. In fact any attempt to encompass Spirit by forms or the boundaries of concepts, labels and even language itself is seen as being inadequate to the task. At this level, the adept transcends descriptions such as ‘Charismatic’ ‘Catholic’ or ‘Calvinistic’.

Thus the adept looks at the material universe and declares that it is ‘Real and not real’. Or they may say: ‘I know all things, I know nothing’. Along with Christian Dominican Meister Eckhart they may say ‘In order to know God I must get rid of God’. To those who have not attained this level on the Inner Spiritual path, such statements often seem nonsensical, but of course that is the point – the Transcendent Essence of the Divine cannot be encompassed by rational conception. These statements are equivalents to Zen Koans such as: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’

The pairing together of seemingly mutually exclusive categories or labels, or using non-rational (as opposed to irrational) statements is one way of experientially transcending the limitations of bounded categories. By contemplating or meditating on such statements, the active rational, analytical, conceptual mind is frustrated and with practice, surrendered. There is no rational answer to the Zen Koan – the answer to the question cannot be found by logical, systematic analysis. A different mode of perception is required.

However, there seems to be little if any encouragement to this kind of spiritual practice within Christianity. It is certainly there within Christian Mysticism. If you want to explore it then you can explore the writings of one of the greatest mystics, Jan van Ruysbroeck, HERE. But Biblical Christianity favours ‘God’s mighty acts in history’ – with regard to its main tenets, it favours a more literal and objective interpretation – the literal life, death and physical resurrection of Jesus for example.

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Equality, Differences and Levelling

equality and diversity

Equality, Differences and Levelling

People are different. Males and females are different. If you don’t believe that then you need someone to take you on one side so that they can talk to you about the ‘birds and the bees’. I have recently been engaged in writing about male and female relationships from a male point of view and one of the cornerstones of this discussion was that males and females are different. In the process of discussing this writing with friends and acquaintances I was quickly made aware by many females that men and women are equal. Right there, I see a problem right away. These females, (and many feminists) consider that when someone talks about male/female differences, then they are talking about inequality. They assume that in talking about male / female differences the person is promoting the idea that males are superior and that females are inferior. But that is a mistake – it is confusion on their part. They confuse, conflate and merge the terms ‘difference’ and ‘inequality’ as if they mean the same thing. As soon as I suggest that males and females are different, such feminists become indignant and start to insist on feminine equality, or more likely, they actually start to put males down – to criticize, disparage and demean males as being inferior. (So much for equality!)

There are of course lots of differences in society. There are differences between the wealthy and the poor. There are differences between employers and employees; between slave owners and their slaves and between monarchs and their subjects. There are differences between those who live in free, democratic societies of one sort or another and those who live somewhat enslaved in closed, dictatorial, totalitarian regimes. There are differences between Jews and non-Jews or Gentiles – some of which will emerge in the various posts placed here. But none of these differences implies an inherent inequality in terms of human nature, or in terms of an in individual’s standing before God. When it comes to roles and responsibilities, if a female does the same job as a male, then she is surely entitled to the same pay and conditions. Despite the differences between males and females, both men and women should have the same employment rights, benefits and rewards. They should have the same human rights. I know that this is not simple and straightforward and although much of this involves legal and political themes, this is not essentially a political site. So I am not going to be distracted by such detailed discussions or by party politics. I am simply concerned to point out that ‘equality’ does not mean ‘sameness’ or ‘lack of difference’ and that in the same way, ‘difference’ does not mean ‘inequality’.

There is no difference – levelling

‘Ah but!’ I hear you say, ‘Concerning the gospel there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free!’ And that of course is quite correct. Entrance into the Kingdom of God is not guaranteed by wealth, status, race or gender. The rich do possess advantages and privileges that give them a ‘fast track’ into the Kingdom. Those people who have power and influence do not have an automatic right or ‘free pass’ into God’s Kingdom. When it comes to the gospel everyone is reduced to equal status. In the present gospel age no one has an advantage when it comes to the good news regarding the Kingdom of God – in this respect there is indeed no difference. Males do not have advantages over females. The wealthy do not have an advantage over the poor. There are differences, of course there are – but ultimately no one has an advantage. What does the Apostle Paul say about the Jews? At first, the Jews do indeed seem to have an advantage: ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God’ (Romans 3 v 1). But there is a problem – there is a leveller – and that leveller is the power of sin – the inherent principle within our physical bodies, the ‘drives’ and impulses within our very physical constitution – the inclination within us towards transgression or disobedience against God: ‘What shall we conclude then? Do we (Jews) have any advantage? Not at all! Because we have already made the accusation that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin’ (Romans 3 v 9). It is the power of sin that is the great leveller, it is the power of sin that, despite all the differences of gender, situation, ability, circumstance and so on between us, renders us all equal before God when it comes to the gospel and entrance into the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God will become more established on earth, (it has been secured and inaugurated but it is not yet fully completed), and as we move on to different stages of the Kingdom, there will be more levelling that will take place. Ungodly rulers, monarchs and leaders well be brought low. Powerful, influential people will have their power and influence reduced. Rich and powerful magnates will have the ‘economic rug’ pulled from under their feet as God establishes a different kind of power and rule on earth in a Kingdom that will function on quite different principles from the worldly ones that are in effect at this present time.

Jews and Gentiles are different

Equality between Jews and Gentiles, (Greeks or non-Jews), in terms of the gospel and entrance to membership of the Kingdom does not mean that Jews and Gentiles are therefore the same. They are different. They are each coming to God from different places. I will point out some of these differences in posts to come, but the purpose of this post is to point out that although there is no difference between Jew and Gentile in terms of the offer of the gospel, there are nevertheless very real differences between Jews and Gentiles at this present time. These differences do not mean that Jews are ‘superior’ to Gentiles, or that Gentiles are ‘superior’ to Jews because the power of sin levels out these two groups to a position of equality in terms of the gospel. Nevertheless, whether you are a Gentile Christian or a Hebrew Christian, these differences are important and they have an effect or they ‘work out’ into your daily Christian life. The main differences between Jews and Gentiles are in terms of the Covenants that God has entered into. One of the main Covenants that we are all familiar with is the Covenant of Law – the Sinaitic Covenant – where we find the Law of God and particularly the Ten Commandments. There are important differences with regard to Jews and Gentiles with regard to this (and related) Covenants that have real, practical implications in daily Christian living. I will look at some these in future posts. It is enough to say now that if you are a Gentile Christian, then these differences have a profound affect on your approach to and understanding of God’s Law.

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Attitudes in Prayer

prayer silhouette

Attitudes in prayer

I am sure that many of you will be familiar with images of devotees within Islam at prayer in their mosques. They kneel and at various points they prostrate themselves on the floor of the mosque as they progress through their prayers. But did you realise that this mode of praying was actually derived from the practice of Christians many centuries ago? In looking at the theme of ‘attitudes in prayer’ I am looking at the posture that the person who is praying decides to adopt.

As a little boy, my parents took me to an Anglican church. Like many Anglican churches, there was a wooden shelf at the front and base of each pew and this was put there for people to kneel on during times of corporate prayer during the service. Sometimes ‘cushions’ were to be found placed on this rail – small, rectangular padded cushions about three or four inches deep – so that the person in prayer could kneel on these cushions to prevent the distracting discomfort of kneeling on the hard wooden surface.

But when I was a bit older, I did not go to an Anglican church ‘Sunday school’ but to a local Congregational Church. As a ‘non-conformist’ church it placed less emphasis on rituals and ceremonies. Perhaps the congregation would stand during communal prayers – I can’t actually remember now. But that was about as formal as a conventional worship service got. When this church joined with a local ‘Mission’ an even greater informality was introduced – we would usually remain sitting and simply bow our heads and clasp our hands together during communal prayer led by the Overseer.

I lay great store by the ‘boldness of access to the Throne of Grace’ that we have as Christians through Jesus. Many times I have been thankful to God that in order to speak to God and pray, I do not have to seek out or find an intermediary such as an Overseer or Priest. At any time, in any place, I can offer up a silent prayer to God because of my standing in grace through Christ. I used to love taking solitary walks in a quiet local park so that I could use this time as a time of prayer. Fresh air, exercise and prayer – a good combination! Alas, I no longer live near such a park. But I used to walk around that park regularly, in earnest prayer. In a similar way, I think nothing of simply sitting in a cosy armchair at home and engaging in prayer. It is almost like talking with a long-standing friend who I have known for years who has come into the room. There is something very special and precious about having such an informal friendly relationship with God through Christ. And yet……

The other side of this is that such an attitude in and to prayer can be too relaxed, too informal – even to the point of losing a sense of God’s Majesty and a sense of myself as one who is the role of obedient servant. I live in England and if the Queen walked in, I wouldn’t sit in my chair having a cosy chat or have a stroll around the local Park with her. Even if I was a person who frequented the Royal Court and had regularly met the Queen over many years, I still wouldn’t act and speak as though we were ‘mates’. I would still be expected to bow, to show reverence, to follow Royal protocol and to speak at the right time and in a certain way. Now if this is the case with a national monarch, then how much more should it be the case before God?

So lately, when I am alone and I want to come before God in prayer, I have taken to adopting a similar attitude – a similar posture – to that shown by Muslims at prayer in their Mosques. I do this most especially when I want to remind myself of the Majesty and Holiness of God, when I want to bring to my mind the Transcendent Otherness of God, or nurture my sense of Jesus as King and Lord. I adopt this posture when I want to remind myself of or nurture a sense of my humbleness and ‘lowness’ before my Supreme Lord, when I want to remove some of my all too present pride. I adopt this posture when I find myself becoming aware of my shortcomings and failures as a member of God’s Kingdom – so that I am not too quick to dismiss my sins and transgressions as being dealt with by Christ.

I rejoice in the boldness of access that I have to the Throne of Grace and in the fact that I can speak to God, albeit silently sometimes, at any time and in any place. I celebrate the fact that I do not have to go through particular rituals and ceremonies, meet up with religious ‘authorities’ or adopt rigorous specified postures in order to pray. But sometimes I let go of my informality of approach and prostrate myself like the Muslims and the early Christians – to remind myself of God’s Holy Majesty and Lordship together with my relationship to Him as a poor and unworthy servant.

 

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Labels, Categories and Belief

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Labels, Categories and Belief

Labels, categories and concepts – We all need them. We all use them. They provide a kind of shorthand that enables us to communicate with each other without having to go into detailed explanations every time we mention a theme. Because they are a kind of shorthand, labels often form stereotypes. If I use the label ‘Burglar’, then certain stereotypical images tend to come to our minds with regard to what a burglar looks like, how they speak and how they act. We use stereotypes all the time because we have to make value judgments concerning the situations we find ourselves in as well as the people that we meet. We stand there and do nothing until we have all of the facts. We have top respond and act in a particular way and in order to do so we quickly label and evaluate the situation/person, often using stereotypes.

When it comes to Christianity, I try to minimise my use of labels. I can’t avoid them altogether of course – ‘Christianity’ is itself a label, a shorthand descriptor of a category of religious/spiritual belief and practice. When I was a younger Christian, my Christian friends and I used to use labels all the time – ‘Baptist’, ‘Roman Catholic’, ‘Arminian’, ‘Charismatic’ and so on. I don’t think that we were malicious in using the labels that we did, but for a while they served as ‘badges of identity’ if you will.

But there were a few problems. First, other people did not always mean the same thing when they used the same label as me. The very use of a label – say for example ‘Evangelical’ – might produce a swift negative reaction in the person that I was talking to because they understood it to mean something different from what I meant. Because labels are a kind of shorthand, they are also a little vague – they are open to different definitions and interpretations. The label ‘God’ is a very good example. Unbelievers may say ‘I don’t believe in God’ to which you may be able to reply ‘Which God is that then?’ When they define what they mean by ‘God’ you may well find yourself able to say ‘No, I don’t believe in that ‘God’ either!’ You see, people mean different things when they use the label ‘God’.

Second, by subscribing to or defining myself by a label I am also defining what I am not. If the object in front of me is an ‘elephant’ then it is not a ‘bird’. But this too is vague. Let me give you an example. Let’s take three categories – a, b and c – and lets consider two people – person 1 and person 2. Let’s label the three categories – a = English, b = European, c = Asian. Both persons 1 and 2 subscribe to category a – they both define themselves as ‘English’. By defining themselves in this way, they also both place themselves outside of category c – they are both ‘not Asian’. But when it comes to category b they differ. Person 1 says: ‘I am English therefore I am European – I am part of the continent of Europe’. In effect, person 1 says ‘I belong to categories ‘a’ and ‘b’ but not ‘c’. Person 2 says ‘I am English but I am not European. I don’t want anything to do with a Federal Europe or with political decisions affecting England being made in the European Parliament in Brussels.’ I effect, person 2 says ‘I belong to category ‘a’ but not ‘b’ or ‘c’. In psychology theory the boundary lines of labels and categories are seen as ‘fuzzy’ and this example illustrates this ‘fuzzy’ quality.

So when I subscribe to or define myself by a label then other people may use these terms to define me in a different way than I intend, and they may assume that I exclude myself from something when in reality I actually include myself. For example some may conclude that because I use the label ‘Christian’ I am therefore opposed to Hinduism or that I am anti-Muslim.

People who are interested in the process of ‘radicalisation’ need to be aware of this double-edged quality of labelling and categorizing. We could say that Person 2 in the example above is more ‘radical’ – the label/category that they identify with is more narrowly defined and more exclusive – it is defined in part by what the person is opposed to and what they seek to exclude themselves from.

As a younger Christian I began to find that as I used certain labels in my communications with people, a process of mutual exclusion began to occur. I excluded them as being ‘outside’ of my ‘circle’, and they excluded me – sometimes because they understood and interpreted my ‘labels’ in a different and more negative way than I intended. Sometimes, communication exchanges became a dialogue of the mutually deaf and blind. If I described myself as ‘charismatic’ – as a believer in and practitioner of spiritual gifts – for example, then more reserved and conservative Christians would simply put up barriers, or pull down the shutters in order to defend themselves against ‘this emotional enthusiast’. Any common ground in Christ was lost, or at best, treated with suspicion.

You see, we all defend the labels and categories that we use to define ourselves and identify ourselves with. When I identify with a label/category, then I am not just using that label as a descriptor of my beliefs, orientation and practice, I am saying I am that label. In other words, I am not just describing myself as a ‘Christian’ I am saying I AM a Christian – criticize Christians and Christianity and I may feel that you are criticizing ME. If I identify with a particular label/category and that label/category comes under attack from other people – in debate, in the form of ridicule, in the form of plain opposition – then because I identify with that label/category then I myself will feel as if I am under attack – so protective and defensive barriers will go up. I may even consider that attack is the best form of defence.

So labels and categories are funny things – and not necessarily funny in a humorous sense. Coming back to the concept of the ‘Statement of Faith’ mentioned in other posts, such statements are, by definition, a selection of interrelated shorthand labels that seek to categorise and provide boundaries to a certain set of basic beliefs and practices. They are often a set of label/categories that people identify with and those people who do not subscribe to them may be understood not only as ‘outsiders’ or as ‘not part of this group’, but more radically – as ‘opponents’, as ‘enemies’. Once we put ‘God’ into the mix then we potentially have ‘ultimate opponents of God’ or ‘enemies of God’ – ‘infidels’ and ‘antichrists’. But you can perhaps see why I am reluctant to go beyond what the Bible seems to present as the basics, and why I have not made a big issue about a ‘Doctrinal Basis’ for this site. This site is not radical and does not seek to exclude.

Unfortunately I am, like everyone else, obliged to use labels and categories in my communications – in my writing and conversation – otherwise I would be forever explaining and defining my basic orientation and be unable to move on to more fruitful discussion. Unfortunately too, I have no control on how other people interpret the labels that I use. Not that I want to control how other people think – but I cannot easily prevent other people from misinterpreting what I say or write, because they have different boundaries and meanings to the shared categories and labels that we use to communicate. They have a different orientation to the people, beliefs and practices that are not included in the labels/categories that are embraced here. And of course, the bottom line is that I do have particular beliefs, I do have a specific orientation and it will emerge in the various posts that I create. But these are presented as a personal opinion for you to accept or reject as you please. The intention is that they are thought-provoking, stimulating and helpful to fellow Christians.

 

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