Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Deepest Place

"To those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with those who in every place call upon His name;
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ".  1 Corinthians 1:2 & 3.

Ever wondered what it would have been like to visit the church in Corinth around the time that Paul was writing this letter to them?

What would it have been like, listening to them, seeing what they were up to, considering the kind of thinking that was going on behind their behaviour to each other?

Well, from what Paul will address, I expect we wouldn't have been impressed at all by the kind of faith they were expressing. Strife, division, excess, sexual perversion and going spiritually awry were some of the things that were seen amongst them, and judging by Paul's later writings (2 Corinthians), they remained somewhat far from perfect.

It would be pretty easy to look at all of this and simply turn on our heels and find somewhere less troublesome... I hear the Ephesians are doing OK, and then there's the church in Phllippi...

There's something we should notice, however, in Paul's greeting. These people may have been in all kinds of moral trouble, but they were still counted amongst the saints, amongst the church - amongst those who had been sanctified by God, and thereby were recipients of grace and peace. The reason for this becomes clear in where Paul takes them to as he seeks to wade in to their issues - they had heard and received what truly counts from Paul himself. (2:1&2).

We often think God's greatness resides in some manner of teaching or 'sign' that will make such a mark upon the world that people won't be able to refute or ignore such a thing, but what had established this and every community of those who know the truth wasn't anything like that.

Paul came to them with the message about Jesus Christ being crucified to make us right with God - that's what they had come to trust, and that's why, in spite of all their errors, they were counted amongst the saints.

Paul, no doubt, felt great anguish about the mess they had placed themselves in. How could God's love be evidenced by their city when people could look and see no difference in these people... they were just as weak and as foolish as those around them.

How we seek to instruct and admonish ourselves must, Paul shows, follow through from the one foundation that can be laid, because towering over things in heaven and earth is the life and death of Jesus, and it's there alone, we can find aid and  build well as those of His body.

It's only when we look to our Saviour, dying for us, that we can begin to see ourselves as foolish and sinful in ourselves, recognize that aside from His sanctifying work, there is no mercy, no grace, no peace with God or one another. The way we are changed and transformed is not simply by our trying harder, but by God grafting us into the life, the death and the resurrection of His beloved Son. There our sins are paid for, there our life is clothed in Him, there, the work of God's spirit will begin a work of making us new creations, finished on the glorious day of resurrection.

Christianity isn't about the dead-ends we so easily and readily more ourselves and others into - a justifying of ourselves in our own folly - it's about the justifying that God alone does in Christ. That's our only comfort, our only hope, our only source of growth, or repentance, or renewal.

Let us, then, like those troubled Corinthians, draw close with all our failings, all our folly, and trust afresh in the foolishness of God, giving Himself at the cross.

Therein, now and forever, lies the power of God to save!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

The 'badness' of "Good" religion

"But their minds were hardened, for to this day, when they read the law, the same veil remains in place,
for only Christ can take this away.
When we turn to the Lord, the veil is gone,
for where the Spirit of the Lord is at work,
there is freedom!" 2 Corinthians 3:14-17.

I've often wondered what would happen if people really began to understand God's true requirements of righteousness as they practiced their religion.

A basic requirement in most 'religious' * practice is some form of repentance - of genuine understanding of our predicament, because we recognize a point (level) of virtue and goodness that we don't achieve, so there is a need to honestly evaluate ourselves in the light of this, to seek to 'adjust' ourselves in the light of what isn't true of us, but what is true of genuine righteousness (i.e. the character of God).

Christ calls us to such repentance - to recognize our failure to be righteous - so it's a call we 'hear', even if we chose to, in practice, ignore it, because we know that we are indeed people who repeatedly fall short of what we know is good and true.
This call petitions us - to soberly realize who and what we are and to take action (turn to God for mercy) accordingly, hence "God expostulates with men on the basis of their own (inner) concepts of gratitude, fidelity, and fair play; and puts Himself, as it were at the bar before His own creatures (as they reflect on this)" (C S Lewis - Divine Goodness).

So, if we know we need to change, and we pursue "religion" (in everything from our ache for a healthy body to a plethora of new age spiritual gymnastics) because of that imperative, how is it that our devotion isn't driving us all into the safe haven of God's love and care given in His saving grace, but often leaving us in a cul-de-sac of contrived self worth and beguiling self assurance?

The answer is simple.
Once we encounter that tussle with truth we then avoid the ramifications, choosing instead to jury rig the standard by which we judge ourselves so we consider ourselves to be doing fine... and therein lies the poison of religion. Rather than leading us to true freedom, it becomes the means whereby we add more chains to our impoverished depravity.

Paul tells us in various places that the standard given in the Mosaic law wasn't provided so we could cosy up to this by thinking we were somehow making the grade - the law should be leaving us totally perplexed about where we're at, causing us to look for a remedy outside of our own shame (hence, when the law was given, so was a system which showed that true remedy to our troubles was only possible by sacrifice of life for sin, which brought about cleansing, forgiveness and atonement).
Religion devised by us places us in blinkers - we can no longer see our true misery and emptiness because we've chosen to, instead, contrive a measure and form of 'goodness' we think we are achieving.

It's very bad news.
It leaves us wearing the same shoes as those who sought to kill Jesus, because He constantly showed them they were lying to God and themselves - false religion hates to be put under that spotlight, and shows its true colours when it is.

Christianity calls us to a very different place. It shows us that true repentance is equally about understanding who we are - unable to meet the grade - and who God is - the one who shows us totally unmerited and unparalleled mercy and goodness in the sacrifice of His Son, laying down His life for us to make us truly free.
The goal here isn't to modify our behaviour so we can dutifully pray x number of times a day or loose a few bounds. It's to begin to make us the people that we were designed to be - who begin to engage with the full worth, weight, wonder and joy of what it really means to be a person made to know and love their Father and all of His creation; an unfolding of life that is so wide and deep and rich that it's going to take eternity itself to begin to truly taste and explore its splendour.
How unreligious is that!

If religion causes you to stop and ponder, soberly, where you are, then it is doing something good, but if it's just a ruse to keep you on your own sanctimonious treadmill of "I'm just fine", then it's a savor of death.

Take off the blindfold and step into the brilliance of God's love found only in the saving care of Jesus Christ.

* Jordan Peterson really shows here just how 'religious' people are!.

Friday, 4 May 2018

"Ahhhhh...." (???)

It's lovely to have those moments, when the air clears, the sun makes everything tingle with radiance, and life feels good once more... at least for a moment, but we all know that most of our days are somewhat different to that.

What's true about sunshine is also the case in the real world of faith. We may have moments of climbing some new heights, but we have to spend most of our time in the nitty gritty of carrying on carrying on.

In this brilliant piece, Connor Gwin tells us why that's really where it's at. Enjoy the good moments, sure, but the genuinely worthwhile is just as much, if not more, about the day to day in the here and now.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

The Hell of it.

"For the fear even from bare words is sufficient, though we do not fully unfold their meaning. But that it is not temporary, hear Paul now saying, concerning those who know not God, and who do not believe in the Gospel, that 'they shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction'. How then is that temporary which is everlasting"?

John Chrysostom.

This past month saw the Netflix release of the film, Come Sunday. Based around events in the life of mega-church bishop Carlton Pearson's rise and fall in Christian ministry, it revolves around a big issue - should we take the matter of the existence of hell seriously?

Carlton Pearson's own story is telling.
In a TV interview (around the 3:47 mark) in which he discusses his theology, he informs us that he believed that hell had been emptied by Jesus, even before he began to preach that to his congregation. After hearing a confirmation of this from God (that, in fact, hell didn't exist), he began to proclaim that the love of God would mean that no one would ever go to such a place.

In the movie (see the trailer above), he challenges another bishop regarding what he would do to get his (presumably unrepentant) father out of such a place. His view is that if we would go to any lengths (akin to the scenario of the movie, "What Dreams May Come"), why doesn't God... "surely He's not less loving than us". This is the crux of the matter, but Pearson's conclusion actually avoids the deeper issues concerning our relationship with God, and the goal of the Incarnation.

C S Lewis examines this well in the opening chapters of his work, The Problem of Pain. In the section on Divine goodness, he seeks to unpack how God is indeed loving to us, but this love is not defined by a sentimental or miss-placed approach, poorly reduced to the most arbitrary notions of kindness we may express when we inhabit opinions removed from the real world. In the real world, we were made with free will, and that will was willingly bent to corruption, meaning our propensity now is to be wayward and, consequently, wicked regarding ourselves and others. This certainly spills over into our understanding of the character of God, projecting Him to be either too capricious and harsh or too sentimental and so devoid of genuine, meaningful love.

Lewis then examines Gods love in the light of these realities in everyday terms - the most distant being that of a love an artist has for his work, then the closer, familial love we know and share, partially with pets, and fully, with friends and family, and finally, the intimate love shared between a husband and wife. Gods love has all of these qualities, so our trouble is not, as Pearson pondered, that we love more than God, but, as Lewis notes, that we have a God who is never disinterested or indifferent, but who is truly terrible in the closeness of His love - a love that 'forgives all infirmities, but cannot cease to will their removal'.

The answer to the bishop's dilemma is found in what Jesus tells us in His discussion with the religious teacher, Nicodemus, in John chapter 3.

Here is a man, like Pearson, troubled by what he is seeing and hearing as Jesus ministers to those in need. He cannot deny what is happening, but he cannot make it fit into his theological understanding, principally because, Jesus informs him, he must undergo a spiritual re-birth.
Jesus then continues to speak about His own purpose - to be 'raised' as Moses had lifted the serpent to bring healing to the Israelites in the wilderness (14), because of God's love for the world and desire to rescue those who are perishing (16).

The intention is made clear - God will rescue those who trust in the saving work of His only begotten Son. That is what God has done to keep us from hell. The goal is to stop us from being those who "perish" or become totally lost.

Isn't that, then enough?
What more needs to be said - God rescues us... But He does so because we want it, because we come to understand our need of this.

We became free when we trust(ed) in the rescue that's provided (18).

Think about that.

God made humanity to be free. We gave up that freedom and become enslaved to sin.
God, because He loves us, has given us a way to be free once again, but He requires us to choose to accept what He has given - He asks us to come and receive His love.

There's a painful truth here that Jesus goes on to speak of.

"Judgement" has already occurred, here and now amongst us, He says, because in spite of God coming to us to save us, people have loved (preferred) darkness to the light (19) because they revel in their wickedness.
The world has, in effect, become a prison cell, because they cannot see beyond their own interests and goals - nothing is more important than their own satisfaction and comfort, and everything must be filtered through that one point alone.

The 'wrath' and judgement God brings upon us is if we reject and spurn His love, He allows us to do so. He allows us to go where we want to go. That is why hell, as Lewis notes, is a realm locked from the inside.

It is not a case of not loving us - He truly does (1 Timothy 2:1-7). It is a case that God has come, shown His love, and we do not want it. Many atheists have made just this point - even if God were shown to be irrefutably real, they would not follow, because it would mean putting aside what they have become accustomed to.

The fire and the torment of hell is the biting realization that we settled for a severance from the ever-increasing splendor of what we were truly intended for, and there is no 'cooling' of that agony.

The love of God is so vast and deep and wide that it can save anyone, totally and forever, but it has to be accepted. Love has to be real to be true, and Gods love is the greatest reality that can be known - the cross of Jesus shows us this. It offers us life in exchange for our folly of living estranged from our true Father, our real family.

We can seek to dress our determinations up as good and honorable, but if they ignore what God asks of us, to come and yield ourselves to His love so He can rescue us, then we're making those presumptions more important than what God is asking of us, and that's deadly.

Jesus came to restore us to a true place - children who are eternally loved and cared for by a Father who is the maker and finisher of all things. Reconciliation was made at a very great cost, which conveys the truth about Gods love for us.

Can we really afford to neglect such love?
Do we really want to put our aims and intentions ahead of something so great and costly, deriding and demeaning what has been offered in the process?

God has offered us the most precious gift we can ever receive - life fully defined, rich, precious and eternal. What hope is there if we spurn such love?

As Paul would summarize:
"If, because of one mans wrong death ruled us, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness rule in life through the other principal man, Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:17).

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Monday, 23 April 2018

Escape Velocity

"Eager for self-justification, we throw ourselves in the direction of a propaganda that justifies us and this eliminates one of the sources of our anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts . . . For all these reasons contemporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it".

Jacques Ellul - Propaganda.

"In fact, Disney's robots are masterpieces of electronics; each devised by observing the expressions of a real actor, then producing models, then fabricating skeletons of absolute precision... authentic  computers in human form, dressed in 'skin' made by craftsmen, whose command of realism is incredible".

Umberto Eco - Journeys into hyperreality.

"I wish I was a Wild West Hero".

Electric Light Orchestra - Wild West Hero.

Saudi Arabia allowed the opening of the first cinema in the country for some 35 years this past week, inviting guests to enjoy the latest Hollywood action superhero blockbuster in plush and elegant surroundings as the first step to seeing the re-introduction of such entertainment to the country.

Although cinema has officially been banned by law there for decades, it has done nothing to quell people's well-nigh insatiable appetite for the pull of the fantasy market - shows available on mainstream entertainment platforms proving to be just as popular under the strict regime as they have been anywhere else in the world, so the ban itself proved as impotent as prohibition in America in the 1920's.

The hunger for such escapism says a great deal, not only about the Saudi's, but about all of us.

Jeff Dillenbeck wrote a wonderful little piece recently on the Mockingbird site, which explored his (and ours) delight and fascination with the silver screen. Cinema appears to be able to present us with all of life - its trials and passions, its glories and its angst, but he asks us a telling question... where is God in such adventures?
He alludes to a fascinating work by Josh Larsen, which seeks to show a relationship between movie-watching and prayer - how both are seeking to express something rough and often imperfect yet, at their best, something more honest about us and our needs and desires - no doubt part of the reason why fantasy is so enjoyed in countries where authority is rigid regarding what and how people must be.

In truth, we want to be enveloped into a drama that is far richer and rewarding than the often cold, harsh, detached brutality that the selfishness and spoiling harshness of our 'real' world permits (the key premise of Speilberg's new film, Ready Player One, highlights this), so escaping into places where all our dreams - from the most forbidden to the most genteel - can be expressed, safely and meaningfully, is something key to our nature.
People are longing for what is truly good to clothe their time here, but often the only place this can even be entertained is through entertainment - a few hours of escape from the arid, scorched thing that is just beyond the doorway.

It's no mistake that the Bible seeks to principally present truth as an epic story.
The true story of history is exactly the kind of drama we need. It is filled with the most satisfying events of love, life, death, played out on the largest canvas we can envisage - life itself - with a cast of hundreds of millions and a director who is concerned about the place of every single one of them, evidenced in the way He comes into the centre of the production as, genuinely, one of us.

I've often thrilled at moments in some of my favorite films where the story has truly echoed one of more of the key themes (fall and redemption) discovered in the Biblical story. In those moments, deep indeed calls to deep, and we find ourselves saying "yes!" from our innermost being, often perhaps accompanied with smiles and tears as we enjoy the 'rightness' of what has been said and done.

The pain of today often claws us, and we feel severed and crippled by our failings or the betrayal of the present, but escaping to somewhere else 'whispers' that we're meant for something more than just pain and suffering. Truth can make today bearable, for the greatest truth, in the greatest drama, is an empty tomb after the most violent death... Of angels saying "Why do seek the living among the dead?"

Freedom has come, and our dreams can be beautifully shaped by that liberty, leading us home.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Give and Take - giving something fresh

Christianity can sometimes appear, perhaps, to be detached or lacking, but there's a spot I've recently discovered that can counter that...

Here's a podcast that will get you thinking, and maybe laughing and crying at times.