Saturday, 7 January 2017

"Unity"

"From a distance, you look like my friend,
even though we are at war,
From a distance, I can't comprehend,
what all this fighting's for".



I don't know what the festive season has been like for you, but for many it's something of a wasteland. Normal life shuts down for a series of weeks, regular events just aren't there, and, in many cases, there are no close connections these days to replace them, so the pain of loneliness can set in, or the "virtue" of self-reliance can become so necessary, that it can leave some wondering why you need others anyway.

This time of year always gets me asking hard questions, especially in regards to how the next year might be better; how our peace with God in Christ can impact upon our life together, particularly to address some of the ailments touched on above.

This leads to the issue of fellowship, or, as it's defined in Greek, koinonia.
We'll seek to unpack that a little in a moment, but before savoring that dish, let's think about the image of the church given in Acts 2:42-47 - a community devoted to life together focused around Apostolic teaching and the breaking of bread, the Lord adding to their number those being saved. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to attend a church that has a similar focus (God's word in the Gospel and the Sacraments), but there's something staggering here - this wasn't just for Sundays (and perhaps a mid-week meeting!) - these people were meeting this way, living this way daily (verse 46).

Now of course, it couldn't last. Pretty soon events unfolded (Acts 5-7) that effectively broke up the astonishing life of those first few weeks, but that doesn't mean that the image we're given here should be lost. In the book of Hebrews, for example, we're told to exhort one another daily to remedy falling away from what counts (Hebrews 3:13), so once again, we clearly have the teaching that "church" should be more than just the scheduled events. That brings us back to the matter of fellowship.
The word used in the New Testament is rich indeed. It was used to speak of the binding of marriage and the most important legal or business contracts. It's root also defines living together in the sense of sharing a life that is common and communal through genuine participation.

The closest that some of us have to this in our natural lives is being part of a family, and that's a helpful picture in the sense that it's a pretty mixed experience in most cases - some great things, perhaps, but equally some difficult if not trying times of seeking to genuinely become someone alongside others who can be helpful and awkward. Fellowship for us, then, is about becoming closer to all those involved - God, present among us in Christ, and one another, not in a fashion that's over-bearing, but bears the marks of what Paul tells us is 'the better way' in 1 Corinthians 13.

What each of us, and the rest of the world, need is to be truly enfolded in the richness of the love of God so that we can show and share that love through each aspect of our lives, both as a church, and as those savoring everlasting life in everything we do.

It's easy to so often become bogged down in the functional side of things, and thereby miss what really counts in being part of a community, but our gathering together should always help us to see God's love afresh, depicted before us, in word and sacrament, in our fellowship in the cross of Jesus Christ. That alone is the source and the means whereby we are truly renewed and bound together.

It's tempting to distinguish distinct realms - the sacred and the secular - and thereby to cordon off parts of life as 'ours' - it may even seem expedient to do so on occasions like the 'dead season' of this time of year, but Jesus won't in truth allow us to do that. He comes to dine with us at table - to truly know us in our lives 'behind closed doors' as much as when we're singing in church, because His love alone transforms and changes everything (which is why we need both our gathering together and His life and word at the heart of that).

Life, of course, gets pretty messy for us poor wretches, but the important priority for the days ahead should be to help each see God in Christ afresh. Because we congregate, share and give in that light, of God saving us in the death and life of His beloved Son, we will have true fellowship in the redeeming grace given to us in Him.

That sounds like something worth taking on board this year.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

C a u g h t

"There are no principles, just circumstances".
Tonio - Knight of Cups.

I was listening to an interview today with Carrie Fisher. Recorded some years ago, it spoke of her struggle with family, drink, drugs and personal mental health trials. There were certainly aspects that many, if not most of us can understand or relate to, particularly how the "sins" that are 'natural' to us in our early life darken our lives as we grow older. It was a stark juxtaposition to the 'virtual' representation of her most famed on-screen character which is currently pouring the currency into the box offices in the latest franchise offering.

Of course, she isn't the only star who finds herself so defined.
Peter Cushing, who died over twenty years ago, has also been rendered for the same movie, allowing a narrative continuity to Lucas' original 1977 chapter that may cause fans to tingle with a measure of delight - something, perhaps, that was shared at the 2014 Billboard Awards when the sudden loss of the music and dance skills of Michael Jackson were "resurrected" by a holographic performance that certainly stunned many who watched.

The image is power.

It certainly tells us all something. We don't want death to end us.
The image, even in the twisted "seed" of our present lives, needs, cries to be more.

"If you pretend something long enough", noted Carrie in her interview "it comes true".
Of course, pretending you're good (ok), as she suggests, or conjuring up someone as photons (or, perhaps in future, as comprehensive data patterns) only gets you to... a pretense. It doesn't truly eradicate or even genuinely ease the grief of what's really going on, and the danger comes if we think that the image, the illusion, is all.

As someone who relishes the opportunity to create and play with imagery, especially as a way to seek to see more in our world, I'm all too aware of the allure to so fall in love with the mirage that we can miss the actual purpose in what we're involved in here. Like Carrie, I can say I'm doing fine to the world, but it won't stop the degeneration in my frame as I age, or remedy the spiritual cancer in my soul because I'm a child of a profane, pagan (meaning alien to what is pure) race. There is great light in our lives here, but so often, we're asleep, dreaming garish illusions we think are real, so we miss what counts and, as a consequence (to borrow from Umberto Eco) put our faith in fakes.

We may think that pretense can do something good - take away our anxiety or worries for a moment... help us keep some disturbing truth at arms length so we don't have to really grapple with the genuine "messiness" of what's involved, and that can be true whatever our status. Christians, perhaps, will speak of a field like art as something which allows us to "enjoy God's beauty in the world" - so where does the Crucifixion, if depicted in church or art,  fit in that definition?*

There is much, much more to unpack. 

The Cross tells us how beauty comes into the pain, into the grief, into the darkness of us, and creates the true way back to a health that deals with our sin and our severance. That's where we need to start - the rescue isn't in our power.

Fans of Carrie Fisher still have another opportunity to see her inhabiting her favored role, as she completed her part for the next screen installment before her death. If we're hungry for what her character and so many others have truly longed for, however, we need to look beyond what such myths and tales aspire to. Malick's latest movie really seeks to tap-in to the deep places on this.


To quote: "Once the soul was perfect and had wings, it could soar into that heaven that only creatures with wings can know. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth where it took an earthly body. Now, while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there... when we see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know and begins to yearn to spout those wings once more. That makes the soul want to fly but it cannot - it is still too weak. So that person keeps staring up to the sky, longing, at a young bird, or he or she has lost all interest in the world around them".

Christ has come to allow us to become found once again.

So, the 'message' for 2017 is by all means allow the illusions to remind of what was, but don't get lost within them - look further, harder, and allow what truly counts to enfold you, overwhelm you, and turn you from misery to grace.

*(Michelangelo makes a great argument on that, by the way, in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, when he's charged with profanity).

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Shattered dreams... and a scandalous God.

"Science is imagination. In a straitjacket".   
Richard Feynman.

Ah, yes - Monsters and Spaceships.

When I was about six, I recall my Father taking me to the 'dinosaur lake' in Crystal Palace.
It was an exciting moment, because I'd recently seen the movie, the Valley of Gwangi, on TV (what has to be an extraordinary crossover - a western with a T. Rex!), and couldn't wait to see such beasts up close. It was indeed a magical moment, as the brightly coloured stone sculptures appeared to be eyeing me as they twisted around the trees and shrubs - somehow the stillness of the nearby water added to the awe of the moment. I, of course, wondered, at how such creatures had once roamed the land, and it was a thought that would fascinate me for a few years until I reached around the age of eight or nine. Saturday mornings then became transformed by the work of Gerry Anderson (Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds), quickly followed by the astonishing ability to watch real life adventure in space as the Apollo missions were explained on our TV sets by the likes of James Burke and Patrick Moore. By the time I'd reached twelve, we'd been to the moon a couple of times and escaped the disaster of Apollo 13, and then came Star Trek. My imagination soared as I discovered and began to delight in the works of the golden age of Science Fiction.

It was all feeding my rich imagination, but it wasn't touching my deeper questions.
Hopeful monsters might be fun, but in spite of all the visual wizardry of film and TV, they didn't give me much meaning inside. I'd lived my childhood through a time of big questions (including 'will we be here tomorrow? due to a little thing called the cold war!), and all the science alongside all the fantasy fun I was hearing and enjoying really wasn't getting me anywhere.

That's because all of it amounts to skimming stones across the surface of life and missing the deep(er) waters.

We think that religion is about something outlandish - connecting us to the remote 'god' who may (if we're good enough) take us away to some idyllic nirvana when we die. The real shock is that time and space are about something far more tangible than our small thoughts and weak powers of comprehension.

I was lucky enough to see 'A New Hope' (the first Star Wars movie) at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road, before it ended its days as a cinema, in 1977. In those days, we had the new joys of surround-sound, and I can recall that moment when I first saw that imperial ship tare across the screen, breathing deadly fire, to the rapturous yet menacing score of John Williams, forever confirming my love for movies that deserved to be on the big screen.

What we have lost sight of today is that the truth about what's going on is far greater and deeper than something that striking.

How can I be so sure?
Because of Christmas.

Not the tinsel and the twee. Think for a moment about how often the most popular songs at christmas are the ones which touch on something melancholic and honest about us and our often painful lives - that's telling about where we know the 'message' of the season should be taking us, but we're often reluctant to really look the at the bare tidings of advent.

Let's be bold.

There is a mother, nursing a baby. She's not even married yet, and the delivery has just happened in squalor as this family are currently homeless.
There's our world, and yet, it's in these sadly very all to well known conditions that God has come, right down into being one of us, as a baby, needing a mum - to live and die to re-invest all of life with the value and significance that God wants it to have - life defined by a love that gives all.

We all have our dreams, but monsters and space ships still leave the soul needing much more. We need to see, to know the love that will hold us in all our pain, all our death, and bring us and the world into what's good... forever.

That's what Christmas is all about, about the true and great reality breaking in to our disconnection and self-absorption with the news that a saviour is here, and life and history can never be the same again because of that. It's truly wonderful.

Here, then, is an opportunity. This season, just stop a while and listen to the words of the better carols or the Christmas Eve sermon about  Jesus Christ, and think about the one who has come to make you whole.

This is a faithful saying, notes Paul, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

That means there's something to really come and know that will give us a much greater hope than all the dreams that still leave us empty and alone.

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beyond Eventide

"Resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies". Eberhard J√ľngel

It's pretty bleak stuff. 
Genesis tells us that our world and the universe itself began "without form and void" (Genesis 1:2) - something which modern cosmology pretty well affirms in its own particular way, but that really wasn't, as we can see, the end of the story. The question is, why did it begin that way, and why did anything else then happen?

There is, of course, heaps of maths and theorem about order and process, but it all proceeds from the notion that development was, in effect, the reasonable outcome (because that's what we have), but theology gives us a very different and striking insight into what's going on. It tells us that this life is currently devoid of what really matters, and the reason for that is because the very fabric and fiber of what's going on has been tainted by a cosmic tragedy, (Romans 5:12) so here's why, I suspect, we have Genesis stating that things have been brought about in a particular way.

The first image of creation scripture provides is one of darkness, emptiness and void. It's not that there's nothing there, it's just that until it is acted upon by one outside of it, it's not going anywhere - stasis as a barren realm is the status quo.

So much for the 'natural' state of affairs.

Then we have the miracle. 
As in the moment when a seed dies to produce something more glorious, God takes the crude mass of the heavens and earth and breaks upon them with His living word, and light  explodes to furnish the darkness. What could never be 'naturally' is made to be so by the very nature of one who can take what is empty and fill it with a significance it could never of itself have known.

The world today tells us why it was done this way.

In spite of all the frenetic pace of our scurrying race, we in truth are as lifeless as the primal mass that of itself could produce nothing. We babble loudly in our to-ing and fro-ing, but we're entirely overshadowed in our brief moment here by the void of death, and nothing we can say or do can break the hold of what is deemed 'natural' upon us. We are a thing aching for the radiance that flickers in starlight and the astonishing grandeur occasionally encountered in our soul or art, but we are imprisoned by the poverty of our beguiled exile.

This reality impinges on our every moment, no matter how much fury we employ to negate its hold, so everything in itself can only return to ash and dust. That is the awful truth.

And yet, our dreams and loves say we should be more than this.

And Genesis itself does not leave us in such captivity.

As the Father brings form and life to His first work through Word and Spirit, He weaves seasonal renewal within the pattern of creation that speaks continually of the promise that will come through our age of exile to restore, amidst death, the return to life where death is ended (Genesis 1:11-13). So it was that the one Born not of the will of men came, grew and was executed that our incarceration should cease. "Born", He was, "to raise the sons of earth". Died, on a Cross, that from His death and rising would come a second birth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

Without The Godhead, there is certainly only darkness and void, and death -  both mortal and eternal -  which ends us all. With that life which conquers all, all things, even physical death itself, becomes but a prelude to the moment when the great light of the eternal day erupts upon us.

The winter speaks to us  - to our frailty and mortality - confirming that all things end, but it was amidst this very darkness that Christ came. The light, notes John, has shone into this darkness (John 1: 5), and just as that first word in creation brought such light, so now the word brings life that overcomes our being shackled only to death (John 1: 14, 10).

Something to ponder on the nights of the season, as we consider that first advent.

Season Greetings!


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Looking for the city

"There is a river which makes glad the city of God, the habitation of the most high". 
Psalm 46:4

Ever been caught in the middle of a big storm? It can be pretty terrifying.
I had an experience back in the Spring which really scarred me. I was in the middle of the moors on Dartmoor, and visibility had reduced down to around 12-15 feet due to the mist. The Sat Nav we were using lost signal, and in moments, we were uncertain as to our direction. Then the rain came, lashing into us on a strengthening wind, soaking us to our skins through layers of clothing in minutes. The rain started to chill my body, and I could feel my legs freezing up. We were in serious trouble. Thankfully, at that moment, the dark shadow of the only building for miles appeared close by, and we were able to reach shelter, but it was a close call.

In Psalm 46, the sons of Korah see the present world in similar terms. When we look at things politically, economically, socially, then it does indeed appear that the earth gives way, the mountains shift into the depths of the sea, and those waters engulf what seemed so certain with a roar of overwhelming power.
What are we to do?

The answer lies in our coming to understand that there is something far more permanent than any of these swirling forces. At the end of the song of songs, the lovers have learned that nothing, not even death, is stronger than love, and that they can confide and rest in that mercy, as their experiences had taught them. The Psalmist here equally instructs us to a higher view - that God is a refuge amidst such troubles. As nations rage in their rising and falling, we can look to something greater and richer to aid us - to make us glad - in these days. We're not going to see the troubles end (that happens when The Gospel has reached every corner of the world), but there is help amidst those trials.

Mike Horton in his book, Beyond Culture Wars notes that there is only one remedy to the furor of the day, and for us to look beyond politics or moral crusades - the answer does not reside there. It can only be found in the stream that flows from Zion above - the river of mercy which brings us the good news of Jesus Christ. This alone can set us free.

God alone will bring peace to the earth, when His kingdom comes. 
Until then, His people, through their living, vocations, recreation and worship, should be seeking to engage in one thing above everything else - a holding out of the word of life (Philippians 2:16), because it is here and here alone, in our current trials, that we can taste and know something of the joy that is coming - the peace with God made ours in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan women at the well (John 4), it wasn't to bring her some collection of electoral pledges or moral and social imperatives - it was to feed her with the waters of life. Our manner of living, especially before our friends and neighbors, should be to do just the same (Romans 13:1-8). The 'wood, hey and stubble' of fools wisdom is everywhere, but the treasure that is more precious than rubies is only found in the fragrance and sweetness of the message of Jesus.

God 'brings' desolation for a purpose, and storms can often be the essential step towards our finding and truly appreciating refuge. It's then that we can truly be stilled and know His transcendence and imminence, and understand that the day is coming when He will truly be seen as Lord of all.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

All bad but us?

"We have met the enemy, and he is us".

There's probably nothing that's worse in life than a sense of powerlessness - the discovery that you're incarcerated in a manner that leaves you incapable to determine or change what matters and thereby leaves you bereft at the very core of what counts.

I was bluntly made aware whilst listening to an annual lecture this week that modern society considers people like me to be so beguiled. You see, I've fallen under the illusion that when I consider the universe around me to speak of majesty and thereby design, I have been duped by an illusion that naturalism dogmatically propounds is superficial. Yes, there may be an 'appearance' of design about us, say those leading this charge, but the real story is, of course, evolution, so any adherence to the notion of purpose is tilting at windmills.

This deceptively circular conclusion reminded me a little of the reasoning of the fantasy movie some friends got to take me to see recently, in which a scientist contends with a mystic that we're all just dust and that images and ideas which say otherwise belong on nothing but gift shop cards. The mystic proceeds to 'open' the multiverse to the scientist's mind to contend this, but as the plot unfolds, numerous people die (become dust) and all the mysticism actually changes nothing about the natural state of affairs (decay and death), so, there you go - that's all there is.

Well, that's fair enough if that is all there is to say on these subjects, but it isn't.
Go back to the first point - does science show us that seeing design is nothing more than a smoke and mirrors act? Naturalists may like to thinks so, but as I've touched on here at other times, leading physicists in their most honest moments will tell you that such views are saturated with lashings of desirable conjecture to keep the ardent atheist rested in their assumptions, but that's as far away from what we actually do know as pinning down the real nature of who and what we are.

We have to start with the nature of what's really going on in this striking yet crippled thing called humanity - what is that trying to tell us? We have all manner of guises to keep ourselves from soberly looking at that, and the world that actually surrounds us, so until there's at least a little willingness to crack open that reflection, we're not really going to see who we truly are and what is happening in front of us.

The painful truth that Christianity points us to is that we first have to understand not just what we have discovered, but how much we have lost - that our race is currently alienated from what and where it should be, but the appetite and perception of there being much more hasn't left us. The reality is that we are powerless to really change this, no matter how much we learn or how loudly we object via our various alternative notions. The prison doesn't dissolve, and the greater reality can still be glimpsed through the bars, however constraining they may be. We need one from outside of our predicament, our disconnected state, to break through and change the nature of our unbreakable futility. Christianity reveals that this has happened at one particular place in our history, in the person of Jesus Christ, and what He has done disposes of all the other 'gift cards', whatever their particular denomination, because only He has broken down what divides us from what is meant to be - a home that will bring an end to all futility. In truth, then, we not only have to confront the issue of the transcendence of God, witnessed in the marvel of Creation's declaration, but His immanence by His becoming one of us, and doing so to rescue what had become lost.  

We can, of course, chose to see that as delusional, and stay behind the prison walls, but why would we choose to do so? The only answer is that we really do not wish to truly see and understand our own  situation, or the rescue that has been given to remedy this.

Materialism tells us that what we see and inhabit truly matters, but only in a temporal, transitory fashion - it will all come to dust. Christianity tells us that the ruin and decay are temporary - a repercussion of our rejection of life from God - but the day is closing when all things are redeemed in Jesus Christ and begin to inhabit their true estate.

Take a look through the bars, and ask yourself - isn't it better to engage with the wonder, as we were meant to?

Monday, 31 October 2016

For Reformation Day

Why Martin Luther's work is as vital today as it was 5 centuries ago:
Mike Reeves on the 'joint' statement on Justification and why it changes nothing.

Happy Reformation Day!