Have you ever read a much-loved book or watched a favourite film umpteen times, so much so that you know the quotes and look forward to particular moments but then one day you notice something that you have never seen before? One of the most random examples I experienced was watching the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) as an adult (having loved it as a child). I don’t expect I will be ruining the story for you (if you somehow don’t know it) if I tell you that a small group of children and parents win tickets to visit a fantastical secretive chocolate factory. At one point they are led to a river of chocolate, with a chocolate waterfall (or chocolate fall) and then following some misadventure are taken onto a boat to sail the chocolate river. They enter a tunnel as the boat gets faster and faster and the whole atmosphere becomes increasingly extraordinary, with flashing lights, the children and parents expressing their uncertainty or fear, Willy Wonka looks a bit like a mad scientist and with a deadpan expression and wide eyes says a chilling poem. Amidst all this there are images flashing up, brief random clips of film gone in a moment. One of these brief clips is of a chicken having its head cut off. I never noticed it as a child, when I mention it to others they are oblivious and seek to go back to check it out because they are in disbelief. Yet there is it, in the midst of a film about children in a magical chocolate factory a chicken is decapitated.
When it comes to studying scripture and spending time reflecting on the words, the narrative and the lessons there is so much to take in and new discoveries. However, there are also some key lessons that I have accepted, adopted and even taught over the years which I don’t expect to change. One such lesson is the importance of what I would describe as a call to discipleship that is three-dimensional. What I mean is that we seek to nurture relationship in three directions; “up” to God, “in” to fellow Christian’s, and “out” to those who are not Christian’s. Bible verses can be used to back up this model and within Christian language we might talk about “up” (Luke 6:12) with regards to practices such as prayer and worship, “in” (Luke 6:13-16) relates to fellowship and meeting together and “out” (Luke 6:17-19) speaks of evangelism and mission. Take a look at church strap lines or mission statements and frequently this model is expressed (thought the words and language use will vary).
I have accepted this understanding and teaching for years, I appreciate that it challenges Christian’s to think not only about themselves, not to be caught up only in their own small world, but to seek to invest in a broader range of relations. However, during the course of the past few years I have sensed that there was something missing, it isn’t a complete model. I have developed an increased appreciation for the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) and spent more time exploring their message and relevance for our contemporary context. As my understanding of these scriptures has developed so my understanding of Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the New Testament has flourished. The new model that I have come understand for the life of discipleship in Christ is a four-way faith.
Up remains unchanged – this is our relationship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-38) and in response he quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”. First and foremost the relationship we are to nurture and cherish with our whole being is the relationship we have with God. We can look to many examples throughout the scriptures of how to undertake this, looking to the likes of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul and many more.
In is not about our relationships with those already in the church or who called themselves Christian’s, this is a reminder that we are to love ourselves. Jesus’ says that the greatest commandment is to love God, but says the second is like it “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39-40). In order to love others as ourselves means that we must love ourselves. Increasingly I discover that too many of us do not love ourselves, we find it easier to love others but we cannot accept ourselves as we are, we are constantly looking to change, seeking to cover what we perceive as flaws. We carry guilt, a sense of worthlessness, a feeling that we are not good enough, perhaps ugly, dirty or unlovable. Our society is busy; busy trying to make money, to have a certain experience, to own certain things, we keep our minds busy with TV and music and noise and lights so that we don’t have to spend time with our own thoughts and our own selves. Mental health problems are continuing to increase exponentially as we fail to care for ourselves and fail to make time for ourselves. I believe that God introduced the concept of a Sabbath not for God’s benefit but knowing that for our health and well-being we require time to rest, set aside from working but to enjoy both the presence of God as well as to regularly reconcile ourselves with ourselves. It is not just about clearing our conscience with God, but accepting that we are loved, cherished and of great worth.
Out refers to our love for our neighbours, that is not only fellow Christian’s or members of our particular church, but a compassion and care for those we live amongst. All those who we come into contact with throughout each day, every day, not just on special occasions. When asked who our neighbours are, Jesus told a story about an injured man who was ignored by those who were most likely to have been considered in that time and culture to be more likely neighbours (Luke 10:25-37). The hero of the story is a Samaritan, a member of the religious community who were in constant conflict with the Israelite community. Previously under the charge of John Hyrcanus who was high priest the Samaritan Temple was Destroyed (ca. 112/111 BC). The Jewish historian Josephus records an incident whereby a group of Samaritans defile the Jerusalem Temple with ‘dead men’s bodies’ approximately 20 years before Jesus’ ministry begins, so relatively recent history in the context. This wasn’t a relatively harmless dislike for another, this was active hostility and the people hearing the story were caused to humbly admit that the person acting as the neighbour in the story was their adversary who lived amongst them.
We live in a society in which news, media, politicians, and many more seek to point blame and raise distrust amongst those who do not support a particular point of view or who will not affect a vote or sale. There is a narrative that blames asylum seekers and refugees, foreigners of any kind (but particular nationalities are singled out). Frequently young people are labelled as causing problems, it happens with anti-social behaviour, currently it is for the new rise in covid-19 cases and return of some restrictions. We have seen afresh an awareness of the pandemic of racism across our country, with black, Asian and minority ethic British people targeted and told to “go back to their own country” when they, their parents and grandparents were all born here, have worked hard, served, payed taxes and in many cases cared for us as teachers, doctors, nurses, carers, police officers, social workers and business owners. Disabled people are blamed for the lack of economic contribution as education and work places are not prepared to make adequate adaptions to include a diverse work force. My own research has highlighted the disappointing attitude of the church towards disabled adults in the UK. Those who are brought up in poverty are labelled as lazy and blamed for the ills in society. And, we buy into these narratives. We find ourselves putting other people down, failing to offer an alternative perspective that says all are created in the image of God and are valued by God and valued by God’s church. And, we are all the poorer for our failure to love our neighbours as we feel that the places we once knew and felt comfortable in have changed beyond recognition. We begin to feel like aliens in the places we have always known and loved. We miss out on the gift of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation. We miss out on meeting new friends, discovering similarities as well as differences. We watch as the world becomes smaller, with the ease of travel and communication and yet our world becomes smaller because we instead of loving our neighbours we other them if they are not quite like us and it takes a bit of effort to discover our commonality in humanity. I wonder what Jesus would answer now if we asked, “who is my neighbour?”
Down is for me the new fourth dimension. Down is our relationship with the earth, our relationship with creation. We acknowledge that in the beginning God created (Genesis 1) but it seems in our churches we forget that God created us to enjoy, nurture and tend to creation (Genesis 1:28-30). Almost every time the people of Israel are living in God’s blessing it relates to a good harvest, plenty crops and live-stock, the weather works in their favour and they get rain in the right season rather than sunshine and famine (Deuteronomy 28:12; Joel 2:23). Throughout the scripture’s creation is described as places of healing or lifting eye up to God (Psalm 19:1-4; Psalm 121:1-2). Jesus frequently makes reference to creation; be it sheep, goats, seeds, seasons or the elements. Often times Jesus retreats to a mountain to pray because it puts him in touch with God the Father (Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46, Luke 6:12, John 6:15), the Father of creation. Today retreat centres and places of healing, renewal and refreshing are found in places of beauty. Whether it is a well-kept garden or the open countryside or a seaside view being in and with nature is healing for us. During the restrictions that have come with covid-19 many of us have said how we are grateful for gardens, for opportunities to get some fresh air, to walk in a park, to discover a new green space or stream in which to walk, run, cycle. There has been much talk of people saying their gardens have never looked so good, and people growing vegetables, many for the first time. At the same time, we have seen movements such as Extinction Rebellion seeking to keep the welfare of our planet at the forefront of our minds and agendas. We might not agree with all (or any) of their methods but their message is important – we need to take urgent action to care for our planet, because if we don’t there won’t be much of a planet for future generations to enjoy.
Even now, although we might notice and complain about something like an increase in fly-tipping we fail to acknowledge or act upon our knowledge that around the world those who live in poorer places are receiving our rubbish because it is sent overseas. Landscapes and habitats are being destroyed to grow crops for our benefit. Resources are being stripped away leaving damaged earth and even warfare in their wake, and we have sleep walked into natural disaster after natural disaster. As disciples we are called to know, to love and to care for creation and when we do it brings healing to us, healing to our neighbours, and drawers us closer to God.
Four Way Faith
I want to encourage the seeking of a four-way faith :–
Love your neighbour