Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The nature of things.

"And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries". Paul Simon - I am a rock.

"They became futile in their thinking". Romans 1:21.

So, there I was on you tube, re-visiting some material on science and faith to pass along to a friend, when I noted in the other videos column an item - sourly titled - that was seeking to demean the thinking of the person I was listening to.

I clicked on to this at the end of the video I was watching to see what kind of arguments were being made, and quickly discovered they were not actually attacking an argument by the person they were seeking to dismiss, but, initially at least, only his re-telling of an argument made by C S Lewis.

Here's the original version by Lewis himself:
“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can't trust my own thinking, of course I can't trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.” (The Defense of Reason).

Notice what He is stating here - if what we deem intelligence is merely a quirk of an a random process, what objective data (beyond our own senses) gives it the validity to be trusted as a means of genuinely defining and rightly understanding the nature of things, even in regards to the purely material sophistication of the world?

 The response to this argument on the dismissive video was pathetic. It stated that because we're made of the same stuff as what's around us (atoms and the like), these are therefore perfectly acceptable tools to employ to understand that manner of stuff, so Lewis and others who employ this manner of questioning are just plain wrong.

Another video I watched recently included a section in which Richard Dawkins and Neil De Grasse Tyson were discussing the nature and purpose of intelligence, and they raised a fascinating dilemma. If you look at the astonishing forms of life on this planet, very few (and they concluded, in a real sense, probably only one) has seen it beneficial to develop and employ the strange phenomena of intelligence. What makes this phenomena even more puzzling, they noted, is why, because from a naturalistic (survival and transmission of genes) perspective, it's clearly not required, so why is it there?

The truth is actually much stranger than fiction.

When Sir Fred Hoyle undertook his research into the proliferation of carbon in the universe, he realized that the hard data was telling him something he didn't expect, and didn't like - the very nature of the physical order had been toyed with in a manner that wasn't random. The numbers proved it. The atheist encountered the fingerprints of God.

Using our faculties is meant to cause us to stop and ponder what is really around us.

We all know that our senses give us information all of the time - a frame of reference that we implicitly trust because without that, the world would become entirely alien and life impossible, but honest evaluation of what we can see when we look hard enough, jolts us, because it tells us 1. There are clearly limits to what our faculties can comprehend and 2. Within those limits, there is information that points to deeper aspects of reality, beyond the purely utilitarian.

Naturalism wants to argue that such "aspects" are merely the result of ignorance, either due to our current lack of information, or, as in the case of the video I encountered, because the person making a case for more than the material is, in effect, ignorant, but what is often happening is the real argument isn't being heard by those seeking to dismiss it.

A classic example of this is how naturalism often "reads" what is deemed science and thereby believes it negates that need for theology.

Let me conclude by pointing to another of Lewis' superb arguments on this very subject.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

In this tussle...

"Looking for the right one, when will the right one come along?"  Art Garfunkel.

It's a familiar story - the push of life's obligations against the pull of our deepest desires.
It's a miss-match of epic proportions.

How do we handle it?

Mockingbird contributer Charlotte Getz has written one wonderful piece on this this week.

I love her candor. I love her no-holds barred honesty. I lover her conclusions.
It makes sense of what the day to day is about, but far more importantly, it tells us that our deep in the depths of us yearnings and longing aren't meant to go away - they're meant to steer us to richer shores than we can currently even fully comprehend.

I'd love to just let rip about what Charlotte says, but I'll just enjoy the warmth of it, and encourage you to have a read for yourself - it's excellent.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

When Church Fails

"Those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me".
Paul - Galatians 2:6

Some of you may have picked up on former gymnast Rachael Denhollander's story last week, regarding how she confronted her abuser with point-blank gospel truth about herself, God and forgiveness, but it turns out that this was only the first part in her story.

In an astonishing follow-through piece this week in Christianity Today, we learn of another dimension to her pain - caused by the failure of the church to support her.

The awful truth is not only was she not helped through the trauma of her experiences by the church she attended, she was actually cut off from membership simply because the church entirely failed in its call to minister to and aid a suffering member of its body, leaving her facing an even greater amount of suffering and vulnerability.

The CT article mentions the particular church group involved, but this is sadly not uncommon. Back in the 80's, Christian sociologist Ronald Enroth wrote a telling study into how commonplace such a plight was in America in the work, Churches that Abuse, showing how miss-application of presumed authority and teaching that permitted this created a plethora of damaged and broken people. Andrew Walker was to touch on some of the same manner of abuse which occurred here amidst similar schemes in his book, Restoring the Kingdom, but most of these abuses and their perpetrators have become forgotten some 40 years on, causing some to, mistakenly, think that such errors don't happen now.

Of course, the troubles don't always begin too extreme to begin with. A piece today on the Mockingbird website shows how easily this failure can become established.

 It all sounded so worthwhile in Paul's day.
Be a "super-spiritual" follower, not only having believed, but now, keeping all these requirements given to us by Moses himself.... my, won't that please God!

We totally fail when our best intentions become about anything but what Christ alone has done at the cross. That is what should cause us to lay ourselves down for each other, but we're so easily lead to thinking that we can make things so much better by our own spit and polish.
It doesn't take long before others are suffering as a result.

The church does something wonderful when it points away from itself to the weakness, the failure, the tearing truth of the cross. There and only there can life emerge from death.

Let's really learn something from Rachael's valuable work of speaking the truth in love.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Exquisite Romance of Grace

"No, no, no. It's not the cheating. It's the hunger. The hunger for an alternative and the refusal to accept a life of unhappiness". Sarah Pierce - The film Little Children.

"I love it when passion rips open that dull, nine to five facade and bares the writhing orgy of need underneath". Tim Kredier - The essay, The Creature Walks Among Us.

"I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you
What you've seen is what I've been
And there is nothing I can hide from you
You see me better than I can
".  Lyrics from 'Till I Gain Control Again'.

There's a wonderful moment in the song of songs that says so much about passion and genuine love, but before we get to that, I wanted to refer to another touchstone, for me, on this vital subject. It's found in Jim Mc Neely's superb book, The Romance of Grace, which is simply one of the best works in print on the value of desire and the astonishing love of God.

The book is littered with gems, but it's chapter 4 - Grace is the Air Love Breathes - that I want to draw from today.

It starts with focusing on a very universal truth - we are not in control of our own desires. We often "feel" we want things in a particular direction, but because that impulse is usually without any real centre, we "might as well try and grasp the wind or embrace the ocean"... and yet, our passion really counts. When love becomes something wonderful, it really does colour everything in a brightness that furnishes all of life. It allows us to overlook faults, work through troubles, care unselfishly and even unceasingly for someone that was once a total stranger. Love alone actually enables us to totally give ourselves, not out of duty, but out of a yearning to please and delight that one who fills our world.

There are, of course, countless songs, stories, poems and other expressions that bear witness to the power of such affection, which is no doubt why, at the very heart of our bibles, we find a truly vivid, no holds barred, love story.

One of the questions asked at the end of this insightful chapter is "is Hollywood right in conveying that we fall helplessly in love with someone and have no real control over our affections?

The Song of Songs answers with a resounding YES!
Take a look at this typical passage from the work:

"My beloved says to me, 'Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away" (2:10). The object of desire, hearing this call, then yearns eagerly to be with the one who loves her (see the opening of chapter 3).

Its exactly the same in regards to the love of God.

The Apostle John notes that we know we're redeemed and shall be reassured in our hearts, even when feel condemned, because this redeeming love of God is far, far greater than our hearts, and the one who loves us this way knows everything (1 John 3:19-20).

In other words, as John also says, we can now love because we were first so totally loved (1 John 4:19).

Our surety isn't in the whims of our own turbulent desires, or our "doing well" one day and badly the next - it's in the love that nailed Jesus to a cursed cross so that He could take all our iniquities and end all our diseases.

That's the love we respond to - total and unconditional (1 Timothy 2:1-6).

It has to be this, or nothing, because the alternatives (depending on something other than eternal, steadfast, love) are dire. 

There's a 100% sure-fire way to sell Christianity short.

Turn it into religion.

Turn it into something filled with 'shoulds', 'musts', 'wills' and 'cans' instead of a hunger to be loved, to be carried up by the sweetest bliss of being one totally desired by another (however vile we may be), and you'll end up stoically trudging the road to reverence to something that, if you try hard enough and long enough, you deem (believe) you can plicate, but let's be clear - it's not those who "will" and thereby "run" (Romans 9:15) that make it... It's those who believe that God came to rescue the wicked (us) and trust in that unmerited love that do.

Occasionally, we will no doubt know moments, perhaps even longer spells, where our desires harmonize with the beauty of the holiness God brings to us in His beloved, but if we're honest, we're often usually pretty distant from that. The way to see further than ourselves is to focus on the love that God pours out, without measure, upon us, in Jesus.

As Charles Spurgeon once noted, "If God would have held anything back, it would have been this, His beloved. When He gave us His Son, He gave us all".

Spend some time today thinking about that.
It might do your affections some good.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Light at the end of tunnel (The scope of faith).

"He raises the needy out of Affliction" Psalm 107:41.
"So Abraham called the the name of the place, 'the Lord will provide'" Genesis 22:14.

Sometimes, I find, reading books about theology can be as much about recognizing what has been missed as what had been said, which can be good, because it allows you to don your thinking cap and go deeper!
That was certainly the case this morning, when reading a book on the manner of paradox we can often find in life and faith.

The author decided to use the story of Abraham's offering of Isaac as an opening instance of the kind of troubles we can often face, for example, when something tragic and apparently unjust happens in our lives. The story of a man being required to sacrifice his only child to show obedience to God seems bluntly wicked and capricious today (as various secular writers have contended), so what are we to make of this, and, perhaps more to the point, does this story really comfort or aid people who are about to know the manner of sorrow the author raises in the opening of the book - to be those bereaved and suffer loss?

The tome I was reading notes how the story in Genesis started - with a couple who had no future (no children) - and how miraculously, after many years, that changes - with the birth of Isaac, and how God stays Abraham's hand in the sacrifice story due to the Lord providing another sacrifice in the form of a ram caught in a thicket. It touches on how this incident is one in several moments when God is working in the life of these people to deepen His intent in them of truly knowing Him, and makes reference to Abraham's key confession in the midst of this particular event (Genesis 22:8) which tells us something vital about his faith, but I couldn't help wondering by this point where the initial question raised in this book - of aiding people in the midst of their (probable) great loss - had gone. How did this relate to the actual tragic death of  someone, probably amidst great suffering, especially where no apparent faith was present?

I understand the aim of the book is to speak about how God often is most clearly seen and understood in the most difficult of moments - that was certainly true for Abraham - but this is surely contingent on the fact that here was a man who had seen God in all manner of prior events and conversations, so that when the sacrificial incident occurs, Abraham understands that this is an event in which he will truly learn something about the true nature of God's provision for him and his household, hence his confidence is in God's "speaking" to Him through what unfolds.

Abraham and Sarah had shared, like many now do, a deep desire for children, and God promised as He called them to a new location that He would fulfill this longing, but the events which unfold show how God would only do so after it had became totally impossible for this to be achieved by any natural means. What's imperative to understand, then, is our best hopes and goals can only truly be achieved (truly fulfilled) beyond ourselves in the life which comes from another, for it is only that life which can define and establish something credible and worthwhile.

What, then, of those who are encountering trial and trauma without such confidence?

In Psalm 107, the writer begins by speaking of us being redeemed by God's steadfast love via rescue from the 'day of trouble' and being gathered from foreign lands (apt, of course, in the life-story of Abraham). There are those who wandered wastelands (verse 4), those who inhabited darkness (verse 10), those who foolishly wallowed in sin (verse 17), and those in distress in the depths (verse 23). None of these realms, in and of themselves, bring us anything but anguish and pain. The Psalm states that the intention of such times is clear - to bring an end to our own resources (see verses 33 and 34) and ourselves, that these very trails will cause us to faint and cry out (verse 6, verse 13, verse 19, and verse 28). God, in His great mercy, will use such harsh times and dark events to break into our lives if we do so, bringing an underlying mercy whatever the circumstances themselves may produce. Those who endure through the various trails in this psalm do so not because of some inner resolve or stoic character - they cry to God for aid (verses 8, 13, 19 and 28).

The imperative, as Abraham and his son discovered on Mount Moriah, is that we are brought deeper into a fellowship with the one, like the sacrifice on the mountain provided by God, who gives all for us to crush the tyranny of severance and empty existence in our lives. That may indeed mean a traversing of the harsh, unrelenting places so that we can truly learn to trust upon His unfailing care, but far better that than we become those who seek their own solutions to the harsher periods of life.

Abraham travelled long and far with God, and as a result, gained the most precious insight that we can know (John 8:56). May it be the case that all our days, whether times of delight or trouble, will equally open that splendor to us.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

A d v e r s i t y

"Everyone of us was made to suffer, everyone of us was made to weep"
Walking on Broken Glass - Annie Lennox.

'We all have our crosses to bear, don't we', was the comment this morning.
It was apt, because I've been thinking this past week about similar considerations.

Pain and suffering. We're all made to suffer, says the song.
Were we?
And if so, why?

There's been many times recently when I've discovered that why we so often 'bleed' is because of the deep scars we carry... from "home" (broken families) or our youth (abuse is clearly far more prevalent than many ever imagined) or those many cruel circumstances that acted to thwart or twist us in some way.

Is it all really necessary?
I wonder what kind of man a genius like Alan Turing would have become if he hadn't been so wickedly nailed under the floorboards at boarding school, or, come to think of it, if his family hadn't seen it necessary to send him to such a place (I speak from experience... Perhaps I'll write more on all of that sometime).

In Aaron Sorkin's movie about Steve Jobs, there's a line towards the end where the brilliant yet flawed thinker confesses to his estranged daughter, "I was made poorly".
There are huge consequences of what we really are. To reference another film, the candid portrayal of the true story of Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, really shows how this works, particularly through the relationship between father and son.

In sin, acknowledged David, the great poet, I was conceived and brought into life.

Is that the reason?

It's a premise that most of us want to push away, at least until we have to own up to some deeper truth about ourselves and about the pain of dislocation we all bear.

I've spent some time here over the years here talking about the remedy, but there's another aspect to suffering for us when we understand that we're rescued by grace. Hardship can then take on another dimension.

In the opening of his prison-written letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul can express thanks for his dire circumstances, not because they were not arduous, but because they were part of a package that was producing a deeper understanding and experience of God's great and transforming love in the core of our pain-stricken world. A man who had once been consumed by zealous hatred of others was now content to sit in a cell for those he had once wanted to kill because he had been released from the cancer of sin by the joy of God's healing of reconciliation and peace through His Son. The palpable result of genuine rescue is that it allows us in our present circumstances to see, even amidst the deep and very real pains, that healing is present, and that wonder means that the day approaches when all tears, all sorrow, will end.

The harsh and bitter hurts of suffering may not yet be gone, but they can at least now be woven into a manner of being that is approving of and seeking to give what is truly excellent - the righteous fruit of healing righteousness that has been bestowed to us, leading to a completion that means our trails will be folded in to that increasing peace and rich life that is finally fully unfolded when creation is eternally made whole.

Perhaps today, our "crosses" can remind us of that cross, that cost to heal us, so we can cleave to something true in all our pain.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The trouble is...

"This world, I think, has maybe something wrong with it, something underneath. Either that or there's something wrong with me". Delores - Westworld: Dissonance Theory.

One of my Christmas Gifts this year was an exposition of Luke chapter 15, particularly, Jesus' famous parable told to the pious and the lost concerning the mercy of a loving Father towards two very different children. It's been fascinating reading the tome alongside watching the first season of HBO's startling examination of ourselves in the show, Westworld, particularly because I quickly realized that the theological item in question had pretty much entirely 'missed a beat' in its analysis of both ourselves and the wonder of the story from Jesus.

The book commences by seeking to say that Jesus' words were clearly addressed as much to the 'elder brother' (those who didn't see themselves as "sinners") as to the ones who recognized their need for grace, which is true, but the telling point for me in what Jesus says is how the story ends - the Father is entreating the pious son to cease his judgementalism and partake of the goodness of the moment, but there is no response to his request. In like fashion, of course, the scribes and 'teachers' of the law in the gospels principally deny Christ's call and continue to hound and trouble Jesus as He brings the decree of liberty to the lost, pressing their rejection until they gain, apparently, their goal of silencing Him in a cursed extinction at the hands of the Romans. The "wrongness" of the world and the evil beneath it are thus made plain here, and love and mercy are hated and spurned, even when it hangs explicitly before them upon a tree, requesting forgiveness for their violence.

My reason for giving this outline is because the book I've been reading commences by viewing the church today as, principally, a company of those who identify in measure not with the lost son, but with the one who views himself as certainly 'right' in his worth and deeds, hence we cannot reach out to the lost because of being lost in our own piety.

A couple of considerations here.

Luke tells us that there were two particular groups who Jesus addressed with this story. He also gives us this narrative as story 'three of three' in a group that all have a common theme - that which is lost, so the aim and intent in what's told is, no doubt, to convey a single message - to  borrow Delores' analysis in Westworld, there's certainly something wrong with us, that has made us wayward, so we are all indeed lost. The "righteous" son in story three is the story of someone who couldn't see his poverty because he was far too busy measuring up his virtue against that of his wayward brother, so no change was possible here. The wayward son had learned because of his sin that nothing he could do could ever make him worthy to be loved by His Father, but what mattered is that he discovers His Father's 'prodigal' (extravagant to the point of spending all) love in spite of his folly.

Church-goers who think that they are endowed with personal virtue that will keep them in Gods good graces without assistance are indeed inches from the flames, but is that the real problem the church is facing right now?

Jesus also told another parable we need to consider, which is found in Matthew chapter 13, verses 24 to 30, and explained in verses 36 to 43. In a nutshell, where the good news is proclaimed, there will always be 'good seed and bad' - those who truly trust in God's Son for their aid from start to finish and those who are merely treacherous mimics of such, whose intent, as Jesus would have put it, is to make others "twice as fit for hell" as they are themselves. Jesus plainly says this state of affairs will continue "until the end", so we can clearly expect to see both in our churches, but I don't think that is the reason Christians currently have such a difficult time seeking to bring the message of God's love to our world.

Westworld is the creation of one Dr Robert Ford, brilliantly portrayed in the show by Anthony Hopkins. In the first episode, Ford spells out for us the world-view behind his work - we are the result of millions of mistakes, nothing more or less, hence it is these causes that have concluded in us, so the behavior of the 'guests' in his world - to generally be as base as they desire - is predictable and therefore anticipated. What makes the scenario startling is the actions of both the guests and androids that isn't expected, pointing to more going on.

The world-view which so often informs our secular culture is that expressed by this inventor. It's very common now in the West to find the view that we're all just the results of our genes via a process of natural selection, so any notion of God or meaning is looked upon as ridiculous, even when the real state of affairs tells a much bigger story. Most people have accepted an entirely secular view purely because they were 'taught it at school' or by the latest BBC natural history show. The reality is that this one-dimensional perception of the world is fine for fictional shows, but it doesn't deserve to be the touchstone of our understanding of who and what we are.

So, to come back to the church, yes, there clearly can be issues when a "righteousness by pulling your self up by your own boot-straps" becomes the trend (Paul's letter to the Galatians shows us how this can happen and how to rectify this), but the reasons why the message of God's love are widely rejected today are somewhat more involved in respects to how they need to be understood, unpacked and countered. Self-righteousness is, no doubt, ultimately behind all philosophical and religious notions that think we can do it all ourselves, but the first road-block that needs to be removed in modern thinking is people's denial of the very God in whom they live and have life - then we can begin to address the matter of how they are reconciled to that through God's astonishing love.

I'll be interested to see what the rest of my Christmas present has to say about this story - it might even generate another blog post! I'll also be fascinated to see where Westworld seeks to take the question of our identity in its second season.