Thursday, 30 April 2020

You are Beautiful to God

In 2010, a staggering 4,867 American young people, aged 10-24 years, took their own lives. This makes a harrowing average of 13 people for each day of the year.

This terrible statistic makes suicide in the USA the second leading cause of death for this age group (after "Unintentional injury"), over twice as many as malignant cancer (2,081) and four times as many as heart disease (1,145). [1]  Moreover, if you went into an American high school, and asked a hundred 14-17 year olds, statistically 16 would have seriously considered taking their life, 13 would have made a plan and 8 actually attempted. [2]

Shockingly, in 2008, the BBC reported research indicating that, if you were to go into a secondary school and ask a group of 100 girls aged 11-19, statistically around 33 of them will probably have attempted self-harm at some point. It's an issue for both genders too, with it being 22 boys out of the same size group. Out of the 33 girls, 24 of them have probably attempted cutting themselves, 15 punching themselves, 4 deliberately burning themselves, and 3 intentionally poisoning themselves. The study then excludes those who self-harm but haven't wanted to tell anyone, making rates potentially even higher. [3]

To say these are harrowing statistics is an understatement. Why is this happening? Why do young people want to deliberately injure and even end their lives? Indeed, adolescence is a difficult time due to hormonal and physical changes, but the sheer horror of how many are involved cannot rationally or reasonably be explained by this alone. It's not as though it's an anomaly or a rare occurrence - with the horrific rates quoted above, a third of girls deliberately injuring themselves, and one in six young people seriously considering suicide, it seems more and more as though something really is severely wrong...

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Death by the Internet?

This picture is a difficult conundrum...

On the one hand, if it were the male members of the family gagged/tied up, it would not have caused an uproar (though it may have gone viral as a joke). Yet why does the gender make such a difference in this case?

I think it is due to the fact that the symbols used in the images are almost always otherwise associated with domestic abuse. Sadly, there is genuinely a terrible amount of domestic abuse still happening, mainly unreported, whether physical or (much more common) verbal or emotional, in the United Kingdom even after all the civil rights movements of the last century.

The statistics are crazy if we think about them - in the UK, since the age of 16, statistically 30% of women and 16.3% of men have experienced abuse of some form. This is terrible for both genders, but still almost twice as prevalent in women than men. Then we must consider that a large proportion of abuse cases aren't reported. Especially if we take other nations into account - in Ethiopia, for instance, 71% of women (according to the WHO) have experienced physical or sexual violence by their partner (and this doesn't even include emotional/verbal abuse!), this is skewed extremely towards the female gender.

Though we purport to be an equal society by name in the UK, the evidence points to an underlying culture that legitimises treating people differently based on their gender. And, as much as we may wish it were not true, I believe the evidence points to the fact that many thousands of women, even here in the UK, experience less favourable treatment and less opportunities simply because of their gender. It's easy to dismiss this as a feminist illusion, but the statistics (such as those on abuse, above), by independent bodies such as ONS, speak a different story. And, internationally speaking, a sometimes very explicit bias against women is undeniably present and a major injustice of the world today.

Even regardless of all this, I personally find the picture very upsetting, and I would also do if it were the male members of the family, as the fact that anyone would want to even joke about gagging / tying up their wife or daughter (or husband and son), even for the sake of a picture, deeply upsets me. Particularly someone putting tape over the little girls' mouths - I just can't really see how anyone could have the heart to do that, even if the girls truly volunteered...

It all comes down to the question - what is a legitimate joke and what is not appropriate - when is too far? I would say (and hope), probably, the people involved in making this image do not see anything offensive in it, and were not harmed by its making. Yet did they do anything wrong? I personally think that we are not in a position to judge them for that - we don't know their intentions. I am not in a place of judgment on them, and we shouldn't subject them to a mass internet lynching, as seems to have been the case! (This would be truly unjust, and imagine the effect on the children!)

In the context of statistically major gender discrimination worldwide (which is difficult to deny based on the evidence), it is not difficult to see why people find such a picture upsetting and even offensive. I personally find it very troubling, as the symbols (tape and tied hands) it uses are often used in symbols representing repression and abuse, and it is difficult to separate this from the image. The image deeply troubles me, but I will not make a moral judgment on the character of the people who made it.

I think the family has been given a very hard time, and this is an even greater injustice. Let us not do the whole "death by the internet" thing again! It's like a modern-day lynch mob, except this one probably won't kill you (although it may send you death threats) and it's millions of people in size! The internet, unfortunately, can very easily itself become a form of abuse - and we must be careful not to commit the very same crime we are accusing others of doing!

Instead, if anything good will come out of this discussion, it is a highlight of the continuing issues of gender inequality and hopefully an increased zeal to see a world where both genders are treated as equally, and limitlessly, valuable human beings in the eyes of their Creator.

We cannot deny there is a major problem of inequality any longer. We must work together to end it - for recognition is the beginning of the end. What a glorious day a world without gender inequality will be! Sadly, this is presently still very, very far from being the case.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

I am truly sorry, Syria...

"Bombing doesn't kill an ideology. It feeds it."

Imagine for a moment you were sitting in your living room, relaxing with your family. You can hear children playing in the distance.

Then, suddenly, without warning, you hear a deafening noise and the room goes black. A heavy mass crumbles on top of you, pinning you to the ground, and the lights go out.

You wake to frantic rescue services pulling you out of a pile of rubble. A terrible pain overwhelms you, as they place a mask over your face. You look round, and see a pile of rubble, utterly devastated, where your home once was. Men and women rush screaming in grief. Some are already pulling bodies from the wreckage.

The death toll? Five dozen, including children.

Of course, this never happened...

Or did it? On 1st May near Aleppo, Syria, a scene like this was a reality. An air strike, attributed to a misguided US attempt to strike an ISIS position, killed 52 civilians, including at least 7 children.

The death toll of civilians from such air strikes is well into the hundreds: between 22 Sept 2014 and 23 Nov 2015, an estimated 250 civilians were killed in US-led airstrikes in Syria alone, and 403 civilians were killed in Russian-led airstrikes between 30 Sept 2015 and 20 Nov 2015. This makes an estimated total of 653 civilians.

The events of Paris were truly terrible. They claimed the lives of 130 innocent civilians. Yet Western airstrikes have claimed 5 times this number in Syria alone. We are (rightly) furious about the horrendous loss of life in Paris. Yet at our hands, we are responsible for far, far more civilian deaths.

Imagine if this were your country. Imagine if missile-laden planes flew over from Syria, seeking to attack 'military targets' in the United Kingdom, and killed over 600 innocent civilians in the process. It would be an absolute travesty. It would be deemed the worst attack since the second world war.

Think about it: the UK and its allies, in such a case, would not hesitate to respond with a massive-scale attack on its aggressors. Not many people would blame it for wanting to do so. In such a case, why do we expect the people of Syria to act any differently?

By attacking Syria, we are blindly pouring petrol on the already blazing fire of anti-UK sentiment. How do we expect them not to retaliate, as we would certainly do, in their position?

We say the death penalty is wrong. Yet we are involved in a mass-scale state-sponsored assassination of thousands upon thousands of ISIS fighters.

We say terrorism is deplorable. Yet we go over and kill hundreds and hundreds of civilians.

Yes, this was so-called "collateral damage". Yes, it was "unintentional". But it was not completely unanticipated. The high risk of this happening was absolutely known about. Yet these people's lives were deemed by Western nations a price worth paying.

Would we volunteer to tell this to their families?

A few minutes ago, I was listening to the live stream of the House of Commons as the result in favour of air strikes in Syria was read out. I felt utterly helpless, preparing to watch our nation go out to commit another misguided attempt at intervention in the Middle East.

We do this while declaring that we cannot afford to give benefits to people with disabilities who don't fulfill certain criteria, and continuously hear of the supposed necessity of austerity. Clearly, we can afford to kill, but not to feed the poor. We can afford to destroy, but not to provide the support to rebuild broken lives. The tragedy is that, most probably, all this, so many thousand human deaths later, will only make the situation worse in the long run.

When will we learn that "an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind"? Violence may hold back a movement, but it will never end an ideology. Violence never has, and never will, truly end violence.

I hereby apologise thus, with a heavy heart, to the families of people of Syria who will lose their lives as a result of British bombs. I am truly sorry.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Should Jesus be our best friend?

“Jesus is not your ‘best friend’ – He is your Lord. ‘Best friend’ is overfamiliar.”

Have you ever heard this sort of statement? From my own observation, there has been a tendency in recent discussions about God to react against the idea of overfamiliarity. It is said that an overfamiliarity somehow reduces the holiness of God. Doubtless, this passion for a respect for God is well-intentioned and, I would argue, completely legitimate and laudable. Without God, we would not even exist – it goes without saying that to give Him the highest honour and worship is absolutely fitting.

However, the presumption that overfamiliarity is necessarily an obstacle to us having respect for God is curious. If, by overfamiliarity, we mean becoming uninspired and bored at the idea of drawing close to God, thus leading us to treat God poorly or disrespectfully in our words or actions, then it can easily be seen why this is negative. Yet God does not call us to languish in religious boredom; He calls us into a vibrant, utterly awe-inspiring relationship with the One who is the paradigm of all beauty and everything good.

On the other hand, though, if we take the ideas of ‘familiarity’ and ‘friendship’ to their core, we are talking about a close relationship. The Oxford dictionary defines “friend” as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection”.[1] The question then arises as to whether it is ever appropriate for us, as human beings who so often make mistakes, to be close enough to God as to have a “bond of mutual affection” that would qualify us to be “friends”. In other words, is it right to call God our “friend”?

On one level, the answer for this is fairly straightforward:

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

Extraordinarily, here is the affirmation of friendship, on Jesus’ initiative. So, indeed, friendship is an appropriate expression of our relationship with God, as affirmed directly by Jesus.

Does God have 'personal space'?

Yet is that really all? Surely the idea of being “God’s friend” is somehow improper, given God’s holiness?

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Was Jesus actually harsh?

It seems fashionable at the moment to suggest that today's churches and sermons focus too much on the positives of God's love and not enough on the ideas of judgement and justice. It is suggested that we need to talk more openly about the reality of hell, because, apparently, this is what Jesus did. It is suggested that Jesus was very straight to the point on matters of sin, and thus we should behave the same way when talking to people. It is believed by many that a direct, say-it-as-it-is approach is more biblical, evangelical and Jesus-like than a perceived soft, gentle and gradual approach.

If this genuinely does reflect Jesus' approach, I have no problem with it. If not, however, I do take issue though with what seems to be a tendency to use Christianity to justify one's desire to criticise others with flawed theology. Of course, we all know it can feel good to criticise people we disagree with, or whose personalities clash with ours, or who are different to us, or who don't like us. Yet it goes without saying that, even though it feels good, this doesn't make it right in Jesus' sight.

"If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt"

This is an oft-quoted passage, Luke 6:29. Of course it's challenging, and of course I personally have failed terribly at following it. But that doesn't mean we can just explain it away. The most natural reading of it seems to be that Jesus advocated patience and gentleness rather than harsh debate, sharp criticism and overpowering argumentation.

I deeply object when the Bible is used out of context and contrary to its original intention to justify a purely human agenda. I fear some, not necessarily all, but some, of today's rhetoric about Jesus emphasising judgement, implying that we should do likewise, comes not from love but from a desire to justify our very much human desire to criticise people we disagree with. I cannot deny I feel the pull and the temptation too, and have often also given into it.

Any text can be twisted. This doesn't mean that it doesn't have a genuine, legitimate meaning. To get at this, however, often requires dropping preconceptions which we all have. If we look at the texts objectively, are people right when they say Jesus often had harsh words for sinners? I see where this line of thought originates, but I believe it is fundamentally mistaken. No question, Jesus does use strong words in certain situations. At one point, for example, He states, "You snakes, you brood of vipers!" This was undeniably hard to hear for the people it was directed to!

Yet who was He talking to? Take a look at the vast majority of the passages where Jesus has the harshest words, and they're targeted not at thieves, nor at prostitutes, nor at tax collectors, but Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees. These are the religious leaders, the ones who interpret the Bible, the very people who criticise others for not following it. I find in them a personality that is scarily like ours sometimes in the Church. Could we, with all our zeal to be 'tough on sin', be missing the point completely and ironically ending up much more like the Pharisees, the very people Jesus criticised harshly in the first place?

In fact, for example, Jesus has very little indeed that could be perceived as harsh to women, even those he met who were caught in adultery or prostitution. To the contrary, some of His kindest words were towards women. This is why I find it utterly staggering when Jesus is perceived as in any way sexist or misogynist. I absolutely despise oppression or repression towards anyone, particularly by one person in a relationship of power over another. Yet this is what has been justified towards women and children and all sorts of groups in the name of some supposedly 'biblical' principle of authority. I find it staggering! It shows that we have almost limitless ability to twist the Bible to fit our agendas as much as we see fit. I believe that this is what truly angered Jesus - when people used religion to oppress others.

Why do I have such a 'bee in my bonnet', so to speak, about this issue? It's because I see people literally tearing apart people's self-esteem, and presenting a horrendously distorted version of Jesus' true Gospel, in the name of being direct and "standing up for what's right". For instance, I have talked to people on the LGBT spectrum who literally believe God hates them and will never accept them in any sense, and are unable to believe that God could ever love them. I can almost guarantee they did not come to this view by reading the Bible or praying to God, simply because neither of these would tell them this! The Bible is very clear that God loves all without exception. Instead, they came to this view because of the action of Christians, in God's very Name, in rejecting, shunning and harshly speaking against them and people they know. This is just one example, but one which is very relevant to contemporary debates and, I believe, indicative of a deep failure of the Church's priority.

When a Christian is critical and harsh to someone who isn't a Christian, in their harsh words, they risk permanently alienating a person from actually drawing close to Jesus. Think about it: they are a beloved Creation of God, a lamb Jesus is meticulously searching for, and we have just effectively thrown them off a cliff, metaphorically speaking. What are we thinking of? What happened to being patient, gentle, and loving? If there's any doubt about this, take a look at the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. Funnily enough, "willingness to offend" is not one of them. It might surprise some to hear that Paul argues in Romans 12:18 that we should, "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all."

We are called to show nothing but love and kindness to all people. This is not a token kindness that, in reality, desires to push our own agendas and isn't willing to enter into genuine relationships with human beings. After all, this is exactly what God wants. This is not a "Good News" that is portrayed as though it's more bad news than good. We are called to welcome people, not push them away, and if what we do pushes people away, we need to question whether we are actually pushing God away in the process.

God genuinely cares about people finding joy, hope and love in Him (1 Timothy 2:4). He really is that good! May we bring Him glory in helping with this, not burden Him by hindering and distorting the message, the wonderfully Good News.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Reflection on Heaven: Revelation 21...

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” - (Revelation 21:1-4)

In one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible, here is a vision of the hope God calls each and every one of us to. It is compared to the wedding of all weddings, a perfect marriage of the bride, the Church, which includes all of us, with Jesus the perfect bridegroom. We will certainly not be bored: the Creator of the universe is not going to stop being creative! Everything we found intimidating or awkward about church or worship or closeness with God will no longer be there - the Son will set us free, and we will be free indeed.

It is the place God always intended humankind to live; all this life was preparing us for this future. Everything we have ever needed, everything we truly desire, is found in God, and finally we will be closer to Him than we ever have been to anyone. As God always desired, He will dwell completely with us. There will be no "mourning or crying or pain", for the fallen universe will be completely made new. All the pain of life, the 'vale of tears', will be overwhelmed with perfect peace and comfort as God wipes away all our tears. We will finally be home, in the place we belong, that we were always made for.

Just thinking about this idea, beyond words in beauty, for a minute puts our life in perspective: there is still hope, for even us, even me, for you, even now, after everything that has happened, no matter what. In a nutshell, everything is going to be OK, more than OK - and to say that God promises us that would be a crazy understatement!

Image credit: Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, 5 April 2015

What if there were Social Media on the first Easter?

2000 years ago, tablets where something made of stone and people would think the internet was used for fishing. Yet what if iPhones were around? Could Easter Sunday be the first event to go viral on early Social Media? Here’s what it might have been like:

Easter through Social Media:
  1. Just after Jesus’ death, Peter gets a hard time from the Pharisees on Joseph of Arimathea’s status:

  2. This just knocked Peter’s confidence even more… He already felt guilty for what he did to disown Jesus.

  3. Meanwhile, a Jew, Joseph of Arimathea, who had deep respect for Jesus, texted the remorseful Pilate about an unusual request: (Luke 23:50-56)

  4. Jesus’ body was therefore now sealed in a tomb. Early on Sunday, Mary and her friends wanted to pay respects to Jesus’ body with traditional spices: (Luke 24:1)

  5. While all this was happening, people weren’t really paying attention to Jesus’ suspicious username change and recent activity:

Sunday, 8 March 2015

8 reasons why Women in Ministry is Biblical...

1) To simply assume every passage in the Bible applies generally and universally fails to take Scripture seriously

Often, opposition of women in leadership point to one or two isolated verses that apparently limit women from certain roles in ministry. However, this approach is weak on two levels. Firstly, it fails to recognise that there are instructions in the Bible, particularly Paul’s letters, which are meant for a specific situation in the church he is writing to, rather than universal application. Take the following for example:

“No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23)

This instruction to drink wine is clearly written specifically for Timothy, and by no means applies universally, nor was it ever intended to. This doesn’t make it worthless, as it informs us more about the care Paul has for people, but if we are to truly take these verses seriously rather than twisting them out of context, we cannot blindly assume every principle written by Paul is meant universally. Otherwise, the option of teetotalism would be sinful, and John the Baptist, who didn’t drink wine (Luke 1:15), would have been doing wrong! It’s like our legal system – there are rules and principles that only apply for specific areas, times and contexts.

With this as a precedent, we must be prepared to accept there are other statements and instructions in Paul’s letters that only apply to very limited contexts, lest we end up misunderstanding the message God wishes to portray through Scripture.

Secondly, to take simply an isolated verse fails to take the whole Bible truly seriously, as its message must be taken as a while and in context. If women are given the roles that make up what we call ministry” today in the Bible, and they are clearly approved of and spoken of positively, then we must conclude that what we call “ministry” is something that is available to both genders. If this is the case, we must conclude, therefore, that we might have misunderstood the isolated verses apparently suggesting otherwise, if we take the inspiration of the whole Bible seriously.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

No longer a Slave to Fear

What is your greatest fear? Rejection? Illness? Death? Cats? (I know the last one is particularly terrifying!) Fear can be a maze that, no matter how hard one tries, it is easy to only get further lost. Fear can be a prison, a torturer that will not relent or show mercy. Fear can be a dread-filled dark pit, consuming our lives to the extent that they seem no longer worth living.

Image credit: Richard Bartz

Often it's a viscous cycle - fear fills our mind with darkness and endless over-analysis of situations. This then pulls us into panic, which simply makes our minds more and more vulnerable, and often more and more irrational. It erodes any positive view of ourselves that we have, and seeps toxic despair into us. A strong distraction often seems like the only way to break out of such a cycle. To face such fears head-on is not only absolutely daunting, but sometimes absolutely impossible once we're stuck in cycles of panic.

Yet a little while ago, I came across the following curious lyric to a song:

"I'm no longer a slave to fear.
For I am a child of God."

Can we truly be free from fear?

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? Fear certainly seems an oppressive and harsh master, enslaving us with no hope of release. To genuinely be free from fear is a utopia we may believe is unreachable. It sounds good in principle, but is it anything more than a distant dream? Can we truly be free from fear?

When I first became a Christian, the idea of God providing freedom from fear was totally unheard of to me. Somehow I had come up with the notion that God tends to change His mind very quickly. One tiny slip-up or wrong thought, and I believed I was immediately rejected and needed to painstakingly claw back God's acceptance. Once finally at peace, inevitably within the next 10 minutes I'd failed again. My greatest fear was finally coming before God in the future and Him telling me that I had not fulfilled the standard necessary for salvation, meaning I would be forever lost. I feared hell and judgement to the extent that I was constantly panicking about whether God had really accepted me or not. I would do anything to be accepted - my deepest longing was true acceptance by God, and yet I never quite could know if I ever had this or not.

This constant doubt - not of God Himself, but of His love and acceptance of me - plagued me for years. How could someone like me, who was so constantly messing up and failing, ever be assured of His acceptance? I saw so much joy just over the horizon, but in front of me was a strong, impassable wall covered in vicious barbed wire. This wall was fear, and passing it seemed impossible.

Aren't we meant to "fear" God?

What about verses saying that, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10)? Does God just want us, or require us, to be constantly tormented by uncertainty of our position and acceptance?

Yet then there is the command given by God to "Fear not" that appears hundreds of times to various individuals throughout the Bible. The author of Psalm 34:4 declares that God "delivered me from all my fears". Psalm 56:3 proclaims, "when I am afraid, I put my trust in you." Things here may be brighter than we may have originally assumed.

What it means to 'fear' God seems a controversial topic amongst speakers and theologians. Some are keen to make it seem more pleasant and palatable, while others are intent on trying to make people literally terrified of God (for some strange reason I have never really understood!). I struggle deeply in this area, as on the one hand I want to believe in freedom from fear yet on the other don't want to deceive myself. I know that it is a deep sense of awe and reverence for God, the sort of awe experienced in a dramatic storm or wave. It is a realisation of God's power, and how utterly dependent on His mercy we are for our continuing existence. Yet what about those who tell us otherwise?

Peace in a trust in God's goodness

I find a peace in simply giving the whole matter over to God - after all, we are constantly exhorted to "Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). This has been my greatest anxiety by far, so surely this is the most significant fear I can ever cast upon Him.

This may come as a suprise, but God is not a monster, demanding obedience from us with absolutely no interest in our own welfare. Jesus constantly condemns hypocrisy, and neither is God hypocritical. All the tender love and mercy He calls us to show one another, He first showed us. "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19) 1 Peter is extremely clear - God doesn't just permit us, He literally asks us and longs for us to "cast all [our] anxiety on Him". He genuinely cares for us and doesn't want us to struggle in fear and anxiety. To deny this would be to deny the constant message of the Bible.

To cast fear onto God is not to forget about it. It is not to press it down deep within ourselves and try to pretend it's not there. It is simply to trust that God is genuinely and unchangeably good. It is to trust that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), "God is light" (1 John 1:5), and God, and thus this goodness, never changes (Malachi 3:6). God's goodness is certain. We can know He will do the right thing, the most loving thing, even if we don't yet know what this is. This applies to fear - we may not fully understand what it means to "fear" God, but we can know that, whatever it is, it is in line with His perfect love. Rather than having to base our hope on an elaborate theology which, like a house of cards, could be knocked down by a single gust of wind, we can base it on a simple trust in God's goodness.

What it doesn't mean to "fear" God...

Even if we don't completely understand the fullness of what it means to "fear" God, we can certainly have peace in knowing what it doesn't mean.

How can we truly love someone who we also fear and thus want to avoid at all costs? True love desires closeness, not to be distanced from a person. It is no different with God - loving God is not fundamentally different to genuinely loving our spouse, mother or father, or son or daughter. Take a look at this wonderful verse:

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (1 John 4:18)

Really? This verse literally implies that fearing could be a sign that we are still imperfect. As we grow closer to God, our fear will be gone. "There is no fear in love" This means that to "fear" God in no way should get in the way of love. It should not force us to want to have nothing to do with God. If that is the case, either we have not truly experienced how amazing God's love is, or we have the wrong idea of fear. To grow closer to God is for the fear to be more and more diminished as we know He won't reject or forsake us.

We can also know that to fear God is not to doubt that He will follow through on His promises. Romans 10:13 declares that, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." To fear God is not to doubt this promise. It's not to believe that God may randomly choose to reject us anyway, even though we desperately cry out to Him. God would never do this! The whole biblical witness makes abundantly clear that God's integrity is without comparison. One thing is truly non-negotiable - God will never break a promise. He will never leave or forsake those to whom He promised, "I will never leave you or forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5) This promise is written also for us! 

Deliberately playing down God's goodness and faithfulness does not honour God, any more than would claiming that Jesus only partly rose from the dead, or questioning God's truthfulness or power. God's promises are for us, and are absolutely secure, and no person or event could ever take them from us. This means that to fear God does not mean to constantly go around as I used to, thinking God might just spontaneously flip and decide to reject us after all.

The key to true freedom from fear...

In fact, ironically, "fear" of God is actually the key to freedom from all fear. A deep respectful knowledge and wonderful awe of God's goodness, if we allow it to impact our heart, gives us a hope that brightens any situation. To fear God means to ultimately respect Him and take notice of Him in our lives. No matter how bad the outside world, how terrifying and hopeless our situation, to be known and loved by God gives a greater reality. Why? In the depths of loneliness, God gives us a family and friend and a Father. In the depths of hopelessness, God shines through and has beautiful plans for our lives. Even in death, God gives imperishable life. With God, no situation is without hope. His faithful love destroys despair. We can be absolutely confident that nothing will ever stop Him being our Father and us being children of God, with an eternal future more wonderful than anyone has ever considered.

Take a look at this:

"For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God," (Romans 8:15-16)

God wants to free us from fear! We are children of our Father, who calls us to address Him with the childlike, "Abba! Father!" We know all we have to do is call on Him, and He will gladly be our Father for all time. No situation is terrible enough that God can't walk the struggle with us, constantly inspiring us and giving us reason to rejoice. Our deepest fear becomes nothing in the light of His presence. He is the perfect Father of all fathers. Let us live in reverent awe of Him, knowing He has every detail of our existence mapped out with infinite compassion. We are "fearfully and wonderfully made", (Psalm 139:14) and He forgets not a single second of our lives. Thus, our deepest fears will never come to anything. They may sting us and try to torment us, but if we focus on God's beautiful hope for us, they will fade into insignificance.

God will never forsake us, reject us or stop loving us. We will never be destitute. We will never be unloved. We will never be shrouded in loneliness. Fear is no longer our master. The wall is shattered. With God, we have true freedom from fear.

"I'm no longer a slave to fear.
For I am a child of God."

You might also like:

You are Beautiful to God  

In 2010, a staggering 4,867 American young people, aged 10-24 years, took their own lives. This makes a harrowing average of 13 people for each day of the year. Yet there is a far greater hope...

Petition: Let no person be forgotten...  

Every 2 minutes, someone is told they have leprosy. Yet world policy fails to prioritise it. Sign the Leprosy Mission's petition to stand up for forgotten people.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Defending modern Christian music, Bethel and Jesus Culture...

What is your view on modern Christian music?

Such a question is likely to provoke a flurry of strong opinions in a group of Christians: some hate it, others have had their lives transformed by it. Some would (literally) even go as far as to consider it 'evil', while others consider older and more traditional hymn-based styles 'dry' and 'lifeless'. As with any music, it's a contentious, personal, and highly opinionated area. The genre itself is, like secular music, and like older hymnal music, highly diverse, and contains a variety instruments, vocal styles, lyrical structures, and textures. It is clearly a matter of opinion whether this sort of thing is a person's 'cup of tea', so to speak, or not. The issue is when people decide to make more than is necessary of this difference in opinion; unfortunately, politics get into it, and both sides often believe that they have theological justifications for why their style is 'right' and 'honouring to God', while those on the other end of the spectrum are anything from 'sensationalist' to actively 'demonic'.

Strong views about music

A particularly popular source of contemporary Christian music is from the west coast of the USA, from a church called Bethel and the associated movement Jesus Culture. They are arguably one of the greatest current influences on the contemporary Christian music scene, with characteristic focus on a close and loving relationship with God. As with any music, it creates strong opinions on both sides: some have had their lives literally transformed through these styles of worship, while others write lengthy posts criticising anything they possibly can about Bethel. I, to be honest, have to place myself firmly in the first category. It is through watching Bethel services that my faith has been deeply reinvigorated, and has flourished, and the idea of actually genuinely having heartfelt love for God, something I used to not even be able to imagine, was inspired through the heartfelt songs at such services. Thinking about my experiences, I can truly say, without a doubt, that it has had an objectively positive effect on my walk with God.

Yet I absolutely realise that, for many, this simply is not the case, and such styles of music are unhelpful for them in their faith. Many people engage wonderfully with God through traditional, contemplative worship, even silence. I certainly also relate to the peace and feeling of adoration this can bring. As such, I refuse to take sides on this issue: I am in support of both traditional and contemporary styles of worship. Traditional styles also had their day when they were considered the 'contemporary'; we must remember that the organ was denounced as 'evil' and 'of the devil' when it was first introduced into churches. This musical debate is age-old. I support all sides, as long as they don't condemn one another on an issue which, since the Bible never speaks particularly directly on it, is basically a matter of taste.

Why I wrote this post is because of a fashion I perceived in the blogosphere to openly and intensely criticise Bethel and Jesus Culture. After seeing so much good in both movements, and so many clearly unfair and misinformed criticisms, I was moved by a feeling of injustice to come to their defence.

Background to the movements

Bethel is a church located in Redding, California, founded in 1954, and now with an estimated weekly attendance of 3500, led by the couple Bill and Beni Johnson. Yet it is far more well-known for its worldwide impact, including a very popular series of music releases and widely accessible internet streaming of its worship and talks on Without wanting to apply the straightjacket of a rigorous categorisation, it could be said to be fairly charismatic in its outlook, and contemporary in its style of worship, playing a large number of newly released songs, many of which are written by the worship leaders themselves.

Jesus Culture was founded in 1999 at Bethel as a youth outreach, becoming a band with an international reputation. Its worship events sought to 'serve other churches and lead young people to experience the radical love of God', according to its website, and Tony Cummings (music editor of Cross Rhythms, a magazine) called it 'one of the most significant Christian movements in post-war America'. Its success certainly is significant, with thousands of young people attending its gatherings, and it has now been able to plant its own church in Sacramento, California.

What follows is a number of criticisms of these movements that I have heard, and my response to them:

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Four Reasons why Band Aid 30 is, actually, a very good thing...

All over the media, there seems to be a fashion for various journalists to criticise Bob Geldof and his efforts in fundraising through Band Aid 30 - having a look at some of these left me heartbroken at what lengths people will go to be critical. I have had enough of what seems to me to be nothing but hypocrisy and news outlets seeking to gain sales by controversy and an almost apparently malicious attempt to derail this project.

Therefore, because I believe this criticism is utterly misguided, below are some reasons why I think Band Aid 30 is a very good thing - in fact nothing short of the most virtuous song this year - and that though no-one is perfect, it is something very much worthwhile supporting, and criticisms are unhelpful at best and malicious and cruel at worse:

1) 100% of proceeds from this song go to efforts to fight Ebola, and this is far better than the vast majority of music does

This is a fact which I believe that people have dismissed very lightly. To produce a song totally not-for-profit is a very rare occurrence, as so much of the music industry, like other business, is simply intending to make the largest profit for the shareholder possible. Most songs, which people don't even dare to criticise, have no such good intention, simply making record labels and artists richer than they already are - no-one generally writes article after article criticising these songs, yet Band Aid, which actually makes no profit and gives away all of its proceeds, is the one being criticised. If Band Aid, which actually seeks to make a positive difference, is at fault here, then why are we not criticising the thousands of music companies which seek nothing but profit? The double standards are staggering, yet so many articles seem to condemn an attempt at charity yet consider most profit-centred motives absolutely fine!

2) Foreign aid is not perfect, but that doesn't mean it doesn't make a positive difference to thousands of lives, which is worthwhile

Of course, charitable donation and attempts to help Afican countries are not always the most efficient - just as anything humankind does is rarely completely efficient, because we're not perfect. Sometimes, foreign aid has been positively damaging. Yet I believe that this is the exception rather than the rule. Many thousands of people have been genuinely helped by the efforts of charitable organisations; regardless of how fashionable it is at the moment to criticise charity, we have to face the facts that a lot of the time it does really help people! It all, of course, depends on what the money goes towards, and in this case of the crisis situation of Ebola, a short-term injection of help could be exactly what those suffering from the outbreak, which causes unimaginably horrendous suffering to thousands, need at this time.

In fact, it seems to me that this is one of the most suitable forms of aid at this time - in such a crisis situation, before the economies of Liberia and neighbouring countries can have a chance to grow, this Ebola situation needs to end, and I firmly believe that Band Aid 30's fundraising efforts will play a role in it. Of course, it may not be 100% efficient, but that's far different to claiming it does no good at all. Some of the money may inadvertently go to corrupt officials, but that surely doesn't take away from the fact that a great deal of it does go to the right people! We need to be careful that, in our zeal to condemn such charity efforts, we are not wasting an incredible opportunity to make a difference to thousands of lives suffering from Ebola.

3) The lyrics portray Ebola as a very negative situation, but then again, it would be almost insensitive to not do this

Some have criticised Band Aid's lyrics, saying that they portray Africa in a negative light. Yet I also believe this misses the point: Ebola is, undoubtedly, a horrible disease to suffer from, and this song is arguably fairly mild in its portrayal of the plight of its victims. The song is well-recorded, meaningful, and the lines are even rather poetic, focussing on the fact that even touches of comfort by those seeking to help victims can prove deadly, in the cruelty of this disease, in the line, "Where to comfort is to fear, where to touch is to be scared." This song is not about representing Africa as a whole - it's about addressing a particular, undeniably negative situation, and so the choice of lyrics seem very fitting; and as is the case for any song, the lyrics are metaphors and thus simply cannot be taken utterly literally - it's not an academic report set to music after all! Therefore, over-analysis of the lyrics is simply unhelpful and unrepresentative; of course they're not saying there's no hope whatsoever in Africa. What they are saying, though, is that many people are deprived of family and their futures and so this can make everything seem hopeless, which is the very issue that the song is seeking to address...

It contains no swear words, and no sexual references or references to anger or vengeance, which alone makes it a much more family-friendly song, arguably, than many Christmas singles; ironically, while many popular Christmas songs are played without criticism, despite having questionable lyrical references, the one song actually seeking to make money for charity is the one being condemned. It really raises questions of our perspective in this matter.

4) No person is perfect, and neither are the celebrities performing Band Aid, but this is absolutely irrelevant to the song itself - it can be an extremely good thing even if those creating it themselves have made mistakes in the past.

Others have criticised the people performing the song, pointing to events in their past which portray them in a bad light - and undoubtedly they aren't perfect, as none of us are. But how is this relevant to whether the song itself is good or helpful to Ebola? Of course celebrities could set better examples and improve, but surely their sacrifice to perform Band Aid without any payment (with some of them sacrificing time with family, interviews, even concerts to record their short snippet in the song) means something! In addition, how is their past or their intentions even relevant to whether one should support the fundraising effort to combat Ebola? Remember they're the ones getting the money, not the singers themselves! Surely we shouldn't let our prejudices and bitterness reduce the incredible potential to help those suffering through this single...

An incredible opportunity...

In summary, I am completely in support of Band Aid 30, even though it's not perfect, because I see it as a community triumph, a gathering of people to seek to make a difference to the world, an incredible opportunity to finally end a problem which has been causing misery to millions. I despair at the damage they are causing to it - it seems such injustice is being done, which, as I have argued, I do not believe is in any way representative or fair. As such, I would urge as many people as possible to post, tweet about and blog about the positives of Band Aid 30, as well as listen to and buy the track - and make this one the the most wonderful examples of communal charity the world has ever seen! Let's stop getting caught up on small fault-finding, and embrace this incredible opportunity to make a real difference!

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Relentless Mercy - Psalm 107

Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness,
    prisoners suffering in iron chains,
because they rebelled against God’s commands
    and despised the plans of the Most High.
So he subjected them to bitter labour;
    they stumbled, and there was no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness, the utter darkness,
    and broke away their chains.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
    and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
    and cuts through bars of iron.

(Psalm 107:10-16)

Imagine a courtroom, with a defendant - who has committed a serious crime - weeping bitterly, regretting what they have done. He utterly wishes he could turn back the clock, but, alas, he cannot. He does not deny his crime. He begs for mercy, yet no-one listens. No-one, not the judge, nor the jury, nor even his own family, has any sympathy left for him. He feels the object of solely blame and hatred.

Many of us would similarly have no sympathy at the above scenario. Neither does the media. Our society is often devoid of compassion. Our very justice system is sometimes, ironically, merciless.

This portion of Psalm 107 refers to people who had likewise done wrong, who were suffering as a result in 'iron chains' and 'utter darkness' - no freedom, no light or hope. These are exactly like the person in the scenario, suffering because of something they had genuinely done wrong. The court ignores his cry for help - is this not what true 'justice' requires?

We might expect God to do similar. Surely he won't hear the cries of people who have done wrong? Yet this passage is utterly bewildering. God is different. He doesn't ignore their cry - He saves them, breaking their chains, giving them freedom, and breaking away the darkness, giving them hope. Nothing can make a person too far from God to be brought back - not even 'gates of bronze' and 'bars of iron'.

Does God not care when people commit crimes? By no means! He hates people harming others, and as such takes these things deadly seriously. Yet even greater is His mercy, that no person can ever be so far from Him as to be beyond redemption. No person ever fails to be an object of God's beautiful love. Whoever truly cries out to Him, He will hear.

What does this mean? It means we must never regard anyone as not being worthy of love, no matter what they do. We are called to loving kindness towards everyone, not simply those society approves of, or those whom we like. This includes those society derides as failures, even criminals, people who have done wrong - for are we really much different?

It also means that, no matter what terrible things we feel we have done, God is still reaching out His hand to us. He just wants us to cling to Him, for He longs to love us, to help. There is still hope. It is not too late for you.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Why I believe the Death Penalty is wrong, based on Jesus' teaching

Jesus stated in Nazareth, in one of His first recorded public addresses:

"He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor"

This is a little like a "Mission Statement", and, crucially, it states He has come "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners". It doesn't state, "freedom for those wrongly imprisoned", but freedom for prisoners, indiscriminately, rightly or wrongly imprisoned, no matter what they did, no matter what they deserve.

It doesn't mean freedom in the sense of just letting people out randomly - for what freedom is a life of crime and desperation? It means freedom in both a physical and an emotional sense, a freedom to be accepted, loved, and find new, transformational hope in a future of goodness God has for them. It means our primary aim in 'criminal justice' systems ought to be to rehabilitate and reform offenders, which can happen to anyone by God's grace, and thus proclaim true 'freedom' to them.

This is a primary reason why the idea of the death penalty is such an absolute travesty, flying in the face of the grace Jesus proclaims. It may seem obvious, but killing someone is NOT proclaiming freedom to them. Putting a prisoner to death does NOT fulfill Jesus' mission to "proclaim freedom for the prisoners". This is not a difficult question to answer; it is categorically true that killing someone is not the same as proclaiming freedom to them... Rather, it's utterly giving up on them in the worst way possible. Inhumane prison conditions, maltreatment, or torture, also do not proclaim this freedom. All these seem to be failures of love, rejections of grace, and, I believe, frankly, insults to the Gospel.

"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life." (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

If Christ Jesus came into the world to "save sinners", even the "worst", what is our business ending their lives? What is our business cutting off their opportunity to receive Jesus' salvation? To use an analogy, since when did blowing up a lifeboat full of people count as a legitimate way of "saving" them? 

No-one is too corrupt to change. The example of Saul shows this definitively - why else did God choose him? It was for the "very reason" that he was the "worst of sinners" that God chose him. As such, without a doubt, no-one is beyond the reach of God's love and potential for a new life, no matter how many mistakes they have made. We must put this into practice, and not insult God's transformational grace by killing people before they have a chance to reform.

In such a way (and for many other ethical reasons), I am utterly and wholeheartedly opposed to the Death Penalty.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Rejoicing in Christ in the midst of sorrow...

“…weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Do you know how our nights seem ridiculously long in the winter, here in the UK? For some, it gets dark even before they finish work! If you have a lie in, it seems almost as though the whole of the day has gone, and that you’ve become nocturnal.

Yet spare a thought for people living 66o north and further of the equator, above the so-called Arctic circle around the very north of Canada, Russia and Greenland. For them, there is a time in the winter of the year when the sun never rises, due to the tilt of the earth and its position around the sun. There is always twilight in the day, never full daylight. At most, there may be just a distant glow of the sun at the horizon during the daytime.

Yet it varies on location. The light gradually gets even dimmer the closer to the North Pole you get, and, at a point, there is almost complete darkness. And we thought that our winters were dark and gloomy!

 “…weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Why God is far, far, far better than the Church often makes Him out to be...

Above: Christians at a 2013 Gay pride event, seeking to affirm and show love to people who've often had bad experiences of Christians. Their positivity deeply warms my heart.
The Church has made mistakes, big mistakes. When I say “big”, I mean absolutely horrendous. When I say “absolutely horrendous”, I mean out-of-this-world, spectacularly and unspeakably atrociously disastrously dreadful abuses of power. Why do I say this? It’s because it is extremely common for a person (understandably so) to equate the behaviour of Christians, or of the established church, with the way God is. We look at the Church and assume that, “Well, that’s how people who at least are trying to follow God are behaving, so that’s what God must be like” What I shall argue is that this assumption, although one can see how it comes about, just simply is not true. God is not like the Church, and this is something which I personally am over the moon about!

What do I mean by the “Church”? This must be carefully defined, as it’s commonly misunderstood. First of all, I’m not talking here about a building called a “church” which people hold services in – we’re thinking of something far larger in scale. The word “church” may also refer to a particular group of Christians – yet, again, we’re thinking of more than this. What I mean here by the “Church” is neither technical nor complex – it is “the sum total of every single Christian who is alive now and who has ever lived”. Notice, to distinguish this from other definitions, “Church” is capitalised. Effectively, thus, the “Church” is all the Christians in the world put together.

Properly understood, then, this idea of “Church” is not, and I repeat this emphatically, it is not and never has been merely a building, neither a group of people who gather in this building, neither a group of people who regularly go to services, neither a human institution, neither an organisation run by an archbishop nor any other authority figure. It is not Roman Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, nor Methodist or Baptist or Quaker or “fundy” (!) or any label or denomination – these may be groups or stereotypes people have created within it, but not what defines it. It is simply a group of people, a very large group of people for that matter, people fundamentally the same as everyone else, human beings with bodies, thoughts and emotions, strengths and weaknesses, gifts and faults, desires and dislikes, opinions and disagreements.

I say all this as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, myself, and as part of the Church I know for certain that I have weaknesses, faults, disappointments, failures, all of which I wish and long to be better but acknowledge freely that they are there. Why are they there? They are there because I am human. They are there because I am not perfect. Most importantly, I am not God (and, wow, how glad I am that I am not!)

That is the thing about the Church. It is a group of people. More specifically, it is a group of human beings, with all the mistakes and failures that come with them. Most importantly, it is not God and neither will it ever be. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it is absolutely critical to remember. The Church is a group of human beings, like everyone else, because God is the sort of person who does not show preference to people who are respected by others as being particularly “heroic” or “brave” or “kind”. God cares for and is interested in every single person equally, without distinction or exception. It is a because of this that God is willing to accept absolutely anyone, literally anyone, whatever their past, from torturing dictators and mass-murdering psychopaths to the most compassionate nurse or occupational therapist or transformational social reformer who could be conceived of. God is all-inclusive – and this is the amazing thing about Him. He doesn’t require people to become perfect to be accepted by Him, but simply and amazingly accepts them just as they are, if they so wish for that, with all their faults and weaknesses.

This means we shouldn’t be surprised at all that the Church has faults, because it’s simply a group of human beings. These human beings, like everyone, have faults, but also like everyone, they are human beings whom God wants to include despite their faults. These human beings, individually, are not God. Neither, collectively, are they God, nor are they right now a good representation of the way He is. No, the Church is broken, divided, and full of faults – but that’s exactly what God chose to accept, because He longs to include everyone.

God loves the Church, as He loves all people. However, He certainly does not love everything the Church does. Thankfully, God’s love is unconditional, so it is not reduced or mitigated by people’s mistakes and failure. As Abigail Van Buren critically stated, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” It is full of people who are imperfect, because no person is perfect. However, God still sees them as perfectly, beautifully worthy of love, and desires the Church to be a place in which people can change for the better. This is not forced, however, as God (unlike the Church, which has, unfortunately, often been tragically mistaken) never bullies or brainwashes a person, instead leaving them to make their own choice. This means that, although change in a person is not always immediate, it is totally free and done in their freedom and right consent. People are not yet the finished product – they are, much more accurately, works in progress. The life of every single person, in this way, is a masterpiece in progress.

In this way, God is perfect, even though the Church at the moment is so imperfect. In this way we cannot look to the Church to show us how God is, because this simply will give completely the wrong picture. Instead, to see the radical, incredible, heartfelt, utterly pure love that God has, we can look to statements such as:

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16b)

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16a)

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

Humans often prioritise the popular. God loves and longs to include all people equally, considering no person better than another.

Humans demonise those they think are ‘unworthy’ or ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’. God doesn’t care for background, loving and forgiving and longing to include all people equally.

Humans insist upon groups and labels such as Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical. God couldn’t care less for these, totally disregarding these and considering all people as equally precious in His eyes.

Humans wave around banners saying hurtful (and frankly pathetic) statements such as, “God hates fags”. God loves all, which means literally all, people infinitely, without qualification or distinction, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, religion, gender, financial status, political affiliation, doctrinal system, or any other means people find to discriminate.

No matter how much the Church fails, love and pure love is truly the nature of God. God is, was and always will be completely and incredible full of compassion, willing to die for anyone. This remains no matter how badly people represent Him.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Gospel through Eminem?

"Have you ever loved someone so much, you'd give an arm for? Not the expression, no, literally give an arm for?"

Yesterday, I discovered this video, and watched it and looked at the lyrics and was amazed - I'd not really heard much Eminem before, but knew he was controversial and intense in his style a lot of the time. However, this song I found incredible meaningful and incredibly full of love - it portrays a message of hope for a better future that I found actually inspiring. More than that, believe it or not, I'd say that many parallels can be drawn with it and the message of hope Jesus gave. Anyway, here's my take on it...

1) The intimate, loving relationship between him and his daughter is touchingly powerful:

"I keep having this dream,
I'm pushin' Hailie on the swing"

Eminem's love for his daughter is a incredibly significant theme, which  is developed throughout the song, such as in his mentioning of him playing with his daughter Hailie on the swing, with her favourite thing to do with him being the 'underdog' (pushing the swing high enough for him to be able to run under it). This special father-daughter love for swinging is mentioned throughout the song, and the 'underdog' is shown later in the video, in Eminem's vision of the reconciled family.

There's also the "tiny necklace locket" Hailie gives him as he leaves, with her picture in it; she tells him, "This'll keep you safe Daddy, take it with you" - a wonderfully innocent, childlike sentiment which by its mention shows him that it deeply moved him. In addition, the "Number One Dad" coin she gives him at the concert which he is seen with later, whether it was meant or not, was again clearly something he treasures. 

Even though this is portrayed as being part of a dream, these are such intimate items and intimate memories, the personal sort of memories a close "Daddy" figure shares with his daughter, showing the love he has for his daughter, the love that makes him regret not feeling he was there for her. 

This, it could be said, begins to parallel another love, a love which is similarly intimate and personal - God's love. Paul writes in Romans 8:15 that God does not want us to, "receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear", meaning God does not want or seek people's worship motivated by terror and fear, but instead loves us in the same way a father loves their daughter or son, to the extent that we can refer to God as, “Abba! Father!” The words used for "Father" and the "Abba" were both highly personal and intimate ways of referring to God in Jesus' day, showing God, likewise,  desires such a personal and close relationship with people, because, just as Eminem has deep affection for his daughter, God loves them with intimate, deep affection. As early church thinker Augustine wrote, 
"God loves each of us as if there were only one of us." 
He loves on an individual level, each and every one of the people on the planet, you, me, and even people who committed atrocities such as Adolf Hitler, because it's so powerful it has no limit, no exception, unconditionally, as a mother or father's love is.

2) Eminem's love for his daughter Hailie is so wonderfully powerful that he's do anything for her:
"Have you ever loved someone so much,
        you'd give an arm for?
Not the expression, no, literally give an arm for?
When they know they're your heart..."
This 'literally give an arm for' could be interpreted both in that he has tattoos of his daughter on his arm (indicating how permanent and central she is to his life, even referred to as his very "heart" itself), and in that he would do anything for her, which is amazing to think... In this, he seems to touch on the epitomisation of the love of a father here - self-sacrificial, genuinely felt, unforced and unconditional love.

This all brings to mind the love of the figure described in some of the deeply lamenting opening lines of the Flyleaf song, "Circle":
"Circle encircles the earth
Chance and choice break his heart
His innocent arm moves to save me and I am spared
His beautiful arm
        is bloody and cut off
His heart ripped out to show me he loved me"
I can't help but be reminded, both by Eminem and Flyleaf, of the love of Jesus sacrificing His life in a torturous death on the cross here as an amazing parallel here. In Jesus' own words at the last meal He has before death with His closest friends, "This is my body, which is given for you." (Luke 22:19) Jesus, in passionate, true love for others, freely gave His body and whole life to bring people to the joy they were made for, which is the highest form of love which can ever be shown.

3) His desire to protect her is also so poignant- he never wants anyone to harm her:
"And you know you were their armour
And you will destroy anyone who would try to harm her"
"Then turn right around in that
song and tell her you love her"
His love for her also means that he wants to protect her so strongly from anyone who would harm her - referring to himself as "armour" and having intense anger at anyone who would want to harm her, to the extent that he'd want to "destroy" them - portraying an incredible intensity of righteous anger, but one based on love for her.

This protective anger, based on love, again just in me seems to parallel the passion of God's love incredibly. God's love is certainly not emotionless - and this can be seen in the fact that God has such incredible desire to protect and care for people that He is made angry, in the righteous indignation sense, by things that harm and cause pain.

The idea of God's anger (often referred to as God's "wrath") in my view is often totally misunderstood - God is not some person who is constantly filled with rage and trying to find any excuse to condemn humanity - to the contrary, we see God saying in Ezekiel 18, "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone." This is referred to, reiterated and insisted upon again and again - just take a look at Ezekial 18:23, Ezekial 33:11, 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 as a few examples... Like the perfect defense lawyer, God very clearly desires no person to ever be condemned to any form of judgement!

In fact, the poetic psalm-writer in Psalm 145 writes that God is, "gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love". In fact, in 1 John 4:16 we see the incredible statement that, "God is love" - God is not simply a bit loving, or mostly loving, but utterly, completely, wholeheartedly, absolutely, without condition and exception, loving. "God is love" means that God is so completely loving that He is the very definition and paradigm and epitome of love itself - in that, if we want to have a reference point, someone we can point to when describing the true and fundamental meaning of love, God gives that. And this is, unlike what the Church has unfortunately often portrayed, is not for a select few, but for absolutely everyone, no condition or limit or exception. Christians very often get this wrong - but thankfully God is not defined by our mistaken ideas and misconceptions about Him. Instead, as thinker Jerry Bridges insisted:
"God’s unfailing love for us is an objective fact affirmed over and over in the Scriptures. It is true whether we believe it or not. Our doubts do not destroy God’s love, nor does our faith create it. It originates in the very nature of God"
God loves us no matter what we think or how badly we portray Him, as Christians unfortunately have done very badly both in the history of the church and in recent times. Thankfully, God is far more wonderful than people make Him out to be!

Why then is there ever this idea of God's anger? This is where the Eminem rap line comes in - he is angry at the idea of anyone ever harming his daughter Hailie - not out of any selfish emotion, but simply because he loves her that much - that he'd never want to see her harmed. Similarly, God's anger is not separate to, neither is it in opposition to, His love, but instead is as a result of love - God becomes angry, it seems to me, because He sees harm coming to those He loves (which is everyone!), because He never wants to see any person harmed or condemned. God's anger is there because He loves, and, just as Eminem's anger shows his love for his daughter, God's anger actually shows His love for us.

4) This love drives him to a vision of hope, moving out of the nightmare of being alienated from his family, wanting to "wake up" and be reconciled to them all, including his ex-wife Kim Mathers

"That's when I wake up, alarm clock's ringin',
there's birds singin'"
This song and video has, in my view, an incredible emphasis on reconciliation. Eminem appears to be fighting against his alter-ego named "Slim Shady", the rap performer whose celebrity status has driven him away from his family (and his daughter who even piled up boxes to stop him leaving). The reference in verse 3 to the gun, and him shouting "Die Shady!" before apparently killing himself with it, I initially took to refer to suicide, but it seems to be more complicated, and hopeful, than that. He seems to express a longing in this song to end the things which have alienated him from his family (represented by Slim Shady, whose reflection he smashes). He longs for the family he could have had, even considering Kim's biological daughter, whom she had with another person after their marriage broke down, Whitney Laine Scott (referred to as Hailie's "little sister" in the song), as his own daughter. The dream he's having seems to represent the parts of his life he wants to be gone, resenting that, while he desires to protect Hailie, he has often become the very one who has caused pain to her, while him waking up (after leaving behind the alter-ego) represents the life he actually ultimately seeks. 

Once again, this parallels very interestingly the idea of leaving behind an old life for the hope of a new, better one, turning away from past endeavours (obsession with fame and popularity) which seemed attractive at the time but which brought dissatisfaction, to a better state of mind, involving being a good parent for Hailie, Whitney and Kim. This is the simple meaning of the concept of "repentance" in Jesus' teaching - it's not some complicated, ritualised process, but just the idea of turning from an old life to a new one, one which follows Jesus as the only One who can truly satisfy the human longing for something more. People are built to be in relationship (as in Eminem's family), but other areas of life can unfortunately alienate us from relationships, including our relationship with God. Such alienation and distance brings, as it did with Eminem, frustration, dissatisfaction and regret, with his daughter being the means through whom he realised this. This is why restoration of relationship, and therefore human fulfilment and human flourishing, is God's desire, because in love He desires to see people flourish and reach their true potential by being in positive relationship with others and with Him.
I walk right up to Kim and kiss her
Tell her I miss her
This idealistic vision near the end of the video is incredible, given all that the singer's been through, and gives a message of hope in all the darkness. This is the future Eminem genuinely longs for - he longs for reconciliation and the intimate family times he misses, with both Hailie and Whitney playing happily on the swings with both Kim and him, without resentment, division or sadness. The whole purpose of the song seems to be to leave behind the "Slim Shady" persona for the sake of a better, more fulfilling future with his family. Eminem's true heart is revealed as genuinely wanting to care for and help others, and even a hint of a personal faith is implied at 2:11 in the video, where Eminem crosses himself, almost as though to indicate he believes that, in some way, God is able to provide something positive to the situation. Elsewhere, moreover, he has expressed an interest in the idea of God, interestingly stating, "I definitely pray a lot more than I used to. I don't feel like I'm crazy wacky religious. But I do believe in God, and I do pray" (quoted by the secular website Hollowverse).

He definitely does not fit stereotypes Christians or anyone else would seek to place him in. What is clear, however, is that he is a real human being with an incredible heart and a genuine longing to hope and be loved.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son"
(J. Tissot)
This hopeful vision involves reconciliation with those he's been alienated from, and peace and acceptance not based on music quality, but simply unconditionally loved. What's striking about this, is that this sense of reconciliation is exactly what we see in Jesus' parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) - the son asks to have his inheritance to be able to move away, his father lets him, and when he's got nothing left due to spending it all, he decides to return, worried his father might not accept him again. But, to his delight, the father doesn't just accept him, but he runs when he's still far off to greet him, and holds a feast to celebrate his return. In this, both the son, and even more so the father, long for reconciliation - just as Eminem in this vision longs for reconciliation. With God it's not simply a vision or idealistic utopia, however, but a real, wonderful possibility - God longs for people to be close to Him, and reconciled with one another, and can make this happen.

In all this, the message of Jesus is so often misunderstood - it's not a set of moral criteria or hurdles or rules someone must fulfill to be accepted by God. It's not that we have to earn something for an angry, far-off idea of God. It's not for a select group of individuals, or for just an 'exclusive club' of people. Far from it, it is the message that God loves and thus desires relationship with all people, all without distinction and without exception, no matter gender, race, background, past history, criminal record, ability, religion, sexual orientation, political view or anything else someone could use to discriminate.

God longs for reconciliation, because He knows people will find true, lasting joy, once this is found - something which Eminem seems to have realised in this song. It's something He'll never force upon us, but if we so choose, God is infinitely glad to accept us and rejoices us to be close to Him, because He loves us. As Romans 10:9-13 wonderfully says, all we need to do is ask, as God is able to do everything else.

I end this with the lyrics of Katy Perry's song, "Unconditionally" - because to me this seems to capture so profoundly true unconditional nature of God's love:
Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

Come just as you are to me
Don't need apologies
Know that you are worthy
I'll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you
I love you

Acceptance is the key to be
To be truly free
Will you do the same for me?

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