Wednesday, 28 December 2016

C a u g h t

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

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

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

The image is power.

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

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

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

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

There is much, much more to unpack. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Shattered dreams... and a scandalous God.

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

Ah, yes - Monsters and Spaceships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can I be so sure?
Because of Christmas.

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

Let's be bold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beyond Eventide

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

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

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

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

So much for the 'natural' state of affairs.

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

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

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

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

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

And Genesis itself does not leave us in such captivity.

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

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

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

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

Season Greetings!


Saturday, 5 November 2016

Looking for the city

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

All bad but us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 31 October 2016

For Reformation Day

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

Happy Reformation Day!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The worst of all

I don't know how it is for you, but I regularly get all manner of 'drop mail' that others have liked or re-posted on my general Facebook page. Much of it gets skimmed over, but every once and a while, someone adds something that gets my attention.

This week, for instance, someone posted a link for '50 things that Jesus hates'. Intrigued, I clicked on this to see what was there, and wasn't surprised to find myself looking at nothing more than an empty entry alongside numbers 1 through to 50.
I'm sure that raises lots of smiles on unquestioning faces, but I immediately found myself thinking of what's said in Proverbs -
There are things that the Lord hates and that are detestable to Him;  haughtiness, lies, love of evil, murder and ill passion, and those who conspire to act wickedly (Proverbs 6;16-19)

It's so easy for us to forget, for example, in the Gospel of Matthew, that one of the very last things Jesus is engaged in before going to the Cross is cleansing the temple (Matthew 21) and then confronting the religious leaders of His day with a full on list of woes that will befall them because they entirely fail to hear what counts and willfully lead people astray as a result of their blindness and arrogance (Matthew 23).

Mike Horton notes in he opening of chapter 5 of Beyond Culture Wars that we may be surprised by some of the life of the 'saints' in Corinth, which was clearly tarnished and needful because of their sins, but these were not, he notes, by far, those who were in the greatest trouble in those days. Read the books of Galatians (1:6-10, 3, 5) and Colossians (chapter 2) and it quickly becomes apparent that the hideous thing which severs us from God's love is when we give ourselves over to a manner of belief and then practice which in effect deliberately denies God's revelation and seeks to assert our 'right' to determine what is good and right in detachment from that. It's the poison that Paul informs us which leads to judgement in Romans (1: 21-32) and the darkness that Jesus tells us leaves us without remedy (John 3:19-20).

The thing God hates is our rejection of His love for things which are so pitiful and brief that they do nothing but diminish us to creatures without hope and, eventually, even devoid of natural affection.

The weight of this life is often great indeed, but the true joy of it is that even amidst our trails and our pain, we can become those who recognize the glint of something sweeter, greater than the fool's gold of wanting nothing but our own satisfaction. Life, notes Solomon, must be defined by something more than such vanity.

The hateful thing is that evil which makes us into nothing more than a shell of what love is aiming to forge and fashion in our broken, shattered world.

God wants men to see the folly of life without that remedy, and hates it when we choose to ignore His care in showing us His love. May we be people who draw close to Him in our times of need and thereby find the richness of His unique, enduring and steadfast love.




Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Scourge

"The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn".
Andrew Sullivan - I used to be a human being.

Running on empty, but still running as hard as proves possible, we're a race that is progressively leaving some terribly deep and cruel scars.

If we look at the earth, then we've managed to loose, for example, around a tenth of the world's natural wilderness since the 1990's. That's staggering.
It also sounds a large warning about how what we're so often about is running away from a stillness, as Andrew Sullivan notes, that challenges us to be satisfying something more than the hollowing blur of the painfully present, unrelenting in its demands upon us.

Recently, I had a 'luxury' holiday with some of my family, generously paid for by them. Whilst it was certainly an experience, amongst all the scheduled events for our pleasure, we spent an hour playing a game of quoits, which was filled with everything that defined us as people who just enjoyed and loved each other. It was exactly what was needed.

The scourge of our times is that we're so often prevented from becoming something richer, deeper than what a schedule provides (or allows). "Radical" thoughts and opinions on the nature of what defines us are no longer given space to even be raised, much less considered, and that is our tragedy and loss, because when we're "allowed" to be that free, the real treasure begins to be discovered (see my prior post, 'The Conversation'). Candid expression and conversation may not be easy, but it's often the route we need to take.

It's not our immediate choice, but we have to start 'loving the alien' - finding ways to comprehend and then appreciate what is outside of us, because what really counts is so often out of reach of our regular thoughts and opinions. Paul leant that as Saul, breathing nothing but threats and murder, on his furious drive to Damascus. His 'network service' was cut (something that would amount to total tragedy for most of us) and love broke through, turning him into a man who had a passion to share something far deeper than the daily schedule (what his own religion gave him) to everyone.

There is, indeed, a better way, which would allow us to use all this stuff well - not as the be all and end all, but as a means to something deeper.





Paul learned that all the 'stuff' that had motivated him to be so passionate and zealous was actually of no real value, because he'd entirely misunderstood what and where it was meant to be taking him - it was actually driving him in the wrong direction, but thankfully, God wouldn't leave Him there. He wants each of us to exit from the 'me only' tyranny of life into something much more true. Paul was truly 'found' by the excellence of relationship with God amongst us - Jesus Christ. Christ brings to us a new and profound definition of being, something that will change us and, eventually, all of creation, into something defined by true meaning and value. That is how we can use now well - to cultivate something eternally of true value. Don't settle for your treasures being in the superficial - life is meant to be about something far richer!

Monday, 19 September 2016

The Conversation

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear".  Jesus.

So there I was, facing an unexpected delay in my journey home from my little holiday with family this weekend, when I found myself giving assistance to a young Australian man named Daniel, who was touring around Southern England as part of his tour of Europe.
Soon, after sorting out what train we needed to wait for, we were discussing the English way of life, current political and economic changes, and the many places he had and was intending to visit, and his passion for 'certain English things', especially the likes of Tolkien and C S Lewis.

As we boarded the first train, the conversation began to focus on deeper things, especially in relation to science and how so many of our pursuits here actually seem to touch on deeper things - the longings expressed within us for 'something more'. This, in turn, when we boarded our second train, naturally lead on to talking about destiny, the big questions, and finally, focused upon the nature of God and the relevance of Jesus Christ, especially His teaching about the Father and His resurrection and the implications of this. 

Daniel had clearly been doing some deep thinking, and was eager to consider and discuss such matters with someone who could provide some pointers as to where to look next to slake his genuine thirst for wisdom and understanding about what mattered. I was delighted to spend the journey talking with such a person, and was reminded that it is as we seek (a desire that truly has to be awakened within us), God has promised that we shall find.

Lewis notes that we all have such an appetite, but often we can ignore or seek to divert its genuine purpose from where it is meant to lead us - to enquire about things that count - into far more mundane and unsatisfying pursuits.

It was truly refreshing to meet someone who was hungry to move forward, and hear the one who invites to us to come and dine at His bountiful table.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

"Clutter"

"I haven't done such things for years, but I still find myself giving in to the irresistible temptation that if something's going to be done right, I have to do it myself".
Mike Horton - Rebels with a cause.

It's almost everywhere you look these days.
On pavements and streets, in roadside hedges or blowing around in the country...

and in People's heads.

'I'm pretty OK', the thinking goes, 
'in fact I'm probably better than just OK - actually quite decent most of the time, and occasionally even devout, so I can't really be that wide of the mark when it comes to what's needed to be truly good, even holy... I just need a little something - let's call it grace - every now and then, to give me a boost - a bit of a re-charge, and the (temple, shrine, therapy... insert what's most appropriate) I occasionally frequent and it's devotions suit just fine for that, so I'm good'.

The presumptions we can make, and the prevalence of the amenities/apparatus that panders to this in our times are as pervasive as trash on the streets.
Whatever it's particular slogan, this delusion leaves us woefully distant from the truth of what and who we really are - one look at the death of Jesus Christ and you are starkly reminded of the horror of our true situation; so far from God that He Himself had to come and give Himself to such an emptying to rescue us beleaguered, beguiled wretches from our perishing end.

The message of Christianity stands in stark contrast to all religion.
God loves us enough to give His Son to us, who saves us when we trust only in His unmerited rescue from the plight of pulling ourselves up to being "good enough". Everything else, notes Jesus, will sell us short, leave us in darkness, and lead to a bitter end.
Being 'born again' is clearly, first, about believing and trusting in what He spells out here, and being deceived (as Paul goes on to show to the Galatians) is to allow ourselves to move away from this back towards our self-baked piety.

You cannot have the freedom that Christ brings if you continue to hold on to the 'rightness' or 'value' of your own merits.

Paul tells us that he had come to see that he could only count his own zeal, devotion, virtues and merits as nothing more than rubbish - worthless, in order that he might apprehend the splendor and wonder of the gift of Jesus Christ and the singularly sufficient rescue He brings (Philippians 3: 7-9).

Religion is about sprucing up a corpse.
Christianity is about burying the dead in order that they can be raised to a newness of life that is truly outside of us.

We need to stop adorning ourselves in garbage, and become firmly anchored to the only sure and certain hope for all men and women forever -
it is Christ alone who is able to save to the uttermost.




Sunday, 28 August 2016

Kitted out

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible,whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the first-born from among the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. For in Him all the fulness of God dwells, and through Him to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross". Colossians 1:15-20.

I've never been much good at DIY, which becomes something of a problem when trying to maintain your own home on a tight budget.
Back in March, severe gales took down most of my garden fencing, and whilst I managed to cover purchasing the panels, the work was going to have to be done principally by yours truly. Well, I took it one step at a time, wood preserving the new panels first before then removing all the old debris (the decayed fencing) and finally fitting the new. The whole experience taught me some valuable lessons - good preparation works, and (as Scotty on Star Trek would say) employing the right tools to do the job really helps to get the right result, meaning that after a couple of weeks of work, the panels were replaced and actually looking good.... something that would have probably shocked my old woodwork teacher.

Over the summer, I've been taking a series of studies on what Paul terms 'the mysteries' of our faith - The 'Grand Miracle' (Lewis) of the Incarnation, the amazing work of regeneration, the love that is made ours in Adoption and the surety of that love in the scope of Salvation (finishing things off with the hope of the new creation). Like my home repair experience, it's reminded me that faith and life can only be done well when we fully understand what's involved and how to apply that now.

Paul's words in Colossians clarify who our God and Savior is - one who is truly supreme, but who rules entirely by love, abundantly outpouring mercy upon us and the world He not only made, but came and gave Himself up for as a man and in death on a cross. It is so encouraging to know that the one who is King and Lord of all is the one who is fully aquatinted with all our sufferings, our weaknesses and our needs, and that these do not need to alienate us from God, but just help us to draw near and ask for His help in our time of need.
He is the one who not only made all things, but He also makes all things new.

Life can often show us that there's much more to learn and understand, but also that there's many things we constantly need to be reminded about, the key one being the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.

My success in the garden has encouraged me to pick up a paint brush again and take steps to yet more repairs in the month ahead. May we grow in the richness of God's life through the care and grace bestowed in our friend and Saviour, Jesus.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Getting it right.

Why Christianity is never about us trying to be better people...





It's all about seeing what Jesus tells us here.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Grace unbound.

"Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relived".
John Newton.

Sometimes I have a problem with 'new' liturgy.

Back in my school days, one of my teachers beautifully hand-wrote a copy of all of Newton's famous hymn so we could sing it in assemblies, and I really started to miss that treat in the light of the recent 'new' popular version, which omits half the original verses, and chops in part of Charles Wesley's 'And Can it Be' (in itself a superb hymn)  as a repeating chorus.

I know, it's just personal preference, but it does touch on something important.

School gave me a whole series of routines, which, even though it took a while to sink in, allowed me to begin to realize that many of the everyday things in life really matter and give us place amidst our time here. When we find those routines making room for engaging with each other - creating a place for the richness of community - then we begin to truly benefit from what is going on.

The same is true, of course, in church. The reason for liturgy, sacraments, preaching and teaching in a communal context, is because they give us the same kind of environment in which something deeper can transpire - a growing together in the deeper things of faith and life.

Robert Farrar Capon, of course, nails it:
We need good liturgies, and we need natural ones; we need a life neither patternless nor overpatterned, if the city is to be built. And I think the root of it all is caring… True liturgies take things for what they really are, and offer them up in loving delight. Adam naming the animals is instituting the first of all the liturgies: speech, by which man the priest of creation picks up each of the world’s pieces and by his wonder bears it into the dance. “By George,” he says, “there’s an elephant in my garden; isn’t that something!” Adam has been at work a long time; civilization is the fruit of his priestly labors. Culture is the liturgy of nature as it is offered up by man. But culture can come only from caring enough about things to want them really to be themselves – to want the poem to scan perfectly, the song to be genuinely melodic, the basketball actually to drop through the middle of the hoop, the edge of the board to be utterly straight, the pastry to be really flaky. Few of us have very many great things to care about, but we all have plenty of small ones; and that’s enough. It is precisely through the things we put on the table, and the liturgies we form around it, that the city is built; caring is more than half the work.

We can so easily detach the spiritual and the natural, the holy and the mundane, but in God's good work of creation, both are found in the very same place at the same time, so everything becomes valuable and worthwhile because of that.

There are, of course, many moments in life which fragment us from such wholeness, not least our own personal sins and weaknesses, but the joy and splendor is that the one who cares is here, and can aid us in some of our hardest moments.

In Psalm 93, David contrasts the immovable nature of God's throne and what He has established with the roar and fury of the floods. Yes, those waters are high and constant, breaking upon us all, but the psalmist's gaze sees further - greater, higher than such pestilence and travail is the testimony of God, sure and unmoved. Such care is what truly holds us.



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.