Religion vs Jesus: 2 Corinthians 3

I preached this last night at an evening service at Holy Trinity, Darlington, Diocese of Durham. Here’s my account of what I’ve learned about what Christianity is and isn’t since my conversion. Readings: 2 Corinthians 3Exodus 34.29-35

I want you to come with me on a journey tonight. We’ll be stopping off and exploring various points along the way, but trust me, we’ll end up at a really great place where we’ll discover that it’s in Jesus alone that we find freedom.

Let’s start in Afghanistan on a very cold night in an army outpost. We won’t linger here long- shivering in the dim light of a few lamps, the persistent grumble of the diesel generator in the background, cold dusty earth under our feet, and a cumbersome rifle slung over our shoulder- but long enough for me to tell you that it was here, in this far off land in 2012, that I had an experience that totally shook my world view, that challenged who I thought I was and what life was all about.

It was here in a shipping container that I came to the wonderful, awesome, comforting and terrifying realisation that God exists.

I became a believer.

But in the following days and weeks, after my initial jittery elation that God really had created the whole universe and had known me since before my birth, I came up against some big personal struggles.

Not to do with God, but with religion.

Because, if I’m honest, up until that moment I’d scoffed at religious folk. I’d felt pity for people that I thought were being duped into believing a fairy tale. I’d felt anger towards people who used religion to control and oppress the vulnerable. And I’d felt baffled by people who seemed to follow all the rules and look down on others, but couldn’t actually give a reason for their faith.

People trapped by rules and customs but who didn’t seem to know Jesus. Religion seemed boring and restricting. I was wary of signing myself up to Christianity if it was just about having to abide by lengthy lists of rules.

I felt so torn, because part of me wanted to be sure of all the laws first, and exactly what would be expected of me, but the much bigger part of me was just so excited to know that Jesus was God’s son, and I loved Him so much, that I wanted to forget about the rules that I didn’t yet know, and throw my lot in with the guy from Nazareth.

So I did.

OK we’re still in Afghanistan and I’m desperate to know Jesus better. And to get to know Jesus, I have to read the Bible.

And fortunately, when I begin reading my Bible in my tent, I see, with great relief, that what Jesus seems so much more concerned with, isn’t following all the religious laws at all. It’s being right with God.

To the people around him, he seems to be a rebel. He’s challenging the status quo at every corner. And this really angered the sorts of people who prided themselves on following all the religious laws.

I read that, one day, several of these religious types, these Pharisees, including an actual lawyer, tried to test Jesus.

They asked which commandment is the greatest.

He replied,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Wow, I thought. Could it be that all the rest of the rules pale into insignificance if you could just keep the first two?

All those things carved in stone, all the rules about fasting and keeping the Sabbath and tithing, and circumcision and sacrificing animals and eating the right foods, and praying the right way. Don’t they matter so much?

It’s seems not. The more I read my Bible, the more I saw that Jesus had a way of turning the picture upside down. Looking at a situation with totally new eyes. Challenging systems and beliefs, but not because He was a rebel, because He was God’s Son. He was perfectly obedient to the will of His Father. It’s just that he saw that people were against the will of his father. So He spoke out about it. A lot.

And then I read about that time Jesus and his friends were walking in the fields on the Sabbath, when some of them ate some corn. The Pharisees were furious that they’d broken the Sabbath rule, equating the picking of some corn to harvesting, which was ridiculous. And Jesus said so. He said “If you’d known what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Then the Pharisees tried to catch Him out in the temple when a man with a shrivelled hand turned up for healing. The Pharisees asked if what He was doing was lawful.

So He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

He touched and healed lepers, He talked to women, He ate with sinners, He bypassed rules about temple sacrifices by healing sins. He challenged the authorities and spoke out.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus came to abolish the idea of trying to please God through religion. When religious rules get in the way of mercy, compassion and justice they should be overridden.

Jesus didn’t break rules to be rebellious, He broke rules to show that people mattered more than rules.

The basics of Christian discipleship are about loving God entirely with every fibre of our being, and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves

That’s what I was beginning to learn 4 and a half years ago in Afghanistan.

 

Come with me again on our journey, back further in time, to about 2000 years ago. To Corinth in Greece. The newly established church who’d received Paul’s letter, part of which David read out.

Paul was reminding this church plant that Jesus had revealed the new covenant, the new law. A new way of looking at religion. Jesus revealed mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to those who have ears to hear. The church in Corinth needed to hear it, and we need to hear it.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be like Pharisees, banging on about our dutiful deeds with loud prayers and pious solemn faces, bragging about our righteousness and condemning others whose lives are a mess.

He doesn’t want us to do religion for the sake of doing religion.

Jesus wants us to put Him at the very centre of our lives. To be every day Christians. Disciples at large in our communities. Challenging the status quo. Being so loving and caring and set on fairness and equality and compassion that it surprises people. Our faces are shining radiant and bright in the knowledge of freedom in Jesus. It makes people sit up and take notice.

“Why does she give up so much of her time for others?”, “Why is he bothering to sit with that homeless guy who’s clearly on drugs?” Because we are every day every minute Christians. We’re not called to be carved-in-tablets-of-stone people. We’re called to bring-God’s-kingdom-on-earth people.

I think the very lives we lead are the best advertisement for religion. The people we are in our communities as followers of Jesus is the best way to convince people (like me!), that Christianity isn’t dead, old, boring; just a set of restrictive rules. It’s about how our lives are transformed by the Spirit of God and knowing we are freed in Jesus our saviour.

 

I’d like to finish with those reassuring words from Paul in his letter to the new church in Corinth.

Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiselled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him.

Rachael Phillips and the Tactical Withdrawl

I’m no good at properly chilling out on days off. For me a day off is packed with all the stuff I don’t have time to do during the rest of the week. I can’t sit still. I do stuff. Lots of stuff. My inability to wholeheartedly take part in inertia drives my husband crazy, as he is a master of intentional slothfulness.

But after a particularly busy, stressful and demanding period at work, I decided to appease the growing number of friends who were suggesting I take time out, and I booked myself a 24 hour tactical withdrawal.

We don’t use the term ‘retreat’ in the Army. A retreat is something you do when you’re being driven backwards by the enemy. A tactical withdrawal is something you do on your own terms so that you’re in a better position to assess the situation. Semantics? Or a frame of mind? Actually when thinking of it like this, perhaps what I’d booked was more like a retreat, as I wouldn’t have ordinarily opted for this on my terms! And I did rather feel like I was being driven there.

Continue reading Rachael Phillips and the Tactical Withdrawl

Onward Christian soldier?

In this blog I respond to the challenge that my Christian faith might impede my ability to fully carry out my job.

And to set the scene here’s a bit of background information. For the last 7 years I’ve served as a Cultural Specialist in the Army, so religion forms big part of our studies and training, and the question of faith was often brought up, which I actually think is a really good thing. Yet I’ve been asked if being a Christian gets in the way of me carrying out my job, as my role requires me to work with Muslims. I’d say I get about as animated over this question as I do when I’m asked if me being a woman gets in the way of me doing my job! So I thought I’d share my experiences in order to answer the question.

As I’ve served with the Defence Cultural Specialist Unit for 7 years, but have only been a practicing Christian for the last 3, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to give an account from both perspectives, which I hope leads to a much more rounded and balanced answer.

To begin with let’s tackle the question of gender because I believe the two questions are inextricably linked. This question is one that friends, family and colleagues seem very curious about. Even with a basic understanding of Afghanistan’s complex and fascinating culture, most people are aware that it is a patriarchal society, and therefore being a woman and working in communities could prove challenging.  So has being a woman had a negative impact on my ability to carry out my role? Not in my experience.

In fact, I personally found that being a woman opened doors to situations that would have been firmly closed, had I been a man. I had access to ‘the other 50%’ of the country that my male counterparts could not have contact with, and was invited freely into homes. I could sit and chat in a very informal and relaxed way with generations of women and their children. In doing so I was able to build positive relationships with their husbands and brothers.

And as for their husbands and brothers, I experienced very little tension or resistance arose due to my gender. In the 18 months I spent living and working in Afghanistan, I can name only a handful of men who found working with a young female officer a difficulty.  My overwhelming experience was that it encouraged conversation and led to relaxed and less charged interactions that were peppered with humour and intrigue. I think the positive relations I built were helped, not hindered, by being a woman. I give this starting point because it’s impossible to give a perspective of a Christian in this context, without first highlighting or at least mentioning, that I am also a woman.

 

The question of faith, and what impact it could have on relations with foreign nationals, was first on my radar many years before I deployed to Afghanistan. At the age of 19, I traveled to Sri Lanka as a volunteer after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. During my stay I made the mistake of being open about my then-atheism to the extended family with whom I was living. My Muslim hosts were disturbed when I told them I didn’t believe in God, and so I quickly changed my story. I said I’d misunderstood, due to the language barrier. Should I have lied about believing in God? This is a good question that could be argued at length, but isn’t dealt with here I’m afraid.

What I learned from the situation, was that if the topic of religion came up, and I was dependant on good relations with my hosts who were Muslim (and did not share a common language), it was better to claim to be a Christian than to try and explain my atheism.

They could happily accept that I worshipped God differently, but what they could not accept or understand was that I believed God did not exist. This lesson would prove useful in the future.

Years later, and still an atheist, I was serving on my first deployment to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. My job would bring me into daily contact with local villagers. I was reminded in training that among other things, I was never to bring up religion in conversation with Afghans. The few times it did come up, usually initiated by interpreters who I worked closely with, I stated that I was a Christian, then moved the conversation on. In a culture that was seemingly so saturated and influenced by religious structures and customs, perhaps it was a shame that I’d been trained to avoid the topic. But then, I also wouldn’t have wanted to get into any bigger lies about my fictional faith.

Short video of my role in Afghanistan 2008/2009 found here

In 2011, whilst studying Pashto (one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan) in preparation for my next tour, I was keen to understand Islam better. I was fascinated by this religion and the different ways in which it was practiced. At the time my curiosity only extended as far as what others believed, and never led to me questioning what I believed. If I’m honest, I thought religion was either a learned behaviour that was followed simply to avoid exclusion from the in-group, or it was a crutch that people needed to feel their lives had meaning.

I had a respect for the commitment of the faithful, much like I had a respect for anyone who commits themselves, such as marathon runners or musicians. But I never questioned whether it could be true.

This changed in 2012 at the beginning of my second operational tour of Afghanistan when I had an out of the blue encounter with God in a shipping container and shortly after, became a practising and committed Christian.

So, now that I was a Christian, was there any impact on my work during my second and third tours of Afghanistan? Overall I believe it had little effect, but what effect it did have was undeniably positive. It’s certainly conceivable that the positive experiences I had were only made possible because I spoke Pashto and so need’t concern myself with interpreters missing the nuance of what I was trying to convey (always a risk no matter what the topic of conversation). Also, I spoke from the perspective of a woman. Did this mean the conversations felt less threatening? Perhaps it allowed the men to explore what my faith meant more freely .

One night I joined a patrol who were setting up a covert look-out on a cow shed (those not on sentry duty could sleep inside on the straw with the mice, which did feel rather Biblical). I was there to chat with the locals who would start gathering at dawn the next morning, once we made our presence known. It was on this morning that I was chatting to some youths who were asking me to recite the Kalima, the Muslim profession of faith. Explaining that I could’t on the grounds that I was a Christian, we got into a long and lively discussion about the differences and similarities between our faiths. Mostly these teenagers and young men wanted to challenge the fact I worshipped three Gods, and I found myself trying to explain the Trinitarian nature of Christianity in Pashto, a topic we hadn’t covered in the classroom back in the UK, testing my vocabulary somewhat!

Before long a crowd had gathered to hear about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and they tried to grasp how this was not polytheism, which I confess I did a poor job of conveying. As the weak winter sun warmed us up, and we shared what boiled sweets we had, I felt certain that it was a positive experience. It brought together a lot of local people (dogs and goats) who were sharing their faith and asking me about mine (not the dogs or the goats). It may not have built relationships any quicker or stronger than if we had been discussing livestock or irrigation methods, but I learned that for me, as a Pashto speaker, woman and Christian, discussing faith was not off-limits.

I began to realise that my steadily growing faith in the winter of 2012 and spring and summer of 2013 meant I was much more relaxed about Islamic customs than I’d been in Sri Lanka or on my first tour of Afghanistan. Often the Afghans started shuras (meetings) with a prayer. Previously I would have joined my Army colleagues in feeling rather awkward, not knowing where to look or how to sit or whether to close our eyes and what to do with our hands. Is it offensive to join in? Is it offensive to not join in? Finally as a Christian I felt at ease during prayers, letting the beautiful Arabic words float over me as I prayed silently to myself in English for safety, security and a fruitful meeting, and we all finished by saying Amen (pronounced Amin in Arabic).

When my role in Afghanistan came to an end, I retrained as a Balkans cultural specialist. And whilst studying Bosnian at the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture, I bumped into an old Pashto tutor. In the past we’d had many in-depth debates about religion, before I believed. So I told him I’d found God in Afghanistan and had become a practicing Christian. He smiled and said ‘Good, now we need to get you worshipping the right God.’ We were close enough for him to tease me about this, and I felt that now that we were both committed to our faiths, we had one more thing in common.

My language training continued in Bosnia and Herzegovina where I spent last summer living with a local family in the capital Sarajevo, and studying in a local language school. During my stay, my host family would be observing (to some extent) Ramadan and then Eid, and the country would mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in which over 7,000 men and boys were killed. The victims were almost exclusively Muslim, and the aggressors were almost exclusively Christian. The conflict raged for several years during which time an estimated 100,000 lives were lost on all sides, however in places like Srebrenica who lost so many of their sons, and Sarajevo which was under siege by the Army of Republika Srpska for 1,425 days, the undeniable feeling amongst the predominantly Muslim population is that they were the victims in a war that should never have happened. The factors leading to this conflict, and the many perspectives of what happened is too great a topic to explore further in this blog, but suffice to say that on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, I was aware that I was a Christian.

Despite this backdrop, to my surprise I found that my faith was not an area of tension whatsoever. Perhaps this is because the war was far more about power and domination of one peoples over another, than it was about the different ways in which people practice their faith. Not being Bosnian therefore, my Christian faith didn’t matter at all to the locals. My host family, who were only cultural Muslims- that is they took part in big religious holidays that brought their families together, just as my own family observes Christmas, but wouldn’t consider themselves as practising- found my faith a curious thing. They were intrigued to have a ‘devout’ Christian staying with them but we didn’t spend much time talking about religion, as they had little to say on the matter. We had much more in common when it came to films, music, wine and pets. Their family’s experience of the negative impact of being labelled this religion or that, was devastating, indeed they were lucky to still be alive at all. It’s unsurprising that we didn’t talk a great deal about religion.

eid-meal

Sharing a meal together for Eid with my host family

At school however, I did. I had classes on how Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam were practiced in Bosnia. I visited mosques, synagogues and churches. I had lunch with a catholic priest, dinner in an orthodox church beer garden and attended religious festivals. I could fully engage in conversation with all three faiths and both denominations of Christianity because not only had I spent time studying them, but also understood what it is to have a relationship with God. This does not make me superior to my colleagues who don’t, but rather it opened up a conversation theme that I felt confident in engaging with on a really personal level. I think it was this that led to much quicker relationship building. Of course, like in Afghanistan we could have talked about other subjects and still built positive relations, though in Sarajevo it would have been Baklava and football rather than livestock and irrigation methods. In this case religion added another string to my bow.

More recently, I’ve been on secondment with 4th Infantry Brigade, engaged as a Community Liaison officer working alongside Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in North East England. Whilst the community engagement skills and experiences I’ve built up in the Army have been well employed, it’s actually what I’ve learned as a practising Christian that has been more helpful. My role is essentially to build strong relations with communities who may know little about the Armed Forces, or may have misconceptions or negative perceptions of it. The environment can be a challenging one, and yet feels very familiar. Telling the ‘army story’ to those who may at first have little interest or preconceived ideas is much like telling the Jesus story. Christians call this mission and evangelism. Safe territory for me then.

I took a module in Mission and Evangelism whilst I was studying theology at Cranmer Hall, gaining both practical experience and knowledge of theories and practitioners. Perhaps the most famous is the Apostle Paul. Paul had persecuted the early church and Jesus’ followers, but then he became a Christian whilst travelling to Damascus after an encounter with Christ. He then began spreading the gospel message to those who had not yet heard; primarily in foreign lands around the Mediterranean such as Corinth, Thessalonica and Macedonia. He was a master of communication and adaptability and was a traveller par excellence. Paul was undoubtedly a ‘Cultural Specialist’. Rather than imposing the cultural norms and practices of his homeland upon the foreign nationals he engaged with, he learned from them. Paul watched and studied them, finding out their customs and desires and he used this to build relationships in order to be more effective at delivering his message (Acts 17:16-34).

I admire Paul’s persuasive and intelligent approach to letter writing which formed a large part of his influence campaign, and how he used cultural knowledge to endear himself to his target audience (even though this was not always successful). It’s now hard for me to tell whether practising my faith and my interest in mission and evangelism impact more on my ability to work with different cultures, or whether my experience as a cultural specialist makes me naturally more at ease with mission and evangelism. Perhaps what is more important, is acknowledging how complimentary the two are, and the extent to which the transferable skills can be employed.

Being a practising Christian with a heart for conversation and listening to others has been an entirely positive experience for me, and rather than limiting me or causing problems for me whilst carrying out my role as a Cultural Specialist, it has aided me in finding common ground, and in understanding my target audience on another level. I’ve found that engaging people in conversations about their faith and mine has been a platform on which to build relationships, rather than it being an obstacle or area of conflict. Though intuitively, I do not make my faith the base from which to begin conversation. However if religion is brought up, I am honest about being a Christian and seek to engage on the commonalities, not the differences, in the same way I would with sport; if I knew I was talking to a football fan I would not focus on how superior I consider rugby to be, rather I would talk about our shared love for ball games.

Whether it’s communicating the message of Salvation, or security in Afghanistan, or what the role of the Army is today, the Apostle Paul’s approach to engaging with foreign nationals is a pretty good one; gaining knowledge of and respecting other people’s customs is an important part of appealing to one’s hosts in order to communicate your message. I absolutely think that being a Christian is compatible with working closely with other people and cultures who do not share this faith, but may have their own. The assumption that the two are incompatible is shortsighted, just as the assumption that a woman cannot engage effectively in a patriarchal Muslim country is shortsighted. What matters is the extent to which the individual shows respect and looks for common ground, and sees beyond differences of gender or faith.