Saturday, 19 October 2019

Killing the System

"In the course of time, Cain brought the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground".
Genesis 4:3.

It's probably the hardest thing we have to learn to live with.
I still recall the day it hit home for me.
I'd tried so hard to be filling the role of being there, at least when it came to "ministry", for others, that I'd entirely missed the ground vanishing beneath my feet, leaving my entire future in jeopardy.

Vanity makes us so narrow of vision that we in effect become blind to what really matters.

The root problem, as some good theologians have noted, is that we so often replace God's totally unmerited mercy for a bag of devices we employ as means to twist God's arm, or, at least to convince us that is what we're doing. We are, in effect, like Adam, shouting at God from the bushes, when He wants us to face the truth and understand that aside from His intervening love, we are without any help at all.

Religion is all about when we don't accept that answer. The temptation we succumb to by such means is to believe that we have the resources to play God ourselves - to become more than we are, sinners saved by grace. We don't merely do this in rash moments, but devise whole systems of mimicking godliness so we can appear garbed in piety.

That was my problem back in those days of 'full time ministry'. I not only lost sight of Christ's unique work for us, I also lost sight of myself - of my dreadful plight without the single overshadowing of His death and resurrection.

True freedom in Christ is a very dangerous thing. Paul says that he had liberty in all things (and notes so do we); that to those who are pure (because of Christ) all things are pure - that sets parameters that are way above and beyond what religious structures and disciplines can provide, because redemption is about all creation regaining the radiance it was purposed to express.
Thankfully, redemption is all about God in Christ invading our space with the opulence of His exquisite and abundant mercy, and using such as the way to engender in us a relish for Him above all else. Grace gives the means (word and sacrament) to establish what was very good in God's full intention for the world.

We, at our very best, do what we do in weakness, but that's OK. God took the mess that I had driven myself into in my youthful zeal and showed me there was so very much more to see in the death and resurrection of His beloved, that some 40 years on, I'm beginning to see a little of the true boundaries of such extraordinary grace.

The important things is, just like those disciples Jesus met on the Emmaus road, that Christ is seen and His living word burns in our hearts.

Don't become trapped by going inward. Look to that altar, outside of the scheduled rituals and rules where the Lamb of God opened the fountain that never runs dry, paid for by the sacrifice that sustains all things forever.

Christ alone must be what we are about, because if we in any fashion see ourselves taking the reins, we are in very deep trouble.

If we truly want to see the life of God evidenced amongst us, then Paul urges indeed cajoles us to pursue one excellence alone - preach the irreplaceable person and work of Jesus, and you will rest on a surety everlasting.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

W H A M !

"The Jesus who confronts us in the New Testament, and supremely in the Gospels, is not a phantom figure, whose only importance is meaning. He is very real, and so relevant to our world because He has lived in it". Dr John Drane.

So, this week I have to say thank you to Tom Holland and his new book, Dominion - not because I'm particularly comfortable with much of what he's authored there, but principally because it gave me a jolt to think afresh about why I am a Christian, and what is so easily taken for granted about the faith that's changed our world.

Let me unpack this a little.
Mark's Gospel begins by telling us that it's an account about someone who is simply remarkable - Jesus... and this is where we immediately find ourselves undone - "the son of God". What comes in the next 16 blunt chapters is nothing short of extraordinary, but what's important to note here is that it's the person at the core of these events and what He says and does that ignites and fuels something that was already spreading across the Roman world by the time we get to the conversion of Paul.

It's imperative to understand this chain of events. The reason there was a Damascus Road moment for Saul was because there'd been a martyrdom in Jerusalem of a man named Stephen who was preaching Jesus, and the reason for that was because the day of Pentecost had seen Jews 'from every nation under heaven' hear and respond to Peter telling them about the recent events that had happened in the very place they were now standing.

Christianity doesn't begin with Paul. However key he is to the growth of both the global expansion of the church and it's application of the good news towards the end of the first century (and he truly is), the fact remains that he was part of something that was already taking the world by storm.

I say all of this because Tom Holland's book, in some respects, makes any need for a real Jesus secondary to the creeds and  powers that came to bear or use his name. There's no denying that much of the surge and grandeur that came to define Christendom from the 5th to 12th centuries took place as he shows, but as other authors have noted, this was commonly at the expense of the very teachings and message of Jesus Himself, turning Christianity into a power which often brutally crushed any and all who sought to question or resist its worldly authority. The inquisition, as Peter De Rosa notes, was in so many ways the prototype for the Holocaust and the Gulags of the 20th century. The only truth to delight in here is that slowly, over the next 300 years, men awoke to the fact that the Gospel required something very different.

It's awakening to the message of the Gospels themselves that truly matters. Holland admits that behind the last two thousand years, there remains the remarkable 'myth' of the man they crucified, but it wasn't a contrivance or a story that so troubled those disciples who had travelled with him on that first easter sunday.

The original ending of Mark's short gospel concludes with these words:

"and they fled from the tomb (because of what they had seen), trembling and astonished, and said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified" (16:8).

Christianity begins with a moment of utter bewilderment and total astonishment.

It's hard for us to take in just how overwhelming this moment is, because so few events in our own lives come close, and even momentous historical changes really don't touch this,
because this, as Holland notes, is the genuine 'molten core' that drives the faith.
The world can never be the same again because of what happened on that morning at that empty tomb.

Dominion tells us of centuries of consequences of Christianity rising and falling, and no doubt much of what the author states here about the ramifications of that is true, but the real thing we need to understand is what Mark is saying about the man who was truly the Son of God. Everything else pales when we encounter Him.


Sunday, 6 October 2019

Harvest

Each day, as the sun rises and we enjoy all the gifts that life brings,
reminds us that we should be deeply thankful for what is given...

We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand. 
He sends the snow in winter,the warmth to swell the grain,the breezes and the sunshine,and soft refreshing rain.

He only is the Maker
of all things near and far;
he paints the wayside flower,
he lights the evening star;
the wind and waves obey him,
by him the birds are fed;
much more to us, his children,
he gives our daily bread.

We thank you, then, O Father,
for all things bright and good:
the seed-time and the harvest,
our life, our health, our food;
no gifts have we to offer
for all your love imparts,
but that which you desire now:
our humble, thankful hearts!

All good gifts around us
are sent from heav'n above;
then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
for all his love

Friday, 27 September 2019

The Taster



So, this year, I have been working on a new project that I hope to publish in some form, probably as a free download e-book sometime next year, but I thought it might be helpful to provide an idea of what's coming, so here's the introductory section by way of an appetizer for later.

Enjoy!


If you were to make a list of books that Christians everywhere need to read, the one we’re going to seek to introduce here would certainly warrant being in the top ten.


Most of us have no doubt read the book of Galatians and are probably familiar with its key themes about the Gospel and how we apply these words to our church and our lives is essential. Galatians is one of the lightning rod books of the scriptures because the issues it examines are so key to what truly defines Christianity.

Martin Luther studied and wrote his commentary on the book during his great struggle to bring the church back to the genuine teaching provided by the scriptures themselves, to encourage Christians to open the rich and living words for themselves and by doing so, to enliven and deepen their faith.

So, let’s begin where Luther does – by laying out the key themes and goals of the book and what these are intending to teach us.

Luther’s introduction.

St Paul is seeking to establish the truth concerning forgiveness of sins by a particular type of righteousness – to allow us to understand the difference between this and, say, civil justice or political good, or the ceremonial forms of piety that are found in various religious practices.
Many of these forms may prove to be good and helpful in their proper place (– at school or in the home, in a court of law), but they cannot provide any power to satisfy the problem of our sin or any means whereby we can truly please God or warrant His mercy towards us. They may address some of our immediate issues and needs, but they will always fall short of meeting and assisting when it comes to our deepest need – peace with the everlasting God.
Paul, then, is seeking to unfold the splendour and value of another righteousness far above what our daily institutions can provide – this, as he will show, is Christian righteousness; a most excellent gift which rests not upon what we seek to give or do, but purely upon what the Almighty has done for us.

Of course, such a wonder is often hidden.
Our weakness, our misery and our sin are so great, that honesty jars us to the truth we find no rest or comfort in our own small efforts before God’s holy and unrelenting requirements for purity in His inescapable law, which truly shows us the depths of our corruption, but brings no remedy.

We are then, in truth, trapped by the horror of our inability to satisfy even our own basic requirements of doing some good, never mind those required perfectly and entirely by the law. We long for remedy that is beyond ourselves, found not in our efforts but only, purely, in God’s mercy through the forgiveness of sins offered to us in the giving of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The greatest wisdom for the Christian, then, is to know that we can never attain what is truly righteous unless God credits or imputes to us a righteousness that is not our own – not engendered or merited by good deeds or obedience on our part, because whilst we seek to live well, it is Christ alone that makes us well.
If we teach that we can be made right before God by any merit of our own, by any deeds we do, then we deny the truth we know in our bones – the genuine good does not dwell deep within our corrupt natures. Those who would teach that we are sanctified by our own doing must be exposed to the full and uncompromising requirements of God’s holy and unrelenting Law – not to do the harm, but good; for them to come to comprehend the full magnitude of their personal failure to be righteous. What of those who understand their true distress, deficiency and guilt before that same Law? To these poor souls there must come the full wonder of undeserved mercy and full forgiveness God grants us in the perfect work of the offering of His Son.

There, as St Paul has written elsewhere, we find Christ to truly and entirely be the end of the Law (Romans 10:4).

Whilst we seek to do good, we understand that regarding the true nature of righteousness, which brings safety and rest with God, we can do nothing at all. All we can bring is our sin, our poverty, our resistance to the truth.
We have come to understand that Christ, whom the Father has so mercifully given to us, has become our singular wisdom, righteousness, holiness and full redemption.
In His overshadowing, sin has indeed been expelled as the power that rules, for He has perfectly kept the Law for us in His flesh, and offered that one sacrifice to quell sin’s reign over us.

Where Christ is properly taught and apprehended because of God’s great mercy, the truth will cause us to say “Although I am a sinner by nature, rightfully judged and condemned by the law, yet I do not despair, because Christ rose from death after bearing the penalty for my sin, and He alone is my righteousness and my life”.

No fear, no guilt, no condemnation, for the very sting of eternal death – the wages due for my iniquity – have been expunged and assuaged by the astonishing death of Christ.
This alone is what will bring me again to life come the day of resurrection, and singly clothe the glory of my restored body.

So now, life is lived in the Christian between these two truths – the old nature or flesh, oppressed with frailty of this present fallen life, continuing in death, vexed by sin and often held by sorrow in suffering as we are pulled towards the grave, and the new life in Christ which rejoices in the treasure of what has been secured and sealed forever in the paradise that approaches from the Father’s great grace.

St Paul seeks to instruct us to be comforted by the excellence of Gods certain work of justifying us by such love, for if this truth is lost, then so would be the true essence and value of the faith.

In the light of this true grace, then, we now seek to genuinely teach and lead others to the precious waters – to speak in such a way that freedom from the tyranny of sin, self and the rags of false religion will heal us from the miserable error that we can live morally and therefore godly lives by thinking we can achieve abiding by the Law.



It has fallen on us to take very great care to carefully share and explain these crucial things so that, when we become assailed by times of failure or discouragement, when sin assails us or death draws close, we may in those moments find the real grace and single comfort that these treasures can bring – that our safety and our rest reside not in our failing flesh, but in the surpassing richness of the marvel that our Saviour has died and returned from that death for us, that we might be found in the overshadowing of His life alone, which is our only safety and salvation.

It is here, then, and only here, that we can move beyond judgement to life, for in Christ only is to be found a righteousness that pleases the Father for us all.

We are therefore now called upon to focus upon those sights and sounds which ring out with the good news and its breaking and sharing with us poor souls, and to feed well there upon what is made clear – that Christ alone is the end of the Law, of life without hope, for He is now magnified aright as Sacrifice, Priest, Saviour and King.

With all this in mind, then, we seek to open Paul’s words to the church at Galatia; To quell the sting of false teaching and teachers in the church, and to proclaim the true majesty and authority of the finished work of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Silence?

"And God Said"

Genesis 1:3


"And the whole earth was of one language, and of one accent and mode of expression".

Genesis 11:1

"And they began to speak in other languages as the Holy Spirit gave them expression, loudly and clearly".

Acts 2:4.

"A language has its own personality; implies an outlook, reveals a mental activity, and has a resonance, not quite the same as any other".

C S Lewis - The Discarded Image.

What do Professor John Lennox, a Cave in the Syrian desert, the above verses, and troubling 'idiosyncrasies' in AI computer coding share in common?

Perhaps nothing at first sight, but when Tim Mahoney's recent second film in the Patterns of Evidence series began to conclude its findings by discussing the well-nigh miraculous origins and development of ancient Hebrew, I began to see something both astonishing and troubling was afoot.

Let me seek to explain.

We're told in Psalm 2 that one of the biggest evils we now face as humanity as a result of our fallen nature is that men of authority will seek to come together in power with a particularly dangerous intent in mind - to unfasten themselves from the rightful Lordship and reign of the Almighty, evidenced through the Kingship of of His beloved Son (yes, that's all stated in the Psalm). This, as Paul goes on to show in Romans chapter one, is often a motivational imperative in much of the fashions or intents of our secular culture, and consequently leads to social activities that are marked by immorality and, worse, alienation from true identity as the ones bearing the image of our Creator. Such intentions, of course, carry the seeds of its own destruction.

The means, as shown in the events at Babel (Genesis 11) to bring this about are often found in what is expressed and agreed upon as common intent, so language and its use is fundamental to the how and the why of where we are going as a culture.

Think about how we ourselves use particular words in this respect - words like 'define'. Providing a definition can be extremely useful, but what if the definition is incomplete or inaccurate or, worse yet, given to obscure or blur something vital ?(see Lewis' chapter, Reservations in the book The Discarded Image for a very thought-provoking examination of such issues).

The recent Patterns of Evidence film about Moses and the writing of the Torah produced some fascinating material on how the original Hebrew language may well have come about in what can only be described as miraculous events, but it also hints at how all language is, in effect, God-given, so when we use such a valuable gift to malign and seek to exterminate the truth regarding its giver, we are engaged in something dreadfully sinister.

Recently, Professor John Lennox presented a fascinating talk in which he sought to examine recent social and technological trends in the world, and the nightmarish ramifications of these for our culture and particularly in respect to our understanding of God. At the core of this Babel-like slide into a religious secularism is our growing use of Algorithmic codes that can easily and selectively reject and phase out undesirable world views and beliefs. This has been witnessed in measure in events like those experienced by Jordan Peterson in Canada in the last few years (in respect to legal changes and practice in educational facilities) or the current tightening social controls in China via the ever-present use of technology to monitor and define right social behavior, but this may well be just the start. It is reported that technology that can effectively read your neurons and determine your thoughts, turning these into speech, may not be very far away. Image the consequences if this manner of 'control' becomes widespread.

What is telling is that behind much of this is not an absence of religion, but a re-directing of our religious propensities into a secular pluralism that requires unwavering adherence and total commitment by the community. It is a breed of political and social monopoly that is worryingly akin to the manner of pervasive, diabolical structure described in the final book of Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. What is clear is how 'arranging' language is at the very heart of this.

There is a scene in the movie The Book Thief where Max, a Jew hiding from the Nazis, tells Liesel about the almost magical power of words by writing something for her in Hebrew, echoing the essence of what John writes about Jesus as the Word in John 1. We are living in a time where that very essential truth is being perverted and re-used as 'code' to undermine the essential nature of truth. It is isn't a case of our times being unaware of God's spoken riches. It's simply a case of we want to hold from Him the right to speak - for Him to remain silent as we seek to prove Him guilty.

It is folly, and it is deadly.

There are numerous ways we can harm and murder each other, but when we inhabit a world where this particular crime is deemed proper to benefit us all, we are working to do violence against God and the value of His amazing handiwork, and the retribution of His beloved will draw near.
The truth will slay us, either for good or for our ill, but it will not long remain silent.

Let us hope and pray that such a crime does not become what defines our present age, but that the precious gift of the Word made flesh, of God with us, speaking to us, becomes vital once again.



Saturday, 14 September 2019

Questions...

"Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" Romans 8:39.

One of my favourite living theologians put out a request on Facebook this week for questions to examine in a new series of podcasts he is intending to do soon.

There were some good responses, but most of them I'd seen raised in similar productions, so I began to ponder what would be interesting and useful to raise that perhaps hadn't been addressed, or at least was not common to such opportunities.

Here's what I came up with:
'The Epistle of James states that because Elijah was a righteous man, his prayer was both deemed fervent and defined as effectual. Does this statement in any manner relate to the epistles' earlier affirmation in respect to the value of works in our salvation and does it also have any bearing upon the reason why Enoch and Elijah were the only two men who never saw death in the manner of others'.

I have no idea if Dr Rosenbladt will get around to addressing my question (I'll let you know if that changes), but even as I was framing it, another question formed - how would I seek to address and answer such a question from my own resources? 

It's always best to start with the source material itself - "The earnest (continual and heartfelt) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available - dynamic in its working" (James 5:16 - Amplified). The Apostle writes these words in the context of being servants as believers (verse 7 of the chapter onwards), and clearly sees ongoing and confident prayer as a part of such living.  Elijah, he notes (verse 17), was a man like us, yet he saw God's hand at work in correspondence with his prayers and is clearly deemed to be 'righteous' (just) in the context of these events. Is James, then, in some respect adding to his earlier argument here (see 2:21-26) that it isn't faith alone, but faith that creates works, that makes us right before God?

The real clue, I think, comes in the way James sees the Prophet's prayers as effective. Notice how the amplified version suggests that the 'power' of divine action came because Elijah acted in accordance with the will of the Lord, and this is certainly borne out in the events of the story itself in 1 Kings 17 & 18. God speaks, Elijah believes and acts accordingly, and then miraculous circumstances follow as a result of this, so there is a very strong correlation to what James writes about Abraham in his second chapter, but notice what the 'work' in both of these cases is - it is primarily having confidence in Who has spoken and what He has said - that is what causes these men to act. Confidence is shown in God's character and word, and this in turn leads to a change of mind and behavior to align to that word - this is indeed the work of faith (hearing and resting upon - living in - God's word).

The same is simply and quickly said of Enoch - He was a man who believed (trusted in the disclosure of the Lord) and was therefore taken (Genesis 5:24, Hebrews 11:5).

The examples of Abraham and Elijah are actually really encouraging (that's why James uses them), because they are not paragons of unwavering virtue, endurance and unceasing triumph. Abraham clearly falters many times over his life, including in his understanding of God's will, but he also shows remarkable confidence in the Lord to secure and keep his promises. Elijah on occasion spends as much time running and hiding as he does confronting the situations of his day, but the Lord is the one who holds him through all of this, so what we learn is that true righteousness isn't in the rising and falling of our behavior, but in the sure and steadfast love, mercy and unceasing faithfulness of the one who walks with us and keeps us by those precious truths.

It's all too easy for us to loose sight of what really matters when we engage with such questions, and to turn God's good surety into either license or a lash to justify 'religion' of our own making, but faith allows us to boldly press in and press on in our life with a Redeemer who is always seeking what is best for His people and the world they witness within of His faithfulness.

The key thing, then, to take away is that we are indeed very needy people, needy and often foolish in the way we live, but the God who made us is for us in being rich in love and mercy, and when we come to Him, He hears, He acts, He cares in ways often far beyond our small requests, because of who He is, as evidenced most clearly in Jesus Christ.

There's a comfort that we can truly hold with us whatever comes through today.



Friday, 6 September 2019

Dispossessed

"The singular truth (of Christianity) is that history does not have an intrinsic meaning in itself, nor from an outside factor that is incommensurable and unknown. Gods presence in human events is alone what gives it meaning as it unfolds".
Jacques Ellul.

So there I was, walking along, when it was just... there.
I can only describe it as the most luxurious cat carrier I'd ever seen. Its ultra-plush interior was equally matched by its streamlined 360 degree clear plastic exterior... clearly designed to bring your furry friend the very best in comfort, style and view as it's transported wherever.

I'd never seen anything like it, but as I walked passed, somewhat stunned, I couldn't help thinking that, in spite of all its ergonomically tasteful features, so pleasing to the eye of the owner, that to any cat housed inside, it still must still be defined as a locked box, required to get the poor creature to where it doesn't really want to go.

Does our 'terrestrialism' present the same kind of comfortable cell to us? It should, because if we consider life is devoid of a celestial dimension and definition,  we are truly in a box and on our own.

Just think about it.
Recall all those great times as a kid when your 'heart was free and your soul ran wild' (Larry Norman) because your imagination sought roads that were new and unexpected.

So what happened?

Ours is very much a time of 'human' values and actions - of believing we carve out our own destinies by seeking to rope and tame the natural, because the material is all we are prepared to entertain.

The world has become one dimensional, and woefully mundane.

It's well nigh impossible to find anything deeply sacred within such fences (or cages), but that doesn't mean the hunger inside actually goes away.  Beyond our utilization of 'things', beyond the distraction of the immediate, there is a troubling whisper in the back of our souls that there's something vital we're now neglecting. Like a cat in a hot-styled cell, we're prowling, stirring for more.

So how do we become unchained?

By facing some hard truths.

The box, we may be told, may be hustled as a place where we're 'as free as we can get', but the longing inside tells us it ain't so, no matter how hard we apply the cosmetics or the latest trappings, we feel the trauma of the lie inside. Because we can, perhaps, "feel" fabulous, doesn't change the fact that we're not really any different, and that's because there's a darkness in us we rightly hate.

The distractions may spin and dazzle around us, so easy to get lost in when we're hyping with others, but when we're alone, when we're quiet, what do we do to quell the presence of the voice that's quizzing us then?

Beneath the tacky sparkle of the "new" thing, there's the gaping bottomless void of Nihilism addicting our culture to the fatality of a world without value.

Jesus Christ is the only one who stands in diametric opposition to that evil.

Above and beyond the inversion of ourselves in our breaking of every taboo, there remains a real freedom that calls us to live with eternal purpose enveloped in the drama that God is unfolding - to become people who find value beyond our slavish, selfish existing.
Beyond the lie of liberty being the self-will to do anything we can contrive as novel (already done hundreds of thousands of times by others), lies a call, an imperative, to find ourselves by loosing such banality to reviving the wonder we used to know - that life was indeed so much bigger.

Sometimes, cages can seem so secure, but they are actually just cages. Christ, by giving us Himself, invites us to a far bigger realm, where the burden and the reward are true freedom to be what we were intended.

Time to look beyond the prison once again.