Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Black Dog

Well, hello there, Black Dog.

I thought you'd gone away. I hadn't seen you in a long, long time. What are you doing around here, anyway?

I mean, you have no reason to hassle me. I have a wonderful partner and a job I love. I live close to my family. I feel fulfilled and useful.

So why are you lurking in the corner? Why do I see your fleeting shadow, on and off, blocking out the light? Why are your vacant eyes staring at me? Why are you gnawing at my heart?

Why are my eyes watering for no reason? Why do I feel so lost and alone, and why do I struggle to explain the unease and dull pain that creeps over me? Why does my strength fail me? I should get up, go see my Mum, visit friends, go for a run. I should talk to a friend. But you, Black Dog, are staring me into inaction and silence.

What do you want with me, Black Dog? Leave me alone. You're not wanted here. Go back to whatever dark place you came from. You're not welcome.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Mary Magdalene (written 31/05/07)

I was there the day the sky went black.

The crows were keeping their grim watch over Golgotha.
His body hung like a rag doll: gone the radiant life, gone the loving kindness, gone the merry laughter.

My heart sank in an ocean of sadness, crushed by a hundred leagues of sorrow.

What have they done? Rabboni, my beloved master!

The source of my hope and joy was withering in the heat of men's hatred on Golgotha.

I had no tears although my heart lay shattered
on the day the sky went black.

The day after the Sabbath we went back to his tomb. We wanted to show our love and respect one last time.

But the stone that shut the tomb was rolled away. The tomb was empty. His body was gone.

My heart sank deeper. Couldn't they at least leave his poor, broken body alone?

I crumbled to the floor, sobbing at last, my chest shaking with hurt and grief.

Then, through my tears, I saw a man. I thought he was a gardener, until he spoke my name.


That voice!

Warm as a fire, soothing as honey, wholesome as bread.

His voice!

"Rabboni!" My beloved master! He stood there. He was alive and smiling at me.

I was there the day the sky went black. I was there also the day the sky opened up and life eternal poured through.

(from John 20:11-16)

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Atonement and the Cross

When I read this article by Benjamin L. Corey last year, I had an epiphany.
The year I became a Christian, one book played a huge role in my conversion: C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, I'll give a quick summary:

Four London children are sent to the English countryside during WW2. They're staying in a big old house, and one day, while playing hide-and-seek, they discover a wardrobe that is a doorway into a fantasy world called Narnia. Narnia is under the domination of an evil White Witch; but all Narnians are expecting to be liberated by Aslan the Lion. At some point, one of the children is seduced by the Witch and betrays his siblings as well as all Narnians. He eventually rejoins them, but the Witch then reminds Aslan that traitors belong to her by law, and that she has a right to demand the boy's blood.

Aslan does not deny that, but he offers his own life for the boy's. The Witch gleefully kills Aslan, not realizing that there is a "deeper magic" at work, causing "death to work backwards". Aslan then comes back to life and goes on to defeat the Witch.

Of course, this is clearly an allegory of the Christian faith and of Jesus' death, Aslan representing Jesus in the world of Narnia, and his taking the place of the boy is a metaphor of the Cross.

Coming back to Benjamin Corey's article: in many Evangelical circles, Jesus's death on the cross is explained as follows. God his perfectly just and cannot abide the evil things we do ("sin"). He loves us, but He cannot simply forgive us without punishing sin. Jesus, God's Son incarnate, dies a horrible death on the cross - and what He does there is take upon Himself the punishment for sin, taking on the wrath of God upon Himself so we can be forgiven. This is called penal substitution atonement. Corey wrote a whole series on why he thinks, based on his studies, that theology of atonement is not only incorrect and reductive, but toxic.

In the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Corey looks at the word Jesus Himself uses when talking about His death: a ransom. Corey then goes on to argue that a ransom is paid to, say, kidnappers by the parents of a child. The ransom is NOT paid TO the parents. A ransom is paid to an evil character, not to a just and good one. Therefore, he sees the death of Jesus as a ransom not paid to God, but to the devil.

And at that point, I had my epiphany. I remembered Aslan's death in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the thought struck me like a flash of light.

God is not the Witch.
It had been right there all along, in the one book that helped me understand Christianity. It had been staring at me in the face all along.

God is not the Witch.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Islam - no way out?

Sometimes I hear a sentence that just startles me and makes me want to scream in frustration. Maybe that makes me a "snowflake", but there are things that I cannot let pass.

Recently, a Christian friend and I were discussing Islam and I explained someone I know was contemplating converting to Islam. I saw it as a positive, because the lady in question came from an atheist background and embarked on a spiritual search. My friend, however, did not see it quite in the same way.

"I wonder if she realises that once converted to Islam, she has no way out - all schools of sharia law prescribe either imprisonment or death for apostasy".

My initial reaction was to want to bang my head against the wall. There are so many things that are wrong with this statement I don't even know where to start...

First and foremost, we live in Belgium, where religious freedoms are protected by law: people may not only choose their religion, but change it if they wish. This means if my friend became a Muslim, she could change her mind afterwards. Moreover, if her Muslim friends are open-minded, they will respect her choice either way. I personally know a young girl who converted to Christiniaty from a Muslim background, and her family respected and supported her choice.

I love and respect the Muslims I've come to know. I feel blessed to count them as friends, and I get sad and angry when people tar them all with the same brush. When they ask me about my faith I always tell them I am a Christian. I have never felt any hostility from them, quite the opposite. They are some of the most respectful and hospitable people I have ever met. In addition, I have great respect for their piety. Who among us Christians prays 5 times a day, or fasts for 40 days, or learns significant portions of Scripture by heart? Their devotion is an inspiration. Of course, this doesn't mean I want to become a Muslim myself - I have explained before how and why I chose to follow Jesus.

"All schools of sharia law prescribe either imprisonment or death for apostasy" is a blanket statement that fails to consider the diversity that exists within Islam. True, some fringes of Islam want to impose sharia law throughout the world, which includes severe punishment for apostasy. But the key words here are "some fringes". Not all Muslims are Wahhabi - the fundamentalist, often violent branch of Islam who want to "spread purified Islam through the world, both Muslim and non-Muslim", only making up 0.5% of the global Muslim population (source: Wikipedia). There is a lot of diversity in Muslim doctrine (just like there are many branches of Christianity), from the most fundamentalist to the most progressive, and from decidedly violent to completely non-violent.

Finally, I think such talk about Islam goes against the teachings of Jesus. Equating the whole of Islam with violent fundamentalism is a narrative that, sadly, I have heard in some churches. In fact, I used to believe it… It presents Islam as a frightful threat, and Muslims as would-be invaders who want to take over the world, by violent means if necessary. As I’ve outline above, not only is it untrue, but it also has a perverse effect. It instils fears and therefore hostility within the hearts of Christians. How can we be effective witnesses of Christ if we feel fear and hostility towards a whole group of people? How can we love them as ourselves if we see them as dangerous enemies? Some Christians’ fear of Muslims is already turning to hatred, and politicians are using it to their advantage. Instead of welcoming the stranger as the Bible commands, many self-professing Christians openly reject them and even claim the need to protect ‘Christendom’ from the ‘Muslim invasion’, by force if necessary… while Christ teaches us that His Kingdom is not of this world anyway.

When confronted to a teaching in church, I try to look at the fruit that teaching produces. Does it bring love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness? Or does it instil fear, hatred, selfishness, conflict and discord? Ask yourself this.


Saturday, 7 January 2017

My goals for 2017

I know it’s a week into 2017 already, a little late to write out resolutions. But there are still 358 days to go, so I figure I’m good. I wanted to think carefully about what I would like to achieve this year, and how. Resolutions can be so vague that it makes it all the harder to keep them, because we don’t even know where the heck to start. For this reason, I wanted to reflect upon my priorities, upon the values I would like to cultivate in 2017, and the goals I would like to achieve.
As a Christian, my #1 goal is to become more and more like Jesus. I’m not afraid to say it and I’m couldn’t care less if it makes me sound like a religious nutter. To me, it’s not about being a religious nut, but about bearing spiritual fruit (I didn’t come up with that one, but I think it's a great phrase).
To become more like Jesus, I mean to study his life and character more closely than ever. So I have decided not only to read through the gospels again, but also to read (or read again) books that help me know Jesus more and better. I am currently reading NT Wright’s “The Day The Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion”. I will read others, too : Philip Yancey, CS Lewis, Stanley Hauerwas and Rachel Held Evans are on my to-read list.

The issue with sticking to this is that I get distracted easily. And guess what it my main distraction: the Internet. I spend a lot of time on social media. I do not intend to take extreme measures, however, as the Internet is a valuable tool, and social media enables me to keep in touch with loved ones who live far away.
I am going to have a day off the internet, every week. It will benefit me in lots of ways. Whenever I want to sit down and concentrate on something, I always think, “Hang on, let me check what’s going on on Facebook first”. If I give myself a day off a week, I will be able to answer myself  back, “Today is your day off, girl. You can always catch up with the world tomorrow.”
I intend to study Jesus’ life and character, but there are already numerous things I know about him, so I would like to emulate the aspects of his personality I alread know. Jesus preached non-violence (Matthew 5:5, 9:38-42) and taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). His Kingdom is one where there will be justice and the oppressed will be defended (Matthew 5:6, 7, 10; Matthew 25:34-40, Luke 4:18-21). He told us we were to be recognisable by our love for one another (John 13:34-35). I’m going to try and cultivate those attitudes and actions, through specific courses (I am going to register for a course on non-violent social action and I am going to complete an online Amnesty International course about the rights of refugees). I also want to pray for my enemies - for people I don’t like.
In order to reach my goals, here are my resolutions:
1. Every Sunday, I will keep off the internet. My laptop will be closed. I will read instead from the New Testament and from Christian authors.
2. I will pray for loved ones every day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
3. I will write to, make a call to or visit someone every week.
4. Every Friday, I will spend some time praying for people I dislike.
5. I will enrol for the peaceful social action course and attend it; and I will complete the Amnesty International course about the rights of refugees. I will set aside half a day every week to work on the Amnesty course. The day I set aside will depend on my work schedule (it’s different every week) as I will need to be at home to do this, obviously.
6. Every time I want to curse someone (be it a driver who cuts me off, an internet troll or some politicians whose views I abhor), I will say a quick prayer for them.
Have a wonderful 2017. Be the change you want to see. Be kind to yourself and to others. Plant flowers; plant hope. Cultivate joy.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

If I am not part of the solution, I am part of the problem.

When Trump first announced he was running as a candidate for the Republican party, I dismissed it as a joke. Then, as months passed, mockery gave way to disbelief, then to anger, frustration and indignation. How could such racism, bigotry, and misoginy appeal to so many people? How could someone whose speeches had no substance and no content convince voters? 

I cried and shouted and poured contempt on Trump supporters, and on all those who supported fascist politicians. I despised them for their perceived stupidity and bigotry and for their hatred. I felt proud that I was "not like them" (Parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, anyone?).

Tonight, I read this article, and it dawned on me that like any other story, it's not all simple; it's not all black and white. It's not just stubborn Fundies. It's also people who have been left behind by an elitist system, and felt more support was given to minorities than to them. And they have been deceived into believing Trump will fix that. (Or that a fascist European politician will fix that.)

And suddenly it dawned on me. I cannot humilate them into changing their minds. I cannot bully them into behaving like decent human beings. I cannot even try to "educate" them because by doing this, I am only arrogantly putting myself above them. Humiliating and despising them will only reinforce the problem. 

The only helpful, Jesus-like thing I can do is the same thing I have been doing for Muslims in my centre for asylum seekers, despite my initial fears and misgivings about Muslims: love them. Reach out to them. Listen to them. Seek to understand them. Show them empathy.

So this is where I want to start. Holy Spirit, enable me, because I cannot do this on my own.

I want to follow Jesus, and I foolishly believe love will save the world. You may tell me I am a fucking fool. You're most probably right.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Why I am not a Muslim, and why I love Muslims regardless

There is a lot of negative talk about Muslims, and many people are hostile to Islam because of terrorism. I have written about this issue time and again. Indeed, I feel upset, sad and angry when people demonize all Muslims because of Daesh. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people who are appalled by terrorism and Daesh just as we are, and the majority of Daesh victims are actually Muslims. I also deplore the fact that whenever someone commits a crime and is of Muslim background, the media is quick to highlight it, whereas they seldom mention origin when someone from a "White, Christian" background is the culprit.

I have no personal issue with Muslims. I have Muslim colleagues and I work within a predominantly Muslim environment (a majority of the asylum seekers currently staying in our Red Cross centre identify as Muslims). I love working with them.

Lately, I had a conversation around faith with a Muslim friend. When I said I was a believer, he said to me, "If you were a true believer, wouldn't you accept the Word of the Prophet Mohammed, as he was foretold in the Bible?" 

This is interesting, because looking into Islam, ironically, played a part in my choosing the Christian faith:

"I met a Muslim. We discussed God and religion, and I read some booklets about Islam. As a result, some of my beliefs were challenged. Indeed, I had always thought that all religions all led to God. However, in Islam you had to obey lots of rules and do good deeds, and then maybe, if you were found good enough, God would accept you. On the other hand, I was being told in Church that as a sinner, there was nothing I could do to make myself acceptable to a perfect, absolutely good God, and that all I could do was accept what Jesus had done for me and commit my life to Him. That wasn’t the same thing at all – one belief system told me I had to work hard to deserve God’s acceptance, and the other told me there was nothing I could do and nothing I needed to do, because God had already done it all for me… all I had to do was receive His gift.

I was extremely confused. I could see both beliefs couldn’t be true at the same time, because in all logic they were self-excluding. But I had no idea which one was right. Both seemed to make sense. I knew I had to choose one or the other, and I did want to please God and do what He required, but I simply didn’t know which way was the right one.

I was more attracted to Islam because it fitted my views about God and religion: God wanted us to obey a certain set of rules and be good, and when we'd die He would weigh our good and bad deeds on a pair of scales and see which way it tipped. But I could not dismiss Christianity, because it could make sense too."

I am not going to get into why I don't believe the Bible foretold Mohammed; many Christian theologians have done it much better than I could. I am just going to explain why, personally, I cannot embrace the Muslim faith: because of Jesus. 

Muslim doctrine denies core elements of my faith. It denies the divinity of Jesus, while believing he really was God incarnate is crucial to my faith: God to me is not abstract and aloof, he is close to us. He got his hands dirty. He shared in the messiness of humanity. He knows our struggles because he's lived through them. I would go as far as to say that God LEARNT from the incarnation: instead of an "academic" knowledge of the human experience, he knows because he experienced it personally, which makes him able to fully empathize with us. As far as I know, this is absent from Islam. Second, Muslim doctrine denies Jesus's death. To them Jesus never died: God subsituted him for someone else and gave that other someone the appearance of Jesus. First, why the trickery? Why would God deceive us? Second, Jesus' death and resurrection is crucial to my faith. They bring me redemption and hope. Whatever your theory of atonement is, Jesus had to die, if only to fully identify with us in our humanity. His death reconciled us with God - he took our sins upon himself so we could be free of that burden, freed to do good instead. And if he didn't die, neither did he rise - and then where is the hope of our own resurrection? Jesus's incarnation, life, death and resurrection bring me a hope and peace that I have not found in Islam (I have read Muslim booklets explaining the faith, booklets designed to win over converts, as well as several passages from translations of the Holy Quran). This is why I am not a Muslim.

This being said, I have no personal problems with Muslim people. They are my human brothers and sisters, created by God and loved by God. He knows their hearts and I do not, so I cannot presume to know whether they are "saved" or not (whatever that means). I can only follow Jesus' command to love them. I work among Muslims every day at the center for asylum seekers. They are humans. They can be kind, loving, funny, rude, angry, hospitable, touching, humble, proud, they can be peaceful and they can be violent. They are human brothers and sisters, not better than us and not worse, either.

Finally, I think as Christians, we can learn from the devotion to God we see in Islam. Who among us prays 5 times a day? I know I don't. Who fasts from sunrise till sunset for 40 days? I know I don't. Who learns verses of the Holy Scripture by heart in order to be closer to God? I know I don't. So I have a lot of respect for my Muslim brothers and sisters.