Chapter Eight of 'The Wild Gospel'
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
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When I was little my friends and I would play the game of asking one another, 'if you had one wish, what would it be?' My answer was always the same: 'to be happy'. I had little idea of what that happiness would actually look like in practice as I grew older, but I knew that it was what I wanted. My friends were more pragmatic; they would name specific things that they thought would make them happy. But one way or another, it was a desire we all shared; there is within the human being an innate desire for happiness. It is a subject which has occupied philosophers from the earliest times - already by the fifth century Augustine could remark that ancient wisdom offered no fewer than 288 different opinions on the nature of human happiness. The influential 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas suggested that this innate desire for happiness has to come from somewhere beyond the individual, and that the only place it can come from is God, who is himself happiness. Aquinas concluded that true human happiness is to be found by following this desire back to its source: human beings can be happy only in relationship with God.
Every society is held together by a web of assumptions about human life and how best to live it. Some of these assumptions recur from one culture to another: in Jesus' time as in ours many people were seeking fulfilment through work, money and sex. Others are peculiar to a particular culture; we have suggested that in the modern period it was thought that technological, political and economic progress would solve the human dilemma, whereas a postmodern generation seeks to slake its thirst by drinking from the cracked cisterns of consumerism and sense experience. What all these approaches have in common, both with one another and with those of the 288 ancient philosophers, is that ultimately they do not work. Now, as then, our whole society is sustained and defined by a web of false assumptions about how to be happy; and we are like flies stuck fast to its almost invisible threads, waiting for the inevitable approach of the spider.
Recovering the truth
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6
Two thousand years ago Jesus marched into a particular culture, announcing that he had come to bring good news. The good news was that God had taken action, and that the consequence would be release for those in prison, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Since then societies and cultures have come and gone, and the assumptions by which people direct their lives have been endlessly reformulated. But the human condition remains the same: still we are like flies caught on the sticky threads of an invisible web, trapped by the deathliness of our own world view. Jesus did not come to fiddle with the web or console those stuck on its threads; he came to shout at the top of his voice that the spider's power was now broken - that we would know the truth, and that the truth would set us free.
The problem with freedom is that it is very hard to get hold of. Freedom to choose between brands of baked beans or makes of car or different hairstyles is a safe kind of freedom, to be exercised within the parameters of the known; but the freedom Jesus offers is not of this kind. Jesus offers to take us beyond the boundaries of the known, to turn us from caterpillars to butterflies and transport us from the predictability of our own back garden to the limitless landscapes of an undiscovered continent. This sort of freedom comes not as an event but as a journey, an open door into a new world, a process of discovery which takes us from here to God and from time to eternity. Such freedom cannot be described but only experienced, because it is as different as each person is different. To claim it often hurts; spider's silk is the strongest substance in the natural world, and our entangled wings are fragile and easily damaged. But for those who have the courage to prise themselves free, happiness - defined in Aquinas' terms as relationship with God - becomes a true possibility.
We live in a world which cries out for freedom. Often in the church we fail to offer it, perhaps because we have failed to embrace it ourselves: in our anxiety to find simple ways of expressing the gospel we have reduced it from dream to formula, and at local level the Christian faith often comes across as little more than an institutionally backed and culturally bound belief system, a packaged way of spending a Sunday morning, or of caring for the less privileged, or being respectable. In the context of a postmodern society which no longer has a biblical world view, many of our human attempts to live out the gospel have the effect of trivialising it by turning what began as a revolutionary message of freedom into a set of things that we say or do. We won't get the gospel to do what Jesus got it to do unless we are willing to realise that it is not so much a package from the Post Office as an octopus in a string bag - a thing both unpredictable and ultimately uncontainable.
If we are to do this we must be clear in our understanding of the truth, what it is and what it does. If a church is to retain its grasp of a truth which can set people free, it needs theologians who are able to avoid becoming entangled in the assumptions of the culture. Increasingly we have them, but for many years we did not. During the last century most theologians adopted the rationalist values of modernism and, in their anxiety for recognition as practitioners of a proper academic discipline, concentrated on the production of dry and detailed research papers instead of acting as resources for the spiritual life and mission of the churches. As physicists split atoms in Swiss research laboratories, so theologians dissected the engine of the Bible, reducing it to its component parts, reassembling it according to the criteria of the culture, and then expressing surprise and sorrow when it no longer seemed to work. Some, like good scientists, sought to explain and defend the Christian faith in rational terms, dismissing those elements which did not seem to lend themselves to such explanations. Others, more in tune with the deconstructionist approaches of philosophical and literary fashion, embraced the postmodern dissatisfaction with the rationalistic straitjacketing of truth and accepted the view that there is no such thing as truth; truth is an open and inclusive thing, to be personally defined and individually appropriated. Others, staunch in their defence of tradition, have responded in turn with a brandishing of the scriptural rulebook and and calls for a return to disciplined orthodoxy. The result is chaos. Bubbles rise shimmering into the air, and the incarnate reality of Christ in our midst is ignored. Truth was not meant to be dissected; it was meant to be lived.
The power of the truth
For human beings, truth is most readily accessed through relationships. If truth is meant to be lived we will find it most powerfully, as did the individuals of the New Testament, in the context of an encounter with a person, or group of people, in whom it lives already. Truth is not merely factual, as modernism believed - although it does have a factual dimension. Truth is personal. Truth is the reality of God himself. And that is why when he wished to make that reality accessible to human beings, he did it through a relationship. He sent his Son.
And yet truth also has to come in words, for only in words can it penetrate into our minds and take root within us. And so we say that Jesus is the Word of God, because Jesus came not just to be the truth, but to communicate it, in word and deed. For this I came into the world: to testify to the truth, Jesus declared to Pilate. What is truth?, Pilate wondered, without apparently waiting for an answer. Your word is truth, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.
And yet truth, in God's economy, is much bigger and more powerful than just words as we commonly think of them. It is easy for us, the heirs of modernism, to trivialise truth, to reduce it to information carried in black and white marks on a page. But truth is infinitely more than information. When John began his gospel with the phrase in the beginning was the Word, he did not mean, as we might, that Jesus came to explain something. As I have tried over the years to unpack that phrase, I have found myself following a tantalising trail which my limited mind can only fleetingly grasp. Perhaps I would have given up; but for the fact that as I too have tried to 'rightly explain the word of truth' I have seen that truth burst into people's lives with a transforming power which is quite astonishing. For Jesus came to offer freedom, not comfort; and transformation, not good advice. In receiving and offering truth we are wielding the power which made the universe itself. In the beginning was the Word, and the word was a Verb - a doing word. It isn't just that truth is; truth does something.
Where do we find the truth?
You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down, and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature. Mahatma Ghandi.
Truth comes in words, and the first place we meet the words of God is in the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, written down - that is what 'scripture' means. The word of God is the means by which God communicates himself to us, and the Bible is the vehicle of that communication. From the time of his first giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, God has communicated with his people through the written word. And yet the words themselves are not the Word; rather they contain it, as a womb contains a baby. This is why the Pharisees got such short shrift from Jesus in their blinkered human attempt to take the words of scripture and turn them into a code of behaviour; and it is why we follow unwittingly in their footsteps if we once allow ourselves to treat the Bible as a collection of rules and instructions, to be embraced or overlooked, depending on how well they fit with the assumptions of our world view. The Bible is not just a document, but a gateway into spiritual reality. Its words are breathed by God himself, through writers moved by the Holy Spirit, and they offer us not principles or information but a life-changing relationship with the Creator of the universe. As we move from the modern search for rational understanding to the postmodern search for meaningful experience, we have a new opportunity to tear open this long and multiformed letter from God, to let it interact with us at an emotional as well as at an intellectual level, and to accept the transformation that he offers us through it - for the odd thing is that the very words themselves have the power to cut through our desires and thoughts and penetrate beyond our minds to the vulnerable place where soul and spirit meet.
And yet that is not the whole story. The real womb was of course not the Bible but Mary, and the baby was not text but Christ: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us. If the Bible is the word of God written, Jesus is the word of God made living. Jesus was the human expression of God, God getting down to our level and communicating himself to us in person. This does not contradict our understanding of the Bible as the word of God, for language is not just a set of audible labels which attach themselves to meanings and become indissoluble from them, in a kind of one-on-one relationship between the word and the thing it signifies, but rather a flexible, moving vehicle which serves to carry concepts much bigger than itself. I like to think about the relationship between the word written and the word living by imagining that I have received through the post a photograph of a person I am due to meet at the station. The photograph is not the person, but it is the image of the person, and reflects and expresses who they are. The Bible is like the photograph; it is stamped with the likeness of Christ. And so it is that we may say that the Bible is the word of God, and at the same time that Jesus is the word of God. Both express who God is.
It follows that the word of God is not just an intellectual, rational thing. We may wish to reduce the written word of God to information, to study it to understand him, and to live by it to please him. But we can't do that with the living word. You can't study a living word, you can only let it communicate with you. God's primary intention is not that we should understand him, but that we should know him. If you know me, you will know my Father also, Jesus said; the Word of God is a person.
If the word of God is a communication from God, it must communicate something in particular. And this is the third way in which we may understand the word: it comes as a message, a statement of fact, a piece of news. The word is the good news that was announced to you, Peter wrote to the Christians in Asia. To offer a paraphrase, the good news, as Peter might have expressed it, is this: 'God exists, he loves you, and he wants a relationship with you. The whole of scripture tells you that. God has been writing to you for centuries - letters of love, letters of complaint, letters of guidance, letters of warning. Now God has sent his Son to speak to you. You rejected him and put him to death. But he has been raised from the dead, and he is alive. Still he hasn't given up. He has sent his Holy Spirit to help you to talk to him. Instead of writing his words on tablets of stone, God will now write them on your hearts, and you will know him.' The word of God is in that announcement also.
What does the truth do?
But the trail does not end there. The truth is expressed in the word of God written, the word of God made living, and in the good news that we may be reconciled to God. But what difference does it make? If it is the case that the word does something, what is it that it does?
The simple answer Jesus gave is that it grows. The word of God does not come to us as human words do, as a letter or a newspaper article or a text message. It comes as a seed, sown by a farmer, looking for fertile soil in which to put down roots and bear fruit. The word of God is within us. This is what God said to Moses:
It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. Deuteronomy 30:12-14
James called the gospel the implanted word; John said the truth lives in us. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church that he was thankful that when they received the word of God from him they accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is now at work in them. The word of God is not a product but an encounter, not a mailshot but a seed, not information but the nucleus of life itself. And as it grows inside us, it changes us by the generative power of the Holy Spirit, the 'Spirit of truth' as Jesus calls him - the one who breathed the written word, implanted the living word, and now dwells in each believer. As the word grows within us, it bears fruit in our hearts - the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It brings renewal to our minds, and healing to our bodies. The life of the Christian in whom the word is implanted takes on a new meaning, because he or she is rooted in the principle of the cosmos, Jesus Christ the living word of God. Like the growth of the seed, this is a gradual process. And so the Christian life is best understood as a journey. When we receive the word of God, it is not that a destination has been reached but that a journey has begun, a journey which will be undertaken not alone but in relationship with the Holy Spirit. It is a relationship in which there will be many words, and all those words will change us; for all of us are being transformed into the image of Christ. Quite how this works is deeply mysterious, as Paul himself acknowledged when he said that his task was to make the word of God fully known, the mystery of Christ within us. But it is clear that when we receive the truth, we receive life itself; and when we receive life, we grow.
You have heard of this hope ... in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. Colossians 1:5-6
Living the truth
We began this book with the image of a pebble falling with a plop into the centre of a pond. This we likened to the way the truth first impinges on our minds. For some it occurs before the time of conscious memory; my children have no recollection of any event they could properly regard as the beginning of their relationship with God. For others it occurs at a specific moment in time which can be dated quite precisely. But whether we can fix the moment of impact or not makes very little difference: it is the subsequent spread of the ripples over the surface of our lives which matters, for this is the process by which we grow into the likeness of Christ, allowing ourselves to be conformed to his image, to develop in the unity of our faith and our knowledge of him, and to come to maturity as the people we were created to be.
What does this look like in practice? Both for me and for those who have allowed me the privilege of sharing in their own journeys, it means that truth has come in successive and ever deeper waves. My initial encounter with the truth came one Saturday afternoon in Cambridge, twenty years ago. As I unpacked a suitcase and read some words I found there, I suddenly knew a whole world was about to end. I gave in to the God I knew existed, acknowledged the futility of trying to hang on to the illusion that I could control my own destiny, and found myself on my knees. As I spoke the inaudible words in which I, Alison Keymer, student, finally gave permission to God, author of the universe, to take control of my life, the earth rumbled and the voice of the God whom for so long I had denied resounded in my head, telling me in words that pulsed with shapeless power what that would mean. I rose rather shaken to my feet, and looked out of the window to see if the world had felt the tremors of the earthquake which had just rearranged my inner being. For a moment I watched the buses passing by as before, the summer flowers painted in the green grass of the park opposite, the people going about their business as they always did. But somehow it all looked different, as if the light had changed. The familiar world was suddenly charged, charged with the grandeur of God, shining like shook foil, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it. Reality was painted with droplets of gold, droplets which are always there, if only we know how to see them; and I remembered what it was to be a child and to know that it was my birthday. I suddenly understood the meaning of the phrase I had always thought ridiculous: this is what Jesus had meant when he said that to enter into the kingdom of God we must be born again.
And yet that moment is not what my Christian life has been all about, any more than my birth as a baby has been what my physical life has been all about. People come to faith in all sorts of different ways, and the very fact that 'sudden' conversions such as mine take place has often encouraged us to see the state of being a Christian as in some sense having arrived, as standing at the end of a process of enquiry. And yet the reverse is true: becoming a Christian is not an arrival but a departure, the beginning of what will turn out to be a long and complex journey through a world which is bigger than the one we see, and which will find its destination in God. To enter into the truth is both a momentary encounter and a lifelong process; and if we ourselves are not fully engaged in that process we will have nothing to share with those amongst whom we live.
You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free John 8:32
And so my journey began. Life is a messy and often painful affair, and changing circumstances bring opportunities for the light of the gospel to shine into freshly exposed areas of darkness. One year after God first spoke to me, I went from life as a single PhD student in Cambridge to that of a vicar's wife with three stepsons in Corby, a midlands town of Scots and steelworkers. There were many good things, not least the friendliness of the people amongst whom we had come to live; but I also began to discover what it means to bite off more than one can chew. Ghostly voices from the past poured themselves into a cocktail of expectation, duty, the raging conflicts of bereaved teenagers and a growing sense of despair. Brandishing my human imperfections in one hand and battering at the bars of the cage which surrounded me with the other, I found that reality no longer sparkled with drops of gold, and that the ivory towers of fulfilment had been replaced by the dock of a litterstrewn mental courtroom. Deprived of my identity and surrounded by the accusing voices of inadequacy, my self-esteem shrank and I wondered at the apparent paradox of a faith which seemed not so much to set me free as to condemn me.
But time passes. The boys grew up and left home for university, our son Edward was born, and we moved from Corby to Leicester. The pain receded. But it proved to be merely the lull after the storm, for soon the clouds were gathering again, and a fresh storm broke over our heads, this time within the church itself. Battered and confused, I found that the new storm merely caused me to start thinking again about the old one. I felt lost, and I began to talk to a friend about it, pouring out my pain and asking why.
Into this scenario, one morning after breakfast, stepped God. In an inner flash I saw myself standing in the dock, fingers of accusation pointed in eloquent silence towards me. Seated on the bench was God himself, magisterial, redgowned and greywigged, listening. The final moment came. Up went the hammer and, in a timeless descent of aeons, struck the bench with a resounding crash. 'Not guilty!' rang the words from the Almighty. And for the second time in my life, reality changed shape. Burdens grew wings and flew away, and I floated through the day knowing at last what it meant that the truth will set you free; that this stuff did actually work, did smash itself into places other than my head and transform them, and that I had been acquitted, despite my shortcomings, by the creator of the universe himself. Life may be painful, and it may be messy; but I was not responsible. I was free, free from the struggle to define myself amongst the definitions of others - because for the first time I had discovered the definition of God.
What is truth? John 18:38
Pilate's question to Jesus is an extraordinarily helpful one to our age. As I have thought about my own life, and as I have talked and prayed with many others, I have concluded that it must be answered on two different levels.
Firstly, truth is something ontological - that is, it applies universally to every member of the human race. It is about the nature of our being, and the meaning of life. As an existentialist this universal truth was hidden from me; I thought I could create my own truth, that truth is relative, and that I could choose a personal truth from a range of options. To make truth relative is perhaps the ultimate refuge from the impossible attempt to understand it, and the sense that 'true' is the same as 'true for me' has become one of the major and most deathly assumptions of postmodernism. But as Christians we are bound to believe that truth is in some sense absolute; that it is fixed and eternal, and that it resides in God. And so the truth as I embraced it when I became a Christian can be clearly stated: it is that Jesus is the Son of God, the creator of the universe; that he cannot be separated from God, being the Word which God spoke and speaks; and that through him and with the help of the Holy Spirit I can be restored to a relationship with God which will endure for ever. That is the gospel, the truth as it applies to the whole human race, and all Christians have accessed truth in this sense.
The problem with ontological truth is that it isn't sufficient. It may, in Jesus' phrase, bring life - but it doesn't bring what he went on to call abundant life. It may, as he promised, set us free - but we don't necessarily feel free. Truth may be universal - but I am an individual, and if it is to mean anything in practice it must be the case that the truth has a personal dimension too. We know that this is so from the many different ways in which Jesus expressed the truth to those to whom he spoke. Truth is like light; it sets off from its source, but it does so in order to flow into particular and specific places of darkness and make them clear. And so I must ask, of myself and of each person to whom I speak, what are the nooks and crannies of my soul into which the truth needs to flow? When God looks at me and my past and my present, what is his perspective? And whatever it is, that is the truth for me individually. I have had life from the day I became a Christian, for from that day I have been in touch with God who is the source of life. But the abundance of my life has increased as I have grasped the implications of the truth for myself as a particular individual with particular experiences and circumstances. I have been free from the day I became a Christian, in that I am no longer subject to the power of death; but I have learnt only gradually to take hold of that freedom and allow it to release me from the web of misbeliefs and malpractices which bind me - to be transformed by the renewal of my mind, as Paul puts it to the Romans. For it takes time for the intellect to eddy about a truth, as the poet Robert Frost would observe two thousand years later.
All Christians have grasped truth in its universal sense - what it is, in eternity. But often they haven't grasped it in its personal sense - what it does, in the here and now. It is easy to say 'the truth will set you free', but not so easy to grasp that that means not from some abstract existential condition, but from the specific things in your life which are causing you not to be free: the values, circumstances, assumptions, experiences and behaviours which separate you from God and cause you pain. It has been estimated that only 15% of Christians learn to embrace truth in this second, personal sense. One of our tasks as ministers of the gospel is to help people grasp the truth as it applies not just to their position as a member of the human race, but as an individual with particular life circumstances and experiences. That was what I discovered that morning in my kitchen.
Receiving the truth as individuals
Life is not a syllogism of theology, a blueprint of morality, or a scheme of therapy, but an odd tale told by people who have stories of concrete transformation, of facing chaos and receiving new life, of laughing deeply at God's joy and God's gift and God's victory, and of daring to mock the chaos that has lost its power. Walter Brueggemann
I have known many people whose lives have been dramatically changed by their Christian faith, not in the external sense of church attendance or the making of new friends, but in the deep inner transformation that has taken place in their souls. I think for example of Rob. Rob had been a timid and broken man dominated by his alcoholic wife and dependent on antidepressants; within twelve months of becoming a Christian Rob had changed so dramatically that he had received four promotions at work. Or Liesl, who spent much of her youth incarcerated in mental hospitals suffering from drug addiction and schizophrenia. On one of her periodic escapes from hospital Liesl was drawn into a church where an old lady gave her a cup of tea and told her God loved her. Within months she had given her life to Christ and been completely healed; she has written a book to tell her story. Or Dave. Rejected by his parents, brought up in children's homes, with a history of drugs, a conviction for grievous bodily harm and a rocky marriage, Dave became a Christian. Over the years Dave too has changed - through prayer, through personal support from other Christians, through his own determination to leave the past behind. He and Liz now have four children who pay tribute to the stability of their family life, and Dave works as a carer in a home for disadvantaged adults. Or Marie. Once an irritable person living in a conflict-ridden family, Marie has found such peace since becoming a Christian on an Alpha course that the atmosphere at home has been transformed. Startled by the suddenness of this, her teenage sons began coming to church and her husband decided to join Alpha himself. One of her sons stood up in front of the whole church recently and explained how he no longer needed to steal things because he too had been changed by Jesus.
For some people the transformation in their lives comes immediately. For others, it is more gradual. It has been my privilege to pray with many people since my own encounter with the truth that day in my kitchen. Often I ask them what they think it means that the truth will set them free. Usually they have no idea. But always it turns out that they are believing something that is not true, a belief not rationally held but implictly accepted, an unexamined assumption which has tied up their soul in a tangled distortion of lies. The truth will set you free, said Jesus; and often I have watched the truth burst into people's minds and hearts in the context of an evening spent in conversation and prayer. Sometimes truth comes as a picture, sometimes as a forgotten memory, sometimes as a new insight or just the flood of an emotional certainty; always it grows as the person welcomes it, absorbs it, and begins to live it - in a way which often demands a conscious effort of some magnitude. I have come to think about this 'prayer ministry', as it is often called, in the light of Hebrews 4:12-13:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.
It is a ministry with a long history. From the earliest times it has been apparent that to enter into a relationship with God is to begin a conversation whose words will gradually help us free ourselves from the things which bind us. The first Christians adopted the practice of public confession of sin as the means of achieving this, but found the task more complex than they had at first anticipated. By the 4th and 5th centuries English and Celtic monks were turning to the first spiritual directors; by the 7th century special penitential books were being written to help the clergy minister freedom and forgiveness to those in their care. By the 12th century these had grown into what were effectively the first training manuals for prayer ministry, probing the individual's circumstances and inner struggles, and helping him find spiritual disciplines and insights which would assist him in his journey. The modern practices of spiritual direction and prayer ministry are developments of this process, understanding sin not as simple contravention of a commandment - although it is that too - but more widely as everything which prevents us from living as who we are in Christ.
And so it is that when we pray with a person we are offer not our own wisdom but insight sought in relationship with the Holy Spirit. Such prayer requires a willingness to bare our souls to God, to allow others to accompany us as we seek the kind of understanding which I received that day in my kitchen - an occasion which came not out of the blue but at the end of a process of prayer and reflection undertaken in the company of others. It means opening ourselves up to the word and the words of God, and being willing to allow him to cut open our souls as thoroughly as any surgeon will ever operate on our bodies. It is an unnerving process, but a rewarding one.
One of the first people I prayed with was Karen. Karen was a happily married mother of two, but struggling with difficult relationships at work. As she shared her story, Karen realised that beneath the undoubted difficulties lay a debilitating and unacknowledged belief from which she had suffered since childhood. Brought up in a loving home, but one where money had been short, all Karen's clothes and toys had been passed down from her elder sister. 'Second best' was a voice that had come to echo through Karen's inner being, sapping her self-esteem and greatly magnifying the pain she experienced in the normal ebb and flow of her work relationships. We prayed, and God spoke to Karen through the words of Isaiah: I have called you by name, you are mine; you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Karen meditated on these words day and night until she knew them by heart. She began to smile in a way she never had before; and her colleagues began to treat her differently.
Recently I prayed with George, a gentle man of great ability and integrity, struggling with the legacy of a critical father who had not known how to affirm him. George had poured out his anguish on paper, expressing his self-doubt, his fears about his sexuality, his despair and confusion about the direction of his life. Unable to answer the simple question, 'what does God think of you?', he allowed us to share with him a picture we received from the scriptures as we prayed of a father running, arms opened wide, to greet his returning son. The next day, alone at home, George was suddenly overwhelmed for the first time in his life with the deep inner knowledge that God was his father and loved him unconditionally.
And there was Sarah, a kind but rather shy person, outwardly successful but struggling inside with the bitter anger she felt towards two people whom she had been unable to forgive. As we prayed, Sarah began to realise forgiveness meant not saying that it didn't matter - it did - but that she could afford to entrust the people concerned to God, for he was on her side, hurting with her, angry on her behalf. A few days later she walked into her stepfather's house, feeling gigantic in stature, with a vision of an angel on the doorstep beside her, and greeted him confidently and peacefully. A while after that she met the woman who had damaged her deeply; instead of awkwardness and anger she felt herself being filled with warmth from the head downwards. Sarah has become conspicuous for the peace which shines through her as she prays in her turn for others.
Ministering the truth to others
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27
Rob, Liesl, Dave, Marie, Karen, George and Sarah are all ordinary people, and yet they all have stories of personal transformation to tell, stories of a personal encounter with a truth which they have met not through explanation but through relationship. None of them would be recognised as leaders in the conventional sense of the word, and yet every single one now has a ministry to others.
There have been many others. The details vary; but always the story is the same. In our city centre church we have hospital consultants, street people, teachers, children, single parents, ex drug addicts, people with criminal records, disabled people, young professionals, students, mentally handicapped people, civic leaders, retired people, business people and, increasingly, asylum seekers. We have people born and bred in Leicester, and we have people from China, Russia, Ethiopia, and Iraq. These people have only one thing in common: their lives are being changed by Christ.
It was from beginnings such as these that the gospel spread through the Roman world. It continues to do so today. Paul explained the gospel to a shy young man called Timothy, urging him to be filled not with the timidity that was his natural inclination, but with the power, love and self-discipline that were his in Christ. Timothy became one of Paul's most effective colleagues, travelling all over the Empire, helping to found and pastor churches and ministering the gospel. Twenty five years ago my husband explained the gospel to a shy young student called John. John responded with enthusiasm, and decided that such was the power of the word of God that he had better make sure it lived within him. Every day John memorised one verse from the Bible. Within months he had become so confident that other students began to seek him out for counsel. He was selected for ordination, and eventually became the vicar of a large international church in Singapore. He went on to spearhead the Anglican attempt to take the gospel into Cambodia, one of only 29 countries in the world where fewer than 1% of the population have embraced the gospel, and where Christians still suffer major persecution.
Another young man who encountered the truth at about the same age is an Argentinian called Hector. By the age of 18 Hector was, in his own words, a drug addicted delinquent, wanted by the police and a disgrace to his family. Shot while committing a crime, he was taken by his brother to a clinic where a nurse read the words of 2 Corinthians 5.17 to him: 'if any man is in Christ he is a new creation', and asked whether he wanted God to change his life. He said he did. They prayed and she left the room. Instantly the bleeding stopped and the craving for drugs left him. Hector, still with two bullets in his body, joined the church and began to work with drug addicts and young people. He became a pastor, and within a year he had a congregation of a thousand. By 1995, after an astonishing story of radio broadcasts and crowded stadium meetings, he had a Sunday congregation of 15,000, a daily ministry to 10,000 people of whom two to three hundred respond to the gospel each day for the first time, and a network of 100 new churches. At that point, aged about 40, he came to England to tell his story. I listened to this man every day for a week; and the most striking thing he said, repeated over and over again throughout his talks, was the single phrase, and the Lord said to me 'Hector'.... His whole life and ministry was sustained by the simple fact that he heard the Word of God.
For many people the truth is received in the context of an individual encounter or relationship. For others, it comes in a group setting. This is the principle of Alpha in the West, but it is also the principle that underpins the ministry developed in Tanzania between the dioceses of Leicester and of Mount Kilimanjaro, where under the auspices of SOMA a team from Holy Trinity has been working in association with bishop Simon Makundi, assistant bishop John Hayden, and diocesan missioner Stanley Hotay. One of the poorest countries in the world, Tanzania is a land whose spiritual hunger is as great as its material poverty, where many respond to the gospel but few have the education or the resources to help them grow in their faith. The pastors and evangelists of the diocese are a committed and dynamic group determined to improve the quality of life, spiritual and material, of their people. Could we help them, Stanley had asked, by writing a culturally appropriate discipleship course which could be taught by one leader, equipped with one Bible, to a group who could not read, which would cover all the basic areas of the Christian faith, and which would be based on the principles of Matthew 28.19 (go and make disciples) and 2 Timothy 2.2 (who can teach others also)? The result is Rooted in Jesus, a two year practical nurture course in Swahili written by a team of clergy, cell leaders and teachers from Holy Trinity, printed by Springboard and offered to the pastors and evangelists of the diocese at a series of training conferences and seminars in the summers of 2002 and 2003.
Rooted in Jesus has now been in use for two years. Some 2000 people belong to 180 groups, most of which are led by the dedicated evangelists, many of whom have little training and some of whom did not previously possess a Bible. The results are remarkable. One pastor reports that his church has been transformed as people increase their commitment to Christ and to one another. Others say that the lives of group members are visibly changing as for the first time they receive and apply the word of God. Some have received healing; hundreds have responded to the gospel for the first time; others have found unexpected answers to prayer. Some of the greatest benefits have been reported by the illiterate members, given access for the first time to the power of the truth as it works within them: the people who are growing the fastest in my group are those who cannot read or write, because they are the ones who have received the memory verses into their hearts. These are people who face hardships we can only imagine. For many, daily life means spending two hours a day digging six foot holes in the dry sand of river beds to find water; for some it means malaria or AIDS; for others it means hungry lions prowling at night, the chants and medicines of witch doctors, the perils and hardship of female circumcision, the consolation of 'local brews', the empty shelves of the local clinic and the remoteness of thousands of square miles with no secondary schools or tarmac roads. 'We want to develop', declared the MP for Kiteto, opening a conference in the southern town of Kibaya. 'You bring us the word of God. We want to receive what you have for us'. And we knew, as together we read, prayed and worshipped God, as people testified to a joy they had never before experienced, received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, found themselves caught up in prayer with a power and fervour which was new both to them and (let's be frank) to us, and as we listened to a promise from God that he will bless his people in this forgotten and neglected place as they continue to open themselves to his word, that develop is exactly what they will do. To hear and embrace the truth is a powerful thing.
Recognising the depth of human need
The reason that it is the truth that makes us free is that it is untruth which causes us not to be free. Often the untruths which bind people are clear and specific, and find their source in a single situation or experience. Others are more insidious, harder to pin down, because they come not from specific traumas but from the pervasive collective voice of a whole society. Every human being is short-sighted, and views reality only through the tinted lenses provided by his culture. We know nothing else; we have no other way of focussing. And so the starting point for effective ministry to the individual is the supposition that he or she is entangled to a greater or lesser extent on the web of false assumptions which govern the world in which we live, whether those be the individualistic assumptions of postmodern England or the tribal traditions of rural Africa. Occasionally we become painfully aware of our own short sight - Ruth's cancer brought me face to face with the fact that the place of success and fulfilment I was heading for was no more than a mirage in the desert, an oasis which I would obediently spend my life moving towards only to find it dissolve into nothing, probably later but maybe sooner. More often we soldier on unaware that we are bound by beliefs we didn't even know we had, pursuing a happiness that seems partially ours and yet never quite within our grasp, and knowing at some level that we have not yet found what we are looking for.
Many people in the West make life work quite well like this, obeying the cultural diktat about where happiness is to be found, until sooner or later something sticks a pin in the bubble and it bursts: a miscarriage, a redundancy, an illness. Others strive for the meaning and fulfilment to be found in the accomplishment of their goals, defeating their stress with dreams. Most settle for living life a day at a time, drowning the inner cry for fulfilment in a wealth of culturally determined distractions. Some succumb to the western disease of depression, the hopelessness of knowing that their needs are not met and they are hollow within. A few achieve what they have been working for - only to find that the golden trophy, once grasped, crumbles into dust between their fingers. The American journalist Philip Yancey has this to say about those who are most successful at following the voices which define the key to happiness in worldly terms:
My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview "stars", including football greats, movie actors, music performers, best-selling authors, politicians, and TV personalities. These are the people who dominate the media... Yet I must tell you that ... our "idols" are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are incurably dependent on psychotherapy.
Most people have not yet reached the end of the rainbow and made the painful discovery that the crock of gold is not there. Their days are full and their motives unexamined. But their lives are nonetheless governed by a tangle of misbeliefs and misguided strategies. Our culture suggests it is imperative to fill all your needs and make the most of all the opportunities available to you. Many of the whispered needs and opportunities are contradictory or in conflict with those of others, or simply unfillable; and so frustration inevitably results. In a postmodern world where freedom spells choice and choice is expressed in consumption, we find that self-fulfilment means saying yes to everything and being satisfied by nothing: we want meaningful relationships and mobile lifestyles, absorbing careers and happy families, high incomes and lots of opportunities for leisure, city facilities and peaceful country living; personal wealth and social justice, community involvement and individual privacy, and above all we want the time and the money to pursue hobbies, take holidays, and buy gadgets, listen to music, enjoy meals out. Like jugglers keeping too many balls in the air, our restless busyness is liable to bring not peace and happiness but stress and discontent. For those not given access to the balls, of course, the stress and discontent often takes the form of racial and social conflict, and a life of deprivation and crime. We build, as Jesus would have said, on a foundation of sand; and then we wonder at the instability of what we have built.
And so we must have confidence in the power of the truth we have received. Over the years I have prayed with many people, some more than once, some Christians, some initially not; and I have had the opportunity to watch them grow and change as they, like I, move ever deeper into the truth which sets us free. Always, as Jeremiah warned, there is pain below the surface, even in lives that seem outwardly serene - the pain of being boxed into ill-fitting identities, of striving without reward or recognition, of missed opportunities and unfulfilled longings. Sometimes the pain is acute: I have prayed with people damaged by abusive childhoods, and seen them begin to discover what it feels like to know that they are loved by God; with people suffering specific trauma, who have been able to give and receive forgiveness; and with people enduring situations of great stress at work, who have discovered something of why they are there and what meaning God attaches to their life. I have seen people released from phobias and panic attacks; others from an inherited and inaccurate view of themselves; yet others from family patterns of destructive behaviour. Increasingly it seems that people have been seeking to escape from a cage of rationality and get in touch with a more satisfying reality through various forms of alternative spiritual and occult practices - but always with strong negative effects on their personal lives. These effects can range from a sense of spiritual deadness, through nightmares and bursts of irrational anger or anxiety, failed relationships and business deals, to extreme psychic disturbances and even apparent spirit possession. Relief is found in all these situations and many more when the person concerned has been able to step outside the parameters of their own world-locked thinking and experience something of the power of the word of God as it is spoken and prayed into their situation.
Of ourselves, we are powerless to bring about change. I have no rational explanation for what happened to me that day in my kitchen, any more than I am able to bring emotional and spiritual healing into the life of another person merely by clarifying something they had not understood, however clearly and compassionately I may do it. The only explanation I can offer for what I have seen and experienced is that truth as Jesus offers it is not information, proposition, or statement, but the active force of reality itself, universal and personal in its application and spiritual in its essence. This is far removed from the understanding of modernism, which regarded truth as tool or fact, but perfectly compatible with the world view of postmodernism, which is more aware of the invisible dimension of life. Truth is the self-expression of God, and God is a spiritual being. Spoken by God in creation, made living in Jesus, it is now made available to us through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth himself. Our task is to learn to live and help others to live in the light of the truth and by the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we do that, there really is no telling what might happen.
The Revd Dr Alison Morgan has recently joined the leadership team of Fulcrum. She was born in London. A linguist by background, Alison has a PhD in medieval Christian literature from Cambridge. After spending a number of years teaching in various universities, Alison was ordained in 1996, and now works for ReSource, an Anglican initiative which seeks to facilitate renewal of the church for mission in the power of the Holy Spirit. Alison has written three books, including Dante and the Medieval Other World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 and 2007) and a number of other publications, the best known of which is The Wild Gospel (Monarch 2004). She is a member of the Council of SOMA UK and an associate minister on the staff of Holy Trinity, Leicester, where she oversees the prayer ministry of the church. Alison is a member of the Archbishops' College of Evangelists. She is married to Roger, and they have three children. Alison's website is www.alisonmorgan.co.uk.
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City of God 19,1. 'Marcus Varro by careful and minute examination noted such a wide variety of opinions, in his book On Philosophy, that by the application of certain criteria of differentiation he easily arrived at a total of 288 ... possible schools of thought'
Summa contra gentiles I.100-02. The same subject is treated in his Summa theologica, I, I q26. For a discussion of Thomas' thought in this regard see J Pieper, Happiness and contemplation, especially ch 3
See Luke 4:18-19; John 8:32
Jesus said he had come not just to bring life, but to bring abundant life (John 10:10) and promised that if we live in relationship with him our joy will be complete (John 15:11).
See eg A McGrath, The Future of Christianity, ch 6; S Hauerwas & WH Willimon, Resident aliens, ch 6. Cultural theology often lies behind the downfall of whole countries. Recent research shows that the Nazis were voted into power in the 30s by Protestant but not Catholic areas of Germany; and suggests that the genocide of Rwanda could have been prevented by a theology which focussed less on the individual and more on society.
The fusion of Christian principles with modern cultural assumptions is eloquently portrayed by Os Guinness in The Gravedigger files. See also R Niebuhr's classic study Christ and culture, ch 3. The influence of modernism on the evangelical movement in particular is eloquently portrayed by B D McLaren, More ready than you realize - evangelism as dance in the postmodern matrix. This is the subject of what has become known as the 'Post-evangelical debate' - see the book of that title edited by Graham Cray.
John 18:37; John 17:17
2 Timothy 2:15
quoted in J John and M Stibbe, A Box of delights, p17
2 Timothy 3:16, 'all scripture is God-breathed' (NIV); 2 Peter 1:20-21 'no prophecy [of scripture] ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God'. For a discussion of the ways we trivialise the Bible see M Riddell, Threshold of the future, p51-56.
Hebrews 4:12, 'the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart'. For what this means in today's terms, see the study by P Meier which concludes that after three years of meditation on scripture a person's thought patterns and behaviour have changed in such a way as to produce statistically superior mental health and happiness. P Meier, 'Spiritual and mental health in the balance', in Renewing your mind in a secular world, ed J Woodbridge, Moody Press 1985, p26-28. For how to make this happen in practice see N T Anderson and R Saucy, The Common made holy: developing a personal and intimate relationship with God.
1 Peter 1:25
Jeremiah 31:33, I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, know the Lord, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.
James 1:21; 2 John 2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13
John 14.16-17 'I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you'; Ephesians 1.13 'in [Christ] you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit'
2 Corinthians 3:18, 'and all of us.. seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image.. for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit'
See Colossians 1:25-27 'I became its servant.. to make God's word fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great.. are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you'.
Romans 12:2. The web of misbeliefs and malpractices is what the Bible refers to as sin, which can be defined as 'an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs and behaviour deeply rooted in our alienation from God' (L. Crabb); or as 'behaving in a manner inconsistent with that which we are in Christ Jesus' (D. Evrist); see also Galatians 2:14, 'when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel'
See N Anderson, The Bondage breaker, p107-08
Interpretation and obedience, p318
Usually based on the 7 capital vices or, as they became known later, the 7 deadly sins - first formulated for this purpose by Cassian in the 5th century, along with the concept of the pastor as spiritual doctor whose role is to help the confessant recover the health which he has lost through sin. The history of this literature is discussed, with examples and references, in my Dante and the medieval other world, p113-123
Wholeness through Christ was founded in the UK in the 1970s to develop the ministry of 'prayer counselling'. One of its heirs is Christian Prayer Ministries, whose website provides an overview of contemporary prayer ministry. See www.christian-prayer-ministries.org
John Benson. In 2003 John was able to pass the responsibility for the ministry in Cambodia to his colleague Mok Wai Mung
P. Yancey, The Jesus I never knew, p115-16
See D Yankelovich, 'New rules in American life - searching for fulfilment in a world turned upside down', Psychology Today 15 (4) p36
John 16:12; see also John 14:17
The Revd Dr Alison Morgan works for The Mathetes Trust. She is the author of The Wild Gospel and The Word on the Wind, and director of the discipleship programme Rooted in Jesus.