no comments

The Bible is full of instances of the supernatural. Demons. Healings galore, talking donkeys, water turned into wine. Visions. Forgiveness of sins; lives turned around.


Image: Wikimedia (Public domain)

You’ll note that I’ve included purely human events into the supernatural category. There is nothing natural about complete repentance (although we sometimes forget this and think we can repent in our own strength), yet in the case of Zacchaeus and of Paul, this happened both suddenly and in astonishing proportions. Yet we’re less uncomfortable with these events – we’re less uncomfortable with some types of healings, visions, and events affecting, primarily, humans. It isn’t because we are more familiar with ourselves – rather, it is because we do not know much, rationally, about our natural selves. It is easy, therefore, to treat any supernatural event as an unexplained natural event.

Common wisdom has it that where the territory of science progresses, the territory of faith regresses. This may be true of creation myths, but as far as supernatural events are concerned, the opposite is true. The more we know in science, the harder it is to consider that some of the miracles depicted in the Bible are not, actually, a consequence of natural coincidences. For instance, assuming the Legion episode was a case of epilepsy works only as long as we can imagine epilepsy has a carrier pathogen which can be transferred to the pig herd. Being kept in the dark allows us to accept the supernatural as part of the normal world order far more easily than knowing about it.

The vagueness that is prevalent in popular conceptions of mental health issues does not help. It is just as easy to dismiss an event as a consequence of psychological trouble as it is to dismiss it as a supernatural event. But whilst we can hope to be in control (through medical advances, for instance) of the former, the latter is, by definition, not controllable by natural means. So it’s unsettling. If we accept that there are supernatural events, it means that even our healthy selves can be affected by them. It means that we are no longer in control.

That loss of control – even though it was only an illusion in the first place! – is why I’m still fairly uncomfortable when the spiritual refuses to stay hemmed in to the spiritual and turns into supernatural events. I’m out of my depth when that happens. But rather than investigating it more deeply, I tend to either brush it under the carpet or leave it alone.

Discerning the supernatural from the troubling yet natural takes quite a bit of skill, I’m sure. But just as much as it can be disastrous to mistake the latter for the former, so can it be the other way around.

Yet I still feel uncomfortable even discussing these issues. I’m not sure that discomfort is a bad thing, but it should not keep me from envisaging the possibility of  supernatural (including demonic) activity. What do you think?

Evangelism is weird


Most churches, now, have outreach activities. Some Christian bodies are geared uniquely towards evangelism, too. Alpha courses have grown in popularity, as have other introductory courses to the Christian faith.


Photo: Chris Downer, re-used under CC License

Churches (and therefore Christians)  should grow in all three directions of the famous “in-up-out” triangle. Growing in community and being inwardly edified, worshipping up towards God and reaching out towards the NYCs (not-yet-Christians).

This approach, sadly, dissociates three essential parts of growth. Sure, we should have personal spiritual growth in order that we may reach out, etc. – but we sometimes forget that when we are reaching out, we are simultaneously growing inwardly. (And, yes, it is also simultaneously an act of worship – but the permeating nature of worship is not  the point of this post)

Alpha courses (and I’m taking this example because it’s the only one I roughly know of) have “facilitators”. Outreach events have speakers. And in the relationship between them and the seekers/recipients of the free beverage/food/whatever else, is akin to a teacher-student relationship. And as such, it leads to expectations that the teacher “knows it all”. In such events, the role of the “Christian” is to state and to answer, whilst the role of the NYC is limited to listening and asking questions which will find a rebuttal. Ironically, in such situations, the Christian is the one who is quick to speak and slow to listen.

All this leads to three undesirable effects:

1. It forces the creation of three rather artificial categories of people: the NYCs, the Christians, and the Christian leaders – i.e., those who have reached enough enlightenment to talk about their faith with others.

2. It discourages the less confident from participating in outreach activities. And when they do participate (out of a sense of oughtness, more likely than not) they put on a persona – because they are forcing themselves not only to do outreach, but also to be the type of people who do outreach: confident and knowledgeable.

3. It gives off the image of people who are sure of their entire worldview. Of course, being firm in the hope that is set before us – the hope of redemption and salvation – is great, and I’m sure it is the case for most, if not all, who get involved in any form of outreach. But do we have the same confidence in, say, the End Times? Hell? Predestination? Creation? Why the Psalmist is sometimes angry with God? The necessity of attending church? I know I don’t. Don’t get me wrong – I do have a bit of an idea about how to answer these questions; but I’m nowhere near as sure of them as I am of salvation.

Of course, it’s not deceitful to be ready to answer questions with our opinions on such matters. After all, we hold the views that we outline in our answers. But from the NYC’s perspective, it can be very off-putting: they are at a place where they are ready to re-evaluate their worldview. That is to say, their current metaphysical stance is shaky at best. And all we offer them, in appearance, is a pre-fabricated, solid, indigestible worldview. That can be appealing to some (although I believe it is a twisted perception, and it can be damaging to approach Christianity with such expectations); but, crucially, it can be threatening to others, and off-putting to many. Threatening, because it cannot possibly coexist, or draw on, the current worldview the NYC hasn’t quite brought himself to shed; off-putting, because how are people who have a fragile worldview meant to identify with people with an apparently solid one?

Evangelism is weird because, when I try to help people understand and embrace Christianity – and therefore me as a Christian – I pretend to be more confident of  my answers than I am. Evangelism is weird because when I should be celebrating the Truth, I bring other statements to the same level. Evangelism is weird especially when it fails to truly listen.

11 ways a hitch-hiking journey is like your faith journey

no comments

Two of my friends are about to do a sponsored hitch-hike, raising money for a charity supporting research against cancer (you can sponsor them!). A hitch-hiking journey is, in many ways, similar to a faith journey:


Photo: Petr Ivanov, re-used under CC License

1. When you’re hitch-hiking, you’re basically surrendering your journey to strangers. In most cases, you know the ultimate destination and know you’re going to get there (although that’s not the case for my friends), but have no idea what detours you might take, or how long it will take you. Much the same is true for your journey of faith: you can look to the final destination, but how it will come about is very much a mystery.

2. There is one major reference book to help you hitch-hiking. And in large friendly letters, that book has, on its cover: “Don’t Panic.”

3. Sometimes, you get stuck. For ages. And that’s discomforting, discouraging, and you can’t look beyond the present stage. But there will usually be a car that comes along. Patience is a great virtue, and one that is necessary in a journey of faith.

4. You need others. Without cars driving along the motorways, any hitch-hiking attempt would be doomed to failure. Crucially, then: you need people who are essentially different from you. Motorists are far more helpful than other hitch-hikers to go from A to B. People with experience and the theological know-how can get you quite a way down the road.

5. You need friends. People like you. Their advice as people who have hitch-hiked in the past is extremely valuable: laminate some card so you can change the destination/direction. Avoid roundabouts. Try service stations along the motorway. Travel in pairs – for your own safety. But the only people you will understand are people whom you know to have been in similar situations as you. Surrounding yourself with wiser people, or simply reading Hooker, Calvin, Augustine or Piper – useful though it may be, will not usually provide you with information you can relate to. It is not sufficient.

6. Some places are better to get lifts than others. But these places are not necessarily the most sheltered ones. When I was hitch-hiking in Wales, it was so windy that an elderly couple took us in – they wouldn’t usually pick up hitch-hikers, but they took pity on us while we were standing in the rain. It is a useful skill to have to be able to work out where those spots are, and to seek them out. They’re not the same for everyone, and they change according to circumstances, so it’s not easy – but it is the one way to move forward.

7. Sometimes, you just have to walk. When I hitch-hiked to Ireland, we got stuck in a little town with barely any cars passing by (that’s the  Welsh border for you), so we had to walk for quite a while to keep progressing. You can’t always expect to have a spiritual IV – there will be times when you will have to feed yourself. For those times, it is good to have a personal discipline of prayer, Bible reading, etc.

8. It is likely to look weird to the outsider. When we got stuck in that little town, a local reporter decided our appearance was weird enough to warrant interviewing us. I don’t think we made it to that local paper – but the fact remains that we looked out of the ordinary. The same should be the case for all Christians: not because standing out is good in  itself, but because it is a by-product of our innermost identity, which is different from what people are used to.

9. You don’t get to choose the ride. A Mercedes going at 120mph, a minivan with no seats in the back, a lorry,  or a friendly couple in an affordable car – I’ve experienced all of them. Of course, you can (and should, sometimes!) always ask to be dropped off, but you cannot demand to hitch-hike in a Jaguar. No church will be perfect, and trying to find exactly the church you’re used to, or looking for, is simply going to leave you stranded.

10. While you can get prepared before you start hitch-hiking (signs, phone chargers, etc.), all you really need is your thumb and willingness. The same goes for embarking on a journey of faith: you can put it off for ages, just getting ready or trying to; but you can always jump in.

11. Tea will get you through the day. And it needs to be shared: motorists and hitch-hikers alike need it. Advice to hitch-hikers: bring a flask.

Second-guessing: the death of conversation

no comments

A blog post has been doing the rounds on the Internet recently. It describes the experience of someone who was the target of healing prayer. It’s a thought-provoking article, especially for  those of us who have been involved in outreach events. The question it raises for us hinges on this consideration:

Are the people we’re talking to/praying for/offering hot chocolate to seen primarily as potential converts, apologetics/prayer practice, or primarily as the individuals they are?

Just as importantly, is that how we are perceived? I remember going out to give ice lollies to people on campus one summer, with people from a local church. One person, wondering about our motives, first asked if they were laced with Rohypnol, and then jumped to the conclusion we were Christians, out to convert them.


Photo: Pava, reused under CC License

Second-guessing other people’s purposes. We do that all the time. School workers in France were recently asked to reflect on the shape education should take. Some took the view that this consultation was carried out in order for the government to look like it was listening, but that all decisions had already been taken; and that they would take any admission of failure as an excuse to give less funding.

Just so with the author of the blog post. She second-guessed the intentions behind the healing-prayer offer. She might have been right, but it could also be that the gentleman was moved by a genuine desire to see her healed. It could also be that he had a desire to get to know her, and to welcome her into the local church family, which he did by not tiptoeing around an obvious issue. The thing is, we cannot know; and the author of the blog post cannot know. Because in second-guessing the purpose of the conversation, in her head, that conversation could only end in one way: there was no room for genuine listening and for genuine conversation.

The same goes for every single time we second guess other people’s motives. If you see a stall of Christians with hot chocolate and assume they’re just there to shove the Gospel in your face and not interested in you as a person, then you’re not going to be able to listen to them OR to talk to them. If you assume that the government is out to justify cost-cutting measures, you’re going to make sure that you give them nothing – and conversely, they’re going to stop listening. Communication breaks down.

In communication, there are two main responsibilities: talking honestly (i.e., not hiding your motives) and listening genuinely. The latter involves trying, as much as possible, not to second guess what the other is trying to achieve.

A life lost for a life gained

no comments

Some passages in the Bible are downright obscure. Some others are understood readily enough, but stop making sense when you start poking them around. But generally, that poking around is worth it because those verses point to deeper truths relevant to larger swathes of our identity. In Luke 17, we find such a passage:

Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

Luke 17:33 (NIV)


Photo: Pepsiline, under CC License

Once you’ve got your head around the apparent contradiction that keeping implies not keeping and conversely, it seems easy enough – especially in the context of the story of Lot: it is impossible to hold on to our earthly selves, we do not have the strength to do so ourselves, etc.

All this is true, but it only covers the first part of that verse. If we try to keep our life, we will lose it, probably by chasing after too many idols. But what about the second part?

Whoever  loses their life will preserve it.

The easy answer is to say that in dying to our old selves, we are new creations and gain eternal life. This spiritual death and rebirth, surely, is what Jesus is talking about. It is true that we are new creations, dead to our previous selves. But here, Jesus makes a bolder claim. He doesn’t say that “Whoever loses their life will have eternal life” or that “Whoever loses their life will gain a new life”, he says that the same life that we had will remain ours.

How can that be so? How can we be new creations and preserve our life? The  story told earlier in the chapter illustrates this. Jesus is at the border between Samaria and Galilee and sees ten lepers – that’s the only way in which they are described. Leprosy is uncleanness; sinfulness even. Then Jesus heals them, and only one of them comes back and we hear at that stage only that he was a Samaritan.

Rid of the uncleanness, rid of the sinfulness, the Samaritan’s true identity can live and breathe. The other ones who did not come back to thank Jesus are probably considered simply ex-lepers, seen as what they are not. Their identity is defined by their sin, albeit negatively.

Let us grasp this: the new creation that we become when we stop trying to grasp our identity is the continuity of our identity. Rid of the uncleanness, but still deeply and fundamentally us. The difference between Greek and Jew, or between any other identities we had before turning to Christ, is worth nothing because we are in Christ: we have lost our drive to grasp it; but those identities are still part of us. Only sin is gone.

This means that the new creations that we are should not discard or reject the old selves, because they are part of who we are. On the contrary, we should accept them as part of our identities, rejecting only the leprosy. Born again, yes, but the new  life is in the continuity of the old life.