Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Give and Take - giving something fresh

Christianity can sometimes appear, perhaps, to be detached or lacking, but there's a spot I've recently discovered that can counter that...

Here's a podcast that will get you thinking, and maybe laughing and crying at times.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Here we are...

"The fight for beauty is a true battleground of the soul and intimately linked to the crisis of faith. Dostoevsky himself indicates this in his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov: “The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” What appears as beautiful may not be, and what appears terrible, such as the corpse of Christ, may indicate true beauty. Dostoevsky manifests this tension by placing his prophet of beauty in the midst of suffering and even insanity."For good or ill, beauty has power. This power can be used to illumine the path toward the truth and goodness, or to pull one down in the vain pursuit of self. If beauty does not point toward the true and the good, it becomes a darkness, a turning inward. Another line from The Idiot reveals this ambiguous power of beauty: “Such beauty is real power…. With such beauty as that one might overthrow the world.” This beauty is the beauty of a woman, which may have such power (think of Troy), but when beauty sheds its light in the right direction, it should save the world, not overthrow it!" Jared Staudt. 

I had an interesting on-line conversation this week.
A friend of a friend was having a discussion on the nature of beauty in regards to and in relationship with various philosophical views (Realism, Idealism, and Surrealism).
After playfully replying a few times from an artistic perspective, I posted the above quotation from a piece on the nature of beauty.

My correspondent was impressed how I'd met his challenge to define what was/is beautiful, but Staudt's quote married easily with other things I've been seeking to consider of late, especially when it spoke of the corpse of Christ as something truly beautiful.


Another friend bought me a book for Christmas which was all about finding truth through art in places where it often appears hidden to begin with, and one of the sections in the work was about two paintings by the artist Vittore Carpaccio, which focus on Christ's entombment and passion. Whilst most of the other characters in these depictions are readily identifiable, one of the central figures - an old man, seated in both works close to Christ - has only recently been recognized as the Patriarch and Prophet, Job. His inclusion so centrally in these works speaks of how profoundly the artist and those of his time saw Christ's death as the true means to the fulfillment of Job's prophecy - that though worms destroyed his body, yet in his flesh, He would see God (Job 19:26).


What true art points us to is the true significance found in the finite - God coming to us in very tangible ways, so we have something to hold to which affirms Gods work and promises.

Here's how Luther put it: 
“A person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly predictable in those things that have actually occurred. Someone deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends that the truly visible and genuine things of God are revealed through suffering and the cross” (Luther – Theses 19 and 20. The Heidelberg Disputation – 1518).
Life is to be centered in a theology of the cross, not a theology about it.

True beauty is done - it's just a case of us seeing it, and that means really comprehending what it is and what that means, even though we currently only understand much of this only partially. The beauty of the Cross is Christ becoming Sin, tasting death, that we are made free from these murderous things. The art of our world is God seeking us in astonishing grace and mercy, and that liberty genuinely allows us to enjoy life in the surety of His profound love, seen at the cross.


Such beauty shows us that God is never absent from the world. In providence and sustenance in life, in staggering revelation through creation, and most strikingly, in the flesh of Jesus Christ. All of this is meant to move us from our poverty.


Beauty, when it removes us from the pertinent truths of life, is dangerous. It can empty us of the need we share for mercy by distracting us to turn inward and believe we can become whole by our own resources. What we truly need to engage with the beautiful, to know what counts, is an intimacy with the one who has come to us, crucified and raised, to make us whole. This is the truth, the focal point, that can lead us into the true, the good and the beautiful in the entire spectrum of what we live.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The Hunger... Deal with it!

"It was the last supper... the snake crawled around the plate".
Larry Norman

"I am the bread of Life".

Jesus

There's nothing worse than missing out on something really good.

Many years ago, when working in my first job, I recall how one Christmas the company had paid for us to dine at one of London's top eateries from a self service luncheon. The food looked absolutely delicious, but, alas, I was unwell, and shortly after arriving, I had to head home without touching a thing.


Imagine being invited to such a sumptuous dinner, where the most delicious tasting items, the most refreshing drinks you can imagine, were being promised, but when you arrive, everything you were expecting is off the menu, and instead you're presented with something you hate.


I expect you wouldn't contain your disappointment.


China, this week, announced it is forbidding all sales of the Bible, and the state is planning to seek to create its own 'revised' edition of the good book. It's pretty obvious why. The Communist party are only too aware that Christianity is bringing a very different, and hugely popular, message to the population to the authorized "religion" of the country's ruling class, and given the continuing growth of the faith, could well pose a national threat to socialism in the next 10-20 years.


It's no doubt hard for many of us in the West to take that kind of growth of spirituality on board amidst our woefully impoverished secular culture, but what we need to at least recognize is that the backbone behind several of our constitutionally - derived societies was, at least at one time, that very same vibrant truth of Christianity.


There's a great deal of "the trouble with" types of analysis going on right now, and one thing that keeps arising in this is the vital importance regarding where Christian truth places us. Well, that's water under the bridge, some say, but it really isn't, because as I've sought to show on my entries here numerous times, there's been plenty going on of late that points to the fact that a Christian world-view is just as important now as it's always been. China shows us that when the Biblical message is taken seriously, on its own terms, there's nothing that can really stand in its way.


The West has been drenched for all my life in secularism, and whilst most enjoy what would be deemed a 'free' society, people are beginning to wake up to the fact that Secularism alone isn't a particularly good thing. It doesn't ready you for the sharp corners of life (principally because it gets you to aspire for all the wrong things) and it certainly becomes really unpalatable when dealing with those truths, because it's an empty set - it has nothing to say but 'well, that's just the way it is'. Christianity focuses on something more than our facile, predictably selfish, aims. It unambiguously affirms that all of life is to be focused upon the life, death and resurrection of a person who says that the trials and the suffering are meant to drive us beyond ourselves to life within one who has shared all of this, but, by dealing with our fallen, bent, inward,  messed up world, is at work to reconcile the present troubles to a deeper, richer, truer life that resides in God.


The last few decades has seen an exponential growth in the psychological and social maladies our modern world creates, mirrored by a huge dependance upon pharmaceuticals to seek to cope with this.
The irreplaceable meta-narrative that Christianity has supplied our world for centuries - that history is going somewhere - has been removed, but not been replaced by our materialistic times, and this has left nothing but a terrible void that several post-war generations have taken as the only way of seeing the world.

It's cold, it's destructive, and it's totally untrue.

The Atheistic authorities in China are tripping into the same void we occupy, but they need to stop and look at the ancient story of China itself to understand how foolish this direction really is.

God has left His fingerprints across the heavens, the earth, and in our hearts.
It's time we stopped dining on ashes, and came home to the real feast, made ours in the gift of Jesus Christ.



Thursday, 5 April 2018

So...

"It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

Jesus - Matthew 15:11

So, there I was, thinking I'd be having a quiet easter weekend this year, when I discovered that something totally unexpected was in the offing.

I was visited by a friend who is very knowledgeable in the field of nutrition and food (author, podcaster, lecturer, and so on). One of the things that came up in our conversation was how she had recently moved from practicing a Vegan diet to one which included other foods she's previously viewed as off limits. I was fascinated by the process of thinking and research that had lead her to this (we all have moral/ethical/social issues in life that we juggle with), and couldn't help wondering how this was going to work through, particularly in the public sphere of her work in her field.

I didn't have to wait long to find out!
The next day, she posted a podcast on Face book and other places, seeking to clearly present her change on these issues. Within a very short time, feedback began to flow, some supportive and encouraging, but some very harsh and judgmental, with quite a few comments to the effect that this change had happened because of the fact that she had become a Christian in recent times, and this was clearly a bad move.

It was at this point that I decided to enter the fray, not because I have anywhere near the kind of clarity on health and nutrition that my friend and others have, but because it was very clear that Christianity was, once again, being miss-understood.

The last few days have been pretty remarkable, as I've listened to people expressing what they think makes them 'good' -
Their attitude, their character, their diet, their morality. It can all, apparently, equate to something righteous so far as godliness is concerned.

God, of course, must keep silent.
There's no space here for hearing what He has said about us, or to look at what has been done in and through the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.

What never ceases to amaze me is how quickly we de-fault to thinking we can do what counts, be good (because of some mantra we declare, or behavior we cherish) and thereby change the world, without truly looking ourselves in the eye and seeing what lies just beneath the surface.

A couple of final threads are still ongoing, but most of the people who eagerly jumped into the conversation at the weekend with their 'I'm fine because' home-spun religions quickly vanished once I started to ask them - what do you really mean by that? or is that really good enough?

In the Gospel, we read of a rich young man who came to Jesus with a list of His 'goodies' - all the ways he was doing what, he deemed, was good and god-pleasing. He eagerly tells Jesus this, and asks, 'so, do I make the grade?' Jesus has to tell him no. The very lifestyle he was investing in was in reality divorcing him from God. If you're serious, said Jesus, sell all of it and follow me. The young man left sad.

No scheme or method we devise is ever going to make the grade because, as the verse above notes, it's what's inside of us that's going to condemn us. We need a far more radical remedy than we can ever devise, and that's why Jesus Himself came to us - to set us free from sin by 'becoming sin' for us - bearing our sins in His death on the cross.

If we're looking for a quick fix to our and the world's problems here and now, we're going to be either sorely disappointed or seriously delusional regarding what we do.

Thankfully, that's not the end of the story.
Like my friend who visited last weekend, we can live in a manner where all of life becomes filtered through God's work of redemption through His Son, and that begins to give us an understanding and a foretaste of the glorious new creation that is to come.

That is certainly worth waiting for.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Living, and Dying, well.

Easter has the biggest impact upon us when its truth becomes personal, but so often, religion can be drab and meaningless.

In this superb sermon, Joe Dent shares some very old wisdom on how life can be rightly shaped by the one thing true for us all... the inevitability of death, and touches on how the death and resurrection of Jesus grants us the right way to unpack what's going on.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The Dilemma

"Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's".
Jesus - Matthew 22:21.

Sometimes, life presents us with particularly tough moments.

Perhaps you're old enough to recall that moment in the movie Splash, where fruit distributing Freddie Bauer, payed by the late John Candy, informs his packers that they're being far too picky about the fruit they are rejecting, as he pours the entire tray of disqualified items back onto the 'to be packed' conveyer.

A lovable rouge in a Disney movie (though I seem to recall Disney retracting its name at the time because there was - shock - a moment of mermaid nudity... those were such innocent days!) is one thing, but what do you do when that 'profit first' approach to commerce lands right before you in your own sphere of life and work?

I've currently been facing that very dilemma in a realm of employment I have served in for most of my working life. Until now, it's a role which has always entailed a great deal of integrity and has thereby engendered loyalty, but new legislation has meant a shift this year to require private companies becoming included to "rigorously manage" these contracts, and the business that has taken this role in our department's case has behaved, numerous times, in a manner that leaves me cold. To reference another movie, their behavior has often been akin to the car manufacturers in Class Action - they have preferred to pay out vast sums in fines in various court cases whilst they have neglected to prevent life-threatening actions to the public in their industry (note - this is not a single event, and I discovered recently that this manner of negligence is still practiced and under investigation).

What's even more dreadful is - this is the company our department has employed to monitor and ensure good standards are being maintained!

It's a truly unsettling moment - a new "Pharaoh' has arrived, and although my connection to this "office" will not in any way impact directly upon me in my day to day role for the department I work for - I hope! - it has raised a number of troubling ethical concerns that I certainly needed to think through further and address.

Such moments are all about gaining clarity - discovering how to properly respond to such issues.

Well, the process of finding that clarity has taken a while.

There's links a plenty on search engines for a 'Christian' work ethic (that is, sites which state Christians should work), but far fewer that examine actual Christian ethics in the workplace, and fewer still that are dealing with issues like this, that can be so very troubling. 

As is often the case in my life, I needed rescue, and as has often been the case the past few years, part of the answer arrived through Mockingbird's great website...
A quote from Augustine popped up there in their weekly review, which, I think, gives some meaningful context to these issues -

"The effects of original sin bear on society as much as they do on the individual. In his pastoral (vocational) role, Augustine once wrote to a believer who served as a Roman General that“we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” That sort of purity is a dangerous mirage. The church is an ark for sinners all. In its earthly sojourn, it is a mixed body: the church is in the world and the world is in the church. There is no escaping the age in which one lives, or its imperfections" (as quoted by James Smith in Awaiting the King). 

This quickly brought to mind Luther's very useful teaching on the two kingdoms, and particularly, how he employed this in his own life. He's supposed to have said that if he knew Christ was returning today, he would go and plant a tree, but the practical of reality of how he  expressed this attitude in his own life is actually far more telling.

The changes that were unfolding in those days as a result of what he and others had begun were monumental, and this had charged the times with a sense that something even more astonishing - the end of the ages - could not be far away. It's hard for us in our secular age to understand just how palpable this sense was, but Luther's response is very telling... he marries! Right in the middle of all manner of other-worldly behavior and fervor, he does the most down to earth thing you can imagine. The response was total shock, but Luther knew it made perfect sense. His understanding that everything was Gods and therefore all of life was spiritual allowed him to say in his own life that we understand that God is for us and wants us to live well. He trusted God and put his soul back into the business of living.

Another example came to mind as I was reminded of this - Jeremiah's purchasing of land that was about to be conquered (see jeremiah 32). Naturally, it made no sense to do this, but it was making a clear statement which shows how sure and certain the promise of God - that the land would be restored - was to His people.

God often calls us to hard choices amidst harder times, and His reason is plain. What is happening around us is falling,  and shall not last, but amongst that decay, we can help express confidence in things which are far more substantial.

It's common practice, sadly, in our times, for us to see all manner of commerce and exchange that is unethical and thereby evil in the fashion it behaves, especially in its treatment of people, and we must certainly never seek to behave so, but our cause and course must be to trust in the one who renews what has been so stripped and abused.

Easter is there to focus up upon God's astonishing work of reconciliation.
He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might be saved.

Whenever and wherever the sin of seeking to de-value what we are makes itself known, then God's children act... patiently and quietly, to re-affirm their confidence, not in the selfish behavior of wicked forces or men, but in the sure promises of God.


Monday, 19 March 2018

Perilous Perspective!

"last thing I remember, I was running for the door,
 I had to find the passage back to the place I was before,
'relax', said the watchman, 'we are programmed to receive,
you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave'".

The Eagles - Hotel California.

I live close to some nationally preserved moorland, and we have just had a weekend where one of those rare phenomena - snowfall - has occurred. The view today has been quite stunning in some gorgeous sunlight, but when I went to work today, even though I was a good thirty minutes closer to the moor after my walk, I had entirely lost the view.

Science lost Stephen Hawking this past week, a man whose work has and will continue to cause much discussion and debate about the nature of existence. In an interview for ABC news, he once stated his well-known opinion concerning where his studies had lead him:
“One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But science makes God unnecessary. … The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”

It's a strange statement, especially in the light of what had happened on his 70th birthday, in 2012.
Here's what unfolded.

A fellow scientist, Alexander Valinkin and his associates, who had been discovering some fascinating data since 2003, proved that an expanding universe is not previously eternal. In other words, this work offered a proof that the universe we exist within had a beginning.

Philosophically, it provides support and weight to cosmological arguments regarding our being here is with intent.

Scientifically, it means we do not live in a universe of infinite regress, but one which came into existence at a fixed point.

Theologically, it lends credence to the biblical account regarding not only the work of creation itself, but regarding the nature and intent of the one behind this.

It means that Hawking's was wrong.

Professor Hawking's once argued that his understanding of physics and cosmology lead him to conclude there was no higher purpose beyond the material universe itself. it's regretful, at least publicly, that Professor Hawking's never expressed the manner of conclusion provided by one of his famous predecessors:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me".

Sir Issac Newton.