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.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

C a u g h t

"There are no principles, just circumstances".
Tonio - Knight of Cups.

I was listening to an interview today with Carrie Fisher. Recorded some years ago, it spoke of her struggle with family, drink, drugs and personal mental health trials. There were certainly aspects that many, if not most of us can understand or relate to, particularly how the "sins" that are 'natural' to us in our early life darken our lives as we grow older. It was a stark juxtaposition to the 'virtual' representation of her most famed on-screen character which is currently pouring the currency into the box offices in the latest franchise offering.

Of course, she isn't the only star who finds herself so defined.
Peter Cushing, who died over twenty years ago, has also been rendered for the same movie, allowing a narrative continuity to Lucas' original 1977 chapter that may cause fans to tingle with a measure of delight - something, perhaps, that was shared at the 2014 Billboard Awards when the sudden loss of the music and dance skills of Michael Jackson were "resurrected" by a holographic performance that certainly stunned many who watched.

The image is power.

It certainly tells us all something. We don't want death to end us.
The image, even in the twisted "seed" of our present lives, needs, cries to be more.

"If you pretend something long enough", noted Carrie in her interview "it comes true".
Of course, pretending you're good (ok), as she suggests, or conjuring up someone as photons (or, perhaps in future, as comprehensive data patterns) only gets you to... a pretense. It doesn't truly eradicate or even genuinely ease the grief of what's really going on, and the danger comes if we think that the image, the illusion, is all.

As someone who relishes the opportunity to create and play with imagery, especially as a way to seek to see more in our world, I'm all too aware of the allure to so fall in love with the mirage that we can miss the actual purpose in what we're involved in here. Like Carrie, I can say I'm doing fine to the world, but it won't stop the degeneration in my frame as I age, or remedy the spiritual cancer in my soul because I'm a child of a profane, pagan (meaning alien to what is pure) race. There is great light in our lives here, but so often, we're asleep, dreaming garish illusions we think are real, so we miss what counts and, as a consequence (to borrow from Umberto Eco) put our faith in fakes.

We may think that pretense can do something good - take away our anxiety or worries for a moment... help us keep some disturbing truth at arms length so we don't have to really grapple with the genuine "messiness" of what's involved, and that can be true whatever our status. Christians, perhaps, will speak of a field like art as something which allows us to "enjoy God's beauty in the world" - so where does the Crucifixion, if depicted in church or art,  fit in that definition?*

There is much, much more to unpack. 

The Cross tells us how beauty comes into the pain, into the grief, into the darkness of us, and creates the true way back to a health that deals with our sin and our severance. That's where we need to start - the rescue isn't in our power.

Fans of Carrie Fisher still have another opportunity to see her inhabiting her favored role, as she completed her part for the next screen installment before her death. If we're hungry for what her character and so many others have truly longed for, however, we need to look beyond what such myths and tales aspire to. Malick's latest movie really seeks to tap-in to the deep places on this.


To quote: "Once the soul was perfect and had wings, it could soar into that heaven that only creatures with wings can know. But the soul lost its wings and fell to earth where it took an earthly body. Now, while it lives in this body no outward sign of wings can be seen, yet the roots of its wings are still there... when we see a beautiful woman or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know and begins to yearn to spout those wings once more. That makes the soul want to fly but it cannot - it is still too weak. So that person keeps staring up to the sky, longing, at a young bird, or he or she has lost all interest in the world around them".

Christ has come to allow us to become found once again.

So, the 'message' for 2017 is by all means allow the illusions to remind of what was, but don't get lost within them - look further, harder, and allow what truly counts to enfold you, overwhelm you, and turn you from misery to grace.

*(Michelangelo makes a great argument on that, by the way, in the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, when he's charged with profanity).

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Shattered dreams... and a scandalous God.

"Science is imagination. In a straitjacket".   
Richard Feynman.

Ah, yes - Monsters and Spaceships.

When I was about six, I recall my Father taking me to the 'dinosaur lake' in Crystal Palace.
It was an exciting moment, because I'd recently seen the movie, the Valley of Gwangi, on TV (what has to be an extraordinary crossover - a western with a T. Rex!), and couldn't wait to see such beasts up close. It was indeed a magical moment, as the brightly coloured stone sculptures appeared to be eyeing me as they twisted around the trees and shrubs - somehow the stillness of the nearby water added to the awe of the moment. I, of course, wondered, at how such creatures had once roamed the land, and it was a thought that would fascinate me for a few years until I reached around the age of eight or nine. Saturday mornings then became transformed by the work of Gerry Anderson (Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds), quickly followed by the astonishing ability to watch real life adventure in space as the Apollo missions were explained on our TV sets by the likes of James Burke and Patrick Moore. By the time I'd reached twelve, we'd been to the moon a couple of times and escaped the disaster of Apollo 13, and then came Star Trek. My imagination soared as I discovered and began to delight in the works of the golden age of Science Fiction.

It was all feeding my rich imagination, but it wasn't touching my deeper questions.
Hopeful monsters might be fun, but in spite of all the visual wizardry of film and TV, they didn't give me much meaning inside. I'd lived my childhood through a time of big questions (including 'will we be here tomorrow? due to a little thing called the cold war!), and all the science alongside all the fantasy fun I was hearing and enjoying really wasn't getting me anywhere.

That's because all of it amounts to skimming stones across the surface of life and missing the deep(er) waters.

We think that religion is about something outlandish - connecting us to the remote 'god' who may (if we're good enough) take us away to some idyllic nirvana when we die. The real shock is that time and space are about something far more tangible than our small thoughts and weak powers of comprehension.

I was lucky enough to see 'A New Hope' (the first Star Wars movie) at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road, before it ended its days as a cinema, in 1977. In those days, we had the new joys of surround-sound, and I can recall that moment when I first saw that imperial ship tare across the screen, breathing deadly fire, to the rapturous yet menacing score of John Williams, forever confirming my love for movies that deserved to be on the big screen.

What we have lost sight of today is that the truth about what's going on is far greater and deeper than something that striking.

How can I be so sure?
Because of Christmas.

Not the tinsel and the twee. Think for a moment about how often the most popular songs at christmas are the ones which touch on something melancholic and honest about us and our often painful lives - that's telling about where we know the 'message' of the season should be taking us, but we're often reluctant to really look the at the bare tidings of advent.

Let's be bold.

There is a mother, nursing a baby. She's not even married yet, and the delivery has just happened in squalor as this family are currently homeless.
There's our world, and yet, it's in these sadly very all to well known conditions that God has come, right down into being one of us, as a baby, needing a mum - to live and die to re-invest all of life with the value and significance that God wants it to have - life defined by a love that gives all.

We all have our dreams, but monsters and space ships still leave the soul needing much more. We need to see, to know the love that will hold us in all our pain, all our death, and bring us and the world into what's good... forever.

That's what Christmas is all about, about the true and great reality breaking in to our disconnection and self-absorption with the news that a saviour is here, and life and history can never be the same again because of that. It's truly wonderful.

Here, then, is an opportunity. This season, just stop a while and listen to the words of the better carols or the Christmas Eve sermon about  Jesus Christ, and think about the one who has come to make you whole.

This is a faithful saying, notes Paul, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.

That means there's something to really come and know that will give us a much greater hope than all the dreams that still leave us empty and alone.

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Beyond Eventide

"Resurrection from the dead promises that we shall be made anew out of the nothingness of relationlessness, remade ex nihilo, if through faith in the creative Word of God we allow ourselves to participate in the love of God which occurs as the death of Jesus Christ. In this sense, Christian existence is existence out of nothingness, because it is all along the line existence out of the creative power of God who justifies". Eberhard J√ľngel

It's pretty bleak stuff. 
Genesis tells us that our world and the universe itself began "without form and void" (Genesis 1:2) - something which modern cosmology pretty well affirms in its own particular way, but that really wasn't, as we can see, the end of the story. The question is, why did it begin that way, and why did anything else then happen?

There is, of course, heaps of maths and theorem about order and process, but it all proceeds from the notion that development was, in effect, the reasonable outcome (because that's what we have), but theology gives us a very different and striking insight into what's going on. It tells us that this life is currently devoid of what really matters, and the reason for that is because the very fabric and fiber of what's going on has been tainted by a cosmic tragedy, (Romans 5:12) so here's why, I suspect, we have Genesis stating that things have been brought about in a particular way.

The first image of creation scripture provides is one of darkness, emptiness and void. It's not that there's nothing there, it's just that until it is acted upon by one outside of it, it's not going anywhere - stasis as a barren realm is the status quo.

So much for the 'natural' state of affairs.

Then we have the miracle. 
As in the moment when a seed dies to produce something more glorious, God takes the crude mass of the heavens and earth and breaks upon them with His living word, and light  explodes to furnish the darkness. What could never be 'naturally' is made to be so by the very nature of one who can take what is empty and fill it with a significance it could never of itself have known.

The world today tells us why it was done this way.

In spite of all the frenetic pace of our scurrying race, we in truth are as lifeless as the primal mass that of itself could produce nothing. We babble loudly in our to-ing and fro-ing, but we're entirely overshadowed in our brief moment here by the void of death, and nothing we can say or do can break the hold of what is deemed 'natural' upon us. We are a thing aching for the radiance that flickers in starlight and the astonishing grandeur occasionally encountered in our soul or art, but we are imprisoned by the poverty of our beguiled exile.

This reality impinges on our every moment, no matter how much fury we employ to negate its hold, so everything in itself can only return to ash and dust. That is the awful truth.

And yet, our dreams and loves say we should be more than this.

And Genesis itself does not leave us in such captivity.

As the Father brings form and life to His first work through Word and Spirit, He weaves seasonal renewal within the pattern of creation that speaks continually of the promise that will come through our age of exile to restore, amidst death, the return to life where death is ended (Genesis 1:11-13). So it was that the one Born not of the will of men came, grew and was executed that our incarceration should cease. "Born", He was, "to raise the sons of earth". Died, on a Cross, that from His death and rising would come a second birth (1 Corinthians 15:35-49).

Without The Godhead, there is certainly only darkness and void, and death -  both mortal and eternal -  which ends us all. With that life which conquers all, all things, even physical death itself, becomes but a prelude to the moment when the great light of the eternal day erupts upon us.

The winter speaks to us  - to our frailty and mortality - confirming that all things end, but it was amidst this very darkness that Christ came. The light, notes John, has shone into this darkness (John 1: 5), and just as that first word in creation brought such light, so now the word brings life that overcomes our being shackled only to death (John 1: 14, 10).

Something to ponder on the nights of the season, as we consider that first advent.

Season Greetings!