Friday, 22 May 2015

Thank You

This is a beautiful song of gratitude to God. Produced by the Jesus Army. This video won the Best Christian Music Video award at the UK Christian Film Festival Awards (2015).

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Sin and Freedom

Sin is a hot-button topic for Christianity, in fact for many non-Christians it's what they associate Christianity with. Being a Christian is all about having to feel guilty about anything fun, right? For Christians freedom is an equally big topic, being a Christian isn't about the sin, it's about being free and the freedom Jesus brings. With such central subjects it's easy to have the wrong idea, even subconsciously, and it's vital that we have a right understanding. So sin and freedom are the topics of this post. Specifically, what is sin and what kind of freedom can Jesus bring to us.

When Christians talk about sin it is almost inevitably in the context of some particular kind of behaviour. Is this a sin or is that a sin? We tend to think that if we could only stop sinning then we'd be right with God. We often debate the minutiae of sin; is entertainment a sin, what about drinking alcohol? And so on... Some acts are clearly sinful. If you stab someone then it's generally going to be clearly an act of evil. In general though I think God is far less concerned about whether or not an individual act is a sin or not (both in the general and the specific case) because that simply isn't what sin is.

Sin is what separates us from God, it's the darkness that blinds us and covers the world. It's what makes us unable to love people, unable to see the world as it really is. If we were truly free from sin we would be fully united with God, perfect in love. Sin is our inability to love, our failure to love.

So the problem is not that we sin (individual acts), but that we are weak and blind. Unable to bring people real healing, unable to really love people deeply, unable to hear God and walk closely with him. This is our real sin, and this is what we need to sorrow over and find repentance for. ("The world that has been pulled over your eyes" as The Matrix so wonderfully describes it.)

It's not really our fault is it. We didn't choose to be born into this world of darkness, we inherited the sin and blindness from our parents and the society we grew up in. And they in turn inherited it from there's. All the way back. But, "it isn't my fault" doesn't help. We must take responsibility for the state of our own souls if we're to change. However it happened in the first place there's an opportunity for us to be more than this. If we have a right understanding, this change has little to do with stopping our bad habits (directly anyway) and far more about finding a new depth and capacity for love. A real love that is able to change and heal and free ourselves and those around us.

If we understand that our sin is our blindness and weakness then the question of whether some individual act is a sin or not becomes almost an irrelevancy. The individual acts, that can rightly plague our conscience at times, are more often a symptom of the sin (and need) that grips our soul rather than the real problem itself. Jesus was much more concerned about the inner problems than the external (which notably were the focus of the pharisees). The problem is that sin is part of who we are. We need our character to be washed by pure and sacred love, right from the inside out. It's hard to say that without it just being more religious words but we need a real meeting with divine love.

As the focus of our lives is more and more on having a more real experience of God, of knowing the heart of Jesus in a deeper way, then those habits and problems that worry us so much start to melt away. Dying (to self) is a lot easier when you're actively pushing into resurrection life. When all you see is a wilderness on the other side it's a lot harder.

Finding a release into love and power segues us neatly into our next topic. We say, and sing, that Jesus brings freedom. What is that freedom, is it real in us or are we happy to sing about it but not really understand or experience it? I've mentioned a couple of times freedom from sin as well. The freedom that Jesus brings us isn't directly freedom from sin, nor directly a release into love. Both of these of course are wonderful "side effects" of freedom. In some ways they're different sides of the same coin of freedom, but the freedom itself is a freed will.

We like to think we have free will, but the reason that we find it so hard to change (and why we need God's involvement) is that our wills are so entrenched and submerged. We feel like we have free will, that we're in charge of our decisions and actions, but in reality our lives run according to habits and patterns. Many of these habits are rooted in fears or hurts accumulated through the years, but some are just routines. The trouble is not that we have routines, but that we give our will over to them. Routines and processes are necessary to keep life moving, but whatever we do we must be wilful in it - really present in the moment - otherwise we're not really living, just existing and going with the flow. Do you ever feel like you're not really in charge of your life, ever tried to change a habit or establish a new one and found it hard? These are signs that your will isn't truly free.

This is why you sometimes see middle aged people, usually men I guess, suddenly throw off everything. Leave their family, buy a ridiculous car, changing jobs, whatever. They feel that their life is on rails, that they have no freedom, and they think that the only way out is to change everything. Unfortunately even if you throw away everything you've built you still remain you. Your will, who you are, will be just as submerged afterwards as it was before. This isn't the path to freedom, and you don't need to throw everything away to find freedom.

God wants us to be free. God wants us to be people of volition and agency, capable of acts of great love. We're big people. All of us. You're a big person. You have the capacity for greatness. Think of everything you know, all your skills and abilities, everything you've learned and experienced. There's a lot of it! It isn't all in your conscious mind at once, you're not aware of everything you are all the time. If our whole selves was alive with the life of God, the life and power of God moving through all our past, all our mind, all our soul, then what people we would be! There aren't enough exclamation marks in the universe to emphasise this point appropriately! But who we are is submerged, tied up in fears and ingrained habits. The process of becoming free, of gaining a freed will, means becoming that bigger person. With a will that isn't trapped in the past we're capable of wielding great love (or acts of great malevolence, freedom is a double edged sword) and being that bigger person.

This is not really a separate topic from sin. Being free from sin means having a free will. In order to really love, to really see people as they are, we need who we are to be untangled from our hurts and fears. We need the life of God flowing unimpeded through our souls.

So whatever we do, let it be an act of conscious will. If you spend your time doing things your heart isn't really in then you have a choice. If you have to do it, it's a responsibility you've taken on, then choose to do it. Let's be people of will. By all means look for a way of changing things, but don't give over your will and passively follow along with something you don't really want just because you're afraid to make changes. Be wilful, make a choice and follow it through. And if you can't put your will into something, if you really don't want to be doing it, then be true to yourself and stop! Let the chips fall where they may. This life is the only life you have, don't let it stay submerged and bound. What's the alternative, to watch our lives slipping away wishing things were different?

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

My vision for my church

To be is to do”—Socrates
To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre
Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra
I'm part of the Jesus Army in the UK, also known as the Jesus Fellowship. We recently had a leaders' meeting that was particularly serious; looking to face up to the mistakes of the past, finding repentance and healing. Discovering a new vision and identity together as a church has been a theme for us for a while now, particularly in light of prophecies about us finding a "second confidence, greater than the first". My church, for all the failings of the past, was glorious in confidence in the early days. The leaders' meeting helped to crystallise my vision for our church: to be part of a people on fire for God and alive with his life.

Below is what I wrote the day after the meeting.

The atmosphere in the afternoon particularly was amazing. It's clear that we need a period of repentance and deep healing, within the leaders and the wider church, before we can know the second confidence that Andy Lantsbery spoke of. This will be a confidence both in who we are and confidence in the vision, particularly a confidence that we know the vision will work because we know it comes from God. Our renewed identity as a church will come out of that vision.

My burden for the church is that we understand that this new confidence comes not from our activity as a church (although without any shadow of a doubt a sense of mission and effective activity are the key symptoms of a healthy church). Vision that brings life and confidence only comes from us knowing the heart of Jesus and from his life, not from anywhere else. Not from finding the right things to do. My vision is that we become a body of people alive in God, knowing him and filled with his life. Mission and activity and fruit will come out of this - and not the other way round. I will spend my life and substance both on knowing God and on finding his life in the church. I'm hungry for his life amongst us. I'm desperate for the life of God in our meetings, in our brotherhood, in our lives and hearts. This drives me, and as I get hungrier I get stronger and I know more of his life.I'm determined to blaze, and I will blaze with a people.

Imagine if we were a church of hungry men and women. If we came to our households and our meetings desperate for the life of God amongst us. What would our meetings and worship be like then.

But I know this will happen. I know with absolute certainty that God's hand is on this church and his heart is in it. I see many beautiful men and women with the real marks of brokenness and humility on them, the evidence of laid down lives. They've given their lives, over many years and in spirit and truth, to love and to serve. That's the heart of Jesus and I've never seen it in such strength in any other church I've ever been to. It's only in this church that I've heard the message of the kingdom with such clarity, that as a body of people we can be the kingdom

I'm humbled and grateful to be part of a church that carries the heart of Jesus. I'm humbled and grateful to be led by men like Mick, Huw and Kelly. I love this church and I love God, but I'm also driven to know more of the heart of God. I know that what we've seen so far is only a fraction of what God has to offer, what he wants us to have. God is no stingy and capricious miser withholding his blessing. He longs to pour out his heart and his life amongst us. But he also longs for us to want it enough  to press our hearts and lives into him, for it to be more important than anything else. God longs for us to seize the kingdom, to take the anointing and the love and the power that he has. He longs for our longing to meet with his longing, for our hunger to drive us into him and then he can bless us, then he can pour out his life amongst us. Then we will see deeply healed men and women released to transform the lives of those God brings to us.

And I see it happening.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Sexual purity in marriage

Sexual purity in marriage is a challenging topic, and it would certainly be the bold person who proclaimed they were fully qualified to teach on it. Nonetheless I will attempt to say something useful. There is much more to be said and I will probably revisit this topic in the future. Hopefully this will be of interest, and possibly use, not just to those married but to celibates and singles too.

Sexuality is a controversial topic and one that is difficult to discuss. Particularly in UK and US cultures it is a topic loaded with guilt and shame, making it virtually taboo. This view of sexuality as shameful is part of what causes us to misunderstand sexuality and prevents us from being all we can be. To be ashamed of sexuality is to be ashamed of who we are.

Your sexuality, your existence as a sexual being, is merely the expression of your life force, your creative impulse and power, through a physical body. Being a "sexually released" person has nothing to do with how much sex you are (or aren't) having. A confident man or woman, at ease with themselves and fully expressing the life within them is a released person. Conversely, the papers are full of stories of people (usually celebrities) checking themselves into clinics for sex addiction. They're having a lot of sex, but they're ultimately frustrated people ruled by desires that are never satisfied.

This flow of life through us is only noticably sexual when it flows through our genitals, but sexual attraction is really only the force of attraction of one person to another. When one soul meets another one it's a pleasurable thing, whether that be a physical union or the meeting of souls. Love is what happens when two naked people meet; naked souls free of barriers and defences. The meeting of two souls is amazing, and no body parts need to be touching! Coitus merely amplifies the opportunity for this spiritual union. Until lust gets in the way.

Being excited by the presence of another person is pleasurable. But if you allow yourself to focus on the pleasure you instantly turn something that is about another person into something that is about you, you make it something selfish. This is lust. And lust is bad, this is the sin the bible condemns. Lust isn't bad because it's a sin, lust is sin because it's destructive. Something that is creative, the life released when people are together, becomes an opportunity for you to take. Attraction is an opportunity for life, and we turn it into something ugly. So what's the alternative? More on that shortly.

What we tend to experience in mutual attraction is a combination of lust and love, so it's easy to think that they're the same - or merely different sides of the same coin. The distinction however is clear. Lust is the desire to consume, to possess, to take personal pleasure from another. Lust is selfish. Love is giving, a genuine care for the other without regard to self. To lose lust is not to lose attraction, but to lose selfishness.

Lust, and his equally ugly brother greed, shred beauty. If you give yourself over to lust the beauty gradually fades from your life, and as beauty goes so does joy. Conversely, as you are able to release your life from the grip of lust you will start to see more and more and more beauty in everything and everyone around you.

Masturbation isn't a sin, it's entirely normal. However your life energy, your creative power that should flow through all your being enlivening your mind and soul, instead literally leaks out of your genitals. The answer to pent up tension isn't sexual release but to become a more expressive person, put your sexuality to work in all you do!

Lust is not just destructive, but weak. Lust is only capable of consuming. A fully expressed sexuality, a powerful person, does not have their life force stop at their genitals. As a habit, masturbation can be a cultivation of weakness.

Not lusting does not mean not feeling, but life is able to flow fully through you without impediment, and this takes strength (both of self control and of character). The bonus is that you simply see more of another person if you're able to view them without lust. If you want to see the depths of another person, their strength and beauty, you need to lose the lust. I'm by no means perfect in this, but a lot better than I used to be. 

A few years ago I realised that I often judged woman, subconsciously (i.e. automatically), by their appearance. This dehumanised women in my eyes, instead of seeing a person I was entirely superficial. I realised what a debt I owed to all those women  over all those years whose humanity I had failed to see. I also realised what a lost opportunity it was for me, instead of pursuing my own momentary pleasure at the appearance of a face I deemed attractive I could have been growing in love and friendship and meeting many interesting and wonderful people. This is a debt I still owe. Thankfully, through deliberate effort (and the grace of noticing when I'm failing) I've managed to change my behaviour. I've been learning self control, choosing to reject lust, and as a result I see more beauty than I ever did before!

The other revelation that has changed my life happened within my marriage not long ago. We've been married about eleven years, so a bit late in the game but thankfully not too late. I discovered that intercourse completely without lust, where I'm completely focused on loving my wife and meeting her soul, really seeking to love her and know her with everything within me, is completely different. This was sex as I'd never known it. Indelicate though it seems to air this in public, sex now lasts longer than it ever has and is dramatically more fulfilling for both of us. (You can ask us about it if you dare.) Our love making has now become part of our spiritual life; we not only seek to know and love each other more, but to know the purest form of love within our love - and that's God's love. I'm genuinely quite happy for the presence of Christ during our lovemaking, and indeed it's something I actively seek. I often pray during intercourse as I strive with all my might (and these days I'm a man of more might than ever before) to bare my heart, to connect with the deepest part of my love, and to find the heart of my beloved.

Within the church we tend to (although we'd never say it out loud) see marriage as the permitted bastion of lust. Sex is OK in marriage (only just in the eyes of some), and so it's the legitimate way to get sexual release and to express lust.

But lust is still lust. Lust is still destructive. Lust is still a poor substitute for the love and life that is released when two souls really meet. And sex, within a relationship of deep care and love, is an amazing opportunity for souls to meet. The sexual organs are made in such a way that we can be exquisitely sensitive to another person! We can derive personal pleasure from that sensitivity, or that sensitivity can be a wonderful way for us to be joined to another person and connected to their soul. To feel what they feel, for our life to flow into them and to receive life from them. And this is very different from what I used to know. Not even in the same ballpark.

But sex is not "a thing by itself". When two souls meet, or attempt to meet, they come as they are - including the baggage of the day and the days. Two souls that don't care about each other, that harbour resentments, that aren't open to each other, can't really meet like this. When we come to God in worship we bring our lives, and if our lives are far from God then our worship will be weak. In the same way the physical coming together is two lives coming closer together. And if those two lives are far apart from each other, if there's no care or attraction, then the joining is weak and not much life can flow. But if those two souls really love each other deeply, give themselves for each other daily in service, really know - and want to know - each other. Well then the opportunity for a deepening of that bond is great.

The beautiful thing in the marriage relationship is that when two become one, two lives are joined, it creates something new and wonderful. And that new thing, the power and love of that marriage, itself has power to bring healing and life. People can trust, and receive love from, a married couple in a way that they couldn't from either of the individuals in the marriage. Sex should be the ultimate symbol and pinnacle of that union of lives, not a mere adjunct nor a guilty pleasure or tedious duty.

The technique is to ignore the physical pleasure, it's a distraction and side-effect of the goal of the coupling which is to reach out for one another through intimacy. To genuinely, with tenderness, passion and force, pour your life and love out into each other. This is the path to mind blowing sex, but waaay more importantly is part of forging (in heat) a closer relationship and a deeper friendship. It cannot be separate from lives genuinely devoted to each other and it fails apart from this devotion. As you open up and trust yourselves to one another, without fear or barrier let each other right inside, this is where the two become one. Sex becomes the expression of two lives and souls co-mingled and entwined in genuine giving love.

Life is a search for God. This search can be a weak and passive thing, in the background, forgotten until we come to worship. Worship is then unsatisfying, preferably short, which you pretend to enjoy more than you really do and wondering why it isn't better and if this is really it. Or if your life is an active search for God, to know him and his love, then worship can be the noisy climax of that love - releasing yourself to God and feeling him in a deeper and more intense way. So it is with sex and marriage. Intercourse must be the pinnacle experience of two lives already pouring love into each other - in reality not in mere words or aspiration. Fulfilling sex is a deepening expression of the love that is already and actively between you. A reaching out for each others' hearts just as we reach out for God in worship. In fact marriage is the very imagery used to describe the relationship between Christ and his church, the bride. Needless to say, it's an utterly pure relationship but not one without passion and the joy of passion.

Sexual purity is not the absence of sex or sexuality. Sexual purity is the expression of sexuality without lust. We mustn't be afraid of sexuality, as the church has tended to be, taking the injunction to "dress modestly" as a command to excise every potential expression of sexuality from the church, because sexuality is merely part of who we are and our expression of life. But marriage should also be sexually "pure". A healthy marriage can have lots of copulation, but let it be love. Let it be a deepening of love. Let it be the union of souls in the love of Christ.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Where are the hungry ones?

Wonderful words from our worship leader Stevo Scott, during the first session of our "Alive Weekend". I couldn't have put it better myself, no really, I couldn't...

I sense God asking us how much we want him to come. Pointing out our lethargy, our indifference. God is saying where are the thirsty ones, where are the ones who cry out day and night for my spirit to come. Where are the ones who are satisfied with nothing else.

We're too satisfied. We're too distracted. Let's bring ourselves to God.Let's allow him to speak to us. Where are the ones who hunger for me says the Lord. Where are the ones who search for me says the Lord. Where are the ones who agonise over my church.

God longs to pour out his life amongst us, to make us a light to the world. But he longs for us to want it enough to fight for it. To *push aside* everything else. He isn't a stingy God withholding his blessing, waiting us to find the right things to do. He longs over us - and it's when our longing meets his longing that the spirit really moves.

Let's push into God together and find more of him. 

(Many thanks to James Norden for producing the video for this. If you like this song, a longer recording of this performance is available on the Jesus Army Soundcloud page.)