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 anelephant 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.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Reconciliation that excels desolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 April 2016

Feeding upon the perpetual table

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

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

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

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

Here's a few to mull over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Right between the eyes

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

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

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

I'd passed the 'stop' sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Easter!