I am writing this just a few days after the terror attacks in Paris have shocked the world. Less than a month earlier a similar sense of outrage was felt as news unfolded of hostages being held in Sydney, Australia. In both cases the gunmen were identified as Islamic extremists. Man Haron Moris in Australia seems to have acted alone, whilst the gunmen in Paris clearly had accomplices and were part of a more organised terror initiative.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris 2 million people participated in a rally for national unity to honour the dead and express their solidarity against the attacks under the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. In Australia there was a spontaneous outpouring of public solidarity with peaceful Muslims using the hashtag #illridewithyou to express a willingness to ride on public transport with anyone feeling threatened. These different responses capture the heartfelt desire of most people that there should be an end to hatred and killing.

In the 1970’s John Lennon released Imagine; the bestselling song of his solo career. It includes the lines: “Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too.” This echoes a belief that I hear from time to time that ‘religion’ is to blame for all kinds of atrocities, wars and persecution. There is no denying that leaders have often sought to bolster their position by manipulating religious beliefs to their advantage; even using it to justify acts of genocide and oppression. Terrorist organisations too have found religion a useful tool in extracting loyalty and unconditional commitment from their activists. However, despite this association with religion, is it really fair to lay the blame for these present outrages at that door? Mainstream religious leaders of all kinds would emphatically say no.

I can’t speak on behalf of other faiths but am able to invite you to look more closely at the teachings of Christ which clearly oppose violence and hatred towards others. Jesus taught us to love our neighbours as ourselves. When asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ he told a story that struck right at the heart of his listeners’ religious and racial prejudices. The neighbour who cared for the Jewish victim of violence in Jesus’ story was a Samaritan – the most despised and hated people group for Jews of that day. Elsewhere Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us. Imagine that! A world where evil acts are met, not with revenge, but forgiveness and mercy, a world where love is shown, not just to people we like, but also to people who might seek to harm us.

The ultimate example of forgiveness towards perpetrators of violence is Jesus himself who prayed as he hung on the cross ‘Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.’ John Lennon dreamt of an idyllic world where everyone lived together as one, yet he never really offered a means to get there. Jesus however offers each of us personal forgiveness and then commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Imagine a world where everyone were to live like that; then there truly would be an end to hatred and killing.

This blog post featured in the February 2015 edition of Hook Focus

New Leaf or New Life

As a schoolboy I did not have the neatest of handwriting and my exercise books quickly became messy and dog eared. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I enjoyed getting a new exercise book at the beginning of term, or when an old one was full. Full of good intentions I would take great care to write slowly and neatly in the first few pages, but invariably would lapse back into bad habits long before I got to half way through, as I would start to rush my work.

Many people think that being a Christian is a case of turning over a new leaf, rather like getting a brand new exercise book and working hard to write neatly. They understand that God is loving and merciful and so come to him seeking forgiveness but promising to do better next time. The underlying thought process is that if they can somehow live a good enough life going forward, that will in some way make amends for all that has gone before. There are two flaws with this kind of thinking. Firstly at its root is the idea that we can earn God’s favour. However, the bible is clear that none of us can ever be good enough to earn God’s favour. The second flaw is that before too long, just like my wayward handwriting, we revert to old patterns of behaviour and can get trapped in cycles of guilt.

The true message of the bible is that we are powerless to change but God is powerful. PJ Smyth, a preacher in South Africa, expresses it like this: “Nothing I can do can make God love me more, and nothing I can do can make God love me less.” This is the ultimate in equality! No matter how good we might be we can never be good enough, but God offers us forgiveness through Christ anyway. No matter how bad we might be we can never be so bad that God will refuse to forgive us if we come to him through Jesus Christ. The bible calls the process of forgiveness in Christ being born again because, rather than turning over a new leaf, we embark on a new life. The remarkable thing about this transformation is that when we truly grasp that God loves us like that, and forgiveness is due to God’s mercy alone, then we can be set free from guilt. The motivation for living therefore becomes gratitude to God rather than seeking to win his favour.

This New Year, rather than making resolutions to turn over a new leaf, come instead and receive a new life in Christ – it’s freely available to everyone who will respond!

This blog post featured in the January 2015 edition of Hook Focus

Who is the message of the kingdom for?

That might seem a daft question, after all the answer is obvious – everyone! However, do we really believe that? Or do we have categories of people who we feel are beyond the gospel, people who are too hardened to respond to the grace of Christ? People we have given up on? What about people we might feel uncomfortable being with?

In Luke 14:12-24 Jesus told a parable to encourage us to believe that the gospel is for everyone who will hear it. He describes a great banquet, which a man throws for his invited guests. At the last minute the guests start making excuses and fail to turn up. The master is angry to be rejected in this way and sends his servants out into the streets to literally bring everyone they can find, the poor and crippled and blind and lame in to enjoy the feast which has been prepared. If his respectable friends won’t come, then he will fill the banquet with the outcasts of society.

I don’t think Jesus is saying we should give up on friends and family who have responded negatively to our efforts to share the good news of Jesus with them. Rather I think he is encouraging us to widen our circle and reach out to people who we might not naturally reach out to. The gospel is not only for people like us, or for people who like us, or even (dare I say it?) only people we like. The gospel really is for everyone! Will you rise to the challenge and pray for opportunities to share God’s love with anyone who will receive it? Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone for the love of Jesus?

This blog post featured in the November 2012 edition of Lifelines

No condemnation

This last weekend (11th/12th Feb) has seen a world obsessed with celebrity stunned by the news of Whitney Houston’s premature death. Like many celebrities Whitney appeared to be someone who had everything going for her:  talent, fame, and wealth. Yet it is apparent that deep within her spirit she was a woman who was greatly troubled.

In a candid interview in 2002, Diane Sawyer listed a number of drugs and asked Houston which one was “the biggest devil” for her. Houston’s response? “That would be me. It’s my deciding. It’s my heart. It’s what I want and what I don’t want. Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. The biggest devil is me.”

Whitney’s answer echoes a statement made by Paul in his letter to the Romans “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” What both these statements highlight is the universal experience that we all struggle with an internal battle to live consistently by our own inbuilt benchmark of what is right and wrong. Regardless of any outward measures of morality, if we are truly honest with ourselves none of us has managed to live up to our own standard.

The realisation that we are powerless to even live up to this standard by ourselves would be depressing were it not for the promise that for those who are in Christ Jesus there is now no condemnation. Jesus offers to set us free not just from our self-condemnation, but from every condemnation that could ever be thrown at us. This is the wonderful truth of the gospel: Christians are no better than anyone else but they are forgiven! It is only when we truly receive Christ’s forgiveness that we can begin to forgive ourselves and conquer the devils that lurk in each of us.

This blog post featured in the March 2012 edition of Hook Focus