Sunday, 14 January 2018

Light at the end of tunnel (The scope of faith).

"He raises the needy out of Affliction" Psalm 107:41.
"So Abraham called the the name of the place, 'the Lord will provide'" Genesis 22:14.

Sometimes, I find, reading books about theology can be as much about recognizing what has been missed as what had been said, which can be good, because it allows you to don your thinking cap and go deeper!
That was certainly the case this morning, when reading a book on the manner of paradox we can often find in life and faith.

The author decided to use the story of Abraham's offering of Isaac as an opening instance of the kind of troubles we can often face, for example, when something tragic and apparently unjust happens in our lives. The story of a man being required to sacrifice his only child to show obedience to God seems bluntly wicked and capricious today (as various secular writers have contended), so what are we to make of this, and, perhaps more to the point, does this story really comfort or aid people who are about to know the manner of sorrow the author raises in the opening of the book - to be those bereaved and suffer loss?

The tome I was reading notes how the story in Genesis started - with a couple who had no future (no children) - and how miraculously, after many years, that changes - with the birth of Isaac, and how God stays Abraham's hand in the sacrifice story due to the Lord providing another sacrifice in the form of a ram caught in a thicket. It touches on how this incident is one in several moments when God is working in the life of these people to deepen His intent in them of truly knowing Him, and makes reference to Abraham's key confession in the midst of this particular event (Genesis 22:8) which tells us something vital about his faith, but I couldn't help wondering by this point where the initial question raised in this book - of aiding people in the midst of their (probable) great loss - had gone. How did this relate to the actual tragic death of  someone, probably amidst great suffering, especially where no apparent faith was present?

I understand the aim of the book is to speak about how God often is most clearly seen and understood in the most difficult of moments - that was certainly true for Abraham - but this is surely contingent on the fact that here was a man who had seen God in all manner of prior events and conversations, so that when the sacrificial incident occurs, Abraham understands that this is an event in which he will truly learn something about the true nature of God's provision for him and his household, hence his confidence is in God's "speaking" to Him through what unfolds.

Abraham and Sarah had shared, like many now do, a deep desire for children, and God promised as He called them to a new location that He would fulfill this longing, but the events which unfold show how God would only do so after it had became totally impossible for this to be achieved by any natural means. What's imperative to understand, then, is our best hopes and goals can only truly be achieved (truly fulfilled) beyond ourselves in the life which comes from another, for it is only that life which can define and establish something credible and worthwhile.

What, then, of those who are encountering trial and trauma without such confidence?

In Psalm 107, the writer begins by speaking of us being redeemed by God's steadfast love via rescue from the 'day of trouble' and being gathered from foreign lands (apt, of course, in the life-story of Abraham). There are those who wandered wastelands (verse 4), those who inhabited darkness (verse 10), those who foolishly wallowed in sin (verse 17), and those in distress in the depths (verse 23). None of these realms, in and of themselves, bring us anything but anguish and pain. The Psalm states that the intention of such times is clear - to bring an end to our own resources (see verses 33 and 34) and ourselves, that these very trails will cause us to faint and cry out (verse 6, verse 13, verse 19, and verse 28). God, in His great mercy, will use such harsh times and dark events to break into our lives if we do so, bringing an underlying mercy whatever the circumstances themselves may produce. Those who endure through the various trails in this psalm do so not because of some inner resolve or stoic character - they cry to God for aid (verses 8, 13, 19 and 28).

The imperative, as Abraham and his son discovered on Mount Moriah, is that we are brought deeper into a fellowship with the one, like the sacrifice on the mountain provided by God, who gives all for us to crush the tyranny of severance and empty existence in our lives. That may indeed mean a traversing of the harsh, unrelenting places so that we can truly learn to trust upon His unfailing care, but far better that than we become those who seek their own solutions to the harsher periods of life.

Abraham travelled long and far with God, and as a result, gained the most precious insight that we can know (John 8:56). May it be the case that all our days, whether times of delight or trouble, will equally open that splendor to us.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A d v e r s i t y

"Everyone of us was made to suffer, everyone of us was made to weep"
Walking on Broken Glass - Annie Lennox.

'We all have our crosses to bear, don't we', was the comment this morning.
It was apt, because I've been thinking this past week about similar considerations.

Pain and suffering. We're all made to suffer, says the song.
Were we?
And if so, why?

There's been many times recently when I've discovered that why we so often 'bleed' is because of the deep scars we carry... from "home" (broken families) or our youth (abuse is clearly far more prevalent than many ever imagined) or those many cruel circumstances that acted to thwart or twist us in some way.

Is it all really necessary?
I wonder what kind of man a genius like Alan Turing would have become if he hadn't been so wickedly nailed under the floorboards at boarding school, or, come to think of it, if his family hadn't seen it necessary to send him to such a place (I speak from experience... Perhaps I'll write more on all of that sometime).

In Aaron Sorkin's movie about Steve Jobs, there's a line towards the end where the brilliant yet flawed thinker confesses to his estranged daughter, "I was made poorly".
There are huge consequences of what we really are. To reference another film, the candid portrayal of the true story of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, really shows how this works, particularly through the relationship between father and son.

In sin, acknowledged David, the great poet, I was conceived and brought into life.

Is that the reason?

It's a premise that most of us want to push away, at least until we have to own up to some deeper truth about ourselves and about the pain of dislocation we all bear.

I've spent some time here over the years here talking about the remedy, but there's another aspect to suffering for us when we understand that we're rescued by grace. Hardship can then take on another dimension.

In the opening of his prison-written letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul can express thanks for his dire circumstances, not because they were not arduous, but because they were part of a package that was producing a deeper understanding and experience of God's great and transforming love in the core of our pain-stricken world. A man who had once been consumed by zealous hatred of others was now content to sit in a cell for those he had once wanted to kill because he had been released from the cancer of sin by the joy of God's healing of reconciliation and peace through His Son. The palpable result of genuine rescue is that it allows us in our present circumstances to see, even amidst the deep and very real pains, that healing is present, and that wonder means that the day approaches when all tears, all sorrow, will end.

The harsh and bitter hurts of suffering may not yet be gone, but they can at least now be woven into a manner of being that is approving of and seeking to give what is truly excellent - the righteous fruit of healing righteousness that has been bestowed to us, leading to a completion that means our trails will be folded in to that increasing peace and rich life that is finally fully unfolded when creation is eternally made whole.

Perhaps today, our "crosses" can remind us of that cross, that cost to heal us, so we can cleave to something true in all our pain.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The trouble is...

"This world, I think, has maybe something wrong with it, something underneath. Either that or there's something wrong with me". Delores - Westworld: Dissonance Theory.

One of my Christmas Gifts this year was an exposition of Luke chapter 15, particularly, Jesus' famous parable told to the pious and the lost concerning the mercy of a loving Father towards two very different children. It's been fascinating reading the tome alongside watching the first season of HBO's startling examination of ourselves in the show, Westworld, particularly because I quickly realized that the theological item in question had pretty much entirely 'missed a beat' in its analysis of both ourselves and the wonder of the story from Jesus.

The book commences by seeking to say that Jesus' words were clearly addressed as much to the 'elder brother' (those who didn't see themselves as "sinners") as to the ones who recognized their need for grace, which is true, but the telling point for me in what Jesus says is how the story ends - the Father is entreating the pious son to cease his judgementalism and partake of the goodness of the moment, but there is no response to his request. In like fashion, of course, the scribes and 'teachers' of the law in the gospels principally deny Christ's call and continue to hound and trouble Jesus as He brings the decree of liberty to the lost, pressing their rejection until they gain, apparently, their goal of silencing Him in a cursed extinction at the hands of the Romans. The "wrongness" of the world and the evil beneath it are thus made plain here, and love and mercy are hated and spurned, even when it hangs explicitly before them upon a tree, requesting forgiveness for their violence.

My reason for giving this outline is because the book I've been reading commences by viewing the church today as, principally, a company of those who identify in measure not with the lost son, but with the one who views himself as certainly 'right' in his worth and deeds, hence we cannot reach out to the lost because of being lost in our own piety.

A couple of considerations here.

Luke tells us that there were two particular groups who Jesus addressed with this story. He also gives us this narrative as story 'three of three' in a group that all have a common theme - that which is lost, so the aim and intent in what's told is, no doubt, to convey a single message - to  borrow Delores' analysis in Westworld, there's certainly something wrong with us, that has made us wayward, so we are all indeed lost. The "righteous" son in story three is the story of someone who couldn't see his poverty because he was far too busy measuring up his virtue against that of his wayward brother, so no change was possible here. The wayward son had learned because of his sin that nothing he could do could ever make him worthy to be loved by His Father, but what mattered is that he discovers His Father's 'prodigal' (extravagant to the point of spending all) love in spite of his folly.

Church-goers who think that they are endowed with personal virtue that will keep them in Gods good graces without assistance are indeed inches from the flames, but is that the real problem the church is facing right now?

Jesus also told another parable we need to consider, which is found in Matthew chapter 13, verses 24 to 30, and explained in verses 36 to 43. In a nutshell, where the good news is proclaimed, there will always be 'good seed and bad' - those who truly trust in God's Son for their aid from start to finish and those who are merely treacherous mimics of such, whose intent, as Jesus would have put it, is to make others "twice as fit for hell" as they are themselves. Jesus plainly says this state of affairs will continue "until the end", so we can clearly expect to see both in our churches, but I don't think that is the reason Christians currently have such a difficult time seeking to bring the message of God's love to our world.

Westworld is the creation of one Dr Robert Ford, brilliantly portrayed in the show by Anthony Hopkins. In the first episode, Ford spells out for us the world-view behind his work - we are the result of millions of mistakes, nothing more or less, hence it is these causes that have concluded in us, so the behavior of the 'guests' in his world - to generally be as base as they desire - is predictable and therefore anticipated. What makes the scenario startling is the actions of both the guests and androids that isn't expected, pointing to more going on.

The world-view which so often informs our secular culture is that expressed by this inventor. It's very common now in the West to find the view that we're all just the results of our genes via a process of natural selection, so any notion of God or meaning is looked upon as ridiculous, even when the real state of affairs tells a much bigger story. Most people have accepted an entirely secular view purely because they were 'taught it at school' or by the latest BBC natural history show. The reality is that this one-dimensional perception of the world is fine for fictional shows, but it doesn't deserve to be the touchstone of our understanding of who and what we are.

So, to come back to the church, yes, there clearly can be issues when a "righteousness by pulling your self up by your own boot-straps" becomes the trend (Paul's letter to the Galatians shows us how this can happen and how to rectify this), but the reasons why the message of God's love are widely rejected today are somewhat more involved in respects to how they need to be understood, unpacked and countered. Self-righteousness is, no doubt, ultimately behind all philosophical and religious notions that think we can do it all ourselves, but the first road-block that needs to be removed in modern thinking is people's denial of the very God in whom they live and have life - then we can begin to address the matter of how they are reconciled to that through God's astonishing love.

I'll be interested to see what the rest of my Christmas present has to say about this story - it might even generate another blog post! I'll also be fascinated to see where Westworld seeks to take the question of our identity in its second season.

That 'ol devil called...

Desire, especially sexual desire, often, as Rachel Gilson notes in this great article, takes us on a white-knuckle nightmare between sin and temptation that can leave us in a limbo or paralysis that really doesn't seem like any kind of victory, so is that where we have to stay?

This superb and deeply personal examination says there's more to say, and know, on the subject, and the conclusion she reaches concerning dependence and weakness is one we all need to come to truly comprehend.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Never mind the Skywalker's...

"Luke, we're gonna have company!"
Han Solo - A New Hope.

There's an absolutely silly but deliciously fun moment at the start of the new Star Wars movie, the Last Jedi. It's doesn't involve magic, light sabers, knights or anything beyond straightforward, died in the wall, gall.

The entire rebel alliance is standing on a knife-edge of survival... the latest rendition of the Empire is about to expunge them from existence, and all that stands in their way is a rough, volatile cowboy of a pilot. I won't say what he does, but it's both ridiculous and highly amusing.

It was Poe Dameron's "destiny" to not only jump into Han Solo's shoes in this episode, but to do so with lashings of gusto (hence, Leia's approval), and it underscored the fact that what makes worthwhile 'moments' in any movie is not having beings who can wield all kinds of powers (because you're quickly left thinking why don't they just do "X" and resolve whatever) but those who are truly most like us, who are boldly doing something great one minute, and making a total hash of it the next. That's Poe, whose 'presence' echos through another entire strand of the movie even when he's not on screen, via the deeds of his wacky side-kick, BB8. Poe is also the one who delivers, what for me is the defining line of the entire movie. Paraphrasing  C S Lewis in a row with acting commander Admiral Holdo, Poe states, "if you only believe in the sun in the light, it's no use in the darkness". Lewis, of course, said something similar in respect to Christianity - you believe in it not because you see the Sun, but because by its light you see everything else.

This walking one man triumph and tragedy of a character was the redeeming aspect of this 'christmas' movie. I wasn't made anxious or excited about what Luke or Rey or Kylo or any of the others were going to do (Let's face it, they've already 'got the t-shirt' for much of it); I was amused and "oh-boy"-ing about what Poe was up to, because he was me and you - no hero; just someone embroiled in all this, racing along on a hope that he'd make it back into the sunlight.

Destiny really isn't about us trying to control whatever 'forces' we think are in play, it's far more about facing the mirth and horror as we are, and looking for a helping hand to break in that isn't us. That's why what we celebrate over the next week or so really counts. If we focus on the Gospel accounts of that extraordinary night, when our world, our mess, was visited by the salvation of heaven, then we can come to relax amidst the mess, because the light has truly pierced our darkness. "This is a true and faithful saying", notes Paul, "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1;15).

So, keep on flying, for there is a Sun of Righteousness, and allow some time this Christmas to marvel in the precious delight of the radiance of that gift.

A joyous Christmas!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Reaching beyond the memories

"Memories... you're talking about memories".
Dekkard - Blade Runner.

"When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature 
of all flesh that is on the earth".
Genesis 9:6.

Isn't it strange - particularly as we get older - how the past can have such a hold on us. We recall moments, places and especially loved ones with deep affection and often a longing for 'such times' once more. Strange, perhaps, because we know those moments are gone, and yet, something about them still holds us, even defines something of who and what we are.

Recently, I began to realize that they matter because they're actually part of the miracle that is life.

Some of you might recall my recent posting which touched on, what was for me the unequalled cinematic masterpiece this year - Blade Runner 2049. The original Blade Runner movie raised questions about what makes us human, seeking to explore our relationship to how memories often shape us, comfort us, but the new film goes much deeper - a scene in the film's opening section leading to a very different resolution for this story's detective, revolving around the fact that what truly makes "us" distinct and human is no less than a miracle. 

Underpinning all our moments here, we are, on occasion, truly aware that there is more going on. We know, deep inside ourselves, that what we experience and encounter resonates with the truth that we have meaning and value, and when we recall moments which enriched us, we often "hear" and know something of that truth afresh - that's why certain memories are so palpable and so defining.

Christmas is a time when we can choose to participate in what we could think of as a 'collective' memory of a piece of human history that truly defines the term 'miracle'.  Most of us know what the festival is supposed to be about, but we can perhaps forget how it ties in to a much bigger picture of God's relationship to us.

The verse I've quoted above is part of what happens after the flood. Noah has re-committed life to the Lord who has rescued them, and God responds by stating that from now on, there's going to be an ongoing reminder - the rainbow - of this key moment when heaven and earth are re-united by confidence in the mercy and goodness of God.

Notice how God uses this moment as a marker, not only to us, but to Himself, that a moment has been reached where God and humanity will commence life in a new relationship - the bow of heaven reminds us, and God, of this.

Advent is that moment writ large forever.

One of the most gorgeous moments in the new Blade Runner movie is set in the midst of the arrival of snow. It's a moment filled with pain and difficulty, but it's also the dawning of a day of assurance, joy and affection, because everything has changed.

Memories tell us that amongst the trauma, there is something precious to be known. Miracles tell us what is profoundly true about this life, and that is what makes it worthwhile.

God, in Christ, is the promise-keeper, changing this realm by the miracle of His being with us.

Let's recall that goodness in this special season.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Seasonal seasoning (to engage some useful thoughts).

The festive season, when hopefully many children will know the joy I treasured in  those long off days, of entering the realm of Narnia, will soon be upon us, but for those of us a little further on in years, here's a superb piece on how those kind of rich truths can still be a source of wonder and joy this Christmas.  Enjoy!