Thursday, 16 March 2017

The excellence of Jesus

Just had to share this superb message from my friend, Paul Blackham:

Saturday, 11 March 2017

gloriam hominis?

(Following on from my last posting...)

"Let your words be anything but empty
Why don't you tell them the truth?"  From Brave by Sara Bareillies


Words and Phrases. We're so used to them that sometimes we can neglect to really unpack what they're actually seeking to say (and what they're really telling us).

Recently, I've been looking at what's put up as the shop window blurb on the websites of the "new" (Principally Charismatic, so circa 1980's on) church growth movement churches, and it certainly says something.

Most of them want to talk about being part of what's deemed "bigger" than us - the revitalization, the transformation - ideas that would fit well into the designer label bag of most post-modernists (here be the dragons that continually feed upon themselves!). Whilst these notions certainly give what's served up a contemporary tag, it's how you access these attractions that's particularly telling. There isn't much by way of structural doctrine to define what's believed at the gateway (that, of course, is left to the initiation courses - usually "Alpha" - which come later) , but when it comes through, it's often phrases about getting to know 'Father' (God) essentially by the work 'of the Spirit', and this was where the real troubles start to appear.

Huh? someone may say - why does it matter?
Surely, these places are clearly attracting people towards 'god', so that has to be a good thing, right?

Well, let's look at a Biblical story for a moment to answer that.

The book of Acts has some pretty miraculous moments, and one of the most startling occurs quite early on, at the cusp of the new church just beginning to dip a toe into taking its message out further than Jerusalem.  A man named Phillip, who'd literally been a waiter before Saul started splintering the church community, had headed down to Samaria and was boldly preaching and casting out devils, when some trouble popped up in the form of a miracle man called Simon, who joined Phillip's entourage and then found himself eager to gain the kind of power these new teachers had, however much silver it cost him. This lead to a show-down with the likes of Peter and John, so things were certainly getting stirred up! Anyway, in the middle of all this, Phillip finds himself being told to chase down a chariot in the desert to speak to a guy on his way back to Africa. He heads off to the desert, does as he's told, and -whoosh!, then gets carried away to another town, a long way away in Caesarea, to carry on his work.

Did you see what I did there?

I told the outline - this happened, then this - of the story given in Acts 8, but I haven't actually said anything at all about what is at the hub of these events.

Before I say anything more, can you think what that might be?

If you can't, take a look at the chapter for a minute and then see if it comes to mind.

What's missing in my initial telling here has everything to do with what is also missing from the message of the websites I mentioned to begin with, and defines the trouble we all face today.

The Samaria story is filled with lots of exciting events - someone turns up and all manner of unexpected things happen as a result, but the entire narrative is given weight by that little 'footnote' of Phillip's side-trip into the desert.

Why?
Well, here, he meets someone from elsewhere who is struggling with the scriptures, and not just any 'ol portion of them - he's reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, speaking of one who will suffer for the sins of others.

Phillip's job was essential - to inform this stranger that the Prophet was speaking of the very one who had recently come and given Himself for us - to proclaim the one who had died and risen so that this man could trust in that atoning work and be re-born in baptism.

God took Phillip into the desert because this mattered, eternally.

So, look at that incident again, and tell me what's missing - what is it that needs to be mentioned, talked about, preached and proclaimed?

Here it is - "Then Phillip opened his mouth, and beginning with the scripture the man was reading, he told him the good news"... (wait for it)... "about Jesus" (Acts 8:35).

What mattered in what the church was doing at that very moment was something very clear-cut and essential, not only for those who belonged to it, but for the good of the whole world,
so, what's going on today?

Let me place this question in a somewhat broader context.


I recall some years ago on a radio broadcast how one of the shows team went to a major Christian convention in America and sought to interview people who were both running the event and attending by asking a couple of straightforward questions. These were:

What are the ten commandments?
What is the Gospel?
What does Justification mean?

Most of the responses weren't just bad, they were positively pagan, and whilst there were a couple of exceptions, the simple fact was people really didn't know what Christianity was at all - their churches were clearly failing them entirely.

We are imperiled, spiritually, when we are encouraged to move off from the vital truths of the faith, especially concerning The Preaching of the Cross (the saving work of Jesus Christ) to invest in a spirituality which majors in minors - a principal-based, naval-gazing spirituality that asks us to keep looking at ourselves in the immediate and at 'god' in the abstract (distant or spiritual, rather than present, in His Word and Sacrament). 

The plain and simple truth is we're often communicating a religion that fits right in with our own religiosity, not turning us, as the wretches we actually are, to the judgement and mercy required at the Cross.

Jesus tells us plainly - life isn't possible for you and I unless its via the gateway of His death (for our sins) and ours (by being crucified with Him), so that we can begin to partake of something very different - a life where we're fed by the Spirit speaking to us by God's word (meaning, not our intuitions, but the word that will never fade or fail).

So, as Easter arrives, where will we be?
Will the Jesus message this year be something mystical, or shrouded behind a deluge of 'new' praise sessions, or 'revelations' or will it be as real and as stark as it was on the first easter, requiring from us repentance and faith in the eternal work of the one became the Lamb slain for us?

Church really isn't about us 'doing' business with God. It's where we go to once again learn what God has done for us at one place, forever.

We cannot hope to save the world, or even help ourselves, unless that's where we focus.



Thursday, 2 March 2017

Beyond "Spirituality"

"I am the truth" 
Jesus (John 14:6).

Ever tried traveling in a vehicle with a troubling fault?
It doesn't even have to be that serious to be life threatening.

Some years ago, my late wife and I were heading back home in some pretty extreme conditions - thick mist and fog with that thin saturating rain - when the motor on the front windscreen wiper gave out. In a few seconds, it was impossible to see where we were going.

We can, hopefully, see the peril in everyday situations like this before they cause us any serious troubles, but similar perils appear to be something we can often be almost blind to when it comes to the condition and inclination of our own souls.

One of the key and essential truths that the Bible reveals about us all is that we all have a nature that determines that we will always veer towards darkness rather than light (Romans 1:19 onwards), to sin rather than to what is good (Romans 3:9-20), and thereby confirm that we are in a totally ruined condition, so how do you think we'll get on when it comes to loosing or choosing our religion? Interesting that Paul tells us in the first Romans passage I've mentioned here that this is the first place we can see the fault line that then allows us to go on to make all manner of other personally desired 'allowances'. This makes a lot of sense. if we have a 'god' (even if it's just our self-determination) which affirms our own core beliefs, then everything else (ethics, morals, cultural values and the like) will quickly fall-in behind that over-arching 'voice' as well.

All this matters a great deal when we come to consider current approaches and aspirations in what's voiced as 'nice' (having the right vibe) amidst the often zen-like popular harmonic that passes as valuable or acceptable 'spiritual' insight.

Collective 'belief making', principally through what's often posted in venues likes social media, blogs and other such venues has become a popular pastime. What is striking is to unpack what is going on as a result of this and similar modifying today. A US report of a few years ago came up with some interesting results. Here's a snippet:

Though the U.S. is an overwhelmingly Christian country, significant minorities profess belief in a variety of Eastern or New Age beliefs. For instance, 24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic. Nearly half of the public (49%) says they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This is similar to a survey conducted in 2006 but much higher than in surveys conducted in 1976 and 1994 and more than twice as high as a 1962 Gallup survey (22%). In fact, this year’s survey finds that religious and mystical experiences are more common today among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (30%) than they were in the 1960s among the public as whole (22%).

Of course, none of this is really that new - religion of all shapes and stripes (as long as they are 'nice') has always been in vogue (recall for a moment Paul's visit to Mars hill, and the comfortable fit between philosophy and numerous manifestations of worship). What is a little surprising here is how many professing Christians are making a great deal of accommodation for all manner of 'useful' ideas that are, in effect, contrary to the core message of the faith itself. This 'pick and mix' has certainly been evidenced many times before - Saul, for example, in the Old Testament, thought it might be OK to consult a medium when things got tricky for him. Solomon, after marrying countless wives and gaining a harem,  decided it was fine to play around with their beliefs as well, but these, and many other examples show us that the consequences are horrendous because such dabbling drives us right back to the human soul trifling with forces that have already imprisoned us.
With such dire consequences in mind, here are a few things to consider about the value of what's being shared as 'nice' in your neck of the woods...

The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that there is only one person and one place in all of heaven and earth, time and space, where you and I can be made free from our sin and severance from God - that is in the person of Jesus Christ and in His death and resurrection for us (Romans 3:21-26), so ask yourself this - when it comes to what I'm engaging with or promoting here, is it really pointing me and others to the Gospel of 'Jesus Christ and Him Crucified', or is it pointing somewhere else?

If what's going on is really talking about the nature of Christ and His redemption, then it's going to help us needy folk and do some good. If it's inviting us to head off down some other avenue of piety or enlightenment, then it's going to be a cul de sac, bending us back in upon ourselves, and that's going to bring the greatest pain of all.

The remedy to sin and death isn't easy - easter so starkly shows us that. The crucifixion was to deal with our ingrained condition - our sin. It was marked with a bruising of soul for our sorrows and iniquities. The true and lasting solution to our distance from the garden will come in the day of the new creation, when all the benefits of Christ's sacrifice are fully evidenced forever in a redeemed and renewed cosmos (Romans 8: 22 & 23). Until then, we are still bound by pain and corruption, and still know how venomous sin and death can be. The comfort is not in us. It is in Him who tasted death for us all that, finally, by His stripes, and only them, we may be healed (Isaiah 53: 3-12).

It so easy for us to 'channel' and proceed to mine the spirit of the age, but there is a far richer, deeper seam which God, in Christ, is wanting for us to discover and treasure.

As we approach another Easter, let's consider that.







Saturday, 18 February 2017

So, what's good here?

“Truth without love is brutality, and love without truth is hypocrisy.” 
 Warren W. Wiersbe


Harsh words, notes Solomon, stir up anger (Proverbs 15:1).
Imagine then, how the religious folk must have felt when Jesus speaks of them as being erroneous in their doctrine, self-serving in their piety, and criminal in their duties, amounting to a religion which adorned them externally, but did nothing worthwhile for them or those they were meant to aid (Matthew 23).

It wasn't just anger that lead Jesus to such plain words.
This passage ends with Him lamenting and weeping over such a gross falling from what was desired to be seen in God's priests (23:37-39) - that is why His words break and wound. Only such direct and candid honesty can begin to heal when we have become that embedded in our error (Psalm 147:3).

The problem with sin is that it doesn't just parade itself in what is obviously or inherently wrong - wouldn't that make things easy. When Satan beguiles Eve in the garden it's by adorning what is poison with an array of goals and intentions which sound so right.
The consequences of our succumbing to such wiles are remarkable - just consider Adam's words to God as he is busy covering his tracks (and himself) after being so fatally wrong (Genesis 3:10-14).

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says that one of the telling marks of these times will be how rapidly people will seek to accumulate teachings and teachers that appeal, not to a need for truth, but to those things which so easily and readily please and satisfy ourselves, thereby wooing us away from the essential message that breaks us to heal us (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

We can find it so simple to fall into the trap that because something looks good, feels good and therefore must do me good, we determine it is good.

Shortly after his blunt admonishment to the religious guides of His day, Jesus was to be found nailed to a means of execution - 'religion' being in full accord with such a determination, but little did any power or authority, material or spiritual, realize that as He hung there, pouring out His life for those who reviled and judged Him, He was doing our world more good than any other at any moment in all of heaven and earth (Isaiah 53:3-6), so here's the question we have to ask -

does what we're doing in our 'spiritual' activities and attitudes point to the one who humbled Himself to death on a cross and to the life that comes from that source (Jesus Christ, and Him crucified), or are we chasing all kinds of other "good" stuff that we think is fine morally and spiritually, but is actually detaching us from the one thing we're meant to know and be sustained by? Do we have ears to hear what truly makes us healthy - the theology of the cross - or are we 'fired up' to have itching ears and feet to run here, there and everywhere to gain the latest 'blessing' that has been devised by the latest "revelation"?

It is so very easy for us to be like fallen Adam in the garden, railing like some petulant child about what we believe we need and wanting to find refuge anywhere but in peace with God by what He provides in the death of His Son. There is a plethora of ready "remedies" abroad today, so many in the church itself, which wants you to lay hold of something 'above and beyond' the one who was lifted up by God to bring the antidote to Satan's venom, but these incitements will leave us finally as blind and impoverished and as wretched as Adam seeking fig leaves.

Paul tells Timothy that he is 'poured out' by God in one work alone - clearly teaching the truth, proclaiming The Gospel (Romans 3:21-26) and that Timothy, by soberly taking heed of Paul's words, must follow his example.



We cannot truly afford to do anything less.

Avoid the theatrics and the illusions.
Let Christ be all in all.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Pauses

"You could not discover the limits of the soul, not if you were to travel down every road. Such is the depths of its form".  Heraclitus.

"My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water"  Psalm 63:1.

Reading through some on-line materials this weekend, I came across a quote from the Generation X novel, Girlfriend in a Coma that is really worth noting:


"There’s a hardness I’m seeing in modern people. Those little moments of goofiness that used to make the day pass seem to have gone. […] I mean, nobody even has hobbies these days. Not that I can see. Husbands and wives both work. Kids are farmed out to schools and video games. Nobody seems to be able to endure simply being by themselves, either—but at the same time they’re isolated. People work much more, only to go home and surf the Internet and send e-mail rather than calling or writing a note or visiting each other. They work, watch TV, and sleep. I see these things. The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get . . . racing ahead . . . getting sacked from work . . . going online . . . knowing computer languages . . . winning contracts. I mean, it’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future […]
So you ask me how do I feel? I feel lazy. And slow. And antique. And I’m scared of all these machines. I shouldn’t be, but I am. I’m not sure I completely like the new world".
The New Testament tells us that one of the great troubles of our times will be a lack of purely natural affection - genuine appreciation for ourselves, for others, and things that matter purely because they resonate deeply - that is the inner inertia that the novel's writer has evidenced (hence, the initial observation).  Like some one-dimensional facsimile, we've become cut away from almost everything bar the transitory and immediate. It's telling - what is imperative in this exhausting routine - the 'must' of virtual activity (rather than genuine, shared recreation), of keeping a job (instead of having a rich, fulfilling career) and never truly loosing yourself to something greater, because being 'alone' (gaining real identity) is a chilling prospect.
"It's making no sense, But we'll stay here till the end
Whatever
This time"
(Racing Cars - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?).

The present, then, hauntingly resembles some sanctioned post-war social construction - necessary, utilitarian, but inherently devoid of any true "place".
Is it any wonder that the notion of owning a soul has become something arcane and absurd, and yet, Jesus informs us that this ignored core of existence is of far greater value than the gaining of anything (and everything) else (Mark 8:36).

We still chase the illusion that enough money or power or sex will make us someone, but as stated so well by Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street, gaining it merely brings us to a place where we find ourselves asking amidst emptiness, 'Who am I?'
We have to discover it's often pursuing not what we want, but what we need that will make us whole.
It may be vogue today to mask or deflect from the true, the good, and the beautiful, but every once and a while we still find ourselves stilled by something that generates an echo deep inside our hungry soul - the voice that whispers, "there's so much more than me". David knew that longing when he wrote the psalms, and wisely understood the only place where such appetites could be fully and eternally satisfied were within God meeting our greatest need.
God has done so in His beloved Son (John 3:16).
The true purpose of anything really of value in this life is to re-clothe us in an awareness of what we really are - more than just a collection of dulled moments and pointless sensations. We were made to truly be enriched by a love far higher than the stars and deeper than the oceans, and that has been brought to us in Jesus Christ...

to bring us home again.





Thursday, 26 January 2017

Some late correspondence...

"Theology is never any help; it is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn't there".  Robert Heinlein.

"(If) the universe is everything that is, what beyond nothing is left to explain its promotion from inexistence to existence?".  David Berlinski.

One of the joys of later life is re-visiting authors that you really enjoyed reading in prior times. The best ones, like good wine, don't loose their capacity to inspire or enthrall, to mystify or delight. All of us, of course, have our particular genres, so I was interested to recently pick up a book of collected more factual essays by Robert Heinlein, and to find a piece entitled 'The Third Millennium Opens'. Written, appropriately for a Sci-Fi writer, "in 2001" (it was actually written several years before his death in 1988), it's a piece that seeks to stride with confidence into a time which has seen us move, in but a few generations, to a point when the very stars appear to be almost ours - or so the optimism of the period it was written believed.

Heinlein, like so many of his day, had a boundless confidence in our ability to step further into the universe, and along with this, was happy to make several predictions about what was about to begin to unfold and become commonplace in the world. It is interesting to re-visit a few of these salient points, and update how they are now viewed a few decades on from that change of century...

First up, is a field entitled 'Science of the Mind'. Noting the use of things like telepathy and ESP for military purposes (what was known as Remote Viewing programs, for example, were implemented in the 70's but were discontinued in the 90's as they failed to produce 'actionable intelligence'), Heinlein suggests that these, and some regressive forms of hypnotism (these instances were also to be examined and dismissed), might have opened the door to the realm of "life after death". Heinlein was sure they had, referring to such incidents as providing a 'certainty' of something more.

As noted above, our writer didn't have a great deal of time for religion, period, but he clearly was fascinated to see if science could open a window into what could only be defined as the paranormal - not something that would be welcome amidst the priesthood of scientific orthodoxy a few decades later. 
Heinlien's 'hunch' may have actually been correct, though not amongst the particular fields he advocated and advanced. In our times, there may be the first substantive data to show that something of us actually continues after physical death, possibly at the quantum level, but it's still early days. 

 If his first conclusion would have driven naturalists mad, his second would have plicated them - 'Man is just a wild animal', and therefore can only be tempered through the punishing  furnace of survival and progress. The era of the original piece was the time when the new Atheism was finding its feet. Over the period since then, we've witnessed all manner of extravagant claims regarding the demise of a creator from that quarter, but we've also witnessed a fascinating and often far more thought-provoking back-lash from many fields. Heinlein speaks of our being 'protoplasm', but notes that we have barely begun to truly study ourselves. The work within the nature of the cell and DNA since that period has truly revealed a 'universe within a universe', and may be the prelude to an understanding as large in scope as the fact that the universe itself had a beginning. It most certainly leaves us with a range of towering questions, especially in regards to how all the essentials of life appear to be 'gifted' and not evolved.

The third assumption was a common one in genre writers of the day - Space was about to be conquered, but the bases on the moon, the manned missions to Mars, the theoretical breaking of light speed so we could reach the stars... these are all still 'for the future' concepts, whilst the troubles with regards to what we are in ourselves have not in any measure diminished.

The 20th century may have given a grasp on applying technology and medicine that prior generations could have only dreamed of, but it also gave some of the darkest chapters in the history of our world, purely because of the human condition. The attempt of recent history to dismiss God may well be due to the indictment that comes with His presence - there is a day of reckoning for our crimes and misdemeanors, which will be coloured by expulsion or mercy, according to Jesus Christ, depending on how we choose to stand in regards to the truth He shows to us - something which causes great unease in our self-reliance.

The times have certainly moved on. The cardinal issues and our deepest needs have not.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

"Unity"

"From a distance, you look like my friend,
even though we are at war,
From a distance, I can't comprehend,
what all this fighting's for".



I don't know what the festive season has been like for you, but for many it's something of a wasteland. Normal life shuts down for a series of weeks, regular events just aren't there, and, in many cases, there are no close connections these days to replace them, so the pain of loneliness can set in, or the "virtue" of self-reliance can become so necessary, that it can leave some wondering why you need others anyway.

This time of year always gets me asking hard questions, especially in regards to how the next year might be better; how our peace with God in Christ can impact upon our life together, particularly to address some of the ailments touched on above.

This leads to the issue of fellowship, or, as it's defined in Greek, koinonia.
We'll seek to unpack that a little in a moment, but before savoring that dish, let's think about the image of the church given in Acts 2:42-47 - a community devoted to life together focused around Apostolic teaching and the breaking of bread, the Lord adding to their number those being saved. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to attend a church that has a similar focus (God's word in the Gospel and the Sacraments), but there's something staggering here - this wasn't just for Sundays (and perhaps a mid-week meeting!) - these people were meeting this way, living this way daily (verse 46).

Now of course, it couldn't last. Pretty soon events unfolded (Acts 5-7) that effectively broke up the astonishing life of those first few weeks, but that doesn't mean that the image we're given here should be lost. In the book of Hebrews, for example, we're told to exhort one another daily to remedy falling away from what counts (Hebrews 3:13), so once again, we clearly have the teaching that "church" should be more than just the scheduled events. That brings us back to the matter of fellowship.
The word used in the New Testament is rich indeed. It was used to speak of the binding of marriage and the most important legal or business contracts. It's root also defines living together in the sense of sharing a life that is common and communal through genuine participation.

The closest that some of us have to this in our natural lives is being part of a family, and that's a helpful picture in the sense that it's a pretty mixed experience in most cases - some great things, perhaps, but equally some difficult if not trying times of seeking to genuinely become someone alongside others who can be helpful and awkward. Fellowship for us, then, is about becoming closer to all those involved - God, present among us in Christ, and one another, not in a fashion that's over-bearing, but bears the marks of what Paul tells us is 'the better way' in 1 Corinthians 13.

What each of us, and the rest of the world, need is to be truly enfolded in the richness of the love of God so that we can show and share that love through each aspect of our lives, both as a church, and as those savoring everlasting life in everything we do.

It's easy to so often become bogged down in the functional side of things, and thereby miss what really counts in being part of a community, but our gathering together should always help us to see God's love afresh, depicted before us, in word and sacrament, in our fellowship in the cross of Jesus Christ. That alone is the source and the means whereby we are truly renewed and bound together.

It's tempting to distinguish distinct realms - the sacred and the secular - and thereby to cordon off parts of life as 'ours' - it may even seem expedient to do so on occasions like the 'dead season' of this time of year, but Jesus won't in truth allow us to do that. He comes to dine with us at table - to truly know us in our lives 'behind closed doors' as much as when we're singing in church, because His love alone transforms and changes everything (which is why we need both our gathering together and His life and word at the heart of that).

Life, of course, gets pretty messy for us poor wretches, but the important priority for the days ahead should be to help each see God in Christ afresh. Because we congregate, share and give in that light, of God saving us in the death and life of His beloved Son, we will have true fellowship in the redeeming grace given to us in Him.

That sounds like something worth taking on board this year.