Sunday, 20 December 2015

In plain sight?

"If the truth about the nativity doesn't reach our heart, then we shall sense none of the sweetness or solace which lies there. We will not truly laugh or be merry.
There is such richness and goodness here that if we deeply understand, we should be wrapped in perpetual joy".  Martin Luther - Christmas sermons.

"Did you have a good Christmas?"
That will be the question in around a week's time. The answer will often be along the lines of "well, it was alright, and the kids enjoyed it", harping back, perhaps, just a touch to the "magic" we once knew on those breath-taking nights when we were excited about the idea that something special was going to happen on that night. It wasn't just the presents, or all the food, or the visits from family - there was a sense that something major was going on, and it called for merriment and celebration.

Christmas is about the most staggering moment in all of space and time.
It doesn't happen in a hadron collider or a nuclear detonation, but in the very everyday event of a mother having a child, and that tells us something truly profound about our being here, and the God who made us.

John's gospel begins by speaking about the Word - logos - being made flesh and dwelling amongst us (John 1:1-18). The Greek word he uses here is filled with meaning, including:
the means by which the deepest inward thought and intent is expressed
the source of such thought
the giving of such deep intent by reflection and deliberation
the employment of calculation and reckoning
the implementation of action following deep consideration
the implementation of action in proportion to all else
the implementation of things on the grounds of what is truly reasonable

In the coming of Jesus, we encounter the deepest longing and intent of God our Father.

Like a seed, Logos encapsulates choice, inquiry, harmony, truth, and the deep expression of these in our world, which is no doubt why John speaks of the Word as light, shattering the darkness as He brings light of the most glorious kind amongst us. 

Amongst us.
Christmas unwrapped isn't about things that are far away, but a God who is very present in the very nitty-gritty of our world - being nursed at a mother's breast, enjoying good wine and company at a wedding (John 2)  or breakfast on a beach (John 21). The Word has been made flesh and dwelt among us.

That's both the joy and the irritation of Christmas. We don't have to look very far to see that what is special is the way in which God Himself wants to say yes to all that we rightly delight in that's good in life, but we're also aware of our own poverty inside and how that spoils so much.

There is an answer. The Word came to give us life - the gift amongst the wrapping - so that we might be truly human once again... Not perfect, not yet anyway, but knowing that Christmas means the darkness is broken, and there is now a joy even amidst our trials and pain.

The 'magic' of this season isn't very far away at all, so as you hear the carols, or look at the nativity on a Christmas card or in a school play, consider what's really going on. God, in Christ, reconciling us to Himself by His amazing Grace and Truth.

The joy of the season to us all!

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Christmas Comfort?

James Donovan: Aren't you worried?
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?

From Stephen Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies".

Do you ever wonder what this season is all about?

Hearing of the conditions in Cumbria this weekend left me chilled to the bone as I proceeded to see, again, images of vast swathes of the country deluged and people struggling to hold on to their homes and lives amidst the trauma.

And then came Monday morning, and the news that I'm facing redundancy at work - the third occasion of this in a decade.


Christmas can often appear somewhat detached from such events, especially as people revel in the delight of good times and good company amidst warmth and cheer.

That's until we recall the first Christmas.
Matthew records how there was a slaughter of innocents. Luke describes a birth amidst hardship and squalor in a place far from home, as well as Shepherds terrified as heaven literally burst into the skies above them.

Unsettling times, surrounding the one who came to bring us peace.

It can be really hard to find peace most of the time in our world, especially when circumstances make us want to worry about security, comfort and aid, but Jesus comes to say that above and beyond such issues (and the struggle to keep them), there is actually something more important - the peace that He brings.

This life is brief, but the splendor it speaks about is really what counts, and that is often where Jesus points us.  Consider the array of the lillies, He says, and how none of even our best finery even comes close to what we see here, in creation. If God, he asks, so adorns something that's here and then gone, then what about you? Why do we spend so much time troubled about things that are momentary. No doubt, so often, because we often find them truly unsettling, as they often are, but there's more to see. Life's real splendor, He's saying, should cause us to look further, delve deeper, into what's really going on amidst all the tragedy and triumph. If we don't understand that, then it all just becomes a series of unrelated and irrelevant events, topped with futility and death, but Jesus wants us to invest it all in the surety of God's immediate and present life and purpose. That's where real peace and comfort lye.

The Christmas nativity affirms the vital relevance of the name given to Jesus - Immanuel (God with us). That's what really counts, and it means, as we come to another Christmas, we can begin to see something wonderful at the heart of our time here.

God is with us, to deliver us and make these checkered days vital and valuable.

Truly, then, there are tidings of joy, even amidst the pain.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Honesty

"I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens".
From the song, at seventeen.

Art, when used well, grants us a window into the world around us and, on occasion, into ourselves (hence Solomon's connecting beauty and the deepest longings of the human heart).

As a photographer, I've learned that people can use such creativity, like anything else, to either show or hide their actual nature, so it's good to question what the artist is actually intending in what's produced and, often just as important, what our relationship to that work says about us and our candor about life and what we see when we look in the mirror.

A few weeks ago, a model posted a confession on a photography site I belong to. I have posted part of it below, only slightly edited. Here's what she said:


"Over the past year I have thoroughly enjoyed being a mature model, I've met some wonderful, kind, generous, fabulous, creative and very funny people, some of them have become close friends which has been wonderful.  I started modelling as a distraction, a hobby, something that allowed me a break from coping with challenges at home, and also to gain insight into Photography. It has accomplished all that but, and there's always a but, over the past 6 months it has become something else, and I have found it has changed parts of me that I'm really not comfortable with.  I have STUPIDLY very slowly and gradually developed an unhealthy and damaging self image.

Now I know photographers, iron out wrinkles and crinkles, lumps and bumps, scars and defects, but over the passing year I have found myself wanting more and more of ME to be edited to get rid of those defects.  It becomes addictive, because gradually over time you see the reaction you receive to perfection and naturally you want more, and before you know it, you just not happy with yourself at all.  Its addictive validation and at my age, it can take away all I've spent years and years trying to accomplish in accepting myself for who I am.  I suffered from crippling low self esteem, and its taken me most of my life to get over that and accept myself for who I am, and also other peoples acceptance of me and what I do with that. I'm losing that due to all the editing wizardry that allows me to delete the me that's come about over the last ten years.
 
So, I've made a decision, rather than ask Photographers to change me, I've decided to change what I do and how I model. I almost lost a very good friend on here because I had a completely unrealistic sense of how I should look, I was deeply ashamed that I had put a friendship before my appearance, it was then I realised I was damaging myself by trying to model in a world that is, well lets face it, not really set up for women in their 50's.  I don't want to give up modelling, as I still enjoy it and there are so many fabulous creatives out there.  So I have made a decision not to do any more full figure work, I will only be taking on TF work with people that match my commitment on a shoot, and I will be putting the emphasis on quality rather than quantity with shoots". 

There's a wonderful scene in the film, the Agony and the Ecstasy, which tells the story of Michelangelo's  painting of the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.  He is nearing completion of the famous scene of God creating man, when the Cardinal's arrive crying "obscenity!, obscenity!". A very telling exchange follows (which I won't spoil for you - it's a must see), but essentially, the artist declares how he has sought to express the truth of what God has done, both in creation and redemption, in his art, and that's all that any of us can really seek to do.

The model quoted above had realized that if we're not careful, we can spend our time engaged in actions and ways of thinking that actually defraud us of a true understanding of ourselves. However 'good' the intention may be, we can so easily find ourselves loosing what counts or, like those prelates in the film, not truly understanding what is happening before us because of miss-placed scruples or uninformed 'piety' or self-worth.

In the Gospels, Jesus often uses illustrative stories (parables) to both unveil and deliberately mask or hide precious truths about the nature of God and ourselves, and it's when we unpack these "it's like this" tales well that we can glean precious truths that deeply enrich us.

Life needs us to be honest about our poverty and our true needs to really grow. God wants us to see ourselves as we are, so we understand our great need of Him, and the love He gives to make us whole in His beloved Son.

The next time you're listening to some music, looking at a painting or image, watching a movie or play or reading a favorite novel or poem, ask yourself 'what is this really saying to me and about me?'

You may find you're in for a few surprises.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Busily going nowhere, when the light is green.

"If there's one thing I need to do,
it's to find out more about you".

Randy Stonehill - First Prayer.

It's been another painful week in the world.

Paris was truly shocking, but as I've read of the current political troubles in Portugal and economic quakes China, as well as the call in Russia for more nuclear arms, and the sense of uncertain justice in relation to drone strikes, I've been reminded that it's all too easy for us to loose sight of the bigger picture and thereby lack understanding.

The same is true in our faith.

Take the story of the the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).
We all recall Jesus famous words here, 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone', but who do we usually identify with in this event?

Perhaps, like me, you can so easily find yourself looking at someone else the way these people did at this woman. It's so, so easy for us to 'arrest, judge and convict' someone with speed, especially if they confess or are caught in sin or weakness. I find myself all too readily  reaching for the 'guilty' button (or stone) then, and Jesus' words certainly strike home in those circumstances, but how many of us identify with the woman? How many of us are prepared to recognize that we're just like her, standing before an arena of judgement for who and what we are?

The problem so often with being religious is that we think it lets us off the hook.
The pious folk of Jesus' day were masters at playing the role outwardly, but they didn't fool God for a second. Once the garb was taken off, they were exactly the same as this woman - all their religion did was blind them to their poverty.

Despite her being condemned by the crowd, this woman had everything that mattered going for her at that dreadful moment.
It didn't matter how guilty or deserving of judgement she was, because standing next to her was the judge of all the earth, and He was going to show her and those who had convicted her that there was only one thing that truly mattered in all of heaven and earth - God was there, and God was totally loving and merciful - that's what truly makes the difference.

Recently, I was watching an astonishing video by Nadia Boles on Confession and Absolution, in which she talks about how it is so helpful to use this as a way of understanding that God has dealt with our sin and finding our way back to that point that, yes, whilst we are sinners saved by grace, His salvation truly makes us free.

The true work of God, Jesus says, is to rest on the one the Father has sent (John 6:28, 29). Jesus is standing with us today, if we put aside our pretense and our scrutiny of others, to see our need of Him - to know His health and peace in our time of need.

The world is filled with pain and fury, but there is one, standing oh so close, that heals us and truly sets us free.

That alone allows us to get somewhere.



Sunday, 8 November 2015

Seriously sodden amidst a sea of umbrellas

I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Bob Dylan

We all need one.

In those, dark, boiling, demanding days, that seem to screech and prey upon our innards, making our very bones quiver, longing for solace.

We all have one.

That panacea above us, giving us what we need, supposedly, to make it through the hard rain of another day. Some employ their stance (naturalism)  and confidence towards the 'greatness' of science, thinking this gives them sound footing, unaware of the 'movable feast' this has truly become. Most of us are not even that concerned about what is going on there... just don't think about it too much. Just enjoy it all while it lasts.

Reality doesn't really afford us that luxury.

Sooner or later, we're the one standing amidst the fury with nothing but a ruined (supposedly "weatherproof") brolly in shreds around our ankles, facing the full brunt of the storm.

Some years ago, as I sat facing the final day of my wife's life, I found myself listening to a counsellor trying to tell me that she could do her job because the world was a fine place, filled with wonderful things that allowed her to cope with the more painful 'illusions'. I was staggered that someone working in a hospice could be so closed to the reality of what surrounded them, which was certainly not an illusion.

We live in a world where there is evil, real and unrelenting, and it is something which destroys not only by pain and torment, but by blinding us to the sheer ugliness of what we become without proper aid and shelter for our naked souls.
God stands amidst the cavalcade of our revelries, quietly and calmly calling to us to recognize the deeper realities of our lives and His love, so fully revealed to us in the gift of His Son.

Come, all you who hungry and thirsty, who have no coin, come and eat, all who have spent their lives on things that do not satisfy or sustain, for here is food and drink that will truly feed you and allow you to live (Isaiah 55: 1-3). 

 He tells us of the day fast coming, when we will indeed find the consequences of our folly about who and what we are (not just self-serving 'things') catching up with us, and how we need something much better than those rags we consider to be of value to provide a remedy on that day.

"But now", writes Paul, the righteousness of God has been revealed, when we have faith in Jesus Christ, because He alone is the one who has nullified the power of sin and death by taking it upon Himself at the cross, clothing us with His righteousness to make us free if we trust in Him (Romans 3:21-26).

The pain of that final day at the hospice was finally eased at my wife's bed when God graciously reminded me and her of those precious promises of what will really matter on that day.

That's the only shelter that can truly outlast the perfect storm.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

For Reformation Day...

"Christ takes upon Himself sin, the power which held the world captive under its grasp.
It is not a question of giving His life for specific people but of Christ taking upon Himself all of the evil of the world and defeating the powers which held man captive to sin, the world and the devil"

Jordan Cooper - The Great Divide.

Isn't it great when you can meet someone who really engages you with their passion about something - it can truly be contagious, and may even cause you to start to look at things with fresh eyes.

Around four years ago, I discovered the writings of Robert Farrar Capon (those of who have are probably already salivating!). Whilst he often left me provoked, astonished or troubled by some of what he said, he also continuously left me reveling in the sheer splendor and abundance of the richness of God's grace, because it is indeed the sweet wonder of the Gospel that truly makes us free.

I often find myself come 'back to the table', as it were, to savor those same writings, and I have found myself doing so this past week as a result of some studies into the great truths of justification re-discovered by Martin Luther. Let me unpack a little of this.

In his book, "Between Noon and Three", Robert really spreads out the nature of God's astonishing love to our broken world. Towards the end of the work, he has a chapter on the final judgement, starting with Revelation 6:9 and 10 - the cry of God's people to bring a final blow against evil. After glimpsing at Revelation 20, he then looks at Jesus' words about this in John chapters 5, 8 and 12, noting how the first event here is the raising of all the dead, and how judgement will be determined by the Lamb's book of life.

With this in mind, he returns to Jesus' own clarification of this event in John, that
1. The Father judges no one (John 5:22), because He has passed this to His Son.
2. The Son doesn't judge (12:47), because rejection itself judges us (vs 48).
3. Christ is drawing us to Himself (John 12:31,32), hence His work in us (Colossians 2:13 and 14).
4. This final work of judgement has already begun (John 12:31).

Having gained an overview, we can then focus on the day itself. Notice that all are raised. Why is that? Why would those who are damned not merely be sent straight to condemnation? This is where the issue of Justification is brought before us.

First of all, consider the Apostle Paul's words to Timothy:

"I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings be made on behalf of all men... this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour who desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:1-6).

The desire of God is for all men to share in the redemptive work of His beloved Son, and that being so, Christ gave Himself to ransom them.

Then, consider Paul's words in his letter to the Romans:

"Therefore, just as one man's sin lead to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all". (Romans 5:18).
Did you hear that?

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings us all life and health and peace.
The scope, notes Albert Wolters, of God's work of Redemption, is entirely comparable to the scope of the impact of the invasion of sin.

On that final day, what counts is what is written in one particular book, written in accordance to what Jesus, the Lamb,  tells us of this judgement - His Father does not judge, He does not judge, because He came to draw us, desiring all to be redeemed.

On the cross at Calvary, as John himself tells us, Jesus didn't just give Himself for our sins, but the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

That is why all are raised. The work of Jesus Christ justifies (redeems) life, hence all of creation benefits directly from that work, both now, and on that last day.

So why, then, will there be those who spend eternity in a place that wasn't prepared for them?

The answer lies in point 2 above.

Look at the truth on this matter in John chapter 3-
God gave His Son that we might all (the world) live and be saved (Verses 16, 17).
If we trust in God's Son, we are saved, but if we reject Him, we are condemned - why - because  judgement (separation from God) comes upon those who prefer darkness to light - those who love evil rather than the one who is truly love (Verses 18 and 19).
A similar point is made by Paul in Romans 1. God judges men now who reject Him and His work of liberation by giving them over to their own folly (1:24).

The consequences of what God has done for us in His only Son are truly extraordinary.
Through one act of righteousness, there has come about a justification (a total verification) of life to us all.

This is a truly profound thought.

We inhabit a world scarred by sin and stung by death, but the finished work of God in the giving of His Son to this world means these trials are passing, and that our Father wishes us and His works to truly, totally live once again.

The life of God, given to the world in His begotten Son, has certainly made us free (Galatians 5:1). 

Martin Luther, writing in his treatise on freedom, notes that because of Christ, the good gifts of this world are for our benefit, and can be used well and truly enjoyed in everyday life, for such external things do not clothe us with righteousness or freedom, but are ours because of the righteousness in Christ alone. To preach this, he says, is to truly feed the soul and set men free.

Let us share such riches as we enjoy and share the beauty of God's creative work, care for each other, love one another, "speaking" of God's righteousness and love to our needy world.

Happy Reformation Day!



Saturday, 17 October 2015

Skate-boarding... In flip-flops.

"There's that word again - heavy. Is there something wrong with the earth's gravity in the future?"  Doc Emmett Brown - Back to the Future.

So there they were, the great company of those - Hebrews and many others - camped at Mount Sinai, watching as the peak became touched with the overshadowing of the presence of God. Assembled before this foreboding sight, Moses goes forward to hear God before them, and returns, telling the people to consecrate themselves, so they to might draw close to the Almighty, as a people called to be His.

And so, the day comes when God descends before them, and they are shaken by the awe of His presence. Fire and smoke, tremors and trumpet blasts, but the people cannot truly draw close - the sight of God would kill them.

Filled with fear, they keep their distance, and call for Moses to go into the thick darkness that has shrouded the mountain and speak to God alone (Exodus chapter 19).

God amongst us. 

What it must have been like on that day, or the day when Ezekiel (Ezekiel chapter 1)  sees God's throne, or Daniel (Daniel 7) sees the Ancient of Days.

Seeing the radiance, majesty and splendor of the Lord by peaking into heaven.

Except, of course, that all these moments happen on earth.

The response of the Children of Israel at Sinai - to keep God at arms length, if not further - is telling. By the time that Ezekiel sees the Lord, the nation is under judgement (2 Kings 17:7-23 gives a good summation as to why), and when we get to Daniel, God is speaking through pagan Kings and using foreign lands. The severance, seen so clearly in the forming of the golden calf, seems complete, but Israel had to learn that their Lord was not just another 'god' to be plicated from afar by oblations and offerings. The 'throne' He holds, above the ark of the law and between the cherubim (surrounded by the reminders of Eden) is a mercy seat, where the blood of one far better than any levitical sacrifice, has covered the sins of many (Hebrews 10). The heart of the true temple (in Eden and in the New Earth) is the very presence of Him who descends to be among us.

This isn't, of course, just an 'old covenant' problem.
It's easy for us to 'draw close with our lips' (our external activity), whilst being far away in our hearts, and so often, we can devise formulas which seek to impose rather than bridge the distance. Like skate-boarding in flip-flops, it won't get us very far.

God seeks to draw closer than we often wish through His spoken word, and the broken bread and poured wine of the sacraments. He comes to our hearts, in the glorious splendor of His grace in the justifying work of His Son, to reside there, and to be truly present amongst us, and so we behold His glory, full of grace and truth. Do we embrace the life which flows here from the living one on the throne, or do we respond by seeking to 'qualify' what can and cannot be permitted? The Lord, our redeemer and life (Song of Songs 2:4, Hosea 2:14-20) is here amongst us (Matthew 18:20), and it is sweet indeed (Luke 24:30-32).

The call for us is to intimacy (1 John 1:7) - a profound union which stems from a genuine handling of the word of life (verses 1-4). If we are to truly grow together in Him, this must indeed be the longing and the joy of our fellowship.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:3-10).



Sunday, 11 October 2015

Passionate Faith

I just want to know you better, know you better, know you better now...

All I know is we said hello
So dust off your highest hopes
All I know is pouring rain
And everything has changed
All I know is a new found grace
All my days, I'll know your face
All I know since yesterday is everything has changed


Everything has changed - Taylor Swift.

Ever think about what motivates you to do the things you do.
Sometimes it's necessity, sometimes obligation, sometimes, perhaps, a sense of doing what's right (doing our 'good deed for the day'), but life would be pretty drab if all our actions merely sprang from a field so one dimensional.

I've been thinking a fair bit of late about worship (talked about in my 18th July post). When reading up on this again, I came across a definition of Christian Worship which defined it - on our part - as "Extravagant love and extreme submission to the Holy One",  which left me somewhat deflated. How do I, with all my weaknesses and failings, really give such total love and devotion to someone?

The thread which ties the connection to both these issues (motivation and devotion) together came up a couple of times this month for me - both at work and whilst creating photographically. On a recent shoot, I had the opportunity to provide the means for someone else to spend a day trying new ideas and creating images without being too limited by the constraints they were expecting (time, facilities, etc). It was truly wonderful to see them totally engaged with the opportunity, providing a rich period of creative work that they clearly enjoyed. Then, at work this last week, my manager was informing me how she'd been able to really give confidence to a work colleague, and I knew exactly what she meant, as I'd been able to do exactly the same for the same person on another matter (photography - surprise, surprise).

One of the most fulfilling things we can do in life is facilitate moments when we allow another to truly either gain or express the confidence to step out and achieve something meaningful and worthwhile - what a change that brings. They become more, because something deep within them has been allowed to flourish, and the result is marvelous to behold.

We can often treat the Christian life purely as duty - a series of things we must do, so we're 'not like other men', but that's very different to a life which ignites in us a deep longing, an over-riding passion, to be in our Father's courts, reveling in His being amongst us in His Son, knowing that all our deepest springs of joy and delight our only found in His fathomless love towards us, which makes us free to live and once more delight in all His goodness. That manner of passion readily brings a deep giving of one to another, because it derives from a true understanding of the one loved, who has given Himself totally to us and for us.

Scripture tells us we have such a one who knows our weaknesses, and that we can draw close, with total confidence, to Him, always finding aid and mercy in our times of great need (Hebrews 4:15, 16).

Being devoted or worshipful becomes hard work when we spend our time looking towards the mess that we usually are, rather than to the one who has truly made us His own (and, consequently, blessed us with all spiritual blessings found in Him). The joy is that He's not standing there, distant and aloof, but closer than a brother, calling us, encouraging us to leave our frail ego's and come, without anything but His grace, made ours especially at the Cross, to be loved and to share that love.

The results of our truly knowing this, and living within that embrace, are all that counts.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Perils!

"May we no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning craftiness and schemes of those who lie in wait to deceive us, but, speaking the truth in love, may we grow up into Christ, through whom the people of God grow well together as they are knitted together in love".  Ephesians 4:14.

Yesterday, I visited a favorite location on the moors for a little r&r. After a refreshing dip in the river, I was meandering along the bank when I came something which sent shivers up my spine. Just into the flow of the river itself, someone had deliberately smashed and left a glass beer bottle, its jagged, dangerous pieces spiking up amidst the shallow stones close to the shore. Carefully, gingerly, I painstakingly removed each piece of the object from the surrounding sand, collecting them into a bag and taking them home to be safely deposited into my refuse.

What shocked me was the utter wickedness of this act. The place is often visited by youngsters and walkers with dogs, especially over the summer, and someone who hadn't had been so fortunate as to just be ambling could have easily been caught in the diabolical malice of this.

I found myself thinking about how so easily we can become victims of things which are equally as dangerous.

Paul's words in Ephesians remind us that, outside of clearly growing in the life and faith given in Christ, there are numerous teachings and teachers waiting to trap us in such malicious snares. 

The ones which so easily bruise us, of course, are those regarding ourselves. We can so easily become focused upon the wrong things (our actions, choices, and the like) thinking that these make us 'right' instead of Christ.

As Robert Farrar Capon so helpfully puts it:
“Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting - no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you - you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn't going to flunk you because your faith isn't so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead - and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.” (Between Noon & Three - Romance, the Law and the Outrage of Grace).

Notice how Paul gets us to focus on exactly the same source of aid in his counsel. Teaching and teachers of His children only truly help us when they point us to the love (grace) of God in Jesus - that is what begins, nourishes and matures His family, and allows us to truly engage with life and the world in a manner which sees the dangers and counters them well. It is in His death and resurrection that we are bought and made free, and that is what makes all the difference, so the next time you're tempted to begin looking towards your own record of achievement or program for progress, remind yourself of what truly counts - what God has done in Christ alone. Share that with your soul, with your fellow travelers, and with the world at large, and you'll truly be putting your life in good order.



Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Deadfall Pit

"I grew up in a town like this, we knew the names of every street
On the surface it looked so safe, but it was perilous underneath
That's the place you shoved your doubts and hid your ugly scars
God forbid if word got out about your house of cards"


Mary Chapin-Carpenter

All of us have things we relish. One of the biggies for me (and, I suspect, lots of you) is chocolate. I can't recall the first time I ate some, but I can easily tell you the occasion when I ate something that claimed to be the desired item and it wasn't. I was in America a decade ago, and I thought I'd buy the popular brand and give it a go... most of it went straight into the bin. Gone was the smooth, rich encounter with dairy milk confectionary, to be replaced by a sickly, OTT sugar bar (no wonder the Americans label it candy). I was so relived that I'd brought some good old British Chocolate with me and that later in my stay, I found somewhere that sold the real mc coy - phew!  Imagine my shock, then, to walk into my local store recently to discover several shelves of the confectionary counter now selling the American glupe (I can call it that because that's the way several of my American friends describe it) - have people lost all taste?

It is, of course, one of the issues of the day - our seemingly insatiable passion for sugar, which, it appears, is softly killing a generation.

Now, I appreciate that there's always going to be an issue of tastes when it comes to something like which chocolate bar you consume, but what about when it comes to truth?

I spent some time this past week looking at and conversing with people on a "progressive christianity" site to see just where such theology desires us to go with regards to the nature and the value of truth. It's always interesting to see that what counts in such a realm is not what you or I may believe about God - particularly when it comes to the nature and message of Jesus Christ - but that we really just need to figure out how we can, well, just get along with everyone, because that's what counts, right?

The 'gospel' here then, so far as there is one, is that Jesus came to give us an example of love, so all the seeking to see Christianity as something that needs to defined in the manner given to us by The Apostles and others in scripture is, well, pretty pointless - we just have to follow the 'golden rule' of loving people and everything else will be fine.

Well, I'd agree that religion can be all about what we do - Adam's first "religious" act was to cover himself with pretense when God came looking for him - but it really doesn't begin to deal with our deepest problem; that we're alienated from God and need rescue. You don't tell a drowning man that he needs to do all manner of things to be comfortable with where he is (any more than that man thinks his rescue is his doing) - you just reach out and save him! That is why the key message from the moment we fall into our own exile is how God will brings us back (Genesis 3:16, John 3:16) - Jesus is the one who rescues us.

I think what bothered me most about this last week's discoveries was the way in which people could blithely dismiss the actual theology of the faith, usually on the pretext that my concerns (or, as they put it "interpretations") were marginal or only "one view", which was fine until I submitted materials from the early church which showed that this wasn't the case at all, at which point the retorts became more personal and the silence regarding what I'd supplied telling. How can we call something "Christianity" if it seeks to distance itself from the clear and vital sources of that faith?

If we take away the very nature of God, revealed in Jesus, and the good news of what has been given to our world through Him, then there's not much left to say. The problem for the 'progressive' movement is that, like certain kinds of candy, you may develop a liking for it, but it only leaves you liking something that is a substitution for something better - it leaves you hiding with your own pretensions, and whilst you may think it tastes/feels OK, it's really doing you no good, but a great deal of harm.

The Apostle John says in his letters that real fellowship can only come when we know that God is our Father, and we know that because we trust in the love He has shown in sending His Son. Those who wish to effectively dismiss what John is telling us here and in his Gospel have placed themselves into a very deep pit indeed.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

For what it's worth?

"Eden was... God's first (earthly) temple... When Adam sinned, the unity of worship and culture was dissolved".  Michael Horton. 

Ever wondered what the first real act of worship is in scripture?

Perhaps we could point to the singing of the hosts as God fashions and furnishes the heavens (Job 38:7). Certainly, that would be a contender chronologically amidst creation, but  in reality, of course,  even that splendor is preceded and entirely surpassed by the sheer joy of the fellowship shared between the Father and His Son  (Hebrews 1:8-12).

Genesis 1 shows how God delights in His handiwork, because the intent and purpose of that creation (expressed in its most complete fashion in the shaping and life-giving to humanity) is to express and thereby reflect something of the beauty and rapture of the life shared by the Godhead - the richness of the fellowship between Spirit, Father and Son  (John 17:3). The Lord, therefore, has no issue in giving everything He makes its true value and worth (shown in the use of the phrase "and it was good") or in reveling in such things, as He refreshes Himself in them on the seventh day - a picture itself of the intended completion that will be found through this work (Hebrews 4).

The first thing we notice in the inter-action between God and Adam is that a true sense of worth can only come about when we see things as they really are (in this case, Adam's loneliness) and the real value and meaning of things is understood (here, Adam's relationship to the realm around him) in the light of this. Idolatry is not about not giving something a true value - it's about measuring and then ascribing its purpose and role in a deceitful (crooked) way. Adam is encouraged by God to truly "see" the nature, place and purpose of the creatures that surround him, and this in turn helps to nurture an understanding of his own value and role in relation to all that's in the garden, and to confirm his need for something more... a true partner.

The worship and the splendor of the angels in Job is no doubt magnificent - something which leaves us rightly trembling - but there is another kind of glory, wrought from dust into naked, communing flesh which also 'tells' of God's greatness in a manner that is unique amidst all the array of His works.

The first act of Adam, as he awakes and views Eve for the first time, is indeed one of worship (Genesis 2:23), expressed afresh in every joining of man and women before God (Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31). An intrinsic part of our true affection and genuine worship of our Heavenly Father, then, is to truly (properly) esteem and value what He has made and will bring to completion through His glorious Son.

Which is why I had a problem with a recent sermon, in which I was informed that my being (body) may be a place of worship (to bring such honor to God, which indeed it is), but is not to be an object of that manner of honor.

Worth (something invested with an inherent value), is of course, something which is conveyed not only towards God. It is conveyed by God Himself to all of His handiwork (John 3:16). The New Testament really shows this.

When James, for example, examines how we can miss-use the tongue in his letter (Chapter 3), he notes how easy it is for us to 'bless our Lord and Father' and yet to also curse those who are made in the image and likeness of God (verse 9). We may be fallen, but you will never meet a person who does not have infinite worth because of the one who made us to speak of His character. This is why we are reminded by Peter to give true value to everyone (1 Peter 2:17).

God has invested all things with their proper "glory" (Matthew 6:29) and that significance is something which has become renewed by God in Christ to be fully restored in the age that is fast approaching  (1 Corinthians 15:40-42). Idolatry is when we fail to grant to others or ourselves the value God has given - when we misconstrue, demean or warp that truth into a negative and it thereby becomes a caricature or lie, beguiling us like the poison fed to Eve in the garden (Genesis 3: 1-7). 

 To truly honor our Father and His astonishing love and mercy shown through His Son, we must value and enjoy all He makes splendid in its time. That will help us, amidst the troubles of this present blighted age to taste and see, even in the wilderness, that He is surely good.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Seeing Red

"But you keep my old scarf from that very first week,  
 because it reminds you of innocence,
 and it smells like me, you can't get rid of it, cos' you remember it, 
 all too well".

Taylor Swift - from the album, Red.

So there I was, listening in on a conversation on spirituality, and wondering where I might jump in with a comment, when a familiar theme is expressed -religion of any sort is finished... science is the only game on the block which counts now, so man up or ship out.

There's a fascinating conversation on You Tube* between Richard Dawkins and Physicist Stephen Weinberg. After laying out their common understanding that, in science, using 'God'  has merely been a metaphor for the unknown, they begin to unpack the real state of affairs with regards to the limitations of what we know (something, incidentally, which was truly amplified a few weeks ago by the latest information from CERN). Weinberg freely admits that when it comes to unpacking why things are the way they are, science is probably going to fail to really answer or resolve the cardinal issues (i.e. the reason why the universe is how it is), and that we have to accept this as just part of the human tragedy.

Back in the mid-nineties, science writer John Horgan provided a provocative look at the nature of what the prevailing view of such men gave our culture in his work, The End of Science, in which he, in part, concluded that God may indeed be something more than a useful metaphor. The reasons for such a conclusion are stark.

In spite of scientists telling us that what we see is merely an "illusion" of design, there are clearly forces at work that beg to differ. The Cosmological constant, set to one part in a trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion,  is a staggering example of fine-tuning. 

Without such manner of exactness, we would never have come about, and the universe would be little more than an expanse of gases.

Weinberg is entirely honest when he states that this places "us" (the scientific community) in a 'fix' which is often not stated well (hence, the confidence of the familiar statement in my recent conversation). This is no doubt because the two alternative approaches to such laws being designed currently provided by popular hypothesis (1)the multiple universe or (2) a TOE which includes data on such constants so far unknown) is, as Weinberg notes, very much situated in the realms of 'what if' thinking, with nothing of substance to support them, so for those who cannot entertain the possibility of design, the human condition must, ultimately, be one of total tragedy - that there probably is no answer, so the laws of entropy (and for the natural realm, death) reign supreme.

I expressed these realities in the conversation, suggesting that true religion may offer us something far more objective than we realize, and the response was fascinating. Whilst those holding to an atheistic perspective chose to personalize their scorn of those 'who believe' (easier, for sure, than considering the ramifications of scientific honesty), those who had been advocating spirituality sought to find solace in 'something like' buddhism or hindu views, especially in what Chesterton defined as the dreadful refuge of the 'god within', at which point I raised the matter of Jesus Christ. The response was what you'd expect - the gospels cannot be trusted, leading to my sourcing non-biblical writings of the earliest period which verify that Jesus lived, was crucified and remarkably began a movement that grew so quickly that it became a major thorn to the empire (presumably, as these writings note, because of what these Christians were teaching about Jesus being God and defying death).

The response (aside from a few murmurings) ...  Silence.

And we know why.

We seem to want our place in the universe to be either something we totally define (and thereby control) or, if we cannot have that, a construct which means it all amounts to nothing (any 'design' is pure fluke, as in Douglas Adam's 'Hitch-hiker's" stories), but what if that isn't the reality at all... what if the actual fine-tuning laws that have been discovered behind our being here do indeed express design, and that 'designer' has come amongst us? Doesn't that speak to the necessity of our rejecting what we view as our "necessary fictions"?

There is something much deeper going on. 

As Bertrand Russell once expressed it in a letter:

I am strangely unhappy because the pattern of my life is complicated, because my nature is hopelessly complicated; a mass of contradictory impulses; and out of all this, to my intense sorrow, pain to you must grow. The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain-a curious wild pain-a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite-the beatific vision-God-I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found-but the love of it is my life -it's like passionate love for a ghost. At times it fills me with rage, at times with wild despair, it is the source of gentleness and cruelty and work, it fills every passion that I have-it is the actual spring of life within me. 

 (October 23, 1916 to his lover Colette).

Note what Russell says here - he longs for something beyond himself... A desire as deep as hunger or passion which longs for satisfaction for it is essentially what is at the centre of existence. He could never find what he so needed - his world-view wouldn't provide what was required, but science and philosophy can point further and deeper, as I've sought to show above.


Perhaps, then, we should end with a valid observation from a Scientist.

Albert Einstein once noted:
"No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus... No myth is filled with such life".

(Saturday Evening Post interview, October 26th, 1929).


As I sought to submit in the conversation, it is indeed time to do more than just 'remind' ourselves of such 'innocence' (the hard truths about our understanding of the universe and the choice to often ignore key material that clearly points us to what is going on), and thereby recognize what we cannot escape.... 

The God who is there.

*Find the video at: https://youtu.be/EGL8SesIo6Y

John Horgan's Book at Amazon:  http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0465065929