Coming Out of the Christian Ghetto
Can we eat our dinner in a Christian way?  Do you have to buy Christian sandwiches when you’re a Christian?  Once you’re a Christian, can you only listen to hymns and Christian rock music?  Do you have to buy your groceries from a Christian supermarket, and live in a Christian council estate with loads of other Christians?  Do we have to stop consorting with sinners?  If we did, we would all be in trouble, because I don’t know about you but I have never seen any Christian supermarkets, nor any Christian sandwiches, and I wouldn’t know how to eat my tea in a Christian way either, much less anything else for that matter.

Harmonious human relations in the Bible can be summed up in one sentence: ‘Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself’.  If we all did that there would be no racism, no class system, no religious intolerance, no sexism, no ‘them’ and ‘us’.  But, being humans, somehow inevitably, we complicate matters, and make more, or sometimes even less, of what is divine simplicity.  You don’t need a degree in theology to be a Christian!  You don’t need to train to be a vicar or a priest either to be a Christian.  Anyone can buy a Bible, and anyone can approach God in prayer; it’s easy.  You don’t need to live in a Christian ghetto either.  By that I mean, you don’t have to eat Christian fish and chips, or read Christian newspapers, or go on Christian holidays or whatever.  A Christian can still be a normal person with normal interests.

Some Christians might be very religious, when in fact I think God just wants us to be Christians, to walk humbly with Him each day.  The Vatican and the Church of England are very religious institutions, with what seem quite strict hierarchies and both have centuries of tradition behind them.  But I sometimes honestly wonder whether both institutions really serve the cause of a simple Christianity; I wonder whether they are genuinely about preserving and promoting God’s values and mission, or whether they are just as worldly as many other such powerful and wealthy institutions.  I don’t want to criticise them harshly however, but I seriously think that much of what passes for organised Christianity is just not connecting with people, and not connecting with many Christians either.  If we want a vital living faith we have to explore just what that means, and we might have to have cherished notions challenged or even obliterated in our quest to be a Christian.

I have issues around a number of what might be seen as ‘Christian’ activities.  I’m a Christian but I’ve never been to church, any church, as a practising Christian.  I don’t really like hymns, I much prefer 60’s music like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and many other types of music too.  I don’t like the look of ‘happy-clappy’ Christian get-togethers where everyone, to my mind embarrassingly, over emotes in a gushing way to ‘Christian’ music.  I don’t like the fact that some English Christianity merely seems to be an appendage of the English Class system; if you’re Working class you keep your head down and might just make church warden; if you’re lucky.  If you’re Middle class, you’re in; and if you’re Upper class, then you’ve already got one foot in Heaven!  We know this to be nonsense if we’re honest, but I think in some quarters these types of things are tacitly accepted.  And it’s not good enough.  No wonder church attendance in Britain is declining rapidly!  But is Christianity declining as well?  I think people have a hunger for God, a hunger that isn’t being fulfilled by some ‘conventional’ Christianity.  Perhaps as a Christian I don’t know what I want, but I think I know what I don’t want.

Coming out of the Christian ghetto might be where we find a real living faith, as opposed to living in false religious platitudes that might not really serve any purpose and leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled.  I know this; Jesus’ arms are big enough to embrace every kind of person, even all those people who might not in any way appear to be Christian at all.  God created every one of us, even dyed-in-the-wool atheists, not just people who go to church.  We need a faith that embraces every kind of person, and that reaches out genuinely to every kind of person; preaching to the converted is one thing, preaching to the unconverted is something else.  We’re all sinners at the end of the day, and we were all in error at some time or other; I know I was.

I’m a Christian now; I try to live every day as God would have me live.  There’s a lot of freedom in that, there’s a whole world of faith to explore in being a Christian; believe me.  No, better still, believe God.  As a Christian, I find I really like to explore my faith through writing about it; someone else might explore it in another way.  In this respect, my faith isn’t just a ‘private’ thing that has no bearing on my life, it is my life.  So, whoever you are, if you are interested further in finding out about God, who He is and what He is about, perhaps you could start by saying a prayer or two, and buying yourself a Bible, possibly a modern translation like the New Jerusalem Bible for instance.

So, don’t think just because you think that you are just not the Christian type, that you are just not the Christian type!  God may very well have big plans for you!

                                    What Goes Up, Must Come Down?!
In England, and no doubt the rest of the British Isles, there seems to be a constant rising of prices all across the board, on things like gas and electricity, petrol for cars and other transport, groceries and household necessities and other things like the cost of rail travel.  We don’t know the half of why prices are continually and frequently going up, and why they rarely, if ever, come down.

All political parties seem to be complicit in this, and there is nary a word of opposition or challenge of these constant price rises from any political party, or from the Left, Right or Centre.  Why should any established MP or politician really care about ordinary people anyway, with their generally high basic salaries and the perks and expenses many of them are on?  Also, it seems that at the end of their political careers, the vast majority of politicians, regardless of political affiliation tend to get very high salaried positions with corporations they may have helped out one time or the other.  In other words, they don’t want to rock the boat too much while they are in office in case their golden future is threatened.  And frankly, this is not good enough.

There is a moral issue at stake here.  While rich, powerful and influential people seem to ride the storm whatever happens, ordinary people who are generally neither rich, powerful or influential find it harder and harder just to make ends meet, and keep their heads above water.  Governments of the day seem neither to care or to really do anything about the situation, and at best appear unfocussed on issues such as this.  As a Christian, I believe that when people prosper unfairly at other people’s expense, in whatever fashion and for whatever reason, there is injustice.  I believe that God never smiles on this, nor does He turn a blind eye either, even though people from establishment backgrounds lionise God as if He is one of them.  But no matter how much spin is put on a situation, we can’t get away from the fact that hypocrisy and injustice are issues that never go away unless there is concerted effort to tackle it.  And at this moment in time, I see no such effort or concern from the very people who are supposed to be concerned.  They seem indifferent at best.

Then we now have, to add insult to injury, the changing of pensions, so that simply put you pay more in and you get less out.  When this was suggested for politicians’ pensions, there was a massive outcry, and no further action seemed to be taken at this time.  So, it’s one rule for us, and one rule for them.  Is anyone really surprised at that?  I’m certainly not.

What is happening on a small national scale in the British Isles, is probably also happening on a global scale too.  We see rich people prosper everywhere and poor people go to the wall, so to speak.  It has gone beyond normal ethics too; in some cases rich and powerful people make no bones about prospering at other peoples’ expense.  Of course, not every powerful, rich or influential person is immoral, and I believe it is possible to prosper whilst still remaining a good Christian, or a good person in general.  But this is a thin line; if you turn a blind eye to injustice in one place or one circumstance, you might very well turn a blind eye to something else.  A Christian must not, for any reason, be complicit in any kind of sin, nor must any Christian prosper unfairly at anyone else’s expense; there will be a price to pay sooner or later.

Just why are prices of all kinds of things going up, month in month out?  Will we ever get an honest answer from any politician on this topic, or a real answer from someone who runs a utilities company or a supermarket?  It seems not; all we seem to get is fudging and whitewash, and empty promises that vanish into thin air.  It’s wonderful if you are rich and have a big bank account to cushion you from these harsh realities, but if you don’t you have to struggle on as best as you can.  Can’t we be honest about such things?  We can accept that people in business have to make a profit, a fair profit at any rate.  I believe that for a Christian, or someone who regards God and moral justice, the profit motive should be lower down the scale, and further up there should be a concern to serve your fellow human beings; pay people a fair wage, ask a fair price, and be in for the long-term, not short-term greed.  There is a way forward, if we seek it in honesty and an open heart.

What makes me angry is that one week, a product in the supermarket is say £1.50 and the next week, it is £1.60 or even £1.70.  This wouldn’t be so bad if it was the only thing going up, but a number of other things go up at the same time too, meaning you’re paying lots more for the same thing. 

My own answer to this is for people to specifically, when they can, shop at cheaper supermarkets and make a point of buying shops’ cheaper own brands to send a message, and perhaps also to write to their MPs too.   And as a Christian, I feel we can also pray about this too; I’m serious.  God can rescue anyone from dire poverty and He can and will supply all your need, if not your greed!  I can speak only too well on this, as although I am by no means wealthy, I have all my needs met, and met well too.  God is altogether the perfect source for issues of social justice, and for personal issues for any individual who wants to call on Him for help.

The Road to Damascus
It was Saul, in his immense folly, who was on the road to Damascus.  He was a man, like many other people, who couldn’t see the wood for the trees.  I think he was in many respects a deeply unpleasant man who was fanatically religious, but that fanatic religiosity led him to hunting down early Christians.  Then, he was blinded by the light, and chastised by the Lord: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?!’ 

Saul, who became Paul, represents the before and after of Christian conversion.  How did we become Christians?  Was it because we were already good and kind, and wise and beneficent, or what?  I certainly wasn’t any of those things really, but here I am a Christian.

The road to Damascus could represent anything in our lives, a turning point where we might come to a sudden realisation, a realisation that we have lived in error, or are living in error, and perhaps for a long time.  God’s mercy was shown to Saul, because, although he lived very much in error, God had big plans for him.  Christianity is often portrayed as niceness squared, a sort of club for nice people who, being nice, are then going to confirm their niceness by being Christians.  But is that what it’s all about, people being nice?  There is nothing wrong with being nice, I’m quite a nice person myself, but is it a criterion for being a Christian, or becoming a Christian?  Well Saul’s story proves that it wasn’t!

God reached out to Saul, as He can reach out to anyone, and we may all just be surprised at the people He wants.  Religion is one thing, and a calling from God is something else entirely; they are almost two different things.  Religion can be used, and often is and has been, for selfish reasons, and for nations to prosper at the expense of other nations.  Saul was religious, and Paul was a Christian.  We should endeavour to live as Paul, and not so much as Saul.

God’s choices, and the world’s choices, can also be two completely different things.  In some countries, the elites and the establishment choice can be someone who is already wealthy and powerful, or influential in some way.  God had a habit of picking people, not always, but usually people who were not particularly nice or socially acceptable, people who were earthy and tough, and even unpleasant and downright dangerous. 

Religious people are one thing, and God is definitely something else.  The hierarchies of religion, even of Christianity, can be divisive, factional, wealth-oriented, power-oriented, and sometimes sadly just as worldly as other institutions which are not particularly religious.  When we hear of some influential supposedly Christians doing things, or saying things, that have nothing to do with biblical teachings or Jesus, we can despair.  These people can then give Christians and Christianity a bad name, and they make perhaps those who are interested in the faith to think that all Christians are, quite frankly, hypocrites preaching one thing and doing something else.  I’m not naming names here, because that would be unfair as no one is perfect, but there are certainly people in the Christian community who seem by their actions not to be Christians at all.  It is our job to hold onto what we know is right, through regular prayer, reading the Bible, and being genuinely honest about our faith.

The Bible says, among many other things, to treat people as we would like to be treated ourselves.  If we step out of that framework, that golden rule, we are bringing sin into the world.  If we could only get it into our heads that God might not want us to be overly religious, but that He might want us to be His servants and live in the truth, and not hide behind religious platitudes however comfortable they might be.  Maybe God does want us to get out of our ‘comfort zone’ now and again.

Christianity is a journey and a destination.  We are travelling towards the light, and we’re in a dark tunnel; as we get closer, things start appearing, we understand more and more.  God will open our eyes to the truth, if we let Him.   

Saul went from being a Pharisee, to being a Christian named Paul.  He underwent a complete transformation, and for the rest of his life was no doubt chastened greatly by his former life and actions.  I believe many Christians, and I very much include myself in this, are reformed characters who lived early lives of sin and sinful behaviour.  God can truly use sinful men and women, provided of course we do learn our lessons and endeavour each day not to make the same mistakes again.  We will make mistakes, many times in my experience, but when we decide to put our past life behind us like Paul, we are done with the worst of it.  You can sin, and be forgiven, but you can’t live in sin anymore! 

Some people in Jesus’ time were no doubt very bad men, and there are bad men, and some bad women, in modern times.  Some of them might seem completely at odds with Christianity, and not the people at all that could, or should, be Christians serving Jesus in any way.  But what if Jesus is reaching His hands out to people who are criminals, or gangsters, or terrorists, or Hells Angels, or men from the IRA and the UVF and the Mafia?  What then?  The same thing applies to them, as it applies to the rest of us who may not be serious criminals, but who are still very much sinners.  God can forgive, is the message.  He can and will forgive our sins, completely and without let or hindrance, if we are genuinely remorseful and we genuinely want to move onto an altogether better life.  There is no looking back.

Some people are so much in error, and so set in their ways, that it might take a ‘Damascus’ moment, a genuine moment of revelation, to stop them in their tracks.  They might have been living in sin for years, decades and decades in fact, and God might have been calling them, like the gentle wind on the breeze, for a long time.  When that moment comes, it may be the greatest shock of their lives, and make them question everything they think they know.  It can be like dying, and being reborn again.  It is the end of one way of life, and the beginning of another.  Such an experience may at first be like the end of the world, and the worst thing that ever happens; but the reality is that God may be calling someone for a better and new life; it’s just that He had to be dramatic about it!  People usually set very firmly on wrong courses, are only shaken by extreme circumstances; it may take a serious breakdown for some people, for God to be able to build them up again.

The worst experience in your life may be just the experience that brings you to God, or back to God.  That ‘Damascus’ moment might lead you to a new life with God, and you don’t have to look back.

The Eye of a Needle
Some rich people seem to think of nothing all day but making themselves richer and richer.  Creating a ‘pyramid’ of wealth for one person, which sometimes doesn’t even really benefit the person who has it.  Just what purpose does it serve for some super-rich person to make even more wealth, when they are already wealthy anyway?  I will never understand it personally.  And often, rich people don’t use their wealth to help other people, or their families, or charities even.  Just what purpose do some people create wealth for then?

The Pharaohs, in creating vast pyramids, to supposedly be buried safely for all eternity, with all their wealth, were really practising the first recorded vanity projects; the pyramids were an ego-massage to one man’s (and sometimes woman’s) greed, selfishness and ambition.  The pyramids are magnificent to look at, but they are useless for anything else, and didn’t even protect them in the end.  Today people don’t build pyramids, but they build pyramids of wealth, for equally no good reason either.

I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t aspire to be wealthy or prosper, of course not; we all want to get on.  I’m suggesting that if you do prosper, and you take a lot out, you should endeavour purposefully to put something back.  You should certainly look after your family and friends, you could help charities, and perhaps you could spend some on yourself too!  I know I would.  I also think that we should always try to fulfil our need, before we fulfil our greed.

In the Bible, it says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  There’s nothing about that statement that needs clarifying at first glance.  Does it mean that Christians can’t be wealthy and live effectively as Christians?  I don’t think so, I think it means that we shouldn’t worship money, however rich, poor or somewhere in between we might be.  And I think that many people, whether they are rich, poor or somewhere in between, worship money, and make a false god of it no less.  For a Christian, we should endeavour to worship and revere God, not money.  In a way, money is valueless of itself, being paper or an amalgam of metals.  It’s only useful if we make it useful.  And as the old saying goes, money is like muck, it’s only useful if it’s spread around.

As a Christian, it is our first instinct to serve God first.  How can, say, opening a coffee bar be serving God, you might ask?  Well firstly perhaps you could pay your workers a decent living wage and not a pittance while you are making a healthy profit.  Your workers will then say you are nice guy who cares about his staff.  Secondly, you could charge fair prices for your coffee or whatever it is you are selling, then your customers will say you are a nice bloke who doesn’t rip people off, and they will come back to your shop.  Thirdly, be in for the long-haul, the long-term, and not short-term profiteering at any cost.  Fourthly, if you make a lot from what you do, endeavour in all ways to give something back.  Fifthly, and perhaps finally, in all your dealings with every kind of person, treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.  These are things literally off the top of my head, but you get my drift; it is possible to be a good Christian and have even big ambitions, as long as they are tempered by God.  But God must come first.

I have a confession to make; this good Christian also wants to be wealthy.  I suppose it comes from coming from a relatively poor background, not poverty stricken, but poor by English standards.  I do the lottery as well, like millions of other people.  This could make me hypocritical, but I am working on it.  I want to be successful as a writer, and with that success would come money.  Really, I want to do something with my life, and have a better life, and I don’t think my ambitions are any less valid than anyone else’s, and that I have the right to pursue dreams like anyone else.  I have come to the conclusion that you can pursue both spiritual and material ambitions at the same time, but that the spiritual ambitions are far more important than pursuing a material livelihood; it’s a thin line, but with God nothing is impossible.

So, I have laid my soul bare; I struggle with issues of selfishness and greed.  Like many people, I want to be successful and I have ambitions, and like many other people in the world, I want a better life.  I don’t think being a Christian means you have to live like a monk in a cave in desperate poverty, and bring suffering on yourself particularly.  Then I come back to why someone with many millions or even billions would want to make even more money.  I think it is ultimately futile to make vast wealth, when that wealth has no real purpose and doesn’t help people in any way, even perhaps the person who has that wealth.  Just how many cars can you drive at one time, how many houses can you live in, how many expensive designer suits can you wear at any one time, how many expensive watches can you wear?  To me, notwithstanding my own issues around money, it is futile to be wealthy if you don’t do something truly useful with it.

In wealthy countries like America, the UK, Germany, France and other countries, it is part and parcel of these societies that people can and should get on, and have ambitions, and prosper.  I can see nothing wrong with this at all; don’t we all want to get on, in one way or the other?  Many people in these countries aspire to be something they are not; some want to do this in sport, or music, or business, or through cookery, or through running a shop, and so on and so on.  Some people want to be wealthy because they have only known poverty, and others want to be wealthy because they are accustomed to being wealthy and want to remain so.  I believe that for a Christian, we need to take an honest and open look at what we do want from life, and from God, and to have genuine reasons, good reasons, for having ambitions and for wanting to prosper.   I believe again that, in a nutshell, we should first fulfil our need, before we satisfy our greed quite simply.  The love of money, and it’s by-product, which is greed and selfishness, gets in the way of a relationship with God, can sour friendships and other human relationships, and will possibly set us off on wrong courses.

In any event, whatever we want to do or achieve, we should ask God in prayer to help us achieve what we want, in a godly fashion, so that whatever we do, we remain true to God and to our calling.