The Benefits of Not Travelling

I know a lot of people are struggling with self-isolation, but I must confess, this has been a wonderful time of growth for me.

Generally people think of staying put as boring and mundane, and they fantasise about hitting the road (or the airport) and leaving everything behind for a life of travel. They equate the lack of responsibility to freedom, and they think their friends who travel all the time are “living the dream.”

But I have lived that dream.

By the age of nine I had already lived in nine cities/towns. I have lived in South Africa, Australia, the UK and India. I went to a summer school in New York City when I was 21, I did a student exchange program in China when I was 14, and I have holidayed in goodness knows how many other countries, including Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and most of western Europe.

I know travel well.

Travel and ‘wanderlust’ are terms that are usually used with overwhelmingly positive connotations. But, as the Christian writer Ethan Renoe points out, the Bible only ever refers to ‘wandering’ as a curse, and home as a blessing.

Of course there are benefits to expanding your horizons and being exposed to other cultures. If you have never traveled in your life, you should do it at least once. But when it comes to the aimless nomadic existence, there is a dark side behind all the social media posts that people don’t see, and I would like to address some of them here.

First, I am always broke. This one is pretty self explanatory. I know they say that travel “makes you richer” culturally, and there is a point to this, but let’s be real. It also makes you poorer. Not just because flights are expensive but because you make less headway in your career and are less likely to be considered for promotions and pay rises if you are constantly quitting or taking more unpaid leave to go globe trotting again.

Second, I often make up small lies or deliberately leave out certain facts in order to maintain this image of “living the dream.” I became most aware of how much I do this by default a few years ago, when an old school friend messaged me on social media to say how much she loved my photographs, how she’d been following me for years, and that she aspired to hopefully be able to live my amazing life one-day. I was living in India at the time. What she did not know was that I had been sexually assaulted a week before by a police officer when I was on a train. Nobody online knew that I was having multiple panic attacks a day or that I ended up having severe insomnia which lasted over five years. I was in the darkest place I had ever been, and yet I was constantly receiving messages from people saying that they wanted to be me.

Third, and perhaps the most important of them all: I struggle to maintain relationships. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that relationships – first with God and second with other people – are the most important things to cultivate during your life on earth. I am really really really bad at this. When I was a small child we moved city every six months, so I was always preparing to say goodbye. I’ve now been a Christian for 21 years and my biggest struggle is observe Jesus’ basic command to love people. I view them as disposable. I am good at small talk, but because I have met so many different people all over the world, I am too emotionally exhausted to “let them in.” People often think they have a meaningful friendship with me, but it is rarely felt on my side. If I am completely honest, I can count on one hand how many friends I have who don’t make me feel numb.

It is often remarked that third-culture kids understand the “heaven is our home” thing better than anyone else because we don’t have anywhere on earth that we consider to be home. I think this is a tragedy, not a badge of honour.

There is also the obvious problem that this travel lifestyle is fundamentally terrible news for the planet God has called us to steward. I won’t go into this too much, but you get the picture.

The dream can actually be a nightmare.

But, as I am learning, staying put can be incredibly healing. I now live in a smallish city in England, and the community here has been teaching me a lot over the last five years. This is the longest I have ever lived in one place since I left my parents at age 17.

The most important thing God is teaching me right now is that, putting down roots can actually help reverse the sin of self-absorption.

For example, the simple act of planting a garden is teaching me how to love the earth, to recognise and submit to the seasons, to be hopeful, and to be still. Caring for something like a plant requires a huge amount of patience which I am not known for having, and it forces me to turn my attention outward.

My cherry tomato plants in particular are teaching me that growth takes time, but it is worth pursuing!

Moreover, being committed to an incarnational community requires a different kind of generosity than what I am used to. Generosity is no longer about just sending cash to an organisation (this is good, please keep doing this!) but it is also about cooking meals for friends when they have a baby, or doing grocery shopping for neighbours who are self-isolating during Covid-19, or allowing one’s schedule to be interrupted by a friend who needs someone to sit and pray with them. This is actually more costly than just sending out cash, but it is much more rewarding.

Of course there are benefits to travel, and I don’t need to list them all here because society tells us this all the time. I doubt I’ll ever stop travelling – mostly because my family live all over the world and I need to see them from time to time! But my main point is that we should not envy the wandering nomad. Having a home is a gift from God, and you should cherish it.

You cannot grow without putting down roots, and your roots will die if you are transplanted too often.

So be encouraged to stay put. The Lord may have more opportunity to work on your heart, which is what is most important to him.

S

Recommended Reading

The New Lonely by Ethan Renoe. He also has a blog worth following here.

How Travel Narrows the Mind by Giles Fraser

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by Tim Keller

The Gift of Simplicity

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About a year and a half ago, I asked the Lord for an unusual News Years gift.

“Lord,” I prayed, “please can you make this coming year really really boring?”

He did, and it was excellent. Almost everything in my life had become far too complex, and I had developed some very serious anxiety. I knew I was spiritually dry, and it felt like my whole life was running away from me.

I needed to stop and reset.

Many of us now are beginning to realise the value of this time in quarantine. Obviously this pandemic is a terrible thing – my sister had Covid-19 and has been very sick. This illness has caused a lot of harm, destroying people’s health and their livelihoods, and even ripping apart relationships.

But there is something I’m learning in this time of social distancing that I don’t think had ever struck me so strongly before. A forced time of rest (or Shabbat, if you will) is a spiritual discipline. And this discipline has the capacity to lead us into a wonderful gift that is simplicity.

We start to re-evaluate what is important to us. We realise that we are not in control of everything, and that there is more to life than endless acquisition or productivity. I have been thinking a lot about how we are not made primarily for utility, nor do we find fulfilment in endless hyper-individualistic consumption.

When we are forced to stop, we realise this simple truth: everything is the Lord’s (Psalm 24) and nothing is ours.

Richard Foster writes,

When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, it takes only a little draught or small accident to show us once again how utterly dependent we are for everything.

This is one of the reasons why fasting can be so helpful. It reminds us how much we need sustenance from something that is outside of us.

The gift of simplicity is not new – on the contrary it is very familiar to a large number of monastic communities. Although we are not all called to be monks and nuns, we are all invited into the gift of living simply.

This is not the same as the minimalist movement, but there will be some overlapping ideas. They both force you to consider what really matters in your life, as well as what your underlying values are. But, unlike minimalism, simplicity goes beyond our obsession with stuff and starts to look at the root problems of our addiction to consumption, which is really an addiction to control.

For example, the Netflix sensation Marie Kondo did an excellent job of convincing us to throw away whatever did not bring us joy (and also how to fold things nicely, for which I am enormously grateful). But, for Marie and others, stuff is still the idol. Once you have thrown away all the stuff you no longer want, you must now buy a whole bunch of new stuff that you didn’t even know you wanted; specifically from her.¬†

Throwing away half your possessions and changing your aesthetic may bring some (superficial) joy in the short term, but it will not address your need for control.

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We are obsessed with ownership because we believe that once we have bought something it is really truly ours. And once it is mine I can control it. But what really happens is our stuff (or desire for stuff) slowly and subtly begins to control us.

Let’s remember that Jesus did not die on Good Friday and resurrect on Easter Sunday so that we can control or be controlled by stuff. He came to bring us freedom.

So how do we break this? Richard Foster provides some helpful insights:

  1. Learn to appreciate creation. As much as you try, you can never tame it or control it. I have recently started growing my own food, and I had no idea how much we depend on the four seasons for our sustenance! If you can, spend some time in the wild. When you stop and meditate on the natural world it puts your life into a dramatically different perspective.
  2. Try and buy less stuff, but when you do need to make a purchase, consider the people whom that item connects you with. A piece of local artwork may have a very small supply chain with just a buyer and a seller, whereas an unethically sourced T-shirt may have a surprisingly long supply chain, with no traceable information that links you with who made it or who grew the cotton. Ask whether your custom will support or exploit the people that this item connects you with. 
  3. Give stuff away to those who need it more than you. I’m not talking about throwing away clutter that will end up in landfill. Consider your community – am I holding too tightly onto my possessions or am I freely making what I have available to others? This one is definitely my main struggle.
  4. Avoid anything that distracts you from first seeking the Kingdom of God. After telling us to not worry about what we eat or wear, Jesus then shows us how: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ (Matthew 6:33) This may seem a bit abstract, so I would highly recommend Foster’s books (see below) where he unpacks it further.

Above all, the gift of simplicity can only really stem from the peace and contentment that we find in knowing Jesus.

Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-13,

For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Until next time,

S


Recommended Resources: 

Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (includes a fantastic two chapters about simplicity and solitude)

Generosity, a video by The Bible Project

Solitude and Community, a sermon by Tim Mackie

If you like my writing but live too far away to buy me a real coffee, feel free to send a little gift ūüôā

Why Did God Make Us? (We are Useless!)

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One of my lecturers recently asked our class a question: Why did God create us? 

And, as theologians tend to do, we proudly regurgitated the dogmas we were taught at Sunday school.

“Because he loves us.”

“Because he’s an artist.”

“Because he wanted relationship.”

But the more we thought about it, the more we realised that we could not actually give a coherent answer that did not border on a heresy. He’s creative, yes, but if that’s the reason he made us then it could imply that he is somehow bound to making stuff, like in Plato’s Symposium. And of course he loves us and wants relationship with us, but if that was the sole reason why he made us then it could imply that he was somehow deficient or lonely. Was the trinity not enough?

Does God need us in any way? Was he bored?

Of course not! As my lecturer said, “creating mankind was not the divine equivalent of getting a puppy.”

So, why did he do it? As the existentialists famously asked, why is there something rather than nothing? 

Well, we often forget that God is a person with his own free will. All we can ever say on this is that he made us because he wanted to.

We have no function; he does not need us.

We are entirely useless.

We serve no utilitarian goal whatsoever, and this is very good news.

If God needed us, then he would be insufficient. But if God wants us, then we are deeply valuable.

So, we are not needed, but we are wanted. Our innate value is based on who we are as image-bearers of God, not what we do in his service.

We are not a means to an end, we are just an end.

So, if you are feeling unproductive during quarantine, remember that productivity is not why you are here.

Rest in that this week!

S

Consumption is Relational

 A lady looking at empty shelves in a Sainsbury's store in London on Wednesday morning

Covid-19 has revealed weaknesses in our existing systems, and panic-buying in particular has revealed that we do not think about how our consumer choices affect others. Although there is plenty of toilet paper to go around, we now have an unequal distribution because with heightened anxiety, a handful of buyers have first considered their own needs above the needs of society as a whole. I don’t blame them.

Over the last 500 years of Western thought, we have seen a gradual trend towards placing value on the individual above the relational ties between individuals. We consider ourselves to be autonomous units that are self-contained, rather than relational creatures who are designed to love.

The rise of consumerism over the past 100 years has been somewhat unprecedented. If we evaluate our cultural values based on our collective actions and habits, we can easily assert that our culture believes that more stuff will make us happy. Put simply, the end goal of human flourishing is to have lots of stuff. Indeed, there has been pushback with the minimalist movement. Their claim is that more stuff clearly doesn’t make us happy, so we should try and have less stuff instead. The problem with this approach is that it is like trying to treat obesity with anorexia, which simply does not work. Stuff is still at the centre of their philosophy.

To understand the problems with our collective buying habits, we actually need to dig deeper. Typically, we think, ‚Äėwill this thing (or will throwing away this thing) make me happy?‚Äô Whereas what we need to think is, ‚Äėhow does this thing impact the people it connects me with?‚Äô

Consumerism as we know it is based on the flawed cultural assumption that our spending has no impact on other people. And yet consumption is not amoral. We know this because there is a supply chain, which links the stuff we consume to a lot of other people all over the planet.

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Other cultures know that consumption is relational because when they go to market, they have to look the merchant in the eye. When they haggle or bargain on the value of a product, they have to do so face to face with the person who is selling it to feed their family. But for us in the West, this process is out of sight and out of mind. If I buy a new phone, I do not have to think about how the materials that made it were mined from the earth’s resources, nor do I have to think of the people who worked in the factory where it was made.

So, if we want to save our planet and consider how others are impacted by our consumption, we need to completely reimagine our cultural values.

Every consumer choice that you make will impact another person. In fact, it will impact hundreds of people plus the planet that 7.8 billion people live on. There is not one purchase that has not had an impact on another human. But, if we bring back the value of relationship into our society, then can we learn how to make consistently ethical choices in our everyday spending habits. When we buy, we need to ask, ‚Äėwho does this affect?‚Äô and ‚Äėhow will this empower or disempower the people whom I share this planet with?‚Äô

This is not a case of throwing away the value of the individual, rather it is a case of understanding that there are other individuals on this earth too. We need to remember to value the relationships between these individuals, not just ourselves as autonomous self-contained units.

To summarise, nothing you buy is amoral. It’s just a question of what sort of impact you want to have on other people, and what sort of world you want to build for future generations.

So, how do we begin to reshape our cultural values? As a first century Rabbi once stated, ‚Äėyou should love your neighbour as yourself.‚Äô I think this is a good place to start.

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S

Recommended resource: 

On ethical consumption generally, including reviews on top ethical brands: www.ethicalunicorn.com 

For Sustainable Fashion: www.brotherswestand.com  and www.peopletree.co.uk

For ethical toilet roll (it’s a thing, and it’s great!): whogivesacrap.org 

Lastly, an excellent theological resource about social justice: livejust.ly 

Secularism is an illusion

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[NYC subway, 2013]

 

The concept of secularism is based on the idea that a culture should aspire to religious neutrality.

And yet there is no such thing.

Every concept you inhabit, every habit that you form, and everything that you aspire to be has been informed by some kind of philosophical ideology.

I repeat: there is no such thing as religious neutrality.

Every idea that takes hold in elite philosophical circles eventually begins to saturate media and the arts, which you then spend your entire life consuming.

But importantly, these ideas have all been theologically informed.

For example, your quest for true authenticity (“no no, this is not a fake knock-off, it’s the real thing”) comes from the project of Heidegger, trickled down from academic circles into the media you have consumed. Your obsession with the individualistic self (“you do you!”) comes from Descartes and the Cartesian project. And your desire for freedom from the institutionalised system (“I’m not religious, but I am spiritual”) comes from Sartre and other existentialists.

You are following a path that has already been paved out for you.

And these ideas, whether we like it or not, all have some kind of religious undertone. There is no such thing as being philosophically and theologically neutral.

The secular does not exist.

 

Recommended Reading: On the Road with St Augustine by James KA Smith

Let’s Talk About Abstinence, Baby

Or perhaps more specifically: let’s talk about how we talk about abstinence to unmarried Christians.

This is story is less about abstinence itself and more about Christian attitudes towards it when advising people who are not married. Here, I am going to outline two differing Christian views on abstinence by exploring the influence of two particular Christians; one from the Patristic period, and one from today. This is effectively a story about how two men Рeach grounded in their own culture and time period Рset the church on two remarkable trajectories with her attitudes toward sex, abstinence and marriage. Although both of these characters have claimed to have life-changing turning points in their lives, as we shall see, neither managed to fully escape the cultural baggages they carried into their theologies.

So, let’s first explore the origins of the “Sex is dangerous” rhetoric:

Saint Augustine

Augustinus von Hippo | Heiligenbilder (Fr√ľhe Heilige ...

Augustine was a North African man who famously met with God in a garden and wrote a book about it called the Confessions around 400AD. He is widely considered one of the most influential Christian thinkers after Paul, and was hugely important in systematising theologies of the Fall, the Trinity, and so on.

Augustine wrote his Confessions in his mid-forties, and at this point he had recently been made a bishop and was coming to terms with his famously shady history. Most notably for this blog post, Augustine had cohabited with a woman before he became a Christian, and was quite distressed when he had to break up with her.

Throughout his writing, Augustine gives a very honest and raw account on the power lust had over him throughout his life. For Augustine, even after converting to Christianity, his appetite for sex never really went away (big shock there), and this unfortunately skewed his theology. In an attempt to throw away his shameful fleshy tendencies, Augustine opted for a life of celibacy once he converted, and he is now quite famous for asserting that God only made sex for procreation, and that sex for pleasure was from the devil.

As such, the catholic church spent many centuries teaching that even within marriage sex can be a bad thing, and that making babies should be its sole purpose. This has caused immeasurable damage to Christians throughout the ages, simply because they were told by religious authorities that their God-given desires are actually bad and shameful.

In a nutshell, the dominant Christian view for centuries was that abstinence is good because sex is bad. 

A lot of time has passed since then, and we have thankfully figured out that God does not hate sex. As Maggie Smith¬†aptly remarks in the 2005 film Keeping Mum:¬†the Bible is full of sex – haven’t you noticed?“.

One would hope this would eventually happen, given that we have had the Middle Ages, a Renaissance, a Reformation, and many other cultural movements that have no doubt shifted and shaped Christianity’s attitudes to just about everything.

We now come to the surprising “Sex is THE BEST” rhetoric, stemming from the¬†True Love Waits movement that is ever so prominent in American Evangelicalism.

Joshua Harris

The cultural background to all of this comes from the sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s. Key influences include the Pill (which made the consequences of sex less risky), psychologists such as Freud (who wrote about the detrimental impact of sexual repression), and of course the media (playboy culture and the normalisation of pornography). The church had to respond to all of this, as abstinence until marriage was no longer the norm.

Enter the Purity movement.

The fundamental premise of this movement is that sex is really really really good¬†if you do it God’s way. (i.e. only do it with one person in your whole life, and that person is your spouse). In other words, they are selling abstinence by selling sex. If you want the best sex ever, then take some advice from the guy who invented it (God).

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This counter-revolution to the surrounding culture went on for quite a while, but it climaxed (cough) in 1997 with one of the most famous books to ever come out of the purity movement: I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris. Written by an unmarried 20 year old homeschooled kid from Dayton, Ohio, this book sold over 1.2 million copies, and is regarded by many Christian millennials as one of the key influencers of the purity movement.

The book promises a fulfilling sex life if you follow this simple formula: don’t have sex, don’t kiss, and don’t even hold hands until you are married. Moreover, you shouldn’t even¬†date when looking for a potential spouse. Instead, the book advocates ‘courtship’; a model that insists on the man being the ‘pursuer’, the woman being the ‘pursued’, and the overall consent of this pursuit being granted by the woman’s father. Fundamentally, it disavows casual dating and insists that men should only pursue and get to know women whom they intend to marry.

Remember, the book asserts that these rules must be followed not just in order to please God, but also to have fulfilling sex when you are married. Virginity is key. If you do it with someone else before your spouse, well, that someone else will forever have a piece of your heart, and this will bring your marriage (and your sex life) to ruin.

This premise became so saturated in Christian culture that the word ‘purity’ became synonymous with virginity, which in turn became fundamental to Christian identity.

Many of the Millennials influenced by this movement – myself included – are now finding out the hard way that this model doesn’t actually work. We are also realising that it is fundamentally sexist and it places disproportionate emphasis on virginity being central to the Christian message.

In 2017, Harris featured in a documentary entitled I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, where he faces some of his harshest critics and greatest fans, all the while questioning the central premise of his original best-seller.

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Since then Harris has more recently denounced his book, as well as all the others that came after. He has apologised to those negatively affected by the movement as a whole and asked for forgiveness. He has also announced that he has separated from his wife, moved from the US to Canada, and no longer considers himself a Christian.

So much for all that then.

But where do we go from here?

On the one hand, we don’t want to align ourselves with the the idea that sex is fundamentally bad and that abstinence is a weapon we must use to combat this dangerous evil. The¬†Songs of Solomon should be chucked out of the canon if that is the case. On the other hand, we also don’t want to buy into the idea that sex is our ultimate fulfilment, and that abstinence is our channel towards that fulfilment.¬†Neither of these views are Biblical.

But then how do we talk about abstinence?

The Bible does talk about sex and abstinence, but it doesn’t actually say much about¬†why,¬†other than simply to please God. Not that we like this message. We would much prefer the assurance that sex is going to be amaaaaaaazing as long as we just hang in there for now. And if we can’t buy that extreme then we slump back into our 4th Century view that sex is a terrible evil and must never be enjoyed (especially not by women!).

But I would assert that both of these extreme views have managed to place sex over and above God. Our problem is neither sex nor abstinence; it’s idolatry.¬†

Yes Augustine is wrong in placing sex in the category of bad; the Bible clearly commends it as a good. But let’s remember that it is a good with a little ‘g’ – not Good with a capital ‘G’. It’s not bad, but it’s not¬†the Good (i.e. God). It’s just good.¬†But, like all good things, they come with boundaries, and these boundaries are simply protecting it; they’re not what makes a good thing good.

If you are abstaining from sex until marriage, please note that getting married is not going to solve your porn addiction or your tendency to over-fantasise about the perfect orgasm. The purity movement has made virginity far too much of a big deal, and many people who have waited and waited and waited and then finally gotten married have been somewhat disappointed by their wedding nights.

Chill out. Sex is not an ultimate fulfilment in your life, and although abstinence might make it better (for some) in the long run, you’ll still have to work at it when you’re married and improve your techniques together.

How about we talk of abstinence (until marriage) as something that pleases God, and, like all things we do to please God, it’s not what makes you holy or ‘pure’. And of course there is grace when we fall short. But let’s make the end-goal of abstinence simply to please God and nothing more. The potential added benefits are just a side-note.

I don’t think there really is a set formula on how to ensure that your future sex life is going to be ultimately fulfilling. It probably won’t be. It will hopefully be good, but it will never be¬†Good.¬†

Needless to say, both of these movements were founded by imperfect individuals who are both keen to remind us that they are flawed and we should’t take their word as ultimate. Thankfully, both Augustine and Harris will be remembered more for their repentance than their sins.

 

Recommended Reading: 

James K.A. Smith’s¬†On the Road with St Augustine (pages 92-105) tackles the issue of sex really well, and uses Augustine’s own logic when exploring his blindspot on sex.

Ethon Renoe’s blog gives some interesting and pragmatic insight on this issue (and others).

Deep Church Rising: a turn back to the tradition?

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[Notre Dame, Paris 2017]

 

I left the mega-church scene at age 21, feeling somewhat stranded and very confused.

I knew that I loved Jesus, but I also knew that I no longer fancied the razzle-dazzle shiny church experience that I was raised in. Church life had always placed a heavy¬†emphasis on the celebrity prophet/preacher/worship-leader/healing-pastor figure, and now, having rejected all of this, I wasn’t sure who I trusted anymore.

More than that, if I were to trust any kind of denomination or pastor again, who on earth would I choose?

As Andrew Walker and Robin Parry write, ‘Christianity is now on sale in multiform shapes and sizes. Competing in the open market with other religions, there is a bewildering yet broad choice of “real” and “best” Christianities for anyone who wants to buy.‘¬†(source)

It is perhaps no surprise that seven years later, I have found solace in the classical tradition. With such an array of competitive denominations, each claiming to be the “best” or even “only” example of how Christ wants us to live, I decided to drown out the noise and bury myself in some old books. And it turns out I am not the only one who is doing so.

‘Deep Church’ – as some theologians call it – is now beginning to surface.

This fascinating movement is cross denominational, and definitely worth paying attention to. It is a call for all denominations to recognise our common foundation. Although many modern branches of Christianity claim to shy away from the tradition (deeming it “legalistic”), they would do well to remember that it is in fact the same tradition whose shoulders we all stand on.

It is the tradition that preserved the Bible we read.

It is the tradition that established our core doctrines, such as the incarnation, the trinity, and so on.

And in many ways, it is this classical tradition that has redeemed my understanding of Christ’s bride.

There is so much richness to be found in the works of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and the like. Their works are grounding. Far from “adding” to the Bible, they constantly refer back to it. They illuminate it and shine light on things I never would have considered.

Moreover, instead of making my walk with Jesus “dry” or “distracting”, I have had profound Holy Spirit encounters while engaging with more traditional material. While writing an essay on the patristics in second year, I became so overwhelmed by the presence of God I managed to fall off my chair and had to start worshipping him from the floor! That summer I went to Paris for a holiday, and managed to have another overwhelming presence-of-God-moment while visiting the very Catholic Sacr√©-CŇďur. It just so happens that a bunch of nuns were prostrating themselves during their Eucharistic Adoration . I literally burst into tears and kneeled alongside them, saying “Jesus you are my king” over and over again for at least an hour.

It is through this journey that I have also come love liturgy and appreciate the sacraments in a new way. I’m not yet a regular “high church” goer (I’m currently settled in a modern Anglican church), but I have huge respect for all the bells and smells. In fact, I’ve started lighting a candle during my evening prayers while I read ancient liturgy from hundreds of years ago out loud in my bedroom.¬†There is a deep and rich tradition to fall back on, and contrary to popular belief, modern pastors need not be afraid of it. It does not detract from the gospel, and it does not hinder the works of the Spirit.

Ironically, through my interaction with the “old stuff,” I am also now starting to find healing from my hurts caused by the modern church. As Paul says, “¬†But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18)

So, although it has taken many years, I am learning to love the whole of Christ’s bride once again.

I’ll close with a quote from Pete Grieg, founder of the 24-7 prayer movement:¬†

It‚Äôs disturbingly easy to disguise a critical spirit. To criticise megachurches for consumerism, small churches for poor leadership, Pentecostal churches for dualism, traditional churches for dead religion, prosperity churches for exploiting the poor, Reformed churches for reductionism, inclusive churches for syncretism, and conservatist churches for bigotry…¬†With each new prejudice, we diminish the body of Christ a little more into our own flawed likeness. But you can‚Äôt change the church until you truly love her, and true love ‚Äėcovers a multitude of sins‚Äô (1 Peter 4:8), it isn‚Äôt conditional upon perfection.

 

Recommended Reading: 

Deep Church Rising (2014) by Andrew Walker and Robin Parry buy here

Dirty Glory (2018) by Pete Grieg buy here

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (2010) by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro buy here

Would Jesus have really died for just one person?

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A few years ago, a woman whom I had never met before was praying for me. We were at one of those big Christian music festivals, and she had simply offered some words of encouragement. However she said something that has been bugging me ever since:

“If you were the last person on earth, Jesus would still have died for you.”

Really?

Did he ever say that?

I tried to put it out of my mind. Surely she’s just a well meaning lady who was trying to be nice. The crucifixion could not possibly have been worth it unless a certain percentage of the global population would benefit. That’s just basic logic.

But then last night I heard the same sentence again, and this time it was not from a well meaning stranger. It was from the mouth of Nicky Gumbel, a Cambridge alumni and ordained minister. He says it in one of the videos from the Alpha course entitled ‘Why Did Jesus Die?

A lady I was watching with brought up that line and questioned its validity. Why do Christians say stuff like this so casually? This is not a direct quotation from the Bible, so how can we arrogantly assume that Jesus would really have died for just one person? The main reason why this has bugged me (and her) is the problem of cost and reward. The cost of the crucifixion was huge. Would the benefit of one saved soul really have been worth it?

But then I realised that I’m imposing a lot of metaphysical assumptions with this cost-reward mentality. It mostly comes from a post-modern western worldview that takes the principles of Utilitarianism for granted. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory coined by John Stuart Mill which determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes. It’s a form of consequentialism, and holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. When properly picked apart, it quickly unravels because when taken to extremes it can become very dehumanising.

More importantly however, it does not fit into the nature of God’s character. The Bible does not explicitly say that if I was the last person on earth Jesus still would have died for me. Nevertheless, it does say a lot about the nature of God, so we can still infer a lot from the text.

Let’s have a look at the famous parables of the lost sheep and lost coin from Luke 15:3-10

Then Jesus told them this parable:¬†‚ÄúSuppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn‚Äôt he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?¬†¬†And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders¬†and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‚ÄėRejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.‚Äô¬†I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.¬†Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn‚Äôt she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?¬†And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‚ÄėRejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.‚Äô¬†In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.‚Ä̬†

Clearly there is something to be said for God’s heart for the individual. In fact, heaven throws a party each time one sinner repents, and that’s got to count for something!

So, would Jesus really have died for me if I was the last person on earth?

I think so.

Reflections on Musical Worship

Throughout Christian history, the way we worship God has changed enormously. Many of these changes have taken place due to the influence of surrounding cultures, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I’ve recently been reflecting on which aspects of our culture are influencing the way we worship God, and I’m growing more and more concerned by the influence of consumerism.

Over the last weekend I had the privilege of worshipping God in four very different ways:

The first was choral Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday.

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The interior struck the fear of God into my heart, leaving a profound sense of awe that stayed with me throughout the service.

The angelic voices of the choir seemed to lift the congregants into a transcendent reality, and the golden ceiling gave us a glimpse of the beauty of heaven. If one thinks this scene was magnificent, one can barely imagine what it will be like to one day walk in the City of God, where the streets are paved with gold and the ocean is like glass.

The experience significantly lifted my spirits:¬†I had walked in feeling bogged down and gloomy, but I left with a fresh appreciation for God’s beauty and holiness.

 

 

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The second was a child-friendly service on Sunday morning, involving “action songs” led by someone dressed in a bear costume.

Did it feel “holy”? No.

Did I have some kind of profound revelation? Not really.

Do I enjoy doing actions to up-beat worship music? Nope.

 

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The third took place later that evening. It was a semi-spontaneous session with my vicar, a worship pastor, and eight other people who mostly come from a Pentecostal/Charismatic background.

It had everything a good “Spirit-filled” worship session ought to have: an acoustic¬† guitar, singing in tongues, occasional wailing, intercessory prayer, visions and words of knowledge, foot-stomping, raised hands, scrunched up faces, you name it. It had just the right amount of touchy-feely vibes to make me feel like I’d had an encounter with God, and I was tired enough afterwards to feel like I’d somehow given him something.

 

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This leads me to the fourth, which I admit is a rather generous use of the term “worship”. In a nutshell, I napped on my sofa while listening to playlist of worship songs on Spotify. In Charismatic circles we often refer to this as “soaking.”

Given that I was utterly exhausted, I think it is no surprise that this was by far my favourite way of getting into the presence of God.

I finished the weekend feeling fluffy and “spiritual”. I’d picked and chosen which aspects of each service I had liked, and fell asleep pondering all the nice things I’d felt during each of the different worship experiences.

Now, if you’re not angry or offended by the way I just reviewed each worship style, you should be. Worship was never meant to be a tapas menu. It’s an offering.

I argue that the plethora of options available to us when it comes to styles of worship has turned it into a consumer-orientated marketplace rather than a sacrificial offering to the Lord. 

As consumers, we now have the power to choose how we worship. We can pick what songs inspire us to raise our hands or sing in a piercing falsetto. We can choose which services to attend. We can create our own playlists at home based on which songs make us feel like that first time we ever heard Oceans. Most of us have a favourite worship leader that we follow on Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is important that people across the denominational spectrum feel like they can be themselves when they come before God. I also believe it is important to be picky when it comes the theological statements made in the lyrics. However, my problem is that¬†the variety of styles of Christian worship on offer are being treated as though they were products for our consumption. This turns our focus back to ourselves: worship is now about how¬†I¬†feel.

Something God has been challenging me with is my ability (or perhaps inability) to give him an offering of worship in all circumstances. In order to do this, I need to surrender my denominational snobbery and give God his due, regardless of my feelings.

Action songs led by a bear may not be my cup of tea, but Jesus had a lot to say about the faith of little children. If we are instructed to learn from kids, then perhaps I ought to watch their enthusiasm with each song and do likewise? Bringing children into the service to worship alongside the adults is probably a genius idea.

Similarly, I am not used to high church. But I have to admit that Evensong at St Paul’s is the most Bible-orientated way I worshipped this weekend. Every song was a Psalm. Every piece of liturgy was straight out of the New Testament. Christian worship has been offered to God on that site for over 1400 years. Perhaps joining in with this tradition is not about me after all?

If we think worshipping God is always supposed to feel a certain way, then I think we are profoundly mistaken. Sometimes it is indeed a life-changing emotional experience. Other times it feels like boring same-old-same-old. My point is that God is glorious, regardless of how we feel.

Our subjective perception of life ought not be the thing that governs the way we offer worship to the Lord. Worshipping the Lord ought to be what governs our perception of reality.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

Four Reasons Why I Quit Facebook

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(Picture stolen from the Economist)

About two months ago I deactivated my Facebook account, with the intention of permanently deleting it eventually. I wrote a very convicting draft of this post, which highlighted what I thought were the main problems with the social media giant. Now, I’ve gone back to the party.

So, like an alcoholic swinging their bottle around and yelling at people the dangers of drink, here I will outline some of my concerns with how we connect through social media platforms like Facebook (and other similar companies).

This is why I quit:

1. It is free.

This may seem counter-intuitive, surely a freebie is a good thing? But here’s the trick, while it does not cost me money, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar company. How do they make a profit?

Because we are not the consumers: we are the products.

Facebook makes its money through targeted add revenue, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated based on its ever-improving algorithms and the data we freely upload.

So what? Many would argue that this doesn’t really matter. Who cares if these big companies know what demographic I belong to, which restaurant I visited last week, and what my political views are? Besides, surely there is not harm in making money from advertising in general?

Right.

But what makes facebook problematic is that its entire business model is based on turning our our personal data into a commodity. This is not the same as the kind of advertising you see on billboards or television. The sophisticated algorithms that enable this kind of target-advertising deliberately exploits the personal information that we give them in exchange for their service.

Now, every inch of our online lives is driven by a variety of largely invisible “micro-nudges”. Every click we make is recorded and analysed by algorithms that create a unique, predictable and targetable data-point to sell to the highest bidder.

Not only is that just plain creepy, but it also started costing me money that was not budgeted for. I’d be keen to hear other people’s experiences, but in the last two years I’ve personally noticed an increase in my tendency to impulsively spend money on the internet. It got to the point where Facebook just knew me too well and I was buying way too much crap that I didn’t need. Turning my data into a commodity was no longer in my best interest.

But, surely that’s just my problem. We still have control over what we click on, right?

Wrong.

2. It is specifically designed to be addictive. 

The fact that it was difficult for me to quit became rather telling (and the fact that I am back on is probably even more telling).

Turns out, Facebook pays a fortune for research psychologists to figure out how to keep us online for longer. They want to know why we click on things, and how to get us to click on more things.

Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook, said that he and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (among other social media entrepreneurs) understood that they were launching a platform that was addicting, ‚Äúand we did it anyway.‚ÄĚ The “like” button is referred to as a “social validation feedback loop… exactly the kind of thing a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in the human psyche.”¬†(Source).

Creepy.

3. It cheapens human connection. 

Mark Zuccerburg claims that the whole point of facebook is to connect people. Whether he is genuine in his endeavour is not my concern. What is my concern is the fact that Facebook has proven time and time again to do the exact opposite of what they promised. We are not connected. We are more lonely than ever before.

Facebook (and other internet giants) has arguably turbo-charged the weaknesses of the human psyche in order to capitalise on them. We now know that being online too much can increase loneliness, despite Zuckerberg’s ideal to connect society further¬†(source). Some psychologists are even suggesting that our generation is in a touch deficit: there are now dangers of¬†being “skin hungry,” which can lead to depression (source).

So, either Zuccerburg never had the intention to really connect people in the first place, or he did have this goal and he failed to achieve it. Either way, Facebook does not connect us. The overwhelming evidence reveals that it divides us both individually and corporately, and this has enormous ramifications on society as a whole.

4. It just has too much control.

On individuals, Facebook has proven to have the power to affect our moods (Source).

On a larger scale, we can see a much more chilling effect. In Jamie Bartlett’s new book,¬†The People vs Tech he outlines how Facebook now holds a monopoly of economics, politics, and even culture itself. As a good business strategy, Facebook has managed to buy out almost all of their competitors, including Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculus VR.¬†This means that they now have the capacity to distort politics and culture by their sheer size and power. A very small clique of people now have a very large sway over what goes on in public spaces. I am not entirely sure that Facebook has its user’s best interests at heart, especially since we are not their consumers.

I do not need to rant further on the ramifications we have recently seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its impact on the Trump election and Brexit referendum.

In short, Facebook claims to be a social-network company that connects its users at no cost to them. In reality, however, it is a multi-billion dollar advertising agency that manipulates and exploits the personal data of their addicted users, divides our societies, and has way too much control over our democracy and culture.

I watched most of Mark Zuccaberg’s Senate hearings (they were 5+ hours each!), I read all sorts of opinion articles, I bought books on the topic, and I listened to podcasts. The more I read and heard, the more I felt a moral conviction regarding how much I used a service that is changing our culture for the worst. As a concerned citizen, I felt an ethical obligation to stop using and supporting the “service” that Facebook claimed to provide.

That is why I quit Facebook.

But, after two months, I reactivated. Why?

1.It is free. 

The only alternative platform that I could think of would be for someone to build a copy-version charge a monthly subscription for it its users. This would then put its users in the position of consumer rather than product.

The problem with this model is that it would divide the internet even further. Those who could afford it would opt for that new company, while those who wouldn’t be able to would stay with Facebook. One thing do like about Facebook is that it guarantees equal access to its users.

2. It is specifically designed to be addictive. 

Honestly, I thought about it all the time. I really really really missed it. Especially the memes. Ohmygosh I missed those memes. As a reward for finishing my exams, my friend made me the greatest present of all time: a scrapbook full of printed memes. I could hardly contain my delight.

3. It cheapens human connection. 

Some psychologists are suggesting that Facebook only makes us lonelier if we use it in particular ways (source). Those who already have connections can in fact enhance those connections by using social media.

I have also found that Facebook is a really efficient way to make shallow connections with the sorts of people who I’m not willing to give my number to, but also don’t want to lose contact with. It’s not that I don’t value people, it’s just that there are too many of them on this planet, and I have limited energy. It’s a really good in-between platform that doesn’t require too much commitment if I’ve just met someone, but also doesn’t make isolate me from my entire generation.

4. It’s just too big.¬†

Perhaps a giant this big cannot be taken on by one opinionated blogger on this corner of the internet. I may be backing down from some of my earlier convictions, but if this is one of the primary means of communicating with my peers, then quitting is actually pretty anti-social.

Overall, with or without Facebook, I’m still just as narcissistic and attention-seeking as the next millennial. After quitting Facebook I just displayed it on my blog instead.

At the end of the day, my personal account is a drop in a multi-billion dollar ocean. I still stand by the issues I outlined above, but hopefully I can use in a way that still connects me to the world while being aware of the dangers. I’m planning on keeping the app off my phone though, so that it limits my usage.¬† Other than that, you’ll probably see me around again.

So, what do you think? Have I undermined my values and sold out for Memes?

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Edit: I have now gone back and deleted my account permanently. Turns out memes really aren’t worth it (besides, I have a whole scrap-book of them anyway!)

Recommended Further Reading: 

Jame Bartlett’s new book,¬†The People versus Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy¬†¬†(buy here)

James Williams’ essay,¬†Technology is Driving us to Distraction¬†(click here)

The Economist article, Facebook Faces a Reputational Meltdown (click here).

The New York Times article, What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook (click here).