Sunday, 12 June 2016

Beyond The Bitter Fantasy

"but the serpent said to the woman, 'you will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be open'". Genesis 3:3.

Collateral damage. It's often an irritation, like storm damage, but often, it's viewed as something we think we can deal with, especially if we apparently 'gain' something (winning an argument, a business deal, a termination to a relationship, or an armed conflict)  we want when it's experienced.

By the end of the first world war, it was estimated that around 60% of the 9.7 million casualties were soldiers killed by shrapnel from the millions of shells that had been used. What was not realized until after the conflict had ended was the devastation was much greater than was contained in those dreadful figures.

In the years that followed the carnage, it was realized that a further 200,000 men were suffering from what came to be termed 'shell shock' - they had been so profoundly traumatized by being close to exploding shells that many of them lost their hearing or sight or speech, even though there was no physical damage.

Today, we have learned that many others suffer from variations of this misery under the panacea of what is termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Essentially, we close down and disconnect when the momentous sheering forces of life become too much and we begin to come apart because we're just not equipped to cope.

The reason for our malady is an old one...

The real, abiding  damage was done to us in that moment in Eden, when we believed we were smart enough to walk out of the sphere of our Creator's care and go it alone - to bequeath ourselves to self-centered 'gnosis' (a blind alley grab for power)  rather than be nurtured and sheltered by a Father's unending love.

Our expulsion to the consequences of our actions (the alienation God described to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3) was for one purpose - to get us to call for help.

The truth is, like those brutalized men of war, we are broken and bleeding from the inside, and we need a rescue that is far greater than we can imagine - but the remedy, thankfully, far exceeds our failings.

Christ came and bore the full measure of the agony of what we are and where we have fallen.  His breaking of Himself is our healing - our promise that the cycle of sin and the horror of death will be exhausted and we can be enveloped in a depth of life that comes from God once again - to be made whole by the only one who can truly heal our wounds.

Here's how the Prophet Isaiah speaks of this amazing truth...

He would be despised and rejected by men, a man marked by sorrow, aquatinted with grief, despised and evaluated as worthless,
but it would be Him who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows,
stricken and smitten of God, and afflicted,
He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities,
for on Him would fall the chastisement for our peace,
and by the stripes He received, we would be healed.

Isaiah 53.

The oppression, affliction and violence of life are so very real,
but so is the one who can return us to a Father's amazing love.

This is the message that is the sweet aroma God has placed in our broken world - God has come to us in Jesus Christ, that we might indeed be free.

We tend to try and mask the damage we carry behind our pride and masks of 'I'm fine', but ultimately, they will slip and we will be the ones found to be bleeding and dying, and all that we trusted will be found hollow. Only the one who has reached to the very depths of our need and our severance can raise us once more.

The burden can be shared and made light, and true shelter, within everlasting arms, is close at hand.

Draw close, and He will hear and answer in the gift of His beloved Son.

Monday, 16 May 2016

The tragic reality

So, there I was, after hanging on a 'please stay in the queue... your call is important to us' line for a long time, trying to resolve the issue of why my new modem was not talking to my computer and was, in fact, causing it to freeze.
Than I get through. The guy from the service department goes through the motions... was the device/line/filter all connected correctly? Once he'd checked they were, he runs a test ... the line signal was weaker than it should be. Maybe the modem is faulty.

Um, I don't think so - the phone's working and there's wi-fi on my tablet. What I'm trying to resolve is why is my computer freezing? Surely, if there is a signal (which there was) and it's registering elsewhere (which it did), then there's another problem here.

The service centre ignores this. The call ends with the company deciding to mail another modem, and me very aware that the root problem -what's happening to my computer- hasn't been touched.

I ponder on this and then do my own search to find if others have had the same trouble, and sure enough, they have, and there, on the discussion page, is a procedure to resolve it. I follow the simple instructions, and a minute later, the issue is resolved and my computer is back to normal.

It's a telling case of miss-diagnosis, due to really poor (inadequate) communication.

Most of us of course have had this kind of experience with technical or product issues, but it made me wonder how often does this issue arise in other more important fields?
Like dealing with the 'tangle of wiring' that make us us?

Miss diagnosis is a truly huge headache.
Whether you're looking at medical, social or psychological fields, there's a plethora of data to show just how quickly mistakes can be made, and the reason, often, is that there's a lack of meaningful engagement with a person initially to truly get to the heart of their troubles and then seek to provide a real solution to the problem.

The real human condition is a mine field, and often, we are woefully beneath the task of dealing with this well.

So, what does it take to get it right?

We can get a helpful glimpse into this when Jesus meets the woman at the well (John 4).

The first point to notice here is that Jesus is outside the bounds of what would be seen as approved of/normal in His day - He's spending time publicly talking to a woman who is a member of a culture that was deemed excluded by His own society. Good communication almost always involves putting aside such segregative and alienating conventions if we really want to get to know someone. Reaching those who were deemed 'unclean' - touching someone at a point that counts isn't easy and is often costly - that's often why we're so bad at it. Convention makes it easy for us to 'go through the motions' and "engage" at the level of a narrative, to borrow from Shakespeare, 'shared by fools, signifying nothing'.

Secondly, He begins by simply using the commonplace and immediate (having a drink) as a means to step into conversing about deeper things - what really matters in life. This is where discernment really comes to the fore. We can so often "jump in"  (the annoying street stranger, asking if you're saved or born-again) when it comes to talking about what counts without really 'hearing' or knowing what's important to who we're talking to, and without truly wanting to do what Jesus does here - He

touches on a deep desire (10-15) and then
touches what prevents that desire from being met - on the person's sin (16-18)

Notice what really counts to this woman. Yes, she tries to evade Jesus' homing-in on her immorality (vs 20), but even in that, she is still showing an interest in the major theme that Jesus has raised - how and where people know and worship God (the deep desire). Her need for intimacy and connection (a string of partners) is clearly associated but miss-placed to the common longing we all share for being right with God and each other.

Jesus responds by clearing away the clutter and cutting through to what counts (vs 21) and the following conversation and results are striking (verses 23-43), but also notice how the Disciples of Jesus just didn't get it (27). They were still a long way from truly comprehending what truly mattered - 'feeding' the world's deepest need of life from God.

My 'communication' with my internet provider concluded with them sending me a customer satisfaction survey to complete on-line, which, of course, I wouldn't have been able to do in the situation their 'customer service' had left me in (!).  It spoke volumes.

That's the status of life outside of what God gives us... dislocated, frozen, and so in need of a real answer.

God is here, thankfully, in Christ, to bring us meaningful help in our time of need.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Reconciliation that excels desolation

"And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in His heart 'I will never curse the ground again because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth".
Genesis 8:21.

Bob Dylan, of course, got it about right.
Back in the early 80's, there was a song that got a lot of play time in my house.

Slow Train Coming spoke about fools trying to manipulate dark powers, the enemy guised in what appeared to be honorable, of those who empty the soul seeking to supplant religion, of a day when ambition is always encouraged to trump an inner need for something other than consumerism, leading to mass manipulation and despair.
It's a pretty sobering but honest evaluation of our times.

We have, of course, been here on various occasions before.
The Genesis record tells us of a generation which had become consumed by such evil so that there was no longer any respect or reverence for anything of true worth in their minds, their desires and deeds entirely bent in upon themselves |(Genesis 6:5,6).

Mercy sometimes can only really visit us in one form - a shutting down of our own misery.
The flood ends a perished world, but it's a termination cradled in promise and providence.

Think for a moment about the original fall of our race.

When God expels Adam and Eve from Eden so that they didn't eat from a fruit that would have left them eternally divorced from meaningful existence (Genesis 3:22), it was because He wanted them to find, amidst the woe and anguish they had brought upon themselves, the certainty that He was still with them and wanted, more than anything, for them to trust that He alone would bring them once more to the garden and to fulfillment.

The goodness of all that makes life bountiful is indeed meant to point us to the truth (Ecclesiastes 3:11)  that what counts isn't concluded in our own selfish, self contained satisfaction (an abyss that is never fathomed) but only in giving is there a truly greater joy, because that reflects something of the nature of the Father, Son and Spirit in whom we were intended to love and live.

As the waters of the great flood subside and Noah and his kin are finally released from the ark, he builds an altar and gives offering to God in thanks for their deliverance (Genesis 8:20). After desolation, Noah understands that his first act must be one of thankfulness for being given what none of us own, and his genuine gratitude is richly rewarded (Genesis 8:21-22).

Christ came, delighted to do the will of His Father - to be born a man, to suffer and be cruelly killed that He might speak to us of the astonishing love that God has for our deeply dislocated race (Romans 5:8). He offered Himself as the sacrifice, that God may show mercy that is as deep as it is wide, but in spite of such clear interventions in our history, our race still chooses to despise to scorn and to reject such love - so deep is the poison that must be drawn from within.

We are, at our deepest point, in need of the greatest aid.

God has come to us, come amongst us, to make us whole once more.

Whilst we were far from Him, He has sought us out and enveloped our dead realm with His full mercy in His Son. The reality of our desolation can only be resolved when that freedom, that reconciliation, becomes our life.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Feeding upon the perpetual table

"And one day, you catch yourself wishing the person you had loved had never existed...
 To spare yourself the pain".

Bruce Wayne and Ra's Al Ghul - Batman Begins.

There was a nice reminder last week in the Wall Street Journal that Easter, unlike Christmas, is one of those Christian festivals that commercialism has never successfully swamped and entirely obscured. Sure, there's the whole Spring theme that gives a precedent for chocolate and cards , but even that often plays into those quite disturbing thoughts about how life itself is married to death, and before you know it, you're again hearing the echo of the one who was lifted to be extinguished by a violent execution, only to shock the world with His emptied tomb.

It's a stark and uncompromising truth that forces us to look upon certain absolute realities about ourselves and how God steps in to our arena to resolve those dread truths, and it has certainly left me with stacks to think about. Easter, when considered well, always does.

Here's a few to mull over.

So much of life is garbed in the two opposites of disguise and disclosure. Generally, we prefer to marshal ourselves behind the first of these two realms. It costs to genuinely open up and give of ourselves, so it's usually only those whom we truly love who get to see something of what's actually us, and that's often a revelation that can be hard to give and receive.

Christ is so very difficult for us to encounter because He brings all of what is us into a light that must bruise and break in order to mend and to heal - the remedy, as shown in His hanging at Golgotha, is as harsh as the malady.

Jesus talks about a day when all that is hidden is made plain, and the tragedy will be the darkness of severance, of alienation, that some have made their true identity. 
Woe to those, He says, who deem darkness (exclusion) to be light, for how great will that severance be (Matthew 6:23).

Total Love truly changes everything. It alone provides the 'table' at which we can sit and genuinely give of ourselves to each other, however frightening and painful some of that sharing may prove to be - we know, in our innermost selves, that we were made for such intimacy and connection.

Easter gives us the brightest truth regarding that love that our world has ever known.
Behind all the agony of our present alienation and poverty, there is a God who still loves us, and came into the midst of the chaos because such love will do all that is required to make us again those children who freely enjoyed the garden without the ruin we currently know.

Wars and hatred are, no doubt, within us, but reconciliation and peace is possible, and that is why Easter should mark our every day - love triumphs, like it never did in any other story or romance.

So, perhaps we need to think even more about God's disclosure of Himself in the person and  life events of Jesus Christ, difficult though that no doubt may be. It's the remedy that will truly do us good.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Right between the eyes

"Faith is a living, daring confidence in one thing -
God's grace.
So sure and certain that you would stake anything and everything on it a thousand times over.
It's because of such grace that we can do what God wants and actually serve each other - it all stems from a genuine affection towards God for such a precious truth".  Martin Luther.

This week, a friend was telling me how he'd once driven across part of Australia, along roads that seemed to go on, straight and long, forever. He recalled how one night, however, out of the dark, he found himself screeching to brake at a stop sign at a small town that came out of nowhere. He realized the awful truth of that moment when he failed to stop in time, and he jumped out from the car into the darkness, his heart pounding, as he realized how fortunate he'd been. The road he'd crossed onto could have easily been occupied by a local 'road train' truck (some 4-8 times longer than lorries here in the UK), which would have barely noticed as it ran across him and his car. It was a moment he'll never forget.

The same was true for me on an August night back in 1980.
I was crashing at a house amidst a hot summer, and I couldn't sleep. The room had little to help - a bookcase full of pretty awful novels - but there, amidst the pulp, was a tiny book called 'The Wisdom of Martin Luther'. I pulled the thin publication off the shelf, opened it, and read the opening quote above. 

I'd passed the 'stop' sign.

It would be another decade before I fully began to unpack the significance and ramifications of what I'd read on that summer night, but it never left me - like lightning striking on a dark night, that statement provoked and troubled me until I began to really understand what grace is.

The hell of our lives is that we're all racing furiously on a pitch back road - we feel the terror of that, but all we can seem to do is just keep going, even though we know that the stop sign must be coming. Grace is that moment when the ride's finally over, and we find there's something more than the inevitable consequence of being trapped by what we are - the sin and death that brings us so much pain and evil.

We find ourselves alive because someone else reached the stop sign before us and took our place.

Easter is all about God's mercy to a lost and dying people - us.
Jesus deals with our sins and the ruin that they bring - alienation and death - because we can't. Left to our own devices, we'd have been wasted at that crossing by sin and death, because all we would have had left was the corruption our own nature's leave us with, but God in Christ frees us from that horror and makes us more than slaves.

So, here's the challenge for this Easter. Stop raging and racing on for a moment, and let God's grace get into your thoughts and trouble you for a while. Let His astonishing and total giving get down amidst your well-defined thoughts and schedules and let it stagger you in its height and depth, and then, you will be amazed and deeply thankful for what has been made profoundly true to us in Jesus Christ.

In Christ, purely by this amazing mercy, we gain what sin caused us to loose. It's only through that gracious gift alone that we're restored, not because of anything we say or do, but purely because of what our Father does for us by His Son, purely because He loves us.

Happy Easter!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Escaping a 'virtual' Easter

"The same flesh that wants to sin is used to living under moral constraints that thwart sinful desires - the mind brings both of these into play. This is why true grace is so scandalous and why we are constantly seeking to undermine our freedom with a little Law... we will seek such 'ethics'  rather than face the liberty to which grace actually calls us".  Jim Mc Neely.

How do we approach a scripture like John 3:16 ?

When we consider the essential message of most teaching that's heard, we may think it should be heard something like this:

God made the world, but because we ate something that was forbidden, we're outcast from paradise forever.
Because we were so terrible at following rules, God clearly needed to punish us.
God wanted to show us, however, just how bad we were, so He gave us lots more rules, which we couldn't keep, and then decided something more must be done, so Jesus, who was God's good boy, had to be killed, because what we did what and do is just bad. God killed the good boy rather than punish you, so you should be so grateful that you behave better. If you do, then you get to go to heaven.

Most of us, or course, would recognize what's outlined here as a parody - Jesus isn't saying that - but why does the essential nature of the Gospel so often come across as though this is the kind of thing we believe - that God is austere and remote from our poverty, even when the very heart of what He's about, evidenced in Christ living and dying for us, is what we're talking about?

David Zahl on the Mockingbird website did a superb revision of the parable of the Prodigal Son recently. Here's what he wrote:

“There was a man who had two sons;and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he got involved with a really large church. The pastors at that church told him that if he gave sacrificially, he would be blessed and so, wanting to experience the fullness of God’s blessing, he gave them his entire inheritance. Unfortunately, he promptly contracted a debilitating case of lupus, which led to him losing his job. He began to wonder if his church was perhaps not preaching the authentic Gospel. So he went and joined himself to another church in that country, one that had splintered off from the bigger one a decade previous. They had rejected the prosperity teaching and claimed to take the Bible more seriously, preaching the benefits of a life of radical obedience and imitation of Christ. Before long they had him on a regimen of thrice daily bible studies, scripture memorization and marathon prayer sessions. Before he knew it, he was spending more time at church than at his apartment, helping in whatever task was asked of him. Nothing was too menial. One day, when he was mopping the floors of the church basement, he realized that he felt no closer to God than before, that the harder he tried to be holy, the further away holiness seemed to recede. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if his salvation, or even God, was real. In the next room he overheard an AA meeting going on. Someone was saying something about an admission of powerlessness. He felt pretty powerless himself and so he sat down, and heard about a God who saved people who could not save themselves. That sounds pretty great, he thought–possibly That night, he got online and looked for more information about this exciting message. He stumbled upon a website called Mockingbird and his mind was blown. The Gospel was good news after all! He decided to go home to his father, and say ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the gospel; I have squandered my inheritance on oppressive, heretical churches and have been an insufferable legalist. I understand if you never want me at another family gathering.’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the Gospel, and am no longer worthy to be called a Christian.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; tell the Senior Warden we have a new vestryman, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was a synergist, and is now a mongerist, was judgmental and is compassionate again.’ And they began to make merry.
Now the father’s elder son was watching the game in a bar with some friends a few blocks away; and as he drew near to the house on his motorcycle, he heard music and dancing, two things he liked very much. So he called one of the guests and asked what was happening. And the guest said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But the older brother was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have believed in  grace with all my heart and never swayed in my commitment to the solas; I had your back 100% when you were kicked out of your last church, yet you never threw me a party. But when that shamelessly Pelagian son of yours came back–who threw our money down the drain, you not only didn’t ask him to publicly denounce his Pharisaical ways. But instead you made him a vestryman and killed for him the fatted calf!’ And the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and were welcome to serve on the vestry at any time. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found".

What I particularly like about this re-telling is the way it shows just how easily legalism can take hold of our behavior, of our piety, of our 'godliness', and truly leave us as poisoned as Adam and Eve seeking to cover themselves as God approached them, or as the pharisee so thankful that he was 'better' than others. 

Salvation is about something entirely different. Think for a moment about the life of Jacob (Genesis 25-33).  
Here is a man who's will and desires had him scheming and conniving all over the place, using his mother's love so that he could con both his dying Father and his twin brother, until he finally faced reaping the consequences of what he's been doing all his life (which, by the way, had included getting a taste of his own medicine when it came to marrying the woman he loved - see Genesis 29). There's nothing here that would commend us to Jacob - he's certainly no paragon of virtue, but Jacob had one thing going for him that made all the difference. God loved him, and as Jacob fearfully faces the showdown with Esau that should have ended his life,  grace comes from God (Genesis 32).

The important thing to note here is it's at this point that Jacob is re-named and crippled - not exactly the 'victorious living' he was looking for - so that faith in the one who blessed him in spite of his nature would become what he could rest on in future (Hebrews 11:20).

What counts here is to see that it's the grace and work of God that gives to Jacob and the people that would descend from him - Israel, (which means one who wrestles with God) what counts, and that's all that makes Jacob, and any of us, special.
God's action in this world and in our lives allows us to become those, like Jacob, who are loved in spite of our folly and our mischief. No doubt our lives, like Jacob's, will often be stained by trouble and by sin, which would indeed cause us to perish, but grace has something more in store for us. Grace alone allows us to look outside of the prison of our present exile, and see the one who has come to make us free, not by virtue of our behavior or morality, but purely because of His rescuing us from death and hell by His life alone.

 Godliness is His, and the best we will truly manage in this life is moments when, by the grace poured into our hearts from Him, we can share such beauty and richness with each other. God loved this world with a love that saves, and when we know that love, then we can share something of that splendor with the world, for it truly sets us free.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Creation Re-loaded

The small copse of trees amidst the road was gone - hewn down, leaving a gaping void where, for years, there had been beauty and a feast of life every spring. The ravages of disease, no doubt. No wonder creation aches and groans for release.

A friend recently made a very astute observation. If Science Fiction is the literature of our times, why does so much of it conclude with a dystopian rather than a utopian ending? It's a pretty obvious problem when you think about it - if the 'science' you depend upon has been nourished by naturalism, then there really is nothing but energy and matter, and both are in a state ruthlessly ruled by entropy, so the conclusion is obvious. Why, then, all these grand notions of aspiring to something bigger and better? Is that just an aberrant bane on the household of our race, or does this 'hunger' tell us a truth we need a whole other series of narratives to probe?

Romance gives us a big nudge on this, but not just the 'happily ever after' (me and you) variety. There are a whole range of things around us that we have deep and genuine affection for, because each and every day, it's these evidences of a splendor to creation that truly make our lives worth living, and allow us to consider the wonder, even amidst our deepest pain. That, I suspect, more than anything else, causes us to dream and see beyond the ugliness. We want this all to have a better future than death and decay. 

The good news is that it does.

In the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, we find the prophet encountering a vision of the earth post all the current anguish, and it's not a cinder or a dead end. He begins the revelation by defining who has saved this rare gem with His work and character - a clear description of the one who would be born amongst our very woes (note the reference to Jesse - verse 1) to bring an equity only anticipated in those first short, earliest moments in Eden.

The picture of Lions at ease with Lambs which follows (verses 6 & 7) is often something so coddled in Sunday school-type thoughts that we never truly consider what's being stated here, but one of the next images leaves us in absolutely no doubt.
"The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and put his hand in the adder's den" (verse 8). There will be no hurt. There will be no death. The 'equity' brought by the one sent to our benighted race will be the 'sign' (which, as I touched on last post, clearly means lots more than just a symbol) to the whole earth. The 'weight' or significance of this manifestation of what is truly good will cover the entire realm of His handiwork.

The force of this image would be plain to its original readers. The bite of the most poisonous creature has been muted and the sheer joy of the innocence of the child at play is regained. Even amidst places which would have previously only brought fear and death, peace has been totally restored.

That is the goal of the 'new wine' of the kingdom, which will be evidenced on the day of resurrection.

The one who sprang from Jesse, born of David's line, has appeared and opened the gate wide to that new and living way, where those bitten by sin's awful venom can come and be healed. Jesus Christ the righteous died and rose to set us free, and as we trust in Him, we gain a foretaste of what is to come - creation continuing as it was meant to, filled with a life and a culture that is devoid of evil, eternally growing and deepening in its understanding and appreciation of it's richness and the worth of it's maker and Lord.

That's a story that's not only worth reading, but of being within.