Saturday, 24 March 2007

Trying to Make sense of things

The difficult thing for all of us is to make sense of this thing called life. M Scott Peck in 'The road less travelled' has the best first words of a book I know ' Life is difficult.' He then goes on to say that most of the problems any of us ever face are caused by the false expectation that life is meant to be easy. It just isn't, is it? It doesn't work out like we hoped, people we love die for no reason, relationships break down, marriage goes wrong, kids fall into trouble. I could go on. The way most of us now respond is to shield ourselves as best we can from pain and difficulty with financial security, private medical plans, gym memberships, exotic escapist holidays and sporadic doses of retail therapy. That of course assumes we are fortunate enough to be able to afford such a self-indulgence.

We are flung into this world which is a seeming lottery- some rich , some poor, some with every opportunity, some with none; some confident , bold and beautiful; some shy, unsure and in pain. It all appears to be a complete mess but something deep inside us tells us that it wasn't meant to be this way. You see right back when time began, we were made for a reason and however hard we try to run away, there is the tiniest remnant of that reason calling us back. Most of us can vaguely remember a story that begins with the words 'In the beginning, God ......' If we will stop, just for a moment, we can all hear a still small voice calling us with sounds of hope and a future, with a plan for something more than the things we see.

We are right to acknowledge the mess. Simply looking at Britain today tells us there is something wrong. The 3rd highest divorce rate in the EU, the highest rate of teenage pregnancy, the highest rate of teenage crime, the biggest drug problem and the longest working hours. The Face in 2002 made this observation

' If identity crisis is a form of madness, then Young Britain 2002 is a schizoid manic depressive with a bombsite self-esteem. Our status as the most boozed up, drug-skewed, pregnancy prone wasters in Europe is pretty much unchallenged'

Another quote I found interesting recently was this:

' We enjoy a thousand material advantages over any previous generation, and yet we suffer a depth of insecurity and spiritual doubt they never knew'

And do you know who said that? Tony Blair. He's the man who most people were hoping was going to make this chaotic nation a better place to be. 'Things can only get better' he said. Been to a housing estate in West London or an A&E on a Saturday night? If politics is your saviour, I wouldn't be holding your breath for dramatic change because Tony knew and David Cameron now also knows that he can't solve the real problem. You see the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart. Facing our hearts and finding out how to renovate them is really the purpose of life. The question for all of us is how?

Lots of people don't believe in much more that the things you can see and feel and rely on their wits, industry and experience to get through life. They are the children of the tolerance generation whose mantra is ' whatever works for you is fine as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else'. It is shocking that someone might claim to have the truth. As it turns out, there is truth, it's just that the truth is that there is no truth, but that in itself is a truth, isn't it? The dogmas of parents have been rejected, so have supposedly repressive religious schooling and the nation has moved on from the seeming irrelevance of a row full of singing old ladies on Songs of Praise and set out on their journey alone. GK Chesterton perceptively observed of this world view 'The problem with people who no longer believe is not that they believe in nothing, but that they believe in anything'

There are so many extremely capable, successful and driven people. Far more capable, driven and successful than I. Some however are the opposite, and feel incapable, lonely and confused. What I have found is that whilst the external things look like answers, when we ask the simplest and most important questions, most people of my generation have no concrete answer. Of course, we give one and try as best we can to justify why we think what we think, but really the argument is often pretty uncompelling and unsubstantiated. In truth, most of us make it up as best we can from a mish-mash of stuff, the sum of which doesn't mean much to us, let alone anyone else. And heaven help us if we had to explain it to our children. Often, when granny dies, even the most ardent atheist will still say she's gone to heaven. It just somehow seems more hopeful even if we don't believe it. Funny isn't it.

Here are three questions we all at some point or other have to grapple with and face.

1) Who am I?

This is a question of your identity. When all is stripped away, who are you? You see, we so often define ourselves not by who we are but by what we do or in relation to someone or something else. It's our first question at a party 'what do you do?' I'm a manager in purchasing, I'm on the board, I'm a mother, I'm Derek's girlfriend, I'm Jennifer's father, I'm coach of the under 11 football team. All true, yes, but when you take that away and the shell we put up around us, do we know who we really are? Fine if you are someone who does something cool, sophisticated and interesting because that makes you all those things. It's just a shame for the person who screws wheels on a Ford Fiesta in the Dagenham car plant. Who are they?

2) Why am I here?

This is a question of purpose. The busyness of life very rarely leaves us time to answer this question. You see many are here 'to do' and because we get our identity from what we do we are back to the problem of question one. I sort of think that if I can just get more stuff, a slightly bigger house or just a bit more security then I'll be OK. For the ambitious , you might think if you can just get to the top of the ladder then somehow in the process you find out why you are here. What sometimes happens to those who get to the top of the ladder is they find out that it was actually leaning against the wrong wall. I genuinely have no idea if you are more likely to be able to more confidently answer these questions if you are on the board of a blue chip company or a partner of a law firm than if you are on the reception. Maybe we are just here to provide an annual dividend for sharholder we will never meet, who has a stock and share portfolio on Wall Street or the square mile? Often, the reality is we keep ourselves busy because we are scared we don't have an answer to why we're here. As CS Lewis acutely put it ' All the devil needs to do is keep us busy.' because, if he does, we may never face the key questions of life. When we realise that we don't really have the answer to life we numb the uncertainty with money, a relationship, sex, an affair, getting smashed, 'having a laugh', success, sport, holidays, focus on kids and family - in fact anything to focus on apart from our lack of meaning.

How has our once great nation ended up staring at 10 semi-clad, foul-mouthed, violent and dysfunctional people in a place called Big Brother? We would like to think that we don't watch it, of course, and that it this is a confined to a channel four studio, but we are slowly waking up to the people we have become and the society we have created and I don't think deep down it makes us very proud. There must be more to it all?

3) Where am I going?

This is a question of destiny. When I finally turn up my toes, what actually happens? Of course, now that isn't important if I am successful, popular, young, employed, in love and concentrating on the things at hand. Anyway, I've got things to do, you say, kids to worry about, a pension to fill up, a mortgage to pay and fun to have. And I always told myself that when I retire things are going to be different. When I get just a bit more money I'll go on do that thing I really want to do but in the meantime I'll stay here.

But what's it all for and what happens afterwards? Do I really know or, at very least, will I give myself the space and time to try and find out? I just need to think of that person I used to sit next to who worked in my company for 32 years and now I can't remember their name, let alone what on earth it was they actually did?

Asking questions.

These are the three most important things we all have to find answers to. They are the three building blocks on which we can make sense of our lives if only we can find true answers to them. Now, I am not saying that everyone is not asking a question and, in lots if ways, everyone is desperately searching for some sort of meaning. We are incredibly hungry for something bigger than us and because most have rejected God we look to ourselves or others for some solution. We are the kings of self-help spirituality. Any bookshop or daily newspaper is filled with guides in the 10 steps to love, success and fulfilment. A life that is 'going to be' if only I won the lottery and had the lifestyle and looks of a celebrity in OK magazine. Maybe, just maybe, Paul McKenna might be able to hypnotise me or Mystic Meg will be able to give me a voice from the stars that will solve all my problems. We yearn for a quick fix. Sadly, as some of you may have found out, they don't work, do they? They make the people who write them richer and more self-satisfied and leave us in the same soup we were in before we bought their stupid book. And do you know why they don't work? It is because they all rely on us to do it and we all deep down know that we're not up to the job. We all in one area or other fall short of our best intentions and land back down with a bump, still scratching our heads and wondering what it is all about.

So how do we find an answer?

So what is the answer ? All I can say is the answer is not my own and it would be presumptuous of me to think that. The answer to all three questions is found in not one thing, but in one person. It really is a three in one solution- the three answers in one person. And that person is Jesus Christ. Please don't stop reading, and anyway if you are have read this far you are pretty hungry for an answer.

Here's what it's all about. Rick Warren in his book ' A Purpose Driven Life ' has an excellent first line. 'It's not about you'. Your life is not about you and as long as you think it is about you will not find purpose. The greatest commandment is to love God and he longs for our attention, our worship and our focus as our creator and the person who gave us our being. I know you might feel offended but the reality is it is actually all about God and about other people. It is about him and what he has already done for you and for me. Whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, the most extraordinary life ever lived was in fact lived for you and for me and wild as it may seem that man was God. ' If you have seen me you have seen the Father' You see whether we believe it or not, whether we ignore it or do something about, it doesn't make it less true. If He wanted to give us yet another self-help book then He would have given us the Sermon on the Mount ( Matt 5-7) and then left us to get on with it.

But who was he and why should I put my trust in Him? Frederick Buechner puts it better than anyone I know:

" Reasons for drawing the line somewhere:

1. He wasn't a king, a priest or a prophet. He was a nobody from nowhere. He spoke with an accent.

2. On the one hand, his attitude toward the Law was cavalier to say the least. He said that it wasn't what went into your mouth that mattered but what came out of it, thus setting back the kosher industry about a thousand years ( Matt 15:11). Also some of his best friends were whores and crooks.

3. On the other hand, he not only went further than Moses, but claimed his own to be the higher authority. Moses was against murder. Jesus was against vindictive anger. Moses was against adultery. Jesus was against recreational sex. Moses said love your neighbour. Jesus said love your enemy too. Moses said be good. Jesus said be perfect ( Matt 5 21.48)

4. Who did he think he was anyway?

5. Who can be perfect?

6. Who wants to be?

7. He was not only a threat to the established church but to the Establishment itself. Jewish orthodoxy and the Pax Romana were both in danger. He could easily have become Fidel Castro.

8. His fans attributed a great many miracles to him up to and including bringing a corpse back to life, but there was one miracle he couldn't pull off, and that was saving his own skin. He died just as dead on the cross as all the others who died on it, and some held out a lot longer.

9. His fans continue to ascribe a great many miracles to him up to and including his own resurrection, but the world was in just about as bad a shape since his time as before, maybe worse.

As far as I know there is only one good reason for believing that he was who he said he was. One of the crooks he was strung up with put it this way: If you are the Christ, save yourself and us" ( Luke 23.39). Save us from whatever we need to be saved from. Save us from each other. Save us from ourselves. Save us from death beyond the grave and before.

If he is he can. If he isn't he can't. It may be that the only way in the world to find out is to give him the chance, whatever that involves. It may be just as simple and just as complicated as that."

You see, he was nailed on the cross.

( take some time to think about that for a minute )

A nail was banged with a hammer through a man's wrist and feet so that we might live and as that happened he spoke your name and my name and every name who ever lived so that all those who wanted to would have the hope of eternal life. If you read no other verse in the bible at least read and think about John 3:16. He gave his life for us. The greatest and most momentous act of courage, pain, loss and love in all of history. One moment with the power to change everything. To change you and to change me.

What's the one thing we all deep down crave?

To be accepted and loved for who we are.

You see once all is stripped away, we are just children looking for a safe place to be. Looking for a father in whom we can trust and rely. The cross shouts to the world and to you 'I love you', ' I love you', ' I love you' over and over again, if only we will let it. And he can't do any more to show you he loves you. And then he whispers ' It is finished' and breathes his last and leaves us to choose.

Martin Luther called this 'the great exchange'. Paul wrote this to the church in Corinth:

We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

An opportunity to literally live forever-eternally, to start again and to be forgiven of all your sin. However, it is not only that- Jesus imputes his righteousness to you- won for you by his sacrifice on the cross-FOR YOU. Do you see this? If not, then He has nothing to offer you, but if you do he offers you forgiveness, a clean slate if you want it. A friend of mine who recently became a Christian said " It just sounds too good to be true". But the gospel actually means good news so in some sense she's right. The gospel is Jesus and he is the beginning the middle and the end. It is too good. Certainly too good for you and me given our sin, abundantly more than we deserve and still we ignore it. You'd be mad not to do something about it wouldn't you?

The dreadful alternative

If we don't choose then we have to face the reality of that choice. Hell in many ways is having to live with our own choices, the worst of all to be separated from the living God. It is strange that we all claim meaning and significance in who we are and what we do, unyet say we come from nothing and are going to nothing. At least that is how we act for most of the time. If that is really what you think, then I suppose you have to have the guts to accept some logic if this is true. Jesus said he is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. If the beginning is nothing and the end is nothing then surely the middle must be nothing too. Stands to reason doesn't it? But I have seen too much wonder in those I see and love around me and despite the turmoil, pain and angst mixed in, I get a glimpse into heaven and know in my being that there is more. Most people don't not believe in God, but they do think that he is a congenial nice chap who will let them into heaven when it comes to it. Even if we ignored him. He won't I'm afraid. It would show the most extreme lack of love for me not to tell you that.

The truth is he's been there all the time. Some Christians are very quick to offer a tidy formula to 'sign you up' but I am not sure it quite works like that, at least it didn't for me. It started with a hunger for God that grew over time and was heightened by my sister's conversion. At some points, God gave me a clue he was there. I remember weeping all the way through a service in a tiny church on the Isle of Ghia aged 10 and not understanding why. There were other times when God tried to break through. The real prompter was my sister, aged 25, announcing that she had "Become a Christian". I thought she had gone mad!

I also know now that following Jesus is not easy and to not tell you that would be misleading. He warns us to count the cost, to think things through and to take some time to reflect. It's good to do that. To explore, seek out others, watch and see who this Jesus is and what he might require of you.

The phrase that used to signal social suicide for me was the term 'Born again Christian'. To have that tagged before my name seemed horrifying prospect. But to enter into life you have to be born. It's part of the deal and there's no avoiding it. Noone is in by right or status, as Nicodemus one of the leading religious men in Jesus' time discovered, and if anyone should have been in it was him. His story is told in John 3. Jesus said to him "You 'must' be born again".

This is how I think it works.

We have to choose. For the rich young man his choice was to walk away and we read that he 'went away sad'. For another, a tax collector, his choice to leap out of the tree he was in and invite Jesus to dinner.

Even if you don't do anything else then why not get up one Sunday morning and visit your local church. Most people find it isn't nearly as bad as they think it's going to be. Try a few and find one you like. That's what I did.

Here's something else you might also like to do:

If you can free up 2 or 3 hrs over a weekend or while on holiday that would be ideal.
Go somewhere where you can be alone, perhaps somewhere you find particularly peaceful or beautiful. Get away from the telly, the kids, laptops, email and your mobile phone and the stress of life. Be radical and just sit alone and in silence.

Reflect on your life and the three questions I mentioned.

Who am I? Why am I here? and Where am I going?

Be honest with yourself and with God. If you don't feel too mad, speak out loud the things you have on your heart. Your fears, your hopes and desires, the place you find yourself in. He's listening. You might not know who you are or have any idea why your here and have not given a thought to what happens when you die. That's OK.

You might also like to read the gospels of John or Mark in the bible(, choose a modern translation, The message ( MSG) is the most contemporary and is excellent or the NIV). Most people who don't believe in Jesus have never taken the trouble to find out who it is they are not believing in. What I hope you will find as you read the story is that you meet a person. The person of Jesus Christ.

The verse that called to my heart in that church I started taking myself to was this one- so I pass it on to you:

'I stand at the door and knock, He who opens the door I will come in and eat with him and he with me' Rev 3.20

If Jesus is who he said he is and did rise from the dead then he is alive, and He sent the Holy spirit so that we could know him for ourselves.

Here's a prayer if you ever need it.

" Jesus, I am really sorry I have ignored you. Perhaps I have never stopped for long enough to realise that you were there. I am sorry and realise there are some things that I need to admit and be honest about.

(We all arrive in front of Jesus in a bit of a mess!)

List or speak out any regrets and things you have on your heart and just say sorry and be real and honest. Say it as it is. These might be things that even the closest people to you don't know about. If you find it hard to think of anything, I always give people the analogy of sitting in a cinema and everyone you have ever met watching the uncensored version of every thought and every act you ever did. At the end of the film, if you've had my life, you have something to say sorry about. Say sorry to God

(the bible's word for this is repentance).

Thank you for accepting me and loving me for exactly who I am and for paying the price for my self-centredness with your blood on the cross. I want a fresh start so I now give you my life and say I want to follow you.

(the bible simply says believe)

Thank you for your unconditional love and forgiveness. I now receive you Holy Spirit and ask to know you and for you to set me free. Amen"

If you have prayed this prayer you have in one moment answered the three questions. You are a child of God, that is now your identity, you are here to be a follower of Jesus ( that simply means learning how to follow him and finding other followers too) and you are assured of heaven and an eternity with God ( Romans 8:1). That's where you're now going. Truly 'amazing grace', as the great hymn says.

You now have an adventure to live in relationship with God. It is a long and amazing road, at times, and often, very hard. The journey is about finishing and not just starting, but it is worth it, so persevere and always keep going. You have to live it with others which is why I give the advice below. You can't do it on your own.

If you ever pray this prayer, please tell me if you would like to. I would love to encourage you and pray for you.

Things to do next:

1) Tell someone

2) Buy a bible ( NIV is a good modern translation)

3) Find a good local church you like.

4) I recommend ' A purpose driven life' by Rick Warren as an excellent first book. 40 days of readings to explain things in more detail.

5) Think about doing an introduction to faith course to learn with others and sort through lots of questions you will no doubt have. ( Alpha is an excellent 10 week introduction but there are others)

If you have found this helpful or you know someone who could do with some good news please show them this. UK

Additional reading:

The Reason for God by Tim Keller
The Prodigal God by Tim Keller
Rumours of another world Philip Yancey
What's so amazing about Grace Yancey
Questions of Life Nicky Gumbel
The Cross and the Switchblade David Wilkerson
Searching issues Nicky Gumbel
Mere Christianity CS Lewis
Basic Christianity John Stott