Sunday, 13 January 2019

Focus

"Seeing well is all about encountering things with your whole being. It means looking deeper, beyond the labels, and enjoying discovering what's really there".

Freeman Patterson.

"Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith".
The Book of Hebrews.

One of the things I love about enjoying photography is how it allows you to see things in a fresh way.

I'll never forget my first real lesson on this.
My late wife and I used to travel along a particular road regularly in our early days in Cornwall which used to bend to allow you a view of a field of blood red earth. There was a tall old oak on the far end of the field, and during the autumn and winter, the light would travel over this spot in the most magnificent way.

We would often stop the car and sit, quietly, as she would say to me 'look at the light', and I would watch, transfixed, as the rays would stretch and arc across the rich contours of the ploughed landscape, forming all manner of shapes and forms with light and and shadow - a dance of nature.

I've never looked at things the same way since. Beauty is to be found in the most remarkable of places, and it strikes us, transforms us, when it 'speaks' to our core.

Reading Paul Zahl's 'Grace in Practice' this morning, I came across a statement that caused me to 'look at the light' as I arose.

"When grace is heard and received, when it is not confounded in any degree by the law (God's law - which leaves us condemned in ourselves), it paints a masterpiece: a person unconditionally affirmed who becomes instantaneously the expresser of love, joy, peace, meekness, kindness and creativity".

As a Photographer, I'm constantly seeking to use the 'tools' that feed into the lens of my camera to compose something that will convey the essence of a moment. These include light and form, shadow and texture, colour and mood, all passing through the means that will, hopefully, convey something of the richness of what was happening the moment the shutter opened and, bam, there it is - something wonderful.

The same is true of how God's grace feeds us. We look at the dross of our own pain and misery and strife, and we remain fixed in the futility of our failure, but grace clothes our filthiness, envelopes us in unmerited, astonishing affection, gives us an inheritance undeserved yet of sublime status, takes us in to banquet beneath the banner of everlasting affection, and rejoices wholly in our recovery.

Like sunlight breaking through on a iron-sky day, we're revived when we understand the "unbreakable acceptance of love of our Father" (Jim Mc Neely - The Romance of Grace) which alone causes affection to well up in us as naturally as light beautifies what it touches.

Jesus Christ is the full expression of the goodness of our heavenly Father because He alone comes and gives Himself fully and completely for us. How, writes Paul, can anything then sever us from such a love evidenced in Jesus?

There are always times when we feel so broken and disheartened because of our troubles or sins, but God wants to look at the light, to find rest in the good news of His care and mercy toward us. That is the image that's worth taking and worth sharing.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Missing the Mark

"In the bleak midwinter".

It's that strange time of year.
I've been back at work for a week and a half, but most of the world here has been in 'hibernation mode', barely appearing except for the necessities.
It's no doubt understandable in the midst of the darkness of the short days, but it can often work hard upon those who are alone.

I've spent many of my free hours in study and had an opportunity to deepen my sharing regarding the faith with someone close to me. They visited church over Christmas, like many do, and wanted to enquire into finding somewhere worthwhile attending to discover more.

Christmas is, no doubt, a very busy season for many churches. The church I attend holds about four times the services in December that it does the rest of the year as people in their hundreds come. The question, no doubt, should be, what do you do about that?

Having found a list of reasonably local churches to the home of my enquirer, I set about searching through their web pages to see what they were about and what was happening in the next few months. I eventually found a church that was very effectively setting out its stall regarding what was going on and where it was coming from, but for that single church that was warmly reaching out there were many others that had nothing to say to people, like me, who were searching for somewhere to connect after Christmas. Sure, there were plenty of 'in house' items mentioned, be they local fetes or "specialized" groups for youth, or worship, or students, but nothing for the average person that was wanting to find a way to turn up and learn more.

What a sorry state of affairs.

We've just had the season which, hopefully, unwraps something of the richest treasure given to our sullen world, and that should at least generate some measure of curiosity amongst those who have passed the threshold of our gatherings, so is it really the time to go silent?

Closing down for a few warm days together is fine, so long as even in the midst of that, we're already thinking about what is just ahead and making sure that we're ready to welcome others in to enjoy the radiance of the glory which Christmas brings.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Jinxed!

"I am not a number - I'm a free man!"
The Prisoner.

So, what's more annoying than having to fix a serious fault?
Discovering that the detector that said you had the fault was the fault (especially if you discover this after spending money to repair a fault that wasn't really there to begin with).

Think it doesn't happen?
Actually, it is a very common occurrence, but whereas it used to be just about fixing a brake light or changing your oil, now it can be far, far more serious.

We're talking, in essence, about algorithms, lines of code that determine not just how your car runs or your phone works, but whether you get off a criminal listing, are viable for benefits, or to be considered a social risk.

The problem is that much of this determination is made in a fashion that is incredibly naive and facile, purely because the character of the programing is often quite superficial, but that doesn't change the fact that people's lives are being decimated by the consequences.

Bad programming quite literally leads to dreadful consequences. The problems arise, of course, because the best these machines have to go on is what's been placed in them... by us.

Is what's true when it comes to A I systems also true when it comes to the way we 'do' our own thinking about the nature of truth? How often are we shaped in our conclusions here by poor or miss-placed notions of what matters?

I was recently listening to Sam Harris debate Jordan Peterson about various evaluations he'd reached and how they diverged on this, principally because Sam had a very telling (and common) view about 'God' informing his objections. This was expressed in various ways, but one popular notion expressed was how vengeful and capricious 'God' was because He required the extermination of those living in the land of Canaan when the Israelites arrived and began their conquest. Entire peoples, Sam noted, were to wiped out purely because Joshua and company were instructed to do so - all finished off, foom, in a heartbeat, because of the command of this 'just' God.

Sounds pretty damning.
Then I thought about it. This was actually a case of a false fault signal.

If you take a look at the prior 400 years of the history of the region (and there are various snapshots in Genesis, Exodus and Joshua on this), you begin to see that this wasn't a snap judgement by some violently-natured ogre. There's a series of jolts in these stories that say 'hey, what are doing being so corrupt that you're murdering innocents - stop it, or there will be a reckoning'.

The remarkable thing about this story isn't that judgement comes. It's how patient and long-suffering God is about this (so, now wait for the atheist analysis that says this shows God is evil because He's too s l o w in dealing with these people!). How long would it be if just one of these tribes set up on our back lawn before we'd be calling the authorities to have them arrested... but God is merciful towards them for centuries, so the usual analysis is just plain wrong.

That's something worth considering in 2019... How good is our thinking about this? Are we seeing the real picture, or just the piece that appeals to our personal whims?

Wholeness often starts right there.

Happy New Year.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Amidst the smuged scribblings of rascals

"The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem. Understand?" Jack Sparrow.


The festive season looms, so, pull up a chair, take a drink, and enjoy a story...

So, once there was a boy destined to be a king.
To prove his virtue, he was required to spend a night in the forest alone.

Amidst the strange and dark place, the boy found himself overcome by a striking vision.
A voice boomed out from a intense brightness and asked him,
"are you worthy to become the keeper of the sacred cup?"

Before he could answer, he found his mind abuzz with further images - treasures, victories, thousands honoring and serving him. He felt himself welcoming such ambitions, and as he did, a fire fell upon his extended hands and he felt his soul dreadfully wounded and undone.

As he grew older, the inner wound from that night grew deeper, so nothing could fill the void it caused. He found he had no faith, no true love for another, and without comfort and aid, he was surely enslaved to death.

One day, a fool entered the castle and found the benighted king alone. Being simple in his ways, he did not see the troubled soul as a king, only as one in distress and in pain.

"What's wrong?", he asked.

"I'm thirsty".

So the fool took a cup from near the king and filled it with water and gave it to the king to drink.
Instantly, the king's deep wound was healed, for the fool had given him to drink from the sacred cup he had glimpsed that distant day in the woods.

The king turned to the one who had given him aid and said "How did you find what I could not?"

The fool replied "I only saw one in need, and sought to end his thirst".

(The Fisher King).

What I love about this tale is it's truly about us. 

We like to think of ourselves resolutely on our way to better things, until of course something far more tempting crosses our path, and then, without exception, we will be pressed till we succumb to something  that, indeed, burns us, and however stout or noble we may then appear to others (equally covering their folly), we know, like this king, that we are truly torn and bleeding inside, and the wound is terminal.

The other great thing about the tale is that it takes someone deemed to be outrageously ill equipped - a fool - to see the malady and provide the remedy, purely on the basis of seeking to rescue another. 
There isn't any capacity or virtue in the king to change a thing - everything that counts is done to him from outside of himself.

That's the Christmas message.
We can dance and sing, make merry and play, but what's required is a 'fool's wisdom' -
The stable at Bethlehem. The birth of one to take our stead upon the splintered wood of a Roman cross... that's the balm that God wants us to find and drink this season.

The easiest thing is to remain right where we are.
Christmas tells us that we don't have to.

May such warmth warm us this Christmas.


Sunday, 2 December 2018

Pointers

"He sighed deeply and asked, 'Why does this generation always seek for a sign?
 Truly, I tell you, no sign will be given".  Mark 8:12.

I watched a fascinating analysis this morning of one of my favorite movies. Taking several of the major themes and ideas of Villenueuve's epic venture, it seeks to examine what the tale says about ourselves - the way we seek to discover what we are in a world in which we can often feel divorced from what makes life meaningful and our existence worthwhile. Whilst the quest is true for each of us, the longing for that which is distinctively, immortally "us", notes the analysis, is a mistake, an internalizing of worth (fabricating a soul) which leads us, like agent K in the film, into foolishly believing notions about himself which were delusional and distractive, so apparently without worth of pursuit.

Like some pack of zealous assassins, the religious men of twenty centuries ago hounded Christ for something they could quantify and define so they could settle Him into their entrenched mental landscape and thereby revert to their business as usual routine. They called for an evidence to satisfy this requirement because they failed to see what was before them and what that meant to the entire world.

In Blade Runner 2049, K's first "conversation" is with another replicant, Morton, who he deems to be inferior because he is an older model. K's entire clarity in his actions ('retiring' Morton) derives from his ordered perception of what is - any referencing of something greater in respect to himself or other replicants was folly, so he certainly cannot, at this stage, "hear" Morton's reference to a miracle, and yet, what then proceeds to unfold, both in respect to his miss-understanding and the truth, will derive from this one cardinal truth - that a miracle has happened.

Jesus pointedly asks the "religious" mind why it would expect the truly spiritual to conform to its requirements - to just be something such a mind can unpeel and dissect. Like K in that first encounter, such believe they have the tools to unlock what counts, to be and do what is valid, but the lock on their blindness is secure. No sign, no miracle would ever be enough, for they cannot see, as the word is spoken, the action has already been performed - the reality is already, truly there.

The prison must be seen for what it is.
In the film, what is dead and lifeless (Rachel's bones) becomes the key to what is new and vital - the hope of a new humanity. 

Jesus tells His disciples to avoid the 'leaven' of the religious - those who can never perceive what counts, and our generation is certainly a time that needs to mark that warning.

In the film, K is finally able to look beyond his own illusions and delusions regarding what counts, and to give himself wholly to safeguarding the people who will take the redemptive nature of what is happening forward.
Christianity is about that very same truth - that the life and death of another is not only the true 'sign' of what must define us, but the true gift that provides that miracle.

This season provides us with two options -
Christ's sigh at the Pharisees inability to recognize what has happened, or God's sign in the incarnation.

May we not be blind to what truly counts.



Saturday, 17 November 2018

The Thorn that makes or breaks us

Heaven bend to take my hand and lead me through the fire
Be the long awaited answer to a long and painful fight
Truth be told I tried my best
But somewhere long the way, I got caught up in all there was to offer
But the cost was so much more than I could bear

Fallen by Sarah Mclachlan

The eve of the year becomes a war zone in my yard.
Having four oak trees surrounding me, when the winter winds arrive means I spend a great many hours having to clear up the seasonal debris, several times over, to maintain the area in the light of what 'naturally' transpires. Blocked gutters and drains, hazardous steps and pathways, falling materials that can cause dangers on dark nights, all have to be dealt with, however 'natural' the occurrence.

What's true of my trees is doubly true of human nature.
We don't see ourselves as doing anything wrong in behaving 'naturally' in respect to our proclivity to put ourselves and our opinions first, but it doesn't take much - some sober analysis of the kind the likes of Jordan Peterson has been calling for - to begin to peel away the pretense and discover what folly and misapprehension lies beneath.

This is doubly so regarding the essential suppositions concerning atheism.
Here is a video that asks some reasonable and honest questions on the nature of those presuppositions - why are they held, and are they genuinely applicable.
It's imperative to honestly expose ourselves to such considerations, because without them,
we find ourselves in a trap of our own making.

In his book Grace in Practice, Paul Zahl states in the concluding paragraphs of the first chapter that "internal motives are the most compromised of all data", particularly in respect to our defining the world as made up of good people and bad people. His analysis here - which brings a really deep jolt when you stop and think on it - is derived from what's said by Jesus about us (Mark 7:20-23) - that the real problems we encounter much of the time derive fom what so 'naturally' comes from us.

Our views, our attitudes, our motivational imperatives, are far from innocent, so we shouldn't be surprised that we 'rationally' read the world and our place in it, wrong. Our entire propensity is to stack the deck in favor of one thing - me - and that leaves us "blind as a bat and out of control" - we just can't live with that admission, so we contrive to make our folly true, whatever it takes.

The cliff-edge precariousness of our folly is only truly embraced when we know we're powerless to change our situation and understand that we need to. That's when we can step out into what first appeared to be void and discover there's far more than one hard, dark season - more than our constantly shelling out what we singularly deem correct.

The winter can unfold and break towards more than cold, short days can ever hold.

There's a far bigger world in God's good grace than you find buried beneath all the ruins of self determined existence.





Friday, 9 November 2018

No Strings Attached....?

"Jesus replied, 'it isn't the healthy that are in need of a physician, but those who are sick - I have not come to arouse or  invite those who deem themselves to be righteous to a remedy for sin, but those who know they err and are seeking change'". Luke 5: 31, 32 (expanded).

The divide could not have been any wider.
There I was, sitting in a carriage reading a sign that stated 'the best things in life are fee free', encouraging me to use their free wi-fi, whilst the connecting page for this service on my tablet was demanding payment.

How often do we make Christianity like that.
We say we can freely come and partake of God's mercy, but no sooner are we over the threshold than we're presented with a barrage of increasing tariffs (quite literally in respects to money in many churches) and by-laws that demand what we really cannot give, because all we have is us - the mess that drew us to what we hoped would be unmerited mercy in the first place*.

Jesus, of course, is on a different page. The passage above tells us exactly where we are - the sick - and what we need - Him; no ifs or buts or small print. God's astonishing mercy and astounding loving kindness is indeed deep and full and wide.

But wait, comes the cry, what about our repentance? Isn't that what we do - what we bring to the table to receive?

Steve Paulson, in his introductory work on Martin Luther notes how the reformer spent much time dwelling on that, and he came to realize something imperative about repenting.

Repentance was nothing more than the putting of the old sinner to death and allowing Christ to raise the dead to new life. The important thing to note, however, is that it is Christ alone who makes us the subject of that work of God's Spirit, that it is God who does the deed... we are entirely acted upon by God in His mercy, not the ones who are acting at all. In other words, any faith or repentance we bring is God's gift, not something we can "do" ourselves.

There's a really important truth here.
Religion always causes us to fall back 'into ourselves', seeing something we've done (our faith or our repentance) as the doorway into blessing, but in truth we're like those in hospital, perhaps miserable at the fact that we have to be here, but understanding that the treatment is entirely necessary if we're to be made well.
The good news is that the hospital also turns out to be a banqueting hall, where we are freely invited, constantly, to come and dine at the table of grace, purely because of love for us, and that is what overshadows our past, present and future.

It's not our diagnosis or resolutions that change a thing.
It's not what we bring to the table, impoverished and miserable,
It's what has been made ours in Jesus Christ alone that heals us, clothes us, feeds us and cherishes us.

God's goodness and love are simply astonishing.
Our seeking to corner and contain that gift into something we want to define by our own religiousness is nothing short of terrifying.

We need to come to His love and care and find the remedy.

Christianity is that, or it is an empty and dangerous thing.

*A really helpful sermon on this can be found here. Have a listen to Joe Dent's message on Titus 2, given on the 4th of November, 2018.