To record other hang ups that I have carried through life as a result of my low church, fundamentalist background, I have already mentioned the negativity there was concerning what one could or could not do on a Sunday. Strict Sunday observance was very important in those days, and whilst I do think things have gone too far in the opposite direction today I still find I am very uncomfortable doing certain things on a Sunday. For instance, I try not to do any washing on a Sunday, which is ridiculous really as it’s all just put into a machine. I would be even more uncomfortable, however, pegging it out in the garden to dry. It just wouldn’t seem right somehow. I try not to use shops on a Sunday, but often fail! I wouldn’t buy a Sunday newspaper, although of course it’s really Monday’s newspaper that shouldn’t be bought as all the work for it was done on a Sunday. How complicated life can become!
I remember soon after I had first met Rodney, (through a Twenty Plus group at St. Johns church, Blackpool that I went to with a friend,) he arranged an outing one Sunday afternoon to Blackpool Zoo! I was astonished! It’s not something I had ever even considered doing on a Sunday. But I went, and enjoyed it, and nothing terrible happened to me as a result. I didn’t even feel the slightest bit guilty. On another occasion we had a weekend at Scargill House in the Yorkshire Dales. On the Saturday evening there was a barn dance. Dancing! That was something else that was frowned on in my Sunday School days, and I had never done it before. It was all new to me, but I loved it.
Even now I am not happy buying raffle tickets. Raffles were very much frowned upon, as being the start of a slippery slope into hard gambling. Whilst I now think they are totally harmless, and accept the fact that the raise much needed funds, I don’t buy a ticket, but simply give the money. That’s simply my way of getting round it. In any case, I don’t really like the idea of giving with the hope of getting something back for myself.
Continuing the progress of my troublesome Christian journey, I admit that I have struggled to understand the Atonement. The Old testament times were full of animal sacrifices, even though God said He had no pleasure in them, and did not require them. People were forgiven in the Old Testament before the death of Jesus, and Jesus himself forgave people before his death. I do wonder whether sacrifice for sins was such a part of the Jewish culture that they took the death of Jesus to be the final sacrifice for sins, and that wasn’t what God intended. The whole idea of even animal sacrifice is so barbaric and repulsive, and so unlike anything we would do today, at least in western civilisation, that I find it difficult to comprehend and certainly hard to dwell on.
Can it really be true that God, who created us, who knew all about us before we were born, and who loves each one of us, will turn us away because we haven’t understood what the church has taught, or have not prayed the right prayer, or believed exactly the right doctrine, or even simply had emotional or psychological problems in ‘believing’? I find that impossible to believe. If it’s true that we are ‘born in sin’, therefore making it impossible for us to live our whole lives without sin, it amounts to the same thing as us blaming a child for being born with a serious disability, saying it is their own fault. Clearly that’s not the case. We understand that now, although in Bible times people did think that disability was caused by someone’s sin.
I have great difficulty with the second verse of the well loved hymn ‘In Christ Alone’, which says: ‘On that cross where Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied’. I am very uncomfortable with those words and I am not alone. The URC church would not print it in their hymn book. They even contacted the writer Stuart Townend to ask permission to change the line to ‘the love of God was glorified’, but he would not allow it. That is his right of course, but was God really ‘satisfied’ with the crucifixion? That’s an unfortunate word to use in connection with the terrible death of Jesus, suggesting a certain smugness on God’s part which I don’t believe was there. If anything He must have been, and I believe was, truly devastated, and continues to be so today when he witnesses man’s inhumanity to man.
So I admit I don’t understand the Atonement, but can anybody really honestly state that they do? Rather, surely something very mysterious and wonderful took place on the Cross.
I have been greatly helped in recent years by a book by the late Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, called ‘The Christian Agnostic’. I well remember Leslie Weatherhead broadcasting on the radio in the 1950’s, and being called by people at Christ Church a heretic. So when I found this now out of print book in a charity shop I was interested. A Methodist minister and brilliant preacher, drawing huge crowds, his thinking was clearly ahead of his time, but his book helped me to arrive at a place where, in his words, ‘my mind can rest.’ There are many difficult and, in all honesty unanswerable questions regarding faith, and Leslie Weatherhead bravely tackles many of them. I suppose I could now call myself a Christian Agnostic, except that I feel that the things that puzzle me most are not essential to having a relationship with Christ, and walking in his Way. After all, he said nothing about doctrine. All that really matters is to love God and to love and show forgiveness to others.
I certainly still believe in heaven and hell, but I don’t accept the traditional view. I think that humans, (and animals) survive death, and that the afterlife is real. There has been a great deal of research in recent years on near death experiences. I first came across this phenomenon in the mid 70’s when I was nursing, and although in those days NDE’s were considered suspect they are now accepted as being real. So it seems there is too much evidence to suggest that life ends at death, even though some scientists would have you believe otherwise. However it seems to me there is one certainty about science, and that is that science doesn’t have all the answers to everything.
I believe that each of us goes to a place that is right for us, wherever we are on life’s journey, and that this life is not the only chance of knowing God. Jesus told the thief, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’ Had the thief (if he was a thief – or is it more likely that he was a political activist?) repented? The Bible gives no indication that he had. In fact he could even been talking in a mocking way when he said to Jesus ‘Remember me when you get to your kingdom.’ The point is, we simply do not know. We make assumptions, and believe what we have been told.
I believe that Paradise is the place where most people go, but Jesus also ‘descended to Hell’. Why did He do that? Surely it was to preach to the lost souls there, which gives hope that there is still a chance for people. I don’t believe that God wants anyone to be lost, but ultimately there will be some who keep themselves in hell. They will continue to turn their backs on the love of God and therefore judge themselves.
Now I am aware that there are parts of the Bible that talk about the narrow road to heaven, and the broad road to hell. However, I also believe that the Bible must be judged by what we know about Jesus, who showed us what God is like. We should not judge God by the Bible, which although it was inspired by God it was not dictated by him, but rather written by fallible humans. I know there is danger in only taking the bits we like and ignoring the rest, but the truth is that everyone does that. If we didn’t take some parts and not others we would still think it’s ok to have slaves, and slaughter enemies like Islamic State jihadist do. I could give other examples of how even the most fundamental Bible believers don’t accept every single word of the Bible as right for today’s world, but I think I’ve made the point clear here.
What is heaven like? As St. Paul said, ‘now we see through a glass darkly’, so we cannot really know. But peering through that dark glass I am certain I see lots of activity. I have never liked the term RIP (Rest in Peace), and I find the last four lines of the carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ very annoying. (Here I am again, talking about another hymn with some words I can no longer sing. For some reason I take much more notice of the words I sing these days, simply because I like the truth.) Those last four lines say:
‘When like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.’
Well, I certainly hope that’s not true! I do wonder if the otherwise great Cecil Frances Alexander was frantically searching for words to finish off this carol, but inspiration simply evaded her on this occasion, so she just found something that would rhyme. It’s a shame because the first four lines of this last verse are very good, these being
‘Not in that poor lowly stable with the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him, but in Heaven, set at God’s right hand on high.’
Some modern hymn books actually miss out this last verse, so maybe there’s some reason why the last four lines can’t simply be rewritten. Are they still governed by copyright, I wonder?
Back to that dark glass though, not only do I see plenty of fulfilling activity, rather than simply ‘waiting around’, I also don’t see any over long church services. I do feel there will be beautiful music, singing and dancing, and my inward eye sees a verdant place, with creatures other than humans there. I fully expect to meet long loved and lost family and friends there, and also those animals that I have loved on earth. It would be unthinkable to suggest that God did not want other parts of His creation to be part of his heaven.
Will there be nothing but happiness in heaven? I find that hard to believe, as peace and joy etc must have the opposite possible in order for the difference to be appreciated. Maybe there will be some sadness of being aware of some things that are happening on earth. We can only speculate on such things, and I am the first to admit I may be completely wrong.
There will of course be no money. I have for many years enjoyed Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge books. These children’s stories about a community of mice paint a lovely picture of heaven, and I would encourage any to read them to understand what I mean. Jill Barklem, now sadly deceased at a fairly young age, was a committed Christian, and although her books don’t have a hidden message in the way that the C. S. Lewis Narnia books do, nevertheless the thoughts about what society really could be like shines through.
If you have come with me this far on my spiritual journey I must thank you, and apologise for the long rambling blog. I have probably admitted things that have surprised you, things that are outside your experience that you find you cannot understand, some things that you agree with and others that you disagree with. I called it my ‘journey through faith, doubt and hope’. My faith is much stronger today, and doubts come less frequently, (even though occasionaly I still find myself wondering.) I am now no longer affected by hard, uncompromising doctrines, because I now feel that they are not that important. This gives me a great sense of relief, and with that, peace.
I have also in recent years embraced the Celtic way of thinking about the Christian life.
The seven points are listed on the next page.
1) Hope – Seeing the good, and having hope for the future.
2) Equality – of race, gender, age, and respect for religious belief, to differ well.
3) Mystery – God is beyond our understanding.
4) Environment – the importance of preserving this beautiful world, in which we humans have
created such havoc.
5) Holistic – Being in tune with nature.
6) Immanence – God is indwelling, inherent.
7) Simplicity – living a simple life as far as that is possible.
Also, each day try to:
Smell something lovely
Look at something lovely
Taste something lovely
Touch something lovely
Listen to something lovely.
And do something to help God’s kingdom flourish on earth.
‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
For surely, eternal life is not just something in the future – it is here already.